Whole Series Sale

In the mood to curl up with a good book? How about seven? The entire Mae Martin Series is on sale through December 16th. The Calling is free, Shaman’s Blues is $2.99, and the rest of the books in the series are $3.99 each. If you haven’t caught up with all seven, this is a great time to do it.

How Plotting a Novel is like Planning a Yoga Class

For me, teaching yoga and writing fiction are about the deeper aspects of being human, not simply about executing poses or providing entertainment. The asana practice or the entertainment is the container for the inner process.

There are two main ways I approach my work in both cases: structure and improvisation. For example, I have general sense a story is about a certain theme and a certain problem affecting a set of characters in a specific setting. There’s interaction among these elements, and sometimes it can surprise me. A yoga class also tends to have a theme, such as a class focused primarily on hip stability and mobility or a class building up to a new asana. How I teach it is affected by the student or group of students.

A story has a beginning, in which the protagonist is in her normal world, in a situation where her strengths and her shortcomings feel comfortable and familiar. But then something changes, making it necessary not only to take action, but to do things she’s not comfortable doing, things that stretch her creativity and courage in confronting a problem that has high stakes for her and for people she cares about yet. The pace increases and the demands become greater as the story progresses.

I start a yoga class with awareness of posture and breath, meeting the students as they are, letting them find where the knots, restrictions, and imbalances are. I observe them and consider what they might need in their asana practice to release some of the habits that tighten their necks, backs, or shoulders. I also take requests, because the students may have concerns and needs I can’t otherwise assess. The first portion of the class focuses the mind, warms up the muscles, and lubricates the joints prior to any significant physical demands. The middle portion of the class is the hardest, with poses that challenge strength, balance, and flexibility.

I respond to my students’ questions and to what I see in their practice with further explorations and modifications. I may need to change direction in midstream, depending on how they respond to my instruction and on how they’re feeling that day.

Similarly, I improvise in writing my books as I discover how my characters respond to what I’ve given them so far. They have as much say in the plot as I do. But if any key elements in the course of a mystery or of a balanced yoga class are missing, my readers or my students will end up feeling unfinished in some way. So, even as I invent, I rely on structure.

Beyond the midpoint is the peak of the experience. The crisis in the plot. Or the asana we’ve been building toward. Everything that comes before leads up to this. Nothing is extraneous. The challenge is equal to the student/protagonist’s ability, though at times it may feel to them as if it’s beyond their reach. That’s where growth takes place. And both are solving a puzzle, whether it’s a mystery or how to organize ardra chandrasana or how to quiet the mind and be fully present.

Then there’s the denouement of the plot or the cool-down and relaxation portion of the class, as everything that came before is integrated and resolved.

*****

A number of my characters practice yoga, though so far my protagonist, Mae Martin, doesn’t. Her friend and mentor, Dr. Bernadette Pena, introduced in The Calling, is an advanced yoga student. Mae’s young neighbors in Truth or Consequences in Shaman’s Blues are devoted to yoga as part of their recovery from addiction. Jamie Ellerbee is one of the most complex characters in the series. Yoga plays an important role in his healing journey, especially as he first begins his studies in Soul Loss.

Works in Progress

I set myself a goal to complete five short stories and get them revised and sent out for critique by November. I’ve somewhat polished three, finished a very rough first draft of the fourth, and have the outline for the fifth.

Writing these stories is forcing me to examine emotional depths within the tight plots of short fiction. It’s my job as a fiction writer to make my characters’ lives difficult. To test them and to explore how they can come out stronger. In some ways, doing this in short works is harder than developing a character arc over the expanse of a long, complex novel. I’m enjoying the work, though. It’s been a chance to reunite with characters I haven’t seen for a while and integrate their personal journeys with those of my protagonists.

Will Baca and Letitia Westover-Brown from Ghost Sickness are featured in the first story. They’re trying to make a go of honest work and an honest relationship, but then someone sends Will a strange gift, and they need Jamie as a healer and Mae as a psychic to solve to mystery.

The next story takes place at the college fitness center where Mae works. No visits with “old” characters here. She finds herself with a new enemy, one who could undermine her future career.

