When Fiction Meets Reality – The Challenges of my Current WIP

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Falkue at German Wikipedia

I’m 75% finished with my latest novel and I can’t stop dreaming about it. It’s keeping me up. I hope that’s a good thing. I’ve never had this happen before. Have any of you?

My novel is something very far from my comfort zone. For a large section of the story, my characters time travel (in an odd way) to Victorian London where they hunt Jack the Ripper. They have their reasons and the clock is ticking.

Whenever I add paranormal elements to any of my stories, I want the premise to almost seem plausible. You know how most people get scared when sitting around a campfire, telling ghost stories? That’s the visceral feeling I hope readers will get when they come along for a ride to the streets of White Chapel 1888.

I not only had to research the many resources on the Jack the Ripper case and take a view on what I think might’ve happened for the sake of my plot, I also had to research the time period to recreate a setting that will come alive on the page. In 1888, London was not the progressive modern city it is today. This was before proper sanitation, plumbing, and before police investigative methods were improved.

Tenement slum houses held large families of immigrants contained in small rooms rented by the day. Disease ran rampant with poor options for drinking water. Within close proximity to these slums lived wealthier Londoners who attended the opera and dined in fine restaurants. A newspaper called The Star had started in 1888, the year Jack had been born to evil. It had originally provided a voice for the common folk on injustice, but anything on the White Chapel murders turned a profit for the newspaper and became the driving story of the day.

A challenge has been to add enough details for history buffs yet recreate this world for readers who might be more interested in the peril of the characters. There’s always a balance and a consideration for good pacing.

My story is seen through the eyes of a young woman in present day who is desperate to find justice for a murdered friend in New Orleans. She’s obsessed with the Ripper case because she thinks it is related to the death of her friend. She steals a vintage necklace off a body and brings it to a mysterious yet reclusive psychic, only to find that she is correct that the jewelry is linked to her friend’s investigation. When held in his hand, the necklace catapults the psychic to two horrific murders. The vintage piece is the key to locating Jack the Ripper on the night he kills his 5th victim, Mary Kelly. I can’t give too much away, but I hope you’ll see the many moving parts of this story.

In order to recreate time travel, the hunters (led by the psychic) must be willing to suspend their bodies in a near death coma. Similar to how dreams work, a willing mind can share the common existence of a shared dream. My twin sisters often shared the same dreams. For most that would be scary, but it was normal for them. It’s been said that if you dream of your own death, you die in the dream. How many of you believe that is possible? Does it make you think twice before imagining it?

While my characters hunt the Ripper in spirit form, they are invisible to everyone except their one spirit guide (someone from 1888 that they must find in order to remain tethered to their world). As you can imagine, there are challenges to not having a physical body, yet they must be presentable in period clothing to the one guide (their citizen of heaven) who is capable of seeing the traveler.

Another challenge was to create believable dialogue during the time travel segment. What my modern woman hears from the people she meets must sound authentic. That involved a lot of historical research as well. It helped that my narrator was a modern young woman. For most of the historical part of the plot, her voice dominated, but I made sure she overheard the locals to make sure the color would be there.

But things are not what they seem in the netherworld between life and death. Evil and Fate combine to change history in ways my team of hunters will never foresee. Their worst fears are exposed and they must face their worst nightmares. As a writer, it’s my job to make my characters pay for the daring things they do to become a star in their story.

Thinking through all the ramifications of affecting history or interfering with fate–while doing it in a way to create mysterious twists in the plot–has been another fun challenge. Every time I think I know where the story is going, it changes course again, in a good way. I’ve surprised myself in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. The plot had to develop and the characters’ dilemmas had to rise to the top in order for me to see different outcomes and motivations. I’ve added layers to my story that I never would’ve seen coming. That’s a good feeling.

This is the first book in a new Trinity LeDoux series for me. The working title is – The Curse She Wore. Trinity is a 24-year-old wannabe bounty hunter, trying to get her license in New Orleans. At the start of the story she is homeless, but everything changes after my hermit psychic sees something brave yet vulnerable in her.

The first time I visited New Orleans, I sensed the layers of richness to the setting and understood why so many writers find the location completely captivating. I’ve waited to write a story set in New Orleans. This is it. I’m bringing in a Cuban influence, the Santeria faith (used for the concept of an ancestral spirit guide or citizen of heaven), a discreet Voo Doo shop for true believers, and a reclusive psychic from an old wealthy family who lives on an historic plantation. He’s got secrets of his own.

My tag line for this story is – “They had Death in Common.”

For Discussion:
1.) Tell me about the challenges of your current WIP. Anything interesting to research?

2.) Have you ever worked in the details of a real murder into your work of fiction? How did that work for you?

If you’re on Instagram, please find and follow me at this LINK.

