Sunday, September 28, 2014

With or Without Eyebrows

 without eyebrows and with
Photos by Bowtie Photography

    First of all let me just say the photos were taken by my everything-daughter Grace's boyfriend Bob O'Daniel. You can find examples of his work on under bowtiephotography. He was in no way responsible for my makeup.

   I wanted to write a book and have it on the shelves in the Edmond Public Library. A fairly simple want, don't you think?

   I attended classes with an excellent writing teacher, William Bernhardt. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I had what I thought was a pretty good book. I hired an editor, Grace Wagner ( She edits for other writers, too. Not just her mother. I'm lucky to have her in-house.) and enlisted Beta readers including authors, a retired police detective, a retired librarian, some analytical readers, and some recreational readers. Then rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. I understand this is necessary even if you get accepted by an agent and one of the Big Five publishing houses.

   I pitched Murder on Ceres and submitted it to agents and editors, all to no avail. I've listened to other authors tell horror stories about submitting manuscripts and never hearing back. About getting and losing agents and getting agents who didn't seem to push their books. The writing community is rife with bad news about the traditional publishing world. Publishing houses downsizing and struggling even with their legacy writers. Ebooks are taking an ever greater share of the market and the old vanity presses are being replaced by legitimate small publishing houses and self-publishing. All of which seems to be throwing the New York publishers into more of a muddle.

I am obviously (look at my photos) no longer in my 20's or 30's or, for that matter, my 50's. I don't have all the time in the world to get discovered amid all this chaos. So I self-published with Amazon's Create Space.

   Murder on Ceres is a beautiful book. It's listed on Amazon, available in both print and Kindle editions. Among many thousands of other books. To catch readers' attention, I must promote it myself. Which brings us to those two pictures. Our purpose the evening that Bob came was to make a photo for business cards.

   My hairdresser had advised me to wear makeup which I don't ordinarily do. Eye-liner, the whole nine yards. I bought makeup. Now keep in mind that during my single days and working-in-the-public days, my eyebrows were still dark enough to show up without using eyebrow pencil. They're almost as pale as my hair now. I stood in the makeup aisle quite a while trying to decide what color eyebrow pencil I should buy. Have you looked at makeup recently? Not only are there seemingly millions of brands, but each brand has twenty-eleven different colors of everything -- foundation, mascara, eye shadow, lipstick, eyebrow pencil. I chose the slate eyebrow pencil thinking slate is gray. Right?

   Now the only other time I'd used an eyebrow pencil was for my mother after she died. I had watched her apply her eyebrows many times and I did a pretty good job for her for that last time.

   I thought about my own eyebrows. They had always been fuller than Mother's, so it made sense to me that I should make mine rather full.

    By the bye, slate is very dark gray.

   Bob was setting up his equipment -- lights, those umbrella things, a matte black backdrop -- while I did my makeup. Pretty soon my husband came to see what was taking me so long. He stepped to the bathroom door. I was facing the mirror. When I turned to face him, he got such a look of startlement (Is there such a word?) that it scared me.

   He quickly recovered and, being of sound mind and sensibly cautious, he allowed as how he wasn't used to seeing me in makeup. Bob, also being of sound mind, didn't even stutter-step. He just told me where to stand, adjusted the lighting, and took the pictures.

   As he left, Bob asked if he could come back the next evening if Grace didn't like any of the pictures he'd taken.

   The next morning, bright and early, Grace called. "What were you thinking? Did you look in the mirror?"

   "I didn't think they looked that bad," said I.

   "No, Mother," she said in that tone. "They look fine for a stand-up comedian. Groucho-Marx-ish."

    Grace may be of sound mind, but when it comes to her mother she's never been sensibly cautious or even vaguely tactful. But she loves me.

   "Bob and I will be there this evening after I get off work. Do NOT put makeup on before I get there," she said. 

    I think she was right.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Great Grandma's Geese -- creative nonfiction

Poppy Seed Kolaches
image from

I grew up among story tellers. On holidays they’d meet at the dinner table. The men and big boys got the table first and had first shot at the food. When they cleared out, the women would sit down. Us kids either ate with the women or we had our own table off to the side, depending on just how many people were there. But everybody told stories – men, women, and children. Ours was an equal opportunity story-telling family.

Now that I think about it, they also told stories out on the front porch in the evening before the mosquitos got too thick. And in the cellar during those scary Oklahoma storms.

Those stories were true, or mostly anyway. They would begin more or less like this one. “Did I ever tell you about your Great Grandma Hrdlicka’s geese?”

