Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

That should last me the week...

That should last me the week…

Fifty percent of my household didn’t read a single book last year.

That was my husband. Early in our relationship, he eyed the overflowing bookshelves in my apartment and said, “I don’t read.”

“You’re illiterate? I can teach you,” I offered.

“I know HOW to read. I just don’t read books.”

I don’t know how this marriage has survived so long.

I was raised by readers. My sister’s a reader as are all of my closest friends. I’ve carted favorite books thousands of miles, been late countless times because I couldn’t put a good book down, and if given the choice between buying a dinette set or a comfortable chair and a reading lamp, I will eat dinner over the kitchen sink…then go sit in my chair and read. People who don’t read puzzle me.

A recent Pew Center Research Poll shows that 23 percent of adults didn’t read a single book in 2013. That’s up from 16 percent in 1990 and 8 percent in 1978. And according to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 47% of Americans say they read a book for pleasure in 2012.

Books give us knowledge, insight, inspiration, ideas, truths, lies, instructions, humor, emotional release, a chance to dream, an opportunity to escape, a place to go even if it’s just in our heads. Why WOULDN’T you read one?

RIF (Reading is Fundamental) was still a fairly new literacy program in the early 1970’s when I was learning how to read but its message was already solid: knowing how to read was the key to unlocking a world of doors and it wasn’t just a useful skill, it could also be FUN. I believed that as a kid; now as a bigger kid, I still believe it.

Maria Keller does, too. Maria’s a 13-year-old from Minneapolis, MN who founded her own non-profit organization to promote literacy. When she was 8, she started collecting used books and since then, with the help of thousands of people around the country, her organization Read Indeed has given 1 million books to schools, hospitals and community centers in 30 states and more than a dozen foreign countries. What can you say? The kid likes to read.

Anyone can spread the joy of reading. I recently received some literary love from my 9-year-old nephew who said, “Hey, I got you something” and handed me this:

Kid-approved reading material

Kid-approved reading material

It came from his school book fair; I also got a complimentary Minions’ poster and pencil eraser. Did you know that “Bello” is a popular greeting among Minions and that “Poopaye” is how they say goodbye? True that. I read it in a book.

Read any good books lately? Find me on Goodreads and we can compare notes.

The more you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go. – Dr. Seuss

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A snowy world, at peace

The author is Mark Helprin. The book is “In Sunlight and in Shadow.” And given the devastation caused by this past weekend’s blizzard, the passage below is an appropriate description of the bleak battle we wage with Old Man Winter.

“They had practically nothing but snow – the feel of it, the silence it imposed with an almost beneath-the-threshold-of-sound hissing as it fell, the way it lit the darkness even as it smothered sight. Snow was God’s scolding of the world for war. It suppressed and conquered legions and nations. It quieted continents, forced branches to bow in submission, and broke those that would not. It made a mockery of military power and pride in numbers, throwing into the world inexhaustibly its own soldiers, tiny crystals each with an inimitable identity, each fragile, temporary, frozen, resigned, but in such endless profusion that they could slaughter entire armies in absolute silence and bury them until spring. Snow muffled the sounds of soldiers who fought across it or waited in it; it sent them messages in its glistening whirlwinds; and like a wrestler who need not expend energy or breath, it effortlessly pinned them to earth.”

Thoughts are with you weary warriors still struggling in the white.

Carton 12 of 12 in the big move.

It costs more beer to get a dozen boxes of books carried across a front lawn than it takes to get a six-hundred-pound hide-a-bed couch shoved through a front door.

“ANOTHER box of books?” groaned the friends who were helping us move, as I handed over the last carton.

“It’s just paperbacks,” I said. “Did I mention there‘s beer?”

By the time we moved into our current house, I’d been amassing reading material for about 25 years. I am now 40 years into my collection. New selections are added and familiar tomes recycled continuously. I thought the Thompson library was pretty impressive until I read about Brewster Kahle’s little project to save the world’s books.

Kahle is an Internet entrepreneur whose goal is to collect one copy of every book ever published. With more books going digital, he wondered what was going to happen to all the hard copies? Now, he and his staff of 150 helpers are packing them away for safe-keeping in shipping containers in a warehouse in Richmond, California. They’re being digitized first but should something happen to the electronic copies, the physical ones, with covers and spines and pages you can turn the corners back on, will still exist. Kahle’s crew has half a million squirreled away already with a goal of 10 million altogether.