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Getting to Z Street

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash

My younger daughter Annalisa during her third year of life started talking about “Z Street.” We had no idea what she was talking about, but it was nonetheless interesting. There were apparently all sorts of things and many different stores on Z Street. Most of her sentences began with “On Z Street, there is…” or “On Z Street, they have…”. I asked her late on one afternoon if she knew where Z Steet was. She answered, “Sure!” I said, “Okay. Show me.” We jumped in the car and a couple of minutes later we were on the road while Annalisa eerily prefigured a talking GPS unit, telling me, with steadily decreasing confidence, to turn right at the next light, then left at the next corner and so on and so forth. We ultimately arrived behind a shopping center where we found ourselves parked by a couple of dumpsters and several stacks of palettes behind a Kroger. “So this is it?” I asked. Annalisa told me yes, with some hesitation. It was all good. Z Street had a Jersey Mike’s nearby, and the Hartlaub family had a fine meal to top off the journey. Annalisa, for her part, never mentioned Z Street again, opting instead to talk about her “owl friend.” 

More on the owl friend in a bit. Annalisa’s directions to Z Street were a terrific example of the writing process known as “pantsing.” She had a concept in her head which told her what Z Street was but really no idea of how to get there.  She comes by this honestly. I am horrible at outlining, which in part is why in my longer work I more often than not found myself…well, sitting at the rump end of someplace and looking at the mental equivalence of pallets and dumpsters. This isn’t the case with every author, of course. James Lee Burke reportedly has no idea about what his next book is going to be about until he starts writing, yet he arguably writes better than anyone. I don’t think that Cormac McCarthy outlines either. Jeffery Deaver, however, outlines obsessively, spending as much time outlining as he does writing the novel, year in and year out. It certainly has held him in wonderful stead.

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago about all of this when I suddenly realized how to get over a roadblock in a novel I’ve been working on for a bit now. Part of the epiphany included the unfortunate realization that the roadblock didn’t just suddenly appear in the story. I had, at some earlier point in the narrative, snuck ahead and built it without realizing it and without building a reasonable detour around it. I could have solved all of that by outlining, but let’s not forget…(cue up the chorus)… “I am horrible at outlining.”

What I want to report — to share with you — is that I worked my way around it. I thought about Z Street, and how I travel. I drive everywhere, and don’t like getting lost, so I map out my journey. I check hotel prices and distances and gas stations and how far it is between Cracker Barrels and Sonics and how long it’s going to take me to get where I’m going. Oh, and speed traps. I check for speed traps. Some folks use AAA, but I do it myself. The realization hit me: what is outlining, if it isn’t a self-made Triptik, or map, for writers?

I’m outlining now. What I do more resembles a map than an outline like you might use, but it’s getting me there. And if I want to pull away from what I have outlined and take a scenic diversion, why, that’s okay too. It’s my trip. I hope to tell you about it sooner rather than later.

I have one more thing, in case some of you are wondering about “the owl friend.” It became a constant source of reference for Annalisa. Accordingly, while on a family vacation in New Orleans a few months later, we were in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and walked into the aviary. “Look, Annalisa,” I said, point up toward the top of a sloping rock wall, at a wise old bird sitting quietly on a ledge. “Is that your owl friend?” Annalisa immediately detached herself from me and started scampering up the wall on all fours. She almost got away from me on that one. The owl reacted by peering imperiously down at us, as if to say, “Whaddya want from me?” I of course had no answer, nor did Annalisa when I asked her, “So. What would you have done with him when you got him?”

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Are you outlining your story/Great American Novel? How are you doing it? In the traditional manner, like Jim Bell learned (and I didn’t) in Catholic school? With post it notes on a giant bulletin board (Yo! P.J. Parrish!) As if it is a map? Or some other way? Please share.

 

 

7+

One Morning at Bouchercon

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I spoke with author James O. Born a few weeks before New Orleans Bouchercon 2016. Jim is the real deal. He is on the cusp of retirement from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and previously worked with DEA. He was also Elmore Leonard’s go-to guy on police procedure for over two decades. Jim has written a number of classic detective novels and next year will be moving into an extremely high profile writing slot. As if that isn’t enough, he annually presents an excellent panel on weaponry at Bouchercon each year. Because I was driving to New Orleans and he was flying, Jim asked if I would mind bringing some firearms with me. Jim assured me that he had cleared the presence of the weapons with hotel security and that I would be able to bring the weapons into the host hotel without difficulty.

