Author Archives: Karen Whalen

Writing off December

You may notice that I didn’t say writing “in” December? The only thing I’ll be writing this month will be this blog post, addresses on envelopes for Christmas cards, and checks as gifts. I don’t even need to sign my photo Christmas cards—our names come pre-printed.

As luck would have it, this poem (mostly) popped out of my mouth while I was in the basement bedroom sewing Christmas presents. I believe this is the first poem I have written since grade school, over fifty years ago. And that one was better than this one.

I apologize in advance—the use of “poem” in reference to what is written below is hyperbole at its best/worst. I blame the poem and my willingness to post it to our esteemed blog on the stress I have been under as a result of December and Christmas.

Wonderful Time

Most wonderful time of the year. 
Kids must behave and adults gear
Up. Up. And up.
Photos to scour for cards and calendars. 
Hurry before Snapfish wants more of your dollars. 
Envelopes to address. Stamps to buy.
Cookies to bake and apple pie.
Presents to make.
Who spends time crafting presents anymore?
No one! That is what Amazon is for. 
Who gets what? How much? Oh, to heck with it. 
Everyone gets a gift certificate.
Secrets to keep.
A tree to cut and lights to string.
Decorations. Carols to sing.

Parties to attend and surprises to hatch.
Parties to plan and Hallmark movies to watch.
Do not forget
The Hallmark movie drinking game,
Carrots to leave for reindeer tame.

Stockings filled by Santa before milk and cookie,
Smiles of children at presents placed under the tree, 
Make it worthwhile.
Christmas night all is calm, the gifts put away.
We’ll do it all over, come what may.

  

 

 

 

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Rhymes with Reuben

The sleet snow hitting our skylight over the bed woke me up early this morning. Our first snowfall of the 2017-18 winter. Didn’t we just enjoy the warmest month of October on record? I loved every minute of those above-average temperatures.

I am happy to be up early today as in a few hours I will be on my way with Eleanor and Heidi to the New England Crime Bake in Woburn (rhymes with Reuben!!), Massachusetts. This is my second Crime Bake and I am expecting it to be even better than last year’s. I know I will return home motivated to finish my novel, “Clare.” Or any damn novel. 

Yet I won’t be able to devote all of my energy to that pursuit. We are nearing the end of a bathroom remodel and bedroom refresh. Another week or two and the ceiling, walls, and woodwork will be painted, the vanity and shower glass doors installed, and a new gray (to match the paint) blind will cover the skylight–which explains how I was woken by the snow hitting the skylight. This remodel reminds me of writing a novel. I’ll save that for a post when the remodel is done and I can discuss it rationally.

November is the month to hunker down and focus on interior projects. It must be on record as being the grayest month of the year. That’s why for the last few years I’ve looked forward to participating in NaNoWriMo. Not this year. “Clare” is the beneficiary of my attention, not a new project. I’m plotting–not pantsing–and I can see it’s benefits. I can’t believe I just wrote that.

Time to pack and head to Woburn. A bonus of leaving town? My husband is in charge of the painting in our bedroom. 

Was I lying??

After three consecutive years of winning NaNoWriMo, I’ve decided to take a break this year. And I’m already missing it.

You may recall that November is the only month during the year that I produce a measureable amount of writing. Is this really a wise decision?

It’s not because I won’t have time for it–there’s never enough time for it–but I’ve always managed to squeeze it in.

The problem is that I have numerous fifty thousand word drafts of novels floating around, begging to be revised and completed. Why would I want to add one more draft to those haunting me?

In 2014 my NaNoWriMo novel was It Takes a Village Store. I couldn’t remember what it was about so I quickly scanned it. Ahhh…Anne, Olivia, Christian, Emily, George, Mae. I remember them. In 2015 my NaNoWriMo was Full Circle. Anne, Olivia, Christian, Emily, George, Mae. In 1986 (I kid you not) I started Anne, which remains a work in progress. Anne, Olivia, Christian, Jeff, George, Mae.

As they are populated by the (mostly) same cast of characters, what if I eliminate all of the unnecessary stuff from each of them and create one complete novel? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that’s all I had to do? Wouldn’t I feel like a real author if I spent November doing that instead of writing a new story with a new cast of characters?

