Thursday, March 2, 2017

Remnants of the Past: Songs of the Slaves

I have always been fascinated by the Civil War: what caused it, why were the differences in philosophy so great, so important, that it literally forced brother against brother. The greatest emphasis, of course, was always on the issue of slavery and the rights, or non-rights of people of color to be free.

I began my first novel, The Freedom Thief, with every intention of the story being about the Underground Railroad, but by the time the book was actually published, it had changed a great deal, and the focus was no longer on the Underground Railroad. Nevertheless, when my husband and I took our historic barge trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, many of the places we visited were noted for having been safe houses and part of the Underground Railroad.

Did the Underground Railroad actually exist? Well, no. There are several theories as to why the escape routes of fleeing slaves came to be called that, but the most prevalent one is this: Tice Davis escaped from slavery from a plantation in Kentucky. Slave hunters were on his heels, and when he came to the Ohio River, he plunged in and managed to swim across. A feat in itself, as the Ohio is not known for being quiet enough for people to swim in. Once on the other side, Tice walked into the woods, and vanished. There was no indication that any human had ever set foot into the forest, the woods were pristine. One of the hunters was heard to say: "It's as if he went off on some underground railroad." When they returned home, the term "underground railroad" caught on, and from then on, the secret network of Quakers and Abolitionists who helped slaves escape was referred to as the Underground Railroad.

Another part of that network was the hymns the slaves sang. Each one told a secret story that helped them in their escape. Perhaps the most famous of these was Follow the Drinking Gourd, which referred to the Big Dipper and its gourd-like shape.
    When the sun comes back and the first quail calls, follow the drinking gourd. This first sentence tells the slaves to begin their journey around the winter solstice, and to "follow the drinking gourd" as its 'pointer star' points almost directly north. Winter was the best time to escape, as most slaves headed to the Ohio River and in winter, it was frozen over so solid that crossing it was made easy.
    The river bank makes a mighty fine road. Dead trees to show you the way. And it's left foot, peg foot, traveling on. Follow the Drinking Gourd. This was the second stanza, and the river referred to was probably the Tombigbee River, which stretches from Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico. The banks of this river were lined with dead trees, and slaves had marked them with left foot prints and peg leg foot prints to show those who followed that this was the right river. They could follow it to the Tennessee River, and then follow that one to the Ohio.
    A third song which played a large part in the escape of slaves was Go Down Moses. The African American community has always known the story of Moses in the Bible, and in the days of slavery, felt that his story echoed their own. The slaves could sing this song in front of the slave master, and no one but them would know what they were really saying to one another.
In the lyrics, Go Down Moses, go down Moses, way down in Egypt's land, And tell old Pharaoh to Let my People go, Let my People go to the Promised Land, there were code words for the slaves. Moses referred to the Underground Railroad 'conductor' who would help them to freedom, and it was often either Harriet Tubman or John Brown. Old Pharaoh was the slave owner, Egypt's land meant their slavery or bondage, and the Promised Land was, of course, wherever freedom was, often meaning on the other side of the Ohio River.
    Steal Away, steal away, Steal Away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away, steal away home. I ain't got long to stay here was another spiritual that meant much more than just a song sung on Sundays when the slaves were allowed to gather for worship. This song was used to tell the others that the person, or persons, singing it was getting ready to escape, and that plans had already been made. Sometimes this meant that other slaves in the group were also prepared to escape at the same time but at other times, it meant for them to wait awhile, the time was not yet right for them to leave. Somehow, the slaves always knew exactly what was meant, and whether they could go then, or had to wait until later.

Do we have songs today that stand for something other than what we think? And...should we?

Something to think about.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Those Little Reversals in Life

Isn't it remarkable that most of us go through life totally unaware of the reversals that happen to some along life's journey? What reversals you ask? Well, let's talk about that.

Role reversal is the most important one that can happen to anyone. On a very personal note: my son grew up into a handsome, hardworking, loving man who married a wonderful girl, had an amazing son of his own, and who expected to always take care of his family. But life interfered, as it does so often, and one day, his role in the family was reversed. His wife became his caretaker, and of the family, until his death in January, 2015. A role reversal of the saddest kind.

One day, I was in the library browsing among the stacks, when I heard a soft voice say, "No, Dad, that word is 'running.' You know the word 'run,' so just put 'ing' to it."

