Archive for the 'Float' Category

Writing Process Blog Hop

At every reading or workshop I give, a hand will raise and the question is asked: Where do I get my ideas from? And here’s the god’s honest truth: I don’t know! Who can keep track of what comes and goes through the labyrinth of flesh known as the brain? That’s not what I say though. What I say is that ideas are cheap. They are everywhere, all the time. They are the constant stream of images and words at the bottom of the mind’s screen. The trick of writing is not coming up with ideas, but of grasping one or two and turning them into art, which means having the discipline to actually sit down and get them on paper. For that, it helps to have a process to get you in the chair. Arcane rituals don’t hurt either, and neither does a thesaurus and sheer pluck.


So when Mindy Mejia, one of my fellow authors at Ashland Creek Press, asked me to join a writing process blog hop, I said yes. Process can be examined; ideas, not so much. Mindy is the author of The Dragon Keeper, a touching novel about the relationship between a zookeeper and a Komodo Dragon. I never thought I could feel such strong emotions for a reptile, but by the time I finished reading her book, I wanted to marry one.

But I have no time to take on another relationship right now. I have to answer these questions.

1.) What am I working on?

Although I usually write fiction, right now I’m working on a true crime memoir that I’ve been picking up and putting down for close to 15 years, tentatively titled Fair Game. I work on it for a few months, then I let myself get distracted with other writing projects, like, oh say, a novel. But sometimes it’s family matters, like a wedding, which is what distracts me at the moment.

2.) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

By its nature, true crime memoirs are always different from one another because the writer is remembering and trying to make sense of his or her own relationship to the crime. In my case, Fair Game is about the murder of a woman I knew in the mid-70’s in Stamford, Ct. She was killed with a bow-and-arrow and hastily buried in the woods. Her murder is technically unsolved. This is my take on her story, which I thought I knew then, but turns out I knew nothing.

3.) Why do I write what I write?

The better question is why write at all? What makes me sit down at my desk every day and put down words that form in my head? It’s like holding a séance with a laptop instead of a Ouija board. Having said that, my subject matter might seem capricious, but I do have themes. Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, poetry or drama, the underlying questions usually have to do with environmental issues (Float), social justice (Fair Game), or animals (Addled).

4.) How does my writing process work?

With novels, and very often with short stories, I have this odd tic of starting with the title, and work from there. For instance, with Float, all I had was the word float. I opened a document and typed it in. Over the next few months, while I was working on other things, I’d write down different meanings of the word, like floating on water, or floating on air, or to float a loan or an opinion. Flotsam is from the French word flotter, to float, and there’s lots of floating garbage in the book. A float can be a glass ball used to suspend a fishing net, and a float can be the flat, wooden part of a dock. You can float through the day like a jellyfish, or float over stress in order to survive. Then one day I had an image of a man in a failing fish processing plant, and I sent him to the beach to read words in the sand. I wrote the first chapter, sat for a while, then wrote the book. The important thing is to sit down everyday to write, at a scheduled time, even if you don’t have a plan. Just write, or take notes, it will come, and you’ll want to be there when it does. A story might take me one to six months, a novel two years or more. The non-fiction project is taking much longer. That’s probably because being non-fiction, I can’t just make it all up in my head and must rely on the cold, hard facts.

The Body on the Rocks 72dpi

There you have it. My process, such as it. Let’s hear from someone else for a while. I went to a wonderful reading last week at Toad Hall, the independent Rockport, Ma, bookstore that donates its profits to environmental causes. We were entertained by friend and local author Thomas Hauck as he read from his new book, The Body on the Rocks. It is a collection of murder mystery short stories set here in Gloucester, and I can’t wait to read it. He’ll be up next in the #Mywritingprocess blog hop. Watch for Tom’s writing process blog coming soon.




Dorothy Addams Brown, 1923 – 2014

This Saturday we said good by to Dotty Brown at the UU Church in Gloucester. Dotty was a friend to all, and benefactress to the city and beyond. She was in the first generation of American women to be college educated, and because of this, had high expectations placed upon them. Dotty showed us how it’s done, and will be sorely missed.

Along with other friends and relations, I spoke at her memorial, and I am reprinting my short reflection here, if not by popular demand, then at least by a few requests.



There’s a lot of talk these days about reducing our carbon footprint, which is the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions each of us produces while driving our cars and heating our homes. There are on-line calculators that can tell us our individual contribution to climate change by asking questions about the way we live, and then gives suggestions on how to lower our negative impact on the planet.

Then there is the Dotty footprint, one in which we may calculate the amount of positive impact we can have on the world.

It’s been my pleasure to have lived down the road from Dotty since I moved to Eastern Point in 1979. She was working in Boston then, coming to Gloucester only on weekends and vacations. Her brother Lawrence was still alive, a man I remember for knowing the names of every one of Hannibal’s elephants that crossed the Alps. Dotty shared his curiosity about the world, and although elephant names were not on the top of her need-to-know list, she was delighted to have the information. She beheld the world with open wonder. She never tired of it. She was never bored.

