Writing in an Atmosphere of Intimidation

Most writers, like all artists who create work for public consumption, have to overcome their own inner critics to create a finished work. The voices of doubt are strong and loud in their heads. Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will people hate it? In the past, that inner voice of self-doubt was the main voice an author had to overcome.

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art from Pixabay

But today, writers face an additional level of fear and doubt between themselves and their goal of reaching publication. They face an online atmosphere of intimidation. They face a world in which a work may be torn apart by a Twitter mob or Facebook mob before it’s even published.

In the last few years, several YA novels (Blood Heir, A Place for Wolves, The Black Witch, and The Continent to name a few) have been delayed or pulled from the publishing process before their publication date because of online criticism. Someone found what he or she considered to be a flaw in the advance reader copies of the works and cried out loudly enough to enrage mobs of people echoing the criticisms.

In one case, someone was offended by a character’s racist ideology. The character was designed by the author to be racist and to grow to recognize their own racism as the story progresses. That was a point the author was trying to make. In another case, an Asian author, who wasn’t raised in the United States, wrote a fantasy story drawing from her own perspective and background which touched on the history of indentured servitude and human trafficking in Asia. She was charged with being insensitive to U. S. racial history and U. S. cultural context.

The authors were vilified online, attacked personally and professionally, until they or their publisher felt driven to pull their books from the publication schedule. Their stories were prevented or delayed from reaching an audience by mobs who hadn’t even read the books.

demonstration-2137449_1280
art from Pixabay

Authors’ voices of self-doubt are already strong. Throw a harassing mob on top of that inner critic, and many authors, especially debut authors, will fold under the weight of the criticism. Because of the fear of online mobs harassing, attacking, and vilifying them, some authors are censoring their work as they write it. They are looking for ways to avoid offending anyone. These authors decide to err on the side of caution. They think, “Perhaps if I avoid this subject altogether, I can avoid offending someone. Perhaps if I don’t mention (fill in the blank), no one will attack me.” And, so begins the self-stifling of free expression out of fear of mob rule. Differing points of view vanish. Stories go untold out of fear. Difficult subjects are avoided completely rather than discussed.

Still other writers deal with the issue by asking someone else to review their work, looking for potentially offensive material. They hire “sensitivity readers” in hopes of catching any potential problems before publication. They hope that one person’s opinion of what’s acceptable will work for everyone, an idea that is doomed to failure. Authors can’t control what different readers see in their words because every reader’s inner vision, life experiences, and point of view will be different. What one reader sees in a story, another may not see at all.

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art from Pixabay

It’s not merely harsh reviews these authors fear. They fear being trolled. They fear their phone ringing with obscene calls and incessant threatening texts, their web pages and Facebook pages being overwhelmed with threatening comments. They fear receiving death threats. They fear nonstop harassment of their families. When mobs consider offending someone akin to physically harming them, authors who write about difficult subjects risk sparking nonstop attacks with every work they release.

We are living in a Fahrenheit 451 world, a world in which the crime of accidentally offending someone can cause a book to be pulled from publication before it ever reaches a single vendor. We live in a world in which the crime of offending someone is punishable by online lynching. We need these attacks to stop. We need all voices to be heard and debated, not silenced before they ever reach publication by people who deem themselves to be “woker-than-thou.”

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N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories, the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017) and its sequel coming in fall 2019. Learn more at www.nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno

Three Days at Wrigley Field

 


by K. P. Gresham

 

Hey! Hey! Holy Mackerel! The Cubs are on the field!

Baseball’s back, and I’m celebrating with a return to one of my favorite subjects—The Chicago Cubs. Yes, I am a huge Cubbies fan, so much so, I wrote a book about it, THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD.

Why? Easy. Chicago Cub blood runs in my veins. And I come by it honestly. Blame my father, Ed Gabel.

Born on Chicago’s northside in 1920, Dad was a lifelong Cubs fan. In his lifetime he never saw his team win the World Series. Oh, they went a few times, but no World Championship. That never stopped him from rooting for the Cubs. I swear his DNA had Cubbie blue genes in it, and I inherited those beautiful blue chromosomes. I was a Cub fan from conception.

Wrigley Field was only six years old when my dad was born, so you could say the two grew up together. I remember he talked about how, during the depression, Mr. Wrigley let the neighborhood kids come in and sweep down the stands after games. Their payment was a free ticket to the next day’s game. Dad did a lot of sweeping back then.