The number of books published since publishing began is many times more than 10 million. So how does he decide what to keep? For my own culling criteria, if I look at the book’s cover and know the butler did it with a candlestick in the dining room after finding out the mysterious woman he was having an affair with is really his cousin, it can go. But if I scan the book jacket and find one tidbit I don’t remember reading, it’s a keeper. My old books are usually passed along to other readers but there was one book that sucked so badly I actually threw it away. If I could have tracked down every copy of it and shredded them all to save the reading public from trudging through such crap, I would have. At least I was able to save one unsuspecting thrift store bibliophile from making the same mistake I did.

You can learn more about Kahle’s project at the Internet Archives, an online respository which includes archived text, video and audio. Another great resource for free audio books and stories no longer in print is Librivox, a site for which I’ve actually recorded some selections.

Mr. Kahle, best of luck to you in your efforts. I can’t imagine how much beer money it’s costing you to get the job done.

If you were saving hard copy books from extinction, what book would you make sure made it into the archives?

I began writing a new short story this week and it’s going fairly well. The storyboard looks solid, the premise is plausible, the twists (there are two) are just tricky enough to catch readers off-guard. The stage has been set, and all of the supporting characters know their jobs. There’s just one snag: my main character doesn’t have a name.

It’s not as if I’ve been avoiding her or calling her “Hey you”. She appears in the manuscript as “MC” (Main Character) and every time I see those initials, “Can’t Touch This” pops into my head. No, not really a big MC Hammer fan. Hated the pants. We are now far enough along in the project that she needs a name. She pointed that out to me during a writing session earlier this morning.

“I deserve a name,” she said. “A good one. What have you come up with?”

Knowing this time would come, I had drawn up a short list of possibilities but couldn’t make up my mind which one to use. “Just tell me what they are and I’ll pick one,” she offered.

I grabbed the Astro Pink index card and began firing them off. “Dara.”

“No.”

“Rachel.”

“Nope.”

“Jolie.”

“Pass.”

“Careta.”

“Eeuuww.”

I glared at her from across the desk. “That was my grandma’s name.”

“Sorry. What else you got?”

“Vikki.”

“Now that one I….yeah, no.”

“Astrid.”

“Really?”

“Just seeing if you were paying attention. How about Erika?”

The sudden silence was surprising and I looked up to see if she was still there. Lips pursed, head cocked, she considered. Then she smiled. “No likey.”

“Gah! That’s the last one. I got nothing.” The index card sailed onto the desk.

“I have one picked out. Want to hear it?” She said.

I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Sure.”

“Natalie.”

My eyes popped open. Natalie. Huh. I opened the manuscript and replaced every “MC” on the first page with “Natalie”, then read it back quickly. The flow was there. Problem solved.

“Natalie it is.” I sighed with relief, tinged with frustration. “If you had a name already, why didn’t you just tell me?”

“’Stubborn and difficult’. Page one, paragraph four. Remember?”

“Right.”

Need help matching monikers with your characters? Author Elizabeth Sims offered some helpful tips in her article “Namedropping” in the January 2012 issue of Writers Digest. While I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already, here’s the short and sweet when it comes to naming:

  • Check the root meaning.
  • Get your era right.
  • Say them out loud.
  • If you have a big cast of characters, vary the initials and number of syllables for their names.
  • Use alliterative initials.

Memorable names can pop up anywhere. I found a great one this week in a local obituary. The man’s name? Just Andersen. Consider the possibilities. What tricks or tips do you use to name your peeps?

The first dead body I saw not in a hospital or a casket was lying in an alley. There were two of them. They were a couple, and that’s why they were dead because the woman’s ex-husband wasn’t happy about it.

My first homicide as a reporter was the first murder in 10 years in the town where I live. It happened on a weeknight, two blocks from City Hall where I was covering a meeting. The radio station sent someone to get me. These were the days before cell phones and text messages when news tips came from police scanners and the lips of people you trusted. I grabbed my notebook and tape recorder and ran the few blocks to the crime scene, heart pounding not from the exertion but from the adrenalin of a big story and the fear of screwing it up in the telling.

I’d covered crime before in a city bigger than this one. One of my first news stories there was about a carload of people who’d been shot in the parking lot of a strip club. No one died in that incident and I didn’t see the carnage firsthand although the news director I worked for did. I just covered the police briefings and trial. But the hometown murder in the alley that night was mine to report.

