Year-End Assessments for Writers

by N. M. Cedeño

Writers, if you don’t already assess your writing habits at the end of the year, you should consider doing it. Many companies require employees to complete year-end assessments to help them set work goals for the coming year. You are your own employer. Do you assess your work and set goals as a writer? Do you take stock of your current work habits and output at the end of the year in order to decide how you want to proceed with your work?

image from Pixabay

Take a few minutes to evaluate yourself.

While it’s true that employee year-end assessments can be pointless hassles, the goal of the assessments is valid. People have to know where they stand before they can set goals for where they want to be. This kind of self-knowledge is likely more important to writers than to employees in large businesses. Most employees have no control over their workload and typically can make only minor changes to processes and procedures. Writers, on the other hand, control their own schedule and output, so self-assessment should have more value to writers than to the average company employee.

What should you take into consideration as you assess your work?

image from Pixabay

Authors may use multiple measures of productivity: words written in a year, manuscripts completed, number of times manuscripts were submitted somewhere, or pieces published. Knowing these benchmarks for the current year can help authors set goals for the next year.

Do you want to increase your word-count output? Then, tally your output for this year and set a reasonable goal for the next year, something that will be a challenge, but not an impossibility. Are you writing constantly, but not submitting things for publication or, if self-publishing, only publishing rarely? Review your submissions or look at your publication schedule and challenge yourself to do more.

Why take stock and set goals when everything changes as you go?

Image from Pixabay

Even when the world turns upside down and a new reality inflicts itself upon everyone, having goals can keep writers on track. Goals allow them to see the way forward and adapt when the world obscures the view. The plan might need adapting along the way, but that’s true of most things in life.

If you have no set plans, you’ll have nothing to turn to as a guide when the world or life-in-general throws you a curveball. Set goals to help you focus.

Last January, before the pandemic set in, I set a goal to write more short stories, aiming for at least one per month. I set another goal to submit my short stories to markets at least once a month. In spite of the pandemic, I mostly accomplished those goals. The upheaval and turmoil threw me off-course for March, but because I had goals in place, I got back on track in April. I ended up with 10.5 short stories (December’s isn’t quite done yet) and one novella-length manuscript. My Excel spreadsheet of submissions shows I exceeded my submission goal with 20 short stories submitted to markets this past year.

I had hoped to start a new novel this year, but that goal fell by the wayside. In spite of that and the distraction of the pandemic, I still managed to produce about 71,000 words of new fiction and almost 6000 words in blog posts. With that knowledge, I can set my output goals for the coming year.

The first week of January, I plan to set my goals for 2021. Because I know where I stand, I can see ways to stretch and improve. How about you? Will you do year-end assessments and set goals for the coming year?

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Why Read Short Stories?

By N. M. Cedeño

If you don’t read short fiction, 2020 is the year to start. Busy, stressed, out of time, out of energy? Then short stories are for you. Here’s why:

Created with WordClouds.com

1. Finding the time to read isn’t a problem:

Even people with limited free time can find a few minutes to read a short story. While immersing readers in tightly woven plots, short fiction provides complete story arcs that can be consumed in minutes rather than the hours needed to read the average novel. Short stories may be read in small spurts rather than in long hauls, perfect for a lunch break or mental health break.

2. Short stories are the literary version of instant gratification:

Short stories are the chocolate cake of reading. photo from Pixabay.

Short fiction packs a powerful and entertaining punch into very few pages. By crafting concise prose to engage and captivate readers before quickly releasing them, short fiction authors grant even the busiest readers the sense of fulfillment that comes from finishing a work of fiction. Readers might feel bad that they never opened that massive tome on the nightstand, but a short story, quickly started and finished, gives readers a sense of accomplishment.