When he was seventeen (i.e. 1937) Wrigley Field underwent a few renovations, enlarged for more seating, and put up the huge, iconic, hand-operated centerfield scoreboard. (Which is still in use!) And Bill Veeck (who started out with the Cubs) planted the bittersweet ivy along the outfield wall.

Yep, my dad loved the Cubs, and he passed that passion on to me. Sometimes a curse, but mostly a blessing. Hey, it’s taught me that success has many faces, and that it’s a cardinal sin to be a fair-weather fan. (And yes, that’s a direct dig at that team from St. Louis).

I wrote THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD before the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. My favorite review from Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize called it “a love letter to baseball and powerful page turner.” A love letter to baseball. Yes, that’s exactly what it is.

Then came 2016, and my Cubbies won the World Series. As I watched play resume after that nineteen minute rain delay in the ninth inning, I thought of my father. Although he was long gone, I felt I was watching the unbelievable come true—but not just for me, for my dad as well.

To capture that soul-filling love in a book is humbling and exhilarating. I invite you to experience that love with me. Give THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD a read.

***

K. P. Gresham is author of the Matt Hayden mysteries.

 

Crawling Under the Porch

M. K. Waller

 

 

  • by M. K. Waller

Last week, Fran Paino described how family obligations can keep a writer from writing. My post describes an experience that happened several years ago. It’s similar to Fran’s–and at the same time, very different. 

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In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron  introduces the  Artist’s Date–a weekly solo “adventure to feed the soul and allow for continued creativity.” In other words, artists–including writers–need to play. At a writers’ retreat in Alpine, Texas, author Karleen Koen led students through a whole week of play. Returning home, I vowed to incorporate the Artist’s Date into my writing life.

It wouldn’t be difficult. Central Texas affords plenty of places to play: Longhorn Cavern State Park at Burnet, lavender fieldsin the Hill Country,  the Elizabet Ney Museum, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, and the Japanese Garden at Zilker Park, in Austin are only a few.

But having just had a week-long Artist’s Date, I chose to start with a Writing Date instead.

“Lady Macbeth,” the Elizabet Ney Museum, by Ingrid Fisch, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Via Wikipedia.

Here’s how it went:

I woke at a reasonable hour and dressed to leave for my coffee shop/office.

Downstairs, doling out cat food, I realized I’d seen no cats. That was troubling. William usually slept late, but Ernest was an early riser. He often climbed onto my pillow and swatted my face, making me an early riser, too.

So I called, ran upstairs, searched, called some more. William, draped across his pagoda, opened his eyes and blinked but offered no help.

I ran downstairs, called, searched, dropped to my knees and peered under furniture. I ran back upstairs. Etc.

Finally dropping in the right place, I found Ernest under the bed, sitting in that compact way cats have, with all his feet nearly tucked in. His eyes were not warm and welcoming. When I tried to pull him out, he wriggled loose and ran into the hall and thence into the guest room and under that bed–a sure sign of a sick cat.

He reminded me of a get-well card I once sent to a great-aunt. On the front was a drawing of an orange tabby with a bored, Morris-like expression on his face, and the words, “Feeling poorly? Do as I do.” Inside it said, “Crawl under the porch.”

Ernest didn’t have a porch so he crawled under the next best thing.

I put batteries in the flashlight and girded my loins. Negotiating the guest room is not for the faint of heart. The bed is built low to the ground, and there’s stuff in there.

Again on my hands and knees, and practically standing on my head, I located Ernest lying in a corner near the wall. I stretched out on the carpet, reached as far as possible, and scratched his ears. He didn’t protest, but the look in his big green eyes said I’d better not make any sudden moves.

I didn’t.

Ernest is mostly muscle. Talons tip his twenty toes. He has a mouthful of teeth.

Barry Goldwater. PD. Via Wikipedia.

Like Barry Goldwater, he believes extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

I believe in keeping my all blood on the inside of my skin.

But I also believe extremism in the pursuit of getting sick children to the doctor is a necessary evil.

And I had a pretty good idea of what had occurred.

Ernest suffers from what might be termed a sluggish constitution, aggravated by his habit of swallowing objects that aren’t food, like bits of string, thread, ribbon. We don’t leave it lying around, but he finds it anyway. The vet says cats are drawn to elongated things. Something about mouse tails, I guess.

The first time he hid under the bed, two years before, I had to authorize X-rays, ultrasound, and a simple procedure he really, really didn’t like. We refer to it as the $400 enema. Swallowing string can cause serious problems for a cat. So I had to get him some help before a minor problem became major.

I found his jingly collar, the one he refused to wear, lay down again, and jingled at him. He gnawed on the collar and purred. Then he flopped over onto his back so I could rub his belly.

