Category Archives: Writing

Too Much of a Good Thing

Family stories shaped my life in hand-me-down stories of my French and Native American ancestry. DNA proves the French but disagrees on the other. That doesn’t erase the historical moment my mother blurted two full sentences in Cherokee, part of a conversation she remembered from her young years in Indian Territory, later Oklahoma. I can identify the colors and material of clothes my twin and I wore in aging black and white photos. Cloudy memories say I excelled in high school, but math transcripts disagree. I played shortstop a few times in physical education. I like to think I was good, but the truth is I was the last choice for the position.  True or false, these are part of my backstory.

My critique group often tells me to cut the backstory in my crime fiction novel. “But you need to know my character’s history,” I insist. “How else will you know why she reacts like she does.”

The most common statements my physicians repeat are backstory. “At your age . . .” and “With your history . . .” followed by how genetics and medical history affect a specific ailment now. Despite my poor athletic abilities, I jump like a pro reaching for a fly ball. I catch words preceded by high—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high heart rate.  Imagine my surprise when a specialist lobbed me a slow grounder.

 

“Your sodium level is too low.”

My mind raced to backstory ten years ago when physicians, nurses, and dieticians counseled me to lower my salt levels. No more pizza. Go light on the bread. Ditch the cheese. It was difficult after a lifetime of enjoying salt, but I followed the advice. I switched to organics, bought no-salt-added canned vegetables or rinsed regular ones to remove the excess sodium. I substituted Trader Joe’s Rainbow Peppercorns for my spice-of-the-day. No more salt on watermelon or fresh sliced tomatoes. My taste buds refused to cooperate at first but eventually acclimated to the new taste.

“But lowering my salt intake was the goal,” I countered, back in the present where my new endocrinologist didn’t know my history.

She turned the computer screen my direction and pointed to the < sign before the sodium level.

“Dangerously low,” she said. “Increase the salt in your diet.”

That reversal echoed advice from my critique group when I revealed the antagonist in the last chapters. “You need to flesh out this guy,” they said. “Give us some backstory.”

At home, I made a sandwich with cheese. I sprinkled the sliced tomatoes with salt and ate a handful of potato chips—rare foods in my kitchen.

Backstory and salt. How do I balance the levels to avoid too much of a good thing?

 

 

 

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Filed under Editing, Memoir, Writing

Happy Trails

Roy Rogers, King of Cowboys, and Dale Evans, Queen of the West, sang “Happy Trails to You” on the radio during the 1940s and 1950s, then in movies and television. Horse riders while they sang in their younger years, then sitting on a fence as they aged, they captured the hearts of American families. Youngsters wanted to be cowboys and cowgirls, riding the trails to happiness. But who would have listened to their family-oriented broadcasts if they weren’t movie stars? And who would have listened if they hadn’t sidestepped their birth names?  The end of their happy trail for both is Sunset Cemetery in Happy Valley, California where Leonard and Octavia rest with no hint of the famous trails of Roy Rogers or Dale  Evans.

John (Johnny Appleseed) Chapman

Long before this duo made “Happy Trails” Johnny Appleseed preceded them in a precarious trail to a different type of stardom. His historical marker, placed by the Allen County Historical Society in 1953, honors John Chapman for planting his first apple nursery on a half-acre of in Allen County, Ohio, in 1835. That was the beginning of his Johnny Appleseed trail. Although the actual gravesite has been lost, the end of his walking trail in 1774 is marked by a rock—more like a boulder—in a memorial park named for him in Leominster, Worcester County, Massachusetts.

Now, the first historical marker honoring southern writers has begun a new Happy Trails route. Eudora Welty (1909-2001), Pulitzer Prize winner with The Optimist’s Daughter claims this honor. The downtown library in Jackson, Mississippi, is named for Eudora Welty, but I believe this short-story writer and novelist would count that secondary to the new marker for happy trails of recognition for Mississippi writers on the Jackson property where she wrote her famed novel.

 

Happy reading trails begin for me at the city library

and end at home where I immerse myself in my favorite books.

