Saturday, March 31, 2012

Living in the Moment

            Grace Kimball, the main character in the mystery I’m writing, is having a few problems with “retirement issues.”  I thought this might be an age-worthy conflict for her because she just retired, and I have a group of friends who have asked questions about these issues over recent years.  When should I retire?  What should I do once retired?  How do I define my non-working life? Are there advantages to being retired?  It’s not an easy time.  And literally millions of baby boomers like me are retiring every day.

            I’m still working on the answers to those questions for myself, but I believe I have recently discovered one of those retirement advantages.  It crossed my mind when a former student who lives in Phoenix explained her philosophy of life.  She likes to “live in the moment.”  It seems to work for her because she is always very upbeat and positive and enjoys her life thoroughly.  Of course she is much younger than I am and not close to retirement.  But she seems to have grasped an essential of life that escaped me in my younger years.

            Looking back at my own life as well as those of my friends, I can’t help but wonder how we were supposed to do that.  I always had children to feed, laundry to do, papers to grade, school concerts to attend, golf tournaments for the boys, cheerleading for the girl, cupcakes for school birthday parties, and the list goes on and on.  Years went by fleetingly and disappeared as quickly as they began.  Right now the 70’s and 80’s are a total blur.  When exactly was I supposed to live in the moment?

            Now that I’m retired I wish I could have more closely examined those moments.  Perhaps it is never too late to learn.  So I’ve been doing that—savoring the moments. It appears to be working.

            Currently one of the children of friends back home in Illinois is visiting Phoenix with his wife. Over thirty-five quickly passing years I watched this visiting young man grow up next door, play baseball with my children in the backyard, and go off to college and an adult life of his own.  Our families were “back door neighbors” in a small town, and we shared a great many joys and sorrows.  One Christmas I sat across the table from this grown up child—with both our families present—and heard about all the things he and my older son did that I didn’t know about when they were in high school.  (I am told there is a statute of limitations on the escapades of those teenage years.)

So this evening we’re planning to go to Bell’ Italia Pizzeria, a very special place in south Phoenix.  Mario and Paola Caputo opened this amazing restaurant featuring Italian cuisine and wine, and their sons are part of the family endeavor.  I’ve taken five different groups of visiting friends from back home to this special place and the restaurant should be paying me a finder’s fee.  (I must remember to discuss that with Mario soon). 

            Now that I’m retired I can enjoy the wine and fine Italian cuisine tonight, laugh at the memories reinterpreted, and glance at each of the faces across the table, committing them to memory.  It’s time to practice this “living in the moment.”

Thursday, March 29, 2012

How to Join This Blog or Leave Comments About Posts

Several people have asked me how to join this blog or post a comment.  Here are directions for one or both.

First, to join and become a follower you need to have one of these accounts: Google email, Yahoo mail, AIM, or Netlog.  If you have, for example, a Google email or Yahoo email address, once you click on “Join this site” it will ask for your Google email or Yahoo email, etc.  Simply put it in and fill in the blanks and you not only join but you can also post comments.

To post comments with or without joining, you need one of those accounts.  It is very easy to set up a gmail account or a yahoo account.  Once done, you can click on the “Comments” link under the post you want to write about and it will ask you for your “profile.”  Your profile means your gmail address or yahoo address, etc. Plug that address in with the profile scroll down bar, write your comment, preview it, and then publish it. When you click on “publish,” it may ask you to identify two words in order to publish.  This is simply a means of avoiding spam on the account.  

Authors always like comments so please, comment away!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Great Gatsby Revisited

          Like many Americans I watched the PBS series Downton Abbey  with great fascination, and the new season will explore the Twenties, a time of flappers and liberation after WWI.  This Christmas that PBS series will be joined by the release of a new film version of The Great Gatsby, based on a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and published in 1925 by Scribner’s.  If you are a product of public education in America you probably read this—or the Cliffs Notes—in high school.  A classic novel with layers of meaning, The Great Gatsby is well worth an adult read because it beautifully describes the human yearning to make dreams come true, often at a terrible price.  And—bonus—it contains only nine compact and enchantingly written chapters.

          In his novel Fitzgerald attempted to answer two questions about the nature of humans:  Can you repeat the past? Can you plan and work hard—no matter what means you use—to make your dreams come true?  

