Wednesday, June 3, 2020

(Re)Calling Cait Morgan... by Cathy Ace

Q: Do you keep a “bible” for your series characters and stories? If so, what does it look like? What does it contain? Do you use a specific program or just Word or Excel files? What do you put in it, how detailed are you?

I do keep a bible, and I am so very glad of that. Otherwise I’d have found myself in a bit of a pickle earlier this year. Why? For the first time since 2016 I wrote a new Cait Morgan Mystery, and it’s amazing what you can forget in a few years, even about characters who are so real to you they might as well be good IRL friends.

Of course, as I sat down to write, I could “see" and "knew" Cait and Bud (Cait's husband) and even three of the other characters who feature in THE CORPSE WITH THE CRYSTAL SKULL (coming June 29th, folks!) because I had spent time with time before. But – and it’s a BIG but – there were some little knobbly bits of character detail that had slipped my mind, so I made a bee-line for my “old character notes” (in other words, the version I’d used in 2016 for The Corpse with the Ruby Lips).

I have details of the following for all my characters in each book (major and minor): physical characteristics; likes/dislikes/abilities/inabilities; food/drink likes and dislikes; professional and educational history including names of schools etc.; family/parents' names and backgrounds etc.; pets/habits; psychological profile notes; language quirks. 

The format for said “bible”? A rather hap-hazard word document that had grown with each of the previous eight books in the series, through which I had to trawl to be able to glean the details I needed. In this ninth book I have reintroduced characters who have had brief cameos in previous books, namely (and this is for those of you who have read said previous books) John and Sheila White, and Jack Silver. Each of those characters has received some slight mention of physical characteristics, and I have sought to either suggest - or have outright stated - at least a vignette of their "previous life" as well as their psychological profile on previous occasions, plus their relationships with Cait and Bud have been lightly sketched in. This book was my chance to develop the people and their backstories, but I had to get the basics right in the first place (whilst allowing for the passing of “book-time” for them).

Ironically, writing this blog post has reminded me that I now have to go back to my “bible” and update it – something I haven’t done yet…largely because I’ve been a bit distracted, and the focus I have managed to muster has gone on the writing, editing and promotion for the launch. But I’ll do it now. Promise 😊


If you'd like to meet ALL my characters - especially since I have this new Cait Morgan book coming out this it's a really good time to catch up on any Cait books you've missed! - then CLICK HERE - NOW!! 

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The River City Bible

Craft: Do you keep a “bible” for your series characters and stories? If so, what does it look like? What does it contain? Do you use a specific program or just Word or Excel files? What do you put in it, how detailed are you?

From Frank

I should. I really, really should.

My River City published "universe" is fairly expansive. There are six novels in the main series, as well as three more in the spin off Kopriva mystery series. My first co-authored work ever, Some Degree of Murder (with Colin Conway), is set in River City and features a number of prominent characters from the series.
On top of that, there are at least three dozen short stories that are set in River City. Some have "big" names in them, others are a vehicle for a minor character to get a moment in the sun. Some are only peripherally linked to any other element of the series while others are inextricably woven into the bigger storylines of the series. Most of these have found their way into one of three different collections.
These stories take place in-universe anywhere from 1992 to 2010, having been published anywhere between 2004 and 2020. So depending on the timeframe of a particular story, you might see a character at at various points in his/her story arc. That can get confusing, especially if you consider that the stories themselves may appear completely outside of the internal chronology of the series. The actual spiralling of a career might be featured in a 2004 story and the beginnings of that downfall only revealed in a 2020 novel. And before you ask - yes, I "knew" about almost all of these events way back when I wrote the first story. Sometimes I do discover new destinies within the River City framework, but some fates have been etched in stone since the very beginning.

A small, spoiler-filled example, you ask? No problem, but if you don't want any spoilers, then scroll forward to the next highlighted word.

Paul Hiero is a minor character in the main River City (RC) series, which is up to six novels now. He's a patrol officer who is on the same patrol team as main characters such as Katie MacLeod and Thomas Chisolm. He's pals with the brusque, unlikable womanizer James Kahn, also a minor player in the main series.

Here's a timeline of Hiero's published appearances:

2005 (set in late 2004/early 2005): In the short story "If Only" (appeared in Ascent Aspirations Magazine), we see Hiero on patrol, having an exchange with a prostitute with whom he's develeoped a rapport. In the course of the story, we see how dangerously close he is to stepping over the line of propriety, as well as a laundry list of all of the things that have gone bad in his life - betrayal, loss, and death.

