musings, thoughts, and writings of Barbara W. Klaser


June 7, 2017

Shadows Fall is available again

My romantic mystery novel, Shadows Fall, is available again as a Kindle-only ebook and is on sale today as a countdown deal, or available anytime on loan through Kindle Unlimited.

Shadows Fall at Amazon

Shadows Fall Cover

— Barbara @ rudimentary 9:32 am PST, 06/07/17

May 30, 2008

Gardening habit or gardening revolution?

Mystery author Eric Mayer* mentioned in a recent blog post that his blog journaling hasn’t been very habitual of late. He went on to write about habits, and that got me to thinking about my habits, and how they’ve changed in the past year or so. Obviously, for me, blogging has taken a back seat to other things. So has my fiction writing, other than attempting to sell my latest finished manuscript, a mystery about a tarot reader whose awakening ability as a medium gets her involved in a murder investigation. (Interested agents or publishers are welcome to inquire here.)

Habits can be good or bad, and I’m sure everyone has some bad ones they’d like to unload. But one new habit I’m happy to have taken on this year is gardening.

Sedum

Gardening is indeed a habit, one that gets into your blood in a way I didn’t anticipate when I started out this year. I’d done a tiny bit of gardening as a kid, when I remember planting one rose bush of my own but mostly helping my grandmother with her strawberries and vegetables on the embankment behind my parents’ house. Later, in my first apartment, I nurtured a few houseplants, and throughout my work life I’ve usually kept a potted plant on my desk. I kept African Violets in a north facing window in the last house we rented, until a cat took over that window sill. Still, my husband did most of the outdoor gardening, with a little weeding here and there on my part, until March of this year.

It started this spring with tending a few vegetable and flower seeds until they sprouted, and then the seedlings until they went into the ground. From there I progressed to caring for plants in the ground and preparing the soil for more of them. It’s rapidly expanding to a succession of all of these things, in the hopes of keeping some fresh produce in our salad and veggie bowls through this summer, as well as brightening a corner of the front yard, where my ultimate goal is to keep flowers blooming in a little cottage style bed year round. I’m a ways from that goal yet.

I’m still new at this, and I got a late start this year, but I get help and advice from various sources, and gardening is now a firm habit that I won’t easily give up. It’s one of the first things I think about in the morning and one of the last I think about before the sun goes down.

The plants seem happy about my gardening habit, when they can figure out what season it is. Our weather this spring switched back and forth for a couple of months from one extreme to the other, first dry Santa Anas with temperatures in the 90s, and then thick cloud cover and a shifting Jet Stream chilled the air to the 50s. This went back and forth for weeks, with little pleasant weather in between, and it kept our plants confused. In the past two weeks the weather has leveled off, and the plants are loving it.

They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and I’ve recently realized there’s little more beautiful to me than a tiny plant bursting out of its seed container. Call me crazy, but I think baby plants can be almost as cute as a kitten, and they, like the kitten, draw out my mothering tendencies.

CuteAsKitten

(I’ll bet you expected a photo of a seedling, but I couldn’t help the obligatory kitten shot.)

To some this pleasure might seem like taking joy in watching paint dry, but to me it’s more like watching a sunset at the end of a heat wave.

Sunset

We celebrated our first avocado blooms a few months ago.

Avocado

Now some fruit has set, which we hope will grow to maturity.

Avocado02

Avocados, according to my resident expert Ken who’s read something like 200 online agricultural reports about them, tend to drop a good portion of their fruit early, which can be disappointing to home gardeners. It will be disappointing to me, if it happens, because Reeds are my absolute favorite avocado variety.

Two days ago I celebrated my first squash blossom.

SquashBlossom01

Zucchini may seem an ordinary thing to seasoned gardeners. It’s one of the easiest things to grow and the butt of gardening jokes, usually in reference to an overabundance of it. But I like zucchini, I love my resplendent squash plants with their huge green leaves, and those yellow-orange blossoms are gold to me.

