Researching on the Internet

The Internet is the fiction writer’s best friend.  Well, not counting those precious members of your writers’ group who will tell you the truth.  And your writing partner who reads every word and loves you anyway.  Or your editor who encourages you to “just get me another book.”

OK, the Internet is the fiction writer’s 6th or 7th best friend.  You can find out just about anything you need to know in not very much time.  Amy and Walter are traveling on the Interstate through Knoxville.  What do they see?  Hmm.  I’ll bet I can find that fact in . . . 7 clicks.  Look.  It’s the Sunsphere.

Part of the story in Return from Avalon (and Points West) takes place in the “book town” of Hay-on-Wye, Wales.  When I was writing the 1st draft, I did as exhaustive an Internet tour of the town as possible.  Pulled up articles, photos, everything I could come up with to give me the look and feel of the town as well as the facts.  Thought I did pretty damned well.

And then, when I was working on the 1st rewrite, I was in Wales on business (how cool a job is that?) and actually had an opportunity to travel to Hay-on-Wye.  Even better, write it off as a legitimate business expense.  It was in December, and we finished up on Thursday around noon.  The plant was near Swansea, and my flight left Cardiff early Saturday morning.  So I pointed my car north and headed out on an adventure.

Having lived in Texas for as long as I have, it never occurred to me that it gets dark around 3:30pm in  Wales in December.  So driving little roads on the wrong side in the dark with a map but no GPS — well, let’s just say that by the time I got there, it was late and I was fried.  But I found a room in an inn over a pub (and even rarer, a parking spot), dumped my stuff off, and went out exploring.

Despite my exhaustive Internet research, Hay-on-Wye was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like I had pictured it.  Because I was seeing the pictures and reading the descriptions through my American filters.  Except for the pubs, the little town was closed up tight as a drum.  Restaurants (I had blithely assumed there were several to choose from)?  Nope — everybody eats at a pub.  Not to mention, the place is TINY.  And about twice as much charm as I had imagined.

And the next morning . . . the book stores, which is what the town is famous for, were amazing.  That much I had gotten right, at least.

So, fellow writers.  Stay on the good side of your 6th or 7th best friend, the Internet.  But if you get a chance, put your feet on the real estate.




Women Who Won’t Behave Part III

I recently completed a critical read and a rewrite of Return from Avalon (and Points West) [referred to hereafter as RFA], the novel that’s being published by Soul Mate Publishing this summer.  I’d put it off because I’m so obsessed with the novel I’m writing the first draft of, but it had to be done.  So I made it the top priority for a couple of weeks.

I hadn’t read RFA for a few years, so it was relatively new.  And I made that ultimate discovery for a writer: it was better than I remembered it as being.  Much better.  Found myself laughing out loud at stuff I’d written.  Way cool.

And then I came across the original woman who wouldn’t behave, Meg.  Meg had only one role in this book, to call Arnie “Mr. Artie” by “mistake.”  After that she was slated to disappear from the scene.  No way.  Meg crossed her arms and stamped her foot and insisted that, heck no (Meg would never say ‘hell’) she’s not leaving, write her a bigger part.  And in the end, softy that I am, I did.

Just reading the chapter where she first makes her appearance made my heart go chunka-thunk all over again.  OK, I confess it: I’m in love with Meg.  So I’m going to share with you an extract from that chapter.  See if you agree.

What’s happening in this chapter:  Our hero, Arnie Penders, is looking for a stone farmhouse from a battle that he’s only dreamed about.  He has used logic to narrow down the area to a 30-mile stretch of the Avon River between Salisbury and the English Channel at Christchurch, but there’s still a lot of area to search.  After a fruitless few hours, he falls back on a tried-and-true source of information on his journey so far, the waitress.  We pick up the story early in the afternoon of his second day of pub-hopping, looking for a waitress that can recognize the sketch he’s made of the battlefield in his dreams.

* * * * *

Fourth pub of the afternoon – The Wounded Stag, probably named back when there were actual stags living around here – I hit paydirt.  “Millie” was her name – maybe 30 years old, 20 pounds overweight, wavy hair styled 10 years out of date, highly prone to laughing at the slightest excuse or even with no discernable reason, slightly florid of face, likes to touch your arm when she’s talking to you, and laughs a lot (OK, I made the part up about the hair style just to keep the number progression going, but you caught me; what do I know about hair styles?).  Oh, did I mention that she laughs a lot?

