When the bad guys got a free pass

One of the inspirations for my novel Swift Horses Racing was a program after World War II that helped Nazi scientists emigrate to the U.S., while scrubbing their Nazi past.

The full details of this program, called Operation Paperclip, weren’t fully revealed to the American public till the 2000s.

As I mention in Swift Horses, the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union amped up after the war. The USSR moved through Europe snapping up countries along with scientists who’d worked for the Reich.

The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

They recruited over 2,000 scientists and engineers—in such fields as chemistry, aeronautics, medicine, and biological warfare. The United States also began detaining German scientists and their families, eager to get to them before the Soviets did.

Wernher Von Braun

The fact that many of these scientists were Nazis and had committed crimes against humanity was not as important as the determination that their expertise could not fall into Soviet hands. The scientists were brought to the U.S. and their records were wiped clean of any Nazi involvement.

The program was considered a necessary evil if the U.S. was to win the Cold War.

One big area of U.S. recruitment was the German rocket program. In 1942, the Germans sent an A4 rocket higher than any manmade object had ever gone—outer space. This program would produce the V2 rocket, which would bring destruction in bombing raids on London.

The architect of this rocket program? Werner Von Braun, who emigrated to the US after the war and went on to create the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo missions.

As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

Von Braun was a member of the Nazi party and Hitler’s SS. He oversaw the V2 rocket factory Mittelwerk, in the tunnels under the mountain of Kohnstein, where at least 20,000 concentration camp slave workers lost their lives. Because of the fear that the workers would revolt, digging tools were prohibited and workers had to dig the tunnels by hand.

Operation Paperclip is a fascinating moment in U.S. history. As a resident of Silicon Valley and a former tech employee, I find it interesting to think about the technology angle of it—how important is technology? Is there a morality to it? What is its human cost?

If you’re interested in reading more on Operation Paperclip, I recommend Annie Jacobsen’s book, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (Little, Brown and Company, 2014). Another book that gives firsthand accounts of the slave conditions in Mittelwerk is Andre Sellier’s History of the Dora Camp: The Untold Story of the Nazi Slave Labor Camp That Secretly Manufactured V-2 Rockets (Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

Ashes, ashes

Maybe it’s the extrovert in me, but I love when people read my book and get back to me with feedback.

My first book, Swift Horses Racing, was released in April, and I waited (not very patiently) for comments and reviews. There’s something satisfying about putting your writing out there and hearing something back from the void.

This week I had someone comment on the last chapter of the book, where aeronautics pioneer Karl Schuler’s ashes are scattered over the Pacific Ocean. A reader commented that he wanted more detail about how that worked.

So I did a little more research. Scattering ashes by plane is a tricky process. You can’t just empty a box of ashes out the window. Because of the speed of the plane and the winds involved, the ashes are likely to come right back at you. Just like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, you’ll end up with ashes on your face–or a plane full of them. One comment I read from a pilot:  You may never fully get that person out of your plane.

Don’t be like The Dude

There are a few different ways to disperse ashes in a way that won’t coat the inside of the plane with them. There are special attachments for the wing that contain and release the ashes. Another homemade method involves rolling the ashes up in a cloth bundle like a sleeping bag. You secure the bundle with rubber bands, then cut a slit in the end so you can grip it. To release, you take the bands off, then unfurl the bundle out the window. The ashes are dispersed far enough away from the plane to not be sucked back in.

The more I found out about this method, the more I decided this process was something that my character Duke Sorenson–tinkerer and lover of aviation–would totally get into.

The more I found out about this method, the more I decided this process was something that my character Duke Sorenson, tinkerer and lover of aviation, would totally get into. It gave him a chance to interact with another character he’d had a bad run-in with—and it was a bonding moment. It wasn’t a huge change, but it enriched the scene. I was even able to include it in the next printing of my book. The last scene is richer and fuller because of that change.* So, reader—thank you for the feedback.

*If you have a previous copy of Swift Horses Racing, leave your email address in the Contact form (see website menu). I’ll send you a copy of the chapter addition.

Bite your lip. Take the trip.

My first mystery novel, Swift Horses Racing, is now out.

Putting yourself out there is scary. I’ve been writing for years—blog posts, songs, short stories and even a novel previous to this one. 