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The Fugitive

An email from National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo) was a stark reminder that my first novel manuscript sleeping in my computer like Rip Van Winkle has many of the basics, but the reader wants action and a conclusion. That reminded me of the original The Fugitive TV series from 1963 to 1967.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

“That was just a TV show,” some say. To viewers, it was much more. Dr. Richard Kimball (David Janssen), convicted of killing his wife, Helen, escaped when the train carrying him to prison wrecked short of the destination. I watched those weekly episodes—Kimball’s unfruitful search for the one-armed man who knew the truth—while pursued by Lt. Phillip Gerard (Barry Morse) who was determined to put Kimball in prison. After a while, I lost interest. Not because there was no tension. It was there. Not because there was no action or emotion. They were there too. My interest waned when I realized the chase continued without a solution.

After four years, producer Leonard Goldberg realized the same thing. Solving the mystery would terminate the series, but the viewers wanted resolution. In years that followed, this pattern of conflict, tension, and resolution would become the basic for movies and TV shows.

Like Dr. Kimball in The Fugitive, I’m hiding while trying to solve a mystery.  The IRS is sending a constable to arrest me. Microsoft “technicians” are warning me that my computer has been hacked. The same voice leaves messages when I don’t answer a dozen unknown calls a day with warnings that I’m paying too much for health insurance.

But unlike the dramatic ending in the last episode of The Fugitive when the one-armed man was apprehended and Dr. Kimball was freed, even my long-time registration with the Do-Not-Call center brings no relief from my adversaries. I’m hiding from the robo-cops while I revise my crime fiction novel that began as a NanNoWriMo contest in a long-ago November while Detective Morgan Madrid of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office can bring closure to my story.

 

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Filed under Editing, Writing

Reach Out, Touch Base, Get Back, and Other Jargon

Remember when “get back” and “touch base” were part of most business conversations?  “I’ll get back to you as soon as I touch base with my supervisor.” What did that mean?

I don’t know. I have to ask my boss.

“I touched base with him last night at the Top of the Mark.”

We talked about business for five minutes so I can deduct it as an expense.

Thankfully, get back has moved out of the spotlight and touch base has hit its last inning and retired with put it on the back burner.

But “reach out,” the new kid on the block, is even more annoying. “I just wanted to reach out to you about a business opportunity.”

I need money for my new venture.

Or, “I’m reaching out to let you know that we were not able to gather the needed quantity of signatures to have that proposition added to the California election ballot.”

The people we hired to get the signatures didn’t do their jobs.

How about this one? “I’ll reach out to him as soon as I can.” This is a brother to back burner.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines reach as a noun. That resource also confirms out is an adverb. It means away from. So why do we say “I reached out to . . .” when we mean toward?

These phrases create a quandary for wordsmiths. I’ll get back to you after I touch base with a couple of other editors and reach out to my circle of grammarians.

 

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Filed under Editing, Rants and Raves, Writing

Shades of Gray

I dream in color. Only once did I dream in black and white. The absence of color jolted me awake. I don’t remember the dream—only the starkness.

I climbed out of bed and bolted to the bathroom mirror. All I saw was a disheveled white hair above snowflakes splattered across gray pajamas. What happened to color? Then I noticed the red drawstring. Whew! I returned to bed and snuggled under a purple rose patterned comforter with the assurance that the only place absent of color was my dream.

My mother’s hair was called jet black in the twentieth century. Following present writing trends, I would have to call it coal, ebony, jet, licorice, onyx, or raven. When it grayed then lightened in her advanced age, it was would have been designated as salt and pepper before it turned white. Today, a wordsmith might describe the silvery strands as argent.

I imaged blogging about my her hair or my black and white dream using synonyms. Licorice and lily or licorice and magnolia sounded like a southern writer’s work-in-progress title. Blending licorice and snow gave me shudders. I searched for wider options. Licorice and pearl? Nope. Coal and oyster? Ugh! Raven and milk. Definitely not. Ink and ice. Not so bad, but still nondescript compared to a color palette created from my HP printer in less time than trying to remember the drab dream.

Writing, like dreams, needs color. I experimented with azure, sapphire, cobalt, or indigo for shades of blue. I splashed crimson, scarlet, ruby, carmine, and magenta as stronger shades of red. I daubed flecks of gold, flaxen, lemon, and mustard for yellow. I skipped Princely Purple aka Ultra Violet (yes, it’s two words), Pantone’s color of the year.

