Saturday, August 11, 2018

Food Fuels All

We have mounds of food each year at my family reunion in Missouri. As shown on the left, 2018 maintained the tradition.

I don't live in Mount Vernon, so stay with a cousin. She and other cousins prepare food at her house, and each year I vow to take their enthusiasm for preparing fine dishes home with me. Unfortunately, each year I fail to maintain the joy of cooking, and revert to the same twenty or so menus.

Descriptions of food are popular in mysteries. My friend Karen Musser Nortman has great recipes in her campground mysteries, and in her new Mystery Sisters series, her descriptions of meals made me head to the fridge. Female authors tend to use settings that involve food more than male authors (think B&Bs and coffee shops), but if you want some of the most mouth-watering mysteries, try Robert Parker's Spenser series.

Author Lois Winston features guest authors discussing food on her blog, Killer Krafts and Krafty Killers. I did a recent post centered on The Unexpected Resolution, which comes complete with an M&M cookie recipe. The recipe is my own creation -- took several tries to get the proportions right. You can tell I'm not a cook. My protagonists never are, because I don't know how to think that way.

What made the post extra fun was that the cookies in the photo
sit on a depression glass plate that belongs to my mother-in-law.

I'm beginning the second book in the Logland mystery series, set in a small college town in southern Illinois. The first book (Tip a Hat to Murder) has key scenes in the town diner. (No need to have fancy recipes there!) As I finished it, I decided to maintain the diner throughout the series. What better gathering place for suspects?

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What Don't I Get about Unreliable Narrators?

I picked up an author I hadn't read for a while and was halfway through the book (a thriller with your everyday serial killer) when I realized the characters were holding out on me. That's the polite way of saying the author cheated.

When I am in a character's head (their point of view), I expect to know what they know. Not what their favorite uncle gave them for their last birthday, but anything that relates to the story. Sure, a character doesn't spell out what s/he will do in advance -- that would be dull. But to get three-quarters of the way through a book before you find out the killer's motive is totally different than presented? Not presented by a reporter or neighbor -- told by the killer. Argh!

Writers approach their craft in so many ways, but the so-called unreliable narrator makes no sense to me. I read Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree when I was twelve or thirteen.
Every time my mom read a book I picked it up when she was done. In that story, a young woman shows up in a British town and spends the entire book denying she is someone who vanished years ago. At the end of the book, you find out she was in fact the long-gone woman. It was her point of view!

I told my mother I thought it was the dumbest book I'd ever read. Her response? "I meant to tell you not to bother." It was years before either of us trusted another Mary Stewart book.

Any comments from readers or writers about why they think this technique has become acceptable? Did it take hold with Gone Girl? I'm still furious about devoting time to that book. I like a mystery that's truly a puzzle to solve, not a 'surprise' ending because a character holds out on me.

I wish publishers would decide it's a genre, then I'd know in advance to avoid such books.What do you think? Have I turned into a fuddy duddy?
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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

July 4th: Becoming a Less Meaningful Holiday?

I describe my blog posts as about reading, writing, publishing, and my occasional musings. Today, July 4, 2018, is a musing post.

It could simply be the perspective of an (ahem) older adult, but the Fourth of July did not arrive with my usual feeling of gratitude for our freedoms. As a child, I lived in a community with a morning parade and an afternoon of picnics and games. You sort of needed the water balloon toss to get cleaned up after the egg toss. Fireworks at night, of course.

A couple of years I won the essay contest for my age group -- always related to democracy or freedom. I don't remember the topics, but I kept the little plastic trophies for decades.

Now I live in an apartment complex on the edge of a larger city. There will be fireworks tonight, and parades probably pop up in surrounding towns. Neither are necessary to maintain pride in my country, so what am I missing?

I'm the only patron in Starbucks wearing anything red/white/blue. (After an hour-and-a-half a girl about eight came in wearing tie die colors. So, two of us.) I have on a flag and another button that is a peace sign in flag colors. One barista has a bandana with stars. Symbols are only that.

Words matter more. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence said it well:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Actions matter most. I think one reason I love Star Trek is that its characters and a number of plots embody the concepts in the preamble. I do recall a Klingon objecting (in Star Trek VI) to the term 'human rights' as racist. Since we humans have not been able to discuss the preamble concepts with people from another planet, I think it works for now. 

