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Eating with a Stranger

December 3, 2018

Have you ever eaten with a stranger? Not just someone you don’t know well, but someone you’ve never seen before? If you had that opportunity, what would you talk about?

Would you exchange light pleasantries, keeping to the weather, “how about those Mets?” Or would you take a chance on a deeper conversation and possibly learn something unexpected?

I’d want to learn about the person sitting opposite me. Where are you from? Tulsa, really? I’ve never been to Tulsa. What did you like about living there? Do you miss it? What brought you here?  I’d keep the conversation going by asking more specific questions, stopping only when I think I’m getting too personal.

Do you have kids? Grandkids? Do you have any pictures? Pay attention to those this stranger chooses to share. If they are on her cell, you can scroll through several. If he pulls a couple from his wallet, ask their ages. If they are older, what are they doing? You can learn an awful lot by how a proud parent or grandparent talks about family.

Steer away from those really touchy subjects. I never ask a person’s politics, religion, even their ethnicity, if I think it’s undetermined. If, on the other hand, this stranger wears a symbol of a specific religion, and you want to learn more about it, why not ask, “will you tell me about your religion?” You might learn something that will change your mind.

What I find uncomfortable is meeting strangers and have them force their ideas on me. As strangers, you don’t know if I have a son who is gay, have lost a child to cancer/drugs/texting while driving. You don’t know my political beliefs. Please don’t tell me all about your biases on these subjects. You don’t know me. And you won’t because I’ll exit the conversation as quickly as possible.

But, if you want to share in a manner where we can exchange ideas, even if they are on the opposite end of the spectrum, then I’ll engage until we talk ourselves dry.

‘Tis the season to reach out. Take a few minutes to meet a stranger. Listen, learn. You’ll be a better person for doing so.

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Survival, Trauma, Writing, Writing Life, Writing Style

A Letter To My Daughters

November 19, 2018

Dear Daughters,

I am a woman with no children of my own. I am a universal mother of children born to other mothers. I am a woman and mother who wants her daughters to stand proud.

In your lives, you will experience success and failure. Learn from both.

You will find times when you aren’t strong, don’t want to do the right thing―because doing the right thing can be hard. It can bring condemnation down on you. It can bring haters out of the dark. It can hurt.

I hope you never have to experience what I did when I was in my twenties. If you do, I hope you will do what I did.

When I was a teaching assistant at a major football university, I had a student who never attended classes, never turned in homework. I didn’t know what he looked like. I had no idea how to reach him, but since he had not dropped my class, I had to carry him on the rolls. He showed up at the end of class three weeks before the end of the term. He handed me a paper, saying, “Sign this. I need to be eligible for the big game.”

I stared first at the paper and then at the behemoth standing in front of me. I was 5’8” and weighed maybe 125. He had me by a head, outweighed me by 150 pounds on a good day. More on game day. I assumed that he was on the football team because he needed C grades to play in the upcoming bowl game.

I asked how he planned to make up the work in order to be eligible. He laughed. He had no intention of making up the work, he said. He wanted me to sign, “or else.” My brain didn’t compute what “or else” might mean. I tried to explain that while he was still registered, without making up the work, I couldn’t sign the form. He was officially failing my class.

I held out the paper, smiled my regrets, and turned to my desk to load my bag and leave the classroom.

In an instant, he shoved me onto my desk, lifted my mini-skirt, and ripped off my underwear. He unzipped his pants. That’s when he made a huge mistake: he put his hand over my mouth, smothering my cries for help. I bit him. Hard. He raped me, pulled out, and walked away, leaving his eligibility form behind.

Every cell shook from the assault. I sat for a long time, glad that no students had a class the hour after the attack. Ultimately, I dried my eyes, wiped off raccoon make-up, and went to my office. I ran into my faculty advisor who immediately took me aside. I didn’t want to tell him what happened.

Then, anger set in. I had done nothing wrong. I was the victim, not the perpetrator. And I was mad as hell.

My advisor asked how he could help. By rights, I should have been suspicious of all men, but he was kind and concerned. I told him every detail, gave him the student’s name, showed him the eligibility form. He asked me what I wanted to do.

