Getting my Journal On

Over the last few months, I have taught two different classes on journaling, one of which has become a weekly group. The idea was that we are living in historic times, and personal journals have always been a valuable part of the historic record down through the ages.

Now, you’d think with Facebook and Twitter, that would count. Um, it doesn’t. Facebook and Twitter are public, and we tend to put our best posts forward, so to speak. There is something about the private nature of a journal that encourages more honesty, perhaps.

Another advantage of a journal is that it really does help keep a grip on all the insanity around us. Just in the past few days I’ve added a prompt to check for what’s currently bugging me and already I’m having trouble thinking of things that are bugging/worrying me.

My personal process began several years ago – I’ve lost track of how many – and is based in my own spiritual practices and a practice developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola (as in the guy who founded the Jesuits) called the Examen of Conscience.

The interesting thing is that as I was growing up and hearing about authors and being a writer and all that, I kept hearing about how important it is to keep a journal. I will admit, I tried, but it never took. Let’s face it, I am the ADD poster child, and sitting still to write something that doesn’t enthrall me, like what I had for breakfast the other day, is not going to happen. Then I heard a Jesuit priest talking about the Examen of Conscience and how it worked. In short, it gave me a series of questions I could check in with every day, or more accurately, every day I thought about it, and write.

The process this particular priest proposed was putting yourself in the Presence of God, checking in on where you’ve sinned the day before, then reflecting on how to do better and, finally, offering up a prayer of gratitude. I added a reflection on what I’ve done well because I’m really good at beating up on myself.

Believe it or not, I really like the idea of checking in to see where I’ve sinned, and actually, it helps work against the beating up on myself. It’s awfully hard to improve yourself if you don’t know where you’re falling down. To use a writing metaphor, you can’t fix your story if all you know is that it doesn’t quite work. If the actual “sin” is digressing all over the place (an example I used in Fascinating Rhythm), then you can go back and pull out all those bits that don’t relate to the full plot. If I know that I was meaner than I should have been to that tech non-support person, then I can take steps to get less pissy the next time I have to call about a problem.

I’m the last person to tell anyone that if they want to be a writer, they must journal. And if I’m honest, my journaling practice has had little to no effect on my writing that I know of. I guess trying to be a better person may help me be a better writer, and I suppose being able to stay on an even keel makes it easier to plot chaos in my made-up worlds.

Journaling is one of those things that is intensely personal and unique to each person. For me, it took a centuries-old prayer practice to put pen to paper (and, yes, I do prefer handwriting my journal). For you, it make take something else. I know someone who finds it easiest to dictate her thoughts on her phone as she takes her morning walk. And there is the possibility that journaling may not work for you at all.

But it is kind of interesting to think that someone, a hundred years ago, after I’m dead and gone, will look at my journal pages and exclaim, “Ah-hah! That’s what that was all about!”

All in (Not So) Innocent Fun.

Last week, the house directly across the street from us caught fire. It was a really dramatic one, with smoke everywhere, flames shooting up through the roof, five fire trucks, including a hook and ladder unit (which I had to wonder about since the house, like most in our neighborhood, has only one story).

Picture of dead rubber duck on a computer keyboard.

Fortunately, my neighbor and his girlfriend got out okay, as did their two cats and dog. And I want to triple emphasize that no one, but no one, deserves to lose their home and possessions to fire. We almost lost our place in a fire, and even though it happened while the house was in escrow and no one was living here at the time, it was bad enough.

But…

You knew that was coming, right? But there are rumors in the neighborhood that the owner, “M,” got arrested. He’s been around and restoration workers have been there, so I think it is just that – a rumor. It was probably born of more than the usual sort of schadenfreude, since M is a real jerk. He’s noisy, obtuse, loud music and power tools at all hours of the night, fighting with his girlfriend out on the front lawn. He’s even been mean to his dog. Oh, and then there’s all the weird equipment in his driveway.