The third story brings back Kyle and Vaughan from Shadow Family and Rex from Death Omen as well as Mae’s stepdaughters. I loved working on it, a project that made me rediscover pre-pandemic Truth or Consequences, as the twins attempt to plant a trivia mystery for Vaughan to solve. Another mystery emerges as a consequence, and the girls want Mae to find out the truth.

The fourth story centers around Montana Chino, a character from Ghost Sickness. She and her sisters, Melody and Misty, have planned a thirtieth birthday surprise for Mae, and then Montana, a hotel housekeeper, gets a much bigger surprise in a tip envelope at work. A tip that could change her life in more ways than one when Mae’s psychic inquiry brings up answers Montana wasn’t looking for.

I haven’t decided if the fifth story is more of romance or a mystery, as Mae and Jamie attend two weddings almost back to back, one in T or C and one in Santa Fe. (Trivia question: What happened in New Mexico in 2013 that would cause this to happen?)

Yes, it’s still 2012 and 2013 in these stories. (The Calling is set in 2009-2010.) I’m moving along. But so far, I can’t skip any part of my characters’ lives. They want me know what they’ve lived through, so I’ll understand them better for the next book.

Surfacing

As I said in my last post, when coyotes crossed my path, I chose to see them as a sign. Disconnect more was my interpretation of the message. More wildlife was showing up when I ran because there were so few other humans. Animals were reclaiming their space, and I needed to reclaim mine. My inner space.

Looking through the aquarium glass of a computer screen at a version of the world skewed by what people choose to share or make important was getting oppressive. So, I declared a timeout from Facebook, even though I knew I would miss friends’ pictures of their kids and cats and gardens, and links to their art and music. I needed a break from the mix of news and trivia that makes up the rest of Facebook. This freed up writing time. Freed my mind from the urge to scroll, too.

Then my laptop crashed. Like the coyote-powered universe was saying, “Hey, you like your time out?  Here’s more.”

And it was good. No news at all. No e-mail. My days out from under the internet allowed me not only to surface from the info-pond but to have a breakthrough.  Writing by hand, I outlined my main characters’ life events during the year and six months between the end of the seventh Mae Martin Mystery, Shadow Family, and the beginning of the eighth one. Then I chose five events in that timeline and sketched the plots of short stories.  Already, I can already see the effect this insight into the “skipped” time will have on my revisions to book eight.

When FedEx delivered the new laptop, after my four serene and productive days, I had mixed feelings about it, especially once I was swamped with the hassles of getting various setups completed. Everything was about the computer.

Now I’m adapted to it and doing my best to have a different relationship with it than with its predecessor. When I venture onto Facebook, it’s only to get in touch with a few close friends and a group of fellow writers, and then I’m outta there. I do follow the news again, but I limit it to listening while I’m lifting weights or doing housework. I’ve finished a fairly polished version of one short story, completed the first draft of the next, and improvised the opening paragraphs of the third. Writing short fiction is great discipline for tightening scenes in full-length novels. And my time without a computer made me keep flowing as I wrote, no stopping to fix and tinker. I’m applying that process to my first drafts now:  keep going to the end. It’s all going to get revised anyway.

Though I’m still one of the world’s slowest writers, I’ve learned how to speed up a little.

Schedule and a Sale

Once upon a time, I used to post every Thursday. Then it became every other Thursday or whenever I was inspired. I’m not sure it matters to readers of this blog if I keep to a schedule, but I decided it matters to me. For years, I had a schedule with the group blog, Ladies of Mystery. This summer, I decided it was time to leave. If you followed me on Ladies of Mystery, you got used to seeing my posts about writing on the fourth Thursday of every month, and I benefited from the discipline of reflecting on my craft. I’ll be keeping that schedule here, while posting on the second Thursday of every month on the other topics you’ve come to expect from me. Mindfulness, running, yoga, nature, occasional book reviews, and life in New Mexico.  In a way, there’s no boundary between reflecting on these things and on the work of writing. It’s all connected. A process of awareness and deep attention.

Anyway, the “real” post is next week. This is just my public commitment to the schedule. And an announcement that the boxed set of the Mae Martin Mysteries Books 1-3 is on sale for $2.99.