On the morning in question I drove to the host hotel (I was staying elsewhere) with a square box briefcase containing three handguns and a shotgun bag containing a 12 gauge shotgun. All of the firearms were unloaded. I also had my loaded concealed carry weapon of choice (and my concealed carry permit) in my pocket.The briefcase with the handguns looked like any other briefcase (something like this Filson Briefcase); the shotgun bag with the shotgun inside looked like…well, a shotgun bag with a shotgun inside. I unloaded the car and turned it over to the hotel valet, who asked me conversationally if I was going to do any hunting, to which I replied that I was assisting with a panel at the writers’ convention. I then walked into the lobby, exchanged greetings with the gentlemen at the Bell Captains’ station, then proceeded up the escalator.

police-officer

Courtesy cliparts.co

I had reached the second floor and was walking toward the third floor escalator when I was approached at speed and with purpose by an unarmed security guard who asked me 1) where was I going and 2) what was I doing. I stopped, politely told him, and also mentioned that my presence had been cleared with the head of security. The security guard, civil enough but all business, told me 1) that he hadn’t been advised and 2) to put everything down. I complied; he asked me what I had in the briefcase and I told him, and also advised him that I had a concealed carry permit and a loaded revolver in my pocket. He told me to step back from the briefcase and gun bag, which I did, and then ordered me to take the revolver out of my pocket and unload it. I stepped back, and said politely, “Sir, I will comply with your request, but please note that I am in full compliance with the laws of the state of Louisiana in carrying this. I will happily show you my concealed carry permit as well.” He declined to see the permit, telling me that I had no right to bring a loaded firearm into the hotel (wrong, but I did not press the point) repeating again his order to me to remove the revolver and unload it. I offered to let him remove the gun from my pocket himself, which he declined to do. The entire time that we were having this exchange I kept my voice down, my hands away from my body (except while removing the revolver from my pocket), and my demeanor cooperative and polite. After presenting my revolver, unloading it, and setting it down (he had me keep the bullets) I suggested that we call Jim and get things straightened out. I did just that; Jim came running and after a polite exchange with the guard, the head of security was called. That gentleman confirmed with the guard that all was well, and after a bit of back and forth (which isn’t germane to our purpose today) we all went about our business. Jim’s program was terrific, as always: entertaining, funny, and extremely informative.

monopoly

Courtesy cliparts.co

Why all of this? My first thought upon seeing the guard approaching was that I hoped this wasn’t going to turn into a “thing.” By “thing,” I mean the summoning of a member of the New Orleans Police Department. The department is understaffed, underpaid, and over-regulated; their default response to a lot of situations is, alas, take the subject (which, in this case, would be me) to Orleans Parish Prison. I did not want to go to Orleans Parish Prison (known locally as “OPP”). I could see myself being summarily frog-marched down a long corridor where I would be quickly lost in the bowels of the criminal justice system, undoubtedly acquiring at least a couple of sets of unwanted and untoward stretch marks before things got sorted out (not to mention losing my guns). I could have given the guard an argument about my rights, the limits to his authority, and all of that good stuff, while refusing to comply at every step along the way. No; polite and cooperative, that’s me.

Now. The guard made a bunch of mistakes in dealing with me, and they didn’t have to do with failing to recognize me (“Hey, weren’t you in LA-308?”) or stopping me to begin with. With regard to the latter, he didn’t get the memo about the presentation; stuff happens. If he detected a potential problem he should be stopping me, and I have no business being unhappy, under this fact pattern. But. There’s a right way to go about this:

– A subject is either a) a threat; b) a potential threat; or c) not a threat. If c), there is no reason to be stopping them. The guard obviously regarded me as b), maybe a). So why did he approach me while alone and unarmed? He should have had at least two people with him, so that I was semi-surrounded from the beginning, one in front of me and one on each side. Nothing threatening; just folks have a chat. A couple of the bell captains would have been fine.

– He should have taken me up on my offer to let him remove the weapon himself. That I was a) polite, b) cooperative, and c) older is no reason to assume that I’m not a threat. See the paragraph above. What if I was giving him a load of buena sierra, stopped cooperating, and suddenly pulled the gun out?

– He should have searched me further, and then moved me against a wall, away from the guns, until everything was sorted out. Instead, he let me stand away from, but within arms’ reach of, my guns, and assumed that since I had told him about my concealed carry revolver that I had nothing else untoward in my possession. I did. I was wearing a utility hack knife on a necklace sheath. On those rare instances where I have been stopped and frisked — not because of what I was doing, but because of who I was with — I have been amazed that law enforcement (or whoever) always assumes that if they find two weapons you don’t have a third on you. Some folks do, and they are not all harmless little guys such as myself, full of well-mannered intent and good cheer.

This all could have gone badly. On my end, it’s an example of how being polite, civil, and reasonable can go a long way. On the guard’s end, it’s a cautionary tale. For you, the foregoing is offered as a teaching lesson, not only for your written vignettes but also for your real world dealings. I hope it helps with both. Has anyone else had an experience like this?

