Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Christmas Present to You


I was going to do another post on things I've been learning from reading Outliers: The Story of Success, but that can wait a week or two.


Instead, I'm giving you a present. My holiday short story, The Christmas Cat, is free from December 22nd through December 26th on Amazon. Pick up your copy and enjoy!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

10,000 Hours

When thinking about my next book, I usually start with two things: an idea for the plot, often culled from news stories, and a character.

For "Faith, Hope, and Murder," the news story was about the number of illegal immigrants who die in the desert each year trying to reach freedom and safety. It was a particularly bad year when I was thinking about that book. There were so many bodies, the Medical Examiner's office had to rent a refrigerated truck to store the overflow in. The character was Faith Andersen, a transplant to Tucson who wasn't sure what her beliefs about God were, but felt the need to find out.

For "Shadow of Death," the character was a really bad villain. I'd noticed in writing the first book (and several other practice novels) that I had a tendency to make my villains too nice. They were killers, yes, but not evil people. I know this doesn't match reality. There are really bad people in this world, and I made a conscious effort to have one of those be the killer. The idea for the plot was to recreate an English manor house mystery, in the vein of Agatha Christie, with a limited number of characters in an isolated location. Think "Ten Little Indians" or "Murder on the Orient Express." Being Tucson, my "manor house" is a dude ranch. Since manor house mystery isn't really a plot, I had to work a lot harder at developing one for that book.

I'm now planning my third mystery in the Community of Faith series. This time (Phew!) I do have a news story as the basis for the plot. I'm not going to reveal what that is, because it's early days, and lots may change between now and the time I actually start writing the novel. The character is one of those larger than life people, an outlier.

I find outliers fascinating. I recently watched the biopic about Steve Jobs. Having come of age during the computer revolution, I've always been fascinated by characters like Jobs and Bill Gates and the other pioneers who believed their vision so obsessively they didn't care about social graces or being nice. I loved "The Social Network" and its portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg. I've also read "Made in America," the biography of Sam Walton, founder of WalMart. I love Sherlock Holmes, particularly as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, because he's not normal. I'm waiting impatiently for the wide theatrical release of "The Imitation Game" and its story of Alan Turing. One of the reasons I gobbled up "Physics of the Impossible" by Michio Kaku was because I was continually fascinated by the physicists and mathematicians who are able to come up with the incredible vision of how the universe is put together.

As research for my character, I'm reading "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. I'm not very far into the book, but I've learned a couple of amazing things. First of all, it's an advantage to be born in the early part of the year. Gladwell starts with the example of hockey players. It turns out most professional hockey players are born in the first quarter of the year. There are few born in December. The reason? Early on, in childhood as a matter of fact, who are the best players in any particular age group? Those who are older. When age range is determined by calendar year, the "eight-year-olds" include those who turn eight in January as well as those who turn eight in December. The January babies have a huge advantage. They're bigger and more developed and thus outperform their younger teammates, regardless of natural ability.

And then what happens? Those good players are selected for the better teams (they called them the travel teams when my son played soccer), they get better coaching, and they play more hockey. The younger players, having started out with a disadvantage, play less hockey and don't get the best coaches, so they fall further behind. With the advantages the good players get right from the start, the gap between the January players and the December players widens each year.

Huh.

I'm a January baby. I do not excel in physical activities. I was an early, low birth weight baby, which probably explains some of that. But I do excel in mental activities, which are subject to the same phenomena as the hockey players. I have a good brain. I went to college largely on a scholarship. Somewhere around here, there's a Phi Beta Kappa key. I'm not bragging, it's just facts. If I were bragging, I'd know where that key is. And show it to you.

I also got advantages right from the beginning. When I went to elementary school, we had the "tracking" system. The bright students were put in Track 1. The average students were put in Track 2. The underachievers were put in Track 3. I was in Track 1. We got the best teachers. Our lessons were different than those given to the Track 2 and Track 3 students. And, when the launch of Sputnik by the Russians scared the crap out of the U.S. educational system, who was chosen for the brand new program where fourth graders were taught high school chemistry? Yup. Me, along with 199 of my Track 1 compatriots. (It was a very large school district.) We got to study one year of chemistry over the next three years. Tell me that's not an advantage.

My brother is a November baby. He did not excel either academically or in sports. In fact, he had ants-in-the-pants syndrome and probably would have been diagnosed as ADHD, if there had been such a thing when we were growing up. I remember being aware at some point that his being younger than most in his class was one reason he didn't do as well as I did. My mother was a teacher, so she certainly was aware of this problem from her own experience. But I doubt she knew about the continuing disadvantage he had because of it.

So that brings me to the title of this post: 10,000 Hours. I think this phrase is familiar to most people, even if they haven't read "Outliers." The full statement is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at a skill. Gladwell's example in this case starts with musicians, which also turned out to be my brother's occupation. It turns out that those musicians who practiced the most were in orchestras and other performing fields. Those who practiced the least became music teachers. And then, in a mindblowing section, he discusses Mozart, who famously was composing at six years old--certainly not enough time to have practiced for 10,000 hours yet. The perfect example of a prodigy. It turns out what Mozart was "composing" at six was really arranging music already written, and it took a while for him to actually compose anything original. The part that blew me away was that Mozart was twenty-one before he wrote a masterwork, so he'd been practicing for fifteen years!

Gladwell then brought in the statistics for hockey players who, because they were selected for the elite teams, automatically had to practice more. Et cetera.

This is where my inner voice stood up and said, "But...!" The implication that Gladwell seemed to be making (and I haven't read much past this point, so I may be totally off base here) is that anyone willing to put in that 10,000 hours of practice could become an expert in his or her field. I will never be an elite athlete, no matter how many hours I put in. In addition to the age factor, I am a natural-born klutz. I can trip over my own feet.

Certainly I could improve. There was a time I played tennis almost every day and got so I could serve a ball and sort of control where I returned one to. When I regularly played guitar, I could manage simple tunes, songs I enjoyed singing with my not-so-great voice. But, in both cases, stopping for any period of time, skipping more than a day or two, would result in a degradation of my skills so severe that I despaired of ever making any progress. Unlike writing. Even when I took my decades-long hiatus from writing fiction, I had a boss tell me I "gave good memo." I have a talent for words.

I started thinking about how you get that 10,000 hours of practice in. That's a lot of time. It takes dedication and sacrifice to do it. It seems to me there has to be more than determination to get there. It takes motivation.

So let's go back to me and my brother. Because I did well in school, I was praised every time I brought home a report card. Because I got the praise for good grades, I was motivated to study more, to research and write better term papers, to excel in school in the hopes of getting more praise from my parents. What happened to my brother? When he brought home a report card, there were cries of dismay. "You failed x!" So what was his motivation to get better grades? Not much. Avoiding those cries, satisfying the demand that he had to study more, etc. But those lasted a day or two, and it was more fun to go play with his friends after school than to read a book. There was nothing positive to be gained, at least in his eyes.

It was the opposite with music. We both had the same clarinet teacher and took our lessons back to back. When my brother expressed an interest in becoming a professional musician, the teacher started working with him to achieve that. His lessons changed, the teacher talked to him about schools he could go to, he started teaching him the saxophone in addition to the clarinet. When a while later I expressed the thought that I might like to become a musician, his response was, "It's too hard a life." No encouragement whatsoever. Now, I don't know if what he meant was that it was too hard a life for a girl or that I wasn't talented enough to do it and he didn't want to tell me or what. All I knew was that I was deflated and had little motivation to practice much after that. I eventually stopped taking lessons and dropped out of the high school band in my senior year.