2007 (set in summer 2002): In the short story "Running into Darkness," (appeared in the anthology Never Safe), we find out the details of one of the deaths that affect Hiero. He's on patrol, partnered with James Kahn. They try to stop a reckless driver, but the passenger bails out of the car and flees. Hiero pursues, eventually catches up to the Russian suspect, and promptly gets his ass kicked. As he limps back to the patrol car, he hears a shot. He finds a murdered Kahn bathed in the flashing blue and red lights.

Now we see part of the reason he is where he is in "If Only."

(The other side of this murder is related in "The Meatcutter's Wife", published in Mysterical-E in 2006. It's told from the point-of-view of a thug named Dominic Bracco, who takes on a murder-for-hire job. A cop named James Kahn is having an affair with another man's wife (the titular meatcutter), who hires Bracco to deal with it. Bracco subcontracts with a Russian named Valeriy Romanov, who is the leader of the most prominent Russian gang in River City. Thus, you learn that the murder of Kahn was an orchestrated assassination rather than a murder of happenstance.

Val, incidentally, is the main antagonist of the fourth River City novel, And Every Man Has to Die (set in 1998). In that book, he's not the main boss yet...but by the end, he certainly is. And as we see from "Running into Darkness" and "The Meat-cutter's Wife," he remains in charge six years later. That's a nice run.

As another aside, Dominic Bracco has a half dozen short stories of his own (collected together in Dead Even). One was even a Derringer finalist the year it was published. He also appears in the second Kopriva novel, Lovely, Dark, and Deep (set in 2006).

This Kahn/Val/Bracco connection and overlap is an example of how interwoven things can get in River City...

Okay, back to Paul Hiero).

2007-11 (set in 1995-98): Hiero has a minor role in RC books 2, 3, and 4, supporting the main storyline in small ways. His biggest scene is in Beneath a Weeping Sky (RC #3) when he serves as sniper coverage for Katie MacLeod as she plays decoy to the Rainy Day Rapist.

2012 (set in early 2005): In Some Degree of Murder, Hiero has a secondary (you could even argue tertiary) but pivotal role. The book follows Det. John Tower and mob enforcer Virgil Kelley as the men separately search for a murderer. Along the way, they both cross paths with many of the same people, including Hiero. We see that the potential danger of crossing the line is no longer - he's crossed it. He's involved with the same prostitute from "If Only." He ends up losing another fight and his gun to Virgil Kelley while poking around off duty in places he shouldn't be. Ultimately, he gets his gun back thanks to how events play out, but he's clearly still messed up.

As of this writing, this is the furthest point in Hiero's storyline - him in a world of hurt in the Spring of 2005.

2018 (set in 1999): In RC #5, The Menace of the Years, Hiero acts in a minor support role, same as in the other entries of the main series.

2020 (set in 2001):  Hiero gets a little more stage time in the sixth book, Place of Wrath and Tears (coming 8/12/2020! Pre-Order Now!). He is the sniper who is forced to pull the trigger on one of the suspects in an active shooter situation at a high school. The suspect is a teenager, and the event troubles Hiero deeply. It's something he can't shake and it wears on his resiliency. By the time we get to the events of "Running into Darkness" a year later, you could argue he's already primed to be fragile. Of course, you could also easily argue that his emotional reaction to both of these traumatic events has nothing to do with fragility and is entirely normal (I'd agree with you there, for what it's worth).

But here in 2020, we finally get the groundwork for what becomes a dark, spiraling out of control for Hiero...sixteen years after you got the first story about this precipitous fall. And in 2003, we'll see a further sign of this, when Hiero faces a difficult event under the strain of all he's been through, and fails horribly...but that's in Dirty Little Town (forthcoming).

To simplify matters, an in-universe chronology of Hiero's path would look like this:

1995-2000: Good cop on patrol, but friends with a boor.
2001: School shooting, emotional difficulty.
2001-02: Gets married. Struggles with PTSD but manages.
2002: Partner shot and killed while on patrol.
2003: Faced w/ sniper situation that goes terribly wrong (more stress). Bitter divorce.
2004:.Suffers from PTSD from multiple events. Engages in inappropriate relationship with a prostitute.
2005: Continuing relationship, getting more involved. Loses gun in off duty fight. Gun returned but admits that he doesn't know if he can pull out of the situation he's in.

Simple, huh?

Yeah, not really.

Now, keep in mind, this is a minor character in the main series. He's at best a secondary character in one book and has two short stories of his own. That's it. If I were to map out Officer Katie MacLeod (she's in at least 11 books and 3 dedicated short stories) in the same fashion, you'd still be reading this when Cathy's day comes around tomorrow (at which point I'd lose you to her far more interesting take).

