The (Endless) Circle of Life – And Writing

In the past week, I’ve been reminded multiple times of just how life keeps going forward regardless of what we, individually, happen to think. The first reminder came when my brother-in-law’s father passed away quite unexpectedly. It’s terrible to lose a loved one, and worse at this chaotic time of year. I offered our family’s love and support and asked him what he needed. He said something to the effect that his world had become frozen and he hadn’t really had time to figure out what the next step was. I know that feeling. I know it well. I felt exactly the same way when my own dad passed away about eight years ago.

I sat in the house with my dad’s empty shell of a body, waiting for the men from the funeral home to arrive in the worst snow storm of the year. I was there for nearly 10 hours, but I wasn’t even aware of the passing of time, and in the days that followed, time somehow became irrelevant. Those things that had all seemed so important just moments before I got the call from the sheriff suddenly lost all meaning and value.

But the world did not stop spinning on its axis, the universe didn’t freeze and wait for me to be functional. It kept going just as it had before. At the same time that I was experiencing life in a jar of molasses, other people experienced things spinning nearly out of control. My need to take time off to attend to family matters meant added stress and frustration for the instructors who had to pick up and teach my classes. My slow swim through grief made me feel as if time were crawling past, but as my dad passed away just before Christmas, there was a sense of last-minute urgency among other family and friends to make sure the holidays were as enjoyable as possible.sad-christmas-treeAs a writer, these lessons have value beyond just being potential fodder for stories. Life is what happens within a story. No matter what happens to a character, the world continues moving forward at a consistent rate. As the character’s world slows down or speeds up, the universe keeps doing what it has always done, and what it always will do. This consistent thread within the tapestry of a plot is sometimes subtle, and sometimes more obvious, but it is always present. It acts upon the character, and in turn, the character reacts – time feels as if it’s fluctuating to the character, but the universe remains the same.

New babies are born even as beloved family members are taken from us. Grief subsides eventually and we get back to the tasks that were once critical, then became trivial. We feel time return to its regular pacing, not because time changed, but because we did. It is a strange phenomenon (as if any phenomenon is not strange?), our experience of time, and of life, changes based upon what happens around us and to us. But life doesn’t change. This same cycle has been happening since we emerged from the primordial ooze.

Primordial-oozeStrangely, the writing process is very similar – things go along at a “normal” pace, then there is interference that slows me down, and deadlines that speed things up, and as one story comes to a close, another one is finding life. Sometimes I marvel at art imitating life, but it all seems to work in some great, universal synchronicity. So before I start singing the opening song from The Lion King, I think I’ll slow down, call it a day, and wait to see what there is to surprise me tomorrow,

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Zounds!

The partial Shakespearean quote reads: “Zounds, I was never so bethumped by words . . .” Perhaps a bit out of context, but I am very clear on the concept. I need to clarify first that this isn’t a complaint by any means! I don’t know when I’ve been happier, and a good deal of that is due to the fact that I am – indeed – bethumped by words.

I’ve just finished the final, final revisions (at least on my part) for my young adult novel THE DEEPEST BLUE which will come on in October of this year. Right there, I’m a pretty happy camper. deepestblue

This book has been a long time coming, and I don’t mean the publishing process (though certainly, there is a little bit of that involved). I started this book in 2006, and early into the first draft, my dad passed away. The scene I was writing at the time had to do with the main character losing his own dad, and that just became too much for me to contend with.  At the same time, I was struggling with my own beliefs in my writing ability, and for a variety of reasons, it was easy for me to put this book, and all my writing, on a shelf. That shelf turned out to be pretty big. In fact, it lasted almost three years.  I’ll save part of this story for another post, but suffice to say that I took a renewed interest in it, sent it out, collected a lot of rejections, and ultimately in December of 2011, it sold to a wonderful publisher.

