Late summer weirdness – Carolyn

Yesterday we had a heat index over 105 degrees. Tonight we’re down in the sixties. Go figure. Yesterday the horses were solid sweat balls. Tonight they are probably shivering. Summer in the south is always insane, but it’s too early for our usual three or four days of cool temperatures in September, before it goes back up over 105 until October.

I have horse friends who have two abodes—one in Maine where they spend the late spring, summer and early fall, and one around Orlando, Florida, where they spend the winter. I’m not certain I could get used to moving lock, stock, horse tack, carriages, and all the household things, clothing and such twice every year. One of my friends drives a fifty-foot horse trailer. She is maybe five feet three on her best day. Her husband loads her up here in Memphis or there in Florida, and goes on about his business, leaving her to drive this behemoth full of large live animals four hundred miles all by herself. I have trouble driving my two-horse trailer with one horse and one carriage. I certainly can’t back it up very well. She, on the other hand, got stuck in a fast food parking lot towing that trailer and had to back the whole rig out into the highway. She did it, too. I would have gotten out, called Triple A, and asked them to hire somebody to do it for me.

Trailers tend to be satanic anyway. A number of years ago I was part of a pit crew (never again) for a sports car driver I was dating. We were racing in Daytona—not the Nascar thingie, but a small sports car race. Miserable. The men worked on the car all weekend. The girls barely got a soda, much less a meal. On the way home on Sunday night after the race, dehydrated, hungry, sunburned and exhausted, we were driving through north Florida on a desolate and probably alligator infested highway, when suddenly the trailer with the car on it coasted right by the truck, crossed in front of us and came to rest halfway down an embankment. The tow bar had broken. My date, the driver, hopped out of the truck, ran to where the trailer was canted off the road, and forgot he’d been smoking his pipe. He stuffed it in his pocket.

Two minutes later he came hopping back to the truck in the process of yanking his jeans off and beating out the smoke and flames that were erupting out of his pocket.

He was singed, but not burned. We all spent the night and most of the next day trying to find someone to weld a new tow bar on the front of the trailer.

There is no place to party down in the back roads of Northern Florida.

Two weeks later, he called me to ask me if I wanted to spend the weekend with his crew while he drove at Watkins Glen.

I declined.


heat index – yukk = carolyn

The heat index is over a hundred and five degrees, and there is no sign of rain or a break in the heat for most of next week. I’m not surprised. This is why I hate summer. I have to drag out to the barn three times a day to top off the horse’s water. Even if it didn’t evaporate or get drunk much more than normal (and a good thing too), sitting in the sun it literally gets to hot to drink.

They spend their time under the big fan in the barn, and only go out at dusk when there are long shadows. Then they spend all night grazing in the pasture. It’s always amazed me how well they can hide in plain sight at night. They stand still under a tree or even in the open. Unless the moonlight catches their eyes, you can walk to within five feet of them without seeing them. I think they do it on purpose. If horses could snicker (as opposed to nicker, which is a whole other thing), I think they would snicker at us human beings, who can’t see what’s right in front of our noses.

My big old Zoe mare has the remains of an abscess in her off fore hoof (that’s the right side). My farrier dug it out, but I think it may actually have graveled before we got to it. When a horse has a gravel, it means that the abscess, rather than going down the hoof wall until it bursts with a lot of nasty stuff, works its way up the hoof until it reaches the top and bursts out there. Same nasty stuff, but it takes longer and is harder to dig out.

That means that my friend Beverly and I have not driven Zoe in a month. We tried a couple of Sunday afternoons ago, and that’s when we discovered she was obviously in pain. One of the ways to tell is that a lame horse will nod its head when it steps on the painful hoof. And according to my nurse/driver friend Beverly, I should be treating the sore place in her hoof by soaking it with sauerkraut juice—something about the acid. I don’t consider myself a real horseman, but I have been around horses for a long time. Never heard of the sauerkraut cure. I do know about the caster oil ointment for arthritis, and the DMSO pain killer. I know about giving garlic and vinegar to horses in their feed to keep them from being bitten by flies and mosquitoes. I know about soaking beet pulp and feeding a handful of it in the winter with horses who suffer and lose weight during cold weather.

But there is a ton I do not know that the old timers knew and used when there wasn’t a friendly neighborhood veterinarian around.

And horses can be stupidly counter-productive. I would like to run the cold water hose over them when they are hot. I’ve had horses that love it. Not mine.

And the best way to draw an abscess is to stand the sore hoof in a solution of Epsom salts. My Zoe, however, who is never even tied when my farrier works on her, will absolutely not put her foot in a soak of warm Epsom salts. When Zoe does not want to do something, it is wiser not to ask her.

We will continue to fight the heat the best way we can.


Summer – phui! – Carolyn

Well, it’s finally summer the way we expect summer to be in the mid-south. Nuts. The living is definitely not easy. My horse children are standing in the barn in front of the fan and giving me the skunk eye when I walk in to feed or water them. Obviously the heat is all my fault. And this morning my friend Beverly and I intend to drive Zoe. She will not be happy, but we have to do it early or we won’t be able to do it at all.

We have had a relatively mild summer so far, which probably means that it will be over a hundred in October. And seventy on Christmas. Don’t talk to me about climate change! Tell it to Antarctica.