So back to the original question of keeping a bible.

I wish I did.

I wish I had.

Right now, the official timeline is basically in my head. Ninety-eight percent of the time, I have no trouble keeping it straight. One percent only takes a quick bit of research to resolve. The final one percent, I cheat and retcon something to make it fit because I either blew it or decided to change directions. I figured one fix I have to make while I was doing some tabulating for this post! To be fair, we are talking about a journey that is sixteen years down the road now...

Given that,  the scope of the River City "universe" (it feels pretentious to use that word, hence the quotes, but I don't have a better one to encapsulate the concept...), I think readers would benefit from a quick reference document.

Some people have encouraged me to put something together for the website, and I think that's a good idea. Honestly, though, the time and effort to do that when I could be writing something new is a hard sell. I feel like it's probably a project for when I'm in a slump of some kind. Writing some "history" might be a way to break out of the slump while also serving a useful purpose.

The danger, of course, is having the tapestry of the River City meta story (does that phrase work better than 'universe?') be confusing to readers. To minimize this, I use dates a lot, and landmark or watershed events for reference, which I think helps. But I wouldn't blame someone for picking up the River City short story collection Dead Even or the first Kopriva novel Waist Deep and going, "Wait! Katie MacLeod's a detective now? I just read the latest book, and she's on patrol..."

(Spoiler: Katie MacLeod makes detective in 2002).

Man, I probably do need that bible, huh?


Blatant self-promotion this time is pretty much evident throughout...but my episode of A Grifter's Song, did just come out.

You can get Down Comes the Night by itself, or better yet, subscribe and get the whole season with stories from Eryk Pruitt, Asa Maria Bradley, Holly West, Eric Beetner, and Scott Eubanks as well as mine.

Not only does subscribing get you a break in price, but you get a subscriber-exclusive bonus episode. This season, it's one that turns a few things you thought you knew right on their head...

Speaking of which, I DO have a bible for this project, since it involves so many different authors. Maybe that's what I should've written about in this post. It honestly didn't occur to me until I looked at the date for this post and realized what my newest release would be.

Ah, well. Is anyone even reading this, anyway?

Monday, June 1, 2020

Getting to Know All About you

Q: Do you keep a “bible” for your series characters and stories? If so, what does it look like? What does it contain? Do you use a specific program or just Word or Excel files? What do you put in it, how detailed are you?

-from Susan

No, I don’t keep a record as extensive or authoritative as the term “bible” might imply. When I’m writing a book, I do keep a simple file of the names I’ve given characters, and their titles or company names since those determine their roles in the story. The main characters I know, but the secondary or passing characters aren’t as fully formed in my head, and I might be tempted to guess as I go along without the simple Word doc that I keep on the desktop for easy checking. 

With a series, I get to know my characters better as the story develops. It helps me to have a mental acquaintance with the lead characters before I write. I even occasionally think of an actor or actress whose looks I can visualize as like my characters’ face. I don’t need to think out in advance, as one writing teacher suggested in a class I once took, what food they like, what colors they prefer, etc. What I do need to become familiar with is how they will react in a situation, where their sympathies will lie, what their emotional and intellectual blind spots are. Those will drive plot, no matter what color shirts they’re wearing. And, while I know this may sound strange if you’re not already a seasoned writer, a lot of this they will tell me.

For my French series, I modeled the lead characters on two real friends, and some secondary characters on people I had met, of course stretched and reshaped into totally fictional inventions. That made not jut the characterizations, but the actions and reactions of the people in my little village easy to write, no reminder document needed.

I’m now writing a standalone with characters and a setting new to me. So, not only is my character name list longer, but I’m working hard to give them names that will help me get to know them better.  Because it’s set in the 1940s, I researched popular names for ones that resonate with the times and that call to mind a face, perhaps a character in a 1940s film. It was before my time, so I am dependent to a great extent on the arts of the 1940s for clues of all kinds. It’s kind of fun to be wandering around in the past, peeking into unfamiliar rooms!

For anyone just starting out, the core advice is your characters have to behave in a consistent way, based on their beliefs, upbringing, circumstances in life, and individual quirks. If a getting-to-know-you document and written description helps you get to that place, I hope you will use it so that when I read your published book I will buy into the story you have written for them.

Friday, May 29, 2020

It's a Hard Lock Life

"Describe your lockdown life. Has it had any unexpected sweet spots in it? And what are you most looking forward to doing again afterwards?”

By Abir

Friday again eh? I could have sworn it was Wednesday. 

