Mouse in the house – Carolyn

I have mice. I expect them out at the barn. Field mice with small pink ears. That’s why I keep my horse feed in metal garbage cans with tight-fitting metal lids. Since I had never lived in the country before we moved out here to raise horses, I was not aware of how little space a mouse requires to get into any container that is not metal and shut tight. When I had thirteen horses on the property (I was younger then) I used to stack the fifty pound feed sacks up in the far back of the feed room. Amazing how many pounds of rolled oats mice can steal. They also tend to spread around their leavings and made an incredible mess.

When we first moved out here, we also had rats in the lean to, the only shed we had to protect the horses in bad weather. Before we got our fancy new barn built. We got rid of the rats quickly, and after my two big king snakes took up residence in the new barn, we had very few mice as well. Never kill a king snake! They are the first line of defense against poisonous snakes and other unpleasant critters. I speak very politely to my two when I see them, which is seldom. They are private, but they are competent.

I do not, however, go so far as to invite them into the house. Not gonna happen. My two cats, Monti, the Burmese, and Midgie, the slightly deranged black cat, used to be good mousers. Cats get old just like people. Monti is seventeen; Midgie is twelve with a mental age of three. Still, Monti delivered a dead mouse to me this morning, bless him. But he can’t keep up with them, and I don’t think Midgie has a clue what a mouse is, much less that she’s supposed to kill it.

Which I just cannot do. I finally got a mousetrap, baited it with peanut butter and set it out. The mouse thoroughly enjoyed the peanut butter. He did not, however, spring the trap. I worried all night that he’d kill himself slowly and painfully. I have visions of a lonely wife and babies waiting for him. Isn’t that stupid?

So, abnegating my responsibility, I am bringing in professionals to get rid of the little darlings. Don’t want to know how or where they go, so long as it’s not in my house. I’m adding the destruction of any brown recluse or black widow spiders and every wasp I can find. I actually like the big black and white writing spiders—Charlotte’s Web—but not the poisonous ones.

The book I am about to turn in is about the wonderful people who work as animal rehabilitators. I have incredible respect for them and for the fish and game officers who try to keep the rest of us from getting lost, falling overboard, hunting out of season, fishing without licenses and keeping undersized fish—the truly stupid things that human beings do in the woods. It’s no wonder most wild animals are terrified of us. We are the nastiest predator out there.

Be kind to your game wardens. And the rehabilitators out there saving wildlife from our predations. And forgive me for getting rid of my mice.

Almost Done – Carolyn

It is remarkable that I remembered today is Sunday, the day I blog. I am coming down to the wire to finish the book I have due on or before the first of July. It will be a close thing, largely because I was too sick to write for almost ten days and got behind.

I was listening to an interview with John Grisham on one of the morning news shows last week. He says to write a page a day no matter what. That’s okay if you include the weekends, but five days a week is only 260 pages a year. Not acceptable. I try to do at least five a day, and at least one weekend day. But not always. I am easily seduced away from my computer, usually by a book. Last week a book I had pre-ordered and forgotten about showed up on my Kindle. I hate that! Who could NOT open a Christmas present on Christmas? No me. I have to dip in, and once dipped in, I am usually caught—if the book is a good one. And it usually is.

It would be interesting to know which of you writers out there writes a continuous manuscript, straight through start to finish. Or do you write scenes that are not necessarily contiguous? That’s what I do. When I am truly bored, stuck, or just generally disgusted, I write a highly emotional scene to get me past the closed door. And I always know what the last scene will be. But not always who the killer is. I’ve been fooled by a character several times. I know who the killer is planned to be, but by the time I get to the point where he is revealed, I know the character I have written would never kill somebody—well, not in that way at least. Thank heaven, there’s always another character standing there all ready to take the blame—I just didn’t know I was setting him or her up at the time.

I have enormous respect for writers who write extensive outlines that constrain their characters to do just what they’re told. Mine never do. They start off listening to me, but somewhere along the line they get fractious and off they go in a direction that I had not planned for them to take. My friend Pat Potter does the same thing. She thinks, and I tend to agree with her, that our way makes a more interesting book. But the outline-makers would probably disagree.

The main thing—one age a day or five, or outline or not—is to write. Even if it’s the line of K’s that everybody gets when they fall asleep over their computer. K’s can be fixed. Blank screens can’t. Hang in there and wish me luck on my deadline. I intend to make it with time to spare.


