A Little Exercise in Writing

I had the opportunity to join the Sisters in Crime crowd for a course in short story writing given by Art Taylor. It reminded me that I have a long-haul brain and a swift to explain psyche. It isn’t a terrific combination. I’m fighting both all of the time.

The writing of extremely short (700 words) stories was covered . . . a bit. I found the idea intriguing and liked the promised discipline of it. Really, how do you tell a good tale in seven-hundred words? I’m barely started by then. Heck, I can write seven-hundred words about the Canadian Shield lining Highway 14 in Ontario in seven minutes flat, fingers flying. But should I? Too often, I just want to tell everyone everything about everybody. I spill the beans right out of the can the minute the lid is off. It is a nasty habit.

It means that I spend days after the first draft is completed moving all of the spilled beans around to where they belong in the story. And sometimes, they don’t belong at all. And sometimes, they get left in when they shouldn’t, leaving a soggy bit of mess.

So, I suggested to my Bodie Blue Books partner that we each write a seven-hundred word short story for our upcoming newsletter. For me, it became the perfect exercise in combating my twin demons. Seven-hundred words are not many (heck, I’ve already used nearly a third of them). Like any book or short story, your seven-hundred-word tale needs a beginning, middle, and end, acts one through four, and a climax or conundrum. The enforced discipline of writing a super short story should be obvious by now.

For success, you need to question each word, its placement, purpose, and usefulness to the story right up to the hopefully satisfactory denouement. Each word should serve the purpose of the narrative. One word, one message, one point, one emotion, you can’t waste any of your allotted words, nor should you ever, no matter the length of your manuscript.

Let’s say your characters are awaiting an incoming storm of megalithic proportions. Do you describe the sky or their apprehension? Can you do both? Is it necessary to do both? Which has the most effect on the narrative? The mood?

My tale is a ghost story derived from an actual event in my life. I began writing it as it had occurred at our century-farmhouse packed as it was to the gills with the Uninvited. I felt the need to provide the provenance for the ghost. Then I realized his provenance was the mystery.  I had to walk back from my habit of spilling every character’s motivation and back-story, sometimes all at once like spewed pea soup. I worked, and honed, and edited, and . . . recalibrated a lot.

Frankly, the discipline of the limited word count drove me to rethink my writing and re-motivated me. Not a bad way to spend four frustrating days. And the exercise inspired this blog. All good, eh? (505 words)

So, suppose you decide to write an extra-short story? I suggest you limit yourself to precisely seven-hundred words to tell a tale you wouldn’t be ashamed to see in print. It will be time well spent. I leave you with that thought and 145 perfectly-good words to use anywhere needed.

Visit me at: dzchurch.com, facebook.com/mysteryhistorysuspense, or Amazon to check out my books

Weather or not?

D. Z. Church

My father, a flight instructor at the time, decided eight was the perfect age to teach his eager daughter to fly. I had a logbook, and we had a plan that I would solo as soon as I could, which was at 16. Never mind that the plan went horribly awry when my father decided to become a Meteorological Research Pilot and famously fly through hailstorms, erupting volcanoes, and hurricanes.*

When we started, I couldn’t see out of the cockpit (too short), so I learned to fly by instrument. Yes, this is the wrong way round. Usually, you start by using the actual horizon to keep your wings even, your nose up or down as the earth passes quickly below. Some would argue that nothing passes quickly below a Piper Cub. Once, in a Lake Michigan gale, my father flew a Cub halfway across the state backward.

There are very few instruments in a Cub, altimeter (how high), airspeed indicator (how fast), compass (where), oil gauge (obvious). After one lesson in a Piper Cub, with me unable to see out and fly level, Dad stepped me up to a Cessna 150 equipped with an attitude indicator. The attitude indicator provides information such as up, down, level via an artificial horizon, in short, the plane’s general relationship to the earth and air. Attitude is everything, or so Bernoulli and guidance counselors advise us.

