Of Very Big Trips, Layovers and Refrigerators

by Janis Patterson

Well, we are back from our Very Big Trip, and a Very Big Trip it was, too. Two and a half weeks cruising the Nile from Cairo to Luxor. Our ship was modest but still luxurious and only for our group, the staff eager to please, the food 4 star delicious, the accommodations more than comfortable. We were met at the airport in Cairo and when the tour ended in Luxor flown back to Cairo on a chartered plane to begin our trips home. Our ‘shore excursions’ were spectacular; even though this is my seventh (and The Husband’s eighth) trip to Egypt, we saw things we had never seen before, such as the ruins of the Hawara Pyramid of King Amenemhat III (currently scholastic frontrunner to be the Pharaoh of Joseph) and the gloriously painted images of the foreign dignitaries in the tombs of Beni Hassan. We were accorded the rare (and almost never granted) privilege of going down into the Sphynx precinct where we could stand between the paws (almost twice as tall as I) and touch the Dream Stela of Thutmosis III. This was The Husband’s and my second time in this carefully guarded area, as before we were married my darling friend Zahi Hawass had given us permission to explore. And of course we saw the must-sees of Karnak Temple, Deir el-Bahri, Amarna, Abydos and the Ramesseum. And more.

If you would like to know more about our incredible trip, you can go to my website (www.JanisPattersonMysteries.com) and subscribe to my newsletter, where I will write about it in more detail. Originally I intended to do just one newsletter about it, but it looks like it might become two, because my personal Trip Diary is now topping 40K words and even a truncated version will be most healthily-sized!

However… lest you think life is perfect, my life had problems. About ten days before our departure, our aged HVAC went out, for five days leaving us with no AC during the early September heat of Texas. Worse, my hot tub (a necessity for my arthritis-ridden body to exercise) died. Our similarly-aged refrigerator died. Even our landline phone needed work! We soldiered on, though – the HVAC was replaced, my wonderful hot tub man had it fixed, filled and ready for me to use when we returned, the phone was taken care of, and we had decided to leave the fridge problem for when we got back.

Then two days before departure Lufthansa cancelled our DFW/Frankfurt flight and switched us to United (meh – not my favorite airline) for DFW/Houston/Frankfurt. Well, okay… except the DFW/HOU flight was ONE AND A HALF HOURS LATE taking off, giving us just 26 minutes to get all the way across the Houston airport. We managed, though – barely – and made the HOU/FRA flight with four minutes to spare. Once we finally arrived in Cairo everything was fine.

Our return flight was not cancelled or rearranged (thankfully) but because of the screwy flight schedules we had a 14 hour layover in Frankfurt. For years and years I have insisted that Frankfurt airport is one of the seven circles of hell, and this trip just underscored my belief. Rather than book into the airport hotel, we decided to save the $250+ it would cost (saving it for our next trip in 18 months or so) and just find a comfortable customer lounge to wait in. Except we came in after midnight and landed in one of the most remote and unused terminals. The train connecting the terminals had stopped running, there were no food or drink kiosks and no customer lounges… just a small customs station which would take us out of the security area and miles of brightly lit marble halls. Oh, the AC was on full blast and it was both chilly and raining outside.

A kindly driver of one of the little electric trams in the terminal was off duty, but he volunteered to take us to an area several floors up where passengers and short-layover crews could sleep. Good on them if they could sleep there, because I barely managed a short nap. This was a hallway, a plain open hallway, with about 20-30 army-style cots. No pillows, no blankets, no nothing but a bunch of very uncomfortable cots. And no people. After the tram driver left we saw no one until after 6 am except a Japanese couple who appeared to be in the same fix we were. There was a restroom, though, some 50 yards and two hallways away. It was sort of like being in one of the grimmer Twilight Zone episodes.

Now it’s a funny story to tell. Then it was pure uncomfortable, teeth-chattering misery.

So how does this all relate to writing? It’s obvious – when you really really really want something in life (writing or anything else) you do whatever you have to do, endure whatever you have to endure in order to get it. This trip to Egypt was important to us, and whatever the gods flung at us we handled because that was the way to get what we wanted. And it was worth it. If you want to write, you must write, no matter what life throws at you. Only you can decide if your writing is a hobby you dabble in when the conditions are perfect or if it is a career where you forge on through in spite of everything. Your choice.