          The very first time narrator Nick Carroway observes the mysterious Jay Gatsby, he actually sees a shadow, a silhouette of a man, arms stretched out in the darkness toward a green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock.  Beyond that dock live Daisy and her husband Tom, members of the inherited money class, careless people who smash their way through life with total ambivalence toward the feelings of others.  Nevertheless, Gatsby remembers Daisy as the golden girl, the love of his life when he first left for WWI.  Gatsby believes it is their destiny to be together.  Can they repeat the past and make life again contain the innocent love they once had?

          Piece by piece the truth of Gatsby’s background comes together in a story woven of fairy dust.  He came from nothing but had the enormous imagination to remake himself into a glamorous image of wealth in order to catch the attention of the enormously rich Daisy.  His will alone pushed him relentlessly on in his quest for his lost love.  In that plan he surrounded himself by the new rich of the Twenties, scandalous people who had been in prison, bootlegged alcohol, and killed people.  But they aided him in his climb to reach the rich, well-guarded plateau of the Buchanans.

          Only tragedy can result when he finally recaptures his love, but finds the past cannot be repeated, innocence cannot be regained, and, in the morally corrupt era of the Twenties, his endeavor comes at a terrible cost. Despite his heartbreaking ending, Fitzgerald fills his novel with rapturous descriptions of perfect love and wondrous dreams, two of the uplifting themes that define human yearning.

          Nick Carroway, in the end, is left to explain that America was the dream of the old sailors who first discovered her green, untouched location, and they realized that this New World could become a place of great hope and dreams.  By the Twenties, however, reality had changed that dream into a place of moral corruption and hopelessness beneath its Coney Island facade.  Gatsby too did not realize that sometimes the very best of human yearnings get smashed in the very worst of human nature.

          The Great Gatsby is a literary classic and, as such, causes the reader to think about his own time and the nature of humans no matter what the time period.   “Classic” means a reader also sees new ideas he didn’t discern with the first reading.  If you haven’t picked up a copy of Fitzgerald’s book lately, think about doing so. It’s well worth your time.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Lessons Stuck in My Head

             Why do the lessons your parents taught—good or bad—stick in your head forever? 
              I now live in Phoenix during the winter and Illinois the rest of the year. Driving on the Arizona freeway to meet someone, I muse about how my father would feel concerning my punctuality while in Arizona.  My dad was a stickler for being on time.  He always declared that it was downright rude to other people to be late, especially for appointments.  (Obviously, none of his children grew up to be doctors.)

  I must admit when I was late to my parent’s house I could always blame it on my children.  (One couldn’t find his belt or the other couldn’t get her earring in or his basketball practice ran late.)  But in the years prior to my father’s death, my excuses left home and I had a fifteen-mile commute to pick him up for dinner twice a week.  If I were late he would be in his driveway waiting, shaking his head, and tapping on his watch. To this day I have difficulty being late because I can see that picture in my head.

  Back in my small town of 10,000, my commute to work is five minutes.  The grocery store used to be two minutes until it closed, and now I have to drive five or six minutes to the other one.  The library is one mile away and the post office is about the same.  So imagine how hard it is to figure out "punctual" when you live in a spread-out city of one and half million people and continually drive on freeways.

  Yesterday I was going 70 mph when all three lanes of traffic came to a screeching halt, everything on my passenger seat hit the floor, and then we crawled for thirty minutes while I regained my breath.  “On time” was not even an issue.  "Alive" seemed like a better goal.  Early mornings I watch the traffic report and hear of  seventeen wrecks already before 9 a.m.  Often these mishaps close lanes or entire freeways for hours.  Yesterday a semi overturned on The 10 freeway and one of my children had a two-hour commute, double his usual time.  How does anyone get to work on time--or home for that matter?

  Tomorrow I have an appointment thirty minutes away in Gilbert.  So rain or shine; traffic fast, stopped or crawling; accidents or clear freeway, I will attempt to be on time in the Big City.  It’s either that or, once again, my guilty conscience will hear his voice in my head.

  I am thankful, Mom and Dad, that you tried so hard to teach me civility, but did your voices have to be so loud and persistent, even after death?                               

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Murder in a Small Town

          I have lived in a small town [population 9,900] for a little over forty years.  I’m used to people saying, “Oh, you’re from Illinois?  What part of Chicago?”  Despite this geographical impairment in peoples’ minds, a small, downstate town makes a great setting for a cozy mystery. Cozies are extremely popular and entire websites are dedicated to such books, often created in a series.  The small town atmosphere is perfect for the backdrop of a story where an amateur sleuth—usually a woman—is drawn into a murder.  Small towns have unique characteristics that add to the plot and atmosphere of such a genre.  Their geographical landmarks and histories are only two of these characteristics.

