Have you noticed that the roads diverged in a yellow wood?
So Frost was thinking of fall, in “The Road Not Taken” (1916). Leaves turn yellow—and not just in New England. I admit Texas Hill Country fall colors are a little muted. Bluestem bunch grass makes silvery seed-heads.
And our cedar elms turn yellow green, then yellow, and then madly fling golden confetti into the air.
Yellow leaves! When new roads appear and diverge, right? New fall clothes, perhaps (even with climate change) sweaters! New books, new subjects, new teachers, new classmates.
We awake with new ideas, new projects, new dreams. On weekends the parks fill up with soccer players. Football begins.
All our years of fall classes leave many of us with a compelling interior calendar. In September, two roads—at least two roads!—diverge. We feel energetic, restless. Do we seek the old ways again or do new roads beckon? Do we join the Master Naturalists? Take a photography class? Go for a master’s degree? We feel September’s time pressure, expressed as a desire to learn new things, tread new paths, move further into the world, even with the stultifying blanket of the pandemic heavy on our shoulders.
As Yogi Berra famously advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Because—as Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson put it—
No, when September hits, we haven’t got time for the waiting game. It’s the first day of nursery school…third grade…middle school…senior year. We can’t just stay home and watch the leaves turn to flame.
Now for Book 8. People ask about the “writing process.” It’s like standing at the crossroads in the yellow wood. Which path? But no time for the waiting game!
Book 8 began to take shape with wakeful nights, with a couple of strong images, where Alice must identify a body in the Aberdeen mortuary. Then a new character barged in, demanding time onstage. I’m always amazed at how characters insist on doing what I hadn’t foreseen, taking their lives in their own hands. The plot arc is there but further decisions will be made. I’m sending chapters to the critique group, and the manuscript’s got at least a provisional name. The future murder victim in Coffee Creek hasn’t yet learned her fate (sorry, honey). So it’s still wakeful nights, then pacing around the kitchen island, then sitting and writing, then pacing again, then sitting and writing, then more pacing.
Just a moment ago it was summer. But as Frost also wrote, “Nothing gold can stay” (1923). The fall equinox approaches on September 22. Following Yogi Berra’s advice, faced with all the decisions ahead––who lives? Who dies, and how?––I’m heading down the road, yellow leaves and all.
AUTHOR Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three inquisitive burros. Find her books at BookPeople in Austin, and at IngramSparks and Amazon.
Well. Today I planned to get out of bed and be perfect. It didn’t work that way.
First I had a fight getting a certain video to embed properly in a certain site. It was a very nice video, and I was trying to help a friend, but the video began with an ad about a cure for toenail fungus, complete with pictures. That was not what I had in mind, and it was certainly not what my friend had in mind. The fight took longer than it should have. I’m afraid to look back to see if the cure–for the video, not the toenail fungus–is still working.
Then while I fought, my breakfast, thanks to a kind husband, sat on the table beside the recliner where I was working, and I looked up and saw Ernest the Cat had designs on it. Yesterday I found him stretching upward, his paw in my bacon. He’s never tasted bacon, but he’d like to. I rescued breakfast.
So now I’m sitting here in my Snoopy and Woodstock nightshirt, entirely inappropriate attire for a woman of my age and respectability, recovering from a major fume.
I knew I should have put on makeup as soon as I got out of bed. Yesterday I did so for the first time in ages–let’s face it, staying home for seventeen months straight changes one’s attitude toward personal grooming–and with makeup, the day went better.
I used a face cream, which I thought might be a night cream but didn’t have my glasses on and so couldn’t tell but risked it anyway. And it did wonders for the wrinkles around my eyes, filled them right in.
I put on enough blush that a ship on troubled seas would need no lighthouse to warn it away from perilous rocks, so I wiped some of it off. I used eye shadow, maybe too much, but I didn’t wipe that off because behind my glasses it’s invisible anyway. I applied lipstick.
Then I used my curling iron. That’s problematic because something is wrong with my shoulders–no rotator cuff tears, but the arms don’t like to go up as far as they should, like to the top of my head, and I refuse to go back to PT and have a bunch of skinny infants tell me I’m doing the exercises wrong, when all I’m doing is executing them faster than prescribed because I want to get them over with and go home.
But anyway, I made the effort and used the curling iron, and then I even brushed my hair, and the day really did go better. I imagine my husband was relieved. He’s staying in self-imposed quarantine, too, and there’s not much visual variety inside. I’m probably the reason he spends so much time looking at the cats.
Anyway, I spent the next part of my better yesterday deciding that I spend too much time watching television. That wasn’t a difficult decision, since I’ve watched all the BritBox offerings at least three times. I like to watch TV shows and movies more than once; the more often I watch, the less attention I have to pay to know what’s going on. But it seemed time to unsubscribe. After all, I still have Prime and ROKU.
I also decided I wasn’t listening to enough music–I used to have music going all the time–so I upgraded Spotify in hopes it will play what I tell it to, like it used to, instead of what it wants to. I went all the way up to 99 cents a month. I’m not sure 99 cents is enough to do what I expected. I want Max Morath playing piano rags–he has the best touch I’ve ever heard. And Brian Stokes Mitchell, whose name I can rarely remember without prompting, singing a certain song from South Pacific, which I’m afraid is not in the repertoire.