CMYK printers diminish the value of black by designating it as K, supposedly for key color.  Digging for truth during the California political campaigns is a good time to advocate for writers to join me in a revolution to return to plain color names like red and blue and yellow. Writing advisors may tell me how to shape my novels, but like my dream, all blog posts can’t be CMYK, PMS, or RGB. Some words are like shades of gray paint—rich, warm, soft, airy, wispy, or charcoal. Other words must be bold statements in black and white.

 

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Filed under Blogging, Rants and Raves, Writing

Brussels Sprouts Duel

Brussels sprouts stumps me. Not what they are—I microwave the loose, fresh balls in a Pampered Chef steamer. A tip of the pan to drain the liquid through the perforated lid, a couple of grinds of Trader Joe’s Rainbow Peppercorns or sprinkles of dried Parmesan (don’t tell my cardiologist), and the sprouts go from microwave to the table in less than five minutes. The trouble came when the fresh, full stalks at Trader Joe’s beckoned me. I bought one without the slightest inkling of how to cook them in the natural state. At home, I left the stalk on the kitchen countertop and searched online for a recipe.

Most of the recipes capitalized the “B” in Brussels as though a proper noun like the city in Belgium where this vegetable was once said to originate. Microsoft Word spell check agreed with chefs—a red underline for any chef who dared spell the word with a lowercase “b.” I chose an easy oven recipe. While they cooked, I was plagued by the proper capitalization for the green knobs that dance in my head.

The green stalk waited while my inner editor led me to Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition. I hefted the 3-lb., 1144-page book to a comfortable reading level. A search of the 129-page index referenced Section 8.61. There it was—lowercased brussels sprouts. CMOS added a disclaimer,

Although some of the terms in this paragraph and the examples that follow are capitalized in Webster’s, Chicago prefers to lowercase them in their nonliteral use.

Merriam-Webster and Chicago Manual of Style duel over the use of capital B like Brussels, Belgium (literal), or lowercase “b” as in the vegetable (nonliteral). On my next grocery shopping trip, I skipped the sprouts and bought broccoli (lowercase “b”). It was great, ready in three minutes from the same Pampered Chef pan. And broccoli is packed with multiple vitamins that outduel the basic C and K in brussels sprouts.

P.S. Brussels sprouts, although a plural sound, takes a singular verb. That’s another editing puzzle.

Disclaimer: Neither Trader Joe’s nor Pampered Chef is aware of my blog unless an individual team member stumbles across it while searching for a recipe.

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Filed under Events, Publishing, Writing

On the Bench

A bench is defined as a long seat, a pew, or a worktable. It has a seat portion and may have a backrest. A pew, with or without arms, is a long bench with back support. A worktable is a surface to create or repair. When a person sits at a bench, the bench becomes a workstation. When a person sits on a bench, it’s a place of rest or time out. But when a judge sits on the bench, it means he’s been appointed to serve as a justice in a specific jurisdiction.

When bench shifts to an action verb, it takes on new meanings. If a player in sports has been benched, that means out of action from an accident, poor performance, or breaking the rules. Breaking the rules doesn’t disqualify a writer. That’s clear by reading bestselling novels. What about a writer who is out of action? If a physical time-out, the mind still churns with ideas for the next great novel. Benched for poor performance? That’s self-inflicted.

That happened to me. Writing blogs cure-alls said to take a break. If I can’t write, I am taking a break. Next, they suggested I sit in a quiet place to meditate and empty my thoughts. I tried that. My mind whirled with a to-do list. I moved on to writing prompts. “I’m sorry I missed our coffee date, but I . . .” That inspired several excuses but no story.

A second prompt, “You’re walking down a dark street when you realize you’re being followed. What do you do?” That produced a one-word story. Run! What if your assailant has a gun? I understand weapons, so that produced a longer narrative. Run faster.

I write short story memoirs. My kinfolk were farmhands—a few landowners, others paid laborers—until the mid-twentieth century. A few facts live on in marriage licenses, probates, real estate, and religious documents. Day-to-day survival crowded their lives with little time to leave a written legacy.  That provoked a question, “What would I write if I knew I only had a short time to live?”

I remember a conversation with my oldest sister after the oncologist numbered her days. When asked about her wishes for a memorial service, she said, “Skip the funeral. Go to lunch.”

Now there’s a writing prompt that moved me off the bench and back into action.

 

 

 

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Filed under Memoir, Writing