Music to Our Ears!

by Helen Currie Foster

On April 2 I drove with my writing compadre D.L.S. Evatt (aka Dixie) to Houston to sign books at Murder by the Book. That renowned bookstore has sold mysteries for 42 years. Huzzah!

We’d launched our books–my Ghost Daughter, Book 7 in the series, and her Bloodlines and Fencelines–at our Honky-Tonk Book Launch on December 5, 2021, at venerable Sam’s Town Point, a South Austin treasure for decades. The owner, Ramsay Midwood, declared it was the “first book launch” for Sam’s. Before the band––Floyd Domino’s All-Stars––began playing, Austin Shakespeare’s Ann Ciccolella interviewed us. Her first question: “why have a book launch at a honky-tonk?”

Dixie and Helen

Why? For all the right reasons—great beer signs, dance floor, pool table, and music. But the main reason: murder mysteries set in small Texas towns must have a place where townspeople meet, where news is exchanged and gossip is passed along, where people see friends and frenemies and fall in love, where the past isn’t forgotten but the present is very much in play.

For Alice Greer, the lawyer protagonist in my Ghost series, the century-old Beer Barn is that place. Artisanal beers, excellent Tex-Mex food, the requisite dance floor—and the mix of music that says “Texas Hill Country.” In Dixie’s Bloodlines and Fencelines, that place is Sara’s General Store.

Of course setting is crucial in mysteries. For a small town setting, a “town crossroads” becomes a useful dramatic tool, providing a place where the mystery’s protagonist runs into various characters and hears (and evaluates) their stories, slowly unraveling the truth of a murder. Have you ever lived or visited relatives in a small town? You may have identified potential locations that would work well in a mystery. In Itasca, Texas, home of my maternal grandparents (and the Itasca Wampus Cats), it might’ve been the church fellowship hall, or the one café that served breakfast and lunch, or (I keep returning to this thought) the frigid meat locker downtown where, like many families, my grandmother kept her side of beef, back before home freezers. I still remember the sharp cold vapor of the meat locker. Imagination stirs…

At any rate, Sam’s Town Point was perfect for a book launch. When we scouted Sam’s, Dixie took a look around and said, “There are stories in these floorboards.” So we wrote a song, “Stories in the Floorboards,” which premiered last month at our book event at the Austin Woman’s Club, sung by songwriter/actress Helyn Rain Messenger.

We asked John McDougall at Murder by the Book if he knew of other authors who’d written or commissioned a song for their book launch. He said, yes, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver had done so, and Lee Childs had commissioned an entire album. Well!

The notion of an album set me thinking of John Rebus, the crusty Edinburgh cop made famous by author Ian Rankin. Rebus, acerbic and brilliant, likes his music. In Black and Blue, he sticks a tape in his car cassette player – Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom, then Deep Purple, Into the Fire.” That title matches the heat of the fix he’s in at that point. (Later in the series, the cassette player becomes a CD player.) But at home, he still relies on the hi-fi.In Rather Be the Devil, set in his ways, now retired and older than dirt, Rebus knows he has an ominous shadow on his lung as he enters his apartment: “A glow from the hi-fi system that told him he hadn’t switched it off. Last album played: Solid Air. Felt like that was what he was walking through…” https://www.amazon.com/s?k=rather+be+the+devil+by+ian+rankin&crid=11GFHLFGLRGUT&sprefix=%2Caps%2C135&ref=nb_sb_ss_recent_1_0_recent

Rebus has stuck to his old technology. And now he’s ahead of the curve. Vinyl sales are up: “Left for dead with the advent of CDs in the 1980s, vinyl records are now the music industry’s most popular and highest-grossing physical format, with fans choosing it for collectibility, sound quality or simply the tactile experience of music in an age of digital ephemerality. After growing steadily for more than a decade, LP sales exploded during the pandemic.In the first six months of this year, 17 million vinyl records were sold in the United States, generating $467 million in retail revenue, nearly double the amount from the same period in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.”

https://www.nytimes.com/svc/oembed/html/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2021%2F10%2F21%2Farts%2Fmusic%2Fvinyl-records-delays.html