I hope all my readers are doing as well as possible in difficult times, staying safe and healthy. You’re welcome to use the comments to say hello, even if you have no actual comments on my post.

 

The Cactus Patch, Feral Furniture, and Patience

On a ninety-seven degree day with nineteen miles-per-hour wind, I had to run—well, jog, really—straight into the wind up the steep hill to reach my new favorite trail. And it was worth it. The rare little hedgehog cacti were displaying their last two blooms of the year. There are only three of these plants in the whole area where I’ve been running. Not a close family, they grow a foot or two apart. Their trunks are egg-shaped with starry thorn clusters, and they explode with big hot pink flowers that each stay open one day. The first time I rounded a bend and saw blossom number one, I gasped in awe and stopped. I looked deep in the cup of the flower to see something round and yellow bobbing and wriggling among the fluffy stamens. The hind end of a bee.

The rest of the desert is full of yellow flowers, the creosote bushes waving golden petals in the wind, and below them the low-growing purple prickly pear, also called a purple pancake cactus, is flowering as well. It looks like a mean little plant until it blooms. The pads can be purple, green with purple edges or green that looks as if it’s coated with purple, and sometimes the plant will sprout a single bright green pad. The thorns are long and sharp,  capable of penetrating the human toe quite efficiently. The buds are pink, but they open yellow with pink-orange centers or streaks. There were so many, when I closed my eyes in the shower after my run I kept seeing them, a sea of pale yellow flowers on a background of prickly purple.

I’m glad I saw so much beauty that day, because climbing the hill for weeks has reawakened an old injury which is quite literally a pain in the backside, so I have to stick to for flat ground for a while.

Unpaved flatness is hard to find. I tried a neighbor’s recommendation: the cemetery. It is flat, and has a dirt road and nice views of mountains in the distance, but the gate has huge signs on either side announcing that this is a Known Rattlesnake Area, warning visitors to use great care. I chose to run laps of an open green space where there are not yet any burials. I saw no snakes there, but ran over so many goatheads the soles of my shoes felt like Velcro on the grass. So I plucked them and switched to the dirt road on the side away from the main burial area. This offered windblown dust and flying goatheads—really—scratching my legs. I even got one stuck in my thigh. Easy to pull out, but still, this is not my favorite running spot so far. A few people visiting their loved ones’ graves must have thought me a bit weird, but surely, there’s at least one runner buried there. Someone whose spirit understood.

My next flat-ground attempt was a dirt road that goes from one of the residential streets in my neighborhood to the area behind (how lovely) the sewage treatment plant. I haven’t smelled the facility so far, and getting there is pleasant. I pass a friend’s house and see her positive-energy fence signs and window signs, such as “Mask your face, not your heart.” I even encountered her once for a distant air-hug and conversation.

Scenery along the dirt road is so-so. The scrabbly dirt side of hill I’m avoiding is at the end of the road. You have to be on top of it to see the cactus patch, so this view is not floral. On one side of the road are the backs of a few houses, including one with some huge prickly pears that have poppy-like orange flowers. On the other side is an area of brush, bare dirt, and weeds that looks as if it was cleared once and is now overgrown. Facing a patch of dirt sits a single off-white folding chair, suggesting someone chose to sit and contemplate this inhospitable spot. My friend Donna Catterick, the photographer whose work is on the covers of Death Omen, Shadow Family and Small Awakenings, calls such sightings feral furniture. The cover of Small Awakenings, my book of reflective essays, features a feral chair. (The feral recliner at the bottom of this post is another one of Donna’s photos.)

I met a birdwatcher on my second run on this route—from the recommended twelve feet apart while exercising—and wondered if that was his chair.

I also met a beautiful snake from an even greater distance. It was orange with black stripes that diminished to mere spots toward its rattle-less tail. I looked it up later and concluded it might have been a ground snake, possessed of mildly toxic saliva. Does anyone else think ground snake is an odd name? All the snakes I’ve ever seen were on the ground.