My book, Swift Horses Racing, posing with my pet bonsai, Kubo

It was hard for me to release Swift Horses Racing into the world. I had lots of reasons why I wasn’t ready to do this. Why I needed more time to work on it.

Fear is persuasive—and kind of a bully.

One day I realized that the comfort zone I was keeping myself in was no longer comfortable.

I’ve been writing stories since I was eight years old. I love holing myself up in my room to write. But at some point, you want to “complete the handshake,” as writer Michael Chabon says. Let what you’ve written connect with another person. 

Last month, when I was still having minor panic attacks about putting my book out there, I was driving and a song came on at the end of my Spotify list. It sounded vaguely familiar. It was Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 vintage soul song, “Move on Up.”  

Bite your lip. And take the trip

It was like the voice of God to me, the final word capping the thoughts I’d had the past few months. Even though you’re afraid, do it. Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip. 

Fear is not a sign you shouldn’t do it. You just have to bite your lip and keep going. Take the trip. 

Now that I made the decision, the fear has backed off—like a bully often does when challenged. I’ve learned so much during this process. I’m excited to hear what people think of the story I’ve put out there. Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on the follow up to this book.

Since I’m a music person, I’ve created a Spotify playlist for the characters in this book—including Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” You can find it at:  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/2gsXELvdvHD690yXetvFme?si=to0k3VfnQlyZpn1ImH1GWw

Enjoy the book, and let me know what you think with a commentor better yet, a review on Amazon, Goodreads or the book review site of your choice.

Goodbye, year that shall not be named

This year’s been crappy. 

Though it feels good to celebrate the end of a year that has constantly surprised us at how low it could go, I don’t think things are going to dramatically improve in 2021.

But one thing I have seen this year: good things don’t just happen in “good” years. They happen all the time. And if you look for them, you will see them. Even in a time of hard and painful things. 

This year in California’s Bay Area, we’ve been in quarantine since the second week of March. We have celebrated my daughter’s 21st, my husband’s, and my birthdays at home. I’ve been teaching my high school English classes online since March. With the current travel quarantine, we had to cancel a Christmas getaway to Seattle, where our whole family would be together for the first time in a year and a half. 

Also, this fall we lived through an unprecedented California wildfire season, with fires in the hills on either side of us. We breathed hazardous levels of smoke on a regular basis for about two months.

Add to this, a painful, contentious presidential election season that dragged on way past November 3.

Celebrating our new president

As I read over this list, I realize how outrageously privileged I have been. 

This year I didn’t lose a job. I didn’t lose a business. We didn’t lose our house to a fire. And even though I know people who did, I did not lose a friend or family member to COVID. My husband and I were both able to work from home (which was, on most days, not life threatening).

There were so many good things that happened this year. Some of these were deep things, perhaps more deeply felt and appreciated because they contrasted with the chaos, grief and destruction happening this year. 

1. We and our kids stayed healthy.

2. We learned how to make toilet paper last a long time. 

3. We got creative with our family times to stay connected – did lots of board games via Zoom as well as virtual Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Getting creative with Thanksgiving – Baskets of our traditional family dishes were delivered to everyone, then we Zoomed our meal.

4. I realized I actually like teaching online and have worked to make it more engaging for students with the use of community building and more audio/visual tools.

5. I wrote more this year than I ever have. A lot of support for this came from being in community – with my writers group Highway Writers and my awesome, local Sisters in Crime chapter, Coastal Cruisers.

6. I improved at my craft – and had a story chosen for a mystery anthology that will come out in 2021.

7. My daughter, who had been struggling with some serious issues, is doing much better.

8. I learned more about racial injustice–and about inequalities I never knew existed. We started supporting organizations that work to fix these. I took my daughter to her first protest.

My daughter’s first protest

9. I found out that many things I thought were important—weren’t. 

10. The isolation made me see things I did not like about myself—attitudes and habits I’ve carried with me too long. With God’s help, I am determined to make changes.

One of this year’s themes—because, hey, I’m an English teacher—has been “joy and sorrow deeply mingled.” I can’t remember right now what hymn this is from, but the idea is you can’t separate the good from the bad. They come together. The bright seems brighter because of the darkness that surrounds it. 

The new year won’t be a big level-up to peace, happiness and complete health for everyone. But I have grown up this year and many of my friends and family have, too.

The new year won’t be a big level-up to peace, happiness and complete health for everyone. But I have grown up this year and many of my friends and family have, too.