3. Find new authors within a favorite genre:

What if a reader wants to find a new author within a favorite genre? Maybe the book store and library only allow pick-up because of the pandemic, so no one can browse. Readers can browse by reading a short story collection. In one anthology, readers can try a dozen or more new authors and get a feel for how an author writes. Many novelists write short stories featuring their series characters for anthologies, collections, and magazines. These short stories give readers a chance to sample an author and meet characters before diving into a series.

from Pixabay

4. Try new genres or subgenres:

Readers can look to short fiction when they want to try something completely new. Anthologies, short story magazines, and e-zines contain samples of a wide variety of genres and subgenres of fiction. With magazines and e-zines filling a variety of niches, readers can get a taste of multiple genres for a low price. Some of these magazines provide sample stories on their websites or via newsletters for free. “Best of” anthologies collect award-winning stories in a variety of subgenres into one book. Reading a ‘best of’ anthology can introduce mystery readers to the year’s best science fiction, or science fiction readers to the year’s best horror. (See list below)

5. Build or rebuild a habit of reading:

Life gets busy, or even completely crazy, like this year. For some people, that causes reading to fall by the wayside. After falling out of the habit of daily reading, getting back into reading by diving into a novel might seem daunting. Short stories can provide a simpler, less time-demanding reintroduction to reading for those looking to establish the habit.

6. Perfect for emotionally or physically exhausted readers:

This year, 2020, has been hard on everyone emotionally and physically. If you’ve been trying to work, educate kids from home, care for the sick, and survive trying times without collapsing, starting a novel might seem an impossible task. For people low on energy, too exhausted to put forth the brain power a full-length novel might require, short stories are a better choice. Quick but meaningful bites of fiction like short stories can be a breath of fresh air for the exhausted mind.

Now you know why you should give short stories a try. Where do you find them?

Here is a nowhere-near-comprehensive list of mystery and science fiction short story magazines. Some provide sample stories on their websites or via newsletters. Check them out.

Don’t want magazines? How about books?

Try these anthology series. Your local library may have copies.

  • Best American Mystery Stories
  • Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
  • Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy
  • Best American Short Stories
  • The Best American Noir of the Century
  • The Best Science Fiction of the Year
  • The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy

Enjoy some short stories! They are perfect for 2020.

~~~~~

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

How to Get Your Brain Unstuck: Overcoming Writer’s Block Caused by Minor Stress

By N. M. Cedeño

Most people find it hard to concentrate on work when their stress levels rise. Meeting work goals becomes a challenge, and even routine tasks become hard-fought slogs because of stress. For many writers, the more stress we have in our day-to-day lives, the harder it is to put words on the page. Conversely, we feel less stressed when we have accomplished writing something. So while stress can prevent writing, writing can relieve stress, if we can get past the obstructions that are making it difficult for us to focus on writing.

from Pixabay

Stressors can pile on top of each other like bricks in a wall, forming a barrier that prevents focusing on other important matters.

Pandemic and natural disaster news = a load of bricks.

Kids attending school virtually from home = a load of bricks.

Election year politics = a load of bricks.

The insurance hassle of a minor car accident = a load of bricks.

Someone’s oral surgery to remove an impacted tooth = a load of bricks.

Zoom meeting after zoom meeting = a load of bricks.

Appliances and plumbing demanding immediate attention in an escalating pattern that explodes to include the dishwasher, clothes washer, water heater, refrigerator, water softener, several emergency water shut-off valves, and every faucet, shower head, and toilet in the house = a load of bricks.[i]

 All of those bricks can build a solid mental barricade. Demolishing that wall and getting back to writing takes effort. We need to take the time to de-stress by doing activities we enjoy. Lots of people are working from home right now, so taking a day off looks different than it has in the past. We have to consciously avoid sitting down to work that is ever-present and, instead, choose to do other activities.

image from Pixabay

First, we have to identify relaxing activities. Things I’ve found to alleviate stress include walking a few miles, scrubbing things, yardwork, reading mysteries, drinking tea, baking, eating chocolate, and, sometimes, binge-watching a television series in the evening.

This week, I set aside a morning to transplant my aloe vera plants from their overcrowded pots into more spacious ones. Ignoring those plants for five years allowed them to multiply like rabbits behind my back. Two bags of potting soil and 70 or so plants later, the plants looked much better, and I felt less stressed.

About half my aloe vera plants.
Photo by N. M. Cedeño

I have several walking routes measured to cover two to three miles near my house. One of them, perhaps fortuitously, or maybe not, depending on your point of view, passes right by a local coffee and donut shop.

Walking and yardwork are healthy ways to relieve stress, and they counterbalance unhealthier, but enjoyable activities like baking sweets and consuming chocolate. This past week, I baked homemade Nestle triple chocolate cookies and chocolate chip banana bread, and interspersed the baking with walking eight miles, edging and trimming the property, and transplanting all those plants.

Reading and watching television can refocus the brain on story plots, pushing stressors aside. Last weekend, I read Rhys Bowen’s latest in her Royal Spyness Series, The Last Mrs. Summers. This week, I’m working my way through a mystery short story collection. A few months ago, I watched the entire Star Trek: Enterprise series, watching one or two episodes every evening for a few weeks. This month, I watched a Canadian police drama.

When life’s minor stresses start to pile up and begin to interfere with writing deadlines, we must set aside time to de-stress with activities we enjoy. Generally speaking, a little exercise and a dose of relaxation can get the creative juices flowing and allow the words to start tumbling onto the page again. And, if all of the usual methods fail, it might be time for a vacation.[ii]


[i] Yes, this happened. While annoying, this is still minor stress compared to the loss of life, jobs, and property many people are facing right now.

ii] Note: This advice is for minor stress. If you are living with the floods, fires, storms, or disease that have defined 2020, as opposed to on the fringes of it all, these techniques may help mitigate stress, but won’t relieve it. For those with major stress, you have my sympathy.

