The memory tree

I have friends who decorate their Christmas trees in color schemes, with tasteful white lights and gold ornaments. They’re beautiful. Everything matches.

A lovely tree, but this is not us.

When you walk into their living room, the tree is an exquisite centerpiece, a Christmas tree out of a lifestyle magazine. 

Our trees tend to be…different.

We’ve acquired or made many ornaments over past twenty-five years, and most of them are homey, silly and sentimental. Every time we decorate our tree, we tell the stories of how those ornaments came to be part of our collection.  

Here’s a few of our favorites:

If Joe’s not on the tree, it’s not Christmas.

The Joe Montana ornament. Joe Montana was the legendary quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. We’re not really Niner fans—my husband’s a Philadelphia Eagles fan– but we got the commemorative card free with something and we thought it was funny. We decided to decorate it with red and gold glitter, put a hook on it and immediately put it on our tree. Joe is high priority. We put the tree up, Joe has to be on it or it’s not Christmas.

The Deathstar was made by my oldest son, who was obsessed by Star Wars at the time (still is). There’s also a Chewbacca on our tree.

Fear for your planet. The Deathstar lurks in the tree.

The Deathstar is a clear glass ball from Michael’s craft store. My son filled it with black paint and glitter, then painted the outside with black paint and glitter with several coats AND pointy dollops of glitter paint. It’s so heavy, it bows any branch it’s hung on. I wrap it carefully; if I drop it, it could shatter–or destroy the world.

Guitar Playing Angel – She’s an angel tree topper whose bendy legs wrap around the tip of the Christmas tree as if she were the mom from The Incredibles. Since we’re all musicians in my family, we glued a tiny guitar (actually a ukulele from Hilo Hattie’s in Hawaii) to her arm, so she’s rocking out up there as she announces the good tidings. With two drummers in the family, we also have a little drum kit.

Yep, two drummers in the house.

The glass hummingbird is a new addition to our tree.

My mom loved hummingbirds (and all birds), and our family lived on Hummingbird Road in Pleasanton for years. It’s been two years since she passed, but every Christmas we think of her, because my mom was all about Christmas. She came up with our traditions:  a paper bird that “flew” around the house, appearing somewhere different every morning; braided, decorated loaves to hand out to the neighbors on Christmas morning; and lots of homemade, decorated Christmas cookies.

Christmas can’t help but be a holiday of memories. In our house, the memories are there as we decorate our tree, open presents and then, sadly, on January 1, as we take down the tree.

So what’s on your tree?

Merry Christmas, very late Hannukah, very early Kwanzaa and greetings of the season to you!

Why I love Ted Lasso

A reader gave me one of my favorite reviews. He liked Swift Horses Racing because my characters were a mixed bag.

Sometimes they made good choices, sometimes they made really bad ones.

“I like that,” he said, “Because people aren’t just one thing.”

This past year, one of my favorite shows has been Ted Lasso (on Apple TV). This show, based on a series of funny NBC commercials for the British Premier soccer league, is about an American football coach who goes to England to accept a job coaching a professional football (soccer) team. Ted Lasso, a folksy optimist, wins over the skeptical team, its owner, and a journalist who wants to poke holes in Ted to see if he’s real.

Obligated by law to say on every appearance: “Trent Crimm. From The Independent.”

Season One of the show introduces you to Ted and the Richmond Greyhounds, a team struggling to keep their standing in England’s Premier league. They’re losing match after match. Ted knows almost nothing about soccer, but he’s convinced that uniting the team—with kindness and teamwork–will save them. He posts a handwritten sign in the locker room: BELIEVE.

Every character’s dealing with something, and it affects what they do. Rebecca’s just divorced the team’s former owner, Rupert Mannion, a world-class cheater and narcissist. Jamie Tartt has an abusive father. Sam Obisanya misses his Nigerian homeland. Coach Beard is in a relationship with a selfish, flighty woman he can’t seem to leave. The team’s former equipment manager, Nate, also has a bad dad and isn’t taken seriously when he’s promoted to assistant coach, because he’s a brown man.

Oh, Nate 😢

And beneath his smiling, perky demeanor, Ted Lasso himself is hiding a secret.

There are two things I love about the show. One thing is, people are generally kind to each other. After Ted comes to Richmond, people become kinder. People are made aware of their brokenness, through being around Ted, despite his imperfections. Even Higgins, head of football relations, is freed from being the reluctant lackey of former owner Rupert Mannion. We find out Higgins has an amazing marriage, and his house is totally where you want to spend Christmas.

