Saturday, June 30, 2012

In the Broiler

As I write this, the temperature hit 106ᵒ here in Kansas City. We’re under a Severe Heat Warning from the National Weather Service to go through the weekend, so when you read this it’s likely it will be even hotter here. We’ve had our first heat deaths of the season. There will be more, unfortunately. Across the Midwest and the Southwest, triple-digit temperatures are popping up all over.

In other parts of the nation, large swathes of the country are in flames. Colorado is burning, even in Colorado Springs, I understand. The Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana is burning—110,000 acres. New Mexico, like Colorado, is facing the worst wildfire in state history. Arizona and Texas have also been battling wildfires.

Many of us in that huge middle of the map are under the broiler or in the flames. I don’t remember summers being so hot when I was young—and I grew up in a time when very few individuals had air conditioning. Even motels often didn’t have any, so those who did would trumpet it as a huge selling point. “Icy-cold air-conditioned rooms.” 

People had fans, including attic fans, so summer’s accompaniment was always the quiet whirr of the fans. In parts of the South and the desert areas, people had lumbering swamp coolers, which used water to cool by evaporation. The extreme humidity in Kansas City made that a poor choice for this part of the country.

Back in the day, people had big screened sleeping porches. Others slept out in their own backyards, hoping for a breeze. Those without either amenity (because they lived in apartments or other shared housing) took their quilts and mats to lie on and headed for the city parks to sleep during the hottest nights of summer. The parks were full of families sleeping when the highest temperatures hit.

The heat doesn’t seem to have bothered us as much back then—or perhaps it never bothers little kids that much. I do, however, remember a great heat wave in Kansas City the summer I was pregnant with my youngest. Although air-conditioned homes were quite common by then, many people died—older people and poor people. They no longer felt safe sleeping outside or on screened porches and couldn’t afford air conditioners. My baby was born in late July that summer, and I was miserable in the final stages of pregnancy without any air conditioning.
My father-in-law had given us a massive window air conditioner that would cool the whole first floor, but it needed a special outlet and my husband at the time refused to pay to have it installed. We argued and wrangled over it, and I thought I would die of heat prostration before the baby could be born. In the newspapers and on TV news, the heat death toll mounted with no end in sight.

Finally, my youngest son was born. In those days, they kept mothers and babies longer in the hospital after even normal births, and he had some jaundice to deal with. Normally, I hate every minute I must spend in the hospital and try to talk doctors into letting me out early, but not that summer of the deadly heat wave. The hospital was air conditioned.

Three days before we were due to return home, I calmly informed my husband that I wasn’t taking my son home to become a new heat-death statistic. If he didn’t have the air conditioner installed by the time we were released, I would have a cab take us to a motel and would stay there until he did or the heat broke—whichever came first. I was determined, and he could see it. So the air conditioner was installed, as he moaned over the $300 it had cost to install the outlet (when he spent more than that on golf clubs). For the rest of the heat wave, I kept the baby sleeping in his play pen in the living room and slept there myself along with the older kids—and the husband.

I live in an old house and its window air conditioners do the job just fine until temperatures reach about 98ᵒ. After that, it’s a losing battle for them against the heat and humidity. But I’m truly grateful to have them, nonetheless. Every year when the 100ᵒ+ temps hit, I know I’ll read of deaths of people who don’t have that ability to even partially cool their living quarters and themselves.

So I’m sending blessings and prayers to all living in these areas of high temperatures and to all who live within reach of the wildfires. May you be cool and dry and, above all, safe.

What do you remember of ways to handle excessive heat when you were a child?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Writing a 50-word Biography

Writing a 50-word Biography

We interrupt the blog scheduled for this time for Breaking News

Dot Dee Dot Dot. Dot Dee Dot Dot. Writing short is hard.

Authors in the Guppies anthology, Fishnets, are being asked to provide a 50- word biography in preparation for publication.  A number of authors have mentioned that it is difficult to summarize a person’s life in 50 words or less.  Some have set off emergency flares.  I thought I would see if I could offer examples and information to see if I can help.