SquashBlossom02

I’m learning more about the various weeds that grow in the garden, some of which are edible. For instance, purslane and dandelion make delicious salad greens. Note, if you decide to try eating weeds from your garden, be careful that you know what you’re eating. Ensure that the plants haven’t been subjected to herbicides or pesticides and that they aren’t in fact toxic weeds.

Sourgrass

Even some semi-edible weeds, like the sour grass we all discovered as kids, can be a problem if eaten in quantity, I’m told, and purslane looks very similar to a toxic type of spurge that often grows right alongside it. Have an expert show you how to identify edible weeds, and examine carefully whatever you pick to eat. This point was driven home to me when I found spurge, with its milky sap, growing in my own little purslane patch.

Yesterday Ken pointed me to a Los Angeles Times article about Guerrilla Gardeners, which linked to a slide show on how to make “seed bombs” as well as two blogs, here and here, about guerrilla gardening.

Gardening has not only revolutionized my daily routine. It’s apparently a revolution that’s spreading once again, as Victory Gardens did in the last century, with people today gardening to save money on local food and working on a clandestine volunteer basis to re-green the land.

_ _ _

* In case you aren’t aware, Eric Mayer and Mary Reed’s latest John the Eunuch Byzantine mystery, Seven For A Secret, was released in April by Poisoned Pen Press. If you haven’t kept up with their historical mystery series, it’s not too late to start. The earlier books in the series are still in print, and some are now available as Kindle editions.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 3:27 pm PST, 05/30/08

September 20, 2007

Into the shadows

Bruce at Wordswimmer writes about story endings in his post, Where the River Ends, and that got me to thinking about some of the problems I’ve encountered in ending mysteries.

With a mystery, the question of how to end the story begins with which character did the crime. I no longer start with a specific villain in mind. The story often changes so much in the writing that a pre-planned ending has no choice but to change as well, or it wouldn’t make much sense.

In the last couple of mysteries I’ve written, I was as surprised as anyone by who the villain turned out to be once I got to the second draft or later. That’s okay, and it has a lot to do with how I develop characters. If I know who the villain is too early, I’m in danger of giving it away, offering hints I’m not even aware of because of my judgments about that character.

If I start out thinking the villain isn’t a villain, I can get to the heart of that character sooner in my own mind. I can get to know him, let him grow and round out on the page. I’m an idealist, and I really like to see the best in people, so there needs to be that spark of sympathy first, without letting on even to myself that he or she is a killer in the making. I guess in that regard my characterization is as organic as raising a child. What mother imagines her infant would harm anyone?

This process forces me to explore the shadows, my characters’ shadows as well as my own, to see possible motivations, both conscious and unconscious.

I first encountered the shadow, as a human concept, in stories I read. I confess that I didn’t understand the concept very well when I was young and still in denial that I had a shadow or that any good person did. But one encounters this idea many times, if one reads at all widely, and the reason for that is it’s a universal truth about human nature.

In exploring the shadows, I’ve come to see that a fully rounded character, even if he’s the good guy, has a shadow, whether that shadow is clear on the page or not, whether that shadow is negative or positive. I want to know each major character’s background as well as possible, so I start with the positives and work my way into the negatives. Though it hurts me to watch a character I’ve come to like or sympathize with cross the line into murder, at least the biggest puzzle of the mystery isn’t lost on me, and I’m not giving the killer away up front. If I decide the murderer needs to be someone else, not the person I thought it was going to be, I don’t have to cast about too far for someone else who could have done it. In truth, any one of the characters might be capable of killing, given the right circumstances and motivation. They all have their shadows. By the time I get to my final draft, I usually have a few characters that, with nudges into poor choices and flawed rationalization, could become much darker individuals. That’s usually a key to how I end the story. Which character, which nudges, and which choices? Which fits this need best? What motivates the villain to do the awful deed and also causes him or her to get caught in the end? How will the reader be surprised and at the same time see that this person and the clues leading there were present all along? (Foreshadowing will have to wait for another post.)

