Monday, November 23, 2020

Thanksgivings that Live on in Infamy


Thanksgiving is going to be different this year. In fact, most of 2020 has been different for many of us. With that in mind, I thought I’d write about some memorable holidays past. Maybe you can relate to them and maybe you can’t, but looking back over the years these things make me chuckle. Most of these stories are from many years ago. 

I remember one year when both sides of my parents’ families were coming to our house, which was something we didn’t do often – too many people to feed. However, that year we had more to worry about than the amount of food. About five minutes before people started arriving, the plumbing quit working in the one little bathroom at our house. There wasn’t a plumber in town who would come out on Thanksgiving. Believe me, with that many people eating and drinking all day, it was a huge issue. So, bless his heart, one of my uncles took it upon himself to load up the car every couple of hours and make a quick run to the local bowling alley. In those days everything except the bowling alley was closed on holidays. That year I was thankful for many things, including my uncle and the bowling alley.

There was another year when a great-aunt kept disappearing. In a way, this is another bathroom story, but I promise this is the last one. Anyway, she made several trips to the restroom. Later in the afternoon I made my way to my bedroom to look for something. The restroom was directly across from my bedroom and my great-aunt had left the door ajar. I was shocked to see her drinking perfume out of a bottle and ran out to the kitchen to let my mother know there was something wrong with my aunt. I mean, who in their right mind would drink perfume? That was the day I learned what an alcoholic is and that she’d filled her perfume bottle with liquor. It was also the day I learned why Auntie always had dark rings under her eyes. No, she hadn’t been in any of the accidents she’d told us about. Among other things I was glad to find out my aunt wasn’t such a terrible driver. I’d been afraid to ride with her since there were so many “accident” stories. I was thankful I had an understanding family who cared about her, even though she had a problem. (She did eventually quit drinking.)

Of course, the turkey was never done by the time everyone was ready to eat. “We’ll give it another hour” was a common Thanksgiving phrase at our house. Four hours later we’d sit down to eat. It was worth the wait though. The only time we had black olives was on holidays. (As an adult I’m addicted to black olives.) I remember picking up five and putting them on the ends of my fingers, and eating them off of those appendages. They were a perfect fit. Of course, as I ate them I had to listen to a lecture from my great-uncle about how I barely ate enough to keep a bird alive. I was eating a little bit of everything else, so why lecture me? Yep, he was the husband of the great-aunt who drank perfume. They’d never had any kids and had no idea how much fun eating olives off your fingers could be. (I’ve since taught the process of finger-eating to my daughter and grandson.) That year I was thankful I had enough to eat, even if I didn’t have a big appetite. I was also thankful that my great-uncle cared enough to worry about my eating habits.

There was the year Grandpa was cutting the turkey and it slid right off the plate and onto the floor. And no one remembered to buy black olives. My mother and my aunt (different aunt) always made me laugh to the point of tears. They were so funny together. And then Grandpa would turn off his battery-operated hearing aid so he didn’t have to listen to Grandma talk about buying a burial plot. More laughter. Of course, in the middle of everything the garbage disposal backed up. And my dad’s head dropped to his chest. I wasn’t sure if he was praying or hoping the day would end quickly.  Does any of this sound a little crazy? Or maybe it sounds familiar. Well, I’m thankful for all of my family and friends and for the memories. They kept the holidays colorful.

Moving on, I remember a Thanksgiving in more recent memory. My husband and I invited friends over and, of course, wine was served. Even though I used a “cooking bag,” the turkey wasn’t cooperating. It wasn’t quite done when we were ready to eat. Well, we had a friend who considered herself a gourmet chef. Unfortunately, she’d had a bit too much wine and decided to explain how to tell when a turkey is done. “You shake the leg,” she said. “If it’s done, the leg will fall off.” Uh huh. So every ten minutes Mrs. Chef opened the oven door and shook the turkey’s leg. Sometime later that night we finally got to sit down to dinner. Mrs. Chef had lost her appetite by then, but she found room for one more glass of wine. I was thankful for the humor of the situation, and for the fact that we had friends and family to invite to our home. I was particularly thankful that I learned how to tell when a turkey is done. Right.

If my memories don’t sound funny to you, well, I guess you just had to be there. I hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving, even if it’s virtual, and that you’ll have some of your own funny memories to share one day.

