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Featured, Marketing, Serial Killer, Suspense, Writing, Writing Style

Introducing EYES WITHOUT A FACE

August 7, 2017

My newest book, Eyes Without A Face, releases in October. Unlike anything I’ve written before, it’s from inside the mind of a psychopath. Here’s a teaser:

No matter what anyone says, I wasn’t born a serial killer. I don’t carry a sociopath gene, a psychopath gene, or even a serial killer gene. No such thing.

You can argue about nurture versus nature. Go ahead. Have at it. Look at the studies about psychopaths. Check me against the list of traits. I didn’t wet my bed, kill small animals, or set fires. My younger brother did those things, but he didn’t kill people―as far as I know. I wasn’t sexually promiscuous. My sister was. She began screwing every boy and some of the men in town as soon as she got breasts.

My father was verbally and physically abusive like half the men in town. So overpowering was the old man’s dominance that my mother retreated into a dark place where no spark emerged. Valium and vodka numbed her into submission.

None of this turned me into a killer. I came to this life through free will.

Back in college, I was never in touch with the lifestyles of my sorority sisters, who were into sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I knew from the very beginning that would never be satisfying. I needed something more, something different. Once I killed someone, however, I found my true calling in life.

In a way, fate led me to kill people that didn’t deserve to live. Other than one time, I never, ever killed anyone without a damned good reason. Even that time, I felt justified because I was learning my craft, honing my skills, if you will. I came to killing gradually, but once I started, I continued for more than three decades.

Featured, Lifestyle, Travel

Hot July Night

July 24, 2017

Instead of a hot August night at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, my husband Terry and best friend Glenn joined 7000 of our closest friends for another hot July concert at Wolf Trap. The venue is outdoors with a covered pavilion and lawn seating. The temp peaked at 96 with high humidity by 5:00. We’d arrived around 5:30 and with gates opening at 6:30, we had a long, standing wait to get in. We actually heard the sound check, although we couldn’t see the stage from the gate area.

Because we arrived early enough to be third in line at our gate, we were assured we’d have a good spot once the gates opened and the land rush began. We had a plan: Terry would immediately rent back rests, Glenn would dash downhill to stake out our homestead, and I’d follow more slowly with the blankets and food. Recently recovered from a broken wrist, I don’t “dash” anywhere. Glenn is a pro at this and had grabbed a great place only about fifteen feet up from the front of the lawn area.

We’d been following this band for years. I became a fan when its first album was released fifty years ago and never stopped buying every new release. In all formats except 8-track tape. Among the three of us, we knew the words to nearly all of the hits. Glenn had been following the reviews as the band worked its way across country. Not a single slightly sketchy review to be found. From 17,500 people at the Hollywood Bowl earlier in the summer to our paltry 7000 at Wolf Trap, the band sold out every venue for its fiftieth anniversary concert series.

The reason for the tour, beyond saying thank you to the fans, was to recognize the life-changing effect the first album had on the band and its fans. The concert was split into two halves: in the first set, the band played hits from many of their albums and singles over the years; the second set was the entire inaugural album from first note to last. The fans came to adore their favorite singers; the singers came to be adored.

Just before the encore, Justin Hayward, the lead singer, thanked the fans for joining them on their life’s journey. The sheer fact that we were there to celebrate was testament to the effect the songs from that first album had on so many of us.

We writers can take a lesson from The Moody Blues. We can thank our fans, our readers, for joining us on our writing journey. It takes so little, but Justin’s recognition of what we’d done over the years, loving the band, made all the difference. The fans were speechless before erupting in a standing ovation that lasted many minutes.

Writers don’t get standing ovations, but we do get to meet fans who buy our books. May we never forget to say “thank you” when we hand back a signed book.

To those readers who continue to enjoy my scribbles, thank you. I hope I’ve entertained, and I hope to continue entertaining for many books to come.

Featured, Lifestyle

Thinking About Toes

July 10, 2017

First of all, the word “toes” is a funny one. It rhymes with nose and does. It’s a plural referring to ten digits at the end of two feet. Now, feet are more than just things we walk on; feet are also units of measure. Toes are not units of measure. They are simply things we need to stand and walk.