I was now mad enough to want revenge. He called another teaching assistant, who took one look at me and said, “We’re going to the health center. And then we’re going to the police.”

My friend was one of those dynamos who at 5’ tall brooked nonsense from no one. She took me to the health center, where I was examined. I demanded and got a rape kit. My friend demanded the campus police be called.

The campus policeman was useless. He said it was my word against the student’s, I must have wanted it because I wore a mini skirt, the fashion at the time. He took notes and advised me to go home.

My friend called the city police. They were a little more interested in my story, but in essence said the same thing: “No one is going to believe you.”

My friend drove me home and stayed with me. Thursday night passed into Friday, a day when I had no classes to teach or take. By the end of the weekend, mad morphed into icy rage. I decided to tell the football coach.

I marched into his office early Monday morning and planted myself outside his door until he arrived. I followed him inside, threw the unsigned eligibility form on his desk, and said, “This player raped me in my classroom on Thursday.”

He didn’t believe me.

I had proof, I said. I asked him to call the player to his office.

He didn’t believe me.

I took my Wonder Woman pose, fists on hips, eyes glaring at him.

He asked his assistant to bring the player to his office.

“What proof do you have?”

The player walked in, shot me a dirty look. He had a thick bandage on his right hand.

“I bit him when he raped me. Check under that wrap.”

The coach, to his credit, told his player to unwrap the hand.

Do you have any idea how filthy the human bite is? His hand was infected, red lines climbing his arm.

I had my revenge. I had exposed a rapist. I had stood up for myself. I was a survivor of something no woman, no daughter should have to survive. No one was going to put the blame on me.

Years later, I wondered what had happened to the player. I found a news article. He’s doing thirty to life for multiple rapes, many when he was armed with a knife. With that, I wiped his name from my memory.

Shaking set in again. He could have killed me. He could have killed my spirit. HE DID NEITHER.

My daughters, if you ever find yourselves in such a situation, maybe not rape, but something that you shouldn’t keep hidden, tell someone the truth and only the truth. Act. Be proud of your strength. Stand tall. Relish it. You will feel better about yourself. And I’ll be proud of you.

I love you all,

Mom

Featured, Lifestyle, Poem, Writing, Writing Style

Raising Ben

November 5, 2018

No one would say I’m a poet. I’m not, but occasionally I write something that goes beyond my standard doggerel. I’m very happy to announce that my poem, “Raising Ben,” will be featured in an upcoming anthology, which celebrates the30th anniversary of the Smith Mountain Arts Council. I hope you like it.

Raising Ben

hold my hand

don’t let go

I’ll help you walk

 

time to eat

it’s your favorite

I’ll feed you

 

give me a sign

a smile something

show me you know I’m here

 

speak

one word any word

let me hear your voice

 

Mama

 

No, not Mama

just me Kathy

your daughter

Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Life, Writing Style

Wait! You’re A Writer?

October 22, 2018

All of us who write get a series of questions, most of which are asked out of curiosity, a few out of envy, and even fewer to debase us.

  • How long does it take to write a book?
  • What’s your “real” job?
  • How long do you write every day?
  • How much money do you make?
  • Are you a best-selling author?
  • I’ve never heard of you. You must not be very good.

The list goes on and on, like the road leading out of the Shire. Let’s dig into these and see if I can clarify my answers:

  • How long does it take to write a book? As long as it takes. Use “How long is a piece of string?” to give the questioner a sense of just how silly this question seems to those of us who write all the time
  • What’s your “real” job? Writing is my real job. Between my family, writing my allotted number of pages, interacting with readers, Skyping with book clubs, and promoting my materials through social media, it’s a “real” job. It’s even what I list on my IRS returns where the forms ask for occupation. I answer, “Author.”
  • How long do you write every day? I put in a good four or five hours each day in creating new material and editing older material. New material begins with a blank screen. On a terrific day, I fill up that screen and many more with words. On the next day, I look at those words and see how many I can keep. Sometimes it’s most of the new work; other times most is designated “what the heck was I thinking?” and moved to the parking lot, a graveyard for what seemed good ideas at the time.
  • How much money do you make? Best answered politely with “I never discuss money,” when you really want to say, “How often do you have sex?” Same degree of “none of your damned business” questioning. Some people think it’s fine to be snoops. They usually end up dead in a subsequent novel.
  • Are you a best-selling author? If I was, you’d know it.
  • I’ve never heard of you. You must not be very good. Well, that is a matter of opinion. My readers think I’m pretty good. As I add more with each book, I rise in the ranks of authors. So, if you haven’t heard of me, shame on you. You’re not paying attention.