It’s that last bit that’s got me and the rest of us wondering. We have no idea why it’s there or what he’s doing with it, but he’s been doing it for a couple years now. I’ve come up with all kinds of interesting scenarios, only some of them legal. So, if M got arrested, I’m dying to know on what charges.

Which brings me to my point. Yes, the fire was terrible. I’m glad my neighbor, his girlfriend, and critters are okay. But what if..?

What if he torched the place for the insurance? (Not at all likely, since it looks like the insurance people are there setting up the clean up services.) What if there are bodies buried in his crawlspace and the firefighters found them? (Also, not at all likely, or he wouldn’t have made bail.) What if all that equipment in his driveway was there to build a state of the art studio so that he could shoot porn videos. Definitely not likely, since I’m not seeing any cameras or any other film-related equipment.

Okay, he could be a perfectly nice person and still be producing porn films in his backyard – these things happen. But because he’s a jerk, there is the temptation to assume that there is something else rotten going on. And because I’m a mystery writer, I can really put some flesh on my musings.

My friend has a t-shirt warning people to be nice to her, since she’s a mystery writer and could make anyone mean to her the icky stiff in her next book. I have a small desk plate reminding those who peeve me that if they were in my book, they’d be dead.

In real life, I would never intentionally hurt someone. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to say who any of my characters are, although I suspect the odd real-life characteristic has slipped in unconsciously. But in my fiction life, all you-know-what frequently breaks loose, and if I muse about what my neighbors are really up to, it’s all in innocent fun. And that’s on a quiet day. I hate to say, but once I saw that M was safe, I had more than a little fun.

How Cozy Should I Be?

I love cozy mysteries. I love the daring amateur sleuths of all manner of professions, seeking out a killer to free someone or protect someone or whatever. I love getting recipes and craft instructions and knitting patterns and tips on how to brew coffee or plan tea parties or store cheese.

I also sew. I’m big into clothing construction and repair. I’ve been spending most of my weekends on lockdown getting projects done that had been languishing because I almost always had places to go on weekends and was sticking to my writing work during the week. I even blog about it occasionally.

You’d think that given the above, I’d be a natural for writing a cozy about someone who sews a lot. Which I was thinking about as I was working on my latest set of projects the other day. I know a lot about sewing. I’ve got some pretty good tips stacked up. I should totally do this, except for one problem. There’s way too much foul language in my sewing life

You see, naughty words are largely a no-no in the cozy world, and when I’m sewing, the air gets more than a little blue. This is probably because I’m not the best stitcher out there. I mean, I’ve been doing it ever since I took Home Ec in junior high (and still use the pin cushion, pins, and measuring tape I bought when I took the class). But I am pretty impatient and that does not always get the best results. Or the reality that when I get something right, there’s probably something else that goes wrong. Like here.

The other problem is that I don’t have a plot yet. I’ve got a character I’m getting to like, plus some variations on the usual tropes that make nice little twists. But I haven’t got a victim and a really good way to kill him or her, plus a reason for my amateur sleuth to be sticking her nose into police business. These may come. They may not. This is the very, very early stage of the process. And I’ve already got a techno-(I hope) thriller that’s up for getting written next. Then Book Four in the Old Los Angeles series. But, dang. A cozy involving sewing. I could do that.

Not Writing About COVID-19

Photo of Sadie Cat looking peeved

It’s raining here in sunny Southern California. It started yesterday and my weather app (1Weather) says it’s going to be raining for the rest of the week. We’ll get the weekend off, then by the time you’re reading this (since I am trying to get this written *before* it’s due), it will possibly be raining again.

TobyWan

The cats are not happy. The dog isn’t, either, since he does have to go out in the wet to do his business. However, when not doing his business, TobyWan prefers to stay inside. It’s the cats who are suffering the most from this cruelest of developments.

My husband is mostly staying inside, thanks to the lockdown, house arrest, stay at home order. He is also trying to find the perfect way to say lockdown, house arrest, stay at home order. Stay at home order is too long. We are not in prison, nor are we under arrest, so neither lockdown or house arrest apply. He’s not usually that fussy about precise language, although I am, so this is an interesting turn of events. I’m good with lockdown in the metaphorical sense since we can still go on walks and go grocery shopping.

