Characters We’re Drawn To

By Helen Currie Foster

Last week Big D hosted the Bouchercon book conference. Two sessions made me wonder why we’re drawn to particular book characters, and how key they are to readers.

At the Bouchercon “Success in Publishing” panel, a speaker said, “People read for character. Conflict turns pages.” A second speaker said she’ll re-read a writer’s submittal if, the next day, she remembers the characters.

Best-selling author Elizabeth George (Inspector Lynley series) told a spellbound audience (me too) that for a new book, before she starts writing anything else, she creates her characters and settings.

George designs her characters to “reflect the human heart in conflict.” Sometimes she’ll have as many as six characters telling the story from their point of view. She creates a character prompt sheet, deciding, for each, what is this character’s real need? She considers the character’s psychopathology: what would the character do under stress? If the character appears only once, what is the character’s agenda in
that scene?

George then decides, where does this novel begin? Only then does she start to outline the first ten scenes. Each must be causally related to another scene. She then writes a rough draft of those first ten scenes, and repeats the process for the next ten scenes. Nothing is set in concrete.

In the tug-of-war for primacy between plot and character, what gives a character “pull”? If we “read for character,” which characters really attract us––perhaps even more than a forceful plot? What does Elizabeth George mean––the human heart in conflict?

Each of you has your own list of favorite characters, some from favorite childhood books. Take Charlotte’s Web. I’m fond of the pig Wilbur, and the child Fern. I empathize with Wilbur’s terror when he’s being chased for the slaughter. But Charlotte…isn’t she the magnet? Aren’t we as fixated on her as Wilbur is? Using Elizabeth George’s approach, how is Charlotte’s spiderly heart in conflict? We know she’s determined to teach Wilbur how to survive. We know that a spider has no duty to befriend an orphan pig. Conflict? We know by the end that Charlotte has spent her last days using her remaining energy to teach Wilbur what he needs to know, while fully aware that her own end is nigh. We’re drawn to Charlotte’s generosity, her clever planning, her foresight, her perseverance: we admire her. Like Wilbur we hope for her approval. Do we empathize with her? Yes, when she’s working so hard on those webs. We feel her exhaustion! We too are swinging from one side of the web to the other! Wilbur has learned from Charlotte’s work, too. Perhaps he has learned gratitude? Awe? Aw.

We’re also drawn to childhood characters who learn. Think of that little sourpuss Mary in The Secret Garden. Readers can empathize with her lonely railroad journey to a place where she knows no one, but honestly, she is essentially unlikable: rude, willful, suspicious, unkind. Her heart distrusts the world. As the gorse bushes blossom and the downs bloom, as the children find their way to each other and into the secret garden, Mary slowly changes, slowly learns friendship, slowly learns generosity. We see from her eyes, hear with her ears, and experience her transformation ourselves.

What about Kim? This little orphan, footloose in the Raj, asks himself the great question: “Who is Kim?” Is he English? Hindu? Pathan? Who deserves his loyalty? I love Kim’s rapid costume changes, his effortless switches of vernacular as he deals with beggars, farmers with sick children, high-born old ladies in their palanquins. I itch for him in the woolen school uniform he must wear when sent off to a miserable English school, separated from the beloved Tibetan lama he has adopted. Kipling’s rich plot takes Kim (and us) across India and up into the high cool hills of the Himalayas, as Kim is initiated into the perilous Great Game of spying between the British and the Russians. Such a rich plot––secret messages, invisible ink, spies dressed as beggars, hypnotic jewel games––could dominate the characters. I don’t think it does. On one long day of healing after Kim finishes his exhausting trip from the high hills down to the plains, carrying the sick lama, we experience Kim’s discovery. The lama finds his long-sought river, and Kim begins to know who he is.

Okay, one last favorite character from that grand tale, Lonesome Dove. The question “which is your favorite character…?” occasioned great debate at our house. I opt for Gus. We meet him at the beginning, we see what he sees, hear what he thinks, we know just how he feels as the sun slowly––finally––sinks low enough in the first chapter that he can stalk out to the adobe springhouse to get his jug and have a swig in the dab of shade on the porch. We see other characters through his eyes. But I also admire Gus: I admire his taking care to help Lorena survive, his concern for Newt. I hate that Deets dies, that the little Irish boys die, but I can ascribe that to fate (as wielded by Larry McMurtry). Gus is different. Oh, yes, the author made me care for other characters on that long drive to Montana. But I personally experienced most of the book from Gus’s saddle, as if I were perched right behind him. I don’t want McMurtry to let Gus ride over that hill.… Gus, don’t go over that hill!

