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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?

Featured, Growing Up, Lifestyle

Growing Up Polluted

November 14, 2016

With all the ballyhoo about climate change, rising oceans, and global warming, we seem to be losing track of how many cities still have high levels of air pollution.

Now this isn’t supposed to be a political post, and I don’t mean it to be one. But, I grew up in a majorly polluted city. I’d like to share my memories. Cough, sneeze, wheeze.

I grew up in the Los Angeles basin before the days of catalytic converters on cars. Lest you forget, California, and Los Angeles in particular, worship the cult of the car. Families often had more cars than drivers when I was little. We thought nothing about the poison each of our gas-guzzlers spewed into the air on a daily basis. Unless the Santa Ana winds, the Devil Winds of fire fame, blew the pollution out to sea, it hung heavy and choking over the basin. Our parents didn’t know they should keep us inside when the pollution was at its worst, but the kids learned the hard way that bike riding on a really bad day led to wheezing or lung pain. Swimming was the same. Chlorine and smog were a deadly mix, designed to give us chest pains and bloodshot eyes for an entire day.

I didn’t know mountains ringed the basin until I was about ten. Why? We couldn’t see them, unless the winds blew. And even when the winds blew the pollution out to sea, it had to go somewhere. That somewhere was back on shore when the winds changed. Later, after catalytic converters had to be fitted on all new cars, the pollution lessened, but you could still see the brown haze a hundred miles away when you flew into Los Angeles International Airport. Poor LAX. Not the best welcome mat for people with health issues, but it is better than it once was.

When I see dense smog in major cities in China, for example, I pity the kids living in lung-clogging industrial smog. Third-world countries where cooking is often over wood fires have different types of pollution. Their children are rarely warned to stay inside, as the Chinese children are. India, too, and Pakistan suffer from major cities with visibility reduced to a few hundred yards, or even less on the worst days. I think that’s a combination of industrial waste, particulates from gas-powered engines, and wood fires. A deadly combination for newborns and people with weakened immune systems.

I survived growing up polluted. California banned most outdoor burning in major cities, enacted laws reducing the amount of pollution a car or factory could dump into the air. The Los Angeles River, once a dump for trash, long ago managed by concrete water channels, is coming back. Upstream from Los Angeles, wetlands are returning. The water is purer, the air cleaner. Migrating birds have a safer place to rest on their annual journeys.

The solutions seem insurmountable, but they aren’t. A country has to make up its mind that it wants clean air and water. That decision takes so much climate-changing waste out of the air. Look at India. It is trying to clean up the holy Ganges River from the highlands downward. If its experiment continues, in a few decades the water downstream should steadily become less polluted.

We can do this together. Each of us can take a small step toward cleaning up our little corner of the world. Cooperation among neighbors can lead to cooperation among nations for the sake of our planet.

What can you do to clean up the environment?

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and NobleI’m really excited that the trade paper edition of Uncharted Territory was released this week. Please follow me on my website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.

Featured, Growing Up, Lifestyle

Why I’m Glad My Mother Didn’t Name Me Grace

October 24, 2016

My father, who exited my life about nine months after I made my appearance on the world stage, wanted to name me Grace after his mother. My mother wanted to name be Elizabeth after one of her sisters. My mother won. I drew the name Elizabeth Ann, instead of Grace Elizabeth. (I could have been named after my maternal grandmother. It would have been difficult growing up as a Delia, although today I’d be happy with such a cool, unusual name.)

So, Mom didn’t name me Grace, which is a good thing. I was the least graceful child you’ll ever meet. I tripped over my own feet. I tripped over the flowers in the carpet, even when we didn’t have a floral carpet. I mostly fell up the stairs. That’s right. I tripped going up, not down. Why not down? Because I almost always held the handrail walking downstairs. I still do. And I still trip going up. One of my friends says it’s because in my natal chart, Pisces rules my feet. What the heck would a fish know about feet??