Topic of the week is lockdown – specifically lockdown life. 

It's a Hard Lock Life for Us

I’m not going to lie, compared to millions of others, my lockdown life has been relatively easy. We’ve had no family members come down with the virus, not even my mum who a) thinks she’s invincible and b) being Indian doesn’t believe in the concept of personal space, let alone social distancing.

Rather than run through my daily routine though, cos it's dull, I’m going to simply give you some of the ways in which my life has changed.

1. I am a prisoner in my own home (other than when I’m not)

Right so my wife has decided, based on the flimsiest of evidence, that I am more at risk of getting the virus and dying than anyone else in the family. Why? Because:
 a) the virus is racist (it hates BAME people more than whitey);
 b) I’m no longer a spring chicken (I disagree); and 
 c) because getting ill and dying is just the sort of thing I’d do to upset her. 

I objected to the above and, it's fair to say we had a full and frank discussion and then she decided she was right. This means I’m not allowed to go to the shops other than the big Tesco, and then only by car, and only to pick up groceries which have been pre-ordered on line. I am supposed to wear a mask whenever I leave the house, but this has proved difficult because the first time I wore one my glasses steamed up and I almost crashed the car.

I’m also allowed to go to the park, but only under strict supervision. I used to look forward to these daily outings, but then the weather got warmer and my hay fever started and now I’m constantly sneezing and I don’t know if it’s covid or a cold or a reaction to the pollen and it's frankly easier just to sit at home.

What this means is that car journeys are precious – whether it’s to Tesco or, a once a week trip to the car wash  - the car is sparkling, by the way. It’s now covered in enough wax to make a dozen candles. It hasn’t needed a wash for over a month but I still go to get it cleaned, just to get out of the house.

A rather strange side effect has been that I now make an effort to look smart for these trips. I wear cologne to go to the supermarket (even though I don't even get out of the car) and even considered wearing a suit to the car wash last Wednesday. I’m not even making that up. 

That leads me on to my next observation:

I’m Buying more stuff

One of the curious things about lockdown is that my credit card bills had started to decrease in scale. I mean, they were still stupidly big, but suddenly less big than before, possibly because I was saving on travel costs and pretentious London restaurants where they charge you £100 just for the supercilious attitude (theirs, not mine). I was of course pleasantly surprised by this sudden upturn in my finances, and, for several moments contemplated a sun-lit, debt-free future. I then went online and proceeded to buy loads of crap from Apple and Amazon that I don’t need but which seem to fill some gaping hole in my spiritual and emotional existence which Covid seems to have caused. And indeed, for a few days, the new shiny things made everything feel better.

It’s not just the shiny things though. There’s the panic buying too. Remember back in March where we all thought we were about to run out of toilet paper? Well I didn’t panic. I just looked on smugly as the world went mad and shook my head at all the idiots out there. Then I went to the shop and couldn’t find any toilet paper. I came back home and after several stiff cups of tea to steady my nerves, I succumbed to peer pressure and went online and bought enough toilet roll for a family of ten. Most of it is still in storage. I'm using it to insulate my loft. 

I wish I could say that was the worst of it, but alas, it's not. In a moment of what I thought was sheer genius, I bought this:

Don't judge me

It’s a portable travel bidet. 

That’s right, you heard me. 


Don’t be fooled by the picture on the box. It’s not just for cleaning babies’ bottoms. It has an adult setting too. I’ve not used it, only read the instructions, but it’s comforting to know that should there be a second spike, me and my portable travel bidet will be ready for it.

Anything else I want to tell you? 


Spending time with the kids isn’t actually so bad

I’ll admit it. I was worried about spending quality time with the kids. Don’t judge me. You haven’t met my kids. Seriously, it’s like living with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

No. I’m joking. They're more mature than that, but I was worried about how home-schooling and all the extra changes to our schedules would affect my work routine. After a few dodgy weeks at the start of March though, things have been going pretty well. Luckily my wife is basically Superwoman. She educates them, entertains them, feeds them (and me), all while doing a full-time job, fielding work calls and Zoom meetings from the dining table. I’ve helped out a bit, mainly in the Nintendo department, educating my five year old in the intricacies of Super Mario and Luigi’s Mansion. I even bought the new game, Animal Crossing, which everyone under the age of 35 seems to be raving about. It sounded idyllic. You get to make a home on a desert island, spending your days fishing and building your dream home, but after playing it for a few days, I realised it was basically just an education in unfettered capitalism, where you, the player are in perpetual indentured servitude to a racoon-type character called Mr Nook. I’m not kidding. The only way to progress in the game is to take out bigger and bigger loans to buy more and more stuff so that you can show to other players on other islands.

