Jeanne: Things to be Thankful For

It’s been a tough year for most of us, so when Eight Lady Michaeline suggested we each do a post this week that focuses on things we’re grateful for, it sounded like an excellent idea. Here are my gratitude items, in no particular order:

Dogtooth Violet
  1. Only one person in my family has caught Covid-19. My 14-year-old grandson got a very mild case. He only discovered this because he got strep throat and his pediatrician ran a Covid test when he went in for the strep. Although he lives in a household of five, he was apparently perfectly content to hang out in his room with his computer and his Playstation and call for room service as needed.
  2. In addition to staying healthy, my family has managed to stay financially afloat. Since this includes one daughter who is a waitress and another who owns an event venue, this is pretty thank-worthy.
  3. Last spring, authorities shut down my favorite place to hike. This was initially not a gratitude item because it happened just as the woodland ephemerals were coming into bloom. The great thing that happened from this disappointment was that it forced me to break out of my routine and discover a ton of new places to hike. (I took the pictures on this post at a couple of them.)
  4. Places that I love to hike got a lot more crowded. This wasn’t great for me personally, but it’s exciting to see families getting out into nature who weren’t doing that before. I have my fingers crossed that by the time this is over it will be a habit for them because people who love nature, protect nature.
  5. The lack of opportunities to travel this year created a different opportunity–to sit in my chair and work on my current book. Thanks to that extra focus, I expect to finish a first draft before the end of the year.
  6. Last, but certainly not least, I’m thankful for the other Ladies. Behind every successful author is a strong community, and I’m so grateful to have found this one.
Large-flowered trillium

Kay: Columbo—A Hero for Our Time

Peter Falk—wearing his own raincoat, a $15 thrift store find—as Columbo

Lately I’ve been mostly unable to read or watch new fiction. I’m not sure why this is happening now, although lots of people have mentioned that between the U.S. elections and the pandemic, all they can read is books they know the ending to and all they can watch is reruns of The Great British Baking Show.

One of the TV programs I’ve been catching up on is Columbo, starring Peter Falk. It’s showing up at my house on a rerun channel on antenna TV, although I’m sure it’s available from fine streaming platforms everywhere. Even though every episode is constructed exactly the same way (the murder is shown on screen at the beginning of the show, so it’s more of an affable “police procedural” than a “mystery”), so far, I haven’t tired of it. I never thought to wonder why until I read this wonderful cartoon in The New Yorker.

For those of you who don’t want to click the link, the cartoon’s author, Joe Dator, says he’s been thinking about why he’s watching Columbo reruns. His analysis is pretty good, I think. He points to how Columbo is a relaxing kind of hero: he’s not a fancy dresser—far from it!—and his partner is a rescue beagle. He doesn’t carry a gun, much less shoot one. There are no car chases or foot races. Columbo’s success is due to his work ethic, and he’s not cowed or awed by the wealthy and privileged suspects he interviews, who live in exclusive enclaves and consider themselves untouchable by law enforcement.

“Let’s just say,” Dator, the author, concludes, “that there’s a bit of comfort and wish fulfillment in seeing this humble public servant walk into sumptuous mansions and make arrogant jerks who think they’re above the law finally face the consequences of their crimes.”

The final frame is the back of a head sitting at a desk in the Oval Office of the White House. “Oh, if only,” Dator writes.

Isn’t that the truth? Where’s a Columbo when you really need him?

Well, right now he’s on COZI TV, and, yes, I’ll be tuning in.

Jeanne: The Sprint Room

A couple of months ago, in a Facebook group to which we both belong, a friend who lives in Melbourne, Australia posted a plea for help. She wanted to start getting up at 4:30 a.m. to write. Would anyone be willing to join a sprint room with her to help provide some motivation/accountability?

Since my own work-in-progress was progressing a lot more slowly than I preferred, my hand instantly shot up. Four-thirty a.m. Melbourne time is 2:30 p.m. Eastern. It wasn’t my “ideal” writing time, which is early morning, but I hadn’t been managing to sit down each morning, so I didn’t have much to lose.

