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Notes From the Handbasket

The blog belonging to Laura Benedict, relentlessly cheerful and occasionally serious writer of disturbing, suspenseful fiction for grown-ups. This URL is an archive. I blog regularly at my website, Follow me there!

Updated: 2017-08-13T16:25:48.794-04:00


"I Can't. I Have to Practice."


This is my childhood piano: A Baldwin spinet that was already seven or eight years old when my parents bought it. I was about nine when it came to live at our house, so we're roughly the same age. It was long both the instrument of my torture and my delight. Maybe I've written here about playing the piano before--if I have, please forgive me. I have a terrible memory. It's selective, and sometimes plays tricks on me. I honestly can't remember if anyone told me as a child if they liked hearing me play on the piano. That doesn't mean they didn't say it. My memories of childhood are often melodramatic, with me as the hard-done-by star. (See? Even then I was making up stuff.)But there's one thing I do remember. I remember not liking to practice very much. The worst part for me was knowing that other people could hear me make mistakes. In piano practice! Sounds crazy, doesn't it? I was pretty sure at the time that I should be able to sit down and play without mistakes the first time I saw a piece of music. Never mind that no one else in my family played an instrument or read music. We never listened to recorded classical music or went to concerts. (We did see Mac Davis at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds when I was about 11. It rocked my world. Seriously.) If you have a child (not a Mozart-like genius child) or sibling who started playing an instrument at a young age, you know that the first year or so can be a time of utter musical hell. Sure, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is adorable when it's massacred the first five or six times, but after twenty or thirty times you want to stab a fork in your eye. (This will probably come as a shock to my opera singer of a daughter who has been playing the piano since she was ten. But she rarely reads this blog anyway!) I was hyper-aware of every misplayed note as a child, and still am.The other thing about practicing that I disliked was having to sit down at the piano on a regular schedule. I never could bear a schedule. I like unpredictability. Whimsy. A certain degree of chaos. (It's part of the ADHD package.) If I expected myself to know the music immediately, I also had to be able to sit down and plat it at any given time. Without warning. Fortunately, I was usually required to play right after school because that was really the only time that was available. Maybe when my mom was fixing dinner, too. But when everyone was home in the evening or on weekends--particularly my dad--I was very self-conscious. I didn't like it much, but in that way the after-school schedule worked for me. It was my accidental safe time, and whatever progress I made, I made then.I still resist a schedule. I'm excellent at setting schedules for other people. Take this very moment. It's midnight and I'm writing this piece. But an hour and a half ago, my fourteen year-old came into the kitchen all brushed and flushed and ready for bed. He kissed me goodnight at 10:30, his regular summer bedtime. During the school year he's in bed at 9:15. Never misses. Why? Because he has parents who understand the need for schedules.Me? Sometimes I think I need a parent standing over me, telling me when to go to bed. When to write. When to start dinner. I rebel against the schedule every day. I am my own worst, most neglectful parent.Except.Sometimes I really, really want something. I want something so badly that I'm willing to take the risk of other people hearing/seeing/reading what I'm doing. I want something so badly that I'm willing to do it for days and days and years and years in a row so I can get better at it. I'm thinking of writing here, of course. For me, at least, decent writing doesn't grow out unregulated chaos. It grows out of a semblance of order: a blank background on a laptop. A quiet house. More than five hours sleep a night. And other people know I'm doing it. They may not hear the words I'm putting on the page, but they know exactly what I'm doing. Maybe making a fool of myself, making lots of mistakes.Regular practice makes everything better. Although I'm not a swim parent, one of my favorite bumper st[...]



Today was a holiday. Holiday. Holy Day.

Officially, it was a holy day of obligation, which means I should've been at church bright and early, mindful of the children tripping over one another at the Easter egg hunt, and sharing communion with my church family. But for various reasons I didn't make it there this morning.

As a child, a holiday to me meant a mindless disregard for routine. Pleasurable abandonment. New clothes quickly wrinkled and soiled with dabs of chocolate, or even backyard dirt. There were no obligations beyond showing up for dinner, and getting back in the car to go home when the fun was over.

Today was the kind of holiday the grownup me adores. A rare sort of day. The work I did was effortful, but love-ful, too.

It was a meal well-prepared and well-shared. Music played. A garden explored. My mom's laughter. My children's smiles. Sunshine.

Sanctification of my life. Amen.

Interview: Mystery Doyen Carolyn Haines and the Secrets of R.B. Chesterton


Carolyn Haines, wildly prolific author of over 70 (!) books, has been on my radar screen for a long, long time. But I've just gotten to know her a little better, and I want to introduce her to you, too.Carolyn writes and lives way down in Alabama, and while I think she would laugh heartily at my characterizing her as a plucky southern belle, I think it's safe to say she's a very busy southern belle: She writes at least two books a year, teaches writing at a university, runs the Good Fortune Farm Refuge for animals, travels frequently to meet with fans and friends, and, as if that weren't enough, she organizes Daddy's Girls' Weekend, a reader and writer's conference in Mobile, Alabama. (She's even put together a cookbook to raise funds for the animal refuge. I'll put a link here just as soon as it's available.)Most readers will recognize Carolyn from her popular Sarah Booth Delaney Mysteries. (BOOTY BONES, #14, will be out in May.) But last year Carolyn took on the pseudonym R. B Chesterton, and steered her imagination to the darker side of mystery and suspense--dare I even say the word horror? Why, yes, I do.Her first Chesterton novel, THE DARKLING, appealed immediately to my own dark little heart. It's a true Southern gothic, with a storied old house, an abandoned hotel, an energetic young governess, and someone or something lurking out in the nasty old woods. And death. There's plenty of that, too.THE SEEKER, Carolyn's second horror novel, is just out this month. The setting is far distant from the South: Walden Pond in Massachusetts. When Aine, a young graduate student with a troubled past, finds herself in possession of her great-great-great aunt's diary, she prepares to upset everything the world thinks it knows about Henry David Thoreau. She has proof that Thoreau was not alone at Walden Pond--her ancestor Bonnie was there as his confidante, companion, and lover. But the project is fraught with bizarre, ghostly events. Someone is stalking Aine in truly chilling ways. And when local residents begin to die, she's both a suspect and the ultimate target.Because I am generally plucky and always want to know more about everything, when I was finished reading THE SEEKER I pestered Carolyn with some questions about it. And because she is a friendly, polite, and tolerant person, she kindly answered them.Welcome, Carolyn!I love how The Seeker has firm geographic roots...From Ireland to Rhode Island to Eastern Kentucky to Concord, Massachusetts. There's a sense of the Cahill curse spreading from the old world to the new. Given that the US is such a young country, how is possible, do you think, that we very quickly developed such an incredibly rich tradition of dark tales and legends?I think a lot of it has to do with the people who settled America--so many were hardship cases. And many were persecuted for religious beliefs, which can often lead to dark places. If you believe in good, then you must believe in evil. Then there's the whole genocide of the Native Americans, which is pretty dark. My heritage is mutt, with a lot of Swedish and Scot and Irish. There's such a love of story and the oral tradition associated with the Irish. And Aine Cahill, my protagonist, is of course, Irish. I also think that most people love spooky tales. There's a real delight in being a little bit scared while in a safe armchair with a fire burning bright. The exercise of the dark imagination is very healthy--or at least I think so.Just recently I read a list of things writers should avoid writing about, and high on the list was academics. Yet you're able to keep Aine, a graduate student, vibrant and compelling all the way through the book. She does engage in a lot of research. Was it hard not to follow her down research rabbit holes, bringing the reader along?I've heard this all my writing life. Don't write about academics or writers. And I could have constructed the story so that Aine was a writer, digging into the past. But the character had to have a compelling reason to mov[...]

Writing Life: Listening for the Story


I'm so glad nature knows what it's doing.

Here we are at the end of March, and spring, whether winter likes it or not, is finally here. Not so as you could tell by the thermometer, but the signs are all around. The branches of my rose bushes are tipped in red, the iris and tiger lilies are pushing up through their thin blanket of fallen leaves, and the peepers are singing in the woods. The peepers started the day I returned from a quick trip to Indianapolis to visit the wonderful librarians attending the Public Library Association conference. It was a fabulous welcome home.