Writing Funny – Carolyn

Yesterday’s Malice in Memphis meeting’s speaker was one of our founding members who spoke on writing humor. One great actor (whose name I can’t remember, but I suspect George Burns) said that ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard.’ Boy, is that true. In my younger days when I did a fair amount of acting with a couple of our local theatre groups, I hated being cast in a role that was supposed to be funny. I do think I can write funny, but I sure as shootin’ can’t act it. I am entirely too self aware. You can’t worry about holding your stomach in and be funny.

Someone else (I think it was James Thurber, but don’t quote me) said that ‘remembered disaster is funny.’ Frankly, that’s the best definition I’ve ever heard. But only if it is survived disaster as well. He wrote a series of essays on remembered disasters. My favorite is “The Day the Pig Fell in the Well.” Now, that’s funny.

I love the great slapstick comedies. There is something about a pie in the face that makes me laugh. The stuffier the receiver of the pie is, the funnier it becomes. Laurel and Hardy did the ultimate pie-throwing scene in which one small accident with a pie ends up resulting in a giant crowd flinging pies at one another. Okay, you had to be there. But look it up some time on Netflix. You will laugh. I especially like the woman who winds up sitting in a custard pie, gets up, wriggles her skirt down to cover the mess, and walks off without a care in the world.

Hyperbole is funny. The worse things get, the better.

Logic is funny. Punch lines must be surprising, but they must also follow logically from what went before.

Misunderstanding is funny.

Chaos is funny.

What is not funny is being mean-spirited. There is a thing in TV comedies called “Jumping the shark.” That’s the moment when something happens that so doesn’t work that it destroys the characters. The classic is the scene in which Fonzi actually jumps a shark in Happy Days. The show went on for a long time, but it never recovered.

Comedy that is happy, funny, clever, smart, sassy can be destroyed by one moment in which it becomes mean-spirited. Hurting people is not funny. Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey can be absolutely vicious, but she is never mean-spirited. She pokes fun at people’s pecadillos. She pokes holes at stuffiness. She does not laugh at dire poverty or physical handicaps. The people she goes after deserve to be taken down a peg. We love her first because she says things the rest of us would like to say and dare not, and second because down deep we know she’s a sweetie.

I have always thought that Northern Exposure, one of my all time favorite shows, was killed in its last season by mean-spiritedness. I’m sure you can name others.

I wish I could tell you how to think funny. I just know that my friend Phyllis thinks funny all the time. The rest of us have flashes, but most of us are no Buck Henry. So, remember, dying is easy, comedy is hard. And go for it, baby.

fourth malice anthology – Carolyn

Sorry I missed my turn last Sunday. I was what my mother used to call low sick. I finally gave up and went to the doc in the box at Kroger to get some antibiotics. I try to avoid them, but occasionally needs must. I still have no stamina. I was actually ahead of schedule on writing the book that is due at Harlequin on July 1. Now, of course, I am behind again. Oh, well. I always say I work better under pressure, but occasionally I’d like the opportunity to try the way normal people do it—five or ten pages a day or a chapter or whatever. Just a schedule. Not gonna happen, this time, at any rate.

I am up to date with editing the Malice in Memphis stories. I could do them with less mind than it takes to write my own stuff. At this point I think we need to take a break. This will be our fourth anthology, although it will be the third published. The Memphis in May anthology is being held up so that it will come out for next year’s festival. This one about Elmwood cemetery is the perfect examplar of what happens which you give a bunch of writers a shove, but do not limit their creativity. The stories range from civil war times to contemporary, and from ghosts to murder. I do enjoy editing them, although I’m not always certain I am pushy enough. I believe that it is important to preserve the writer’s voice. Certainly easy to see in a group of short stories by different authors. Several of our people write funny. Several write downright scary. And everything in between.

Short stories generally need a kicker at the end—that little twist. Done well, the kicker is patently obvious, except that the reader doesn’t pick up on it until he is supposed to get it at the very end. It is important to establish the sense of place quickly, and the atmosphere. But what is not important is to tell the reader what you know that he may not need to. This is known as an information dump. Don’t. Your reader does not care one whit how much you know about the history, or the layout, or anything else unless it is germaine to your story right that moment. In a place like Elmwood that has so much history, the temptation to give out interesting facts is great. Don’t. Keep your reader right there and then, and when he is comfortable, knock him out of his comfort zone. Then you’ll probably have a good story. Our newest anthology is going to have some doozies.


Every Day is Mother’s Day – Carolyn

I only saw two people this morning—one man, one woman—wearing white roses. When I was growing up, every Mother’s Day one either wore a white rose, if one’s mother were dead, or a red rose, if she was still alive. I don’t know when the custom died out, but I always liked it, although wearing a rose the color of blood for a live mother seems a bit macabre.

