A Writer in Italy

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Everywhere you turn, you’ll find a side street or meandering cobblestone stairway that you can get lost in. Fertile ground for the mind of an author. That’s Italy. Romantic storybook panoramas, delicious food, welcoming people, inviting shops to buy treasures, and outdoor bistros. Italy has a vast history, varied culture and is the center of global fashion. Beautiful gardens rival any in the world. Plus an added bonus for me–Italians LOVE walking their dogs. Many locations looked like the Westminster Dog Show with gorgeous well-groomed dogs. Shop owners even put large water bowls out for leashed pets.

As promised, I am posting some pics of my amazing trip to northern Italy, the Lakes District nestled in the Swiss Alps.

(HOUSEKEEPING – I had trouble posting these and worked on how to do it for hours yesterday. When you see a link, it’s to my Instagram acct. I wanted to post individual image links, but Instagram wouldn’t allow it. My files were too large to post solo and I’m not tech savvy at compressing sizes, especially for as many as I wanted to show you. But at the links, please scroll through the images on Instagram for the topic I’m posting about.)

Many people think of Lake Como & George Clooney when they speak of the Lakes District. I didn’t see George, but I felt as if I had walked into a post card and stayed for awhile. We had gorgeous sunny weather for most of the days. We were lucky for October.

Since I can’t include tons of pics on this post and had trouble loading my panorama views, I will direct you to my Instagram acct at JordanDaneBooks for many of my memories of Italy. I posted every day and picked some of my favorites. There’s also more space on Instagram to describe things so I broke down my postings by tour day. But for your convenience, I will speak about certain images and provide a link to Instagram.

As you might remember from my first post Travel Replenishes the Writer’s Soul about my trip (before I left the country), I was anxious about traveling alone. I was traveling with a small group of 29 people, organized by the outstanding Traveling Aggies, but I was the only person truly traveling alone. I made up my mind that with this being my first real vacation in decades that didn’t involved visiting with family or friends, I would make the most of it and not let my solo adventure turn me into a wall flower. Thankfully the other people on the tour made me feel welcome but I had to put myself out there.

Boy, did I meet the right folks. By the end of the trip, I did not want to leave this great group of people. I had a BLAST! I made sure to spend time with each couple. By the end of the trip, I had folks handing me their contact info and I’ve stayed in touch with several couples, including a new travel buddy that I’m planning a trip with in 2020. As a writer, I can be introverted. I really love my solo down time, even as much as I find other people fascinating and enjoy adventures.

I sneaked away on a total free tour day into Switzerland with two married but solo traveling ladies from Chicago who were hilarious. My sister(s) from another mister. We took the infamous “Donkey Train to Locarno.” (There is a story about that name and a very amorous donkey. I may have to put it in a book.) I will never be anxious about traveling alone again. That donkey even broke through the language barrier with a German family in our train car. Some things are universal, like laughter and being naughty.

I didn’t feel hindered by the fact that I didn’t speak Italian. There is a common humanity that connects us all. We were with tour guides who spoke the lyrical language and everything was extremely well-run and organized for us. Nothing was left to chance by AHI Travel International, our top-notch tour company. Our main tour guide was Valentina. I wanted to kidnap her and hide her in my luggage by the end of the trip. Adorable and funny and very kind. Toward the end of the trip, she shared her funny family stories about her mother and sister and showed us what hand gestures meant in Italy (including the ones we shouldn’t use ANYWHERE).

The star(s) of the Lake District is, of course, THE LAKES. Everywhere you looked there were gorgeous water views. Here is the view from my hotel room balcony. As a traveler to the lakes, you tour on ferry boats many days. Another beautiful view of the water. No lie, the water is as blue as you see in the pictures. When you look down into it from the shoreline, it is clear and glistening.

As a writer, I took in the sights and want to always remember them for future books. This trip fed my soul and replenished my creative juices, but it also gave me new experiences to include in my work. What must it feel like to be the stranger who doesn’t speak the language or know the customs? How to see something so beautiful that it makes you ache for more? How a romantic language can make your heart do flip flops? How food can be sexy? All these things went through my mind and my heart during this trip. I didn’t simply take a vacation, I saw Italy through the eyes of a writer.

On land, we saw many architectural wonders. Simply breathtaking. Il Duomo in Milan (Otherwise known as the Milan Cathedral) has taken 600 years to build and Milan is still working on it. 600 years? Pffft. When entering these stunning structures, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Always look up. These cathedrals were created to bring man closer to God. You get the sense that the creators and fresco artists used for these magnificent buildings were making at attempt to recreate heaven. On Orta Island, one of my favorite day tours, the cathedral on the island was truly breathtaking. The extensive history and the timeless work of artisans blew me away.

The food was served in more reasonable portions than the way we pile it on in the U.S. I loved how their pastas were flavored with light sauces with complex layers of seasonings and ingredients. Lots of fresh seafood. I was wary of the many courses of food, but I really got into the full production of a meal – from soup to pasta to main entree to cheese offering to dessert. Small portions allow you to languidly consume your meal with wine and good company. No one is in a hurry. Lovely, indeed.

I toured the Last Supper in Milan, the La Scala Opera House and Museum, Duomo (Milan Cathedral), and the Milan Fashion Scene at the Galleria and our guides shared tons of history and charming stories about these historic spots.