For the anthology I wrote: the following 47-word bio. 
Warren Bull, a multiple award-winning author, was nominated for a 2012 Derringer award. He has more than forty short stories published. His novels ABRAHAM LINCOLN FOR THE DEFENSE, HEARTLAND, MURDER IN THE MOONLIGHT available at and a short story collection, MURDER MANHATTAN STYLE available at

It’s not exactly scintillating reading but it is an example of some basic ideas.
It is within the word count.
It is written in the third person.
My name is on the first line.
Awards and publications are noted.
The bio has a clear target audience. 

In this bio I want to reach readers.  I want to say, “If you enjoy this story, you might want to find, buy and read my other work and then write glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.  Here’s a map to my works.” (I might mention blog readers are also invited to do the same.) 

Awards and publications say, “Look, dear readers, I know my way around a paragraph. I’ve worked with a thesaurus, a dictionary, an eraser and a red pencil many times before.”

What did I write before I had publications and awards?  I tried to give readers a little background and taste of my word-smithing. For example:  “Warren Bull is a psychologist in his ‘day job.’ He comes from a functional family and is a fierce competitor at trivia games.”

A biography gives you the opportunity to address the most important people in the writing world — readers. So write, polish, re-write, run it by people whose skills you respect and keep your audience in mind. 

Does this help?

Thursday, June 28, 2012


As you are reading this, I am either frantically doing last minute cleaning, or food preparation, or if you're reading this later in the day, I'm finally enjoying the meeting of my Red Read Robin Book Club. Hopefully, a few times during the day I'll find time to check out what's been posted and respond to it, but not as often as I should. Someday, I always tell myself, I'm not going to be like Clara Morrow, one of Louise Penny's main characters with hair in disarray and chocolate on my face. I'm going to have my house in order; food prepared ahead of time and graciously greeting my guests and be totally relaxed. I won't even see a stray spider web hanging from a beam in my kitchen because there won't be one there. Someday, I tell myself, when I'm a well-read author and have enough money from the sale of my books, I'll have a cleaning person and maybe a caterer to bring in food. I think I might have mentioned before that I'm an optimist and try to ignore the realist who perches on my left shoulder, snorts and says, "Ain't gonna ever happen."

All the years I taught, I dreamed of joining a book club, but didn't know of any. Besides, I wouldn't have had time to join one if I could find one. Then four months after retiring, I was in the Brew Basket with some friends and saw a notice on the counter announcing a new book club being formed. It was to meet in the Brew Basket Cafe' on the third Thursday morning of each month. The first book to be discussed was The Lovely Bones by Alice Siebold. I'd already read the book, but was willing to read it again to discuss it with others. Many of those who came to the first meeting are still together after almost five years. New ones have joined and a few have left, but those who remain have become good friends.

Then four months later, a friend I'd graduated with many years before, asked me to join a book club being started. It was the Red Read Robin Book Club which I'm hosting tonight. Half this club's members are related and/or go to the same church I do. One comes from 50 miles away to attend our meeting. Unlike the first one I joined, this one doesn't meet in a cafe', but mostly in the homes of members. If a member doesn't have room or care to host the meeting, she chooses a restaurant instead. The hostess having the meeting at her home furishes a meal that always includes wine. Often the hostess serves food which in some way relates to the book. For instance, when The Help was the book being discussed, everyone laughed when dessert was chocolate pie. Those who have read the book or saw the movie will know why we laughed. The first book chosed by the Red Read Robin group was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It had been at least 30 years since I'd read the book and what a wonderful discussion we had. We hated to end the evening.     

For tonight's meeting, I chose Still Life by one of my favorite authors, Louise Penny. After we've eaten - some outside on the patio, a table under the trees, or in my library at a large table there, we'll settle down with wine or coffee in the living room to discuss the book. I have a few questions to start the discussion, and then I've planned something else. I'm telling the group I've chartered a bus to take us for a long weekend to Three Pines, the location in the book. Since Olivier and Gabri won't have enough room in their B&B for all of us, I've asked Louise Penny if she'd contact the residents of Three Pines to see if any of them would put us up for a few days. She did, and they quite graciously agreed to it. Tonight we'll discuss who they want to stay with and why they chose that particular character. I'm hoping Penny's characters have become as real to them as they have to me. Of course, this is the third time I've read this book, plus I've read all her other books, too, so I feel I know each of her characters quite well.  

