Monday, December 29, 2014

Attic Finds

I was putting wrapping paper and gift boxes away in the attic, and couldn't believe it when I unearthed a hat box containing these two treasures. The one with tulle is my wedding hat, made by my mother from antique lace. The other is part of my mother's wedding veil, made by her mother from real Brussels lace.  I thought them both long lost.

My wedding dress was designed by Becky Besoulis, a Chicago designer known for her leather and lace creations in the eighties. My dress was exquisite lace over silk jersey - very unbride-like but perfect for me. My mother's gown looked like a pale pink explosion of tulle and lace. She refused to wear white because it made her freckles stand out. I played dress-ups for years in it, and its hoop skirt petticoat lasted even longer.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wasted effort

I am ticked. About a book. A book with real style. A solid story premise at the start.  Great cover. And it fell apart in the last quarter. I don't get it. Where are today's editors and why aren't they doing their jobs? When there's a hole in the logic of a story, that's unforgivable. I can only imagine there was a rush to get the book out, and no one noticed the glaring question, never satisfactorily answered, of why the hero wanted to kill the heroine in the beginning. And one sentence seems to be all the explanation the reader gets as to why he changed his mind. Blah!

Remember J.K. Rowling's first mystery written under the nom de plume of  Robert Galbraith, I think?  Liked the sleuth a ton. Decent mystery. But there was never an explanation for why the murderer hired the hero to find the killer - himself. Yikes!

I've read lots of books with super first three chapters, and after that, the mundane and banal is all we get on the printed page. As a writer, I think I know what happened. The author polished the heck out of the first three chapters to get the book sold based on the beginning and an outline. After that, the deadline interfered with the same level of commitment to rewrites. It is a sad truth of the industry.

I won't buy any more books by this author, which is a shame. But I won't be fooled a second time by a killer cover and super opening chapter.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Third Grade, 1953

My DH's 50th high school reunion was held this past summer. For a variety of reasons, we didn't go, though we'd planned on it. Anyway, he just received a packet of nostalgic items from the reunion organizers, including a booklet containing the bios of classmates, their updates about their lives, and a picture of the third grade classroom many of them were in together. All thirty of them.

My DH's classmates have led interesting and constructive lives. Many, many have found ways to contribute to justice and the environment, while quite a few chose to teach. His generation was one of givers - even though they were in the thick of the Vietnam era and had to serve in the military. It's as if one bad hand was parlayed into a winning game, and they took advantage of it. I must admit my admiration.Those Midwesterners know how to do the right thing, and do it they did.

 But the most interesting part of the packet for me was the third grade class picture. Most of those seven and eight year olds graduated from high school together, and their lives are open books to one another. One girl killed herself not long after cap and gown time, another died of cancer. Some lost their lives later, and like young men in my class, several came home from Vietnam in body bags. Some married high school sweeties, only to divorce down the road, and being good Midwesterners, they were embarrassed by the failures of their marriages. It's an interesting amalgamation of old-fashioned with the seismic shift of values that roared in with the sixties. I was younger then, and my high school life was in the throes of the sixties revolution, while my DH's was out of college and being drafted. Those few years made quite a difference.

I also didn't grow up with the same people my entire life. Leading a nomadic life was the norm for both of my parents, as well as my brother and me. Friendships lasted the length of an assignment, then it was on to the next school where you were the new kid all over again. While there were many obvious drawbacks (three different teachers for me in third grade, three different high schools), I learned how to be happy wherever I was. Friends and cliques didn't define me. I never felt the need to conform. I was who I was.

Yet I wish I could hear from my third grade classmates (at least one classroom) and find out what defined their next fifty-six years. How did they make it through the sixties? Or did they implode? I'll never know. It's like a wonderful book I'll never get to read.

I envy my DH his deep roots.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving 1967

Thanksgiving was always white linens, sparkling silverware, and the good china in our house. My mother believed in family sit down dinners, big time. Often, we were living where Thanksgiving wasn't even a holiday ( always felt wrong to me, I mean, who doesn't believe in giving thanks?), but we still had a big family feast. Aspic with celery, ambrosia, oyster stuffing, wild rice, asparagus, etc.

In November of 1967, or it could have been '66, I'm not sure, my mother had invited a large number of Americans working for the embassy in Ankara.  She'd snagged some celery root for the aspic (buying celery stalks was unheard of in Turkey back then), and she and the cook had been working on the dinner for days. Tables were set, crystal sparkled, and we were ready for the traditional American feast, a tiny reminder of home in a foreign land.

Unfortunately, there was a political and military crisis involving Cyprus or Israel, I don't remember which, and everyone was locked down in the embassy. Twenty-four hour work went into effect, and our Thanksgiving dinner was over before a forkful was lifted to lips.  Mama arranged plates of food and sent them to the embassy via the embassy driver.  Then she, my brother, and I surveyed the remnants.

My mother's aspic was famous in our family, but it didn't travel well. Twenty-four aspics remained on the fancy tables. My brother and I took one look at each other, grabbed silver forks, and began eating.  I still remember that aspic as the best Thanksgiving dinner, ever.

I've never been able to duplicate that memory of my mother's aspic satisfactorily.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What's in a name?

Recently, I called about setting up a new account with a company I've never dealt with before. The young woman on the phone (probably younger than my kids) said she couldn't do it in my name with my husband 's because we had two different last names. I almost dropped the phone but managed to sputter, " but we're married!"

No deal. Their system couldn't handle it, even though women have used their real names, not their husbands' last names, since I was a youngling in the women's lib movement. I've handled all the prior incredulity over our different last names with some aplomb and a modicum of grace, I like to think, over the past thirty years or so. My own mother gave me grief, and she was quite the feminist.

But for some reason, this recent impasse really ticked me off.  I was fuming around until my husband (to whom I offered  my last name when we married, but he declined ), placed it in perspective for me.

" How 1950s of them, " he chuckled, and went back to what he was doing. Okay dear, I get your point.  I can't control antiquated thinking.  Rant over.

But I can't help thinking how odd it is that I can write under multiple names, and no one blinks an eye.

Friday, November 07, 2014

A Quiet Place

I have a home office.  Love it. Filled with bookshelves, lots of windows and light, favorite pictures, and a desk, I've spent many hours here writing. When our tabby was with us, he would curl up in my lap while I typed away and keep my  lap warm. When a book wasn't behaving, he'd helpfully pounce on the keyboard to make it straighten up and fly right.

Now, though, my office has become a sort of family hub. Everyone wants to congregate in here, and why the heck not? The comfy wing chair with its own over-the-shoulder light is perfect for reading. The conversation is usually lively. We enjoy each other's company. But. . . .

I need alone time. Crave it. One cat is all I can handle when working full tilt on a book. So when the perfect solution presented itself, I pounced. More later, with pictures, when everything is finalized. No, not leaving my husband or ditching les enfants.  We're even adopting two cats. (It'll take two to replace one wonderful tabby.) But I can't wait.

I've been thinking of new stories and characters. The old ones are so well engrained, I'm wondering if I want to play with them for the next year or so. It's hard to leave the familiar, but I'm ready, I think, to take the plunge. Growing up, we moved every few years, so change isn't anything new. But it has been a while.

If I'm not here for a while, you'll know what's happening. Sort of.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Whaddya want?

I find that when I ask my characters that question, the answers tend to throw me for a loop.  So ever the clever one, I go "no, no, what do you really really want?"  Then I'm in the drink.  Swimming for my life. Up the creek, and every other cliche for a writer in trouble. Their answers never fail to scare me silly.

Usually, I have a pretty firm of idea of the answers before I start writing. I also know what happens in the last chapter before a word flashes on the screen.  But when chapters start taking weird leaps and awkward pirouettes, I hustle back to basics. What is the reason for this chapter? How does it advance the story? What do we learn about the characters in it, that we didn't know before?

If those answers don't jolt me off the hot seat, I know it's time to dig deeper. A simple desire isn't enough to keep the story percolating. Why not? you may well ask.  Because what makes a good book better is when you have characters with desperate, deep, devastating desires and you keep them away from whatever will save their souls.  They can't have it. Won't even get close unless  I relent and throw a bone in a weak moment.

So ask your characters what they would kill to get, take it away, lock it in a deep vault, and make them sweat emotional blood to unlock the box.  That will get a book back on track.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Annual Halloween Short Story

Those of you who follow this blog (bless you, one and all) know I write a short story every Halloween for my children. I've been doing this for years and years, and as they grew older, the stories became more adult. Here is this year's Halloween goody - less fattening than chocolate, but just as fun, I hope.


The Spirits Within

            Brady hated Halloween. Everyone dressing up like a super hero or something else stupid had never worked for him. He knew, better than anyone, that you couldn’t pretend to be someone else. He’d tried. Still didn’t get him any friends.

When you’re a foster kid, you’re who your file says you are. It was that simple. The people you lived with had read the whole thing, and there was no changing their minds. So you stuck it out until the next foster family, and you started all over again. For sixteen of his eighteen years, Brady had hoped, wished, and begged to be set free, to be eighteen and on his own. Then it happened.

He’d aged out of the system. Didn’t matter that he was still in high school. Didn’t matter that he’d finally ended up in a decent neighborhood with a decent school. But when he turned eighteen, the money stopped, and the people who’d said he was like their son told him he’d have to start paying rent if he wanted to keep his bed in their house.

