Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ollie to the Rescue - Story #3

The 2nd concrete idea I have for a subsequent story in the "Ollie on the Trolley" series, is based on a plot detail that Mom mentioned to me. She said one of the stories she remembers telling us was about the Brown children getting lost in the city, and Ollie coming to the rescue.

Plot outline: Delia gets upset at Grandpa, perhaps because her stay is extended unexpectedly by her parents. Following their phone call to break the news, she runs off - followed by Ollie. She sneaks aboard a busy California line trolley, full of commuters too engrossed in their morning paper to notice a small girl and an orange cat. Delia and Ollie eventually make their way to the Gold Gate Park where they have various adventures, some fun and some scary. As the day gets darker, Delia is suddenly tired of running away from "home" and wants to go back to the row house to see Grandpa. However, she is lost inside the large park and unsure what to do next. Ollie, who has been keeping her company all day, leads her to a more public part of the park and gets the attention of a park security officer, who alerts the city police that he's found the lost child reported earlier in the day. Delia and Ollie are safely reunited with Grandpa and Fred.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

P.S. Snaggletooth the Witch?

I'm also working on an idea for a totally different story, based on a tale I told the real Delia in the car last summer. Apparently Amanda has taken up the thread and "Snaggletooth the Witch" lives on. I talked to Amanda the other day about working on the story together and she liked the idea. Apparently, she had already mentioned the same idea to Delia lately!

Today, Sunday, I went ahead and started a new blog for this new story. See the link above.

Ollie at the Exploratorium - Story #2

Now that my draft of the first book in the series - titled "Ollie on the Trolley" - is finished and I'm working on networking and researching literary agents and publishing houses, I've got ideas for additional books on my mind. I'd like to send Ollie to explore the Exploratorium, a museum of "science, art and human perception" in San Francisco that caught my attention when I read through the Wikipedia entry on the city. It is housed in the Palace of Fine Arts, which was built in 1915 and is a landmark in San Francisco (photo is from the Wikipedia Commons and can be accessed through the link above).

The Exploratorium is over near the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio. So it's unlikely that Ollie would just wander over there. It could be a day trip with Delia and her Grandpa, and thus also an opportunity to develop those characters further.

The dilemma I've got, however, is that I introduced Ollie at the beginning of "Ollie on the Trolley" as a full grown cat. But if I want to keep Delia in the story, I either have to keep Ollie young or create a further reason why Delia is staying with her grandfather more long term. Should Delia's visit in the first story be a brief one, then later on she comes to stay with Grandpa for a period - a summer or longer?

Back to the Exploratorium. It is purposefully interactive and has a diverse array of sections, about topics ranging from biodiversity and space weather to earthquakes and languages. There is even a special section of the museum devoted to Frogs!

The plot outline could be: Ollie and the trolley gripman (by the way, I'm considering changing his name, as Herb just does not roll off the tongue) have their routines. Ollie spends his days riding the trolley and cruising the restaurants of Fisherman's Wharf and Chinatown, keeping his coat shiny and sleek with plenty of fresh fish and seafood. Herb has #24 and his work buddies, and on his days off putters around making small renovations in the row house or meanders about the neighborhood, chatting with Annie (the owner of the corner store, who has a bit of a crush on him) and other locals. Sometimes he even tries to draw out that old curmudgeon downstairs, Mr. Bailey - Delia's grandpa. Delia's arrival for the summer shakes things up. Mr. Bailey is forced to get out and about in order to keep her entertained and busy. And their lives become intertwined with Herb's, due to Delia's connection with Ollie, which is still strong after a year apart. Her playfulness and affection draw out both men, changing their perspectives on family and community. And Mr. Bailey finally starts to thaw out regarding Ollie, who he has mainly viewed as a nuisance, due to Ollie's habit of meowing at his door early in the morning, wanting to be let out of the building.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ollie and Delia - Story #1, Part 3

In the morning, Fred wasn’t sure what to do with the cat. He didn’t like to leave him cooped up in the apartment all day, but he certainly didn’t want to put him back on the street. He wondered if Mr. Bailey wouldn’t mind keeping an eye on him, but when he peered down the stairway, all the lights were out in the downstairs apartment and the door was firmly shut.

“What do I do with you?” he asked the cat.

Finally, he made a decision. “Alright, you’re coming with me!”

He headed out the door, holding it ajar until the cat followed him through. “You can get a good look at the city,” Fred said, thinking to himself that maybe the little cat had already seen enough of San Francisco to last him awhile.

