October 29, 2010

Other People's Novels: Raymond Chandler

I have to thank a guy named Jimmy. He was another writer I met in a critique group, and after he read a few pages of my novel, he handed me The Big Sleep and said: "You oughta read this."

So I am now. I'd only vaguely heard of Chandler or the novel. I was more familiar with the main character this novel gave birth to: the detective Philip Marlowe.

If you read reviews of this book, the word 'hardboiled' is often used to describe it. It's also sexy. It's also mysterious. It also has wildly campy dialogue. But then, it was published in 1939 and I guess it would sound campy to us now.

Here's one passage I loved, a superb job done on setting. Marlowe walks into a greenhouse to meet a rich, aging client. Well-picked adjectives make it, especially "cloying smell" and "meaty leaves":

The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.

Here's another fantastic passage, Marlowe describing the woman who greets him in a suspicious shop:

She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a businessmen's lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of softly glowing hair. Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.
I'm not done with the book yet, but when I am I'll post a short review on a "Library" page (to be constructed) here on this blog.

October 28, 2010

The Magazine for the Serious Writer

I received a solicitation from the Writer's Chronicle today. On the reply card, a bold headline proclaims that this is "the magazine for the serious writer."

Aha! Little do they know! I am just here at my tiny desk, writing my unimportant novel. And yet, I am serious, says "they." Just like when Poets & Writers offered me that "professional" discount. "They" are finding me.
To understand why I marvel at this, you have to know that before October 2009, I was in a corporate job, before that in business school, before that another corporate job. Eventually I couldn't get out from under how corporate I had become. Conformist. Appropriate. Risk-averse. And this is no disparagement towards the many good friends I have still in that sphere. Everybody takes to the corporate life differently. For me, there was too much missing. I just wasn't myself anymore.
Since I left it, turning my entire life towards the compass heading of being a writer, especially of fiction, a storyteller, the missing things have slowly been journeying back. And now, "they" in that industry of storytelling, are finding me. I have somehow sprouted a tiny green leaf above the soil that signals: here has been planted a writer. And I must say it feels good just to exist as that little, unimportant leaf. For now.

I ended up tossing the solicitation (I'm having enough trouble spending time with Poets & Writers in the 60 days they give me between issues), but there was a lovely nugget on their solicitation letter that I wanted to share with you.

If someone ever asked me what I truly love about writing, where the *bliss* was, I couldn't say it better than novelist Sanra Cisneros: "I really believe when we write there are moments, a few seconds, when we become the Buddha, when the writing transcends us, when we're writing in the light. It's channelled through us so the writing can be wiser, more loving -- and then we go back to being ourselves."

Thanks, Sanra. I have been looking for those words for a long time...

October 27, 2010

Part I - Up To Chapter 9

I made it to Chapter 9 today, my dear Booksters. And when I say "made it", I don't choose those words willy-nilly. I'm slogging.

The day started at 9:00. I watched 15 minutes of The Weather Channel. I watched 10 minutes of an anchor on The Today Show expressing her outrage about Charlie Sheen's violence against women. (Now she's expressing this?). I sat at my desk for 20 minutes working on a Sudoku puzzle. I opened my file for the novel (it takes close to 30 seconds for it to open, yes indeed it does). I looked at it. It looked back at me. I thought about the fact that it was 361 pages and I've spent so much time on the up-front, I'm not even sure I remember the deep weeds of page 250 anymore. Maybe that's a good thing.

I stuck close to my notes of Part I, like a rock climber might grapple up a cliff face. I did exactly what the notes told me to do and then I moved on to the next page. Flip. Type type type. Flip. Type type type. I tried not to look down.

My Poets & Writers magazine came today (I was offered a "professional discount" a few months ago and I was so elated to be considered a "professional" in this business, that I immediately sent them my $10 for a year's subscription). On the cover it says how writers might "possibly save the future of literature."