Of course I would. But. For me, there’s something magical about NaNoWriMo. It’s more than thirty days of focusing just on word count. It’s thirty days of creating lives, places, relationships, action. Without anyone criticizing my sentence structure, my choice of words, my story arc. It’s the freedom to get swept away by my characters, to ride the wave of my story, to float back to shore at midnight on November thirtieth, fifty thousand words richer.

If you’ve been following my posts, you might be wondering what happened to the murder mystery trilogy I bragged about recently. Oh, that trilogy, using the same rough drafts listed above. And adding Gabby, my 2016 NaNo winner, and Claire, my loser.

Confused?? Yeah, me, too. Maybe the best of use of November is figuring out what I am going to do with all of those drafts I have spent years crafting. With any luck, that might include producing one completed novel.

Finally, in a 2015 post, this is what I had to say about what I learned from NaNoWriMo that year: …I am able to write regardless of the circumstances. I don’t need the perfect chair…or to be in the mood to write. I can even write while indulging in (gulp) Hallmark holiday movies…Another lesson has been that it isn’t that hard to whip out a lot of words if I’m prepared to also whip out a lot of revising. In the future. Revising that I’m actually looking forward to doing. Not lying.

Stay tuned for the big reveal: to NaNo or not?

It’s not always what you think

Recently I took my mother to the local hospital’s Emergency Department for evaluation for a possible heart attack. We remained briefly in a packed waiting room where we overheard a mumbling man grumbling because they wouldn’t let him into the treatment area. Something was going on in there and they were keeping him from it.

As soon as a nurse escorted us through the closed door into the treatment area, I sensed a tension in the air, as before a hurricane hits. The hysterical wales and shrieks of a female that erupted throughout the ED indicated it had hit.

Someone had died. Right then and there. I just knew it.

Certainly she would be escorted out of the curtained area of the ED and into a private area where she could grieve. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being alone.  Maybe the man in the waiting room was a relative. Why wouldn’t they let him in?

The nurse guided us into a private room at the far end of the ED and a team of medical professionals swooped in and drew blood, hooked up monitors, inserted an IV, and wheeled in a portable x-ray machine. Suddenly it was just my mother and me. Bloody gauze littered the floor. The monitor blazed green, yellow and blue squiggles, its beeps a reassurance that life went on.

A methodic pounding now accompanied the howling. Even my hard of hearing mother heard it. We looked at each other and started laughing.

I stood near the open door of my mother’s room, hoping to glimpse a clue as to the tragedy that had struck. A male voice—the man from the waiting room, perhaps—loud, firm, annoyed. “If you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to lay down the law.”

For just a moment my mother and I relaxed into the quiet. When the howling started again a nurse closed our door, the noise muffled but not stopped.

We never learned what had happened to the young lady, we knew only what our minds could conjure, though I’m pretty sure no one had died.

It’s not always what you think, is it? Not so different from what happens with a murder mystery. As an author, I insert clues to mislead my fictional characters as well as my readers, who make assumptions based on the meager information I’ve doled out to them. The all-powerful author controls what the reader learns and when she learns it. The reader controls what assumptions and conclusions she makes. In the end, the author has the last word when she ends the suspense and reveals the murderer. What author doesn’t revel in that power?

Prayers for those impacted by Hurricane Irma.

Author’s prerogative

Recently a fellow writer from Thursday Night Writes and I were chatting remotely about things, many and diverse. She mentioned that she didn’t “understand higher anything. Math, grammar, economics, electronics.” My immediate response? “To write we don’t need to understand higher anything. We need to feel and be able to convey what we feel. That’s it.”

Brilliant. Honest. At that exact moment, that is what I believed. I feel therefore I can write. Four days later, I still believe it.

And yet…At our weekly meeting of the Thursday Night Writes group, another member, who is on her third or tenth revision of her current (and almost perfect and so close to publishable) novel, submitted a rewrite of her next chapter for our review.

Did her submission meet my criteria for conveying what she feels? Most definitely. Did we expect her to understand “higher anything”? Why yes, as a matter of fact, we did.

Last night we quizzed her on contract law, injunctions, town government, and zoning permits. Her lawyer character is a crackerjack of an attorney and naturally we expect her to possess the same legal knowledge that she has attributed to this character.

