Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I think it's because of the traditions that surround it. In a world where things change constantly, it's comforting to know that on this day there are things that will not change from year to year.

First, of course, is the menu. I remember my mother getting up early to make the stuffing, whose principle ingredients were loaves of white bread and cream of mushroom soup, and put it in the turkey. The turkey always seemed tremendous, certainly much larger than any roast we had during the rest of the year. She'd have it in the oven by mid-morning and proceed to work on the other elements of the meal. In our house, that included mashed potatoes and turnips (also known as rutabagas), creamed onions, candied sweet potatoes, and a green vegetable. She'd make up a relish tray containing celery stuffed with cream cheese and pimento, olives, and pickles to sit at the center of the table. I loved olives, but we didn't have them very often, so I would scoop a bunch onto my plate.

The appetizer would vary from year to year. I suppose this depended on the state of my parents's finances. It might be a salad or fruit cocktail or, in a prosperous year, shrimp.

After dinner, there was pie. The pies would have been baked ahead: apple and mince, usually two of each. I only discovered pumpkin pie when we spent one Thanksgiving at my grandparents's house. I had never tasted anything so wonderful! And there would always be a big bowl of nuts in the shell. My brother and sister and I loved the walnuts because, if we were careful when we opened them, we could turn the shells into boats which we colored with crayons and floated in the bathroom sink.

While dinner was cooking, we watched the Macy's parade on television and savored the delicious smells coming from the kitchen. Back then it was more of a parade and less of an extravaganza. I always liked the marching bands. You don't see much of those now. There are too many Broadway shows and big name entertainers who have to stop in Herald Square and perform.

In the afternoon there was football. I wasn't a big football fan, but my father was. I suppose I read a book. I was always reading back then.

And, of course, there is the whole idea of taking one special day to thank God for all the blessings He has bestowed on us during the year. My life has not always been easy. Like most people, I've gone through hard times both emotionally and financially. But, with God's help, I have always found a way to get through them. This year has been a year of transition for me. It's had highs and lows. But I thank God that I have a roof over my head, eat regularly, the freedom to create stories, my church family, and relatives who may live far away from one another, but are still my family.

So, in celebration of all that I have been given, I'm running a sale this weekend on the ebook version of Faith, Hope, and Murder. For this weekend only, you can buy it for 99 cents at all the major ebook sellers: Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo,  and Smashwords.

I hope you'll try it!

Photo Credit:
Happy Thanksgiving courtesy of nongpimmy via www.freedigitalphotos.net

Riding in the Rain

Saturday, November 23, 2013
As I write this, a steady rain is falling outside my office window. I can hear the water running down the downspout. Now, in other parts of the country, this might not be deemed significant enough for a blog post. But, in Tucson, it's a very big deal.

It never rains in Tucson in November. Okay, not exactly never, but close enough so that it might as well be never. The average rainfall for November is .67 inches. That's for the whole month. (Yes, for those people who live in wet places, we do measure our rainfall in hundredths of an inch. We only get twelve inches of rain for the whole year.)

You should have heard the local news anchors and weathermen (weatherpeople?) gushing about this approaching winter storm all week. Not only is it raining today (Friday), but it's supposed to rain all through the weekend. Unheard of! The excitement Tucsonans have about rain almost matches that of New Englanders looking forward to an approaching blizzard.

As we got closer to Saturday, however, that excitement has turned to mild concern. You see, Saturday, November 23, is El Tour de Tucson, a nationally--if not internationally--known bicycle race. It's not quite as well-known as the Tour de France, but it's big. It attracts between 7,000 and 10,000 cyclists each year.

Residents who are not participating in the race or supporting someone who is, generally know to stay home that day, since many of the major roads are used, narrowing traffic to one fewer lane. There are frequent stops to allow cyclists to cross traffic. It takes twice as long to go anywhere on El Tour Saturday as on any other day.