Here, the tyrannical Mr. Nook presents you with your first itemised bill, and so the descent into hell begins.

I have banned the kids from playing it and we’ve all gone back to Super Mario, who as a plumber, I feel better represents my political philosophy (though I admit I have trouble with his infatuation for a character called Peach, who is a princess). This seems to be a betrayal of his working class roots and a significant setback in the class struggle, but hey, it’s lockdown. I’ll cut him a little slack.

Finally, Haircuts

So I finally took the plunge, bought a set of hair clippers and persuaded my wife to cut my hair. I was worried. After all, there are so many stories doing the rounds of wives who've cut their husbands ears off or chopped their heads off, while attempting a simple short back and sides. But the truth is, after watching a few youtube videos, she did a fantastic job, at least from the front. I can't see what she's done to the back.

My haircut: Before

And after

So I'm thinking, after lockdown is over, I'm never going back to the barbers again. That £7 a month saving is really going to come in handy in paying down my credit card.

Take care folks, and stay safe.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Sixty-seventeen Days of Quarantine from James W. Ziskin

"Describe your lockdown life. Has it had any unexpected sweet spots in it? And what are you most looking forward to doing again afterwards?”

From Jim

The origin of the word quarantine comes to us from the Italian peninsula, from Venice to be specific. The modern Standard Italian word is quarantena, which literally means "about forty." During the 14th century, it was used by the Venetians to define the number of days arriving ships were required to remain isolated before their crews and passengers could come ashore. Forty days. This period of isolation was prompted by the Black Death that ravaged Europe from 1347-1350, wiping out, according to new estimates, anywhere between one third and half of the population. The Venetian policy of quarantena mitigated the spread of the disease in that maritime republic. But remember that Italy was not unified as sovereign nation until 1861. Prior to that, the peninsula was a jigsaw puzzle of kingdoms, duchies, grand duchies, and republics. So Venice protected itself, while Messina in Sicily failed to quarantine ships arriving from plague-ravaged areas in the Near and Far East. Other European port cities suffered the same fate as Messina, and once the plague had taken hold, it spread rapidly throughout the continent through trade, mostly via merchant ships.

Today, quarantine has come to mean any period of isolation intended to prevent the spread of disease. It doesn't have to be forty days. In fact, my own isolation experience this year is approaching eighty days. And since this week's question is about our own lockdown lives, I think it's appropriate to borrow another word that is currently gaining traction in Italy.

Ottantena. Built on the same model as quarantena, it means "about eighty." But now Italians are using it to describe an eighty-day quarantine. I suppose novantena (ninety days) will be next. One shudders to think what the French would call an ottantena and novantena. Quatre-vingtaine (four twentyish) and quatre-vingt-dizaine (four twenty-tenish)?

I believe this partially answers the question of how I've been spending my time during the lockdown: thinking about etymology and marvelously complicated French numbers. Unlike the French, the Belgians and Swiss have simplified seventy through ninety-nine by adopting numbers derived from Latin roots, septante, huitante, and nonante (seventy, eighty, and ninety). while the French say quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (four twenties-nineteen) for ninety-nine, the Belgians and Swiss say nonante-neuf. Damn, I love language.

But enough of my musings on numbers and quarantines, I have experienced a few unexpected sweet spots in the past seventy-seven days. That's soixante-dix-sept (sixty-seventeen) if you live in France. Septante-sept if you live in Belgium or Switzerland. Sorry. I promise I'm done with the French numbers.

My biggest news over the past two and half months is that I found myself in a zone, writing-wise. In April, I wrote 30,000 words of my new novel. Then, in May, I really hit my stride, and have logged 69,000 words and counting. It's been the most productive period in my writing life. No other time comes close. I'm planning to finish the first draft by June 1. Of course, that's when the painstaking work of revision will begin. I typically do eight to ten new versions of a book.

This new novel, tentatively entitled Monsoon Summer, is a throwback thriller set in 1975 India, during the Emergency. Danny Jacobs, a young American journalist, arrives in Bombay for a new assignment and gets caught up in the chaos of the Emergency. His enigmatic expat neighbor, Willy Smets, is helpful and friendly. But Danny is smitten by Sushmita, Smets’s enchanting and clever Indian lover.

I describe it as Gatsby Meets Graham Greene on the Subcontinent. And, by the way, it is not an Ellie Stone book. If I can wrestle it into shape and--provided it isn't a boring hot mess--I hope to sell it before the next pandemic hits.

