All Kinds of Activities—and Ideas—Come from a Hunting Trip

IMG_0672What do I have in common with a Mormon mother of nine and an ex-Navy good ol’ girl from Georgia? We were the only three women—well, four, if you count the cook—hanging out with thirty-some men at a deer hunters’ lodge in the backwoods of southern Illinois.

I went not because I’m a fan of hunting trips but rather at the request of my husband, who, I suspect, wanted one of the few private rooms so he wouldn’t have to bunk in with a group of snoring guys. Taking a wife got him that room.

I also endured the road trip—two days there and two days back—to be sure this man didn’t overdo it driving for hours on end. The one time before when he went, he returned with a dangerous blood clot, probably from sitting too long while he drove 15 hours straight on his way home.  Wasn’t gonna happen again on my watch.  Eight hours a day was the maximum driving time, with a restful overnight stop mid-trip each way. Geezer travel, which is what we need these days.

But back to No-wheres-ville, Illinois. What did I do with all my time while the hubby was in the woods waiting for one of those XXL-sized deer to wander by?

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I took walks up and down the nearby scenic dirt road with my new girlfriends. One afternoon, the Georgia friend and I went to the winery, where a band called Back in the Saddle was playing country music. Yee-haw!IMG_0656

Since Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder was in the hands of a critiquer, I took the sequel I began a couple of years ago, Life and Death in Narrow Creek, and started thinking about how to recast it as a cozy mystery.  As you can tell from the title, I already have a death to work with.  Shouldn’t be too hard to make that death, originally a heart attack, into a murder.

Also, as I was describing some of the people at the hunting lodge in a phone call to my youngest daughter, she suggested I write a cozy based on this trip.

Hmm. A mystery set in a secluded hunting lodge.  One of the hunters is found dead, shot through the heart.  Who did it and why?  Amateur detective Dee Ann Bulluck, trapped in the lodge with time to kill, decides to investigate….

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While the Book Is with the Critiquer …

My recently revised version of Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder—all 84,382 words—has been mailed to a critiquer.  She’s one of the three I used a few months ago when I sent the first six chapters.

She was my harshest critic, but she wrote the most, correcting and suggesting something on nearly every one of those first 46 pages. Since I’m paying for this editing, I might as well get as much bang for my buck as possible, right?

It’s going to take her a little while to bleed all that red ink, and so I’ve been left with some writer downtime. I could work on the sequel to Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder, which I began months ago, or I could catch up on projects I’ve neglected this last year as I turned my attention to novel writing.

Things like cross-stitching that baby pillow for grandson Joseph, who turned one in October. Putting my Spain/Portugal photos in an album before I forget what picture was taken where.  Catching up on those shows I’ve been meaning to watch on Netflix.

In fact, I’m soon to accompany my husband on an eight-day deer hunting trip to a small town in Illinois. Since I am NOT a hunter and will NOT be spending my days in the woods and there’s little to do otherwise in Dullsville (my name for the place), Illinois, I will have to take my own entertainment, which will likely be the above (cross-stitching, album-making, Netflix watching).*

I may pack up my laptop just in case I decide to start pondering a cozy mystery plot to insert into that sequel I’ve begun. No doubt about it, I will have a lot of time on my hands to do nothing but think while the Great White Hunter is out looking for Big Buck.

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The Great White Hunter

 

*If you’re wondering how I came to be signed up for such a trip, the answer will appear in a future Rocky Mount Telegram column.  Either check the paper (hard copy or online) or keep clicking on my column link in this blog, and within the next couple of weeks you’ll find the answer.

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Let Me Say This Again: I Am Not Dee Ann

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Me (Not Dee Ann) in 1979 with my baby daughter

Looking for feedback, I recently asked my sisters to read the close-to-final draft of Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder.  The first comment I heard:  “This sounds like the story of your life when you got married and moved to Ahoskie.”

Okay. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  I am NOT Dee Ann Bulluck.  I should add: Narrow Creek is NOT Ahoskie.  Now, having made that clear, let me explain something about writing fiction.  As with many authors, my work of fiction, Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder, is based on my life experiences.  Yes, I was a young wife and mother in 1979 who moved to a small town where I knew no one, had no job (other than taking care of an infant), and had to figure out what to do with myself.

I did join the Junior Woman’s Club, go to a hairdresser out in the sticks to save money, and get a part-time job teaching English at the local community college.