Another soft voice, much deeper, replied," He was...was run...running too far..."
"No, Dad, it's not 'too far,' it's 'too fast.' Come on, let's try it again."

The deep voice: "I don't know, honey, I don't think I'll ever learn to read again." The sentence was spoken in bits and pieces, with pain evident in every word.

I'm not usually a snoop, but that day I just had to be. I had to know what was going on. I edged carefully and quietly around a couple of bookcases, and stopped. In front of me was a round table and four little chairs, the kind found in the children's section of kids' books. On one of the chairs, stooped over and barely sitting on it, was a tall, thin man with his face buried in his hands. Sitting next to him, but on the table, was a lovely young girl of about fourteen or fifteen. Dark curly hair clustered on her shoulders, and her dark eyes were filled with tears. She sat with one hand on the man's shoulder. "Dad, you will learn again. Look how far you've come already, in just a few weeks. I won't let you stop learning until you can read all of your own books again."

He raised his head and smiled at her, his dark eyes mirroring hers, complete with tears. He wiped his face with a handkerchief, and got up, slowly and painfully. He held his hand out to his daughter, and they carefully picked their way around the other tables to the checkout counter. He held a Beginning Reader's book in his hand.

I checked out behind them, and as I walked out, I saw the father pointing at various trees, cars in the parking lot, and even a rabbit who came scuttling by. He named them all for his daughter, and she was laughing and hugging him around the waist.

I drove off, with tears in my own eyes, remembering all too well how role reversals can affect us all. Here it was Teacher in Reverse: daughter teaching father, in the same loving, patient way that the father had once taught the daughter.

How wonderful. How remarkable. A reversal in life that could have been tragic, but instead, courage, patience, and love was all wrapped up in one beautiful, fourteen year old package.

Reversals in life. What remarkable thing have you seen lately?

Think about it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

And The Eagle Cried

I am back, and this is my first post in a couple of weeks. I am off Facebook for a while, for reasons I explained on my FB page, so I won't go into them here. However, in posting my reasons for not posting/responding on FB for a while, my husband reminded me that the personification of Evil lives among us again.  So, it brought to mind this account of that horrible night following the events of September 11, 2001.

It was almost midnight, September 11, 2001. My husband and I were exhausted from watching the tragedy play out on TV hour after house. We had wept, privately and together, and I could take it no more. I had to take a walk, and be alone for a little while.

The night was unusually quiet. Normally, frogs were croaking, crickets churring, and bright little eyes could be seen scurrying around in the bushes. Sometimes a possum or rabbit could be seen crossing the road, as if coming back from a late-night date. Tonight it was silent. Still.

I walked out the gate of our community, and down a dirt road to an old farmhouse at the road's end. I leaned against a rickety fence, and looked out at the hills and forest on the other side of the old house. Horses and cattle usually grazed along the hillsides, but tonight they were gone. Put up in a barn somewhere? Maybe. Just another thing that was unusual. I looked up at the moon, and realized it looked like it had a fine layer of something covering it. The logical part of my mind said, it's just some kind of atmospheric event. The emotional part said, No, the moon is covered with blood.

There was a whirring of wings, and a large bird flew over my head and landed on the post near to me. It was a Golden Eagle, one of those who live and nest in our part of California. This time, there was no warning scream. She landed close enough for me to reach out and touch. She stared at me, and for several minutes, we had a "staredown." Finally, she stretched out her neck until her beak almost touched my arm, screamed, and flew off. She circled my head twice, but didn't touch me. Then, giving another scream that truly sounded like someone in pain, she flew off into the darkness.

I went back home, and wrote this:

And The Eagle Cried

She spread her wings and flew across the blue skies,
Rejoicing in the brilliance and freshness of the new day.
She swooped and swerved high over the towers below
Until the steel monster from the land of Hate flew beneath her.

She watched, not understanding, as the towers she teased
Burst into fire, and flames and smoke turned her world dark.
She found a perch and folded her trembling wings
As all that she stood for crumbled around her.

And the Eagle cried.

She saw her land, her America, her land of freedom
For which she so proudly stood as a symbol,
Falling, falling, falling into heaps of ash and debris.
More than that, she saw fear turn into abject terror.

She watched her people cry, scream, try to run away
From a scene only imaginable in horror films.
But she knew this was no movie from which she could easily fly away.
There was no escape here.