I am planning more trips with friends and family next year. I already have one trip scheduled for Hungary, Austria and Germany with my brother and I want to add more. I hope this trip and others lead to plots and stories for me, although what I learned about myself was almost worth more. I made lovely new friends and my spirit to travel has only grown.

For Discussion:

1.) Would you like to share trips you’ve taken and would recommend?

2.) Where would you go if you could take the vacation of your dreams?

3.) Do you have a dream vacation for a trip you’d take as an avid reader or something geared for authors?

EVIL WITHOUT A FACE is a reissue of the first book in my Sweet Justice series, formerly published through HarperCollins. My version of Charlie’s Angels on steroids.

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Welcome to Murder 101: PG Halloween Edition

With Halloween arriving next week, murder is in the air. It might be the only time of year when “normal” people can fully relate to crime writers and readers. So, ladies and gents, grab your favorite beverage and kick back for a little Murder 101, complete with visual aids.

Let’s say your male character is cheating on your protagonist.

During the confrontation — we can’t ignore that type of behavior, now can we? — take the homewrecker by surprise with one well-placed stab to the carotid artery. Don’t forget to withdraw the hunting knife! We wouldn’t want it to act as a plug.

Notice how the kitty is priming the carotid artery? The subject is nice and relaxed. More importantly, he doesn’t suspect a thing.

There are two carotid arteries in the neck, one on the left side and one on the right. Each carotid artery branches into two divisions:
• Internal carotid artery supplies blood to the brain
• External carotid artery supplies blood to the face and neck

If it were me, I’d aim for the internal carotid, but it’s a personal preference. If you’d rather watch the blood drain from the subject’s face and neck, then shoot for the external. Both will get the job done.

A quiet execution is an effective way to murder…

If you choose this murder method, be sure to use a fast-acting poison. No need to act psychopathic by dragging out your subject’s agony. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re into. No judgments!

May I make a suggestion? Try using Tetrodotoxin, which is a complex biochemical found in two marine creatures, the blue-ringed octopus and the puffer fish. It’s also in slugs, but on a much smaller scale. Garry Rodgers wrote a fantastic article about this deadly poison.

Whether Tetrodotoxin is injected via octopus bite — how might you explain a pet octopus? — or ingested by way of food or drink, the poison will kill the subject within a few minutes, depending on the character’s size vs. the amount of poison administered. Tetrodotoxin first blocks nerve responses and then paralyzes the victim, which prevents the victim from breathing. Finally, it stops the heart. As little as 1 milligram is all you need to accomplish your goal.

Some people prefer a good ol’ fashioned murder method, complete with sound effects.

Ladies, please don’t close your eyes while firing a weapon. I know murder isn’t easy, but if you’re determined to see this through, you may as well do it right. For information on the correct ammunition to use, John Gilstrap, wrote a post about what works best. Hint: hollow points are your friend.

Manual suffocation adds an up-close-and-personal touch.

This method is fairly straightforward. Notice how the sloth covers the kitty’s nose and mouth with one smooth motion? Perfect execution! Only use this murder method on humans please. We’re not savages, after all. 😉

Sometimes, you just gotta let loose — and that’s okay.

Nothing screams you’re on the edge of sanity quite like an ax. Don’t you agree? You may want to act this one out at his place to avoid a lengthy crime scene clean up. Notice the plastic coveralls? Get yourself an identical suit but wear the hood. You wouldn’t want to leave hairs behind for the crime scene unit.

I swear, Your Honor, I had nothing to do with it. He tripped.

Do NOT harm the family dog. Please note how Miss White effortlessly pushes her lover down the stairs. So graceful, so ladylike, a little flick of the wrist and her problem is resolved.

Unless, of course, his neck doesn’t snap. Yeah, that could happen. Then what do you do? No problem. Finish him off with a quick slash to the neck like this …

Time is running out, folks. By November 1st some people may not “appreciate” a crime writer/reader’s passion to help others. Before then, it’s perfectly acceptable to say…

I’ll leave you with one final word of wisdom…

For those participating in NaNoWriMo this year, remember that. Happy hunting! I mean… writing. 😉

 

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Reaching Out to New Writers

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Columbia Falls Junior High NaNoWriMo students

It’s Tuesday morning at Columbia Falls Junior High School in northwest Montana. Approximately 75 eighth graders troop into the library where a massive glass wall faces Glacier National Park, shrouded in clouds that promise early snow. The students are gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) led by English teachers Rubianna Masa and Cecilia Byrd-Rinck.

Since 2012, Rubianna has shepherded her students through the November writing marathon. “I will not lie,” she says. “Some of my students are excited to write while others think this is the craziest and worst thing a teacher has ever made them endeavor.”

Prior to the challenge this year, she invites two local authors to talk to the kids.

The lucky guest authors? Memoirist Susan Purvis (Go Find: The Journey to Find the Lost and Myself) and yours truly.

As students trail into the library, I chat briefly with Brookann who tells me she uses her dreams to inspire her writing. We discuss harnessing the power of the subconscious to find answers to story problems. I’m instantly impressed.

Sue kicks off the talk. “It all starts with a promise. I promised to train my Lab puppy to be a search dog that never leaves anyone behind. And I promised to write a book about it. That was my dream.” She draws parallels between her true-life story and fiction the kids will write, starting with an inciting incident, the roller coaster of setbacks, finally building to the climax, then the resolution.