My exploration of the shadows has made me think a lot about the choices we make in life, and how important each one is, especially when we stack one choice on top of another in the way that we sometimes come to think of as inevitable. We don’t have a choice in everything, certainly, but sometimes when we look back over our lives or a course of events, we can see the turnings we’ve made, and many of them were choices, that brought each of us to be who, where, and what we are today. When we’re accountable for those choices, I think we improve our ability to move forward and make better ones.

If there’s one positive effect fiction can have, perhaps it’s to get us to take a look at the cause and effect of choices. What are we capable of? What would we do in the same situation, and where might that take us or what might it make of us, and our world with us? The stories that get me to think in those terms are the stories that stay with me.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:13 pm PST, 09/20/07

July 9, 2007

Gloria Steinem proposes a new film genre label

Gloria Steinem: In Defense of the ‘Chick Flick’:

“I propose, as the opposite of “chick flick,” films called “prick flicks.” Not only will it serve film critics well, but its variants will add to the literary lexicon.” (read article)

Maybe the term “prick” is too strong. It’s not the word I would’ve chosen, yet it answers the fact that a lot of women are put off by the tone and expression, if not the word, used when we hear the term “chick flick.”

Steinem’s editorial reminds me of something that occurred in a “Modern Fantasy” literature class I took, back in the seventies, when Mary Stewart’s first two Merlin and Arthur novels, The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, were recent bestsellers. One of the young men in the class was so taken with them, he asked what other books Mary Stewart had written. I told him she’d written mostly romantic suspense in the past. I had an entire collection of her books at home, older hardcover editions gleaned from thrift store shelves. I thought when he expressed an interest that here was another new fan. But when the young man heard the word “romantic,” he took on a look of utter distaste and lost interest.

Some female mystery novelists still publish today using their first and middle initials rather than their full first names, in order to stretch past that still-existent gender barrier in many male readers’ minds, a practice reminiscent of the Brontës publishing under masculine names. One would’ve hoped that by the time this century rolled around we’d have advanced further. I don’t have statistics on this, but I’ll hazard a guess that there are more women who read and write fiction containing a predominately masculine point of view than there are men who read or write fiction containing a predominately feminine point of view.

Yet I know women, myself included, who enjoy a good action film, of the type once considered a favorite of men. Why is it that women, both in their reading and writing, as well as in movie preferences, might more readily cross old gender barriers?

Mind you, many men do take an equal interest in less violent or less action-oriented movies and books, and I admire men who are open to genres and interests considered historically feminine. I also admire women who open up more to interests previously considered masculine. More women today are sports fans than ever before, and don’t restrict their interests, as I do, to figure skating. My lack of interest is mostly due to bad experiences in physical education classes — I was that awkward, non-athletic kid always picked last for the team. It has nothing to do with my admiration of any outstanding achievement, physical or otherwise, and I enjoy watching good sports-related movies.

What is it that continues to keep some men from enjoying what they term as “chick flicks?” Is it that they truly don’t enjoy more thoughtful, slower-moving, or less action-oriented stories, once they give them a chance? Or is there another reason? Is it adrenaline addiction? (Understandable, among men and women, in today’s world, though perhaps best not encouraged.) Is it fear of what their friends will think? I’m trying not to make assumptions here. I’d really like to know, especially as a female writer trying to sell my fiction.

We all have types of stories we don’t like, or even parts of movies we like that we could do without. I personally back away from anything about child abductions, gangster movies that are overly violent onscreen, comedies that resort to tasteless bathroom humor (bathrooms have doors for a reason), and horror with too much blood and gore added for shock value. As far as I’m concerned, vomit and excrement belong off-screen. There’s enough of them in real life, and they’re not entertaining. They’re certainly not the kind of realism I’m looking for in a story.