~~~~~

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Agatha Christie Wrote Paranormal Stories?

Do you enjoy books that make a chill dance down your spine by invoking the otherworldly or the supernatural?

As a teen, I read all of my mother’s Agatha Christie novels, which fixed Christie’s place in my mind as a writer of traditional mysteries. I somehow dismissed the short stories written by Christie that fall firmly into the paranormal category until I picked up a copy of The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural. This collection of Agatha Christie’s short stories was put together and republished in 2019 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. I’ll try to review the paranormal stories presented in the collection without too many spoilers.

The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural contains 20 stories of crime, murder, and suspense. Some of the stories feature clearly paranormal elements: otherworldly beings, premonitions of danger or death, possession or other transference of souls, and the ability to call upon supernatural forces. Other stories in the collection involve criminals using technology, complex cons, or gaslighting techniques to create the illusion of the supernatural, or malefactors taking advantage of an atmosphere of superstition to suggest a paranormal cause for a crime they committed. These latter stories hardly count as paranormal since the supernatural element is faked by the criminal. One or two of the stories fall into both camps, with the crime being committed from a mundane motive, but with the suggestion that perhaps the criminal wouldn’t have acted except for the influence of evil in the atmosphere weighing upon them.

Ghost from pixabay

Of the stories that contain clearly supernatural components, premonition is the most common element employed by Christie. The stories The Last Séance, In a Glass Darkly, S.O.S., The Gipsy, Philomel Cottage, and The Red Signal use premonition, either via dreams or via a sixth sense that something is wrong, to build suspense. The characters recognize that they are in danger, but don’t know the source and aren’t sure if they should believe the bells of warning ringing in their brains. Some heed the warnings as best they can, but still fall into dangerous situations. Other characters dismiss the warnings until circumstances force them to pay attention. From story to story, the results of heeding or ignoring the warnings vary as the characters dance to Agatha Christie’s tune.

A couple of the stories feature ghosts or supernatural beings. The title story, The Last Séance, features a medium channeling the soul of a dead child for a grieving mother. The second story with a ghost, The Lamp, involves a family moving into a long vacant house. The house has stood unoccupied for years because the ghost of a child is haunting it. While The Lamp is a pure “ghost story,” The Call of the Wings and The Dressmakers Doll both deal with nonhuman, otherworldly beings. The Call of the Wings describes a man’s interactions with a pan-like creature and angels. The Dressmakers Doll revolves around a doll with a mind of its own.

from Pixabay

Reincarnation and the suggestion of lost supernatural knowledge from ancient civilizations appear in Christie’s stories as well. However, little can be written about these stories or the ones featuring possession or transference of souls without spoiling them. Christie’s use of these story elements can be easily traced to the author’s own travels in Egypt and interest in archaeology and to the Egyptian archaeological discoveries of the early 1900s which aroused public interest in ancient belief systems and mystical powers.