Since Sue’s book is set in high mountains, she asks the kids, “What’s your Everest? What is your goal or dream?” followed by the question, “What’s standing in your way?”

Aspen answers: “Be an artist. But I have to do schoolwork instead of draw.”

Emma answers: “To love somebody. But society is in the way.”

Sue then describes the story problem in her memoir: “Why is it easier for me to jump out of helicopter with my search dog onto a 13,000-foot mountaintop to recover a dead body than to talk to my husband about our marriage?”

Tristan answers: “Because your dog doesn’t judge.”

Sue and I stare at each other, blown away by his insight.

When I ask the kids who are the antagonists in Sue’s story, they shoot off more great answers:

“Her dog that didn’t want to be trained.”

“The other search guys who didn’t want a woman around.”

“Her husband.” 

This is one smart crowd.

Next we focus on their stories and ask:

Who’s your main character? What do they want? Who opposes them? What’s at stake if they fail?

And the toughest question of all: How do you distill your entire novel into a 30-word elevator pitch?

They take a few minutes to write their answers. Then several read their summaries to the group.

Hailey: “My main character is a 14-year-old boy who wants his mom to stop using drugs. If he fails, she will get sicker and sicker.”

Sarah: “My story is about a girl and her best friend who want to change the world by getting rid of trash. Then the best friend is killed in a school shooting and my main character falls apart. Her new mission is to stop future attacks.”

Whoa. Serious writers with serious themes.

We invite them to meetings of our local group, the Authors of the Flathead, whose motto is writers helping writers.

I talk about how brainstorming with others can get you out of a corner; how it’s hard to judge your own work because you’re too close to it; how asking others read your story gives you honest assessments, even if they’re painful.

I encourage them to grasp unexpected opportunities that may divert from the original plan yet lead to greater rewards.

Sue and I arrive with the intention of helping young writers but we receive an unexpected gift in return. We are co-writing an adventure book for young readers and ask if they’ll give us feedback on our synopsis. They enthusiastically agree and proceed to shoot off penetrating questions like:

“Are you going to use alternating points of view?” That has not occurred to us until Jasmin brings it up! And we’ll certainly consider it.

Other comments: “Tell us more adventures in the mountains.”

“What happens to people in avalanches?”  

“I want to hear about the science of how dogs smell lost people.”

We’re on it, guys!

We ask if they’ll be our focus group to offer suggestions and opinions as we write the book. “Sure!”

Ninety minutes have flown by and the bell rings for their next classes. Off they go, hopefully with a few new tools to help them survive NaNoWriMo.

Novelist/screenwriter Dennis Foley mentored Sue, Rubianna, and me (see earlier post here). He always urges us to “pass it on.”

As so often happens in life, you set out to help others and instead wind up being the one who’s helped.

Sue and I leave Columbia Falls Junior High School with full hearts and two notes from students.

Brookann writes to me (with a follow-up email that afternoon, condensed here): Goal is to be a writer of anime books. Elisbeth wants to save the human race and defeat the villains to make a better world…I am writing this story because I love anime and I am basing it off multiple scenes from different anime series, to make the perfect character for the perfect book. I hope this book will succeed in the way I want it to. I hope you can help me progress and succeed with this book. Thank you.

This eighth grader understands more about researching her market and making her book stand out in the crowd than most adult authors! 

 

Terrance writes to Sue: “My dream is to be like ski patrol, like Susan Purvis. I want to change the world by saving lives. I want to become an Avalanche Rescuer. My writing is going to be like Susan Purvis.”

 

It’s a good day to be an author.

 

 

 

TKZers: What’s your favorite way to pass it on? 

 

 

 

You can find Debbie Burke’s new thriller Stalking Midas on Amazon.

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Can Writers Lose Their Fingerprints?

By Sue Coletta

In a recent chat with Jordan, she mentioned that when she went for her TSA pre-check ID for her upcoming trip, they couldn’t detect her digital fingerprints.

They said since she spent so much time at a computer keyboard as a writer, she’s deteriorated her ridge detail.

Could this be true of all professional writers?

As you might have guessed, this question sent me down a rabbit hole of research, because I’ve had trouble with my iPhone’s digital fingerprint scan. It only recognizes my thumbprint, not any other finger. Which I figured was just a glitch with the phone. Now, I’m not so sure.

Before we can prove or disprove TSA’s conclusion, we first need to know the basics.

What is a fingerprint?

A fingerprint is a pattern of friction ridge details, comprised of ridges and valleys. A ridge is a high point, a valley is a depression or low point. Friction ridges are also found on our palms, feet, and toes. “Pattern” equals the unique characteristics of the ridges and valleys that make up the print, defined by the spatial relationship of multiple lines, their beginning and terminating points, and the unique pattern they create.

Each ridge contains tiny pores connected to sweat glands beneath the skin. When we touch an object, sweat and oils release from these pores and leave behind a print, latent or visible. The genes from our parents determine the general characteristics of the pattern.

 

Fun fact: Like human fingerprints, a dog’s nose has a unique identifiable pattern. In fact, many dog clubs now keep nose prints on file.