As rare as rain in Tucson is in November, it has never rained on the date of El Tour. Ever. It did snow in 1994, but since the high that day was 54 degrees, it couldn't have stuck to the ground. The web site has been proclaiming "Rain or Shine!" for several days, but there is still an element of denial.

The El Tour route uses two washes and, as of this writing, has not been changed to avoid them during the race. A wash is a path that is taken by our heavy monsoon rains during the summer. Most of the year, they're dry ditches. Some are incredibly wide. Most are narrow. When they're draining the Catalina Mountains, they can fill to river depth. Unwary motorists can be swept away in their cars if they dare to cross a wash when it's running. Just being muddy can be treacherous for cyclists.

I'm fairly certain the evening news will have repeated announcements of a change in the route. By then, even race officials will have to admit there's a problem.

Unfortunately, the turnout will probably be low this year because of the weather. An amazingly large number of cyclists wait until the day of the race to register. I say unfortunately because El Tour de Tucson is a charity event. The primary beneficiary is Tu Nidito Child and Family Services. There are many others, including Habitat for Humanity and the Susan G. Komen foundation. The fewer riders, the lower the donations.

So, much as we need the rain--we always need the rain!--I'm almost hoping the weather forecasters are wrong and the sun shines tomorrow morning. Just a few hours break would probably make a difference.

Update Saturday morning from the El Tour Facebook page:
The 111 route has been diverted away from the Santa Cruz River crossing. The cyclists will follow Mission Rd to Irvington, to Calle Santa Cruz, to Drexel where it rejoins the route.

The "River" is one of those washes I wrote about. Most of our "rivers" are dry most of the year in Tucson. The Santa Cruz is probably very wet this morning since the rain's still pouring down.

Photo Credits:
Photo of a criterium road bicycle race. Boston Beanpot collegiate cycling weekend, Tufts University criterium race Image taken 8 MAY 2006 in Sommerville, MA by Joshua Furman

Funny Once, Funny Always, and Casablanca

Saturday, November 16, 2013
In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, a book about a self-aware computer who thinks he's Mycroft, the brother of Sherlock Holmes, there's a scene where two of the main characters try to explain the nature of humor to him. Mycroft, or Mike as he is most often referred to, has just pulled a stunt that could threaten lives because he thought it was funny, so Manny, our narrator, decides Mike needs a lesson.

It quickly becomes apparent that humor is a difficult thing to define. Deciding that an existential definition will work better than the dictionary, Manny prints out a list of jokes and he and Wyoming, the female lead, go through the list separately, each checking off which ones are not funny, funny once, or funny always.

This past week, with baseball season over for another year, I've been looking for movies and programs to watch on television. I rediscovered that there is not a whole lot of new material on the tube. Looking for something different, I pulled out the boxed set of Season One of 24 DVDs I'd bought years ago when I heard this was a good show, but never watched.

24 gives thriller a whole new definition. At first, I was impressed with the non-stop action, the deft way the writers upped the level of intensity in each scene as the characters were put into more and more jeopardy. After watching three episodes back-to-back, I noticed the tightness in my chest, my rapid pulse, and the need to calm down with something just a bit less intense before going to bed.

The second night, I was more aware of my physical response to the drama on the screen. I couldn't watch more than two or three episodes without feeling physically uncomfortable. And, while I could see where this high-anxiety method of scripting would draw people back on a weekly basis, I kept looking for the downtime, you know, the campfire or bar scene where people stop running and the audience gets a breather. So far, there isn't one.

I also became aware that the characters were making some choices just so the tension would increase, rather than as a realistic choice a person would make in the same situation. And I decided that 24 fell into my category of "watch once."

That's okay. Most television programs are watch once. They don't have enough depth, the surprise is gone, and there's not much to make you want to spend another hour with the story. I mean, if you already know the surprisingly valuable item found in the storage locker, why would you want to watch an episode of Storage Wars a second time?

Last Sunday night I discovered that even Downton Abbey is a "watch once." While I devoured all available seasons of this program on DVD this summer,  watching an episode I'd already seen wasn't terribly interesting to me. That surprised me.