Whatever comes in 2021, we will be better prepared for it.

And more able to appreciate the good that comes with it.

How has this year changed you?

“The Far Cabin” – a short story

By Victoria Kazarian

In the warmth of the resort office, PI Bee Bedrosian peeled off her damp, cold gloves and rubbed her hands together.

She prayed for a cabin with good wifi and a working heater.

A woman with leathery skin and a grey ponytail emerged from behind the small Christmas tree on the counter, which was topped by a star that read Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.

She printed Bee’s driver’s license and credit card information on the registration card. When she’d finished, Bee noticed the woman had copied the digits of her license wrong.

Numbers had always been her language. She zoomed in on the error and reflexively called it out.

 “You switched the 7 and 9 at the end. The third number is 5.”

The woman gave her a sour look and rewrote the numbers.

The woman’s husband, a silver-haired man with the straight teeth of a denture ad, pulled out a map of the resort and circled the office and her cabin with a pen.

“I’ve got you down for two nights, hon. Checkout’s Christmas morning by 11 am. You’re the farthest cabin on the path. Turn left at the end. We don’t usually rent it, but we’re in peak season. The appliances are in good working order, and there’s a microwave. No phone.”

“That’s fine.” Bee checked her phone. She had four bars. “What’s your wifi password?”

The woman slid a photocopied slip of paper across the orange Formica counter then handed Bee a key attached to a piece of worn wood, DOUGLAS FIR burned into it like a cattle brand.

Bee liked that she’d be a distance from other cabins. No noise from late-night, post-ski parties. Out the front window, she saw snow accumulating on the branches of the fir trees surrounding the parking lot. Under the glowering clouds, the mountains were bright with fresh snow, as if reflecting light from some hidden source.

Under the glowering clouds, the mountains were bright with fresh snow, as if reflecting light from some hidden source.

Bee would be on her own for the holiday. Fifteen-year old Armen was at his father’s for Christmas this year. Each of her neighbors in the fourplex were traveling to family get-togethers, instead of gathering as usual on Christmas Eve for games and dinner.

But what had sealed her decision to travel was the phone call from her father, a man with whom she had a difficult relationship. He and his new girlfriend wanted to drive up from Glendale and spend the week with her in San Jose. Within five minutes of hanging up, she’d booked the cabin in Stateline, on the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Cabin key in hand, Bee picked up her suitcase and hoisted the strap of her laptop bag over her shoulder. It was noon, and the darkened sky was casting shadows over the drifts of snow in the front of the cabins along the path. The cabins looked deserted at this hour, skiers at the slopes, except for a family bundled in puffy jackets and snow pants, toddling down the path with saucer sleds.

The smell of mold and burnt dust hit her as she opened the cabin door. Every cell in her damp, cold body called out its thanks for whoever had turned the heater on before her arrival. She’d put chains on her tires by herself today, rather than pay $50 dollars she couldn’t spare. Her backside was still wet.

The small cabin was laid out optimally, Bee noted appreciatively. To the right, a nook with a drop-leaf table and small kitchen. To the left, a queen-sized bed with a fluffy comforter, a nightstand, and a small desk, where she could write her report and do some research.

Straight back, there was a closet stocked with blankets she might need tonight, and a pocket door leading to a tiny bathroom.

Bee took off her soggy coat, pants and socks, and laid them near the heater, then changed into dry, warm clothes. She started the small coffeemaker on the kitchen counter and put her groceries away in the fridge.

She sank back on the bed’s fluffy comforter and breathed in the aroma of brewing coffee as she thawed out. She thought of her father and his new girlfriend and a more pleasant chill ran over her skin–the delicious feeling that she’d dodged a bullet.

She poured a mug of coffee, opened her laptop and started in on her report. By 4 pm, the cabin had darkened enough that she had to turn on the overhead light. Outside she heard the shouts and chatter of skiers returning from the slopes down the highway at Heavenly Valley.

At 6 pm, with a sense of satisfaction, she finished her spousal surveillance report and sent it off with an invoice to Mr. Drake Burgoine of Saratoga, California. He wouldn’t be pleased with the information. On the plus side, he’d certainly gotten his money’s worth.

