Thursday, December 11, 2008

Creativity vs. Vanity

Maisy ate waffles this morning. Drowned in syrup and butter. She lined clothespins up around the plate in a semi-circle. Like sentries.
She took a bite of her food, let syrup drip down her chin, opened her mouth, and roared at the clothespins.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

She inclined her head toward the small soldiers, dark with age, surrounding her plate. "They are watching the giant eat at the museum."

Beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed Maisy had transformed herself into a hideous, snarling giant. She tormented the small grouping of wooden men, huddled together around her giant's trough.

I thought about Halloween this year. Other girls her age dressed like Snow White. J. Lo. Princesses. Divas.

Maisy begged to wear her dad's "scary" zombie mask.

This morning, as happens so often with regard to my children, I marveled at the inner beauty of this child. Part of that beauty is her indifference to the physical attributes of herself and others. She has the drive...the put creativity above vanity.

As I continued to watch the giant at the museum, she devoured her waffles, collected the clothespin sentries and quickly assembled them into a telephone receiver.

Then she called me.

I answered on my air phone. "Hello."

"ROAR," said the giant.

Have I mentioned my kids are way cool?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Waitress

“What do you want to drink?” She dropped the menus on the table…three of them, even though our family numbers five.
“What do you have?” our eleven year old son timidly asked before my husband or I had a chance to ask her to give us a minute.
She gave a sigh that sent some spit flying from her mouth onto the edge of the table and shifted her weight from one hip to another. I figured, from the way she was acting, that it must have been a long day for her. Then I checked my watch. 4:30 pm. They’d been open for a half hour. “We have Pepsi products,” she said, like my kids are supposed to have the entire Pepsi catalog memorized.
“Dr. Pepper?” my son asked.
She snorted.
“Just give the kids root beer,” I said.
“We don’t have root beer.”
“Diet Pepsis,” I said. And she stalked off, like I’d ordered the wrong thing in the wrong language.
My husband tried to be funny. “She’s going to spit in your food now,” he said. The kids looked scared about that so I told them he was joking.
We were in a rib joint. A half hour earlier, we thought ribs sounded pretty good. It had been ten hours since we left Omaha on our way back to Virginia. We were hungry and tired and wanted another hour or two under our wheels before we stopped for the night.
Seemed like an early supper was a good idea. Seemed like ribs would hit the spot. Seemed like we shouldn’t have found ourselves in a scene from Deliverance.
Things aren’t always what they seem.
She brought the sodas and slammed them on the table hard enough to splash some on the table. “What do you want to eat?”
“We need a few minutes,” my husband said, checking his temper.
She tucked her order pad back in her pants and stormed off to the kitchen. “Now she’s going to spit in your food too,” I told him.
The kids looked scared again.
We ordered ribs.
She brought us rib jerky and slammed it on the table, ignoring our request for refills on the sodas.
“Did she spit in our food?” our daughter asked.
“No, honey. She didn’t spit in the food,” I said, loud enough for the waitress to hear. I think she may have gone into the kitchen to spit in everyone else’s food then because she looked really mad. I decided not to complain about the ribs.
We were in Indiana at the time. I guess some still consider that state part of the Midwest. We were returning from our first trip back to Nebraska since moving away…away from the only home I had for the first 36 years of my life. So naturally, when the trip started I feared I’d see my home state and the roots I’d ripped from the ground, not yet completely healed, would ache and sink back in again. The trip was a big deal.
When our visit was over and we headed east again, I didn’t give it much thought. I was on auto-pilot…just a wife and a mother living wherever she needed to in order to keep the family together…until the waitress in Indiana and the bad ribs.
I looked out the window, overcome by fatigue and homesickness. And the homesickness wasn’t for my home state of Nebraska. I longed for Virginia. I craved the southern hospitality, the waitresses who call my kids “baby” and come back every five minutes to fill my coffee cup. I missed the forests and the mountains. I missed the silence of my house out in the middle of nowhere. I missed the blackness of a night with no streetlights. I missed the sound of a hundred different kinds of birds in the morning. But most of all, I missed the people. Not that we haven’t had bad service in Virginia restaurants on occasion. We have. But for the first time, I felt connected to that place like I hadn’t before…or maybe it was just bad ribs, old cole slaw, and fatigue talking.
I ate as much of the rib jerky as teeth of standard human strength could chew and picked up a bag of Doritos on our way back to the highway, eager to get home…to Virginia.
So I bet you’re wondering if we left a tip. We did. Twenty-seven cents. She was worth every penny.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Stormdragon by Lloyd Ritchey

Be sure to check out the Books link on my website to read my interviews with Lloyd Ritchey, author of Stormdragon, and Mark Murray, author of Warders of the Gate.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Banana Man

He works in produce under a cloud of vegetable matter, avoiding shopping carts filled with all the things you can get at Super Wal-Mart. He is an island unto himself, never making eye contact with shoppers, never speaking to co-workers except through the subtle arch of an eyebrow or the barely perceptible lift of one shoulder. Screaming children do not faze him. Obese women on cabbage diets do not deter him from his goal…restocking the bananas.

Wheeled carts stacked to the toppling point with boxes bearing the DOLE BANANAS logo make their way from the back room, propelled past the nuts, garlic, potatoes, and onion bins to the enormous banana island that holds the place of honor in the center of the produce section.