“That’s Clive’s place,” she told me when I showed her my sketch.  “I used to be chums with the dolly next door.  #LOL#  We played all along the river there, before I grew tits and discovered better things to do with my time #LOL#” (I thought I’d give you a flavor of the way that loud bursts of laughter punctuate Millie’s conversation – hence the #LOL# indication).

“That’s great!  Can you tell me how to get there?”

“No chance I can give you directions that you could follow.  #LOL#  Course then, I never met a man who could follow directions worth a frig.  #LOL#  ‘Touch right there, but not so hard,‘ I’ll say as plain as water #LOL# but certain as MP’s are crooked he’ll be touching me too hard AND in the wrong place.  #LOL#”  OK, you get the point.  Just assume anytime Millie is talking she’s laughing.  “But I’m off tomorrow – how ‘bout if I just drive you there?”

With the distraction of the one-woman laugh track, I couldn’t tell if I were being hit on or not.  Well, I’d have my trusty singing walking stick along, how bad could it get?  Plus I guess somewhere along the way you have to pay your dues – maybe Millie was mine.  I was working really hard not thinking about making love to Millie while she directed traffic.  Trying to keep it up when, instead of moans of passion or cries of ecstasy, a little spurt of laughter escapes her lips at every stroke.

In any case, we decided to meet there at the ‘Stag at 9:30 the next morning.  “Give us a place to leave your car, and I’m pretty sure you can find your way back without directions #LOL#.”  Soon after that I left and headed north before I ended up pissing off my only lead so far.

* * *

Millie pulled up five minutes after I did, and all of my worries about being hit on vanished: she had three kids packed in the car with her.  Andrew “who we call Drew, not like the bloody prince” was a stout lad of about nine with his mom’s ruddy looks and quick smile; Megeth “just call her Meg,” a slight and solemn young lady, maybe eight, that must have been adopted, considering the total lack of physical – and personality – resemblance to the rest of the family, and “Baby Gail,” a curly-tow-haired charmer, despite a penchant for snot, who immediately came up and put her arms out for a hug.

“Climb in,” Millie ordered, thumbing her oldest toward the back seat and sweeping off a mountain – well, at least a molehill – of litter, crumbs, and other debris that accompanies small children in cars everywhere.  And laughing, of course.

Millie the mom was markedly less vulgar than Millie the waitress had been the day before, although muttering “bugger” and yelling “piss off” were apparently necessary to the act of driving.  Surprisingly to me, the kids were totally well mannered with never so much as a hint of their mum’s spicy vocabulary.

Ten minutes later we turned onto a rutted dirt lane and crept along for maybe a mile.  Then we rounded a corner and there was the stone farmhouse.  The stain wasn’t visible from the road, but the “whump” that my heart made was right up there on the Richter scale as when I saw you carrying my letter – clear evidence that my subconscious recognized where we were and was excited about it.

In retrospect, the new Arnie never doubted that I would find this spot.  But the old, skeptical Arnie never really believed it, either.  But for one delicious moment, I was at one with myself.  Totally at peace with whatever this quest was and my altered view of the universe.

Seconds after Millie parked the car, Drew was out the door and racing toward the river with Baby Gail toddling along behind on chubby little legs, trying valiantly to keep up.  Millie watched long enough to make sure that her youngest wasn’t in real danger, then yelled at Drew to keep an eye on his sister and headed toward the farmhouse to pay her respects.  Me, I just stood there a few moments longer, quietly taking it all in, before starting to walk slowly toward the gravel bank.

A moment later a small hand crept into mine.  I looked down in surprise to find Meg looking solemnly back at me.  She watched me carefully for a minute, then tugged on my fingers and whispered, “Let’s go see, Mr. Artie.”

“OK,” I whispered back.  “But it’s Mr. Arnie.”

Meg nodded her head once in compliance if not agreement and off we went.

Except for the lack of a bridge, the battlefield was exactly as I had seen it so often in my dreams.  Hand in hand, without words, Meg and I explored the entire place.  I carefully examined the ground where the bridge should have been, and imagined that there might be the vaguest remains of pilings or something, but couldn’t really tell for sure (“maybe it was a pontoon bridge,” a silent voice in my head suggested.  Pontoon bridge?  Historically possible; they’d been used in battle as far back as Xerses, but I think I would have noticed that detail during one of my dreams.  Well, if I had that dream again, I’d be sure to check).