My daughter asked what I wanted to do about MD. I told her absolutely nothing. My mother always said, “Every day is Mother’s Day.” That’s because my father and I always turned it into some kind of joke. We once gave her a cake with an icing cigar on the top.

Mother’s Day is another of those “For Marketing Only” days like George Washington’s birthday or Valentine’s Day. I am always delighted with chocolate—preferably Dinstuhl’s chocolate strawberries, which are better than anyone else’s—but since the day I discovered I could actually buy my own chocolate rather than wait for someone else to give it to me, my chocoholism has caused me endless fights with myself. Then I also discovered that women should buy their own perfume, never what someone else gives, even if it’s the most expensive perfume going. That was a big epiphany. Actually, that’s why I seldom wear the stuff. I buy it, then forget to put it on, and it goes bad after a while. I never know how much is enough, but too much is an abomination.

Anyway, in my family every day was Mother’s Day. My mother was a leading actress at the local Little Theatre. She wasn’t a great comedienne, but boy, was she a good dramatic actress. By the time I was twelve I was working backstage, designing and building costumes for shows that she was in, and doing everything from painting flats to finding props. Since my father, the engineer, worked backstage as well, I was always under parental supervision—not that I ever caught them at it.

Eventually, I acted. Badly, in most cases. Sara Bernhardt I am not. I always worried about holding my stomach in on stage. I hated the idea of letting it all hang out. Our summer group—mostly college kids—put on stuff we thought our adults would think terribly avant garde. One summer we did Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Guess who played Salome complete dance of the seven veils? When I dropped that last veil I heard my mother gasp all the way from the back of the audience. The dance got good reviews. The acting did not. Hardly surprising since none of us had any idea what the play is actually about. Neither of my parents ever mentioned the show. Thank heaven.

For those of you who have gone backstage to congratulate your friends, here are a couple of sure fire non-compliments. My favorite is “Darling I could cry!” Then there is “Good God, that was a play.” Bet your friends will never notice.

Anyway, I am in the white rose category and have been for some years. I hate it. I’d give anything to watch one of my mother’s hissy fits again, although they drove me nuts at the time. So, for those of you still wearing red roses, give your mother a call, take her to lunch or the movies, and realize that although she drives you crazy, it’s preferable to the alternative. cmc


Computers – Bleck! – Carolyn

Continued computer saga: This afternoon while I was hunting for a Zumba workout on YouTube, I underwent the ultimate terror in computerland. My screen went white and nothing worked. I have been saying that I need a new computer—mine is seven years old—but I hate not only spending the money, but also going through setting up and working with a new computer. You all know what that’s like. Nothing works with anything else.

I have an automatic backup, although I’ve never had to use it and have no idea how it works. Granted, that’s stupid, but I am a technological Luddite. I spent the next thirty minutes scrambling to get the computer up and running, or at least it to the point where I could shut it down and restart it. I did get it to where I could hear the audio, but not see anything on the screen. Nor turn down the audio, which was just under deafening range. I suspect the CIA is missing a bet—a million decibel Zumba class would wear down the canniest spy in nothing flat.

Finally I decided simply to walk away and let it have its hissy fit in private. I did manage to turn down the audio so that I wouldn’t hear Zumba music reverberating through my house. The cats would not have been amused otherwise.

When I came back I did precisely the same things I had done before to no effect. Wonder of wonders, everything worked perfectly. I am now terrified that it will happen again without warning. It’s like having a car that suddenly stops for no reason. I never quite trust it again. I have a friend who will turn in a perfectly good and nearly new car that stops on her over that very trust issue. I can’t afford that kind of gesture, but I understand it.

There are floods and wind damage all over my area, although we have been spared so far. My pastures are overrun with ranunculus (little yellow flowers) that I loathe. The horses don’t like them either, which is a good thing, since they are mildly poisonous. On the other hand, I do have azaleas and roses that are actually blooming in spite of me. Or maybe because other than using an automatic timer to water them I leave them totally alone. They are safer that way.

My tractor needs its battery charged, as does my truck. My horse trailer needs its tires replaced because of dry rot. Papers cover every flat surface in my house. I haven’t put my laundry away for over a week. I’m scrabbling around in the baskets of clean laundry when hanging stuff up would probably take me an hour tops.

