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.

Image result for farrah fawcett

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.

Image result for free images of the cover of the taming of the shrew

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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Ouch! Being Critiqued Hurts.

That thudding you hear is me banging my head against my desk. A few weeks ago, I sent the first six chapters of Miss Dee Ann Meets Murder to three critiquers.  Now I know their job was not to sprinkle fairy dust and blow sunshine.  I paid these people to tell me the unvarnished truth about this novel I’ve been working on for OVER FIVE YEARS.

20170812_081618Well, in spurts, I admit. But still….  I’ve sacrificed a lot of HGTV time trying to pen my great American novel.

Which, I’ve been told, isn’t so great. Not in its current form, anyway.  Here are a couple of direct quotes from Critiquer #1:

“You write well, and there’s a lot here that rings true. But there are other things I think you could sharpen….Make it a real mystery right from the beginning….Make Dee Ann more sympathetic….Speed up the beginning…”

She ends with “There’s a lot of promise here. I wish you the best.”

And I thought I was closing in on my final draft.

Critiquer #2 was even harsher. Among other things, she didn’t like Baby Heather.  “…the truth is, Heather doesn’t seem entirely credible.  All the reader hears about is Heather going down for a nap or wailing, getting strapped in a car seat, etc.  We need details about Dee Ann’s life as a mother, if that’s her shtick.  I had a question, in fact, whether you have a child or children….”

IMG_0513What??? I had three baby girls once upon a time and when they were Heather’s age (three months old), I really don’t remember a lot of action other than napping, wailing, and my strapping them into infant seats.

Okay, okay, I know I don’t need to get all defensive here. If I’m honest with myself, I should include more description.  The critiquer did suggest I could have Dee Ann “cursing the batteries in the baby swing that aren’t working anymore, eyeballing the mashed beef like it’s dog food, taking out the diaper pail, or throwing something away in it.”

Good ideas, I grudgingly have to admit.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for me, to use a cliché, which I was also warned against. I’ll incorporate what I think works and disregard the rest.

I will survive, and so will Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder.

 

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Fiction Mirrors Reality–Sort Of

At the beginning of “Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder,” my protagonist, her husband, and their baby daughter are on the way to Narrow Creek where they will live in an upstairs apartment in the backyard of their landlords, the Vaughans.

Although I cannot stress enough the fact that I am not Dee Ann Bulluck, the main character in my novel, I did use an upstairs apartment my husband and I lived in during the first years of our marriage as a model for my description of the Bulluck’s home.

At least, I thought I was describing the place I lived in close to forty years ago. Recently I happened upon a photo of this apartment in our first daughter’s baby book.  (Note: She is not Baby Heather either.)

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Dee Ann describes her new home as being a two-story brick building  She mentions an “ordinary front door and a tiny, unadorned stoop.”  The structure has simple four-pane windows, “two on the second floor aligned over two on the first.”  The Bulluck’s apartment is upstairs.

I got part of the description right. In the photo, I do see an ordinary front door and a tiny stoop.  I didn’t remember the large, multi-paned downstairs window on the right, however, but then we lived upstairs (like the Bullucks), so I never looked out this window.

Funny how fuzzy our memories can become. I honestly don’t recall that covered walkway leading from the apartment building all the way (maybe ?) to our landlords’ house.

The landlords’ house—in reality a spacious brick ranch—becomes in my novel a “stately red-brick colonial-style house complete with third-floor dormers.” Something like this.

Image result for brick colonial williamsburg with third floor dormers

Awed by her first glimpse of the Vaughan’s residence, Dee Ann comments, “I have always loved anything Williamsburg.”

 

 

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Taking a Break? Not Really

This week, I’m taking a break from blogging about my revision of “Ms. Dee Ann” (possibly to be renamed “Ms. Dee Ann Meets Murder”). I’ve recently come off a ten-day vacation with grandchildren and am still reeling from all the fun I had.

I use the word “reeling” here because hanging out with my grandchildren is not for the faint of heart. They’re good little people for the most part—a few karate chops and kicks at siblings aside—but they are active with a capital A.

Most kids are, but when you’re a 60-something grandma who is used to a quiet life with plenty of downtime, the activities these grandchildren drag their grandma into (I’m talking about me here!) are sometimes out of her comfort zone.

My column this week in the Rocky Mount Telegram details some of what I’m talking about.  (Click on the tab above marked Patsy’s Columns or the link below.) What I couldn’t put in the Telegram are the photos:

Dancing with Miss North Carolina

Yes, that’s me, the only other adult on the dance floor with the very glamorous current Miss North Carolina. I’m holding hands with my five-year-old grandson as we’re trying to do the Electric Slide.  That’s his big sister, my oldest grandchild who’s eleven, to his left.  Read this week’s column to learn how I found myself on a parquet dance floor at the Wrightsville Beach Holiday Inn with a beauty pageant winner and a bunch of kids. www.rockymounttelegram.com/Patsy-Pridgen

IMG_0489 patsy in the poolThis photo shows me going down the pool slide at a resort in Myrtle Beach. Actually someone snapped this picture a couple of summers ago, but again, I was under the influence of grandchildren, who had wheedled me into such a stunt.  Nothing, I repeat NOTHING, I would ever have done had I been at this hotel without them.

My grandchildren trigger my usually dormant sense of adventure. They pull me into places and situations where I wouldn’t go by myself.  So what if they leave me reeling?  I go home to rest up for the next adventure.

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