Saturday, October 11, 2014

Collecting Character Data

When I was young, my paternal grandmother took me to a room on the second floor of her house and showed me a stack of gifts she’d received over the years. They were still in their original packaging and she offered me one of them. I declined her offer as the gift she wanted to give me didn’t suit me. Now I understand that like her, I had no need for it and had I taken it home, I would have shoved it under my bed and forgotten about it. My siblings often teased me saying I looked like her. This wasn’t flattering. Not that she was a gargoyle or anything, she just didn’t tend to her appearance. She rarely did more than comb her hair. Her hairstyle resembled a steel gray helmet. When asked what my sister remembers about her, she will reply that Grandma wore heavy, black orthopedic shoes and her mashed potatoes had lumps - but she made a great ham. When she died, I looked at her in the coffin and thought how great she looked. They had done her hair and makeup. She was stunning.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was collecting character data. Like one of the seven dwarfs gathering diamonds from caves, I gathered personality traits. I would sometimes try them on for size, not knowing that I had my own. I didn’t know I was a writer. I just thought I was weird.
Character data is something all writers collect. We store it in a big filing cabinet somewhere in the back of our minds and while we write, we summon our muse to extract this one or that, mixing and matching them as suits the person we’re inventing. That’s the nice thing about writing - I can give people better memories of Grandma than that she wore big shoes and made lumpy mashed potatoes. In my stories, she has a chance to do something far more exciting than cook the Sunday ham.
My siblings will recognize my relatives in my books. I often use those who have passed away since they can’t be offended by my perceptions of them. Now that I am older, I see them differently, too. Their motivations are clearer. Their thwarted dreams and missed opportunities can be realized.
The interesting thing about character data is that you never stop collecting it. Some years after my grandmother died, my mother told my sister that Grandma had been great friends with her aunt. This may not be an earth shattering revelation to some, but to us, it was amazing. They had gone to the movies on Saturday nights. They had been together one evening when a family friend was shot right down the block from where they were walking. My sister and I were ecstatic. This added a whole new layer to Grandma. She hadn’t been locked away in that old house in Plainfield all her life. She’d gone out on Saturday nights and had a brush with an act of violence that took someone’s life. It made her a whole lot more interesting, let me tell you.

I regret that I was too young to ask her about that time. She died when I was fourteen. I was more interested in The Monkees than my father’s aged mother. I wonder what she could have told me about her life. I think I am more like her than I ever wanted to be when my siblings teased me about looking like her. Perhaps if she’d been born now, she would have been a writer, too. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Lately, it has come to my attention that, in this country, we love to offer a reward to people for doing something they have to do anyway. I never noticed it, or at least didn't equate it with a reward purse, until this morning as I dressed to go to the radiologist for an ultrasound. I didn't want to go, but then again, I never want to go anywhere. But I had to, and I remembered they always have a nice bowl of candy sitting near the checkout desk. Without being aware of the reward system, I automatically thought of the test, then the bowl of candy. Coincidence? I think not.

I began to think of all the places I'd seen a bowl of candy. My doctor has one, and the veterinarian does, too. His is the best – miniature Kit Kat bars, Snickers, and Milky Ways, and dogs are not supposed to have chocolate, so who do you think those are for? The candy softens the blow when they tell you how much you owe. The only place I haven't seen candy is the dentist's office. He offers miniature toothbrushes in his rest room. If I needed chocolate anywhere, it would be when I have to see the dentist.

This train of thought, the reward for doing things I don't like doing train, led me to recall all the things I don't like doing. I hate going to the post office. Not that it's that terrible, and it didn't bother me years ago, but now I'm old and can't stand that long. Okay, I'm out of shape and you have no sympathy, but it's the truth. I lean on that wooden thing they installed so you could rest your packages on it and think of ways I can push my way to the front. It's filled with old people who don't use the Internet to print postage, so it would be easy to knock them over. But that would be considered an assault, and the beds in jail are hard – too hard for my back. The post office doesn't offer bowls of candy, another reason to hate them, for it they did, I would have something to occupy my time while I wait. The least they could do is beam a red dot on the wall for me to follow, but no, they just expect me to wait there patiently.

Buying gas is another thing I hate doing. I usually get someone else to do it for me, but today I had to do it myself. It does offer rewards, but you have to pay for them. I always go inside to pay because the dregs of society have made everything that is good evil by putting fake credit card number retrieving devices on gas pumps. As I pass the freezer, the Dove bars beckon, and I take one without thinking or realizing I am using it to make the necessary errand tolerable. It is my reward, but I had never seen it that way until today. The revelation is mind boggling. All I have to do to make all these awful things I have to do tolerable is eat a Dove Bar!