Until next time, remember that Christmas is just around the corner. Sorry, that reminder is probably kind of mean. You haven’t even had your turkey dinner yet.

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Monday, November 9, 2020

Fright or Flight?


Halloween came and went quietly at the end of October. We didn’t have any costumed visitors this year. However, the day did make me think about fear. There were so many more hair-raising movies advertised on television than I normally see, although scary movies seem pretty popular in this day and age. Sometimes fear can actually be fun, if you’re reading a book or watching a movie. In real life? Not so much.

When I first started writing I created a book titled Secrets of Holt House, later rewritten and republished as Mysteries of Holt House. I tried to think of what readers might like and came up with a spooky old house (which was transformed into a boarding house), located in the middle of nowhere, and I added secret passages and unexplained events and circumstances. I thought it up, wrote it, and read it. It’s certainly not my best work, but it isn’t bad. Here’s the thing. I received comments from readers that really surprised me. The things that happened in that old house and in the secret passages actually scared people. Who knew? I had no idea that I could cause someone to lock their doors, check the windows and sit on the edge of their seat.

Anyone who was around when Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was first released remembers the paralyzing fear that the shower scene caused. Believe it or not, there are still women who take a bath instead of a shower because of that movie.

In 1990, two Carol Davis Luce books were released, Skin Deep and Night Stalker. She kept me on the edge of my seat with those stories. Night Stalker took place near the area where I lived at the time. I think knowing the places she referenced made the story scarier, because I could relate to the locations. Sometimes familiarity is all it takes. I’ve never forgotten those books, so they definitely had an impact.

All kinds of things scare people. For some it’s snakes or other reptiles. Big dogs bother others. Things that go bump in the night will set some off because they represent the unknown. I know one woman who won’t read even lighter cozy mysteries because they make her so nervous. The subject doesn’t matter, but the unknown does.

I wrote a post about animals in stories a while back and mentioned dogs making great characters. Remember Stephen King’s Cujo? Dogs can make great villains, too. They aren’t all named Lassie and they aren’t all heroes. I’ve had more than one canine set my teeth on edge, and dogs are my pet of choice. Imagine witnessing a car accident where the vehicle ends up being upside down, and you get out to see if you can help – and a woman climbs out through a window followed by a vicious dog on a leash. That actually happened to me not long ago. It was touch and go for a few minutes.

Ugliness, monsters, clowns, the unknown, surprise, graphic violence; these are all things that can scare readers. However, the list is a lot longer than these few things. Some fear heights, and an author can set a scene where you feel like you’re right there on top of a thirty story building with someone. Mountain driving, bridges, freeways and deep water are frightening to some. What doesn’t give one reader the heebie jeebies will cause another one to lose sleep. How about flying? Plenty of people are terrified of airplanes and flying. My point is that like being on a roller coaster, fear can be both terrifying and fun at the same time.

Thankfully, some writers can spice the fear with a little humor. You’ll see that in some vintage movies. For instance, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope and Red Skelton add a little humor to their own movie fears.

My mother and I once watched a scary movie on TV from our separate homes, but stayed on the phone while we watched because the movie was too scary to watch alone. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

What scares you? For me, it’s spiders and flying. Oh, and twisted mountain roads. And… Never mind.

 Until next time, have a good week and I hope you conquer your fears.

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Monday, November 2, 2020

Just the Facts, Please

Recently I’ve been working on a family project including family stories and legends. Sometime back I plugged in the name of a notorious ancestor and what I found surprised me. I found two blogs about this man and both were a figment of someone’s imagination. The information in the blogs said that this ancestor was Italian and that he was a force in the Mafia in Old Los Angeles. First of all, he wasn’t Italian. Secondly, although he wasn’t a particularly stellar citizen and he was in a questionable profession, he was not involved in the Mafia. This blogger hadn’t done his research but had, instead, made some assumptions based on my relative’s surname. (Immigrants often changed their names or changed the spelling when they moved to America, and this man was of one of those.)

When I’m working on a book I do the best research I can on nonfictional subjects. In A Well-Kept Family Secret, part of the story took place in Old Los Angeles. I researched what was going on back in the day. I read newspaper articles, obtained information from an archaeologist and used family history as a basis for the story. The story was very loosely based on the above-mentioned relative. I researched books dealing with the late 1800s and early 1900s. I even interviewed a few people who’d lived through that time. Needless to say, the interviews took place a very long time ago. 

