Sunday, October 18, 2009

My Trip to Elwood, Utah

The idyllic Old MacDonald's Farm

Elwood, Utah

Distance to Salt Lake City: 70.2 miles (112.98 km)
Location: 41.68922N 11.14120W

Elevation: 4,295' (1,309m)
Population: 678 (2000)
Zip Code: 84337
Current Weather  65 F  with a chance of showers

A brief  history of Elwood written by John Van Cott, quoted in Utah Online:

Elwood (Box Elder County, Utah) is on US-30S. two miles southeast of Tremonton. It was established in 1879 with an early name of Manila Ward in honor of Commodore George Dewey's victory in the Spanish American War. The name was changed to Elwood by the postal authorities to avoid confusion with the Manila Voting Precinct. Mr. Davidson, a cattle and sheepman, was the first white settler in Elwood.


Up until the end of WWII, Elwood residents operated their farms and orchards and were generally quite self sufficient. Each family had their vegetable garden, small orchard, potato patch, milk and beef cattle, chickens and pigs. The farm work was done with horse-drawn machinery with each farm having at least one team of draft horses and most had at least one saddle horse.

Recently, my friend Nadene, a most accomplished writer/editor/publisher, invited me to visit the Elwood First Ward Book Club. They had read Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys and she had promised to deliver the author. She sent me written directions, adding that the small hamlet of Elwood usually confuses GPS units which tend to send people “out in the boonies.”

So, trusting her accurate instructions and what turned out to be my inability to follow them, I set out for the adventure.

Forty-five minutes later I sat in a parking lot, squinting at my accordion-folded state map. A nagging voice in my head told me I wasn’t in Elwood. Perhaps it was the “Welcome to Garland” sign I had just passed. It is no coincidence that my favorite TV show is Lost. I had Nadene’s phone number and was tempted to call her and beg, “I’m in the middle of Garland. Come and get me!” But, in an attempt to save my pride, I plugged in my GPS unit, thinking it couldn’t get me any more lost than I already was. To my great relief it led me to Elwood and eventually to Nadene’s doorstep. I wasn’t even late.

Note to self: Always allow extra time to get lost. Print and study a MAP in advance, in addition to trusting “Mandy,” my faithful GPS unit.  Thank Husband yet again for buying Mandy as a Mother's Day gift.

I think I’ll drop a note to my publisher and tell him that over 7 % of the entire town of Elwood came to the event! But he’s pretty savvy and probably knows that Elwood has about 700 residents. Still, it’s resume-padding material I’ll save for the future.

After everyone arrived Nadene dispensed with the preliminaries and said, “Thanks for coming. This is Janet. Do you have any questions for her?” They did, and as usual, the teacher learned more than the students. They wanted to know how I came up with various characters, names, and locations. They wanted to know why the border collie was named after a famous Utah poet, Eliza R. Snow. They appreciated the way I tried to balance the two contrasting cultures in the book, showing strengths and flaws in each. I asked them if the ending had thrown them a curve, or "came out of nowhere," as some reviewers have complained. “Oh, no,” they said, “you’d planted the seeds. It worked.”

Impulsively, I had brought the first few pages of Gabriel’s Daughters, the sequel (work-in-progress) to Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys. “Would you like to hear a little bit of the next book?” I asked. Their responses reminded me a little of how exciting it was when as children we were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. I thought I was just sharing a few pages of text, but they were getting a bit of a scoop, I guess. Who doesn’t like to be the first person on the block to share a bit of news?

Note to self: Always read a few pages of the next work-in-progress when visiting a book club.

As I read aloud, I learned that:

1) My readers already cared a great deal about Zina, the protagonist. All we know about her in Don’t You Marry the Mormon Boys is that she’s been missing for years. (I should add that I love Zina dearly and that her story was originally in the first book. It became too complicated to juggle two stories occurring in different time periods and geographic locations, so I had to pull Zina out and promise her that she’d have her own book. I owe it to her).

“I’ve been wondering what happened to Zina since I read the first book,” one woman said. “I’m glad she’s all right so far.”

2) Readers think writers are normal people. Nadene and I exchanged significant looks when I asked the group, “Does it bother you when we talk about our characters as if they’re real people?” I wondered if they secretly thought writers were one taco short of a combination plate.

"Oh, no. Not when you make them real to us.” Point taken.

I belong to several online writers’ groups. One writer posted yesterday that he’d killed off one of his characters and then begun to weep, and had to take a long walk to regain his equilibrium. I feel his pain.

3) As my critique group tactfully tells me, there is too much exposition in the text, especially in Chapter One. As I sensed subtle shifts in my listeners’ attentiveness, I quickly skipped over the rest of the exposition and went back to the story. Immediately, their interest returned.

“Can’t wait for it to be published,” one woman said.

I’m taking them seriously. Out with the exposition! It can be added in little snippets throughout the book, or, heaven forbid, tossed out. W. Somerset Maugham likened it to killing a baby and delivering the bloody remains to the editor. In contrast, the wonderful late Ken Rand taught me that any work can be improved by cutting 10% from it, even if it feels like a virtual blood bath. Every word, (surprise!) is not critical. OK, tell that to Dickens and Hardy and Hawthorne, who got away with it.

Bottom line: as readers we want a good story. I owe that to anyone who picks up my books. This concept will guide me through the edits and the concluding chapters, which continue to elude me. The beginning (“think of ‘I, Nephi,’”) is there and has been rewritten many times. The middle and end need some work.

Thanks to a most interesting drive to Elwood, Utah, and the great women I met there, I think Gabriel’s Daughters will be a better book. And I’d thought that as a Published Author I was going there to enlighten/educate them.

For your enlightenment, a little more about the fascinating hamlet of Elwood, Utah. Direct quotes are from Nadene:

JKJ: Nadene, how many animals live in Elwood?

Nadene: One town council member pushed for a limit an animals and it passed based on a 1-acre lot: 2 horses, 2 cows, 4 dogs, 6 chickens… yada, yada, yada. One resident made the statement that she didn’t want anymore “Little McDonald Farms” in Elwood. Elwood is rural, with a few pockets of new development on 1-acre lots. Lotsa people want to move to the country—then they want to eradicate the smell. And let’s get real … it don’t smell all that bad!

JKJ: Is Elwood growing?

Nadene: Phemomenal growth in the last 9 years. As of 2009, Elwood's population is 828 people. Since 2000, it has had a population growth of 17.85 percent. The growth since the economic downturn has been minimal, but even now two new homes are being built in Elwood.

JKJ: What are typical recreational activities?

Nadene: Each summer they hold “block parties” where the town is parceled up into sections and the residents from each section come together in a back yard for a potluck and a barbeque. They also have a Summer Picnic in Hansen Park down by the Bear River.

JKJ:What's the most exciting thing to happen since you moved to Elwood?

Nadene: We’d just moved into our new home. Late one Sunday afternoon our Carbon Dioxide monitor started beeping, so we called 911 and the fire trucks and ambulance came from Tremonton. Turned out our monitor had been plugged in upside down. Felt like a fool!

JKJ: Heartwarming story, though. Thanks for the enlightening interview.

Concluding remarks:

Nadene, your directions were concise and accurate. The problem was in the head of the driver, who was born without a sense of direction. If it hadn’t been for Mandy, I’d still be driving around Box Elder County, looking for Elwood, and your book club would have had a stimulating discussion without me. They would have finished all of the banana cream pie, too.

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