So, I learned to trust my instruments before I trusted my eyes. One of the greatest mistakes that pilots make in bad weather, especially new ones, is mistrusting their instruments, think John F. Kennedy Jr.. Dad warned me to trust science over intuition when the horizon was obscured, meaning in the air and in life. I thank him for that and this; once you’ve navigated through bumptious clouds at the controls of a light plane reading the wind, clouds, and sun to stay up and on course, you never take the earth or the sky for granted again.*

Gust Front outside Miles City, MT (L. M. Zinser)

Or the adventures! My husband and I were shrink-wrapped in a tent by a tornado once (once was enough). I was in a one-hole tin outhouse as it was struck by lightning and watched St. Elmo’s Fire flow down the metal walls. A hurricane made landfall while I was on Assateague Island visiting the Chincoteague ponies. I outran it to safety, the rain hitting the car on the way down and back up. I’ve tried to sleep through a hundred mile an hour winds ripping shingles off the roof, watched drenching rain turn into a muddy flood, seen twin tornadoes dance, and lost a dinghy while sailing in a squall and dove in after it. And that’s not all the sky has tossed my way.

Now, when I write, the cast of the sun, the thunder of rain, and the howl of the wind sit on my shoulders, waiting a chance to cause havoc in a thriller. They know I can’t help myself. Head First, the second book in the Cooper Quartet, is set in Central California in the winter of 1972-73 during an El Nino that changed the entrance to Big Sur State Park forever. Pay Back, the third book in the Quartet, takes place during the Fall of Saigon. Late April 1975, the monsoons started early, drubbing Saigon the day before the North Vietnamese stormed the city. Perfidia is set on a Caribbean island given to sparkling sun and afternoon squalls while Saving Calypso unfolds in the Sierra Nevada’s wind and fire zone. Booth Island (just released) is in a lake in Canada given to late spring rains and rough water. Like I said, I can’t help myself.

I blame Dad; he gave me the sky. And the Navy. I ended up at a Meteorology and Oceanography Command (not much of a stretch) though I joined hoping to become one of the first female attack pilots (taller but still too short).

Postscript: It is no accident that Byron Cooper is a Navy attack pilot in the first two books of the Cooper Quartet. I may have been writing vicariously.

*If you want to know more about the adventures of a Meteorological Research Pilot, you might look into the memoir Pilot Log Book Lies and More by Lester M. Zinser. Warning, it is a bit technical.

*If you haven’t read The Cloudspotter’s Guide (Gavin Pretor-Pinney) yet, run out and get a copy. Besides being a terrific read, it is a good resource for all things cloud.

Calypso Swale Is Smarter than Me and I Created Her!

The wind hit at about three in the afternoon. A stiff breeze that turned into a raging blast. At a hundred miles an hour, it tossed trees, tore off shingles, smashed roofs, and tangled wires into a massive mess that Pacific Gas & Electric took six days to unsnarl. In the meantime, a refrigerator full of food sat unused, the propane furnace was useless without electricity to the thermostat, matches were required to light the range, and no water without the water pump, no washing, no showers, or toilets flushing. So, there we were roughing it at the edges of civilization. In a normal year, let’s say without a pandemic, one would make reservations at the nearest hotel.

That may not have worked anyway because every PG&E employee plus ten was housed in the local hotels. So, we set about making the best of it. We drove down the hill to the local drive-through for breakfast and bought sandwiches at a grocery store, which we then ate sitting in our car in various parking lots, listening to the news, and charging our phones. We weren’t the only ones.

The wind tore chunks of shingles off our roof and deposited limbs with abandon. Our realtor recommended a roofer, he didn’t do repairs anymore. But at the mention of her name, he recommended someone who did and said to use his name with specific instructions on how to reach said roofer. That is why we are the only people in our area with our roof restored and not blue tarp dangling where trees bisected the house.

Now we have snow, eight inches of it, effectively snowing us in. Electricity is still up, our internet provider is not, but we have hotspots on our phones and a jetpack, and we can charge them without the car, so we aren’t without. No Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or… Thankfully we have a handful of prized DVDs.

What have I learned? That it would have been nice if our new fireplace had been delivered and installed before the wind hit. That we should have a generator and maybe a whole house generator like our neighbors. Listening to theirs humming away caused waves of jealousy. That Calypso Swale, of my thriller Saving Calypso, was savvy enough to have a peddle-charger to light her cabin at night. Having done the research for that book that takes place just northwest of where we are snowed in, you’d think I would have learned something about living off the grid. Because, when the power is out, you are really, really off the grid.

I did learn that if your freezer is stuffed enough, and your refrigerator door lined with cold wine bottles, and you don’t open either, you might make it six days without any loss of food. We’ll find out when we eat the jambalaya I made just before the power went out.