I’ve become something of a toe fetishist this summer. It all began in April when I put on sandals and looked at ten bare toe nails. Off to get a pedicure and have bright red polish applied by a professional who not only took care of said toe nails, but the entire foot and my calves. Massaging and scrubbing until my legs were purring with pleasure and my feet were soft as a baby’s behind. It felt so good I should say I’m a toe hedonist, but that was before color choices.

I was one of two women getting my pedicure that first spring day. I poked through fifty shades of red before deciding on one that was perfect. The woman next to me was enjoying getting coral on her toes. We chatted about how and why women chose different colors. Very enlightening, because I never choose coral (coral lipstick washes my face out), but heck, that shouldn’t apply to toes, should it? For me, it seems to. I never lean toward coral shades.

During the last pedicure, the nail salon was crammed. Every chair was filled; many more waited for polish to dry or to begin their appointments. Nail art was in full swing. Several women were having rhinestones glued to big toes; others were opting for stencils of flags, flowers, or dogs. Covering everything was a thick coat of clear varnish to keep the designs from fading.

I grew fascinated by two different approaches to making statements with nail polish. One young woman was having a French manicure, pink nail beds with white rims at the tips. She was going to a wedding and wanted fingers and toes to match. Of course, silly me for asking. The other fascinating approach involved a twelve-year-old and her mother. The child had selected ten different colors ranging from deep purple to hot yellow. I thought she couldn’t make up her mind, but no, she wanted each toe painted a different screaming color. Her mother agreed, then asked for five of the colors for herself. She started with bright yellow on her left little toe and worked her way to purple on the big toe, reversing the order on the other foot. When she left, her daughter looked like a happy neon billboard; mom looked like she was signaling someone with one purple big toe and one screaming yellow big toe.

Me? I settled for a lovely brick shade, not too bright, not too dull. A Goldilocks shade. Maybe I’ll get brave next time and opt for purple. Or not.

Featured, Lifestyle, Travel, Writing, Writing Style

Summer Memories

July 3, 2017

Late last year, I shared a short story here called “Toad.” Set in the high desert of Southern California, it was the tale of an imaginative little boy in the late 1950s. To be a free-range kid in those days was heaven, because Toad could go anywhere but toward the highway. With his two best friends, Shorty, the gray burro, and Rex, the German Shepherd, Toad roamed the desert alone or with his younger brother, Jimmy. The story was filled with sunlight as you would expect from something set in the summertime desert.

Toad began as a bit of flash fiction. I loved the little boy. Later, I expanded the story several times. I wasn’t done with Toad. The further away I was from Toad, the clearer I could see him. I couldn’t get the boy out of my head. I wondered how he would grow up, who his friends were, what happened to his parents, his brother.

The more I thought about Toad, the more I really wanted to write more of his story. What I didn’t want to do was  write a novel. I wanted more freedom to explore, to change voices, to change points of view. I’d read a novel by Clifford Garstang, What the Zhang Boys Knew, a few years back. Cliff’s work was a novel in stories, wherein a pair of boys living in an apartment complex in Washington, D.C. figure prominently in each story, which focus on other residents in the complex.

I couldn’t put Toad in a high-rise in Washington, but I could leave him in the desert, let him go away for school and work, and return to his roots. Along the way, Toad picked up a good friend, Pollywog, who moved in “up the road.” Pollywog and Toad met in high school, before they went their different ways. A not-so-nice aunt and her two young girls, one a spoiled princess who hated everything and one a studious child who hid from conflict inside the pages of books, joined the family. Jimmy, Toad’s younger brother, found voice in his own story.

Toad remained the center of the stories, as did the desert compound where he grew up. Family came and went, married and divorced, had kids and lost kids. Life went on, but Toad’s story unwound in ways I didn’t expect.

I have a lot of work to do on this before it’s ready for publication. I hope it’s out in the first half of next year.

And why did Toad draw me in? Partly because I spent many summers in the compound, which was exactly as described in the stories. Party because I was a free-range kid, something my grandkids can’t be nowadays. Partly because I knew and loved the inspiration for Toad. His story needed to be imagined and told. I hope I do him justice. Time and our family will tell.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Summer Doldrums, Early

June 26, 2017

I spoke with several close friends about their drive to do something. Since the beginning of June, they’ve had the summer doldrums, otherwise known as the summer blahs. Yes, they know chores have to be done, and they do them, but then they want to sit beside the pool, or on a dock on a lake, or on the patio, pour a glass of iced tea (sweet or unsweet, depending on your degree of “Southern-ness), and dive into a book. We want some lounge time, me time to read what we want, not what we may have had to read for work. We want a steamy romance. a chair-rattling gothic, a keep-the-lights-on mystery, a spy thriller.