As she looked out over the kitchen sink, windows glowed in the cabins beyond, squares of golden light in the blackness. She saw movement in them, and it filled her with loneliness. Armen didn’t talk much, but she missed having him around. She missed her single-mother neighbors and their quirky kids. The sounds of people and activity energized her. Being alone this Christmas had not been her first choice.

She rooted through the odd cassortment of pans in the kitchen cupboards and found a frying pan and a lid that fit. She would cook comfort food she’d made many times: rice pilaf with peppers, onions and chicken. It brought back memories of her mother, who’d taught her how to cook it while she was still in elementary school. She remembered the precise, steady rhythm of her mother cutting vegetables. The sad, ancient tune her mother hummed as she stirred the rice in butter.

She’d just sat down to eat when her cell phone rang. The manager in the resort office.

“A storm’s coming in at midnight. Foot of snow tonight, more tomorrow. There’s a good chance we’ll lose power. They’re closing 50, just so’s you know, hon. Through tomorrow, maybe Christmas.”

What had seemed like a refreshing getaway was turning claustrophobic. She wasn’t about to be stuck in the dark in a strange place in a blackout. After dinner, she put on her dry, warm coat and headed for her car to get a flashlight.

She pulled her snow hat down to cover her stinging ears as she trudged to the parking lot. She slipped the flashlight into her pocket, locked her car and headed back to the cabin. Her footprints from five minutes ago were filling in with snow.

In the howl of the wind, she heard a low rustling near the path. Then a sound that made her scalp prickle. A moan. Almost a yowl. Like the sound cats made in the alley next to the fourplex in San Jose. Mournful and vaguely human.

In the howl of the wind, she heard a low rustling near the path. Then something that made her scalp prickle.

Cats roaming among the cabins. Nothing to worry about. Still, she found herself walking faster through the deepening snow till she came to the end of the path and her door. She shut the door against the wind and turned the lock and deadbolt.

Then she went to her suitcase and slid her hand inside the inner pocket. The Glock was still there.

At some point in the night, a load of snow must have fallen from the trees above. A loud klumpf above her head woke her up.

She realized the clock had stopped ticking.

*    *    *

Grey light filtering in from the kitchen window woke her.

The clock was ticking again, though by the hands on the clock, power had only come back on an hour ago. The room was freezing.

She heard a ping from her phone and picked it up from the nightstand to see the text:

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE, MOM!
Btw dad got me a new game console

He gave it to me early so I have more time to play it here

Bee smiled at the greeting, then just as quickly felt a flash of anger at David, her software programmer ex-husband. Armen did not need another device on which to play games.

She huddled under the warm covers, looking up Caltrans road conditions. They confirmed what the resort manager told her. Hwy 50 would be closed through Christmas.

At 7:15, after heating coffee up in the microwave, she bundled up, laced up her snow boots, and headed outside to explore.

There was a lull in the storm. She stepped off the small front porch and immediately plunged knee high into a drift of snow. Stepping out of it carefully, she made her way to the side of the cabin. She wanted to see if she could spot anything on the roof, an explanation for the noise last night. All she could see was snow on the back side of the roof, through which a vent poked its hatted head.

The cabins and resort grounds were still. With the weather report, everyone had decided to sleep in. The air smelled of wood smoke, and somewhere nearby, bacon. White covered everything, pristine and new. Noiseless. The thick blanket seemed to deaden all sound.

Then, as she made her way toward the office, a volley of gunshots shattered it all.

Bee froze in place, then lurched through the snow as fast as she could toward the front of the resort. She peered into the window of the office. All lights off. She tried the door. Locked.

As she made her way back to her cabin, she saw a lanky man in his late 40s, calmly securing skis to the rack on his Jeep. He looked in her direction and nodded.

“Sounds just like gunshots, doesn’t it? They’re clearing the slopes. They set off charges to reduce the risk of avalanche. I thought the same thing when I first heard it. Scared the shit out of me.”

 Anxiety drained from her limbs.

“Thanks for the tip. I’m not a skier.” She watched him load suitcases into the back of the vehicle and thought it seemed like a lot of luggage for one person. “You leaving today? I thought 50 was closed.”

“There’s a chance 80 will open up. I’m heading North to try and catch the window. I travel through here on business. I get used to being flexible.” The man nodded and began scraping ice off his windshield. “Good luck.”

Bee walked the grounds, keeping near the trees where the snow was less deep. When the office opened, she’d ask about a place for breakfast. Someplace off this stretch of Hwy 50 that she could walk to. A place that served bacon.