In the meantime, those of us who can hunker down in the air conditioning and try to avoid doing much else. I did get my story into Belle Books for the new Mossy Creek book on Christmas in Mossy Creek. Since it’s been a while since the last one came out, I’ve forgotten everybody’s names, though I do remember that the Garden Club drinks lethal Mimosas at their meetings.

Forgetting characters’ names is apparently endemic among writers. It’s like being in a play. It closes on Saturday night and by Monday morning the actors can’t remember their lines. I asked one of my friends one day what she was reading, and she told me a book about so-and-so and so-and-so. I asked her who wrote it. She replied, “You did, fool!” So remembering the names of the Mossy Creek Garden Club ladies is way beyond my pay grade. That is why God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us copyeditors, may they be blessed.

Now I’m going to be writing the next book about those wonderful people, animal rehabilitators. I turned in the first in the series a week ago, and the Mossy Creek story on Thursday.

Maybe it’s a good thing it’s hot and getting more miserable every day. I have no desire to go running around in the out-of-doors collecting sunspots and getting dehydrated.

Oh, and by the way, despite what Hoagie Carmichael says in his song, there is no oleander in Memphis. Pity, because it’s a lovely poison. I’d like to use in a mystery some day, but I’d have to have it harvested in California.

Join the crowd – Carolyn

Writing is by its very nature a solitary occupation. Even if you have a co-writer, only one set of hands can rest on the keyboard at one time. That’s why it is so great to be able to meet other writers to talk about writing.

Yesterday was our monthly meeting of Malice in Memphis mystery writers group. Last week was the monthly meeting of the River City Romance Writers. And every Friday (or almost every Friday) five of us meet at the local IHOP as a critique group. It’s scary to think we’ve been meeting for years. Not always exactly the same group, but mostly. Not always the same venue, but mostly.

A good critique group is a pearl above price. I have been singularly blessed.

Our group writes different kinds of stuff. Time travel, mystery dinner theater, thrillers, romance, romantic suspense and mystery, historical and contemporary. We share one thing, however. Each of us wants the others to succeed. I must admit I was for a very short while a long time ago in a much larger group—too large—in which at least two members were invested in destroying the self-esteem of the other members in the group. Valuable criticism is one thing. Attacking the talent or skill of another writer is simply mean-spirited. I firmly believe that if you point out a problem in somebody’s manuscript, you should offer a viable solution to fix the problem. Not always possible, but the attempt should be made.

And we were all unpublished at some point. Some of the best writers I’ve known have not been published yet. A good deal of that is luck.

One of my friends received a contract for a time travel several years ago. Her closest friend was refused a contract for a romantic western a week later.

They lost the friendship. Her friend could not forgive her for getting published first.

Unfortunately unlike a lot of careers and accomplishments, being published is the touchstone writers are judged by all too often. Tell a stranger at a cocktail party that you are a writer, but unpublished, and watch his eyes glaze over with that dismissive stare. Before I sold my first book, one of my colleagues at Memphis State University, where I worked, said over lunch, “Isn’t it nice you have that sweet little hobby.” She nearly wound up with a horrendous dental bill. I wanted to slug her.

There was a TV commercial several years ago in which the spokesperson said, “Everybody deserves to be published.” Oh, no they don’t. Our task is to keep learning and working so that we deserve to be published. So join a good writers’ group, find a wonderful critique group, go to workshops, read, listen, and most of all write, write write. Than if you’re lucky enough to find an editor who loves your work…

Deadlines – Carolyn

I met my deadline! Hooray. The book went out to my editor on the 28th. I had until the first. Now, let’s hope she likes it. I expect to get my usual five page revision letter, but that’s par for the course. Now I have two weeks to deliver two short stories to Belle Books for the last of the Mossy Creek series. And I’ve finished editing the Malice in Memphis Elmwood series of short stories. So I am ginning. For those of you who are not southerners, ginning is what is happening when the cotton gins are running twenty-four hors a day, thereby making money and doing good work. So if you’re ginning, you are cranking out the work.

And I finally got the man to come over to bait my house to get rid of the mice. If they’d stay outside or in the barn, they could conduct their lives in peace. Last week, however, was the last straw. I was curled up in the recliner in my bedroom reading my Kindle—as I do much more frequently than I should—when Mr. Mouse took a stroll right down the center of the side table beside my chair. He didn’t run either. He ambled. I was sitting not more than a foot from him. He could not have cared less. Now, that is too cheeky even for my Janist tendencies. So, the stuff the exterminator used is supposed to draw them outside the house. I don’t want to think about what happens to them then.

And now we have bunnies. In the last couple of days I have walked up on two very big, very pretty brown rabbits in my carport. The moment they see me, they take off in hysterics—no ambling for them. I like them. I also like the quail, of which we used to have a bunch. Don’t see them very often recently with their funny top knots. So far I haven’t found any live armadillos. And I’ve only seen the dog fox once recently. He’s a beauty–gray with a bright red tail with a white knob on it. No raccoons of late, no possums, and (Thank God) no snakes. Usually where you have horses, you don’t see many snakes. Horses to not like them and tend to stomp then when they can. They aren’t bothered by the king snakes that live in the barn and keep other snakes away. The king snakes keep the mouse population in the barn at bay as well. My elderly Burnese cat presented me with a dead mouse two days ago. He’s too old and too frail to keep up with the population, however. Me too.

I like the critters with whom I share my life. There is something about having a cat asleep in your lap that removes a great deal of aggravation from life and gives me the energy to go back to ginning.


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