Saturday, August 27, 2016

Where I Was 3 Years Ago Today -- Nonfiction

In 2013 my daughter Grace invited me to write as a guest on her blog Sin and Inconvenience. This is what she published Tuesday, August 27, 2013, three years ago today. Facebook reminded me. And, yes, the novel in question is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle additions -- Murder on Ceres.

My first novel, first draft almost finished. How did I get here? If I were Michener I would start--In the beginning, God. This blog post begins only a little later than that, but well before cell phones and the internet.

I used to write and submit poetry for publication. Acceptance letters along with the standard thank you and a promise of two copies of the issue in which my poem would be published thrilled me. But in those pre-cell-phone days, it cost a fortune to call all my friends and relatives long distance to tell them the good news. Not to mention the expense of buying additional copies of said issue and postage to send those copies to friends and relatives.

I’ve worked for a small-town daily newspaper. I’ve seen my by-line and my name in cutlines enough. But the idea of a book with my name on the spine sitting on a shelf in the Edmond Public Library seems much too grand. It shimmers above me in the night sky, brighter than the moon. A dream, a desire, a star too brilliant to look at and too distant to touch.

Knowing that a novel was beyond me, my book started out as a short story. I’ve written short fiction. I took a course in college. I understand how it works. So all I needed was a prompt of some kind and a deadline. My daughter provided the prompt and the deadline allowing me to choose the genre.

I ignored her prompt and chose murder and science fiction. And I went to work.

The deadline came and went, and the work proved to be as undisciplined as I. The story would not limit itself to short fiction. So I reconsidered the situation and decided to do a little book, a murder mystery that takes place on a colony in low orbit around the asteroid Ceres. But I needed help.

I happened to attend a monthly meeting of Oklahoma City Writers, Inc. at which William Bernhardt was doing a two hour presentation on novel writing. He talked about outlining. An instant turnoff since my research paper days too many years ago. But he made sense and showed how to plan the structure of my book. He was talking about the actual nuts and bolts of constructing a book-length story.

Three years plus several months, three of Bill Bernhardt’s intensive writing workshops plus a conference here and there, and I am coming around the last turn on this full-length murder mystery science fiction novel.

Bill said write every day. Four hours a day. If I had done that the book would have been finished long ago. Did I mention that I’m undisciplined? I heard somewhere that Stephen King says to write four hours a day and read eight hours a day. Or was that Mark Twain?  The eight hours reading I could go for, whoever said it.

There was a recommendation that I join a writers’ critique group for support and critical input. But that meant I had to also give support and critical input. I left every one of those meetings feeling bad because I had said harsh things to people as earnest about their writing as I was about mine. Tact is not one of my virtues. And have I mentioned lack of self-control?

Then somewhere else the advice was to just write it all the way through, do not do any editing until the story is complete. What a good rule. But mine is a murder mystery. As I wrote I discovered things that needed to appear earlier in the story. That required a rewrite of a scene. Editing? Even sitting down to begin the next writing session without looking at what I’d done the day before was impossible. Reading the work from the day before required minor or major changes. Did I mention that I tend to break rules even when I impose them myself?

What have I learned these past three-hundred, ten pages, and counting? Somewhere I heard that the definition of the verb to persevere is to begin again, and again, and again. No matter how many times my discipline fails, my control is lost, and my rules are broken, I can begin right now where I am. My book will be written and I will be launched into the night sky to find my name on the spine of a book in the Edmond Public Library. Just gotta finish this book first.

Claudia Wagner

I was born in Oklahoma. I learned to read under my mother’s ironing board. I learned the importance of stories around the dinner table during holidays and in the cellar during storms. I started writing to entertain my classmates. I continued to write because classes or work required it. Sometimes I wrote to understand my life. I have been office help, a welfare case worker, a fast foods manager, and a roustabout in the oil patch. I have also worked for the USDA. I’ve managed a veterinary clinic, helped care for my dying mother, and been a Page at the Edmond Library. I am a woman, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. I believe the future of humanity is as unlimited as the Universe. And I believe that we as a species are imaginative enough and brave enough to move beyond the Earth into that Universe.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Barbara's Law -- A Review

image from

It's courtroom drama with a French twist. And it's good. Not so much because of the plots, but because of the characters.

With so many viewing options available to us these days it's odd to me that I have so much trouble finding something to watch. Traditional television, cable, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu. Even HBO is getting into the mix. I think if it weren't for local weather and news I'd just drop cable and get all my entertainment over the internet. (And that's probably the wrong preposition -- maybe 'from' the internet? 'on' the internet? 'off' the internet? You know what I mean.)