If only we could agree that all people have unalienable rights.When white colonists wanted to be free from what they regarded as European oppression, they wrote the preamble, and meant those words -- for themselves (not nonwhites or women, of course). We've made some progress, but not without a lot of protest and pain to get there.

Unalienable rights are those that cannot be taken away or denied. In the U.S., it seems they are still largely for people who have or can claim power. They aren't for those those some people regard as alien, even if they are far more brave than many of us are.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

In the Shadow of Light -- Learning to Put Kids First

Most of my books are lighthearted cozy mysteries. I don't shy away from real-world issues -- Jolie Gentil heads a food pantry, the protagonist in Falling Into Place has PTSD. People confront such things every day, so I include them, often adding a bit of humor.

I steer clear of politics and religion (except for jokes between a couple of men of the cloth) because readers pick up my books for entertainment and escape.

And then the U.S. government started taking kids away from their parents and I felt a more visceral anger than I'd ever imagined could be directed at politicians. How dare they inflict such cruelty on kids, many of whom are escaping terror in their homelands? I cried.

And then, because logic could not possibly matter to decision-makers who would do such things, I wrote.

In the Shadow of Light is the story of Corozón and Kyra, one Honduran, one American, both taken from their parents. Readers know the depth of Kyra's parents' grief, but not that of Corozón's mother. In the real world, most people don't care about women like her.

There are touching moments in this 20,000 word novella, and some parts of the ending are happy. I hope reading their stories will help people feel more empathy for refugees (because that's what people fleeing terror are) and devise better ways to treat them with dignity.

I don't want to lose readers by giving a voice to these children. But had I been too timid to stand up to blatant bullies, shame on me. I wouldn't deserve loyal readers.

You can find In the Shadow of Light in ebook and paper, at major retailers. Large print (and more retailers) available soon.
Amazon  BN   Amazon International GooglePlaSmashwords

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

When Authors Put Kids in Books

I love the sense of humor many children have. Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes adults smile because of a child's literal interpretation of the world. I still remember a niece asking to see the frog I said I had in my throat.

Putting children in a story can be a challenge. Their thought processes need to reflect their age group; their humor or beliefs can't be those of an adult. Most of all, they need to have a role to play, not simply be literary trinkets.

I placed pre-school Jessie in Falling into Place as the companion Grandpa Everett was most comfortable with. Children don't judge, and an adult who is ill-at-ease with other adults can have a chance to shine with a child who loves them. 

The most I considered the kidlet question was in creating three-year old twins for the 11th Jolie Gentil book. Lance and Leah don't solve any part of a puzzle, but they do add color and the occasional sense of contemplation. I quickly decided several things:

  • Children are better added when they can function somewhat on their own, otherwise the adults have to constantly cater to their needs. 
  • Two kids can be better than one (if reasonably close in age) because they can amuse one another.
  • Kids can limit the danger parents are willing to place themselves in. What sleuth wants to leave a child without a mom or dad? For a mystery, parental caution doesn't always contribute well to suspense.
  • Readers have different perspectives on what children of a certain age are capable of. They may pause to think "would a four-year-old really do that?"
The last point came up several times in my critique group as they read Underground in Ocean Alley. Consensus seemed to be that the three-year olds were way too verbal. That led to several discussions with my family members. 

I finally went with what my sister and I agreed on. Lance and Leah were just like most of the kids in our family -- toddlers who were smart, funny, and quick to speak. I couldn't bring myself to use 'baby dialect' or limit their vocabularies.

That's not to say I'll never create a shy child who doesn't have conversations with adults at age three. My bottom line is that I have to be comfortable with continuing child characters, far more so than adult personas. And I like the fact that smart child characters can sometimes outsmart me.

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Saturday, May 26, 2018

Memories of Family Who Served and How They Affect My Writing

As the daughter and niece of World War II veterans, I grew up very aware of the importance of what they did and how it affected them for the rest of their lives. Like many veterans of that war, my father (Miles D. Orr) never spoke of tragedies he witnessed -- except once, to my brother shortly before he died. And he said his stories could not be repeated. 

Instead, his family heard about the time near the end of the war when he was in Switzerland -- by then out of North Africa and Italy, serving as flight engineer for a general. A shutterbug, he took pictures, but then left his camera on a train. Without a name on it, he never expected to see the camera again.