 

5+

Made in New Orleans

old-mint-2

I received a small envelope from an old friend in June of this year. It contained a silver dollar in a plastic collector’s case. I collected coins a long time ago and am still surprised at how much I remember, including where mint marks are located (or, in the case of the Philadelphia mint, absent) on each coin. The silver dollar in question, minted in 1885, bore the cryptic inscription ‘O’ on its reverse, or “tails” side, under the, um, tail of the eagle. The ‘O,’ I knew, stood for “New Orleans.” I called my friend, an antique dealer of some local renown, and thanked him for the unexpected gift. He advised that he had come across the item and, after making sure that it wasn’t one of of only two hundred minted, sent it to me with the thought that I could take it with me to New Orleans next time I went. I did that when I returned to New Orleans for business and Bouchercon last week and raised him one. I took that silver dollar back to its birthing room, if you will.

The place where I was born in no longer in existence — that covered wagon, alas, was attacked and set afire by Indians, but I digress — but the United States Mint in New Orleans still is. It is imaginatively and accurately known as “The Old Mint,” and does not refer to that unwrapped peppermint that James Scott Bell found in the pocket of a winter coat he hadn’t worn for a few years. No, The Old Mint is at the very edge of the French Quarter, tucked into a corner by the Mississippi River east of the French Market. It’s not a place that is close to tourist interests, so it is quiet, dim, and cool, the entrance way overseen by a somewhat sleepy-looking guard who seemed secure in the knowledge that there was nothing in the building that no one would be interested in stealing, unless steel coin presses weighing around twenty tons were to suddenly become valuable. There were, interestingly enough, a number of people there, and they weren’t drawn by the cost of admission (free!) or the promise of air conditioning on a New Orleans late summer day where the temperature was flirting with 95 degrees by 11:00 AM. No, they were coin collectors, past and present, and by dipping into conversations here and there I learned that they were serious about their hobby. They ranged in age from pre-adolescent (looking like I probably did back then, only skinny) to geriatric (um, looking like I do now, though not as vigorous and virile) and, one and all ,they were as excited to be there as the members of a bachelor party would be at Temptations on Bourbon Street, only quieter. I waited until the herd passed through and then quietly brought my silver dollar over to a press, reached across the barrier, and laid it down on the surface.

And…something connected. It was almost electric. I had set off to do the errand as a lark, and was still inwardly laughing over my good fortune of having literally run into British publishing giants Ali Karim and Michael Stotter, both of whom were in town for Bouchercon, on Chartres Street, and then being the subject of one of Ali’s recorded street interviews. The trip to The Old Mint at that point was almost an afterthought…that is, until the mission was accomplished. It felt as if a circle had been completed, and I suppose it had.

I put the silver dollar back into my pocket and left the Mint museum, though not The Old Mint building. The building is the location not only for exhibits pertaining to the Mint — which was used by both the United States and the Confederate States (at different times, of course) — but also The New Orleans Jazz Museum, which contains a great deal of memorabilia of musical greats who have come and gone but whose influence is still felt, though unfortunately generally forgotten. When I finally left, everything seemed just a tad different. I am at the age where I am deleting material goods rather than acquiring them, but I will hang on to that silver dollar. And it will come back with me to New Orleans when I return, again and again.

It was my favorite trip to New Orleans — and I had just been there three weeks previously — and my favorite Bouchercon to date. I really want to go again so I’m planning another trip near Christmas. My friend recently stayed at the InterContinental Hotel New Orleans so I will have to ask her what it was like. There were many high points…from seeing Laura Benedict at a publisher’s party and meeting Elaine Viets as she tried to sneak past me at a book signing, to meeting and having dinner with a couple of anonymous TKZ fans who have become my new best friends; from taking author Kelli Stanley and Tana Hall to Meyer the Hatter, to getting detained by security at the host hotel (don’t look like Tony Soprano and carry a shotgun bag into a crowded hotel lobby. It has the potential to ruin your day); and of course, running into Ali and Michael just about everywhere…but that silver dollar still carries a faint bit of electricity as it rests in my pocket.

That’s me. What did you do last week?

4+

The Introvert’s Guide to Writers’ Conferences, or How I Learned to Stop Hyperventilating and Leave My Hotel Room

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I spent most of this past week encouraging (forcing) myself to leave my room at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans. It was a nice room, with a lovely view of the city framing the not-so-lovely hotel on the next block. The first room I was assigned was on the fifteenth floor, but before I left the desk, five bucks and a request to not be situated near the elevator bumped me up to the twenty-third. (Also, the thing about being away from the elevator is in my Marriott profile. So much for profiles.) But if I hadn’t had a long list of plans and obligations, I would have been sorely tempted to stay in that room and write and look out the window and order room service and fiddle with the television’s satellite connection to improve its HGTV reception (HGTV is my secret hotel vice because we don’t have satellite at home).

Last week was, of course, Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention—four days of fun with crime and mystery lovers, readers, writers, agents, booksellers, and editors. I’m not exactly sure about the numbers, but I heard there were almost two thousand attendees, three hundred of whom were writers.

