Friday, September 30, 2011

Hope for a black thumb

Some people are great with plants – they seem to be born with some ability to nurture green things. Like my mom. Her houseplants grew so wildly she was forced to throw away their offshoots.

I once thought I’d never be able to grow a plant. Even cacti died in my care. But there was this one plant that flourished despite my feeding it cold coffee (with cream) and stale soda. But then I placed it outside and left it to die one cold, frosty night.

But now, years and years later, I’m actually surprised that not one but no less than five houseplants are alive (and well!) inside my home! Six, if you count the orchid my husband takes responsibility for. What’s changed? Is it newer, better engineered soils? Perhaps. Is it that my desire for fresher air (which houseplants are proven to filter) has increased? Maybe. Or perhaps it’s that I’ve become a mother since my doomed-cacti days and learned how to care for two boys… so perhaps I’ve learned responsibility. Plus, plants are easier to care for than boys... most of the time... though I'd be afraid of what my boys would do after ingesting coffee (cream or no cream).

Monday, September 26, 2011

Writers' Police Academy = 1 full, awesome weekend

Combine a weekend full of hands-on workshops with a general lack of sleep (so excited I couldn’t sleep and then so excited from what I experienced I couldn’t sleep). Add 150 writers and the most energetic and welcoming group of police/forensic professionals. And so much more… I had a blast this weekend at the second annual Writer’s Police Academy. I learned a lot from the workshops, but also from just being around law enforcement folks and other writers. Here’s a quick summary of what I did, as well as a few photos:

Sonja, a latex cadaver
Friday: First things first, I experienced the Crime Scene Investigation workshop and learned that cold weather and rain really don’t make raw flesh smell all too bad, especially not in the first 24 hours. I also learned that my rain jacket is not waterproof and that clay stains from pouring rain jump to calf level. Photographed is Sonja, a latex body. Our instructor was incredibly knowledgeable and talkative, so I really did learn a lot, despite not being able to experience the smells and bugs.

Arrow points to kitchen knife
confiscated in real prison
Jail searches: I watched fellow writers search a mock jail cell and learned about where inmates stash various items. See the knife in her hand? It actually was seized from a cell!

Arson investigation: Did you know rust is a form of fire? I didn’t! We learned why you shouldn’t make a Molotov cocktail using a plastic bottle (it might bounce back at you) and a whole bunch of other facts about arson. Also saw some gruesome photographs.

Lunch: Who would have thought I’d be so famished I wouldn’t mind eating lunch in a room with real (equine) blood stains demonstrating how blood dries when it hits various inclines.

Handcuffing and arrest techniques: I tried to handcuff my fellow writer with the cuffs upside down the first time. And then I was cuffed! The snick and cold metal felt exactly as I thought it would. See me in my sopping wet clothes? I’m still happy!

hostage negotiators
Bloodstain patterns and presumptive testing: The nice folks from Sirchie showed us tons of photographs of evidence and demonstrated how bleach and blood look when sprayed with a special chemical. The bleach actually was very pretty, the stain (illuminated purple) seeming to shift like fog blown by a breeze! Just like CSI (kind of). We also learned that blood seeps into cracks and crevices, under baseboards, and so when criminals clean up, they may forget these areas… and that blood can spatter upward (under tables)…

Psychological sleuthing: Dr. Katherine Ramsland gave a fantastic presentation that touched on victimology.

hostage negotiators
Evening reception: Sisters in Crime sponsored a reception… with cake, celebrating its 25th birthday. I’m so grateful for the organization, which also offered a discount to the academy. We also heard a presentation from a former officer about his experience during and after a shootout.

AND THAT’S DAY ONE! I collapsed into bed, completely exhausted, but it took me a while to wind down, and then I had some fairly strange dreams…

Saturday: First thing, six Guilford Tech Community College instructors and police staged a hostage situation. A sniper finished off the perp. Great, dramatic action and a really cool scope! (See 3 photos)

sniper from hostage dramatization

Women in law enforcement: Two instructors discussed how women law enforcement officers are sometimes treated differently, how shirts may not fit so snugly in various areas, how going to the bathroom takes time for female officers (because of stays on their belts to prevent the belts from being easily ripped away from their uniform), how inmates treat women correction officers… Great stories were told. And when the primary instructor talked to us like we were a misbehaving delinquent, her whole persona changed. It was almost as if she became someone else. It was amazing!