And the Eagle cried.

The personification of Evil sat across miles of ocean
And clapped his hands and laughed as the pictures of
Death and destruction came to him over the television.
He couldn't have been happier: America was dying!
He was wrong. As Evil most often is.

They came from everywhere: the firemen, the police,
The doctors, the nurses, the people on the street.
They gave no thought to their own lives or safety
For they had a common purpose: to save those they could.
Many of those everyman and everywoman also died that day.

And the Eagle cried.

But America does not give in to those who exemplify Hate,
Who would render God's grace and love impotent.
America is one land, one nation, one people
Indivisible by those who spread Hate around the world.

America will join hands around this great country
And show the world the Courage, the Dignity, and the Unity
That we Americans are known for.
We wept today. We grieved today. We will never forget today.
Today will join another...December 7, 1941...and live in infamy forever.
But we will be stronger and nobler because of today.

We are a grieving nation, but with that grief comes strength.
Our flag will fly higher and more proudly than ever.
Our tears will cleanse our souls, and God will hold
America in the palm of His hand, and give us solace.

And the Eagle will never cry again.

Think about it.
Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Posting Put On Hold For A While

Wouldn"t you know...just when I've gotten back to my blog, I have to stop posting for a while. Last week I fell and injured my left wrist, and simultaneously, was diagnosed with Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. I'm now in a brace with strict orders to NOT use the computer...or do much of anything else with my left hand.  Oh...did I mention that I am left-handed? Sigh...

So this is all for couple of weeks, but then I'll be back.


Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sleeping With The Enemy

Are you as an author sleeping with the enemy? Now don't go all righteous on me! The enemy I'm talking about is a villain...you know, the one in your story. And if you're not sleeping with him, you probably don't know him too well, and if you don't know him as well as your hero, your story is likely to be weak and unexciting.

Think about this for a minute: would you accept a dinner invitation from Hannibal Lector? Or how about going for a sail with Captain Ahab? Or maybe you'd like to spend the weekend with Voldemort? What is so right ( or wrong, depending on how you look at it) about these villains? Well, for one thing, you aren't going to forget any one of them any time soon, are you?

You see, two of these three villains are three-dimensional. Each of them has a strong history behind them, one that enhances the character as a villain. Evil for evil's sake becomes dull and boring, and doesn't provide the reader with believability. No one is 100% evil, nor 100% good, so the villain whose only motivation in life is to do evil doesn't become real. Well, with one exception.

Lord Voldemort is the exception, because he is the exact opposite of what every good writer knows a villain should be. Voldemort is the perfect example of someone who is totally evil. His one mission in life is to kill Harry Potter. He was born evil, and his entire pursuit of life has been to do evil, to exist for the sole purpose of killing one specific person.  But he is also the exception to the rule, about villains having to be three-dimensional to be memorable, because no one will ever FORGET Voldemort !

Putting Voldemort aside, villains are born with the same qualities of life that ordinary people have, the same as the heroes have: they are intelligent, thinking, hard-working, sensitive, honest, capable of love and affection, empathetic. So what happens to our villains to disconnect him from these qualities, and turn him into some kind of despicable person? What motivates your villain to do the things he does? The most memorable villains are those who do what they do with their own brand of logic, for reasons that seem perfectly acceptable to them, no matter how illogical their reasoning is to us and to our hero.

Do you remember Wuthering Heights, and Heathcliff? What made him so unforgettable was his history: he was abandoned as a child, then taken in by a family who promised him a safe life, then was abused by them, never allowed an education, and finally was both despised and feared by this same family. Yet, even when the love of his life marries another, and he becomes  a cruel man bent on revenge, the reader still feels drawn to him simply because of his history. Because we can look into his heart and mind, and see the reasons he became the villain he was. To get back at those who had betrayed him and made his life a living hell was logical to us, and we could understand that, no matter how much we hated him.

You don't want a sympathetic villain, one who is out-going and likeable. You do want him to be credible and believable, and therefore, he has to have a history. He has to be portrayed as a complex person, who does what he does out of a logic that no matter how twisted it really is, is still perfectly reasonable to him, and understandable to us.

Your villain should be as compelling in his own way as your hero, just in a less-than pleasant way. You need to know what he thinks, how he thinks, why he thinks the way he does, and why
this leads him to commit the acts that he does.

