The Object of Your Story


Occasionally it’s mentioned in workshops or books on the craft of writing, how effective a physical object can be when subtly weaving it through your story.  Recently I finished reading the book The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman which uses a large 19th century portrait of a Parisian courtesan as an occasional object from beginning to end. Even without a picture to physically see, the author showed the reader the gilded frame, the woman’s posture, colors, and fabrics.  It easily came to mind whenever the painting was mentioned at various intervals of the story. It was a familiar object.  And, what I loved about this book was how the author wrote it as a fictionalized account of a newspaper article. It was a story of a family learning about their great-great grandmother’s apartment in Paris which was locked up for over 70 years. When the apartment was opened by family heirs in 2011, it was as if time stood still and they walked into 1940s Paris. I remember reading the newspaper article and posting it on Facebook.  I was fascinated by the story and thrilled someone wrote a book about it.

If you decide you want an object for your story, how do you discover what it will be?

As writers, we understand inspiration arises from unexpected places. You may be in a writers’ group when a new story pops into your head and the first draft is soon underway. Perhaps you are sitting at your desk or on a plane thousands of feet in the air when an idea for a new character is born. You can be anywhere.  That’s the beauty of being a writer.

It wasn’t long ago, as I was housecleaning, when an object in my home reminded me of someone I once loved.   I wiped dust off the Asian antique mirror and remembered a time, 43 years ago, when the man I loved looked at his reflection in this mirror, standing in my mother’s home.  I was across the room watching him when his reflection caught mine and we locked eyes. It was a moment which stood still in time for me. He’s been gone many years, but, oddly, his reflection and the memory of our connection remain embedded in  the wavy glass of this mirror.

My thoughts, as I continued dusting, trailed off to another time I could only conjure up in my imagination. It occurred to me my grandfather may have bought this mirror for my grandmother when they were first married in Shanghai in 1929. The mirror, with its new glass, survived WWII hidden in a Shanghai cellar. It was kept with other curios and precious objects out of sight and protected from the Japanese invasion and ensuing confiscations since these objects were in the cellar of a White Russian friend of my grandmother’s. If a Russian (or any nationality) was married to a citizen of an enemy country, they were sent to Japanese internment camps, which was the case of my grandmother and mother who spent 4 years in a camp because of the marriage between my  Russian grandmother and  a British man.

A couple of years after the war, in 1947, the mirror took a journey by ship to the United States and hung on the wall of my grandmother’s San Francisco flat well into the late 70s.  The mirror had additional journeys over the next 37 years when it lived in my mother’s home in Pleasant Hill, CA; Colorado Springs, CO; then to my home in Seattle, and eventually settling in Edmonds 11 years ago. I imagine one of my children and one of my grandchildren will take it from here.

And so it was a day of simple housecleaning which created my story-object. If I choose to do so,  I can carry this mirror through my book for almost 100 years of my family’s history.  I can write a historical fiction showing the reader many of the faces reflected over time, some known and some imagined; we have so much freedom as writers to create whatever we wish!

Stories and ideas pop up for writers from unexpected places and we are delighted when they pop up at all.

Vivian C. Murray








Time Does Run Out

In the writing group I attend once a week, there is a diminutive woman, quite a bit older than the rest of us, who joins in from time-to-time. This enigmatic 93 year old always has a smile and her eyes still sparkle even though she is somewhat hunched over and may even be in pain. My curiosity is piqued and I want to know what she did during her lifetime.

One day she read a story she wrote during our open writing session and when finished, she commented rather urgently how she needed to publish her work because, she said in an urgent and somewhat raspy voice, “I’m running out of time.” I felt my breath catch as her words hit directly home. Was the Universe trying to remind me?

It was less than a year ago when I began a mental laundry list of things I needed to do, just in case…because I also felt some subliminal nagging voice saying time was short and my list of things to get done was long.

I needed to get my Power of Attorney notarized. I called for an appointment to join The Neptune Society. It was already time to review the will I filed with an attorney 5 years ago. 

At the Neptune Society appointment, I proceeded to buy the ‘deluxe’ plan so they will take care of everything even should I die in another country. This was an awesome option since I am a traveler, it would be a hassle for my kids to ship me home. The Society was also running a special deal eliminating interest charges if I signed up for the payment plan by the end of the year. Such a deal!

This isn’t morose, it’s life and death and how we get through it. I’m finding myself rather blasé about my own death, actually, as I remember my mom being the same way. Death didn’t bother her because, as she told me, there was so much death which she saw first-hand in China. But, a middle-class American-born girl like myself never had to experience that reality. There were no bodies piling up in the city streets of San Francisco during the 50s and 60s. And to tell the truth, I didn’t handle the deaths of my maternal family members very well. I actually shed an ocean of tears grieving them.