Brady told himself it was cool. Fine by him. He’d hang around long enough to get his high school diploma, then he’d split. So he took what jobs he could find that didn’t need a car to get there, and so far, he was paying on time. Now, though, he ate fast food in his room and avoided the people in the house as much as possible. He wasn’t family anymore, just a renter.

The whole thing sucked. But what did he expect? No one had ever cared about him, not for a second. He was another name on a long list for the social workers, and just another mouth to be fed, when they felt like it, for the fosters who’d been paid to keep him. That was life, and he was used to it. Stick to yourself, get that high school diploma, then start your real life, he’d told himself since forever.

So this new job was close enough to walk to after school.  He worked from three to midnight, with time off for dinner, which he never took because he wanted the money more. Like most of his jobs, it was stupid and mindless, but he was getting a kick out of jerking the clients’ chains. A Halloween place called The Spirit Store had opened up in an empty video place, one of those deals that plastered neon green and orange signs in the windows and was crammed with Halloween crap. Cheap stuff, all of it, and probably toxic as well. Not that he cared if people wanted to poison themselves with black lipstick and nail polish. His job was to help people find costumes and then ring them up. Period. The place didn’t get busy until after five, usually, and the closer to Halloween, the busier it had become.  Not tonight, though. Good thing, since the twerp who was supposed to be working with him hadn’t shown up, hadn’t called, and for all Brady cared, was dead.

The store could get creepy when it was quiet. Normally, Brady liked quiet, since he didn’t get a lot of it in a house filled with younger foster kids. Tonight, though, he was getting a little goose-bumpy.  Couldn’t say why.  Just felt something, like whispers in a dark corner where he could catch a word here and there, but nothing cohesive.  An air of dark anticipation hung over him, a feeling he tried to deny but couldn’t.  If he could have swatted it away like an annoying swarm of bees, he would have.

As it was, he chalked up the heebie-jeebies to being tired and depressed. No matter how hard he wished it were otherwise, the school year was creeping along at the pace of a guy going home to tell his wife he’d been caught hiring a hooker and the court date was in two weeks. All he wanted was out of this life that clung to him like a bad smell. To be on his own.  To have a real job, make real money, and have real friends. Wasn’t going to happen in this town, that much was for sure.

Just when he was about to check out the whispering still coming from the back of the store, a woman pushed open the front door. He gave her a glance, but he sure didn’t feel like helping her.  She looked like the type who’d open every costume package and leave without buying anything. So instead, he finished setting up the display of Halloween makeup until, with her standing right beside him, he couldn’t ignore her any longer. Who shopped for Halloween stuff at eleven at night?

“Can you tell me where I can find a slutty princess costume?” The woman demanding his attention wasn’t much older than he was. Pretty in a bleached blonde kind of way, but wearing too much lipstick and pink stuff on her cheeks. She wore bright orange, tight shorts and a skinny T-shirt he recognized as belonging to a chain that sold wings and beer to men who only dreamed about having a woman like her.  Hot and sexy, he imagined is how other men would describe her.

“Uh, I don’t think we have anything like that. I can show you where the women’s costumes are.” Turning, he headed for the side of the store crammed with over-priced, flimsy, cheaply made shit.

“I like your shirt,” the woman said, pointing to it as if he’d never seen it before.   “ ‘Don’t piss me off, I’m running out of places to bury the bodies.’ So cool.”

He didn’t tell her it was the only black T-shirt he could find at the thrift store, and since all the sales help at his job were required to wear black, he bought it anyway. No one had complained.

“Here you go.” He pointed to the rack of costumes. “Let me know when you’re ready to check out. We close at midnight.” 

He had to get some sleep before he caught the 6:30 bus to school. The walk to his house, not his home, would take at least twenty-five minutes. He was gonna be so happy when he could grab that piece of paper at graduation and start his real life. He just knew having a diploma would make up for all this shit he was going through.

“It sucks working this late, doesn’t it? I just got off my shift.”

He stared at her. Making conversation wasn’t in his job description. “Yeah, I guess. But I go to school, so I gotta work when I can.”

“Me, too. I’m going to the community college, working on my LPN.  I want to be a nurse someday.”

Brady shrugged, wondering where this was going. “That’s good, I guess. Me, I’m going to write books.” Surprising himself by his disclosure, Brady turned, ready to flee for the front of the store. Talking with girls wasn’t really his scene.

But she reached out and put a hand on his arm, and he was trapped.

“What kind of books? I love to read. Don’t have much time these days, but whenever I get a chance, I pick up something. Usually Fantasy. I love other world stories.”

Despite himself, Brady found himself liking her. Underneath all that make-up she was kinda pretty. “Me too. I really love Game of Thrones, too.”

“Oh, and the show on HBO is great! I love the dragons, they look so real.” 

“I don’t get HBO. Don’t own a TV.” He didn’t explain that he didn’t want to intrude on the new crop of fosters that had just moved into the house. To them, he was the outsider, even though he’d been there first. They had no problems with hogging the TV, but then, they hadn’t been in the System long. They thought they were still “Normal.”

“That’s too bad, but you can catch up when it comes out on DVD. Shouldn’t be too long.”

“Don’t have the money for that kind of crap.”  Sweat rolled down his back between his shoulder blades. He hadn’t talked with a woman or girl for this long a conversation since he was a kid and thought he was like everyone else.

 “Got to get back to work. Cameras.” He pointed to the corner where a black rectangle protruded from the ceiling. It was left over from the video store days and didn’t work, but the Spirit Store owners told everyone who worked there that it did to scare them into pretending to be working. Brady had taken the time to check it out and knew otherwise.

“Okay, thanks.” The woman seemed unhappy with him, he couldn’t figure out why. Who cared, anyway? Did she expect him to flirt, say something nice? Not in his job description. He kept to himself, always had, always would. Flattering women wasn’t in his job description.

Whatever he’d done, worked, and the woman paid for her costume with a credit card and was out of there before 11:30. Hesitating in the half-opened door, she turned to look at him.  For a second, he thought she was going to ask him something, so he turned his back.  He wanted to close up early.

In a way, he was sorry to see her go, but he didn’t even say “good night.”  She’d made him wonder for a few seconds if they’d known each other in a foster home as kids, the way she seemed to feel they could talk like friends. Nah, couldn’t be, he’d decided. She was just the overly friendly type. Usually, that kind didn’t come within ten feet of him. Something about him scared them off, and he was good with that.

 He waited fifteen minutes for someone to come through the door and ruin his plan to close up early, but no one did. He’d already straightened the crap up, so all he had to do was hit the lights and lock the door. It was electronic and programmed to turn green when the alarm was set, as if anyone would want to break in and steal any of the cheap merchandise. He got to the house by 12:15 and let himself in through the kitchen door, creeping upstairs after stealing milk from the fridge. They’d never miss it, because he didn’t use a glass, he drank from the milk container. The idea of them never knowing his lips had touched their precious milk gave him a reason to smile. Smiling was a hard deal, but now and then, he used those muscles.

Two days later, he heard a sound bite of the news when he was heading upstairs after school to change into his work clothes. The announcer said a woman was missing and her name was Gloria Redfern, she was a waitress at Hooters and twenty-two years old.  Her parents, with whom she was living along with her three year old son, said she hadn’t come home from work two nights ago. Anyone with information, blah, blah, blah.

Taking few steps down the stairs so he could see the TV screen, Brady recognized the woman who’d wanted the slutty princess costume, her picture totally different from the woman he’d seen, because she was cuddling a little kid and smiling like a proud parent. Still, he knew it was her.

“I gotta use the phone,” Brady called to the kids clustered around the TV, waiting impatiently for their “program” to resume.  He couldn’t afford a cell phone and the fosters were required to keep a working house phone, so he didn’t worry about not having a cell. No one called him anyway. Picking up the phone, he headed upstairs where he could have some privacy.

Dialing the information number he’d seen on the TV screen, Brady was put through to a man when he said he was calling about the missing woman. Normally, he’d have ignored the whole deal, but the photo of her with her kid had bothered him.  He didn’t want that kid to go through what he’d gone through. Probably the grandparents were old, and the boy would end up in foster care in the end, and that wasn’t right.

Brady described exactly when the woman had left the Halloween store to the man who’d identified himself as Sgt. Lowell. Said he was positive of the ID. Told him the address of the store, his name, home address, and every other stupid thing Sgt. Lowell wanted to know. But when the cop wanted him to come down in person to talk about the woman, he put on the brakes.

“I got school and two jobs, and no car,” Brady muttered. “You want to see me, you come to me.”

Now he was sorry he’d gotten involved. This was going to be a hassle and he couldn’t afford any time off from work, not with his next rent payment due in a week.

Still, he was surprised when he got called to the principal’s office the next day. The man he’d spoke with on the phone was in Mrs. McTavish’s desk chair, along with another man he introduced as Detective McCray, who leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, staring at Brady as if he were a particularly ugly bug. The guidance office had been cleared for them, and Brady found himself repeating everything he’d already told Lowell. When he complained that he was missing his classes, Lowell gave him a look like he was some kind of doo-doo smeared on his shoes.

“A woman’s life is at stake here. I think it’s a little more important than shop class.”

“It’s honors English, and I’ve already told you all I know.” Brady rose from the chair facing the guidance counselor’s desk and grabbed the door handle. “I’m outta here.”

“Not so fast, son.”  McCray shoved a beefy shoulder into the half-opened door, almost catching Brady’s hand between it and the jamb. “Tell us more about yourself, why don’t you?”