But there’s an out. If I’m not happy, I can always go back to Acorn TV, which I subscribed to years ago. I watch mostly British programs. The accents are comforting.
Anyway, having progressed from cussing a certain website to discussing television, I’ll move into the main idea of this post, which my high school English teacher said I should do in the first paragraph, but I’m old enough to break the rules.
The main idea is TV shows I like–old TV shows. I’m always reading the backlist, so why shouldn’t I do the same for viewing?
Here they are, in no particular order:
Kavanaugh QC, starring John Thaw as a London barrister, a senior member of River Court chambers, who usually appears for the defense but sometimes prosecutes. The antithesis of Thaw’s former character, the irascible Inspector Morse, Kavanaugh is even-tempered and respected by both colleagues and opposing counsel. A family man, he is also, like many protagonists in crime fiction, a workaholic, but his character plays against type when his wife accepts a job with the European Union based in Strasbourg, and he must adjust his own life to accommodate hers. Some mild comic relief is provided by a snobbish colleague in chambers, Jeffrey Aldermarten, but Kavanaugh’s cases are serious, no comedy there. His goal is justice, which he often finds difficult to deliver, even when he wins his cases.
Wycliffe, based on W. J. Burley’s novels. Jack Shepherd stars as Detective Superintendent Charley Wycliffe, whose territory covers the coast of Cornwall. He is quiet, thoughtful, and good at his job, but not interested in advancement. He’s often at odds with his Deputy Chief Constable, who is concerned with budget restraints and with convincing Wycliff to run his division from the office rather than work cases himself. The Chief Constable and others often urge Wycliffe to apply for promotion–and to retire. He is assisted by two Detective Inspectors, Doug Kersey and Lucy Lane. Kersey is a solitary man, lonely, quietly and hopelessly attracted to Lucy. Lucy, as ambitious as Wycliffe is not, finds promotion is based more on sexual politics than on ability. Cases in this series are serious, but scenes of Wycliffe’s family life, while not comedic, sometimes lighten the intensity. Emphasis is on human relationships, not on just police procedure.
Line of Duty, another police procedural, which ran for six seasons and has received numerous awards, including being ranked third in a Radio Times 2018 poll of the best British crime dramas of all time. The series begins with a young Steve Arnott being transferred to the Anti-Corruption unit because he has refused to cover up a mistake made during a raid in which he took part. Corruption in the department goes deeper, however, than anyone suspects, and the lives of members of the unit are sometimes in danger, even from their own colleagues. Twists and turns abound; it appears that no one is completely clean–or they can be made to appear bent–and the viewer continually wonders whom he can trust, and even whom he can like. What makes the series especially satisfying is that the plot isn’t strictly linear–it circles around; events that seemed to be resolved in early episodes emerge as catalysts toward the end. Gritty doesn’t begin to describe Line of Duty. You’ll thank yourself for watching. I’ve seen it twice and might watch it again. And yet, I’m not sure I want to.
A Touch of Frost. I love this series, the early episodes of which are based on the novels of R. D. Wingfield. David Jason stars as William “Jack” Frost, an experienced detective with the Denton Police Force, who does everything his way. Superintendent “Horn Rimmed Harry” Mullet admires Frost’s abilities but would love to retire him, downsize him, generally get rid of him–Frost is famous for neglecting paperwork, which gets Mullet in trouble up the line, and for happily putting his foot in his mouth, with generally amusing results. But Frost is the Chief Constable’s fair-haired boy–he once subdued an armed man, was shot, and won the George Cross for bravery. Frost is a flawed individual, as the best characters are. Privately, the award embarrasses him, since his heroism was the result of his being drunk on duty–he’d just made up his mind to leave an unhappy marriage when his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he carelessly risked his life because he knew he had to stay with her. In the first episode, Frost is widowed; a series of relationships fail because his job always comes first. But he is loyal to his colleagues and becomes especially fond of a young man who serves as his assistant. And although he has no tolerance for crime, he often feels compassion and understanding for those who commit it. The series comes to an end that is both sad and satisfactory, like many of Frost’s cases. The popular series ended when David Jason retired, saying at sixty-eight he was older than any real police detective, and that he couldn’t imagine filming Frost in a wheelchair.
All of these mystery/thriller/police procedurals, and many others, are available on Prime as well as on BritBox and other subscription services.
Now I shall divest myself of my Snoopy shirt, don some regular clothes–also known as rags, but these days, only one human and two cats see them, and they don’t care–and apply makeup. Maybe I’ll wear enough blush to be a lighthouse. With the amount of rain we’ve been having, I might end up being useful.
Photographs of actors are television screenshots taken by me. Photograph of Snoopy and Woodstock was taken my my husband.
Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her stories are published in anthologies and online. Sometimes she works on a novel. Sometimes she doesn’t. She wants to re-read an old book by Rebecca West, but she can’t remember the title.