There are other things that factor into achievement. Gladwell has already alluded to wealth, which I also know about from personal experience. My dream college was Mount Holyoke. (Actually, it was Amherst, but back then Amherst was boys only and Mount Holyoke was girls only. However, if you went to Mount Holyoke, you were allowed to take classes for credit at Amherst.) I will never forget the visit my mother and I made or imagining myself sitting in the writers room the admissions person showed us. For a few reasons, not the least of which was my parents couldn't afford to pay for it, I did not go to Mount Holyoke. I did not study creative writing at Mount Holyoke or astronomy at Amherst. I went to Michigan State, attended Big 10 football games, and majored in psychology, which I only briefly sort-of used. I've often wondered what my life would have been like if I had attended a different college and chosen a different career path.

I'm curious as to what else leads to a person becoming an outlier. I guess I'll have to keep reading. Since I love reading and learning new things, this is not a problem. And I'm sure I'll have a very interesting character to write about when I'm done.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Science and Magic

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke


I discovered science fiction when I was quite young. I remember the exact day, although not the date. I was in elementary school, fourth grade if I remember correctly, and the librarian had rolled the wooden cart--an oak color and possibly even made of real oak in those days--into our classroom. A cart because the school library, due to the first wave of baby boomers, was being used as a classroom. We got called up by rows, and I impatiently waited my turn. Even then I was a voracious reader, and I might have been afraid that all the good books would be gone by the time I got to the cart.

Finally I was allowed to go look at the choices and saw a book called "The Rolling Stones." I opened it and saw that it was about a family named Stone (my name!) who traveled around the solar system. I was hooked. I'm pretty sure I read all of Robert A. Heinlein's juveniles by the time I graduated from elementary school.


It was the time of science fiction. When the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957, it triggered the space race. The country was in love with space and astronauts and going to the moon and beyond. I was certain that we would have a colony on the moon in my lifetime and, possibly, the beginnings of one on Mars.

I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming an astronaut, possibly being eligible for the Mars colony. Science fiction was full of exciting stories about the colonization of the planets, dangerous, yes, but most of the time the resourceful colonists survived. Reality set in before I got too hooked on the idea. I'd been on diets since I was five, and physical prowess is not a characteristic that could be said of me. I knew it would take a lot more dedication than I had to pass the physicals and stay in shape to qualify as an astronaut. If I even could. I'm not very coordinated. I've been known to trip over my own feet.

Still, science fiction was a big influence in my life. I learned a lot of astronomy and physics from it, including the order of the planets. It seemed like a critical piece of information to me and to this day I'll add Pluto at the end, even though astronomers have decided it's too small to qualify as a planet. I'm half convinced the reason I eventually wound up as a computer programmer was the desire to find Mike, the self-aware computer from "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."

About half-way through college I stopped reading science fiction. Most of what was being written during that timeframe was not the "hard" science fiction I loved, but what I called "psychological" science fiction. In retrospect, I think the genre became more character driven than plot driven and I wasn't into that kind of fiction. I also missed the original airing of Star Trek since that coincided with my college years. I think I watched television once in all the time I was there. I later made up for this and I have every episode on VHS tape. I also own the Firefly and Serenity DVDs.

Meanwhile, science and space fell out of favor. We'd won the race by landing on the moon first. The Russians never did land a man--or woman--there. Congress decided we had better places to spend our money than fulfilling science fiction dreams. Never mind how numerous the ancillary benefits had been.

I wasn't terribly upset over this. I was more interested in the Viet Nam War and folk music and deciding on a major and getting a job and marrying and having a family. Yes, I was disappointed when the real space program was abandoned and replaced with the shuttle, which I never considered a real space ship. I liked the pictures sent back by the Hubble Telescope well enough. But by this time I was into reading--and writing--mysteries, not science fiction.

Recently my interest in science and science fiction has been renewed. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it's because I read "Dark Side of the Moon" by Terri Main. I know the author and she promotes this book as a cozy mystery set on the moon. Naturally, I was curious. While the book does have its problems, it made me realize how much I'd missed reading old-style science fiction, and that there was the possibility that kind of science fiction was still being written today.

I've also subscribed to Discover and Astronomy magazines. Discover, in particular, with its broad coverage of scientific topics has proved interesting. And I'm following the progress of the Orion spacecraft via Facebook and Twitter. This one really has me excited because it's the first NASA venture in a long time with the hope of reaching another planet. Once again, science fiction is coming true.

And now I'm reading Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. I stumbled across it because somehow the same author's The Future of the Mind wound up as an Amazon recommendation. Since the description looked intriguing, and science fiction also used to tell stories about parapsychology (telekinesis, precognition, etc.) I explored further and discovered Kaku had written a great many books on scientific topics. Physics of the Impossible's subtitle is "A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel." How could I resist?

Well, I did, sort of. Over the past few decades, I've occasionally dipped into other science books for pleasure reading. My experience was most of them quickly switched from straight prose to mathematical equations. Although I was good at math in high school, high school was a long time ago, and I never did study higher mathematics, stalling out at the second term of Calculus in college. At this point in my life, reading equations makes me cross-eyed. So I borrowed the book from the library.

If you have any interest in science or science fiction, I would highly recommend reading this book. Kaku explores the current status of each of the subtitle topics in language a layman can understand. He has mastered bringing the excitement back to science. He's the first science writer I've found since Isaac Asimov who can do that. There's a good possibility that I will buy this book, along with several others written by the same author. Because he's just that good.

Photo Credits:
Magician: Image courtesy of nirots at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Sputnik: By U.S. Air Force photo (http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil; exact source) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Orion: Courtesy of NASA

Friday, November 07, 2014

Shadow of Death is Now Available on Amazon!

I am laughing at myself for not announcing this sooner! I've been so busy with making sure the release went off as scheduled and working on getting the paperback version approved for sale and promoting on other venues, I never actually announced here that Shadow of Death has been published. It's already gotten several five-star reviews!


Read for Free with Kindle Unlimited or Prime!

US: http://amzn.to/1uu1pyN
UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00NYL3KAO/
CA: http://www.amazon.ca/dp/B00NYL3KAO/
AU: http://www.amazon.ca/au/B00NYL3KAO/
IT: http://www.amazon.it/dp/B00NYL3KAO/
SE: http://www.amazon.se/dp/B00NYL3KAO/
DE: http://www.amazon.de/dp/B00NYL3KAO/

Saturday, November 01, 2014

La Posada - A Journey into an Earlier Time


I'm going to skip the middle part of my trip for now to talk about one of the most fascinating places we visited. This one had nothing to do with Navajo culture or natural wonders. This is about the wonder that is the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona. Yeah, I know you want to start singing. Go ahead. Here, I'll help you:


Okay, back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

La Posada was originally constructed as one of the Harvey House hotels and restaurants. In the heyday of railroad travel, there was a need for high quality places to stop along the route. Initially, these were staffed by local men, but they were terrible at the job. Fred Harvey brought women from the east, experienced waitresses, to staff his facilities in the west. Harvey Girls became such a staple of American culture, a movie starring Judy Garland was made about them.

Interestingly enough, La Posada was designed by a woman, Mary Coulter. She wasn't allowed to be called an architect because, you know, she was a woman, and women couldn't do demanding jobs like architect. However, even without the title, she designed an incredible facility.