Writers. You know, those people who sit at computers (or with notebooks) communing with the voices in their heads instead of real people.

As a writer who has been in the business for a lot of years, and who doesn’t live in a major metropolitan area, most of my networking is done on the Internet or on the phone. Less frequently in person. Networking can sound a little off-putting: net working. I know what a network is, but the words, separated, bring to mind an image of a fisherman (fisherperson?) handling a huge net full of fish, gathering and sorting, selecting and touching. What if you choose the wrong fish? What if it bites? What if they all escape and you end up with nothing? What if they all dislike you? What if they think you’re pushy and rude? (Okay, maybe that’s not a great analogy.)

Conferences can be tough for someone who doesn’t get out much. I get overwhelmed, which is one of the reasons I often want to hide in my room. But I (and I think I can speak a little bit for other introverted writers) do it because it’s my job. When you meet someone, you never know what kind of influence they’re going to have on your life—or the influence you might have on theirs. You might be looking at your new best friend. Or your next editor. Or your next favorite author. Or the person who will spark your next story idea. Or the person who will talk smack about you in the bar because you didn’t bother to introduce yourself. Does it sounds like a minefield? A game of Risk? Well, it kind of is.

You can sit in your room at home or even at the conference hotel and write. And write. You might even sell your story from that room. You might become the next J.D. Salinger or Don DeLillo or Emily Dickinson. Or not. It can be scary, but in order to give yourself and your work your best shot, you have to venture out. I promise you that venturing out feels just as risky to ninety percent of the other writers you will meet. (You can always return to your room later and throw up, faint, hyperventilate, burst into tears, or tear off all your clothes and crawl into your bed and pull the covers over your head in relief. I have done four of the five.) Sometimes you’ll walk away thinking, “Oh, my God, I sounded like a complete idiot!” But more often you’ll be glad you reached out and risked rejection.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to pop out of your writing cocoon and go to a conference or other gathering of industry folk:

Be confident.

This sounds difficult, I know. Sometimes you just have to fake it until you feel it. The NYT bestselling writer waiting in the coffee line ahead of you sits in front of the same blank page that you do every day, thinking, “What comes next?” You have that in common. You’re there for a reason, so act like it.

Be professional.

This is part of your job. Be sure you note the name of the person you’re talking to. It’s okay to ask, and asking is far preferable to ending up halfway through an impromptu lunch, petrified that you’ll be called on to perform introductions if someone else shows up. If small talk is required, talk about a panel or interview you just attended, or a book you recently read. Not your gallbladder, kids, or most recent tooth implant.

Be ready to learn.

Immerse yourself in the conference agenda. People who are interested in the same things you’re interested in put the panels and events together. It’s not all about networking.

Be curious.

Most people love to talk about themselves. Ask questions about their work, their pets, their hometown, their (professional) passions. Most wildly successful authors are good at making other people feel special in a short space of time. Really.

Be modest.

We’ve all gotten the FB messages: “Hey, we’re friends now. Buy my book!” Every writer wants other people to know about their work. But don’t make that your main goal. Your goal is to learn things, make new friends, and reconnect with old friends. There’s always a good time to exchange cards or bookmarks or websites. Name-dropping is a bit gauche, but allowed in small doses if it’s relevant to the discussion—or makes a better story.

Be gracious.

Be as nice to the mid-list or self-published writer standing beside you as you are to the editor you would kill to have publish you. Chances are you’ll have far more contact with that writer in your career than you will the editor. Not everything is about getting ahead. It’s about being a decent human being. Few things are uglier than people who spend their professional lives sucking up and kicking down.

Be generous.

You didn’t get to where you are as a writer all by yourself. I guarantee that someone around you has less experience. Introduce yourself to someone who looks as uncomfortable as you feel. Make them feel special. It won’t cost you anything, and the benefits are precious.

Be on time.

Even if you consistently run five minutes late every other day of your life, when you’re in a professional situation like a conference, be on time. Schedules can be tight, and people often do things in groups. (But don’t fret about sneaking into panels late, or leaving during. Just be discreet.)

Be available.

If you’re not Cormac McCarthy, or Emily Dickinson, leave your room! Put on deodorant, brush your teeth, comb your hair, and attend a panel, a cocktail party, or a lecture. Or even go hang out in the bar. You’re over twenty-one, and you’re allowed. See and be seen. That’s the way it works.

As I said, you can always go up and hyperventilate in your room—later.

 

Have you ever attended a writing or publishing industry conference as a writer, or as a fan? Did you find it challenging, or just plain fun?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, will be released on October 11th. Read an excerpt here.

