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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, Research, Writing Habits, Writing Inspiration, Writing Life

Doing Research For a Book

June 13, 2016

You’re probably wondering why I have pictures of actors who’ve played police or sheriffs as the header here. Simple, really. I want to give a shout out to police who have recently taken time to help me get details right.

But first, a seque down memory lane. When I was a small child living in suburban Los Angeles, I was taught that policemen were my friends. If I needed anything, I could walk up to one and ask. That said, I realize growing up white in the ‘burbs, not a minority in an inner city or the ghetto or the ‘hood, have shaded belief in the police. Can’t help it. That’s the way I was raised.

Over the years, I have been arrested and tossed in the slammer more than once. But, that is the subject of another post. Maybe.

I’ve asked police for directions, turned in rapists, and stood up for human rights. I’ve protested and occupied buildings. I lay down in the middle of the freeway to stop traffic. I did all sorts of silly things, just short of breaking the law. Well, occupying Federal buildings was technically breaking the law. All we received were nights in the drunk tank and release with no charges. Trust me. I never want to be in the drunk tank again, but the memory gave me a powerful scene in a book. Alas, the scene met the Delete key when I changed points of view. Still…

When police officers began playing secondary roles in my books. I needed primary research. Sure, growing up with Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke or Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show or today’s Blue Bloods gave me a distorted view of what a policeman’s life is today. To those men and women I pestered in line at Starbucks, thank you for telling me how much your belt weighs. Thanks to the policeman directing traffic at Saratoga Race track for telling me how much is bullet-proof vest weighed and how hot it was in August. Thanks also to the Maryland State Deputy who let me hold his Taser. I’ll never reveal his name, and I’ll never forget how the weapon felt in my hand.

To the police information officers in rural Mississippi, you were an invaluable source of deep background on what life was like in post-Katrina Mississippi. And to the State Police public information officer who not only answered my questions about jurisdiction at the same time and place, but who invited me to call back with any more questions, I hope I have the facts right in Uncharted Territory. You gave me more information than I could use. I will never forget your kindness.

And to agents from the FBI, CDC, and DEA, as well as the Secret Service, for helping me understand jurisdictions once again, you have my sincere gratitude.

These men and women are my heroes. They do their jobs every day, most with no fanfare. So I’m whipping out my trumpet and blowing a salute to you.

Mom was right. If you need help, ask a cop.

Have you had positive interactions with police officers?

 

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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 NoblePlease follow me on my website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.

Featured, Uncategorized, Writing a Series, Writing Inspiration, Writing Life, Writing Style

How I Found Mad Max

March 14, 2016

Perhaps the title should be “How Mad Max Found Me.” I’m often asked by book clubs how I come up with my ideas. That’s both an easy and difficult question, because inspiration can come from a shopping list dropped at Kroger’s or a single child’s clean sock lost in a gutter in Blowing Rock, NC. But Mad Max has a distinct path to her literary birth.

Originally,  Unintended Consequences was about a husband and wife who undergo horrible changes when the wife is hit by a car and suffers an traumatic brain injury. It completely changes her personality. Written from both his and her points of view, I though I was so clever in depicting the wife’s descent into drug addiction and psychosis, and the man’s as he became more and more troubled by his wife’s behavior. Yawn.

I struggled through multiple (try at least 10) revisions, but I was never satisfied with the way the story shaped up. I fought to keep the twin perspectives, even though they weren’t working. And then one morning about 3am, I woke to a voice shouting in my head: “This is MY story, damnit. Tell it my way.” Well, yes ma’am.

Max had a way of grabbing my attention. At the beginning, she was a minor character. As soon as I took her “advice” and began writing from her point of view, the story sprang to life. She gave me latitude to let her be snarky when necessary, soft and tender when necessary, vulnerable at times. No spoiler alert necessary for the next sentence, because it’s revealed on the back cover. When her daughter is murdered, she comes into her own, buries her grief to be a strong grandparent and help solve the crime.

Max took hold of me. By the time I began Uncharted Territory, or as I call it, Max 2, I knew her inside and out. She still hasn’t revealed her complete personality. She reveals only what is necessary for the current narrative.

I live with her every day. Beginning a new Mad Max book is like inviting a good friend in for coffee. She blows my mind by what she is willing to do to protect her family. I wish I were like her, but only a little bit of Betsy is in Mad Max. I think a lot of Mad Max has made her way into me.

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