A few months ago, not sure what my employment status was going to be, I took a work for hire project. My job is to write the last three books in a nine-book series about a former secret agent type guy (sort of like Jason Bourne, only my character is a pretty upstanding guy who hates killing unless there is no other alternative). I am having an absolute blast with this project, and the first book is now almost 70,000 words long. I’m becoming a faster, more efficient writer because of this project. The edits from THE DEEPEST BLUE are informing my writing on this project, and overall, it has been a very meaningful addition to my writing life. The deadlines are rigid, and it forces me to write almost every day to stay on top of my work load. It also forces me to balance my life between a full-time job, my writing projects, and my family. The level of growth I’ve experienced is profound, and I’m grateful to the publishers for granting me the opportunity.

Now another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. My young adult novel, DEATH’S KISS, has sold to another publisher and I will begin working on those revisions within a few weeks. The publisher wants to release this book in September of this year, so I will have two books coming out within a month of each other. Those revisions will take place while I work on the second and third books in my work for hire project.

And the point to all of this is that, with limited exception, this is exactly how I’ve wanted my life to be for more than 15 years. Now I am here. Now it is happening. There is little to my life that I would change, but believe me, I understand the risks. I also know how very fortunate I am, but I know how hard I’ve worked for this as well. I’ve had a lot of support from friends and family, but I was the one who had to sit down at the keyboard and spill my brains through my fingers.  My life is bethumped by words, and that is exactly how I want it to be until I fall over dead at my keyboard, nose on the F key.

Matters of Research

My partner posted a blog about his research into the world of kink which came in handy during the time we wrote Beautiful Monster. I did my own research into this, though not to the extent he did, and I researched other topics as well.

Initially I thought this book would be about a young woman who developed Stockholm Syndrome, so I had been looking into the theories behind that unique psychological phenomenon. It was fascinating to learn how the human mind bends itself to conform to a belief structure that is so counter to what it would normally be. One of the shining examples of Stockholm Syndrome is the case of the Patty Hearst kidnapping in 1974. For those unfamiliar with the story, Patty Hearst was the young heiress to the great William Randolph Hearst estate. WR Hearst made his money in media – primarily newspapers. His great-granddaughter was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a revolutionary group seeking equality for people of color, but best known for bank robbing and two murders. Patty was brainwashed and became an active member of the SLA, even holding up banks while wielding a gun. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am fascinated by how someone can endure such a trauma as being kidnapped and threatened (and sexually assaulted by her captors), and then chose to become an active – even eager – participant in their cause. Even after she was arrested, Ms. Hearst continued to call her captors her brothers and sisters, and wished them all well.

So why, then, don’t all victims of kidnapping or hostage situations develop this condition? This is what fascinates me most. Psychologists and psychiatrists haven’t reached universal agreement on this, but many believe it has to do with the individual’s beliefs about survival. For example, Patty Hearst ultimately believed that her best chance at survival was to become one of the SLA members, to show sympathy to them and to take shelter within the group. Her mind allowed her to see these people as her equals, her companions, and even her friends despite the horrific things that had been done to her.  But in other cases, victims believe that their best chance at survival is themselves. There are many stories where crime victims play along with their tormentors until an opportunity presents itself to break away and get help. Many of the survivors of the prisoner of war camps in both WWII and Vietnam mastered these skills, letting their captors believe they’d been broken while at the same time never giving up hope that they could find a means of escape or rescue.

It’s this second group that I patterned my character Brenna on. She plays along, pretending to be in love, pretending to enjoy the abuse she endures, and all the while, she is looking for her way out. She tries multiple times to get help, to escape, and she never gives up the belief that she can get away from the man who is tormenting her.

Another bit of research that both Jared and I had to do concerned the way a dead body decays. As gruesome as this sounds, it was actually kind of fascinating. Lucky for me, I have a friend who is a licensed mortician and he knows all about this stuff! On a humorous side note, he is also a licensed massage therapist, and one of the best! We consulted my friend about what happens to a body after it’s dead. We asked questions about the manner of death, and what would happen if the body was wrapped in, say, plastic sheeting. My friend, Todd, gave us thorough and helpful information so that those scenes requiring such detail would be accurate and believable.

