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.

 

Lifestyle, Uncategorized

Honoring Our Mothers

May 8, 2017

I was going to write a lengthy post about writers and our inquisitive minds. And then I broke my right wrist. I am profoundly right-handed, so one-fingered typing causes great fatigue. I looked at the calendar and realized  the annual confluence of three important dates has arrived.

May 9 is my mother’s birthday. She’s been gone for many years, but I still celebrate her birthday. She’ll always be with me in my heart.

Of course, May 14 is Mother’s Day. Before you ask, I never shorted Mom with one gift for both days.  Her presents were wrapped in different paper. One gift had to be See’s dark chocolate truffles. Her favorite. The other was usually several books, because Mom liked to read.

Early the following week, Terry and I celebrate our anniversary.

It’s a time of joy. It’s a time of celebration. I hope you have your own celebrations coming next week. I raise a toast to mothers everywhere.

Featured, Lifestyle

Tinkering

April 24, 2017

At dinner the other night, several friends bemoaned how their grandkids don’t tinker. They don’t take their toys apart. They aren’t interested in how their bicycles work. They don’t ask how things work.

One of my friends thought it was because of the electronic toys they have. After all, you can’t take an iPad apart.

He has a point. Intellectual curiosity now runs toward how apps work, how many levels of a game someone has achieved, how much music can be packed into an iPod.

Back in the day when dinosaurs walked the earth and dirt was young, kids took things apart. Everything. If they wanted to know how their bedside clock worked, they took it apart. Sometimes, they even put it back together correctly. Most often, either Dad stepped in to refit part A into slot B, or Mom threw the mess out. Getting greasy in the garage with Dad learning how to oil a lawnmower was a rite of passage. Making a mess out of a kitchen learning how to make chocolate cookies was more fun than unwrapping a tube of chilled dough and slicing it.

My grandson wants to know how his games are made. Not his board games, although he is curious about them. He wants to know how his electronic games are made. His father explained about writing apps using computer code. He may design the next great gaming app, or send a rocket to Mars, or figure out how to make you credit card tamper-proof. Now, he wants to go to a programming camp this summer. His mom hasn’t told him that everything he wants to learn requires a background in math. She’s keeping that secret for a while longer. He’s not going away to computer camp this summer,though. He’s six.

His younger brother is more interested in taking toys apart, mostly his brother’s toys.

I wonder what will happen if the older brother writes programs and the younger brother learns to fix things with his hands. It will be interesting to watch.

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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

Oil

April 17, 2017

When did oil become a cult substance? I mean, when did we suddenly need a gazillion oils in order to cook anything?

I checked my kitchen this morning to see if I had a certain oil a recipe I want to try called for. Nope, no rapeseed oil. I found three kinds of olive oil, walnut oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil (both fragrant and not), corn oil. What shocked me was that I use all of these for different dishes. Grapeseed and walnut are perfect for two different home-made salad dressings. Fragrant sesame for stir fry.

When I was a kid, my grandmother, who did most of the cooking for a single working mom and a kid (me), had at most two kinds of oil. Wesson was the oil of choice for frying anything. Crisco was for baking, especially for rubbing about a cake tin to keep the batter from sticking. She’d save bacon drippings in a can she kept on the stove. When she fried eggs, they always sizzled in bacon fat. Today, I can’t imagine how rancid it must have been, but we all survived. My grandmother didn’t need anything else. I remember her food tasting great.

As I grew and began cooking for myself. the first things I cut out were Crisco and bacon drippings. I started learning about food about the time I started learning about wine. That’s a different story. So, friends introduced me to many of the oils that stock my pantry.

Fragrant sesame oil added zing to Chinese stir fries. And there was a cold Japanese noodle dish that was perfect only when a single drop of sesame oil fell into the dipping sauce.

Grape seed and walnut oils came into the pantry because recipes said they couldn’t, absolutely could NOT, be made without them. The recipes lied. For years I made them without grape seed or walnut oils. No one knew the difference.