Moreover, it’s not retirees pushing this trend: “And while you might think it’s nostalgic Boomers or Gen Xers behind the renaissance of records, in fact surveys show it’s millennial consumers driving the rising trend in vinyl sales.” https://www.themanual.com/culture/why-vinyl-is-coming-back/

Why? For some, vinyls are the new collectible. But maybe it’s about the additional experience involved in listening to a favorite chunk of music. Rebus, for instance, is not listening to streamed music, not asking Alexa to play music that “sounds like” some musician. No, he’s taking a number of steps, both mental and physical, before he begins to experience the music he’s after. He’s choosing an album, seeing the familiar cover again, sliding the fragile (yet powerful) disc from its jacket, and placing it on the turntable. The album represents an entire experience, not just one cover song. Then he’s lifting the arm, carefully lowering the needle, hearing the introductory hum and scratch and—there it is again, the music that lives in his memory and is playing out again right now, in his living room. He’s making music.

Moreover, he’s activating memories, and perhaps comparing the memories of the music with his present situation, as Rebus does here, thinking the song title—John Martyn’s “Solid Air”—“felt like … what he was walking through.” (A compelling description. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UikPQOaJpfU)

Writers use music in mysteries to add depth to the protagonist’s character. Inspector Morse, alone in his flat, listens to opera. Lord Peter Wimsey plays Bach on his baby grand; Sherlock Holmes plays the violin and attends opera. Rebus relies on the music of his time, has the albums, still has t-shirts from concerts he attended. Detectives need a listening ear, need to be able to discern the sound of a lie, hear the tremble in a frightened voice. What the sleuth chooses to listen to can almost make us feel we’re hearing background music. Music becomes the continuo, the bass line that we feel beating like a heart as a book comes to life.

Because—even if we don’t know the specific notes Holmes is fingering on his violin, or which Bach fugue Wimsey is toying with, or which Wagnerian album Morse has put on his hi-fi, or precisely what “Solid Air” sounds like, we do have a huge memory vault of similar music that bubbles up as we read a mystery. We may not quite create the same soundtrack the author had in mind, but our brains engage.

Book 5 of my series, Ghost Next Door, involves a murder at the Coffee Creek city park, the night before Coffee Creek’s first barbecue competition. My protagonist, lawyer Alice Greer, is part of the happy crowd under the stars, listening to keyboard geniuses playing varieties of boogie-woogie, a genre which may have begun in the lumber camps of East Texas and still flourishes in Austin. Early in the evening Alice hears “Right Place, Wrong Time,” presaging what happens next. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf15HrUZ5Wk. The following night she and her romantic interest, Ben Kinsear, attend the Pianorama at the Beer Barn (Alice’s favorite client). Six piano players are trading licks, winding up with Freddie Slack’s “Down the Road A Piece,” with its rippling magic trick at the end, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OX8TPanPKzU, and ending with Slack’s haunting theme song, “Strange Cargo.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQM46xi031M

The crowd demands an encore, Alice listens as the theme grows “more complex, begins to create dreams, memories, ambitions.” The music reflects Alice’s emotions.

Music memory involves several different parts of our brain. “Different types of music-related memory appear to involve different brain regions, for instance when lyrics of a song are remembered, or autobiographical events are recalled associated with a particular piece of music.” https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/138/8/2438/330016

And it may be for that reason that music stays in our brains longer than many other memories. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2017.00005#:~:text=Our%20brains%20possess%20a%20remarkable,might%20know%20it%20by%20heart.

You already know this. Your personal music catalog—music from your past, your present, your childhood, your teenage years, and the new piece of music you just listened to—is with you, quietly ticking away in your brain, available and waiting. And there’s always more to add.

So, you could check out the line-up at Sam’s Town Point. Go Hear Floyd Domino’s All-Stars. Keep filling the music catalog…

https://www.samstownpointatx.com/

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer “Ghost” series, north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s fascinated by dirt and water law, as well as human history, and the way the past, uninvited, keeps crashing the party.

Ghost Daughter, Book 7, was named Semifinalist for the BookLife Prize for Mystery/Thriller (“an intriguing and complex narrative”). Book 8 is underway.

blog reference

Some Book Recommendations

by VP Chandler

VP Chandler

I’ve been reading this summer and wanted to share some great books with you!