 

Over the years, I have done tons of research on a variety of topics (ask me about Napoleon, for instance). I remember reading Anne Lamotte’s Bird by Bird and seeing where she did so much quality research on gardening and plants for one of her books that people believed she was a gardener and began giving her things she could grow. Everything would die within weeks because she couldn’t even remember to water the plants!

Good research adds depth and truth to fiction. It helps to bring characters, scenes, and settings to life. Even with the best imagination and a vast knowledge of things, no one writer can know everything about everything in each book he or she writes. Research is a crucial aspect of a story for me, even if it only takes five minutes to do. That five minutes could mean the difference between a reader dismissing me for having made a big mistake, or a reader sinking that much deeper into the world that I’ve created. That’s a valuable investment of my time, and the best part is, I like doing it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Dog

I had to have my puppy Luke put to sleep on Friday.  Okay – he wasn’t so much a “puppy” – he was 12 years old – but he was my baby, my sweet boy.  I miss him terribly. My house feels so empty without him coming to the door to meet me, or lying under my desk while I  write.

Animals have always played an important role in my life.  I’ve always had a cat or two (or nine – when I was married to my ex).  When I married my husband, not only did I have an instant family, but it came with a dog – a pure-bred Siberian Husky named “Thunder Paws’ Teton Sunset”.  We just called her Tasha. She was a sweet thing with a ferocious-sounding bark.  She wouldn’t hurt a flea.  She lived to be 14 before liver cancer took her.  We were devastated.  My husband wouldn’t even consider getting another dog for months.

Then one day my mom called.  “I think I found your new dog,” she said.

“I didn’t know I was looking for one,” I said.

A lady at Mom’s church had inherited a dog from her grandson when he moved out of state.  She loved the dog, but she discovered after he moved in with her that she was allergic to him.  He had to live outside 24/7, and he was getting pretty depressed about it.  I agreed to just go meet the dog, figuring I could use the “He’s too big” or “I don’t think he’ll get along in our family” or any one of a million other excuses to avoid coming home with a dog.

The lady escorted me to the back yard and introduced me to Luke.  His tail didn’t just wag, it went around in circles like a propeller.  We played fetch for a while, then I squatted down next to him to give him a few scruffles.  He sat right in front of me, rested his head on my chest, and I instantly fell in love.  I loaded a 50 pound bag of dog food, three chewed-up tennis balls, a red leash, and a stainless steel dog dish into my van.  I didn’t have to load Luke.  The minute I opened the door, he jumped in and made himself to home in the passenger’s seat.  I think the lady I was getting him from was a little sad that he was so eager to go.

My hubby was not too thrilled to discover a new dog in the house when he got home from work that day.  It took all of about 24 hours for Luke to win him over.  The kids were ecstatic to have a new dog, especially one who played fetch for hours on end. They fought over who would get to take him for walks or give him a treat.

I was in the middle of getting my Masters degree when Luke moved in.  He would sit by my side as read book after book.  He would curl up under my desk and keep my feet warm as I wrote papers and worked on my novel.  One of the books I have in progress features a dog like Luke as a main character.  He became as much a family member as any of the humans in our house. 

But he began to develop some health problems.  After we’d had him about a year, he developed a seizure disorder and had to be on Phenobarbitol to help keep them under control.  About three years ago, he had an intestinal blockage that required surgery (he had swallowed a corn cob without chewing it up first).  Then two years ago, he developed Auto-Immune Hemalitic Anemia.  His white blood cells began attacking his red blood cells for no reason.  He went through three blood transfusions, and he spent almost two weeks in the vet clinic. He was put on Prednisone to treat that, and Prevacid to protect his stomach against ulcers.  All of this combined led to his kidneys losing their ability to remove toxins from his body, and ultimately to fail.