If you’d like to learn how to print your dog’s nose, see this post. 🙂

 

 

Sir Francis Galton was the first person to classify fingerprints into different types based on the three basic features: loops, arches, and whorls. Learn more about points, types, and classifications HERE.

Fingerprints form before birth and remain unchanged until the body decomposes after death.

There are two exceptions to “remain unchanged”…

If, say, someone sliced the tip of their finger with a knife, it may leave behind a scar. But then, their fingerprint would be even more distinguishable because of that scar.

Along similar lines, severe burns can also damage the deep layers of skin and obliterate the ridge detail. However, much like the knife injury, the scars that form would become the injured party’s unique identifiers.

The other exception has to do with the elderly. As we age, we lose skin elasticity, which may affect ridge detail. The fingerprints become wider; the spaces between the ridges narrower. Even though the fingerprint still exists, fingerprint technology may find it more difficult to detect.

Can someone be born without fingerprints?

In a few rare cases, yes. One condition called adermatoglyphia — also known as “immigration delay disease” — can result in a child being born without fingerprints. In some cases, these infants have almost no other health issues. In other cases, this condition could cause skin abnormalities, including tiny white bumps on the face, blistering of the skin, and/or a lack of sweat glands. Adermatoglyphia has only been documented in four families worldwide.

Naegeli Syndrome is another rare condition that halts the production of fingerprints in utero. Said syndrome is characterized by reticular skin pigmentation (meaning, mottled, purplish, and lace-like splotches), diminished function of the sweat glands, and the absence of teeth. Individuals with Naegeli Syndrome have sweat gland abnormalities. Not only do they lack fingerprints but they also suffer from heat intolerance due to a decrease or total inability to sweat.

Do Twins Have the Same Fingerprints?

No. Twins do not have identical fingerprints. Our prints are as unique as snowflakes. Actually, we have a 1 in 64 billion chance of having the same fingerprints as someone else.

Sci-fi writers could potentially take advantage of these odds, but it’s such a longshot that it’d be tricky to pull off.

Who’s most at risk for losing their fingerprints?

Patients undergoing chemotherapy — such as capecitabine (Xeloda), for example — are most at risk. With prolonged use of this medication, the finger-pad skin can become inflamed, swollen, and damaged to the point of erasing the ridge detail, according to DP Lyle, MD, author of Forensics for Dummies. Chemotherapy may also cause severe peeling of the palms and soles of the feet. The medical term for this condition is called Hand-Foot Syndrome.

Skin diseases like scleroderma, psoriasis, and eczema also have the potential to obliterate the ridge pattern.

Which professions cause the most damage to fingerprints?

Bricklayers and other heavy manual laborers can wear down their fingerprint ridges to the point where no pattern is visible. Secretaries and file clerks who handle paper all day can have a similar thing occur. Typists (Writers!) and piano players can suffer the same alterations. Hairstylists, dry cleaning workers, and those who work with lime (calcium oxide) are often exposed to chemicals that dissolve the upper layers of the skin, thereby flattening the ridge detail.

So, to answer our initial question, was TSA correct?

Yes! Pounding on the keyboard can wear away a writer’s fingerprints.

How might the lack of fingerprints cause problems?

Losing one’s prints can cause issues with crossing international borders and even logging on to certain computer systems.

Fortunately, fingerprint technology is always evolving and improving.

As more and more careers require hours of keyboard time, someday retinal scanners, facial recognition, and voice prints will replace the current technology.

Have you ever been told you have no digital fingerprints? Have you experienced any problems with fingerprint technology?

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Travel Replenishes the Writer’s Soul

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I have my first real vacation coming up in October. It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled to another country. When my husband was alive, he had his passport but never wanted to travel outside the U.S. I wanted him to see some of the countries I visited after high school but he never had the curiosity for international travel. It’s a shame. I would’ve liked to experience another adventure with him. I lost him in 2014 and have missed him every day. It’s been a process of redefining who I am without him, but with every day that passes, I feel stronger and more hopeful.

I didn’t write for two years after he died. I was in a fog for a long time. Faced with selling my large home and an extra car and downsizing was a daunting task, but I had lots of support. After a friend contacted me to write for her Amazon Kindleworlds, I finally got back into writing and that helped me deal with my grief. I wrote about it. In the many characters I developed in my Amazon novellas and in the novels I’ve written after my husband died, I explored my emotional frailties through the eyes of my characters. Writing helped me heal. I will never be whole again, but through hardships, you develop strength and you see how important friends and family can be. In many ways, I’ve been blessed.

This trip is more than exploring the world and meeting new people. It’s an awakening for me. It’s as exciting as it is frightening but I can’t wait to get the first stamp in my passport and I have more trips planned over the next two years.

This year, my travel plans will be to the Lakes District of northern Italy and Milan. The area is nestled into the Swiss Alps, on the border with Italy, and covers beautiful lakes (Lake Como, Bellagio and Maggiore) with quaint villages, shopping and restaurants on glistening waters. It’s picture post card scenery when you see the idyllic images of this beautiful part of the world.

I will also visit Milan, the fashion district of Italy, and there are other daily excursions to different islands using a ferry system. A rail system can also get me into Switzerland on my free time, between organized day trips.

I’m looking forward to seeing the LAST SUPPER by Leonardo da Vinci (housed in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan) and the iconic La Scala Theatre and its Opera museum.