But like diamonds in Arkansas's Crater of Diamonds State Park and gold in Colorado's Clear Creek, if you sift enough sand, you're bound to hit pay dirt. I know, I know. Too many clichés.

The French television production 'Barbara's Law' is one of those welcome gemstones of television virtuosity. It's well written, well directed, and well acted.

The plots begin when our lawyer Barbara meets her client. The plots twist and turn just enough to keep you guessing about what really happened and whether or not her client might be innocent or at least innocent enough.

The characters are glorious and well-played. Barbara is a woman of a certain age with hair going to gray, somewhat overweight, and more than a little bossy. She sometimes likes her drink too much but she always cares even more about justice.

Her associate is erudite, intellectual, and gay. Her secretary is no-nonsense, efficient, and tolerant. Without these two, she'd get into more trouble than she does.

And her ?? -- I don't know what they call them in France, but I translated his role as private investigater. He's a fisherman whom she meets in places that may be typical for fishing but atypical for professional consultations. She trades envelopes we can assume to be stuffed with money for information.

Then of course, there's her dog Darius. I have no idea what his pedigree is. Think big, brown, destructive Newfoundland.

So far this mini series of three episodes is available on Amazon Prime. ('from' Amazon Prime?) I understand there is a second mini series but it is not currently available in the U.S. I tell you this up front because after you watch the three episodes that are available, you'll want more.

Another caveat is that it is in French. Yes, go figure -- a French TV show in French. What were they thinking? This means if you don't have more than my one semester of college French, you're going to have to use the subtitles.

Ah, yes. Subtitles. Many years ago when we moved to a small town in far southeast Arkansas, I visited a movie store there. If you're old enough, you'll remember movie stores. Blockbuster, Hollywood Video those were the big chain movie rental stores, but our town was too small to attract them. We had two independent movie stores and neither of them had a 'foreign film' section.

The first time I went to the larger of the two, I asked, "Where are your foreign language films." The young man told me they didn't have any. Then he asked "How many languages do you speak?" And I said "Just English, but I read it very well." He had no idea what I was talking about. He'd never watched a subtitled film.

My family's taste in movies tends to be global, but none of us speaks more than English -- a common failing in American public education, but that's another blog post surely.

Barbara's Law is subtitled and the subtitles flash across the screen pretty rapidly so it's best to be well-rested and turn off your cell phone when you watch because if you nod off or get a call you'll miss out. Of course, the good thing about watching on the internet is that you can back it up to get anything you miss.

Oh yes. In the interest of full disclosure, I do speak Southern and used to be reasonably fluent in Pig Latin.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Monkeydo -- Nonfiction

Image from

"Did you sleep well?" my husband asked.

"I did," I said. "After I put the cat out of the bedroom."

"You got us a bad cat," he said as he fished around under the cook stove for cat toys. Finding none, he wadded up a bit of aluminum foil and proceeded to play kick ball with Kočka. And fetch! Who ever heard of a cat playing fetch?

But that's not what I come here to talk about. (A corruption of a line from Arlo Guthrie's slightly more than 18 minute long song Alice's Restaurant. If you haven't heard it since you were a rebellious teen in the 60's click on the link, lean back, inhale, and enjoy. If you've never heard it, then you should. And if you think you don't have eighteen plus free minutes, you definitely should.)

What I did come here to talk about is words.

At 6:14 this a.m. my phone sounded, waking me to let me know I'd gotten a new email. Apparently I had been working on a writing problem while I slept, because I awoke with a much needed monkeydo. (You probably have the same bemused expression my husband had when I used that word to explain how successfully I'd slept. And by-the-bye, bemused pronounced bih-myoozd, is an adjective meaning bewildered or confused. It has nothing to do with the word amuse unless, of course you see it in a blog post exploring words as a means of entertainment.)

When you write, you need believable reasons for characters to say or do what the plot needs them to. That's a monkeydo. Or if you need them to be in a particular place or situation, getting them there is a monkeydo. Else you have a deus ex machina.

I don't know where the term monkeydo comes from, but I don't think I coined it myself. Which brings me to terminologicalinexactitudinarian. That's my favorite word. I googled it to use in this post. And Oh my god! this is what I found

Writers sometimes think about big words... - Claudia Weber Wagner ...

Writers sometimes think about big words -- and I don't mean terminologicalinexactitudinarian -- today I mean justice. Check out my latest blog post....

