Sunday, December 22, 2019

Always Learning

I am quick to admit that I don’t know everything. Although I know a lot, there are some areas where I have absolutely zero expertise. That’s when research comes into play. With the wonders of technology, you can often find the answers to questions with a few clicks.  But that may not give you the complete picture.

Over the years I’ve met many people with unique backgrounds. There was a young woman at a writer’s conference who was a forensic scientist with the state police. Her specialty was paint chips. She could analyze the minute fragments from a hit and run auto accident and give you details on the make, model and year of the car involved.  She became a great resource for many of my bizarre questions. So talking with people about their occupations or their hobbies can help fill in background details for characters and their actions.  

Personality traits can be difficult. Sometimes you can get a glimpse into a person’s behavior just by observing them for a few minutes. 

Here’s an example from last week.  We attended a holiday hand bell concert at a local church. The pews were tightly packed as the performance began. Sitting beside me was a middle age woman obsessed with her smart phone. At one point she thrust both arms in the air to capture on video a couple of children dancing in the aisle. In her excitement, she nearly smacked me in the head.  As soon as the number was completed, she took to social media to tell all of the people in her world what she’d witnessed.  She spent so much time on her phone that she rarely looked up to enjoy the performance. And it was very distracting to everyone around her. 

I know absolutely nothing about this woman. But her annoying behavior bordered on obsession. Which no doubt will be included as a character trait in the future. 

Here’s an excerpt from “Your Turn to Die” that’s an example of the research.

In this scene, Chene stops in at the Cyber Unit to see what the crew has learned from analyzing the victim’s devices.

Yekovich led me down the hall to where his team of technicians were working. He stopped beside a skinny young woman whose platinum blonde hair was cut in ragged lengths and dyed several different colors. Her fingers were dancing across the keyboard like a concert pianist. I noticed a rainbow of colors on her nails. The cubicle was decorated with action figures and drawings of comic book heroes. 

“Pinky, this is Chene. He’s the lead on the Morrissey case.”

The fingers stopped their dance and she swiveled around to face me. “I heard of you. Nice to finally meet.”

“Thanks. I’m hoping you’ve uncovered some secrets.”

She thumped a silver polished nail on the counter. “Most of the files in the system are strictly business. Proposals, spreadsheets, income statements, that kind of stuff. I’m almost done with the first pass. Then I’ll go through it again, looking for anything that was recently deleted, rough drafts of documents, internet history and all that.”

“Anything worthwhile?”

Pinky shrugged. “It’s all good background. Financial figures reflect a profitable operation. Lots of promotional events with some video and still photos. No ghosts or shadows that look suspicious. But we have a long way to go. There are drives that were shared throughout the company and a couple of ones only Morrissey had access to. I’m going to focus on those today.”

“Was the system backed up internally on a server?”

Pinky flashed a quick smile. “Pretty good, Sarge. No, it was cloud based. I’ve already hacked his password. That’s on my list as well.”

Yekovich chimed in. “Anything on that email Kozlowski flagged?”

She shifted her eyes to him. “The numbers for the senders account appear to be a random jumble. But that could mean something to whoever created it. This looks like it was only used to send that one message.”

“Aren’t most email accounts linked to a phone number?” I asked.

“Yes, but chances are this one was tied to a disposable phone. It’s not active. Whatever details I can pull will be in the report.”

“What time was the message sent?”

Pinky swung back to her keyboard and clicked away. “It showed up in his email account at exactly nine in the morning.”

No other questions came to mind. I thanked Pinky and let her get back to work. Yekovich walked me outside.

“Don’t let appearances fool you, Chene. She’s one of the sharpest people I’ve got. Some kind of computer wizard.”

“How’s that?”

“Pinky taught herself how to write code when she was twelve. Started a business at fourteen designing websites. Got her degree in computer science from Lawrence Tech at sixteen and a Master’s degree by the time she hit eighteen. Like I said, she’s sharp.”

“So how did you land her? With that type of talent, she could name her price and work anywhere.”

Yekovich grinned. “Turns out she’s a mystery junkie. Loves the idea of using her computer skills to fight crime.”

“Yeah, I noticed the action figure theme.”

“A couple of the guys call her Batgirl. I think she encourages it.”

I drummed my fingers on the roof of the car. “Ask her to focus on that email account. There’s got to be something tangible in that message.”

“Will do. Good hunting, Chene.”

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 Music this week comes from Stevie Ray Vaughan

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sounds Familiar

As a writer, one of the things I’m always on the lookout for is redundancies. I’m guilty of doing that, when the focus is on getting the words down for that scene or the dialogue.  Afterwards, it’s a perfect time to read it through slowly and delete any words that tend to crop up in part of the story over and over again. 

So I’m more than a little surprised when it appears in the published works of other authors.  As an avid reader, I know it’s bound to happen occasionally. But numerous times in the same story have a tendency to throw me off. In some cases, it might be enough to make me give up on the book and move on. 

Here’s an example from a book I picked up recently. I’ve never heard of the author before, but the premise on the back cover intrigued me. Without revealing his name or the title, here’s what tripped me up. 

Washington nodded, saying nothing and got in the front seat of the car with John and Charlie. Kate, Phil and Jeremiah squeezed into the backseat. Charlie was up front with Washington and John.’