However, someone on the train found it and remembered the GIs. Somehow the Good Samaritan figured out where some U.S. service members were staying and returned the camera. A happy memory.

I have all those pictures, including one with a group of Italian children, smiling but clearly showing the stress of war, some in tattered clothes. On the back, he wrote, "All my children." When asked, he said he had given them his chocolate.

Miles led a 'normal' life -- suburban home, assistant boy scout leader, (a not very good) girls' softball coach, purveyor of coffee and donuts after church for many years. He also spent hundred of hours in a small, dark room in the basement, where he wrote happy stories about families, a lot of poetry, and a novel about "Long Gone Decker" -- a Marine who survived killing and lived an almost idyllic life. Brighter than the dark room to which Miles sometimes retreated. 

World War II Family Service

Miles and two brothers put together two Model Ts to make one driveable car, and set out to see the U.S. in the mid-1930s. They sometimes visited their sister's house in Washington, DC. Good to see family and free food. It makes sense that they enlisted in 1940, when they had ended up in Florida. Note his postcard informing the family. Lots less structure as the nation scrambled to pull together resources to defeat two heinous war-mongerers.

Miles D. Orr served in the U.S. Army Air Corp, which preceded the USAF. He served in North Africa and Italy, and later as the flight engineer for the general who took over as Commander of the European Theater when Dwight Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander.

William Tom Orr served in the U.S. Army and received the Silver Star for directing traffic (a.k.a. men and weapons) on the beach at Normandy, on D Day. He had not expected to do that, but saw others with that responsibility mowed down. No one was moving and he decided, "Well, I'm an MP, so I better do this."

James Harold Orr served in the U.S. Army, in Panama and the Pacific, including time as an air base mechanic. His sister Kat said that he was very different after, near the end of the war, being assigned to transfer the bodies of killed service members from bags to coffins, which were then sent to families.

Dwight Seneker, husband of Elizabeth Orr, served a a contractor who inspected radios for ships. He moved his family to Philadelphia to do this -- very different from rural Missouri.

Curtis Jackson, husband of Katherine Orr, enlisted in the Navy. Prior to enlisting, he had a sign in front of his Mount Vernon, MO gas station that said, "Turn your rubber heels into fighting wheels."

Otis Goodwin, husband of Florence Orr, enlisted in the Navy near the end of the war. As an aside, Florence roomed with Rita Rooney in Washington, DC, which is how Miles met his wife.

Mary Frances (Orr) Schnake and husband Ed moved to California to work in a munitions plant. The money they saved let them buy a farm in Lawrence County, MO, which became the family gathering place for decades.

Marguerite (Orr) Harlowe and husband Clarence had moved to Washington, DC in the mid-1930s, and their home was the family hub during the war. Widowed mom Jessie (Cochran) Orr and youngest daughter Florence lived there sometimes during the war, in part because Jessie figured none of her sons could get to Missouri if they ever had leave, but they might get to DC. Clarence's income kept a lot of people solvent.

Paul Henry Orr, oldest son and husband to Ruth Hood, was older, and did not serve. He farmed and raised poultry in Missouri. Someone had to feed the country.

Beyond World War II

Several of my first cousins served before or during Vietnam. Douglas Seneker became an MP in large part after paying rapt attention to his Uncle Tom Orr's stories. Doug also served in the reserves. Tom's son Glenn served in the Air Force for 30 years, much of it in the nuclear missile program. He retired as a colonel. Doug's grandson joined the Army in 2016.

Harold's sons Pat and Sid served in Vietnam and then had full careers in the Air Force. Sid also did an early stint in the Marines. After retirement, he taught for years in the soldier-to-teacher program in Georgia.

Miles' grandson, John R. Fisher, decided on September 11, 2001 (a day shy of age 10) that he would serve in some capacity. He is with the Air Force and has been posted overseas and in the U.S. 

Interesting to note is that Miles soured on the Vietnam War -- not those who served, as he often said -- and didn't want his sons to be drafted. That from a man who was thrilled when he found out he and Rita could be included in the Columbarium in Arlington National Cemetery.

Memories and Stories Inform My Writing

I've never based any characters on real people. That seems far too limiting. Possibly because I grew up appreciating what my dad and his brothers did, I have featured veterans or their families in some of my books.