Driving into New Mexico with my husband (favorite long-time travel companion) I peer anxiously out the car window––I won’t be happy until I spot the first antelope, tiny, almost invisible, bounding across vast pale green ranch pastures below a string of distant mesas. First I look for a white splotch (tell-tale antelope rump), then suddenly spot an entire flock, spread out in the grass. Then, where I-25 crosses the south-running Pecos River, we see the sinuous length of Rowe Mesa, all red rock and green conifers, running for miles to the west. At Ribera we exit south on State Road 3, then climb an impressively steep gravel road to the adobe house of my cherished college classmate friend and her husband. Their house sits in the lap of Rowe Mesa, looking across the broad Pecos valley at its companion, Bernal Mesa. The old house is formal, plastered white inside, with a beautiful ceiling of beams (vigas) supporting the roof. Sticks, or latillas, lie in a formal herringbone pattern between the vigas.
Walking across the property in the cool morning we spot chips from arrowhead manufacture. Our friends have found a spot far above on the edge of the mesa littered with many such chips, where centuries ago an expert sat under a piñon in the shade, “knapping” (flaking) stones to make arrowheads and points. We saunter along, picking up turquoise-colored pebbles from the played-out turquoise mine, reveling in the view across the valley. We hear nothing but the wind in the junipers and piñons and the occasional faraway buzz of a small plane.
My friend has taken us down along the Pecos to see the extensive adobe ruins of the Spanish customs office that once controlled the river crossing into Spanish New Mexico. Further down the river we see the irrigation ditches––acequias––feeding water into Pecos farm plots, before the Pecos narrows into a canyon.
We love this place. But Santa Fe is calling.
To celebrate the June 2021 publication of Ghost Daughter, we’re on Otero Street in Santa Fe, with beauty everywhere. Carved wooden beams over doorways. Intensely colored flower gardens in yards. Curved human-scale adobe houses. Blue sky above adobe walls.
Downtown, Santa Fe offers layers of history––Pueblo architecture, Territorial architecture. In 1920 City officials ordered that buildings in the city be built Pueblo-style. The warm tan of adobe and the cool greens and blue-greens of balconies and window-frames feel soothing, low-rise, solid. Art is in the air, in the gardens, in the architecture, in the shop windows. I double-dog-dare you not to take pictures. Plus there’s an appreciation of burros (which warms the hearts of my three burros).
Along Palace Avenue by the New Mexico Museum of Art, heavy bronze sidewalk plaques celebrate Santa Fe artists. Each plaque features a helmeted conquistador…which seems incongruous for celebrating, say, Georgia O’Keefe or my hero, Gustave Baumann, the German immigrant whose vivid woodcuts tantalize my protagonist Alice in Ghost Daughter. But maybe it’s not incongruous. Baumann says he was drawn by the powerful presence of intermixed layers of history when he jumped off the train in New Mexico in 1918. And the sheer beauty! Mountains and streams! Pueblos! Golden cottonwoods in fall! He left such contributions of art and joy to Santa Fe, with his spectacular prints and the beloved marionette shows in his living room. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i516sAlDgS0
In Ghost Daughter, Alice’s trips to Santa Fe were too fraught. Although she enjoyed El Rey Court, and a hurried lunch at Café Pasqual’s, she missed so much, including the room of Baumann prints in the Owings Gallery. So we go in her stead, riveted by Baumann’s precision and freedom, his intense colors so delicately layered. I want to see his old German printing press…but rats! It’s locked up and unavailable at the history museum.
After wallowing in the Baumanns, we console ourselves with ice cream, sitting in a shady corner by La Lecheria. It’s fun watching passersby. The solitary ones walking briskly by have unsmiling faces like eagles, alert eyes fixed straight ahead. What are they thinking about so intently? Where to lay the next brushstroke on a canvas? Memorizing lines for a play? Where are they going? Then the younger people swoop by with great style, dramatic clothes and makeup, hurrying to work. And of course tourists like us.
Santa Fe calls itself the “City Different.” I feel different here too. Somehow an invisible bubble over the city blocks my usual sharp-edged worries…children, work, the state of the world. At home, open-eyed at some awful hour, I sometimes find refuge in half-awake creativity, envisioning plot possibilities, imagining scenes, hearing characters say surprising things. I’m grateful for a midnight refuge which may (not infallibly, though) trigger ideas for the next day’s writing while distracting me from cares.
But in Santa Fe, if I wake, I listen to the quiet, peer out at the moon and…go back to sleep. After days in Santa Fe, a place weighty with history, so vividly creative, so confident in mixing the very old and very new, the traditional and startling, I feel emboldened.
As I work through a TBR list that is longer than the fish stories told by teens holding poles at the Blanco River, I feel very behind in my reading but also grateful for so many choices. This summer, I’m letting Netflix chill on its own and, instead, enjoying the selection of fantastic crime fiction that has been released in the last year.
Here are a few of my favorite summer reads so far:
LITTLE SECRETS by Jennifer Hillier: In this dark domestic thriller, Jennifer Hillier proves why so many readers finish her books in a single sitting. Little Secrets opens with every parent’s nightmare—the disappearance of a child in a busy public place. Marin is a busy mother with a successful business, who is trying to juggle the demands of her life while being an attentive mother. In a single moment, her young son, Sebastian, disappears when she is distracted by a phone call. It only takes a few seconds—a situation every parent of young kids understands—for her entire life to take a devastating turn. Hillier’s ability to bring complex characters into a twisty plot with a genuinely surprising ending is on full display here. Like many readers, I read Little Secrets in a single day. I closed the book, impressed with Hillier’s storytelling skills and ready for her next novel.