Unfortunately, it opened in 1930, right at the start of the Great Depression, and struggled despite it's location near to Arizona's wonderful landscape, which has always been an attraction to tourists. It closed in 1957, was transformed into offices for the Santa Fe Railway in 1961 by gutting it, and in 1993 the railroad decided to dispose of the building. Fortunately, Allan Affeldt had a vision for the building which, in his words, was a wreck. He wanted to restore it to its former glory. And, boy, has he!

There's a wall in one of the halls of the hotel listing all the famous people who stayed in it during its first incarnation. This included many of the movie stars of that era. They name the rooms after these guests. I stayed in the Douglas Fairbanks room.


I don't think he actually slept there, but it's possible. Because it was an incredible gorgeous room!

 The beautiful mirror isn't done justice in this photo.

Another beautiful mirror.




What more could I ask for? Oh, coffee. No in-room coffee. You had to go downstairs to the gift shop for your morning coffee. Or just wait for breakfast.





Which is what I did. The dining room is fabulous. For some reason, I didn't think to take pictures of it. Probably because I was too focused on the wonderful food. The night before I'd had prime rib, which was cooked to perfection. For breakfast I had "thin orange pancakes." Don't be fooled by the name. They were actually crepes filled with cottage cheese and topped with the most delicious orange marmalade, just the right blend of tart and sweet, that I've ever had. Supposedly this was a recipe served during the period, so Douglas Fairbanks or Mary Pickford could have had the exact same breakfast I did.

I did, however, take a picture of the view outside the window in the restaurant.


Yes, that's a train. Trains go by all day and all night. It's a railroad hotel, so you should expect it. They didn't keep me up at night, though. I think I was too tired from all the travel to be bothered by a little train noise.

The hotel is surrounded by gardens and statuary:

 This was taken from an upstairs window.



Apparently, there once was an actual cat who inhabited this garden and claimed lap space. When the cat passed away, this statue took its place in the garden.








The furnishings were absolutely amazing!

A piano in the ballroom.






Notice the old radio on top of this chest.



Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?
There was a lot more, but I think that's enough pictures for now. Needless to say, I want to write a book about the travelers who stopped here. There's so much romance associated with train travel. A murder mystery, of course. Piet showed me a great place to put a body. And, in case you were wondering, the trains still stop at La Posada. There's an Amtrak station in a room at the back of the hotel near the tracks.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Touring the Four Corners


If you've read this blog for any length of time, you know I love Tohono Chul Park. There are so many reasons, but one is that they offer several trips each year run by Baja's Frontier Tours. This isn't one of the big organizations like Colette's or Globus. Baja's Frontier Tours is run by Piet and Mary Van de Mark and, when you travel with Mary and Piet, you feel like you're traveling with family. Travel is provided in one to three vans, depending on the size of the tour group, and is much friendlier than those big bus tours. We had only one van, so we all got to know one another really well over the course of five days.

Accompanying us was Mark Bahti, an expert in Indian arts. Mark kept up a running commentary on the places we visited and Navajo culture. He seemed to be able to answer any question we asked.




On our way to Cameron, we stopped at Montezuma Well, which is close to the much better known Montezuma's Castle. The well is fed by springs at the base of the pool and has been a constant supply of water for thousands of years. The Hohokum took advantage of it by building irrigation canals, which you can still see on the site today.


Our time was spent about equally between Navajo arts and culture and some of the most notable sites in the Southwest. We visited four or five trading posts, which varied from the primitive Shonto Trading Post to the very modern Twin Rocks. First, however, was the Cameron Trading Post and accompanying restaurant.

There's one thing you should know about Piet and Mary: they like to eat. There were times it seemed as if the tour route was planned around some of their favorite restaurants. Okay, not "seemed," but "was." This is not a bad thing. They've been touring and scouting for tours since 1962, and they know where to eat! We didn't have a single bad meal on the trip. I must admit, I did skip a couple of breakfasts in favor of an apple (bought when Mary suggested we stop at a Basha's for fruit--try getting one of those big tour companies to do that!) and a cereal bar because I'd eaten so much the night before.

I chose the Navajo Taco for dinner. It was recommended. It was also huge. What makes it Navajo is that the base in a huge piece of fry bread rather than a tortilla. This is topped with a mixture of meat and beans, kind of a chili, lettuce and cheese and onions, if I remember correctly. This was not the last Navajo taco available. In fact, Navajo taco seems to be a staple at most of the restaurants we went to. It was good, but impossible to finish.

The next day we stopped at the Shonto Trading post. While the Cameron Trading Post was huge and largely catered to touristy items (although there was a separate shop with more real Indian items to buy), Shonto was reminiscent of what a trading post was back in the early days.


As you can see, it's a simple one-story building with gas pumps outside. The restroom facilities consisted of a single porta-potty for which you had to get the key. It was the cleanest porta-potty I ever used. It looked like it had been recently scrubbed and emptied. No smell. No icky stuff.

I think the highlight of the Shonto Trading Post visit was the hogan. These traditional Navajo dwellings are one-room buildings, usually in a polygon shape, but sometimes circular or square. There is a single doorway and, in a traditional dwelling, the fire is at the center of the structure. In the one on the Shonto Trading Post, there was a fireplace built into one wall. There were two or three other hogans on the property, but they had fallen into disrepair. As we drove through the Navajo Nation, we saw plenty of hogans from the outside, but this was the only one we saw from the inside.

The destination for the afternoon was Monument Valley. Anyone who's seen a cowboy movie or two has seen Monument Valley on film. It was amazing in person. Unfortunately, the day was overcast, so the photos I got don't do it justice. The beautiful colors were muted by the lack of light. It was still an amazing sight, though.

Monument Valley is not a national park. It is a Navajo Tribal Park and sits entirely on the Navajo Reservation. It's also in the state of Utah. The Navajo Nation spans parts of three states: Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.

From the parking lot of Goulding's Lodge, you can sign up for tours. Most of these are in open vehicles, which in the cool weather were obviously uncomfortable, as you could see people huddled up in their sweatshirts and jackets and not enjoying themselves very much at all. Since Piet has been off-roading for decades, he drove the van in.

This is where I became very grateful for tours like this. Being a born city girl, I get nervous when driving my Camry over well-packed dirt roads. There was no way I ever could have driven through the loose sand that made up the "roads" through Monument Valley. With Piet, there was no fear of driving off the road or getting stuck. I could just concentrate on the incredible formations.

Of course, it was cool to stop at John Ford's Point and know that he and John Wayne had probably stood in the same spot.


Looking the other way from John Ford's Point are the vendors.


This is a formation known as The Three Sisters.


Be careful of getting too close to the edge!


That's all for this week. We saw and did much too much for one blog post!

NaNoWriMo Update

No, I haven't forgotten about NaNo and my promise to keep you posted on what I'm doing. Up until this morning, I was really afraid all I was going to be able to write in November was the opening scene. It's the only one I had in my mind. It's a good scene, but I think I need more than one to make a novel.

Anyway, this morning I started free-writing with my coffee. Free-writing is just writing things down as they occur to you. You don't think about them much, don't edit them, ask yourself a lot of "what if" questions and toss ideas onto the paper. It's the only way I can make up stories. Some people see their whole novel in their heads or have dreams that tell them the story. Not me. I'm a writer--in more ways than one. Only by starting to put words on paper (and it usually does have to be paper, not a computer screen) do ideas start to flow for me.

So I've got a good base for the novel I'm going to write in a--WAIT! A WEEK? ONLY A WEEK UNTIL I HAVE TO START WRITING? EEEEEKKKKK!