Oh, and let’s add A Gentleman in Moscow. Mmm, that tenacious Count Rostov.

My favorites share some qualities: generosity, intelligence, some humor. But in addition, despite their human hearts in conflict, they choose to take action, action potentially at odds with their own interests, despite personal danger and fear of loss. So, throw determination in there too.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She works in Austin, and she’s active with the Hays County Master Naturalists and the board of Austin Shakespeare.

New Mystery Series: Bullet Books Speed Reads at Texas Book Festival

No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.

Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: This morning, the Texas Book Festival  opens on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin.  Exhibitor tents and food trucks will line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— will speak and sign books, and appear on panels. There will be books for display and for sale.

And in Exhibitor Tent #4, a new mystery series will be launched: BULLET BOOKS SPEED READS.

BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.

Twelve Bullet Books will be introduced today. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies.

A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:

Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.

Bill Rogers – KILLER SET DROP THE MIC
Billy Kring – IRON 13
Helen Currie Foster – BLOODY BEAD
Mark Pryor – THE HOT SEAT
Kathy Waller – STABBED
Jay Brandon – MAN IN THE CLIENT CHAIR
Kay Kendall – ONLY A PAWN IN THEIR GAME
Suzanne Waltz – DANGEROUS PRACTICE
Scott Montgomery – TWO BODIES, ONE GRAVE
Laura Oles – LAST CALL
V.P. Chandler – THE LAST STRAW
Elizabeth Garcia – THE NEON PALM

The first twelve Bullet Books are available from Amazon in both paper and ebook formats.  Another thirteen volumes will be released in 2020.

Authors will sign their books at the Starpath Books booth 405 in exhibitor tent #4, this Saturday and Sunday, October 26-27.

By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe  will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.

Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m.

If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.

And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.

THE GHOSTS OF HISTORY: WHAT THEY CAN TELL US

The late president Harry S. Truman said, “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.” 

People make history. What were the lives of those who came before really like? Men and women who lived without the conveniences, comforts, and communications we enjoy today. 

Most adults throughout history couldn’t read or write. They depended on oral historians and they certainly didn’t have 24-hour news cycles to keep them informed.  

How and why did they prosper or fail? Who were the great leaders of these populations? How was the common person’s life impacted by discoveries, wars, and political decisions? Were their lives improved or worsened?  

What provocative question would you ask that cannot be learned from the histories you do know? The ghosts of artists, performers, and sports figures, political and military leaders might offer corrections or additions to our knowledge.

Starting with the first humans to stand upright, there are questions. Archeologists still ponder the evidence of humans using and controlling fire a million years ago. While spontaneous fires happened and probably frightened those first men and women. What accident caused the spark that showed these primitives that they could create fire? Perhaps it was a woman trying to crush the head of a fish and accidentally struck another rock that caused that first human made spark. Wouldn’t I love to know? 

Think of the great warrior women in history. Would you call up the spirit of one of the biblical women like Deborah, Judith or Jael? What secrets could they tell of their lives? When thinking of great warrior women and leaders in ancient times one cannot ignore Cleopatra or Boudica. 

I always wonder which Roman leader and general Cleopatra truly loved, if she loved either. Was it Caesar or Marc Antony? Did she seduce and use Marc Antony only to protect her’s and Caesar’s son, Caesarian’s birthright?  

In A.D. 60-61, Queen Boudica, of the Iceni tribe was a remarkable pagan leader who refused to bow to Rome. Her courageous leadership inspired her tribe to fight against the might of the Roman war machine. Defeated in the end, Boudica and her daughters took poison rather than face capture. 

Everything known about Boudica, the Iceni and the battles with Rome was written and recorded by Roman scholars. What corrections might her ghost give us, if summoned? 

Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and other great scientists have advanced the sciences in all areas. Is there anything they might add to the histories we know? Are there unrevealed truths, known only to them?    