Finally we sat down under one of those twisted oaks whose trunk was large enough for the two of us to lean up against.  After a couple of minutes of silence – well, silence except for Drew and Baby Gail laughing and shrieking their joy in the background – Meg leaned toward me and whispered, “What are we looking for?”

Never having been a parent, I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for when to lie to kids and when to tell the truth.  But Meg’s fierce intensity argued for full disclosure.

“I keep dreaming about this place,” I answered in a calm, low voice, “and I don’t know why.  About being in a battle that took place here about 300 years ago, except that there wasn’t really a battle here.  But something in the back of my head kept nagging me to come see it.  So here I am.”

Meg chewed on that for a bit, then nodded her head once.  Apparently that was the perfect gesture for a girl of few words.  She pondered a bit more, then asked, “What do we do now?”

“I’m going to breathe deeply and go into a light trace so I can see if there are any ghosts here,” I replied, opting for truthfulness again.  And got the head nod again for my troubles.

So I did my thing, only vaguely aware of Meg matching my breathing (which must have been quite a trick considering how much larger my lungs are).  When I opened my eyes I was not at all surprised to see that there was nothing to see.  How could there have been – there wasn’t really a battle here.  What did surprise me was Meg’s next comment.  “There aren’t any ghosts, are there?”

“No.  How can you tell?”

“I would have seen them if they were here, Mr. Artie.”

I opted for the single head nod as the correct response, not bothering to correct her about my name this time.

“Let’s see if we can get across the river without getting wet,” I proposed.

When we reached the bank I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants legs as far as they would go, and put my keys and wallet in my shirt pocket.  Meg was wearing a little one-piece jumper-with-shorts (sorry, I’ve rifled my vocabulary of little girls’ fashion but can’t come up with a better term) and flip-flops, so she was good to go.  Choosing the exact place where the French infantry had crossed, I was rewarded by the water only coming up to my mid-thigh at its deepest.  Of course that would have been pretty high on Meg, but when she got to the point of getting her clothes wet she lifted her arms up and I carried her over.

I quietly explained to Meg.  “In my dream I’m standing over there, holding a musket and scared to death, while the French cross the river right where we just did.  But just at that moment, King Arthur rides up with a squadron of cavalry, charges the French, and chases them back across the river.”

She considers that – Meg never spoke without due consideration as far as I could tell – then answered resolutely, “There weren’t any muskets when King Arthur lived.”

“No.  But in my dream he’s returned from Avalon to fight the French invaders.”

A nod signaled understanding.  “Let’s see if there are any ghosts over on this side.”

There weren’t, of course.

We explored a bit more and then headed back over the river.  “What should I say to mum?” she whispered, a bit conspiratorially this time.

“It’s OK with me if you tell her the truth, if you think it’s OK.”  As soon as those words were out of my mouth I had to stop and consider what I had just said (as you well know, unlike Meg, I obviously don’t always think before I open my mouth).  Was I really telling an eight-year-old to decide if it was OK to tell her mother the truth?  But it felt right – felt like the responsibility lay where the wisdom was – so I let it go.

When we got back, Millie was standing with an elderly man dressed in tweed (of course), reminiscing while they watched the kids playing.  “So, my nippers have managed to keep their clothes dry but I see that you haven’t.  What have you and my changeling daughter been up to?”

Millie’s choice of words startled me a little, but Meg was of course unfazed.  “We’ll discuss it later, mum” she replied with a finality that allowed no discussion.

Back at the ‘Stag I offered to buy lunch, but Millie said that she had already indulged enough for the day.  “My husband is coming back tomorrow from three weeks on a project in the North Sea,” she told me in a voice low enough so that the kids couldn’t overhear.  “And while I can’t hardly go that long without a diddle to tide me over, this time I haven’t had so much as a rub.  By a man, that is (you can figure out where the laughs go yourself).  And now it’s too close to take the edge off, else I’da had you in my knickers already.  But I don’t want to have no cooking or chores left to do when he walks through the door.  So I gotta get home.”

I guess my earlier premonitions weren’t totally off the mark.  Good Ol’ Millie, salt of the earth.  She’d probably brought her kids with her to keep temptation at bay.

“OK, then.  Thanks ever so much for showing me the place.  Can I contribute gas money or to the kid’s college fund?”

