Scaring the Bluebirds

I felt bad for alarming them. They’d settled into the tall junipers on either side of the trail. But if I let them sit, I’d have never finished my run. So, three times, making laps of my favorite trail, I scared the newly-arrived flock of bluebirds into flight. Once they were aloft, it was moving, magical, a soul-stretching experience. Thirty or forty bluebirds, the males’ wings flashing like fragments of the New Mexico blue sky.

I have to upend my characters’ lives. Make them fly. It brings out the beauty and strength in them. No one wants to read a book about an easy life. We’d all like to have one, I suppose, but according to the concept of Flow, doing something difficult that we can master makes life interesting, not doing what’s easy. The character arc in a book and in a series is like that. Characters have to struggle and face setbacks before finally they arrive at some version of their goals, changed by the effort. And then, as they get comfortable in a new stage of life, the author comes around the bend in the trail again. The bluebirds take flight.

*****

Bird notes: I have learned that the Western Bluebird lives in most parts of New Mexico year-round, but some from further north may migrate here. This flock arrived in Elephant Butte Lake Park about a week before the state parks shut down again due to the pandemic. The closure may only be for two weeks, or it may last a while, depending how things go. My alternate running route is beautiful, but without bluebirds. I hope they stay the winter, and I can see them again. If I do, I will probably scare them again. I miss them, but I doubt they miss me.

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.

Boredom? Free Time? What’s That?

Occasionally people have asked me—from six feet or more away, outdoors, of course—if I’m bored yet. My answer: I’m a writer. I’m never bored.

I’m wrapping up another major revision of the eighth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, but I haven’t had as much time to work on it as I expected. With all “close contact” businesses in New Mexico still closed—and that includes fitness facilities like yoga studios—I should have free time. I’m not taking classes in Albuquerque or teaching classes here in Truth or Consequences. My new running route, a dirt road along the Rio Grande, is two tenths of a mile from my apartment. I don’t drive to Elephant Butte to run in the still-closed state park. I love this road—the river, blue herons, red-winged blackbirds, butterflies, a few blooming cacti, and some unknown plant that smells crisp and green. A dirt road in the windy season delivers occasional little dust storms, but I can’t complain. It’s flat, so I can run without reinjuring myself, and it couldn’t be more convenient.

The time suck is laundry. I live in a tiny apartment. I often rented places this size when I was a professor spending summer vacations in Truth or Consequences, and I realized all I actually needed was two rooms and a bath, not my two-story, two-bedroom townhouse, so when I retired and moved, I downsized. The lack of laundry hookups or space for machines was only a minor issue. After all, I could do a week’s laundry all at once at the laundromat, bring my exercise tubing, and go outside to work out while giant machines did their jobs.

Then, this spring, the laundromat became stressful. Sanitizing the machines and the laundry carts. Asking people to stay six feet away and getting dirty looks for it. I ordered two little gadgets that are life-savers. But they aren’t time savers. The hand-cranked Wonder Wash holds about five pounds of laundry. I have practically no counter space next to the sink, so I have to put it in the (very small) shower, kneel on a towel on the floor to crank right-handed, then get behind it in the shower and do a kind of half squat and crank left-handed to make it churn the other way. Two minutes for a wash, a minute per rinse. Two rinses. Sounds quick, but there’s the filling, the draining, and the wringing between rinses. Then I carry the wet clothes to the electric spin dryer in the living room. It whirls them at amazing speeds and flings the water out with centrifugal force to drain into a plastic tray under its spout. This takes two to four minutes, and again, that sounds quick. But I have to wipe the washer dry and store it behind the sofa, empty the spin dryer’s drain tray, and hang up my laundry without a clothes line. The whole process takes at least an hour per load. Small items drape on the edge of the clothes baskets. Larger items go on hangers on the shower rod. Sheets get folded in four lengthwise, clipped to pants hangers, dried with a fan, then folded with the other side out, fan-dried again, and then refolded yet again with yet another area on the outside. Towels the next day, clothing the next, a day off, and then I have to do more laundry. Five pounds at a time.

My thumb muscles are sore. My upper back and shoulder muscles are sore—and I’ve been doing yoga daily and lifting weights three times a week for decades. I’m still working out while I do my laundry, but it’s not as easy—the workout or the laundry. Amazing. Think how fit our great grandmothers must have been doing the wash for a whole household.

Every time I put away a set of clean, dry sheets and pillowcases, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I did it myself, at home, without sharing respiratory droplets in an enclosed space with other people.

And now, finally, I can sit down and write.

*****

Red-winged blackbird photo by Sarah Stierch

Note: I provided links to the products I discussed so you could see pictures, but they’ve been in such demand they’re sold out.

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

Relief and other updates

The relief feels wonderful and yet disorienting. It’s hard to adapt. I have my life back. Book seven in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, Shadow Family, is with my editor now. I sent it off last night—actually, at around 3:30 in the morning. I know my editor will be sending me sections to revise, but today, I can think about the next book. I can even write a blog post.

Relief came with rain as well. September is still summer, the grand finale of the monsoon season, with temperatures in the eighties, cooler than August by a long shot. It’s rained three times—one drizzle, one thunderstorm with hail and two inches of rain in two hours, and one nice steady all-night rain. Wow! The jewel-colored greater earless lizards need to sunbathe and get warm. When it’s cloudy, they hug the rocks with their wee limbs, seeking every last bit of sunbaked heat from the surface. The baby lizards are out, flawless miniatures of the adults, no bigger than a bug with a tail. I marvel at their toes, and at their orange stripes and green legs, their little eyes blinking up at me. Desert plants are in bloom, yellow chamisa and something purple—maybe some kind of sage. And with all the rain, Turtleback Mountain is more green than red.