It’s hard sometimes to paste that smile on your face, but you have to do it. These people are future readers, most likely. They may not remember what you write but they will remember that you dissed them. Don’t diss them. Honor the comment with a polite one of your own. No matter that we don’t like being in public, the first time that pesky novel hits print, you are now a public figure. Enjoy it.

Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

The Power of We

September 24, 2018

It’s such a tiny word. We. W and E. And yet, it’s such a powerful concept. It’s the power of more than one doing something together.

For a writer, “we” is the writer and her characters. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Writers need to listen to their characters to be certain she represents them the way they should be represented, the way they want to be represented. When I try to force a character to act not in accordance with the way it thinks, nothing works. Descriptions become stilted; dialogue becomes unnatural; characters become cranky. And none of us want a cranky character.

For a writer, “we” is also our agent, publisher, and editor. I’ve talked to many of my fellow writers, most of whom think their agents are god. The agent works for the writer and sells the work to a publisher, who assigns an editor to polish it. I cannot tell you how many writers have told me they hate their editors. They hate having their ideas challenged, their words changed. I’ve seen posts on Facebook by new writers who think an editor/publisher should take what they write and publish it without a single question. That’s what self-publishing is all about. And that’s why so many self-published works show a lack of discipline that “we” bring.

Let me give you an example. In Uncharted Territory, the second Mad Max mystery, my editor questioned a technique I used to signal the presence of a certain character. This character tapped the main character on the cheek with an invisible feather. I thought I’d explained how this clairvoyant manifested his thoughts through the feather. I guess I didn’t, because by the fourth time the feather appeared, my editor wrote, “What’s with the f***ing feather?” Well, now. I guess I didn’t explain it.

I hadn’t seen the problem. I was too close to the story. So, when my editor pointed out the flaw, the story became stronger, clearer and more exciting when I explained it the first time it appeared.

“We” works in our personal lives as well. “We” is our family. “We” is our close friends. “We” is our country. When “we” all work together, “we” get great things done. And now, it’s time to listen to my latest character, Toad, who is my current “we.” He has a lot to say right this minute.

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Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max mystery series, Unintended Consequences, Uncharted Territory, and Unsafe Haven. She also wrote a dark psychological suspense novel, Eyes Without A Face, about a female serial killer, who unpacks her life and career in first person.

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Travel, Writing, Writing Habits, Writing Inspiration, Writing Life

My Little Secret

September 12, 2018

Do you remember the cheesy games we used to have to play? Those ice breakers at camp, corporate retreats, training sessions? Those adult questions that were little more than “what I did on my summer vacation” but which were meant to share something most people wouldn’t know about you? Well, I have a secret most of you don’t know.

I LOVE SNAKES.

Always have. When I was five, I drifted away from Mom at the San Diego Zoo. The gibbons were over-gibboning. I didn’t like it. I wandered off. When Mom discovered I was missing, she knew where to find me. The snake house. Yup, there I was, staring at an emerald-green boa, the prettiest snake I’d ever seen.

So, when I began writing, I knew I’d have to write about snakes. I haven’t found a place for them in the Mad Max series, except to explain, in Max 3, why so many doctors and nurses at a New Mexico hospital carried guns. Rattlesnakes. The serial killer didn’t use deadly toxins. Couldn’t have a snake suddenly slither in. When I started writing about a family living on the high desert of Southern California, the setting was ripe for a rattler.

Here’s the setup. Toad is around ten or eleven; his younger brother, Cricket, is about seven. Killing a rattler is a rite of passage, one Toad had experienced but one that Cricket desperately wanted. He had to kill a snake to keep up with his brother.