That was when Brady knew they weren’t telling him something. He’d seen enough “Law and Order” on TV growing up to recognize the trouble he was in. He also knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

“I’ve told you everything I know, and if you want to talk more, get me a lawyer.”  He’d heard the line so many times on TV, it sounded almost natural.

“Guilty people want lawyers, not innocent folks.” Lowell was trying to be charming, but Brady wasn’t falling for it.

“What’s the real deal?” Brady wasn’t letting go of the door handle. McCray might outweigh him by fifty pounds, but Brady was wiry and strong, even if he wasn’t over five foot, eight. All that walking gave him a muscle edge over the slightly paunchy detective. “You’re not just looking for a missing person.”

“Don’t you know?” McCray smirked at him. “Sure you do. You were there. Tell us how you caught up to her after she left The Spirit Store. And where’d you dump her body?”

“What the hell?” This wasn’t TV, this was real life, something Brady knew all too well. “Dump her body? What kind of joke is this? How do you know she’s dead?”

Lowell shook his head, as if Brady had screwed up, big time. “We’ll be getting DNA right now, the team is at your place. Can’t argue with science.  We’ll find yours on her body, that’s for sure.”

Brady wasn’t as dumb as they thought he was. They’d told him they didn’t have any body.  Any sympathy he’d had for the woman and her kid dissolved like sugar in rain. Once more, life was handing him lemons and he was just supposed to swallow the bitter juice and smile.

“Not mine. If it’s there, you planted it. Now arrest me, get me a lawyer, or get out of my way.”

Lowell and McCray looked at each other, speaking a language only they could hear. Ignoring McCray’s body-block, Brady forced himself through the door. “Leave me alone. You’ve got nothing, or I’d be in handcuffs.”

“Let me cuff the little twerp.” Lowell was almost pleading with McCray. “Just for fun.”

“We play this by the book. We can’t afford any screw-ups.”

Brady heard the last just as he sprinted down the hall, his heart thrumming like a rabbit searching for his warren with a fox hot on his ass. What the . . . ?  His mind kept looping with the photo of the woman and her kid, and despite the hassle he’d been through, he still felt sorry for the little boy.  Looking down, he ran full-bore into the guidance counselor.

“Brady, I was just looking for you. We need to talk.” Grabbing Brady’s elbow, Mrs. McTavish pulled him to the side of the hall. “The police think you had something to do with that waitress who disappeared a couple of nights ago. They said her car was covered in blood. ”

“I didn’t know about her car,” Brady snarled. “When they dragged me into your office, they told me I killed her.  But they don’t have her body.”

Mrs. McTavish looked stricken.  “I told them to wait while I tracked you down.  They weren’t supposed to talk to you alone.”  She paused. “But you are eighteen, and an adult. They can do what they want. Brady, I need to know how much trouble you’re in. Is there anything you should be telling me?”

A small, round woman carrying too much weight, Mrs. McTavish looked like a pickled egg about to burst out of her shell.  Staring at her, Brady had to force himself to stop imagining what she’d look like, exploded all over the hallway. He tried to remember she was the one who’d gotten him into Honors English, and how she kept telling him he could do anything he wanted in life. At least she’d pretended to believe in him.

“No,” he answered with unqualified certainty.  “Nothing at all.”

“Then be careful. I don’t know why they wanted you, but I saw pictures on my computer this morning of her car. Pretty gruesome. I know you had nothing to do with this, but if you can help with anything, anything at all, tell them so they can find the real killer.”  Wringing her hands, Mrs. McTavish glanced up and down the hall way over his shoulders.

“What if she’s not dead? What if it’s someone else’s blood?”  He was thinking aloud. “Where’d they find her car, anyway?”

Mrs. McTavish was looking at him as if she’d never seen him before. “Parked in that lot beside the soccer field, off Landston Pike.” 

He knew the place well. It was half a mile from his house, and he’d passed it on the way home from work at The Spirit Store. Had she been dying there when he’d been trotting home? Why hadn’t they found a body?  He knew better than to ask Mrs. McTavish anything else.

“Hope they find her. Or whoever did it. Now I gotta get to class.”

Before he could escape, she caught his arm. “I was coming to find you to tell you Principal Willston wants you to go home. He doesn’t think you’ll get much from class today.”

Studying at her, Brady read the truth in her face, her eyes. “He thinks I’m a killer, doesn’t he?”

She refused to confirm what he knew to be true. “Go home, Brady. Don’t say anything to anyone about this. I’ll call you when you can come back to school.”

“So I’m suspended because I sold some lady a costume?”  This had to be a joke of cosmic proportions, and he was the butt end of it.

“Just go home, Brady. I’ll call your parents and explain.”  She sounded tired and sad.

“Don’t bother. They’re not my parents. Just my landlords.”  Jerking free of her hand, Brady ran for the front doors. He could feel the detectives’ eyes following him as he sprinted across the bus line to the road leading back to his house. His room. His rented room.

When he finally got home, his former foster parents were standing in the front yard, steaming mad. Pausing at the edge of the walk, Brady stared at them and received nothing but glares in response. Not a word was spoken. He knew, as he watched policemen walking out of the house with boxes, that they would take any and everything, whether or not it was his.  He wished he had a computer so he could pull up the pictures Mrs. McTavish had mentioned, but he used the one at the library when he had to write a report. 

For a second, he thought of approaching his former fosters and telling them it was all a mistake, that he had nothing to do with anyone’s disappearance, but the half-step he took onto the grass was as far as he got. His landlords turned their backs to him, effectively saying anything and everything they would have said with words. He was an outcast. No affection, no support, no concern for his welfare would ever cross their narrow little minds.

He’d always known he was alone, but he’d never felt it as keenly as now. No one was on his side. What was he supposed to do now?

He had the twenty dollars he allowed himself per week for food in his pocket. Eating wasn’t high on his priority list just now. His cash was hidden under a floorboard in his room, and he was feeling kinda light-headed because he’d skipped dinner and breakfast.  Maybe he could hang out in a McD’s for a bit, wait for things to settle down, eat from the dollar menu. Think. Try to figure out why he was a suspect.

The security cameras at the Spirit Store didn’t work. All he could think was that the woman had left her costume behind in the car, along with the credit card receipt. They’d found out he’d been alone in the store when she came in, put two and two together and come up with eighteen. Stupid jerks. Anyone who knew him, knew he’d never hurt anyone.

Then again, who really knew him?  His stories, the ones he wrote out longhand in half-used school notebooks, were the closest thing he had to friends. None of the stories were about people pleasant or even kind, some even portrayed evil as he’d seen and known it in his own hard life. But of all the stuff in his room, the few clothes, the school assignments, the money under the floorboard, all he wanted were his stories.  The money would be helpful, though.

He thought about all of this as he nursed his drink, refilled it, drank it slowly again, and pushed around the cold French fries on his tray at McD’s.  Darkness fell and the shift changed behind the counter.  He bought another dollar hamburger, chewing it slowly.  Finally, he knew what he had to do.

The walk to the soccer field was so familiar, he could do it with his eyes shut. He’d blown off work at The Spirit Store tonight, so he was probably fired, but he had expected that anyway. The detectives probably made sure he’d never work there again when they’d talked to the store manager. Halloween. Such a stupid excuse for a holiday. Not even a holiday, an excuse for people to pretend to be someone else. He did that every day of his life, pretending to be normal.

The parking lot lights glared on the yellow crime scene tape that fluttered around one spot.  The woman’s car must have been there, he figured, and now it was gone. Probably towed for forensics to get a better look.  He looked out onto the broad expanse of grass. The color was otherworldly under the sodium lighting.

No soccer game tonight, not even a pick-up.  Sitting in the bleachers overlooking the field, Brady slumped over, cradling his face in his hands.  Nothing felt real anymore. Even his skin didn’t belong to him. He’d thought that if he could see where the woman had come, he might get a feeling for what had happened to her. How pathetic was that? he asked himself.  He wondered how far he could get if he started walking now. There was nothing for him here. No home, no school, no friends, no answers as to why the universe had chosen him to beat up.  If he’d believed in that reincarnation crap, he’d have said he was a real creep in his life before this one. There was no other explanation, because he’d never hurt anyone in his life.

Even though he’d been sitting in McD’s for hours, he felt as if he’d been walking the whole day. Every muscle ached. Hauling himself from the bleachers, he started across the field with no particular direction in mind. He was just going to keep going until something stopped him. The dew soaked his sneakers, and the hems of his black jeans sopped up more wet. Shoulders rounded, Brady remembered every word he’d spoken to the woman, hoping for a clue.        If she reappeared, live, she’d explain Brady had nothing to do with whatever happened to her. Everyone would be nice to him, even that prick detective, who’d have to apologize.  Mrs. McTavish, too, for asking him if he had anything to confess. She’d be nicer to him. One thing though, he was never going back to the house. He’d stiff the former fosters on the rent and get another place. Somewhere where he could have friends.

The other side of the soccer field led into woods.  Not paying attention to where he was going, he trudged onward until he tripped on some vines and went sprawling. Cursing at his continuing bad luck, Brady pulled himself to his knees and glanced around for other obstacles.  By now it was dark enough that he had trouble seeing. Great. Getting out of the woods and onto the open near a road was the smartest thing he could do.