The collection The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural is a mixed bag of suspense stories, mystery stories with a crime that needs to be solved, and stories that feature no crime at all. Christie’s two main detectives, Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, appear in a few of the stories. Poirot takes the stage in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, The Dream, and The Flock of Geryon. Miss Marple reasons her way quietly to answers in The Idol House of Astarte and The Blue Geranium. While the crime provides the mystery in some of the stories, in a few of the purely paranormal stories, the only mystery lies in the paranormal or supernatural event itself.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Alice Littlefield Residence Hall: Inspiration for a Ghost Story

“Alice’s ghost is rumored to haunt the dorm, but don’t worry, she’s a benevolent ghost. She likes to watch over students. Here is her picture,” said the tour guide escorting the new freshmen residents around the Alice Littlefield Residence Hall on the day I moved into the dorm at the University of Texas at Austin back in my college days.

A drawing of Alice Littlefield by her niece, Sarah Harral Duggan, that hangs in Littlefield Residence Hall.

Littlefield Hall was built in 1927 and is the oldest residence hall, or dormitory, on campus. George Littlefield, a former university regent, cattleman, banker, and Confederate soldier[1], donated the money for the building’s construction, specifying that it should be named for his wife Alice and that it should house only women students, to give them a homelike environment while attending the university. Alice and George’s children didn’t survive early childhood, a common tragedy of the late 1800s, so they used their wealth to educate their 17 nieces and 12 nephews, paying for all 29 to attend the University of Texas. The Littlefields housed a revolving door of student relatives in their Victorian mansion on the edge of the campus. Perhaps this is why Alice is rumored to still be watching over students.

In my two years of residence in Littlefield Hall, I never saw any ghosts, but I could see how the age and character of the historic building could inspire ghost stories. At that time, the building still featured an ancient Otis elevator that required the user to manually close, first, a gate and, then, a door before it would operate. Residents were only allowed to use that elevator if injured or if they were moving something heavy to an upper floor. The dorm rooms themselves had original doors, with giant old-style keyholes and transom windows painted shut above the door. Utility pipes added in decades after the building was completed ran along the walls in the rooms. Windowsills were crusted deep with layer upon layer of ancient paint. Air conditioning units had been added to the rooms under the windows, which we were forbidden to open, but many girls opened anyway. The building had atmosphere and charm, and was very old: the perfect place to imagine ghosts.

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Exterior of Littlefield Residence Hall, photo by N. M. Cedeno

In fact, some of my fellow residents insisted that they had experienced something paranormal in the dorm. One girl described seeing her books move off her desk and fall to the floor. Another swore to me that she had seen a ghostly girl, wearing only panties and bra, standing in front of the mirror inside one of the two walk-in closets in her third-floor dorm room. When I visited the dorm recently, one of the residents told me that she had selected the building because it was the closest she could get to living in a Hogwarts dorm[2].

2019-DegreesofDeceit-eBook (1)Therefore, when I decided to set one of my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mysteries at the University of Texas, I didn’t have to look very far to find inspiration. My former residence’s history and reputation for ghosts inspired me to use a fictional version of Littlefield Hall as the setting for my paranormal mystery novel, Degrees of Deceit. And, of course, my fictional dorm, called Dellonmarsh Dorm, is occupied by a benevolent female ghost, looking out for the residents as they are harassed by a malevolent prankster intent on disrupting the academic semester.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Footnotes:

[1] George Littlefield is a controversial figure. He was a generous philanthropist and supporter of women’s education, and a former slave-owning, proud Southerner with the attendant prejudices of that position. His heroes were Confederate generals, and he paid for their statues to be placed on the UT campus. Those statues were removed from campus several years ago. 

[2] The fictional Harry Potter school also known for its stately antiques and ghosts.

Inspiration for My Short Stories

Sometimes, as an author I am asked where I get ideas for my short stories. I get my inspiration from books and articles I read, places I visit, and events in the world around me. The six new short stories in Arson Vibes and Other Tales, which came out recently, can all be traced to these sources.

ArsonVibesAZBThe story Victorian Vibes features my characters Lea and Kamika finding a gory, sealed room inside of a house under renovation. This story, which opens the collection, was inspired by a driving tour of Victoria, Texas, an old Spanish colonial town south of San Antonio. Victoria is home to more than 114 historic properties all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings are mostly restored architectural gems. A driving tour through town will take visitors past 80 of them. Creating a similar house with a haunted past and ‘bad vibes’ for my characters to explore wasn’t a difficult task.