Gotta go now. Gotta get working on this thing. See you next week.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Faith, Hope, and Murder Cover Reveal!



I loved the cover Karen Phillips did from Ed Mullins's photograph so much, I decided Faith, Hope, and Murder needed a new design as well. Ed graciously made not one, but two trips to get exactly the photo Karen needed to match my concept, then modified it and added the same style title so the books look like part of a series, which is what they are. I love the new cover!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Baby Elephant at the Reid Park Zoo



One of the biggest stories of the past couple of months was the birth of Nandi, the baby elephant at Reid Park Zoo. Now almost two months old, I wanted to get to see her before she was all grown up. After two days of rain from a passing tropical storm, I woke up Friday morning to sun and temperatures in the high sixties--perfect for going to visit the Zoo!

Of course, as I was showering and getting dressed, I was singing Tom Paxton's "Going to the Zoo". This isn't Tom, but it will give you the idea:


Nandi had a tendency to stay close to Mom, preferably on the shady side, which happened to be away from the people, but I did manage to get some good pictures of her.  This one is her walking between Mom and Dad.


In this one, Nandi was dawdling, so Dad rounded her up and pushed her with his trunk to catch up with her mother.


There are six elephants at the Reid Park Zoo. Five of them are a family, but there's one guy who is not the child of the Mom and Dad. I felt kind of sorry for him, because he tended to stay off the the side and looked left out. This is one of Nandi's older brothers, whom I nicknamed Cool Joe. Notice the crossed rear legs. Now that I think about it, the reference should have been Joe Cool (from Peanuts).

Yes, I did stop and visit some of the other animals while I was there. There were a couple of cranes.


A rhino who spent most of the morning taking mud baths.

And the giraffes.

But, like everyone else recently, I spent most of my time with the elephants.


NOTE: You can click on the pictures to see larger versions.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo


Yes, it's that time again! If you've found your way to this page, there's a good chance you were searching for NaNoWriMo and already know what it is. In case you don't, here's a short history. Fifteen years ago, Chris Baty was like a lot of us: he was always going to write a novel "someday." Novelists were cool. Novelists were famous. Most of all, novelists got dates. (Shows what he knew!)

But, also like most of us, he never seemed to get started on writing that novel, much less finishing it. He was a successful freelance writer, successful being defined as not sleeping on a park bench, with many articles published in well-known newspapers and magazines. He knew he was good at that, so why wasn't he any good at writing that novel?

Chris decided what he needed was a deadline. Instead of "someday," he needed to be able to say "when." So he came up with this idea of writing a novel in a month. He'd start writing on day one and finish with "The End" on the last day of the month. He also knew he'd be better motivated if he told people that's what he was doing. Better yet, he managed to round up twenty of his closest friends and persuaded them to do this with him.

And discovered that the whole insanity of starting with nothing but a dream and winding up with a 50,000 word novel in a month was fun! When your goal is to write 1667 words a day every day for thirty days, you do get a little crazy. You don't have time to mull over which of five scenes you should write next or what the meaning of life is. You need to keep typing. (Or even writing longhand, which some do.) Your goal isn't to write great literature. Your goal is to get the book done.

I owe a lot to NaNoWriMo. I am a perfectionist at heart. I wanted very much to write a novel, but every time I started, I was dismayed that the words I put on the page (or screen) were clunky, awkward, boring, and not at all like the novels I loved to read. And so I despaired. NaNoWriMo gave me permission to write crap and keep going. My goal wasn't to write The Great Gatsby. My goal was to type 50,000 words and get to the end of the story, however awful it was. When I "won" my first NaNo ten years ago, I had a great sense of satisfaction. I proved to myself I could write a novel, a very bad novel, but a novel nevertheless.

I've learned a lot about writing over the past ten years. I've not only written multiple novels and "won" NaNoWriMo several times, I'm about to publish my second novel. I've retired from the "day job" and become a full-time writer. I am living my dream.

NaNoWriMo allows me to experiment, to try different ways of writing a novel. This was very important in the beginning, when I had no idea what my method was. I've swung back and forth between "plotter" (someone who plans every scene ahead of time) and "pantser" (someone who writes by the seat of their pants with no idea what comes next until they start typing it) and many variations in between.

I've discovered I need at least a bare-bones outline when sitting down to write my novels. Otherwise, I either go blank or wander down bunny trails that have nothing to do with the story. The amount of revision I had to do on Shadow of Death taught me this lesson. I had to fill in those blanks and cut out the bunny trails to make it a good story. In order to write a novel in November, I need to do lots of preparation this month. So I'll be chronicling my preparation for NaNo, as well as my progress writing when it starts on November 1st. Like Chris Baty, I find it helpful to tell someone what I'm doing in order to stick with it.

So far, I've created a "series Bible" based on my NaNo novel from last year. I've gone through that novel and created character sheets for each of the characters (I was pantsing more than usual, so would throw in eye color or former occupation as I got to a scene), collected the maps I printed out, and organized what I know about these people and the locations in which the story takes place.

I have a little inkling of an idea of how the victim is killed, but not much more than that. I don't know whodunnit, why, or how my sleuth figures it out. I'm going to be spending a lot of time this month trying to answer those questions.

Okay, so she knows what she's doing, you're thinking. What about me? I never wrote a novel before. How do I get started?

Fortunately, there are lots of places to get help. The NaNoWriMo web site is one of those places. As usual, they're running behind in updating the site this year. (It's mostly volunteers and the whole program is free, so it's amazing they do as much as they do.) But I've subscribed to the newsletter for ages, and they've sent links to pages that aren't obvious on the site. One is the general NaNoWriMo prep page. This page has a whole list of helpful links about how to get started.

Another is the Workbooks they've put together for their Young Writers Program. If you've never written a novel before, I'd recommend downloading the High School version for help with planning your novel.

And Alexandra Sokoloff is doing her annual NaNo Prep series on her blog. Each day in October, she outlines the tasks you should be working on in order to be ready to write on November 1st.

Of course, if you're a pantser, you'll do your preparation by stocking up on snacks and caffeine, locating a writer-friendly coffee shop, and sharpening a few pencils.

Most of all, remember NaNo is supposed to be fun! If you start stressing at any point in the process, remind yourself your novel is not going to be The Great Gatsby. But it is going to be amazing!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Shadow of Death Available for Pre-Order

Cover Reveal!


I am so excited to show you the fantastic cover for Shadow of Death, the second in my Community of Faith mystery series. The idea for this cover came to me early in the writing of this book, but I was unable to find an appropriate image on the stock photo sites. Then one evening while watching the news, during the segment that includes viewer photographs, I saw this fabulous photo by Ed Mullins and knew I had to have it for the cover.

A while later, several people recommended Karen Phillips as a cover designer. Karen took Ed's photo and designed the final cover. I love this cover so much, I'm now having her do a new cover for Faith, Hope, and Murder as well. Oh, and Ed is once again supplying the photography.

Shadow of Death Now Available for Pre-Order!


Shadow of Death is now available for pre-order at the bargain price of 99 cents. This price will only be available until October 15th, so make sure to order your copy now! On October 15th, the price will go up to $2.99--still a bargain. Official release date: November 3, 2014.

Here's the book blurb:

When Faith Andersen agrees to join a retreat at the Crazy Creek Guest Ranch for a weekend of horseback riding, barbecues, and fellowship, she thinks her biggest problem will be rekindling her romance with the handsome pastor of Desert Water Christian Church--until the ranch foreman is found murdered and mutilated, and the primary suspect is her best friend's husband.