Traveling to places to talk about books is a world away from writing them. I write in my house, or at the library or my #Paneraoffice, and I'm incredibly boring to watch while I'm doing it. (Though you might be amused to see how many times an hour I get up to grab a handful of goldfish crackers or chocolate chips, or to make a cup of herbal tea.) There are only two (sometimes three) people with whom I share details of a book while I'm in the midst of writing it. Not because I'm worried that someone won't like the idea, or will steal it. But because a novel is just a selection of possibilities arranged in a particular order at a given time. It's the selecting that's hard, and it has to be done just right, or there's no story at all. Only a string of clumsy or lovely or puzzling vignettes. Until they've been woven into a cohesive order, there isn't much to share that would make any sense.

Here's the funny thing: I've written six novels, and every time I begin a new one, I forget exactly how I wrote the preceding one. I approach each new story--or possibility of a story--with a deep sense of wonder. As in, "Huh. I wonder what the hell is going to happen next." If I sit down to it something is sure to be there. And more somethings will follow. I just have to be patient.

The novel I'm working on now has the voice of a woman--a quite distinctive voice. I've written stories in first person, but never an entire novel. It's unfamiliar territory, exciting and intimidating at the same time. Her words are mostly whispers now, but I am hearing more every day. I believe what she's saying and trust she knows the whole story.

I envy nature. I trust nature. It's programmed to push through the leaves and weather and even rocks or water. It has a cycle of birth and growth and death and rebirth. It doesn't have to fill in the blanks or make stuff up--"Hey, today I woke up with an extra wing. What in the heck do I do with it?" Or, "Where did I put my stamen-thingy? Am I actually supposed to have one of those?" No. All is elegance with nature. Sometimes the elegance is untidy, and there are the occasional mutations, but nature is generally predictable. While I'd hate to be overly predictable--especially in my work--I am truly grateful for the predictability around me.

So, welcome spring. Please stay a while, and let me find strength and wonder in you.

Being Present


Growth is messy.I uploaded this photo of our ravine without taking a really good look at it. I was fixated on the late afternoon sun peeking over the hill and treetops, and thinking "light! life!" *cue angelic chorus* But seeing the whole image, I'm reminded that there's much more going on here. Buttressing the trees is an enormous amount of undergrowth. It's a 40-foot-deep ravine, full of rock shelves and dirt. The bushes and plants lining it are either completely dead or struggling for life and light. Among them live snakes and rabbits and probably coyotes. Turtles, toads, and spiders. Ferns and flowers. And a lot of prickly plants that keep me from getting anywhere close to the heart of the ravine. It's a living, breathing metaphor.But metaphors are by definition profound, yes? They carry weight. And seriousness.I did actually come here to be serious today. It's the end of 2013, and a girl's thoughts turn to the oncoming year. Oncoming. Like a freight train with a big, brilliant light bearing down on me like an out-of-control fireball. (Do I sound anxious? Maybe a little. I've tried to make anxiety my friend, but it hasn't worked so well. I'm working on just accepting it as a badly-gagged, handcuffed-to-me companion.)I have so much to look forward to this year. My daughter has graduated from college and is, she hopes, headed for grad school. My son will move on to high school. The farther they move ahead, the less I will need to fret about the details of their lives. (They hope so, anyway!)  BLISS HOUSE, my next novel, will be published in June. My Sweet Husband has hinted at exciting new projects. With some luck, the perennials will bloom again in the garden. Every day that I wake up alive will be--like a sacrament--an outward sign of God's grace.This year, as I thought about how I want to frame my thoughts about the coming year--a resolution, if you will--I read Laura Lippman's compelling essay about her one-word resolution for 2014. (Link below.) In the past I've distilled my resolutions into a sentence or two. As fond as I am of lists, I have a short attention span and can't deal with too many boxes to check off. Coming up with just one word has been a challenge, but I like the simplicity of the idea.Perhaps it's an age thing, but I really do see the future coming at me at a furious pace. I think about it all the time. I find myself counting years and the things I might stuff into them. How many books can I write before I die? If I have grandchildren at all, will I be too old to enjoy them? What if Venice sinks before I can get there? Will I really never travel in a first class cabin on a trans-Atlantic liner? Will I really never become a voice actor or an architect? What if I die and my office is still a disaster and how will anyone find anything? All my life I've imagined that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way--What if I've been wrong all this time? Will I have a chance to get it all right?Anyone who has ever sat alone in a room with a therapist knows that this kind of projection is a direct route to disaster. It's fine to have a bucket list--but it has to be a list. Not a guilt-heavy scuttle full of anticipatory regret. Anticipation is the thing, isn't it? The dangerous thing that comes in both positive and negative flavors. But anticipation of any sort overlooks one really important detail: the present.It's a lesson I have to learn over and over again. Take care of the present and the future will take care of itself. It's an old axiom, but so relevant. The passage of time is unrelenting. Age is unrelenting. But the present is always, always with us.How many times have I betrayed the present? Worried about my next book contract or story instead of focusing on the page in front of me? Looked surreptitiously at my phone while my son was telling me a joke or one of his famous random factoids? Missed a transcendent moment in a film because I prefer to multitask with a puzzle or my needl[...]

Too Close


Sometimes we can be too close to a thing.Over the past few weeks, when I've only been putting between three and four hundred words a day on the next Bliss House manuscript, I've felt as though I were operating a kind of microscope in reverse. Observing tiny dots of detail backwards through the lens, not exactly certain how they will work in the universe at large.Or maybe a better example is a pointillist painting. Pointilism is a school of art that uses tiny dots to create a larger image. One of the most famous practitioners was Georges Seurat. Here's a detail from one of his paintings, A Sunday on La Grand Jatte.If you look closely, you can see that the figures are not well-defined. The woman's eye appears only to be a suggestion of an eye. The young girl has no features on her face at all. Only shadows. Pointillists didn't blend their colors--they grouped individually colored dots so that they would create another color altogether.Seurat's work is highly stylized, but when viewed at a distance, the painting looks much more like life.While the lengths of my paragraphs vary, you might imagine 300-400 words as two long or three relatively short paragraphs. Or you might think of it as a brief conversation between two characters, which is what I worked on today. In that conversation, a new, minor character is introduced, but his presence and actions will have a huge effect on the protagonist/narrator's life. But I spent the majority of my writing time on his mannerisms, his speech (or lack thereof), and the assumptions that Charlotte (the protagonist) makes about him. I suspect the reader won't think much about him when he first appears. He seems insignificant. Collectively (bear with me here!) he is a moustache, tight skin, paint-stained clothes, a haircut from another era, a nervous laugh. He is a character whose significance will only be apparent after another 10,000 words.Two days ago I was working on a single dinner party scene. And before that, an intense marital negotiation that lasted only a few seconds.But too many days of small movements forward on the book are beginning to wear on me. How long, I wonder, did Seurat labor over the shape of the rose on a man's lapel? Did he immediately move on to the flower on the woman's hat? Or did he pencil in the small boats on the river. (I'm just guessing, but I suspect he had the entire painting sketched and measured out well before he picked up a brush. I don't outline my novels all at once, and then fill in the prose. But that's a whole other blog post--at least.) It's time for me to step away and at least sketch out the next few chapters. I fear I have lost my way. Though this happens with every book I write. The middle gets muddled for a while until I can re-focus on the big picture again.This is a good time for this to happen. With the edit coming next week, I still have a few days to read what I've written and see how the pieces fit together. (More on that, soon!) 40,000 words in. Not quite halfway. I'm ready to peek at the big picture. (I know. Terrible pun, that. Can't be helped.)Oh, and happy Friday the 13th!--L.(Fiction word count: 475)[...]