As he wearily arose, he had second thoughts. The brush and trees would provide him with some shelter.  If he could find a big tree, he could sit against it and get some sleep.  No one was looking for him, he assumed. The cops probably figured he wasn’t going far with no money and no car. So why not spend the night here? Except for the bugs, the place was okay. He’d seen it enough in the daylight.  Even seen a few deer come bounding out of the tree line, now and then.

The tree he selected was broad enough to support his back. Squatting down, he swiped away some nuts and debris at the base before settling down. If he could just sleep a few hours, he’d think more clearly. Come up with a real plan other than walking until his shoes disintegrated.  Sighing, Brady wiggled around, trying to get comfortable until, without realizing it, he was asleep. At first, he dreamed of being cold and wet and angry because he couldn’t get dry. Slowly, though, he sank deeper into a dreamless sleep, deeper than any he’d ever experienced before.

When he awoke, he didn’t know where he was or what time it was. The sky dark, the air heavy, he was nonetheless soaked in a warmth he didn’t understand. What was the source of the heat, clearly not sunshine? Rubbing his eyes open with his dirty hands, he shouted in surprise as the woman he’d met in The Spirit Store squatted beside him. Glowing as if she were radioactive, she smiled at him.

Brady tried to speak, but couldn’t.  Lifting one finger to her lips, she gestured for him to remain silent.  Then, to his shock, she spoke.

“Not looking good for us, is it? I’m dead and you’re going to be a goner before dawn, in all likelihood. You want to know why I came into your store? Do you?”

Brady nodded, though he’d never thought to question her appearance. She’d just been another customer.

“I was hiding from a man. A customer at the restaurant. He’d been in every night for a week, always sitting at my table, always trying to ask me out. It’s against the rules, we can’t date customers, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Shaking her head, she smiled sadly at Brady.  “He’d started waiting for me to get off my shift, then he’d follow me to my car.  Night before last, he had someone with him.  A lookout, I guess. Then the first guy tried to grab me and kiss me, while the second man pulled up in a car and tried to shove me in. I maced him and his buddy and drove until I saw an open store. Yours. When I pulled in, they drove off. But I knew the first man, the one who tried to kiss me, he’d been following me home earlier in the week, so he knew where I lived. I figured he’d be waiting for me there, but my parents were there, and my dad would try to protect me.”

Brady tried to speak, but couldn’t. She shrugged. “I didn’t want my dad to get hurt, so I stayed as long as I could with you. Then I drove around, hoping he’d get tired of waiting for me, and leave me alone.  But I was wrong.

“He’d hidden in the back seat of my car. The locks don’t work, so it was easy, and I didn’t see him. He made me drive out here, and then he raped and killed me.”

Brady remembered the creepy sounds he’d heard in the store that night, almost as if someone was whispering in the back. Sheez, he thought, could they have been in the store and he never saw them? How could they have gotten in? The employee entrance opened in the back into the stock room, and he guessed the shift before him may forgotten to lock it. He hadn’t entered that way, preferring to use the front door just to piss off the manager, if he happened to be there. Not that night, though. And the prior shift left through the front as well.

Brady started to tell her he thought maybe the two men were in the store when she came in, but she laid a finger on his lips that was as solid as his own.
            “Let me finish. You need to know everything, so you can be ready if you decide to do this.”

She was matter-of-fact. Bad stuff happened, there was nothing to be done about it but to take the body blows and come out the other side as best you could. That much Brady understood.

“I fought, of course. Hurt him, too.  He’s been hiding, afraid for anyone to see him because of the shape he’s in.  I want you to find him and take him to the police.  Tell them the truth.  If you can’t do that, he’ll kill you. So you have to be strong.  Do what you have to do. Do it for me, do it for yourself.”

Fearing he’d lost his mind, Brady was sure he was hallucinating.  That was, until she stood and pointed to the west. “He’s in a storage locker he has at the corner of the street by your store. I haven’t seen his friend since the parking lot at the restaurant, but I’m sure he locked my killer in there. The bastard who killed me thinks he can stay hidden until you’re arrested. He knows the police have been questioning you. He put some of my bloody clothes in the dumpster behind The Spirit Store for the police to find, just before he went into hiding.”

Brady knew now he didn’t have a choice.  Finding incriminating evidence where he’d worked would be all the detectives needed to send him to prison.  He’d been in an emotional prison so long, he didn’t think he could stand another kind.

“Tell me what to do,” he croaked.  His face hurt from looking at her. She seemed as pretty and made-up as when she’d come into the store, not bloodied and battered.  “I don’t have any idea.”

Reaching into a pocket in her tight shorts, the woman pulled out a gun. “He used this to keep me quiet, then to kill me. He thought he threw it in the river, but I found it.  The storage locker is number B-102.  Shoot the lock off.  His friend will be back soon to let him out.  Now, before it’s daylight.”

“I’ve never done anything like this. . .” Brady started to whine.

“Do it now, or you’re going to die. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do. Make up your mind, and do it.”

“Okay.”  As soon as Brady shoved himself upright, the woman disappeared. One second there, the next, not. If she hadn’t touched him, he’d have known it was a dream.  But one bloody fingerprint rested on the back of his left hand, and he knew whose blood it was.

The short sleep had helped him, and fear fuelled his progress to the storage lockers.  A high chain link fence surrounded the storage lot, but Brady didn’t find it hard to scale. Finding the numbers was hard in the dark, but he was outside B-102 before he knew it. Fumbling for the lock, he almost dropped the gun when he heard noise inside the locker.

“I know what you did!” he yelled, mostly out of fear and false bravado.  “She told me! I’m here to get you and turn you in!”

Before he lost his nerve, he shot off the lock.  With echoes of the sound reverberating in the concrete corridors of the storage place, Brady flung open the door. 

The man inside bowled Brady over like a toy, growling like an animal.  Losing the gun, Brady clawed at his attacker’s face with a strength he didn’t realize he had.  This was life or death, the woman had warned him, and if he didn’t fight back, he’d end up as dead as she was.  And he didn’t want that.  Life wasn’t worth crap, but he had more living to do. He could make it better.

“No!” Brady screamed as he took body and head blows that had him reeling. “You can’t kill me like you killed her!” 

Brady now knew the woman had fought for her life like a cornered wild animal.  That’s why the car was such a horrible scene, and why he had to fight harder than even she had.  For this man who was suddenly on top of him, his hands around his throat, squeezing the life out of him, needed to die for what he’d done. As rage and fear crescendoed in him, Brady struck back, using every trick he’d used in fighting the bigger kids who wanted to put him in his place in all those awful foster homes.  Hatred for his mother for leaving him alone to grow up like he did, hatred for what this man did to the woman to orphan her little boy, exploded in Brady’s chest.  Blood rage washed over him, freeing him from all semblance of decency. 

He would kill this man, and it would feel good. Clawing his way closer to where he’d dropped the gun, Brady knew his attacker was too focused on killing him with his bare hands to notice he’d gotten the gun. And was raising it. And was pulling the trigger.

Later, when the police came, they found the woman’s body in the locker along with the bodies of other women who had disappeared over the past year. The smell alone sent crime scene techs gagging into bushes.

Brady didn’t hang around long enough to see the whole scene unfold with the police.  Wandering back to the woods, he called for the woman, and when night fell again, she reappeared before him.

“I’m sorry,” was all she would say at first. “I hoped you’d live.”

“It’s okay,” Brady asserted, feeling free for the first time in his life. “I got him before I died. He won’t hurt anyone else.”

“They’ll think you were part of it, that you were a team with him. They’ll figure out two men had to be involved.”

Brady shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I stopped him. He’ll never hurt anyone else.” He didn’t tell her there wasn’t anyone to be hurt by whatever the police said. No one in his life would care for more than half a second.  In a way, it felt good to be free from worrying about what he was going to do with the rest of his life.

“I miss my little boy.” She was walking beside him, through the trees.  “But I can’t go back to see him. It’ll just confuse him and make him sad.”

“So where do we go from here? What’s next?”  Brady was pleased to see that he wasn’t bruised or bleeding and could speak normally, even though his killer had crushed his larynx.

“Not sure. The second man is still out there. We’ll be led to the next step, is my gut feeling. We’ll find him, then figure out what to do. Thanks for being here with me. I didn’t like the idea of doing this alone.”

“Me either. Hey, tell me about your kid, won’t you? I like little kids.  I used to be one.”

“I’m sure you were.”  Her laugh was filled with silver and light. “It’s good to have a friend so I can brag about him. He’s my favorite topic of conversation.”

Friend. Brady had a friend. He felt better than he ever had when he was alive. They walked side by side while she chattered on about her kid, and Brady was flooded with an emotion he didn’t understand. At last he realized that’s how happiness felt.

He’d take it. Being dead wasn’t so bad after all.













Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Money and Publishing

I can't believe it's been over a month since I wrote this blog. Yikes! I'd like to say I've been tripping through exotic locales, dining on fancy French cuisine, or flying across oceans, but alas, none of this is a valid excuse.

A fancy trip or long excursion happens only in my imagination. Yes, the book is coming along. Yes, I got sucked into OUTLANDER on Starz, which necessitated re-reading the first book, which I read over twenty years ago. (Still a good read, btw.) Yes, I've been busy with life. All hollow reasons for not paying more attention to this site. Mea culpa. I promise to be better.