There are, of course, some television programs I consider "watch always."

Firefly. No matter how many times I watch the fourteen episodes that were made before the show was canceled, I still laugh and cry and marvel at the incredible writing in this show.

The original Law and Order. Twenty seasons (and, if Jerry Orbach hadn't died, it would probably still be going strong). I'm not sure what it is about this series that doesn't bore me even though I've seen almost every episode multiple times. Good writing, yes, but, after you've seen an episode, you already know the twist that's coming. Sometimes I take a break and will not watch an episode, saying, Oh, this is the one where... and I'll flip the channel, but I can still watch most of these over and over.

And my latest favorite, Sherlock. A novel twist on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, great writing, incredible stories that hark back to the original canon without being a mere retelling. And Benedict Cumberbatch, with his glorious baritone and prominent cheekbones. It's no wonder he won the BAFTA award for British Artist of the Year. With only three episodes per season (because they're 90 minute movies), it's a long wait until the next season begins. But I've found that my investment in the DVDs of this series was well worth it. I've watched them at least twice (after seeing the shows in their original airing) and will watch them all again before Season Three begins in January.

Now, I had to stop a minute and think of those shows above, because I have been writing about television. But what really inspired this blog was stumbling upon TCM showing Casablanca again. I've seen Casablanca. A gazillion times. I own it on DVD because I never know when the urge to watch it again will come on me. Many people consider it the greatest movie of all time. I'm one of them. The characters, the intrigue, the love story, the plot twists, the chemistry between Bogey and Ingrid Bergman--it's all there. I still cry at the end. There is no doubt that Casablanca is my all-time watch always film.

Oh, and before I forget, and to tie this back to the opening of this blog, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of my read always books. If you haven't read it, give it a try, too.

Windy and Warm

Saturday, November 09, 2013
I can't help thinking of Doc Watson after writing that title:

I was introduced to Doc Watson way back in college. He was a fixture in the folk music community for decades. As a matter of fact, if you read my post on The Joys of Live Music, you might be interested to know that the Kruger Brothers moved to North Carolina to be near Doc and learn from him.

But that wasn't what I wanted to write about today. Windy and warm also describes the weather we've been having in Tucson lately. While the northern parts of the United States are looking out for their first snowfall, here in Arizona we're enjoying the best part of the year. Clear skies (it's been two months since we had rain), temperatures in the seventies and eighties, low humidity, and, often, winds of twenty miles an hour or more as storms pass to our north on the way to create that snow in the Midwest.

No longer do I have to get up around five and force myself to go for an early walk to avoid the heat. I can have my more leisurely wake-up time, write for a few hours, then head outside to walk before breaking for lunch.

The desert doesn't change a whole lot in the fall. Oh, the mountains turn brown again because the vegetation dies back with no monsoon rains to nurture it. But we don't have deciduous trees to turn colors. We do, however, have grasses:

Most of the year, this particular grass is green, but I love in the fall when it turns red and waves in the wind.

There are disadvantages to this wind. After having a pre-cancerous growth removed from my scalp last year, I try to remember to wear a hat when I go for a walk. You learn to pay attention to signs of skin cancer in Arizona. But my hat wouldn't stay on in the wind this week. I wound up holding it in my hand instead.

The change in the weather reminded me it was time to schedule the annual maintenance on my furnace. They send out a reminder in October, but you often still need the air conditioning in early October so there's no sense of urgency. I guess a lot of people had the same thought with the change in the weather. The earliest appointment I could get was the first week in December. That's okay. I probably won't need to turn on the heat before December and then only at night.

Meanwhile I watch the kids play on the grass in the park across the street and the hummingbirds come to the feeder outside my office window. Along with the woodpeckers, who seem to enjoy the sugar syrup as much as the hummers. I love being in Tucson in November.

NaNoWriMo and Looking at Story Types

Saturday, November 02, 2013
It seems as if every time I start a new novel, I also need to take a writing class or read a writing craft book. It's like reviewing for a final exam; I know what goes into a novel, but I need a refresher before plunging in. This past spring I took a class when I was trying to finish the draft of the second in my Community of Faith mystery series. I blogged a little about my frustration with that class here.