The Blessing Way is book #1 of the famous Leaphorn and Chee series by Tony Hillerman. This series has been in my TBR (To Be Read) pile for years and I’m happy to say that I finally got around to it! I knew that it would be good because everyone I’ve talked to has loved these books. Even knowing that, I was pleasantly surprised. Leaphorn is interesting and has an inherent understand about people and what makes them tick. His internal dialogue also teaches the reader about his heritage and culture. I honestly found that aspect of the story to be entertaining and enlightening. It was also full of suspenseful action. There’s a seen where a character is stalked by something or someone in the night. That scene was the best in the book! It was chilling and creepy. I loved it. *happy chills*

I’m currently reading book #2, Dance Hall of The Dead and it’s just as creepy and suspenseful.

Good Reads description of The Blessing Way: Homicide is always an abomination, but there is something exceptionally disturbing about the victim discovered in a high lonely place, a corpse with a mouth full of sand, abandoned at a crime scene seemingly devoid of tracks or useful clues. Though it goes against his better judgment, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn cannot help but suspect the hand of a supernatural killer. There is palpable evil in the air, and Leaphorn’s pursuit of a Wolf-Witch is leading him where even the bravest men fear, on a chilling trail that winds perilously between mysticism and murder.

The second book that I recommend is The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott. It’s also the first in a series, the Chris Cherry series. While it also has a landscape that’s remote, isolated, and vast, this book is quite different. The story is told in alternating chapters from different characters. It took me a bit to get the characters straight, but once I did that, it took off. Scott does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the west Texas landscape and its people, especially bullies in small towns. As most good books, there’s a showdown of sorts and my nerves were raw, waiting to see what happens. It’s not a small book but you’ll be turning pages.

Good Reads description: Seventeen-year-old Caleb Ross is adrift in the wake of the sudden disappearance of his mother more than a year ago, and is struggling to find his way out of the small Texas border town of Murfee. Chris Cherry is a newly minted sheriff’s deputy, a high school football hero who has reluctantly returned to his hometown. When skeletal remains are discovered in the surrounding badlands, the two are inexorably drawn together as their efforts to uncover Murfee’s darkest secrets lead them to the same terrifying suspect: Caleb’s father and Chris’s boss, the charismatic and feared Sheriff Standford “Judge” Ross. Dark, elegiac, and violent, The Far Empty is a modern Western, a story of loss and escape set along the sharp edge of the Texas border. Told by a longtime federal agent who knows the region, it’s a debut novel you won’t soon forget.

Recommendation #3 is South California Purples by Baron R. Birtcher. It’s set in 1973 and starts out with an easy feel of a typical traditional Western. Then rancher Ty Dawson gets conscripted into helping the county’s law enforcement, who seems to have no interest in dealing with the growing problem. When time after time Dawson doesn’t get help from the local cops, Dawson decides to handle matters as he sees fit. If you’re looking for a mix of hard-boiled with a Western, this book fits the bill. Biker gangs vs. cowboys. You know it’s full of action. *trigger warning- it does deal with rape*

From Good Reads: Cattle rancher Ty Dawson, a complex man tormented by elements of his own past, is involuntarily conscripted to assist local law enforcement when a herd of wild mustangs is rounded up and corralled in anticipation of a government auction, igniting the passions of political activist Teresa Pineu, who threatens to fan the flames of an uprising that grows rapidly out of control.

As the past collides with the present, and hostility escalates into brutality and bloodshed, Ty is drawn into a complex web of predatory alliances and corruption where he must choose to stand and fight, or watch as the last remnants of the American West are consumed in a lawless conflagration of avarice and cruelty.

I hope this helps you find some new books. And remember, whenever possible, please try to purchase your books from local, independent bookstores. Thank you!

Dreaming in Santa Fe

by Helen Currie Foster

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.

Thanks, Santa Fe! Like so many…I’ll be back.

Helen Currie Foster lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series and is active with Austin Shakespeare and Sisters in Crime, Heart of Texas Chapter. Follow her at www.helencurriefoster.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/helencurriefoster/, and on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=helen+currie+foster

And Over. And Over. And . . .

by Kathy Waller

I’m thinking it over.

— Jack Benny

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.

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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.

I’m Mary.

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.

Well, I do. Professor Ken Macrorie said English majors think they’ll be paid to read books.

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.

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“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.)