Everyone deserves a kiss!

The first time I gave birth, I had no idea what to expect, except pain, but I was philosophical about it. Until it happened. Then I threw up on my husband. But that's another story. After I gave birth to my son, Andrew, I enlisted one of my minions to bring me a bag of Hershey Kisses, which I consumed over the next four days. Yes, I got to stay in the hospital for four days. There was nothing wrong with me, it's just the way it was in the good old days. Now I see that it was my reward for going through nine months of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth. With my second, I ate in anticipation, rewarding myself in advance. When Tom was born, it was pretty awful, and I needed a bigger bag of kisses. I didn't do childbirth well.

Judging from my current size, there must be a hell of a lot of things I hate to do. I didn't always hate doing them, but I do know. I just hadn't realized how much. The Internet has been a boon to me as now I do most of my shopping online. I never did like to shop, so this really has eliminated a dreaded chore and one reason to reward myself. But I still have to go to the doctor, dentist, vet, etc. I can't phone in a visit. Don't tell me to take a bath, or go to a movie, or find some other way to reward myself because I've tried and nothing else works so well and costs so little. It's immediate, and I don't have to get naked to earn it. Well, not unless I'm having a mammogram, and then it's only the upper half. They offer rewards when you have a mammogram, too. Usually nice cookies and coffee. Or tea. I'm having one in a couple of months, so it's on my mind. Will I take a chocolate chip or a sugar cookie?

Now that I know about the reward system, and as that revelation simmers in my mind, I might be able to pass that candy bowl right on by. Or not. I won't know until my next doctor visit, after he tells me to watch my sugar. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Grim Tidings by Amanda M. Lee, A Book Review

Amanda M. Lee is a good contemporary writer. She understands how people talk and how families interact. It makes reading her books a pleasure – well, if you love real life, and snarky, sarcastic dialog. I do. I grew up in a household where we always put each other down. In the nicest way, of course. If you didn't have a sense of humor about yourself, you were out of luck.

Her latest book is called Grim Tidings, An Aisling Grimlock Mystery. Aisling Grimlock is a young woman who has entered the family business. She has tried working for other people, it didn't work out, so now she works for her father, Cormack Grimlock, a gruff, single dad who has raised his brood of fours sons and Aisling, his only daughter, since his wife died in the line of duty. What duty, you say? Why, she was a Grim Reaper. That's right, she collected souls to be sent onto whatever reward had been deemed appropriate, and her death has cast a pall over the family ever since.

Aisling lives with Jerry, a childhood friend who is in on the family secret and loves Aisling like a brother. He is supportive, funny, and infatuated with Aisling's brother, Aidan. The feelings are mutual, and their budding relationship irks Aisling, who feels Jerry is her friend.

Aisling's other brothers, Cillian, Redmond, and Braden, are all very protective of their little sister, much to her chagrin. She is well over twenty and feels she can take care of herself. She can, and in fact has shown on more than one occasion, that she is not above using her fists to prove it. But the boys still watch over her, and when she and Aidan are caught by a cop standing over a dead body, the family stands together. They have to keep the cops out of their business. But this cop won't leave them alone, especially Aisling, whose purple eyes and black hair streaked with white he finds strangely attractive. The body, it seems, has been murdered, and as the detective, Griffin Taylor, investigates it, his visits to Aisling's home begin to work on her, too. Well, he is hot, after all.

During a routine pickup at a nursing home, Aisling and Aidan are confronted by a large, cloaked being who steals the soul of the elderly person they have come to collect, and as Aisling gets thrown through a window, sustaining several injuries, this encounter is the first clue that something bad is going on in the city of Detroit. They soon discover that the being is a wraith, a soul-sucking demon. They then discover there are more than one, and must find who is controlling them and why they are Detroit.

Ms. Lee always populates her towns with colorful characters and this series is no exception. Madame Maxine, a “self-taught witch and part-time clairvoyant...,” Angelina, former girlfriend of Cillian and classmate of Aisling who tangles with Aisling on a barroom floor, and the various people whose souls must be collected as they argue their case, trying to prevent the inevitable are just a few. There are rules that must be followed, and the reapers have a vast knowledge of religions and rituals associated with death. It's a world I hadn't encountered before and won't mind visiting again. I look forward to the next Aisling Grimlock Mystery.

Grim Tidings is a paranormal mystery, new adult. I give it four stars based on Amazon's rating system.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Authors, Are You Teachable?