But one short story is finished, I have edited the Malice short stories that I have been sent and the book grows apace. Can’t ask for better than that. Ain’t sweatin’ the small stuff. Except for the welfare of the animals, it’s all small stuff.


computers – love, hate – Carolyn

My computer is seven years old (I think). Which means that in computer terms it is at least as old as I am. And like those of us the young Brits call ‘wrinklies,’ is crochety, slow, and sometimes loses its mind. I know I should go buy another one, but the thought of going through the initial three months or so it takes to get back to where I am now, problems and all, is daunting. Everyone I know feels the same way. A new computer should be a joyful thing. Faster, smarter, able to do more things more intelligently, able to foresee and head off the stupid user tricks that we all come up with.

Not so. First of all, probably none of the programs which currently run on my computer will work on a new one. When I try to bring them up, I will get some kind of horse manure about their ‘no longer being supported.’ Well, why not? A new computer should add on new programs to the old faithfuls, not screw them up. Given my druthers, I would still like to be able to use Pagemaker and Freehand and at least a dozen others I can think of. I have wonderful old Filemaker folders I can’t open any longer. Everything becomes more complex.

I do have sense enough to take my present (old) computer down to the Apple store, hand it over to them and tell them to transfer everything over to my new computer, whatever it is, and to tell me explicitly what I need that doesn’t come with it any longer. Like a video/cd player. What’s that all about? I have operas on video I like to run while I work. I also have three printers hooked up. What are the odds that they and a new computer will find one another properly? Probably not much better than the odds of winning the lottery.

And the internet? Will it work properly? Probably not. It never has on any computer transfer I’ve ever made.

My dear computer savvy son-in-law (call his name blessed) worked on my old baby for a couple of hours last week, got rid of all sorts of malware and hidden stuff that I didn’t know was there. He did speed up the computer significantly. For a little while. It is getting creepy again, however,

Computer makers should realize that most of us qualify as end-users. I, for one, may qualify as an idiot, but not, heaven knows, an Idiot Savant. I don’t savant much of anything computery. We don’t hack or intrude or try to do weird stuff. I write fiction and pay my bills mostly. I seldom write letters. Tacky, I know, but most of us text. Which means that future generations will not have the benefit of correspondence by the greats. How much Sam Johnson would Boswell have lost to Twitter?

And what, for heaven’s sake, is this ‘dark web’ that all the television shows are talking about? And how do you access it? I was under the impression that the web is the web. Now I discover that it has an evil twin. Who knew?

Bear sighting – Carolyn

The local newspaper has reported for the last several days that there is a black bear in Frayser, a subdivision of Memphis. This is about the same as meeting an aardvark in Central Park—and I’m not talking the zoo. The local wildlife people are telling everyone that if they spot it, they should leave it the heck alone. Apparently it is a young bear, probably male because there are no cubs with it. They say it’s traveling west, which is fine except that the Mississippi River is west. If it is trying to get across to the Ozarks, it’s going to be highly annoyed to discover this impassable (for a bear) body of water between it and where it plans to go. I just hope that wherever it goes, it gets there safely without some idiot’s shooting it.

I know for a fact that we have what the farmers call ‘painters’ here. That is the southern designation for a panther—puma, cougar. My horse trainer had one cross the road in front of her several years ago, and another was noted in the edges of Collierville, the town my farm is closest to. I live close to the Wolf River and its bottoms, a wildlife (and I do mean wild) wetland area just down the hill from me. I have friends who kayak and canoe down there regularly. Even if I kayaked—which I do not—I wouldn’t do it on that stretch of the Wolf. I have been told the water moccasins hang in the branches of trees and have been known to drop into the boats that go under the limbs they are stretched on. I don’t swim all that well any longer, but I would decant myself right out of the kayak and into the river the same instant the snake decided to join me in the boat.

This morning while I was out in the barn feeding the horses, I looked back to the house to see a very large hare sitting outside my bedroom door watching me. I froze. He froze. We regarded one another silently for some time until he lollopped off. He was not in the last disturbed by my presence. Although I was surprised he was so close to the house, I wasn’t bothered by him. When we first moved out here, we had lots of rabbits and lots of quail. That was before the coyotes moved in. The coyotes do not bother the horses. They have better sense. The horses do not like them and will go to great lengths to kick, bite and stomp them. The coyotes make certain they never get the chance.

Now we have an owl. Full grown screech variety. He’s very large. Since he’s nocturnal I seldom see him, but I hear him all right. We have several red tail and Cooper’s hawks that sit on the telephone wires watching for mice, and several more turkey buzzards who sit in a dead tree and clean up any road kill down on the road. Thank heaven for them. Pretty they are not. Effective they are.

I hope that they figure we can coexist, but they probably think I am an interloper in their territory, and a scary one at that. Isn’t that a pity?