Feline Vibes, the second story in the collection, features Lea and Patrick trying to solve a murder in which the police have made no progress. The story was inspired by the many scattered properties I’ve driven past in the Texas Hill Country on the way to Fredericksburg and Enchanted Rock State Park. The natural beauty of the area draws hikers and campers and people looking to escape the fast-paced life of city living. But the isolating hills, cactus, and long distances between neighbors also make a wonderful backdrop for murder.

abstract-2726482_1280Texas Frontier Vibes was partially inspired by reading the book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne. The long and bloody battle between the Comanches and every wave of settlers that tried to take their land is fertile ground for ghost stories. In the story, a collection of arrow heads is bound to the ghost of the person who died being shot with the arrows. While the injuries sustained by the character in the story are drawn directly from history, the idea that the arrow heads could be haunted was inspired by my father’s inheritance of a collection of points, axes, scrapers, and other stone tools from his deceased brother who had been a lifelong collector of these items.

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Monument to Columbia, by Pixabay

Space Shuttle Vibes owes its existence to my memory of the disaster involving the Space Shuttle Columbia when it came apart catastrophically over Texas in 2003. That accident led to the largest search and recovery effort ever carried out in the United States and is well-detailed and explained in a book that I read entitled Bringing Columbia Home by Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward. Sixty percent of Columbia remains lost in the swamps and thickets of East Texas. This fact inspired my tale of a man who dedicates his retirement and apparently part of his afterlife to finding and returning the pieces.

Museum Vibes, the story of a haunted living history pioneer farm, was inspired partially by my interest in all things historical, from gold-rushes and frontier life to the tuberculosis epidemic that plagued the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also based on my many visits to pioneer farms with living history exhibits in the Dallas area and in the Austin area. What ghosts wouldn’t want to stay in a place that looked and felt like the time period in which they lived?

The final story in the collection, Arson Vibes, was inspired by a terrible fire that engulfed a lovely wood-frame church in a small community in Texas a few years ago. Texas has a number of famous, painted churches built by European immigrants in the late 1800 and early 1900s. The Painted Churches Tour in Texas is a great way to see a handful of them. While the fire in the real church was accidental, the one in my story is, of course, an act of arson which needs my investigative crew to solve it.  And old churches, with their adjacent graveyards, should come with a ghost or two, shouldn’t they?

These new stories in the collection Arson Vibes and Other Tales are on sale this week, May 4 to 11, 2020. At the moment the stories are only available on Amazon, later in the summer they will be available from other retailers. I would have the stories available everywhere, but the coronavirus and its attendant issues have put a crimp in my schedule at the moment.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Down the Research Rabbit Hole

Have you ever fallen down the research rabbit hole when looking for details for your writing?

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by Pixabay

I have. Because I read extensively in a variety of nonfiction areas, I usually know where to look for information that I want to include in my novels and stories. However, my extreme curiosity, while helpful in writing, is a dangerous thing when researching. It’s very easy to fall down the internet research rabbit hole. While searching for a simple detail I need, I may find one article that leads me to another and another. Before I know it, I’ve lost an hour reading fascinating articles when all I really needed was a single detail for a single sentence in a story.

In my Bad Vibes Removal Services series, the character of Lea, who sees ghosts and is ultra-sensitive to other people’s emotions and moods, is a student of ancient history who is working to earn her master’s degree. As a student of history, she is particularly interested in studying the daily habits of people in ancient civilizations. She is fascinated by hair styles, clothing styles, perfumes, and hygiene practices from bygone eras. Her interest in the subject drives her to try ancient clothing styles, hairdos, and makeup as a hobby.

When I chose this pastime for the character, I foresaw that I would have to do some research to bring the character to life. For each successive story, I had to add details about what historical look Lea was trying on herself. Sometimes, I chose simple things, like kohl around her eyes in an ancient Egyptian look. More complicated styles I researched, looking for scholarly articles on ancient hair styles.

For example, in the book Degrees of Deceit, Lea wears her hair in a Suebian knot, a typically male hairstyle described by Tacitus in the first century as being worn by certain Germanic tribes. I was familiar with this hair style because an interest in mummies led me to read articles about bog bodies. Bog bodies are corpses recovered from peat bogs, some of which were mummified and showed signs of having been murdered.