THE LESS DEAD by Denise Mina: A woman begins a search for her biological mother and ends up tracking her mother’s murderer. Dr. Margo Dunlap has her hands full with her career, her friend’s dangerous relationship and the recent discovery that she’s pregnant. When Margo decides to search for her birth mother, she meets her Aunt Nikki, who tells her that her biological mother had been murdered and the killer has never been caught.
This novel is a departure from some of Mina’s other novels, and I loved it for that reason as well as her ability to handle serious issues with care while also weaving in some dark humor. This book explores not only the relationships between mothers and daughters but the complicated realization that those we love keep secrets…sometimes for good reason.
BEFORE SHE DISAPPEARED by Lisa Gardner: Frankie Elkin is a middle-aged woman who has dedicated herself to searching for missing people, particularly those cases that have gone cold and no longer receive media attention. A recovering alcoholic who carries guilt and trauma over the death of a loved one, she channels her energy into helping other families find missing loved ones. Her current case, the disappearance of Angelique Badeau, takes her to a Boston neighborhood named Mattapan, where she meets resistance from the Boston P.D. as well as those close to Angelique.
Frankie is complicated heroine who is all at once tough, broken, thoughtful and determined. She doesn’t walk into this case with the idea that she has all the answers. She is working through her own grief while working the Angelique Badeau case. Gardner’s first-person approach kept me immersed in the story and turning the pages, and the story is compelling, smart and socially conscious. I hope to see more of Frankie Elkins in the future.
THE SUNDOWN MOTEL by Simone St. James: This atmospheric novel drew me in from the first chapter. Alternating between two time periods thirty-five years apart, this story revolves around Carly Kirk and her desire to find out what happened to her Aunt Viv, who disappeared in 1982. The book switches between Viv and Carly, and the story is part mystery, part ghost story, equally compelling and creepy. And that cover? Wow.
THE SEARCHER by Tana French: When retired detective Cal Hooper moves to a remote village in Ireland, he believes his days will be spent in solitude, fixing up a run-down cottage he purchased and exploring the countryside on his own. His plans change, though, when a young boy comes to him after hearing town rumors of his past detective career. The boy’s older brother is missing, and he wants Hooper to find him.
THE SEARCHER is quite different from French’s previous novels, a slow burn character driven story with a mystery being a smaller part of the novel. French’s ability to immerse me, not only into the setting but also the lives of the townspeople, are what kept me reading to the last page. The missing brother’s story is important, but how his absence has impacted his family, how this family is treated, and unraveling the inner workings of this tight-knit community add so many layers to this tale.
THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY by Matt Haig: Somewhere in the space between life and death, a secret library exists where you can try alternative choices to see if your life might have turned out differently. Nora Seed’s life is filled with regrets, and she is struggling to get through each day. She soon finds herself at the steps of this library with an opportunity to review her own personal Book of Regrets. She’s given the opportunity to make different choices and to see where they lead. Would one of these choices change her life and make it worth living again?
This book had a Sliding Doors feel for me, and the idea that you could explore other options and experience the results is a compelling premise. Haig’s prose is easy to read and rhythmic, and he balances light-hearted moments while also addressing deeper issues such as depression, anxiety, mental health and regret. THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is an uplifting and thought-provoking novel that delivers a powerful story.
RAZORBLADE TEARS by S.A. Cosby: I loved BLACKTOP WASTELAND and can’t wait to read Cosby’s latest novel. His talent speaks for itself, and the glowing reviews and accolades are well-deserved. As an Elmore Leonard fan, I’m thrilled that his writing has been compared to one of my favorite authors.
THESE GHOSTS ARE FAMILY by Maisy Card: Thirty years ago, a man stole the identity of his best friend and now, on his death bed, confesses this to his family. This generational family saga is a debut novel, and the more I read about it, the more I want to read it.
THINGS YOU WOULD KNOW IF YOU GREW UP AROUND HERE by Nancy Wayson Dinan: In this novel, a teenager returns from a family wedding to discover that a friend has gone missing. This novel is set during the devastating 2015 Memorial Day floods in the Texas Hill Country. Those of us who live in the area remember that time vividly and still see the damage left behind—on our landscape and in the families who were tragically impacted by so many levels of loss.
“Good cover design is not only about beauty… it’s a visual sales pitch. It’s your first contact with a potential reader. Your cover only has around 3 seconds to catch a browsing reader’s attention. You want to stand out and make them pause and consider, and read the synopsis.” ― Eeva Lancaster, Being Indie: A No Holds Barred, Self Publishing Guide for Indie Authors
Of course, the opposite is capsulized in a familiar quote, “Don’t buy the book by its cover.” BUT, if an author wants to sell their book, they’d better face some marketing facts.
A book cover sells the book. At least it’s the first thing to catch the readers’ gaze as they wander through the shelves of a bookstore, library or click through bookseller websites. Yes, of course the blurb on the back is incredibly important, but it’s the cover the buyer sees first. It’s the cover that makes that buyer turn the book over and read the blurb.
Think about it. If the cover grabs you, you’ll pick up (or click on) the book. If it’s blah, chances are you’re going to move on to the next book.
Now what exactly in the cover image grabs you? Does the cover tell you the genre? What to expect? Look professional? I’m a mystery writer, so I’m looking for a cover that not only says it’s a mystery, but what kind of mystery it is. Here are some examples.