First was a young adult novella, Biding Time. A DC teen focuses on his MIA uncle, his namesake, who was lost in Vietnam. In some ways, that loss saved the nephew, Franklin Myers.

In the Jolie Gentil series, two homeless veterans feature in several books. One, Max, sustained a serious TBI. It is only through the support of the Ocean Alley crew that he can have an independent life, and he has some memorable scenes in The Unexpected Resolution. I wanted homeless vets to be part of the story line, so we never forget.

By far the most prominent vet in any story is Everett, in Falling into Place. He served in North Africa during World War II, and came home with what we would now call PTSD. That affected his life and family, but this Iowa-based novella is the story of his close-knit family as much as him. Everett evolves with humor and grace. Falling Into Place took more than fifteen years to finish. It had to be just right.

Sharing Miles' Letters and Reflections

Miles wrote poetry all his life. None specifically addressed his time in the military, though a poem that talks about drifting through life probably benefited from those experiences. Before he died in 1994, I did a booklet of his poems, and later made it into a self-published book on his behalf.

Then, of all miracles, when Aunt Marguerite (a.k.a. Aunty or Jack) died, her daughter Barbara found a pile of letters Dad wrote to her family during the war. He talks about everyone, often as a result of what she said in her correspondence. He mentions what he can of his life, though letters were censored to be sure soldiers didn't reveal any war information.

Prior to this discovery, we had a box of letters he wrote to our Mom. He met her at his sister's house near the end of the war, when home on a brief leave. Those were fairly short love letters, with little mention of what he was doing or other people in his life. 

The treasure trove of lengthy correspondence HAD to become a book, so I combined his poetry and letters into a paperback, Portrait Through Poetry: Poems and Letters. (A Kindle version was recently revised to include the letters as well as the poems.) In addition to life and loneliness, he and his sister talk about books!

There can never be a better gift. I've just redone the cover, and I think it better reflects his life. The little boy on his lap is USAF grandson Jack, who would only climb up there for French fries.

Celebrating Memorial Day

When I grew up in Maryland, we had no family graves to tend. Everyone was in Missouri or Kansas. When I moved to the Midwest in 1994, I decorated family headstones, often those of my husband's family in Iowa. Many have military plaques. 

My cousins have watched over our ancestors all their lives. With families more spread out than ever, it may be hard to visit (or even appreciate) ancestors' resting places. Thanks to Find-A-Grave, you can look at the graves. 

Seem morbid? I don't think so. The more sound our perspective on those who came, and served, before us, the more strongly we are rooted in today. The better we can serve our country in whatever way we choose.
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Sunday, May 20, 2018

Making Your Words Count

I tend to write in a fairly sparse style -- not a lot of description, to-the-point dialogue (unless a character is a chatterbox), and verbs that hold  their own.

In grade school, my seventh grade teacher told us to minimize 'helper verbs.' She was talking about "to be" and "to have," as I remember, and her words slid from my memory. I should have paid more attention. In trying to become a better editor of my own work, I've become a fiend about getting rid of forms of "to be," especially the word 'was.' 

"He was going to find out" becomes the more precise "He intended to find out." Better would be, "He intended to learn."
"She was looking for the lost dog" becomes "She searched for the lost dog."

In both of cases, you lose a helper verb and a gerund -- a twofer. I think my critique group may be tired of me making such suggestions.

Sometimes simple past tense works better. For example, in the second paragraph I said "she was talking about." Why not "she talked" about or "she discussed?"

I've never been much of a metaphor user. I figure if you can't describe something in and of itself, maybe the description needs to be reworked. If you listen to a lot of audio books, as I do, you notice authors who use metaphors a lot.
Grammarly defines a metaphor as "a figure of speech that describes  an object or action in a way that isn't literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison." 

Often metaphors use the words like or as. "The waves on the sand moved as fast as an ant carrying a treat." Equally unnecessary (to my thinking) is, "The hot sun shone like a ball of fire."

Metaphors can simply be used to call to mind something other than the item being described. One of my least-favorite metaphors is "milky white breasts," closely followed by "death's vise-like grip." I suppose both of those also qualify as cliches. 

I was going to mention the author I think most over-uses metaphors, but thought better of it. Who am I to criticize someone who sells millions of books? I love the author's plots.

So much to learn, so little time to edit...
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