800px-Osterby_Man_Suebian-Knot
Osterby Man with Suebian knot

To put details about the Suebian knot hairstyle in my book, searched for what I remembered seeing in a picture, an odd looping hairstyle on the side of the head of a partially mummified skull from a bog body. So I found the picture I remembered, Osterby Man’s head with its peat-dyed reddish-orange hair. That led me to another article I hadn’t seen before, the Dätgen Man, who also wore a Suebian Knot, but his hair loop was on the back of his head. That led me to the hair on other bog bodies including one with a 90-centimeter braid tied in a complex knot. After that I lost lots of time down the rabbit hole of bog bodies. Here is a link to a list of bog bodies for the curious.

FemaleRomanBust
Bust of a Roman woman, from the Met Collection

Statues and portrait busts from ancient Greece and Rome provided another great resource for hairstyles for my character Lea. The plethora of material from these ancient civilizations has been a wonderful source of details for my writing. However, because of the enormous volume of information, it’s very easy to get lost, even lose hours of time, in reading. I’ve read about the plaster casts of victims of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, some of which are so detailed you can see clothing and hair outlines. I’ve read about lower class hairstyles and upper-class hairstyles, children’s clothing, and hygiene practices, far more information than I’ll need for my stories.

Then, I really fell down the research rabbit hole. I found Janet Stephens’ helpful YouTube channel videos. As a hairstyle archaeologist, she walks the viewer through creating an array of ancient hairstyles. This is exactly the kind of thing my character Lea would love. For those who want to join me down the rabbit hole, watch a few of Ms. Stephens’ videos. They are fascinating.

How about you? Have you ever “fallen down the rabbit hole” while looking something up on the internet? If you haven’t, please tell me how you avoid that pitfall.

****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Death in Small Town Texas: Who Collects the Body?

Mystery authors deal in death. They must get the details correct when writing about the untimely demise of a character. Because laws for responding to death vary by location in reaper-2026350_640the United States, authors have to do research depending on their setting. Without a national standard, each state and frequently each county within a state sets its own rules for handling unexpected deaths. In January, Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas Chapter was fortunate to have Tiffany Cooper-Aguilar, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, walk authors through the legalities of collecting, handling, and storing bodies after death in small town Texas.

In Texas, the handling of medically unattended deaths varies by county population. Larger, more populous counties are required by law to have a medical examiner’s (ME) office. The ME’s office collects the bodies of those who die outside of a medical facility, abstract-2726482_640and the medical examiner determines the cause of death. Less populous counties aren’t legally required to have medical examiner’s offices. They rely on contracted mortuary services or funeral homes to collect the bodies of the dead. Lacking a medical examiner, these counties rely on a justice of the peace to decide if a cause of death is apparent or if a body should be sent for an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

According to Ms. Cooper-Aguilar, in central Texas alone, laws and practices vary considerably by county. Some counties may have a single funeral home contracted to retrieve all bodies. Other counties may have several funeral homes contracted on a rotational basis. One county is even known to force family members to choose a funeral home as soon as a death is discovered to prevent the county from expending the funds needed to transport and store the body. Still other counties may use a mortuary service, which is a small company created specifically for collecting and storing the dead temporarily until a decision is made to either send the body to an autopsy or to send it to a funeral home for burial.

In counties where a funeral home is contracted, a licensed funeral director and one assistant director will go to the scene of the death to remove a body. Fire, EMS, and law hospital-1978209_640enforcement personnel in less populous counties leave the body where it is discovered, so that the funeral director and assistant have to go into water, fields, ditches, wrecked cars, or other locations to retrieve the decedent.

Depending on weight, the state of decomposition, rigor mortis, and traumatic injury, the funeral home employees may need a variety of items to collect a body. Ms. Cooper-Aguilar states that a plain white sheet is her best tool in these situations. A sheet can be knotted for gripping, is an aid in unwedging bodies in awkward locations, and is perfect for ensuring that the entire body stays together during removal.

In most cases the funeral home or mortuary services personnel will wrap the body in the white sheet first. Some counties, but not all, require the remains also be placed in a zip-tied body bag. The body is then transported to refrigerated storage until the justice of the peace’s official paperwork is completed determining the next steps in the process. During this storage time, the deceased remains untouched until the legal formalities are settled. Family is not allowed access to the body during this period.

body-4076102_640The justice of the peace orders autopsies when the cause of death is unknown or questionable. If an autopsy is required, the body will be transported to the medical practitioner responsible for carrying out the autopsy. Small counties may contract with larger counties to use their medical examiner for autopsies. After the autopsy is complete and the body is released for burial, the legal next of kin must sign a release allowing a funeral home to collect the remains from the medical examiner and prepare them for burial or cremation.