By the time she’d completed the path that wound through the cabins, the office was open. The place was warm and cozy, with the beginnings of a fire in the grate. Christmas carols from a radio station played in the background. Straight Teeth was on the phone taking a reservation. He winked, a gesture Bee never understood the meaning of but always found suspect. He held up a hand to show he’d be off the phone soon.

Through the large window, Bee watched the Jeep roar out of the parking lot and turn onto the highway.

“What can I do for you, Miss Be—Bedderson?” People mangled her Armenian name every day. She was used to it.

“Can you recommend any breakfast places I can walk to?” She gave him a friendly smile, an apology for pouncing on his wife’s mistake yesterday. “It’s Bedrosian.”

He pulled out a map and marked some nearby spots along 50.

“The wife usually makes the recommendations. She’s out getting groceries before the storm starts up again. There’s a coffee place down on the corner—they serve pastries. And a nice sit-down restaurant with full breakfasts across the street.”

Bee thanked him and walked out into the cold.

After eggs and bacon at the sit-down place, Bee walked back on the path next to highway, just as flakes began to fall. By the time she reached her cabin, the flurries had begun. She opened the door, eager for warmth.

As she closed the door behind her, she felt it. Someone had been in her cabin.

As she closed the door behind her, she felt it. Someone had been in her cabin.

She scanned the room, looking for anything missing or disturbed. Her heart pounding, she slid her hand into the suitcase. Stupid of her to have left it.  She relaxed as her fingers wrapped around the Glock. She transferred it to her pants pocket. She checked the desk drawer. Her laptop was still there.

She went through the kitchen, scanned every surface, and looked through any personal items she’d brought. All accounted for.

The bathroom pocket door was slid halfway closed. It looked crooked. This was something she dealt with regularly in her apartment. She lifted it up with both hands till it realigned on its track, and she was able to slide it open.

She felt a rush of frozen air. The bathroom window was wide open.

As she went to shut it, she looked down and saw grey hair splayed across the snow below. A pair of open eyes, lashes clumped with snowflakes, looked back at her.

*     *     *    

It took Bee several tries to get through. She had one bar.

The 911 dispatcher told her the police would be delayed, due to a multi-car accident on Lake Parkway and the difficulty of getting through town until the plows came through.

Bee took a photo on her phone of a muddy partial footprint on the window frame. Then went outside, around the back of the cabin to the woman lying in the snow. Bee could see the holes in the woman’s puffy jacket. Blood poured out, still warm enough to melt the snow. She hadn’t been dead long.

Bee sat back on her heels and looked around her. The snow-covered stretch behind the cabin looked like the dumping grounds for everything the resort wanted to hide:  rusted bikes, a ladder, flattened cardboard Costco toilet paper boxes, and a metal filing cabinet, one of its drawers jutting open like a jaw.

And of course, the body of the manager’s wife.

When Bee heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow, she pulled out the Glock.

“I should have known you were law enforcement or security.” The voice was familiar. There was a smile in it, but not a friendly one. “You had the look.”

The tall man with the Jeep stood to her right, and she heard him cocking his gun. He had a foot and a good 50 pounds on her.

“Give me the gun. You’re going help me get something off the roof.” He angled his head. His breath freezing in the air looked like smoke. “If you help me, I’ll shoot you in the leg and not the chest.”

“If you help me, I’ll shoot you in the leg and not the chest.”

Bee tossed the Glock and watched it sink into the snow next to him. She listened for the sound of police sirens. Nothing.

With his gun turned on her, Bee pulled the ladder out of the pile of debris, her fingers stinging with the cold. With great effort and no help from him, she pulled at the rusty ladder till it wrenched open with a creak. She set it down in the snow on the side of the cabin and waited for him to climb it.

“You shitting me? You’re the one going up.”  He spat the words out, then handed her a rake. “You’re gonna need this.”

“I have no idea what I’m looking for.” Her gloveless fingers ached from the cold.

“There’s a package in the snow. Near the vent.”

She climbed, one hand gripping the side of the ladder, one holding the rake. She stood on the last rung and felt the ladder sway beneath her. She laid her forearm over the edge of the roof to steady herself, then slowly extended the end of rake toward the vent and pulled back. Her leverage was not good. She brushed the top of the clump and the rake flopped to one side.