Xannikins demonstrating how she got her name. Not a lucky shot, she’s sleeping like this.

Back to the cats. As I explained in my debut post on this site, we have three. Sadie Cat, the old lady of nine years (at the top of the post), and the much younger, though no longer kittens, Xanax and Benzedrine. They all came into our house almost two years ago after our cat, Dorothy Parker died of old age. Parker, who was all too aptly named, would have no other cats before her. So, my husband insisted that when it came time to find her successor, we get a pair of bonded kittens. Unfortunately, when we went to the shelter, I walked past a cage and saw this large, lovely cat giving me the look that could turn you to stone, and remarked, “Oh, look! There’s Medusa.”

Well, if you name a cat in the shelter, you know you’re going home with it. And, as it turned out, Medusa actually had a name already – Sadie. But we sometimes call her Medusa. Or Psycho Sadie, since she will pick fights with the other cats and is trying to kill the dog.

The Benzomatic looking annoyed at the rain

Strangely enough, although Sadie prefers being outside the most, she seems less annoyed about the rain than the other two. Benzi (aka the Purr Bot for her trilling purr) has been on my desk getting in the way multiple times today and given me the glare. Xannie (also in the guise of the mild-mannered Puff) has the stronger personality and makes a point of getting in our faces when she wants something. She, however, is just hanging around the back door, then glaring at us when we open it and she does not want to go out.

By the way, we do live on a relatively quiet street and the cats are indoor/outdoor to keep the vermin away. It’s the most natural form of pest control and it really works.

Except when it’s raining and they can’t go outside.

What to Do? What to Do?

One of the nice things about my life as it’s currently set up is that I do have a certain amount of freedom to work on the things I want to work on when I want to work on them. Sort of.

I’ve got two projects I really should be working on right now. One, I’ve got several people asking about, since I’ve mentioned it more than once. The problem is, there is something wrong with the story and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what it is. The second is a submission to a traditional publisher that the editor asked me to revise and resubmit.

You’d think I should be all over that second project, but the editor told me to take my time and I kind of want to so that I really get things right. That’s why I’ve been holding onto the first project.

The first project is the third in my Old Los Angeles series, titled Death of the Chinese Field Hands. It was a really tough one to write because it starts with one of the darkest episodes in Los Angeles history, the lynching of 18 Chinese men in one night during a riot. The murders of my character’s field hands happen after the riot, but it – and the anti-Chinese prejudices of the day – haunt the story. It was a tough first draft to write. I know the ending needs serious fixing and that will be relatively easy to fix. But there is something else that is just not working and I can’t see what it is.

I may end up switching off between the two. The distraction may be something that will help me catch the piddly little things I tend to miss when I’m reading through a project because I’m so caught up in the story. Or not. It will be interesting to see how this affects my process.

It’s all part of the writer’s journey – always something to learn. Yay!

Am I Crazy or What?

I’m doing my hiking plan for creativity and fitness this afternoon and I hit an intersection. I could on and catch a bus home, well, two buses, by just going straight. Or I could walk even further, catch only one bus and get some work done at the library. The problem? I’m getting tired, which given my health, can be a real issue. So, naturally, I went even further and am now at the library.

The book that needed the landing page

The other day, one of my laptops develops this big problem. One of the programs is getting triggered and asking for a password that I never set up. Kind of hard to get anything working when you don’t have the password. I get past it by cancelling the password demand multiple times until it stops popping up. But do I leave it at that? Noooo! I decide to re-install the operating system with a better version for that particular laptop. No, it didn’t go smoothly, but I kept at it until I had the new system up and running and the critical programs installed and working.

Then yesterday, after getting the above laptop going, I go to update a page on my sight that had gotten broken in a recent update, so did I just replace the elements on the page that I’d had there before? Of course not. I redesigned the page (it needed to be more mobile-friendly), and added yet another page because, well, I needed something to link to. I could have just added the link later when I’d gotten that second page up and running. Like I was going to do that.