My third time down that road, I was pain-free and happy for many laps, and then I tripped on a rock. I didn’t fall. No, I caught my balance with an instinctive and intense effort of the injured muscles, and learned how much strength it takes to keep your balance, how hard you work in a fraction of a second of not falling down. Needless to say, the old injury revived with a vengeance.

Perhaps I will have to heal where I can’t even trip. Inactivity is its own kind of injury, though, and I need to see nature, so I guess I’ll be walking on pavement for a while. Dancing in my apartment when I need variety. Practicing yoga as if I were my own student with an injury. I can’t rush the process or I won’t heal at all. 

 

Moments

In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic on mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, he quotes an elderly woman reminiscing. I can’t find my copy of it to cite the passage precisely, but she says something along the lines of, “Oh, I’ve had my moments. And if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. Because that’s all we have, really. Moments.”

Writing this made me stop and perceive my apartment in a new way. There’s no sound but the faint hum of the humidifier gently battling the total dehydration that is April in New Mexico. I look at my furniture, the quality of early evening light—all beautiful for being so ordinary.

Despite the shrivelingly-low humidity and frequent high winds, the desert smells like flowers. I can’t figure out which ones produce the scent, but I run through it in delight. Tiny yellow flowers grow wherever they can, in hard soil, in dust, in pavement, between rocks. Creosote bushes and claret cup cacti are blooming.

One day on my run, I noticed a peculiar shadow in motion near me and looked up to see a trio of huge black shiny bees flying in a sloppy little V. Another day, another trio. A bee-o. My inner Dr. Seuss can’t help rhyming this: Big black bees/ fly in threes.

I took my car out for her weekly workout to keep her battery charged. I drove her to a trail just outside of Elephant Butte Lake State Park, as close to my beloved park as I could get while it’s closed, and took a walk to see if it was a potential running trail. It wasn’t—too much lose gravel and then extremely soft sand—but it was a lovely walk. The deep soft sandy part of the trail was partially overgrown with flowers I’ve never seen before, purple clusters that sometimes curl over like fiddlehead ferns. The unique landscape of Elephant Butte is quite different from Truth or Consequences, just a few miles away. More gray rocks than red. More twisted, shaggy-barked junipers, fewer creosote bushes. Greater earless lizards rather than checkered whiptails. Sand rather than dust and dirt. The trail dropped off sharply into a dry arroyo, and I turned around, content with my exploration

On the days I would normally teach yoga, I’ve been doing my practice as if teaching, talking to myself with the cues I would give students, treating my own need for alignment , relaxation, and engagement as those of a student I was observing. It sounds crazy, but it makes me pay full attention. I can’t think about anything but the moment, as my body and my words meet in my focused awareness.

After today’s yoga immersion, I gazed out my screen door at the waving, rustling green leaves at the top of the tree that invaded our water line back in February. It’s a beautiful tree. And I have water.

*****

The entire Mae Martin Series is currently discounted. Book one, The Calling is free and will be through June 13. Shaman’s Blues is 99 cents through the end of April. The other books are $2.99, and when the promotions end, the first two books will be only $2.99 for the rest of the summer.

Social Distancing, Reading, and Writing

Seriously, I want to hug someone. Not touching is strange, and it makes me feel a bit disoriented, not quite myself. I socialize by taking walks with friends rather than going to coffee shops, restaurants, or the brewery. No blues dancing on crowded dance floors for now. A friend I hadn’t seen for two years came to Truth or Consequences for a few days of camping and bird-watching. We met—and parted—with elbow-bumps.

I’ve been teaching yoga without using touch for guidance, and now the studio is going to close for the rest of the month. Art events, music events, the life-blood of my town … I’m not going. It’s difficult, but I can see the wisdom in doing things this way. Prevention.

Fortunately, running in the desert is still an option. And since I have less of a schedule and less of a social life, I can do more reading. E-books don’t even involve going to a store. I can’t run out of them.

And of course, I’ll get more writing done. I’ll probably be writing scenes in which people hug.

*****

The Calling is free on all e-book retailers though April 23rd

Book Review: Bless Me, Ultima by RudolfoAnaya

The narrator, Antonio, is an intelligent, spiritually-inclined boy, the youngest of a large family in rural New Mexico. The villages and the land around them are drawn with depth and beauty. That’s the strongest aspect of this book: the spirit of the place. Trees, river, lake, sky, and soil are alive.