If no autopsy is ordered, the deceased is released for burial and the next of kin may choose funerary services with any funeral home. The decedent may be transferred between funeral homes at the family’s request.

death-2421821_640Burial may take place as soon as the family is ready. Texas law does not require embalming to occur before burial. Cremation, however, requires additional legal paperwork which can take up to two weeks to be completed. While reducing human remains to ash can be accomplished in a matter of hours, acquiring the paperwork needed to begin the process takes time. Getting authorization for cremation is a longer process because a buried body can be dug up and studied if foul play is suspected at a later date, a cremated one can’t.

Ms. Cooper-Aguilar provided highly detailed information about the legal handling of unexpected death in counties with small populations in Texas. She explained the steps required to prepare a body for identification by family and the entire embalming process, including discussing how the embalmer deals with a body from which tissues, organs, or bones have been donated. Ms. Cooper-Aguilar answered many questions from the audience, providing a thorough overview of the legal handling of death in small town Texas.

*****

All pictures provided by Pixabay.

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is currently the president of Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

How to Submit Short Stories to Magazines, Anthologies, & Contests

With so many self-publishing options available to writers, no one has to submit work to a publisher to see it in print. However, magazines, anthologies, and contests provide opportunities for authors to reach new readers. Getting published in a magazine or anthology can be great targeted advertising and winning an award can bring attention to one’s work.

The basic steps to submitting fiction manuscripts to magazines, anthologies, and contests are as follows:

STEP 1: Find calls for submissions.

Check blogs and websites that aggregate information on contests, submission openings, and publishing markets.

door-1590024_640One great place to find publication openings is The Grinder, which provides a searchable database with no login or fee required. Another site, Submittable, posts calls for submissions and provides the submission system through which to submit your work. Both Submittable and The Grinder will allow you to track your submissions. You have to create a login to use the tracking systems for both sites, but it’s free.

A blog called Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity provides a running list of contests, calls for submissions, and open markets for writers. Many writers’ organizations, such as Mystery Writers of America, also keep lists of publishing markets on their websites. Upcoming conventions typically have anthologies associated with them, so check convention websites for submission information. Authors can also join Facebook groups or other online discussion sites that post calls for submissions.

STEP 2: Avoid scams.

Always check the background of publishers or contests to which you are considering submitting work. Make sure they are not scams. Check the internet for complaints! Check WRITER BEWARE.

road-sign-464653_640Avoid licensing rights grabs in click-through contracts. Some contests will try to claim rights to your work simply because you entered the contest. If the contest claims rights to your work, you might not be able to publish the work elsewhere even if you lose the contest. Most legitimate publishers and contests will revert rights to the author after some period of exclusivity. Examine what rights to your work the publisher or contest is seeking. Make sure the licensing rights requested are appropriate. Read the fine print to avoid being scammed.

STEP 3: Verify your work is appropriate for the publisher.

Each publisher tries to carve out a niche so that their readers know what to expect. Magazines will look for stories that match their chosen tone, style, and niche. You must match your work to the market’s niche and tone for a better chance at publication. Read samples of the work published by different magazines. If you are considering submitting to an online e-zine, read their stories. Get a feel for the market to make sure your work matches what the editor is publishing. Then, target the highest paying, professional markets first. You don’t want to send something to a token market that might have been picked up by a pro market!

STEP 4: Read the submission guidelines!

After you sort the options, you may have several legitimate places to submit your work. Now read the submission guidelines carefully. Some, but not all, publishers allow for “simultaneous submissions.” This means you can submit the same piece to multiple venues at once. Most don’t allow “multiple submissions”- sending them more than one piece at a time- so send your best work only.

social-1206610_640Format your submission as directed. For example, some editors request William Shunn’s manuscript format. Other editors will make you jump through hoops with specific word usage, margins, and spacing. Follow the directions precisely.

Some markets use submission systems such as Submittable to receive manuscripts. Others ask you to attach a file to an email. No matter which method is required, always verify the file formats accepted! Some publishers reject .docx files in favor of .doc.