“Why is this so hard for you?” His speech sounded slurred and unnaturally fast, like someone on amphetamines. “Hurry up.”

Bee gripped the rake harder and laid it next to the vent, feeling the weight of something substantial as she pulled it back. A bundle. Wrapped in cloth and sealed in a large zip lock bag.

She turned to hand it down to him. Once it left her hands, she felt a jolt beneath her feet. The ladder fell away and she toppled into the fresh snow, which wrapped around her like a fluffy comforter. So soft, it flooded her with relief.

Until the ladder hit her.

In the daze of that moment, she punched 911 into her phone. His California license plate was displayed in her head, captured like a screen shot. She recited the number for the dispatcher.

Then she sank back into the comforter and everything went dark.

*     *     *

Three days later, with a hospital pamphlet on concussion care, Bee drove back to San Jose. David had just dropped off Armen, who agreed to leave his game system in the box while he spent the evening with his mom watching Elf.

“The guy kicked the ladder.” Armen stuck a straw into a bottle of Dr. Pepper, his drink of choice. “At least he didn’t shoot you. Who was he anyway?”

“I found out his name is Logan Warner. He distributed fentanyl – a very bad drug you should never take – through Nevada and the Sacramento area. Since the resort didn’t usually rent my cabin, he had been storing shipments there before he delivered them. Apparently he hid them in the closet under the extra blankets.”

“Why did he shoot the manager’s wife?”

 “She caught him going through the bathroom window of my cabin. The Stateline police told me they were able to catch him in Reno about an hour after he left.”

“If he shot her, why didn’t he shoot you, mayrig?” He used the Armenian word for mom, which made her tear up a little.

“Maybe grandma was watching over me.”

Armen looked at her in awe. To this point, no aspect of her PI work had ever seemed to penetrate his impassive teenaged exterior to get a response.

Now he stared at her, his brown eyes shiny with a combination of fear and respect.

“I don’t even do stuff like that in games.”

¨¨¨

Copyright, Victoria Kazarian 2020

All rights reserved

How I got back to writing during quarantine

Today is day 109.

In the first few weeks of quarantine, I was one of those people who couldn’t get anything done.

I did what I had to do for the classes I teach, then I turned on my comfort TV, The Great British Baking Show, and numbed out to polite, adorable British bakers trying to perfect their tarts and puddings.

ABC's

[Blue eyes flashing in disapproval]: “So Victoria…why aren’t you writing?”

My other fallback was the news, though obviously not for escapist reasons. I had to know everything that was happening with COVID and quarantine. But after gorging on the news kept me awake at night, I learned to set limits on my consumption.

As I settled into my SIP rhythm, I entered a new quarantine phase:  self examination.

I started to see things about myself that I didn’t like.

It’s one thing to become tired of the people you live with. You can go for a hike, suit up for a daunting trip to the grocery store, or go sit out in the backyard. But when you’re frustrated with yourself, you’re pretty much stuck.

My nagging question was, why aren’t you writing?

If writing is your dream—and it makes you feel good to do it—why is your go-to activity watching people make tarts?

I decided that if writing and publishing were important to me, I couldn’t let SIP keep me from doing them. My goal is to publish a novel. I left my second novel hanging—a completed first draft waiting for revision—and hadn’t gone back to it since before quarantine.

I also felt distanced from that good feeling that comes from writing. My novel hung over my head like a threat. Writing felt like an obligation, not a happy place to go to.

After some thought on how I tend to work and think, I decided to do the following things. So far they seem to be working.

1. I started a short-term project, to experience the fun of writing again.  I started a short story, something I could finish quickly. I wrote a locked room Shelter in Place mystery, with a completely new protagonist: a single-mother private detective. I had a blast writing it.

2. I now set a timer and sit down to write every day, even if it’s a short increment of time. A sneaky trick I play on myself! I set a timer for maybe 30 minutes. But then I get really into what I’m writing and end up going past the timer.

3. I meet with my writers groups. I am privileged to be a member of three awesome writing groups. Many of the writers have been dealing with similar issues. It’s helped to see how they’re handling this time. Even if it’s meeting on Zoom, it’s life-giving to connect with other creative people.

4. I do online write-ins.  Accountability for the win! Whether it’s on Zoom or FaceTime, it helps to sit down with other people who are writing. You’re doing this together and your butts stay in the seats. After the timer beeps, you can check in and get encouragement from each others’ breakthroughs.