          Currently I’m working on a mystery and drawing on my experience of living in a small town.  Here’s an example:  Our small town, like many tiny places, has a square in the center with two main streets bisecting it.  One, of course, is Main Street and the other is Broadway.   Seriously, since I have lived in this town I’ve become quite aware that no one knows clearly how to maneuver through this square.  And it isn’t really a square—it’s a circle with two lanes.  So here is the way I used our square/circle in describing my imaginary town of Endurance:

The center of town with surrounding businesses and shops, the Square was more a circle than a square and no one knew exactly how to drive around it, so defensive driving was the local custom.  This was particularly true since Danny Walker, after a few beers at Patsy’s Pub, decided to cruise the square multiple times in the wrong direction, taking out a fire hydrant and two signs for the Little People’s Daycare Center and Bert’s Collision Shop (‘You Scratch It, We Patch It.’)  The only thing he appeared to have missed was the neon ‘Open’ sign for the Homestretch Funeral Home, but the hazy memory of seeing it go past several times probably contributed to his contrition once he sobered up.
          And Danny was apprehended quite quickly because his neighbors saw the crime and reported it, and he was a known quantity at the small town police department.  Believe me, this isn’t Los Angeles or New York.

          My mystery has a female sleuth who is drawn reluctantly into a murder.  She is not a detective or a crime solver by occupation; sometimes she is a book store owner, a teacher, a knitting club member, or a minister.  In my book, the main character is a high school teacher who has recently retired and  she is drawn into the first murder when she takes over the part-time newspaper job of a former colleague who is the victim of the murder.  She has friends and former students who help her in various situations as she is slowly pulled into a darker part of the town that she never knew existed.

          Lurking beneath the surface are old injuries, past grudges and grievances, and—of course—they often lead to murders most foul.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

From Creative Nonfiction to Fiction Writing: Torturing Characters

            Writing fiction can result in a strange intertwining of imagination and real life.

Many years ago a young woman from my home town died in a terrible fire.   I did not know her well, but was acquainted with her since her family went to my church.  The fire began in the night because of an electrical short and the entire house sustained terrible damage.  It was an off-campus college residence and she was the only fatality.   That incident has remained indelibly etched in my memory, perhaps because I was in high school, a time when the highs and lows of adolescence seem, well, much higher and much lower.  I felt such empathy for her family and the years they would have without her. 

             One of the maxims of beginning fiction writers like me is to write what you know.  Because I’ve lived in a small town all my life, all of the stories from my first book,  The Education of a Teacher, came from that small town.  The people were real, the stories were true.  The dialogue and choices about the arrangement of the plot were creative.  But always this book was mainly concerned with what actually happened in my teaching life.

 Now I move into fiction as I write my second book.

            Early in my teaching career, I taught a young woman who could not give a speech in front of an audience without sneezing, sometimes a hundred times.  She connected any kind of situation where she was the center of attention with a terrible experience that had happened to her when she was in elementary school.  A teacher had embarrassed her, unmercifully, in front of her peers.  Because of the way her brain processed that event, she believed that if she spoke in front of an audience she would be mortified, humiliated, and unable to proceed.  Perhaps because a sneeze was involved in the earlier incident, her body chose that reaction and it convinced teachers that she could not speak.  So they would give her a different assignment and call it a day.

That episode represented an extreme instance of an idea called perceptual constancy. If something happens to us—especially an emotionally terrifying event—we believe, under somewhat similar circumstances, that the result will be the same the second time.  The classic cliché is the example of a youngster who is afraid of dogs all her life because a dog bit her when she was young.

So, to repeat myself, writing fiction can result in a strange intertwining of imagination and real life.  The main character in my new novel, Grace Kimball, carries a terrible burden.  She survived such a fire in college and others did not.  Grace carries a physical reminder of that fire, a small, white scar on one of her hands.  Whenever she is feeling stressed or unsure of herself, she relives—in a dream—that terrible fire.  Any situation where fire is involved causes Grace to have both a strong physical and emotional reaction.

So, what is a good fiction author to do when it is her responsibility to put her main character through the grinder of stress, emotional terror, physical discomfort, and downright horror?   Hmmm… think I might need to have a fire in this book?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Book, I Can't Put You Down!

I’m always looking for books that are real page-turners—I can’t put them down. If you like this kind of book I recommend the thrillers of Thomas Perry, an author of twenty best-selling suspense novels, who spoke last week at The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale.