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Image of Mary Tyler Moore cast via Wikipedia. Public domain.

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Kathy Waller has published stories in anthologies Murder on Wheels: 11 Tales of Crime on the Move; Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime; and Day of the Dark: Stories of Eclipse; and online at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

She is still amazed at how long it takes to write a blog post, even when she isn’t thinking.

James Michener Didn’t Care

by Kathy Waller

When I was four years old, I took a pair of scissors and a roll of red, gooey adhesive tape and wrote my name on the inside of the kitchen door. It didn’t occurred to me I shouldn’t, and my parents never said a word. I’m sure they discussed it, but I wasn’t privy to that conversation.  The crooked red letters stayed on the door for years. When they were finally removed, a heavy red stain remained.

Pat Boone - PixWhen I was eight, my father gave me a ream of legal-sized paper. I produced a newspaper, one copy per issue, focusing on the social activities of dogs, cats, and horses in the neighborhood. I reported on the wedding of Mr. Pat Boone, my rat terrier, and Miss Bootsie, my grandfather’s evil gray-and-white cat. Miss Bootsie was really Mr. Bootsie, but even then I knew the value of poetic license. Mr. Tommy, my cousin’s orange tabby, married someone, too, but I don’t remember whom or what gender. Or what genus and species for that matter.

For years, I loved writing—the paper, the pencils and pens, the ink, the facts, the improved facts, and the outright fiction.

The feeling lasted until high school, when I began taking courses labeled English. Writing became torture. What will I write about, how many words does it have to be, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t have anything to say. Through high school and two  college degrees–in English–I produced the required papers but agonized over every word.

There were bright spots: writing the junior class prophecy, which made even the teachers laugh when I read it at the junior-senior banquet; composing a satire on life in the teachers’ lounge I hid in when I was a teacher, issued serially on an irregular basis whenever the Muse moved me.

Overall, however, my relationship with writing remained conflicted. I pretended it didn’t. After all, I taught English.

Things began to change when I told a therapist about my early love affair with words. He responded, “I think you’d better start writing.” He suggested I join the Austin Writers’ League.

“I can’t,” I said. “James Michener belongs to the Austin Writers’ League. I can’t belong to anything James Michener belongs to.”

James Michener

The next day, I joined. James Michener didn’t object. I took informal classes at universities. An instructor invited me to a Saturday-morning writing practice group. The next weekend, I drove fifty miles, parked in front of the café where it met, watched people carry notebooks inside, backed my car out, and drove home. It took another week to build the courage to pick up my notebook to join them and become a regular.

The result? Once again, I fell in love with writing. I also fell in love with a member of the writing practice group and, after a decent interval, married him.

And I published some short stores in anthologies and online, and one novella.

But my romance with writing hasn’t ended  happily ever after. I don’t have a long list of appealing topics. I don’t have a file of perfect first sentences. I still have to write to find out what I know and what I think. I always wonder what happens next (and understand why Hemingway, Faulker, and Fitgerald drank to excess). I’m still driven by deadlines—my brain doesn’t turn on till one is upon me—and I write furiously up until the deadline (or, as now, after it).

Starting any piece is difficult. But once I (finally) begin, the words flow.

I wouldn’t exchange that feeling for anything.

In fifteen years, I’ve come from I can’t join the Austin Writers’ League to I’m working on a novel, attending Austin Mystery Writers critique group, writing for publication, blogging, writing every day.

And, contrary to the moans I make when asked how the writing is going, I love every second of it. Mostly.

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The therapist actually said, “If you don’t start writing, you’re going to explode.” Since I took his suggestion, more things have changed. The Austin Writers’ League has morphed into the Writers’ League of Texas. The writing practice group that met at the cafe dissolved, and I joined another, Writing from the Heart, which met at BookPeople Bookstore; later it moved to various branches of the Austin Public Library. Now as 15 Minutes of Fame (More or Less), it meets online.