I can understand someone not liking romance, even though I usually enjoy it provided it’s not overly sappy. But no one’s personal preference for certain types of stories and not others explains why we need the term “chick flick,” and especially not why it so often seems to be used as a derogatory term. Do the men who don’t like “chick flicks” prefer movies with only men? Is that what it boils down to?

I’m reminded of a line from Frank Herbert’s Dune regarding taking the “waters of life.” It mentions the place in their minds the Bene Gesserit mother superiors (women) fear to go, a place they believe only the fabled Kwisatz Haderach (a man) can access. The Kwisatz Haderach, once he accesses that place, becomes a superior being destined to lead his people to freedom. I wonder about the allegory Herbert intended, if any. Is there a place like that inside the female psyche, where some of the toughest men fear to go? Is that what they fear about “chick flicks?” Will they gain power if they find a way to access that, or will they lose power, possibly even die, as many men did who attempted to become the Kwisatz Haderach? Or will they simply gain a broader understanding of life and the world around them? In that case, maybe it’s worth a shot.

Gloria Steinem makes an interesting observation about power, and about nouns and adjectives in labels:

“Just as there are “novelists” and then “women novelists,” there are “movies” and then “chick flicks.” Whoever is in power takes over the noun — and the norm — while the less powerful get an adjective. Thus, we read about “African American doctors” but not “European American doctors,” “Hispanic leaders” but not “Anglo leaders,” “gay soldiers” but not “heterosexual soldiers,” and so on.” (read article)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:35 pm PST, 07/09/07

June 8, 2007

Thinking Bloggers Awards

ThinkingBloggerAward

Beverly Jackson recently honored me by including my name in her Thinking Bloggers Awards. She should be listed in mine, because she’s inspired me so much in the time I’ve known her, through her writing, painting, and poetry, as well as her perspectives on other poets and life. It’s Southern California’s loss that Bev recently moved to North Carolina, where she’s exploring her new home region and sharing her experiences via her blog.

I’ve chosen my five Thinking Bloggers with great difficulty, because I read many more than five blogs that deserve mention on a regular basis. All whose blogs I read are people who make me think on a regular basis. Many also share another special quality: In one of my favorite movies, Under The Tuscan Sun (a highly-fictionalized adaptation of the Frances Mayes memoir by talented screenwriter Audrey Wells, who also brought us Shall We Dance and The Kid), free-spirited Katherine (played by Lindsay Duncan) keeps reminding her American friend Frances (Diane Lane) of the advice she got from Federico Fellini, to never lose her childish enthusiasm. Good advice, in my opinion. Childish enthusiasm is a quality I greatly admire in people, maybe because mine is sometimes in short supply, so I need regular booster shots. It’s a trait that tends to be present in most of the people whose blogs I return to. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 2:02 pm PST, 06/08/07

March 14, 2007

Free books, first cars, and nightmares

I’ve been struggling for topics to blog about, but surely there can be no more chilling thought for a writer than people not wanting books even when they’re free. Someone posted, on a mystery mailing list I belong to, that she boxed up what I’ll presume were mystery novels, and placed them out in front of her home, labeled as free . . . and had no takers. This was in a small university town.

The story surprises me, because in our former neighborhood, where our back yard faced a community college parking lot, we had excellent luck putting things out in the driveway for free, including boxes of used books. Sometimes people took entire boxes rather than a book or two. Nearly everything we put out found a home, including an old sofa we’d acquired already well-used, which I was certain we’d wind up hauling to the dump. Ours wasn’t a busy street except during classes, when students parked there, so I have to assume it was sometimes students who took those items. Then again, my experience with that was ten years ago. Now everyone I see walking around has a cell phone stuck to one ear, and I’m lucky if they avoid colliding with me. Maybe they wouldn’t SEE the books, even with a big sign.

When I was a student, I would’ve browsed through any box of free books on offer, even though I had plenty of other reading that I should be doing instead, for school. My grandmother used to say that no one in our family could clean an attic, because we’d stop to read everything. (That was before bubble wrap, when we used newspaper to wrap fragile items.)