I slogged back to my desk to write this post. Booksters, all I can say is: thank God I'm possibly saving the future of literature. Otherwise, this would really suck.

October 26, 2010

Can't Leave Those First Pages Alone

Now, I'm officially obsessed. I spent the morning editing the first 20 pages. Again. This probably makes those pages, in particular, about Draft 47. Then I sent them to my Novel class so that I can get a critique back from them on November 1st. Have I mentioned before that these are the pages that are supposed to sell the novel?

The problem is that I've set myself up to feel so "finished" with those pages that I'm liable to drown myself in the (very close by) Hudson River if I hear anything other than "My God, you are brilliant woman!!!" I can't look at these pages anymore, even if they suck. If they suck, they suck. I'm willing to accept that, but I'm not sure I can touch them anymore. Which means, if they suck, and they are not sellable, what am I doing writing the rest of the novel. This is, as people with better vocabulary might say, an untenable situation.

I tried to push the envelope a little on the writing, to see what reaction I would get from a fresh audience. Here's a passage, to give you an idea. This is the last bit from the excerpt I sent them. This is where the class is supposed to stand up and clap until their knuckles bleed:

And then she saw herself as she was then, the granddaughter of Klaus and Myra Schneider of Munich. The granddaughter of a Nazi. In the seconds of time it took for Toby's shape to disappear from view of the front door, she felt a black guilt fly like a bird through the window and land on her shoulder, its talons digging her flesh like the points of tiny needles. It belonged to her now and it would stay. As permanent as the blue eyes and blond hair she received from her father. And the guilty bird fluttered its wings, its wings made of evil. Their noise filled her ears and scraped her cheek. She feared that Klaus Schneider's evil could be her father's evil, her sweet-smelling father who made things with his hands. She feared it could even be her own.

October 25, 2010

Part I, up to Chapter 5 today

I'm hoping by the end of this week, I can leave Part I behind (there are 14 chapters). Part I feels more chewed over than a piece of overcooked pork. I'm not really sure what's good and what's bad about the writing, which makes work every day feel altogether unsatisfying. I imagine this is what it would feel like if I were a chef who's lost her sense of taste. Not fun.

Across my fiction class and two critique groups, I am workshopping the hell out of these pages, too. These upfront pages are the ones that need to sell the book, I keep telling myself. This only dials up the pressure, so I should frankly shut up about it. Other people react rather well to these pages, but have legitimate and significant criticisms. Some I feel I am addressing, some I'm not sure I know how to address (or have the will to make the necessary changes).

Anyway, when there's nothing left, I just have to keep typing. There's no way I can not finish this book because the book writes itself even when I'm "taking a break." I wake up thinking about scenes and what I need to fix in them. I play with my kids thinking about the dynamic between Agnes and her parents. Every 15 or 20 minutes, something around me will remind me I have a novel to finish. I almost wonder if it's making me a little sick.

I've accepted that I won't win a Pulitzer Prize with this book (seriously, this took me awhile). It may not even be much admired. But my goal is to tell a story and be done with it. I have to at least be able to get that much out of the experience.

On a more positive note, I'm having dinner with a literary agent tomorrow night who also happens to be Polish. I met her at the Backspace Writer's Conference in May when her manuscript (she's also a writer) - a novel about Solidarity - was picked first by a panel of literary agents in a mock competition. I nearly attacked her afterwards, introducing myself and my project, so happy to see a story about Poland be so well received. I'm going to enjoy telling her about my trip to Warsaw, and I have a long list of questions about how the publishing industry is finding itself these days, from her vantage point.

Now, fellow writers and readers, the Internet is going off again... back to Chapter 5.

October 21, 2010

Deciding What Part I Is About

"I always stop at a point where I know precisely what's going to happen next. So I don't have to crank up every day." - Ernest Hemingway

After my week off in Warsaw (because I did not write, even though the pen in my brain didn't stop moving), and some days of reviewing manuscripts for my fiction class and critique group, I'm back into Draft 4 today. Big 350-page draft 4.