The other thing I love about the show is, people aren’t just one thing. Just as in real life, people are combinations of good and bad. Of wisdom and cluelessness (Coach Beard is a great example of this). Sadness and humor. Power and weakness. They stumble around with their sharp edges, sometimes wounding other people. They do terrible things (Wow—that last episode of season 2). But the characters’ brokenness doesn’t invalidate the good they do.

You know since you’ve followed the show this far, there’s hope for redemption. That redemption usually doesn’t come in a sappy way, but in a kind of best-case, real-life scenario.

Accelerated and condensed to fit within the bounds of a 30-minute episode, of course.

How I learned to appreciate video games (or at least the people who play them)

This is an update to a post I wrote a few years ago, in which I whined a lot about my husband’s quest to get me to play video games. In the past seven years, I haven’t become a gamer, but I’ve gained more of an understanding why people play video games. All of my kids, some of my friends and, of course, my husband, love games.

My latest book in the Sillicon Valley Murder series, Across the Red Sky, features a gaming protagonist. Detective Daniela Grasso loves unwinding with games while struggling with a tough case.

The original post (2014):

For years, my husband had a secret wish.

That he would find the one video game that I would like, that would turn me into a gamer. The man loves video games so much, he can’t understand how someone could not love them.

The more my husband tried to get me to like video games–luring me, cajoling me, bringing home games for me to try–the less I wanted to play them. I dug my heels in even more. Dude, you are trying too hard. I’m never going to be into this.

His conclusion:  My wife just hasn’t played the right game.

So he went on a nearly 20-year quest, fighting creepy kobolds, L.A. gangsters and ill-tempered monks to find that One Sacred Game.

The game that would break the evil spell of…me not liking to play video games.

But the good news is, I’ve found a game that I like. It’s a very old game, one we got a few years ago. Now that it’s been released by the game site, GoodOldGames, my husband has downloaded it on my new computer, so it’s super convenient and I’m playing it regularly.

It’s on Steam now, too. So yay!

It’s a quirky game of space conquest called Moonbase Commander. It was released in 2002, to such resounding success that it received an award for Best Game of 2002:  The Game No One Played. When its maker Atari went bankrupt, the game property was valued low and purchased at auction by game company Rebellion.

Moonbase Commander won me over with its high cheese factor. The graphics are colorful and have a minimalist beauty. Ambiance is created by funky, space lounge-style music. It sounds a lot like what you hear when you push the demo button on a 1990 Casio keyboard.

A narrator moderates the game play in different voices, depending on your team. My favorite narrator voice sounds like the digitally modified voice of a young Japanese woman.

It says things like, “You have removed your opponent’s energy shield! He is exposed! SPANK HIS BOTTOM.”

The goal is to destroy your opponent by eradicating his bases, and when you’ve destroyed the last one–in the words of the narrator–you “have achieved total domination”  You can play against another human opponent (I play my youngest child quite a bit). Or you can team up against a host of computer bots, most of whom are ridiculously incompetent.

Playing this game has finally helped me understand a bit of what my husband feels when he plays a video game. It immerses you in a world. Playing it is like a 30-minute escape to a fun, new place. When my youngest and I play a game of Moonbase, we play cooperatively, working together to defeat the AI (or my husband).

When we win, we’ve got stories to tell: Strategies that worked gloriously and caused spectacular explosions. Huge amounts of energy gleaned from putting collectors on every possible energy pond. Bots who ended up blowing themselves up hilariously and unexpectedly, an easy win for us.

At the end of a game, it feels like we’ve accomplished something. It’s the shared satisfaction of watching a good, but not-deep action movie with friends, the kind where you’re repeating the jokes days later. You’ve laughed, you’ve been through an experience together. You’ve made a memory of some kind, even if it’s short-term.

Now I am beginning to understand why my husband spends so much time and money on these things. They’re fun. Great stress relief. Who doesn’t like blowing things up?

But the biggest surprise to me is, they’re pretty social and kind of a bonding thing.

The most addictive game in the universe. “Play the game, Wesley.”

Recommended Viewing with your Gaming SO:  Watch the Star Trek: Next Generation episode (from season 5), called “The Game.”  A video game with addictive properties is brought onto the ship. Anyone who plays the game falls under its mind control and can’t stop trying to get others addicted to the game. If you have a gaming spouse who has been trying to get you to be interested in video games, this will be hilarious to you. And a great opportunity for discussion. Enjoy, my friends!