One can feel the envy of the other produce workers as Banana Man maneuvers his load through throngs of customers ready to start their Memorial Day drinking early…tapping their toes as they await the latest shipment of non-organic bananas from Cuba…or somewhere. “If only I could be Banana Man for a day,” the other workers, shelving pre-packaged spinach and field greens say to themselves.

But Banana Man doesn’t hear this. He pushes back the top of the first box, his eyes focused on a point on the horizon somewhere over behind the seafood counter, and pulls bunches, two at a time, from the box. He moves quickly, nothing but a torso and legs in his dark blue shirt and khaki trousers…his hands are nothing but a blur. He turns on his heel and is gone, already on his way to fetch the next cart as the banana crowd sighs, “Oh my. Look at this, thirty-three cents a pound.”

I didn’t realize I noticed him or the ritual “unpacking of the bananas” until he was gone. And I didn’t realize I missed him until I saw him last week, back in produce, handling a tomato. “What,” I wondered, “debauchery is this? Where has he been and what is he doing with a tomato?”

I don’t know what he was doing handling that tomato. Chances are I’ll never know. But he is a character I’ve come to rely on here in the great state of Virginia. He helps to define my new home and he gives me something to wonder about. I’ve made up his whole story… where he came from and what he does after he goes home, where he was raised and why he likes produce so much.

Banana Man, what I know of him in the real world, appears to be anti-social. He does not smile. I’ve smiled at him a few times, desiring to know more about this bearer of produce. But he shuns me as he shuns all other shoppers, preferring instead to do his work…and only his work.

So why am I telling you about Banana Man? Because he is fascinating…like so many other people who carry out their jobs day after day…unnoticed and underappreciated. And because he inspires me. He reminds me to look to my environment for inspiration. Amazing people are everywhere…and it is imperative that a writer remember that.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Turning Left

Apollo likes to walk. We take him out with Rocky while Adrian stays at home. (Yes, our dogs are named for the Rocky movies.) Being a Doberman, with a splash of Black Lab thrown in just to keep us on our toes, Apollo isn’t satisfied with just “walking.” He thrusts his nose deep into the ground, snorting up anything that will fit into his blow-hole sized nostrils. And he’s not satisfied to walk leisurely. He wants to trot or run or anything really besides walk. There is always something more interesting just beyond the end of the leash.

How does he compensate for this restriction in mobility? He turns circles. He trots for five feet, sniffing and snorting, then turns a circle. To the right. Always to the right. Apollo can’t turn left…except for this one time, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Rocky is an Akita with a splash of German Shepherd Dog thrown in for more dignity and a greater ability for condescension. He holds his head up regally, toenails elegantly clicking on the pavement in a perfect cadence, while his tedious companion slobbers and runs in circles, bounding from one dandelion patch to another…circling to the right, pacing, circling to the right, pacing…on and on and on.

But there was a day. One walk out of thousands, when my middle child and I were out walking the dogs…and I saw an Eastern Bluebird. Being from Nebraska, I don’t have much experience with the beautiful birds that flutter around our neighborhood here in Virginia…all different colors and songs….I’m not used to it. “Son, did you see that?” I asked, pointing. My son stood beside me, laughing. When he stopped, a grin plastered to his face, he said, “I know, Apollo just turned left.” Zoolander, eat your heart out!!

My dog turned left…and I missed it. I’ve watched diligently on every walk since then, waiting for him to repeat the act. But Apollo seems more comfortable turning right. It’s unnatural for him to do anything else.

So I find myself once again taking a lesson from this monster of a canine. Do I want to be the sort of writer that “can’t turn left?” Or do I want to do more? Be more? I’m in the second book of my Detective Baker series…and I’m happy with the way things are shaping up. But other stories…set in other times in other places…are tickling the back of my mind. And I find myself wanting to test the mysterious waters where these other ideas swim. I nursed the characters for The Deputy’s Widow for years, coddling them to maturity and, eventually, publication. Suddenly, that obsession isn’t there because I accomplished my goal. I’m published. And I’ll be published again with the sequel, provided my editor likes it. Trying something new doesn’t feel comfortable just yet. But, unlike my dog, I have higher brain function (sometimes) and I think I might give “turning left” a try. So I’ll keep watching Apollo, hoping he’ll overcome his multi-directional challengedness…and I’ll consider shooting off in a new direction myself on occasion.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Tater Mitts

Tater Mitts.

Insomnia is a fickle thing. At times I’ll go for months unmolested by thoughts refusing to stay below the surface as I sleep. At other times, the beast rears its ugly head and I spend the night awake, tossing and turning and worrying about things over which I have no control. As I age, alongside my husband of 16 years, I can’t help but notice he’s afflicted with this condition on occasion as well. And even more interesting than this, is the fact that, once in awhile, we are afflicted at the same time.

I’m not sure which is worse…lying awake in the middle of the night as the clocks tick in an endless cadence, marking time that passes too slowly…or awakening an hour or two before dawn, wondering if going back to sleep is even worth the trouble.

Gone are the days when four in the morning felt like the middle of the night. Now I think about walking the dog or writing a chapter or blogging or answering e-mail. I think of all the productive things I could be doing with my time besides sleeping.

Last week, as my husband and I suffered a case of co-dependent early morning insomnia, we stumbled downstairs and cranked up the satellite as the coffee pot percolated and the dogs found comfy places on the sofa—clearly, insomnia is never a problem for a dog—to go back to sleep.