I watched my grandmother and mother live until they reached 91 and 84 years old, respectively. As the only child of my mother’s who had any common sense (not bragging, merely the truth), I became the keeper of our family history. As a first generation American born child in my immediate family, there was always a sense of duty to chronicle their unusual lives and safeguard the troves of documents.

Over the years, I poured over the love letters, legal documents, and photographs my grandfather took when he worked as a police inspector during the wild and exotic Shanghai days in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. These photos are of the arrests, the executions, the Japanese bombers destroying the most cosmopolitan city in China at the time, and of the people in his life whom he loved very much. 

Shanghai was a city teeming with expats from all over the world; Russian dance girls; gangsters; the rich living large. The cost of living was so low that many, including my family, could afford amahs (housekeepers who sometimes also performed nanny duties), cooks, gardeners, and drivers. The expat women wore the latest Paris fashions dressing in silks and brocades while copying designs from magazines.

There were also citizens and immigrants starving during winters, German Jews hiding from Hitler’s spies, bodies piled up alongside the dirt roads frozen to death, and massacres such as the horror in Nanking. 

In the same mixed race neighborhoods could be residents, like my grandfather and grandmother, who were living opulent and sometimes unrealistic lives not knowing that within a short period of 15 years, their lives would break into a thousand different shards of remembered experiences. Assassinations, captures, interrogations, scrounging together what food they could find, and the necessity of wearing armbands to identify their citizenship became the norm. My mother’s safe life in a Hong Kong boarding school would be stripped from her tight little grasp only to find herself skidding down a metaphorical avalanche which really did make her stronger since it couldn’t destroy her. She was forced to become a functioning adult at the age of 13 when she was put in the position of identifying the body of her father since her mother couldn’t bear to do it. How does one maintain strength at that age and still survive a Japanese concentration camp for the next 4 years? The thought humbles me.

After the war, they managed to immigrate to San Francisco to start new lives, while forever intertwined with unwanted memories from their joint experiences. Life continued to be a struggle while attempting to maintain their opulent Shanghai life in a new city laden with refreshed high fashions of the late 40s and into the 50s, in a new cosmopolitan city with more immigrants, as well as military men, home from WWII. Single women magnetized toward these young men especially when they showed promise of climbing the ranks or had already achieved stars on their uniforms. There was an illusion of wealth and culture amidst the Chinese curios which managed to survive the journey from Shanghai, China to San Francisco, California as well as new crystal goblets to begin entertaining new friends in the evenings again.

I hope to chronicle their journey while I upturn the truth of their lives as well as share the many details which they could only gloss over when telling me their stories. Thanks to people writing books and the internet, more details are surfacing. It is overwhelming. Later this month I will visit Shanghai to see for myself where my family lived. 

By visiting Shanghai, I hope the book I have begun writing will convey what I have seen as I try to describe the noises, the disappearing architecture, and the Asian aromas of this 23 million strong city by the river.

My dead family have tales to tell and I hope to do them justice. 

After all, time really is running out…

Heritage Walk

It was through my mother’s obituary in late 2011 that my maternal grandfather’s side of the family found me. I had looked for them many years, to no avail, so when writing my mother’s obituary, I purposely included as much of her history as I could in hope that someone on her father’s side would see she had passed on.

Within 3 months I received a letter from England who turned out to be my first cousin, D., once removed. Randomly, her brother, J., had decided to do another search for my mom, coming up with her obituary. Two years prior they had dropped the matter of trying to find both my mother, Nona, and my grandmother, Lola, after several years of research led them to a dead-end trail in San Francisco. Was it a coincidental fluke that our families have reunited after 70 years or did the spirits of our past family members have a hand in some divine intervention?

Shortly after the letter from D., she came to visit me in Seattle just before my trip to Spain and Portugal. Turned out she has children and grandchildren who live in the states and she already had an Easter trip planned to Southern California to visit some of them. During that trip, D. flew up for one afternoon which we spent having a takeout Chinese lunch (I figured I’d stay with the Shanghai theme) in my home with my daughter and grandson. After our “getting to know you” lunch, she and I plowed through all the letters, legal paperwork, letters of commendation, and photos of our relatives’ lives in pre-WWII Asia. How amazing it was to be with a family member who was not only as excited about these mementos as I am, but who also plans to write a book as I have wanted to do for years.

Over this last year, I have also corresponded with B., the son of D., who, as it turns out, is a researcher. He has been instrumental in locating ship manifests, historical dates, etc. and we have all Skyped and sent hundreds of emails asking and answering questions. During their quest to find my mother, they have developed relationships with authors and historians who are experts in the history of this era as well as the Japanese internment camps, one of which my mother and grandmother were prisoners of for 4 years. And, most importantly, I have gotten to know cousins who are actually related to me, which I had experienced very little of in my lifetime coming from a small family.