“I gotta pee before I do anything else.” Cricket jumped off the platform and tripped on an untied shoelace. He landed hard. Momentarily winded, he rolled over in the sand before sitting up to check the damage he’d done to an elbow. He heard buzzing before he saw the snake.

“Toad! There’s a big rattler about six feet off the deck.”

“Don’t move.”

“I won’t.” Cricket froze, eyes on the rattler, which had coiled in warning. He didn’t blink for fear the snake would strike. Ranger ran down the three steps to the sand and barked. The snake raised its rattles, head following the dog’s movement, tongue tasting the air.

“Ranger! Sit!” Toad jumped down, machete in one hand, forked stick in the other. “Want me to kill it?”

“Uh-uh. I wanna do it.”

“Are you sure you remember what Pops said?”

“Yeah. Give me the stick.”

“I think I should do it.”

“It’s my snake. I have to kill it.”

While the boys were arguing, the snake left off sunning itself and rattled a final warning, before it uncoiled and slithered off.

“It’s getting away” Cricket shouted.

“Kill it.” Toad yelled.

Cricket pinned the snake with the fork right behind the triangular head, exactly like Pops had taught him. Toad handed him the machete. His brother swung the sharp knife and severed the head with a single chop. It flew a few feet away from the body, poison dripping from its fangs.

Ranger retreated to the safety of the platform and barked encouragement. Both boys watched the snake’s body whip back and forth before the convulsions slowed to a stop. Toad walked around Cricket and kicked the head aside.

Cricket ran toward the outhouse. “Now, I really gotta pee. Don’t you do anything with the snake. I get to cut the rattles off.” When he was back, he collected his trophy. The boys skinned the snake before burying it, head and all. They nailed the skin next to a dozen others on the back of Shorty’s run-in shed.

When the boys’ parents got home a couple of hours later, Cricket crowed about what he’d done.

“Daddy, I killed my first snake today. See. I have a rattle of my own.”

“Did you really kill the snake?” Dad looked skeptical. “Are you sure Toad didn’t kill it?”

“I did it myself.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Toad said.

And so Cricket takes one step toward adulthood. Not much of a step, but movement nonetheless. BTW, I killed my first rattler when I was little older than the fictional Cricket. I kept my rattles for decades in my treasure box. One day, it vanished. I don’t miss it, but if I saw another rattler, I’d have no problem dispatching it.

Featured, Lifestyle, Nostalgia, Writing

First Days of School

August 27, 2018

Certain times of the year are causes for nostalgic thoughts. Fall is one of those special times, when one thing ends and something else begins. No, not the augment of all things pumpkin. Not the first leaves that drop to the deck, to pile up on the driveway. Not the first hint of color when the days grow shorter and nights grow longer. No, fall brings memories of going back to school.

I loved the beginning of school each year. New dresses, all starched and pretty. Brightly polished Mary Janes. A tiny book bag with new supplies I received at school. Elementary schools in those days didn’t send out lists of things parents had to purchase. Oh, there were some, like new boxes of crayons and #2 pencils smelling so sweet when we sharpened them. I didn’t know they were made of cedar. I didn’t care. They were new, as were their erasers.

When my friends and I said good-bye to summer, to long days spent in the sun as free-range children, and settled indoors in classrooms, we had to relearn not to squirm in our seats or whisper that really great thing we just had to tell our best friend sitting next to us. We had to wait through 50-minute periods until we had a brief recess where we could run and shout and expend some of our pent-up energy. We learned that blackboards were really green, and that chalk was dusty. We learned to read and write cursive. We learned that things we took for granted might not be as welcome in a classroom as they were at home.

