Checkered Present

Now that I have more social and community interactions, I have new kinds of noise in my head. Did I say something awkward? Did I listen well? Did I lose my social skills over a year of seeing only a few people, usually one at a time, outdoors?

I came through the front gate after a day of “peopling,” as I’ve heard it called, when movement on the far side of the yard snagged my attention. A lizard was heading my way. All the inner chatter stopped. So did my movement. The animal scurried to a spot of shade a few inches from my feet and angled its head up to examine me. And I examined it—a good-sized checkered whiptail with a dark-and light pattern on its legs and body fading into tiny, delicate squares on its tail. We held eye contact until I moved my head to get a better look, and the lizard sped off to another patch of shade. In our brief encounter, it had done me a service. Popping the thought bubble with present-moment awareness.

Four Years and a Free Story

Today is my fourth anniversary of moving to Truth or Consequences, taking early retirement to write full time. I will celebrate by putting in some serious hours on the next book and committing to an earlier start on each night’s writing.

I’ve been productive in those four years. Three works of fiction have come out—Death Omen, Shadow Family, and Gifts and Thefts—and the essay collection Small Awakenings.

But I actually started the book I’m working on before I moved. While there are elements in it that I like, the problem is I finished the first draft of book eight in the Mae Martin Series before I began book seven. I’ve had to rewrite book eight almost entirely, and I’m still revising. It can’t be the same story it started out to be. The characters have matured and changed.

Speaking of characters maturing … Mae’s thirtieth birthday party takes place in one of the short stories in Gifts and Thefts. In the series prequel, The Outlaw Women, you can meet her at age ten, as seen through the eyes of her grandmother. Free on all e-book retailers through July 15th.

 

Folk healer and seer Rhoda-Sue Outlaw Jackson knows her time on earth is running out when she hears the voice of her late husband telling her she has only but so many heartbeats left. She’s had a troubled relationship with her daughter, and has little hope of passing on her extraordinary gifts, either to this difficult daughter or to her granddaughter. With the final hour around the corner, she brings her family together for one more try. Can she leave the world at peace with them, as well as with her legacy?

 

Reentering

I heard the term “post-traumatic growth” in a segment on NPR in which listeners asked questions of mental health experts, discussing lessons learned over a year of semi-isolation, loss, and change. Some were profound, others funny. One listener worried about getting back into social circulation after being fully vaccinated, afraid he had become unable to make small talk. One of the experts asked, do we need to get small talk back? I laughed, because I’d had the same concern—even though I’ve always been good at it.

Other thoughts on going back into the world:

Some friendships have stayed solid despite distance, while others faded. Those flowers were ready to drop their petals.

Hugging again was less of a big deal than I thought it would be. Good, meaningful, but not soul-shaking. Sort of like the rain today. It was refreshing and beautiful, but not a storm. I’m happy to resume real hugs with real friends, but I don’t want to receive exuberant but empty hugs from people I don’t feel close to, the contact equivalent of small talk. (Especially if they wear a lot of scent.) Touch means more than it used to, and so does my personal space.

Free time means more than it used to. I’ve had less of it during the pandemic, as I committed to more groups and more Zoom meetings. Today I declined to attend a meeting. I’ll still support that group, but I just couldn’t make them a priority today. I was out in the world, doing ordinary things I hadn’t done for so long they seemed special.

Like the rain. So rare, every drop is cherished miracle. Ordinary life is now a cherished miracle. And a changed one.

Writer’s Intuition

By making a joke in my online writers’ group, I caught the attention of exactly the expert I needed—and didn’t know I needed. The morning’s motivational prompt had been a funny one—something about banging one’s head on one’s desk. I replied, “Speaking of head-banging, my work in progress has a plot thread about metal music.” Another writer replied to me: “That’s my genre. Reach out if you need anything.”

I thought I’d done my research, but once I contacted her, I found out how little I’d really learned. Giving a character a connection to metal music in her past was intended to add surprising elements to the plot. Faced with how little I understood about the genre, and how enormous the project of grasping this complex musical world might be, I had to reconsider and ask myself some key questions.