The hardest thing about being away is picking up again. Yes, cranking up. That can take me hours with nothing to show for it but some fixing of punctuation. Frankly, a lot of days end with 'but at least I managed a blog post.'

Yesterday, to 'crank up', I printed out Part I in its entirety. 14 chapters. I'm trying not to think beyond Part I for a moment. If I think about the whole book - which I think will be in 4 parts - I start to feel anxious and overwhelmed. Not a good way to write. So I try as hard as I can to shut my brain to parts of the book I'm not currently working on, but with half an eye open and looking at them peripherally. That's one of the challenges of writing a novel I'm finding: all parts have to equal a cohesive whole. If you change something in one part, it changes the whole. So you have to think globally and locally at the same time. Always.

The action in Part I takes place in 1979 and 1984, when Agnes is 12 and then 17, about to go to college. Part I is supposed to be spooky. Agnes knows her grandfather is a Nazi and she begins to struggle with the existential question of 'could I genetically inherit his evil and be evil myself?' I was fascinated by the question of 'why are people evil?' and how nearly impossible it is to explain and that's part of what this section plays with. Interestingly, I've been writing around this theme since I started the book a year ago and only last month figured out this was the point of all those scenes I wrote. And the really agonizing thing about this process: I might wake up next month and realize that no, it's something else entirely. This is probably the fourth or fifth time I have been sure of my theme. But let's put that aside, shall we, or you'll be as nuts as me about it.

Agnes doesn't know she's struggling with this question of evil, but events of her childhood - events for which she usually feels culpable - keep recurring. I want Agnes to reach the end of Part I determined to exorcise her paranoia about herself. And that means, like with monsters under beds and in closets, exposing them to the light. She has to find out what her grandfather did and who his family was.

Some of the events in Part I play to this theme and some don't. Some are in the wrong order. I also have the very important character of Bernd Mueller - her father - who isn't getting enough time on the stage. I need to fix that, too. As well as what Agnes's mother Lydia is about. Somewhere I read a writer advise 'Every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water.' I haven't totally figured out what Bernd and Lydia want, even if it is just water.

So why the crow? I saw a crow perched on the roof of my mother's house in Virginia last spring. Actually two of them. I heard them before I saw them. Their fierce and alarming 'CAW!' Looming on the eave above me, I was struck by how scary they are. Glossy blue-black feathers, a huge beak, and so loud.

Sometime after I saw the crow at my mom's house, I put a crow to live in the back garden of the Mueller's house, outside Agnes's bedroom window. Though when I first put him there, in an early chapter, I thought he was just going to be decorative. Then I realized I could use him. In one of the later chapters of Part I, late at night, Agnes jams her window shut to stop it rattling. Later, she looks out the window and sees a dead crow hanging by his wing, which has been shut in the window she closed.

October 20, 2010

Domain Name Land Grab

In my fiction class on Monday night, the teacher (who is a published novelist) says to me: "The Orphan's Daughter? That's a great title. Do you own the domain?"

"Domain? You mean like on the Internet?"


"Uh, well, I set up a Facebook fan page, but no, no domain. I don't have a website yet."

"But you should own the domain. Publishers will like that you already own the domain for the title. And also your author name. You should own both."

Of course, why didn't I think of this? The Internet is prime property. The virtual equivalent of waterfront real estate, boat slip included. "Bat out of hell" does not describe the speed with which I flew out of class Monday night, went home, logged in, and started researching the best place to register a domain.

Undecided (there are lots of places to do it, and lots of prices, and lots of options that involve acronyms for features that seem important but I had no idea what they were), I kept researching on Tuesday. I even carried my computer, open and connected to the Internet, from my desk at home to a sushi place to meet another writer for lunch. I was hoping the sushi place would have wireless Internet and I was in the middle of my transaction to buy "www.theorphansdaughter.com" and "www.melissatromo.com".