Book clubs have enriched my life in many ways. They've brought new friends into my life who I feel quite close to now. Our discussions bring out insights into each reader. How they feel about certain books or characters and why, show something about who they are. Book clubs have widened my reading. I've always been a eclectic reader, but mysteries are my favorite and not often picked for either book club. Instead, the books have spanned a wide spectrum both fictional and non-fictional; books I might never have read if they hadn't been a book club pick. Unlike discussing a favorite book I've passed on to a family member or a friend, we're discussing books we've all read in the same time frame so our discussions are fresh and often lively. Even though I haven't liked every book chosen, I've been enriched by the wide range of books I've read through my book clubs and even more by the discussions we've held.  

Do you belong to a book club? If not, what aspect of a book club do you think you'd like?

If you've read any of Louise Penny's books (and if you haven't, you should) which character would you like to meet or stay with on a weekend visit to Three Pines?   

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

My Writing Wish List

Remember when you were a little kid and you'd write out your wish list for your birthday, or to Santa?  You'd agonize over the list, making sure to write the items down in order of importance (or, at least I did).  Then, there was the anticipation over which item(s) would be wrapped and waiting for you on that special day.  And finally, when you got something you really wanted . . . WooHoo!  True elation!

As you grew, there was that awkward time, where you stopped writing those lists out, and the gifts were less and less exciting.  Maybe someone would buy something that you only sort of liked, or maybe you stopped collecting a certain trinket, but the message didn't get passed down to everyone in your gifting circle.  When that started happening to me, people would often just want to give me a gift certificate.

On the one hand, gift certificates (or gift cards) are good, because the receiver can get whatever it is they want.  But it always seemed so impersonal to me, because to give a gift card is like saying "I don't know you well enough to buy what you'd like."  I do have people for whom I buy gift cards, because I don't see them often enough to know what they want or have--and nowadays, we're so connected to shopping on the web, it's more instantaneous that way--but a part of me still twinges inside whenever I buy one.  I once got a gift card from a boyfriend for my birthday.  He and I had been living together for a few years by then, so to get a gift card was one of the final straws that made me realize our relationship was dead; as was his admission that he had won the gift card . . . he hadn't spent ANY money on me for my birthday that year.

Anyway, I've lately come to realize that it gets harder for people to buy me things, the older I get.  I'm making a decent wage at my day job now.  I'm living with my fiancé (soon to be husband), and we're sharing the bills.  So I have enough money to buy the things that I truly need, or even want on a day to day (or month to month) basis.  However, I still don't want to receive gift cards from people who've known me for years; it still feels impersonal to receive one.

Which is why I'm a big fan of Amazon's Wish List feature.  It makes it easy for me to compile a bunch of things that I want and then be able to send the list off to friends/family who might be in the market to buy me a present for occasions like Birthday, Christmas, or Just 'Cuz (my favorite gift-giving season).  With Amazon expanding their items more and more, I can "wish" for anything from books and movies, to clothing, to tools, and whatnot.  When I get something as a gift, I can go into the list and delete it easily; making room for something new that catches my eye.

Well, today I'm creating a Wish List for the things I want, from an author perspective.  Some are things I can only give myself, and others are things you readers might have answers for.  If you do have an answer, I'm hoping you'll give it to me as sort of a Birthday present . . . since my birthday was at the beginning of this month.

This list is in no particular order of importance.
  1. More time to write.
  2. Online grammar classes, so I can learn this stuff without having to finger through multiple manuals.
  3. More discipline, so I can make better use of the time I DO have for writing.
  4. Grammar classes in a mortar and brick building.  I'd LOVE to get college credit for something like this.
  5. A critique group in my neck of the woods, so we can meet in person.
  6. A grammar and punctuation cheat sheet - one page of easy-to-read pointers.
  7. A dedicated area for my writing.
I'm seeing a definite pattern here . . . but seriously, if any of you know where I can find a grammar/punctuation one-sheet, I'd really appreciate it if you'd pass the info along . . .

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

When did I cross the line?