“Naw, it was great to get back and see Clive again.  Plus I’ll get a good story out of it – I can see that Megeth has a secret to share.  But if you really feel that you have a debt to pay, why, just drop back by in a couple of weeks, we’ll settle up then.”  She punctuated this last proclamation by patting my ass as well as the requisite chortle.

As soon as she had gotten in the car, Meg climbed back out.  I squatted down to be on her level.

She gently slipped her hand in mine again – apparently, hugs and kisses were for other kids, she expressed her affection her own way – looked me square in the eyes, and said, “Once you find out what your dreams are all about, will you write me and let me know, Mr. Artie?”

I took both of her hands before answering.  “Megeth, if and when I find out what this is all about, I’ll come by and tell you personally.  And that’s a promise.”

She held my glance for a long moment, then sealed the deal with a nod.  Me too.


Finding Your Voice

I wanted to write a novel a long time before I ever actually succeeded in writing one (I’m coming down the home stretch on my 4th one now).  Can’t exactly explain why; it was just one of those itches that demanded to be scratched.

The problem wasn’t too little time or too many distractions.  The sad truth was, everything that went down on paper was awful.  I couldn’t even stand to read it.

The problem was, I hadn’t found my voice yet.  I was trying to write literature.  Not sure why.  When I go into a bookstore, I don’t charge to the literature section first to see what’s new.  But somehow, it seems . . . well, significant.

My breakthrough came when I first read the Prologue to Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume.  Robbins is one of my heroes; if you look at the blog heading, you’ll see Jitterbug Perfume near the left end, along with some novels by Vonnegut and Christopher Moore (some more of my heroes).  When I finished it, I closed the book and just savored it for a moment.  Thinking as I did, “If I ever wrote something that good, I’d be content.”

Then a little voice in my head said, “Duh.  Why don’t you try writing like Robbins instead of like Tolstoy or whoever it is you’re trying to emulate?”

Ever since then, writing has been easy (well, relatively speaking).  Don’t know that I’ve ever written anything that good yet.  But I’m working on it.  I’ve given the complete text below for your enjoyment.

from Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins



The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.

The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip . . .

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin’s favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.

In Europe there is grown widely a large beet they call the mangel-wurzel. Perhaps it is mangel-wurzel that we see in Rasputin. Certainly there is mangel-wurzel in the music of Wagner, although it is another composer whose name begins, B-e-e-t——.

Of course, there are white beets, beets that ooze sugar water instead of blood, but it is the red beet with which we are concerned; the variety that blushes and swells like a hemorrhoid, a hemorrhoid for which there is no cure. (Actually, there is one remedy: commission a potter to make you a ceramic asshole—and when you aren’t sitting on it, you can use it as a bowl for borscht.)

An old Ukrainian proverb warns, “A tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil.”

That is a risk we have to take.

jitterbug perfume cover


My Experiences with S.C. Islands

Yesterday’s post about characters that live in your subconscious drew quite a spirited discussion.  So today I’m going to post about another “character” from my subconscious: the island itself.

In the novel that I’m down the home stretch writing, **Avalon, S.C., Rick Whittaker becomes obsessed with an island just off the South Carolina coast.  As a boy, I too was what you might call “obsessed” with islands out in the South Carolina intercoastal waterway.  There was just something mysterious and compelling about islands.  A couple were inhabited, but most weren’t.  They were just little dots of land out there, calling to me.

Your typical island, if it was large enough, had solid growths of oak and pine trees.  Most were surrounded by marsh, so at high tide you could easily get there; at low, you had to either find a break in the marsh or muck your way though mud flats and oyster beds to get there.  Lots of birds, not too much else.

And they always seemed to have mysterious names.  Huntington, Bari Tari, Big Savage and Little Savage.  Not to mention Daufuskie Island of Pat Conroy fame.  I fished off the shores of Daufuskie but never actually explored it — it was too far for old, flat-bottom wooden bateau my father had built, with its underpowered 7.5hp Evenrude outboard motor.

But I explored the others.  Starting around age 10 and continuing on until the excitement of girls displaced the thrill of exploration.  Our boat stayed tied out in the water, so I would get it to shore (which depending on the tide might involve a swim), lug the motor, gas can, oars, and whatever else I’d packed for the day down the muddy “beach” and load them, and take off for the island de jour.