That's right. The ONLY thing Google brought up on that word was me. How many times have you googled something and it only brought up one? Much less that one being you. Talk about feeling important! I'm still smiling like the proverbial Cheshire Cat.

Now that wasn't my first reaction. My first reaction was that I must have misspelled it the exact same way I must have misspelled it in the said reference listed by Google. I thought it was a term coined by Winston Churchill, one of my favorite word-coiners. (Terminologicians?) So I connected it to his name and googled again. This time I got "about 4,050 results." Here's one:

terminological inexactitude - definition of terminological inexactitude in ...
Definition of terminological inexactitude in English: Share this entry. email cite discuss ... Origin. First used by Winston Churchill in a Commons speech in 1906.

Now I must question my whole understanding of the word. I don't think I made it up, nor did I make up the story wrapped around the coining of the word. I'm sure I heard it somewhere -- The Dick Cavett Show, my humanities class at Central State, one of the Muppets on Sesame Street. And the context sounded so Churchill.

The story was that the politicians in Great Britain's House of Commons are not allowed to call each other 'liars' so . . . . Apparently the part of the story about using that word in Parliament is true. I googled it.

And one more thing, which has nothing to do with this post other than I got it when I googled "words images." Isn't the picture at the top of this blog beautiful?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hiking Lakewood -- Nonfiction

Seen from Stone House Park, that shadow of a rounded, treeless hill is Green Mountain, my north star. You can see it from almost anywhere in the Metro Denver area. It marks my way home to Lakewood, Colorado.

Lakewood is a suburb of Denver, and I must say Colorado does its suburbs right. We have easy access to public transportation, top-notch medical care, good schools, rec centers (Lakewood has three.) We have movie theaters and community theaters. There are restaurants that range from food trucks parked outside micro-breweries to steak houses with cuisines representing every culture you can imagine and a few I've never thought of.  If your idea of entertainment is shopping, it's here -- upscale to thrift store.

Lakewood not only maintains its streets and sidewalks (this is the only town I've ever lived in that actually repairs sidewalks and not at the expense of the homeowner -- well other than the taxes we pay) but they save areas they call open spaces and green belts. It being high plains desert where water is especially precious, "green" may be a more hopeful than literal term. Still....

Stone House Park (one of my favorite places to walk) is on Bear Creek Trail. The trail is 14.5 miles long, extending from Morrison and the entryway to Red Rocks Park on the west, east to the South Platte River. From there you can follow the South Platte River Trail into downtown Denver.

Last Sunday my husband and I needed a break from our nonstop Olympics viewing. (Who'da thunk we'd become completely sedentary during the Olympics?) So we walked Bear Creek Trail east from Stone House to Wadsworth. That's about a mile. Then a mile back, of course.


We crossed Bear Creek and came to the biggest Cottonwood Tree I've ever seen. That's me at its base. I waded through weeds almost as tall as I am. My husband's first concern was chiggers.

We're originally from Oklahoma where chiggers are a serious threat. If you've never had chiggers (that's what we call having been bitten or eaten alive, more like, by them) then you have lived a charmed life.

According to the Colorado State Extension Service, "Chiggers actually do not bite, but feed by digesting small areas of the upper skin through saliva. The “bite” that chiggers produce is a reaction to the proteins in the saliva. They are rarely encountered in Colorado." Thank goodness.

East of the forest area the paved trail runs through an open meadow bounded on the south by condos which you cannot see.

Then it runs right through a large prairie dog village.

When the trail is empty you forget that this park is in a city of almost 150,000 people.

But a group of bicyclists or people walking their dogs quickly dispels the middle-of-nowhere illusion.

Bear Creek and the trail cross under Wadsworth Boulevard

Wadsworth is a major four-lane, North/South thoroughfare through Lakewood. With the exception of rush hour, the traffic volume is tolerable. In the park, it's as though the street and traffic and all those humans going hither and yon do not exist.

We decided that was far enough. What with my stopping to take pictures and watch the prairie dogs, he was having to walk at half-speed. There is nothing quite so wonderful as having a tolerant husband.

We crossed the creek and headed back to the parking lot at Stone House using a different trail. Bear Creek Green Belt has several trails to choose from. We chose one that follows close by the creek and is shaded by trees. The sun in Colorado can be fierce.
And the skies, extraordinarily blue which this little lake reflects beautifully.
August is nearing the end of summer what with the possibility of snow as early as September and the flora is shifting from the growing season into the seeding season. 

Thistle going to seed                        Blue Mist Penstemon

And this year's Canada Geese goslings are as big as their parents.