In fact, several times this week and, oh, last month, when the website first broke, I have skipped the easy fix and gone for a better one, never mind how much this stuff was making me cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

Like with the walking thing. I pushed too far, which means I’ll pretty much be a wet noodle tomorrow. And that’s not good because I have to clean house for a thing on Sunday, which will involve getting things cleared away and not just dumped someplace else, like my husband does. That would be the easier way to do it, but then all that stuff will lay dumped and never get to the right spots, which will, in turn create more problems.

Which is why I seem to prefer going the extra distance. Too often, going with the easy fix just creates more trouble. I’d rather just get it done the right way the first time. Or as close to the right way as I can get it.

Take the webpage thing. The page that had broken was the landing page for my latest book (which was released last spring). The buy links had been dropped – not something that works real well when you’re trying to sell books. The reason I didn’t just go back to the old design was that it was using some bits of software, called plug-ins, that were messing things up for those of my readers using their phones to reach the page. I re-aligned the different elements on the page to put the buy buttons closer to the book cover… Well, you can see what I did here.

I also had to make two new buttons for the new links, convert one of the chapters to .pdf and make the page for the whole Old Los Angeles series – a page I’ve been planning posting anyway. I could have just added the link to the series page when I got around to actually building the series page, but it would have messed up the look of the book page in the meantime.

I will be refining the series page at some point in the future – it’s in the queue of website fixes I’ve got to do. But it’s looking reasonably good. I’m very pleased with how the book landing page came out, too. It was the longer fix, but it was the better fix.

What about you? Are you okay with the quick fix when needed or do you go the long way around?

Holiday Greetings

This is going to be short. I love the holidays, don’t get me wrong. I hate writing about them. If I write something sweet, it inevitably comes off as goopy and insincere. If I try to be funny and mildly sardonic, it comes off as cranky.

So, I’m going to post greetings in the form of pictures, sort of like you’d find in your friends’ annual holiday letters. These are my pets, by the way. I don’t post pictures of my adult daughter or husband in the interests of protecting their privacy. The dog and cats don’t care.

This is TobyWan, as in TobyWan is nosy. He’s part basset, part beagle.

Toby lives for cookies, which is why he’s looking so intently at my camera in this shot. He also lives for naps.

We call him the Drama Queen because of his wails as soon as we come home.

Meet Benzi. Doesn’t she look cute? She’s a terrorist at heart. Her full name is Benzedrine, but she’s also known the Benzo-matic and Purrr-bot. She’s got this weird chirping purr than makes her sound like a tribble.

This is Sadie Cat. We were going to call her Medusa, because she has the stare that can turn you to stone. But then we found out she had a name, and since she was 8 years old when we adopted her, it wasn’t fair to change it.

This is Xanax, demonstrating how she got her name. That isn’t just a lucky shot. She really does sleep like that. We’ll call her Xannikins, but she is also in the guise of the mild-mannered Puff. She is also a terrorist

Anyway, the best of holiday wishes to you and yours from all of us at The Old Homestead.

Keeping a Character in Stitches

I make a lot of my own clothes and some of my husband’s. Why? Oh, lots of reasons. There’s the social justice thing – not supporting the sweat shop culture perpetrated by cheaply made clothes. Also, I like doing it. It’s creative and can be very interesting.

Now, don’t get too excited. I did not say I’m that good at it. I know too many people whose skills outstrip my own several times over. It’s just something I do. Okay?

It’s not that I’m disparaging myself, mind you. I’m happy to accept praise for my cooking, and my writing. It’s just kind of embarrassing when people gush about something that I’m not that good at. Trust me. I have never sewn a straight seam in my life. My topstitching is chronically crooked, and you do not want to know how many outfits I’ve had to give away because they didn’t fit, or because, like the last shirt I made for my husband, I put the sleeves on backwards.