Infomercials dominate the airwaves before dawn, taking advantage of bleary-eyed insomniacs with promises that “This product will make your life easier…or your money back.”

Well, I love my Swiffer, but I can’t exactly say its made my life easier.

But that was before I heard about Tater Mitts. Have you heard of the Tater Mitts? Have you reserved your pair yet? Tater Mitts are a handy pair of gloves with steel wool on the outside. Just put on the gloves, pick up a potato, squish it around in your hands and…PRESTO!! The potato is free of that filthy peel.

I’m so stupid. All these years I’ve been using a potato peeler which could have flown out of my hands at any given moment and lodged in my neighbor’s eye. It’s true. I’ve been endangering the whole world with my reckless method of peeling potatoes.

Wouldn’t it be nice for writers if the reading public was as gullible as the infomercial quacks believe the entire world to be? I could say “Read my book-it will change your life.” Or I could pay people to say “You won’t believe the amazing things this book can do for you.” Or how about, “I never knew my life was so empty until I read “The Deputy’s Widow””

Nah, come to think of it, I wouldn’t respect an ignorant reading audience. I prefer readers who say, “I would have done this differently.” Or “This part was good, but try this.”

Writers live in a world where their product has to stand alone. The purpose of fiction can be one of two things: to prove a point, or to entertain. I prefer to read fiction for entertainment and I try to write fiction that accomplishes the same. I can’t promise a reader a good book and then not deliver. Why? Because readers are smart. And they read to be entertained. And they write reviews.

The morning of the Tater Mitts infomercial was rare. Normally, I pick up a book when I can’t sleep. I pick up a book and let myself sink into its world…because a writer is someone who delivers. There are no money-back guarantees. There are no paid celebrities with overly tight faces telling me this book will change my life. There’s just a writer’s work…and I know a little something about that…the sweat, the agony, the pressure.

You can keep your Tater Mitts. I’ll use a potato peeler and read a good book, thank you very much.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Writing in the Dark

April 29, 2008

The power went out over and over again shortly after we moved here. It’s a problem, I’m told, with being close to the forest in an area where it storms. The soil is rich, but loose. And when the spring rains come, trees fall.

It is unlike Nebraska, my home, where the branches are snapped from the trunks and tossed about. Here, in Virginia, the branches hold but the tree falls…onto power lines. No power means no water…as our supply comes from an electrical pump. So last year, when the spring rains came, we bought a generator and waited for it to rain.

I believe last summer’s drought was the worst in quite awhile. Our garden died. Atlanta’s water supply threatened to dry up. And that damned generator sat…a $700 dollar investment taking up space once used for children’s bicycles.

It stormed here last night. The soil, unable to keep its grip on the enormous roots of tall trees, let go. And trees fell…on top of cars, houses, fences…and power lines.

Our generator worked on the first try. After a year of sitting in wait, it started…finally of some use. It’s back in the shed today, resting up for the next storm, no doubt.

But I can’t help thinking about that generator today as I sit down to write. I have notebooks filled with drafts I’ve tossed aside, taking up space on shelves I could use for other things. And yet, like that stupid generator, they are an investment; of time and of creativity. So I’ll let them stay where they are to remain exactly what they are…a cache of ideas and inspiration for days when my power goes out.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Research...on Marla

There are times when research overtakes the time I normally use to write. And sometimes, if I am completely honest, the research doesn’t necessarily pertain to my current project. Things come up…things I just have to know.

For example, this morning, as I was jogging in place, my husband mentioned Marla Maples and her exercise video. And he was looking at my chest at the time. Hmmm.

Unlike most men who were between the ages of 18 and 35 in the year 1991, I had no idea Marla Maples made an exercise video. “How,” I inquired of my husband, “in the hell did you know that?” He grinned and said, “Everyone knows that.”

Hmmm. I thought to myself, “It’s time for some research. I know exactly what I’m going to do after everyone leaves for school and work today.”

As soon as the house was quiet, I Googled Marla Maples exercise video and was shocked at the amount of hits. Joe Bob Briggs’s 1992 review of her video cassette workout was at the top of the list. Go figure.

I wonder if Joe Bob continues to review videos on a regular basis or if he just did this when he was in the 18-35 year old demographic. Oh dear, there’s another thing to research today.

Joe Bob spends a lot of time talking about how Marla works out to elevator music while she confesses that “yes, she does worry about her figure.” Great. Thanks, Joe Bob. And thank-you Marla.

You Tube came through on the hit list as well, proving beyond all doubt that Marla still appeals to that 18-35 y/o male demographic. If you want, you can catch a 32 second video panning her butt, which is snugly wrapped in orange bike shorts, while she does leg lifts. Exactly how many women ever watched this? Now, there’s a number worth researching.

It’s twenty minutes past nine on this Friday morning, as I complete this post. Research on Marla Maples has provided me with just over a half page worth of material. But I can’t say the time I spent researching her was time poorly spent. My questions have been answered. Yes, Marla Maples made an exercise video. And yes, her voice in the video was as annoying as I remembered it to be. Yes, it is obvious my husband watched the video when he was a young twenty-something lad. And yes, yes, yes, I’ve wasted an hour of my life on Marla Maples…an hour I can never retrieve.