On another front, Old Murders Never Die takes place in a long-abandoned ghost town. In the interest of accuracy, I researched everything from old cook stoves and washing machines to the way people talked and lived. Thankfully, I received a comment from a woman who works as a steward for ghost towns. She said I had everything right except that the town would have been a lot dirtier. While that’s a good point, I didn’t want my protagonist to spend the entire story cleaning while stranded in the ghost town and trying to solve an old crime.

I have a relative who came home from World War II and became somewhat of a recluse, living in the mountains and only coming down when it was necessary. He was actually one of my favorite people, and I was so used to his lifestyle that it was years before I realized he probably had PTSD. That realization brought on research for a book titled, The Silver Dollar Connection. The men in this story are memorable. Believe it or not, I was able to include some humor in the story. My relative would have appreciated that.

Readers are smart. They know the type of material they enjoy reading, and it’s often something they have knowledge of, which is why they enjoy it. If the writer gets it wrong, a reader may very well let them know.

I’ve read a few books where you simply knew that the author was fictionalizing every word because they were so off the mark. It’s not just history, but includes how a business is run, what terminology is used in certain situations, whether it’s a gang member talking, a cop speaking or a mother of twins bragging about her kids. Very few readers want to read a story that has no basis, at all, in fact.

My latest book, The Accidental Gumshoe, was particularly fun to write. I had to learn about slang terms from 1920 and how people dressed and thought. I needed to create a character who would have fit comfortably into that era.

I try to include lightness or humor in most of my books, and because of that sometimes things aren’t as realistic as they might be. However, the basics are researched. Sandi Webster, my favorite protagonist, is a private investigator. While a real P.I. wouldn’t be able to get away with some of Sandi’s antics, there wouldn’t be a story if I didn’t fudge a little (or sometimes a lot).

So there you go. Fiction needs to be combined with fact. Don’t fudge with something that can be researched. An author should be as accurate as possible while still telling a good story.

Now you have some idea why most writers research their projects, sometimes even to the smallest detail.

Until next time, have a good week and check your facts before making a statement.

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Monday, October 26, 2020

Hearing Voices


Surprisingly, one question that’s been posed to me numerous times is, “Do you hear your characters’ voices in your head?” The answer is, of course. Although not audible voices, every character I write about speaks to me at one time or another.

Each character has his or her own personality, and his or her own habits. Fictional characters are just as individual as real people.

Yes, the characters talk to me. Sandi Webster tells me that she wants to be good at her job, and she’s not always happy when I write that she’s bumbled her way through a situation, or she overlooked something. She wants to be taken seriously. I can’t blame her. I feel the same way. She also tells me how frustrated she is sometimes. Sorry, Sandi, but that’s life.

Livvie Brewster, Sandi’s mother, is menopausal and when she talks, I listen, no questions asked. I always hope she’s remembered to take her hormone pills. Martha Workman, Sandi’s aunt, can be gruff and bossy, but as a retired school teacher she tries to be tactful. Okay, she’s not tactful, and she’s outspoken. These sisters are often pushy and take off in their own direction. Their voices can be loud and demanding.

It’s a bit different when male characters try to talk to me. They don’t always understand the women in their lives. Peter Goldberg is an ex-cop and Sandi’s husband and partner, and he was used to being in charge. He wants to protect Sandi, and he can’t understand why she’s so adamant about being in control of her own destiny.

Stanley Hawks is a meek and mild little man who works for Sandi and Pete and who hasn’t experienced much in his life – that is, until he met and married Felicity, and they had a son. All bets are off as he grows and learns. He talks to me about wishing he could be more like “one of the guys.” I try to help him with his wish.

The animals in my books can be especially fun to listen to, but they can be boring, too. They mostly talk about eating, playing, pooping and sleeping. No surprise there, but every once in a while they tell me they want to play a real part in the stories. Bubba and Clementine can be pushy when the want to be, but they do enjoy watching out for their people. 

There’s a new character on the scene, too (The Accidental Gumshoe – A Sandi Webster Mystery). Sioux Simms is Sandi’s great-great-great-aunt. She was a teenager back in 1920. Listening to her voice was a whole new experience since things were so different in that era. The situations she gets into and the slang in her speech made me sit up and pay attention.