We didn’t set it up with the challenges/prizes/back-patting that I’ve experienced in other sprint events I’ve participated in. (Thank God. I’m as competitive as the next person, but for me competition and creativity don’t mix.)

We started out using Zoom as our platform, but soon moved over to a Facebook room within the original FB group. Other than the occasional power or internet outage, that seems to work well. Over the next couple of weeks, various writers joined the sprints. Most quickly decided it wasn’t a fit for them.

After that initial burn-in period, the group settled down to four of us who show up most weekdays. I live in Ohio, another lives in San Francisco, a third in London and the original requester, as mentioned, is in Melbourne. We are all over the map and all over the clock. Fortunately, the person with the most challenging start-time is the person who requested it.

The two of us who live in the States often start early (1 p.m. my time) and the others join in later. We generally open by chatting for a few minutes (about where we all our with our various Covid-19 levels and restrictions, about things going on with friends and family, about challenges or triumphs with our WIPs).

Then we start a series of half-hour sprints. It’s entertaining to watch what happens as the afternoon progresses. With each iteration of timer going off, it takes each of us a little longer to return from where we’ve been (Paris, Eden (the planet, not the garden), the Principality of Caldermor, and, of course, Hell). We stare into our computer cameras and blink silently, confused by the relativity of time and loath to leave the Land of Imagination. Often, we lengthen the sprints for 45 minutes or even an hour to allow for greater spans of concentration.

Organizationally, it’s very loose. If someone needs to leave early, they slide away. If other priorities call, they don’t show up. If someone doesn’t show up for several days in a row, we’ll check in to make sure they’re okay, but there’s no pressure. The group is designed more for support and motivation than accountability.

In August, before joining this sprint room, I penned 5445 words. In September, 16257 and in October, 16,785. Having this camaraderie essentially tripled my word count. Another month like the last two and I’ll have a first draft. (Woo-hoo!)

What experience have you had with sprint rooms?

Michaeline: A Zoom Ghost Story

Girl in a painting, underlit by a golden glow
Kate was on the sofa, in a Zoom meeting with her boyfriend. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Katie had snuggled into her afghan on the sofa, her gray and black Tabby nestled under her knees, and her laptop perched on them. Pete was on Zoom and it was Halloween – exactly one year after the terrifying events of 2019.

“Babe, it kills me that you’re there alone,” Pete said.

Kate pulled the afghan a little closer to her neck, and Tabby mewed in protest. “Don’t you dare come over. You’ve got chemo on Tuesday.”

“But if you’ve got no symptoms . . . you’ve been so careful.”

“Pete, stop it. Sky tested positive five days ago.” And she wasn’t going to tell Pete about the fever that had sent her to the sofa. He didn’t need that as well.

“Jesus, Sky too? I thought it was only Jessie. This fucking year, I swear . . . .”

There was nothing Kate could say to that; fortunately, Zoom let her nod along in sympathy. It had been a roller coaster of a year – her high school boyfriend, Jake, had turned out to be a cult leader and raised seven demons of hell last Hallow’s Eve. She’d had to drop a hay bale on him to save the tri-city area, and in her grief and guilt, she’d hooked up with Pete at Christmas and was in love by New Year’s Day. Pete was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day (Friday, 5 p.m. – all the bad news in 2020 had dropped on Friday at 5 p.m.), and her mother died from complications of eye surgery . . . shot in the eye by a rubber bullet on the third of July, dead on September fourth.

Tabby crawled out from under the afghan and curled herself around Kate’s neck.

Pete said, “Hey, Tabby, Tabby!” Tabby looked at him, ears forward. She liked Pete almost as much as Kate did.

The Zoom crackled and spit, and Tabby launched herself off Kate, and cowered under the side table across the room. “Hey, Pete, your camera is off. Pete?”

No answer. Which was par for the course. With her connection, she lost her Zoom companions at least three times a week. The static, like an old-fashioned television on an empty station, was new, though.

“Katie, Katie, Katie.” A horrible sound, a man’s voice was heard through the hisses on the screen, vaguely reminiscent of somebody calling a cat. Only Jake had called her Katie.