In sports, maybe you’d like to know about Babe Ruth, beyond the opinions and movies. Already considered one of the best ballplayers, after leading the Boston Red Sox to three world series, how did the Sultan of Swat, otherwise known as the Bambino, really feel when club owner Harry Frazee sold him to the New York Yankees? 

For me, there are too many ghosts to name, but if I could summon only one, it would be the 17th President of the United States. 

Democrat Andrew Johnson was elected vice-president when Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency. In the early 19th century, presidents and vice-presidents did not run as a team from the same party. These two men served during one of the most devastating times in U.S. history.

After the destructive Civil War, that ended slavery, but killed 600,000 men, an exhausted nation then faced the shocking assassination of Abraham Lincoln, on April 14, 1865. Democrat vice-president Andrew Johnson, under the U.S. Constitution, took the oath of office and became the 17th president, even as the hunt for the conspirators continued.

Those involved in Lincoln’s assassination were speedily caught. The planner and triggerman, John Wilkes Booth resisted capture and was shot to death outside the barn on Garrets Farm, in Virginia. Another conspirator, John Surratt, Mary’s son escaped to Canada. 

In early May 1865, the remaining eight faced a military tribunal. All were found guilty. Four, Arnold, Mudd, and O’Laughlen, were sentenced to life in prison, and Spangler received a six-year sentence. Their part in the conspiracy to kidnap the president was well established, but not their involvement in the assassination. 

The four collaborators found guilty and sentenced to death were Herold, Powell, Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt

After the trial, five of the nine military commissioners who found Mary Surratt guilty petitioned President Johnson. They recommended that her sentence be changed to life in prison. Instead, Johnson, who never directly replied to the request, ordered the executions to take place as soon as possible. 

Thus, on July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt was the first woman ever executed by the United States.  

My burning question to the ghost of Andrew Johnson, would be, After the recommendation for leniency from five battle-hardened generals who’d found her guilty, why sir, could you not have shown mercy? There is much speculation and obfuscation, but I’ll never know that answer in this lifetime.  

History is the study and accounting of past events, especially the development of human knowledge, understanding and growth, and the social interactions between peoples. It is through these affairs that we filter our attitudes and beliefs in today’s world. Not knowing history is imprudent and dangerous.  

Real history is bloodier than the bloodiest fiction, more heart wrenching than the best novels of love and loss, and more beautiful and inspiring than anything an author can invent; and all created in real time by real men and women. 

It makes one wonder what history books will say about us and what our ghosts may be able to reveal to the future generations.  

***

A native New Yorker and a Texas transplant, Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.

Appropriately, the Live Music Capitol of the World is where she and her husband now live, under the watchful and loving direction of their cat, Miss Millie.

Ms. Paino has had a varied career in the business end of dance. She has worked for several dance notables, including Ali Pourfarrokh, and the late Kaleria Fedicheva. Her passion for ballet, opera, and history fuel much of her writing.

Her first book, a Young Adult, Paranormal murder mystery, TO LIVE AND DIE FOR DANCE, received recognition from Purple Dragonfly and The Hollywood Book Festival, and her children’s book, MAMA’S LITTLE LADY: A SPECIAL PONY, also won an award from the Purple Dragonfly Book Contest.

Her short stories, “An Unwelcome Image,” a psychological thriller was published in Over My Dead Body, an online mystery magazine, and one of her humorous tales, “A Supermarket Nightmare,” was carried in Funny Times Magazine.

In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.

Further Thoughts on Smell in Literature, or The Dog as Watson

by Helen Currie Foster

An author can get great mileage by giving the point of view to a Watson sort of character. The Watson can be present for all events, hear all dialogue and see all clues—while not understanding them. The Reader feels clever for having grasped the significance of clues the Watson missed or smellmisunderstood. The Watson can admire Sherlock’s astounding mental feats while deploring Sherlock’s shortcomings (sometimes his manners, sometimes cocaine). Meanwhile the reader can identify with the Watson and can experience, perhaps, the feel and sound and… yes, the SMELL of a scene, while Sherlock is detecting or explaining arcana.