It’s a tough lesson to learn. But for a writer with an inquisitive mind, isn’t that the way it always is? You tap a vein of ore hoping to strike gold…once in awhile you do. Marla Maples gave me orange bike shorts today, not gold. And yet I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Crashing...doggie style

Falling Out of Bed

When the house shakes at 3:00 in the morning my first thought, since I don’t live anywhere near a fault line, is “thunderstorm” or, since I live in redneck central, “the neighbors are shooting skeet in their backyard again.” I don’t believe I’ve ever thought to myself “Oh, dear. The dog has fallen out of bed.” And yet….

Sigh. And yet…it happened. The King of Our Beasts, the one hundred pounder, appropriately named Apollo, tumbled from our king sized bed, onto the floor. The house shook violently for a moment. When the aftershocks subsided, my husband sat up and said, “Did you hear something?”

Apollo was ok, too tired to do much of anything except moan a little at the disturbance before rolling over exactly where he landed and falling asleep.

“The dog fell,” I said. “And now he’s gone to sleep again.” I was leaning over the bed and looking at the great mound of black muscle spread eagled, feet up in the air, tongue hanging out the side of his mouth…snoring.

My husband smiled a little and lay down. “That is so him.”

And it is. It is so Apollo to fall out of bed in the middle of the night. But it is even more him to shrug off the interruption in his routine and make the best of the situation. If he can’t sleep in the bed, he’ll sleep on the floor…happily.

So what about me, the writer? If I can’t be a best seller, am I content for mid-list? If I can’t be mid-list, am I content with the simple honor of being published? If Arctic Wolf hadn’t signed me, would I have had the courage to self-publish?

Occasionally, I get frustrated. I feel like a failure. I want success; but in this new, unexplored territory, I don’t know how to measure it.

Today I find myself wondering how my dog measures it…I think success to him is having someplace where he can stretch out. And he stretches out no matter where he is. He is happy no matter what…even if he has fallen out of bed. The old saying, “Bloom where you are planted,” is his bumper sticker.

And so I sigh again today. It is humbling to take a lesson from a dog…especially one with no grace…and a tongue the size of Delaware. But as I look into those big, vacant, brown eyes, I can’t help but think that this creature is a good influence on me. But don’t tell anyone I said so.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Check out this interview with Frank E. Bittinger, Author of Into The Mirror Black

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frank E. Bittinger, author of Into the Mirror Black, about his life as a writer. Below is the synopsis of this interview. For more information about Frank Bittinger, visit him online at or His books are available online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

  1. Tell us about your book, Into The Mirror Black. Where did you get the idea for this? Is it something you let "stew" in your mind for awhile, or did you just wake up one morning and start writing?
    Are there any experiences in your past that influence your writing? If so, what?

    The genesis of my Hexology, my Scarabae Saga, was back in my childhood when I lived in a small town named Grantsville in Western Maryland. Across the road from the shopping plaza that housed our town's grocery store, pharmacy, etc, was a valley and some mountains. I always thought about the facade of the mountain crashing down in a storm of shale to reveal a temple carved into the living mountain itself.
    I always told myself I would someday write a tale about the mountain and the temple inside. I always knew the story arc would comprise more than one volume because I wanted to share the stories of how different people were infected or influenced in different ways by the presence of whatever it is inside the temple in the mountain.
    Because I loved to read, I told myself I would write books. When I actually did sit down to begin writing, I began with short stories that evolved into a collection centered around a theme--the Scarabae. From there I moved onto the full-length novels: Into the Mirror Black, Angels of the Seventh Dawn, and the forthcoming Angels of the Mourning Light.
    Of course, having seen a ghost or two throughout my life, I am open to whatever you want to call it--paranormal, preternatural, supernatural--and I draw on those experiences as well as those the readers share with me.

    Does your writing ever frighten you? Does anything you work on end up seeming overly "real" to you?
    So far I haven't scared myself with my writing. There have been times when I have sat back and said to myself, "That is really good." But I have never frightened myself.
    I have, on the other hand, frightened the readers. I get emails and letters from readers telling me how they got a fright or a chill out of a certain passage or scene. Others will tell me about something that happened--like the lights going out when they were reading or their cat sneezing just as the cat in the first book sneezes--and they caught a fright so they had to put the book down.
    And I do get the letters and emails from readers who have to tell me how they needed to have a night light before they could close their eyes for the night after reading some of my books.
    It seems I have a way of getting under peoples' skin.

Your imagination runs deep. Obviously. What sort of books did you read in your younger days? What sort of books do you read now? Did any of these authors influence you?
I read pretty much the same types of books now that I read when I was younger. I have over 6,000 books in my personal library, so I do enjoy reading. I read Jonathan Kellerman, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, Carole Nelson Douglas, Laurell K. Hamilton, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, and tons of others. I love scary stuff more than anything.
My favorite types of books are those in a series; I like to get to know the characters and read about their exploits.
Did any of these writers influence me? Yes, I would have to say I have been influenced by pretty much every author I have read--whether I wanted to write like s/he or not write like s/he. Some have influenced my own writing more than others, but all of them have helped shape my style.