I read Perry’s The Butcher’s Boy, an Edgar Award winner and the first book of a series of three. The series is about a hired assassin who works under cover of darkness, kills his victim, and then receives a payoff.  In the first book he kills a senator from Colorado and must travel to Las Vegas to collect his fee.  Suddenly he becomes the hunted as his clients—organized crime bosses—turn against him. He is also just a step ahead of Elizabeth Waring, a young analyst for the Justice Department who is uncovering his tracks. The plot goes back and forth between the lives of these two—killer and tracker.  I was intrigued by the fact that Perry never gave a name to his assassin.  The climax provides one of those “stay up until three in the morning to see what happens” mornings.

Perry wrote two more books in this series, Sleeping Dogs (1992) and The Informant (2011.) In between he wrote a number of stand-alone thrillers.  Three years after he wrote Sleeping Dogs, he began a five-book series about a character named Jane Whitefield.

He spoke at the bookstore about the newest book in the Whitefield series, Poison Flower.  The Whitefield series had a five-book arc and Perry wrote them from 1995-1999, adding a sixth book, Runner (2009), and this latest book.

Perry was both charming and witty and recounted with great humor the decisions he has made while writing novels.  The new novel about Whitefield took shape in his mind when he was called for jury duty at a huge courthouse in Los Angeles.  Like most jury cattle calls, this one involved lots of sitting and waiting.  Perry began to wonder what would happen if someone broke out of the heavily guarded courthouse.  And that was the birth of Poison Flower

Jane Whitefield is a descendant of the Seneca Indians who lived in the western New York area where Perry grew up.  Perry’s brother, an anthropologist, helped the author with reading lists so he could capture the Seneca history of the region.  Jane Whitefield helps people disappear like a one-person protection agency.  When she helps an innocent man accused of his wife’s murder escape the LA courthouse, she is subsequently kidnapped, wounded, tortured, and chased across the country by both her kidnappers and the police.

Perry grew up in Tonawanda, New York, and received his BA from Cornell University and his Phd in English Literature from the University of Rochester.  Before he turned to writing novels he and his wife wrote and produced for television.  Shows to his credit include 21 Jump Street, Simon and Simon, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.   His website can be visited at   

Have you recently read a page-turning thriller?  Add a comment and recommend it!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Bizarre World of Television Commercials (Especially in an Election Year)

Television commercials.

 I realize they are necessary, but when I watch them I wonder, “Am I living in a bizarre universe or what?”

Since this is an endless presidential election year, commercials are already more irritating than usual.  I have always been curious about the efficacy of the negative commercials politicians put out no matter what their political persuasion.  Oops.  I need to qualify that sentence.  It is “other groups” that pay for those commercials, not the politicians themselves. The politicians know nothing about them.  Do these commercials, often full of factual errors and logical fallacies, really persuade viewers to vote or not vote for a particular politician?

I also am curious about the commercials that appear during the evening news.  I find it strange that most of the commercials are about drugs.  Do you?  These are the same drug companies who say they have to charge steep prices because so much of their budgets are tied up in research to develop additional new and expensive drugs. 

The actual content of various drug commercials takes me back to this question about the bizarre nature of the universe I inhabit.  I can understand the many benefits as outlined in their commercials:  no more erectile dysfunction, no more large animal sitting on your chest, no more smoking cigarettes, no more pain, and no more joint problems.  It all sounds wonderful until they mention the possible side effects:  blindness, heart attack, or possible sudden death.  Are these great deals or what? 

Fortunately, one problem with commercials HAS been fixed.   

Congress passed—did you read that—CONGRESS PASSED—a bill called the CALM Act. This stands for Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation.  Starting December 13, 2012, television stations and cable operators will bear the responsibility for keeping commercials at the same volume as the average volume of the programs around them. 

I was overjoyed when I read this and realized that perhaps something IS getting fixed these days.  Then I read the next sentence which mentioned that the FCC would like television viewers to let them know, after this law goes into effect, if there are any stations not adhering to this act.  The viewers will let them know where the “trouble areas” are.  I hope the FCC has an enormous switchboard and email inbox.

I can only think of two ways to escape this bizarre universe:  read a good book and put on some classical music, or take your chances and keep your finger on the “mute” button.