What is interesting, in regards to the purpose of this forum, is how my interest in fabrics and needle crafts creeps into most of my writing. For example, in the 1920s, Freddie and Kathy series, when I had to figure out what industry had made Freddie Little’s family so extremely wealthy, I chose the textile industry. Aside from the fact that it is one of the oldest industries in the U.S., and Freddie is from Old Money, it’s something I like.

For the Old Los Angeles series, yes, Maddie Wilcox is a winemaker because my husband makes wine and I wanted a character that did, too. But Maddie is also a clothes horse – she will describe everyone’s outfits before she’ll describe anything else. I love historical clothing.

Then there’s the character who actually sews: Lisa Wycherly. Lisa and Sid Hackbirn have been a part of my life since 1982, when I first started writing That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine. It’s kind of a cozy spy novel, extended romance, occasional murder mystery series. I’m working on re-writing it now. The first four books are available now, and I’m getting book five, Sad Lisa, ready to appear on my personal blog for my Friday fiction serial. In fact, it will debut on December 6.

The thing is, as Lisa came to life, I wanted her to have a family and interests of her own. Sid doesn’t have any family and his hobby is sleeping around. Lisa, who is still a virgin and likely to stay that way for her own reasons, needed a life apart from being a member of a top-secret organization within the FBI. So, Lisa is religious, like me, and she sews and knits, although at the time I wrote her, I was not nearly as advanced a knitter as she is. Nor was I that advanced at sewing, either.

Which is kind of creating a problem now that I’m re-writing the series. You see, I’ve left it set in the original time that I wrote it. Why not? I’ve got all the dialogue and slang. A lot of the daily life details are all in the text, so I don’t have to hunt them down as much. Only there are some details that aren’t in the original text that I want to add. I’m trying to remember when I got my overlock machine, for example. Also known as a serger, they were around during the early to mid-80s, but mostly in industrial settings. My only problem is that if I didn’t get mine until the early 90s, having Lisa use one when it’s only 1984 would be bad.

Will I do another character who sews? I don’t know. I might. It would work well in the cozy world, in general. On the other hand, I do have one additional character in the queue who makes wine. I want to get that series started first. And, in the meantime, I am continuing to develop my sewing skills. Like remembering to put the sleeves on the shirt in the right direction. Sigh.

My Favorite Halloween Costumes

The best part of Halloween for me is, by far, the costumes. Okay, little chocolate bars are up there. But deciding what to wear and how to make it, that is possibly the most fun of all.

Fred did not like the chicken suit

I wish I had pictures of my Jawa costume from 1977 – they’re around here someplace. I built it myself and it even had real, glowing orange lights for eyes. Then there was the last minute costume I threw together when I was 14 so that I could go trick or treating at the last minute. I wrapped up a bunch of sheet strips around my ankle, got an old ski pole and a jacket and went as a skier.

Which kind of underscores my costume philosophy. Make it really complicated or make it funny. Or better yet, both. This got to be a problem as my kid grew up because between me, with my creative inclinations, and her engineer father, who loved that kind of problem-solving, my daughter could ask to be just about anything and did.

We tried the shark suit with Clyde. He didn’t like it.
TobyWan didn’t like the chicken suit, either.

When she was 3, she wanted to be Cinderella. I did a creditable dress for her. And when she was 5, she wanted to be My Little Pony. That one was not one of my better efforts, but in all fairness, the sewing machine died the night of October 30 and all I had was my serger to work with.

Then, when she was 6, she wanted to be a birthday cake. We pulled that one off. She wanted to be a box of Nerds candy one year and was a treasure chest another year – both of those were her father’s work since they were all cardboard.

My husband now does not like to dress up and we haven’t been to a Halloween party in years, anyway. Life has gotten busy and I’ve had a couple health issues that force me to spend my energy on longer-lasting projects, like books. That, and we’ve already got the costume pic with TobyWan, the current dog.