The most intriguing was Bull Island, which was one of the larger islands.  Rumor had it that there were buffalo on it, imported long before by its eccentric owner.  I never saw one, but I did frequently spot the small herd of jackasses that lived out there.

I don’t think I am vicariously reliving my past through Rick, but the lure and mystery of the islands of my youth definitely play a part in how the island of Avalon, S.C. has become a major character in the novel.

The island as an archetype is alive and well in my subconscious.

wooden boat 2

Women Who Won’t Behave, Part II

The other woman who won’t behave is named Chai Fox.  She has two designated roles;  1) Guide into the Mysteries of all that is New Age (a mutual friend recommended her to Rick), and 2) Rick’s Lover for the middle part of the novel.  Here is an excerpt from Chapter 17, where Chai first appears.

Chai Fox looked 95% normal when she opened the door.  Long colorful print dress set off by a huge pewter and crystal amulet and another couple of coral and turquoise bead necklaces.  Long straight dark hair held back with an ornate hair pin that if it wasn’t ivory or bone was a damned good plastic imitation.  A single piercing in her nose with a plain emerald or another good imitation; a gold ring in the corner of her right eyebrow.  Large earrings featuring feathers.  Tattoo on the inside of the ankle but none visible above that.  Chai must have been slightly on the wrong side of forty, but the wild get-up made her look young rather than silly.

“Ah, Rick.”  She took my hand in both of hers, much more of a caress than a shake.  “Tatum told me that you had an open mind and a first class wit, but she didn’t mention the word, ‘charmer.’  Guess I’ll have to get on her about that.”

Up close the distinct smell of patchouli with a gentle hint of orange teased my smell buds.  Chai had a spray of freckles across her nose that added a touch of innocence at odds with the rest of an impression that screamed, “No innocence here.”

I stood in her hallway and made the acquaintance of her Shih Tzu Valentino, a prissy, silken prima donna who demanded adoration, while Chai fetched a wrap and her large, colorful woven bag.  When she returned to find me cross-legged on the floor with Valentino sprawled across my lap she gushed, “Why, he’s never like this around men.  You must have an old soul.”

I peered down at the bottom of my shoe before replying.  “No, he must be mistaken.  I got these shoes less than a year ago.”

Chai rolled her eyes.  “Oh, you.  Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  About the wit, at least.”

Jay-Lo earned me another eye roll.  “Oh, my.  A vintage Mustang.  I do so appreciate original equipment.”  Fortunately, part of Jay-Lo’s original equipment was the bucket seats, sparing my date the decision about whether it was too soon in our relationship to scoot over on the seat.

Chai chatted easily and effortlessly about nothing while we made the ten minute drive to a seafood restaurant on Bay Street.  The place was filling up rapidly, but Chai managed to score us a table with a view of the water.

“I’ll have a martini, dear,” she told the waitress.  “Bombay Sapphire if you have it.  Dry but not bone dry.  Please tell me it’s after noon.”

“Make that two.”

“And a martini drinker as well.  What was that I said yesterday about destiny?”

“I believe it was, ‘The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.’  Or wait, maybe that was Winston Churchill.”

Chai shook her head.  “I don’t know who said that, but it definitely wasn’t me.  I would have said something like, ‘You can make your own bed, or you can make your own destiny, but only the truly great can make their own destiny in bed.’”

“Bravo.”  I clapped to show my appreciation.

Chai studied the menu for about a minute before closing it.  “Tatum is always badgering me about becoming a vegan, but I swear I don’t see the point.  Surely the goddess would not have put prime aged beef on earth if she had not intended for her devotees to savor it.”

“Nor would Prometheus have bothered bringing mankind fire if he knew we were only going to use it to boil water for tea.”

“Well, maybe Chai tea.  Chai is a taste that everyone of taste loves to taste.”

I intended for Chai to be a bit of a caricature.  A humorous opportunity to accentuate the delightful kookiness that generally comes with people of her bent.  She’s also the quintessential cougar, as well as frank and open-minded about sex (it is out of fashion to use the term “loose”).

But Chai is NOT BEHAVING EITHER.  Absolutely refusing to be a caricature, and has turned into quite a complex character.  She is warm, deep, and knows when not to chatter.  I confess to liking her a lot, although I didn’t intend to make her particularly likeable, certainly not to fall for her.