I read a book recently with the intention of doing a review. I believe in karma and I need reviews, so I picked out a book by an author who, in his own words, had been “unfairly” reviewed. He didn't have many reviews so it seemed like a nice idea, do unto others and all. I downloaded his book with Kindle Unlimited and began to read.

I read everything on Kindle now because 1) books have become hard for me to hold and 2) I can increase the text size to a comfortable level for me. I miss books, using a bookmark to mark my progress, etc., but I'll get over it. I like my Kindle. Reading on a Kindle, however, does offer something a physical book didn't, at least not before the days of self-publishing. I have become acutely aware of errors, both formatting and grammatical. I don't know why, but they stand out in an ebook. Something I might miss in print I'll see on that Kindle. As I plunged into the book, I began to notice things that might cause a reader, someone who doesn't care about the author's feelings or his need for reviews, to give up, but I soldiered on.

Halfway through, though, I surrendered. The author, it seems, had an agenda, and his main focus was something anyone would be loathe to criticize lest they be thought of as callus or mean. He reiterated over and over how awfully people treated the protagonist, who was the victim of a disease, to the point where I said out loud, “All right, already, I get it, his life sucks, now let's get on with the story.” The author, in his determination to bring this poor man's plight to light, had alienated me. This is something a beta reader might have told him.

The story, which also told of the man's rejection by his mother, just didn't ring true. Not that there are no mothers who reject their children, but his reasoning didn't make sense, his arguments were whiny and ridiculous, and the author had no empathy toward the mother. The book annoyed me. I don't read to be annoyed. I read to be entertained, or perhaps enlightened, but not annoyed. I can go to the supermarket for that.

Rather than write an honest review, which would only serve to incite him further, I thought I might write him an email and tell him what I thought, but I'm a coward. I never tell people the truth, unless I can take them in a wrestling match. I'm no good at verbal arguments, so I keep my mouth shut and smile a lot. Having read his flaming rhetoric regarding his reviews, I had the feeling he wouldn't listen anyway. He was too in love with his own words.

When we first go to school, we are eager to be taught because, despite the fact that we probably already know our ABC's from preschool, etc., we still have an empty head. As we grow older, it's harder for our teachers to keep our attention because we get bored so easily, and when we enter our teens, we know so much we can't believe how stupid the rest of the world is. I was fortunate that computers didn't begin to take over the business world until I was in my forties for when I had to learn how to use one, I knew nothing. I was attentive and eager to understand how it worked. I learned. I was teachable.

Three years ago, I started writing. I was teachable then, too, because while I knew how to enter words into a computer, I had no idea how to structure a story. My good friend, Loraine, who is a grammar and punctuation savant, helped me a great deal. That was the first book. By the third, I wasn't so teachable and got angry and hurt when someone left a bad review. In truth, I still do, but I look at it differently now, too. I get over the anger quicker, and look at what was said, trying to see what they saw. If their criticism has merit, I try to learn something from it. If it's just a crank who is annoyed because Amazon sent them an email asking them to leave a review when they hate writing book reports, then I let it go. Maybe they just didn't like it. In the end, most book reviews are about someone's opinion, and we all like different things. This guy's book, however, was not good, but salvageable, if he would willingly listen to some advice.

Years ago I worked for Starbucks. At that time, managers were taught how to tell the truth with love, or something like that. It was about development, not tearing someone down. Yes, it was a bit touchy feely for me, the old curmudgeon that I am, but it kept things civil. A girl came to work for us and I thought she was dumber than a bag of rocks but I did my job, which at that time was training people on the bar. I was good at it. It came easily to me. It didn't come easily to her, but she tried, she tried hard and she learned. She became a great barista, and her confidence rose exponentially. I was surprised and proud. If I had given her a review the first week she was there, I would have given her one star.

Unfortunately, once they're published, books can't get any better. They aren't given time to grow to their full potential once they are listed for sale. This guy, the wunderauthor, needed a proofreader and a beta reader, someone who would tell him the truth in love, but if he wasn't teachable, nothing they said would matter. They'd be wrong, period. He'd say, look at all the people who love me, and point to the five star reviews he'd gotten in exchange for giving others five star reviews.

The growth period for a book is before you hit the publish button on Amazon, or Smashwords, or whatever venue you are using, not after. That one star opus needed more time in the womb. It just wasn't ready.

I never told this man what I really thought. He didn't know I was looking to review, so in the end, I left it alone. As I said, I'm a coward and proud of it. Maybe I didn't do him any favors. Frankly, I'm a little concerned about retaliation. In this day of trolls, we all must be. It's a shame. We are a community of writers and as such should support and uplift each other, but as I wrote last week, meanness is king and we all pay the price. End of rant.