That third sentence is completely useless. There’s no need for it as it simply repeats information shared just above. Yet somehow the author and their editors didn’t delete it. That’s either laziness or a low level of professionalism.  Sadly, this wasn’t the first nor the last bit of redundancy in the book. I didn’t read much more before setting it aside.

As Yogi Berra would say ‘It’s like déjà vu’ all over again.’

When writing, that’s one of my challenges, not to inflict you with visions of Yogi.

I was reminded the other day that in the southern hemisphere, it’s summer. That got me thinking about “Stealing Haven” the short story from “Once Upon a Summer” about Jamie Richmond’s vacation with her best friend Linda.  The story also received a 5-star review last week, which mentioned the realistic relationship between the two.  

In this scene, Jamie and Linda share their table at a crowded restaurant, with Jared and Randy. 

      Lunch was a very relaxed meal. The conversation ebbed and flowed over a number of topics, and we never got back to the break-in. As the last of the food was consumed, Jared’s phone chimed. He excused himself from the table and took the call. The waitress returned with the check. Despite our efforts, Randy insisted on paying.

    “Really, it’s my pleasure. We don’t often get to share the company of two such lovely ladies. And I enjoyed hearing about things around Motown.”

     Linda fluttered her fingers at him. “At least, let us return the favor. How about drinks this evening? Maybe around seven?”

    Jared returned to the table. “Sorry about that. Got a call from the school. Somebody’s been messing around with one of the buses.”

   “Vandalism?” I asked.

     He shook his head and laughed. “Minor league stuff. Mischief. Someone pried open a window and snaked a hose inside, then cranked the faucet on. Janitor found it, but not before the water level was knee deep. Got go check it out.” Jared clapped Randy on the shoulder, then waved good-bye. 

    “He’s a good guy. Really gone out of his way to make me feel welcome here.” Randy stood. He focused his attention on me. Did I have something in my teeth? I ran my tongue over them inside my mouth. How odd.

    “So, drinks around seven thirty?” she prompted.

    “I know just the place.” From a pocket he pulled out a business card. He scrawled something on the back and passed me the card. “See you then. I’ve got to get back to the office.”

     Linda reached over and snagged the business card. “Really, it’s a wonder you ever get laid, Jamie. That guy was practically drooling over you and you’re oblivious.”

    “Why would he take a second look at me when you’re here?”

     She flicked a crumb from her plate at me. “His eyes were only on you. I’m surprised he was able to eat his lunch.”

    There were a couple of times when I noticed his gaze on me, but thought he was trying to be polite. I said as much. She laughed and pushed away from the table.

   “You’re beautiful, Jamie.”

   “Next to you, I look like a stick figure.”

    She put an arm around my shoulders. “You’re hopeless. Let’s go back to the beach.”

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Music this week comes from Van Morrison.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

It's a Stretch

There are times in life when you can get complacent. You eat the same thing for breakfast every day, drive the same route to work, eat lunch at the same time. And on and on and on.

Writers can get into the same rhythm and routine.  I tend to bounce between my two main characters, Jamie and Chene, when it comes to my stories. So they all have elements of mystery. Jamie’s also include a mixture of romance, to shake things up a bit and perhaps attract a different audience.

When I was facilitating workshops for a local writer’s group, I recalled a comment from a creative writing professor years ago, that encouraged us to stretch. Get outside your comfort zone and write something different.  Along the way, you might just surprise yourself.  So that was a component I encouraged the others to try. Shake things up. Write a short poem. Do a scene that’s heavy with description of the surroundings to set the stage. Write two pages with nothing but dialogue between three or four characters. 

Lately, I’ve had the urge to go in a new direction. So that’s had my attention. It’s not uncommon for me to have ideas for a couple of stories at the same time. Depending on my mood, I will work on one or the other as time permits. But a friend made a suggestion about a paranormal story.  This is new territory for me. It’s definitely got my interest.   A stretch in a new direction may be just what I needed to stir things up.

Time will tell.

Going in a new direction got me thinking about “Vanishing Act”, the second book in the Jamie Richmond series.  In the story, Jamie’s best friend Linda is introduced. In the midst of a cold and snowy winter, Linda becomes the target of a stalker.

Here’s an excerpt from the story.

Malone was going to kill me.

There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. He was going to kill me.

I knew it in my heart, in my soul—right down to the marrow of my bones. From the top of my wavy red locks to the bright, red polish on my toenails, I knew without a doubt that it was a sure thing.

    Malone was going to kill me.

    But first, I had to get out alive.

    He’d warned me time and again to mind my own business. Why didn’t I listen to reason? How could it be that less than four months after I narrowly escaped certain death at the hands of a psychotic bikini-bar waitress, I found myself in another situation where my chances of survival were slim? Only this time, it was not just my life on the line. I had somebody else counting on me.

    Now it was up to me. I needed to figure out a way to get us out of here, fast, because right now, time was rapidly running out on me. Make that us. There was no way I was leaving alone, but there sure as hell was no way I wanted to stick around. Right now, all I really wanted was to be back in my cozy little home, curled up on the plush sofa I affectionately call “The Jewish Aunt,” waiting for Malone to come home from work. But I knew that was not going to happen.

    We were trapped. And waiting on the other side of that wall was someone who would rather see us sliced open on a coroner’s slab than walking out the door. And to help them make that wish come true, they were setting the wall on fire.

    Malone may have to wait in line to kill me. 

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A shift this week with Downchild Blues Band