I think part of the complication is that the island of Avalon, S.C. is a lot more complex that I originally saw it, as is Rick’s relationship with the island.  True, the mystery of the island (more on that later) is the heart of the novel.  But Rick didn’t have a lot of sensitivity, at least in the beginning (he’s growing fast.  And so when Rick and Chai went out to visit the island, sparks flew.  I intended for her to shamelessly seduce him back at his house; instead, they had a deep (no pun intended), spiritual sexual experience on the island.

So now what?  She doesn’t really want the role of Woman-that-ends-up-with-the-hero-in-the-end, but she sure is complicating things for now.

enlightened-chai-logoI sure wish my characters would behave (no I don’t).

Just Get It on the Page

I never get neckties for Fathers’ Day.  My family knows what a waste of money that would be – I probably wear a tie once/year.  Instead, they love to see my eyes light up when they give me a T-shirt with a pithy slogans on it.  I guess their image of me is a bumper.

And since I’m a writer, T-shirts with writing slogans are big.  My wife Kate gets a handful of catalogs just to make sure there’s always something available (she’s a professional organizer, and so she orders in advance.  Probably not something the rest of you have experienced).

Yesterday I wore one that said, “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.”  Always get lots of comments.  Even got to talk to 3 new people about my blog.

But my favorite T-shirt to wear to my writers’ groups proclaims: “Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.”

That seems like such a contradiction.  We all grew up with a least one English teacher waxing eloquent about writers and Inspiration.  Keats hearing the transcendent melody of a nightingale outside his window and writing the poem, “Ode to a Nightingale.”  Coleridge going to sleep in an opium haze and dreaming the imagery of “Kubla Khan.”

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree

But I’ll share a secret with you.   The biggest difference between people who have written a book and people who always dreamed of writing a book, maybe even started it two or three times, but never actually managed to finish, is this: people who actually write books don’t wait until they’re inspired to write.  They sit down and write, even if when they’ve finished for the day they realize that what they’ve written is too bad to salvage and end up throwing it away.

Back when I was working for a living, I wrote over lunch.  1 hour, every day.  You can’t believe how much you can get done in an hour a day.  If you practice guitar an hour a day, you’ll be good in a year.  If you write an hour a day, you can finish a novel in a couple of years (depending on how much you have to throw away).

When I would tell people how I worked, they were always astonished.  “Oh, I could never do that.  I’d have to be in the mood.”

You’d be amazed.  On a typical day, it would take me about 2 minutes to go from engineering mode to author mode.  About how long it took to read what I’d written the day before.  The characters were all there, eager to get on with the story.  While I was using my left brain to solve logical type problems, they were all drinking tea – well, some of them were drinking whiskey – and playing cards in my subconscious, waiting for me to get back to them.

Even if it’s crap, just get it on the page.

even if it's crap


Happy Valentine’s Day

A week into our life together, I pulled out a book and started to read.  I didn’t own a television so Kate, who at 22 had never read a book without coercion, asked, “What am I supposed to do?”  So I rummaged around on my shelves, pulled out Cat’s Cradle, and handed it to her.  Ah, the perfect starter book.  “Here, try this.”

Today, coming up on 36 years later, Kate is an avid reader – and we still don’t own a television.  She’s also my most consistent critic, reading every word of every revision that I write.  Giving me feedback in colored ink and gently bitching at me if I’m late with the next chapter.  She’s recently discovered erotic romance and so she walks around, carrying a book sporting a suggestive cover, in a state of . . . what’s the technical term? . . . perpetual horniness.

Happy Valentine’s Day.  Forgo the chocolates and give your Valentine a book.

cats-cradle heart2

Women Who Won’t Behave, Part I

The novel that I’m working on now (and hopefully you’ll be reading in a couple of months) has the working title — which almost certainly won’t be the real title — of Avalon, S.C.  The hero, using the word loosely, is a hot-shot reporter (32) who is in a bit of hot water for sleeping with the newspaper owner’s daughter (19).  Thoroughly bored with covering high school sports, he answers a want ad and accepts an offer from Adeline Foster (mid 40’s) to investigate what happened to her father, who disappeared 6 years ago.  The offer includes staying in her father’s cottage in White Sands, a backwater South Carolina coastal town, population 643.

I grew up in just such a town; more on that later.