The Bogey Man Mysteries is another series and a whole different set of voices, including that of a young boy. He has to speak a bit louder when talking to me because I’ve never had a son and I don’t always understand what he wants to say or do. The dogs in this series are different, too. They have issues they show me more than they tell me.

Writing about a bad guy or a victim is one of the hardest things to do. They speak to me and say things I’d rather not hear – ugly things and sometimes sad things. I’d rather watch the world through rose-colored glasses, and they won’t allow that. It’s simply not a rose-colored world and they frequently remind me of the realities of life.

Do you ever hear voices in your head? Sometimes they’re just memories or wishes. Or maybe you should be writing a book. Think about it.

Until next time, I wish you a week of rose-colored experiences and peaceful voices – one can always hope for the best.

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Just released: The Accidental Gumshoe – A Sandi Webster Mystery (Aunt Sioux can be quite entertaining.)


Monday, October 19, 2020

Quiet Times


Quiet Times is kind of a deceptive thought. We’ve all been going through a lot over the past year. So much has been happening that I don’t need to share details. We all know things have been different.

I know that I’ve been very quiet for a long time. Maybe it’s time to come out of hiding, in a manner of speaking. Many of us have been stuck at home with only occasional trips to the grocery store or the gas station. My daughter has been working from home, so my daily schedule is different. Between us we have three dogs, and I think it confused them, at first, to find that we were both home all the time.

So, what have I been doing? I should have been posting blogs, but I haven’t done that in a long time. Instead, I’ve concentrated on writing. It turns out it was worth it.

What’s new in my world? “The Accidental Gumshoe – A Sandi Webster Mystery” has kept me busy and the research has entertained me. The gist of it is:

“Sandi Webster is stuck at home with an injured foot. Always the one to help out, her mother sends her a box of old diaries written by her Great-Great-Great-Aunt Sioux, hoping she’ll learn about their family history.

Initially Sandi is just about bored to tears while reading what the weather was like and what her aunt had for dinner on any given day. She’s ready to stop reading when she notices a diary marked 1920, with a page marked.

Aunt Sioux’s father was accused of murder, and Sandi’s seventeen-year-old aunt was determined to learn who the real killer was with the help of her cousin and two male friends, and eventually her mother. What she had for dinner is the last thing on her mind.

Sandi may learn where she developed her interest in being a private detective and her passion for solving mysteries. She may also learn that, of all things, a broom can come in quite handy in some of life’s situations.”

Maybe subconsciously I figured if I was stuck at home, Sandi should be, too, but for a different reason.

Some months ago I received a box full of diaries that one of my grandmothers wrote several years ago. I glanced through them and, honestly, they were pretty boring. Aha! What if they weren’t boring? What if someone was telling a story involving crimes and someone who wanted to solve them to absolve her wrongly accused father? And I was off to the races. It was time to have some innocent fun, or at least my main character was about to have some fun.

In the midst of everything, my daughter brought home a one-year-old rescue dog, another Chiweenie. Little did we know that Mya was pregnant. Not long after her arrival, we dealt with the arrival of three of the tiniest puppies you’ve ever seen. A lot of things were put on hold while we tried to keep things running smoothly. My daughter was working from home, the puppies soon became great escape artists, and my two big Labs wanted in on the puppy action while Mya tried to make them keep their distance. It was like a zoo around here.

Interesting side bar: one of the puppies was white, which is rare for this breed of dog. He was the only male, and we named him Bubba. If you’ve read any of my books, you know about the fictional Bubba.

This is 7-week-old Bubba with Sugar and Murphy

We found good homes for the puppies, and things finally got back to normal, whatever normal is. I sometimes wonder if things will ever be normal again.

So, if you’re looking for some entertainment while you’re stuck at home, you might try “The Accidental Gumshoe – A Sandi Webster Mystery.”

I’ll try my best to start posting again, and hopefully I can write about something that will make you smile. I may do some repeat posts, and I might do some new ones. It’ll keep me busy while I try to come up with a new story idea.

I hope you’re all healthy and dealing with your new life, and feeling positive. Hmm. Maybe I’ll even do some blog cheerleading in the future. Life goes on, and so must we.

Until next time, think some happy thoughts. My best wishes to all of you!

Marja McGraw  

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