“Pete, is that you? What’s going on?”

“Not Pete, Katie.” There was a long pause, and Katie felt chills going up her spine and down her upper arms in marching rows of goosebumps. “Pete.” This was almost spit out, like the person behind the Zoom camera had bitten into the pit of a cherry. Another long pause, and Kate sought to organize her scrambling thoughts, but they eluded her. They ran for all the corners of her mind, leaving nothing but a blank space and this snowy screen. “Why, Kate? Why me? Not . . . .” Kate was frozen. “ . . . you?”

Ideas suddenly flooded into her head. She frantically hit the trackpad, trying to close the window, stop the program. She pressed on the power button once, twice, three times, and the third time for a long 15 seconds. Silence from the screen for this minute, but as soon as her finger released the power button, an evil laugh issued through the hissing fog of the computer.

She slammed the laptop shut, and instinct prompted her to roll off the sofa, crawl under the coffee table, and her butt caught on it, so she crawled across the floor, bringing the table along with her. Part of her mind wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it, but the other part was wrapped up in fear.

The ceiling fan dropped, glancing off the coffee table, and knocking the laptop off the sofa. It flew open, still a screen with her desktop, and a Zoom app of black and white static fuzz. “I missed you, Katie.” Another long 15 seconds of static. “Come with me.”

“No!” Kate screamed. She tried to back away from the damned computer, when the oddest thing happened. A new person had been invited to the Zoom. It . . . it looked like her mother’s Zoom name. She crawled toward the laptop.

Little chunks of plaster rained down upon her, but the ceiling fan had brought down most of it when it fell. She allowed the new person to join the call. It couldn’t be her mother . . . it must be whoever bought her mom’s old desktop.

Two windows of static, but the one with her mom’s name was pink, and less hissy. It sounded almost as though someone was playing a theremin, or an electric harp with only three high strings. Whoo-whee-woooooo. “Kate.” It was her mother, she knew it. “I’m here.”

“Noooooooooooooooo.” It had to be Jake. Kate began mumbling the spell her friend had taught her that Hallow’s Eve. “I won’t stand for you running around. I won’t stand for you putting me down. I am mine. I am mine. I am mine.” The hissing of static became more quiet, and then winked out . . . exactly like the old tube TV her mom had owned, not at all like the digital Zoom window. Pete’s dear face showed on the screen again.

“Kate, darling. What happened?”

“I . . . I’m not sure.” She could see her face on the screen, weirdly reversed as it always was on a Zoom call, but now covered with plaster dust. She wasn’t ready to throw the coffee table off her back yet.

“Kate, who are you talking to on the other screen?”

Kate looked at the pink screen, now pulsating with burgundy and returning to a warm, comforting color. She could barely hear the strains of the three notes. “Love you, Kate.” It was a low whisper, and another long pause, as if gathering the energy to say a few more words. “I’ll take care of him.”

And just like that, Zoom chimed and informed her that LindaT&J had left the call.

“Kate, are you OK? Dammit, I will come over.”

“No, it’s OK, Pete. I think it’s done. Stay on the Zoom with me for a little longer? It’s almost midnight?”

“Sure, Kate-my-dear. I’ll stay on all night.” Tabby picked her delicate way through the wreckage of the ceiling fan, and unerringly pointed her butt at the screen. Pete laughed and Kate giggled and pulled the cat under the coffee table. It was going to be all right. Somehow, everything was going to be all right.

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Jeanne: Your Worst Day

A couple of weeks ago my daughter recommended a documentary series on Netflix called Song Exploder. The show, which is hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, began life as a podcast. Each episode explores the creation of a single song with the songwriter. There are currently four episodes available on Netflix. The one with Lin-Manuel Miranda, discussing the creation of “Wait for It,” Aaron Burr’s song from Hamilton, was particularly fascinating.

There’s a lot of good stuff in it, including Miranda’s anecdote about being struck with inspiration while riding the subway to a friend’s birthday party. He arrived at the party, drank half a beer and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.” If you’ve ever had one of those “grab it now because it may not stick around” flashes of inspiration, this will resonate with you.