I’m traveling as a solo traveler with a small 28-person tour organized by the Traveling Aggies (an association of former A&M students, but you don’t have to be alumni to travel with them) through AHI Travel. It may be a little intimidating to travel solo, but I am looking forward to meeting the group under the guidance of an established travel guide and Texas hosts.

This is my first adventure, but I have friends and family lined up as travel companions for trips in 2020-2021. I’m planning a river cruise with some dear friends in 2020 into Europe and have a Germany trip in the planning stages with my older brother and his wife for July 2020.

I feel very unprepared for travel these days, but would like to ask help from you seasoned travelers.

I’ve learned that I can get TSA pre-check for US domestic flights–to avoid the longer security checks by obtaining an early background check for ease of travel–or I can also get something more global. GlobalEntry.Gov is geared more for international travel, but also covers domestic flights. For those unfamiliar, the GlobalEntry.Gov application costs $100 but also pays for TSA Precheck on domestic flights. I had already paid $85 for TSA precheck when I could have paid $100 for the Global Entry and gotten both clearances for worldwide travel. Live and learn.

I purchased Rick Steves’ book on Milan and the Lakes District and he has a video on Youtube. Lots of tips. Steves suggested I acquire a credit card that doesn’t charge for currency conversion with charges. I did my research and have done that. In addition, Italy is part of the European Union so EU currency is what I’ll need.

I’m also acquiring travel accessories, like electrical outlet converters for Europe, neck support & eye mask for sleeping on the plane, money belt with RFID protection, and I’m considering the purchase of a good theft-resistant backpack for the day trips.

Other things I have done to prepare ( in no particular order):

1.) Notify my credit card company of my travel dates, so my transactions aren’t flagged or stopped.

2.) Notify my bank of those dates, in case I need a wire or expect an ATM transaction.

3.) Expand my cell service for international coverage.

4.) Check health warnings for the country I’m traveling to, if any. Get any vaccinations I may need.

5.) Set up email alerts for my country of travel through Smart Traveler Enrollment Program – STEP.com to get State Department advisories via email.

6.) Purchase trip cancellation insurance.

7.) Verify that my present health insurance covers foreign travel. Will I need more?

8.) Set up Mobile Passport in advance, the app for U.S. Customs and Immigration to make my border crossings run smoothly.

9.) Make copies of all my important documents & emergency contact information (keeping them in a separate & safe location – ie locked in my hotel safe) for reference if they are stolen and I need to report it.

10.) Send out my travel itinerary to family (with contact information) for emergencies.

11.) Record emergency contact phone numbers in my cell phone contact list with a hard copy backup if my phone is stolen (ie embassy info, hotel phone number and instructions on how to make a long distance international call).

DISCUSSION:

Any tips that I’ve missed? I would appreciate advice from you more seasoned travelers.

Should I get local currency (Euros) before I leave? How much should I bring? I plan to see my bank this week.

Has anyone been to the northern Lakes District of Italy & Milan? Any recommendations for restaurants or fun places to see?

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One Writer’s Strange Encounter with a Reader

By SUE COLETTA

Joe’s Saturday post inspired me to share a strange encounter I had with a reader last week. I loaded up the SUV for my annual trip north to appear at a 5-star library in New Hampshire (rated by Library Journal). I’ve all but given up on libraries for book signings, but this library has the coolest librarian/director I’ve ever met. She’s a walking contradiction! Inside the library, she’s quiet, polite, and super helpful. When she locks the library doors, however, she really lets her hair down, hops into her supped-up Mustang convertible and races down the streets—a quick streak of blue and white whizzing by. I adore this woman! Every signing, successful or not, ends with a hug. Which keeps me coming back year after year.

Sometimes my timing is perfect. Other times, not so much.

Last week, the local priest decided to hold his retirement party across the street from the library on the same night as my book event. Needless to say, it wasn’t my most successful signing ever. Didn’t matter. Whether we’re speaking to a packed room or only three or four readers trickle in, we still need to put on the same show. Sometimes a more intimate setting is really nice, as it gives us the opportunity to chitchat with the folks who read our books.

Unless you get an angry-looking woman in the front row who does nothing but glare at you.

All she wanted was for me to keep reading excerpts, one after another. It was strangest thing. Every time I stopped she’d point to another book and ask me to read the opening chapter. No one else objected, so I gave her what she wanted. After I read about four, I was beginning to feel like a puppet on a string. So, I asked her why she’d rather hear me read than chat with me.

Her response? “I don’t even think about the writer when I read. I don’t care about the research. I don’t care about the story behind the story. All I want is the next book.”

“Wow,” was all I managed before the librarian jolted to her feet.

“I care,” she said, “I care very deeply for writers.”

The others in the room agreed.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking, how sad. Here this woman sat surrounded by books lining every wall, every partition. Decades, if not centuries, of writers who’d worked endless hours, alone, pecking the keyboard or typewriter or writing longhand by candlelight, their joys, their sorrows, their laughter and pain spilled across the pages, and this poor woman was incapable of seeing any of it. Didn’t care to, either, apparently. But even if she continued to disrespect writers, I wasn’t about to stoop to her level and spout an equally snarky comeback. I’m a big believer in karma. So, I gave her a free signed paperback and thanked her for coming to the event.