I really thought someone might buy the domains while I was at lunch. I had convinced myself that there was someone tracking my research online, who could see my various inquiries about whether or not my URLs were available, and would see a demand and grab them before I could. Then I would be held up, paying thousands to get my URL back. There's already some guy named Jason Appleby who owns melissaromo.com (Jason Appleby, who the hell are you and why do you own my name!?!)*

Alas, lacking wireless Internet at my sushi place, I had to drop my transaction and could barely focus on eating. Then the afternoon kicked in with a doctor's appointment for me, an impromptu one for both my sons (strange rash) and then a bedbug alarm at home which had me disinfecting the entire apartment. I was sure my domains would be gone. Then I had to go to my writer's group in Manhattan. At 10pm, I raced home again, but nearly fell asleep in my clothes as I thought about logging in to finally buy the domains.

But, dear reader, today is another day and I am proud to say that as of 10 o'clock this morning, I am the proud owner of www.theorphansdaughter.com and www.melissatromo.com. After much research (Google "How to register a domain name"), I decided to register with namecheap.com. They had an easy interface, good price ($10/year) and seemed to have much happier customers than Go Daddy (Go Daddy, in fact, doesn't seem long for this world despite its huge market share; customers were trashing them on every review site I went to). I don't care yet about web hosting, just locking down the URL, and this seemed a good place to just do that.

One tip I learned at the Self-Publishing Book Expo last month was that you should buy a domain for more than 1 year, preferably 10 (I split the difference and bought each for 5). The reason is that Google, in its infinite wisdom, knows if a domain has been purchased short-term or long-term. In searches, it penalizes short-term, fly-by-night websites. So, my advice: go long. Or at least longish.

So if you think you have a winning title, get online and grab that URL!!

*PS: When you get your domain, be sure to get something called "WhoIs Protection". Jason Appleby does not appear to have this because when I searched for the ownership of melissaromo.com, Go Daddy happily told me his name, address, telephone and email. He's in Canada. Now I have to decide if I'm going to contact him.

October 18, 2010


"There was a time when the ruined Warsaw resembled 'Ezekiel's field' and asked all those who loved her: What do you think, can these bones live? And some of them said: Make a graveyard of it, put a high fence around and leave it. Build a city elsewhere." - Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski

My husband and I celebrated our sixth anniversary last week. On a whim, he suggested we go to Warsaw to mark the occasion. I guess that after a year of being buried in your bedroom by your wife's books about WWII, Solidarity, Milosz, and the like, a visit to Warsaw starts to seem inevitable.

The picture is me on the street where I used to live in 1998, in a studio apartment in the brown building over my right shoulder. The neighborhood looks much the same, just cleaner with more brands I recognize than before, nicer cars and a general abundance in every shop window that I don't seem to recall it having back then.

Of course, the novel was constantly on my mind. But also bigger questions, as I roamed down sidewalks crammed with Polish students of the University of Warsaw, Polish mothers pushing strollers (exactly like mine), business people, every kind of person.

The bigger questions were: Why do I feel so compelled to tell a story about this place, a place and a country to which I have absolutely no connection? Why do I feel so connected in the first place? And then there's the question that makes me feel really uncomfortable, which is: am I a good enough writer to pull it off? Do I have it in me to create something truly fine that will be read and will matter to people, and will be authentic?

To the question of connection, I honestly have no idea what the answer is. I just feel connected. That's all. A connection a person might have if you could believe in reincarnation. If you could believe I was once here in a former life and that now there is a hand in the universe urging me on to tell some story. Or perhaps I'm just, plainly speaking, interested. Or perhaps, if I can be truly clear-eyed about the thing, I am just nostalgic for the life of a twenty-six-year-old expatriate.