5. I faced the big project I was avoiding.  I’ve gone back to the overwhelmingness of my big project—revising my novel. I have my list of big revisions and the research I want to fold in. It will be a big undertaking that will probably continue to be overwhelming, but now I remember what I loved about my novel concept. And how much I love my characters.

I’m back in the game! Still quarantined and not going anywhere.

But feeling renewed and reset.

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Yep. One hundred and nine days.

How this pantser became a plotter

I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants writer.

Someone who enjoys discovering the book as I write it. A pantser.

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But a few months ago, I wrote myself into a cul-de-sac. I was stuck, so I avoided sitting down to write. And this is a book I love and have invested a lot of time and research in.

Based on feedback from my writers’ groups, I tried something very different. I decided to pick up from right before where I’d gotten stuck and plot the rest of the book in detail.

Cool story:  After plotting the rest of the book, I finished my first draft within a month.

So I guess that makes me…a plantser.

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The plantser: the pantser-plotter hybrid

When I first started writing, I read all I could about the writing process. My favorite mystery and suspense writers had inspired me to write in the first place, so I read everything I could about their writing processes. One of my faves, Elizabeth George, is a committed plotter, so I tried to do the same. I wrote up detailed outlines of each scene and plotted character arcs.

Then once I started writing, I completely disregarded them.

My story started telling itself. My characters came to life and wanted to make their own choices. It was so much fun, I just went with it.

That was my first book. On my second book, things have developed differently. I started with a compelling concept: a saintly old man is killed in a deliberate hit and run, and gradually you find out he was not the model human being he seemed to be (hint: Nazis may or may not be involved).

The last act of the novel then dealt with the consequences of the truth being revealed. This is where I got lost. There were too many directions to go in, and the one I wanted didn’t seem to fit. So I sat down and plotted my path to the final scene and denouement.

I found that when I finished plotting, I could easily pick up where I left off writing the next day. Hence, I didn’t procrastinate about sitting down to write.

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I knew what I had to write each day. And I actually sat down and did it!

I didn’t have to refresh my memory as to where I was in the story. Also, a benefit for my ADD self—I could break the writing up into doable chunks. I assigned myself a chunk for each session. Though as a pantser at heart, I sometimes kept writing because I got into the story and couldn’t stop myself.

Plotting in advance didn’t mean I couldn’t change things up once I got going. The climactic scene changed as I wrote it, and it wasn’t a big deal to go with that in the moment. I could throw in some interesting detours, since I knew where I was going to end up.

Whether you make it up as you go along or you plot your story in detail, it’s not a bad idea to shake things up. A YA writer in my writing group, a very detailed plotter, is now writing a sci fi romance with no plan at all. She’s loving it.

Part of learning the craft of writing is to try new things, to consider yourself a learner. And as someone only on her second book, I am not an expert at this. It’s possible over time I will settle into a completely different routine of sussing out a novel.

Pantser, plotter or plantser. We’ll see which way I go with book #3!

Writer friends, which one of the three Ps are you?

Running: my new writing buddy

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Sit as little as possible. – Friedrich Nietzsche

I started running again recently, after a long stretch of being sedentary.

I’m not saying it was an easy thing. I went through a few weeks of pushing my reluctant body out the door in the early morning, making sure I wasn’t awake enough to resist.

Then it began to feel amazing. 

Four years ago, I tore my meniscus and was hobbling around, at work and at home, my knee swollen and feeling pretty awful. Since I’d torn it running a race, I thought maybe my time was up. I’m too old. My body can’t take the impact any more.

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The infamous 5K in which I injured my knee. The beer was good, though.

I had knee surgery, did the physical therapy to get back on my feet and resigned myself to remaining safe. To prevent it from happening again, I would stick to gym equipment and the occasional hike.

Except that I didn’t do those things.

I sat.

I wrote, sitting or curled up on the couch with my coffee, before my family got up in the morning, or as my husband played video games in the evening. Most of my day, with the exception of going to work and teaching or getting groceries, I sat.

Writing and running are similar in some ways. There is that way-famous quote by Dorothy Parker or George R.R. Martin, whichever you choose:  I hate writing but I love having written.

I love having run.

In return for the energy I’m expending, I get energy back for the rest of the day.