Which reminds me, I dreamed just last night about the car I drove as a student. I hadn’t thought about that car in years. It was a white 1964 Mercury Comet that had a lot of miles on it before I got it. The dream was a mini-nightmare, not because I found myself in that car, but because this creepy guy who’d just followed me out of a bank removed what I thought was a disguise — a wig, under which he had a shaved head — then tried to get me to give him a ride. I was suspicious of him, so first I told him that if I did that my dad would kill me. (I must’ve been a teenager in the dream, which explains the car.) He argued with me, but I got into my car and locked the doors. It isn’t the sort of dream that usually qualifies as a nightmare for me, but it woke me up, heart racing.

That first car had some real-life nightmarish qualities. One was its tendency to overheat if I drove it to a higher altitude. I love the mountains, so not being able to drive my first car to the mountains without it overheating frustrated me no end. As the car aged, it developed other idiosyncrasies. I think my dad and I were at one point the only two people on earth who knew how to start it, which involved pumping the gas pedal just the right number of times, then holding it down . . . oh well, I don’t remember the sequence now. It had other problems too, and I have to wonder now at my desire to drive the thing, but when you’re young I guess you just want to go. You don’t care what you put up with to do it.

That car’s most nightmarish problem was the front passenger door’s sticky latch. My parents paid for my gasoline on the condition that I drive my grandmother anywhere she wanted to go. One day the door didn’t catch, and it flew open when I made a turn. Grandma didn’t fall out, but that incident qualifies as more nightmarish than the dream that ratcheted up my heart rate last night.

What about you?

Do you rummage through boxes of free books whenever you see them?

What was your first car like?

Do different things scare you in dreams than in real life?

— Barbara @ rudimentary 10:38 pm PST, 03/14/07

December 2, 2005

Second draft completed

I thought I’d better check in, since I’ve been absent so much lately you might think I’d been sucked into my computer and am living an alternate existence inside my own fiction. That’s how it feels sometimes. I’ve finally finished the second draft of the novel in progress. This was a huge effort, mainly because I rewrote just about the whole thing. Except for one or two of the early chapters it’s almost unrecognizable compared to the first draft, with major point of view and character changes. I’m much happier with the resolution to the mystery. I’m reading back through, looking for the places the story slows down. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 8:57 pm PST, 12/02/05

October 9, 2005

Breaking the rules

Writers discuss breaking the rules of writing all the time, whether it’s the rules of grammar, of writing in general, or the rules of a particular genre. One rule of thumb is to learn the rules and understand the reasons for them, to understand whether they’re widely accepted and respected rules, or merely arbitrary. Once you know them, when you choose to break a rule you at least understand the possible consequences. Some say breaking the rules of genre is necessary to reach the bestseller list. Others warn it can prevent a writer from being published at all. I suppose that depends on which rules, and how one goes about breaking them.

But rules of writing aren’t the rules I’m concerned with breaking, at the moment.

What I’m puzzling over is how many rules a sleuth can get away with breaking within the confines of a mystery. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 4:27 pm PST, 10/09/05

August 2, 2005

Payment for product mentions?

Every now and then the subject comes up on DorothyL (DL) of whether authors should be, or ever are, paid to include real product names in their fiction. A few authors jokingly ask who’s getting paid to mention products, so they can find out how to get paid too.
(more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 8:17 pm PST, 08/02/05

February 21, 2005

Eight of Swords, by David Skibbins

I’ve been fortunate in the past few days to read an advance copy of Eight of Swords, winner of the 2004 Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First Traditional Mystery award. It’s due for release in April 2005.

In this fast-reading story, David Skibbins introduces us to Warren Ritter, a man with a past that he very much needs to keep hidden. Warren’s estranged sister doesn’t help with this when she discovers him reading Tarot cards on the streets of Berkley. In her excitement and anger, she announces his real name to everyone within earshot. She has good reason. She thought he was dead.
(more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 5:32 pm PST, 02/21/05


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