Cozy Mysteries—The readers are looking for lightheartedness, as well as any of the tropes associated with cozies: animals, home-town-feel, food, maybe even a graphic image (cartoon) suggesting any of the above. They do NOT want to see brutality. For example, here’s the cover for Arsenic and Adobe by Mia Manansala. Note the cartoon-like quality, the dog, the happy homemaker and the bottle of poison. All of these elements tell the reader this book is a mystery, homey, and involves cooking. (And don’t forget the dachshund on the shoulder!) Cozy readers love these signals. Yes, they’re going to turn the book over to learn more about it.
Horror Mysteries–Here the prospective buyer is looking for dark, scary elements. The cover should promise there will be blood and violence in the book. Body parts are great. The titles alone should give the reader the chills. The Mosquito Man by Jeremy Bates is a perfect example. Yikes!!!
Suspense Mysteries–Again, we start with the fact the reader wants to KNOW this is mystery. Suspense is a tricky cover. How does one put the feeling of suspense on a cover? In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or the solution to a puzzle, particularly as it affects a character for whom one has sympathy. How do you put that in an image? There are different ways to achieve this in a cover. Location. Lighting. Showing action or giving a subtle clue; having the feel that there’s something risky going on. For this example, I’m going with Louise Penny’s, All The Devils Are Here. Here, the silhouetted building against a dark sky evokes mystery, and the Van Gogh-like swirls in the night sky suggest to the reader that there’s more to this book than simply being set in Paris. It suggests depth of plot.
These are only 3 basic categories of mysteries. Consider how the covers are created that show the true crime category? The thriller category? The paranormal mysteries category? Then study your own reaction when you’re checking out the mystery sections in your favorite bookstore or online. The only thing I can think of on a cover that would hook you more than the lay-out or artwork is the author’s name. If you have a favorite author (and yes, that for me is still J.D. Robb), I’ll buy the book without even looking at the cover. But like I said, that’s the only thing I can think of that would sway a buyer more than the visual impact of the cover.
So authors, beware! Readers are judging books by their covers! To our beloved readers, take your batch of three seconds, go book-shopping and buy some books!!!
K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, is a preacher’s kid who likes to tell stories, kill people (on paper, of course!) and root for the Chicago Cubs. Born in Chicago and a graduate of Illinois State University, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling snow and are 35+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, K.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where she is the president of the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter and is active in the Writers League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers.
A curse on this week’s post. I banged out nearly 2,000 words that should have been online yesterday, and the post just gets longer and longer, and there ain’t no way I’ll get it finished and revised and edited and polished today, or this week, or possibly by New Year’s Eve 2022. I know the problem. Too much thinking. But I can’t help that. So I’ve pulled up something I wrote for my personal blog in 2010. I’m reposting, with some changes. I’d like to say it’s outdated, but nothing much has changed. No matter what the last line says.
In one of my favorite scenes from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, assistant TV news producer Mary Richards suggests that writing a news story isn’t all that difficult. News writer Murray Slaughter disagrees.
Then a wire comes in, something big. The story must be written and rushed to anchorman Ted Baxter, who is on the verge of uttering his sign-off: “Good night, and good news.”
Murray, smiling, bows to Mary.
Mary rolls a sheet of paper into her typewriter. She types several words. Then she stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops . . . Everyone in the newsroom stands around her desk, watching . . . waiting . . .
Finally, at the last minute, Murray loads his typewriter and, fingers flying, writes the story, rips the paper from the machine, and hands it to producer Lou Grant, who runs for the anchor desk.
That’s why didn’t go in for journalism. I’m not Murray.
That, and because I knew that if I were a journalist, I would have to talk to people: call them on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I had no intention of talking to people I didn’t know.
But mainly, editors would expect me to write without thinking.
I look back and wonder how I got to that point. Not the distaste for talking to people I didn’t know—I’ve always had that—but the difficulty with writing.
When did I start letting my editor get in the way of my scribe?
Once upon a time, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to my grandfather and great-aunts and aunts and uncles and cousins. Once, I used a pencil with a point so soft, I doubt the recipients could read through the smears on the pages.
Another time, when I was on sick leave from school, enjoying the mumps, my mother let me use my father’s Schaeffer White Dot fountain pen, a source of even better smears.
The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with Aunt Laura and Uncle Joe while my mother stayed in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained in Del Rio working, visited one weekend and brought me a present: a ream of legal-sized paper.
I don’t know what prompted the gift, and on a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve.
I wrote my own newspaper. Most articles covered weddings between various cats and dogs of my acquaintance. I discovered a talent for describing tuxedos and bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Miss Kitty and Pat Boone (my fox terrier). It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper.
But suddenly, it seemed, I did what my thesis adviser, years later, warned me not to do: I got tangled up in words. Writing was no longer fun. Confidentially, I think it had something to do with English class, essays, outlines, and needing to sound erudite. I hated it.
Why I thought should teach English, I do not know.
It was years before the English Teacher Establishment (Macrorie was part of the shift) said, “You can’t write an outline until you know what you’re going to say, and you can’t know what you’re going to say until you’ve written something.”
Novelist E. M. Forster had said it long before: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” But education always lags behind.