Our Great Grandma Hrdlicka – or Grandma or Mother-in-law, depending on the generation telling the story – was Bohemian. And I don’t mean she wore racy clothes or threw wild parties awash in alcohol. Though beer was much more accepted by many in my family than by most of our Oklahoma neighbors.

Both she and my great grandfather came to this country from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Kolaches were a common holiday food. They’re a little like Danish, but heavier. Sometimes they’re filled with prunes and sweetened cottage cheese or cherry pie filling or apricot preserves. My particular favorite is poppy seed filling.

From what I understand, Bohemia was a mountainous country that got pretty cold in the winter. Probably still does. Oklahoma may not be particularly mountainous, but it sure gets cold in the winter. When this story happened, it was well before central heat. In fact when I was a kid, it was well before central heat.

But I digress.

In my great grandmother’s time, they grew most of the things they needed including the fruit and poppies for kolachen. They also kept geese for their feathers to make feather beds and meat for the table.

One late-summer day she found her geese scattered dead around the pond. Something had to be done. The geese had not been dead long. They were still warm to the touch. They had no wounds and had that morning seemed perfectly healthy. She had no idea what could have killed them. She couldn’t take a chance on cooking them for the family. But nothing was allowed to go to waste. So she plucked them.

That evening when my great grandfather came in from the field, there was a gaggle of confused, naked geese running around. They apparently liked poppy seeds, too.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

We'll Be Fine -- Flash Fiction

image from

We’ll Be Fine

“We’ll get everything all set up before the boys get there. We’ll be just fine,” she said.
And we were. For two-hundred and fifty-three miles. Then we stopped for a late lunch on the north side of the lake.
“Just a hop, skip, and a jump,” she said as we pulled away from Red’s on the Lake CafĂ© where the elite meet to eat, according to the sign.
Most of the trees still had their leaves, but the fall colors had faded to a uniform brown promising winter. At least there wouldn’t be any chiggers or ticks. And the way the temperature was dropping, the snakes should be denned up.
Then it rained. Freezing rain slashed across the windshield. The defroster and windshield wipers were helpless in the onslaught.
“Can you see?” I asked.
“Not very well, dear.” She slowed to little more than a crawl, which seemed recklessly fast to me.
“Maybe we should turn back,” I suggested.
“It’s closer to go on. We’ll be fine.”
Forty-five minutes of adrenalin induced gut twisting on some God-forsaken country road finally dumped us out in front of the cabin. After that drive, it didn’t look so bad.
“It won’t take us long to get the lights on and the heat.” She pulled up close to the porch. “We don’t need to bring everything in tonight. Just the things that might freeze.”
I’d never gotten so wet and cold as quickly as I did from the car to the door.
She flicked the light switch. Nothing happened. She flicked it several times. Still no light.
“Probably just the breaker, dear.” She rummaged in her purse until she found a flashlight. “Just put that stuff down on the table. It won’t take a jiffy.”
But it wasn’t the breaker. The power was off.
“Probably a tree down on the lines. Or ice.” She opened the cabinet and brought out a kerosene lantern. She waved her flashlight toward the fireplace. “Bring me one of those matches. We’ll get some light in here and start a fire. We’ll be fine.”
The lamplight flickered and sputtered as she opened the back door letting in a gust of arctic air. And again when she reentered with both arms full of firewood. She skillfully laid the wood, strategically placing slivers of fat pine. She applied a match, and it caught. The tension across my shoulders relaxed and I sat on the quilt-padded bench before the fireplace.
Then the fire belched sending clouds of suffocating, eye-burning smoke into the room.
“Just the damper, dear. Silly me. I had it closed. Help me open the windows.”
Cold wind blew through the cabin while the fire danced, merrily mocking us.
“With the power off we’ll have no water, but there’s an outhouse thirty feet or so from the back door. As cold as it is we sure won’t dawdle if nature calls,” she said, laughing.
“At least the bears should be hibernating,” I said, trying to join in her eternal optimism.
“I don’t think Oklahoma bears hibernate, dear.”
No, the way things were going, they probably didn’t.
I made a quick trip to the outhouse and a quicker trip to the car to get a bottle of very nice pinot noir. I hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight or a chamber pot, but I had brought wine.