Once you submit your work, wait to hear back. Consult The Grinder to find out average response times.

STEP 5: Get used to rejection.

If you submit your work for publication, you will be rejected at some point!

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Thousands of people submit work for publication every single day. Most will not be selected. Not being selected doesn’t mean that your work is bad. It only means that it wasn’t the right choice for someone at a given moment in time. Hold on to that work and resubmit it elsewhere. You may know of a place to submit it right away, or, in a year, you may see a call for submissions that fits your piece perfectly.

If you are worried about rejection, google “famous books rejected by publishers.” You will be amazed by the lists.

STEP 6: Continue submitting until you succeed!

As with most things in life, effort is required to achieve success. Don’t give up. Keep submitting work until you succeed.

~~~~~

All pictures provided by Pixabay.

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Bouchercon: It’s All About Community!

No one else in my family writes novels. When I talk about plotting and pacing, my husband gives me the same blank stare that I give him when he goes into detail about software architecture and development. However, my husband has community and coworkers available to him for discussing the intricacies of his work. Sitting at home at my desk, I didn’t have that same community available because writing is generally a solitary occupation. Writers have to go out of their way to find other writers with whom to socialize and talk shop.

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Beth Wasson, Sherry Harris, and me (N. M. Cedeno) at the SinC table at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Molly Weston

Recognizing the need for colleagues who understood my work, I sought out a local organization that I could join. My search brought me to a chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization created to support the work of crime fiction writers like me. My local chapter, the Heart of Texas Chapter, provides monthly meetings on topics related to crime fiction and writing and creates a place to meet and talk to other crime fiction authors. Suddenly, I had colleagues with whom to discuss my work. I had found my people.

What I didn’t immediately realize was the extent of the community that I had joined. While I knew that other chapters of Sisters in Crime (SinC) existed around the world, I didn’t consider the larger writing community as a whole. Comfortable with my local community, the world community’s existence escaped my attention.

Never having attended one, I knew nothing about large conventions. I have never been a fan-girl, anxious to meet and shake the hand of my favorite authors. If I thought about my favorite authors at all, I would have assumed they were sitting at home, writing, like I was, and sometimes going out to meet with other local authors. Sure, some of the top 5% go on book tours, and children’s authors visit schools. But, I’d never imagined what it would look like if mystery writers and readers from across the country got together to meet, talk about crime fiction, and socialize.

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Helen Currie Foster and Peter Lovesey at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Then, Bouchercon came to my state.

Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery writers and readers named after Anthony Boucher, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, celebrated its 50th Anniversary this year with a massive conference in Dallas, Texas. The importance of the event dawned on me as I began to receive notifications from Sisters in Crime about the events that they would be holding during the convention. As a local chapter president, I was asked to attend the chapter presidents’ meeting to be held after the Sisters in Crime Breakfast on a Friday during the conference. With an invitation to attend, vote on important matters, and discuss issues facing chapters, I registered for the conference and signed up to attend the SinC breakfast.

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Rhys Bowen at Bouchercon 2019, photo by N. M. Cedeno

Arriving at the conference, I realized I’d walked into an event that looked like my local Sisters in Crime chapter meetings multiplied a hundred-fold in scale. Instead of local authors getting together to discuss topics and socialize for an hour or two, mystery writers and readers from all over the world came together to talk and socialize for 4 days. And almost everyone was friendly. I found myself riding in elevators with world-renowned editors, discussing the schedule with best-selling authors, and sitting with critically acclaimed international authors at breakfast.

When I could make my introverted-self attempt a conversation, each and every author I spoke to was polite, interested in talking to me, and happy to pose for pictures as I documented the event for my chapter newsletter.

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Me (N. M. Cedeno) and Anne Hillerman at Bouchercon 2019, photo by Helen Currie Foster

After attending lunches, breakfasts, dinners, award ceremonies, and many panel discussions with mystery authors and readers from around the world, I came home exhausted, but extremely happy to have been welcomed into the larger mystery community. While I won’t be able to attend massive mystery conferences every year, simply knowing that they exist is a boost to my spirits.

I look forward to the next time I’m able to join the larger mystery community and talk to colleagues from around the country and around the world. In the meantime, I hope to infuse my local Sisters in Crime meetings with the welcoming spirit and sense of community that I found at Bouchercon.