Does the world of television commercials strike you as bizarre?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Resources for Writers Are Only a Click Away

When I became a teacher years and years and years ago, I found that teachers were prodigious sharers and supporters.  Anytime I needed help with a lesson plan or advice about how to handle a difficult student, my colleagues were right there with solutions.  At first I went to those colleagues who had taught for many years.  Later I became one of those advice-givers.  So imagine my surprise in discovering that the same sense of support and collegiality occurs in the writing profession.  And the internet has changed the game rules so sharing is so much easier today.

When I first started using the internet back in the late 90’s, it resembled the wild, wild West. Nothing seemed connected and I found literally thousands of pages on disparate subjects. The internet wasn’t a resource that came to mind first when I was trying to find solutions.   After my browsing this morning, I believe the baby has grown up.

I clicked on one of my favorite blogs about writing:  “MysteryWriting Is Murder,” written by Elizabeth S. Craig.  Besides her new blog, Craig mentioned that she was a guest writer on Rachel Abbott’s blog,  "Rachel Abbott Writer." So I dutifully followed the link to Abbott’s blog and was rewarded with a wonderful gift:   “A Free Tool for Writers—the Writer’s Knowledge Base.”

If you are a published author, an aspiring writer, or a reader who wonders, “How did they do that?”—this search engine can help.  Ms. Craig, in partnership with another writer, Mike Fleming, has invented a wonderful search engine that helps writers find advice on thousands of topics.  I put in, “How do I write a better blog?” and 885 possible answers were available using the Writer’s Knowledge Base (A Search Engine for Writers.)

Unfortunately, if I read all 885 articles I won’t have time to blog.  But I bet some of them will help me.

How did this whole project begin?  Elizabeth Craig was looking for a way to bring together some of the best advice to help other authors.  Her search led to Mike Fleming, a writer and software developer, who has created Hiveword. Ms. Craig captures the content from the vast internet and Fleming hosts and organizes the nuts and bolts that allow authors to find the content via a word search on the Writer’sKnowledge Base.  This website also sends out a monthly newsletter with still more help for their fellow writers. 

Sharing and support:  not just for teachers anymore.

Have you found exceptionally helpful solutions to your questions on the internet?  If so, please share!

Monday, March 5, 2012

And So to Begin...

Eight years ago when my brother and I were clearing out our father’s possessions after his death, we came upon a stash of family treasures.  Besides keeping WWII love letters to our mother and various newspaper clippings about his children’s accomplishments, he had also saved a tattered, construction paper-covered book I had hand-written and illustrated when I was eight or nine.  The Mystery of the Golden Slippers—evidently a precious gem had been stolen and hidden in the toe of the titled ballet slippers.  Ouch.

I had forgotten my early, ambitious foray into writing a novel, just as I had failed to remember a neighborhood newspaper I had typed on an old typewriter using carbon paper to duplicate my words.  He had saved those too.  Perhaps he was trying to remind me that pencil lead and ink were in my blood.  He was usually right.

And so I am beginning this blog and I welcome everyone to read and comment on entries.  They will reflect my thoughts on my world, my small town, and my current novel.  The title of my blog comes from this thought:  She teaches, sews, reads, watches grandchildren, and loves movies.  Oh yes—and sometimes she writes.

The world of self-publishing is also a gold mine of topics.  I self-published The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks) in 2010 with iUniverse publishing.  It is a collection of creative nonfiction stories from my lengthy high school teaching career.  It sold well and is continuing to sell on major book store websites.  Teachers and future teachers have written their positive reactions about its inspirational nature and its realistic description of the teaching profession.  This book will always be special to me and it has its own website and Facebook page.  Its publication brought back emotions and memories and put me in contact with many people who had left my life and—because of my book—returned.

Over the last five years I have studied the publishing industry.  Since 2009, I have spent most of my year in Illinois and my winters in Arizona where I have often visited two independent bookstores, The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale and Changing Hands in Tempe.  Each store invites writers to discuss and sign their books, and I’ve listened to many authors, asked questions, and been inspired by their comments.  Changing Hands Bookstore and the South Mountain Community Library also sponsored a writing conference I attended recently that brought some of the best minds in publishing together to discuss their various specialties.   Then a year ago I joined Sisters in Crime (SinC), a web community of mystery writers, readers, agents, and publishers. 

In my new life as a retired teacher I am now shifting my focus to writing fiction, specifically cozy mysteries.

Please come along for the ride and check back for new blogs.  I’m changing the focus of my life from teaching in high school and college to writing fiction.  One of my favorite authors, Henry David Thoreau, decided to change his direction and leave the woods of Walden Pond because, well,  he had other lives to live.          Me too, Henry.