I felt wrenched away from Warsaw when we left on Friday. I stared out the window of the plane and felt heartsick. I turned to say something to my husband as we flew into the clouds and just as the words came out of my mouth, they were caught and buried in my throat, but I forced them out anyway. I said: "Thank you for bringing me here." Then I just turned to the window and the clouds beyond and the farms encircling the once-doomed capital below and cried a little. Yes, for the self-absorbed expatriate nostalgia, but also for something that gives a scent to the oxygen there. Something like survival.

October 08, 2010

Writing Group Blues

I went to one of my writings groups last night (I keep up with two of them). I gave them Chapter 1 of Draft 4. Draft 4 was supposed to be much, much better. A turning point. And Chapter 1 contains the pages that would have to sell the book. So what I was hoping to get last night were a few "wows" or "holy cow, I can't wait to read more" etc.

Nope. The reactions were overall pretty ho-hum. That's right. Ho-hum. Ho-hum does not sell books, and that was all I was thinking about. I wrote down pluses, minuses and niggly things like word choice and then I thanked them and went home.

I groused on the couch with a beer and watched The Office, and grunted in response to a few of my husband's questions about my day.

I woke up today and talked on the phone with a friend for a few minutes, which is when I said the sentence "I don't know how much longer I can work on this novel." I felt like complete and total crap for saying it.

She suggested I put it away, which just feels like abject failure. My stomach hurts to think about it.

October 06, 2010

Self-Publishing? Thumbs Up or Down?

Last Saturday I went to The Self-Publishing Book Expo in New York City. I was just going for a looksee. I had already decided I would NOT self-publish. No, sir. Not for me. I had already decided I was going to get a real agent and a real publisher and be a real author. But... I was a little surprised how I felt about it when I left.

Here is my Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down summary, based on the panels I listened to, the authors I met, and the SWAG I've been reading since I got home. I would love for anyone considering this option, or having done it, or not, to weigh in:

Self-Publishing - Thumbs Up!

1) You're in control. You edit, or pay an editor. You design the cover and inside, or get help. You market, or get help. You set the price. And authors have marketing tools - Twitter, Facebook, Discussion Forums, online Book Clubs, You Tube, Kindle, etc - that didn't exist 10 years ago, or even 5. To be an author today, with a good product, is to have a Ferrari in front of you and the keys in your hand. You just have to know how to drive it (see Point 3 under "Thumbs Down").

2) You keep money for what you're going to do anyway. Think Random House is going to throw a lot of money into marketing and distributing your book? Think you'll be on that table up front at Barnes & Noble that says "New Fiction"? Think again. Not unless you're Barbara Kingsolver or Jonathan Franzen. According to published authors I've talked to (and real ones, with real publishers), you are expected to market you. You will be flying yourself around for book signings. You will be setting up your own readings. You will be promoting yourself online. You. The word on the streets of Midtown is that publishers are less and less in the mood to place bets right now and are stingier than ever with their support of unknown authors. So: would you rather take 10 cents on the dollar to promote yourself or 70 cents? Because you're going to do the work either way.

3) Your book can be read, even if it's only by 30 people. I listened to one woman on Saturday (self-published, and has since sold the film rights for one book to Hollywood) say that she queried agents for 10 years trying to get someone interested in her novels (I think there were 8 of them!) and had nothing but rejection letters to show for it. Then, she said, she lost the joy of writing. I hated to hear that, and I'm sure she hated to feel it. But one day as a last resort, she uploaded her manuscript to Kindle (shockingly easy to do, and FREE) and an amazing thing happened. Readers bought her book. Only a few, but then she started marketing it, and readers bought more. And so on. And then Midtown called. And then Hollywood. Because, you see, by then she was no longer a bet. She was a sure thing. (Frankly, I would hang up on Midtown at that point. Hollywood, no, but Midtown, yes.)

Self-Publishing - Thumbs Down!