The joy of filling your head with stories

When I was eight, I declared it to my dog, the world, and the stuffed animals on my bed.

I was going to be a writer. 

I read everything. I read the back of the cereal box as I ate breakfast. I checked out books in my school library and devoured them through the week like cans of Pringles. 

I poked through my parents’ bookcases and read my mom’s old literature textbooks, since, like me, she’d taught high school English. I read my dad’s books on European history, even though I didn’t understand all of them—I loved the stories, the heroes and the battles. 

Yep, I read this entire Will and Ariel Durant series of my dad’s – from the age of 8 to 12.
It’s history written as stories, and I was sucked in.

I had no idea of what I should be reading, as a third grader, so I read everything. Fiction, nonfiction. 

I was a young little sponge. At a time where there were difficult things going on in my family, reading brought me joy. I read curled up on my bed till late at night, or tucked myself under the overstuffed chair in the living room, or holed up in the fort I built in the woods behind our house. 

I didn’t usually reread books as a child.
This series was an exception.

At one point, I felt so filled, so inspired by stories, that I started writing my own. Illustrated, of course. It was my response to what I’d read, all I’d taken in. It was part homage, part that naive ballsiness that kids have—I can do this!

Stories in, stories out. 

This weekend, I listened to a talk by Lori Rader-Day, teacher in the MFA program at Northwestern, and former president of Sisters in Crime. One of her steps to re-connecting with your writing project is to fill your brain with stories. Read the best books in your genre. Read things in your genre that are a little different than what you write. It will all percolate in your brain, and you will begin to write again. And your writing will get better. 

That’s kind of what I was doing as an eight-year-old. 

I don’t read as voraciously as I did back then. I fall too easily into the black hole of social media. I get sucked down internet rabbit trails. Not to say that all of that is bad—part of it is research. But it’s the kind of quick skimming that doesn’t produce the same results as sitting down with a good book and giving it your full attention for a few hours.

My goal is to reduce that time I spend on my phone, where I’m easily distracted by snippets of information. My iPhone conveniently tells me how many hours I’ve spent on it each day. It even congratulates me when I’ve reduced my daily time. 

I’m going to enlist it as my ally in this.

I want to feel that joy of stories percolating in my head again. 

Getting through your *%&;$! first draft

Two weeks ago, I finished the rough draft of my second book, Across the Red Sky.

It was, like all first drafts, a mixed bag. Some really good twists, some so-so scenes. There are plot holes big enough to swallow SUVs.

But it is done.

Those plot holes are BIG.

As a perfectionist, I’ve always had a hard time with that “write as fast as you can without stopping” method. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a big challenge for me.

The idea of spilling out a stream of imperfect words onto a page and letting them sit there is torture. But if I wasn’t forced to sit down and do exactly that, I would never write.

Having written three books now (the first I didn’t publish), I am starting to see that the first draft helps you work out something very important.

The shape of the novel.

I have an artist acquaintance, Kevin Courter, who is a brilliant painter. A few years ago, he showed what one of his paintings looked like before color, details and textures were added. It was beautiful in itself, but it was an underpainting–outlines of the painting to be. Trees, buildings and hills, sketched on the canvas in dark, transparent paint.

Over the next few days, the painting came to life. Colors, textures, lighting, depth. It was fascinating to see the full beauty of the painting revealed.

I think of the rough draft that way. It’s giving you the outlines of your novel as it emerges from your head. After you’ve got your shape, you can tweak it. Maybe you’re not satisfied with your protagonist’s arc and want to add some challenges. Maybe you want to switch events around to optimize the tension. After you’ve got your basic shape, you can make changes before you commit to writing all the rich detail. It’s easier and faster to make changes in this rough draft.

Be careful of your self talk during your first draft. This is, as Anne Lamott says, your shitty rough draft. It’s a sketch of what your final novel will be. Yeah, there are probably writers who toss off achingly beautiful first drafts, but rest assured they’re also critical of their work at this point.

Everybody writes a shitty rough draft.

So write like your life depends on it. Like you’re being chased by a pack of hungry wolves. Don’t go back and look at what you’ve just written. Look only at the path ahead of you, asking what happens next?