Adeline Foster has behaved surprisingly well for a wealthy double divorcee.  She was targeted in my outline to “Make a pass?”, but declined.  And yes, you heard that right: I have outlined a book for the first time.  More on that later as well.

The first woman who won’t behave is Sabrina, a waitress at Peckerwood’s, the only restaurant in town.  Her designated role was local color.  Here is an extract from the chapter where she first appears (WARNING: this is a first draft, one draft earlier than the one you read in Strange Bedfellows.  I don’t do any polishing at all for the first draft, so it’s pretty raw.  And probably filled with errors.  It’s not necessary to point them out).

Sabrina, 10 years younger and 30 pounds lighter than Darla, flirted with the customers that filled half the tables as she passed out menus and delivered steaming plates.  She didn’t even bother to ask what I wanted to drink; she just took one look at my face and poured me a cup of coffee.  She also wasn’t wearing a wedding band.

“You must be that guy staying over to George’s old place.  Know what you want for breakfast, or you need to see a menu?”

“What do you recommend?”

She closed one eye and pretended to peer out the window.  “Looks like a biscuit and sausage gravy kind of morning to me.”

Wow.  A woman who poured coffee first and asked questions later and knew exactly what I wanted for breakfast.  Maybe she was the one destined to keep me straight.  Thought I’d try my hand at the flirting game.  “Sounds perfect.  Bring me some, and will you marry me?”

“Sure.  I’m off Monday if you can wait that long.  Or will you have forgotten me by then and gone on to the next girl?”

“Woman, I’ll still remember you a week from Monday.”

While I savored the perfect flakiness of fresh buttermilk biscuits and a cup of coffee much better than I would have made . . .

* * * * *

“Sabrina, where do people shop for groceries around here?”

“Oh, I’ll take care of all that once we’re married, darlin’.  But for now, you can get most anything you need at Hanson’s.  Selection’s not so hot, but there’s one of everything that’s essential.  Otherwise, you go to Beaufort.”

“Bad selection or a bad road.  Hmm.  I’ll have to ponder on that, beloved.  How about getting my TV satellite working?”

 “Call George Foster.  Man can fix anything.  He got my washer working in 20 minutes, didn’t even order a part, charged me twenty bucks for labor and a penny for the paper clip, thought he was taking me to the cleaners.”  Sabrina laughed.  “Oh, wait.  You haven’t found out where he went to yet.  Maybe that’s your answer.  Put up some billboards, maybe take out a classified ad.  ‘TV satellite needs repairing, call anytime, I’m desperate.’  George never could resist a challenge.”

My proposal had of course been sheer tomfoolery, but I was liking this woman more and more all the time.  She could banter with the best of them and never missed a beat.  “Everything else at his cottage is in tip-top shape.  Wonder why the TV doesn’t work?”

“Maybe because nobody bothered to pay the bill and turn it back on?”

“Sabrina, you’re a genius.  Can’t wait ‘til Monday; perhaps we should elope.  What time you do you get off today?”

“I’ll probably get off about fifteen minutes after we get married, depending on how long it takes you to get me home.”  She opened her mouth in a big exaggerated O.  “But I got to pick up the kids from mother’s after work.  So maybe you should order some fruit to go with your meal.  I’m sure we have some . . . cantaloupe.”  Another big O.

Holy shit.  Rick Whittaker, the fastest wit in the Palmetto State, and I’m no match whatsoever for a peckerwood waitress in small town, South Carolina.  I did a couple of half bows before her, acknowledging her as the master of the day.

“OK, one last question.  Two, actually.  Know anything about a woman George may have been dating named Lacey?  And what do you think happened to him?”

“There’s nobody named Lacey around here, and I never saw George with a woman.  He was slightly below average on the flirting scale.”

“So where am I?”

“Well, if you’d been less than a solid seven I’d have never agreed to marry you.”

Wow.  I felt flattered, and at the same time totally ridiculous that I felt flattered.

“As to where he is, up to now I couldn’t even speculate.  But you being a high-power investigative reporter and all, you’ve already found the answer more than likely.  He’s with Lacey, that’s my guess.”

Left her a $5 tip, already looking forward to tomorrow.  If she does that well with all the guys, she probably lives in a mansion and drives a BMW.