After a couple of minutes the dust bunnies keeping Ernest company attacked. I began sneeze. Ernest doesn’t care for sneezing–it scares him–so I went back downstairs and sneezed till my throat was raw. Then I coughed. And coughed. And coughed. I couldn’t find cough drops or unexpired cough medicine, so I poured out the dregs of some extremely aged Jim Beam (my mother had bought it to baptize her Christmas applesauce cakes thirty years before), and added the only sweetener we had, David’s hummingbird sugar.

While I was resting, sipping medicine from a spoon, Ernest waltzed down the stairs. He sashayed past me and headed to the kitchen. I heard crunching. Then he sashayed back.

Sneak that I am, I lured him into my lap, applied a full nelson, stuffed him into the waiting crate, lugged him to the car, and hauled him to the vet. He protested. When two big dogs in the waiting room charged up to his crate to pant hello, he shut up.

First stop was the scale: seventeen pounds. No surprise. My back muscles were already crying for the massage therapist.

Then the vet poked and prodded and determined Ernest had indeed ingested something he shouldn’t have, probably something the shape of a mouse tail.

I had three choices: take him home, give him meds, and watch him for twenty-four hours; leave him there for meds and the procedure he really, really didn’t like and pick him up at five p.m.; or be referred elsewhere for X-rays, because our vet’s office was in process of being moved down the street and his X-ray machine was in pieces.

He said choice #1 would have been fine for his cat, but I chose #2. If I left Ernest there, I knew he would come home unclogged. If I took him home, he would run under the bed and I’d never see him again. I hated to leave him, but it was, after all, his fault.

Anyway, at five p.m., David and I retrieved Ernest and a tube of Laxatone for maintenance. Ernest recovered and, after a time, forgave me. Everything returned to normal, till the next time he ate thread.

And that is the story of what I did the day I didn’t write.

I’m still trying to decide if it qualifies as an Artist’s Date.

***

Note–and this is how I understood the veterinarian’s explanation, not to be taken as medical advice: Some foreign objects will biodegrade in a cat’s GI tract. String, thread, ribbon, and things of that type, even if they’re biodegradable, sometimes catch in the back of a cat’s mouth when he swallows. As food travels through the GI tract, the thread straightens out and becomes taut and can cut the cat’s intestines, necessitating surgery (if the problem is diagnosed in time). Laxatives can worsen the condition. A visit to a veterinarian is desirable.

***

Images
Field of lavender by David Bartus via Morguefile
Mouse by sibya via Pixabay
Ernest by owner

***

M. K. Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/

The Writing Life – For the Sandwich Generation

 

by Fran Paino

I’m a morning writer, and it’s morning. Filled with energy, and inspiration, I grab the notes I’d scribbled on the post-it when ideas woke me during the night. Sharpen those pencils and dust off the keyboard. Coffee’s brewing, toast pops up. Ready, set, go.

Not   So   Fast—

The phone rings. “Mom. Emergency. The sitter is sick. Can you take the baby for a few hours?” I, the devoted grandmother, agree to help. When the baby naps, I’ll write.

The phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.

Welcome to life in the sandwich generation.

Here I am a piece of Swiss cheese firmly pressed between two slices of hearty Italian bread. On one side is my nonagenarian mother, a feisty old lady, who doesn’t look or act her age. She is in great physical shape other than the fact that she can’t hear very well, can’t smell very well, and claims not to be able to walk very well. As for the walking, just give her a shopping cart in the supermarket and try to keep up with her. I’ve lost several pounds chasing her up and down the aisles.

On the other side are my grandchildren, normal little people going through the different stages of emotional, physical and intellectual growth. They provide the expected tests for the adult nervous system: conflict, espionage, and subterfuge. Put any one of them together with the nonagenarian who wishes to be a revered elder and a naughty child at the same time, and it’s like herding cats.

And so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the supermarket we go!

The young one sits in the basket in front of me, and the old one is behind me zipping around with her cart and getting into as much mischief as possible, picking up candies and treats she knows the 24-month-old is not allowed to eat.

The child’s radar, of course, locks onto the junk food. She tries to elongate her little arm to reach over me and receive the treat from her great-grandmother.

The powers of observation in both the toddler and the nonagenarian are impeccable; their timing the envy of any dance team. If I turned to a shelf on my left, the nonagenarian reaches over my right shoulder to give the toddler some forbidden sweet. Once that sweet is in the 24-month-old’s chubby little fist, I must employ all my powers of persuasion to get it away. After I succeed, I turn to scold the nonagenarian but she’s disappeared. I find myself talking to thin air.