Happy Horns – Carolyn

Happy Easter!

Well, I have finally done it. Somehow I managed to copy over my blog with something completely different.

Bound to happen sooner or later. Since I’ve been working on three stories and one novel at once and planning for two more books, my confusion level obviously reached critical mass. So I am reconstructing. As is general in such a case, this version will probably make more sense than the first offering. Let’s hope so, at any rate.

I go to a smallish church that is pretty casual as a general rule. But on Easter we bring in what I call The Holy Horns to supplement our extraordinary organist. There are two trumpets, one French Horn (known as ‘the ill wind that nobody blows good.’), a tuba, and a trombone. Combined, they can blow the roof off the church. At our Mardi Gras Party they spent the evening playing Zydeco and New Orleans jazz. Talk about making a joyful noise!

I love horns anyway—like The Canadian Brass and several other totally brass ensembles. When my first husband (a bass-baritone) was in the Army chorus, I heard the army herald trumpets frequently. Combined with five or six howitzers blowing off blanks, they make Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture more visceral than intellectual. At the end, there’s a great ‘Take That, Napoleon!’ moment.

Along the same line, I listened to the Metropolitan Opera’s latest production of Aida yesterday. During the intermission, several of the horn players from the Met Orchestra were interviewed about actually being in make-up and costume and playing on stage during Rhadames’s triumphal entry. They are split into two groups, one on each side of the stage, on platforms high over where the parade is going on. Not only are they up there in full view of the audience; they are on a platform that has no guardrail! One wrong step, and they wind up in the middle of the camels. I don’t know whether they still use camels in the scene, but they used to. I saw one production in which the camels—who do not sound like sopranos—joined in at the top of their lungs.

I couldn’t do it. I am terrified of heights. When I stand on top of a mountain—a position I try to avoid if at all possible—I can hear the void calling to me. At the falls in Yellowstone Park, I strode right out into the largish viewing platform, took one look at the gorge and dropped to my hands and knees. In public. Surrounded by other tourists. I had to duck walk to get to a tree I could hold onto. My family acted as though I had no connection with them. I can manage one of those two-step kitchen ladders, but only if I can hang on to something. Makes changing light bulbs problematic. I generally get my long-suffering son-in-law to do it.

Anyway, I have had my horn fix for the day. Now let’s hope I didn’t overwrite something else important.

Learning New Things – Carolyn

Yesterday was our monthly Malice in Memphis meeting. We had a marvelous update on our fourth Malice in Memphis short story anthology. This time it revolves around Elmwood Cemetery, a historical old cemetery from the earliest days of Memphis, all through the yellow fever years and beyond. It is still in operation today.

Our president, Kristi, got everyone to vote on having a proposal for a short story in the April 1. The amazing thing is that most people met the deadline. We already have enough proposals to fill the anthology. When I recall how difficult it was to get anyone to commit to our first anthology, Bluff City Mysteries, it seems members have become not only better writers but more secure in their creative abilities.

As for me, I wrote my story. Didn’t like the ending. Yesterday morning at 6:00 a.m. the final kicker came to me. I didn’t exactly vault out of bed, but I did get up right that minute, go to my computer and rewrite the ending. Now it works. I also have stories from two of my critique members edited and done. It helps that this time we know what we’re doing.

Our speaker yesterday was fabulous! Tony Kail is a cultural anthropologist, ethnologist and writer with a list of publications considerably longer than my arm. His newest book, The secret History of Memphis Hoodoo, I plan to read this afternoon. He certainly is a fascinating and knowledgeable speaker. I must admit I thought Hoodoo was simply a corruption of voodoo (as in New Orleans). Not so. He’s written a very scholarly, but nonetheless entertaining book. Not only did he give us a history of the types of hoodoo, which is very involved with potions—love, accrual of money, even revenge, but he had samples of some of the herbs and potions he has collected over the years. All of this was right outside of my experience, as it was to most of the members at the meeting.

The entire sub-culture is riveting. And not obsolete. Apparently, it all goes on today, and Memphis is one of the focal points.

Several years ago at Bouchercon, we had a double session on poisons given by a nurse practitioner whose hobby was collecting actual poisons that she found in old pharmacies and even in antique stores. She brought in a large jar of prussic acid she had discovered casually sitting on the bottom shelf of a small pharmacy in Kansas. Several of the samples she had acquired were so dangerous (cyanide, for example), that she had them encased in blocks of acrylic. I’ve done quite a bit of research on poison for my mysteries, but I don’t mess with actual samples. Amazing how naïve most of us are, even when we think we’re not.