Anyway, the word to both students and conflicted teachers (aka me) was—Write it and then fix it. And lighten up.
When I write blog posts, I don’t think so much. I lighten up. Words flow.
Unless I’m trying to be serious and sincere and profound and erudite. I’m not a profound writer. I think profound, but I write shallow. It’s in my nature.
And I still can’t imagine squeezing myself into the little journalism box. That’s pressure. And talking to people I don’t know. I’d rather make up the facts myself. Can’t do that in journalism. Journalism matters.
I don’t like talking to journalists, either. I always tell them to be sure to make me sound intelligent. A reporter told me she didn’t have to fix anything in my interview because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was an accident.
Now. It’s way past my deadline for putting up this post.
But that is not of paramount concern. Because I’m not trying to say anything worthwhile.
I have lightened up.
“I’m thinking it over.” Forty seconds of perfection. (If the video doesn’t play, google “jack benny i’m thinking it over”. That should work.)
Image of Mary Tyler Moore cast via Wikipedia. Public domain.
“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”—Groucho Marx
Animal characters in stories aren’t just for children. You can go through millions of children’s books and find the same number of animal sidekicks and pets as main characters and their antagonists, providing comfort, support, and companionship to the children’s heroes.
Animals are near and dear. We often imagine them to be all that we are not. Thus it’s no great wonder that they show up and play important roles in our stories. There are hundreds of tales that sentimentally humanize animals, but even in the ones that don’t, animals are essential to the completeness of many characters’ lives and the mysteries of humans.
But why are ‘grown-up’ books featuring animals as sidekicks or just plain ole-pets so successful? First of all, any pet owner—myself included—will object to the term, plain ole. No such thing. Every pet has its own personality, likes, dislikes, habits, and quirks, just like us. On top of that, we often imbue them with human behaviors and sentiments—in some cases, that is realistic and in others not, but the question remains, why do we love these stories? What is it about animal sidekicks or companions that attract many readers?
There are as many opinions as animal sidekicks; among them is the theory that authors are free to attribute emotions to animals that might be construed as too sappy in a human. Then, of course, animals don’t usually warrant life stories of their own, although I’d bet any author writing a pet sidekick or companion in fiction could give one. Animals can display levels of loyalty to its human that does not read the same person to person. Can you imagine a human sitting beside another human, panting for their attentions, hanging on every word, listening to their thoughts, insecurities, and foolish notions, without sitting up and saying, “Hey, pal? Get over yourself,” or “Get off your duff and take care of business?” Not likely. So, where do we find these lovable, funny, sometimes sad creatures in literature?
In most genres, we find unforgettable, heart-warming, emotional, and spirited animals like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia. Then there is Charlotte, in Charlotte’s Web, and not to be ignored, Hedwig, Harry Potter’s owl, but some of the most heart-wrenching are the animals that are written into sagas, such as Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 War Horse.
The book, the movie, or the play are all tearjerkers, but not with the epic scope of the true account of the horse it’s based on: Warrior. This amazing story of a real warhorse published 1934, was based on My Horse, Warrior by General Jack Seely. It documents the hell that horses endured during the Great War. You won’t get through this one without a box of tissues.
Sometimes, authors need a villain, and according to Disney, “from time to time we like to shine a light on the work of villains and their sidekicks,” which brings us to the feathered friends or not-friends of Iago, Jafar’s parrot sidekick in Aladdin. Who can be more deliciously evil than Maleficent with her Raven? There’s Mockingjay from the contemporary Hunger Games, and perhaps the nicest in a novel and outside the cartoon world is Harry Potter’s Snowy Owl, Hedwig, loyal, intelligent, and affectionate.
Cats and dogs are also a staple in Romance writing . They provide the author with a character who can be the subject of a tug-of-war in the humans’ breakups. They can reveal the softer side of a character portrayed otherwise as cold or emotionally distant. Still, perhaps their presence is felt most in the mystery categories, beginning with its subgenre of cozies.
For those who aren’t exactly sure of what defines a cozy, neither am I, but the definitions I find basically explain that the cozy mysteries have specific characteristics in common: these are “gentle crime books.” No graphic violence, no profanity, and no explicit sex. Most often, the crime takes place “off stage,” and death is usually swift. The characters must be likable, most often not professional crimes solvers – amateurs and primarily women. Into this fray enters the pet sidekick.
There are shelves of cozy dog mysteries—in fact, too many to list, beginning with Michael Bond’s Pomme Frites (French Fries) and Dashiel Hammet’s Thin Man Mysteries with Nick and Nora Charles, and their female Schnauzer, Asta.
Among the most popular cozies are cat-detective mysteries, a universe of its own. In the realm of regal cats, there are also too many to name, but among the most famous are Lillian Jackson Braun’s cats, Koko and Yum Yum, in The Cat Who… series.
Given the characteristics that we love in animals, it’s no wonder that literature, particularly the mystery genres, is full of them. If you’re in the market for some plucky animal characters, real and imagined, all you need do is google Animals as Pets and Sidekicks in Fiction.
Perhaps your pets will be interested in hearing these opinions. Pictured here: Miss Millie, my boss, whose characteristics can be found in the cats of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, LaLa, Ziggy, and Sasha.