In October of last year, I had a memorial planned in Colorado on what would have been my mom’s 85th birthday. My other cousin J. and his wife De., flew from England to Colorado to attend the memorial of his mother’s niece, his first cousin, whom he had never met but had looked for such a long time. J. also then had the opportunity to pour over all the photos his uncle took in Shanghai, which were stored at my son’s home. My grandfather not only documented life in Shanghai, but also the invasion of the Japanese. As a policeman, his photos were oftentimes graphic. I remember that as a child I wasn’t allowed to see these photos, however I would always find a way. Bloated bodies in a river are not for a child’s eyes. Yet, my mother saw scenes like this personally in Shanghai which, she told me, made her immune to the heartbreak of death. I have no such immunity.

In 2 weeks, I leave for England on a “Heritage Walk.” My grandfather was also a Coldstream guard (which are the Queen’s guards with bearskin hats) in service in London prior to his assignment in Shanghai. I will spend 4 days in London which will include a visit to Parliament and to the Imperial War Museum.

From there we will be in the south of England a few days and then up to the Manchester area with a visit to Darwen where my great-grandmother and great-grandfather worked in coal mines and cotton mills during the rise of the Industrial Revolution.

There is also a plan to meet another family member who still carries my mother’s maiden name of Sharrock and who lives on the northwest coast of England.

This adventure to the north country (I have only been to London and the Norfolk area in the past) promises to bring me to Liverpool as well for an “up close and personal” view from where The Beatles hailed. Oh, yay, finally!

If all goes as planned, I will chronicle this adventure with photos of places I have been and history I have uncovered for the 2 weeks I will be “across the pond.” There will be no little grandchildren with me this time, but I imagine I will still have plenty to share along the way.


Airport From Hell, 24+ Hour Travel Day, Family, and Ready To Do It Again


To begin, i would like to reitterate, with great emphasis, that both arrivals to and departure from Heathrow was holy hell. Point made.

We left our Alfama apartment in Lisbon and caught a cab almost immediately. After the cab driver tried to convince us, unsuccessfully, that his fare to the airport would be less than the bus Christopher and Kelly had figured out for us, he dropped us off in another part of town I hadn’t seen yet. It didn’t take long before we boarded a comfortable bus, with luggage holders, to the airport.

The ride was interesting as I saw how large a city Lisbon is and how beautiful with magnificent statues, parks, boulevards, and a ritzy shopping district. Hard to fathom that all this acreage was leveled by earthquake, fire, and/or tsunami in 1755.

After getting to our gate, Christopher found us coffee somewhere (weird there were so very few places for any refreshments, but if you needed perfume, they had that covered), I had satiated Jordan with some sort of Bugle chip mix, we boarded BA bound for Heathrow. Jordan and I did ok on the 2 hour flight to Heathrow, but, of course she mentioned she was hungry. We landed, and luckily because of The Kids having Business Class seats, Jordan and I tagged along with them bypassing the humongous lines other travelers had to endure. It was awful to see the backlogs and I was so grateful not to be standing in them.

We had had to transfer from terminal 1 to terminal 5 and after sailing to the main floor (with Christopher held up in security because of a bottle of Portuguese hot sauce he had bought in Lisbon’s airport. We then parted ways as they were allowed in the elite lounge and we were not (I have experienced lounges so I was a tad remorseful we couldn’t tag along). We had about a two hour layover but by then, I am wagering that 45 minutes was already eaten alive.

Jordan and I ventured into the Giraffe Lounge and placed an order of yogurt and fruit, which was what Jordan asked for and barely ate. I drank a cappuccino. Fast. The service was sooo slow that before I knew it, it was time to make our way to the boarding gate. Not the server’s fault as he was going as fast as he could. The place was busy and understaffed.

We started heading to the boarding gate at about the same time as 600,000 other pushy, harried, rude, and overtired passengers. The lines for the trains and escalators were ridiculously overcrowded. I had never seen anything like it. In fact, I acted out of character when I grabbed the jacket arm of a young (maybe 12 years old) boy who was about to trample Jordan in order to get on the escalator ahead of us. I spoke to Jordan, as we were elevating, in a voice the boy could hear, that people needed better manners when traveling and that pushing and shoving was not only rude, but also dangerous with little 3 year olds walking in the same crowd. Then I wondered if he and his family were from New Delhi, or somewhere that it is so crowded, where this behavior is the only way to survive and get anywhere.

Walking to the boarding gate took forever. We actually stopped to rest (Jordan’s idea) on these nice chairs that had leg rests. Jordan took them to be full body rests.