One of the wonderful things about dogs is their ability to live in the moment.  They don’t care what you did or said last week. They don’t worry about an hour from now or next month.  All a dog cares about is what is happening right this second, or maybe what you’ll do next.  Dogs show emotion without apologizing for it.  Dogs don’t play mind games, they don’t behave in snarky, back-stabbing ways, and they don’t put up pretenses.  They just are. They can be neurotic, just like people, but unlike people, they love unconditionally until you give them a reason not to.

At some point, our family will adopt another dog.  We’ve talked in the past about visiting the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (http://www.bestfriends.org/)  to adopt an abandoned dog or mistreated dog.  But it’s going to be a while.  We are still grieving the loss of Luke. The universe gave us one of the best friends we’ve ever had, and I trust that we’ll make that same connection again.

I can’t imagine living in a house without the power of Dog in it.

Color Me Disbelieving

I’m an NPR junkie. It’s on in my car all day and I often listen on-line at work.  The reporting is thorough, but I appreciate the unique stories that they cover. As I was driving in to work this morning, I listened with a mixture of emotions to a story out of Poland. The condensed version goes like this:

Five men stole the sign that hung above the entry gate at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. 

The sign translates into “Work Makes You Free” – which was supposed to reassure those entering these gates that, with hard work, their freedom could be attained. More than four million men, women, and children died inside these gates.  It is hallowed ground. And five men saw a profit in that sign, so they stole it, cut it into three pieces (one word each), and made plans to sell it off.

I’m trying to wrap my mind around this idea.  I’m trying to understand what could motivate someone – well, five someones – into thinking that this was a brilliant plan. Did they think no one would notice? Did they think that in selling off the pieces, no one would wonder where they came from? This is nothing less than the desecration of a sacred site in my eyes. What type of person conceives of a plan to desecrate a grave and profit by it?

I know – it happens all the time.  In the Western United States, white men have been plundering the burial sites of Ancestral Natives for generations.  Recently in Southern Utah, a group of men and women were found guilty of stealing artifacts from public and Native-owned lands and selling them for personal gain.  These folks I can almost understand. Native artifacts are interesting and mysterious.  They carry the history of lost peoples and spiritual connections between these ancient cultures and the places where they lived.

But these guys in Poland border on evil in my book. Evil. I’m ranting a bit – not that this is anything new – but how could anyone – ANYONE – think that taking that they had a right to take that sign? How could anyone think that their needs outweighed the value of leaving that historical artifact intact? The hurt in my heart is stunning. We are losing our veterans and the survivors of that horrible moment in history. It has been almost 70 years since the camps were liberated and the truth of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” became clear to the world.  Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka

these sites must be preserved, remembered, and venerated so that future generations will not allow this type of thing to occur again.

I’m not certain what the appropriate punishment for the five thieves might be.  Perhaps time volunteering at the Auschwitz museum would help them to better understand the gravity of their choices.  Then again, a lesson such as that may be lost on a mind that can conceive of this as a way to make money.

Color me disbelieving.

And saddened.

Birthdays . . .

It used to be that birthdays were a monumental event in my family.  Every member of our family was treated royally on the day of his or her birth.  Birthday parties were epic.  For example, on my ninth birthday, my dad hired Butch and Cookie, the chimpanzees from the local zoo (and their keeper) to entertain at my circus-themed party. I had a brand-new dress that was velvet and chiffon that I was dying to wear. Dad took tons of pictures – something which at the time drove me crazy, but today I’m so grateful for.

For my 17th birthday, eight of my best friends were treated to dinner and a night at the local dance club. When I turned 21, it was a ladies’ luncheon at the Cottonwood Country Club with entertainment provided by a singing telegram messenger and a male belly dancer.