This continues up and down each aisle as the elder rises to the challenges of flexible movement and rapid deployment, accumulating as many different snacks as possible and passing them to her beloved great-grandchild before I can stop her.

The woman who cannot walk so well is able to dodge, feint and sidestep with incredible speed. She appears and disappears at key times while I actually try to gather items on the list.

At last, I make it to the check-out line where the naughty old child hands a candy bar to the determined young child. “Here, sweetie, take this,” but my antennae are up and my intercept quick.

I snatch the bar away before the little one captures it in her vice-like grip. Both the old and the young cry out in dismay. Finally, I have no choice but to appropriately discipline both, which nearly creates a riot at the register. It is my good fortune that no do-gooders are there to insist that I be reprimanded for reprimanding those in my charge.

Bags packed, groceries paid for, I swiftly maneuver the nonagenarian and the toddler to the car and get them safely strapped into their seats, after which I load the shopping.

I drop the nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is manageable.

As soon as I reach the safety of my home, I promptly put the toddler down for a nap. Ahh. Blessed relief. It’s quiet at last, and time to write. I smile and close my eyes for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.

The next time I open them, a little voice is calling, “Nonna.”

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The original version of this, “Supermarket Nightmare,” appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny Times.

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Read more about Fran Paino at her website.

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Images via Pixabay:
Sandwich by mp1746
Kittens by Jan-Mallander
Candy bars by Alexas_Fotos
Interruption by geralt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It Begins with One Step – A Book Review of WILD by Cheryl Strayed

 

 

by Renee Kimball

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves…”

― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

“Cheryl Strayed” by Moxie68 under CC BY-SA 4.0

Bravery. Courage. Confronting yourself, owning your failings and exposing your sins to the world, no excuses given and none allowed. Unearth black secrets, stand tall, forgive yourself, and find the strength to go forward. All of these are within the hard inner nugget of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This is the book for all womenboth young and old; it is a talisman tale that will make a profound difference in how you see your life’s purpose. It is a punch in the gut, a kick in the rear, a message to confront your raw self and face what you see. It is not for the faint of heart.

Wild on its own is a remarkable achievement, but it is much more than a story; it is a lesson plan for life. Overcoming self-doubt, the past, the present, lack of talent, self-worth and a host of other things are laid bare in language that flows and connects. It forces the reader to think deeply, to look at their own life, to examine their flaws in the mirror, be honest with their actions, and then to find a way to self-forgiveness and to push onward to something better.

What drives a person to literally walk their unhappiness and self-hatred away? Loss, grief, disappointment, adultery, addiction, and guilt are only a fewmany more are in the mix for Cheryl Strayed.

She began her journey of 1100 miles alonethe Mojave Desert lay on Strayed’s right and the driest desert of California on the left. It was summerthe hottest time of the year. On her back stood her “Monster,” a pack towering above her upright body and weighing almost half her body weight. To position the pack on her back, she was forced to lie down and wiggle her body into straps, then maneuver herself into a sitting position while struggling to stand. Sometimes she was lucky and could lean against a rock to hoist her self up, but not always. Then, she began to walkall day, until she was physically forced to stop.

“I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me? The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth that it was true, I said it anyway: No one.”

Strayed’s trek was not a Victorian stroll in a garden; it was brutal. She fell, faced a bear and snakes and real thirst. There was always an uncertaintyon the edge of not knowing what could or would come around the bend.

She was exposed literally and figuratively. Her body racked with pain from her ill-fitting hiking boots, and her back from the constant press of the metal frame resting unceasingly on her back and shoulders. From the slipping and sliding of her feet inside her  boots she lost all but two toenails, pulling them off herself when them became too loose.

“Ritter Range” by Steve Dunleavy from Lake Tahoe, NV, United States is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite physical discomfort, she wrestled with unrelenting inner demons, a self-inflicted purge stretching on within with every new day.

She always had a choice of course: she could turn around, she could quit at the next stop available and go back homebut she persevered for three long months. The memory of her abusive childhood, her father a brutal drunk; a mother trying to mend the dysfunction under extreme financial hardships and then, the sudden loss of her mother; the destruction of her remaining family; the dissolution of her marriage, a result of indiscriminate and compulsive sexual encounters with strangers; her short escapes with heroin, and her loss of self-respect: Strayed’s thoughts percolated in a black and toxic sludge behind her eyesunrelenting punishment with no place to hide. Her saving gracethoughts of her mother’s steadfast patience and lovenow, out of reach forever. 