Okay—Mom Genesis such a great title, it couldn’t not be used. But Abigail Tucker’s new book of that title doesn’t focus just on moms. Tucker, a New York Times best-selling science writer, dives deep into the burgeoning science examining parental behavior—genetic? hormonal? learned?
And you writers may find it a rich source for potential plots.
Moms will recognize Tucker’s description of the weird sensation of being kidnapped, of feeling like victims of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Not feeling quite yourself? In the first of a series of jaw-dropping recent research findings, Tucker reports, “Our children colonize our lungs, spleens, kidneys, thyroids, skin”—and brains. Far from being that familiar image of the one-way street, with mother’s blood, nutrients and even cells flowing into the fetus, the fetus also sends its own fetal cells into the mother. It’s “fetal microchimerism.” No wonder a burgeoning mom feels…she’s changed.
Tucker doesn’t dodge painful issues of maternal and paternal favoritism. “Some 80 percent of us allegedly … prefer one of our children to the others, and more than half of parents demonstrate so-called differential treatment toward various progeny.” The most striking predictor? “Moms appear to dote on their cutest kids.” Apparently “the components of infant attractiveness…are rigid and globally constant,” including big eyes, large forehead, small chin, and chubby cheeks. Tucker says this preference extends to nearly all baby mammals.
But dads apparently outperform moms on “child facial resemblance determination” – i.e., dads are more skilled at noticing whether a child looks like them. Indeed, one Senegal study found “kids grow up bigger and are better fed if they look and in fact smell more like their dads.” A different kind of favoritism…favoring the child which dad feels sure is his.
Jane Austen knew this. You remember that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the parents in Pride and Prejudice, have different favorites? Mrs. Bennet favors beautiful Jane; Mr. Bennet favors sensible Lizzy (Elizabeth). Mrs. Bennet scolds her husband: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.”
Humans share mothering tendencies across species. Will you recognize yourself if I mention “left-handed cradling bias”? In a “near-universal” mothering behavior, “Something like 80 percent of right-handed women and, remarkably, almost as many left-handed women hold their babies automatically on the left.” Check out many paintings of the Madonna, suggests Tucker. This “lefty” preference extends to other mammals. Why? It may allow the infant to “view the more expressive left side of the maternal face.”
Tucker points out it’s not all about genes. Life experience also affects maternal behavior. She describes studies of new monkey mothers showing that, of those roughly treated by their mothers, “more than half of the maltreated monkeys became abusive mothers. All the well-tended infants matured as competent mothers.” But when the scientists swapped some babies, so the abusive monkey moms took charge of the offspring of outstanding monkey moms, “the monkeys grew up to match the behaviors of their adoptive mothers, not their biological mothers.”
Here’s another potential genetic component. Canadian scientist Frances Champagne wondered why mother lab rats from the same genetic strain, living under identical conditions, engaged in different “licking/grooming” of their babies. When Champagne swapped the rat babies, so high-licking moms raised the babies of low-licking moms, the babies of below-average lickers followed in their adoptive mom’s footsteps. Then other scientists found they could program a baby rat’s future licking behavior by stroking it with a tiny paintbrush. “The physicality of getting licked somehow shaped the females’ instincts and behavior.” According to Champagne, “I wanted to show that the care you receive leads to epigenetic changes in infancy, and that this could replicate.” Epigenetics focuses on whether and how bits of genetic code may be “expressed.” Champagne found well-licked baby rats “were more likely to express their genes for certain estrogen receptors…” which made them more likely to express genes for oxytocin receptors and to grow more oxytocin neurons in their brains.
So…parental behavior factors include genes plus life experience with hormones kicking into action to affect gene expression.
Back to favoritism! Harry Potter? Reluctant adoptive parent Mrs. Dursley can’t abide her own sister’s son. The internet is full of books and studies on why parents have favorites and how favorites impact families, including impact on sibling rivalry.
Being a favorite can be dangerous, as Joseph learned. “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children…But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him….” (Genesis 37.)
And I haven’t touched on what Tucker calls the “murderous tendencies of mothers,” citing Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s theories on infanticide in Mother Nature.
Tucker’s final chapters look at the impact of our own stressful society on parents. “Social-support deficits and perinatal depression are intimately linked.” Tucker reports that compared to Dutch mothers, American mothers appeared comparatively quite miserable, with high levels of unhappiness and worry, because they don’t get enough support in their health care or workplace. To transform this problem “would involve taking on some of the most grinding and deadlocked political issues of our day: not only income inequality, but also health care, education, and other topics that have consistently stumped our government,” including racism (citing pregnant Black women’s higher blood pressure and elevated risks of prenatal diabetes, preterm delivery and death).
Tucker visited Erin Kinnally, a scientist at the UC Davis California National Primate Research Center. “Kinnally rattles off the factors that can shape primate moms…age, number of births, genetics, her own mother’s rearing history, the baby’s sex and other characteristics, access to food and shelter and sundry other environmental factors.” But the most potent force is “social chemistry.” The low-ranking macaque moms at the primate center “have weaker immune system and other distinct traits…the lowest ranking moms had four times the amount of stress hormones in their blood.” “Low-ranking [macaque] moms grasp that they have to be vigilant at all times. Fascinating studies have shown that these moms are much more likely to try to shush their infants’ cries when higher-ranked animals are around, for fear that the fussing will draw unwanted attention and attacks.”