If you haven’t done book signings yet, let me put your mind at ease. For every one clueless reader, there are thousands of others who cherish every word. Readers who sit our books on a shelf of honor because they loved it so much. Our characters become their best friends, sometimes their only friends. When these devoted readers finally get the chance to meet the writer who brought their beloved characters to life, they shower us with love. Some might even mistake the writer for one of their characters. You know what? That’s okay, too… unless she’s a Delores Claiborne type. 😉 It means our words, our stories, touched their lives in some way.

Isn’t that why we write?

Please excuse me while I share my love for those who read my books. I’ve been blessed with an amazing, generous, thoughtful, kind, funny, loving, and downright nutty audience. It’s no secret that I adore crows, right? I’m so enamored with these birds that I’ve set out to change the public perception that crows are pests. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Spotting one in the yard does NOT equate to a bad omen. These amazing creatures—the smartest of the bird world, by the way, along with their cousin, the raven—do NOT bring death and destruction. They’ve been saddled with an unjustified bad reputation for no apparent reason. It’s time to stop judging birds by the color of their plumage.

Ahem. Excuse me. I get a little carried away when it comes to breed profiling. 🙂

Anyway, since I share my love for Poe (my crow who lives free, yet comes when called) along with Edgar, Allan, Thoreau, Shakespeare, and the rest of my black beauties (some of which I’ve turned into characters for my Mayhem Series) readers are now decorating my office with crows. Here are a few I received this summer…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over to you, TKZ family. Have you ever heard a similar remark as the woman in the library? If so, how’d you handle it? Tell us about your strangest — or best! — encounter with a reader?

*I’m on the road today, researching, so I may be late responding to comments.

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Interview with Larry Brooks

 by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Today, I’m delighted to talk with former TKZ contributor, Larry Brooks, about his new craft book, GREAT STORIES DON’T WRITE THEMSELVES, with a foreward by mega-bestseller Robert Dugoni. Larry’s book launches on October 8, 2019, published by Writer’s Digest Books. 

Welcome back to the Zone, Larry! 

DB: You’ve written three successful books on fiction craft–Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fixeach with a strong emphasis on the architecture of story structure. What new ground are you digging into for this latest book?

 LB: Each of my writing books sought to bring clarity and order to what one might call the conventional wisdom of writing a novel, which is anything but clear. Within that so-called conventional wisdom there is legitimate imprecision, alongside unfortunate confusion born of contrary interpretations and polarizing preferences. Because of this, there remains a high degree of risk and a frighteningly high frequency of failure. Over 96 percent of novels submitted by agents are rejected at least once. That’s not exactly irrefutable statistical proof that the conventional wisdom serves everyone well.

That said, those who claim “there are no rules” are only adding to the noise and confusion. Frustration resides in the grey area between rules and principles, and between the separate contexts of process versus product. So much of what we hear and read about “how to write a novel” connects to process (how your favorite author does the work may or may not be a process that works for you). This leaves the realm of product – what a novel consists of, the criteria for efficacy, and how to know if you’ve come anywhere near close enough to meeting those criteria as largely untended ground. It’s as if the unspoken common courtesy suggests that you can write anything you want, any way you want, and you’ll be fine… if you “just write.”

That 96-percent failure statistic proves this to be false. My new book – “Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves: Criteria-Driven Strategies for More Effective Fiction” is process-neutral, yet it culls out and assigns specific criteria for each and every element and essence of a novel across the entire structural, dramatic and character arcs involved. No matter how you get there.

Too often writers don’t know what they don’t know, while believing they do know enough, or what they think they know is unimpeachable. My new book seeks to shrink the gap between those extremes.

DB: Sounds like an ambitious goal. Can you give us an example?

 LB: Sure. When was the last time you heard anyone at a writing conference – a speaker, teacher, agent or even another writer in an elevator, tell someone that their story idea isn’t strong enough? Never happens. And yet, as much as half of all rejection connects to story ideas that are derivative, vanilla and flat, that are lacking the raw grist of what makes a story work. Ask any agent or editor how many of the story ideas that cross their desk excite them, how often this happens, and this truth will be verified.

But it’s not just the story idea that matters. Whether it’s the core premise, the opening scene or sequence, the first plot point or the midpoint or the way the character and her/his core quest is framed… all of it becomes more accessible and effective when developed and evaluated in context to criteria that are universally applicable to that specific element.

 DB: Where did the germ of the idea for Great Stories come from?

 LB: I pondered that 96-to-4 failure rate, and decided there had to be a better way forward. After writing three books on storytelling that began exploring this sad truth, the subsequent question of “now what?” wouldn’t let me alone. How and why are those 4-percent of submissions that succeed better than the 96-percent that aren’t working as well? What are the common denominators of that?

My favorite writing tip is this: scenes work best once we understand the narrative expositional mission of the scene, in context to what came before and what comes next. This is why we rewrite and revise, to get closer and closer to that optimal form. From that epiphany, I came to realize this is true for all of the structural, thematic and aesthetic elements of a great story, at all levels. We are either searching for our best story, or we are polishing (optimizing) scenes toward that standard. That said, too many writers aren’t writing toward a standard at all, they are simply writing down what seems to be available in the moment of creation. They are just writing.