Fear begets fear. power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”

Cheryl Strayed is a hero of a new breed, a woman who is totally alone confronting issues of her life on her terms to full self-healing. Strayed’s issues, sadly, are familiar to women everywherethe overcoming of monumental loss of self and the dawning comprehension that you can face whatever is thrown at you and survive.

Strayed is an excellent writer. She knew she wanted to be a writer at six years of age. Despite the monumental difficulties of her life, Strayed succeeded beyond her expectations and it is a testament to her strength. Strayed is a warrior. All women can learn from her honesty.

Sometimes we come around to things the long way, despite our stops and starts, and surprise even ourselveswe survive. You will never regret reading Strayed’s storyyou may even glimpse a small part of yourself in the pages.

Read it, believe it, and live a long and full life; you can be a warrior too.

“Pacific Crest Trail,” Public Domain

I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”

***

Related 

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York.: Vintage Books, 2013.

Sachs, Amy. 20 Cheryl Strayed Quotes To Inspire You When You’re Feeling Lost.

Arreola, Cristina. 11 Cheryl Strayed Quotes from “Wild” That Will Inspire Your Own Live-Changing Journey.

CHERYL STRAYED: Best-Selling Author and Co-Host of Dear Sugar Radio

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Renee Kimball loves books and reads widely. She has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and is involved in rescuing, fostering, and finding forever homes for homeless dogs. She’s working on a novel set in the southwestern United States.

Sometimes You Need A Break—

Helen Currie Foster

 

 

Posted by Helen Currie Foster

 

—from news, winter, deadlines, calamities. Two books did the trick for me this February, one old, one new: Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018) and Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom (1960).

First, Kingsolver, so inventive, alternates chapters between two protagonists in two centuries, one woman (contemporary), one man (1870 or so, during Grant’s administration). They occupy the same unsound house built in Vineland, New Jersey, a utopian venture built by the charismatic Captain Landis.

We first meet Willa, an unemployed writer whose magazine has evaporated; her PhD husband Iano has lost tenure and his pension when his last college cratered and now is lucky to have snagged a one-year contract as an adjunct at an unenviable college in now impoverished Vineland. They live in a falling-down house, trying to support Iano’s abrasive dying father, their “successful” Harvard MBA Zeke who’s saddled with over $100,000 in student debt while working gratis at a Boston startup, and Tig, their dreadlocked iconoclastic daughter, just returned from Cuba, where (she says) everyone is poor but has good healthcare and knows they must keep ancient cars repaired. Willa’s family is “unsheltered” in many ways: despite all their struggle to fulfill the American dream they grew up with—that hard academic work would lead to financial security—they face uncertain income, family struggles, and a collapsing 155 year old house. Tig preaches a different doctrine, battering her parents with the news that their American dream no longer exists. In chapter one Willa learns that the house which keeps them together, on which she must pay the mortgage, is too unsound to repair, and that her son Zeke’s partner has just committed suicide, leaving him with a weeks-old infant.

Segue to chapter two, where we meet our male protagonist Thatcher Greenwood, an idealistic young Harvard-trained botanist. Thatcher has just learned that the Vineland house where his young wife insists she must live, with her little sister and her ferocious aunt, was improperly constructed, is structurally unsound, and requires unexpected repairs which Thatcher cannot afford but is expected to undertake. As the new science teacher at the Vineland high school where he proposes to teach the thrilling theory of evolution, Thatcher encounters implacable hostility from the principal and from Vineland’s all-dominating and deeply corrupt founder, Captain Landis.

As disasters mount for Willa’s family she desperately searches for evidence that her house merits a grant for historic preservation funds.

As Thatcher faces rejection by his principal, which may cost him his job, he meets his mysterious next-door neighbor, Mary Treat, a self-trained botanist and empirical scientist. At their first encounter she’s engrossed in an experiment: timing a Venus flytrap as it slowly ingests the tip of her own finger. Thatcher is enthralled.

For Willa and Thatcher, the house is unsound. Supposedly utopian Vineland, corrupt and ignorant. Thatcher’s marriage, built on sand. Willa’s family, disintegrating into poverty. The imagined good life for which Willa and Iano worked, for which Thatcher studied? Unattainable.

And yet these vivid and believable characters persist. As Tig pushes Willa toward a new way to live outside an outdated dream, as Mary Treat inspires Thatcher to recapture his life amid redwoods and deserts, the two protagonists push into new territory—unsheltered by the old, looking for the new.