I’m not a stranger to camping or staying on an island without power or using an outhouse. In fact, I relied on that experience in writing my soon to be released book Booth Island. But losing power, when you have it, is a weird thing. First, you assume that the power will magically come on in the morning, then it doesn’t, so you think it will by 6:00 pm because it always has. Then you get into the bringing in buckets of rainwater to flush mode and doing anything to ease through the day. Should I have been writing? Yes, but my computer was on when the power went out, and my battery was dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

With a book coming out, losing six days is a big deal. I’m behind on everything, including promotions, ads, and, well, everything. But here’s a preview of Booth Island:

My clothed body bumps off granite rocks as it descends into the frigid depths of a Canadian lake. A swirl of red drifts on the bubbles escaping my lips. I watch each pocket of air grow smaller as it ascends toward the surface. A concussion rams my hip against a cement post. I glance to my left. Another body bobs next to mine. Recognizing it, I reach out…

I woke with a jolt knowing I was out of my depth again. I chose to believe that was the message of the dream. The nightmare, really, had haunted me at random intervals since my brother, Roy, drowned at the age of seventeen. I was fifteen at the time. We had been a team.

Winter here, wind calm, jetpack working. All is good. Twelve inches of snow predicted for tonight.

Snow, Snow, Snow!

Every time I watch either A Christmas Story or Prancer on television, I am a kid again in the Mid-West, knee-deep in Christmas snow. And, as everyone knows, a Christmas snow is magic. The stars seem brighter, the possibilities endless, and joy abounds.

In the Mid-West, every hill is a possible sledding hill. The best ones have a stream at the bottom meant to be dodged or jumped. We glided through orchards, through woods, down steep hills fast enough to launch ourselves over that stream and around a corner, laughing the while. We each had your standard flexible flyer, and someone always trailed a toboggan. The type of sled used depended on whether the snow was wet, dry, or icy. The worst part of sledding was dragging your flyer uphill for the next run. And, of course, the occasional crashes.

A certified sledding hill!

Toboggan crashes were the worst, especially when the driver yelled right. Always. Trust me, always, half of the riders leaned right and the other half left.  The toboggan hit the tree dead-center every time, skyrocketing the riders up, out, and head first in the snow. When we were tired beyond standing, bedraggled, and frozen, we lumbered home, sleds and toboggans in our wake.  If we were lucky, a cup of hot chocolate loaded with marshmallows was bubbling on the kitchen stove. If we weren’t, we heated milk and spooned in chocolate powder from a can. It worked.

Back then, we walked to school, the girls in skirts, half-socks, boots (sometimes leggings), coats over the whole, hats and earmuffs and mittens and… The camaraderie of walking, picking up friends at each street corner, teasing, and throwing the odd snowball took our minds off our blue lips and pink legs all the way to our two-story brick school building. Yes, with a flagpole just out front. Cloakrooms were invented for winter. It took us an extra ten minutes to hang up our heavy coats and get our feet out of our dripping boots. Once in class, we spent the day mooning out the classroom window, hoping the snow would stay until the weekend so we could romp and stomp in it until dark, about 4:30 in the afternoon.

A weekend snow was the best. Waking to a sparkling, uninterrupted field of white ripe for snow angels, or a game of fox and goose stomped intricately on the lawn (complete with the berry patch) was heaven on earth. The rules of fox and goose were as loose as the design, sort of a Sorry gameboard but trickier. It was a Dr. Suess version of tag gone mad with safe zones and castle keeps.

I grew up in snow country then joined the Navy and ended up in California. In the second book of the Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet, Head First, Lieutenant Robin Haas, from Michigan, stationed in Monterey, CA, sings my lament.

After five years in California, it still seemed ridiculous…to buy a Christmas tree when it was sixty degrees outside. At least there was some hint of seasons for those on the Monterey Peninsula, though you had to be astute to detect it. Winter was more a chilling down and brightening up than anything. Summers were cold, foggy, and filled with increasing numbers of tourists…  

Robin picked out a six-and-a-half-foot Jackpine from the Christmas trees leaning against the Base Exchange wall. She shook it out to check its shape, ignoring the disapproving Monterey pines that shadowed her in the setting winter sun.

Towhee bathing in a new snow!

A fresh snow still thrills me. Each one holds the promise of fun. I suppose that is why I love to be in our cabin in the Sierras when the flurries begin to fly. The dream of a bright morning sun shining on a field of unbroken snow, waiting for that first footstep, first sled ride, or the first ski run. And is why I dream of buying a little Cape Cod house on a horseshoe-shaped street with the wild toboggan hill (stream at the bottom) just off the next road up but one.

Happy Holidays and Snows to all!