Tell us about what you are working on now. Do you ever think about moving to another genre other than horror?
Currently I am working on book three in my Hexology: Angels of the Mourning Light. Although my books can actually be read as stand-alones, there is a story arc running through them that will lead you to a larger story. I like to call my Scarabae Saga my kind-of-a-series: the main character, if you will, isn't a person but a place--Western Maryland. Something is here and it influences any- and everything in the area.
I really can't see myself moving into a genre other than my current gothic genre, unless it would be comedy. I know that sounds rather bizarre, but I have been told there is a bit of wicked humor running through my books.

How long did it take you to write your books?
I write very slow, because I completely lack discipline of any kind. Sometimes I will go for days and weeks even without writing. I constantly think about my stories, but I can go without writing for a while. And that is the dirty secret about why it takes me a year to write a book. Well, I do work two jobs so that is somewhat of an explanation, too.

Tell us how you write. Is there a particular place you find you are more inspired? Is there a particular time of day you prefer?
I write slowly, that's how I write.
Seriously, I write when the muse hits or when an idea pops in my head. I cannot force myself to sit and write when I don't feel like it. To do that would completely destroy my love and fascination for the craft. I know other authors can turn out a book a month, but I can't do that.
I like to think about what the story has to offer, what kind of people will be involved, how it will play off previous books, and what effects it will have on future books in the Hexology.
I cannot seem to write any place other than my "office." I used to have an entire room in my house for an office, decorated stylishly, full of books, a couple windows...and it didn't do a damned thing for me. I didn't write a word. When I opened the closet door in my bedroom and took out all the clothes and suits and ties and shoes--and turned my former office into a big closet--I put my desk inside the little closet and that became my office. It worked wonders. No distractions; just me and maybe some music and my thoughts.
And I do have to say I can only write at night. I have been quoted as saying I can't write about death and destruction in shiny happy daylight.
My second book Angels of the Seventh Dawn has been described as sleek, seductive, and sinful so I must be doing something right. And I have been told I am a cross between Clive Barker and Anne Rice, so that made everything worthwhile because they are two legends of the craft.

I know you have done book signings. And you are gracious enough to answer these questions via e-mail. Have you done any face to face interviews? Any radio interviews? Any plans to do so?
I answer all emails eventually; it's difficult to get to them right away what with working two jobs, writing, trying to get my own business off the ground, as well as working to raise money for animal charity.
I have done two interviews: one was printed in a newspaper and one was supposed to be printed in a magazine but I never heard back from the editor of the magazine.
For all my accomplishments--selling internationally and making it onto Amazon. com's Top 100 on different occasions to name a few--I cannot get local media attention no matter what I do. I rely on the best advertising: word of mouth from loyal readers who love my books.

What do you like best about your fans? Do they ever say or do anything that gives you ideas for future writing?
I talk for hours at book signings with my readers. They tell me all kinds of stories about their experiences with the paranormal, supernatural, preternatural, whatever you want to label it. I can't get enough; it's a great.
It's because of my loyal readers the world is taking notice of my work; my readers are solely responsible for my publicity and promotion. I cannot thank them enough.

What comes after your Scarabae Saga? Any plans for a new series?
What comes after the Hexology? I don't know if there will be anything after my Scarabae Saga.
I have notes and ideas for several dozen independent noels--by which I mean not related or part of a series.

Be sure to check Frank's sites often for information on his up and coming works.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's a Dog's Life

Rolling in Dead Things

My dog got off his lead this morning. When he finally decided to stop running around and return home, he was wearing a lei comprised of grass, something resembling a dead rodent, and feces from an unknown species. Fortunately, it was all coagulated in his choke collar, so I removed that and tied him to a tree to hose him off.

What is it, I wondered, gagging on the smell, that entices dogs to roll in dead things? Growing up, I had a dog that tried to roll in the rancid grass clippings swarming with flies in the back alleyway. Another dog’s poop…she loved it. Dead possum? Oh boy!! She was a small dog and easy to manage on-lead, so we avoided much of the fur sticking goo she was desperate to coat herself in.

Nowadays, I have three dogs. And they’re quite large. Upon encountering a dead squirrel or flattened snake on the road, any of the three will drop a front leg and put rub a shoulder in it, trying to coat themselves with the stench.

No wonder cat lovers ridicule those of us with dogs. No wonder some people choose to keep their animals outdoors. I can’t do that. My dogs…all three of them…are my constant companions. I couldn’t make it through a day without them.

So before I pass judgment on my smelly friends, I guess I’ll take a look at myself. Some might look at me and wonder why I choose the write the things I write. Why would I opt to write about murder, about crime, about adultery? These aren’t things one would choose to discuss in polite society. These aren’t things we normally encounter except on daytime TV, primetime crime dramas, or on the news. Yet I delve into these topics with relish, thinking up new ways to torture, kill, poison, or maim someone. It’s my own method of “rolling in dead things,” if you will….except no one ties me to a tree and hoses me off when I’m done.