Kingsolver’s hugely contemporary novel satisfies deeply. Her strong science background, never pedantic, conveys the heady excitement of young botanists struggling against those refusing to accept empirical science (a social split we still face), while her creation of a family caught in the collapse of traditional American social ladders, trying to survive in the perilous gig economy, resonates with today’s headlines. Kingsolver erects signposts pointing at least one route to hope: the courage to relinquish old shibboleths that no longer support, but strangle, creative growth. Attention must be paid: survival requires strenuous creativity. Darwin rewritten?

Unsheltered offered me one break. Trustee from the Toolroom, Nevil Shute’s 24th and last novel (1960), provided another. Trustee, one of the top fiction bestsellers of 1960, introduces Keith Stewart, a pale, pudgy, mild-mannered Glaswegian, who lives with his shop-clerk wife Katie in the undistinguished London suburb called West Ealing (Shute’s birthplace). In his basement toolroom Keith makes actual working models—little steam engines, tiny clocks, pocket-sized turbines that run on a dropper-ful of gasoline. He publishes instructions for these models in the “Miniature Mechanic,” a magazine popular with amateur engineers worldwide. Keith’s considerable fan mail (including anxious questions about how to wind an armature) puts him in touch with admirers worldwide. He makes little money but loves his work.

He and his wife have no children. His sister brings her ten-year old Janice to stay with Keith and Katie while the sister and her navy officer husband sail their boat across the world, intending to land in Vancouver and start a business. They, and their boat, disappear. Keith learns he is Janice’s trustee. He learns Janice’s sole potential asset is a bag of diamonds possibly stashed on the boat. Keith has never left England, and cannot afford airfare to Vancouver. Nevertheless, he sets out to fulfill his duties as trustee, learning to stand watch on a sailboat in the mid-Pacific, to set a course, to—well, no spoilers. The tale becomes an irresistible seafaring yarn. Yes, it feels dated, taking us back to post-WWII Britain, still poor and austere, and the brash contrast of post-war entrepreneurial America.

Shute himself worked as an aircraft engineer in the thirties, first with de Havilland and then Vickers (his biography is titled Sliderule). He then moved to Australia. Like Kingsolver’s characters, Shute himself sought a new world with new lessons. But his Keith Stewart takes a different tack; he can’t abandon ship, because, after all, he’s a trustee. You too might like watching how Keith Stewart serves.

This Monday morning I’m back from the Pacific, back in the now-infamous Austin traffic, back staring at thousands of cars stopped dead on Bee Cave Road. Maybe I need to think about lessons from Tig and Keith Stewart. About…new ways to live?

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice Greer MacDonald mystery series.

Death Investigations in the United States

Nationally renowned and award-winning mystery author Jan Burke came to speak to the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter recently about two subjects dear to her heart: missing and unidentified people and the lack of uniform standards and training in the medico/legal death investigation system in the United States. She reminded the crime fiction authors in the crowd that they have a platform to bring attention to subjects such as these.

jan burke
Jan Burke

In the United States, 600,000 adults and children go missing every year. The vast majority are found relatively quickly. However, over ten thousand people remain missing for more than a year. And sadly, around 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year. In an attempt to match the missing with the unknown dead, the Department of Justice and the National Institute for Justice created an online database called NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

However, only three states require reporting of unidentified remains to the NamUs database. In most states, individual counties make the rules regarding handling of unidentified remains. Consequently, a person who vanishes in one county may turn up dead, lacking identification, four counties away, and their family may never be notified. This creates what NamUs calls the Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster: a huge volume of unsolved cases regarding missing persons and unidentified dead bodies.

One example of this problem is the case of Lupita Cantu. Lupita disappeared from San Antonio, Texas, in Bexar County, in April 1990. That same year her body was found near Pearsall, Texas, and buried as a Jane Doe, because authorities couldn’t identify her. She wasn’t identified until 2011, when DNA analysis finally matched her with her family. Pearsall is only about 55 miles from San Antonio, in Frio County. Had the counties been required to report unidentified remains and missing persons to a central clearinghouse, Lupita might have been identified much sooner. This problem is even more extreme in places where it’s easy to cross state lines. Someone who disappeared from one state might never be linked to remains found two states away.

NamUs creates a central clearinghouse for missing persons and unidentified remains, allowing both families of the missing and law enforcement agencies to enter information into the database in hopes of matching the missing with the dead. NamUs also can provide law enforcement agencies in rural, low-population, or underfunded counties the forensic resources needed to identify the dead, including forensic odontology, fingerprint examination, forensic anthropology, and DNA analyses. Families of the missing can receive DNA collection kits so that their data may be compared with the DNA from unidentified remains.