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The Streetcar I Desire

new orleans streetcar

Barring something unforeseen, I will be turning 65 tomorrow. I will spend most of  the day driving to New Orleans where I’ll be doing some business next week and occasionally popping into the Bouchercon host hotel (as well as assisting Jim Born with his excellent Weaponry panel at 9:00A on Saturday September 17, for both of the attendees who do not drink even when they’re in The Crescent City). The major milestone for me, however, will be riding New Orleans’ iconic streetcar line…for 40 cents a ride. Senior citizens in New Orleans get to do that.

An elderly friend told me that getting older is actually like aging in reverse. When you’re just a few years old people are constantly taking things away from you or putting them out of reach, a practice which we now call “childproofing,” You get trusted incrementally with objects, privileges and responsibilities until one day you wake up and you’ve got a whole collection of those, which include but are not limited to driving and automobiles, jobs, voting, drinking, military service, intimacy, and child rearing. You think you’re overdue for most of them by the time you get them, but the truth is that you’re probably not ready. Experience is the best teacher, however, and we all muddle through a continuum that runs between success and disaster and all points in between.

After several decades, though, things begin to change. People start taking things and choices away from you again. The guy at the hardware superstore asks if you need help carrying any purchase that weighs more than a pack of light bulbs. Your children think that you have early dementia if you are unable to keep their schedule and yours straight without a calendar. The question “How is work?” is replaced with “When are you retiring?”. Your first birthday congratulations at 65 is from the federal government: it’s a red, white and blue Medicare card. And that driver’s license that was so important to obtain five decades ago is possibly only an accident or three from being retired. As for me…everything still works. I can carry an old-fashioned microwave up two flights of stairs without sustaining a heart attack (though it was a very near thing). I can drive nine hundred miles in one day (though I’m split it up out of caution). Things aren’t being taken away from me yet, even though I am more  Mickey Donovan than Harry Coombes at this point. I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I am going to ride those streetcars next week —on every line I can — for 40 cents a trip like they are a pack of 3-dollar government mules.

So let’s open it up. What was your favorite birthday celebration? Do you have a tradition? What would you like to do, but haven’t had the fortitude or the ability to do, at least at this point in your life?

 

9+

Lost Volumes, Missing Pages

storm over louisiana

Photo: Storm over Louisiana by Joe Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

(Note: Before we get into today’s post…I am writing this while sitting in a very nice, dry place, probably somewhat similar to where you are reading it. Over 100,000 households were destroyed in the Baton Rouge area last week leaving people without nice, dry places to do anything. The area needs contractors, money, and building and cleaning supplies. It will be YEARS before the area recovers, and it might never recover totally. IF you can help, please do so: http://www.samaritanspurse.com; also, Billy Graham Ministries has sent a rapid response team to the area: https://billygraham.org/what-we-do/evangelism-outreach/rapid-response-team/about/.) Thank you.

What follows will no doubt seem depressing, though I don’t mean it to be. I’ll bookend what I’m about to tell you with the proposition that we should each and all count our blessings and not waste one moment of one day. Each minute counts. Things as we age will eventually get worse or they’ll get over. It’s just how life works. Live in the now and enjoy it.

I returned to New Orleans this week after an absence of about three years. I’m attending a legal seminar that is held annually and visiting my many friends here, some of whom attend the seminar and others who reside here. Many are in the process, alas, of leaving the building. The change, which seems more dramatic after having not seen them for nigh on three years, is sudden. One, a goodhearted guy who jousts tirelessly at windmills and is often unappreciated by those he champions, has skin cancer which continues to advance despite painful surgeries. Another has had two strokes which have left him debilitated but nonetheless cheerful. A third, a woman who means well but who has suffered from a lifetime of impulsive choices, has succumbed yet again to addiction.

The saddest, however, is a friend in nearby Baton Rouge who has experienced a sudden onset and subsequent rapid decline secondary to Alzheimer’s Disease. His twin brother died with the condition in December of last year. My friend said to me then, “Gee, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.” He started slipping away in April. I visited with him at his home and then drove him around Baton Rouge, where he has lived all of his life. He pointed out many familiar landmarks but couldn’t remember the restaurant where he had eaten lunch several times a week before he had to stop driving. He’s an author who at one point co-owned a publishing company and was a mover and shaker in state politics. He had a million stories, including one where I accidentally almost got both of us arrested during a visit to the state capitol building. A conversation with him now jumps and drops and skips. I listened to him and thought of pages missing from a book, library volumes lent and never returned, with only gaps in the shelves to mark their presence. His decline is such that when I come back in three weeks he may no longer recognize me or otherwise remember me. That’s not a big deal, in the general scheme of things, but it marks a deterioration for him (even though he is only somewhat aware of it) and for his family. The term “tragic” doesn’t quite cover the extent of it.

So, that bookend: let us each and all count our blessings and not waste one moment of one day. Each minute counts. Things as we age will eventually get worse or they’ll get over. It’s just how life works. Live in the now and enjoy it.