Not Quite the Gift of the Magi


The next eight days or so are going to be very compressed for me. I have word that the first edit for BLISS HOUSE should land in my inbox on or about December 18th, and after it arrives I will need to hide myself away for about a month to work in those changes. I'll also be working in a lot of changes of my own that will tie it into the next Bliss House novel in the series. But for some reason, the people in my life don't think it's a great idea to put Christmas off until I'm all done with the edit. Go figure. So I'm playing Santa, 8th grade room mother, cookie maker, and gift wrapper and shipper until the book gets here. Anything that doesn't get done before then...won't.Today I did a reasonable job adhering to a semblance of a schedule: getting the boy off to school, dropping off a car to be serviced, working out, writing, kid pick-up, errands, piano (another blog!), making/serving dinner, walking the dogs. I even snuck in a ten minute power nap. You'll note there wasn't a lot of Christmas-themed activity there--no cookie-making, no Santa. Somehow I meant to do those things. I knew I wanted to do a blog, too, to be consistent. So instead of checking things off my to-do list tonight, I started writing a very complex blog about Twitter (a subject I've covered here before), figured out how to save a screen shot (No, it's not 2002. I know.), realized I didn't have all the numbers I needed, and had to stop because there was no way I'd get the piece done before I passed out from exhaustion.I'm time-challenged. Seriously, I have no concept of the passage of time or how long it actually takes me to do things. Sure, I know how long it takes me to drive into town and back. And I know it takes me 40 minutes to get dressed and out the door from the moment I step into the shower. (But I almost always figure I can get it done in 20, which means I'm late for pretty much everything.) I can poach salmon in 8 minutes, and bake a pizza in 13. Don't ask me what time dinner will be, though, because unless I'm cooking something that comes in a box (which I almost never do), it is sure to be almost exactly 15 minutes later than I tell you it will be.The time thing is another part of the ADHD life package. It's a wonder I get anything completed at all. So you can see why I have to be serious about getting Christmas done a week before Christmas day arrives. And already I'm a day behind!This was my plan: put up a short, sweet little blog about something silly I did earlier this year when I went to buy a gift for my beloved, then spend the rest of the evening checking off my to-do list. Because I'm stubborn, and want to keep my plan even after I've blown it up (I do this all the time--drives the people around me crazy.), here's my little story.Beloved Husband and I don't make a big fuss for Valentine's Day. We've always celebrated it at home, with the kids, having decided long ago that crowded restaurants do not a pleasant evening make. We don't exchange big gifts. Just small, fun things.One of the things I bought for Beloved Husband was a custom coffee mug from the delightful Zazzle people. They'll let you put pretty much anything you want on any surface, but a mug seemed safe. I ran across a sample that said, "In Love With...[insert name here]" I thought it was an adorable idea. So I ordered him one.You can see that it says, "in love with Pinckney." And I am.I confess I had a moment's pause when I ordered it. Should it say "in love with Laura?" Or "in love with Pinckney?" I chose "Pinckney" because, well, I didn't want to be presumptuous. Of course, I assume he's in love with me. He tells me so all the time. But it just seemed pushy to me, to give a man a coffee mug that proclaims that he loves me. We've been married 23 years, but I still like to keep a little mystery, make sure I don't take too much for granted. So I gave him the one that proclaimed my love for him.Reader, he was a[...]

Permission to Create


If I don't do it, who will?If you're walking down an empty street far away from the nearest fire station, and come upon a burning house, you're going to have to ask yourself this question if you suspect someone inside needs rescuing. The question is also going to come up if you're the only adult in the house and a (relatively) giant spider needs to be removed from the bathroom wall. There are times when we as individuals have to act--or the job just doesn't get done.But when it comes to writing, the question hardly ever needs to be asked. There are plenty of people capable of writing novels, essays, news stories, video games, treatises, poems, etc. And there's only one meaningful difference between a writer who has a book, or books, on the shelf, and the people who only imagine that they might: the writer has given himself or herself permission. (This also applies to any artist or craftsperson.)Permission is a funny thing. We first look for it from our parents, then try to elicit it from our peers as we try to validate our first timid choices. As adults, we sometimes continue to look for permission and validation from other people, even though we are supposed to be the authority in our own lives. I'm talking about giving other people the power to decide if we should be allowed to act. And I'm not talking about permission to do something dangerous--climb a mountain, jump out of a plane or race motorcycles. I'm talking about asking for permission to use our creativity. Permission to sit around and MAKE STUFF UP. Do mental fingerpainting. Amuse or edify ourselves and others. How messed up is that?The worst part is that there isn't really anyone there for us to ask. Seriously, has anyone ever said to you, as an adult: "You want to draw a picture/compose a song/make up a dance/make stories up and write them down on paper? No way! That's stupid. No one will like it. No one will want to see it, or hear it, or read it. What are you thinking?" If they have, my advice would be to get away from that person very, very quickly. Chances are though that there is no one telling you this stuff except the voices in your head. (The secret is that they're all your voice, disguised as other people. Weird, huh?)I battle those voices every day. Every day is a new opportunity to shut them up and give myself permission. Okay, opportunity is a bullshit way of saying it's a really big challenge that I come up against every time I sit down at the computer or open a notebook. The writer who says he or she has never had that experience is either a freak of nature (in a good way) or a sociopath who is incapable of self-doubt and introspection. It's a huge deal. It's that moment when I have to take a deep breath and say, "All that matters right now is that I get the words down on the page." It happened the first time for me when I was 22 and sitting at a banged-up, used desk in a St. Louis studio apartment that I couldn't afford without my parents' help. It was only a handful of words, and I was scared to death that someone might see them. And scared to death that no one would ever see them. I was alone, but I felt like every person I had ever known was watching, and judging. Finally, the pencil met the paper. Nonsense ensued, but no one stopped me. I was stunned and giddy.The act of creating is reliving that moment every day. If you're of a certain age, you'll remember that shampoo instructions always read, "Lather. Rinse. Repeat." (Eventually we learned that just one lather and rinse per shampooing was necessary--the repetition was to sell more shampoo.) The act of creating is new every time you sit down to do it. It only starts to feel natural if you make it a habit.Some days I give myself permission readily. Some days I screw up and find myself divided, withholding permission from myself as though I were my own rotten parent. But if I want to keep getting[...]



The snow was so deep that I had to put on my rain wellies to keep my socks dry when I went outside to feed the birds Friday evening. Thursday, I had added a big scoop of sunflower seed to the main feeder and jerry-rigged a broken suet feeder so the more adventuresome woodpeckers (we get many down woodpeckers at the feeders) could stop pecking at the treated post and eat suet, instead. I have a third feeder that holds thistle for the smallest birds, clingers, like wrens and finches. But by Friday afternoon, the sunflower seed was nearly gone and the ground-feeders were on the hunt.Juncos are ground-feeders who adore thistle. They stray from the feeders and come hang out on the porch, looking for seed. So, of course I put a little out there for the pleasure of both the birds and our (indoor) cat.Here's a junco. They're pretty cute. (From couldn't get a good shot through the window.)The masses of birds (cardinals, juncos, woodpeckers, pigeons, tufted titmice, plus one squirrel) were the first thing I noticed when I looked out of the window at 6:45 a.m. Sure, there was plenty of snow. But substantial snow cover means ground feeders can't find food easily. I feed birds all year round, though winter and nest-building season in early spring are the busiest times. I used to stress out about feeding too many squirrels. Honestly, we don't have that many that hang around the feeders. With 12 acres of woods, and plenty of forest around us, we get only the lazy few near the house. What I do mind are the chipmunks and moles who tunnel all around our house and yard (and in my garden!), drawn by the grubs that feed on whatever the birds leave behind. A few years back we had a professional mole trapper come, but after he charged us $250 for catching 10 or so, he gave up, saying that he could never make them all go away because of the huge population. I deal with them tunnel by tunnel when they show up in the spring.I was glad I'd banked up the feeders Thursday since I didn't care much for going outside on Friday. My obsessive driveway scraping rather wore me out so that I started dreaming where I was sitting Thursday night around 10:30. At one point Friday afternoon I was trying to remember where I'd seen lines of men in gray overcoats carrying giant, yellow, symbol-covered, triangular traffic signs in their arms as they paraded up and down a city street. Then I remembered that brief dream.I wrote some fiction, finishing up a chapter that will be in a book that will eventually be another BLISS HOUSE novel. (BLISS HOUSE is a fictional, haunted Virginia house built after the Civil War. It is stuffed full of stories, and I'm not sure how many novels it will take to tell them all.) I've been struggling all week to get a good solid block of writing time in, and I finally did. In order to do it, I had to turn off my phone for 3 hours. I thought it might kill me, but I did it! And it was definitely worth it.So, the birds are fed and the pages are written. For now. It was a good day.Below is a gratuitous pic of Miss Nina, our cat, as she looks out for birds in the snow. I posted it on Facebook, but I like it so much, I wanted to share it here, too. Plus, it looks like she's balancing a tree on her nose, which is all kinds of awesome.--L.(Fiction words written today: 1296)[...]