Police tools and equipment: Here we learned more about what officers carry and wear. A gun, at least two extra magazines, one to two pairs of cuffs, a flashlight, a baton, a taser, spray, a radio… and the list goes on!

Police tools and equipment. Thank goodness the guns
are fakes, especially since you see one writer
aiming the replica toward some other writer's face!
Police car simulator: My roomie actually drove the police car simulator. I watched another writer drive one for a few minutes… and get wrecked quite a few times as well (not stopping at intersections).

Going undercover to solve your crime: Fantastic presentation given by a former NYPD undercover cop. We saw an interesting video of a bust, also, with officers exiting from three buses simultaneously. I also learned I might need to visit a spy store and check out some gear.

Crime scene investigation: I didn’t get the bugs and smell the first day so I thought I’d try again. No such luck: I got a little bit of the smell and only a few bugs. But I did learn a lot about dead bodies and heard some very chilling stories.

Women’s personal safety & self protection: Ending the workshops with this instructor, a self-professed mean woman (though really she’s not… if you’re behaving) was great. We fight dirty and to survive… and the average fight lasts 3 minutes! We learned a few hands on techniques for fending off attackers, and we learned some tips for preventing attacks.

Evening banquet: Author Christopher Reich spoke, and I learned that his first advance was a whopping $700,000 and that his daughter rides horses… and he confirmed that wonderful piece of writing advice, attributing Mark Twain: apply pants to chair.

Here’s a photo of my academy friends, authors Nina Mansfield and Lauren Carr.

Nina Mansfield, Lauren Carr, and yours truly

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Imagination begins young

When I was a girl, my friends and I used to subject my brother to a game I called “Dress the Turkey.” It was a game I’d made up, and the object was to dress up as absurdly as possible and make someone else laugh. My poor brother learned very quickly that stuffing my blue pompoms down his shirt and singing and twirling around almost always produced a giggle.

At one point in our childhood, we lived in a house that backed about an acre of woods. We’d tear around the woods, passing different landmarks we'd named (as well as the shallow burial site of my first gerbil, Candy). The Monster’s Toilet was the bottomless, water- and muck-filled, heart-shaped hole where two sections of a tree joined. Big Dump Dump was a huge hollow where dead leaves collected. We’d jump in the leaves – the hollow was on a slope – and slide down. Big Dump Dump was near Little Dump Dump and also near Mr. Grouch (a real person, a made-up name), who was so named because he yelled at us when we dropped rocks down the cliff onto his property!

Now that I’m a parent, and now that I realize Mr. Grouch had a very good reason to be grouchy, I wonder how I can influence my sons’ imaginations. I think often imagination occurs best on its own – when you’re alone – when parents aren’t around. (Like writing a book – it seems to develop best away from outside critique, at least initially.) I prompt my boys to use their imaginations by imagining with them, pretending a leaf found on top of a slide is a pizza my son cooked for me in his own kitchen, and by playing with their toy figurines with them. But there’s only so much time I seem to be able to endure playing “little people” or doing “animal talk” before I grow incredibly weary. Perhaps this is as it should be: let the boys’ imaginations take on lives of their own.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Experience it yourself

Years and years ago, during orientation for graduate school, during the q&a when us green master of fine arts in creative writing students were gathered in some bland, windowless auditorium, I dared to ask about the university’s bus service. The head of the program responded. He said, if I wanted to know about it, I should get on a bus and ride. Don’t ask us professors, he said. Don’t ask us administrators. Go ride the bus. Or, at least, call the bus service itself.

My cheeks probably flamed red, and I ducked my head, chastised. After I recovered from my embarrassment, too-soft freshman that I was, I heard his advice. It resonated. As a writer, you must experience. Much of the craft, much of the writing, is written from personal experience.

This week, I get to go to the Writer's Police Academy. It's as close to being a law enforcement officer as I think I'm going to get, and many of the workshops sound extremely hands-on. I can't wait!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Where you’re from

In the South, where you’re from can be a big deal. A neighboring town, Cary, has been dubbed “Containment Area for Retired Yankees.” So you can begin to get the feeling that there’s at least some underlying resentment to nonnatives.

And we’ve got Southern writers: those men and women who are distinguished AND from the South. But, even if I was distinguished (I'm  not), I couldn’t comfortably say I am from the South.

When people ask me where I’m from, I often don’t know how to respond. I could say where I was born, but my family moved from that state before I could even form a memory of it. I could say I’ve been in North Carolina for the past couple decades, but that’s not really where I’m from.