We moved on to building construction and architecture. A discussion of whether the curvature of the building is tight or more gradual led to conjecture regarding curved-glass windows vs. regular windows placed into the curvature of the wall. I don’t even understand what I am trying to say and I was there. And how could we overlook the intricacies of contractor penalties for missed deadlines?

I have to give her credit, she did not get up and walk out, she did not raise her voice and emit words learned from Anthony Scaramucci, she did not shut down and pretend to record our comments—all things I have done or wanted to do while I was being quizzed on my writing. Instead, the author pointed out our misinterpretations and said she would consider all comments. That’s the author’s prerogative and absolutely the correct response.

So maybe I was wrong. As authors, maybe we do need to do more than feel. Maybe we do need to have an understanding of the “higher anything” that we write about. And maybe we do need an inordinate amount of patience dealing with our writing group members who don’t have the same understanding.

Still trying to slay that dragon

Don’t be a Perfectionist. It will only lead to procrastination. And you know where that gets you quickly: NOWHERE!! Life’s too short–take a chance, make a mistake. You will still be loved, maybe even more than if you insist on being perfect.

I’ve never been a fan of the telephone. Before caller ID flashed on our television screen, before it flashed on just the telephone display, back when you didn’t know who was on the other end of the line, my husband or one of our daughters would have to answer the damn thing.

As for me picking up the phone and initiating a call? Not unless there was absolutely no other means of communication available.

Apparently I haven’t outgrown this. Yesterday waiting with my mother for her appointment with her cardiologist, I looked across the hall and spotted a fellow DAR member (Darlene) who has just moved back to the area and lacks email or internet service. The only means of remote communication with her is via the telephone. Darlene: I’ve been waiting to hear back from you. Me, vaguely gesturing toward my mother: I’ve been busy, sorry. (I couldn’t very well tell her about my issues with the telephone. The mental health department is right down the hall.)

Was I confident that if I waited long enough I would run into Darlene—who lives thirty miles away from me in another state? No, I’m not that bad. I would have called her. Eventually. When I couldn’t put it off another minute. And I mean minute.

Once again, with our random meeting, I was rewarded for my procrastination.

Stuart Little

I remember the first time I procrastinated. Not everyone remembers their first time, I bet. Second grade. My “Stuart Little” book report was due. It wasn’t a written book report. We had to dress up as a character for an oral presentation to the entire class. I pretended to be sick and stayed home from school.  After a day spent in bed moaning whenever my mother checked on me, the book report went well, mouse tail and all.

Once upon a time I was a teen. I eagerly awaited the ringing of the phone followed by long conversations when I stretched the curly telephone cord to its ironed length to talk to my friends, especially boyfriends, away from the watchful ears of my parents.

Then something happened and the Perfectionist switch was turned on full-time.

I have analyzed my extreme dislike of the telephone. Clearly I am more comfortable with the written word. I can edit my response, I can let it ferment, I can make certain that all information is accurate. I can be a perfectionist when I talk to people in writing. On the phone (or in person), who knows what will—or has—come out of my mouth.

My writing battle with perfectionism and procrastination should be well known to you by now. I still am trying to slay that dragon.

A long way to go before the butterfly emerges

Over the past two days I have written the following:  1) a confession by a murderer; 2) an abduction; 3) a car crash; and 4) a suicide—all of which transpire in the matter of about an hour or less. This is all part of the transformation of my novel, Anne, from women’s fiction to a murder mystery. Though I know it won’t be long until I have to rework the parts of the novel I’ve written in the past, for now I am having fun adding new scenes.

Yikes. Did I just say that I am having fun writing about people committing murder? The “real” me, not the “writer” me, does not like to think about people (or pets) dying. Who does? So how am I able to kill off my characters without shedding a tear? Heartless, I suppose. But only when it comes to fictional characters. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some credit to my fellow bloggers on Thursday Night Writes who have paved the way with their own heartless stories of murder and mayhem.

There’s still one more death to go but that one was written a few years ago as part of Olivia. Though originally the result of an accident, the death could benefit from a few tweaks to make it more sinister, maybe a full-fledged murder!

I’m excited to be reworking what I now realize was a flat story about family relationships into an exciting murder mystery, albeit not your typical Tana French mystery with a plethora of suspects. At this point in the writing I do not have any suspects, other than the guilty party. Naturally I’m concerned that the “zero suspects” approach will be less than satisfactory to “my” readers. But I remind myself that it’s still early in the process—the chrysalis has a long way to go before the butterfly emerges.