D. Z. Church

Head First is available at: https://www.amazon.com/Head-First-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B07QG4M97T

Thanks Giving

D. Z. Church

How lucky am I to have my blog appear on Thanksgiving Day! This year. In the middle of a pandemic. When no one can travel or sit at a table with all those they love. Okay, it’s been on my mind.

A lot.

Thanksgiving has always been my holiday. Back in the days when we had nuclear families, as in grandparents living with us or nearby, aunts and uncles and cousins just up the road, Thanksgiving was it! Just a great big, whack-a-doodle party from beginning to end. Especially since as kids our entire responsibility was to stay out of the way while the feast was prepared. My older sister and I and an aunt and uncle our ages made Christmas chains out of all the left-over aluminum foil at a big old card table in the front parlor. If we were really good, we got to pour water into the water glasses and set up the kids’ tables. Remember those?

The outbuildings at the farm, the house was to the left of the tall trees.

The entire family, including great aunts and uncles from Chicago, all converged on the family farm, a Century farm in northwestern Illinois with a big old Victorian farmhouse. The local aunts, uncles, and cousins arrived by late morning. But, since we lived only twenty minutes away, we strolled in for breakfast, which always included Grandma Mid’s thumbprint cakes. These things were to die for, and you might actually die from them. They involved large dollops of heavy cream hand-churned from milk from our cows by a second cousin a few miles away. OMG!

Cooking for the big day, started the previous weekend with pies. Grandma Mid and her daughters were glorious pie makers. The inscription on one aunt’s tombstone ends with: And the best damn pie maker. No kidding. For reference, imagine one of those ads you used to see with a huge family around an enormous table covered in food and double it. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting gone wild.

As soon as we were released from our eating obligations, we kids would roar out into the farmyard or across the lane to the timber and romp and stomp. Back then, there were only six grandkids and our youngest aunt and uncle, but the eight of us could make a world out of the woodland, the ditch, and the farmyard. Sooner or later, a ball game would erupt on the front lawn with the walnut trees standing in for bases. When darkness descended, the Hearts game started. My uncles played hardcore unforgiving Hearts with raised voices, accusations of cheating, and peals of laughter.

I once drew a picture for my second grade class of Thanksgiving at our farm. I was meticulous about it, putting every single one of the thirty-one participants in the picture. The assignment had been to draw a true picture of the holiday, suspicious my teacher questioned my accuracy. She even showed it to my mother, who forever gained my adoration by systematically naming all thirty-one persons in the picture. Though I think she fudged on more than a few.

Is it any wonder that this farmhouse stood in for the one in my Cooper Vietnam Era Quartet? Becoming a character in the newest and third book, Pay Back.

The farmhouse

Redolent with years of yeasty bread and the gossip of farm families, the farmhouse kitchen took up a full quarter of the ground floor and was the aorta of the home. Everything and everyone flowed through it whether to climb the stairs, enter the front parlors, or go to the bathroom. An oak table, ten feet long without leaves, surrounded by ladder-backed oak chairs with a captain’s chair at each end, took a full third of the room. A built-in corner hutch gleamed with a new multi-paned glass door.

Ash planking adorned the restored floor. The cabinets were white, the countertop butcher block, and the appliances stainless steel and time-tested. Rag rugs made by the Plainwell Woman’s Club from strips of used clothing were sprinkled around the room, one in front of the six-burner gas stove, one in front of the sink, and one under the oak table.

That kitchen stove had a bun warmer to one side. Every now and then, I would have the joy of tumbling downstairs for breakfast to tiny cheeps emanating from behind the warmer door. I remember Grandmother frying eggs at the stove, then casually leaning over to open the bun warmer as the cheeps crescendoed. Tiny little yellow chicks bobbled out on to the floor, trying their untried wings, and wobbling along. Grandma’s calico cat, the only working cat allowed in the kitchen, rested her paws on the edge of her water dish. She watched them take their first drink, her little cat lips pursed.

Sigh.

We may not have this Thanksgiving with family, but we have all that came before and all those to come. So, get out the albums, cook up your turkey, and snuggle in front of a fire (be it on Netflix, electric, gas, or wood), and spend time with your family on Zoom, Hangouts, or a video conference of choice. And enjoy!

Three books of the Cooper Era Vietnam Quartet: Dead Legend, Head First, and Pay Back are available on Amazon in paperback and ebook. Pay Back at https://www.amazon.com/Pay-Back-Cooper-Vietnam-Quartet-ebook/dp/B08CJDHP92