My grandmother read aloud to me beginning when I was a year old. By age three, I was reading along with her. I started kindergarten with a third-grade reading level. And that was something my teacher couldn’t tolerate. She tried to order my tiny grandmother to stop teaching me to read. That genii had left the lamp long before Miss Whatever-Her-Name-Was tried to intervene. My grandmother taught school for 45 years. She taught phonics. This new style of teaching sight reading was something she wouldn’t allow. And so I always read ahead of my classes. Tough.
Today, parents are sent lists of what to buy at the local office stores. Elementary school kids look forward to their first Chromebooks as early as first or second grade, depending on the school district. My grandsons will begin kindergarten and second grade this year. They spend a lot of time with screens already. I hope their teachers also cursive writing, use an erasable board, and help them use pencils. No matter what anyone says about pencils being old-school, out of date, whatever. They may be analog, but they can’t be hacked.
Author Interview, Family, Featured, First Paragraph, Growing Up, Lifestyle, Memories, Writing, Writing Style

Getting Started

August 13, 2018

As a writer, I’m often asked where do I find my ideas? How do I get started?

I start with two words: What if. I find this works with everything I write, whether it’s a short story, a novella, or a novel.

Take my Mad Max series as a starter. In Max 1, Unintended Consequences, the what if question was: what would happen if a mother decided she no longer want to take care of her children? When Max’s daughter emerges from a coma after a terrible car accident, she is diagnosed with having a traumatic brain injury. Her entire personality changes, and not for the better. This leads Max to have to decide what role she will play in raising her two grandchildren.

Max 2, Uncharted Territory, raises the bar with what would happen if the family were suddenly thrust into an alien environment? That environment is post-Katrina Mississippi, a food desert, a land washed clean by the tidal surge, a land where locals were suspicious of any outsider. Max has to figure out how to keep a growing, extended family clothed and fed, all the while keeping her eyes open for new perils.

And in Max 3, Unsafe Haven,  the what if question is what would happen if you took your grandson to a hospital to set a broken leg and all hell broke loose? How would Max cope with fears of losing both her grandson and her boyfriend at the same time?

You see where I’m going with this. The right what if question sets the stage for everything to come. So when I began working on my latest, Out Of the Desert, my what if question was personal, very close to home. When I was twelve, my favorite cousin died. He was a year older. I’ve always wondered what he might have become, as any parent who has lost a child wonders. My cousin wouldn’t leave me alone.

He emerged in a short story named “Toad,” which I was lucky enough to have accepted in the VWC Centennial Anthology. Toad was a dreamer. My cousin was a dreamer. Therein lay one comparison. I thought the short story would be the end of writing about Toad. Now, 80K words into the second major rewrite, I’m drawing to a close on the story of what might have happened. Toad grows up. He experiences love and loss, success and sorrow. He wonders if Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Could he go home again? And that, dear friends, is the impetus for the novel in stories. What if he did go home again? What would Toad the man find? Would he find Toad the Dreamer alive inside him after four decades?

I’m not one for spoilers. I’ll have to see how the ending plays out. But, what if I hadn’t listened to my cousin’s voice? What if I hadn’t cared enough to imagine a life beyond age thirteen?

What are your what if triumphs?

Book Covers, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

Drumroll: New Cover Revealed

July 30, 2018

My last post talked about how misleading the first cover for Eyes Without A Face was. My book isn’t about the Unabomber, Jihadi John, or Trayvon Martin. It is about a female serial killer. And that was what wasn’t clear with the first cover.

I needed a completely different look. I couldn’t go back to my original designer. He and I loved the face in the hoodie. He wouldn’t be able to kill his darling and come up with a new image.

I asked a host of friends for recommendations. Some had students who were looking for a credit, but who had never designed a book cover before. Others offered names of their cover designers. Unfortunately, many were booked solid for months. I reached out to a writer whose covers I loved. Turned out she and her husband have a design firm…

The rest is history. We discussed how to make the central image female. There could be no mistaking the sex of the killer this time. There could be no mistaking that this woman worked in the medical community. We wanted a female, Dexter-like creepy vibe, but not so creepy that readers would be turned off by the cover.

There could be no mistaking the fact that laws were broken, crimes committed. Kristen came back with something completely unexpected. And spot on.

I’ll be rolling out the re-release of Eyes over the next few weeks. Let’s hope sales explode all over the place. Let’s hope readers get the point of the book. Let’s hope they continue to root for the serial killer. Yes, most readers find their guilty pleasure when they like her.

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