A lack of suspects isn’t my only concern with “Anne.” I’m afraid that I’m front-loading the novel with the stuff that keeps readers of murder mysteries turning the pages. 

Did I mention that I don’t have a sleuth? And many miles to go with Anne?

Tickled by Ticks

So that I wouldn’t end up boring our faithful readers with a regurgitation of a prior post, tonight I reread my recent blog posts. (Topics I was considering: genealogy, NO; my in-progress murder mysteries, NO; whining about my inability to finish any of my writing projects, NO. I wasn’t sure what was left to write about.) This followed my second shower of the day, a necessity after the excitement of finding two ticks crawling on my body, with no way to tell if there were any nestling in my hair.

Generally my husband handles all of the spiders and other unsavory creatures in the house. He was off grocery shopping. Lousy timing on his part.

My reaction to the discovery of the first nasty, vile, disgusting creature crawling on my upper arm was to flick it off with the tips of my fingers. He landed on our multi-colored granite counter and by the time I grabbed a paper towel and turned back to the counter, he was scampering away. I was faster and nabbed him with the paper towel (there is no way you can squish those buggers) then flushed him down the toilet.

I texted my daughter so that she would know that one of her ticks had traveled twenty-two miles home with me and she should check her children then settled on the couch to get caught up on the political news I missed today.

Just as I was about to take another bite of my peanut butter and jelly covered English muffin, I felt the telltale tickle on my leg of another tick. (Often those tickles are just phantom ticks–tricks of your mind.) I jumped up and flicked it onto the rug where it was extremely invisible. But I wasn’t. It found my bare foot. Flicked onto the rug again. Back onto my heel. (I may have screamed but since no one was here to hear it, we’ll never know for certain.) Flicked onto the hardwood floor where I could see it. I managed to capture him with a piece of notebook paper.

I flushed him as well. And watched him get sucked down the toilet into the pipes and out to the septic tank. That’s the plan, anyway. You can bet I won’t be using that toilet for a few days.

(Topics I wasn’t considering but wrote about anyway: ticks, YES!)

UPDATE: At exactly 4:52 a.m. I was startled awake by something crawling on my face. TICK!! I bolted out of bed, smashed at my face while frantically pounding the bed. I couldn’t see anything on the bed so I ran into the bathroom thinking it was still on my face. I flapped my bangs but didn’t see anything. I returned to bed and surprisingly fell back asleep. When I woke up a few hours later I found a dead spider on the bathroom sink. Not just dead but almost petrified.

Spider who Fell from the Skylight

Spider who Fell from the Skylight

Is it possible he fell from the skylight over my bed and landed on my face? If this were a novel I’d say of course it is, anything is possible.

I love my ladies

Spoiler alert…I’m indulging in some writer whining.  Again.

Tonight, a remake of a movie that holds a special place in my heart, “Dirty Dancing,” airs on ABC. Among many other negative reviews, TV Guide had this to say: “In an era where actual dirty dancing…has gone so mainstream that Katie Couric knows how to do it, this adaptation does not tango with the present…”

And yet, knowing that it will be a huge disappointment, I will watch it.

I’ve registered for the 2017 New England Crime Bake. Without allowing myself to consider what it would entail, I paid the extra $49 for the Agent and Editor Program, which includes critiques of a pitch and a query as well as the opportunity to pitch to an agent.

Initially I thought that I should pitch my current project, Gabby, at the conference. She’s nowhere near ready but if I focus on her I might be able to whip her into shape by November. What does pitching Gabby do to my plans for a trilogy that takes place in Woodbury, NH?

If I am committed to creating a trilogy, I am pretty certain it doesn’t make sense to pitch the novel that is chronologically the last one (Gabby). I am also pretty certain that it would be incredible if at the Crime Bake I could pitch a cohesive trilogy.