The NamUs clearinghouse is necessary because of the lack of uniformity in the handling of deaths by the medico/legal system in the United States. Each state has different standards and rules that apply to the person whose job it is to declare whether a death is natural, accidental, or homicide. Some states have medical examiners. Some states have coroners. Some of these people are elected. Some are appointed. Some are required to have medical training. Some are required to be forensic pathologists. And some aren’t required to have any special training whatsoever. Within each state, whether a county uses a coroner or a medical examiner may vary by county and by population.

This patchwork quilt of laws means that there are over 2,300 different systems for dealing with death for the more than 3,100 counties (or parishes, or whatever the state has labeled the entities) in the United States. Multiple scientific studies have reviewed these systems, and all have consistently returned the same recommendations. The population would be better served by a more consistent set of rules and regulations across the United States. The current system creates great disparities in the administration of justice.

IMG_3731
Jan Burke, photo by Helen C. Foster

For instance, in a county where a justice of the peace (J. P.) decides the nature of death, where the county has no medical examiner and must send bodies several counties away for autopsy, the county’s budget may determine if a death by unknown causes is ever reviewed. Consider this scenario. Suppose a fifty-year-old man is found dead in his bed at home. The house was locked and police can see no visible evidence of foul play. The police may ask the J. P. to find the death is suspicious, to have the body sent for autopsy in a neighboring county. However, the J. P. has the power to deny that request. The J. P. may say that since nothing looks suspicious, the police should assume it’s a natural death, close the case, and save the county the money they would have paid for the autopsy.

Crime fiction writers use death to build plots in novels all the time. Ms. Burke suggested that by mentioning NamUs as part of a fictional family’s search to find a missing loved one, authors can raise awareness in the general public about this resource available to real families who are missing a relative. She also requested that writers be accurate in their depiction of death investigations. Many people are under the misapprehension that all death is investigated like it is depicted on C. S. I. and other similar dramas on television. Those shows don’t remotely reflect the reality of death investigations in many parts of the country. As writers, we can do better. We can reflect reality.

*****

N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017). Find her at nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno or on Facebook.

Thank You, Lady Gaga

 

K.P. Gresham

 

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

I recently had the incredible honor of attending Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas Jazz Show. I say honor, because this woman is so talented. Not just at singing, or dancing or playing the piano.

This lady can write.

I write fiction. I like to say I kill people for a living. This incredible woman writes the language of the soul.

I was struck by one song in particular. I am in the final stages of putting out my next book, MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY.  The questions I ask myself are overwhelming, and all have a common theme: Is this book any good? I know this something most writers struggle with. Actually, Robert De Niro said it best. “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” That pretty much sums up my inner dialogue as I walked into Lady Gaga’s show.

Then she performed “Born This Way.”

From the time I learned to read and write, I knew I wanted to be an author. I wanted to create worlds that people could escape to, tell stories that would make people laugh. I wanted my creations to go down on paper and be shared with my friends and family. I knew in my heart I was born to be a writer.

One of the lyrics in “Born This Way” says, “In the religion of the insecure I must be myself, respect my youth.” This spoke to me on so many levels, but especially made me remember that I’ve known all my life that writing is what I born to do.

As Lady Gaga sings, “I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way…I was born to survive…I was born to be brave…Don’t hide yourself in regret…There ain’t no other way.”

Writers, we are who we are. All the creativity and self-doubt. All the procrastination and all-nighters.  All the work at honing our skills and all the stuff we haven’t learned yet. Our lives would be a lot better if we could come to terms with ourselves as Lady Gaga has written it so beautifully. Be brave. Accept this is what we do and don’t look back or give in to doubts. We’re on the right track.

Wow. Thank you, Lady Gaga for talking to my soul that night. I’ll try to keep your words in my heart. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, I’ll keep writing.

After all, I was born this way.

***

Books by K.P. Gresham

Learn more about K.P. at www.kpgresham.com.

Sit Down, Shut Up, and . . . You’re Invited

 

M.K. Waller

 

 

by M. K. Waller

 

Friday evening David said, “Should I wake you at nine tomorrow?” and I said, “Why?” because I never know what day it is, and he said, “You’re going to Saturday writing practice at the Yarborough library,” and I said, “At the Yarborough,” and he said, “Yes, the Yarborough,” and I said, “The Yarborough, the Yarborough.

So the next morning I sat in the parking lot of the Twin Oaks library for nine minutes, until I knew it was open, because I didn’t want to wait outside and freeze, and at one minute after ten, I went inside and found the meeting rooms dimly lit and empty, and I said to myself, “The Yarborough.”