The more we understand the available criteria that will apply to a story that reaches the high bar of optimal efficacy, the sooner and more blissfully we will arrive there. That objective became the mission of my new writing book.

 DB: What’s the most important concept or lesson you hope to teach writers with your new book?

 LB: You don’t have to guess, nor do you have only your instincts to inform your choices. Your story choices can be informed by the criteria that will apply, one way or another, to the determination of what works and what doesn’t. These criteria apply within any and all writing processes, readers don’t give two hoots how the writer got it done. What does matter is the degree to which our choices align with what readers want, expect and have learned to recognize as emotionally resonant, thrilling and rewarding. That’s what talent really means: the consistent ability to land on the best possible ideas, and then make them shine on the page. When either of those outcomes happen—they are different core competencies, by the way, meaning we need to develop our craft on two levels, as storytellers and as scene writers—they are always framed by criteria that explains why they work. The book defines, explores and verifies over 70 separate criteria that apply within 18 specific facets or locations within the entirety of a novel’s narrative arc.

 DB: What’s next on Larry Brooks’ “To Do” list? Is there a new thriller simmering on the back burner?

LB: I promised my wife I’d write her a love story, and in my mind the best love story is a thriller, because so much is at stake… stakes being a key criteria in any genre. Setting it in France won’t hurt, either.

Thanks for having me back here on The Kill Zone. I can be reached through my website, www.storyfix.com, where you can learn more about this book and any of my other work, including my fiction.

Larry Brooks

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Thanks for sharing the inside scoop with us, Larry.

I, for one, will be looking forward to your love story thriller!

Great Stories Don’t Write Themselves is available for pre-order at:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

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TKZers: Do you have questions for Larry about his new book and/or story structure?

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All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned from my Parents

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

If you’ve never read humorist Robert Fulghum, treat yourself by buying his books. His most famous one is ‘All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten.’ More than 17 million copies of his books are in print, in 31 languages, in 103 countries.

On the downloads tab of his website, he had a delightful offering – Argentina Tango Chronicles – tales from a solo traveler. Since I am traveling solo to northern Italy in the fall, I can’t wait to read how Fulghum makes the most of his trips where he reinvents himself in foreign lands. Yes, he even changes his name.

Robert Fulghum grew up in Waco, Texas. In his youth he worked as a ditch-digger, newspaper carrier, ranch hand, and singing cowboy. After college, he had a brief career with IBM, but he wasn’t satisfied. After completing his graduate degree in theology, he served 22 years as a Unitarian parish minister in the Pacific Northwest. He’s taught drawing, painting, art history and philosophy. He’s also an accomplished painter and sculptor and sings, plays guitar and mando-cello. Fulghum even marches in parades, playing cymbals and tambourine.

Now that’s a diverse resume. He’d be a blast to hang out with.

His good-natured stories about families and life lessons are told with subtle ‘feel good’ humor. I love reading his short stories at bedtime, particularly after a long, trying day. His humor, and his ways of structuring a short story, always makes me laugh.

Fulghum’s work makes me think about my own upbringing and what I’ve learned from my parents. I’ve been blessed with a loving family and wanted to share my parents with you, my TKZ family.

***

My parents (Ignacio & Kathryn) have been married 68 years. They had a picture-perfect wedding in San Antonio at one of the oldest active cathedrals in the United States, the stunning San Fernando Cathedral, founded in 1731. We are blessed that they are still healthy and active and thriving. Good genes.

My dad is 93 years old and still going strong. I call him ‘the renaissance man’ because there is NO TOPIC that doesn’t interest him or that he wouldn’t try. He gave me my love for art and self-expression. He also gave me a competitive spirit and a ‘never say never’ attitude at trying new things. In his career, he designed and built things – an architect who became influential in developing downtown San Antonio. He actually named the Riverwalk – the Paseo del Rio. He retired early, but that didn’t stop him from exploring his love for the many things that still interest him. He has a mind like a sponge, always learning. I hope I have a fraction of his ability. He loves to cook, especially gourmet food and exotic recipes. This is the guy who dug a pit in our backyard to cook game on a spit or who wrapped fish in banana leaves to cook in an underground oven.

To this day, my dad studies food and painting techniques as if he were a young man. He’s a constant inspiration on how to grab life and hang on tight. He loves mind puzzles and the strategies of playing chess. Despite having hearing problems–due to his stubbornness at wearing hearing aids–he’s quick with a joke that makes me laugh. I usually say that my worst habits, I got from my dad, but I’m thankful I inherited other things too.

My mother is 90 years old. From her, I learned my lifetime love for reading. I have many fond memories with my mom, but she literally taught me how to devour books and planted the seed for my love of writing. Summers off from school were spent at the library (in the stacks) and I came home with dozens of books to read. My mom’s compassion for people and her generosity helped me see the world in a different way. That certainly gave me the insight to write about the lives of others in my books. She’s my best friend. We talk several times a day and I am their primary care giver, living only minutes away. Quite a change from when I was an angry rebellious teen. Even with our age difference, she has an intriguing mind that has adjusted over the years. She accepts a great deal and tries to understand things. We have long talks about how everything has changed, but she is curious and I love it.

Both my parents have a great deal of humor, but they are different. That doubles down the fun. I buy my mom the latest in Youtube (she calls it U2) viral video-wear, like her ‘Honey Badger Don’t Care‘ shirt or the Weiner Dog tee she’s wearing in this pic. Dad tries not to be seen with her in public when she’s wearing them. (Isn’t she cute?)