Ice and Rain


There's something about an incoming snow storm that makes me feel like nesting. Instead of writing, I spent most of the afternoon scraping our very long driveway of 1/4 inch of sleet. There's a large hill involved, and my beloved had yet to return from teaching his last classes of the semester. I confess I was also thinking of the predicted several inches of snow. It's one thing to have snow on the driveway, but quite another to have a thick layer of ice below it that must melt before the driveway is passable.

I didn't ask the boy to help right away. I liked the solitude of the afternoon, the rhythmic sound of the shovel blade against the asphalt. The road that runs along our property is steep, so I was able to watch the progress of the light traffic. The school bus had no problem, and neither did the Amish children in their horse-drawn buggy as they headed to their homes near the orchards. (They attend classes at a house a couple of miles away.) I worked for about an hour and a half with the dogs playing nearby. By the end of that time, the road had become more treacherous and a Jeep and a pickup truck were both stuck on the hill for a good amount of time. The drivers figured it out, finally. One made it up the hill, the other backed down very slowly. Scout, our Rat Terrier/Rottie mix, barked his encouragement, and thus assured that none of the drivers pulled in our driveway to ask for his assistance.

The sleet had turned into a light rain by the time we reached the gate, and I called the boy outside to help clear the parking area up near the house. He was excited--mostly, I think, about the prospect of popcorn and hot chocolate at the end of our task. We worked for another 1/2 hour, while the dogs got soaked and chewed on sticks. The boy was not delighted when I headed down the driveway again, pushing away the small amount of sleet/snow that had accumulated all over again. But I felt compelled. I wanted it clear, clear, clear. When I reached the bottom third, I looked up to see him wearing a look of disbelief. I'm always engaged in overkill--a perfectionist at heart. Of course it was a Sisyphean task. As I type now, hours later, I can hear more sleet against the window. I had been thinking never enough, never enough. But sometimes we just have to say enough is enough. I called the dogs and we trudged up the hill again to go inside.

Now we are cozy. Beloved is home. School is cancelled for tomorrow. It was definitely enough.

(Fiction word count today: 0)

Can You Unplug?


How hard is it for you to unplug? To turn off your cell phone, computer, tablet, television (yes, television counts)?I'm finding it increasingly hard to do. The last few days I've found myself obsessively checking Facebook and Twitter. I've begun to suspect it has something to do with my addiction to natural dopamine. In the last few months I've had to cut out all caffeine, the darkest chocolate, long naps, and most alcohol (no one is up for exercising in the evening after a glass or two of wine). Dopamine is all I have left--well, perhaps I still get a little adrenalin rush when I know I'm running late, but I'm going to discount that because I don't really go many places. When I see those tiny number icons and text alerts, my heart goes pitter-pat and I drop everything.Other excuses I have for staying plugged in: Children. What if they can't text me if they need me?; Friends. Ditto for them.; Email. Vital VITAL information about work, friends and family news, and shopping comes through every hour or so. My spouse is a good sleeper. I stay up late. Solitaire relaxes me. Netflix relaxes me. And then there's reading! I have Kindle, Nook, and Pages on my iPad. It must be nearby ALL THE TIME. As far as the television goes, sometimes I like it for company in a distant room because I'm alone with the critters in the house much of the day. But I really don't need the actual television. Every other screen I own--laptop, tablet, desktop, phone--can show me all the films or television shows I want.Then there's the biggie: I work on a computer. The only device that's almost always as close to me as my phone is my laptop. That's where I do my thinking, where I compose my stories. (Though I prefer to write non-fiction/blogs on my desktop.)I'm exhausted with it all. But apparently not exhausted enough to put everything away for a day. Or even an hour. If I'm stern with myself, I will keep my phone in another room during writing hours. I can still hear its little cries, calling to me. "I'm here! Here I am! I can make you haaaaaappy!"Have you read Hamlet's Blackberry? It's an excellent (short) book on connectedness and technological dependence and its costs. Tiffany Shlain is prolific on the subject, and there are plenty of articles out there. And here's a new piece on how tech-deprivation can cause high anxiety.I have lots of work to do over the next several months. Don't we all? With the winter holidays coming up, my life is pasted with to-do lists. I'll be receiving edits on BLISS HOUSE (my novel that's coming out in June) in a matter of weeks. One of my biggest goals is to get the second Bliss House novel drafted by Christmas. That means a lot of uninterrupted hours. Can I do all these things and maintain a vibrant, trying-to-be-a-witty-information-provider presence online? Did that sentence even make sense? The answer is probably *no* to both.I'm thinking about it, though. Exploring those connections. Trying to figure out what's feeding me and what's not--what's feeding my creativity, and what's draining it.A girl can't live on dopamine alone. I'll keep you posted. Let me know where you are on this journey.--L.(Fiction word count today: 350)[...]

Wishlist Anxiety


If you know me, you know I'm all about the lists. Here's a pic of a list my daughter wrote on one of my lists earlier this year. It cracked me up because the poor child has suffered my lists for all 21 years of her life.

I don't make lists for absolutely everything, though my life would be way more organized if I did. Lists get made when I'm feeling particularly overwhelmed. (Just plain ol' overwhelmed is my natural ADHD state, of course.) But now, at this important list time of year, I am stymied. Yes, I've made my Christmas gift-giving lists, organized into Friends, Family, Professional Contacts, and Service People sections. I have a list of the traditions we want to make sure we observe during the Christmas holidays. I even have a list of what gifts need to be shipped, and where. But I can't get my own wishlist to my husband to save my own life.

The Raging ADHD Package comes with a hefty supply of personal clutter. Oh, I have all the stuff. Endless, endless lists of stuff. I used to worry that I didn't have hobbies--earlier in my life it was all writing and toddlers. Now I'm all out of toddlers (thank goodness) and I imagine that I have all this extra time to do things. So I do them for a while. And then I do something else. And that something else requires stuff. I really do like to do all these things: make bread, take photographs, play the piano, garden, do needlepoint and embroidery, read, read, read, play with electronic things and watch films, do large puzzles (this is a NEW thing), play golf, take hikes, travel. Oh, and Legos. I love to build those Lego buildings. It's too embarrassing to go on. It's not like I abandon projects regularly. Sometimes I put them on pause for a couple of weeks. Or months. But I always come back.

My life is so full. Of family. Of work. Of friends. Of love. And words. Goodness, I love words. It's one of the reasons I'm writing this post instead of putting together a Christmas wishlist for my sweet, generous husband.

So here's my next list project:

1) Do One Thing At A Time.
2) Finish That Thing.
3) Rest and Appreciate.
4) Start the Next Thing.

I spent a lot of time one night this week trying to explain my list anxiety to my husband. Now that I recall it, it probably sounded a lot like whining. One of our family stories is about our daughter--who was four or five at the time--bursting into tears because there was too much icing on her cupcake. We tried hard not to laugh. But it's true, isn't it? Sometimes we can't handle it when we're too blessed.

My cupcake is overflowing with goodness. It's time to take a step back and appreciate it. Appreciate the non-stuff in my life. Work on balance, gratitude, and calm. It's not about the wishlist. It's about the love behind the request. I'm one lucky girl.