Hormonal impact? Stress can mean a baby gets more cortisol in breast milk. In monkeys, “these high-cortisol babies grow unusually quickly, ‘prioritizing’ growth instead of social exploration…”
Tucker, like Bill Bryson in The Body, respects her readers enough to include a serious index. Hers is excellent: for her assertions in each chapter, she includes detailed links to the research studies involved.
We’re all from families; we’re all affected by our genes and our experiences, by how we were parented (and, indeed, how those who parented us were parented, and so on back up the long chain of humanity). Mom Genes confirms what writers already suspect: plots abound!
Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. Ghost Daughter, Book 7 of the series, was published June 15, 2021. Helen’s active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime – Heart of Texas chapter. Find out more at www.helencurriefoster.com.
I suspect most of us have our secrets about how we survived the Pandemic of ’20-’21. Video games, binge-watching movies, reading like a fiend–you get the idea.
My secret was my dog, Tipper. Or should I say my manager. Tip’s a fifteen-pound rescue dog of the Chihuahua meets Terrier variety. Nobody wanted to adopt him because he has bad knees. Really? I’ve had two knee replacements and nobody ever threw me out on the street. Tipper came home to live with me and my better half, Kevin, that very day.
Now, eight years later, it is my dog who has rescued me. Or should I say bosses me around. Thanks to him, I have the next installment of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series, Four Reasons to Die, later this summer.
This is the schedule Tip put me on from the pandemic’s git-go. First, he begins his slow process of waking–this entails laying beneath the bed covers for at least a half hour after Kevin and I are already up, then he slowly rises like a ghost from the grave because the sheets trail after him as he fights his way out of bed, and finally, he spends another half hour under the bed to avoid the rising sun. His last half hour of officially waking iup is spent in my lap while I finish my morning pot of coffee.
And then he jumps down from my lap, game face on. Enough lolly-gagging on my part. Time to get to work.
We start our day with a three-mile walk. Tip has decided this is the amount of time it takes for me to chew through the scene I have to write that day. When we come home, he demands breakfast, then shoos me upstairs to my office to get to work. No shower. No breakfast. It’s work time. To make sure I stay at it, he takes up residence on the small couch in my office and does not leave it until he hears my husband (who during Covid works in his office downstairs) making lunch. Then Tipper jumps down from the couch and scratches at my leg to tell me to take a break. But does he come downstairs with me? Oh, no. He goes back to his couch where he waits for fifteen minutes while I make my lunch and put some tidbits in his bowl. THEN, he comes down.
I finally get my shower after lunch–remember, he doesn’t let me take it before since he’s sure I will forget what I’ve decided to write during our walk. Only then does he allow me to return to my office to get back to work.
At 4:00, Tipper believes our work for the day is done. This is the time when, pre-pandemic, my neighbors and I used to get together to watch Jeopardy. We couldn’t, of course, during the Pandemic, but Tipper never got the memo. At 4:00, we’re supposed to close up shop. I oftentimes decide to keep on working until Kevin was done with his day, and Tipper thinks this is sacrilege. He leaves his couch to sit by my feet and growls as I type away. He believes its against his contract to work such long hours and has threatened several times to call Animal Rescue to arrest me.
I didn’t understand how serious he was about his managerial duties until he started wearing a tie to work. And proofing everything I write. And working on his own stories.
Lord help me, they’ll probably be better than mine…
Thank goodness for my little Tipper. I wouldn’t have made it through the Pandemic without him.
Coming Soon (Thanks to Tipper)!
Four Reasons to Die
The 4th Book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series
When Pastor Matt Hayden steps up to give the Texas Inaugural Ceremony’s benediction after the scheduled minister, Reverend Duff, disappears, he finds himself embroiled in a religious war, a political power-grab, and murder.
The missing Duff, a progressive leftist, is locked in a bitter, public battle with the ultra-conservative Reverend Meade. Duff has also taken on U.S. Senator Womack, a far-right Presidential hopeful whose only love is himself.
Matt joins the search for the missing pastor, but is he prepared to discover the true evil that threatens his family, including the new governor…and his beloved Angie?
Today is Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, when we remember the men and women of the military to whom we cannot say, “Thank you.”
There are many stories about when and where Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day, began. Originally, it honored soldiers fallen during the Civil War, and was first officially celebrated in 1868.
Wikipedia, however, points to an earlier beginning: “On May 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC, formerly enslaved African Americans honored hundreds of Black soldiers who were killed in the Civil War but who were buried in a mass grave. They unearthed the bodies and gave each a proper burial and held a parade in the soldiers’ honor. This is the first major honoring of fallen soldiers that is believed to have begun the tradition.”
In honor of the day, I’ve chosen a poem by British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.
My Boy Jack (Television film based on play by Daniel Haig) (Link leads to complete film on Youtube.) The title My Boy Jack comes from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling for Jack Cornwell, “the 16 year old youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross who stayed by his post on board ship during the battle of Jutland until he died.” The poem “echoes the grief of all parents who lost sons in the First World War. John Kipling was a 2nd Lt in the Irish Guards and disappeared in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos in the First World War.” His body was never found. (Wikipedia). Haig’s play deals with Kipling’s grief at the loss of his son.