Fred walked along, with the cat jogging behind. They passed Annie, just opening the corner store. She waved good morning and laughed. “Looks like you have a new friend, Fred,” she said.

“That’s right,” he said, still walking. “Have a good one.”

When they reached the terminal at Powell and Market Streets, there was a hubbub going on. One of the recently refurbished trolleys, now ready to go back into service, had gotten the wrong number painted on it. Some of the conductors were arguing about what to do. Fred made his way through the small crowd of employees and impatient commuters, looking for Leonard and #24. Suddenly, he realized that the cat was nowhere to be seen. Fred looked around and then retraced his steps to the edge of the group. Still no cat.

“Oh no,” he thought. “Where’s he gotten to?” He searched the area, even walking partway back down Powell Street.

Some minutes later, he heard Leonard calling to him from down the street. “Fred, what are you doing? It’s time to get moving!”

Fred sighed and headed back towards the terminal. The skinny cat was now lost again in the city. Fred felt guilty.

All day long he ruminated. He hadn’t been sure what he would even do with a cat, but now he missed him and worried. When they made their first stop at Powell and O’Farrell, Fred peered around, hoping to spot a bit of orange fur. He even asked a few commuters as they boarded, “Did you happen to see a young orange cat this morning?”

As the day wore on, the trolley got busier and busier and the traffic got thicker and thicker. Fred had less time to ask riders about a lost orange cat, but he didn’t stop thinking about it.

During their short lunch break, Leonard asked him, “What’s this about a lost pet?”

Fred told him about finding the cat down on Bay Street the evening before.

“Ahhhh,” said Leonard. “Well, maybe all he needed was a meal and a safe place for the night.”

“Perhaps,” was all Fred said in reply.

Fred walked home that night with slow steps and a heavy head. He was still upset about losing the cat, and mad at himself for not taking more care in the crowd at the terminal. With so many people shouting and the noise of the trolleys coming and going, it was no wonder the cat had run off. Turning onto his block, he heard the sounds of a child playing. There weren’t many young children among his neighbors and he picked up his head.

What a sight! Ahead of him, playing together on his front stoop were a little girl of about six and the missing orange cat! The girl was laughing, holding a miniature fishing rod that had a fluffy green feather attached to its string. The cat was hopping about, trying to catch the feather. Fred arrived at the stoop and the cat and the little girl both looked up.

“Hello,” she said, “are you Mr. Brown?”

“Yes, I am.” he replied. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Delia. I’m staying here with my grandpa for the summer.”

“Mr. Bailey?” Fred asked.

“Yup, that’s him. My parents had to go to England and he’s takin’ care of me. He picked me
up at the airport this mornin’,” she added.

“And I see that you’re taking care of this cat here,” Fred said.

“Yup, we’re playing,” Delia laughed. “He came right up to the door this morning and cried and cried. Grandpa and I thought he might be hungry or lost, so we let him in and fed him. His name is Ollie.”

“Ollie? Is that right?” asked Fred. He paused a moment, looking fondly at them both, then said, “Well, let’s take Ollie and go say good evening to your grandpa.”

Delia scooped up Ollie and took Fred’s hand. “Home again, home again, jiggity jig,” she sang as they walked inside.

Downtown SF

View Larger Map

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The city of SF

I've gotten far enough along in the story now that I want to reference specific streets and neighborhoods of San Francisco, really situate Ollie and his friends in the real-life city. So, it's back to Wikipedia & Co. to see what I can learn. Too bad I never bought a guidebook to California during the two years I spent there...

So, at least 10 pages of printed information in the Wikipedia entry. I am going to resort to old-fashioned reading from the printed page and see where that takes me.

I want to find Ollie a neighborhood that, if possible:
  • is within walking distance to the Powell-Market turntable, the origin point of both the Powell cable car lines (what a good starting point for a story about getting lost, e.g., hopping on the Powell-Hyde line by accident);
  • has a mix of old established businesses, like butchers and fish shops, and funky new restaurants (I image Ollie becoming a bit of a king of the neighborhood, getting to know all the proprietors, keeping his coat shiny on a rich diet of top quality scraps); and
  • includes classic row houses, like the one I imagine Herb living in.

Notes from Mom

I read "Introducing Ollie" to my mom over the phone yesterday and she loved it! It's great to have such a positive response from her, especially since she is the original creator of Ollie. She said I had given a lot more detail than when she used to tell us the stories, and that she thought that was great for turning it into a book.