The crime scene was easy enough to find. I just followed the flashing lights and the uniforms. Onlookers were kept at bay which was no easy task since a lot of them were drunk. The murder had taken place behind a popular bar and everyone there had witnessed the confrontation that led to the final act. I skirted the crowd and went down the alley. I didn’t ask anybody where I could go; I was with the press so I just went. I came around a police cruiser and saw the dead man’s legs first. I kept moving until I could see the rest of him. And her. They’d been shot.

Dead people look normal in caskets. Not “alive” (no mortician is that good) but they don’t look out of place. Bodies in alleys do. It doesn’t matter if they’re laid out sleeping or flung across the asphalt bleeding, they don’t belong there. I saw the crime scene for about 30 seconds before an officer barked, “Get back! What are you doing?”

“Press,” my 22-year-old voice squeaked. I was hustled back behind the line.

A press briefing was hastily thrown together back at City Hall. It was crowded and crazy. Muffled sobbing. Squawk of police radios. Chatter of the press corps. The police chief’s statement was short and to the point: two victims shot and killed, one suspect in custody, no names released until the families could be notified. Questions were shouted but few were answered. It was too early to know much of anything.

I rushed back to the station, typed up a quick story with a sound bite from the chief, and broke in to regular programming with a “This just in…” news announcement. The story broke fast – confessions, charges, funerals, trial, sentencing. I followed it the whole way and for the first time since becoming a radio news director, I felt like a real reporter with an important story to tell. A few months later, when the next murder came along (this one a stabbing at a local motel), I was ready.

I eventually left the radio station for a state bureau chief job with United Press International and I would have happily worked there until the reporter’s notebook was plucked from my cold dead fingers but a corporate bankruptcy followed by massive lay-offs put an end to that. Other reporting opportunities in other places slipped from my grasp because my home situation didn’t allow for a move. One of the toughest professional decisions I ever made was to stay where I am for the good of my family. Some days I still regret it.

The people we want to be don’t always end up being the people we become. The roads we travel, either professionally or personally, have exit ramps and intersections and sometimes even a good GPS can’t save you from getting lost. My road led me to start writing fiction and not surprisingly, a good chunk of it is more dark alley than sunny meadow. The reporter’s instincts may be rusty but they’re still getting used and I’m grateful for that.

What unexpected place did YOUR road take YOU and how has it shaped the person you are now?

And if you’re interested in hearing the story of one woman’s journey from the dark into the light, HOT OFF THE WIRE is pleased to be hosting author Margaret Norton Mon., Feb. 20, 2012 for her blog tour to promote the re-release of her book “When Ties Break” as an e-book. Swing by for my review and some Q&A with Margaret herself. I might even break out the dessert plates and serve some refreshments. Feel free to bring a friend.

Galinhan Christmas delicacy

Fresh-baked Christmas chickens...mmmmm!

Each Christmas, possessed by the spirit of the season, I drag out the recipes of my ancestors and my dented baking sheets and make cookies. I’m no Martha Stewart but I am fairly proficient in the making of three varieties: chocolate chip, chocolate crinkles and cut-out sugar cookies.

A few holidays ago, two friends and I were discussing a possible cookie exchange for which I offered up my sugar cookies. Due to my questionable reputation as a cook, I felt compelled to “sell” them on my wares, touting their crispiness, delicate flavor and variety of shapes including stars, angels, reindeer, snowflakes, chickens…

“Did you say chickens? You make chicken-shaped cookies for Christmas?”

“It’s a family tradition. I got the cookie cutter from my grandma.”

“Sweetie, people don’t make chicken cookies for Christmas.”

“Sure they do. Why would they have a chicken in the Christmas cookie cutters then?”

“It was probably for Easter and just got thrown in with the Christmas stuff.”

“Who makes Easter cookies?”

The ribbing about the chicken cookies continued for weeks and spread throughout our circle of friends, providing all with an extra source of holiday merriment at my expense. In retaliation, I penned the following tale, presented to my two friends in book form along with a bag of Christmas chickens. For your holiday reading enjoyment, I present to you…

The Legend of the Christmas Chicken

It was early Christmas morning in the tiny country of Galinha and Santa Claus was in trouble. He paced behind his sleigh in a gloomy clearing near a small dark lake known as Fisker’s Pond. The crisp moonlight shone on the deep gouges in the ice where the sleigh had first crashed before bouncing like a skipped pebble up the snowy hillside. The reindeer shuffled their feet and snorted nervously. Santa seldom yelled at them but this time, they had it coming.