The bit that slammed into me like a subway train, though, was where Hirway talks to Alex Lacomoire, music director and orchestrator for Hamilton, about whether Aaron Burr (who eventually killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel) was a villain.

“He is a person who did villainous things,” Lacamoire says. I thought he was trying to sidestep the question until he went on. “If you are judged by your worst day, who would any of us be?”

Let’s hear that again: If you are judged by your worst day, who would any of us be?

Have you ever felt like someone took a metaphysical baseball bat and whacked you between the eyes? That’s what this statement felt like to me. The fact is, any of us, at our worst, is not particularly admirable. Even Jesus had that weird day with the fig tree.

One of the reasons Lacamoire’s question hit me so hard, I think, is because Lilith, the protagonist in my work-in-progress, is a villain in my first two books. Readers almost universally loathe her. I know she’s unlikely to sell many books for me but for some reason I feel compelled to tell her story anyway.

Because the converse of Lacamoire’s statement is, “If we were judged by our best day, who would any of us be?”

Jeanne: Rape Fantasy

Review of Untouchable, a High School Bully Romance by Sam Mariano Rating: **

Protagonist Zoey has become a pariah at her high school after reporting being groped by a member of the football team to the school administration. He was consequently booted from the team, impacting both his chances for a college scholarship and the team’s chances to make the state playoffs.

In the first scene of the book, he and a couple of buddies, including Carter, team quarterback and wealthy scion of an important family in Zoey’s small Texas town, corner her in an empty classroom (in a school that apparently has so much unused space that there are classrooms out of hearing distance of any other humans during the school day) with the intention of bullying her into recanting her testimony and restoring the guy to the team. When Zoey is defiant, things spiral out of control. She is stripped down to her panties and, under the threat of gang rape/sodomy, forced to fellate Carter while the other two look on/stand guard..

(Notice all those passive voice sentences in my description? Writers do that when we want to emotionally distance ourselves.)

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Jeanne: Evolution of a Playlist

When I first started working on Lilith’s story a couple of years ago, I put together a YouTube playlist to use as inspiration.

The purpose of an early-stage playlist isn’t to document the planned book. It’s more of a place to stick a pin in stray thoughts/ideas/feelings you have about the characters and the story. My approach is to try to find songs that capture every bit of potential inspiration, to explore all the different paths the story might take.

Now that it’s a lot clearer in my head, I’m ready to add some new songs and get rid of some.

Here’s my edit of the playlist as things stand today.

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Jeanne: Love at First Sight–a Family Legend

On Sunday, Jilly posed the query: Do you believe in love at first sight? In my family, belief in this occurrence has been passed down since the Civil War.

Stock photo–NOT my great-great-great grandfather

After the war ended, in April of 1865, many of the soldiers walked home. That makes sense: only the cavalry would have had horses, and the trains would have been overloaded (not to mention the great sections of track that were destroyed during the conflict).

According to the family legend, my ancestress and her sister were sitting on their front porch in the spring of 1865 when a soldier walked by their place. My ancestress took one look at him and said, “That’s my man if I never get him.”

Her sister thought that was pure foolishness. “You don’t even know him. Why, for all you know, he could already be married.”

As it turned out, he was married–or at least, he had been. By the time he got home, though, his wife had died. He made his way back to the girl who had fallen for him at first sight and married her.

Is the story true?

My great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Peters, was born on Christmas Eve, 1847, in Scott, Virginia. That would make her seventeen when the war ended. According to the decennial censuses, somewhere between 1860 and 1870, Elizabeth moved from Virginia to Kentucky. And on July 12, 1865, Elizabeth Peters married Nathaniel Thornton Arvin in Estill County, Kentucky.

So, it certainly could be true.

But was it really love?

In a world where approximately 1 out of every 20 men in the country had been killed in the previous four years, just the fact that Nathaniel was alive and healthy enough to stagger home probably made him a prize. Elizabeth and Nathaniel stayed married till they died, to the best of my knowledge, but most couples did back then.