She shared a few of the original details of the story, some of which I remember (and have already worked into the story or plan to) and other that I had completed forgotten.
  • Yes, Ollie was an orange tiger-striped tomcat.
  • Mr. Brown and his family found Ollie when he was just a kitten, skinny and sick, and adopted him.
  • Mr. Brown took him to work on the trolley with him daily. Ollie rode up and down the trolley line.
  • The daughter was named Jane, about 9 years old. She had a younger brother, name forgotten, about 7 years old.
  • There was a butcher at one trolley stop who became friends with Ollie (I remembered that!).
  • In one story, the children get lost in the city and Ollie finds and rescues them.
I asked her about the different terminology: "trolley" versus "cable car". She said that, as far as she knew, "trolley" was more common and that perhaps she had been thinking of the trolleys in Philadelphia - as well as those in SF, of course - when she was making up the story.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ollie and Fred - Story #1, Part 2

During the remaining hours of his shift, Fred had scarcely a moment to peek inside his pocket again. He could feel the warmth and slight weight of the small sleeping cat though. Leonard collected fares as tourists and commuters boarded the trolley, heading to their homes and hotels for the night. Fred gave a nod or brief smile to the regulars and otherwise concentrated on his work.

When he finished that evening, instead of joining his co-workers for a drink at Finnegan’s Pub, Fred gave his excuses and headed home. He owned a row house on Cedar Street, his parents' home where he had grown up. He rented the lower level to Mr. Bailey, an old widower who kept mainly to himself.

Stopping at the corner store to buy two cans of cat food, Fred felt some small movements in his pocket. “What in the world have you got in there?” the owner Annie asked with a smile. Fred shrugged and gestured to the cat food. “Gotta run, g' night, Annie.”

He passed back out into the night air and, with long strides, walked the rest of the block to his house. He fumbled with his keys a bit, then unlocked the door and headed up the stairs, holding the pocket steady with his hand. He entered his apartment and suddenly stood stock still, at a loss as to the next step.

A long minute passed and Fred didn't move. Suddenly, his pocket jumped!

A sharp, plaintive meow set Fred in motion. He placed an old towel in the middle of the kitchen table. Gingerly, he reached into the pocket and received a scratch as the cat tried to find its own way out. “Hey there,” he crooned, “take it easy, little man.”

He reached in again and, holding the scruff of its neck, gently pulled out the cat and sat him on the towel. The cat blinked his big eyes in the glare of the kitchen light and then gave an enormous yawn, revealing sharp white teeth and a rough pink tongue.

“Well, you can't be very old at all,” Fred told him, “not with all those baby teeth. We start feeding you right and you'll grow into a big ol' tomcat.”

The cat stared at him.

“Just sit tight for a moment,” Fred said.

He turned to the counter and peeled back the lid of one can of cat food. He wasn't impressed. “Humph, not so tasty looking,” he murmured to himself. After a moment's pause, he pulled various pans from his cupboards and began cooking. Fred glanced over his shoulder and found the cat sitting quite still, watching him.

“That's right,” Fred encouraged, “we’ll be having a tasty meal together in just a few minutes. You sit tight. Good puss.”

When the meat finished cooking, Fred cut a bit of meat into cat-sized bites and piled the rest of the food onto a dinner plate for himself.

“Well, nothing too fancy, but see what you think,” Fred said, setting the dishes on the table.

The cat twitched his long, elegant tail and licked his chops, moving towards the dish.
When they had both finished eating, Fred pushed back his chair and gestured towards the living room. “Shall we relax a bit?” he asked.

The cat hopped down onto the seat of the kitchen chair and from there to the floor. In the time it took for Fred to pile the dishes in the sink and wipe off the table, the cat had settled on the couch and begun giving himself a bath. Fred sat down next to him and switched on the news.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cable car photo

A photo from Wikipedia, of cable car #19 of the Powell & Market line cresting a hill with Alcatraz in the background, licensed as follows:

The trolley cars

From The San Francisco Cable Car website, describing the three lines in operation:

Basically, there are three cable car routes in operation, and it helps to know their respective destinations. At Powell and Market streets, there is a cable car turntable which serves as the beginning stop for two lines, the Powell-Mason and Powell- Hyde lines. The Powell-Mason line begins at the Powell/ Market turntable, and the line runs from there up and over Nob Hill and down to Bay Street at Fisherman's Wharf. The Powell-Hyde line also begins at the Powell Market turntable and runs over Nob and Russian hills before ending at Aquatic Park near Ghiradelli Square. Both these lines end near Fisherman's Wharf, but at different areas, and the routes are significantly different. Paying close attention to the signs on the cable cars will help you distinguish where in Fisherman's Wharf you will find yourself.