When you start out, running feels like a job. You have to get yourself psyched up—or guilted—to get out there and move. But once you hit your stride, you’re good. It’s like your body thanks you for using muscles that were aching to get back to work.

A few months ago, I got nostalgic for that feeling of motion. For how good it felt in the cool morning to put one foot in front of the other. The rhythm. The flood of endorphins. So I downloaded the Couch to 5K app on my phone and ventured out to find dirt, grass and padded areas to try running again.

I ran in the park behind our house, then I moved to the padded track at the local high school.

And….no problems with my knees.

When I’m running, my thoughts fly giddy and free, like kids on a road trip hanging their heads out the car window. They’re having fun, along for the ride. New ideas pop into my head. Several times after running, I’ve gotten new insights into my characters. Yesterday I thought up a plot twist for a story I’d about given up on.

This is not a new idea. Author Laura Lippman has talked on Twitter about the value of working out before writing. Nathan Bransford wrote a blog post about how exercise helps his creativity:  https://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/12/importance-of-exercise-for-writers

So I encourage you. If you want to jumpstart your writing creativity or just get more energy, give running or some form of vigorous exercise a try.

To make sure you stick with it, look for a system to keep you accountable, like a running app or a local running club.

If I can do this, you can!

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I use Action’s Couch to 5K app. A little perky for early in the morning, but the interval training works.

 

Sneak attacked by joy

When I was growing up in Iowa, May Day was the best.

You made up little baskets filled with candy and goodies, then sneaked them over to your friends’ houses. You left them on the porch or hung them on the door knob. Back then, in the Midwest, everyone did it. Judging by what I see on Pinterest and parenting blogs, I’m excited to see this tradition is coming back.

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I thought it was the coolest thing in the world: surprising someone with a goodie. I practically giggled to myself as I imagined my friends finding the treats.

I loved the element of stealth. So did my mom.

This holiday was absolutely my mom’s thing. She loved surprising people with something fun, just because it would make them happy. To imagine the look on a friend’s face. One day, before my mom’s dementia got really bad, she was sitting at the kitchen table with a mysterious look on her face. I asked her what she was thinking about. She told me she wanted to sew a toaster cover for Lori, her neighbor, because “she really needed one.”  She was figuring out how she’d make it and how she’d get it to fit without Lori knowing.

Today I celebrate May Day. And my mom, and her love of sneak attacking people with fun little things.

Let’s keep bringing it back.

MargaretSUEVierk

Margaret “Sue” Vierk 
April 8, 1935 – April 22, 2019

What the Faux, Hemingway?

img_20190308_093930.jpgThere is a famous quote about writing:  Write drunk, edit sober.

Though it’s been attributed to Hemingway (whose name lends gravitas to quite a few things), Hemingway never said it. We probably attribute it to him because of his tough, whiskey swilling image. Those who have researched this say that the quote actually came from humorist Peter de Vries.

The career of writing tends to pick up more “image” language than most other profession. Writers are hard drinking and mentally unstable. Out there living life brazenly and defiantly, like Jack Kerouac, drinking, driving and womanizing alongside Neal Cassady.

The fact is, most writers I know are hardworking rather than hard drinking. They work day jobs, persevere through MFA programs and take care of young children. They squeeze their writing into precise, regular pockets of time. While carefully curating their social media platforms in their spare time.

They persist through rejection, sickness and financial pressures like a protagonist fighting her way through the rising action of a novel.

You can’t do this drunk. Let alone edit with a hangover the next day.

Here’s my take on it. This quote lives because there is some truth in it. As writers, we wear many hats. When you write a first draft, you need to ditch the inhibitions. Let the words flow. Follow the dark, twisting paths of your imagination, and don’t stop to censor or rewrite. Then when you do go back to edit, look at what you’ve written as a critic.

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Sometimes great inspiration looks less-than-great the next day. Sometimes chemistry and creative writing don’t mix.

After you’ve had your coffee:  Does that awesome metaphor you wrote about relationships even make sense to you this morning?

In a way, this quote is a metaphor. Write without inhibition. Edit with common sense.

If you want to read the funny story of a writer who took the quote literally for a week:  https://www.bustle.com/articles/88879-i-wrote-drunk-and-edited-sober-for-a-week-and-heres-what-happened-to-my-work

Happy writing (and reading), my friends!