Now back to the house for a nice glass of ice water, a pulled-pork sandwich, and an Olympic Rugby Match. Did you know Rugby actually has rules?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

"Killing Our Darlings" or a Double Review


As a writer I am painfully aware of the commandment that we must "kill our darlings." 

For those of you who haven't run into this rule yet, let me explain. It's that line in your poem that is so perfect it hurts your heart. It's that bit of dialogue in your novel that makes your character glow with their own personal soul. It's that bit of wisdom that makes writing worth living. And you wrote it.

But -- and it's a very big 'but' -- if the rest of your work is less perfect, you gotta cut it. 

Why? Because the whole point of writing a poem or a story is for the reader to experience it. It should all happen inside their head. They should see it and feel it themselves.

The very beautiful and quotable line that you are so proud of will throw your reader out of the story. It will say to them "Forget the poem for a minute or maybe forever because this bit is so much finer. I am the god who wrote that. Aren't you impressed?!"

That is not to say that there are not writers who can liberally sprinkle such gems throughout their work and I, as a reader, will be carried without interruption through their story, buoyed on beauty. 

Barbara Kingsolver is just that sort of writer. I believe she is the finest writer living and working today. 

My first experience of her was the Poisonwood Bible. It was published in 1998, but I didn't read it until two years ago. I was amazed by its language and structure. It's a story told in first person from five points of view -- a mother and her four daughters moved by her Southern Baptist missionary husband from a segregated Georgia to a small village in the lush but dangerous Belgian Congo.

I've since read several of her short stories and I'm pleased to say each is well-done.

Animal Dreams, published in 1990, is every bit as good as The Poisonwood Bible

Instead of going into the unknown jungle, Codi, the main character is returning to a small Arizona town named Grace where she and her younger sister grew up.

          "Hallie and I were so attached, like keenly mismatched Siamese twins conjoined
     at the back of the mind.

Codi remembers the day her sister left Tuscon to do good deeds in Nicaragua. 

          "She left in August after the last rain of the season. Summer storms in the desert
     are violent things, and clean, they leave you feeling like you have cried." 

And she, too, left Tuscon to return to the home she'd never felt at-home in. She was returning to care for her father, the town doctor who was declining into that worst of aging's punishments, dementia. She describes her town when she arrives by bus.

          "There wasn't a soul on the street today and I thought of those movies in which a 
     town is wiped clean of its inhabitants, for one reason or another -- a nuclear holocaust,
     say, or a deadly mutant virus -- leaving only a shell of consumer goods

          "I knew I'd been there. Sitting in Jonny's ... hunched in a booth drinking forbidden
     Cokes, reverently eyeing the distant easy grace of the girls who had friends and mothers.
     Those things didn't seem so much like actual memories as like things I might remember
     from a book I'd read more than once."

Some of those memories had not been true and some had.

          "I can see my mother there, a small white bundle with nothing left, and I can see
     that it isn't a tragedy we're watching, really. Just a finished life."

And Ray Bradbury may be the best wordsmith ever. Where Kingsolver scatters her jewels on every page, Bradbury often builds each paragraph, each bit of dialogue with the most wonderful lines. In one of the many short stories in the collection which takes its title from my own favorite short story "I Sing the Body Electric" we meet Bradbury's robotic grandmother. She was purchased by a father for his three motherless children. Each child has their own needs, their own perspectives and after describing the care giver each wanted -- three different colors of eyes, three different styles of hair, three different everything -- they receive their perfect grandmother.

          "And the golden mask face of the woman carved on the sarcophagus lid looked
     back at us with just the merest smile which hinted at our own joy, which accepted the
     overwhelming upsurge of a love we thought had drowned forever but now surfaced
     into the sun.
          Not only did she have a sun-metal face stamped and beaten out of purest gold,
     with delicate nostrils and a mouth that was both firm and gentle, but her eyes, fixed
     into their sockets, were cerulean or amethystine or lapus lazuli, or all three, minted
     and fused together."

          "The sarcophagus spelled winters ahead, springs to squander, autumns to spend
     with all the golden and rusty and copper leaves like coins, and over all her bright
     sun symbol, daughter-of-Ra eternal face, forever above our horizon, forever an
     illumination to tilt our shadows to better ends."

A grandmother that we would all wish to have raised us and to raise our children.

Now, if only we all wrote as well as Kingsolver and Bradbury, none of us would need to "kill our darlings." 

Do I have darlings? Yes, and they have been torn from my writings with me screaming and kicking for every one. (This is why we need editors!)

They are all safely ensconced in a folder marked "Cut Stuff That Might Be Good Somewhere."