We’d be fine. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Prologue to Dead and Gone -- a work in progress

image from


    Carbon monoxide killed quietly, softly. Sixteen hundred parts per million. Enough to cause death in less than two hours. Possible side-effects could include headache, tachycardia, dizziness, and nausea. But, if she were asleep, she would be unaware of the discomfort.
    He didn’t want to hurt her. Or mar her beauty. She was as beautiful as his mother. She sang like a dream spirit. A sublime soprano. Ethereal. In time she would have been as good as his mother. But already the critics didn’t appreciate her. They questioned her interpretation. They said she lacked maturity and depth, that she hadn’t the passion the role demanded. What had that to do with perfection?
    The audiences were stupid and cruel. They refused to accept digital modulation of the instruments. Her voice, unassailable in its clarity and purity, was too fragile to stand up to the electronica. The producers had allowed her only five performances. If they would just give her time, her growing confidence would strengthen her presentation. But they replaced her before moving to Kyoto.

    That was months ago and she'd only gotten small parts. Insignificant rolls, insulting to her talent, her transcendent voice.
    “Some of them liked me,” she said through tears.
    “They did. They did like you.” He held her close and let her cry.
    “I can do it. I know I can.”
    “Stay at home,” he said, his chest tight with anger at the critics. They were idiots who thought themselves experts. His lungs, his heart seized with frustration. There was nothing he could do to make them see the talent and beauty standing in the spotlight right before them. 
    He saw the dream, the desire. Just as he had seen it in his mother – the hunger for applause. Even more for the awed silence just before the applause.
    “My dearest.” She caressed his face. “I love being at home, but a singer must sing.”
    He dropped to his knees and pressed his face against her. “Sing for me.”
    “I do sing for you. But there's a feeling. When I'm on the stage, there's a freedom. I'm somehow bigger. I can fly. Above the world. Into the universe." She smoothed his hair. "I can't explain it.” She took his hands and urged him to his feet. “It’ll be all right, you’ll see. The next time I’ll do better. I’ll get another part and I’ll do better. I can do this. I know I can.”
    He jerked away from her and paced, his face flushed and rigid. “It’s not you.” He spoke through clenched teeth. “It’s them. They don’t deserve you.”
    She put out a hand to stop him. “I do love you. Now be a good boy. Don’t get so upset. My day will come, you’ll see.”
    But he knew how it would end.

    He’d taken his time assembling everything he needed. He built the glass chest himself using his own crystal propagation method. Big enough to contain them both. The vacuum pump was one he’d had for years. Once the box was closed, he would withdraw the air reducing the humidity to near zero and achieving an expected preservation rate of perpetuity.
    New silk bedding – pale green, the color of new life – softened the sides and bottom. The glass could be dialed opaque before being lowered into position.
    As always, he was meticulous in planning and equally particular in following his plan. Any deviation marked carelessness in preparation or errors in thinking. He could excuse neither in others, nor indeed, in himself.
    It took less than two hours for each of the necessary elements of the evening to arrive at Denver from their origination space ports – lobster from the North Atlantic Coast, veal from the Argentine Prefect, fresh strawberries from the Andean foothills, and champagne from Greater Europe. Despite their centuries of decline, Europe still produced the finest wine.
    The most beautiful, the most perfect gift he acquired for her took forty days from the Takimoto OsteFarm on Poe Colony in Low Mars Orbit. A triple strand choker of perfectly matched, luminescent pink pearls.
    All the required items arrived the day before their anniversary. The final leg of their journeys, sixty-three miles, took more than an hour. Kevin picked them up at Denver Space Port and delivered them to the lodge. When the time came Kevin would also transport the glass case.
    That evening was perfect. He made dinner for her ending with strawberries and champagne. She sang for him. “A New Rose,” the closing aria from Beyond the Event Horizon’s second act.
    They shared a leisurely shower with the drying cycle shortened by half so they were pleasantly damp.
    He led her into the bedroom. With indirect lighting on the matte walls it seemed a room without walls, without boundaries. A small bowl of gardenias from Texico sat on a white marble pedestal. Their satiny blossoms infusing the room with the perfume of her childhood home. He knew the fragile flowers would soon brown, but not before she slept.
    He dialed the bed to neutral buoyancy and thirty-seven degrees Celsius, their own body temperature. Smooth, creamy satin spilled from the bed to the floor. White like the walls and the floor and the ceiling.
    As he intended, there were no physical sensations other than themselves – the sounds of their breathing, the feel of their own skin against skin, the musk of love and sweat intermingling with the scent of the flowers.
    Her black hair and rich sepia skin were the only colors in the room. And the pink pearls. Of course, the pearls.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Twelve Lines of Dialogue -- Flash Fiction

from insight kellogg

   Writing is like any other art form. Talent is nice for ideas, but execution requires skill. And skill is acquired through practice under the guidance of a master.
    Jacqueline Mitchard was the Guest of Honor at this year's Rose State Writing Short Course. 'Guest of Honor' just means she gets to speak at the opening ceremonies and she gets to teach in the auditorium which has more seats than the regular classrooms.
   Mitchard is a New York Times Best Selling Author. Among her books is The Deep End of the Ocean, the first book featured on Oprah's Book Club. Maybe more importantly, she teaches Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. And teach is what she did at Rose State.
    One of the exercises she gave us to do was to write twelve lines of dialogue. Dialogue only. We could not use attributions or other narrative. It was to be an argument between two people, one of whom has a secret. The secret could not be that they were pregnant or having an affair.
    From the dialogue, the reader should be able to identify the relationship of the two people, their gender, their ages, and what the secret was. 
    Here's mine.