When she retired to Eastern Point full-time and no longer needed to look bankerish, she bequeathed her collection of enormous and colorful clip-on earrings to my girls for dress-up, then began the work of creating the footprint she would leave on the North Shore. For all her comforts and privileges, she was keenly aware of the private struggles of individuals and the public needs of institutions, remedying them as she could, thus greatly increasing the sum of human happiness through education and exposure to the arts. Her civic and charitable accomplishments are extensive, but it would be the rare subject that would bore her no end. She would want, instead, to be remembered for her great gift of friendship.

Dotty was an epicenter of warmth, a footprint that advanced in ever-widening circles from her house on the water, embracing us all in a hug. She never forgot anyone. She greeted people as if they’d been gone too long from her life, no matter if it had been a single day or many years. Even after Dotty slowed down and was no longer able to travel, which was only fairly recently, she kept close tabs on her friends in their wanderings. On her calendar she noted where people in her life were at any given time, as if she saw the world as a game board, with all the moving pieces connecting back to her. And since she’d been everywhere, she was a vital source of information. Before I left for Iceland last year, where Dotty had been with Sarah on a birding expedition, she had this to say of the cuisine: “Roast breast of puffin, delectable!” She was open to everything, even the eating of endangered species, who, in another part of her life she was seeking to save from extinction.

Dotty understood that people were often a mess of contradictions, and did not exclude herself from that understanding. In her own community on Eastern Point, where she developed some of her strongest relationships and her most bemused entertainment, she welcomed neighborhood news that came with a side bit of dish, but would not tolerate a mean word about anyone. She appreciated the grand comedy of personal drama, and never held human fragility against anyone human. She knew that in the face of absurdity, the only thing to do was laugh.

She suffered pain and losses, as must we all, but she remained resolutely grateful for life and the lives of those around her, and did not cultivate sadness. Life was for the living, she’d say, and then she lived it fully. As we aspire to lower our carbon footprint and do less harm, let us also raise our Dotty footprint, and try to leave the world a better place, as she did, and so gracefully at that.





The Arts, Literature, and the Ecology



Thank you, State Rep Lori Ehrlich

Marblehead State Representative Ehlich has introduced a state-wide ban on single use plastic bags. House Bill 696. Ask your representatives to make this happen in 2013.


A Green Launch Party, God Knows I Tried.


Launch party for Float

Float Launch party guests with paper cups of Ocean Punch.

My new novel, Float, was released in February, so we had a launch party at the Rocky Neck Cultural Center here in Gloucester. The plot of Float swirls around the dangers of plastics in the ocean, hence, no plastics at the party. In fact, I was giving out raffle tickets to anyone who brought in a piece of plastic washed up on the beach, which meant we couldn’t exactly serve  drinks in plastic beverage glasses. We drank Blue Ocean punch out of waxed paper cups. The recipe called for coconut-flavored rums, blue curaçao, and Chambord, all of which came in glass bottles, so no problem there. Harder to figure out was the Sprite. Instead of plastic one-liter bottles, I opted for a case of aluminum cans. Aluminum has its own environmental problems, but at least it was not plastic. Thank you to my bartenders, Denise and Margi, for opening all those cans and here’s to wishing you both a speedy recovery on those index fingers.

Launch Food

I don’t drink carbonated beverages, but if I did, I would get one of these nifty Soda Streams for the kitchen, which turns tap water and flavored syrup into soda. Soda Stream is out to challenge the single-use plastic bottle market. Let’s hope this is the way the market is moving. Many of the Float party guests simply walked back out to the beach and picked up a washed-up soda bottle to claim their raffle ticket. Soda Stream machines are also are being hacked all over New York to create fizzy cocktails.

Soda Stream System

Soda Stream System

Paper plates were a no-brainer for the cocktail nibbles (fried calamari, locally smoked fish, gold fish and Swedish Fish), but I wish I’d known about Easy Island bio-plates, made from naturally fallen Areca palm leaf sheaths. No trees are cut down, no dyes or resins are used, they are aesthetically pleasing, and able to hold liquids for up to 6 hours. They can be composted or used as animal fodder when the party is over. What would Mr. Piggy think? He’d wonder if they came with any Swedish Fish.

Easy Island



The cocktail napkins were paper, the linens were real and washed at home, and the utensils were wooden toothpicks. Where, then, did I go wrong in having a green party for Float?  The wine.  At the liquor store, I’d chosen Fish Eye (but of course!) which was available in many varieties and two types of containers, glass and box. I chose the white wine in bottles because they needed to be iced, but I bought the red wine in boxes, believing that cardboard was more environmentally friendly than glass. Both are recyclable, but cardboard, I reasoned, could also decompose faster in the landfill. I am not a boxed wine drinker, so it wasn’t until I opened a spigot, did I realize that the box was holding a huge plastic bladder of wine. Plastic.

JoeAnn signing Float, giving out raffle tickets

JoeAnn signing Float, giving out raffle tickets

Sigh. I hope I made up for it with the raffle, in which we collected huge bags of marine debris that we brought to the recycling center. Jay McGloughlin won the Neptune’s Harvest cap, Beebe Nelson won the membership to Maritime Gloucester, Dianne Emmons won the quart of Neptune’s Harvest fertilizer, and Tom Cox won the copy of Float signed by both me and Karen Ristuben, who did the cover art. The best piece of Beach Plastic Award goes to Jen Fahey, who found this lovely plastic vixen on Brace Cove.  She was too good to bring to recycling, so she now sits on my desk next to Salacia, a bisque doll from a completely different era, when there were no plastics to worry about.