With an ex-wife and child to support, John Menard is reluctant to pursue Faith on a pastor's salary. The retreat might be a good time to find some time alone with her, a chance to break it off, before they're too involved to turn back.

In the heat of the Arizona summer, there aren't many guests--and even fewer staff--at the ranch. A flirty young woman on her way to graduate school who doesn't seem to fit the rough and tumble atmosphere. An aging television star trying to revive her career with a western series. Her furtive young male companion. The ne'er-do-well son of the ranch's housekeeper and handyman. And, of course, the members of the church.

Cut off from civilization by monsoon flooding, law enforcement is unable to reach the ranch to investigate the murder. With a psychopathic killer on the loose, Faith and John are compelled to join forces to hunt down the murderer. But can they identify the culprit before he--or she--claims another victim?


Read for Free!


Both of my Community of Faith mystery novels (Shadow of Death after November 3), along with my Lacy Davenport mystery short stories, are now available to read for free through Kindle Unlimited. With this program, you can borrow as many books as you like for a monthly fee. If you don't belong yet, you can try out Kindle Unlimited for free for one month. If you already belong, please consider borrowing one or more of my stories.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Story

I spend a lot of time thinking about story. The one I'm working on, the one I'm reading, the ones by my fellow (or should that be sister?) authors, the ones in the Bible, the ones in movies, the ones on television. I must have at least ten books on my bookshelf on how to tell a story, most of which I've read from cover to cover, some more than once.

It takes a lot of talent to tell a good story. First of all, the story needs to have characters you care about. If you don't care about the characters, you won't care what happens to them. They have to face a problem that matters. They have to struggle to solve that problem, failing at first, but succeeding in the end.

Now that the Red Sox have gone into spring training mode with no hopes of salvaging anything from this season other than evaluating young players for next year, I no longer spend four hours watching baseball after my day's work is done. That gives me more time to work on my stories, but it also leaves me in a quandary. What do I watch on television in the evening when I'm too tired to read?

This week I've become aware of how many reality shows there are and how often they're replayed. Even a year ago, it seems to me there were more choices, more variety, more stories than there are now. Every channel has reality shows that they rerun over and over and over again. I can catch Duck Dynasty, Storage Wars, and Chopped, multiple times a day and multiple times a week. Not that I'd want to. Most of those I don't even watch the first time they air.

Fortunately, WE (Women's Entertainment) shows reruns of the original Law and Order for hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. These are stories I can watch over and over. But you think there would be something new of the same quality. There was. It was called Longmire. Longmire may come back, but it's been a struggle, both by the producers and the fans, trying to make that happen.

So this week I was excited to accidentally find the pilot of a new show in time to watch it. I usually have no idea when new shows are premiering. In the old days, new shows premiered in the fall, ran for twenty-six weeks, then, if they were good, rerun for another twenty-six weeks over the summer. Yes, twenty-six brand new episodes. Not thirteen. Not ten. A half year of originality. If the show didn't make it, summer replacements showed up and sometimes made it into the fall line-up. A show had time to develop, time to build an audience, time to get to know whether this was going to be a good one or not.

But back to the new show. It's called The Mysteries of Laura and stars Debra Messing. I was hopeful. More than hopeful. A mystery! A woman detective! Maybe this would be the new Law and Order.

It wasn't. The most vivid image I remember is of Laura's twin sons covered in red paint. Them and everything around them. Half the show dealt with her out-of-control children, who get thrown out of preschool for their misbehavior, and her pending divorce from her idiot husband. With no place to park these terrors, she brings them to the police station, where her coworkers are thrilled to see them and spend more time bouncing them around than working on the case. Even reality shows aren't this unreal.

Oh, and before that happens, Laura and a partner go to question and/or arrest a suspect. I'm not sure which. I was already only paying half attention to the show. It's at this odd kind of club, where people are wandering around in scanty costumes. Instead of being all Lenny Briscoe and walking up to the guy like cops, the partner gets the idea to "blend" and try to uncover information that way. Next we know, Laura is in a $350 purple bathing suit, with a deep-cut V that goes to her waist, and the camera is taking long shots of her body. Last  I noticed, they hadn't questioned anybody. It was farcical, but not funny.

At the point where the two kids urinate on one another in public while Laura is distracted by an argument with her husband, I turned it off. I think this was supposed to be funny, too.

Season Five of Downton Abbey doesn't start until January. The next episodes of Sherlock are over a year away. Castle isn't what it used to be. And Firefly? All that remains are the DVDs I rewatch every couple of months to remind myself of what a good television show is. Why can't we keep shows on the air that have story?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Discovering the Bible


I didn't grow up in a household where anyone read the Bible on a regular basis. We were a Christian home, went to church every Sunday, attended Sunday School, and my brother and sister and I were in the various choirs growing up. But our exposure to the Bible was those Sunday School lessons and the weekly readings in church. We learned the story of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Joseph and his coat of many colors, the Christmas story, Easter, and Pentecost where the disciples received the Holy Spirit.

Then there were the cultural allusions to the Bible, things like the patience of Job, the kiss of death, and killing the fatted calf. Most people are familiar with those, even if they don't know where they came from. And movies like The Ten Commandments, Solomon and Sheba, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Last Temptation of Christ, and even Jesus Christ Superstar.

But all of that is a very limited part of the whole Bible. The Revised Common Lectionary leaves out whole books, skips verses within selections, and only includes one of the Gospels each year. How many people have heard of the minor prophets Micah, Nahum, or Haggai, much less read them?

Years ago, I felt that I should read through the entire Bible. I even started several times. Genesis was easy, because many of those stories were familiar. Exodus wasn't too bad, because I knew a lot of that, too. But then I would get to Leviticus, which is primarily composed of all the laws of God for the Jewish people, or, worse, Numbers, which has endless lists of genealogy, and I'd be done.

Then there were the times I decided to start with the New Testament, thinking that would be easier. Then I'd get to the parables, stories told by Christ that were supposed to be simple enough for the common person to understand the message. Only they weren't simple to me because I wasn't a first century farmer or fisherman. There were other things I didn't understand because I hadn't been raised in the culture of the writer.

It reminded me of reading Shakespeare. Shakespeare is recognized as possibly the greatest English writer who ever lived. However, he writes in Elizabethan English, which is quite different from the English we speak today. Phrases common then aren't common now. Words he used have fallen out of fashion. Fortunately, in junior high school, I had an English teacher who loved Shakespeare and was able to explain the language to us so that we could appreciate it.

I also learned that there were different ways of translating the Bible, two extremes and several blends in between. One extreme aims for the most accurate literal translation of the original Hebrew and Aramaic. The other aims for the most accurate interpretation of the words. Both methods have their problems. A literal translation may be meaningless because, like Shakespeare, the phrases or words used are no longer in common use. Paraphrasing leans heavily on the understanding of the translator of the historical, cultural, and linguistic context. In both methods, the translation can be influenced by the bias of the translator. What if the word is a homonym, like down? Did the writer mean the direction or the soft feathers of a duck or goose? Sometimes it's easy to distinguish because of context, but what if you have a phrase like "duck down"? Does the writer mean to squat behind something or to qualify which bird the feathers came from? Translators make choices and, because they're human, they're going to be influenced by what they currently believe to be true.

That lead me to believe the only way to know what the Bible really said would be to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and read the original texts. That seemed like a daunting task, since it would require learning multiple new alphabets and cultures to make sure I was doing it right. That idea got put on my "Someday" shelf.