If you find yourself always hearing how great you are, yet your reviews tell a different story, ask yourself if you are teachable. Writing is a gift and a skill. We are born with one but must acquire the other. Strip away your pride and admit you don't know how to use were and was. We've all been there. 

Ask for help from someone who does know the difference. I've been helping some fellow writers with proofreading because they can't afford to hire someone. So far, the experience has been a positive one. Post a request in a group. See if you can find two or three people to beta read. Just be ready to hear that that passage you think is the best thing you've ever written just doesn't belong in that book. Cut it and save it. You never know when it will come in handy. But most of all, be teachable. It will save you a world of hurt from one star reviews. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Zero Tolerance Meanness Zone

A friend recently mentioned that she has done something that many of us would shudder at the thought of doing - she converted her Facebook personal page to a fan page. It is something I would like to do, but with my siblings flung far and wide, it’s the only way I get to see them. We are not callers, or writers of letters and email. We post stuff and like it for each other. I envy my friend her courage. Yes, courage, because it takes courage to walk away from something like Facebook, especially when you've come to depend on it for everything from communication to plain old distraction. In our disjointed society, social media is the village campfire.
I went on a rant yesterday regarding the meanness that is prevalent on things like Twitter, Facebook, etc. I believe all this meanness is just the result of anger over lost space, like when there are too many rats in a cage and they turn on each other. As in the film, Minority Report, there are few places we can go, especially if we have a cell phone umbilically (did I just make that up?) attached to our bodies, where the satellites won’t find us. It’s so pervasive that we don’t even care anymore whether or not an ad appears on our FB page for something we were looking at in an online store catalog somewhere else in the netherworld of the Internet. But we should. The lack of privacy will take its toll.
Those growing up now have no idea what it was like to just get in the car and take a drive alone. They can’t go anywhere alone - they must be tethered to a cell phone. The joys of solitude are lost on them, as their technological brains have been conditioned to receive a jolt of microwaves that works on them the same way caffeine works on my old brain in the morning. I must have it. They must have it. All day, if possible.
I feel for them. They can’t appreciate what they have because it’s always been there. They also can’t appreciate what’s been lost. I can, or at least I am starting to. Passing a milestone like sixty changed me. I hadn’t realized how differently I would feel once I jumped over the ravine between fifty and sixty. Your thinking changes. You see things as they are, not as you would like them to be, and it’s not pretty. Not this world anyway.
The meanness sent me on this toot. I hate meanness. It’s just one of those things I wish would go away. Is the feeling of power when you abuse another person so addictive that it can’t be ignored? An old joke used to tell about the angry man who yelled at his wife when he came home, she yelled at the kids, and the kids kicked the dog. Poor dog. At least he has a short attention span. Wait, so do we. So is that why we have to smack each other around? Or, like the dog, who is suffering from an anxiety disorder from so many unwarranted beatings, are we just getting used to being kicked and therefore, allow them to smack us?
I don’t own a cell phone. It is not necessary for me to be in constant communication with anyone, and if I go out, I welcome the time away from the computer. I can’t avoid music in stores, or other people talking into the air as the blue-tooth, or whatever other device has been invented to improve our disconnect, receives those precious microwaves that make them high and oblivious. I’m a dinosaur. I have a land line phone. I have a contract phone for emergencies on the road, that’s it. I keep forgetting to check if it’s charged, though. I just never think about it.
I am also becoming a curmudgeon - a crusty, ill-tempered, and, usually, old man. When I was younger, I searched for reasons as to why I was so depressed. I kept thinking if I found out why, it would go away, like the mist over a dirty city when the sun comes out. I didn’t know I was a writer or that by writing I could tap my troubles away - on a keyboard that is, not a stage. But even though I am feeling curmudgeonly, I just can’t bring myself to abuse anyone online. I’m sure it would make me feel good to tell someone off, but as I have discovered, I’m not good in an argument. My brilliant rhetoric soon dissolves into a shouting match where I invariably say, Oh, shut up! or some such thing. My inability to verbalize my argument without the use of curse words and an unnaturally loud voice is the bane of my existence. Too bad I can’t spread that bane around.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Confession

I don’t write every day. I know I’m supposed to, but I don’t. It doesn’t mean, however, that I stop writing.

Stories start with an image, a moment in time that sticks in my mind. That’s how I know something new is developing. I watch it evolve and change until the characters begin to talk. Then it’s like a movie, scene after scene, dialog, etc. Sometimes I forget them. They were never meant to be or were caused by something I ate, like chocolate. But the ones that come back and visit me, over and over, saying the same things, are the ones that I have to write down. They become books. They demand that their stories be told.