And now, there are gourmet shops that sell nothing but fancy oils and vinegar. I didn’t count my vinegar bottles, but I know I have more of them than I do oils. Again, each came when I needed a special vinegar for a recipe.

One oil was essential when I was growing up. Both my mother and grandmother used Johnson’s Baby Oil on their faces and hands to keep them soft. I would mix baby oil and iodine to enhance sun tanning. No sun block for this California kid. Baby oil helped my skin burn. Iodine helped dye it darker. Our homemade answer to Coppertone, which I couldn’t afford.

So, when did oils become a cult substance? And don’t get me started on essential oils. That’s a whole different cult.

What about you? Do you have a houseful of oils?

 

Featured, Writing, Writing Style

From My Spam Folder

April 10, 2017

Sometimes, rarely, but sometimes, I actually look at what’s in my spam folder. I was gone for a few days last week to the practice rounds at The Masters. When I finally plowed through my spam, I found this delectable post.

Headline: YOUR SILENT IS A CLEAR PROOF THAT YOU ARE REAL DEAD.

Who can resist that hook? I couldn’t. I had to find out if I was real dead. After the “Dear Valued Customer,” address, the message commenced with:

“I need to confirm that this is realy truth before we release your total funds to this gentle man. This office was contacted by Mr. Richards Thomas who claimed to be your brother. He promised to pay the needed fee and claim the package as your next of kin.”

Other than there are a few typos in this opening, it’s wrong in one big area: I’m an only child, ergo, no brother.

Next, the writer continued. “He said that you were involved in a car accident last week and died. We need to confirm that your are truly dead…We believed that you are dead, but as a federal office [he signs the note with his title Director of (IMF)] we need a proof for record purposes…If this is true!!! May your gentle soul rest in perfect peace. But if its not true then get back to us immediately you receive this message to enable us to proceed…”

Well, now, if I’m truly dead, I can’t confirm I’m dead. If I’m not dead, then I could, but the director of (IMF) wants too much personal information. I had to make a hard decision. If I followed his last instruction, “And also reconfirm your full delivery information wile geting back ok,” I’m not sure what he wanted. I mean, I could send a pic with today’s paper to prove I’m alive. Or I could delete the message.

I chose to delete this man’s sincere concern about my health. I hope my brother, Mr. Richards Thomas, enjoys the $250,000,000US he will claim shortly.

So, for now, I wish him well.

I think I’ll have fried Spam for dinner. Seems fittin’ after this communique.

Hope you enjoy the giggle. I love these semi-literate spam-o-grams, don’t you?

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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.

Editing, Featured, Proofreading, Writing, Writing Style

Close-Ups

March 27, 2017

Have you noticed how cat selfies are taking over social media? Most bloggers know that if we want more people reading our blogs, we throw in cat photos or videos. So, in a blatant attempt to engage a host of readers in this blog post, I’m leading off with a close-up of my kitty, Smokin’ Mocha Java. Gotta admit, I’m prejudiced, but then again, I’m her human.

Mocha is here for a reason. It’s to introduce a mundane, nerdy post about one of the things writers HATE to do. It might be the most hated task in writing and producing a book. That final read-through, when you’re as sick of the manuscript as you can be, when you couldn’t see a grammo or typo if it scratched you on the hand, when you know that every word is perfect–until you get the galleys back from the publisher. Every error screams, “What were you thinking? Are you nuts? You think this is ready for the public? Sheesh!”

That’s right, final edits and proofreading are the bugaboos of most writers, me included. I call this “close-up reading.” Let me share my routine, if you will. If you are bored, I’m down with that. Thanks for stopping by. Catch you later.

What, you’re still here? You want to share my pain? Terrific. Here’s what I do for the last polishing of the manuscript before it goes to print.