The best Watson I’ve met is…a dog. Yes, it’s Chet, the large (hundred-pounder!) companion and partner of detective Bernie Little in the Chet and Bernie Series. Spencer Quinn (nom de … plume? Or de tail?) of Peter Abrahams is the genius who most recently gave us The Heart of Barkness.

You say you won’t read a mystery told by a dog? I’m not a dog person, and that’s what I said too, turning my inadequate human nose up in the air. (I have donkeys, not dogs.)

Then I met Chet. Chet opened up the astounding sensory richness of the world that lies beyond human (that is, Bernie’s) detection, and, particularly, the world of smell.

Here’s a scene—a scent?—from The Dog Who Knew Too Much:

“Autumn didn’t mention your sense of humor.” Anya gave him a not-very-friendly look when she said that, but at the same time I picked up a scent coming off her—faint but unmistakable—that meant she was starting to like Bernie. Nothing about humans is simple: I’ve learned that lots of times in my career.

Here’s Chet using his ears as well, when Bernie is banging on the door of the RV where he hopes to find Lotty Pilgrim, the country-western star accused of murder In The Heart of Darkness:

Silence from inside. Then came footsteps, very soft, but there’s no such thing as footsteps too soft for my ears. Also I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Plus there were smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, and perfume—and the specific smell of Lotty Pilgrim, which had an interesting milky quality. The door might as well not have been there.

At least in my case. Did Bernie realize Lotty was standing pretty much right in front of us? He raised his voice. “Lotty? Lotty?” Raised it to a level that meant the answer to my question was no.

No answer from Lotty. The milky smell changed, went the tiniest bit sour. I’ve tasted milk both sour and not, don’t like either kind. Water’s my drink. The best I ever tasted came right out of a rock, but no time to go into that now.

Right there, we see Chet’s astounding ears in action, and his nose. We learn exactly what Lotty could smell like to our human noses, if only the dadgum door weren’t in the way. We learn that Chet can detect that some emotion—fear?—has turned Lotty’s milky smell “the tiniest bit sour.” Then we may wonder whether our human noses could possibly notice, at a subliminal level, what Chet detects as smell? Is our human sense of smell so low-level (Chet’s opinion) that our minds can’t really register certain smells as smells? Instead, perhaps our minds register an emotion, a suspicion, instead of a smell. That is, if we’re on Lotty’s side of the door, which Bernie is not, at least here.

Bernie and Chet make a great team. Chet hears a faraway car sneaking across the desert toward Bernie, way before Bernie hears it. Chet tries to let Bernie know…but Bernie’s slow on the uptake. We readers know peril impends. Listen, Bernie! Pay attention! He won’t, but not until the last second, when Chet must leap into action.

My love affair with Chet is not just his sheer joyousness. It’s his masterful specificity about smell. Here he is, on the job, searching a mountain campsite for traces of a lost boy camper:

When it comes to nighttime security, you can’t go wrong by sniffing around.

Nothing new to pick up, the scents of the boys still all over the place—although growing fainter—plus Bernie’s scent, Turk’s, and my own, the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupçon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir. Chet the Jet was in the vicinity, wherever that was, exactly.

Here’s a challenge for you dog people. Give us as detailed a description of your dog’s smell as Chet’s description of his own! Oh, okay, I’ll try to do the same for my donkeys. In November.

Last month I was bemoaning the stinginess of some of my favorite writers in using smells in their writing. Maybe Virginia Woolf—hey, she loved her dogs, wrote about her dogs, doubtless could have described their smells as well as Chet described his, if the times, or the Times Literary Supplement, had permitted—will rise to the challenge. Watch this space.

***

Image of dog by CT70 via Pixabay
Image of man by StockSnap via Pixabay
Image of mink stole, public domain, via Wikipedia

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.

Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.

Book Clubs for Writers: A Doggone Good Time!

By K.P. Gresham

I’m a fiction writer, and my world pretty much revolves around my profession. My friends, my colleagues, my editors, my publicists are comprised mostly of people in the writing business. To make that world even smaller, I write mysteries, and I love to read mysteries. Noir, suspense, thriller, cozies, you name it, I’m in. Sisters in Crime, I love you! Writers League of Texas? You’re the best! Austin Mystery Writers? Your support and critiques are off the charts.

I existed in a happy, but small little world of people who get together to figure out how best to kill other people. (Fictionally, of course.)