When I started my transition to retirement two years ago, I arranged my off days so I could attend the weekly lectionary Bible study at New Spirit Lutheran Church. Tuesday of each week, we read and discuss the passages from the Revised Common Lectionary for the following Sunday. Pastor Alan is very knowledgable and a good teacher, the same way my junior high teacher was with Shakespeare. Many of those obscure-to-me passages have become clearer because of his explanations. We have time to go into the lessons in depth, unlike the fifteen minute Sunday morning sermon.

And now Pastor Alan has started a Read Through the Bible class which I've joined. He does this every few years and I decided this was the year I'd make time to do it. The idea is to read three chapters of the Bible each day and then to have a once-a-week discussion class where we can question things we've read. That's not nearly enough time to discuss twenty-one chapters, but it does help. Theoretically, in a year, we will have read all of the Bible and I will have accomplished one of my goals. In reality, it will probably take more than a year to finish.

So all of this is prelude, a way to say that things I've read in the Bible or learned recently will probably be popping up on this blog on an irregular basis. In between, I'll still be writing about Tucson things, and definitely will be posting updates on my latest fiction.

Photo Credits:
By Amandajm (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, September 01, 2014

Long Live Longmire!


In case you've been under a rock this past week, A&E (from now on referred to as The Network That Must Not Be Named or TNTMNBN) decided to cancel their hit show Longmire. That's right. I said "Hit show." Longmire was TNTMNBN's top-rated scripted show, second overall only to Duck Dynasty.

After the season finale, which TNTMNBN stretched for an extra ten minutes by adding about a gazillion commercials, I was sure they would renew Longmire. But there were a couple of problems. First of all, Longmire is produced by an outside production company. In other words, they had to pay for the right to broadcast the series. Obviously, paying for something of value has fallen out of fashion in America.

The second reason was that Longmire did not rank highly enough with the coveted 18-49 year old demographic. This really ticked me off. The Longmire demographic skewed older, was popular with the people who actually prefer story to stupid.

I'm in that demographic. I don't watch reality shows. (Okay, for those of you who have read my blog before, I was a fan of Ice Road Truckers, but even that show got stupid this season.) I don't care what celebrities or faux-celebrities do on a daily basis, especially since those shows are as made up as any scripted show. I don't watch Dating Naked. (Seriously? This is the message you want to send young people? This is how you think people should meet and choose a mate? What happens when they start sagging, like we all do?)

Oh, and we older folks buy stuff. We don't just sit on the porch in our rocking chairs. We go on vacations. We play golf and hike and eat out. We drive cars. We baby boomers have caused a population bubble all through our lifetimes, affecting the economy and trends and society. I think it's a big mistake for television to ignore us.

It was because of the television series that I discovered Craig Johnson's marvelous books. I read lots of mysteries, but there are so many, it's hard to keep up with them all. As soon as I knew there was a mystery series that the television series was based on, I wanted to read the books. I met Craig Johnson at the Tucson Festival of Books two years ago. He's an engaging speaker and a generous and warm person. I bought "The Cold Dish" then and had him autograph it for me. I console myself with the fact that there are plenty of Longmire books I haven't read yet.

The producers are trying to find another network for the series. The fans are working hard to create grass roots support. In particular, the Longmire Posse, with a Facebook page here and tweeting as @LongmirePosse, has been tireless in attempting to show popular support for the show using the hashtag #LongLiveLongmire.

The odds of a canceled television show being picked up by another network are slim. It's been done in the past, but not often, so while I hope there will be more Longmire on TV in the future, I'm not optimistic. At least it got two more seasons than Firefly did. And, like Firefly, I have the DVDs of Longmire and will probably watch them often in the future on those long nights when there's absolutely nothing on commercial television worthy of my time.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Buried in a Book

I know I've been remiss in blogging this summer. The truth is, blogging takes time, especially when you write longer posts, like I do, which are actually essays with a premise, exposition, and conclusion. They take thought. Blog entries, at least for me, aren't like Facebook, where I can "Like" or "Share" someone else's post, or comment on the weather or something equally inane. I've thought about blog topics I could write on, but then I think about the hour or two it will take me to write it, and I don't even start.

The truth is that I've been totally focused on finishing my second novel, Shadow of Death. My first priority every day has been to revise, and now edit, what I've written. It's my "day job", and, like most day jobs, not very exciting. If you think it is, you can go read Dean Wesley Smith's blog, where he's just started his second year of "writing in public" posts. My day is pretty much like that, without the daily trips to WMG Publishing. Heck, on a good writing day, I don't even leave the house.

The not-leaving-the-house part also makes it hard to write about places of interest in Tucson. The last place I went was to the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and even then, one of my major goals was to take photographs for a book cover.

The big topic among writers and publishers this summer has been the Amazon-Hachette conflict over contract terms. Unless you happened to see the ad in the NY Times this past weekend or are a writer, you probably had no idea this was going on. Readers and the general public don't care much about contract negotiations between two mega-corporations. If you want one (biased) summary, you can find that here. Since this blog is supposed to be for readers, not the publishing industry, I haven't seen any point in blogging about that, but I have been involved in many discussions about it with my writer friends.

The good news is I'm in the home stretch with Shadow of Death. I should be able to come up for air in a month or so. I hope to be able to resume my regular blogging then. Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of the summer.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Questions for My Readers


I try not to make this blog about buying my books, but I need your help. I'm getting closer to publishing the second in my Community of Faith mystery series, and I'm looking at how best to bring it out into the world.

When I published Faith, Hope, and Murder, I wanted everyone to be able to buy it and read it. I didn't want to limit myself to just readers on Amazon. The problem is that, after the first couple of months, no one bought it for their Nook or Kobo or iPad. I've only had sales on Amazon in the past year.

There are advantages to putting book number two, Shadow of Death, exclusive to Amazon. People who have Prime memberships and members of the new KindleUnlimited program can borrow the book for free and I still get paid. It's apparent that Amazon ranks books higher when they aren't sold at other retailers, resulting in a better chance of new readers finding a book.

On the other hand, I value all readers. I'd be thrilled if I were selling copies in the iBookstore and on Barnes and Noble's site. I wouldn't want someone who wanted to read my book not be able to because they couldn't read it on their ereader.

Which is why I'm looking for answers from my readers. If you wouldn't mind taking a minute to answer the following two questions, I'd be very grateful for you feedback:

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world's leading questionnaire tool.

While we're on the topic of my books, my two short stories, Murder at the Museum and Murder in Stella Mann, are exclusive to Amazon. That means that if you've signed up for the free trial of KindleUnlimited this month, you can read them for free.

And, while I'm on the "buy my books" theme, if you want to know when Shadow of Death is available, please sign up for my newsletter. If you do, I'll send you a collection of short short stories which will tell you a little more about Faith, John, Hope, and Walt. And, as an added incentive, there will be a very special offer coming up soon that will only be available to newsletter subscribers. Either use the form on the right side of this page, or go to Sign Up to join.

Thank you!

Photo Credits:
Man With Question Marks: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=31710&picture=questions-1

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Lusty Men

So last night I was paging through the channel guide, looking for something to watch on television. TNT was running The Librarian series which, while I like it, I've seen just a few times. (Can you hear the sarcasm?) History was running back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes of Pawn Stars. Hallmark Movie Channel is doing Christmas in July, so it wasn't showing my favorite old mystery series. You get the picture.