Mom tried her best to make me more graceful. She gave me dancing lessons. Tap first, until one teacher gently suggested she save her money. Ballet next, with similar results. Only this time, the ballet teacher plain old kicked me out of her class. I was impossible. Forget about yearning to get up on my toes. Heck, I’d have been happy to complete a plie without looking like a grasshopper.

Modeling followed. I was reasonably decent at modeling. I learned how to walk with a book on my head, how to turn, how to smile, how to feel like an idiot on a catwalk.

Mom was about to give up when I asked for riding lessons. Horseback riding lessons. I’d begun riding when I was five and my family had a burro. I rode a lot of horses by the time I was eight. I loved it. On a horse was the only way I felt free. The horse was the graceful one. All I had to do was stay on her back. I took English and Western lessons, fell in love with Western first, and actually became–drum roll please–a barrel racer in high school. I had a Quarter Horse who was a natural on barrels. Again, about all I had to do was point her to the starting line and not fall off. We took a ton of ribbons. Actually, the horse won a ton of ribbons. I didn’t have to do much to win. Except stay on her back.

That brings me to why I quit riding and why I’m using a Facebook meme as the featured image on this post. I never really got hurt with my horses until one time. Oh sure, I broke most of my toes one time on another. 1000 pounds landing on the toe of a boot leaves a distinct impression on the toes inside. Or maybe that should be indentation. Now, my horses were all barefoot animals. None wore iron shoes, not even the barrel racer, but even she could do some damage when she inadvertently stepped on me.

So, how did I end up with a horse looking down at me? My husband, who didn’t know me at the time, would call it “operator error.” I put this gentle mare in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here’s how it played out.

I had a date on Thanksgiving weekend. A blizzard was forecast for the area. The cattle were in the upper pasture without enough water to let them ride out the storm. My cousins were out of town, so I grabbed the mare, put a hackamore on her and led her to the edge of the road. I wanted to take a shortcut up to the high pasture. I grabbed a handful of mane and leaped toward her back, a mount I’d done about a thousand times. On this thousand and first time, I didn’t hear the pickup truck with no muffler coming around the bend. I clearly remember the driver honking his horn (we were at the edge the road at the mouth of the lane that led to the barn) and yelling “Hi Ho, Silver.” I clearly remember also thinking he was a a jerk by my mare was a bright bay, not a white stallion. No way was she “Silver” of Lone Ranger fame.

Be that as it may, she did what the driver expected. She reared up and dumped me on asphalt. On my back. I don’t know how long I lay there, but I do know the idiot didn’t stop to see if I was hurt. I don’t remember anything until I regained consciousness to find a horse muzzle blowing gently in my face. I tried to stand. I couldn’t. This mare was trained to freeze if a rider fell off. She wasn’t trained to move away. She was standing on my pigtails. It took the longest time to convince her that it was all right for her to move.

The long and short of it was, she moved. I led her to the gate and mounted. I opened gates in the upper pasture and convinced the cattle they needed to move lower.  They did. I locked the gates behind them. made sure the bathtub with the heater was working and filled with water, brushed the mare and called my mom to pick me up. I’d stiffened up and didn’t feel like walking the mile and a half home. And it was beginning to snow.

I didn’t tell Mom I’d fallen off. I mean, Zandy was the best mare, and I’d done something incredibly stupid. I’d put her in danger.

I ‘fessed up to Mom about the fall two days later when I couldn’t get out of bed. She helped me to the car and took me to the emergency room. You guessed it. I kinda hurt myself. Major crack in the hip bone. Broken knee with torn ligaments and tendons. And three broken vertebrae in my lower back. She read me the riot act. The doctor read me the riot act about not coming to the hospital immediately.

And, what about the date, you ask? He cancelled with flu.

So glad I wasn’t named Grace. It wouldn’t have fit.

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and NobleI’m really excited that the trade paper edition of Uncharted Territory was released this week. Please follow me on my website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.

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