1) You will feel you haven't been "chosen." Most authors stay away from self-publishing because they long for the imprimatur of the literary establishment, those know-it-alls in New York (mainly) who anoint those who pen the literary canon. Of course, that credibility is lost if you anoint yourself, and perhaps it may hinder readers' willingness to buy you. But remember who has the most power to anoint: the readers. Write a story they will love to read, and they will anoint you (provided you fulfill the task of Point 3 below... I know, damn that Point 3).

2) You don't have a snowball's chance of being shelved in a bookstore. True. But, aren't bookstores closing right and left? Do people buy books in bookstores anymore? No. Think about how you buy a book. A friend says: "You should read 27 Ways To File Your Nails. It was awesome!" And if you trust that friend's opinion, and you have nail issues, you'll probably buy it on Amazon. And the great thing about Amazon's shelf is that there's room for everybody. Amazon is happy to push as much product as we authors give them because every sale is money in Amazon's pocket. But still...I need bookstores...I want my book to find a large audience, you say? Then do Point 3 below and, with a good product, it will.

3) You have to knock the marketing out of the park. Did you hear that? You have to knock the marketing out of the park. Because you won't be in any bookstores, not even way in the back, and because you won't have been "chosen," and because readers have never heard of you, you have to market the hell out of yourself. And more importantly, you have to have a product that has a market. I've met a lot of writers in writing groups and writing classes in the past that, I'm sorry to say, are writing something that nobody is really going to give a shit about. 27 Ways To File Your Nails, at the right price, might actually find a market. But if you've written Reflections on My Snuggly Blanket, my advice is to take those rejections seriously. Only you can know, or you can ask the advice of someone who knows the book market, but then you better listen to what they say. A good hint that there is no market for your book is if you are having trouble finding books like your book (called "comps") that have sold decently well, or at all. If there is no book like your book, there is probably a reason for it.

All the above said, dear author, I know one thing absolutely for sure: It is not a question of IF my book will be published. It is only a question of HOW. Same goes for you.

I'm sure there are other pros and cons... please leave a comment if you have one.

October 05, 2010

The Typewriter Scene

Further to my post last week about Videos of Typewriters, I got around yesterday to writing the scene of Agnes typing up a term paper. Her subject (and this helps me get in some important historical context in a *relatively* smooth way, I hope) is Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest in Poland who was executed at Auschwitz.

The scene happens in 1984, so I have her typing on an IBM Memory 100 that her mom brought home from work (see photo). It was introduced in 1974 and had a memory feature that let you save what you typed and then press one button so it could be re-typed on a fresh piece of paper. Amazing how archaic it sounds, right?

The memory feature ended up becoming important to the scene, though I didn't know it when I started. Agnes was just in her room, then I had her go to her encyclopedias (no Internet, right?) to look up Kolbe. But the scene was kind of wandering around and I started to wonder again why I was writing it. Just as I was about to cut it and save it in a scrape heap of text in another file, Agnes makes a discovery that even I wasn't expecting. It just wrote itself, and I was completely spooked:

When she got back to her room, she realized she had forgotten to turn off the typewriter. It was still buzzing and emitting a faint ozone smell into the air. She walked towards it, reaching for the power switch, then she noticed that the paper had advanced and been spooled out until it was almost dropping behind her desk. A phrase repeated across and down the page, as if something in the machine was stuck. The last words she had typed had been "he was caught by the Nazis." Across and down the entire page, the phrase repeated itself again and again: he was caught by the Nazis he was caught by the Nazis he was caught by the Nazis. She held the curled paper and looked from it to the machine and saw the same phrase in the machine's small memory readout above the keyboard. It was one of IBM's fanciest new innovations: the possibility to save what you'd typed and then press one key to have it type all over again on a new piece of paper. She must have activated it somehow without knowing. She balled up the paper and threw it in her wastepaper basket.


Her father stood in her doorway. She spun around and jumped her hand to her heart. "Gosh, you startled me dad, sorry."