By the way, The Husband bought me a refurbed MacBookAir (which I promptly named Maxine) to take on this trip mainly so I could keep a comprehensive trip diary to share with my readers. I wasn’t going to write a book; I was going to take a rest, as I don’t have any contracts starting until January. I don’t have to tell you what happened, do I? And I’m already 8K words into a new story about a murder on a Nile cruise ship…

A final word about our dead refrigerator. The day after we returned we went shopping, not illogically expecting to have a new refrigerator within a couple of days. My kitchen is very bright and light, so of course I wanted a white refrigerator. We were shocked to find that all the off-the-floor ones with the features we wanted (French door, bottom freezer, ice and water in the door) are available only in stainless steel or rarely in black. Well, that’s fine for those who don’t mind looking like they live in a laboratory or a morgue, but I wanted white. Finally after a day of searching we found a place that agreed to special order a white one for us. White – a special order! (And at a cost roughly twice that of my first car!) Who would have thunk it? As you’ve probably guessed, I will do what is necessary to get what I really want, so we’ll have our new refrigerator in three weeks.

The next three weeks are going to be interesting.

Paraprosdokians – A New Look at an Old Technique

by Janis Patterson

As some of you may know, I’m on my way out of the country for my Very Big Vacation… which I’ll be writing about in my new newsletter when I come home. If you’re interested, you can subscribe from my website. However – I didn’t want to neglect this blog or you, so here is an essay I did several years ago and which I still quite like!

I’ll admit, I didn’t know what a paraprosdokian was until a friend sent me a list of them. She’s always sending me jokes and funnies and, I’ll admit, I laughed heartily on reading them. Then the writing brain took over (doesn’t it always?) and I read them again, finally realizing that they were a lesson all in themselves.

By definition, a paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part. It is frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. Here are a few of the best ones :

— I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.

— I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

— To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.

— A bus station is where a bus stops. A railway station is where a train stops. My desk is a work station.

— You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive more than once.

— The voices in my head may not be real, but they have some good ideas.

— To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

— Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

You see what I mean? Each starts out with a statement that gives you an idea – then the second part puts an entirely new spin on the idea, usually turning your perception of it 90 degrees in a different direction. In other words, a turning point.

In real life, with real people, I’ll bet that most of us like a smooth stream – learn, meet, love, prosper, happy every after with no catastrophes or dead bodies or evil villains or whatnot. Such a progression is comforting and happy – and boring, at least from a story point of view. In our books, whether mystery or sci-fi or romance or whatever, we love to torture our characters and that is best done by surprise and change.

The character we trust turns out to be the villain. The safe house isn’t. The clue that proves the hero innocent is false. (See where I’m going?) A single incident pops up and suddenly the entire story is careening off in a different direction. Could we call these ‘plot paraprosdokians?’ Sure – if we can remember that tongue twister of a word! (You’re on your own there.)

Sometimes these plot twists can happen in a single sentence. Or paragraph. Or, in some rare cases, a chapter or more. It depends, as so much does, on the style of the writer and on the story itself, But they must happen, or your story becomes a sweet, linear telling of events that have no excitement, no challenge, and very probably no real interest.

For example, Bob comes home from work and finds a dead body lying in his driveway. He calls the police. The police find he has nothing to do with the body. Bob goes on and lives his life. Snoooooooze! Even though, if I were Bob, that’s what I’d want to happen in real life, but it makes for a boring and unsellable story.

By contrast, Bob comes home from work and finds a dead body lying in his driveway. The body is that of a fraternity brother from his college days, one who ostensibly died in a frat house fire years before. Also, unbeknownst to Bob, the body was Bob’s new wife’s brother.

See? You can go on and on, turning each plot twist in on itself, each time giving your story more depth and complexity, as well as more danger and higher stakes for your protagonist.

Deepen your plotting – become a practicing paraprosdokianist. I think I just broke my spell-check. Whether you can spell it or not, though it works. Give it a try.