One of my distractions has been my preparation for the C3 Conference to be held at Hollins University on October 20. I've been invited to participate on a panel presenting career paths in writing. Or as I prefer to call it, how to get your head and other parts of your anatomy out of the morass of academia and make some bucks with your talent. Yes, I'm one of those heathen. I believe in selling your work for dollars (and Euros and Pounds and Pesos, etc.) and to heck with the "emotional satisfaction" of seeing your work in print. For free. In academic publications or magazines that do nothing for you except maybe help you get an assistantship somewhere making a few bucks. But hey, you were true to your art! Or, it was all you were expected to do. Phooey on that.

I made $5000 for my first western. Hardback. In 1983. At a time when Westerns were in decline. I expected much less, so $5000 was like manna from heaven. It also taught me to think big picture. I'm told the current market in traditional publishing is paying much, much less these days. In fact, Harlequin is paying first time authors around $3000 in advances. Some pull in only $2500. That's the rumor, at any rate, since I'd never sell to HQ and don't intend on doing so. They did their authors dirt on e-rights and have yet to admit it. Other houses now require signing authors to agree to a gag clause in their contracts. No spilling the beans on how much money they're making. Montlake, a division of Amazon, is one of those. I'd never sign such a clause. It's my money, I'm going to tell anyone I wish to tell how much the contract paid me. Or cost me. Depends on your viewpoint.

As part of my research for this conference, I compiled some web sites with interesting information. I'm including it here as well. There's truth in all of them, but remember, these people have their own realities. Take what you want from them, ignore them, but at least give what they say a solid consideration.

Money and Publishing                                                                                   Tracy Dunham

Informational Sites

1.  Show Me the Money –  (The only site that has fairly current information, though the figures here are from 2013, and word is that the money has dropped significantly since then.)

            As an aside, some publishers are now writing gag clauses into contracts, forbidding authors to disclose their financial agreement. For example, Montlake (Amazon) has such a clause.

2.  Lots of good articles

3. (Kristen Lamb’s blog) – Show Me the Money –What’s the Skinny on Author Earnings? (Very good analysis)

4.   They publish a free daily rundown of the current markets, sales, who is moving to what publisher, etc.

5.  (tons of good articles)

7. (Sept. 29, 2014 post titled How much does it cost to self-publish? Caveat – all figures are in Bristish pounds)

8. (lots of guest bloggers, including Eileen Goudge, who discusses her loss of contract and successful foray into self publishing. Claire Cook’s article about leaving her famous agent and publisher to strike out on her own is interesting as well.  Jane teaches digital publishing and media at UVA.)

9. – 4/15/14 guest blog by Natalie Whipple on self publishing v. traditional publishing

10. (1/15/14 post)

11.  (She surveyed 822 self published authors, with 65% having no previous publishing deals.)

12. Check out Bella Andre, JA Konrath, Bob Mayer, Claire Cook, Teresa Ragan online. They’ve all been very, very successful. Konrath and Mayer get into specifics of “how-to.”





Friday, September 05, 2014

Bob McDonnell's banishment from Eden

Although I know and like people who are solid Bob McDonnell supporters ( not so much his wife, tho), I have to say we should have seen his conviction coming from a mile away.  Rachel Maddow said last night she didn't think he'd be convicted, but we all should have. Why?

The answer came to me last night. His defense was from the story of Adam and Eve. "She made me do it. It was her fault, she said this was good so I took a bite. Then I took another. She's to blame!"  Fits perfectly for a man who touts Christian values and traditional marriage as the cement of civilization. Many, many Christians blame woman for original sin.  I am not surprised by this defense, but am saddened. No, not saddened. Sickened.

I attended an old and respected women's college. The then-college chaplain was a tall, imposing man of quiet rectitude. The students uniformly admired and respected him. I was invited to one of his small get-togethers,  much to my surprise since I didn't have any classes with him.  We were chatting, the chaplain and I, when he turned the topic to original sin, and he informed me that all sin was the fault of Eve and therefore, of all women.  I may have been all of 19 years old, but I asked him what he was doing at a women's college, if he felt that way. He turned his back and stalked off. I have never felt the respect that many of my friends still have for the man.

Blaming women for all the world's ills isn't new. It's at the root of the degradation of women in every level of society, every culture.  Maureen McDonnell maybe an unpleasant person, but she's not the root of all evil. Bob McDonnell made his own bad choices.

Isn't it time we took away all power from the Adam and Eve myth?

Monday, September 01, 2014

This blog is so worth reading. . .

Check out for a spot on dissection of the theft and publication of nude pics of some famous women, including Jennifer Lawrence.  This must stop. As a society, we must rise in outrage and stop people who think all women are fair game.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The leaves are falling. . .

I found another notepad with my dad's name on it just yesterday. He must have had hundreds, all "gifts" from charities he supported. (And he supported a ton of them.) I use them for jotting down phone numbers from the message option on the phone, just as he did. After he passed on, I threw away bags full of these pads, until some gained a reprieve. They're still useful to me, but I wonder how he could have possibly used them all in his lifetime. He loved little 3 x 5 cards, tucked in his front pocket on his shirt (all his shirts had to have this pocket or they were returned immediately), and small notepads he could use for reminders. Once, I gave him a small notebook to use beside his computer, handy for jotting down things he wanted to remember, including passwords, but he found it difficult to remember to use it. Once again, the 3 x 5 cards came to the rescue.

I discovered my older daughter was doing the same thing. Tucked in a slot in her bedroom desk is a tidy pile of 3 x 5 cards, covered with passwords and reminders. Seems the 3 x 5 card gene has skipped a generation. I, however, hoard notebooks. Rows of them. All filled with pages I figure I'll  need to re-read someday. One even holds passwords. So there.

Leaves are falling, much to my disgust. Autumn simply has to hold off a while longer. We're just not ready to rake and pull on sweatshirts. Once, though, autumn was the highlight of my year.  When I was a girl in Kansas, Fall meant the beginning of the fox hunting season, my big thrill. Since there weren't a lot of foxes where I lived, the hunt would put out a drag, or scent, for the hounds to follow, which meant a fun ride at full tilt. I was never prouder than when I was awarded my "FLH" buttons to sew onto my jacket. My little roan half-quarterhorse, half-thoroughbred, normally a well-behaved mare, would thunder over logs and leap streams as if she were seventeen hands instead of fifteen. Once, I almost passed the Master of hunt, when she got the bit in her teeth and decided she was going to lead this parade. I ended up jerking her in circles to try to slow down our certain expulsion from the hunt.  She hippity-hopped and she bucked and I almost went over her head, until she calmed down. Thank goodness. That day was more fun than I'd ever had.

The writing is coming. Bathroom renovation is almost complete, so the sound of workers' radios and drills and hammers and whatall is just about silenced. A few more bits to go, a re-do by the plumber of the hot and cold handle in the shower, and we've survived the bathroom re-do from hell.  I don't think I'll ever do this again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Strong Greaved Achilles and helmet-haired McDonnell

I'm re-reading the Lattimore translation of the Illiad - and it's wonderful. When I read it in school, it was work. Now, I'm caught up in the language, the imagery, the violence.  Still a heck of a read. It's a textbook of how to make characters come alive. Use a tag with a name - like strong-greaved Achilles- and keep it going until you can't think of the character or see his name without the extra descriptor. The descriptor gives a visual image that is many instances is almost cinematic.

A friend recommended TYRANT on FX. We could only start with the fourth episode, but boy howdy. Nothing like it on TV that I know of. I'm going to have to hunt down the first three, but I have an idea what's happened so far. RAY DONOVAN is going slowly - I don't have much time for TV, but Season 1 is so original, I wish I'd written the character.

I miss comedies of the old days, like The Dick Van Dyke Show. Network TV then hired the best writers. I've always thought comedy is harder to write than anything else in the world.  I'm beginning to believe only tortured souls can write truly great comedy. Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, RIP.  I find writing humor to be nothing but torture. Sometimes I can catch a quirky phrase that sounds at least amusing, but that's as far as my talent goes.

Our former governor continues to deny any wrong doing in his acceptance of money and gifts from a corporate bigwig. The whole story is so sordid and embarrassing, I don't know how he can get on the stand to testify. I'd have accepted a plea deal for a hundred years in prison, if it would have spared my children and wife this public humiliation. I can't imagine how his wife has retained her sanity, unless she really is crazy already. Totally possible.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Paring down

I just re-read HUNTING BADGER by Tony Hillerman. I remember the first time through, I was shocked at the large print and short page count. As I do with Hillerman, I read for story. This time, though, I read it for technique.

What I discovered made me rethink my own craft. Hillerman has distilled each scene, each conversation, down to its essence. There's no fluff, no "pretties" to distract from the story.  Yet each character retains his/her distinctive voice. Jim Chee never sounds like Leaphorn.  I found I really liked it, because the story is fairly complicated for such a short word count. Personally, I'm really fond of all my digressions and side stories, but none of them are that spectacular that they can't be eliminated. Any distractions need to be central to the mystery, or they're history.

I miss these masters of mystery, Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis. At least we have their bibliography, and they'll never go out of print.

Friday, August 08, 2014


Since I'm playing with another Tal Jefferson book idea, I needed to refresh my memory on its locale. Hitting the Web, I pulled up pictures of the real town on which I based Wynnton, and looked around, courtesy of Google. (Personally, I hate the fact Google has my house in its data base.) I couldn't believe how the streets I thought I knew well have changed over these past years.