And to do that, you must sleep with the enemy.

Think about it.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

So You Want to Write a Mystery Story?

Recently, I read a mystery by an author I'd never read before, one recently published. It was her first book, and hopefully, her last. I read it as a favor to my daughter who wanted to know what I thought of it, as a published author. Well, I was both horrified and amused by the descriptions of some of the crime scenes. Horrified because they indicated that the author had not done her research, and that the editor obviously didn't know anything about crime scenes, either. I was amused only because they were so wrong.

I don't write murder mysteries, but my husband and I spent four years in our county's Sheriff Department as deputies, and we learned very well from Academy education and real life experience what constitutes correct police procedure and investigation. So I'm going to share some of that experience, in terms of what mystery/crime writers should and should not do. First and foremost, of course, is their own research into the correct police procedure and investigative processes in their own city/county.

** To begin with, most police officers and sheriffs today do not carry revolvers. True, they are lightweight and fire easily. But revolvers only hold six bullets, as compared to fifteen or more in semi-automatic weapons, like Glocks,  Barettas, and Sig Sauers, to name a few. Semi-automatic weapons use clips instead of single bullets, like revolvers. Revolvers don't eject spent cartridges automatically, they have to be ejected by hand by rolling the cylinder, and then reloaded. When an officer is in a situation where the 'bad guys' are shooting back, he doesn't want to fire only six bullets, and then take the time manually reload his weapon, one bullet at a time.

**Handguns always have a round in the chamber, and most police weapons have a  safety that is discharged when the trigger is pulled. Please don't have your law-enforcement hero approach a bad guy or a dangerous situation at the same time he is discharging his safety or racking a round into the chamber of his weapon. It's just not realistic, unless this is an historical mystery.

**One of the things I found amusing was the scene where the detective "smelled the cordite" in the room. Sorry, but unless your story takes place in the 1930's or early '40s, this isn't possible. Cordite has not been used in handguns since WW II.

**As we learned in the Sheriff's Academy, officers are not taught to "shoot to kill", as most people think, even when not reading a mystery. They are trained to aim at the center mass of the target, especially if it is to save a life, either someone else's, or their own.

**Officers do not shoot at arms, knees, or legs to wound. If an officer must use his weapon to stop a suspect, as I said above, he aims for the center mass.

**The investigating police office does not look at the bullet wounds in a body, and announce to one and all that such-and-such gun, a specific gun, was used to kill. That determination is made by the Medical Examiner and forensic team.

**And finally, please do not have the FBI 'coming in and taking over the case.' They don't do that! First of all, they can be called in to assist the local authorities, but they don't just 'arrive on the scene and take over.' Second, most of the time when the FBI IS asked to assist, it is because the crime has been committed over state lines, is part of a serial murder spree, or has to do with local terrorism.

Obviously, the above tips are only a very small part of crime writing, when it comes to procedure and investigation of a crime. But if you are writing a mystery story, and you have crime scenes where police officers, detectives, or sheriffs are involved, DO YOUR RESEARCH. Find out what you are writing about, how to write it, what truths and accuracies must you have, before you begin writing. It will be a much more fun experience in writing, and certainly a more enjoyable read for your reading audience.

Now, having said that...of course, we as fiction writers are allowed to twist and turn reality. But even then, reality must still be logical, it must have enough truth and accuracy to allow the reader to accept it and get past the actual facts of the matter. So before you begin your twists and turns, first learn the factual basics of law enforcement procedures and incorporate them into your storyline. Don't stretch believability, or even unbelievability, to the point where the reader simply won't accept it.

One final thought: the majority of police officers spend their entire careers of 25 or 30 years active duty, and never once have the need to pull their weapons and fire at a suspect.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

So You Want to Write a Book?

Today I'm going to talk about writing a book. Yesterday I was in our local market standing in line, and overhearing an rather interesting conversation. One lady was telling another how she was writing a book, and how easy it was. Hmm... She was saying that if 'the author' of Twilight could make so much money by writing at her kitchen table, then she could, too. Double Hmmm... The other lady made a comment about how writing was so time consuming, and you had to have so much "know how" when it came to grammar and punctuation,  and other things you probably had to learn in a writing school. The first lady said "Oh, no, you just sit down and write, and then send it to a publisher and their editor clears all that up for you." Oh. Really?