Me? I chose a spy thriller, P.A. Duncan’s A War of Deception. Like something right out of the John Le Carre school of spy thrillers. this blends old-fashioned Cold War spycraft with modern locales and themes. Bad boy spies and the women who love to hate and love them keep me turning pages.

Why don’t you join me? What are you reading today? If it’s one of my books, please take a pic and let me know where you are and which one you’re reading. If not one of mine, that a pic and post to FB. The author will be delighted.

Editing, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

When Women Writers Get Together

June 19, 2017

A week-long writers workshop began with a reunion of half a dozen kindred souls, all writers who had attended the workshop for several years, as had I. We filled the first hours with catching up on the families and other personal activities. Then, we began talking about our writing. And that’s when the conversation turned serious. Really serious.

Each of us expected the other writers to have finished a chapbook of poems, much of a new novel, a series of essays or short stories. What we learned is that to a one, we had been oddly blocked. We knew what we wanted to write, but the writing-ness of writing was more than difficult. For a couple, it had been impossible. Some of us were stress starvers who don’t each much; others were stress eaters who put on weight. At least fifteen pounds.

This felt different from generic writer’s block. Its origin was in the cosmic angst, not in the person herself. The more we talked, the more we were able to identify the point when we stopped feeling like writing. (Not to say, many of us continued, but the joy was gone.) For a couple of writers, the date was early in November; for others, it was in January. Those who waited until January hid behind the holidays. Once January ended, their mental paralysis was in full bloom. They sat. They spun. They thought but could find little to write down.

Several started writing about happier times in their lives. I didn’t realize it, but I was one who went back to an earlier time, to a story I started on a lark about a place where I felt safe and joyous. I revisited the story, fleshed it out, wrote outlines for six additional stories, and decided I would write a novel in stories about an extended family and some of their friends. Good things and bad happen to the family, but they always have one place of solace they call home. I felt excitement growing. I felt a release.

The more the women talked, the more we realized we had allowed outside events overwhelm us. We spent too much time on social media. We allowed people we love to interrupt our writing. One woman’s daughter texted her constantly when she was writing, growing shriller and shriller until she stopped and responded. Concentration shattered. Might as well go onto Facebook and Twitter and see what was going on.

We pretended we were doing research when we followed trails all over the Internet. One woman wanted to validate a point in her novel, only to find herself an hour later still following links down all sorts of side paths. She had entered the “oh, look, a chicken” mindset. She vowed to turn off her phone, keep only the story live on her screen, and let the world find its own way without her for a while. Sounds good to me.

I too let myself get distracted because I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings if I don’t interact then instant they get online. I played into their games, leaving myself vulnerable to losing my train of thought. I let them control our relationship, because I didn’t want to get into any lengthy discussions about why what I was doing was more important than looking at their stickers.

We women left the week-long workshop rejuvenated. We promised to help each other if we found ourselves straying. We agreed that our position might not be all that popular, but if you want books from us, you must, absolutely must, understand that we will take the space we need. No matter how many times you text me, how many emojis/videos/stickers you send, I will be online when I’m finished with my work at the end of the day. I may take breaks in the middle of the day for a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean I’m inviting anyone to try and engage in lengthy conversations. I ask you to understand. This is not open for debate. I have two books that must be finished in short order. And they will be.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Worms

June 5, 2017

You read that right: worms. I woke up this morning thinking about worms.

Before I continue, I confess that there is little in nature I like less than a worm. I hate them. I know earthworms are good for the soil, but I don’t have to like them, do I? I don’t know why worms were on my mind before dawn today, but they were.

Think about all the way worms appear in our vocabulary. Remember the childhood complaint: Nobody likes me, everybody hates me. I’m going to eat some worms. Now, I never knew that eating worms would be a good idea if no one liked you, except by doing so you might gross someone out. Watching someone eat worms would gross me out, even if they are considered a source of protein and a delicacy in some parts of the world. I prefer chicken or tofu for my protein, thank you very much.