About Stoner: My Apology to a Dead Writer


The writer John Edward Williams has been dead since 1994, but I am apologizing to him anyway. Months ago, I began hearing many amazing things about his 1965 novel, Stoner, which details the life of a midwestern English professor of little fame and consequence. Curious, I bought the audio book just before embarking on one of my many trips between our house and St. Louis. I listened for two or three hours. The prose was easy and declaratory, if it was also occasionally as lethargic as its subject. Its subject, William Stoner, lived in the dull sepia tones through which I sometimes view the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yawn. I found myself bored and a little irritated. Eager to be the literary rebel, I declared it--on Twitter, no less (how mortifying)--to be "An English professor's wet dream." I did not mean it in a nice way.I don't particularly like snark. It's nasty. I like it even less when I drag one of my prodigious size 9s through it. And this time I really stepped in it. No, my pronouncement didn't get any kind of reaction from my Twitter friends/followers. I was smugly alone in my witty criticism. How appropriate.I'm suspicious of books that other people proclaim to be amazing, and will either avoid them completely, or read them long, long after their popularity has peaked. I'm not sure why. It's not that I don't trust other people's taste or opinions. I'm pretty sure it's just the contrarian in me--I really am the sort who is skeptical of any club that would want me as a member.Why did I continue listening to the book if I thought so little of it? Because I did listen to the whole thing--I even backed up a few times to re-listen to particular sections. At first I just didn't want to give up on the book. I tell people all the time not to bother finish books they dislike, but I have a very hard time doing it myself. Then, about halfway through, I found myself turning it on every time I was in the car alone. And I became vaguely resentful when I had to turn it off when someone else got in the car with me. I finally finished it Monday as I sat in the parking lot of the post office, unwilling to go inside until it was over.William Stoner is born to a Missouri farmer and his wife, and has an unremarkable childhood/youth. They send him off to the University of Missouri (Columbia) to study agriculture, but he finds himself so moved by his first English literature class that he begins to drift--almost unconsciously--into the English program. It is with the same sort of unconsciousness that he meets and marries a delicate young woman named Edith, and begins his career as a teacher. The action moves little out of Columbia, changing only when Stoner goes to St. Louis to meet Edith's parents. Stoner's is a small universe. Microscopic even. He suffers travails in academia: disappointments, small intrigues, betrayals of trust. He is passed over for promotion. He writes a single book that is published without fanfare. He and Edith have a child. Edith turns on him, turns on herself. There is no great, plot-driven drama here. Yet it is an enormous drama, of import only to its players. It is a drama of small details. Of the individual threads of one man's life.(photo: University of Arkansas Libraries)Williams keeps a dogged pace. As I listened to the opening chapters, I kept asking myself why I should care about this colorless man. His world was colorless. The descriptions seemed colorless. But the doggedness finally wore me down. I began to anticipate the pacing, and tried to anticipate the plot. At times the story became so painful in its prosaicness that I wanted to turn it off in the same way I want to turn off a film when I know some beloved animal is about to be poisoned by the bad guy. I could feel[...]

The First Loaf of the Season: Rye


My mother's father, Howard Baugh, came from a family of long-Americanized Germans. It never occurred to me that not everyone's family ate pickles in everything from potato and egg salad to lunchmeat. (Don't get me started on pickle/pimento loaf!) Beer was the grown-ups' adult beverage of choice--though I confess I never saw any of my female relatives drink beer. We adored sweet baked goods, and there were plenty to be had in Cincinnati--including doughy, salted soft pretzels. I don't think my grandmother cared much for sausages, but there was sauerkraut, and we ate plenty of bread. Lots and lots of bread.Aside from the occasional holiday bakery rolls, most of our bread came out of plastic bags. So, naturally, when I grew up, I quickly scorned the lowly breads of my youth--particularly white bread. With lots of help from various books, including and especially Julia Child's the Way to Cook, I taught myself to make bread. When I made white bread, it was--ta da!--actually French bread. Later, I learned to use starters, including a poolish, which gives bread more body and a longer life. I flirted with multi-grain breads, but the family were not fans. Last year I set out to find a really good recipe for cranberry-walnut bread. I tried a couple, to no avail. I'll try again this holiday season. (Or I'll buy it from Trader Joe's. Theirs is excellent.)Last week I made rye bread for the first time in my life. With fall here, I'm ready to head back to the oven for some comfort food. My childhood rye bread came from a plastic bag, but that doesn't mean it was bad. We ate some fairly hearty rye, and often lighter Jewish rye. Nearly always it was slathered with a great deal of cream cheese, or held slices of ham and Swiss cheese--with lots of mustard. As I looked for rye bread recipes, I went no further than Joe Ortiz's 1993 book, The Village Baker. It contains a lifetime of bread recipes, explained by a master. Lucky me--my very good friend Maggie Caldwell of Life In a Skillet fame lives close to Ortiz's Capitola bakery, Gayle's Bakery, and sent me the book almost 20 years ago. It's one of my treasures. See, she even inscribed it!Rather than take on a serious, rye-heavy loaf right away, I went for the Jewish-Style Rye Bread recipe. Ortiz writes, "It is the closest thing I could find to a tangy rye loaf similar to those I remember from bakeries in New York and Los Angeles." I suspected it was just what I was looking for, and it definitely was.I didn't have high hopes for my first loaf. In fact, I made sure I had ingredients for more than one, just in case. If you make bread, or want to, please know that it's a kind of craft. Not a difficult craft, but a craft nonetheless. Like most rewarding exercises, it takes practice. (I can't speak to bread machines. I've never wanted one. I have to feel the dough come together in my fingers and work it. But let it be known: I have absolutely nothing against them!)The recipe has three parts: The Milk Sour, which includes buttermilk (another Grandpa Baugh favorite) and rye flour; The Rye Sponge, which adds the Sour, plus yeast, water, and rye and wheat flours; and The Dough, which adds salt, honey, water, and caraway seeds (optional).The thing about a Milk Sour is that it sits out overnight. For two nights. First, it's just the buttermilk. Then the rye flour is mixed in on day 2. Surprisingly, it didn't smell too bad. I kept it on top of the refrigerator.I started on a Monday morning, and finished the loaf on Wednesday afternoon. Talk about a commitment. I've spent less time drafting a short story.For pizza dough and French bread, I usually use my trusty Kitchen Aid Mixer to gather the dough into a loose ball before I knead it. But I did th[...]

A Painting and A Story


DAUGHTERRun, daughter, run.I cast no blame, my darling girl. The blood that stains our rough-hewn floor will bear no witness: my own deceit has brought me thus. Your hand your tender hand was just its agent.Run, daughter, run.While you slept in another’s womb, I spun the golden thread to bind your soul, forged your crimson jewels from the hearts of skyborne birds. I stole you away, raven-haired and precious, a comfort to my ancient bones.Run, daughter, run.Your eyes were not my jaded eyes, your laughing mouth no shape imagined in my dreams. Delighted, I bade you grow, and masked my cursèd face with tender flesh no mirror could reflect. Run, daughter, run.Forget the happy years you nested in my arms. Forget the taste of sugar on your lips: my counterfeit cheek is warm no more. Let loose the finery that binds you, and cast it off like feathers on the wind. Run, daughter, run. Because I fed you fruits of justice, and scorned the sorry milk of sentiment, you’re right to boldly free yourself from me. Feel no regret, my darling girl, and bravely bear the subtle pains of freedom.  --LauraEarlier this year, I was invited by a wonderful artist I know--Emily Benedict Coleman--to write a brief story to accompany a painting she was doing for the Lewisburg Literary Festival (West Virginia). I began from her rough sketch on the board and a few painted details. Her picture might have told many stories, but this is the one it told to me.If Emily's name looks similar to mine, it's because she's my husband's niece. I am privileged to claim her as family!For some perspective on the size, here's a shot from August's festival:Now to conclude a little business...Last week I announced a drawing for a Halloween Hot Wheels prize for subscribers to my newsletter. The winner is Brandee Crisp of Illinois. Congratulations, Brandee! I plan to have a prize drawing in each of my upcoming newsletters. If you want to keep in touch and be eligible, too, sign up right here.See you soon![...]

