Category: Writing

Tell Me a Story

My husband Gary is a man of many stories. He’s served in the Army, worked as a teacher, a school administrator, a firefighter, and as a business manager at a university. He’s traveled extensively, and never met a person he didn’t enjoy talking to. Thus he has collected many anecdotes which he enjoys recounting. He often doesn’t recall the exact details, but it never stops him from telling the tale. Not so long ago, we watched an old movie that prompted him to tell me a story about an incident that happened years before I knew him.

Gary was on a plane seated next to a woman who “used to be really famous,” he said. Because he is almost completely devoid of interest in popular culture or bygone celebrities, he didn’t recognize her. She introduced herself and explained that she was flying to Michigan to be honored at an event, and that she had retired and made only limited public appearances. They chatted, and at the end of the flight she gave him her autograph. He tucked it in his pocket, forgot about it, and at some point lost it or threw it away. He had remembered the story because the female lead in the movie we were watching, Loretta Young, was the woman he’d met on the plane. 

Impressed, because I’m a fan of old movies, I grabbed his arm and said, “You sat next to Loretta Young?!”

He hesitated for just a fraction of a second before saying yes. But it was long enough for me to flash on other confidently told Gary stories that have a fact-based core, but often dubious supporting details. Upon repeated questioning he gradually acknowledged that it might not have been Loretta Young, it may not have been on a flight to Michigan, but it was definitely someone famous. That I believe. But whether it was Loretta Young, Loretta Lynn, or Coretta Scott King, is lost to the ages.

I’m not sure why this page from Gary’s Book of True (Mostly) Stories popped into my head today. Maybe because of two conversations I recently had with two different friends, during which I learned some previously unknown things about each of them. I’ve had a number of good, in-depth conversations with both women in the past. But somehow the tragic story in the case of one friend–her mother’s loss of multiple family members in a tornado, and in the case of my other friend, the happy story of her interviewing a favorite writer of mine, Robert Parker, had never come up before.

That in turn reminded me of something my first editor told me. I was whining about an assignment to do a feature story on an elderly woman’s doll collection. It wasn’t exactly the cutting-edge journalism I’d signed on for. But I’ve never forgotten what my boss said in response. “Everybody has a story. If you listen well, you’ll find it.”

This week I’m going to listen for a new story. I hope you do, too.

You’ve been warned …

When writing, I go to my office and close the door. When seriously writing, I put a do not disturb sign on the door handle. When I am on a get-5,000-words-done-or-else deadline, I do both, and add in a firm warning to my husband Gary to forget I exist until I exit my office.

You see, Gary, unlike me, is not a procrastinator. He is a man of action–for him, to think is to do. He is also equal parts persistent and persuasive. So, unless I’ve steeled myself against the unstoppable force that is Gary, I can find myself typing away at my computer one minute, and the next I’m in the backyard helping to move a pile of stones.

On a recent day when I was struggling with a plot point and really, really needed uninterrupted writing time, Gary had plans to do some internet research. You might think that was a happy coinciding of activities. I would be busy, and he would be busy, and neither would interrupt the other. However, Gary is to computers as I am to arts and crafts. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. And when something goes wrong, he wants it fixed. Now.

Knowing this, I suggested he wait until I had finished writing for the day, and then I would be at his disposal. Soon, I was immersed in my plot, writing my lead character out of a tricky situation. After a while, I dimly heard sounds of frustration coming from downstairs, but I kept on working. Then I heard footsteps coming toward my office, and Gary speaking loudly into his phone, “I tried that. It won’t work. The warning won’t go away. The screen is stuck!” 

I opened the door. He handed me the phone, saying, “It’s Apple Support.  This guy keeps telling me to click something, but I can’t find it. There’s a warning on the screen. I didn’t do anything. He needs to talk to you.”

I took the phone, but having just been wrenched from a cemetery in Himmel, Wisconsin, I needed a minute to reorient to the real world of computer problems. But the man on the other end of the phone plunged right into instructions to click here, enter this, check that. It wasn’t until he said, “So now, I take control of your computer,” that my writing-induced brain fog lifted.

“Wait a minute, tell me again what the problem is.”

“Your system is operating illegally. You did not pay the renewal fee for firewall protection. I will need to fix your computer and …”

That sounded very like a scam. When I pressed him further, he hung up. Then I did some research and discovered it is indeed a scam, and a fairly common one. You can fall into it if you inadvertently click a phony link on a search results page. A message will pop up on your screen that says something like “Apple Support Alert,” in alarmingly large and bold letters. The message warns of dire things that will happen if you don’t call the fake support number immediately.

If you try to close the window to clear your screen, you can’t. The screen is locked. So, lots of people, Gary included, call the number, and that’s when the scammer on the end of the line says he can help, but he needs your credit card number to pay for the repairs. If he gains access to your machine, he may also drop malware into your system that can harvest other personal data. I had our favorite IT expert (who makes house calls!) check out Gary’s computer just to be safe, but it was clean, and we hadn’t given out any credit card information.

If you run into the scam (and it’s all over the internet) never call the support number, just force quit your machine, and you should be fine. This public service announcement is brought to you by  Gary and Susan, who have each learned an important lesson.  

Gary now knows how to recognize a scam and force quit his computer. Susan now knows to take Gary’s laptop and put it in her file drawer while she’s working.