I will be unavailable for most of the day today but will attempt to respond to comments intermittently or later. Enjoy yourselves. And visit someone you haven’t seen for a while, or with whom you’ve lost touch. You don’t know how much longer you’ll have them. Time, alas, is short and the sand runs ever more quickly through the hourglass.

 

 

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Incident at the Derby

bleachers

Photo by Eliot Kamenitz, The New Orleans Advocate

One more story, offered with the hope of sparking inspriration. There is nothing odd or supernatural about this one. It’s ironic and tragic, but there’s some justice, too. Bear with me.

The annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival takes place over the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May, just as spring is beginning to heat up the city. The event is held at the New Orleans Fairgrounds — known as “The Derby” by the city’s residents due to the horse races which occur there — which is in the middle of the Gentilly neighborhood, a relative stable working class area, at least by New Orleans standards. The track during Jazzfest is given over to several stages at various points, each of which feature live music being performed over the course of several hours. There are also merchandise and food vendors — come for the music, stay for the eats — and various places to take a break from the energy of the event, including a set of bleachers off to one side the track.

I attended my first Jazzfest in 2000. I got there early on opening day and after seeing a few acts that I had waited all of my life to see (Clarence “Frogman” Henry, The Dixie Cups, and my now-deceased pal Frankie Ford)  I took a mid-afternoon break. I got a shrimp po’boy and, dislike of heights notwithstanding, got a seat near the top of one of the sets of bleachers, where I proceeded to, as it’s said, fang down on lunch and watch the party swirl below and in front of me.

I was about halfway finished with my meal when a man and woman ascended the bleacher steps near me. The woman wore one of the distinctive vest-apron combinations that the Jazzfest employees customarily wear. It was a hot day, and the woman, somewhat slight in body type, appeared tired and weary, no doubt from working in the sun and humidity that day. The man, for his part, manifested the kinetic energy usually seen in the nervous or those who are “hyped” for one reason or another. His arms were corded with thick veins and ended in large hands that he bounced off his knees in an odd rhythm as he walked, sticking his elbows in and out to the side. He hummed and nodded and looked all around without appearing to see anything. The woman was carrying a styrofoam go-box similar to the one that my lunch had been in, and I assumed that she had earned it under the policy that provides a free meal for each Festival employee while on shift.

As they passed the aisle where I was seated the man grabbed the box from the woman before turning down the row of seats behind me. The woman emitted a tired but still audible “hey” in protest, one which the man ignored as he sat down behind me. I heard him proceed to eat whatever was in the box, gulping, lips smacking, and grunting all the while. The woman, after about a minute, asked him softly, “Ain’t you gonna give none of that to me?” The man stopped eating just long enough to spit out a “no” before continuing his repast. The woman waited a minute, and then said, “But they gave that to me for workin’ here.” The man made a statement to the effect that she could eat when she got off work, and that she needed to lose some weight anyhow.

I am an interventionist. I make neither excuses nor apologies for being so. If someone yells “help” or looks like they need help my impulse is to respond. My impulse to intervene in a bad situation, however, is tempered by situational awareness.  I won’t get involved if I don’t see a positive outcome, short or long term, in my actions. Some things are in the end irremediable, and intervention by a stranger can make things worse. I considered this to be one of those situations. I could have 1) give the woman money for lunch; 2) given her the rest of my lunch; or 3) told the guy that he was a miserable waste of skin for treating someone with whom he was apparently in a relationship (more on that in a moment or two) in such a manner and fashion. I also concluded, however, that any of those actions would have rebounded back on the woman sooner or later, and thus I wouldn’t be helping her. The third action would also have probably gotten me my ass kicked (not that such has ever stopped me in the past) and not just once. I have learned, via payment in dear and bitter coin, that everyone in New Orleans seems to be connected or related to someone else, so that creating a beef with one person multiplies the participants in said dispute quickly and exponentially. Additionally, I was concerned that the woman would get a beatdown in the bargain as the price of attracting the attention of a stranger. I didn’t feel good about it but I quickly finished my lunch and walked away without doing anything. And in case you are wondering…I of course never for a moment considered turning around and suddenly shoving the guy off of the bleacher seat in the hope that he would fall fifteen or so feet to the ground. That would have been wrong. I think.

Flash forward two days. I was reading the Sunday edition of the New Orleans newspaper in the lobby of my hotel when I saw a small news item buried in the nether regions of the back pages. The story concerned a man who had been killed in a domestic incident. As the story went, he and his significant other had been arguing throughout the day, starting at Jazzfest where she worked. Their argument reportedly continued after she arrived home in the evening and was apparently fueled by the man spending the afternoon fortifying himself with alcohol. The article stated that he had been upset that she was “late” and as a result beat her twice over the course of the following few hours. Having exhausted himself during his busy day, the man went into the bedroom and fell asleep. The woman used the opportunity creating by his unconsciousness to pour gasoline over him and, in her words, “I lit him up.” Indeed. The article noted that there had been a history of domestic disturbance calls to the household going back for over a year prior. The woman, however, had declined to either press or pursue charges in each incident. The article was accompanied by a mugshot of the woman who had been seated behind me.