Life and Other Troubles

by Janis Patterson

I almost forgot this blog post. Then when I remembered it was due I almost blew it off. Almost. Such an action was tempting but having been trained in professional journalist ethics by my father totally impossible. One simply does not do something like that – he would have risen from his grave and gibbered at me. I was taught early (like around nine or ten, when I first started working in the family agency) that there was just one acceptable excuse for missing a deadline. Death. Yours.

I’ve probably told you that before, and since it is such an integral part of my blood, bone and genetics, will probably tell you again in the future.

However, that does not mean life does not get in the way. After returning from a very intense conference held across the country from us, wrestling with the Book That Will Not Die (and which is due 1 September), working to get my new newsletter set up, working with my producer to get new episodes in the can and revivify my unfortunately moribund YouTube channel (which will probably debut in late October), dealing with the most exhausting illness a wife can have to deal with in her husband (the dreaded Man Cold), trying to get at least half a dozen books ready for release/re-release (yes, I’ve been disgracefully lazy) and prepping for a Very Big Trip it’s small wonder that this column is somewhat disjointed.

I would really rather talk about our Very Big Trip, but for various reasons can’t at the moment. Suffice it to say that it is a working trip for me (research for a new book, and probably more than one), multi-continental and probably very physically taxing. Sadly, I am now of an age when physically taxing is much more of a problem than it was in previous decades.

So even though I can’t tell you about our Very Big Trip now, I will be making detailed notes every day (even got a new travel computer – a used MacAir – to take with me just for that purpose) and promise to tell all in the first edition of my new newsletter. You can subscribe either by going to my website or by going to https://bit.ly/jsmnews – either way I’ll give you your choice of a mystery short story or a short romance novella – and you’ll get the entire story of our Very Big Trip as well as a schedule for new releases.

So now I must either return to the fray with The Book That Will Not Die or keep going through my closet to see if I can assemble a wardrobe suitable for the trip without having to go shopping. Unfortunately, I do have to go look for good hiking boots. My old ones are sadly indestructible, but too heavy for all-day comfortable wear. I did order some pink ones, but while they are cute I’m beginning to think they just aren’t right for the trip. Decisions, decisions…

I have decided that for the moment I will work on The Book That Will Not Die. The characters are behaving very badly and not doing anything I tell them. I can deal with a sick husband, and an upcoming Very Big Trip, and a superannuated dishwasher which is on the cusp of having a breakdown (if it doesn’t give me one first!), but my father’s child cannot take the insult of misbehaving characters. Authority must be maintained!

I will let you know what happens.

Balancing Balls and Weather Machines – A Look at Setting

by Janis Patterson

The temperature has been in triple digits for the last week or so, but in the wee hours of the morning it does fall to the low 90s…

And here I am, wrapped in furs in the middle of a snowstorm. Sadly, it’s only in my mind, as I am working madly to meet the deadline for my Christmas anthology novella. It’s hard to keep one’s mind on snow and cold and greenery and holly berries and sleigh rides when in spite of air conditioning and skimpy sundresses there is sweat dripping from the tip of your nose.
However – I have been complimented about how real and evocative of time and place my previous Christmas novella anthologies have been, and they were written under similar unseasonable (for the work) circumstances, so I guess I’ve been doing something right.

But isn’t that the job of a writer? To create a world into which the reader can immerse themselves, feeling, seeing, knowing what the characters feel? To transport the reader into that world?
Writers are creators of worlds, whether that world is a snowbound country estate, a shack beside the cool orange seas of a distant planet, a year distant in either the past or the future, or even the here and now of our own home street. And it is our job to take the reader there.

So how does one do it? That varies; if it is a here-and-now story set in a pleasant American suburb, that is something to which most readers can relate without too much exposition or world building, even if they do not now nor have ever lived in one. On the other hand, if the story is set on a distant star, where gravity is minimal and the three orbiting suns insure that darkness is an unknown concept, the writer has to do more spadework in creating this world. Same if the story takes place in a great stone castle in the Dark Ages; most people have at least seen pictures of castles, but have little to no knowledge of the socio-political-religious attitudes/beliefs which not are only reflective of the time but which formed the society and belief systems of the time.