What makes true love more likely, in my opinion, is the fact that the story got passed on to Elizabeth’s daughter, Nancy, who passed it on to her granddaughter, my Aunt Louise, who passed it on to me.

Because true love is the stuff of legends.

Jeanne: Satan’s Daycare

I’m currently working on the section of The Demon Wore Stilettos where our protagonist (I’m not even going to try to get anyone on board with thinking of Lilith as a heroine at this point) has discovered that she’s pregnant. It’s what she’s always wanted, but now she’s faced with figuring out how she, a single demon whose job requires extensive travel, can raise a child on her own.

As she comes to terms with this reality, she visits Hell’s daycare center, where things are just as topsy-turvy as they are everywhere else in the underworld. I had some initial ideas about what such a nursery would look like–kids running with scissors, kids playing with matches–but I wanted a broader range of ideas, so I put out a call for suggestions in my September newsletter.

(Don’t get my newsletter, but you’d love to, along with a free short story just for signing up? Click here)

I won’t be able to use all of the great ideas people submitted, but they made me laugh, so I’ll share them with you:

  • Projectile vomiting–complete with 180 degree head turns.
  • Running around on the ceiling
  • Playing mean pranks on the teachers
  • Biting
  • Playing with cleaning solutions and chemicals
  • Clogging toilets
  • Sniffing glue
  • Cutting each other’s hair
  • Watching porn 
  • Stealing the teacher’s wallet
  • Cursing 
  • Putting goo on things
  • Grabbing toys from each other and banging each other over the head with them
  • TV on 24 x 7
  • Junk food and caffeine all day
  • Peanuts everywhere
  • Classes in bullying, lying, stealing and manipulation

Some of these ideas remind me of early Dennis the Menace cartoons, back when they were a lot edgier than the sanitized version that made it to the big and little screens. (I remember a D the M cartoon where Dennis has placed matches between the bare toes of his sleeping father and, with a grin of pure devilment on this face, is about to light the first match.)

Or Charles Addams cartoons like this one.

Do you have any other ideas you’d like to throw out?

Jeanne: Rating My Reading, Part 1

Last week, over on Jenny Crusie’s Argh blog, she mentioned that she’s been reading so much romance recently she’s developed her own rating system. It’s a highly personal (read: idiosyncratic) system but it sounds like it works for her.

The book I’m currently working on, The Demon Wore Stilettos, would definitely lose points under Jenny’s system because there’s going to be an epilogue and it’s going to have a baby in it. The whole book revolves around a pregnancy my heroine waited 12,000 years to experience and after all that it would be a breach of reader trust not to show the damned baby (that’s not just me being a potty-mouth. That kid is the product of two of Satan’s minions. It is going to be a very difficult child.)

Sorry, I wandered off-topic there. Anyway, Jenny’s post got me to thinking about what my own rating system would look like. I would add points for:

  • Strong, interesting protagonist with a clear, imperative goal
  • Strong, interesting antagonist with a clear, imperative goal that is mutually exclusive with the protagonist’s.
  • A plot that shows the two of them putting their all into reaching those goals, with twists and turns that catch the other (and me) unawares.
  • Language that occasionally surprises me with a unique and original image that gives me a clear picture of something I’m unfamiliar with or lets me see something familiar in a new way.
  • A setting that takes me somewhere I’ve never been with such richness that it feels like I live there for the duration of the story. 
  • Demonstration of an understanding of human nature that goes beyond what you can see on the average TV show.

If I were to take all the books I’ve ever read and rate them based on the above criteria, it would look like this.

***** Five stars would be reserved for books that changed my worldview in some way, or opened up a vista into a strange new world and left me permanently enriched.

**** Four stars would be a really good book, substantially above the ordinary because of one or more of the characteristics listed above.

*** Three stars would be the vast majority of the books I’ve read–solid stories, well-told, with empathetic characters in interesting situations.

** Two stars describes books that fail on one or two the of items listed above.

* One star books fail all or most of my criteria. Typically, I do not finish these books.

How do you rate your reading?