Invitation: 15 Minutes of Fame is free and all are invited to attend—no fees, no dues, no membership registration, no RSVP, no critique, no need write and spell as if your English teacher will scribble on your paper. No need to be a published author or to write “well.” Just have pen and paper or computer ready and show up. We do timed writings—choose a time, write, read aloud what we’ve written (IF we want to read; reading isn’t required), then do it all again. We meet from 10:00 a.m. to noon, on Saturdays; the schedule has been irregular recently but we’re in the process of getting back on track. When it’s stable, we’ll update the website, http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com If you’re interesting in writing with us, email kathywaller1 (at) gmail (dot) com.
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Bootsie had long gray hair and green eyes, was beautiful, and slashed both a little girl who tried to pet him every time she saw him, and her owner, my grandfather, who thought he was peachy keen. Pat Boone was mine, and one of the dearest dogs who ever lived.
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This post first appeared, with modifications, on Telling the Truth, Mainly.

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Image of terrier by kteri3565 from Pixabay
Image of cat by Lenka Novotná from Pixabay
Image of James Michener by Robert Wilson, public domain, from Wikipedia
Image of critics examining ratty drafts by me

A Dream Come True

kp gresham

 

 

 

By K.P. Gresham

Writers love to dream. We dream when we’re awake and when we’re asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference. Here’s an example.

I woke to the sound of the TV news coming from the other room. This was no surprise as my husband always turned on the telly when he had his morning coffee. What I heard coming from the TV, however, stunned me.

“My fellow Americans,” the President was saying. “I know these next few weeks and months will be very dark indeed. Thousands will die from Covid-19. Many more thousands will become sick. But remember this. We are Americans. Just as our forefathers fought side by side with people they’d never met, races they’d never before even knew existed, followers of different religions, they came together to create The United States of America. Their goal? To form a more perfect union.”

I swung my legs out of bed and joined my husband in the front room, where he sat mesmerized, staring at the TV.

I saw the President was standing alone behind a podium in the White House Rose Garden. “Today it is in that unity that we must come together to help each other through this trying time. It’s amazing what a smile and a wave to a stranger while social distancing can do not only for that stranger, but for you as well. Giving joy brings joy. Sending an encouraging email tells us we can be a source of comfort. Passing on a Facebook joke brings a smile to our face as well as those we’ve friended.”

Entranced, I sat down beside my husband on the couch.

“When Pearl Harbor was attacked, thus bringing the United States into World War II,” the President continued, “the Japanese admiral who lead the attack said, ‘I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.’ His fear came to pass.” The President’s smile was victorious. “The entire U.S. population roared to the support of our common cause. We signed up for the Armed Forces, turned our manufacturers into war machine producers, started food banks, sold and bought war bonds.  Normal citizens turned into parachute seamsters, hospital workers, night raid wardens and troops on the front line.”

My husband put his hand around my shoulder. I felt him sending me confidence through that hug.

“In the midst of this war on Covid-19–and it is a war–we as a united people under one flag, must now understand that we, too, can be part of the solution. Put on your armor, your face masks, your gloves, etc., arm yourself with sanitizer. Take orders from your generals, or in our case, the medical experts who tell you to wash your hands, stay at home, and when you do have to go out, wear a mask and stay at least six feet away from every person you see.

“Now is the time for the United States to no longer be that sleeping giant, uninvolved and inactive. Let us roar into action, together, united, knowing our attitude will be the difference between the life and death for millions of our fellow citizens. Be positive! Know you ARE the solution! Only together can we defeat this enemy.”

Yes! I thought. I can be part of the solution!

“As your President,” he continued, “I call all Americans to arms. I call the businesses of this country to retool and make the equipment our soldiers on the front lines, the first responders, need to succeed. I call on the wealthy to have a care for our service workers on whom they depend for their comfort. Remember that bartender who knows exactly how dry you like your martini. Remember that masseuse who is the only one who can get that kink out of your neck. I suspect strongly that the wealthier you are the more workers and businesses you will have on your list. I call on every person to be the support each other needs. A smile. An attitude of ‘We’re in this together and, by God (literally), we will get through this.’

“To my fellow politicians I say this.” He gazed straight into the camera. “Right now is NOT the time for assessing blame, dire predictions, threats to our medical experts, or refusing to follow the restrictions deemed best for our country. Time for all of those arguments, judgements, recriminations belongs to a history yet to be written. Right now we’re fighting a war, and as leader of this country, I say we all, including the government, will fight this war as one.”

My chest swelled with pride. We are the United States of America!

“In conclusion,” he said. “I thank all of the first responders, all of the medical experts, all of the businesses and individuals who are rising up to defeat this disease. We are a mighty country. God bless the United States of America.”