Since I love old movies, I checked out TCM and saw next up was a movie called The Lusty Men from 1952. Cheesy title, right? But I like a lot of the movies made in the forties and fifties, so I clicked on the Info button to get the description. Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward? Definitely worth a shot, especially since there was nothing else.

I loved it! It was hard to believe I'd never heard of this movie before. It's about an aging rodeo star who takes a newcomer under his wing. The newcomer thinks it will be easy to earn enough money to buy a house--the house the Robert Mitchum character had grown up in, by the way--by competing in rodeos. The newcomer has a very attractive wife and there's definitely an attraction between the wife and the rodeo star. But this is the fifties, so it's very toned down compared to what you'd get today.

I particularly loved that a lot of the sequences took place at the Tucson Rodeo. I wasn't sure whether it was the real rodeo or a movie set at first, but when I saw the sign for Fiesta de los Vaqueros, I knew it had to be footage of the real thing. The rodeo arena is quite a bit different today, but still it looked familiar. I verified this on IMDB. It turns out they used several real rodeos to shoot the film.

I won't spoil the plot. I do recommend that you watch this movie the next time it shows up. I wish they made more movies like this today. There wasn't one single explosion.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Fun Facts Part 3 - Pottery Class

Not too long after I moved to Tucson, I learned about a pottery class at Tohono Chul Park being given by one of my coworkers. Being new in the area meant a couple of things: I didn't have a bunch of social activities going on, and I was curious about the arts and crafts of the Southwest. The instructor, a web designer by day, told me he'd be teaching the class to make pottery in the Native American way.

I think I've mentioned before that I'm not terribly artistic. Kindergartners can draw better than I can. So taking this class and demonstrating my lack of talent in public took some courage. As will posting the resulting pot. Okay, here goes:


I think I should have left it hidden in the display cabinet, where the two amethyst geodes are what draws your eye. Oh, well.

The first class he spent showing us slides of the different kinds of Indian pottery. It turned out that at a young age he'd taken an interest in the pottery and spent time visiting with several tribes to learn the techniques. He'd also brought books for us to look at so we could get ideas for the pots we wanted to make. Then he gave us an overview of what we'd be doing in class. The next lesson would be a...

Field trip! Because we were going to start at the very beginning by digging our own clay. So the next week we brought buckets and trowels and carpooled to somewhere south of Tucson, where we took a dirt road back into the desert. We stopped at a place where the cuts into the hillside were evidence that others had dug before us. The clay didn't look much like clay. In school art class when we worked with clay, the teacher would pull out a bucket with a lump of slippery clay in it, and we'd break some off for our project. The clay we were digging wasn't at all slippery because, you know, no water. It's a desert. And it was hard.

Fortunately, one guy had brought a pick (he'd done this before) and a couple of people brought spades. We dug. After an hour or two, we all had enough raw clay in our buckets to make our pots. Along with some homework.

Because now we had to prepare that clay so it was workable. This involved soaking it in water for several days, monitoring the amount of water so it was enough to make the clay workable, but not too much so it would turn into slime. And kneading. I'd made my own bread before, so I understood how to knead. Only this time I was making mud pies.

This was somewhat of a challenge because I was living in an apartment at the time. No yard. No hose. No way to control the amount of sun, which apparently was also important. I only had a balcony. Any kneading had to be done on my kitchen table, which meant being very careful unless I wanted a kitchen full of mud.

The next step was tempering the clay. Apparently, pure clay doesn't fire very well. You have to add a proportion of sand to "temper" it. This was another step where not having a yard presented a challenge. There's plenty of sand in Tucson, but digging in it at an apartment complex is frowned upon. So, early one morning I took a container and my trusty trowel to the end of the parking lot and took several furtive steps into the desert. Hoping no one would notice, I quickly shoveled sand into the container and headed back to my apartment.

I wasn't done yet. The sand had to be sifted. You don't want rocks and sticks and bits of cactus in your clay. So I sifted. The instructor had suggested a bit of screening, but I wasn't about to go to Home Depot, buy screen material and wood and construct the kind of thing he described. I think I used a large kitchen strainer.

Now that I had sand, more kneading. I had to knead the sand into the clay in the right proportion. He was somewhat vague about what "right proportion" meant. If I remember correctly, I think it was approximately one-third sand and two-thirds clay, but I could be off. But he impressed on us that it could be different, depending on the nature of the clay you were using. You just had to add sand until it "felt right." And too much sand was just as bad as too little.

This reminded me somewhat of making Nana's fruitcake. My great grandmother made the most delicious Christmas fruitcake. It wasn't at all like the kind you get in the store. After she passed away, my mother used to make it, although it wasn't quite the same. When I had my own household, I asked my mother for the recipe. I remember staring at it for a few minutes, trying to puzzle it out. While the ingredient list did have measurements like two cups of flour and one cup of sugar, the bigger part of the list was nuts, citron, raisins, candied cherries, cinnamon, etc. No measurements at all. When I asked my mother how you knew how much to put in, she shrugged her shoulders. That explained why hers wasn't the same as Nana's. She gave her best guesses as to how much of each of those you should use, but it took me several years of experimentation before I hit upon the combination that I use today.

I didn't have several years to figure out the right proportion of sand to clay, so I was pretty nervous about that part.

Finally we were up to making the pot. We were going to use the coil and scrape method to make our pot. You start out by rolling some of the clay into a long snake-like piece. You take the snake of clay and coil it into a circle to build the walls of your pot. Then you take a flat rock and scrape along the coils to smooth the clay out and merge the coils together. The clay coils all need to be about the same diameter so the walls of the pot are consistently thick. You have to scrape inside and out, applying gentle pressure with your hand on the opposite side to keep the shape of the pot. From the shape of my pot, you can tell I needed more practice. I remember starting over at least once.

It was painstaking work. While I was doing all of this, my clay was drying out. There's little humidity in Arizona--except during monsoon season--so things dry quickly. I had to once again balance the addition of water between keeping the clay moist enough so it was malleable, yet not so moist that the pot would collapse. At last I had a pot, pitiful as it was. I put it on a table covered in newspaper at the side of the classroom to dry.

The next week was painting. The instructor brought vials of ground-up minerals of different colors to class. We brought the paintbrushes. He described how he collected the minerals on hiking trips and told us likely places where you could find most of them. I was glad he hadn't made us hike in and get them ourselves.

You had to mix the minerals with water to make them into paint. Again, this took some experimentation to get the consistency right, but it was actually one of the most fun parts of the class. We'd gotten through the hard work part and were up to decorating.

Again, we had to let the pots dry before the next step, so I put mine back on the table and hoped it would be ready for the next week.

Which was firing. There was a little catch in this part. He had to get permission to build a fire not only from the park, but from the fire department. Because we weren't going to use a kiln. We were going to use an actual fire. Built from dried cow dung. Fortunately, he didn't have us collect the cow dung. He pressed his sons into service for that task.

He and his sons lugged cow chips out of the back of his vehicle and piled them in a courtyard. We put our pots on top, then he layered more cow chips on top. He cautioned us that this step might destroy our pots. Sometimes you left an air bubble inside the clay (which you were supposed to have removed by all that scraping) or there was just a flaw you couldn't see and the firing would cause that flaw to crack the pot. I thought of all the weeks of work I'd spent to get to this point and was tempted to pull my pot out.

The fire was smoky and hot. I forget how long he let it burn. I do remember his two boys gleefully pitching more cow chips on the fire to keep it going. Finally, he let the fire go out. But we couldn't have our pots yet. We had to wait for them to cool a little. Moving from a hot fire to cooler air too quickly might also crack the pot.