The houses I am using are no longer residences. What was once a very neighborly street is now all business in these old, lovely homes. Pickup trucks park in the side yard. Large signs by the driveway announce the business name and address. Houses once painted a brilliant white to ward off the summer sun are now tans and beiges, reds and blues.

I remember all those neighbors so clearly. Mrs. DeShazo with her curved spine, club foot, and tiny stature, always impeccably dressed, wearing lipstick, and the sweetest woman on earth. Mrs. Smith, worrying about her husband's arthritis. Mrs. Ritchie, her house filled with luminous art painted by her Spanish son-in-law. Mrs. Amos, housing her granddaughter and her son, wealthy as Croesus but not flaunting it a bit.  Visiting each other was a ritual not to be missed. Front porch swings on hot summer nights, lemonade in the garden, a tuna stuffed tomato for lunch with all the neighbor ladies happy to attend a hastily arranged party. I know they are no longer with us in person, but they will always live in my memories. Their white houses with huge old shade trees, now cut down for parking areas, will survive in my mind as well.

The owners may change, but the stories these women told, their personalities, their faces, are with me still.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Where have the readers gone?

I read some horrifying statistics today. I'm generalizing here, but the article said that only one-third of high school graduates pick up a book after graduation, for the rest of their lives. College grads were even worse! Something like twenty-eight per cent deign to read a book after receiving their sheepskins.  There was a further breakdown, but oh my stars, did I feel discouraged. With so few young people reading, the publishing market is bound to cater to those sacred few. I just didn't see the trend as clearly as I do now. The aisles between YA books always have more people than any other section, even the ones with cookbooks and devotionals, so mercy me, I hope those few stay faithful to the printed word.

Reading is one of the great pleasures in life. Cliché, yes, indubitably. I can't imagine a life without books in some form or another. So I feel sorry for those who never want to go near a novel again for as long as they live. Then again, who am I to judge? There's certainly great storytelling on the TV (I just started in on RAY DONOVAN on cable), but some of the best TV drama comes from novels. LONGMIRE, anyone?

I'm mailing copies of OUTLANDER to friends who are too young for its first iteration in 1991. I know they'll be caught up in the series now airing on Showtime (I think), and will want to see what's been left out in the necessarily truncated TV version.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Cup of Cold Water

We were having dinner the other night at a Chinese restaurant we've frequented for over thirty years.  No kidding. It's not in the best part of town, but the food is great and the place holds great sentiment for us. Our first date. Last Saturday, we were out with family, enjoying ourselves, when a thin black man came into the restaurant.

The day had been a hot one. He asked the hostess for a cup of water. I heard her, across the room, tell him they had no cups to go. He stood there, looking forlorn, as she tried to get him to leave, asking again for a cup of water.  I glanced at our large table, filled with food, and lost it.

Loudly, I shouted across the room that I'd pay for the water. Once more, she insisted they had no cups. I glanced at the bar and asked of they had bottled water. They did. Again, I said I'd pay for it. A bottle of water was produced, and the man turned to thank me. I nodded.

My Beloved pointed out they probably, given the economics of the area, have people asking for water all day long. Maybe. But when we, as a society, refuse people water, we deserve what we get. And it won't be good.

I won't be back to that old favorite restaurant, ever again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Books from our childhood

I read an interesting analysis of the Narnia books by someone who reread them as an adult, comparing her contemporary reaction with her youthful memories of the books. Though the rereading was colored by her rosy feelings from years before, she couldn't overlook the sexism and other issues she found as an adult. I felt sorry for her. Something wonderful was now tainted.

 Though I'm often nostalgic, I wouldn't relive the past for a zillion wonderful reviews. Memories, though, are mine, therefore hands off to everyone else. Yet I've been tempted to pull out old favorites and give them another look, wondering if my young eyes were wrong the first time they read the words on a page.  Miss Flora McFlimsy has never failed to charm me, no matter how old I am. Rumer Godden's Mouse House swims in the same magic.  But these are books for young children, not the books I gobbled up as I became a voracious reader.

My mother insisted on summer reading lists (before schools required them), so I was fed a delicious diet of Newbery Award winners.  I cannot praise my mother enough for insisting I read quality books.  Behind her back, with my allowance savings, I indulged in the secret delight of Nancy Drew books, purchased at the post exchange on outings with my father.  I can still see my mother rolling her eyes and sighing when I fell under the thrall of the dauntless girl detective in her powder blue convertible. (It was a convertible, wasn't it?)

I'd never reread those Nancy Drews, but I have kept my stash of Newberys. Hittie, Her First One Hundred Years. Roller Skates. Caddie Woodlawn.  Oh my, the memories. The interesting thing is, I can see how these books shaped me as a writer. The thrill of the clue in the old clock, the independent girl sleuth, and the veritable plethora of wonderful writing that comprised the award-winning books gave me a firm foundation as a mystery writer. I don't need to reread them to see if I was hoodwinked as a child reader.

I wasn't. To all those wonderful writers, I am eternally grateful.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Where has it gone?

I declare, time is speeding up the older I get. I have no idea where this summer has flown. Having anticipated the hot, muggy days of a Southern July, I woke up this morning and realized it's almost over. Not only July, but summer too. Makes me grumpy. Like the morning after Christmas, when all the anticipation has dissolved into the mist of OMG, January is next. . .

Major renovations going on at our house - a new bathroom for one - and guests have taken up some of my time. Mostly though, I have no excuse for being so remiss in keeping this blog going. As I watch a Nascar race on TV (and I don't even sit through all of them, now), I think about discussing the alarming trend among drivers to have a baby with the current girl friend, and ignore the minor detail of a wedding first. Or even after the baby arrives. Denny Hamlin, you were raised better than that. Kyle Larson, well, you're only 21, but I'm sure someone informed you that the decent thing to do is to put a ring on it. Penske's new powerhouse engines have me tickled pink (as does Joey Logano's new found zip), Dale's great year -all of it is good.

What I'm holding my breath over is Rob Kauffman's new alliance with Roush, Hendricks, Gibbs, Petty, and Childress. Ostensibly, it's to pool resources to get better deals on parts, equipment, and hotel rooms for crew during race weekends, but I have to wonder - is it really about the new TV contract Nascar just signed? Big bucks there. Now that Nascar has said it will communicate with the alliance only through its lawyers, I think I'm right.

I'm hearing more alarming trends have arrived in the standard book contract offered by traditional publishers. For one thing, a second book (always an option in days gone by) must be submitted as a completed manuscript before it will be considered for a contract. Oh, and they (the pubs), won't look at it until sales figures are in for the first book. Scary, scary. And if they turn it down and the author takes the book to another house, the first publisher gets to make an offer with priority standing if the second house says it wants the book. All very convoluted, but if you're a published author,  you know what I mean. Bad, bad times in traditional publishing for writers. Then again, we've always been at the bottom of the profit barrel, but I never expected contracts to become so heinous. I wonder how long it will take for an uprising? Antitrust laws seem to be a good place to start. 

I'll try to be more attentive to this blog, I promise.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Summer Slacker

No, it's not the beach, though I can be tempted. Or the pool.  Or weeks and weeks of travel.The eternal issue for me as a writer is the siren song of the garden.  During the winter, I'm tempted to tackle the big house issues, like closets and attic, but the temptation isn't overwhelming. Summer, however, pulls me into the yard like a piece of  death-by-chocolate cake. My very own triple layer cake, with one fork.  I see where the beds need work, plants that long to be moved to other spots, bushes crying out for a trim. If I don't get in a bit of outdoors with my snips or a shovel, I'm one unhappy writer.

Nature doesn't play a big role in my writing. I don't use plants or fauna unless they're clues. Place can be a character and often is.  I love to use atmosphere based on location. Think of a moss-draped tree hiding a house, barely covered with remnants of white paint. The possibilities are infinite and often can be based on clichés. But don't clichés carry kernels of truth that everyone recognizes?

I'm going to make my fanny stick to my desk chair this coming week, even though there's a rose bush that needs spraying. It'll have to fight the buggies by itself for a few days, at least.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Hmmmm...Nails and Pearls

 I have this small sterling whatever sitting on my dressers, and today it fell over. I realized I've been collecting small  nails (I have no idea why) and pearls in it. The pearls belong to a bracelet I'd worn for years.  Unfortunately, they've seen better days. Why I dropped the bracelet in there and added nails seems like a detail for a novel. Somewhere, I'll be able to use it.

Red Shoes and the Inexplicable

I don't know where I got this fetish for red shoes. Heaven knows, I grew up wearing sensible oxfords black patent leather Mary Janes for church.  Once, I begged for a pair of penny loafers, but my sensible mother shot that one down. Anyone as active as I was, needed shoes that would stay on her feet, and loafers wouldn't cut it. I would come home from first grade, stopping at a grassy slope to slide down several times, with grass stains all over the back of my skirt. (In those days, girls had to wear skirts to school.) My mother finally had it, and informed me in no uncertain terms that I'd get spanked the next time I pulled that stunt and ruined another dress.

Anyway, I looked in my closet and stared at my rather embarrassingly vast shoe collection, and once again, I chose a pair of red ones.  I have no idea how red shoes became embedded in my consciousness as the basic shoe color, but I've given up fighting it. Besides, they make me feel happy. So red shoes it is.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When life changes, what do you do?