I was invigorated. Hopeful. Determined.

And apparently I was asleep.

Suddenly my alarm screamed into my hopefulness, jerking me awake. What the hell?

Then I realized it had all been a dream. Damn. My sense of empowerment and determination seeped away as I became more and more ensconced in wakefulness.

Time to get back to reality. But wouldn’t it be nice if that dream would someday come true?

Review of Boar Island by Nevada Barr

 

VP Chandler

Written by V.P. Chandler

 

The first Anna Pigeon book that I read by Nevada Barr was Blind Descent, book 6 of the series, back in 1998. And I’ve read most of her books since then. I’m hooked!

Since the main character in the books is a park ranger, each story is set in a national park. I’ve learned so much about nature, each park, and its landscape and history.  I particularly liked the history in Flashback, book 11. It was set in Dry Tortugas National Park. I didn’t know that that is where those who had been accused of Lincoln’s assassination were imprisoned back in 1865!

Here is the complete list of her books and where they are set.

As you’d expect, Anna has to solve mysteries and face all sorts of dangers in each book like mountain lions, bears, natural disasters, forest fires, and of course the most dangerous of all, people.

Boar Island starts away from the park with a case of cyber-bullying. You know what? Here’s the description from Barr’s website:

Anna Pigeon, in her career as a National Park Service Ranger, has had to deal with all manner of crimes and misdemeanors, but cyber-bullying and stalking is a new one. The target is Elizabeth, the adopted teenage daughter of her friend Heath Jarrod. Elizabeth is driven to despair by the disgusting rumors spreading online and bullying texts. Until, one day, Heath finds her daughter Elizabeth in the midst of an unsuccessful suicide attempt. She calls in the cavalry—her aunt Gwen and her friend Anna Pigeon.

While they try to deal with the fragile state of affairs—and find the person behind the harassment—the three adults decide the best thing to do is to remove Elizabeth from the situation. Since Anna is about to start her new post as Acting Chief Ranger at Acadia National Park in Maine, the three will join her and stay at a house on the cliff of a small island near the park, Boar Island.

But the move east doesn’t solve the problem. The stalker has followed them east. And Heath (a paraplegic) and Elizabeth aren’t alone on the otherwise deserted island. At the same time, Anna has barely arrived at Acadia when a brutal murder is committed.

While this does describe the setup, it doesn’t come close to describing the action and complex story that weaves together. Poor Anna! By the end I think she could totally commiserate with John McClane of Die Hard. She’s a physically fit character, but the injuries that she’s had in past stories still plague her at times. As they should! And the choices that she’s made, good and bad, also haunt her. She’s a life-like character that you can relate to.

Boar Island is a good book that will keep you turning pages. I sped right through it. Cyber-bullying, obsession, murder, feuds, high tech, and a harsh environment in a remote location, it’s got it all!

You can learn more about Nevada Barr at: http://www.nevadabarr.com/homepage

 

Review of Daughters of Bad Men

 

 

Written by V.P. Chandler

Back in September Daughters of Bad Men, by our own Laura Oles, was chosen as the book for the Murder In The Afternoon Book Club at Book People. Now if you’re an author, or even if you’re not, your TBR (To Be Read) pile of books is probably extensive. And if you’re an author, that pile includes books written by friends.

Laura and I hitting the road to go to Bouchercon in New Orleans!

So, since Laura’s book was chosen as a book club choice, that gave me an extra incentive to pull it from my shelf and delve in! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to the book club so I’m still brimming with the need to discuss it.

 

So right off the bat, I enjoyed it! It takes place in Port Arlene, Texas, a fictional tourist town near Corpus Christi. Since I grew up in CC, I was immediately interested. She captured the feel of a tourist beach town. I could smell the food, the salty air, and feel the gritty sand that invades everything. And while tourists are having fun eating, basking in the sun, and fishing, they aren’t aware of the seedier side of life that exists along with the plastic fish stuck in nets that are ever-present in the restaurants.

The antagonist is Jamie Rush who is a skip tracer. She also has an extra skill set because she grew up in a family of con artists. She can easily see a con a mile away and she knows all of the tricks that people use when they don’t want to be found. But instead of using her talents to con people, she’s chosen to help people, or at least earn her money honestly. And although she lives in the same area with most of her family, she’s distanced herself and has nothing to do with them.