I remember waiting anxiously as he started to pull pots out of the fire. One pot did break in the firing process. I felt bad for the woman who wound up with only pot shards. At last he pulled mine out. It had survived!

The one disappointment was that the pot had gone into the fire a pale beige. That's what you see in the bright spot on the right side of it. But it came out blackened. They all did because of the smoke from the cow chips. He told us the way to get the smoke out was to fire the pot again in a kiln. He gave us the names of a few places we could take the pots to to get that done. I didn't think my pot was worth spending additional money on, so I left it blackened.

I'd never thought about how much work it was for the Indians to make simple kitchen things before I took this class. When I needed a pot, I went to Macy's Cellar or Bed, Bath, and Beyond or, if I was short of funds, Target or Walmart. There was not only a lot of work involved, there was also skill. Judging by my talent for this, I kept thinking that if I were an Indian girl and making a set of pots was a requirement for getting married, I probably would have wound up an old maid.

Even though I didn't create a work of art, I'm glad I had the experience.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Fun Facts Part 2 - A Night In Donner Pass





After I wrote the last fun facts post, it came to me that my life hadn't been quite as boring as I usually remember it. There was the time I got stuck in Donner Pass in a blizzard.





Donner Pass is most famous for the story of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers headed for California who got to the mountains too late in the season to cross and had to stop for the winter. The Donner Pass isn't a friendly place in the winter. High in the Sierra Nevadas, it is one of the snowiest places in the U.S. The average snowfall is over 411 inches. In 1846, with nothing but the contents of their wagons, it was impossible for them to go any farther. They built three rude cabins and hunkered down for the winter. They ran short of food. They resorted to cannibalism.

Anyway, when I was at Michigan State University in the late sixties, my roommate came to me with a plan on how to spend spring break. Some friends of Valerie's boyfriend were driving out west, with a stop in Las Vegas, and, for the price of a few tanks of gas and maybe a hotel room or two, we could have an adventure. This sounded like a grand idea, especially since I had a high school friend living in Oakland, California whom I hadn't seen in a few years. From Las Vegas, Valerie and I would head up to Oakland while the guys took a side trip to Mexico. We'd meet up afterwards to head back to East Lansing.

I remember little of the drive from East Lansing to Las Vegas other than it was long. Since I had never met the guys before, we had lots to talk about as we got to know one another. We took turns driving, although Valerie and I did a lot less of that since it was the first time either one of us had driven a stick shift. I mostly remember that Valerie had chili for almost every meal. She was determined to sample the chili all across America. She never told me why.

Las Vegas was amazing. I'd never seen so much neon in my life--and I'd been to Times Square plenty of times. We walked up and down the strip, visited a few casinos, stuck some coins in the slot machines, and overall had a great time. The only wrinkle was that Valerie wasn't twenty-one yet, so they wouldn't admit her to the shows. For some reason, there was no problem with her being on the casino floor, but they wouldn't let her in to see any of the performers. So we didn't see any of those.

The next morning, Valerie and I got on a Greyhound bus bound for San Francisco. Another new experience. I wish I could remember the people on it because I remember looking at them with interest, this cross-section of Americans who rode buses to go from one place to another. I rode in cars or, for long distances, took planes, but we were on the bus for the same reason all those others were: it was a lot less expensive than flying. In some ways, it was like a movie of a bus trip. I remember stopping at little gas stations with an attached cafe out in the middle of nowhere for a rest stop. We all filed off, used the restrooms, bought another cup of coffee, then filed back on.

We loved California. After a Michigan winter, the blue skies and warm temperatures of California in March were wonderful. We stayed with Margie and Pete, visited Haight-Ashbury while they worked, met some of their friends at a party, and had a great time.

I don't remember exactly where we met the guys. They had to have driven up to California to meet up with us because we eventually wound up on Route 80 headed back home. They had a great time in Mexico and had brought back a souvenir bottle of tequila, which they'd stashed in the trunk with our luggage. We were bubbling over with the joy and excitement of this trip as we drove east.

As we started to climb into the mountains, it got colder. When we stopped for lunch (more chili for Valerie), we got our Michigan coats out of the trunk and put them on. The warm, blue skies had turned gray with clouds.

It started to snow. Little flakes at first, nothing at all for four Michiganders. The snow got thicker as we climbed higher. Evening was coming on. The car struggled in the mounting snow on the roads.

There were other cars on the road with us. They were struggling as well. Eventually, we had to pull to the side of the road and stop. The snow was too deep. And it was still falling, swirling around us as we huddled in the car. It was now full night. We slouched down in our seats and wondered what we should do next.

A short time later, we saw headlights behind us and knew it was a snowplow. I'm not sure whether it was height of the headlights or if we could hear the roar of the engine or the speed at which it was traveling, but there was something about it that said snowplow. We all sat up straighter, and the driver put his hands on the wheel and the car into drive and waited for the plow to catch up to us. If we got right behind it, we stood a chance of getting through.

The roar of the plow's motor came closer and, as it went past us, the driver hit the gas. And couldn't get out of the snow. He tried rocking it, shifting between first and reverse, but we were truly stuck. We watched with dismay as the plow continued on, leaving us in the snow and the cold and the dark.

Now what?

We huddled back down and waited. We could see the lights of other cars who were stuck on the mountain with us. We discussed a plan. If another plow came along, I would get behind the wheel and the guys would get out and push. When I asked why me, they said I was better with the clutch than Valerie. Remember where I said this was the first time I'd driven a stick? I'd had all I could do to manage shifting through the gears to get to cruising speed on the open highway. I knew this was going to be a much stickier situation.

After a time, we saw another plow coming up behind us. I got out of the backseat, the guys jumped out of the front seat and ran behind the car, and I got behind the wheel. The monster snowplow came up to us, the guys pushed, and I managed to get us out of the snowbank and into the track that had opened up behind the plow.

Now in the clear, the guys ran to the front of the car and I got out and handed the driving over to one of them. As we started forward again, we were whooping and cheering.

I don't think we traveled more than ten feet before getting stuck again. The snow was falling so hard, it didn't take long for it to bury the road.

We knew then that we were going to have to spend the night on the mountain. I tried to remember how long it was you were supposed to run the motor to keep the car warm and how long you were supposed to shut it off to balance keeping warm with not running out of gas. And the tale of the Donner Party kept trying to worm its way to the surface of my thoughts.

We kept up a running banter, false bravado I think as I look back on it. We'd make a party of it, break out that bottle of tequila. Meanwhile, the snow kept falling.

We hadn't quite gotten to the bottle of tequila yet when we were rescued. The Nevada Highway Patrol showed up and led us all back down the mountain going the wrong way on the highway. Everything I see online now says the Donner Pass is in California, but I'm certain it said Nevada on the cars that led us down to a small town. We got a couple of motel rooms, the guys broke out that tequila, and the next morning the sky was blue and sunny again.

The driver bought a set of chains before we started out again. It was an easy trip over the mountains in daylight with the sun shining. A very different experience than what we'd had in the snow and the dark of the night before. We got to Reno, took off the chains, and drove back to Michigan. The fact that I don't remember the rest of the trip tells me it was uneventful. But the night in Donner Pass is something I'll never forget.

Photo Credits:
Donner Summit Sign : Image by Telstar Logistics via Flickr
Snowpack Height: Donner Summit Then and Now by PDTillman via Flickr