Stay safe and read more.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

My lockdown life

"Describe your lockdown life. Has it had any unexpected sweet spots in it? And what are you most looking forward to doing again afterwards?”

by Dietrich

Well, for a writer who sits at a desk at home and spends a lot of time in a make-believe world, not that much has changed on that note. Probably the greatest challenge these days is staying positive and keeping focused. 

Of course, outside of my little writing world, so much is different right now: no hugs, no handshakes, no contact. And praying for the health and safety of all those around us. Wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance is the order of the day. While many businesses are closed, the ones that aren’t generally require customers to stand in line on marked spots several feet from the next spot, all to get into a place that only allows a handful of people at a time.

What am I most looking forward to doing after lockdown? Well, I’m looking forward to hugs and handshakes, and no more masks and line-ups. Then I’d like to pick up on some travel plans that I was getting my head around before ‘lockdown.’ First off, I’d like to get in a fall trip down the coast to California, something that’s become an annual thing for my wife and me. I’m also looking forward to walking into some of my favorite indie book stores and sticking my nose into some new arrivals. And I’m sure looking forward to going on some very long walks. 

I had to pull the plug on a Noir at the Bar event here in Vancouver earlier this month. We had a great line-up set and everything was in place, and it was the first time that there hasn’t been a spring noir event in Vancouver in seven years. I do have a fall event in the works, and I’m certainly looking forward to that.

I’m also thinking of new ways to promote my upcoming book Cradle of the Deep, which comes out at the beginning of November. At this point I don’t know how much will be blog tour versus actual tour. I love taking part in book readings and events, so I’ve got my fingers crossed. If it isn’t possible, then I’ll have to find some different ways to promote it via social media, blogs, podcasts and through my website. 

Have there been some sweet spots? Well, I have found more time for reading (except for the news), and I’ve been listening to more Audiobooks. I’ve also caught up on a few series and some films I’ve wanted to watch.

So, while I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to keep writing through these times, it sure will be nice for all of us when times take a turn and this pandemic and lockdown are behind us.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Way Things Are

Terry here with a description of my lockdown life, and whether it has had any unexpected sweet spots in it… And what I am most looking forward to doing again afterwards.

I’ve always known I was a loner. Not to say I don’t love people, and love to be around them, but my go-to position has always been to be alone. I frequently go on long walks, and hardly ever go with anyone else. I hiked with a group for a few years, and that was fun, but I don’t mind a bit hiking/walking alone. I don’t mind going to a restaurant alone. I’m not sure I would like being totally alone in lockdown, but I have a husband and we have a student living with us.

Here's a photo I took on a recent walk:

I get up at the same time as I used to, around six o’clock, and follow the same pattern—tea, check emails, read the newspaper on-line, rant on Facebook, work out, then get down to whatever business I’ve organized. In that past that meant writing, but I have been too distracted to do much writing.

The biggest change in my routine is that I only go to the grocery store every two weeks or so. And when I do go, it takes two to three hours between buying the groceries and wiping them down with disinfectant. Of course now, we’re being told surfaces probably don’t hold the virus anyway, but I take the news with a skeptical eye. Better safe than sorry, and all that.

I don’t write nearly as much as usual because I feel restless and unmotivated. Fortunately, once I make myself sit down and work, I do get engaged. And I sigh for the poor, lonesome manuscript that I turned in to my agent at the end of February—just before everything fell apart.

Here's one thing I'm doing that I don't need much focus for: 

Cooking is not a problem. I’ve always liked to cook. So far, we haven’t gotten any take-out, although I’m thinking one day I might just have to get a little Thai food.. I heard that people should be getting take-out food to help restaurants, and I do want to help restaurants, so I donate to East Bay Feed ER, which supports 78 local restaurants and has served 22,000 meals to 18 care sites. It was founded in our area by author Ayelet Waldman and has been a great success.

Some things that seem to bother a lot of people don’t give me much trouble. Like hair! When my hair started sticking out at odd angles, I snipped off the odd angle parts—which worked okay. Now if I could just get my husband to let me snip off his growing mullet, I’d be set. On the other hand, there's the pedicure I need, but am not getting anytime soon. 

I do miss getting dressed up to go places, so I decided to dress up for Zoom meetings. And I miss hugging people. I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to do that again safely unless everyone is wearing Hazmat suits, which sort of defeats the purpose. Or if that elusive vaccine gets developed. I’m not holding my breath.

Dressed up to be in a play a few year ago. Yep, that's me.