I remember the first time I declared myself to be a writer. I needed information from the nearby Meeting of the Society of Friends. The characters I was writing at the time were Quakers, and had been members of that meeting. I called and asked if they there was a local historian. I paused, took a deep breath and said “I am a writer looking for background.” From the time that book came out, I considered myself to be a writer and found it perfectly easy to say.
It was easier to convince the woman on the phone than some of my fellow writers.
When I told a friend, we’ll call her X, that I had been selected to be on a panel at a writer's workshop, she said "they will let anyone onto their panels.” Clearly she didn't consider me to be a real writer.
At the time I wondered what would make me a "real" writer in her eyes.
Yesterday I received an email from Y, a member of my critique group, saying that her story had to be shortened by 1500 words, and X. had told her she should show it to me. X. was sure I would be very helpful.
When did I cross the line from non-writer to writer in X’s estimation? More important, how had I changed her perception of me?
There are several possibilities.
I am persistent. Since the first remark, I have had several more short stories published and I go on writing them. Rejections have not discouraged me.
I have given several presentations at local meeting on writing short stories and taking criticism. My first few presentations were not related directly to the process of writing, but to background, one on the psychology of the victim, perpetrator, rescuer triad, central to most mysteries. One was on how historical characters dress. When I started presenting more writerly topics, I gained a bit of respect.
I have worked on three anthologies, not just submitting stories but compiling the manuscripts working on the submission process and screening submissions.
I attend at least two writers' conferences a year.
I started and maintained a critique group when I couldn’t find on that met my needs. I have been in one critique group or another for over a decade, but being in an all mystery group has upped my credibility a tad.
I learn from criticism. In this particular case, I think this made the biggest difference in the way X perceived me. She offered a way to improve a story she was editing for me. I took the suggestion, agonized over it for a week or so. I finally decided that I couldn't make the change and I would pull the story. That's when the answer came, and with a few words I changed the story from ordinary to exciting.
Do I care what she thinks of me? No. I have received validation from other writers whose opinions I value more. She is an inconsistent and biased yardstick. But it's good to have such a tough critic admit I have arrived.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Notes, Flags and Scribbles

Whenever I saw my grandfather, he’d ask, “Have you asked any good questions today?” I’d think about his question and usually found that I could reply “yes,” which I knew was the answer he wanted to hear. If I asked good questions, I was learning something. Why didn’t he ask me what I had learned in school? I think he was more concerned that I possessed an active mind than passively absorbing knowledge without engaging in the educational process. His insight has served me well as a writer since we ask questions continuously.

Before reading my rough draft through, I composed three questions that I attached via Post-it Note on the arm of my chair (and perhaps that initial act was my downfall).

      ·         Does it hang?

I use the term “hang” to describe logic, chronological order and truth. Have my main characters deduced reasonable conclusions from the facts I’ve presented. Have I revealed information too soon or not soon enough? I’ve completed my research at this stage of my novel, but as I read—I asked myself if I presented the best case. Could other evidence produce a stronger case? If I changed that evidence now, how much of the current story would I have to revise, and would I make the case stronger to the detraction of another aspect of the story? Would additional research help?

·         Are the characters real?

What can I do to increase the appeal of my characters? Would a secondary character be more memorable if I gave them a distinctive trait, or would the trait seem an unnecessary artifice? Given the background and traits that I’ve given each character, do they act and think in a congruent manner?

·       Does the reading lag anywhere?

During the critique process, my group worked in twenty page intervals making pacing evaluation impossible, but it is important. I’m thinking of combining and condensing two chapters that fall at about page 120. What could I do to propel the story forward?

 I’m unsatisfied with the results of my review, not because of the conclusions I’ve drawn, but because of the form in which I’ve chosen to document them. My manuscript is full of Post-it flags and scribbles. Outside of the manuscript, I have four pads of Post-it note pads, some of which are four or five pages deep with my notes. Then there is my little note pad that is about 4” x 6” with my notes on what a new chapter must contain. The flags and scribbles on individual pages describe specific changes that I want to make on that page. The note pads are full of general changes and observations I’ll use to tweak the book throughout.

What are the priority questions you ask yourself when you read your rough draft for the first time? Does anyone have a better method for documenting changes than Post-it notes?