My family moved along across the country as my father was transferred during his employment with a federal agency – no, his work wasn’t military or even remotely espionage related. He worked in agriculture. My first memory is of Illinois, then New Mexico (a place I truly love), then Virginia, and finally the state I call home: North Carolina. I can proudly note that, once I came here, I never abandoned North Carolina, save for the occasional vacation.

Often, when a Southerner asks me where I’m from, I’ll say where I was born but quickly and proudly tack on that at least I married a native North Carolinian. But the answer doesn’t truly resolve the question. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

When you don’t resolve everything

In writing a stand-alone novel, loose ends typically must be tied up, plot lines resolved. Otherwise, readers leave the book hungry, unsatisfied when they ought to feel full.

What about in a series novel? Should everything be tied up? Should all questions be resolved, all conflicts settled? To a point, not so much, I think.

In my first novel, Storm Surge, I introduce readers to a box owned by Daniel Wyeth, a detective. My main character peeks inside the box and finds a piece of black metal, which Daniel says is shattered. My main character wonders what would make metal shatter, but she backs off her pursuit of this knowledge when Daniel shows he’s uncomfortable speaking about it. By the end of the novel, the mystery of the contents of the box is not resolved.

Is that a problem? For one of my pre-publication readers, yes, she was/is frustrated the shattered metal is not explained. And I understand her pain. But part of the sweetness of a series can be the ongoing mysteries or conflicts that keep you coming back to find out what happens as the larger story evolves. My main character reaches an understanding that she will wait until Daniel is ready to discuss the contents of the book – this is all the resolution the reader gets in novel one. 

And, with Storm Surge, it’s not just the minor detail of the shattered metal that is left unresolved. Yes, the main mystery of the novel is completely solved, and the ongoing relationship dynamics enjoy a small resolution. For instance, my main character and her stepsister enjoy a respite from their all-out battle. But will it last? After all, the two characters have spent their entire lives fighting. The resolution provided at the end of Storm Surge hopefully is enough to fill readers up but open enough to become unraveled once more at the beginning of the second novel. After all, that’s part of the fun of a series. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Human-sized hot dog

My next door neighbor has a human-sized hot dog statue. I can’t tell if he’s plastic or concrete (or kosher), but he used to rest in her backyard. He’s very cute, with eyes and a plump tongue licking his upper lip in concentration as one skinny arm reaches up to spread ketchup in a neat spiral on the crown of his head.

Last year, or perhaps it was the year before, our neighborhood held a yard sale, and my neighbor stuck the hot dog out front with other various items for sale. Some teens drove by, several loaded into the bed of a pickup, and asked how much she wanted for the hot dog. She said a million dollars. Tires squealed and the sound of laughter rose from the bed of the truck as they zoomed away.

My neighbor also has two life-size blues brothers statues. Once, at dusk, I glanced out my back window and gasped at the bulky man in the dark sunglasses and hat staring back at me from over the fence. She’d moved one of the statues.

I’m not sure where the hot dog has gone; I’ve not peered over the fence looking for him recently. The summer humidity has kept me inside, and I don’t want to snoop. But I’ve begun to miss the silly grin and earnest eyes. And since the weather is beginning to cool down, perhaps I'll pay him a visit.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Looking forward to the Writer's Police Academy

In a couple weeks, I’ll be at the Writer’s Police Academy! I am so excited! As described on its website, the academy “offers the most hands-on, interactive and educational experience writers can find to enhance their understanding of all aspects of law enforcement and forensics.”

When I first found out about the academy, I knew I wanted to attend. But then I saw the whopping registration fee (at least it was whopping to me). I thought I wouldn’t be able to afford it. Then Sisters in Crime offered a HUGE discount on the registration fee for members. I couldn’t believe my luck! In a heartbeat I signed up.

What looks to be the most interesting workshop is the one where we’ll investigate a crime scene. We’re instructed to bring appropriate rain gear and insect repellent, and we're warned: “be prepared for all the smells and insects associated with death.” Um, yipes!

In addition, there will be workshops where we can search for contraband inside actual jail cells, learn about alternate light sources used in crime scene investigations, find out how search and rescues and arson investigations are conducted, learn about bloodstain patterns and fingerprinting... And that’s just a sampling of the first day!

So now, instead of trying to figure out how I’ll afford the academy, I’m stuck with a new dilemma: which workshops to attend.