As for unexpected sweet spots, for some reason my husband and I laugh a lot more now and are much kinder to each other. I think it’s because there’s no outside pressure to be anywhere on time, or to do anything on time. There’s no packing for trips (boo-hoo) or having to race to get somewhere, or trying to decide what restaurant to go to or if we want to go out.

Which is ironic, because what I most look forward to is travel. 

At the same time, I’m gearing for never being able to travel again. As people of “a certain age,” my husband and I know we are in the danger zone. The thought of getting on an airplane gives me the shivers. But it doesn’t mean we can’t go anywhere. We live in a gorgeous area, with shorelines and beaches and hills. And there are national parks within driving distance. Once we figure out where to stay that’s safe, we can at least travel around here.

In fact, we are thinking of driving to Los Angeles to visit our son and his girlfriend. They have had to be extra-careful because his girlfriend has health issues that put her at particular risk. Which means we can trust that we can be with them safely. More irony.

But the bottom line is that I have a good life, with a beautiful house, a lovely backyard, great hiking trails nearby and the San Francisco Bay to drive to and walk along the shoreline when I need to get out. I live among people who mostly take the virus seriously. And with the ability to see people on-line when I talk to them, the pain of being apart is lessened.

I trust that before too long I’ll be back to writing several hours a day. The way things are now is starting to seem normal. There’s no way to know what happens next…but then, there never has been.

Sunset in the Bahamas, where we were last fall, and were supposed to be in April. Peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Life in the Age of Covid

Describe your lockdown life. Has it had any unexpected sweet spots in it? And what are you most looking forward to doing again afterwards?

Brenda Chapman blogging today.

When Ottawa first closed down for the pandemic, we were still experiencing cold and snowy weather. Staying inside the house was not onerous since who wanted to be out in that dreary mess anyhow? My husband Ted and I hunkered down. Our two daughters wouldn’t let us do any grocery shopping because the virus was worse for older people and Ted has a condition that could spell trouble. The girls' partners and friends took alternate weeks filling our fridge. It was a time of deep unease.

Luckily, Ted and I are both self-motivated people. For the first six weeks at home, I'd spend the days writing, baking, cleaning, reading while Ted built stuff in his basement workshop. We'd meet in my office for happy hour every day around four o'clock for wine and music. Ted had taken to choosing three albums every morning from his music collection, all starting with a letter of the alphabet. A variation of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Malone series if you will. He'd post the day's selection on Facebook and friends made a game of guessing the next day's albums. Twenty-six days in and there was no sign of social distancing ending as we'd believed would happen. One day shortly after, the daily happy hour died a natural death.

Under the 'T'

The days flew by but they were also endless in a way hard to explain. I started to miss seeing people. There were the odd down days when the anxiety and terrible news got to me. Luckily, these days were few and far between and Ted and I always pulled each other up when we needed it the most.

Around week three, I learned how to operate Zoom and we began having meetings with friends and family. My book club has had two monthly meetings by video. The cold and snow continued to keep us indoors. By week six of social isolation, I'd had enough of relying on others for our food and set out to the store. I now make the trek once a week and this takes more organization than I'd like. The last few summers, I'd bike to the store every few days for food but now I take the car to load up with enough produce for an entire week. I've also discovered the joys of online shopping. Those first weeks, I had meat delivered from our local butcher. I also had (and still have) wine delivered from a winery in Niagara. I ordered books from an independent bookstore and had them dropped off at our front door.

Two weeks ago, the snow stopped for good, and last week not long after Mother's Day, temperatures climbed and garden centres opened. Since then, we've spent most of our days outside, getting the gardens ready, cleaning up the yard, having morning coffee on the deck. I've made several trips to buy plants, usually dissatisfied with the lack of choice but finding enough to keep me going. Our neighbors now visit but at a distance. We take turns in each other's yards, bringing our own drinks and lawn chairs. We discuss our gardens and what we're having for supper. My daughter drops by once or twice a week and we social distance in the back yard. I chat with my other daughter by phone and we've made plans to walk her dog. We don't feel so isolated even though we keep six feet apart from everybody.

Life has gotten very simple.

When this isolation phase is over, the things I'm going to most enjoy doing include hugging my daughters and their families and my friends. It'll be so good not to have to keep apart. I'll also like shopping without worrying about staying away from people or taking too long to make selections. I also look forward to eating supper in a restaurant, sharing a meal with friends, walking to our local pub to sit in the sun on the rooftop patio.