Is the story dependent on this element? Or does it only add flavor? If that’s the case, could another flavor substitute? This reminds me of something my friend Bob said about cooking. When a recipe calls for Himalayan pink salt, if he can’t tell the difference between using it or regular salt, he’ll go with the plain stuff.

The black metal plot thread might be Himalayan pink salt. I’m going to try plain salt and see if the recipe still works. The story is about the characters, their challenges and dilemmas, their desires and obstacles, their lessons. As long as this character has a certain pair of people in her past, their creative output can be an art form I understand better. I never thought my joke would lead to such a revelation, and yet it felt important to make it. When it popped into my head,  I turned my laptop back on and posted it, though I was on my way out the door. The comment was, as far as I could tell, trivial, but my intuition knew better.

Surprising Myself

Multiple times in the past few months, I dropped my car key while running. My new Amphipod water bottle has a smaller pocket on the hand strap than the old one did, so I couldn’t fit the key with its great big head in the pocket anymore. It was either poking half-way out or dangling from my little finger. When I shifted the bottle from one hand to the other, it was easy to drop the key. After each drop, I told myself I would pay more attention. But I don’t run to pay attention to my key. I’m either brainstorming a scene in a book, admiring nature, or doing both.

I sometimes a route that doesn’t go in laps of a circular trail but along a stretch of sand above Elephant Butte Lake and back. I’ve never measured it, but it takes as long as five miles did on another trail. Not a great distance for marathoners, but it’s my usual. I changed the bottle from right hand to left at the turnaround point and didn’t notice my key was missing until I got back to my car. My phone and spare key were locked in the trunk.

No point in fretting or in objecting to reality. I had no choice but to run back. After a windstorm, the sand was freshly rearranged, and my tracks were easy to retrace. But the sand was soft in places where the key could have vanished. I could have dropped it into a lizard hole. Or a well-meaning person could have picked it up.

Seeing a park ranger’s truck on the dirt road above the beach, I pulled up my mask, waved, and ran to him. He loaned me his phone to call my roadside assistance club, and then I ran on, in case I could find the key.

It lay exactly where I’d turned around and switched hands on the water bottle. I ran back to my car, speeding up so I could get to my phone and cancel the lock-out service.

I did it! Success!

Almost. I was in the middle of the call when the ranger showed up, escorting the wrecker to my car.

Insights from this adventure:

  • I can make the same mistake five times before I learn from it.
  • I can be creative with what I have on hand: I crafted the world’s smallest fanny pack using the pocket from my old Amphipod bottle. My key will go in it.
  • And I can run double my usual miles.

You never know what you’re capable of until you do it.

Where did that character come from?

I sometimes feel as if characters come out of nowhere, fully formed, in search of an author. A few positive, likeable characters have been inspired by real people, but even then, I make changes so I’m not actually putting person X in a book.

Antagonist characters are usually inspired by one specific trait or behavior I notice in an individual. I use that trait as a root from which to grow a character. For example, in the short story Hidden Fish in Gifts and Thefts, I needed someone who would antagonize Mae’s boyfriend, Jamie. As I set up the opening scene, I had an image of a woman I’d noticed a concert a couple of years ago wearing an oddly fitted wig and carrying a small dog. (The wig puzzled me, because it seemed she intended to make it obvious she was wearing one.) Jamie is a musician with a fear of dogs. A woman who would bring her dog to a concert was the perfect antagonist.

Obviously, I couldn’t actually use this real person in my story, whoever she was, but I borrowed the dog—making him far less cute and far worse-mannered—for Hepzibah. I borrowed a variation on the wig, too, and invented a story behind it as the reason for her enmity toward Jamie.

When I was recertifying as a fitness professional in 2019, I took a continuing education course taught by a woman who said “Whoo!” after every segment of the workout. It drove me nuts. I took note of that idiosyncrasy for an antagonist in Mae’s in workplace, a fitness center. I thought it was the only aspect of this presenter I used, but the day Gifts and Thefts came out, I realized I’d used more. Her unprofessional behavior. She made overt sexual jokes, and she kept asking if it was time to have wine yet. I’d forgotten this. Consciously, anyway. In the short story Responsible Party, Sandra commits different offenses. But in retrospect, I see more of the presenter in her than I knew was there while I was writing.