My dog is fresh and clean now. He’s inside, resting on his cushion and hating me for taking away his smelly necklace. And me…I’m fixing to roll in my own dead things today.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Evolution in Writing

My oldest child is 15, at the stage of life where much of his time is spent in his room brooding over the meaning of his existence-wondering how these strange people he calls his parents could have produced one such as him: normal.
It is with awe that I watch him change from boy to man, from child to adult-the change in interests, the difference in how he solves problems, relates to his siblings. I am proud.
This summer, he will be left over a thousand miles from us. We will drop him off and trust that the teachings and lectures and discipline we've offered over these 15 years have served their purpose. He will be with friends in the city.
As I think about that trip-the importance of it, the reality of it, the necessity of it for a boy on the threshold of manhood; I don't think about the trouble he could get into. I don't worry that he will make bad decisions. I don't worry that he will be homesick. I know too well his level of responsibility, the dry wit that sees him through every situation with his own warped form of optimism.
Rather, I worry about how he will experience these friends he left behind two years ago. I think of the things they did at ages 12 and 13 and recognize that the gap from there to here is a big one. Friendships evolve as children evolve. As adult features push out from childlike faces, so too do the mannerisms and points of view of the adult emerge from the personality of the child.
And I suppose this is what I worry about as my son prepares to spend weeks away from me this summer. We talk a lot, he and I...about everything. And as he has grown, I have grown. And so, our relationship has evolved. But what about these friends he has not seen for years. Will they relate to one another in the same way? Of course not. Without being present in their lives, he has missed out on the evolution that has no doubt taken place within the workings of the group. And although I know this will not be a disappointment to him, I know he will, on some level, feel the strain of it and wonder if all childhood friendships end after one moves away. Perhaps he will mourn a little. Perhaps they will find new ground on which to build a friendship. Only time will tell.
As I think about my oldest child today, I think about the lessons he can teach me about my work; my writing. As much as I hate sitting with my hands on the keyboard some days, I know it must be done. Without the discipline, evolution in my work cannot occur. What I write today will never improve unless I work at it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
And so, I'd better stop all this musing and get back to work...or I'll stay a monkey forever.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Inspiration from the Dugout


A game was played last night in the mist and rain. Spectators sat huddled under umbrellas and blankets, trying to keep dry. The players were all aged 11 or 12 and growing frustrated with the wetness of the ball, how hard it was to throw and catch. Those of us with children on the team watched from the stands, hoping they would pull it together to get through the last inning.

The pitcher was having none of it. He grew more and more frustrated as the ball slipped from his hand during his pitches. He’d throw his arms in the air, sink to his knees, moan out loud. And all the while, the parents in the stands shouted their reassurances. “It’ll be alright. You can do it. Hang in there.”

His mother wrung her hands, wondering if she should be embarrassed about his behavior. Be embarrassed why? I wondered. Because he is behaving like he is 12? So the parents, dripping and wet and miserable, reassured her too.

At last, the pitcher dropped to his knees with an “ankle injury.” And, truth be told, it was the most mysterious ankle injury I’d ever seen. It happened while he was merely standing there, very still, on the mound.

We were disappointed, but what could we do? He’s only 12. He was frustrated and cold and wet. And I’m sure he could smell the hot dogs and the popcorn that all of us were eating. That had to add to the frustration. One can’t exactly eat a hot dog out on the pitcher’s mound.

So the coaches put the player in right field, where he made an immediate and miraculous recovery. And they called my son to the mound. My son doesn’t pitch. My son, I thought at the time, can’t pitch.

But there was no worry on his face, just a wide-eyed expression and an eager grin, despite the cold rain and the late hour. He warmed up for five or six pitches, the ball sailing over the catcher’s head at one point, veering widely outside at another. But his face was all smiles. From all the way up in the stands, I could see his teeth as he grinned, oblivious to the water dripping into his eyes, the wetness of the ball, the misery of his teammates.

He walked his first batter. But everyone cheered for him anyway. I think I cheered the loudest…because he was so obviously thrilled to be throwing that ball. There were two outs…achieved by the pitcher before his “injury.” A batter stepped up to the plate. My son wound up. And pitched.

Strike one! I squealed. I actually squealed.

By the third strike, I was better composed. I stood and yelled and cheered. Just like everyone else.

My son’s team totally lost that game. Their hearts weren’t in it. But I felt pride for my boy. And I felt envy and admiration too. He was able to smile when the rest of the team was faltering for their determination and the will to go on. He slapped the catcher on the back and said he was sorry that ball was so high. He’d try to do better. He knew he wasn’t a “born pitcher.” There were others on the team better qualified for the job. But the coach chose my son. Perhaps he knew that this was the boy to turn to when everyone else was in the gutter…this was the boy who would finish the game just for the sheer joy of playing.

I’m thinking of my son today as I try to find the will to write the next scene for my book. I’m trying to smile as I throw the pitches out…watching them veer wildly in all directions. I think of his face out on that mound and look for the joy in what I do. Who would have thought that inspiration could come from a baseball game on a rainy day?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Good Luck, Chuck

Charlton Heston, world class over-actor, is dead at age 84. The NRA will never be the same. The Planet of the Apes will have no one to throw feces at. Soylent Green will no longer be made of people. And the chariot races are history. As for the parting of The Red Sea? Forget it. Never again.

There’s a movie I remember; about a plane crash on a Kansas runway. Charlton Heston played the pilot. I never watched the movie. But I watched the “made for TV trailers” that ran on local stations during the commercials while I watched Fantasy Island or The Love Boat or something equally cool and fascinating. In the trailer, Heston looks at the camera and says in that tight-jawed, intense way of his, “Of all the places we could have landed, I thank God it was here.”

Yessirree. If I ever end up in a firey plane crash, I, too, hope it is in Kansas. Because nothing says “flammable” like acres and acres of dry wheat fields. And if you’re gonna die, burning up fast is probably preferable. That’s all I’m saying.