As I got serious about planning for this year's NaNoWriMo novel, for which I had a premise and an ending, but not much else, I decided to pull a book off my writing bookshelf to reread. Because I was woefully short on characters, especially suspects, in this murder mystery, I chose Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This is an old book, published in 1988 as one of Writers Digest Elements of Fiction Writing Series. But I remembered being impressed with it the first time I read it and that it covered a lot more than character.

Three days before the start of NaNo, I got to Chapter 5, which is titled "What Kind of Story Are You Telling?" (I told you this book covers a lot more than character.) It was here that I found the vindication--and much better explanation than I was able to come up with--for what I tried to tell the instructor of last spring's story class:

There are different types of stories.

Non-writers reading this are probably scratching their heads and thinking, Well, duh, of course there are! so let me explain. Over the past thirty years or so, there has arisen a conventional wisdom kind of thing about the structure of a story. In fact, there have been multiple books written as to what that structure is, including The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, which says that the only story structure is based on Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias, the three act structure, the four act structure, Robert McKee's Story,  and on and on and on.

What all of these books and classes assume is that a story is about character change. The character has to go through a number of trials to learn a lesson and become a better person as a result. They have to go through what romance writers call The Black Moment where all is lost before learning that lesson and becoming victorious. This has become so ingrained that anyone who dares to posit a different kind of story is seen as someone who hasn't quite understood what it is to be a writer and is doomed to failure.

Fortunately, Characters & Viewpoint was written twenty-five years ago and Orson Scott Card has written enough novels not to have this ridiculous bias as to what a story is. He describes four different  kinds of stories, one of which is the Character story that everyone seems to think is the only kind now.

The first is what he calls the Milieu story. This is because it focuses primarily on exploring a world and revealing all its wonders. According to Card, Lord of the Rings is a Milieu story. Yes, there is a plot and it does have characters, but the characters are not developed deeply. As Card points out, we only have one member of most races in the story because what distinguishes them is not their personality or inner flaws, but their type. If there were three elves as part of the Fellowship of the Ring, we probably wouldn't be able to tell them apart. Readers of Milieu stories don't care whether Frodo learns that Love Conquers All or anything like that. They love all the descriptions of the lands and cultures the characters encounter on their journey.

The second is the Idea story. A problem is posed at the beginning and the story ends when the problem is solved. Simple. Series murder mysteries fall into this category. The characters are relatively static and readers like them that way. As I tried to point out to that instructor, Jack Reacher and Spenser don't change. Stephanie Plum doesn't change. What changes is the mystery they have to solve. Science fiction also has its share of Idea stories.

The third type is the Character story. Since this is what every book and class is teaching writers how to write, I won't devote space to this one.

The fourth type Card calls the Event story. In this kind of story, something happens to put the world out of joint and the story ends either when things are put right again or it's clear that there will be no putting right in the end. I have a hard time differentiating this from an Idea story, since I think of mysteries as having this kind of structure.

The point is that, of the four types of stories, only one requires in-depth character development. Now, even in 1988, Card had to admit that because of the expectations of readers due to the shift to more Character stories, it had become necessary to do more character work in the other types than it had been in the past. Not always. Dan Brown has been taken to task for his cardboard characters, but they don't seem to bother most readers. That's because Dan Brown writes Event stories.

Reading this chapter lifted a weight off my shoulders. I have struggled mightily in crafting mysteries because I've always been stuck on the question of What does my character have to learn? That gets harder the more books in a series you write. If in every book your main character becomes more and more perfect, you run out of stuff they need to learn. If they conquer their major flaw, that changes who they are. Do you have to come up with a new flaw in each book? And will that flaw be something fans of the books can't identify with or hate so much they'll stop reading? Realizing that there are other types of stories to tell than Character stories lets writers write the story they have in them--not the one the books and classes tell you you should be writing.
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