Until…

Marni, a good friend of mine from water aerobics, invited me to join her book club. I asked what do you read? She gave me the list for that year’s selection.

I knew one or two of the novels by name recognition. The rest? Not so much. Surprised that I was so poorly read across the genres, I joined Marni’s book club. I also quickly learned that not only was I not well-read, I’d lost touch with folks in the real world as well.

It’s been seven years since I joined that club, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.

Interested in a narrative about the rise of communism in Russia? Check out The Gentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles. World War II stories from Italy? Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Okay, you’re more into the French point of view? Check out Wolves at the Door: America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearson. Okay, the last two were historical narrative fiction, but I learned so much from reading them.

I’m figuring with seven years at one book a month, that puts 84 books in my head that I probably would have never read. 84 books which used styles I’d never heard of before. 84 books of history, biographies, tragedies, comedies, science, science fiction–one of our group’s main goals is to read across the genres and experience new writers and subjects. I’ve read first person, second person, and third person POVs. Books that have been written in present and past tense, as well as time travels. This experience has been a microcosm of study on subjects I knew about, but had never really studied.

All right. Not every book was great. But as a writer I learned a great deal from those selections as well. Too many characters? After a while I didn’t care about any of them. Switching point of view from sentence to sentence? What a pain in the neck for the reader. No description of setting? Little to no sense of character development? A cop out ending? Yeah. They drove me nuts. BUT that also provided me with a cautionary tale to avoid those pitfalls.

What’s the book club’s biggest pay-off? The friendships I’ve had the privilege to develop with these well-educated, well-traveled, successful women. (Men aren’t banned. They just don’t ever come.) And we have a great time. Wine and snacks are involved. We always discuss the authors and their backgrounds, oftentimes showing You Tube author interviews. Some of us are very opinionated (me!), but the atmosphere is never hostile or uncomfortable. We genuinely want to hear each other’s opinions and personal experiences that relate to the book, all the while trying to figure out what we’ll recommend when the time comes for the next selections.

So authors, consider joining a book club that takes you out of your genre. Besides expanding your writing skills, you’ll have a doggone good time!

***

K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.

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, libraries, coffee shops:

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 sincere, to the Austin Mystery Writers, the Just for the Hell of It Writers, and all those other 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.

 

 

 

 

VISITING THE AUSTIN DPS – AN EXERCISE IS PATIENCE AND ENDURANCE

by Francine Paino

A few weeks ago, I was forced to visit the Austin Department of Public Safety, where I spent four long, long hours. Let me be clear, however, I’m not slamming the Austin DPS. It’s a factor of population vs. the number of employees. In fact, I found the agents polite and friendly, as opposed to the Department of Motor Vehicles in New York (DMV) where friendly and courteous are not in their vocabulary. To be fair, (maybe) they too suffer from the imbalance balance of employees vs. the population.

Thank God, I don’t visit every DMV, DPS or departments throughout the country that issue, renew, replace and take care of every function concerning drivers licenses. I can only guess that it will almost always be the same. Population vs. the number of employees.

So, I arrived at the DPS with my 96-year-old mother, who had her wallet stolen. TWICE IN ONE WEEK! (Another story for another blog.)We arrived at 9:30 a.m. Can’t get this nonagenarian out of bed much earlier than 9. People lined up outside the door; a police deputy watched the exit then let us in, one-at-a-time. First stop, the information desk.

Ten ahead of us.

When it was our turn, I explained the reason for our visit: mother needed a new license.

Her only identification (remember her wallet had been stolen – TWICE) was her old, expired temporary license. The young woman nodded, put it in an envelope, made a few notes, handed us the envelope and another number, and told us to take a seat. 

In the waiting area, the seats were all filled. People were sitting on the floor. Mother cannot sit on the floor. She leaned on her cane and sighed. To our delight, a lovely lady, sitting in the front row, saw her number come up before it was called. She gave my mother her seat. Then a very nice gentleman insisted that I take his. (My age must be showing, too!?!) 

I looked at the board, and my heart sank. It was 9:50 a.m. The active letters were L, S, and N. Our number was S 3097. The highest S number on the board was 3009. I thought an “S” word. It was going to be a very, very long day.