I do sit and write most days. I have to. The stories insist upon it. I often find myself speaking to them as some people speak to their cats – all right, all right, I hear you. That’s why, it is said, that writers are mad. It is a sort of madness, I suppose, but I call it a gift. It’s something I have, something I can do that many others can’t. Like acting or painting.

The flow of words on a page lifts me out of this life. It is addictive. It feels good. I wish those words appeared edited and ready for publication, but you can’t have everything. I’m grateful for the gift. It’s probably wrong to confess this, but I always loved movies more than books. If losing yourself is the goal, movies won that for me hands down. I liked reading, but I could finish a movie in one sitting.

I’m a very slow reader. I often go to the back of the book to find out how it ends because I can’t stand waiting. I still enjoy the book. In fact, with the pressure of finding out what happens removed, I enjoy it more. You may think I’m mad, but we’ve already determined that a few paragraphs ago.

So, be who you are and don’t despair. Odds are you won’t be who you thought you would be or who you wanted to be but something better.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Secrets Behind "The Secret of Truelock Manor"

After reviewing some of the feedback regarding the first book in my trilogy, The Secret of Truelock Manor, I've updated the "From the Author" sections of each book page on Amazon. Here they are:

Daughters of the Evening Star

Mercy in the Moonlight was supposed to be a standalone book. As I wrote it, I found that Mary Ellen Comstock and Cyrus Greene held many secrets and also held significant information regarding Mercy Fletcher's past. I wanted to find out how they had come to know what they knew, why they disliked each other so much, and why they were so obsessed with the Truelock legend. 

I began their story with Mary Ellen, a young girl with a mild rebellious streak who isn't above lying to her mother to do what she wants to do. Mary Ellen learns early how to ignore her conscience. She also learns how to manipulate those around her. Her obsession with the Truelocks soon alienates her only friends, but she can't let them go until she learns the truth about Mercy and Stephen Truelock.

Cyrus Greene is a manipulator, too, but unlike Mary Ellen, Cyrus needs other people. He doesn't want to be alone. He also loves competing with Mary Ellen. His fascination with the Truelocks lasts his whole life and he never imagines he will play an important part in discovering what happened to Mercy and Stephen Truelock.

Under Rose's Spell

While writing Mercy in the Moonlight, I fell in love with Stephen Truelock. I imagined him as a tall, handsome man with a good nature, someone who wanted to do the right thing. I wanted to learn more about his family and what made him the man he became. 

I have to confess that Sleepy Hollow's Tom Mison was my inspiration for Stephen Truelock.

Soon, I found myself writing several thousand words about the origins of the Truelock family. They were part of a century of change, of the birth of a new nation, and the founders of a small dynasty. They are totally fictitious, created in my imagination, and while I wanted to include every small detail of their life story, my editor persuaded me otherwise. So, while the origins are still represented, it is really the story of Stephen and the woman he loved, Mercy Pruitt. 

Mercy's sister, Rose, suffered from a mental illness recognized today as bi-polar disorder. Unfortunately for Rose, she suffered at the hands of an abusive caregiver who believed in domination rather than compassion. Rose's reaction to that abuse directly colors her response to Mercy's love for Stephen. She is jealous, but she, too, falls for Stephen, and her need for love is so great that it overshadows her love for her sister. My friend, Loraine, referred to Rose as a bitch, but I have great compassion for her. She is a lost soul who does what she can to deal with forces inside her head she can't control.

Mercy in the Moonlight

I began writing Mercy in the Moonlight as a standalone book, but there was so much more to her story that it eventually turned into three parts. I spent two summers on Cape Cod and I was there when men landed on the moon. That's why this book starts in 1969. 

I've always been fascinated by the idea of time travel, even living in another body and walking in someone else's shoes. The first thing I saw when the muse brought me the idea for this story was a girl lying on her side on the beach, naked, covered with her own hair. She is unconscious and a girl coming to the beach sees her. My thoughts were - Why is this girl here? Where did she come from? When I realized she had no memory, it was clear to me that she was from another time. Isn't that what you would think?

Mercy is a nice woman. She has been dealt a terrible hand and she's trying her best to live with her loss of memory when she starts having disturbing dreams that eventually send her back to that beach on Cape Cod in search of answers. She befriends an elderly lady across the road and the new owner of Truelock Manor, a handsome young man. She is supposed to be finding out who she is, but finds herself drawn to Truelock Manor and it's former inhabitants, particularly Stephen Truelock. I love the idea of her being so affected by his portraits and longing to know why. It appeals to the romantic in me and I hope I've shared that with the reader.