We got to the gate with more “I’m hungry.” and “I have to go potty.” declarations and just in time for our boarding call. I didn’t see The Kids anywhere. Jordan and I started boarding and as we crossed the threshold into the plane, I asked the attendant if my son and daughter-in-law had boarded so after first grumbling how she wouldn’t know that, she saw I was concerned so she asked us to step into the galley so she could check the manifest. She saw they had checked in previously but not whether they had gotten on the plane. I had to just take my chances. I also hoped there would be no passenger next to us in our 3 seater space. (I later learned that an attendant The Kids had spoken to (after they barely made the flight) promised to tell me they had arrived and were on the plane. That never happened.)

Our 3 seats were looking good to hold the 2 of us until the last minute when a hip woman about my age came aboard and went to settle in. At first I was a little worried as she was pretty frazzled and also complained about Heathrow’s lack of good management.

But, Linda was very cool. She had just been to Africa to visit a friend who volunteers. Then she spent a week in London before now returning to her job as a psychiatric nurse at a VA hospital in Denver. She lived in there to be close to her kids and grandkids although she had a condo in a warmer climate which she rents out.

Our little Jordan had a rough ride. In turn, this meant our not-so-little Grammie also had an even rougher ride. Although our flight was in late afternoon, after dinner, playing on the iPad, eating, and reading, there was nothing to calm her from wanting her mom. Linda turned out to be a godsend. She cajoled the attendants to give up some milk and biscuits for Jordan, and was supportive to me with whatever I needed. We turned into the “Pacify Jordan Squad.” Jordan finally fell asleep for a little while but i made the big mistake of adjusting her body a bit so she was more comfy, while talking to Linda, which woke her. It was then a hell trip from about Greenland to Denver. That is a long way.

Of course we barely slept but when we landed, she happily reunited with her parents, we sailed through DIA’s Customs, and started the process of parting ways with kisses and hugs. Jordan then started crying and hanging onto me that she didn’t want me to go back to Seattle. I got teary, too. And it was from sadness, not tears of joy to be traveling solo the rest of the way, really!

I managed to wait the 2 1/2 hrs at the Denver International Airport for my next flight without nodding off, but on the way to Seattle it was becoming increasingly more difficult to keep my eyes open, so I didn’t. It had been over 24 hours of travel by the time I landed close to 11 p.m. and then there was a longer than usual wait for the airporter. Put toothpicks in my eyes for the hour ride home and had no problems getting to sleep once my head hit the pillow. Thinking back on it, the memory is a little like trying to remember labor before giving birth. They say if women were able to remember labor, they’d never have more children and civilization would cease to exist. I find there are time periods that have all but vanished. How did we survive and how did everyone else on the plane bear it? Must not have been as bad as I imagined since they didn’t land the plane in Greenland and dump us out on an ice floe.

Our 22 day European Odyssey, as one cousin rightly labeled it, was an amazing multi-generational trip with palaces, fortresses, ferias, bird and cat ladies, flamenco and fado, spectacular views, sunsets and sunrises, custard tarts and orange cake, hills and stairs, ferries, cable cars, boats, trains, buses, planes, and cars, bullfight, and the gift of sharing those experiences with my family. What more could a girl ask for?

I have been ruminating about how just last summer and fall, we lost 5 family members within 3 months, my dear mom included, and barely 3 months later, we gained over a dozen new family members whom we had been looking for all my life in one form or another. They had been looking, too, and only found us through my mother’s obituary. Unfortunately, mom wasn’t on earth to experience meeting her father’s side of the family, but I think she had an astral hand with orchestrating the connection. Wonderfully, I have already met my first cousin (my grandfather’s niece) when she came to visit us in spring, right before I left on this journey. I have emailed with her son, and Skyped with her brother. And, now, I have recently learned they have found the offspring of two other uncles and are now working on meeting them. The plan is that I return to England in April of 2013 to have a proper introduction to everyone who still lives in the UK. We are to take a Heritage Trail to see where my grandfather was raised before he moved to work in Shanghai in the 20’s, where my mom was born to he and my Russian grandmother. His life was tragically ended in 1941 in Shanghai, and when WWII broke out, my mom and grandmother were taken into custody by the Japanese and put into an internment camp for over 4 years not far from Shanghai. Those were my mom’s teenage years. It was after their release when the war ended that they moved to San Francisco, and through all that turmoil they had unfortunately lost track of my grandfather’s family in England. Then I was later born in San Francisco, first generation U.S. citizen.

I can hardly wait to meet everyone!

(And I can only hope Heathrow has straightened their “little” problems out by then! I do not envy those thousands of people arriving for the Olympics in August if they haven’t fixed the issues with their staffing and time management.)