Our curling season was cut short and we're hoping to be back on the ice in the fall although this seems doubtful. Our daughters curl competitively and we often go to watch them in different cities and towns or on television throughout the winter. I usually follow baseball and golf so it'll be great when these are back. Travel is something else I'm looking forward to resuming. We had a month-long trip to France lined up that I've postponed a year and hope it's safe by then. If not, we'll wait until it is.This September, if we can travel within the province, we'll drive to Niagara to visit friends.

As for the book events, I virtually launched Closing Time in March but was unable to attend any signings or events so I'll be happy when I'm able to do some publicity and meet readers. While it'll be too late to hold a physical launch, the band I had lined up wants to have a party and I know it won't take much arm-twisting to get out a crowd. 

I suppose the biggest take away from this time of Covid-19 is how much we take for granted in our everyday lives -- our health, the ability to go where we like, the opportunities to get together with family and friends. The pandemic has also brought out a greater sense of community and a deeper respect and gratitude for front line workers, many of whom are putting their own lives in danger to care for the sick and dying. It's also helped to ease pollution as factories shut down and fewer of us are driving or taking transit. The number of people out walking and riding their bikes is unprecedented. Kids are spending more quality time with their parents and dogs are being walked more than ever before. Neighbors are checking in on neighbors and people are making a point of saying hello to strangers who might be spending this time alone.

We truly are all in this together even though we have to stay six feet apart ... for now. Yet I long for the day when a vaccine is readily available and hugging is back on the table.


Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, May 22, 2020

I’ve Still Never Seen the End of Gravity’s Rainbow

Do you finish every book you start? Why (not)? And how do you decide when to give up?

by Paul D. Marks


And ditto for movies.

I used to feel not only compelled but obligated to finish any book I started. (Okay, a little compulsive I know.) But as I’ve gotten older that just doesn’t work anymore. Life is too short. There’s too many books and too little time. I won’t even say there’s too many good books, because I won’t claim that every book I finish—and even like—is a “good” book. It might just be something I enjoy. A guilty pleasure.

I read a variety of things, non-fiction and fiction and various genres within that. These days I don’t often read a non-fiction book cover to cover like I used to. I bounce around, sometimes looking at the table of contents or the index for subjects I might find particularly interesting. And sometimes I just open to a page and start reading.

Fiction is, of course, different. You really have to read it from head to tail if you want to get the full flavor and depth of it. I’ll usually give a book about 80-100 pages. But I have to admit that I might read beyond that even if I’m not enjoying the book because hope springs eternal. And I guess I still have that expectation that it will get better. Unfortunately on some books I’ll read all 400 pages until hope turns to despair.

For movies I’ll give them about a half hour. That should take me to the end of Act I, give or take. If it doesn’t grab me by then: Hasta la vista, baby.

However, when I’ve been a judge for various competitions I have felt obligated to read every story from stem to stern. And I’ve pretty much succeeded at that, though it can be extremely time-consuming. But I have to admit there was one contest story that I just couldn’t finish. Because it wasn’t a “story” but more of a political diatribe disguised as a story and the characters were just mouthpieces for the author. But one clunker out of the tons I’ve read for various contests isn’t a bad batting average.

There is one very well-known book that I have still been unable to finish. Three times. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I really want to read this book and I really want to like it. But I can’t seem to get past page 100. But maybe the fourth time (if there is one) will be the charm. Or maybe I should just read Gravity’s Rambo instead (and no, I didn’t make up that cover).

Sometimes I’ve started a book and for one reason or another just couldn’t get into it. Picked it up later and wow, what have I been missing.

A book doesn’t have to be a fast-paced rip-roaring page turner either. One of my favorite books is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, about a soldier who is stationed at a remote outpost and spends his life hoping and waiting for the glory of battle. Though that’s really just what it’s about on the surface. Now, I admit this book is a slow read, so you’d think I would have stopped at some point. But I just loved it and it’s well worth the slowness in my opinion.

On another note, I don’t always finish novels or stories I start writing, but I guess that’s for another time.


And now for the usual BSP:

My short story "Fade-Out On Bunker Hill" came in 2nd place in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Poll. In lieu of the pre-Edgars cocktail party, we had a virtual awards ceremony. You can see the whole thing (including my bookshelves) on YouTube. I want to thank Janet Hutchings and Jackie Sherbow of Ellery Queen and, of course, everyone who voted for it!

I'm very happy to see that LA Jazz Scene features an excerpt from The Blues Don't Care on their current home page. Check it out if you have a minute.

The book drops June 1st and can be ordered at Down & Out Books, Amazon, B&N, iTunes and other places.  And I'm also running a GoodReads Giveaway. Enter to win 1 of 5 signed print copies.

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