Sabrina immediately charmed me, just like she did Rick.  Occupational hazard, I suppose.  Almost immediately she expressed her desire to audition for the position of “woman-that-the-hero-ends-up-with-in-the-end.”  I don’t really have an issue with that, since the position is currently unfilled.  However, there is one major problems: Rick has a short-term interest coming up soon, so Sabrina can’t get in the way of that.

I went to visit my daughter at school just before Christmas, and while I was there I sought her opinion on the topic.  Then, I wrote to my writer’s group to ask their opinion.  But as I was pointing out some of the options in the email, the answer came to me.  Love it when that happens.

So while I’m not totally sure that Sabrina gets the part, her audition has gone well.  As long as the other woman who refuses to behave doesn’t get in the way.

women who don't behave t-shirt

Stranger in a Strange Land

I spent 10 days in France last year. The people (with only 1 notable exception) were warm, welcoming, and happy that I was spending my money in their country and appreciating their culture. But there was never any doubt that I was in a foreign country. Different language, different culture, different food, different habits.

Yesterday I went to a workshop hosted by the West Houston Chapter of the Romance Writers of America.  Like the people of France, the members were warm, welcoming, and happy that I was attending their workshop.  I’ve been to a number of workshops before, as well as writers’ groups, but this is the first time I was truly in a foreign country.

I’ve been trying to articulate exactly why that was ever since.  Here are some differences that possibly contributed.

MOST OF THOSE ATTENDING WERE WOMEN.  There were 4 Y chromosomes in the room, 3 visitors and 1 member.  Normally, gender imbalance doesn’t bother me.  I take a Body Flow class where it is typically me and 2 dozen women, almost all of which are younger, better fit, and can kick my ass when it comes to Body Flow.  None of that bothers me, and I would never say I was a stranger in a strange land.

THESE WOMEN WERE ALL SERIOUS WRITERS.  The average number of books published per attendee was at least 3.  One writer at my table had 58.  Going back to the Body Flow example, almost all of them could kick my ass when it came to writing.

I generally consider myself a serious writer, for an amateur.  Although “retired” from my paying job, I spend an average of 4 hours a day writing, editing, polishing, marketing, or otherwise working on my writing career.  On Saturday I ran into a totally different definition of “serious.”

THEY ALL — OR ALMOST ALL — WRITE ROMANCES.  To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never even read a romance.

OVERHEARING CASUAL CONVERSATIONS, these writers frequently submit “proposals” — not even completed books — and get accepted for publication, sight unseen.

One woman was a noted writer of gay romances.  One of her books was reviewed at the meeting.  I am a strong advocate of equal rights for the GBLT community but I have to say, it has never crossed my mind that “Hmm.  What shall my next novel be about?  Hey, I know.  I’ll write a gay romance.”  I’m not sure why that is her specialty, but my best guess is BECAUSE IT SELLS.  In a moment of total honesty, I also have to say, I’ve never selected what I’ll write about because of what sells.

As I said, Stranger in a Strange Land.

Here’s an amusing event that happened during one of the workshop sessions, this one on Deep Point of View.  The speaker, the delightful Lorin Oberweger, read this example from Louise Erdrich’s Plague of Doves:

The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling.  The man sat down in an upholstered chair and began taking his gun apart to see why it wouldn’t fire.  The baby’s crying set him on edge.  He put down the gun and looked around for a hammer, but saw the gramophone.  He walked over to it.  There was already a record on the spindle, so he cranked the mechanism and set down the needle. . . The man repaired the gun so the bullet slid nicely into its chamber.  He tried it several times then rose and stood over the crib.  The violin reached a crescendo of strange sweetness.  He raised the gun.  The odor of raw blood was all around him in the closed room.

We discussed this very rich scene at length.  But all the time I’m thinking, “This writer has ruined the scene by her total lack of knowledge or understanding about how a gun works.  You don’t “repair” a “jam,” you just unjam it.  And once you have, if you reload the magazine, pull the slide back, and release it, it will in fact chamber a round.  But if you’re going to try it several times, what happens to the round that you just chambered?  It flies out.  So this guy is pulling back on the slide and ejecting live rounds that are flying around the room?

I happened to be sitting beside the only man in the room who was a member.  He had earlier expressed some knowledge about guns, so I whispered a comment to see how he was taking all this.  He confirmed that he was holding his tongue, for reasons that he chose not to articulate.

All in all, it was a totally fascinating and educational day.  I’ll never look at writing the same, which made it worth much more than my entry fee.