Friday, August 31, 2007


I'm stuck again on my ms - this is a recurring problem and it makes me restless and irritated and sends me out looking for something - anything - to do that doesn't involve writing.

So I play the "what if" game. I make myself play at least ten times a go. Here it is, as I played it this morning:

What if my MC, a nice middle-aged lady sorta like me only much more brave when it comes to looking in peoples' windows or talking to strangers or going off into the woods alone at night than I am, knocks on the door of the dilapidated house and:

1. Nothing much happens. No one's home.

2. The little girl who lost her dog answers, is delighted to be reunited with Fluffy, and the music for happy endings starts to play.

3. No one answers, so she looks in the window and sees that the house is empty.

4. No one answers, so she looks in the window and sees some pretty awful furniture and a living room really ready for Candace Olson's Divine Design or Trading Spaces. Clear plastic slipcovers are on the 1970's orange crushed velvet couch, and an overflowing olive green ceramic ashtray is still smoldering. A paisley caftan covers the part of the body visible on the floor. A pair of scarred and veiny legs stick out from it, with ugly, misshapen toes painted in chipped layers of Revlon's Fire 'n' Ice nail polish.

5. No one answers, so she looks in the window and sees the words "Go Away Doggies" scrawled in blood across the far wall. A tiny headless mannequin slumps in a corner, awash in more blood. At least it looks like a mannequin...

6. No one answers, and the front windows are curtained, so she goes around to the back door, which is wide open, and swinging off its hinges.

7. No one answers, so she goes around to the back. There is no back door, and the two small windows are high off the ground and appear to be painted shut. The unpainted cellar door is chained and locked with an old rusty padlock. She hears the whimpering of a small animal, and realizes it is not the little dog in her arms. She puts the little dog down and it runs through the waist-high weeds, yipping at the noise which seems to be coming from a shed.

8. A pretty lady in an apron opens the door and smiles. Our MC is swept in on a cloud of fresh coffee and Chanel 19 into a spotless living room. Music plays softly and the coffee table is set with an old-fashioned coffee service, china plates and freshly-baked scones. Sunlight streams through the windows, and our MC wonders why the outside of the house is such a mess when the inside looks like the cover of Better Homes and Gardens circa 1959.

9. A sound of crashing and shouting is heard, then a woman in sweats with her hair tied back in a scarf answers the door. "Well? What do you want?" she demands. "If you're selling something, just turn your butt around right now and get the hell out!" The woman looks behind her into the dim, foul-smelling gloom. "And you just stay right where you are Missy, if you don't want another taste of that switch! Little bastard, you drive me crazy!"

10. She waits for a few minutes, then knocks again. A shuffling noise can be heard inside, a sort of slow dragging. Then the locks on the door are undone slowly, one by one. She counts five. That's a lot of locks for one run-down little house at the edge of nowhere, she thinks. What do you need all those locks out here for? The door creaks a little as it opens, just a tight hinge, not a full-fledged Halloween scary noise. But enough to give her an involuntary shudder.

Okay, if that doesn't get you started, I don't know what will. Which one do you think I went with? Or maybe I just kept on going and wrote something completely different.

The point is, I wrote something. And once you get going, you just keep on until you run out of steam or have to go to the bathroom.


We put some low-voltage lighting in the back this week - the timber bamboo lit from underneath looks beautiful.

I checked the calendar - only four more weeks at this job, then off to new things.

We had a short but intense electrical storm Wednesday night. It is a highly unusual thing to happen here, but the sky was very beautiful. And the little dogs got to come in and hide under the covers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


I got asked a question the other day - someone wanted to know if it was okay to use a real town, with real places and real people, in a work of fiction.

Well, yes, it is.

But if you are going to use real stuff, you need to get it right. Here are a few hints.

SETTINGS: Real places can lend a lot of verisimilitude to a fictional work. I used to live in Pasadena, CA and I loved seeing landmarks in print. Wow, I thought, they're on the corner of Del Mar and California! What a thrill! These characters are in my town!