But that’s about it. Was there a Gary Whitt character?  NO.  He and the others in Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder—notice how many times I work in the title of my book—are products of my imagination.  Parts of their personalities may be based on people I knew then or have met since, but there was no Miss Josie, Elizabeth, Marilyn, J.T., and etcetera.

Clyde Edgerton, one of my favorite Southern authors, tells this story about a scene in his novel Raney. Raney’s mama and her aunts come by the house to visit and not finding Raney and husband Charles home, go on in the unlocked house anyway, as many country Southerners used to do,  to use the phone.  When Charles, an Episcopalian from Atlanta, finds out, he’s upset.  “Raney,” he says, “I think you ought to tell your mama and Aunt Naomi and Aunt Flossie to stay out of our house unless somebody’s home.” Raney disagrees, and a huge fight ensues.

Although this scene is fictional, Clyde Edgerton has said it really happened to him in a slightly different way. His wife was the one who protested against his family coming into their unlocked house when they weren’t home.

My point here is that fiction often draws on life. If a book is an actual recounting of someone’s life, it’s called a memoir, an autobiography, or a biography. Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder is fiction.

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The Rockford Files, Columbo, and Dallas: Flashbacks to the 1970s

Recently, my thirty-something daughter stayed somewhere overnight with—gasp–no cable TV. She was reduced to watching a few stations picked up by an antenna, a device we baby boomers remember all too well.  This story has a happy ending: she found a channel that played classic television, you know, programs like Mama’s Family and The Andy Griffith Show.

Good wholesome TV. In Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder, set in 1979-1980, I’ve had fun referring to those oldie but goodie programs that were popular in the late 1970s.  For example, here’s a scene where Dee Ann learns that the treasurer of the Narrow Creek Junior Woman’s Club has embezzled the club’s money, a scene that’s interrupted by a couple of references to cop shows watched by viewers of the time.

“I’m betting she made herself a temporary loan with the money,” Gloria replied, “thinking she would pay it back before the money was missed. Then whatever she was counting on to use to replace our money didn’t happen. I’ve heard embezzlers often rob Peter to pay Paul.  I saw a very similar case on The Rockford Files just the other night.  I absolutely love James Garner on that show, don’t you?”

“I’m a Columbo fan myself, but my husband likes The Rockford Files,” I answered automatically. Why was I allowing myself to get sidetracked discussing television cop shows?”

Image result for free images of jr ewingStuck at home with a baby in a new town where she doesn’t know anybody, Dee Ann’s one bright spot each weekend is watching the wealthy but dysfunctional Ewings in Dallas on Sunday nights.  What could be more late 1970s than the country’s fascination with J.R. Ewing as he delivered lines like, “Sue Ellen, you’re a drunk, a tramp, and an unfit mother”?

Part of this quote could be applied to one of the characters in Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder.  You’ll have to read the book one day to learn which one.

 

 

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Will Descriptive Shorthand Do?

If there’s one criticism I hear from both my professional critiquers as well as my local writers’ group, it’s that I need to be more descriptive in Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder.

What does Baby Heather look like? How about Dee Ann?  Where is Narrow Creek, Dee Ann’s new hometown?  Describe the ladies at the Junior Woman’s Club.

I get it. Evidently description is not my strength.  Maybe it has to do with my journalism background.  I write columns that are roughly 525 words, and when I have a story to tell, I can’t use up 100 words describing something or somebody.  I have to get on with it.

I think my skimpy descriptive writing has to do with my personal preference too. When I’m reading a novel, I sometimes find myself zoning out on descriptive passages.  Even if they’re well-written, I may scan them, ready to move on to what happens next in the story.  I’m all about the plot.

But I realize I do need to draw a mental picture for readers. They may want some idea of what my characters look like, the clothes they wear, the places they inhabit, the food they eat, etc. etc.

So now in revising Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder for the umpteenth time, I’m paying more attention to descriptive details.  And I’ve found what I think is a useful shorthand to help me with some of the main characters.

Image result For example, Heather has a blonde sprig of hair and big blue eyes and she looks like THE GERBER BABY.

Dee Ann gets the wildly curly, Olivia Newton John Grease hairstyle and the beautician comments that she looks like SANDY IN GREASE.

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Joe’s boss’ wife and Dee Ann’s adversary Cynthia, is a FARRAH FAWCETT lookalike.