The truth is that in addition to Gabby, my other rough drafts are not ready to be pitched. Anne, Olivia, and Claire. Yes, that is four novels not three but Anne is begging to be joined with her daughter Olivia, and if I acquiesce, I will have a trilogy. But Anne has no murder. Or murderer. My list of characters reveals that I can change a death to a murder and provides a potential murderer. That was easier than I expected. Now for some suspects…

However, that is not the biggest issue with Anne and Olivia. It’s somewhat like Katie Couric and dirty dancing. The premise works for 1993, when it is set, but not so much in 2017. Will it be relevant to readers?

Claire is next. She has some flexibility as to when she takes place but as a senior citizen she is aging the longer she waits. Luckily, she is endowed with a murder, murderer and some suspects. And a man in the attic is timeless.

So now I’ve created a three-headed monster: Anne/Olivia, Claire, Gabby. Do I put Gabby aside and return to Anne/Olivia because she started all of this? Is what I’ve invested hours of time and brain cells into worth resuscitating? Or am I trying to breathe life into a bunch of Word files that I would be better off jettisoning into the Trash folder?

Funny how I can hear a little voice in my head, let’s call him John, giving me some advice—most likely because I have posed this same question to my writing group numerous times. Don’t worry about a trilogy, just focus on getting one novel in good shape so you can pitch it in November. Burn those early writings. They were just practice. And that’s just some of what I assume his advice would be.

But I love my ladies.

I’m (still) a Genealogy Junkie

My road down the path to becoming a genealogy junkie started innocently enough, as I imagine it does for many addicts. (See my blog post of September 13, 2016, A Pilgrim in the Family.) My husband’s family is my drug of choice.

When my research revealed that Bailey Clough, my husband’s fourth great-grandfather, of Lyman, NH, fathered Helen Luella Clough at the age of sixty-nine, I knew I had some digging to do. I located Historical Sketches of Lyman New Hampshire, written by E. B. Hoskins and published by Charles P. Hibbard in Lisbon, NH, in 1903.

 

Historical Sketches of Lyman

Historical Sketches of Lyman New Hampshire

If these sketches are brief and contain little of deep interest, it is because Lyman is a small farming town, and its history has been quiet and peaceful, with no events of a remarkable character.

I smiled when I read this. It is how I envision Woodbury, NH, home to Gabby, Anne, Olivia, Em, Lexi Rae, Claire, Louise. Nothing has happened here of a remarkable nature. Until now.

Finally, on page sixty, I found the Clough family: William Clough served in the French and Indian war three years, was captured by the foe and carried to France, where he was kept a year or more. He entered the Revolution without enlistment, and was at the battle of Bunker Hill. His children were, namely: Zacheus, Enoch, Bailey, Cyrus, Abner, Jeremiah, Elizabeth, and Dorcas.

Turn the page and there’s virile Bailey: Bailey Clough, son of William, married Susannah Smith, sister of Reuben Smith, Nov. 28, 1799. Their children were, namely: James, born in 1801; David, born in 1803; Darius, born in 1809; Benoni, born in 1812; Chester Hutchins, born in 1822; Susan; and Bailey.

Aha. Bailey had a son with the same name. And Helen isn’t listed among the offspring of Bailey Senior. The son must be the father. If the children are listed in order of birth date, which the author generally did, then Bailey would have been born after 1822. As Helen was born in 1838 or 1839 or even 1841 (I think she lied about her age so that she wouldn’t appear to be ten years older than her second husband), it’s hard to believe that her father was the younger Bailey.

I scanned all of the biographies in the history hoping to find something to link Bailey Clough, senior or junior, and the daughter, Helen, and the wife, Lydia. Nothing there, nothing in Ancestry.com, nothing in Find A Grave, nothing in Wikitree. I can’t believe I’ve reached a dead end in the nineteenth century.

I’m mentally exhausted. And ready for a trip to another cemetery!!

PS After writing this post I was itching to resolve the Bailey Senior/Junior mystery. I returned to Ancestry.com and looked at some other family histories (the least reliable source of information) that I had ignored earlier. Some more research and I am closer to saying that Junior was married to Lydia Stevens and was the father of not just Helen Luella but also Martha Ella. (And I get complaints about the names of my characters!) Bailey Junior was born in 1817, making him old enough to be Helen’s father. He died around the time that Martha was born so it is conceivable that Helen went to live with relatives, as the 1850 census shows her living with an eighty-year old Bailey Clough and possibly her aunt and uncle.

Mystery almost solved…now to get to work on my own mystery.

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