But wait - Del Mar and California run parallel - there is no corner of those two streets. The irritation I felt was out of proportion to the booboo, and it made me want to put the book down. A simple drive-by - or look-see at a map - would have fixed it. The author lost credibility with me in that instant.

If you are setting your story in a real place, it's okay to make up the details: Smokey Joe's Bar and Grill might be a figment of your imagination. Your characters may live in buildings that don't really exist in the real town. They might work at fictional shops, factories, offices or clinics, or eat at fictional taco stands or drink in fictional hotel bars. They might shop in real stores, though. They might pull into the real gas station or the real dry cleaners or the real post office.

So how do you know what to make fictional and when to use the real thing?

If you are using a real town for your setting, use just enough detail to set the mood. You don't need to describe every single thing, but there should be something about this place - a mood, a season, its geographical position or history - that makes you want to set something there in the first place. So be accurate geographically and with any major landmarks. If you use real streets, be familiar with them and know where they go. Know which neighborhoods are residential and which are commercial or deserted or where the wharf is. Know why you want to use it as a setting.

If you use real stores or businesses, remember they are your background, not your story. Don't bad mouth real businesses. If your character has a bad experience in a store or diner or somewhere, make it fictional. You don't want to libel anyone's business. Your fictional story does not depend on absolute reality of setting, so only use it as a seasoning.

PEOPLE: What about using real people in your fiction? Can you do this? Well, yes.

Public and historical figures may be used in your fiction. Keep in mind that these were/are real people and as such, may be used for mood. But be careful - you do not want hordes of lawyers screwing up your story.

You may mention public figures: "Mayor Quimby's office was in the historic City Hall, and the Mayor was strolling the gardens. He was an imposing figure and he waved to us as we passed." No problem there. "He eyed my companion and I suddenly remembered all the gossip about his sex-offender status." Okay, not so good. Don't malign public figures as they can sue you.

You may mention celebrities: "We hoped to see Brad Pitt, but all we got were glimpses of Dr. Phil and Scarlett Johanssen." "I thought it was Melanie, but it turned out to be Cher walking a small dog." Watch what you say - a lot of celebrities make a lot of money by suing folks who print inaccurate or awful stuff about them. If you need to be mean, make up a celeb.

Historic figures: Okay, here you have much more leeway as most of these folks are dead. The dead can't sue you for libel. You can have them in lots of situations, by name.

TRADEMARKS & CORPORATIONS: In the movies, this is known as product placement. It's tricky!

If the product must be named - Coke ™ instead of cola, Kleenex ™ instead of tissue, you gotta use that little trademark symbol and use the product name correctly. If you refer to companies, use their corporate names correctly and watch what you or your characters say about them. If you need to crash a plane, poison a town or expose a scandal, use a fictional company. If you attribute unsavory things to a real company, they can sue you.

And keep in mind the world changes. Remember 2001: A Space Odyssey? Pan Am was the carrier. Uh, Pan Am is long gone.

So, you can use reality in your fiction to help make it believable. I love reading stories set in places I know, with reality sprinkled in liberally in the form of real cars and real foods and other real stuff. It gives me a connection with the characters and the story. But your writing needs to be so good that everything in your story can be made up and still make me suspend my disbelief for the whole satisfying experience.

I look forward to reading your story - but don't have anyone meeting on the corner of Del Mar and California in Pasadena, okay?


The irrigation ditches, drying up from the weeks of high temperatures and drought, and choked with duckweed, but still providing a weird sanctuary for the few remaining water birds.

The new glass in our clerestory windows - it's so clean!

The chocolate cake at the local fast food joint. Heaven!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Are you an Honorable Recipient of Freedom?

I know it's not a holiday - but I was taken with the writing and the sentiments of this article published in the newsletter of a veteran's group.