 

A reference–dare I call it an allusion–is worth a thousand words, don’t you think?

 

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“This Is A Very Promising Work”

 

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Me with the hubby in Portugal

Long time, no post. I know…I’ve been in Europe, Spain and Portugal to be exact.  A two-week trip that really takes about a month out of my writing time, since I’m not in my “write” mind the week before I leave or the week after I get home.  Planning and packing take the place of blogging prior to leaving, and jet lag and trip fatigue prevent any rational thought for a while after I get back.  But I’m home now and all rested up.

In plowing through two weeks’ worth of mail, I found my third response from the North Carolina Writers’ Network Critiquing Service. A few weeks ago, I posted about the first two responses I received but failed to mention I was still waiting for the third and final response.

I put the manila envelope to one side as I threw away junk mail and piled up a stack of bills. I wasn’t sure I was ready for another lecture about how much revision I need to do to Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder.

Finally, I decided to slit the envelope. Maybe I’m just getting tougher, but this critique didn’t seem so harsh.   In fact, the first thing I noticed was the red-letter, hand-scribbled “Nice work!” on the cover letter.

My critiquer’s overview read: “This is a lively Southern novel set in the 1970s. Its protagonist is a relatable young wife and mother who stumbles into a small-town ‘whodunit’ at the same time she struggles to adjust to changing roles and expectations for women.”

Yes, yes, yes. I couldn’t have explained my novel any better myself.

Oh, there are still suggestions in a section labeled Weaknesses. “The action of the story takes too long to begin.  We see too much of the protagonist’s internal thinking and musing, rather than observing how she behaves, reacts, responds.”

But this critiquer goes on to give concrete suggestions for how to fix what she sees as weaknesses. For example, she tells me to condense the beginning of Chapter 3, where I have Dee Ann unpacking in her new rental home, and start instead with the landlady’s visit.

IMG_0555Okay, I’ll think about that suggestion–and the others I’ve been given by all three critiquers.  I’ve received criticism, but I’ve also been given encouragement.  In fact, there’s one line from Critiquer #3 that I have memorized and plan to repeat like a mantra:

“This is a very promising work.”

 

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Is Dee Ann a Shrew?

One of the most disturbing criticisms I received from my critiquers (see last blog) was that my main character, Dee Ann, was not likeable. What???

“Dee Ann almost verges on being a scold or a harpy,” wrote one. “She glares, she screeches.  She gives him [Joe, her  husband] mean looks.  Feisty is good—whining isn’t….You want the reader to be on Dee Ann’s side.”

Critiquer #2 was even harsher: “…Dee Ann’s plight sometimes gets lost in her poor attitude….She would be more sympathetic if she had a different, more open view of the move [from her hometown to Narrow Creek] at first….Don’t make her angry with Joe….I would like to see her more loving toward him.  He strikes me as a really good guy.”

Oh my word! Is it possible I’ve made Dee Ann into a shrew?

Mouse, Nager, Rodent, Shrew, Grey Brown

No, not the kind that looks like a rat. But a nagging, whining, high maintenance kind of character.  The kind Shakespeare had in mind.

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Not my intention. Here’s my spin on Dee Ann.  It’s 1979.  She’s graduated from college summa cum laude with an undergrad degree in English and a master’s in education.  She’s ambitious but sidetracked with a new baby.  Her life revolves around breastfeeding and diapers.

Husband Joe, who was an average college student, is the one with the budding career, a career they’ve had to move for, plopping her in a town where she doesn’t know anyone. To Dee Ann, it seems to be a man’s world.

So maybe she is a little angry at the beginning of the novel.

She knows she’s not the sweet little wifey type. She says right there in Chapter 1 that she packed the moving boxes too full for a reason.   “Somehow I felt better knowing Joe and his dad had to strain to lift those boxes.  Being miserable myself, I wanted somebody else to be miserable too.  I admit I can be mean like that.”

Also in Chapter 1 she acknowledges that Joe is the more easy-going of the two. “Did I mention that Joe is a positive thinker?  Unlike me, he doesn’t seem to worry about a whole lot in life.  He says things will usually turn out fine if you just have the right attitude.  I guess I do enough worrying for both of us, as I tend to get upset easily.  Joe call me high strung.  He says I’m just looking for trouble.”

Make Dee Ann “nicer” or leave her somewhat ticked off?  I’ve got to think about this.

 

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