 

So when her half-brother contacts her, she ignores his messages. The messages become more urgent when he explains that his daughter, Kristen, is missing. This still doesn’t raise a red flag with Jamie because her niece has pulled a disappearing act before. And Kristen usually has her own cons going on the side. But what if she’s truly in danger? Jamie wouldn’t be able to live with herself if something happened to Kristen and Jamie didn’t check it out.

Added to the mix of characters is Jamie’s trusty sidekick, Cookie, an over-sized, intimidating, tacky Hawaiian shirt-wearing, huggable, fiercely loyal friend. (Enough adjectives for you?) Another friend, a woman who runs a betting operation, who learned the ropes from her father. And another woman who comes from a violent organized crime family. (It’s very interesting to see how these daughters of bad men interact.)

Jamie begins digging in Kristen’s life and what she uncovers is a complicated web of love, revenge, and “just business”.

I thought that this story was going to be a typical “p.i. procedural”. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the laid-back pace of beach town life and then it accelerated non-stop to an incredibly satisfying ending. There were a few surprises in there that kept me turning the pages!

So, if you haven’t gotten this book, get it!

 

*Warning- Reading this book will also make you crave fried shrimp, cold beer, and the perfect fish taco. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! Seriously, now I need to take a trip to the coast for some fresh seafood and to hear the seagulls.

Sharks: Who, Where, and How to Get Rid of Them

by Kathy Waller

This is a shark:

This shark does not live in the ocean. It lurks in bookstores, coffee shops, libraries:

Disguised as an aspiring writer, it invades critique groups and, fueled by ego, envy, jealousy, and just plain mean-spiritedness, can do untold harm.

Writer, instructor, and “genre-hopper” Maralys Wills describes its pernicious effect:

“Nothing will stifle creativity faster than the critiquer who’s ‘out to get’ other writers. Subtly, or not so subtly, a shark is so impossible to please that other authors become frustrated, then discouraged, and finally defeated.”

Wills speaks from experience. She was once in a critique group with a writer who wrote “golden prose” that Wills could only praise. But she was the only one who saw flawless writing.

“Sure enough, each week,  the others ripped and tore and nit-picked to death the work I found so perfect. . .  and all the time I was thinking, You guys must be desperate to flaunt your hatchets. None of you are as good as she is.”

Wills has a rule covering toxic critique groups: “Any group dominated by a shark should be disbanded. Preferably, you should kill the shark on your way out.”

In critique groups, intentions matter. Relationships matter.

In the most productive groups, members behave like professionals. They look for the positive and address the negative in language designed to help their colleagues improve. In the best groups, they behave like friends. Sometimes, members even morph from friends into buddies. And in a buddy-style relationship, anything can happen.

For example, in a chapter I submitted to a short-lived two-person group—we called ourselves the Just for the Hell of It Critique Group, for a reason I won’t go into here—a  contentious old lady says to another character, “And you and that Claudia person can just go right back where you came from.”

Gale, my partner, objected to the word person; she said the old woman knew Claudia and so would say, “You and Claudia can just go right back where you came from.” I didn’t argue (a rule: no arguing),  but I knew the character, and I could hear her say, “that Claudia person.” Because writers are free to reject advice if they wish, I left the word where it was.

Some time later, commenting on  a revision of that page, Gale again said I should remove person. But I still liked person—it was one of my darlings—so I quietly declined to do so.

By the third go-around, Gale had  had enough: “That Claudia person thing is driving me crazy.”

She wouldn’t have said that to just anyone. We’d worked together and learned to trust each other. We spoke the same language. We were buddies.

She knew I would laugh. I laughed. She laughed. I removed the offending person.

So here is my love song, not fancy or fine, but most sincere, to the Austin Mystery Writers, the Just for the Hell of It Writers, and all those groups that give aspiring writers the knowledge, support, and  courage to keep aspiring, to publication and beyond.

By the way, the toxic critique group Maralys Wills wrote about—she and the writer of “golden prose” left the group. I don’t know what happened to the sharks. Wills and the other writer might have killed them on the way out. Or they might still be out there, destroying other writers’ creativity.