“How many times do I have to say it?” Santa said. “When do we feed the reindeer? When we get home Christmas morning. Why do we wait until then? Because food weighs them down. And when the reindeer are weighed down, what can’t they do? Fly, they can’t FLY! Well?”

It was the baklava. Their last stop before crossing the border was a cheery hamlet that was home to the greatest baklava factory in the world. While Santa was busy delivering gifts, Blitzen led the charge on the factory’s dumpster. By the time Santa returned, four reindeer were on their sides, bellies bloated; fueled by a massive sugar rush, two others chased a third around the parking lot; and the last reindeer was feverishly scratching an outbreak of hives caused by an allergy to nuts and gluten.

Knowing that Galinha was their last stop and he couldn’t leave the people there without any Christmas presents, Santa gathered up the reindeer, hooked them to the sleigh, and they took off. Twice in the short trip, the sleigh and its crew and cargo nosedived towards earth, the baklava-laden reindeer unable to keep themselves and the sleigh in the air. Finally, they crashed on the lake and bounced to the clearing.

Stupid reindeer, Santa thought. I need to get this sleigh moving. But how?

“God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”

The voice coming from beyond the trees was beautiful, with an incredible range running from a soaring soprano to a booming bass. As the song ended, a large white chicken appeared at the edge of the clearing.

“Santa?” It said in surprise.

“Uh, good morning.”

The chicken peered at the sleigh and the sick reindeer surrounding it. “Need some help?”

Santa glared at the reindeer. “Yes, I do. Is your master with you? The person who was singing?”

“I used to have a master, some time ago. Fisker, his name was, Dornan Fisker. This is what’s left of his farm, and that beyond is his pond.”

“But, then who was singing?”

The chicken shrugged his feathered shoulders. “Me.”

“What a glorious voice you have! I have never heard that carol sung with such beauty and in so many octaves.”

“Thank you, Santa,” the chicken said proudly. “I can sing in whatever key or octave I want to, for you see, I’m a free range chicken.”

“You’re obviously very talented and while I would love to hear more of your wonderful singing, I’ve got Christmas gifts to deliver to the good people of Galinha and no one to pull my sleigh. Is there perhaps a farm nearby with horses?”

“I’m sorry but the closest farm is miles away. I live by myself in the old stone barn up the road. The only other creatures around here are a family of rabbits, a stray crow or two, and a den of foxes who love nothing more than to chase me.”

Santa’s shoulders slumped. “I’ve never not finished my Christmas deliveries. There MUST be someone who can pull my sleigh.”

Suddenly, a twig snapped at the edge of the clearing. “Why, what have we here?” a sharp voice said.

In slunk a plump red fox, quickly followed by seven others. Glancing slyly first at the chicken and the large bearded man in the red suit, they turned their attention to the herd of reindeer guarding the sleigh. Donner and Vixen pounded their front hooves in warning and when the others followed suit, the foxes saw they were outgunned and made no further advance.

“Good morning, Mr. Fox,” Santa said. “It seems from my list you’ve had a somewhat spotty year when it comes to being good.”

The fox laughed. “Santa! I didn’t recognize you. Are you taking a break in our fair woods?”

“The reindeer are sick and he needs someone to pull his sleigh,” said the chicken, turning to Santa with a twinkle in his eye. “Too bad this mob can’t help you but alas, they are only foxes.”

The head fox’s ears pricked up. “ONLY foxes? Why, we foxes are the quickest, most clever animals in all of Galinha. We can do whatever we put our minds to!”

The chicken poked Santa in the ribs with a feathery elbow. “Surely, you’re not clever enough to put on those reindeer harnesses and buckle yourselves in.”

Santa smiled. “Even the reindeer can’t do that without help from the elves.”

The fox whistled sharply and his clan quickly moved into two neat rows in front of the sleigh. They stepped into the harnesses, and within minutes had the buckles fastened.

“Ha!” said the foxes. “See how quick we are?”

The chicken nodded. “That was quick. But you don’t really believe you foxes can pull that sleigh? Not with all those gifts and Santa on board?”