I started writing when I was just a kid. My mother sent to the newspaper she worked for a poem I had written as a 10 year old about my three kittens. Of course, it was published! When I was twelve, I wrote a short, true story about a mare I was training for the show ring, how she suddenly went blind, and how I finished her training with only voice signals. I went on to show her one time...before the officials knew she was blind...and she won two classes. Again, the newspaper published.

My next effort at writing didn't come until I was married and had gone back to college to finish my education. I wrote a book ( short one) of Haiku poetry for a class I was in, and the university published it and put it in their library.

Then, when I remarried, and my husband and I were living on our ranch raising and training Appaloosa and Quarter horses, we also had 4 beautiful, large parrots, and I started writing little stories using the parrots as my characters. Never tried to publish any. Finally, after we retired and moved to the Central Coast of California, the Christmas of 2005, my wonderful daughter sent me a box of five books...all "how-to" books on how to write for kids and teens. The gift included a brief note, in part which said...Mom, get off your butt and start writing for real this time...! ! !  I fell in love with writing all over again, and shortly after, began taking some fantastic online courses ( for an equally 'fantastic' price) from the Institute of Children's Literature, located in Connecticut. And I quickly learned how much I didn't know that I didn't know about writing.

The Freedom Thief is my first book, and it was started during my first course at ICL. In the beginning, I wanted to write a book about the Underground Railroad and how it saved the lives of so many slaves. However, it wasn't finished by the time I started my last novel writing course with ICL, and my teacher said there were too many stories about the Underground Railroad, and he wanted me to start a contemporary novel. Which was the beginning of Cheers, Chocolate, and Other Disasters.

That second book was also not quite finished when I graduated, so I went back to my first love. Oh boy! By then, I knew a lot more about what I didn't know at first, and realized that first attempt at what became The Freedom Thief was just not enough. Five years later, after two years of research which included a barge trip ( yes, a REAL barge) down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for my husband and me, visiting the small towns and Civil War sites that were so prominent during the Civil War, that story finally came together. It ended up not being a story about the Underground Railroad, but about a boy  rescuing his friends from slavery.

The point is...as most writers already know too well...you DON"T just sit down at the kitchen table and write! How the first Twilight got published, I will never know, because it had so many grammatical, punctuation, and even spelling mistakes in it, yet it was published by one of the "Big Five" publishers. Obviously, her subsequent books didn't have those mistakes in them.

You do have to know about SPAG, but that's really not the most important thing about writing. The concept of the storyline, the time line, filling out the characters, making sure the plot is believable...even if it is paranormal or a mystery, a fantasy, or whatever...this all takes time, and knowledge, and study, and time, and research, and time, and...did I mention TIME? Ideas come and go, you are forever grabbing a pencil and a piece of paper, even if it's nothing more than an old grocery receipt, to write something down before you forget it. Your desk is usually covered with papers, at least if you're like me. I do so much research for all my story ideas, print it out, and am forever stacking those papers on my desk, instead of neatly compiling them into folders and putting them in a file. After all, it takes more TIME to get up, go to the filing cabinet, and look for a certain file with certain papers in it. Somehow, it just seems less time consuming to scratch like a cat through all those papers on my desk until I finally find the one I want. Even though I usually end up with papers strewn all over the office floor, and then screech like that same cat when my husband comes in to sit at his desk, and steps all over them.

I've written and published five books for teens and Young Adults, and none has been written quickly...or at the kitchen table. My husband put a stop to that when I scolded him in the early days of writing because he got sugar from his morning cereal all over my writing pad. Oh well...
Now I write only at my lap top, only at my desk, and try very hard to pick up all my mess from the floor before he comes in the office. After all, a happy husband means more time to write !

I guess what I've really meant to say after all this meandering, is that writing a book is just not something one does off the top of his or her head. It does take education, whether it is in a formal setting as most of mine was in the beginning, or whether it is self-made. And that education never stops, because no matter how many books we write and publish, we never, ever "know" all there is about writing. We never stop learning what it takes to write a book, and make that book publishable and enjoyable to the reading public. And if we ever think we have "learned it all," then my suggestion is...go back, and do some more thinking. Writing is an on-going process, AND an ever-learning process. We never become 'know-it-alls.'

Think about it.
Until next time, that's a wrap.