After The Exorcist, There Was The Sentinel


(Be sure to read to the end of this post for a fun, not-so-spooky, time-sensitive surprise, okay?)It's October. Let's talk scary.There are so many late-20th century horror novels I count as influences on my work, I could spend all day nattering on about them. When I was a young teen, horror novels put over-the-top tension into my comfy, white bread life. They were seductive and clever. They pushed and tested the limits of my uncertain spirituality as well as my imagination.King (Carrie, et al), Straub (Ghost Story), Koontz (Watchers), Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, Stepford Wives), William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist)...I'm referencing straight horror here, of a particular time period that didn't see many women in the genre besides V.C. Andrews (Flowers in the Attic was really mystery-ish, twisted, but not supernatural. Can you think of others? Shirley Jackson and Du Maurier were earlier). Because I grew up Roman Catholic, I found myself shamelessly drawn to stories that had explicit connections to the Roman Church. Blatty opened the gates (of hell?) with his 1971 novel, The Exorcist. I never got to see the film in a theater because I was too young, and anyone who snuck in to see it or got taken to it by their parents was an immediate hero to me. But I did get to read the novel because my parents were very tolerant of such things. Books were All Good. After The Exorcist, there was The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz.One of the huge draws of The Sentinel for the teenage me was its setting: a glorious, perfect NYC brownstone that had been broken into apartments. It was everything a modern girl could want--particularly a girl who was a big fan of Peggy Plays Off Broadway and watched a lot of Mary Tyler Moore (Minneapolis, I know). The brownstone is old and vaguely historic, and practically free to live in. Our heroine is a chic, independent young thing named Alison Parker, who has a mysterious boyfriend suspected of killing his wife. But Alison has her own baggage--a recently dead father, mental stability issues, moral issues (it was the 1970s, and sleeping around was not quite the blameless act that it is now). Her morality and spirituality become big issues when we learn that there's a reclusive, blind priest installed on the building's top floor.Alison makes lots of strange new friends in the building. Creepy friends. Touchy-feely friends who do weird things. She starts getting nasty headaches, and her skin starts to get icky. She wants to be friends with the priest, but he's a very disturbing presence. The cops are interested in both Alison and her boyfriend--and not in a good way. The boyfriend tries to help her, but bad things happen when he gets too curious. In the end...well, let's just say the priest is important and Alison might (just might) be seeing dead people. Things do not go well for poor Alison.What's not to love about this story? It's really a haunted house novel, and I can't resist a haunted house novel. Particularly one about a romantic brownstone filled with bizarre characters. Alison is brave but kind of annoying and melodramatic, just like the teenage me. I liked the bad boys, too. I wanted to be a good Catholic, but I was pretty terrible at it. I practically was Alison. Sort of.I also highly recommend the 1977 film version of The Sentinel. The cast is astonishing: Martin Balsam, Jeff Goldblum, Chris Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Christopher Walken, Ava Gardner, John Carradine, Sylvia Miles, Burgess Meredith. If you're of a certain age, you'll recognize Cristina Raines from a lot of '70s and '80s television and films.Plus, there's a cat in a hat, which is always good viewing:It's hard to believe that someone [...]

BLISS HOUSE: A Cover Story


Is it just me, or is the cover of BLISS HOUSE just breathtaking? The novel won't be released until June 15th of next year, but this image feels so incredibly right that I feel comfortable with it already.It's a good thing I don't have to create my own book covers. Between my traditionally published novels and anthologies, my work has been blessed with some gorgeous artwork, done by people with imagination and strong artistic voices. (I don't yet know the name of the designer who did the BLISS HOUSE cover, but when I do I'll fill it in right *here*.) When I commissioned covers for the re-issues of ISABELLA MOON and CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and my last novel, DEVIL'S OVEN, I turned to JT Lindroos and John Hornor Jacobs, respectively. Designers who know what they're doing and do it really, really well.If I had to put together my own covers, I would drown in a sea of confusion. The connection between the images in my head and what comes out of my fingertips is weirdly literal when it comes to pictures. My composition skills are good (I can take and edit a decent photograph), and I am a passable copyist. But when it comes to creating an original work, something is...missing. The tools of a fine or graphic artist are meat cleavers and mallets in my hands.If I had attempted to create the cover for BLISS HOUSE, my goal would've been to come up with a perfect match to the image of the house I saw in my head. "Perfect" is a deadly word. And the thing that makes it doubly dangerous is the notion that such a thing could even exist. A book cover needs to convey the mood of an entire book in a single glance. It needs to speak to you of its spirit.When I was dreaming of Bliss House, I spent hours--probably days--looking at images of Victorian-era houses. It was no chore. If I hadn't been so completely drawn into writing, there's a good chance I would've studied architecture until I went blind from poring over paintings and photographs, or bankrupted myself traipsing around the world staring at buildings. Every style is born of whim, intention, or accident. Every style is anchored in history and reflects the passions of its architects and/or patrons. I needed a style of house that was grand and elegant, and just a bit on the showy side. New money. Mysterious and complex. A house you can't quite pin down. Even though it's in Virginia, I wasn't looking for the broad, gracious, vaguely classical lines of an antebellum plantation house. I needed a house that would not melt into its landscape, but announce its rather forceful personality--even in a state of disrepair 130 years after its first brick was laid.I was wary of making Bliss House a Second Empire house because Second Empire is the classic silhouette of a 19th and 20th century haunted house. (You can read an excellent description of Second Empire architecture here.)It's the style of the Addams family house:And informs our ideas about other fictional haunted houses, like Hill House:But the style is everything that Bliss House embodies.I like that the designer of BLISS HOUSE's cover chose to soften the house's profile. It's a dream-filled sort of house, and not entirely evil--at least to my mind. One of the secrets of Bliss House is that it can let a person see things that he or she wants to see, if it so chooses.Like the Tardis, Bliss House is way, way bigger on the inside.Books are brilliant that way. Sure, we can read things into the art we observe. Make assumptions and observations. But the appearance of an image is not going to differ greatly from viewer to viewer. Interpretation, yes. Appearance, no. Words have an expansive quality. They e[...]

Off To The Fair


(photo by Kermit Moore)I am a big fan of traditions. Not just of big holiday traditions like serving turkey at Thanksgiving (along with cornbread dressing and scalloped oysters and homemade rolls and a little cranberry sauce to cut the carbohydrates), hiding Easter baskets for my kids, and crafting handmade Valentines for my darlings on Valentine's Day. I also love having traditions for ordinary occasions: hanging begonias on the front porch each spring (because they grow best in filtered sunlight), wearing the delicate white and silver enamel bracelet that belonged to my grandmother at least twice a summer, taking my son to lunch each Friday during the school year when he has a half day.I grew up in the south and midwest where fairs were--and still are--a big deal. I hate to let a harvest season go by without hieing myself (and dragging my family) to at least one agricultural fair. It's not that I've ever grown anything worth a squirt, except for flowers and a few summer tomatoes. I make a decent pie, but am clueless at canning. And the idea of growing livestock...let's just say that I leave that to the professionals and talented amateurs. But I admire everything about a fair. I admire the dedication of the people who grow our food, and the crafters and quilters who practice their arts and are brave enough to have their efforts judged by their peers. I even admire the people who pack themselves into trucks and r.v.s every summer and fall and man the game booths, put up the rides, and come up with things like fried lemonade and a wide variety of foods that can be served on a stick.Every summer since 2006 my little family has spent at least one afternoon and evening at the DuQuoin State Fair in Southern Illinois. (The bigger state fair is up in Springfield.) I anticipate it as keenly as the arrival of the first hummingbird in my garden each May--though the arrival of the fair means that the hummingbirds won't be around for very much longer. This year we even attended the fair on opening day, accompanied by my daughter's best friend and her fiancé (they also joined us each of the past three years, before their engagement), and our dear friend Kermit Moore, who visited from Virginia. That's his photo of the grandstand up top, and he generously let me use some more of his wonderful photos since I only took my phone with me this year. (His other photos are credited.)Here at the Handbasket, I have blogs from 2008 and 2012 about the fair, with more pictures. Last year I even went to the sideshow and volunteered to get myself sawed in half. It was harrowing, quite uncomfortable and all kinds of crazy fun. Oh! And I also did a piece on fair food over at Life In A Skillet last year, with tons of photos.Here's a bit of what the fair looked like this year:(photo by Laura)(photo by Laura)(photo by Kermit Moore)(photo by Kermit Moore)(photo by Laura)(photo by Laura)Tell me about your traditions--big or small. What's the one you're looking most forward to, right this very minute?[...]