I've been planning to write my thoughts about Marty Smith's ESPN article on Casey Atwood, the Nascar driver who washed out pretty quickly after being hailed as a wunderkind. Though Atwood doesn't have to work, has a lovely wife and two darling daughters, Casey just wants another shot at driving Sprint cup. That's it. His only ambition, at least according to the article, in life is that. All I can think is: how sad. Then I decided to reserve my heavy stones for the truly heinous. (And why are those girls in Nigeria still in the hands of the Boko Hareem? And why isn't there a huge outcry in Pakistan for the pregnant woman murdered by her family for marrying for love?)

Nascar will roll on with or without the multitudes who think they deserve a shot. Or two. Or three. The true measure of a man or woman, is what does (s)he do if (s)he can't have what (s)he think s(s) he wants? In publishing, people go the Indie route, write for themselves, or quit writing totally. I find it less stressful and more fun in the Indie world, myself, after having been traditionally published. No waiting two years for a book to be produced. No ending up with a title you don't like, a cover you hate. Controlling one's own destiny has always been my goal. While I know there're times to shift gears and take another road (been there, done that), I can only hope I've done so with grace and good manners. Change isn't easy. I know. I grew up in the army. Ask me how many friends I have from my youth. Yeah, doesn't happen when you move all the time.

I will always write. I have done so since childhood. The stories in my head won't leave me alone, so I have to get them into a tangible form. Maybe it's a side effect from having a peripatetic childhood, but the characters are always be alive to me once I get rolling with a story. So no matter what happens in the publishing world, I'm here for the duration.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Monica Lewinsky in Vanity Fair

First of all, let me say I'm loath to use Ms. Lewinsky's name in the title of this blog post, because her name is getting bandied about too much these days. The Vanity Fair article made her fair game, once again, although I don't really think she ever got off the target board, not for the past 16 years.  And when VF landed in my mailbox, I admit I grabbed it first so I could read her piece.

She is clearly an intelligent woman. Her reality appears to be grounded and well-reasoned. Her victimization at the hands of Mr. Starr (the special prosecutor), Bill Clinton and the Dems, political pundits and satirists, feminists and columnists ( the list could go on and on and on...),didn't destroy her, but it almost did. And it made her very cautious. Who can blame her?  Why her punishment for the Clinton affair has carried a term longer than child murderers receive (case in point: today's paper reported that a woman who killed her six month old baby got three years in prison. Big whoop.) is rooted in gender and politics and sex, which she has discerned.
Why didn't women stick up for her when she was a twenty-something swept into the charisma of Bill Clinton? Where were the feminists to defend her? Why did another woman, Linda Tripp, betray her? Was it because she seemed so open, so vulnerable, so pretty? The ravening dogs attacked because they could. Was it because it involved oral sex, one of those naughty things you didn't talk about sixteen years ago?  Yes, I think she was pretty then, and she's more beautiful now at forty. Women are their own worst enemies sometimes (though events in Nigeria would say otherwise).  Was she a stalker? I doubt it. A narcissistic loony toon? Oh, Hillary. Grow up. You have been diminished in my eyes by using that label.

Powerful men. Young, pretty women. The two have been entwined forever. Give the woman a break, and let it go. I hope Ms. Lewinsky runs for political office and wins. Big time. She's been through the fire and lived to tell the tale. She'd be awesome.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The Vampire Recipe, Part 2

Sorry it's taken this long - helping daughter #2 move into a new house. And other excuses, none of them very relevant.  Anyway, here's the ending. Comments appreciated.

 A lamp beside the sofa clicked on, as did a hum from outside.  Before she could position herself to jump past him through the front door, he slipped inside, carrying more wood in one arm and a shotgun in the other.

He shrugged at her questioning stare.  “It’s loaded to bring down as many of them as I can, just in case.  They’re weaker, if they came looking for your chocolates.  Can’t stop them, not yet, but give it time, and I can.”

“I don’t think so.”

Stacking the wood in the fireplace, Barrett remained silent.  Working methodically, he pretended he hadn’t heard her.

“Look, I get it.  You know they want me to cook up the chocolates.  Let me do it.  Lure them into a trap.  Use me for bait.”  The idea came to her as she was speaking.

“No.”  He didn’t turn around as he struck a match.  “They’ll take you before I can stop them.”

“What’s the one way you can be sure they’ll all die?” Grandpere never said a word about killing them, only that she had a duty to provide their protective chocolates.

That got his attention.  Turning to her, he seemed to be weighing his answer. 

“You may as well tell me.  I’m the only person in this room who knows what you do.”  Sitting on the sofa, she tucked her legs under her and drew one of the blankets over her lap.  It hid the bloodstain on the knees of her jeans.

Rising, he left the fire alone to kneel before her and take her hands in his.  “Give me the secret ingredient.  Let me make the chocolates.  I’ll get them when they come to your kitchen.”

“How?  How will you kill them?”

Looking into the growing flames in the fireplace, he shook his head.  “Fire.  Fire’s the only way to make sure, when they’re vulnerable.  It’ll mean burning down your business, but . . . .”

 “What about the other shops around mine?”

“I’ll make sure the fire department is nearby.  Several fire trucks.”

“How will you get out?  Alive, I mean.”  She couldn’t imagine the violence it would take to start a fire of such magnitude it would destroy the creatures who’d scared her grandpere for his entire life. He had to be planning on a bomb.

“I take my chances. That’s what I do.  Tell me how they know the blood chocolates are ready.  I’ll make them.”

She thought of her grandpere’s arms, scissored with scars.  His legs.   His torso. He’d cooked the chocolates too long.

 “You don’t have the one crucial ingredient.”

“Tell me what it is, and I’ll make sure it’s never manufactured again.”

Her smile didn’t reassure herself or him.

“It’s my blood.  My family line carries the immunity they crave. So you’ll have to kill me to end the blood chocolates.  But I think you already knew that.”

* * * * *

Barrett stared at her as if memorizing her face.  “It was the only answer.  We didn’t know for sure it was the family line, since there’re other vamps around the world who seem to have immunities we can’t crack.”

“What took you so long? Why are you just getting to Wrightsville?”

He looked away.  “We didn’t know about your grandfather or your family, not until recently when a flurry of killings that started out in the serial murders section got transferred to me.  They were all vamp murders, disguised to look like serial killings.  This clan’s clever.  Until today and your friend.”

“If you knew they were in Wrightsville, why didn’t you try to stop them?”  She wanted to be able to blame someone, anyone for Allis’s death.

“I’m not clairvoyant, if that’s what you’re implying. I was following a hunch.  Wrightsville hasn’t had a vamp killing in hundreds of years.”

 “Until me, my family has always done its duty.”  Why hadn’t she believed her grandpere’s tales?  “I must do mine now.  It’s the only way.”

 “Dammit.”  Sitting beside her, Barrett lifted the afghan covering her feet and began rubbing the sole of her feet with slow, practiced circles.  “He had no right to keep you in the dark.”

“Who, grandpere?”  She felt herself relaxing under his ministrations despite her fervent hopes she’d grow to hate this man who seemed to know a hell of a lot more than she did about her own family.

“No, my boss.  My late boss.  He should have taken you in when it was clear there’d been a shift in the dynamics.  It’s a clear indicator of, um, unrest.  That’s a good enough word.  Didn’t take me twenty-four hours to find you, he should have done it when your grandfather died.”

“Why would he?  And who is he, exactly?”

Barrett sighed, shutting his eyes. “Head of Paranormal Activities at the FBI.  It’s coordinated with the military, and we share offices and intel. We’ve systemically run a boatload of weird shit to ground and eliminated it in the bigger, urban areas, where we thought they hunted exclusively. Then Will, head of my division, got himself killed. Lunch for the beasties.  Got tired of riding the desk and his laptop, wanted a little excitement to wake him up.  He didn’t wake up, not after the master vamp in a tiny fish camp town in South Carolina finished him off.”

He sounded more bitter than angry, Langie decided.

 “Who’s in charge now?”

“Three guesses.”  He lifted one eyebrow and nodded in the affirmative.

“Can you stop them?”  She was afraid to hear his answer.

“Yes. If you’ll let me do what I do, and stay out of your kitchen.  Let me see your arms.”

She knew why he asked.  She’d seen her grandpere’s arms just that once, and wondered as a child why he was ribboned with scars.  Rolling back the sleeves of her sweater, she brandished her clear skin.

“They can smell your blood.  It’s like the most expensive perfume.  There’s a way to duplicate the scent.  At least, that’s what my techies tell me.  We fool them into thinking they’re getting their magic candy.”  His smile lacked humor.

“And if they aren’t fooled?  Then what?”  She had a vague idea that Allis would be just the start of a campaign to get her to do their bidding. Naw, nothing vague about it.

“We punt.”  Taking his jacket off, he slung it over a chair and bent to strike a match to the kindling in the stone-faced fireplace.

“Merciful heavens.”

“That’s about the extent of it.”  A wry smile, and his face transformed.  “You in?”

“Do I have any choice?”

“Sure.  Get out of Dodge.  Drive until the wheels fall off.  Don’t use your real name, get a new identity, and get blood transfusions every chance you get.  Don’t donate blood.  Pray they don’t find you.”

Swallowing hard, Langie tried to envision life somewhere else.  “What, no plastic surgery?”

Barrett thought a minute. “Might not be a bad idea. Change your looks, wear tons of strong perfume.”

“I was kidding.”  She couldn’t run. No way.  If she helped him, maybe they’d win.  Allis’s death surrounded her like a blanket smothering her face.  “Those bastards have to pay for what they did. Not just to Allis, but to my grandfather. To my family.”