October 01, 2010

The First Sentence

Everyone in the writing biz will tell you that the cover of a novel is huge. The back cover copy or inside flap is also huge. The first sentence is huge. The first paragraph is huge. The first three pages are huge. You get the idea. Everything's huge to getting a reader in a bookstore or online to stop, consider and eventually part with their money on your story. (Well, probably the hugest thing is if the name on the cover is Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but I haven't got that going for me yet.)

In my still limited experience, I've found writers spend a lot of time on the first sentence in particular. The rest of what I mentioned above falls to the publisher (I'm guessing). But the first sentence? That has to be a solid crack of the bat that flies past the outfield and over the fence. A home run. I even like to pick up random books off the library shelves and read their first sentences to experience those home runs.

I'm not sure I've gotten to the home run myself, but I've been swinging the bat for close to 12 months now and I feel like the ball is traveling further out each time (just stop me when the baseball analogy gets worn out, like it probably is already). So here are the first sentences of The Orphan's Daughter, draft by draft, in chronological order:

Draft 1
Milwaukee Avenue was wide and red.

Draft 2
Lily wished someone had warned her.

Draft 2, starting from the new Prologue
My big brother charged. "Hey, Winnetou! You redskin! Hey! Hey!"

Draft 3, starting from the Prologue
My name is Edmund and this is the year before I died.

Draft 4
The Pope came to their town on a Friday, but Agnes didn't think he came for her.

If you have a preference for any of them, please leave a comment and let me know. (Hopefully the last one is what you vote for, but don't let me influence your selection.)

Ronald Reagan Made Me Cry

OK, you're going to make fun of me but I had to share this.

So yesterday, I needed to get into this kind of searchlight-barbed wire-Eastern Bloc mood. I needed to write a scene between Agnes and her Dad in which they talk about Berlin, where he's from. I have two German heroes in my story (odd, I know, for a story about Poland, but there's a point to it) -- Bernd Mueller is one and Otto Bauer, who becomes Paulina's boyfriend, is the other.

For moodsetting, I thought about playing Elton John's "Nikita" over and over but I don't have it handy and I am iTunes challenged. So, I Googled "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" I remembered this being one of Reagan's famous soundbites. I was somewhere in the middle of high school, sleepless about boys and pimples, so I don't really remember when he said it the first time. It has just hung in my head like a pushpin on a giant map of popular culture that my brain occasionally wanders.

My Google search led me to a site called The History Place, which has text and audio of famous speeches. I found Reagan's speech from June 12, 1987, given on a podium in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I just wanted to read it, remember what he said exactly, but there was this little button that said "Listen to the entire speech," so I clicked it.

The crowd - the Berliners - were whistling and clapping, then Mr. Reagan started and I heard his deep, vibrating Gary Cooper voice saying "Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you."

He referred to Kennedy's visit to Berlin twenty-four years earlier, of course, German composers, writers. On his affection for Berlin he said, in German, "Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin" [I still have a suitcase in Berlin.] The crowd cheered him, and I could hear laughter.

To the East Germans (listening by radio) he said "I regret that I can't be with you."

OK, I thought, this is the mood I needed to dig up for myself. That Berlin Wall separation. That dark, Communist boogey-man, Checkpoint Charlie, Cold War terror.

Then Reagan got to his famous line. He spoke directly to Gorbachev, calling him General Secretary Gorbachev, and he slowed down. The crowd got very quiet, enough that I could almost hear the people standing on their toes to hear him and see him better. Reagan's voice boomed, loud and clear: "Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, OPEN this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The claps and yells of thousands of Germans responding crashed like a wave. People were screaming, hollering. A whistle pierced the air.

Just then, I felt a shiver slide over my scalp. I started to feel a choking sensation in my chest and all of the sudden my fingers were coming to the corners of my eyes. A tear dropped on the F key. And I wrote.

Reagan's speech at The History Place.