In early spring, when the earth warms, the rains soften the hard ground, earthworms emerge and slither across driveways and sidewalks. A harbinger of spring, I love it when they appear. Just don’t ask me to touch one. I don’t like slimy things, and worms are right up there with the slimiest.

Ear worms are another annoying, albeit not slimy, evidence of worms. No one likes to have “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “It’s a Small World” stuck in your brain all day. “Nights in White Satin” or “Sound of Silence,” maybe. In fact, definitely “Nights in White Satin.” Usually. ear worms are the most annoying interruptions. And the more you try to get rid of them, the louder they get.

What about sayings we hear from our parents and grandparents. “The early bird gets the worm.” Or, “he’s caught like a worm on a hook.” There are more. Add your own favorites.

The more I think about it, it doesn’t end well for the worm. I think I’ll leave it at that.

Donna Knox, Featured, Lifestyle

Dragons and Funny Interpretations

May 29, 2017

You all know I’m going through rehab to strengthen the wrist I broke on April 25. It’s getting better. I have enough rotation to type. Alas, rehab isn’t fixing the typos I make. And I can’t play the piano.

Right after I had my spill, I bought Natural Dragon software so that I could keep working. My friends warned me that the software has to learn your voice, your cadence, and special words you use. They were right.

After going through the set up exercises for Dragon to learn my cadence, it was time to try it on a manuscript I was editing. Because the writer I’m working with has a penchant for putting commas in the wrong places or leaving them out entirely, I trained my left hand to drag the mouse to the spot where a comma needed to be inserted. I said, “comma.” A comma appeared. About the fifteenth time I said, “comma,” my husband asked if I was working on a friend’s manuscript. He’s heard me worry commas into the text more often than not.

Well, I got fat and sassy, so I thought I’d take a crack at one of my works. I was pretty good with most of the edits, but the software kept inserting Sad Sack for Mad Max. These words don’t sound anything alike. I really couldn’t figure out why Sad Sack sounded like Mad Max. I still don’t get it.

Worse was when I started working on a new manuscript. There is no way the software learned the name of the main character. I admit Sa-Li Ma is an unusual name. He’s Chinese, so it’s not unusual for him. Dragon couldn’t, just couldn’t, figure it out. Sa-Li came out Solly, Sally, Sully, Salim, silently, and several other silly mistakes. It’s pronounced Sah-Lee. Now hard it that, especially after I put it in the Dragon dictionary.

I figured Ma wouldn’t be all that hard. It means “horse” in Chinese. It’s pronounced Mah. I had everything from Ma to Mott to Meh to Mole. Mole??? Really???

I whined to a girlfriend who advised I change the character’s name. I did. Surely Dragon should be able to understand John Doe. Leave it to say, Doe came out in a variety of different spellings. Oh, well, I can use search and replace for John and manually change Doe to Ma.

The software picks up all sorts of speech. I turned to say something to my husband when he passed my desk. Damned software picked up every word with no errors. But a name, no way. You can’t imagine what it did with a sneeze.

I’m not going to quit on the software. I’m also not going to try writing any dialog in dialect. Not gonna do it. Uh uh. And I think I’ll not cough.

###

Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max Unintended Consequences and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery. She has a new short story, “Midnight in the Church of the Holy Grape,” in 50 Shades of Cabernet. Her works have appeared in several anthologies and on NPR.

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

“Wait, What?”

May 22, 2017

A few years back, James Ryan gave a commencement speech at Harvard’s College of Education where he advised graduates to question everything. His first bit of wisdom was what he called, “Wait, What?”That’s when you’are telling your kids something, you throw in, “I need you to clean your room.” Your kid hears “blah, blah, blah, clean your room, blah, blah, blah.” Your kid says, “Wait, what?” The clean-your-room comment is the only thing to penetrate text brain. Ryan’s message was about listening to a message and questioning it.

Journalists and writers are sympathetic questioners. We want to know the answers. So we ask the questions.

A writers most important question could be “What happens if…?”

What happens if you put a plain-looking man in a group of “pretty people?” How can you make him stand out? Does he have the gift of gab? Is he uber-smart? Is he a billionaire? Or is he an ordinary guy who listens when people talk and asks questions to keep them talking?

