Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween Memories

For all the positives of country living, there is one thing that can be considered a negative at this time of the year, especially if you have children.

Trick-or-treating just isn't the same when the only houses you can go to are Nana's and Tia's.

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, I lived in a typical '70s-era neighborhood, where all the dads worked and all the moms stayed home. Everyone knew everyone on the block, even the grumpy old neighbor who didn't like kids and whose yard was a black hole for any ball or kite that happened to land in it (no one dared approach the gate to ask for them back, much less give in to the dares to just jump the fence and run like crazy.) The shopping center was a block away where we could spend our twenty-five cent allowances on candy at Winn's (think Walmart on a much, MUCH smaller scale) and roller skate and ride bikes and skateboards all over the parking lot on Sundays when everything was closed (except Furr's Cafeteria where the old folks went for lunch after church.)

Back then, Halloween was a big event, but unlike these days, it was a one-day event. Costumes and black and orange decorations and huge bags of candy would show up in stores around the first of October, but they were clearly meant to be purchased for use ONLY on the thirty-first. It didn't matter what day of the week Halloween fell on--THAT was the night for trick-or-treating. THAT was the day we wore costumes to school and took orange-frosted cupcakes (homemade, of course) to share with our classmates. Decorations went up on homes only a couple of days before Halloween, and they were mostly cardboard jack-o-lanterns, black cats, bats, and witches, with an occasional skeleton hanging from a tree (if you were lucky enough to have a tree in your front yard.) No giant inflatables of haunted castles or the grim reaper. If we did carve a pumpkin, we did it Halloween afternoon because our mothers wanted to cook it as soon as we blew out the candle in it that night (yes, pumpkins were considered food as well as decorations back then.)

Trick-or-treating was a group affair, mainly because our parents wouldn't let us wander around the neighborhood alone at night (even if we did it during the day.) Often a couple of dads would accompany the group, for the purpose of preventing older kids from scaring younger kids into giving up their candy and to keep control of excited kids who would dart into the street in the eager quest to get to the house with the "good" candy. "Taking candy from strangers" took on a whole new meaning for that one night. True, we knew all the neighbors, but for that one night, clad in masks and flapping costumes and approaching houses that were dark except for the porch light, the people we knew so well became strangers to us. Stories about razor blades in apples and well-intentioned warnings about tampered candy made everyone seem like a menace (especially grumpy neighbor who, inexplicably, turned his porch light on, but kept his gate closed.) Despite the fact that we knew exactly where every piece of candy came from, parents insisted on inspecting it and getting rid of homemade treats (even when they came from neighbors who routinely gave us cookies or who were parents of kids who attended school with us and made our school party treats.) Strangely, it was the one day of the year where we didn't feel completely safe in our own neighborhood... and that was what made it exciting.

Our kids got to trick-or-treat a few times, when they were younger and we lived in town. The difference was that the neighbors really WERE strangers and my sister-in-law and I often swapped out the collected candy for the candy we bought ourselves. Once we moved to the country, Halloween was celebrated with a party and a scary movie and more treats than the kids would have gotten from going door-to-door. The fact that we don't feel as safe as we used to in our own neighborhoods as we did when I was a kid seems to have robbed a lot of the Halloween fun I remember. Lots of the scary stories we told as kids now show up on nightly news casts.

I stopped getting excited about Halloween when things took a turn more toward horror than scary. Or maybe it was when the push to get Halloween on the shelves in stores in early September was almost as ridiculous as the push to get Christmas decorations out in October. Maybe it was more fun when we were only scared ONE night out of the whole year. Either way, I still treasure the memories of when I was a kid and Halloween was a lot of innocent fun.

Still love the colors of the season... especially in New Mexico!Image may contain: one or more people and indoor
Image may contain: one or more people and indoor

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Greatest Mystery Story of All Time (in my opinion!)

I often get asked about my favorite authors and books. Those can be hard questions to answer because I love many authors and their books. But the question, "What do you think is the greatest mystery ever written?" calls to my mind something that many people don't expect.

What do they expect? If they know my tastes in mystery novels, they're likely to name Agatha Christie. But which of her books? "Murder on the Orient Express"? "Ten Little Indians"? "The Mysterious Affair at Styles"? All stories that have a twist in solving the murder. All stories that exhibit a great deal of genius (though "Styles" made me want to throw the book across the room, yelling, "Not fair!") But neither of them are the mystery I consider the greatest one ever written.

The author? Roald Dahl. Yeah, THAT Roald Dahl, of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "James and the Giant Peach", "The BFG", etc. fame. And his story that I consider the greatest mystery ever written isn't even a novel. It's a short story that was initially rejected by The New Yorker but was eventually published by Harper's Magazine in 1953. It was adapted for an episode on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (which aired in 1958) and was one of only 17 episodes directed by Hitchcock himself.

The story is "Lamb to the Slaughter". If you haven't read it, find a copy and do so. You can find the TV adaptation on YouTube. How do I tell you about the story without giving it away? What makes it the greatest mystery ever written?

It's not really even a mystery, not if you follow the true definition of a mystery. There is no "whodunnit" in this story. The reader sees the entire murder play out in front of his or her eyes, from the murderer's point of view. The horror in the story is seeing the murder and knowing what everyone else in the story doesn't know. In a nutshell: a woman discovers her policeman husband is cheating on her. She kills him and gets away with it by having her husband's police officer co-workers destroy the evidence.

I could say so much more about the story but it is brilliant and should be enjoyed by reading it in its entirety. I first stumbled across the condensed version in a copy of Reader's Digest back in the '70s (thanks, Dad!) and read it again, years later. Was that the story that sparked my interest in writing mysteries? It certainly played a part, but it also gave me the despairing knowledge that I would never write the greatest mystery story of all time. Roald Dahl had beat me to it.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

So Where DO Those Story Ideas Come From?