They’re coming for you. Keep your eyes on the path ahead.

Keep going, even if you’re tempted to stop. You are the only one qualified to write this book.

Five Things to Remember about your Shitty Rough Draft:

1. Everybody’s first draft is shitty.
2. DO NOT edit till you’re done.
3. You’re creating the shape of your novel, not its final form. I find it helpful to think of my novel in three acts as I write, visualizing it like a movie.
4. More detailed ideas will come to you later.
5. You can do this, so don’t give up.

Now, after a few weeks’ break and a road trip, I’m settling down to make revisions. I know there are things to be fixed. I’m actually looking forward to my book improving.

To see how a visual artist handles a similar process, take a look at Kevin’s blog demonstration:

https://kevincourter.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/days-end-the-progession-of-a-painting/

Good luck with your first draft!

Sneak peek: Across the Red Sky

I’m happy to give you a peek into the upcoming sequel to Swift Horses Racing. And tell you a little bit more about the book.

I’m a big fan of historical mysteries, but I also love to explore issues in modern life. In SHR, actions from 80 years ago had a huge influence on characters in the present.

It makes me think of this quote from William Faulkner (my mom’s literary idol): The past is never dead. It’s not even past.


In Across the Red Skies, I go back to a more recent past: the year 2000, during the dot com bust
in Silicon Valley, a time when internet companies failed quickly and much of the country feared that Y2K would wreak havoc on life as we know it.

Four young Stanford graduates start a tech company that turns out to be more successful than they could possibly imagine. But the secrets of these four people—who call themselves The Fantastic Four—surface twenty years later, as what happened in the desert outside of Las Vegas now threatens all of them.

Investigating the murder of the company’s CEO are detective James Ruiz and his young partner, Daniela Grasso, who is heading up her first murder case. Dani Grasso loves video games and is dealing with the unpleasant fallout of her decision not to take her place in the family grocery business. As Ruiz deals with his struggling marriage, Dani finds herself without her wise mentor—on a real-life hero’s quest of her own to solve a crime rooted in the past.

For fans of Swift Horses, Detective Mario Flores does make an appearance in the new book!

Tana French is one of my favorite writers. I love how her books weave in and out of the lives of different Dublin Murder Squad detectives. Her books have been an inspiration to me in writing this series.

I look forward to sharing more with you as the book gets closer to release!

If you haven’t yet read Swift Horses Racing, now’s your chance!

Ebook on Amazon: https://amazon.com/dp/B08ZMDL9X3

Paperback order: https://www.amazon.com/…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_glt_fabc…

Writing myself out of a corner

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It happened with my first book, and it’s happening with the second.

I plunge into writing my book gleefully, without an outline. I love creating an interesting cast of characters and putting them into painful, impossible situations to see what they do. And what they think.

I am a discovery writer to a certain point.

Then I get stuck. I can’t “pants” my way out.

I remember hearing author Louise Penny say once that she started with writing mysteries because they have an expected format. It is definitely easier when you sit down to write, to know you’ll have a murder near the beginning and a denouement at the end.

Nobody does a denouement like Poirot.

There are conventions you’re expected to follow when you write a traditional mystery, such as introducing the killer in the first third of the book (I played with that a bit on my first book and a few of you did notice).

Writing the first book, I forged my way through about seventy percent of the story, feeling good about my direction. Then, I got stuck. The ending I was foreseeing wasn’t a good payoff for the story I’d set up. I had to completely step back and look at what I had.

I set it aside for a week, then came back and tried to view it as a reader would. I also reviewed all my info on story structure, which I keep in my files and, since I teach literary analysis in my high school English classes.

I decided to create an outline of major events in my story, then chop it into three acts, so I had categories for beginning, middle and end.

It took me a while, and yes—it pulled me away from the writing part, which I love. But at this point, I was able to rearrange things strategically, according to where they would make the most impact in the story.

Taking time to do this helped me tell a better story.

Once I set up the three acts, I reevaluated how to lead into the ending. I discovered there was a better, more natural culprit behind the murder!

You did it, lady. I just realized it.

So I went back and did some rewriting and some seeding of clues. Then the way was clear for me to write a dramatic ending that I felt very good about.

With my second book, I’ve started this process earlier, at the halfway mark. It’s not gratifying in the short term to step back and not be writing! But I know from experience that it’s worth it.

Book two is moving along. Look for the cover reveal soon!

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? Wernher 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. 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.