I’ll be sure to bring my camera… and blog about the academy afterward. I can’t wait.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Natural Flavor: Guest blog: J. Lloyd Morgan of The Hidden Sun

I'm pleased to host J. Lloyd Morgan, author of The Hidden Sun, on this blog. A friend of mine with the Apex Writers Guild, Morgan's first novel was just published by Walnut Springs Press. The book, classified as medieval YA but enjoyable for adult readers also (this adult reader included), has characters that suck you in and don't let go and a plot that not only clips along at a quick pace but includes good number of unexpected turns – truly – events in the book I never saw coming. I am eagerly awaiting the sequel to be published by Walnut Springs in 2012. So, without further ado...

Natural Flavor

Dinner time at the Morgan household can be quite the interesting experience.  Aside from talking about the day's events, we'll talk about any number of things.  One thing I love to do is "acquaint" my four daughters to the music of the 80's.  You Tube is an amazing tool for such an activity.  It's something else to see your seven-year-old daughter doing the "Safety Dance."

There are other times when the kids will ask a question like, "Why does it say 'Tomato Ketchup?'  Are there other kinds?"  So, we'll look it up.  And yes, there are other types.  One we found was "Banana Ketchup."  That then leads to the question, "Why do they call it 'yellow' mustard?  Isn't it always yellow?"  The answer?  No, it can be brown.  Heck, with a little food coloring, it can be any color you want.

But we aren't content to leave things there.  We'll start reading the ingredients of various foods.  Doing this led to a rather shocking and somewhat disturbing discovery. 

Natural flavor. 

What the heck is natural flavor?  And why is it in so many different things?

For example, I randomly sampled things in my fridge and pantry and these are things I found that contain the mysterious "natural flavor":  Apple / Cranberry Juice, spray butter, mixed berry yogurt, salsa, maple syrup, mayo, mustard (yellow), ketchup (tomato), animal crackers, hot cocoa mix, tomato soup, chocolate frosting, root beer, granola bars, pudding and macaroni & cheese.  Whoever invented this "natural flavor" must be richer than Bill Gates!  I mean, it's in everything.

But as odd as natural flavor is, there is something even stranger:  artificial flavor.  I mean, how can flavor be artificial?  After all, it has to be made from something on the earth, right?  Does that mean if I mix chocolate and peanut butter, I've created an "artificial flavor?"  One thing I know for sure, "artificial flavor" and "natural flavor" are not opposites.  Of the items listed above, several of them had both natural and artificial flavors.  (Maple syrup, hot cocoa mix, chocolate frosting, root beer, and strangely enough, granola bars)  If they were opposites, wouldn't they just cancel each other out?  Or if it's like matter and anti-matter, wouldn't having both ingredients in the same product be dangerous?

However, of all the items I "investigated", there are two that were the most disquieting:  hot dogs and bologna.  Neither had natural nor artificial flavor--but both of them did share a common ingredient:  something simply called "flavor"--and thank goodness they did!  Can you imagine how they would taste without "flavor?"

And then there was the case of the mystery drink we had one night for dinner. It claimed to be lemonade.  I'm a virtual coinsure of lemonades (I guess that is a hobby you pick up when you don't partake of the strong drink) and this, my friends, was no lemonade.

Now my sweet wife tried to explain that there wasn't enough of the mix left to make real lemonade and it was actually just slightly flavored water.  However, it was yellow and smelled lemony--watered down or not, it was something I needed to investigate.

As to not get sued, I will not reveal the brand of the alleged lemonade.  But as I examined the container, a couple of things caught my attention right away.

#1.  It clearly states on the front that there are no "Artificial Flavors" in this mix. 

#2  Its selling point is "Lemonade Drink Mix.  Naturally Flavored with other Natural Flavor." 

Wait . . . 


"Naturally Flavored with other Natural Flavor?"  What does that even mean?

So, off to the back of the label I go.  There has to be some sort of explanation.  But no!  The ingredients were printed right where the lid joins with the jar--and when the lid was opened, the list of the ingredients was obliterated.  How you mock me you faux lemonade!

Hello!  What's this?  Below the ingredients in bold are the allergy warnings.  Let's see here.  This "so called" lemonade may contain traces of milk, eggs, coconut, wheat, soy and . . .tilapia.  Tilapia?  Isn't that some sort of fish?

Alas, if only the lemonade had traces of lemons in it.