I now wonder what else I’ve borrowed, beyond a wig, a dog, and a “whoo,” to assemble the characters who stand in the way of my protagonists.

*****

Download a copy of the second short story in Gifts and Thefts

Responsible Party

Mae’s internship in fitness management gets stressful when her supervisor starts accusing other employees of theft and tells Mae to find the responsible party. Her efforts bring results neither of them expected.

*****

The Calling is on sale for 99 cents through April 10th.

I’ll be interviewed and will read sections from The Calling on All About Books KTAL, 101.5 FM, Las Cruces, at 12:30 p.m.  Mountain Daylight Time, April 9th. Later that day, the show will be posted on the station’s archive.

New Release Available for Preorder and Book One on Sale

Gifts and Thefts

Six Short Mae Martin Mysteries

 Could a gift cat be a mystery in disguise?

Gifts and Thefts picks up where Shadow Family left off with six connected short stories, beginning with the anonymous gift of a cat and ending with an elephant in the room. Faced with decisions about using her psychic gift, Mae Martin wants to help her friends and colleagues, but uncovering the truth has consequences—for her and for people she cares about. The answers to simple questions have complicated results, and solving one mystery opens the door to a bigger one.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Buy

****

Gifts and Thefts will be released on March 31.  The paperback can be ordered then. E-books can be preordered.

The Calling, the first Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, is on sale for 99 cents through April 10 on all e-book retailers.

Buy

Green and Present

For a year, I’ve been making few plans and not giving much thought to what I was doing without. When I got my vaccine appointment, though, I began to think about the future. Then my appointment was rescheduled for a week and a half later, and this brought me back to the present. It’s better than leaning too far ahead. More peaceful. The future will still come.

On a typical spring day, I tried to squeeze in a run at Elephant Butte Lake before the wind kicked up. The lake was blue, the sand staying in place on the ground, the sun warm—and then the blowing started. At one point, the flying grit was so thick I had stop and turn my back to the wind. I couldn’t see, could hardly move forward, and the sand was stinging my skin. In a few minutes, it eased enough that I could proceed, grateful for a visor and for wrap-around sun goggles, and the view was stunning. The wind made the water appear bright green, whipped into miniature whitecaps. Thin clouds of white sand streaked over the surface. I was still being pelted, but even a dirt storm has its moments of beauty.

When I got home, I discovered new greening on the fig tree. Its first leaves had unfurled, tiny but thick and sturdy, and a few velvety, bead-sized green figs had popped out. Later, the fruits will flower inside their skins, and little wasps will somehow slip in and pollinate, unseen by human eyes.

A few weeks ago, my friend Bob loaned me his copy of Tales from the Tao: The Wisdom of Taoist Masters. As I walked home with it, honored by the surprise, I opened the book randomly and came across this passage from Lao Tzu.

Without going out your door,

You can know the whole world.

Without looking through your window,

You can see the Tao of Heaven.

 

Free Short Story: A Preview of Gifts and Thefts

Gifts and Thefts will come out on March 31. It’s been edited and now is now being proofread. If you’re eager to start reading, you can download an uncorrected copy of the first story in the book. (There may be a few typos, maybe not. Editors and authors go “wordblind” to material they’ve read and worked with over and over.)

Click here for your free preview story. Hope you like it!

Rodeo Regrets

Will Baca receives a cat from an anonymous giver, and his girlfriend suspects it’s from another woman. Mae Martin’s psychic journey into Will’s past on the rodeo circuit takes a puzzling twist while she’s solving the mystery behind the gift.

Space

Part of the appeal of the recent pictures of Mars may be the emptiness. No people. No buildings. Just rocks and dirt. It looks a bit like New Mexico. I’m fortunate to have access to open space, places where I can run alone and in silence.

My yoga teacher often guides savasana by reminding us to enter the spaces between the thoughts. One method of meditation is to attend not only to the breath but to the space between, the unforced transitional pause that’s neither inhalation nor exhalation. Likewise, there are spaces—small but deep—that are neither one thought nor the next.

When the to-do list is long and the calendar is full, spaciousness is still possible. The space between.