How did things turn out? The woman was initially charged with second degree murder. I got on the phone and started calling around to the prosecutor, public defender, and an attorney I know in New Orleans who enjoys arising each day to joust at windmills on behalf of the downtrodden. I won’t bore you with the details but the upshot was that I offered to testify at trial as to what I had witnessed on that particular day,  hoping that my version of what I saw, and my reaction, would be received as evidence of mitigating circumstances. I didn’t need to, as it turned out. The woman, who did not have so much as a traffic ticket against her, pled guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to time served and probation. The judge, with the prosecution’s blessing, took into account her history with the deceased and the fresh evidence of his violence that night (don’t ask). That the deceased was a multiple offender with several violent crime notches on his belt — enough that he had been awarded the title of “career criminal” by the time he reached his nineteenth birthday — was not considered, of course (wink wink).

I don’t know what happened to the woman, and I never really met her. But I think of her frequently, particularly when I am woolgathering instead of sleeping. I wish her the best, wherever she is, and would tell her that I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more. But I think things turned out okay for her. God, I hope so.

What would you have done in such a situation? Have you ever been in a situation where it was better to walk away than step in and defend someone? What did you do? What was the aftermath? And as far as a starter for a novel goes…it’s a great one. Colin Harrison uses it in BODIES ELECTRIC to frightening effect and, of course there’s a series involving a guy named Jack, an ex-MP, who wanders around the country getting involved in things. What do you think?

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Missing

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Designed by Why Not Associates. All rights reserved.

One of the questions frequently asked of a writer is where ideas are obtained. If you are writing, and find yourself lacking for ideas, I have a suggestion: google “missing persons” and then your local city, county, or even neighborhood.  You will find enough tragedy, heartbreak, and yes, mystery to write volume after volume.

I am haunted by a particular incident that took place less than two blocks from my home. I am blessed to live in Westerville, just outside of Columbus, near a lovely area known as Hoover Reservoir. It’s a body of water that stretches for a few miles and has hiking and jogging trails, fishing opportunities, and a decent sized waterfall. It is also the situs of a disappearance that has baffled our local law enforcement for almost twenty years. A gentleman named Robert Mohney left his home — and a half-eaten steak dinner — on the evening of July 28, 1996 and was never seen again. His automobile — a cherry red Pontiac Firebird — was found in a parking lot at Hoover Reservoir. One reflexively thinks suicide, but no note was found. No, there is the impression of a meal interrupted and a sudden…disruption, perhaps?  Mohney had been going through a divorce but it reportedly was not an unfriendly proceeding; this wasn’t someone, according to those who knew him, who was intent on leaving for the other side. Inquiries were made and the reservoir searched but the man, a good looking guy in his late 20s, was and is gone. Police acting on a tip in 2010 dug up a field in an area north of the city hoping to locate a body and perhaps bring some closure —whatever that is — to Mohney’s family. They came up empty, unfortunately. Mohney is now the subject of high school legend, one in which his spirit can be seen late at night, wandering the banks of the reservoir, seeking peace. What happened to him? How does someone disappear from a popular picnic and recreational area without anyone noticing something? There’s your novel; have at it.

If that doesn’t interest you, here’s another.  Over nine years ago  a second year medical student at The Ohio State University named Brian Shaffer disappeared one night from a very popular campus-area bar and restaurant after becoming separated from friends. Security cameras show him going into the establishment with those friends but never coming out. Law enforcement has spent hours reviewing video and accounting for everyone who entered and left the place. Everyone but one.  Cadaver dogs were subsequently led through the premises but came up empty. There have been rumors a-plenty as to what occurred — everything from sighting in Atlanta to a tie-in with what have become known as the “Smiley Face Murders” — and if you want to feel as if you’re about to slip loose of your moorings, google that term — but nothing concrete has been determined. Shaffer is…gone.

There are more. A number of young women living on the fringes of polite society in a rural area south of central Ohio have disappeared during the past year. I stopped believing in coincidence some time ago; something bad and evil is acting, with impunity, in that area. Further afield, a number of ladies employed in some of the more popular adult entertainment establishments on Bourbon Street in New Orleans go missing under strange circumstances each year. Check out the statistics for the number of people who go missing in your city, your state, your country. There are all sorts or stories, real or imagined, waiting to be told. Be warned: after reading a few of those accounts you will want to take every person you love and keep them close and safe in a locked room. But if you need a story idea, you’re just a few keystrokes away from one, or two, or several.

That’s all I have. Tell me…what’s been happening near you? Are they heavily publicized, or were you surprised by what you found?

 

 

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