The tensions between farming and the restless life, between Christianity and earth-based spirituality, between compassion and cruelty, dark magic and healing magic, make up the drama of the book. Though the protagonist is a child, this is in no way a children’s book. Tony witnesses adults at their violent worst several times, as well as at their courageous best. The scenes of healing and of curses are extraordinary. Anaya’s portrait of the culture he grew up in is masterful.

Tony’s spiritual maturation is true to the ways of childhood, as he searches for answers to questions about the nature of God, of justice, and of mysterious things. The friendships of childhood, and the cruelties and sheer awfulness of some children, are real and vivid. A number of the characters are one-dimensional—Tony’s mother, his sisters, and most of the girls at school—but this is how they’re seen through the eyes of a young boy. Ultima, the curandera, is idealized, the essence of her kind of spirituality, and the tavern-owner Tenorio is the opposite, the dark force. In between is Tony’s friend Cico, who introduces him to a mystical divinity in nature. Cico is just another boy, but he’s one who knows a sacred secret.

The dream sequences are long though beautifully written. The children’s Christmas play runs on a bit, too, with no real contribution to the story—I think the author must have found it funnier than I did. All in all, though, the story is intense and compelling except for those sections, and made me feel even more deeply connected with this place I live, this place I love, New Mexico.

A New Mexico Mystery Review: Murder at the Petroglyphs by Patricia Smith Wood

Once again, Patricia Smith Wood has crafted an intricate puzzle of a mystery. In short, tight chapters, she reveals the discovery of a death, and the process of solving how a body came to be where it was—but this is no simple question of who done it. The twists and surprises keep coming. Wood’s books always give my brain a good workout trying to follow the clues. The relationships among her cast of professional and amateur sleuths makes the involvement of amateurs more plausible than in the average amateur sleuth mystery. Another reason to get involved is this: Harrie McKinsey has prophetic dreams, and in one of them she sees the dead body at Petroglyphs National Monument.

There are so many facets to the mystery, so many contributing investigators—FBI, CIA, and Albuquerque Police Department, as well as Harrie and her friends and colleagues at her editing service—Wood did well not to have major subplots. It’s unusual in what is technically a cozy mystery, but it was the right choice. Most cozies have romantic subplots, but the central characters here are in established relationships. Most cozies are comic. Though many of the characters in this book display a natural and engaging sense of humor, it isn’t a comic mystery. It’s cozy in the sense of limiting onstage violence and having amateur participation, with much mystery-solving taking place over dinner or coffee.

I enjoyed the various Albuquerque settings, from restaurants to major parks like the Petroglyphs to local secrets like the Hidden Park, and even an airfield used by drone enthusiasts.

Many scenes take place at Southwest Editing Services, Harrie’s business. I was surprised at the importance of paper copies as well as electronic copies of manuscripts in a professional editing service. I’d thought paper was a thing of the past, but apparently not. I learned something.

I would have liked a stronger thread connecting the opening and the ending. The title, the cover, the first chapter, and park ranger Nick Ellis’s deep connection to the spirits of the ancient ones made me expect more continuity on this theme. In fact, I initially expected a different kind of story altogether. Harrie doesn’t come across as having a mystical connection to the land and its history, so the sudden transfer of what has been Nick’s spiritual experience to her felt as if an editor said to bring that theme back. Harrie is already psychic about her life and family, and having her new dream come from the spirits struck me as out of character. A couple of backstory chapters and a few chunks of expository dialogue also felt like afterthoughts or requests for additions, rather than integral parts of the otherwise tightly woven plot.

The wrap-up of the mystery plot was one-hundred-percent unexpected, even though I figured out the borders of the puzzle. The explanation scene is realistic and well-structured. (I’m always grateful when a book doesn’t have one of these clichéd confessions from a killer holding protagonist at gunpoint.) Wood has real skill with crowd scenes. She can juggle six or eight people in a scene and never let the reader forget any of them.

Complexity is what she does best. If you like a mystery that puts your mind to work, you’ll enjoy this one.