So, trying not to lose my cool, I fidgeted in the hard plastic seat castigating myself for not bringing something to read. Instead, I decided to think about what could be accomplished while enduring a wait that could make an overly stressed person wig out.

Besides launching one into antiquity, if used effectively, the time spent at the DPS can be constructive.

One could improve one’s Spanish since all announcements, written notices and billboards are bilingual. If one sits there long enough, one becomes proficient in short phrases, such as: Now, the number being served is_____, A ora, serviendo numero____, at station _____. a la stacion ____Or, Children must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Los niños deben estar acompañados por un adulto en todo momento. 

A  few more hours and I might have achieved some decent conversational skills.

One could, of course, read a book for pleasure, but A-type personalities who feel they must accomplish something could make lists. Shopping lists, chores, e-mails to be sent, phone calls to be made, lists of things to do to make up for lost time when one finally leaves the DPS.

If one is really proactive, one could begin writing envelopes for Christmas cards, or draft the terms of a last will and testament, since the wait might thrust one to the brink of the next world.

So, how did I spend my time?

I drafted this blog, made a list of chores and tasks to be completed by the end of the day, and outlined two chapters for my next book. All of this, however, had to be written on a very little notepad because I didn’t have the foresight to bring along a decent size writing pad or my tablet – dumb!

I’m sure you’re wondering why, with at least 100 people ahead of us, we didn’t leave and come back. The first, most important reason was the uneven progress at the stations. It reminded me of what it was like learning to drive a stick-shift car. Stop, start, and jerk the vehicle. The digital board stopped, started, crawled then hit overdrive, posting numbers in rapid succession. Thus, the risk of missing our number and starting over was unthinkable!

The second reason to stay put and allow one’s butt to fuse into the comfortless chair is, as soon as you get out of it, someone else takes it—and rightfully. 

So, I sat there muttering curses and scribbling cramped little notes in my cramped little notebook. Finally, four hours later, number S 3,097 was flashed on the board, followed by the announcement in English and Spanish.

At last! Come, mother,” I said and literally had to pull her out of the chair. I think her butt had melded to the plastic.

We proceeded to the assigned station. Then disaster!

Where is your application?” asked the agent.

Application!? What application?” My voice was on the edge of hysteria. I broke out in a sweat. “I wasn’t told to fill out an application.”

Mother stood there in her best fragile little-old-lady posture, which she is not, and thankfully kept quiet.

Please,” I begged. “We’ve been here for four hours. I wasn’t told to fill anything out.”

This kind agent smiled, handed me the application, told us to step aside, and fill it out while she serviced the next person on the line. For this, I believe she’ll have a place in heaven—or perhaps she was afraid I’d go postal.  

I filled it out as fast as I could, controlling my serial killer handwriting so that it would be legible. The kind agent waved us back to her station, and fifteen minutes later, mother had a new temporary license.

So, what have I learned? The next time I must visit the DPS, I’ll have a supply of pencils, a legal pad, and a book. Perhaps a pillow too.

No matter how you look at it, spending four hours in a bad chair, waiting to be called for a process that takes only minutes is an exercise in patience, endurance, determination, and a sense of humor – which I did not have.

***

A native New Yorker and a Texas transplant, Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.

Appropriately, the Live Music Capitol of the World is where she and her husband now live, under the watchful and loving direction of their cat, Miss Millie.

Ms. Paino has had a varied career in the business end of dance. She has worked for several dance notables, including Ali Pourfarrokh, and the late Kaleria Fedicheva. Her passion for ballet, opera, and history fuel much of her writing.

Her first book, a Young Adult, Paranormal murder mystery, TO LIVE AND DIE FOR DANCE, received recognition from Purple Dragonfly and The Hollywood Book Festival, and her children’s book, MAMA’S LITTLE LADY: A SPECIAL PONY, also won an award from the Purple Dragonfly Book Contest.

Her short stories, “An Unwelcome Image,” a psychological thriller was published in Over My Dead Body, an online mystery magazine, and one of her humorous tales, “A Supermarket Nightmare,” was carried in Funny Times Magazine.

In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.

Contact: franpaino@gmail.com OR fdellanotte72@gmail.com

WEBSITES: www.francinepaino.com/ and fdellanotte.com/