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.

###

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?

###

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.

Editing, Featured, Writing, Writing Challenge, Writing Style

Entering the Death Throes of Editing

February 27, 2017

For the next month I will be heads down editing a manuscript to send to my publisher. If you’ve never been in my shoes, er, chair, er, sitting on my ball at my desk, you might not know what death throes of editing  means.

It starts with a complete read of the manuscript. I print it out first and read it from start to finish. Somewhere along the way, I pick up a red pen and begin marking sections that need work. Or words that need changing. Or chapters that were once brilliant and now have no home in the book. This is what I think of as the first rough cut, the first time I start at page one and read straight through to “the end.” This read can lead to a flip flop from despair to elation. “It’s junk.” “It’s great.” Usually, it’s somewhere in between.

I find places where I need to fix the story line. I may have glitches in hair color, time line, characters’ names. Yes, I have goofed on characters’ names, going from Eric to Alec, from Beth to Annie. No matter how many tables I have of the characters’ names and what they look like, overeager writing can create chaos. This continuity fix takes time, but it’s the most fun, because it’s where I finally polish the story line.

Okay, now that I’ve fixed the continuity problems, I need to read for word choice.  That is the tedious read. Does every sentence fit? Is every word the right one to convey the sense I want conveyed? What do I need to change to maintain the voice of the narrator? Every word has to be as perfect as I can make it. This is the director’s cut, where everything I think should be in the book will survive.

Finally, I pull out the Chicago Manual of Style and make sure that my grammar conforms to the norm. I read for missing words. I read for missing, or, too, many, commas. I look at punctuation! because? hey…We all #need; punctuation.

When that is done, I read from the last page to the first, right to left, bottom of the page to the top. Line by line, word by word, gray hair by gray hair I work through the manuscript. And lastly, I use Microsoft Narrator and listen to the book. This is the final cut, the best I can do.

AND STILL I MAKE MISTAKES. STILL I MISS TYPOS. STILL I DON’T KNOW THAT THE U.S. HAVE NEVER USED CORDITE IN GUNPOWDER.

Sigh.

 

Featured, Mad Max, Uncharted Territory, Writing, Writing Style

Questions From A Book Club

February 20, 2017

I recently spoke to a local book club about writing my Mad Max series of mysteries. Their questions were so astute that I wanted to answer some of them here. Hang on.

  1. Why did you set Uncharted Territory in post-Katrina Mississippi?  Max is entering uncharted territory as a grandparent raising her grandchildren full time. I wanted a landscape that resembled the situation she was in. Post-Katrina Mississippi, especially the area along the Gulf Coast, was barren, without landmarks, much as Max’s life is. Mississippi is an objective correlative where what is going on inside Max is manifested in the land she sees around her.
  2. How did you get the idea for the home-school teacher, Stuart Duxworth-Ross? He came through a discussion with a friend who had read the first book and decided the story was about him and his son. (It wasn’t, although two scenes came from his life and divorce.) Ducks rather defined himself. I knew he’d be gay, partly because this man who thought I was writing about him was adamant about “his” son being taught by a gay man. Challenge accepted, and Ducks was born.
  3. You have more than one character with second sight, or ESP, or some other paranormal traits. Do you know anyone with those traits? Do you have them yourself? The answer to the first question is easy. Emilie (who started life as Emily, but that’s another story) is modeled after my goddaughter. A triple Pisces, she’s spookier than Emilie is. The second question is yes, but not as well developed as some.
  4. Where did your themes of human slavery, child abuse, and racism come from? I like to work social themes into my books. I want readers to think while being entertained. Human slavery came to mind when I read a small story in the newspaper about a family held hostage to be breeders for a pair of men. I modified it but kept many of the overall events. I wanted to remind readers that racism isn’t always about black on white but can be on black on Hispanic or white on Hispanic. Most of all, it’s “them versus us,” when traditional ways of life are threatened.
  5. What about child abuse? That is very personal. I could not have written the rape sequence had my mother still been alive. I was abused by a stepfather. I told my mother who couldn’t handle it. It took years to forgive her for putting me in peril.
  6. Did you really stab your stepfather in the ass? No, but I wish I had. That’s the only part of the scene where I giggled. Actually, in all honesty, the entire rape sequence made me so ill that I couldn’t write for a few days after I finished it.
  7. Are you writing another Mad Max novel? Yes. Unsafe Haven is nearly done. Max, her boyfriend Johnny, and Alex are featured. I don’t know when it will come out, but it should be out before the end of the year.

Those readers were so interested in my books. I can’t thank them enough.

Featured, Lifestyle, Mothers, Poetry, Writing

Three Weeks

February 15, 2017

Every year on February 15, I run this poem somewhere. It might be on FB, on Wattpad, here on my blog. Why? Because on February 15, 2004, my dear mother passed away after a short illness. Her small-cell lung cancer was swift and painful. The hospice nurses and doctors took good care of her and allowed me to stay with her day and night. I held her hand the day she passed.

I’m a writer. It’s how I make my living, how I express myself. And yet, I couldn’t write about Mom’s death. It took six years and 24 minutes to write this poem: six years to get ready and 24 minutes to put the words down on paper. In the years since, I changed a single word. I’ve been lucky. Two anthologies, Voices from Smith Mountain Lake and Candles of Hope chose to publish it. NPR encouraged me to read it on the radio.

Now, I’m sharing it with you.

THREE WEEKS

I thought we’d have more time.

 

She lived with us after it was too hard to live alone.

She had her chores, self-imposed.

She laughed, chattered, kept us happy.

She was a pain in the ass, sometimes.

I thought we’d have more time.

 

She said she didn’t feel right one afternoon.

No, she’d never felt exactly like that before.

Is it pneumonia?

No.

Is it bronchitis?

No. It’s different.

Do you want to go to the emergency room?

It’s icy out. I’ll see how I feel in the morning.

I thought we’d have more time.

 

It’s still icy but I think we need to go, she said.

Okay. I put the ready-bag in the car.

It’s pneumonia, they said.

Let’s get some x-rays.

Yes. It’s pneumonia. There’s fluid.

I thought we’d have more time.

 

The biopsy said different.

Dr. Elizabeth called it cancer.

Too far along. No real treatment.

Too tiny at 81 pounds.

Too old at 81.

How long, she asked.

Not long.

I thought we’d have more time.

 

One option, Dr. Elizabeth said.

Hospice.

She thought about it and decided.

Hospice. No heroics.

I thought we’d have more time.

 

We were together every day.

I read to her when she couldn’t hold a book.

Role reversal from childhood.

I listened to her stories, told so many times before.

I told her my dreams, my hopes.

She told me hers.

Wayposts to guide my way forward.

We shared more deeply than ever before.

I thought we’d have more time.

 

Days passed.

Stories, until she couldn’t speak.

Then hand squeezes.

Smiles in between lengthy naps.

I stored the moments to turn into memories.

Later.

I told her I loved her.

Hand squeeze.

I told her she’d done a good job.

Hand squeeze.

I thought we’d have more time.

 

I told her, her job was done.

Tight hand squeeze.

I told her she could go when she was ready.

Double hand squeeze.

She opened her eyes and looked at me.

One last smile, one look upward.

She was gone.

 

Three weeks from “it’s cancer” to death.

 

Mom,

I

thought

we’d

have

more

time.

 

I miss my mother every damned day. If your mother is still with you, hug her. Tell her you love her. She’ll never forget it.

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