Then I considered what route I should take to the Yarborough: Lamar St. and be extra late, or Loop 1/MoPac and fight traffic. I decided on MoPac because it was Saturday morning and there wouldn’t be as many nuts on MoPac as there are on weekdays.

Fizzing about the nuts on MoPac, I turned left out of the Twin Oaks parking lot—I should have turned right—and wandered through a neighborhood, and came to a semi-dead end and then another, so I had to turn left again, twice, and by the time I got back to civilization, I had decided I was on W. Oltorf Street, where I wanted to be, and from which I would turn onto S. 1st.

But I wasn’t on Oltorf, I was really on W. Mary, where I didn’t want to be, because the left turn from W. Mary onto S. 1st is unprotected and there’s always oncoming traffic. But I didn’t know I was on W. Mary until I got to S. 1st and saw the light with the unprotected left turn. I was lucky and turned without incident.

From S. 1st I made my way to MoPac, which was almost completely devoid of nuts. Then I had to ruminate over which exit to take, because Burnet Rd. doesn’t have an exit, and the Northland exit goes to the acupuncturist, and Research is too far north and goes somewhere else, and that’s when I decided I should have driven up Lamar to 45th and been extra late. And then the little light above my head came on and I said, “Forty-fifth.”

So I took the 45th St. exit and went to Burnet, where I turned left and headed north to Hancock Blvd. and the Yarborough library. However, even though I went to the Yarborough on the second Sunday of every month for two years, when the Sisters in Crime chapter met there, and I knew exactly where I was going, I overshot Hancock. I wasn’t certain I’d missed it, but when I got to Northloop, I knew I’d missed Hancock, and when I passed the Monkey Nest and then Karavel, I knew I’d better turn around immediately before I found myself in Waxahachie. So I turned around in the Mephisto parking lot.

This time I managed to turn onto Hancock, as I would have done before if I’d recognized it, and about half a block down, I turned into the Yarborough library parking lot, and parked, and went inside and got to the meeting room only twenty-eight minutes late. Five other members sat around the table writing, and I was so glad to see them, and they said they were glad to see me and that they’d just begun a fifteen-minute writing.

And then I did what I’ve done one Saturday morning a month for the past twenty years: I sat down and shut up and wrote.

*

I wrote this last Saturday after I finally arrived at the writing practice group Fifteen Minutes of Fame, to which you’re all invited. I’m posting it as proof that quality is not our middle name. I did edit a little so it would make sense.

Please read on.

***

A Formal Invitation: Please join us at 15 Minutes of Fame

15 Minutes of Fame meets once a month at Twin Oaks Branch Library (unless it meets at the Yarborough), from 10:00 a.m. to noon. No dues, no fees, no RSVPs. Just show up.

We are not professionals. We are not English teachers. We just like to get together and write.

What we do: We sit around a table and write for a specified length of time–fifteen minutes is the default–and then read aloud what we’ve written.

We read aloud if we want to. No pressure. Passing is perfectly all right.

All you need are pen and paper. Or you can bring your laptop.

We don’t care how you spell or punctuate. You don’t have to punctuate at all if you don’t want to. You don’t have to live in Austin.

We offer no critique. We don’t comment. When something is funny, we laugh.

Our schedule is posted at http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com.

(If we meet at the Yarborough instead of Twin Oaks, we’ll announce it there. The Yarborough is scheduled to close March 2 for renovation, but it might still be open then.)

***

M. K. Waller writes short stories of mystery and suspense. She’s been published in the anthologies Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and online at Mysterical-E. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/ and on Twitter @KathyWaller1. A member of the Writers’ League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers, she blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She lives in Austin.

Welcome from the Ink-Stained Wretches

 

INK: The black liquor with which men write.

STAIN: Blot; discoloration 

WRETCH: A miserable mortal; a worthless sorry creature.

Six Ink-Stained Wretches—metaphorically speaking—have gathered to write about our profession: reading and writing.

We write and publish in a variety of genres and on a number of topics: short stories, novels, flash fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. We write mystery and suspense, ghost stories, literary fiction, humor, book reviews, literary criticism, scholarly articles, and more. We read widely for both pleasure and instruction.

We use no ink, we display no stains, and we’re certainly not wretched—well, sometimes we feel wretched; there’s that writer’s block thing, you know—but in the tradition of earlier ink-stained wretches, we immerse ourselves in words.

And once a week we’ll share our love of them.

The Ink-Stained Wretches

For their names, hover your pointer over each image.
Read more about them at  The Wretches.