It’s not you, it’s me.

dog at computerIn my last post, I repeated what I’ve said many times before—I love hearing from readers—and I do. Most of the correspondence is fairly similar: questions about publication of the next book, or a plot twist, or whether they like or dislike certain characters. However, this past week, I had an email exchange with a twist that left me both surprised and amused. So much so, that I’m sharing it with you. The only thing I’ve changed in what follows is the name of my correspondent.

I started book 5 and Leah is not going to get with Gabe is she?
Is she ever going to get with Coop?
Thank you. Harvey

Clearly, Harvey liked to get right to the point. I answered promptly.

Hi Harvey,

I don’t know how far into Dangerous Flaws you are, but you’ll see that Leah and Gabe do get closer in the story … I think it’s quite possible that Coop and Leah will eventually find their way to each other, but it may be a pretty tangled journey. Of course, I could be wrong. Leah will have something to say about this, and she can be very unpredictable.–Susan

Harvey responded just as quickly.

Hi. I appreciate your reply and i understand where you are coming from. While I have enjoyed the books I usually pick one guy at the beginning and I do get emotionally involved with the characters ( which is on me ) and I don’t like it when it takes so long and they might not get together. Books are entertainment to me and when I might not get the ending that I am looking for I tend to move on and find something that will. I am not trying to be critical but this is the way I like things and at my age I want what I want. I have stopped [reading your book] for now but I will keep checking to see what happens. I apologize for this but I am what I am. I have learned this the hard way because I usually pick the wrong guy and I don’t like it when it is dragged out. Again I apologize. Thank you 

There it was. My first literary break-up. I’ve been dumped. Kicked to the curb. Cast adrift. Tossed aside. Left behind. Harvey even broke up with me using the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” line. I tried to maintain my dignity in the face of the inevitable.

Hey, Harvey–

No need to apologize. It’s one of the nicest things you can say to a writer—that you emotionally engage enough with her characters to want things to go right for them. I hate to lose you as a reader, but I’ll keep your email, and if things move definitively in one direction or the other in the next book, I’ll let you know. Provided, of course, that you swear yourself to secrecy, no spoilers allowed.–Susan

Actually, I do understand where he’s coming from. I still haven’t forgiven Louisa May Alcott for pairing my first favorite heroine, Jo March, with the middle-aged Professor Bhaer, instead of the much more appealing Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Louisa didn’t lose me as a reader, but she did teach me to be a bit more wary about where I give my literary heart.  Harvey has learned the hard lesson, too, and I respect the firm stance he’s taken against being the pawn of cavalier authors. Although I lost him as a reader, I have to thank him for an email exchange I truly treasure. 😉








Readers Want to Know

cat in glasses lying on sofa with bookOne of the things I like most about writing is hearing from readers. Quite often they say nice things, which is very pleasant. Sometimes they point out errors–a missing word or a typo–which is less pleasant, but still welcome, because I want the books to be as smooth to read as possible. Occasionally they ask questions about the characters and settings in the stories.

Recently a reader asked how I came up with the name of the town where the characters in my Leah Nash Mysteries live: Himmel, Wisconsin. The inspiration actually came from my immigrant grandmother, Susannah Andrews. She spoke English to my six siblings and me most of the time. But when we had driven her to distraction with our antics, she would shout in German “Mein Gott im Himmel!” [My God in Heaven]. It was the signal that we’d pushed just a little too far and repercussions were about to happen. So, the name of my fictional town, in one way, is a bit of an homage to my grandmother. But the choice of name was also intended to be a little more layered.

Himmel, with its shrinking population, abandoned stores and declining economic base, seems pretty far from heaven to Leah Nash, the main character in the series when she returns home. But the more she learns about herself and what matters most to her, the closer the name becomes to describing how she feels about her imperfect, struggling hometown and its inhabitants.

Another frequent question is whether or not Himmel is meant to be my own small town. It isn’t. For one thing, it’s a bit larger, for another, there’s a lot more homicide happening. I will admit though that I sometimes transplant landmarks or variations on them from my hometown to Leah’s.

Readers also ask if the characters in my books are drawn from people in my life. The answer is no, in the strictest sense of the disclaimer you sometimes see in the front pages of books: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

But that’s not to say that I don’t draw inspiration from people I’ve met or observed—or avoided. I try not to use the name of anyone that I know, to prevent having people in my own life try to match fictional characters with real life counterparts—an exercise I feel has the potential to end badly.

However, it’s inevitable that I’ll sometimes unintentionally create characters whose names belong to actual people. Not long ago, I received a very nice email about just that. The woman who wrote said she’d enjoyed one of my books, but jokingly added that she was a little dismayed because she and the murderer shared a first name.

My email conversation with her gave me the idea of offering readers a chance to be a minor character in the next book in the series. I’m finding it quite fun to weave the winners into the story, and from the response so far, it’s also fun for them to meet “themselves” in a fictional setting.

The contest is only open to members of the Leah Nash Mysteries mailing list. I’ll be inviting entries in March. Shortly thereafter, two names will be randomly selected to become part of Leah’s story.  If you’d like a chance to be a part of the next Leah Nash mystery, but if you’re not a member of the mailing list, you can sign up for the list here.

Note: This is an updated version of a post that first ran in 2016.  

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