A few years ago. my husband and I visited Blowing Rock, NC. We’d just checked into our motel and were off to find ice cream at our favorite local shop. Lying next to the gutter was a child’s sock. A single sock. I wondered, “where’s the other sock?” I didn’t want a prosaic answer like its mate was in the dryer, or a child pulled it off when Daddy wasn’t looking. I wanted it to be a clue dropped by a woman who’d been kidnapped. Or maybe it fell out of a sleeve of a well-dressed man whose wife didn’t iron his shirts. Clue: the sock will appear in a story later this year when the wrong sock is the clue to a missing child.

Then, there was the woman dressed like a gypsy at a Barns at Wolf Trap concert even more years ago than the sock. She sat to the side, lost in her own world,  and shuffled a deck of Tarot cards. Was she going to tell her own fortune? Did she want to tell mine?

My friend, the late Sally Roseveare, could look around a room and find at least three things that would enhance her mysteries. Sometimes it was a mundane item that could be used to kill someone. Picture wire was one of her favorites, yet she never used it in a story. Or she’d wonder why a teaspoon was left on a chair even though no one was eating. Could it have traces of poison in it? And what about that crumpled paper? Did it have a written clue about where to find a murder weapon?

I look at people and wonder what their secrets are. We all have them. Do we wish we had been kinder to an elderly relative? Or to a child? Or do I wish I hadn’t spent our week’s grocery money on a necklace for my mom on Mother’s Day when I was eight? I do, but she was kind enough to hide her anger and worry about our diet for a week. She gave me the necklace years ago. I still have it.

Look around. You never know what you’ll find. Take tons of pictures of things that strike you. You never know when you’ll need that precise image.

What questions do you ask? What makes you curious?

Lifestyle, Writing

Learning To Be Me

May 15, 2017

Most of you who know me or who have been following me know I’m independent and stubborn. That’s a double understatement. So, three weeks ago when I fell and broke my wrist, I knew I was going to need a lot of help. My dear husband stepped up to taking care of me along with all of his own tasks. He had no idea what being me entailed.

I broke the right radius, the bone that allows the wrist to turn. I had surgery one week later.

Now, I’m profoundly right-handed, so I knew teaching my useless left hand to do anything would be a long and winding road, It was and is.

Let’s start with what I’m doing now: writing a blog entry. I’m typing with my left hand, backing up constantly to fix typos, and trying to keep my thoughts clear. Yes, my brain struggles to fend off the anesthesia muzzies. I figured out how to hunt and peck the letters. Then there was a contraption called THE MOUSE. I didn’t reset the mouse buttons, because it wouldn’t have done a darned bit of good. I’m better at mousing. I’m so proud of me. I’m feeling cocky enough to trying to cut and paste, but not until I feel like being bought to my knees in frustration.

Cooking is out of the question. I have a freezer full of homemade soups and stews. We laid in a stack of Lean Cuisine and plenty of fresh veggies for salads and for roasting on the grill. Terry is good in the kitchen. Normally, I cook and he cleans up. Now, he’s doing it all. I’m so lucky. Eating itself can be a challenge. As one of my friends said years ago about his toddler: “it’s not pretty, but it’s effective.” Only twice since the break have I wished for a bib. At least, clothes and hands wash. Speaking of laundry, I’ve never been good at folding fitter sheets, but at least I have an excuse. Wonder how long I can milk it.

Personal hygiene has been easier than I thought. A baggie over the mallet bandage, rubber bands to keep the water out, and an elbow to help with shampoo bottles. Pedicures take of toes and feet. Forget makeup. I’m out and about in native skin. And bless the people who developed battery-operated toothbrushes; they are my heroes.

To the people who have come to my aid in putting groceries in the car, adding lids to my coffee so I don’t pour slop hot liquids all over, and the sweet young girl who carried two lattes to the car. I appreciate your kindness. To Joesephine at the Westlake Library, the “scene of the crime,” who fetched ice, called Terry, and took me to get emergency treatment, you’re my hero for springing into action and not getting sick when you saw how out of alignment the wrist was. I promise to share your kindness forward.

Tomorrow I go back to the surgeon. I hope I get a smaller splint/bandage and go off to physical therapy. Keep an eye on Facebook for updates.

 

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