My dad believed that the day of your birth was a day for celebration.  He was a larger-than-life guy, and he liked larger-than-life parties. That’s one of the things my dad was so good at – making those around him feel extra special, especially on the one day of the year that mattered most.

My dad died just two days after my birthday in 2006.  My birthdays haven’t been the same the last few years.  That’s not to say that my family isn’t good to me – they most certainly are.  We had a great dinner, then drove downtown to see the lights on Temple Square.

I got a gift certificate for a massage and a Jim Shore Santa from my mom,  beautiful hand-made jewelry from my sister, cozy wool socks from my mother- and sister-in-law, a lovely sweater from my niece, and my youngest daughter drew a picture of a dragonfly for me (I would post it, but she said it isn’t done yet).

My Face Book friends (and members of my family who live far away) flooded my page with good wishes, and my coworkers signed a card and gave me chocolate. 

But my birthday feels empty without my dad.  I don’t mean to say that all of the above isn’t important and wonderful – it truly is – but my birthday is now linked to the loss of my dad, and I can’t break that bond in my mind.

Three years ago, my dad called me in the morning as I was getting ready for work to sing Happy Birthday to me in his terrible falsetto.  Even thinking of it now makes me smile. “When can we go celebrate?” he asked.

“Whenever you want to, Pop,” I said. 

“Maybe dinner tomorrow night?”

“Sure,” said, fully knowing he wasn’t feeling well.  “Let’s go to Cinegrill.”

“Garlic bread; yeah!”

The next day he called to say he didn’t think he was up for dinner that night.

“Okay,” I said. “Maybe tomorrow night?”

“Okay, honey.  I’ll call you in the morning.”

On Saturday morning, he wasn’t feeling better.  “How about Sunday brunch?” he said.

“Whatever you want, Pop.”

“Well, it’s your birthday.  It’s whatever you want.”

We agreed to brunch the next morning.  Around 5:00 in the evening, he called back. I was wrapping Christmas gifts and trying to get ready for a holiday party at a friend’s that night.

“Can we hold off a few days?” he asked, and he sounded so disappointed.

“Pop, we can hold off a few weeks or a few months if we need. We’ll go when you’re feeling better.  I don’t care when we celebrate,” I said. “I care that you’re there and you have fun.”

“But it’s your birthday and I don’t want you to think you’re not loved.”

“Pop,” I said, almost scolding him,”I don’t think celebrating my birthday a little late means you don’t love me.  Gosh, if birthday celebrations equate to love, I’m one the most loved kids on the planet.”

“Well, let me see how I’m doing in the morning,” he said.

“Okay, Pop.”

“I love you, Kimmy,” he said.  He was one of about three people I let call me that.

“I love you, Pop.”

And that was the last time we ever spoke.  My hubby and I went to our friends’ home for a party that night, and around 10:30 I told him I didn’t feel well and needed to go home.  We walked in the door at 10:55 and the phone immediately began to ring.  An officer from the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department was on the other end of the line, telling me that my dad had just passed away.  I let out a shriek and collapsed to the floor. My husband took the phone and got the information while I pulled myself off the floor and tried to pull my head together. 

I called my mom to ask her to come to the house and sit with the kids.  My oldest was at a sleep-over with her youth group. We called and spoke with one of the adults, and my husband headed over to get her.  I drove the 18 miles to my dad’s house in the worst snow storm of the season. His body was laid out at the top of the stairs where the paramedics had just finished working on him.  His body was an empty shell. My sister sat on the step just below him, rocking back and forth, holding his hand, smoothing his hair off his face.

My dad’s wife wandered the floor below, sometimes letting out pitiful cries and moans, sometimes clutching her arms around her middle.  Her mother sat at the counter, resting her chin in her hands. I brewed a pot of herbal tea and handed out mugs.  I fixed a plate of sliced fruit.  I washed the dishes in the sink.  Around 2:30 in the morning, the mortician and his assistant arrived and carried my father’s body out the door.  His wife offered us a place to stay for the night, but neither my sister nor I could bear the thought of staying – the house just felt too empty without him.