Another thing that writers must be aware of is that once they have created this world – be it tidy American suburb, distant star or long-past history – they must be true to it both in construction and action. For example, there is no way I could believably have the characters in my Christmas novella go out and sunbathe in between snow flurries. If my story were set in the distant future where the weather was controlled and there were strict time systems for each variety of weather, it could be perfectly believable that my characters could turn off the snow, set the sun to ‘melt’ and then go out for a nice long sunbath… as long as I had set this part of my world up correctly.
And the final thing to remember is once your world is built and works and you are sure you will have no trouble in maintaining this soap bubble of belief, you must craft a story – a good story – that will fit into the strictures of these parameters and profit from an interaction with them.

Taken like that, the prospect of writing a novel becomes both overwhelming and terrifying, all too often leaving the poor writer feeling like a trick seal who must balance eight or ten balls on its nose. It’s a wonder anyone ever writes.

A Room of One’s Own

by Janis Patterson

I belong to a number of writers’ groups, some of which – at long last! – are starting to meet in person again. The particular group of which I speak is composed of all kinds of writers from working professional to stark-beginner aspirant, and was finally having a real meeting after two years of Zoom-ing. The conversation level was astounding as we all talked full speed full volume catching each other up on what had happened since our last real gathering. (As good as Zoom is for the meat of meetings, it is not up to personal interaction and exchange!)

One woman, who had joined the group only a few meetings before the shutdown, was holding forth, proudly showing photos of her new office. She had acquired one of those monstrous L-shaped desks that can eat half a room. It was festooned with several shelves of reference books, plaques of inspiring quotes, beautiful pictures, a few lovely little objets d’art and even a gorgeous silver vase of fresh flowers. A large brand new Mac computer took pride of place in the typing area and – to the envy of my uncertain back – a new, bright red X-Chair sat in front of it. I will it admit, it took a great amount of discipline not to drool openly over that.

“Now,” she concluded with pride after finishing a highly descriptive virtual tour, “I can be a professional writer.”


When pressed for an explanation she said, “Well, one has to have a professional office in order to be a professional, doesn’t one?”

The eyeblinks in the room were almost deafening.

“It’s lovely,” someone said. “It must make writing so much easier. How many books have you done?”

“None yet.”

Double huh?

When The Husband and I inherited our house, we turned the guest bedroom into my office by the simple expedient of adding a small desk and a cheap office chair. Even though I have been publishing for decades I had never had a real office before and it was heavenly. For a number of family reasons, though, it ceased to be an option and I moved my writing center onto a table in the family room, a room shared with our animals, the TV and a newly retired husband. My output did not drop, though – at least, not significantly and not for long. I know a prolific multi-published novelist who writes at the dining room table, and another who has a card table squashed into the corner of her bedroom. There was one who turned the built-in bar in their home into her office and another who has a day job stays late every night for an hour and a half or so to write simply because she cannot write in the chaos of her home. In fact, I know more professional writers who do not have dedicated offices than those lucky few who do.

“You mean you haven’t written anything?” another asked incredulously. “It’s been two years since we last met.”

She looked offended. “How,” she replied only a little huffily, “could I have written anything? It was only delivered last week.”

There was nothing any of us could say to that. We separated into other conversational groups, metaphorically if not physically shaking our heads. This woman had had two years of what basically amounted to house arrest (she does not have a day job) and while many of us had taken advantage of the enforced lack of external activities time to write even more apparently she hadn’t written at all. I myself wrote 1 ½ more books than I would have normally done in that time span, and many of my professional writer friends did even more.

This woman had obviously spent her time poring over design magazines and websites. Now, she proudly proclaims to anyone she can get to listen, since she has a professional office she is a professional writer.

Hey, lady, professional writers WRITE. We write in dens and dining rooms. We write while waiting at the garage and in line waiting to pick up children from school. We have been known to scribble facts and ideas and scraps of dialogue on paper napkins while at lunch. Some of us even write on our phones wherever we happen to be.

I am not a total grinch. Her office is lovely (how I do truly envy her that red X-Chair!) and I wish her much joy in it. It will not, however, make her a professional or any other kind of writer except a wannabe. Only writing and selling makes a true professional. The agents/editors/publishers/readers won’t give a flip if she writes on a huge L-shaped desk or a card table. What matters to them is the story, the words, the worlds she creates… and you can’t order them from any design house.