But on a day of weakness, even dad can be persuaded to do crazy family stuff, like the time we did a retreat to celebrate Willie Nelson. Long story. Even my dogs have headbands and braids.

FOR DISCUSSION:
1.) Please share what you learned from your parents or your childhood that has influenced you as an adult.

2.) Any funny stories to share?

Now if you’ll excuse me. My tambourine lesson is in thirty minutes.

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How Can 1 Person Have 2 Different Sets of DNA?

Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

A human with two different sets of DNA is called a chimera, and it’s more common than you might think. Most chimeras don’t even know they have this strange phenomenon going on inside them.

You could be a chimera, and so could I.

As we go along, take note of the interesting tidbits you could twist into a plot to add conflict.

Without any help from the scientific community, the process of becoming a chimera occurs naturally. Numerous books and movies explore chimerism using a killer who’s had a bone marrow transplant or blood transfusion. But are these characters based in fact?

Let’s take a look and find out.

The tissue inside our bones is called bone marrow, and it’s responsible for making white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. When someone has a bone marrow transplant, doctors use chemotherapy or radiation to destroy all the recipient’s diseased bone marrow. The donor’s healthy marrow is then introduced and continues to produce blood cells with the donor’s DNA, thereby transforming the recipient into a chimera.

In some cases, all of the blood cells in a person who received a bone marrow transplant will match the DNA of their donor. But in other cases, the recipient may have a mix of both their own blood cells and donor cells. A blood transfusion will also temporarily give a person cells from someone else, but in a bone marrow transplant, the new blood cells are permanent, according to the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California.

What if we’ve never had a transplant?

Doesn’t matter. There are other ways to become a chimera.

Early on in pregnancy a mother can be carrying fraternal twins and one of the embryos might die in utero. The surviving embryo may absorb cells from the deceased twin. When the baby is born, s/he can have two sets of DNA. Since twin loss occurs in 21-30% of multiple-fetus pregnancies, think of how many chimeras could be walking around. Are the story wheels spinning yet?

It can also happen with a normal pregnancy.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that a pregnant woman may retain some DNA from her baby, if fetal cells happen to migrate into her bloodstream and travel to different organs. The New York Times referred to this as a “pregnancy souvenir”— but it’s more scientifically known as “microchimerism.”

A 2015 study suggests this happens in almost ALL pregnancies (you read that right), at least temporarily. The researchers tested tissue samples from the kidneys, livers, spleens, lungs, hearts, and brains of 26 women who died while pregnant or within one month of giving birth. The study found fetal cells in all of the women’s tissues. The researchers were able to tell the fetus cells from the mothers by searching for Y chromosomes (only found in males). The deceased mothers were all carrying sons.

Writers: Don’t take the obvious road. Think victims instead of killers.

  • What if a human brain washed up on the beach?
  • What if the Medical Examiner wrongly assumed the victim was male due to the Y chromosomes?

This is one way to use research to our advantage.

  • What if the brain contained animal and human DNA?

Remember, we’re thinking victim, not killer, which puts a different spin on it.

According to Live Science, fetal cells may stay in a woman’s body for years. In a 2012 study, researchers analyzed the brains of 59 deceased women ages 32 to 101. A shocking 63 percent had traces of male DNA from fetal cells in their brains. The oldest woman died at 94 years old, suggesting that these cells can sometimes last a lifetime.

The blood-brain barrier is the body’s defense system to block many drugs and germs in the bloodstream from entering the brain, but doctors have found this barrier becomes more permeable during pregnancy, which may explain how these fetal cells migrated into the brains of their mothers.

  • What if a serial killer only targeted people with chimerism because s/he viewed them as freaks of nature?
  • How might the killer find potential victims?

If you said the medical field, you’re not thinking outside the box.

Interestingly enough, 26 of the 59 women had no signs of brain disorders while alive. The other 33 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that women with Alzheimer’s were less likely to have male DNA in their brains than women without the disease.

Previous work on microchimerism suggested fetal cells might protect against breast cancer and aid tissue repair in the mothers, but could increase the risk of colon cancer. Microchimerism can also incite various autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s body is mistakenly attacked by its own immune system.

Past research suggested Alzheimer’s is more common in women who had a high number of pregnancies than in childless women. One of the limitations of this research is that the number of brains studied was relatively small. Other researchers involved with microchimerism want to explore what effects a mother’s cells might have in her offspring’s development and health.

Imagine all the different scenarios? Parts of your writer brain must be on fire by now. No? Then check this out …  

Are you a chimera? 

You may never know. Unless you wind up in a similar situation to a woman named Karen Keegan. In 2002, her story became a report in the New England Journal of Medicine after doctors told her that she wasn’t the biological mother of her children.

Imagine? Think of all the ways this one conversation could implode an MC’s life.

  • Maybe the woman’s marriage broke up and the only reason her and her husband reunited was because she said she gave birth to his child while he was stationed overseas.

Turns out, the DNA in Karen Keegan’s bloodstream didn’t match the DNA in her ovaries. The doctors later determined she’d most likely absorbed a fraternal twin in utero.

How’s the ol’ writer brain feeling now?

 

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