Review: A Stone For Danny Fisher


I had no idea what to expect when I picked this up in audio from the library. I read a few of Harold Robbins' more commercial, salacious novels from the late seventies, yet hadn't thought of him in years. Part of the reason why I wanted to look at Robbins again concerned those books: One of the stories I'm planning for my Bliss House series will be set in the seventies and will have Robbins overtones. But this novel is an entirely different animal from his 1970s work. Published in 1952, this is 1950s cinéma vérité with a heavy dose of Robbins melodrama thrown in for good measure.A Stone For Danny Fisher is a brutal coming-of-age story covering both The Great Depression and WWII eras. Danny Fisher is a sensitive, likable, blond Jewish boy who, when his family falls on hard times, discovers that he not only has a natural talent for fighting but also for the clever manipulation of everyone close to him. But Danny is too clever for his own good, and has a serious tragic flaw that always propels his happiness just out of his reach.There were moments that I had to stop listening to this story because it became too intense, too real. As a late baby boomer, I had grandparents who struggled through the Depression, but they were reluctant (or unable) to communicate the true horror of it to me. Robbins made me want to immediately convert all my money to cash or gold and stuff it inside my mattress. Several reviewers compare it to The Jungle, but A Stone For Danny Fisher has a stylistic point of view that The Jungle--with its empahsis on social polemic--lacks. It's much more than a period piece. It's an endless roller coaster ride of jubilation, discontent, and despair. And I mean that in a good way.Robbins could have easily trimmed this book by a good 100 pages. It feels relentless, sometimes exhausting. And the use of the second person at the beginning...well, I found it annoying. In fact the entire conceit of Danny making observations from beyond the grave is too heavy-handed for my taste. But even with its flaws, I recommend it highly for fans of good writing, noir fiction, and early 20th century NYC. [...]

Blackberries: A Love/Hate Story


I'm not terribly fond of blackberries. Their texture is too complex, their flavor unpredictable. When I was very young, I often confused them with raspberries because we rarely had either in our house. In Southern Illinois, where I live now, I don't know that anyone grows them for sale. Really, there shouldn't be any need because they seem to be growing everywhere I look.Blackberry brambles--they aren't exactly bushes, and not quite vines--aren't picky about where they take root. Their tough, slender branches shoot directly out of the ground, be it rich soil or poor, soil that's sun-soaked or shady. Our upper meadow didn't get bush hogged (a kind of wide, flat mower that's pulled behind a tractor) last year, and so it's full of them. But so are the edges of our yard and driveway.Up in the meadow they line much of the walking path we keep mowed, forming two prickly walls that keep the dogs from dodging into the tall grass. The brambles reach my shoulders--sometimes they seem to reach for my shoulders--tangling themselves together about halfway up. Their delicate stems and even their leaves are freakishly barbed. And I don't use the word freakishly lightly. If you get too close to any part of the plant, the barbs will catch on your clothes, your hair, your skin. Especially your skin. The barbs on the leaves are like tiny, silver hairs themselves. Hairs that can lodge in one's palm like a splinter from a cheap wooden garden stake, or leave a fine, bloody trail along the pad of an index finger.The past couple of years, I've followed the progress of the bushes nearest the house. A spray of delicate white flowers against the sparse leaves in early June, then the arrival of petite red berries a month or so later. I saw very few of the berries ripen from red to purple/black. (Is it any wonder they get confused with raspberries? They start out quite red.) It seemed like one day they were there, and the next they were gone. Last year several flocks of grackles and small blackbirds visited, overwhelming the feeders--but the berries might also have been devoured by the many cardinals, finches, chickadees and indigo buntings that live around us.I wondered about the other animals who eat blackberries. There's a surprising list here, including skunks, voles, mice, deer, and raccoons. They're all much less tender-skinned than I am.This year, I've been determined to take some of the fruit before the birds eat it all. The first day I gathered about a 1/2 cup of small, tart berries, toting them away in the bird seed funnel. My arms got scratched up, so the second day I put on a light jacket before approaching them. I should probably have worn gloves as well. But these wild berries are so fragile, I would have squashed them while trying to pluck them from the branches. It's a careful process. Between the barbs, the thick tangles of the branches, and the nests of poison ivy at my feet, I felt like I was daring something of consequence.In flavor, the blackberries from both the meadow and the yard are quite tart. Almost bitter. The plants in the meadow are younger, and so the berries seem to be smaller. I gave some to my son for breakfast and he ate most of them, delighted that they had come from our land. He didn't seem to mind their flavor. I eat them one at a time, stunned by their strength.Last summer, after their berries were gone, I had a section of blackberry plants that had encroached too far into the yard sprayed with weed killer.  Fifteen or twenty brown, bare brambles rise, tall and lonely, fro[...]

Black Snake Rodeo


I am not a snake person. Don't like them. Don't want them around.A few days ago I opened the garage door and spied--peeking from behind the new power washer I've yet to use on our deck--a 3-foot Black Snake. I didn't run away screaming, but it thoroughly unnerved me in that ancient part of my brain that would instantly recognize the barest outline of a wolf, grizzly bear, or tarantula at 100 yards. Honestly, I think I would rather have run into a tarantula than a snake. There's a reason that the book of Genesis makes a big deal about the enmity (great word) between snakes and women. They make my blood run cold. (Snakes bring out the melodramatic in me.)I know most snakes are my friends. They eat the field mice and voles that plague our little country home and yard. If I see one sunning itself on the toasty pavement, I avoid running over it with my car. I'm not a vicious person. They have a strange, dangerous beauty, just like sharks, and they do have their place in the food chain. I suspect the snake living in the garage is the same one I'd seen relaxing on the concrete pad portion of our driveway only a week or so earlier. I had spared it, parking my car in front of the house instead of in the garage.I see now that its presence was a warning: "I'm going to mess you up, lady. Just wait."When it showed up inside the garage, I was on my way somewhere and, frankly, didn't have time to deal with it. Grabbing a push broom, I came around the back of it with the idea that I would jar it from its resting place and then push it outside. But I wasn't really committed. So when I poked at it--quickly, as one will do with a snake--I backed away again when it turned on me, darting at me just a few inches. It wasn't into the game either, I guess. And there our encounter ended.I haven't seen that particular snake again. For a while I made everyone avoid using the door that goes into the mudroom from the garage, but we've pretty much given that up. It's entirely possible that one of us will head out to the car and be face-to-ankle with a snake that will suddenly dash inside and cause all kinds of havoc. Though I have this fantasy in which the snake will never want to come inside because of the air conditioning. Don't they prefer warm, summertime garages?The first time we had a large Black Snake in the house we carried it in ourselves, rolled in a rug that we'd stored in the garage during a months-long period of puppy training. Our family of four was all in the dining room for that event. We unrolled the rug and the thing dropped out with a substantial thud and went right behind the china cabinet. What followed was a comedic interlude which we fondly refer to as our Black Snake Rodeo. Our young son climbed up on the counter and--soon bored with watching his parents curse and poke at a snake with various sticks and brooms--began to clamor for snacks. It went on for 15 or 20 minutes, and we eventually chased it out the door. As it went, it twisted around and hissed a final warning back at us."I'm going to mess you people up. Just wait."A few months later, the Black Snake took a traditional crime family approach and sent in an obnoxious little thug to do its dirty work. I was home alone one afternoon, about to get into the shower, when I stumbled (nearly naked, if you must know) onto a juvenile Copperhead in the guest bathroom. While I cannot even begin to fathom how I would've responded to a full-grown, 4-foot Copperhead like the ones I've seen lounging on our lane, I can tell you that my initial thought[...]

My Spring Break '13: A Totally Touristy Trip to Alabama


In no particular order of fun. It was all good, as they say.[...]