Beach Babes, a hundred years apart

Beach Babes, a hundred years apart

Watch the Float Launch Party:



Ode to Float, by Duncan Nelson

Duncan orating, photo by

Duncan orating, photo by



O I shall permit no debunkin’

Of a book whose protagonist’s name is “Duncan” –

For that is the very name of the bard on

Whom falls the duty (he hopes you’ll pardon

His doggerel) to deploy his art

In praise of the prose of JoeAnn Hart!


While JoeAnn calls herself “a mean troll,”

She is also very much a “mean troller”

Through “troubled waters.” Her laudable goal

Is the planet’s salvation. We’re here to extol ‘er

For merging bankruptcy, conceptual art,

And plastic plethora into Float:

A book bound to play a part

In getting our collective goat,

As for sure it got hers. O may we pay heed

And pay honor to the goat that just died,

Yea, butt up against the mounting tide

Of pollution afloat on groundswells of greed.


I have already, of course, been Addled,

In a good sense, by your setting your sights

On an uppity country club scene that straddled

A subtext of Food and Animal Rights,

While ringing choice changes on Mother Goose!

Oh what a lot of fun that book was —

It left me aghast, ‘twas so fast and loose!

And tonight, dear JoeAnn, all the buzz

Is on Float, “Number Two”; and looking to “hat tricks,”

Number Three, no doubt, will tell much about

What we’ll need as we deal with Post-Flotsametrics,

Against which, I’ve no doubt, you’ll raise a loud shout!

We toast you, JoeAnn! May the fuss and commotion

You stir up be wide and deep as the ocean,

And on the way, may we find, per your wish

Recyclable uses for jelly fish,

And from similar innovations commence

To float upwards on bubbles of Common Sense!


Duncan Nelson                                  2/15/13


The crowd, photo by

The crowd, photo by



The Next Big Thing Project

Welcome to the Plastics and Water Don’t Mix blog. As a rule, I’ll be posting about just that, plastics in the oceans, a problem not just for the sea life, but for human life. But every now and then I’ll be writing about my upcoming novel, Float, which falls under that topic. Eventually, maybe everything will fall under it, but in the meantime, just as I was about to launch the blog, I was tagged for “The Next Big Thing” by fellow Benningtonian Susan Barr-Toman, whose book, When Love Was Clean Underwear, has the best title ever.  “The Next Big Thing” is a literary chain letter. Susan tagged me when she answered her questions about her current work, after she was tagged by Andrea Jarrell, so now I answer those questions and tag more writers. What fun! I don’t know what happens if anyone breaks the chain. Maybe the e-version of the book gets corrupted.

At any rate, I’m going to tag fellow Ashland Creek Press authors John YunkerMidge Raymond, & Jean Ryan.

Now the questions.

What is the working title of your book?

No longer just a working title, Float will be published by Ashland Creek Press in February 2013.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

 As with most of my work, the title came to me first, so I played around with the different meanings of the word float. Suddenly I had a character, Duncan Leland, who was sinking in his business and marriage, so I brought him to the water, thinking something float-like might occur there. What’s floating at the beach? Plastic. What washes up everywhere? Plastic. Seagulls are always at the beach too, so I put the plastic and the bird together, slipping a six-pack holder over the poor creatures’ head. Duncan saves the bird by removing the plastic, and I realized that was the book: The impact of plastics in the ocean on the natural world, of which we, and Duncan, are both part of the problem and the solution.

What genre does your book fall under?

 Eco-fiction, an emerging sub-genre where ecological consequences help move the plot along.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

 Colin Farrell for Duncan; Minnie Driver for his estranged wife, Cora; Meryl Streep for his crazy mom. Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Osbert, the mysterious financier, and Frances MacDormand for Josefa, the seagull rescue character. Will Ferrell for Slocum, the slightly deranged chef.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Float is the story of one man’s attempt to save his business (a fish dehydration plant) and his marriage (to a marriage counselor), while attempting to develop a jellyfish alternative to the plastics that are killing the oceans.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Two years. I worked on short stories, here and there during that time, but mostly wrestled with Float.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

 Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaason and A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

The word Float. I wanted to explore the meanings. To float on water or on air. To float a loan or to float a check. Flotsam — debris in the water — is from French flotter, to float, and god knows there’s lots of floating garbage in the book. A float can be a glass ball used to suspend a fishing net and a float can be the flat, wooden part of a dock. In a psychological sense, to float through the day like a jellyfish is to have no direction in life (think Duncan). Floating can be a good thing, as in the ability to float over stress in order to survive.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

For those readers who suffer under the weight of a crazy mom, know that they are not alone. Duncan’s mom has not left her octagonal house in ten years, even as she controls his brother’s sailing career by the use of an elaborately painted floor, all the while sip, sip, sipping on her mulberry wine.