My brother is a disabled Viet Nam veteran - yesterday was his birthday, and he gave me a present! He wrote this article for South West Arizona Stand Down, a veteran's group in which he volunteers. He wrote this in response to some folks in his town who were saying unpleasant things about a homeless person.

Are you an Honorable Recipient of Freedom?

by William J. Thornton

In America, on any given night there are as many as 275,000 American Military veterans without a place to sleep. Nearly all have Honorable Discharges from Military Service to our country defending our freedoms. 23 to 40% of all the homeless persons in America are veterans of military service. Nearly 500,000 veterans experience homelessness every year. Many are veterans of the War on Terrorism. You’ve seen them here in town.

They are the few, the proud, the soldiers, sailors and airmen that suffer from flashbacks and nightmares from their war experiences. Others are crippled, disfigured and helpless. None will ever be well again. Many will never get better.

What’s the government doing about all this? Our current administration has tried to cut their benefits, deny them mental health care, and can only provide beds for about 10% of the veterans sleeping on our streets.

Would you appreciate it if a complete stranger were willing to listen to your concerns without being judgmental? How would it feel if your life were a mess, and someone you don’t even know offered to help? Ever been hungry and wished you had a simple meal? Ever seen someone on the street in filthy rags, and wondered how it would feel if you could hand them fresh clean clothes, then point them toward a shower? Would it matter if he’d saved your son’s life in combat?

Could you spare ten minutes of your time once a year to listen to a veteran who had fought for your own freedoms? Would you be big enough to serve that veteran a meal?
Could you be appreciative enough to shake that veteran’s hand? Could you smile into his empty eyes?

The men and women who earned your freedoms appreciate these small gestures.

If you don’t care about the men and women who fought for your freedom, just stop reading this letter and throw it away.

This isn’t a government issue. It’s a local community issue. These veterans live in your town, on your streets and in your doorways. They dive in your dumpsters, and beg for your change. They exist in the midst of folks living the American Dream, like you. They are ignored, shunned and cursed as lazy, worthless and shiftless. “They’re filthy, no-good bums.” ‘They expect something for nothing”. We hear this everyday from people who take their freedoms for granted.

We’ll go to the Veteran’s Day Parade and wave a flag on the curb. We’ll wear red, white and blue. We’ll eat hot dogs on the Fourth of July, and drink beer. Then we’ll forget those who gave so much that we could enjoy these freedoms.

Just once, see if you have what it takes inside to be an Honorable Recipient of Freedom.

Look into the face of a veteran, if you dare. Try to convince him that what he’s done really means something to you, personally. War gets pretty personal when you’re out there in it. Can you return the favor, or do you just take it for granted that you deserve these sacrifices?

Just once, make a difference in the life of one veteran. Just tell a veteran, any veteran, “Welcome home”… and really mean it. Shake his or her hand. Dare to show them you appreciate their sacrifices.

Show respect for those who earned your liberties.

Be an Honorable Recipient of Freedom.

I am a 100% disabled Vietnam Veteran. I remember 9/11. I’ve stood before the awesome spectacle of Rolling Thunder at Arlington, and I cried at Veterans Memorial Park in Washington, DC. I led the Pledge of Allegiance at George Washington’s Tomb and I fell to my knees at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. If a simple veteran can do this much in appreciation for his brothers and sisters, why can’t you?

Today, I serve my fellow veterans in any way I can, because I can. Because it’s right.

What have you done for a veteran today?

---William J. Thornton

South West Arizona Stand Down is a non-profit Association serving veterans of Yuma, LaPaz and Mohave Counties, Arizona, and may be contacted at (928) 503-0552

My brother - he's a good brother and a good writer, too. I'm very proud of him.

(If you wish to reprint this, you may as long as you reprint it in its entirety and give the author his credit.)


Well, obviously, my brother is top o' the list today. Actually, today he's all Three Beautiful Things rolled into one... happy birthday, Bill!