Gothic Defined, and a Portal to a Mysterious Place


Gothic is an interesting word.You know who the Visigoths were: those unsophisticated, crusty and crude pre-Germanic types who swooped down on the slothful, stuttering remains of the Roman Empire in the fourth century and gobbled them up. They were fairly illiterate victors, so they've gotten a bad rap in history. (Pardon me if I'm a little defensive. You know that my cultural/ancestral totem is Viking Barbie, yes?) They remain unpopular to this day.Fifteen or twenty years ago, the most recognizable use of the word was connected to architecture. Think the cathedral of Notre Dame, all pointed arches and flying buttresses. Medieval (roughly 500-1450 CE) European castles and monasteries may also come to mind. When folks were building these magnificent edifices, they didn't identify them as "Gothic." That came much later, around the Renaissance (roughly 1350-1600 CE), when light and life returned to the earth, superstition was (almost) banished, and the artists and intellectuals rediscovered classical (read: Roman and Ancient Greek) architecture and ideals. The word "Gothic" was, in effect, a dis upon those benighted times. If those buildings from the Middle Ages hadn't been built to withstand the Apocalypse, I daresay they would've all been knocked in disgust. (Read more about Gothic Architecture here. But do it later, okay?)How far that little word has come, and what a delightful change of fortune it has had. Sort of.The phrase "Gothic Literature" conjures thoughts of ghostly encounters, mystery, and a general air of dread. Possibly romance, as well. I blogged about the original Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, at some point here at the Handbasket--but I must have left tags off, and I'm way too lazy to go back through hundreds of posts. That novel was more horror-driven, and definitely lacked romance. (It's worth a read and certainly in the public domain.) There was a long period in the 19th and 20th centuries where Gothic novels were decidedly equated with spooky romance--dark stories, but not particularly horrific.Gothicism seems to have come full-circle, though. In the contemporary vernacular Gothic is all about the scare. Horror stories are called Gothic with impunity. And there are those who relish the physical trappings of the genre: black clothes, indoor (even ghostly) pallor, grim manners. (I'm teasing of course. I think Goths are cute.) There's mystery, yes, but it's of the dark and/or supernatural type. Once again Gothic refers to The Other, or The Outsider. They who must be despised or feared.We never wander far from history, do we?Okay, history lesson over! Time for something more fun, less educational, and not a little self-indulgent.One of my favorite people in the lit business, Janet Hutchings, the editor Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, invited me to contribute to their blog, Something Is Going to Happen. She let me choose the topic, and I chose Gothic fiction. Not just because I'm working in the genre these days, but because it's one of my favorites.Please come by Janet's blog and comment and look around the place. If you love mystery, you'll be right at home.Here's the post: For Love of Gothic: When Home is the Most Mysterious Place of All[...]

Pruning Shears and Red Pens


February--This is the hot mess that is my beloved butterfly bush. God, I want to get my pruning shears onto the thing. And not just the pruning shears, but the limb lopper, as well. Okay, maybe not the limb lopper, which extends to seven feet long and is generally reserved for trees--but definitely one of the larger pruning tools in the garage.The first time I owned a butterfly bush was back in Virginia (*sniff* I miss that place so.). We planted three in a corner of the yard, just in front of a stand of impenetrable wild blackberry bushes. The butterfly bushes were a triangular oasis in that unkempt place, a little bit of gaudy, fragrant deshabille among the thorns. I had only heard of butterfly bushes, and imagined them to be magical things. And they really are rather magical in the way they attract hundreds of butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. The scent! Rich and sweet. If you think of a rose as smelling like a woman's subtle perfume, the scent of butterfly bush blossoms is like a faceful of flower candy.Imagine my distress when the landscaper told me that, every year, I had to cut away nearly all the bushes' limbs, down to a height of between fourteen and eighteen inches. I was stunned. It sounded so brutal. So violent.Come February, my only confidence in the project came from the fact that the landscaper told me that if I didn't do it the bushes' growth and flowering would be very poor. On a sunny day, I headed up the hill with my pruning tools and gloves, and our beloved German Shepherd, T.J. (He was there to help me be brave, bless him.) In the spirit of sensitivity, I would love to tell you that I timidly snipped and snapped with the smallest tools, cutting off the old wood with a delicate hand. But I did not. First, I apologized to them for the pain I was going to cause, and then I went after them like I was out for revenge. I had those three large bushes trimmed down to their proverbial nubbins in no time flat.It that I'm slicing and dicing those poor limbs for a worthy cause helped my enthusiasm, but that doesn't really explain the pleasure I took from it. The whole exercise felt very cleansing. Renewing--both for the bushes and for me.It shouldn't surprise me, I guess, that I'm able to draw a distinct parallel between my now-mania for pruning bushes (and those troublesome clumps of decorative grasses) and my burning desire to hack my current novel-in-progress to bits with my electronic snippers.Right now this particular manuscript is at about 95 thousand words, headed for at least the 100K mark. It's big, and floppy, and well-aged at this point. Is it bearing fruit? Well, mostly. Is there dead wood? I suspect there's plenty.Many, many writers I know hate the editing process. Me? Last week I ripped out a parallel-plot section of the novel that was about 6K words and rewrote it so that it's now 11K word, and only re-used about 1500 words of the original section. (If you know my work, you know I'm a sucker for parallel plotting. No distressingly long paragraphs of exposition for this girl. If I want you to know about something I want to tell you ALL about it. Dammit. And you're welcome : )My love of editing holds me back, frequently. Everyday I have to stop myself from starting at page one, and rewriting until I get to the end. Didn't some famous writer like Hemingway actually do that? Madness. That's the way I write short stories--but we're talking about an hour or so of ed[...]

The Next Big Thing Blop Hop: Bliss House


Oh, good! I've been tagged.Welcome to the latest stop on The Next Big Thing Blog Hop. This particular blog tour invites writers to answer ten questions about their current Work in Progress, or forthcoming project. Each tagged writer answers the questions, then tags five or more writers to answer the questions on their blog, then they tag five more, and so on...It's a great way for readers and writers to find each other, don't you think?First off, you'll want to get to know the amazing writer who tagged me. RT Book Reviews named J.T. Ellison's latest thriller, Edge of Black, a Top Pick, and called it her "best book yet." J.T. is a master (mistress!) of psychological suspense and her beautifully crafted stories are rich with emotional intensity. She's also incredibly prolific, having published nine books, several novellas and many, many short stories in the past five years. Thanks, J.T.!Now, Bliss House. I've been working on it for quite a while, so I've posted about it, before. But here's an update:1) What is the working title of your book(s)?Bliss House2) Where did the idea come from for the book?I was working on an idea for another book, a thriller based on the folk tale, Hansel and Gretl. As I was working on the plot, I found myself deeply fascinated by the house in which the children were being held. I realized that the house was the source of many, many dark stories, and the haunting of Rainey Adams and her daughter, Jillian, is just the first.3) What genre does your book fall under?Supernatural suspense.4) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?Ali Larter and Elle Fanning as Rainey and Jillian (mother and daughter); Eddie Cibrian, with Amy Adams as his wife. John Malkovich as The Judge.5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?Mother and daughter, burn victim, mourning, guilt, new home, old mansion, troubled past, mystery, sudden death, ghost dad, secret rooms, suspicion, murder, skeletons, secret passages, betrayal, redemption and forgiveness, the end.(Okay, I know. That's technically a fragment.)6) Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?My wonderful agent, Susan Raihofer, of the David Black Literary Agency will represent the book. I'm in the final pre-submission editing stage now.7) How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?The draft of Bliss House has taken me over two years to write. While working on it, I also published Devil's Oven, re-issued Isabella Moon, and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts as ebooks, published a few short stories, and edited Surreal South '11, and Feeding Kate, two fiction anthologies.8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?Anyone who has read my other supernatural books will find much to like in Bliss House. Susan Hill, F.G. Cottam, Alexandra Sokoloff (my favorite!) and Joe Hill also write about fictional hauntings. And just when I thought I had a perfectly brilliant, original idea to do a series of novels set in a single, demented house, I found that uber-horror writer Douglas Clegg did it, first! I haven't read his Harrow House series, but I admire his other work.9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?I've long wanted to write a haunted house story in the tradition of Shirley Jackson's classic novel, The Haunting of Hill House. There's more, but if I write about it now, I fear I'll give away t[...]