The California Street line runs East-West from the Financial District, through Chinatown, over Nob Hill and stops at Van Ness Avenue. Since all the cars on this line have the same routes, the signs are painted directly on the car.

And about the braking mechanism of the trolleys:

Safety comes first - so there are actually three separate braking mechanisms for each of these heavy cars: the main track brakes are operated by the red lever in the front of the car, the front wheel brakes are operated by the foot pedal in the front of the car, and the rear wheel brakes are operated by the crank at the back of the car.

Every cable car is pulled along it's hilly track by an underground cable. The cable is gripped with a vise-like mechanism that is operated via the grip lever in the front of the car.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Wikipedia entry on the "San Francisco cable car system" contains a good overview of the system's history and actuality. For example, the section on "Recent history" states:

The cable car system is principally used by tourists rather than commuters. The system serves an area of the city that is already served by a large number of buses and trolleybuses. The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines both serve only residential and tourist/shopping districts (Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, Nob Hill, Aquatic Park and Fisherman's Wharf), with the "downtown" end of both lines a substantial distance from the Financial District. The California Street Line is used more by commuters, due to its terminus in the Financial District.

The entry also provides a more detailed description of each line's route, for example:

  • The Powell-Hyde (Line 60)[7] line runs north and steeply uphill from a terminal at Powell and Market Streets, before crossing the California Street line at the crest of the hill. Downhill from this crest it turns left and uphill again along Jackson Street (as this is one-way, cable cars in the opposite direction use the parallel Washington Street), to a crest at Hyde Street. Here it turns right and steeply downhill along Hyde Street to the Hyde and Beach terminal, which is adjacent to the waterfront at the San Francisco Maritime Museum. Man-powered turntables turn the cable cars around at the two ends. This line is used greatly by tourists and often has long lines.
  • The Powell-Mason (Line 59) line shares the tracks of the Powell-Hyde line as far as Mason Street, where it crosses Washington and Jackson streets. Here the line turns right and downhill along Mason Street, briefly half left along Columbus Avenue, and then down Taylor Street to a terminal at Taylor and Bay. This terminus is near to, but two blocks back from, the waterfront at Fisherman's Wharf. There are man-powered turntables at each end that turn the cars around. This line is also used greatly by tourists, but also some commuters.
The description of the layout of the cars used for the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines could also be helpful reference material:

Single-ended cars serve the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines. These cars have an open-sided front section, with outward-facing seats flanking the gripman and his collection of levers that actuate the grip and various brakes. The rear half of the car is enclosed, with seats facing inward and entrances at each end and the car has a small platform at the rear. These cars are 27 ft 6 in (8.6 m) long and 8 ft (2.4 m) wide and weigh 15,500 pounds (7,000 kg). They have a passenger capacity of 60, 29 of them seated. These cars must be rotated to reverse direction at each end of the line, an operation performed on turntables. Most of these cars were built or rebuilt in the 1990s at Muni's Woods Carpentry Division.
Each car is operated by a "gripman", as the driver is know. This is a highly skilled job that requires rigorous training (apparently along 30% of people pass the training program) and significant upper body strength. The gripman must "smoothly operate the grip lever to grip and release the cable, release the grip at certain points in order to coast the vehicle over crossing cables or places where the cable does not follow the tracks, and... anticipate well in advance possible collisions with other traffic." In addition, a "conductor" collects fares, generally manages the passengers, and also controls the rear brake on downhill slopes.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The StaySF website mentions an interesting detail about the functioning of the cars:

San Francisco's cable cars are unique in that they are the only street railway in which the cars do not operate under their own power. Instead, the cars are propelled mechanically, by "gripping" a continuously moving steel cable which runs in a conduit underneath a slot between the rails. The cable, in turn, is kept in motion by an engine in a centrally-located powerhouse.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Other websites worth exploring are the Cable Car Museum site and the Municipal Transportation Agency site. The former includes detailed descriptions of each of the cars currently operating, including its history, and also information about the Annual Bell Ringing Competition.

Also, I spotted several great photos of a cable car cresting a hill on Powell street with the San Francisco Bay and Alcatraz in the background. It would be great if I could find a similar shot under copyleft, and in fact there is one in the Wikipedia entry. I'll post it separately with the required information about its licensing.

Introducing Ollie - Story #1, Part 1

Ollie was a big, handsome orange cat. He had a small nick in his left ear - a souvenir from a scuffle with another tomcat - and a long elegant tail. The white patch on his chest was spotless and his coat was always gleaming. He took better care of himself than the average street cat.