We watched The Ten Commandments every Easter when I was young…because there was no such thing as cable, it was all that was on, and my mom had a thing for Heston. I preferred Yule Brenner, so it all worked out. I can’t think of a single person in my family who hasn’t seen Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, or Ben Hur. I think some distant relatives, like in Kentucky or somewhere, may own rifles too, but I’d have to check on that.

I was in a commercial for Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska, once. (I lived in Nebraska for years, that’s how I know so much about Kansas.) The producer was a woman who wore sunglasses even though it was cloudy, and we were filming inside. She was pulling my hair over my shoulder to give me a sort of Lauren Bacall look-because everyone knows that sells spots at colleges- and she said, “I did this for Charlton Heston once.”

Her eyes got sort of misty back there behind her sunglasses when she mentioned his name. Ever since then, I’ve felt really sort of bonded to Heston, because he and I shared that same producer with the big sunglasses and the coffee breath. And now it’s gone. The tie is severed and I don’t even know where that producer is. I don’t even remember her name.

I like to think of her standing at the end of a runway in Kansas hoping that a 747 carrying talking apes in possession of great stone tablets pulled by a chariot will careen recklessly down the runway, coming to rest in the fields of non-flammable wheat as Heston staggers out, carrying apes and tablets and soylent snacks to safety, so she can be there to touch his hair one more time.

Good-bye, Charton Heston. I can honestly say that the world will be much less dramatic without you.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Hard-Case Crime and the Revived World of Noir

It started with Brick. Then came Black Dahlia, which was actually a "true" twist of an unsolved murder in Hollywood. Close on its heels was "Hollywoodland" with the pseudo-reality look at the death of Superman star, George Reeves. Of course, everyone remembers L.A. Confidential...that was a good one too.

But you gotta love that writers are getting in on the action now. I just finished Linda L. Richards book, Death Was The Other Woman...a nice read. Simple, but nice. Gas City is another new one by author Loren D. Estleman. Add to that the Hard Case Crime tales by various authors and it's easy to see that Noir is back...and even in demand in some respects.

So what is it about these titles that tickles our fancy? Is it the crime? Nah. We can read about crime in 8 out of every 10 fiction works sold. Sex? Nope. Not that either. If one out of every two fiction books sold is romance, clearly, the sex reader could just pick something up from the romance section of the book store. But increasing numbers of people are picking up books on Noir...with their pulp-like covers sporting scantily clad femme fatales and their catchy "Up Yours" titles. Maybe it's the marriage of sex and crime that draws us in...but if that was the case, why not just read about prostitution?

The truth? Noir is situations. Noir is character. Of course noir has plot, but plot comes AFTER the character dilemma. Flawed characters drive the plot. And that makes Noir. Maybe a happy ending. Most likely not. Crime? Of course. Murder? Hell yes. Sex? Maybe, but it isn't necessary. A good detective is getting some someplace. We don't need to read about it to know it.
Reading Noir is like belching through your nose after drinking straight Coca-Cola. It burns like hell but, in a strange way, it offers clarity...and it makes your eyes water.

Friday, April 4, 2008 on You!!

Shame On You,

If you’re human, and you can read, chances are good that you’ve purchased something, at some time, from And who can blame you? Their prices are excellent, they allow readers to write reviews, and they’ve lived up to their claim of being the “largest bookstore on earth.”

But have you heard the rumors? Have you felt the earth tremble with the groans of small publishers?

Amazon feels it would “better serve” its online community by printing and publishing POD titles from its own subsidiary, BookSurge. Currently, the bookstore giant is attempting to strong arm independent and small publishers into printing only at BookSurge…using language typically reserved for thugs and hit-men. Print with us or we de-activate the sale buttons on your titles is only slightly more eloquent than Pay us the protection money or Vinnie here will break your thumbs.

So what’s a small publisher to do? Sit back? Let Amazon rule the world….One bookstore to rule them all, one bookstore to find them, one bookstore to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them…?

There are those of us who enjoy reading things besides John Grisham and Janet Evanovich and Nora Roberts and Stephen King. Not that these guys aren’t great. They are. They are fabulous. But by cutting off the small publishers, Amazon tightens the noose around the mid-list novelist’s neck…and the necks of those not on the mid-list.

Come on, Amazon, lighten up. Read something. Read something good. Something original. Something non-formulaic. There are a lot of great writers out there. And the world wants to hear what they have to say. So back off.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is This Life Worth It?

I suppose when one begins a career in writing, it doesn't happen all at once. A writer doesn't just wake up one morning and say, "OK, this is it, I'm a writer." There has to have been something inside at the beginning to lead to the decision.
Some of my more "poetic" friends would call it a seed, waiting inside for the time when it can blossom to its full potential. In my experience, those people watch a lot of reruns of "The Waltons."
In actuality, and what most writers don't know, is that they are all crazy. They won't admit this, not to themselves or anyone else. What lurks inside a writer are many things. There is no "seed" of inspiration. There's a nauseating poisoned piece of meat that was swallowed sometime ago and needs to be purged as soon as possible. Once it's out, the writer feels better for a time, until the next rancid meal needs to be puked onto the keyboard or into the journal.
Can this feel good? Oh, sure, it can. It feels good in the way getting a cavity is fixed feels the way hemorrhoid surgery feels the way giving birth feels good. There's an overwhelming need, almost biological, to get whatever is inside to the outside, so the torment will end. Before and during, there is apprehension, fear, trepidation, even dread...along with nausea and a slight headache combined with loss of appetite of course.
It is only afterward, when you look at the new life you have brought into the world, when you look at the shiny new cap on your tooth, that you realize it was worth it. Because that is when the sense of relief comes. And with the relief comes a twisted sense of joy...until the symptoms start up again.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Dame Named Doris