A black hue swept through his eyes.  “Let’s get started, then.  I have my kit in the car, I’ll be back.”

He hurried through the door to the outside as if afraid she’d try to slip out with him, slamming it shut behind him so quickly he almost caught his shirt tail. 

Kit?  What the heck what he have in mind?  What did she know about him, anyway?  He hadn’t shown her any ID, she hadn’t asked for it, to be honest, but still. . . .  For all she knew, he was one of them. Her stomach roiled.  He’d recognized her by the scent of her blood in the bite mark she’d made on her hand.

God, how stupid could she be?  If he was one of them, though, he’d have killed her by now. Or at the very least, forced her to make some blood chocolates.  Only she knew the process took a long time – days and days of preparation, then they had to age sufficiently for their efficacy to kick in.

Shutting the door and locking it behind him once again, Barrett dropped a large metal briefcase on the sofa beside her.  “Didn’t see anything out there. We may be safe, but I’m not going to count on it.”

Swallowing hard, Langie edged towards the fireplace and its brass poker.  “So why’d you light the fire? I thought you didn’t want any signs we’re here.”

“It’s only a couple of hours until dawn.  They’ll have to find their nests, go to ground.  We have today to figure this out, then it’s war.  I know how they operate.”  Bent over the box, he began setting up a laptop and a case of syringes on the coffee table.  “Got an internet card, I can analyze your blood with this contraption here and send the info to Washington.  It shouldn’t take long for us to have an answer, they’ve been working on one for the others.”

“You mean the other humans forced to give the vamps what they want?”

He nodded. “It’s mutation of some sort that’s hardwired into your DNA.  Every new generation gets ferreted out by the bloodsuckers.  Allis bought you some time. Not much, but a little.”  He fiddled with the laptop and brought up a screen. “Now we’re cookin’, no pun intended.  I’m connected with the lab in Texas.”

Despite the nice fire crackling away, Langie shivered.

He didn’t raise his eyes from the computer’s screen.  His dark hair, longish at the nape of his neck, curled over the collar of his black shirt.  Dark clothes, dark man, she thought.  Why was he hiding in this cabin if he was one of the good guys?  Where was his white stallion?  Why hadn’t he spirited her away to the castle with FBI agents guarding the moat to keep her safe?

“I need a sample. You’re the one with the magic potion.”  He shrugged.  “It won’t hurt. At least, not much.”  Flicking the end of a syringe, he gestured for her to give him her arm.

“What’re you going to do with it? And why do you have a zillion more of those long needles in there?” She gestured at the box.

“Run it thru this scanner on this,” he held up a disk. 

Silence surrounded them as she eyed the needle, until a soft cry sent her heart thumping peanut butter. “Do you hear that?” she asked.

“No, what?”  Cocking his head, he glanced at the door. “What did you hear?”

“I’m not sure. The wind on the roof? We’re surrounded by pines.  Could be needles falling.”

Rising, she pulled the afghan around her shoulders and walked to the door, pressing her ear to the wood. Her hearing, always acute, sharpened even more.  “There it goes again.”

This time she heard it more clearly. “A voice. I hear someone calling my name. Come here, listen!”

“Impossible.  You’re hallucinating.”

“Langie.”  A woman’s voice penetrated the logs.  “Langie, open up, I need you.”

“God!  Did you hear that? It’s Allis!  Open the door!”  Fumbling with the locks, Langie tried to get them to work, but they resisted her tugging and jerking. “What’s wrong with them, I can’t get them to open?”

“That’s because I used magic.”  Laughing, Barrett rocked back on his heels and watched Langie gape at him. “Kidding, what did you think?”

“I think I want you to open this door. There’s someone out there calling me.  My God, it is  Allis.”

“Can’t be.  Come here, let me get the sample.”  He gestured with his hand for her to turn around, and she felt a tug in her muscles so hard she almost fell to the floor. If she’d been made of steel bones and metal muscles, the magnet pulling her outside couldn’t have exerted a stronger pull.

Fear gave her the courage to grab the door handle and hang on.  “Stop it,” she cried.  “Open the door for Allis!”

Rushing to her side, Barrett locked her in his arms. “They’ll take you before you can blink.”

She’d never felt worse in her life.  If she didn’t find Allis, she’d die.

“I have to go!  Can’t you feel it?  It’s going to rip me apart.  My God, help me!”  She could feel her organs straining at her muscles, her skin stretching taut as a drum.

“Water, it’s the only way.  Let go, Langie, hang onto me.” 

The power pulling her would have smashed her through the wood logs if Barrett hadn’t grabbed her up in his arms and run with her into a back room.  Locking the door behind them while he held her, he dropped her in an old-fashioned porcelain tub and cranked the handles.  Cold water poured over her feet as Barrett forced her body to stay in the tub.  The pain inside her crescendoed until she thought she’d explode with it.  The water rose slowly, soaking her legs, then her hips, and finally, up to her chest, making breathing easier.

As the cold water poured over the edge of the tub, soaking Barrett as well, he turned off the taps.

“Now take a deep breath and submerge yourself.  Stay under the water as long as you can before you take your next breath.  The water will block their calling you.”

The water seeped away the pain slowly. She’d kill herself before she would take any more of this agony.  Gulping in a big chunk of air, she slid her head under the water again and again.  Barrett’s arms never left her shoulder and stomach, forcing her deeper. 

Only as the top of her head disappeared into the cold water did the pain ease up.  She could feel the fire inside her slowly dying.  Was this how it felt when you passed away, she wondered?  Was it from the fire into the ice? 

* * * * *

“We’ve got to get away from here.  They’re calling to your blood.”

“As if I didn’t know.”  Pale with pain, Langie kept her hands snapped tight against her ears.  “Now I know how the sirens got the upper hand.”

“Can you stand it long enough to get in the Jeep?  I’ll drive like a bat out of hell away from here.”  He was soaked to the skin as well and shivering almost as violently as she.

“If you can’t get me free, just kill me.”  She meant every word. “And don’t let the bastards find me before the bugs do.”

“Charming image, but I get the point. Okay, let’s get you out of here.”  Locking his arms under hers, he helped her sit up in the full tub.  After she stood, sluicing water, he lifted her into his arms and hurried to the front door. 

Trembling against him, Langie concentrated on breathing.  If she could focus on something else, maybe the pain would ease up a sec.  So she chose the hair at the bottom of his neck, where it veeed into his chest. Counting one, two, three, four. Over and over again as she stared at each and every hair. 


She nodded. “I’m freezing.”

“It’s going to get colder.”

The wind struck her like icy needles through her wet clothing as he opened the door.  She wondered how he managed the locks while holding her, but she was too cold to care. She blamed her frozen senses for dulling the smell thrown in her face as he hesitated on the cabin’s threshold.  When it hit her, she almost retched.

“What’s that God-awful stink?”

Silent, he pivoted three hundred and sixty degrees, as if checking every corner of the surrounding forest for enemies. "Them."

"Let’s get out of here,” she mumbled through stiff lips.

Wrenching open the Jeep’s door, he tossed her inside.  “Put on your seatbelt. It’s going to get rough.”

Fumbling with fingers made clumsy with the sub-zero temperature, she couldn’t help staring around the Jeep, searching the shadows for any signs of whatever had found the cabin. “Where is it?  The one that found us?”

“Went for reinforcement,s is my bet.”  Gunning the engine, Barrett popped the clutch.  “Hang on.”

Fishtailing, the Jeep sprang from its parking spot like a cat shocked with a cattle prod.  Gray and black shadows rippled across the windshield so quickly they made Langie feel dizzy.  She didn’t know how he could drive, the shadows in front of them were as dark as the tinted glass in a mobster’s limo.

Shifting gears, Barrett kept his foot solidly on the gas.  A shaky wobble, then Jeep righted itself.

“Pothole, don’t worry,” he reassured her. “I think we’ve outrun them.” 

“I don’t think so.”

He didn’t know what she knew.  That the vamps could bring her to them if she wouldn’t come voluntarily.  She should have told him escape was impossible, but she’d hoped her grandfather had made a mistake.  The vamps always came to him, he’d said, but tradition promised she could be summoned.

Whomp.  The Jeep shimmied as if it had been whacked with a giant sledgehammer.

When she’d tried to escape from the cabin, they must have used their power to call her.  Another whomp, and the Jeep slowed down. She felt the power jerking her like a marionette’s strings.

Spinning, the Jeep did a one-eighty, facing the direction they’d come, the engine whining as Barrett kept his foot on the gas and they went nowhere.

“What the hell?” He jerked the clutch and tried to force the Jeep to move.

“That’s what this is.  Hell.  Stay out of the way.  If I can appease them, maybe they’ll leave you alone.”  Unclicking the belt, she slid from the front seat before he could stop her.

The black shadows swarmed her like locusts on green corn.  She thought of the sunny beach, the blue blue of the sky, the sound of the front door bell at the chocolate shop. But the images wouldn't stay in her head.
Freezing air, colder than the bottom of a winter lake, held her in its clawed grasp. Was this death, she wondered, or a different version of hell.  In the long run, it didn't matter.
She was lost. No one would find her, no one living, that is, when the vampires were finished with her. The truth was as bitter as myrrh in her mouth.
She forced one word out, a whisper, before she let herself be taken. "Barrett."
He never heard her.