Moses as Charlton Heston

The earlier dogs weren’t thrilled with the costume thing, but I at least got the costume on long enough to get pictures. That being said, it took almost 12 years to get around to dressing our dog Moses up as Charlton Heston, back in 2013. It may have been just as well. Mosie was pretty hyper as a younger dog and probably would not have sat still for the photo.

So, there’s not going to be any dressing up this year. Unless we get a last-minute invite to a party. That sheep costume should be around here someplace.

What Everyone Likes

I’m trying to find a way to write this so that it doesn’t sound whiny or excessively paranoid. However, that is the way I’m feeling at the moment. I just sent two stories off for consideration for a national anthology, and while one was nicely polished and hit all the marks for voice and accuracy, the other was less so.

I am not looking for sympathy comments, by the way. It’s just that people keep saying they want to know what goes on in a writer’s head. I can’t imagine why. It’s a messy, scary place, at times.

This is me, normally, when I’m sewing.

It started yesterday, when I was laying out a couple pairs of shorts. I’ve been sewing my entire adult life, so it’s not entirely crazy that I would be teaching myself to make jeans. Since I’m trying to figure out how best to fit my body, I was laying out the adjusted versions of two different patterns to see which fits the best. As I was laying out the second pattern (which had fit in the front really well, but the back didn’t come up near far enough on mine), I noticed that I really hated the back pockets.

Now, this was a pattern that had gotten rave reviews on a certain sewing forum I’m on. I mean, huge. Everybody loved this freaking pattern, in particular, the back pockets, which were slightly curved and supposedly more flattering. to one’s bum. Now, I have ogled many a bum in my day, and even with the pictures that were posted, couldn’t see what the benefit of the curve was. I do know what a PITA it was to sew that curved pocket. So, I used the pocket from the other jeans.

I was once again reminded that if people are raving about something, the odds are not good that I’m going to like it. I’m not trying to be obtuse, mind you, and I do like some things that are incredibly popular. It’s just that I’ve been to restaurants that have lines of people waiting to get in and usually find that the food doesn’t justify the wait. Movies? Super hits? Even serious films that everyone thought were wonderful. I’ve sat through so many of them, bored to tears that if someone even utters the word “hit,” I won’t go.

Sadly, the reverse is true. If I like it, chances nobody is going to. I love those small town cozies that everyone else loves looking down on. I love the 1812 Overture, never mind how immature that taste is. Someone actually said that to me, which is why I’m not naming names here. I don’t want anybody feeling bad if I write that their favorite composer drives me nuts with his over-wrought earworms.

This is no big deal under normal circumstances. Indeed, I often revel in being the only person to hate a given show because it’s the same three overwrought songs sung over and over. However, I just sent off two stories to be judged by other people. I liked those stories. I really liked them.

It’s not that there isn’t a market for my writing. Lots of people have read my books and liked them. I was even at a book festival recently where a total stranger told me he’d bought my book, Death of the Zanjero, the year before and liked it so much that he’d come back to buy the sequel, Death of the City Marshal. Someone else met me in a hallway and told me how much she liked my book. And thank God for the Internet. People like me may be few and far between, but the Internet can connect us.

This me worrying about my writing.

It’s the paranoia and terror of rejection that envelops me every time I submit something. I’ve been rejected a lot, mostly because they can’t figure out how to sell my work. At least, that’s the comment I get more than any other. Worse yet, I know that second story could have been better because I wrote it at the last second. I’d had a brilliant idea and couldn’t resist. Only it doesn’t feel so brilliant now.

I did shop my first story around for critiquing and the comments were excellent, but the suggestions were to make my story into something I hate reading. Argh. I mean, what’s a woman to do? Try to do what everybody else likes and I hate (which probably won’t work because I hate it)? Or shoot myself in the foot by sticking to my guns?

The good news is that I will be past all this moaning and groaning soon. I am nothing if not resilient, and will soon be back to snarking on overwrought ear worms and reveling in my own unique tastes. If I am rejected, I will bounce back.

In the meantime, I will be whiny and paranoid, because that’s where I’m at right now. It’s scary and messy to be inside a writer’s head, whether any of us likes it or not.