Saturday, March 29th was blustery. Everyone who toppled in through the bookstore's front door was windblown. Haggard looking. They all had those bright pink cheeks, red hands, and clear snot running from their noses that comes from standing in the wind on a clear spring day. And that's what it was. A clear spring day. But it was also cold. And, as the bookstore rests three blocks or so from the Daffodil Festival festivities, I knew anyone showing up in such a state was truly determined to buy my book...or a book written by one of the other two authors offering signings.
I prefer to think they were after my work. Because the work is good. And honest.
I'd worn black for the occasion. I like black. It was the color of my hair in my youth. It's how I take my coffee now. And it's the color of treachery. Let's face it. In the book business, treachery is everywhere.
It started out innocently enough. A few signings, inoffensive Celtic music over the in-store sound system, a few sips of coffee. It was nice. Almost too nice. But I was on my toes, pulling books and signing them as fast as people stepped to the table, barely catching names as my pen flew.
She showed up just before lunch. Typical for a dame like her. From my position in the mystery section, I couldn't see her at first. But I heard that voice. Like a pack of unfiltereds washed down with a shot of sulfuric acid. "Where's J.B. Kohl?" It wasn't a question. It was a demand.
Cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck. My fingers, posed in the middle of an autograph, froze. I'd been found. Discovered. The jig was up.
"She's up there," the owner said. Was that a tremor in her voice? Was it so easy to sell me out?
Apparently so.
I finished the signature and handed it to the star-struck fan standing before me. "Get someplace safe," I said, taking a swig of coffee, wishing I had something stronger on hand.
Already, footsteps drew near, shiny dust jackets shivering with the heaviness of the tread.
The mystery section was clearing out fast, patrons hurriedly taking their books (all of them signed copies from yours truly) to the register to pay and then get the hell out of dodge. Danger hung thick in the air.
As the steps drew closer, I stood, ready to guard my coffee and my books--with my life if necessary.
I saw the straw hat first. Huge. Its width cut a swath through the crowd with ease. The room vaporized. I focused on that hat. That huge hat creeping closer to me as I stood, dressed in treacherous black, to face whatever came next.
"You Kohl?"
In my mind, I lit an unfiltered and offered one to her. In reality, I nodded. "Yeah. I'm Kohl."
She gave a nod and stared at me with cold eyes. "I been looking for you."
I squared my shoulders. "Really. Well, you found me."
She almost smiled. Almost. Her cheeks were red. She swiped at the clear ooze running from her nose. I reminded myself not to shake her hand. I wondered if she needed me for a job. What would it be? What distasteful task would she demand? Copyrighting? Editing? Proofreading? I could take it. Whatever it was, I could take it.
She sneered a little as she sized me up. She was bigger. But I was scrappy. I could tell she was figuring that out.
The owner peeked from behind a shelf, her eyebrows raised in silent question. Is everything ok? But I didn't dare break eye contact.
Slowly, I sat, my eyes never leaving her face. She dropped a copy of The Deputy's Widow on the table.
"Make it to Doris," she said.
Now it was my turn to almost smile. "Right."
I scrawled my signature out for this dame in the big straw hat and, despite my earlier promise not to, I shook the very hand she used to wipe her nose. It was then I realized that fame is just as dirty as anything else.
As I watched her leave, the owner stopped by my table. "Everything ok?"
I leaned back and drank some coffee. "Everything's just fine," I said. "Just fine."

Friday, March 28, 2008

God Bless Second Day Air

So where are the books, I've been wondering. Why aren't they on the shelves? The book signing is tomorrow...
The owner didn't begin to show any sort of concern until last week, when I said I wasn't going to bother coming if there were no books to sell or sign.
GASP...we can't have that! There's an ad in the paper. There's a poster on the door. The signing will take place during The Daffodil Festival, an occasion so large and important only Christmas is met with more joy and reverence. Or maybe not...I'm pretty sure I don't see framed art inside local businesses with scripted "Christmas 2005" at the bottom. I do, however, see framed "Daffodil Festival" prints.
A big deal to this author, true, but a deal I'd gladly abandon if no books are present. In the end, one week ago, we reached a compromise. I'd show up, shake hands, and let folks order books. After all, there is that poster on the door...and the ad in the paper.
It's not that I haven't met incompetent people. It's not that I expected to sell a million copies. What grinds my gears is that someone else's incompetence makes me look bad. I don't need anyone's help in looking bad. I can fend for myself in that area.
Enter my publisher...Arctic Wolf. I swear I heard the William Tell Overture (Lone Ranger Theme) playing as he kindly explained to me "I'll handle this."
And he did. The books are here. Today. Forty-eight hours post order. Twenty-four hours pre- signing. My pen is out of the drawer again and I've checked the clicker. It's good to go.
I'll sign my name, standing in front of my poster, thinking good thoughts about Arctic Wolf and Second Day Air...