  • I read the manuscript through from beginning to end with no pen in hand. This let’s me escape into the story and characters. It also allows me to ignore said typos and grammos.
  • Next, I read every word, every sentence, to see if it belongs, to see if it advances the plot, to see if it develops the character. I look for words I overuse, like like, just, very, anything ending with ly. All get the knife.
  • I listen to the dreadful computer voice read the book to me. Windows Narrator lets you choose a lot of options, but it still. sounds. like. a. robot. Mr. Robot also points all missing your brain know are there. Oh, wait, that should read “all missing words your brain knows are there.”
  • I read from the last page to the first, from the last sentence on the bottom of the page to the top of the page, and right to left. Are you still with me? I cut a mask that exposes a single line of text, which forces me to look at every word OUT OF CONTEXT. By looking at each word in its own right, I produce the best copy I can.

Even with all this, typos slip in. I think they sneak into the manuscript between sending it to my publisher and my publisher sending it to the printer. No amount of pest control strips or sprays prevents at least on typo from living through to the printed page. No matter how closely writers edit, there’s always something that gets through the close-up review. It’s so mortifying.

Mocha wants the last word: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

###

 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, Stress, Writing

Frazzled

March 20, 2017

That’s the adjective that defines me right about now. As usual, I have too much on my plate, too little of me to get everything done, and too little time to finish my daily priorities.

I started the year with a reasonable to-do list and a clean desk. Virtually every day, some “crisis” pops up to derail the day’s tasks. Last week, it was Go Daddy calling to let me know that the version I’m on for my writer’s club was no longer going to be supported. Well, now. Okay. Hmm, let’s see. My last webmeister left the club two years ago. The one before that left three years ago. I dug through tons of files to find the password. Should be easy peasy to transfer the website to the new format, huh. At least that’s what the nice man at Go Daddy told me. All would have been well had the template we used fit ANY template in the new version. I tried several before realizing I had to transfer page by page, add pages to manage some of the content, etc. I figured that if I preserve the content, I can make the site workable when I have time to think about it. Yeah, right. When I have time to think about it. Like next century. And I will NOT stay as the webmeister.

I am the webmeister for an arts council. My problem last week was getting a button to display the right price for tickets to an event. No matter how I tried to fix it, the darned button kept displaying the wrong price. I finally asked a friend to see if he could figure out what was going on. Seems like an artifact from a different button stepped on the html — oh, hell, you don’t care about code and stuff like that. Leave it to say, I turned around three times, spit over my left shoulder, and scratched my left ear with my right big toe. Yup, things magically fixed themselves. That, and removing that errant fragment manually.

Couple in the release of an anthology last week and I’m behind the schedule for getting my signings set up. I have several, but need more. I’ll be busy calling locations where I usually sign books to get some time.

And I’m in the last readings/edits for my next novel. All comments are back from beta readers, my editor has offered final suggestions on places that don’t work, and I am almost, but not quite, on schedule to deliver the manuscript to my publisher.

After all that, I’ll tackle the in-floor, where all the things from the clean desk ended up.

Hope you are having a good day.

 

Featured, Gal Pals, Grief, Inspiration, Lifestyle, Trauma

Crying Towels

March 13, 2017

The scene is set for an interesting eavesdropping opportunity. One woman sits alone in a coffee shop, her latte beside her, a book in her lap. Across from her sit two women engaged in a conversation loud enough to force the eavesdropper to, well, eavesdrop.

One of the pair begins a monologue about how last year was a disaster. She catalogs too many travails for the eavesdropper to remember; however, said eavesdropper hears a series of problems ranging from a husband having an affair, the wife having a retaliation affair, a dog dying of old age, paint peeling on a ceiling in an unused bath, forgetting where she put a book she was reading, etc. The eavesdropper notices that all travails, trivial or serious, are delivered with the same amount of drama and angst. The captive listener does little more than nod. When the second woman tries to break into the monologue, the first woman plunges ahead, seemingly oblivious of what her friend wants to say. Half an hour into the coffee “date,” the talkative woman stands and leaves, saying, “That’s enough about me. See you next time.”

The eavesdropper is exhausted. She imagines the friend is too. She looks at the friend, who has a tear in her eye. She smiles and receives a watery smile in return. The eavesdropper feels the need to comment.