The other night I went for a walk with a friend and his dog, hoping to see bats over the wetland by the river, but it was too windy for them. As we were leaving Rotary Park, which is right on the Rio Grande, a coyote started yipping and singing on the bank directly below where we’d been standing a minute earlier while my friend took a dead bird away from his dog. The dog, strangely, wasn’t interested in the coyote, only the dead bird. A whole coyote chorus started across the river as the one on our side would sing and the others would answer. The dog still didn’t care.

White rabbit update. First, her former owner said he only had females, so I’m now calling her “she.” Second, she’s been chased by dogs and by a cat, and someone sprayed weed killer on all the plants she used to nibble on in the yard of the empty trailer across the alley. Fortunately, she finds shelter in our yard. I decided to feed her nightly after all, because I’m going to try a new way to catch her. Her future owners brought a live trap, and we baited it with sliced pears and fresh greens. It may be shocking for her to go to her usual buffet and have a door close behind her, but she’ll escape predators and poisons to be loved and petted. And then it’ll be her turn be relieved. If all goes well, her new owner will show her in the county fair. Because she is so beautiful.

 

Incompleteness

A week of thunder and lightning, but no rain.

A long to-do list.

A book finished but not finished. It’s with my beta readers and critique partners now. I have no idea how much revision they’ll recommend.

A world I wish I could change for the better.

If only the clouds didn’t have so many spaces between them. I think they could rain if they all got together. I have no power over that, though. I only have power over how I handle incompleteness. One thing crossed off the list every day. Small steps taken to make a better world, adding my voice and my efforts. Accepting there are no guaranteed results.

Inner quiet time. Without it, I can’t do the rest.

Slowness

In honor of the Turtle, the local deity of Truth or Consequences who rests atop Turtleback Mountain, I contemplate the virtues of going slowly.

A friend who came in next-to-last in a marathon told me with pride that it took a special kind of endurance to keep on going for such a long time at her slow pace, especially mental endurance. It was a good insight. After all, she had no illusion she could win. Her motivation was personal and internal. She wasn’t competing, just completing.

I’m a slow writer. I write daily and have no shortage of inspirations. What takes time is depth.  I have to know what every character is thinking and feeling, discover the subterranean aspects of my lead characters’ minds, the emotions they themselves might not be touch with, and become aware of potential interactions at that level as well as in the mystery plot.

The style of yoga I study and teach is slow, not flow. The psychological state of flow occurs, but the asanas are explored in depth rather than in a fast-flowing sequence. I’m taking a twelve-week workshop with the teacher who first trained me to teach. In each weekly session, we study two or three asanas that have similar patterns in the body, attending to the subtle organization, the inner details. Seventy-five minutes on just utkatasana, warrior one, and warrior three was fascinating.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy anything fast. I love dancing to fast-paced music and reading fast-paced novels. Sometimes, in my personal yoga practice, I do a vigorous vinyasa. Speed is energizing. To achieve it with skill, though, the writer, dancer, or yogi first has to master slowness.

I look at the mountain and realize there’s more. The Turtle has mastered stillness.

*****

Turtleback image by Donna Catterick, whose photography graces the covers of Death Omen and Small Awakenings.

Music and Writing

I can’t have background music. Either I’m listening, or I’m writing. Music totally absorbs me. I attended a concert of the Southwest Chamber Winds in an art gallery, and the effect on my mind and energy was profound. Pattern itself has energy, and has emotional and intellectual effects. Through pace, implied directions, unexpected transitions that somehow flow, mood changes, and pauses, music can create humor or suspense, can make you  wonder with every note what will happen next, and it has to both surprise and satisfy by the end. If it was predictable, it would be dull, but if it had no pattern or resolution, it would be noise, not music.

The concert made me want to write with the complexity, fire, and subtlety of classical music.

 

Reversals

The obstacle isn’t necessarily in your path; perhaps it is your path. I took a New Year’s yoga class in which the teacher used this theme. We can’t always remove our obstacles. Sometimes we learn to work with them and learn from them.

During my run a few days back, I heard coyotes singing.  Then they started yipping and growling, as if there was some kind of scuffle going on. They weren’t far ahead of me, and I remembered that a friend had once been followed by a pack of coyotes when she was hiking alone. Though coyotes almost never attack humans, running past this pack, whatever they were doing, seemed like a bad idea. Maybe there were just two—it’s coyote mating season—but maybe it was a fight with an outsider to their territory.  The noise stopped, and through the gaps between shrubs, I spied them trotting silently toward the section of the trail I was headed for. When in the presence of predators, I told myself, don’t act like prey. I turned around.

Danger is exciting on the page, but even the smallest danger doesn’t appeal to me in real life. Reversals, however, are interesting in both cases. I saw the landscape from a different perspective, since I usually go up the long hill rather than down. The same place can look quite new from the other side. And I ran further, since I had to retrace my steps.

That evening, my work in progress was so stuck it was putting me to sleep. Not a good sign.  I wasn’t sure how to fix it, but I told myself I was going to push through and not go out dancing that night, though there was a musician I would have enjoyed hearing at the Brewery, and I can walk there in five minutes or less. Still stuck, I gave in and went. My favorite dancing partner was there, and an acquaintance who is a mystery fan. I danced a few songs with one, talked story structure with the other, and then headed home, ready to write.

The problem lay in being too linear, telling the story step by step. I need reversals, a surprise, and something as energizing for the reader as a wild dance with a strong partner.