Maralys Wills, however, became an award-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction.

And the writer of “golden prose” that the sharks trashed at every meeting? She became the author of the best-selling Inspector Lynley mysteries—Elizabeth George.

***

These are not sharks:

For your reading pleasure, I recommend Maralys Wills’ Damn the Rejections, Full Speed Ahead: The Bumpy Road to Getting Published. 

***

Kathy Waller’s stories appear in the Austin Mystery Writers crime fiction anthologies, Murder on Wheels (Wildside, 2015) and Lone Star Lawless (Wildside, 2017), and at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly and has a novella coming out this fall.  She lives in Austin with two cats and one husband.

PLAYING FOR PIZZA – by John Grisham

Written by Francine Paino

  The master of suspense took a break from his usual mystery, crime, and thriller books to write Playing for Pizza; a football story hatched as he researched settings for another novel.  

Playing for Pizza tracks a third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in what turns out to be a life lesson – the question is, will he learn?

Poor Rick Dockery. With only minutes left to play, in the AFC Championship game, Dockery comes in as Quarterback with a 17- point lead and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.  Rick ends up in a hospital, recovering from the concussion he suffered along with the loss. His agent, Arnie, and the duty nurse discourage him from remembering too much of what had happened, but eventually, poor Rick does remember and then learns that virulent Cleveland fans want to storm the hospital and dismember him – or at least run him out of town on a rail. In addition to the disaster, his agent informs him that the Browns have released him and no other team wants him – he is unemployable in the NFL, but Rick isn’t done with football – he can’t be; it’s all he knows.

Dubbed by an unforgiving and vicious press as “the greatest goat in the history of professional sports,” Rick has hit rock bottom.  His agent suggests that it might be time to find another profession; Dockery, however, refuses to give up. Arnie is running out of patience and ideas, not to mention the fact that he isn’t making any money representing the disgraced Quarterback, yet he makes “one more call,” to an old buddy.

Coach Russo is looking for a QB for the Panthers—of Parma, Italy. They play at a Division 3 level – maybe. Russo wants an American QB to lead his team of tough Italians, whose professions range from truck drivers to airline pilots and everything in-between. These men hold full-time jobs and play for love of the game, and pizza!  As one of the three Americans allowed on any team in Italy, Rick will be provided with a car, rent money and a very small salary – nowhere near the pay scale in the NFL.

With no other options available, feeling the pressure to get out of the States, filled with resentment and self-pity, Rick Dockery accepts the job. He flies off to a country he barely knows exists and a city he’d never heard of before.

The coach meets him at the airport and immediately realizes that Dockery is in for a few shocks. Coach Russo crash courses Rick in Italian football. The Panthers are on an eight-game schedule with play-offs and a shot at the Italian Super Bowl. At the same time, Rick must cope with stick-shift small cars, bumper-to-bumper parking, and the culture of food, wine, and opera– things about which Rick Dockery knows nothing. By his own admission, his education consisted of football, Phys. Ed., more football, and cheerleaders. 

Rick begins the process of adjusting to his new circumstances and his new team. Secretly, he believes he would be hiding out in Parma for a while and would return to the States after other NFL teams forgot his humiliation and offered him a spot.

One vicious reporter from Cleveland, however, finds out where Dockery is and has no intention of allowing him any salvation in football. The reporter stalks him and reports back to the Cleveland Post on Dockery’s progress, turning anything Dockery does well into a series of “lucky breaks.”

Throughout, we watch Dockery cope with the culture shock of a completely alien environment while melding with teammates who are unlike any he’d ever encountered in the States and somehow, play his best football.

Sometimes the story feels like a travel guide through northern Italy and a play-by-play in football, but it’s told through the eyes of a lost soul on a life journey. Dockery learns that in Italy, although “it (footfall) was just a club sport, winning meant something – commitment meant even more.”

By the end of Rick’s story, we see a man emerge from the immature self-absorbed, culturally deficient boy/man who’d arrived in a foreign country only a few weeks before. Moreover, if you are a football fan, the last game is a heart-stopper.

There’s no fairy-tale ending here. Dockery has choices to make, but he finds confidence, becomes comfortable in his own skin, and learns the real meaning of playing for pizza.

It’s not a new release, but it’s still a great summer read.