It's probably the most commonly asked question of writers, especially fiction writers. It seems to many people that, judging from the mind-boggling number of novels that exist, that writers are a rare species who sprout story ideas from their brains the way chickens sprout feathers.

If anyone were to take a close look at the many books out there, it becomes clear that most of them are, essentially, telling the same story: guy meets gal, they fall in love and live happily ever after (or not.) Poor person wants to become rich and famous and succeeds (or not.) Hero/ine wants to save world from evil villain and succeeds (or not.) And so on. The details change, the setting changes, even the motivations change, but the essential story is the one that is retold over and over. So finding the story ideas isn't the problem. The challenge is in finding a new, engaging way of telling the story.

At a recent book event, the question was asked, again, about how authors find their stories. The person asking was a poet who was puzzled at the way fiction writers were able to create characters and tell their stories. I'm not sure if we answered her questions in a way that made sense--novelists often find themselves becoming more and more incoherent the more we try to explain the way we work. But it's like asking a poet where their verses come from.

They come from people. Good people, bad people, sad, happy, angry, all kinds of people. And how they feel. And what they do and think. What they want and how badly they want it. Whether it's poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, all stories and the ideas that inspire them come from people. It's the writer's job to record it all and tell the world about these people and events and the stories they have inspired.

Granted, not everyone has the interest or the ability or desire to write down stories. That's why not everyone is a writer. But everyone has a story and many times it's the same story that someone else has... it's just that the details are different.

It's the writer that takes that ordinary story and adds the words and details that make it special.

Monday, October 9, 2017

At the Other End of I-10

Sounds like a country song, doesn't it?

I have spent all but six months of my fifty years of my life living in the Southwest. In truth, the only time I ever visited the Deep South was when we boarded a cruise ship in Miami to go to Key West. With the exception of about eight hours in Key West, the majority of the time we spent was in airports. Not the best way to truly experience a new place.

When I met Mike Orenduff, he was a New Mexico mystery author, creator of Hubert Schuze of "The Pot Thief" mystery series fame and our connection was limited to being fellow authors of a fairly new sub-genre known as New Mexico mystery authors. Because of a twist of fate (or merely the fact that life goes on), Mike also became my mentor and my publisher. And life had also taken him and his wife, Lai, to Valdosta, Georgia where they decided to retire and, in Mike's case, open a combination coffee shop/bookstore/bed and breakfast inn in addition to his publishing duties.

As Mike has always been an enthusiastic supporter of my writing endeavors, when he became the publisher of my fifth book, he encouraged me to visit Valdosta and do a book signing. Because my husband and I are somewhat adventuresome and we like to experience as many new things as possible, we took him up on his offer.

Traveling east from El Paso had never extended further than Houston, Texas for us. This time, we landed in Panama City Beach, Florida and took to the road on Interstate 10 heading east. Instead of desert sand and cactus, we saw cotton fields and Spanish moss. The weather was warmer and far more humid. It was a far cry from the setting of my Black Horse Campground novels. Could I possibly interest people who were unfamiliar with the desert southwest in a story that was set in such an alien setting?

First, I had to convince them that there was more to New Mexico than "Breaking Bad" and Billy the Kid. I introduced them to pinon coffee and New Mexico wine. I offered them stories about people who are just normal every day people who happen to enjoy green chile with their meals rather than grits. And they were interested!

Despite all the so-called differences at the opposite ends of I-10, ultimately the stories that interest people are about people just like them. Even if they don't appreciate the merits of muscadine grapes. Or green chile.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Mysteries Abound!

Despite the fact that I've always wanted to be a writer and that I always knew that someday I would realize that dream, I've always been amazed at the fact that I became a writer. Not just a writer but, of all things, a writer of mysteries.

I never imagined myself to be organized enough to write a mystery.

One look at my desk--indeed, a look at my personal effects and life in general--organization seems to be the last thing I consider important. I'm often the writer who has to ask to borrow a pen in order to sign a book (yes, I have.)Yet, if you read a lot of mysteries, you'll find that one has to have some organizational skills in order to plan a perfect murder (on paper, of course!)

Mysteries always seemed so daunting to write, perhaps because some of the first few mysteries I ever read (back in my early teens) were Agatha Christie novels. Hercule Poirot, her fictional detective, was the epitome of organization, "order and method", as he was fond of saying. Only he could tie together such obscure clues as bottles of tanning lotion, a book on voodoo, the sound of a tub being emptied, and use split-second timing (and a tampered-with watch) to pull off a murder and almost unbreakable alibi ("Evil Under the Sun", in case you're wondering.) And to be able to line up the clues in such a way that they made perfect sense--well, to Poirot anyway--seemed to me a task suited only to a ultra-organized, super-intelligent writer. Not to me.

Of course, I realize now that writing  mystery does take some thought and preparation and it really isn't any harder to write than, say, a romance. In reality, almost every story, every novel, is a mystery.

The mystery may be as simple as "Who murdered the victim and why?" or "Will the lovers find each other and live happily ever after?" It may be as complex as "Will the evil genius's plan for taking over the world work and why does he want to do so?" or "Why does the  main character have so many issues with her mother/daughter/ex-husband and will they make peace and live reasonably happily ever after?" Even children's books have an element of mystery... "What DOES happen when you give a mouse a cookie?"

What it all boils down to is that the writer--whether mystery, romance, western, chick-lit, or whatever--has to make sure that the reader is satisfied (even if they're not particularly happy with the way the story turned out.) The story has to make sense, the characters' motivations have to be real (at least to the characters themselves), and the questions, the "why"s, have to be answered. We read to discover the solution to the mystery behind the story.

And we write because, at least in one facet of our lives, we like to know where everything is. Including a pen.

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