"Did something happen at school?"


"What happened to your glasses?"


"How'd they get broken?"

"I dunno."

"Were the other boys at you again?"


"What kind of mothers do they have?"

"I dunno."

"Do you want me to talk to the teacher?"

"No. Please don't."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You Can't Have Too Many Cooks.


    "I've been thinking," my husband says as he comes into the room. Those of you who know us know that that is my line. At which, he rolls his eyes, puts down his book, and waits to hear just what scheme I've come up with now. 
    You notice I leave out the adjective "harebrained" which he would not be so rude as to say out loud.
    But, since it is he who has begun the conversation with that line I have no idea how to respond. He sees my confusion and explains, "Your mystery virus."
    Now I'm really confused. I was quietly working an online jigsaw puzzle with my brain (hare- or otherwise) happily parked in neutral.
    "For your book," he says. "You said you wanted a virus." There followed an interesting, in depth explanation of the corona family of viruses. 
    And he's absolutely right. I need an airborne virus for my new book. One that is likely to continue to evolve into the future and spread havoc among humans.
    Being a mystery writer, I'm always in the market for a poison, a sharp instrument, a lethal creature, any interesting mode of murder. And because my books take place in the future I need causes of death that are plausible -- a virus that might exist when we humans are living in colonies in space. 
    I talk to today's doctors, police officers, computer scientists, plumbers, cooks, everybody. They can imagine future changes in their fields. Those changes may seem fantastical today, but they just might happen. After all, it hasn't been very long ago that things we depend on daily didn't exist, at least not the way they do today.
    Like cell phones. I was trying to think of items that could be easily stolen and sold. The cell phone would be good. It's small enough to conceal and walk away with, but my daughter pointed out that the technology already exists to render a phone inoperable if it's stolen. And a phone that won't work has no value. Many electronics can be traced if they're stolen and in the future they probably all will be tagged some way, making them unsaleable. She suggested jewelry. Of course!
    I love it when my friends and family share their imaginations with me. 
    Stories that take place in the future need musical instruments that don't exist today, games, entertainments, sports, vices. 
    Safe to say, all the old vices will still be around, they'll just be marketed in different forms. And like I'm fond of saying, "Humans will always be human and murder happens."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Punctuation Wars


I’m battered and bruised. At least my ego is. A casualty of the punctuation wars.
Probably the most important thing to do before you publish a book is edit. (After you write it, of course.) And edit. And edit. Times ten. And then maybe one or three more times just for good measure.
It’s not just the major mistakes you gotta watch for -- like changing the spelling of your protagonist’s last name on page 34 and landing him in the wrong city on page 235 or having him sit down and then two paragraphs along having him sit down again without having gotten him up.
It's punctuation. I am a casualty of punctuation.
One evening my editor, one of my best beta readers, and I were at my dining table discussing my severe comma dysfunction.
One of them said it looked like I took armloads of commas and just splashed them across my manuscript. Laughter ensued.
“Are we supposed to hesitate at every comma?” someone asked, then reading a short passage, she hesitated at each comma. “It’s William Shatner speak!”
Hysteria all around.
Truly, wit is the lowest form of humor.
My writing teacher admonishes us to avoid exclamation points. At his most Hemingway-esque, he avers that if you use the right word or words to show intensity, you don’t need exclamation points.
What about colons and semicolons? Okay. Of course they have their places. All my English teachers have told me so.
Colons in the human anatomy have their place. When functioning properly, they are a most convenient method of waste elimination. Though, strictly speaking, they are not absolutely necessary.
Colons as punctuation, however, are never necessary or convenient. This is my own opinion. And they’re not even cute. But do I find them in my published novel, Murder on Ceres? You got it. Not just semicolons, but colons! Why didn’t I notice them on one of those many editing missions? Eliminate them?
I even have a colon in a quote. What could that possibly sound like in spoken English? The whole point of quotes!
 And quote marks! Should I use them just when someone speaks out loud? What if the character is thinking it?

“Commas and colons and quotes! Oh, my. Commas and colons and quotes! Oh, my.”