“PULL it? Of course, we can pull it! ” And to prove it, the foxes trotted around the clearing pulling Santa and the sleigh in large, neat circles.

The chicken whistled appreciatively. “VERY nice. But there’s no way you can pull it across the whole of Galinha in a few short hours so Santa can make his deliveries. Surely you can’t do THAT because you are, after all, only foxes.”

The lead fox said menacingly, “Chicken, better say your prayers, for my brothers and I are going to snap your neck and eat you!”

“You’ll have to catch me first!” And with a wink at Santa, the chicken began to run. The foxes gave chase and the sleigh flew like the wind out of the clearing.

For the next few hours, the chicken ran as fast as he could, leading the foxes and Santa’s sleigh from one end of Galinha to the other. Those few Galinhans who were up at that early hour were no doubt shocked to see the large white chicken outpacing the wiley foxes who pulled the big red sleigh with the fat cheery driver doling out presents as fast as he could.

Pale gold light grazed the ice of Fisker’s Pond when the exhausted chicken led the road-weary foxes back into the clearing. The whole troop, feathered and furry, dropped to the ground as Santa stepped from the now empty sleigh.

“My friends,” he boomed. “You’ve done it! You’ve saved Christmas for the people of Galinha!”

Only then did it dawn on the foxes what they had done. Basking in the glow of the jolly man’s praise, their anger was diminished, and soon they were high-fiving each other and prancing around the clearing. Santa approached the chicken, who stood with his head down, panting.

“And YOU, my feathered friend. How can I ever thank you?”

The chicken thought for a moment. “You know, Santa. Most of the time, people make fun of us chickens. If there was some way you could get us some respect, that would be the best gift of all.”

Santa smiled. “My friend, from this point on, the noble chicken will be a true symbol of Christmas, as important as the Christmas tree and angels and reindeer and even me. And wherever people celebrate Christmas, they will remember the chicken who saved the holiday for the people of Galinha!”

The story of the mysterious chicken who saved Christmas was soon told and retold in all of Galinha and it wasn’t long before an enterprising young baker began making a Christmas cookie shaped like a chicken, selling it during the holidays. The idea spread into the homes of Galinha and still to this day, the Galinhans’ favorite holiday treat is the Christmas Chicken.

Which is why you should never laugh at people who show their Galinhan pride by baking chicken-shaped Christmas cookies…bitches. The End.

Recipe available upon request. So how bout it, readers? Any quirky holiday traditions you care to share?

It’s the day after National Novel Writing Month; do you know where YOUR characters are?

I haven’t seen mine since last night when we celebrated our 2011 NaNoWriMo win. We shared hot wings and margaritas, reminisced, slapped some high fives. Then suddenly, there was this awkward silence, followed by some lame excuses about being tired and wanting some “alone time”.  Next thing I know, my characters just sort of drifted out the door and left me sitting there. Alone. With no one to talk to.

When you spend the better part of the 30 days hath November chasing that elusive 50,000 word goal, you eat, sleep and breathe your characters. You put thoughts in their heads, words in their mouths, make them do things they should or shouldn’t. It’s a huge responsibility, a major commitment, and a serious source of withdrawal when it’s over. After I’ve typed “The End” and put the manuscript away to marinate for a month, I can’t help but wonder – how will those crazy characters get along without me?

I worry most about you, Lorraine. Nineteen-year-old with a newborn, baby daddy in the Pacific for God knows how long, future mother-in-law hovering, watching your every move. And how is your penniless, alcoholic father going to make it back to Nebraska?

Hester, I hope you’re not still pining for Jack because he’s going to be in Leavenworth for a good 20 years and really, do you want to spend half your life waiting for a cheating husband who kills for a hooker? You can do better; I know a good attorney.

Ah, Louise. What a tough time it’s been for you. Family destroyed, stranger in a strange land, and now a boyfriend who may never walk again. I should have written you in a vacation somewhere.

And Muriel, I say this to you with love: Get. Some. Therapy. Please. What kind of woman follows a man to a prison camp because she can’t bear to be alone? A crazy woman, that’s who. You’ll never have a decent relationship until you work out those self-esteem issues.

I miss you, my “Iron Maidens”. Oh, it’s not like I won’t ever see you again. We’ve got that editing/rewrite thing coming up after Christmas and we’ll do plenty of talking then. But in the meantime, if you just want to hang out or grab a coffee or something, call me. I’ll be waiting.