“Your friend certainly has her share of difficulties.”

“She does. And she doesn’t mind who knows about them. I invited her to lunch to tell her about my brother, but she had no time to listen.” The woman wiped a tear.

“Would you like to tell me?”

Her brother had been diagnosed with a rare disease and has weeks to live. She hoped her friend would offer support.

“This may not help, but a few years ago I was in a support group where each of us was experiencing life-changing events. The leader handed out a small white towel he said was a crying towel and a marker to each of us. He asked us to write all of the problems facing us. We then read them to the group. Like your friend, some had multiple problems, all given equal importance. Others had a single, or at most two, life-changing challenges. We exchanged towels.”

“How did that help?” the woman asked.

The eavesdropper found a clean napkin and wrote, “My sister had a miscarriage. I’m struggling with grief.” She handed it to the woman sitting opposite.

The woman looked at the napkin. Then, she picked up one of her own and wrote, “My brother has ALS. We’re estranged. I don’t know how to reach out and help him.” She handed the napkin over.

“I accept your problem as my own,” the eavesdropper said. “If I may, let me be your sister and help you through your crisis.”

The woman wiped a last tear. “And I’ll help you with your grief, sister. Are you free for coffee next week, same time, same place?”

“I am,” the eavesdropper said. “I look forward to hearing more about your brother and what else is going on in your life.”

Sometimes, crying towels are full of trivia. Sometimes, they are full of human drama. And always, they need is a friend to share them.

Anthology, Featured, Marketing, Mystery, Writing

50 Shades of Cabernet

March 6, 2017

For the longest time, I’ve avoided talking about my books, interviewing authors, writing about what I read. It’s time to weave more of these stories into my personal posts.

I’m starting with an anthology to which I had the honor of contributing a short story. More than a dozen writers got together virtually to write light-hearted mysteries around a wine theme. Called 50 Shades of Cabernet, the story had to have mystery elements, although not necessarily murders, and at least one mention of Cabernet. When I was first invited, I had no idea what I’d write. It had to be original; it had to meet a certain word count; and it had to be funny.

I don’t write humor. My first self-published book, which will come out this year, is about a female serial killer. In first person singular. From her perspective. That’s right–a female serial killer telling her story. The closest she gets to humor as sarcasm and snark.

I found writing a lighter story a great challenge and a welcome relief after spending months inside the head of a psychopath. Or should I say, she spent several years inside my head. Whatever.

Wine, huh? I like wine. I love Cabernet. I love thinking of ways people can get themselves into and out of jams. I sat several times to write, only to run out of ideas after a paragraph or two. I pushed the story aside. One day, when I was driving back from one of my writing groups, the epiphany hit. Why not do a send-up of New Age religions? Why not build one around celebrating wine? Why not layer on a few Neo-Druid trappings? And thus a story was born.

My story is “Midnight In the Church of The Holy Grape” is just such a send-up. Ryan, a member of this non-church church, wants his wife, Lucy, to go with him to the Winter Solstice meeting where he hopes he will be chosen to move up in the non-hierarchy hierarchy. His wife wants nothing to do with it. He persuades her finally, but she’s not a happy camper. Until she actually gets to the Gothic building and into the basement where they meet. Add moody music, elaborately laid tables waiting to groan with food and wine, and a crone sitting at the head. Well, Lucy becomes intrigued.

The layers: gothic setting, odd music in the background, the crone at the head of the table, and a battle between sects.

Oh, where does Cabernet come in? The crone is the Wrong Reverend Ruby Cabernet. Her leadership is challenged.

Did we have fun writing our stories? I sure as heck did. I only wish we could say we sat in a room and written together. We didn’t. In fact, I haven’t met half of the writers in the anthology except virtually. I hope you like the book. As soon as it is available, I’ll have a link to it on my web page and will be offering signed copies. For in-person signings, please check out our Facebook page.

Okay, enough about me. In a later blog, I will offer an interview with an author of my choice.

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