Ollie lived in San Francisco, California. He knew the city like the back of his paw. It was because of his friend Fred that Ollie had begun riding the cable cars - or trolleys - when he was barely more than a kitten. At first he had been frightened of the sudden starts and stops, the screech of the brakes, and the busy feet of passengers milling around him. But Fred had made a little nest for him in the controls area, where Ollie wouldn't get stepped on. At slower times of day, Ollie sat proud on the nearest passenger bench, where he had a clear view of the road ahead.

Fred was a trolley gripman. That meant he was in charge of operating the brakes. He was very strong, and in his prime had even won the annual cable car Bell Ringing Contest a couple of times. For many years, he had worked on trolley #24 on the Powell & Mason line, built in 1887 by the Mohoney Brothers. The trolley had seen its share of the city's history, including the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906, which had leveled the San Francisco.

Several years back, as the trolley had pulled into its terminus on Bay Street near Fisherman's Wharf, Fred had spotted a bedraggled bit of orange fur hunched against a lamppost. While the technicians set to work turning the trolley about on the turntable, Fred went to investigate. Indeed, the bit of fur was a young cat, skinny and damp from the thick evening fog rolling in from the Bay. Sensing approaching footsteps, the cat curled itself into an even tighter ball. Fred bent over and murmured, “Well, look at you, what a sorry little sight.”

He gently scooped up the orange cat in his big calloused hands. Still, the cat kept his nose tucked tight against his side and his tail wrapped stiff about him.

From over by the trolley, his colleagues hollered, “Hey Fred, all ready here!”

Fred paused for a moment, considering. Then, feeling decidedly soft-hearted, he swiftly slid the skinny little cat into the roomy inside breast pocket of his heavy coat. He walked back to #24 and got into position.

“What were you up to over there?” asked the trolley conductor Leonard.

“Oh, nothing much,” Fred responded, “just getting a bit of fresh air.”

Leonard raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.

Once the trolley got moving, Fred put all his attention to the job at hand. He had to operate the brake grips smoothly, releasing the cable when needed and keeping an eye out for possible traffic problems. After the turn onto Columbus, he sneaked a quick peek into his pocket. The small cat was sleeping! Fred could see its little ribs rising and falling with each breath.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Although I've been thinking about this project for almost a year now, for many months it was just swirling around in my head. But a few things have set me going.

First, shortly after Christmas, I mentioned the idea to my mother. After all, Ollie on the Trolley is her original creation. And she had played with the idea of writing it down herself in the past. So the idea was shared - out in the open.

Secondly, having just relocated to a new country and without a full-time job yet, I am doing part-time consulting work. I have a flexible schedule and plenty of free time.

Then, through another Smith alum here in Madrid, I was invited to join an informal writing group. It seems just the opportunity to kick start my writing process. One of my main struggles in regard to creative writing is that I am naturally a more analytic writer. I like the process of researching a topic, shifting through the materials discovered, and then turning it into a well written analysis. But creative writing is different, both in process and voice, even though research can be very valuable for a story or poem. It's a challenge to get out of my head and I hope participating in the writing group will inspire and help me.

Lastly, I am tutoring a young Spanish girl - aged 11 - in English. She's smart and more than a little bored with her typical English lessons at school. We are having fun together - among other things, reading some of my children's books together and doing vocabulary and comprehension exercises based on the stories. So I'm thinking a lot right now about what children like in a story.

First ideas...

Perhaps it seems backwards, but before getting into the story itself, I have a number of ideas in my head about eventually publishing it.
  • First, of course, is to use this blog as a sort of story board and work space that can encompass both the writing itself and hopefully the publication process. I've heard various second-hand stories about bloggers who eventually got themselves published - in one case through no particular ambition of her own! It seems like a great opportunity to improve my knowledge about a cool new form of media while working to develop a publishable children's story. With so much competition in the publishing world, the possibility of developing a market for the story during its development process is too good to pass up.
  • I've travelled a fair amount in my life, both for pleasure and for work, and have lived abroad in several countries. I have many interesting photographs from the places I've been and I have in mind the idea to send Ollie travelling about the world, in addition to exploring San Francisco. I'd like to use some mix of drawings and real photographs to illustrate the story series.
  • Related to that 2nd point, my husband Nacho - a computer whiz - recently mentioned Corel Art as a software program I should get into. Apparently, some consider it "the world's most popular painting and illustration software". Although Nacho brought it up for another purpose, I think its worth looking into for Ollie as well!