As we put on our coats to brave the storm, I noticed a red gift bag on the table by the door.  On the bag was a big tag with my dad’s unique scrawl that said Kimmy.

I couldn’t bear to look at it.  His wife didn’t say anything about it.  On Christmas, she gave it to me – my last birthday gift from my dad.  It was a very generous gift certificate to my favorite store, and a beautiful garnet necklace and earring set. He had gone out two days before my birthday to get them, and he hadn’t left the house since he’d come home that day.

I’m grateful to my friends and my family, but I don’t think they quite understand the ache I feel on my birthday now. Today is the anniversary of my dad’s death, and even three years on, it isn’t much easier. I miss you, Pop. I miss so much about you, but especially I miss hearing you sing Happy Birthday and know that, no matter what else might happen or what gifts I might get, you would make sure I knew I was loved.

An Intriguing Dilemma

Writing-writing-writing-writing . . .

And suddenly there is a problem.  Not with the story; with me.  Not writer’s block; a dilemma. I need to kill a character and I don’t want to.

I’ve been mulling this over for several days, and it has – quite frankly – been causing me stress.  I like this character.  She’s interesting.  She’s funny. And she has to die.  Not because I need some traumatic scene in the story. Not because I want to manipulate the reader.  Because in the real world, people we love die.  People who are important to us die.  And they do so in very unexpected ways sometimes.  My character is going to be murdered.

But I don’t want to write it.

There are all kinds of reasons why I don’t want to write it.  Like I said – I like this girl.  Granted, she isn’t the main character in the story, but she is a very important character in the story, and her death has far-reaching consequences.  Her murder will go unsolved for more than 20 years, and when it is solved, it will cause even more pain to those involved. 

It’s going to be very difficult to write about this because I connect with this girl at a very deep level.  The places I have to visit in my own psyche in order to make this ring true are very troubling to me, and that is part of why I’m struggling. It scares me to dig around in my past and revisit old wounds. To put it bluntly – this is messing with my head.

Then there is the timing of this whole dilemma.  December marks the anniversary of my dad’s death just three years ago.  I’m missing him terribly these days. My head is filled with thoughts of sitting with his lifeless body as it lay at the top of the stairs where the paramedics tried so earnestly to bring him back. His blue-grey skin, the cold feel of his face against my hand; all still clinging diligently in my memory. Grief is a weird emotion, and one which I try frequently to understand more completely.

Then there are the conversations with my cousin Michael.  He just retired from the police force in Wilmington, North Carolina.  He was a detective. He worked on many homicide cases. He worked on the accidental shooting of Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s son – star of “The Crow”).  He is my consultant for accuracy and an amazing and dreadful source. He is so willing to provide me with the necessary information, and I am often left stunned at how evil some human beings can be. I watch a lot of true-crime shows – 48 Hours, Dateline, I Survived – but hearing these tales through my cousin’s experience brings a level of intimacy that I was not well prepared for when I started this project.

I keep trying to step back from this and bring objectivity into the process, but then the writing begins to sound clinical.  So I slip into those dark corners, and I give myself permission to be sad, and afraid, and horrified. Now that I’ve crawled into that hole, I am intrigued by how difficult it is to climb back out.

Last night, I lay in bed with tears streaming down my cheeks.  God bless my wonderful husband – he didn’t ask questions.  He simply wrapped his arms around me and held me until I brought my emotions under control.  This morning he asked if I was alright.  I tried to explain what I was dealing with, but it came out muddled and confused.  He pulled me close and held me again, kissed my forehead, and let me know it would be okay.

I’m taking a few days off from working on this story, and turning my attention to something more light-hearted instead. I’m surprised by how all of this is affecting me, and I’m trying to keep it all in perspective.  At some point, this may also work its way into a story.