kale
characters, Writing

Crusty Old Coots

I like characters who are crusty old coots. My next novel, The Sweet Spot, has good one. His name is Alban Sweet.

The Sweet Spot is the first of my hilltown books to be launched, this one in January. As I’ve explained before, they are set in a rural stretch of Western Massachusetts, where my family and I once lived. I also reported on it for a local daily.

The town of Conwell and the characters in my book are fabricated although, heaven knows, those little towns (population 1,200 and fewer) are full of characters. Alban Sweet, who is known as Benny to most everyone except his late wife, his sister, and a few of the old-timers, would feel at home.

He’s Pop to Edie, his daughter and the novel’s main character. His granddaughter calls him Poppy.

Alban is a rascal of a guy who has run the town dump for about 35 years. (The novel is set in 1978.) He brings home the stuff people toss out that he feels still has some value. The outbuildings behind the home he shares with Edie is full of the junk. Yeah, he’s a bit of a drinker.

And he has a notorious feud with the town’s road boss because he keeps borrowing stuff from the highway department without asking. In keeping with a good feud, the road boss makes sure his dirt road is plowed and graded last.

Alban loves his daughter and granddaughter, Amber. (His other two daughters won’t have anything to do with him.) He would do anything for them. His love is true.

By the way, Alban is made up and not based on anyone real although I will admit I have met more than my share of crusty old coots. And, yes, my other hilltown novels have them.

Here’s a scene from early in the novel. Edie and Amber have just returned from a Memorial Day party at her in-laws. Earlier that day, the town has a ceremony to honor the soldiers who died in war, including Edie’s husband who was killed in Vietnam. Alban wasn’t invited to the in-laws’  because he got stinking drunk one year and insulted one of the guests. So, Edie and her daughter brought Pop a plate of chicken and the fixings from the party. By the way, the character, Harlan Doyle, has a significant role as the book moves along.

Edie watched her father eat. His thick white hair fell in front of his eyes. She needed to cut it again.

“What’d you do today?” she asked.

Pop ran a hand over his whiskers. He grunted.

“I straightened up the place,” he said.

“That so?”

Edie laughed because the room was filled tightly with junk. The kitchen sink was stacked high with dirty dishes. She and Amber would have to wash them tomorrow.

“When I got sick of that, I got the mower started and tried to cut the grass, but it’s gotten so goddamned high. I’ll have to use the weed whacker from the highway garage.”

Pop cut two short rows in the grass before he left the mower next to the old doghouse filled with gas cans. Edie wasn’t surprised. The closest distance between two points for her father was usually a crooked line.

Edie planted a hand on her hip.

“I saw how far you got. It couldn’t have taken very long,” she said.

Pop ignored her.

“I tried to take a nap on the porch, but there was too much hammering next door. Bang, bang, bang, that’s all I could hear.”

“At Aunt Leona’s?”

“Nah, the other side. Doyle’s.”

The Doyle place was located at the bottom of their dead-end road, closed up after the last Doyle, Elmira, died, and the family who lived elsewhere couldn’t decide what to do with the property. It must have been three years ago, and Pop got a few bucks keeping an eye on the place.

“Somebody moved in? Elmira’s house has gotten really rundown.”

Pop glanced up from his plate.

“I went over to see what’s what and met the fella. Damnedest face I ever seen. Scars up and down like somethin’ clawed him. He walked with an awful bad limp.”

“What clawed him?” Amber asked.

“Didn’t bring it up. It’s not polite, honey. I’ll let your Aunt Leona do it.” Pop grinned at his crack. “Friendly guy though. Name’s Harlan Doyle. His father, Aldrich, grew up next door. Elmira’s boy. He went to Japan in the war, and when he came back, he married a woman and moved south to be with her people. They used to visit the old folks here once in a while. Says he remembers me.”

“I saw a man at the ceremony today,” Edie said. “He wore sunglasses, but they didn’t cover the bad scars on his face. He’s tall, but his body was crooked like somethin’ wasn’t holding him up.”

“That’s him.”

“He says he’s gonna fix up the place?” Edie asked. “Is he really planning to live there?”

“That’s what he says. Maybe I’ll get me some work out of it.”

Pop made smacking noises with his mouth. He pointed toward the hutch.

“I almost forgot. I got a present for you, Amber. Go see over there.”

Amber went to the hutch. She held a wooden box when she twirled around.

“This it?” she asked.

“Yup, darlin’, bring it here.”

Pop’s eyes grew bigger as he told Amber to twist the crank on the box’s bottom, and after she did, the workings produced a tiny, tinny tune. Edie shifted in her chair to give her daughter room. Amber opened and shut the lid. She smiled at the gift and at Pop.

“Thanks, Poppy.”

Edie hoped her daughter would never be ashamed of her grandfather. Even though Ma got mad at Pop, she always defended him for working hard for his family. “Somebody has to take care of the dump,” her mother said when her sisters complained how horrible their father smelled.

When Ma got sick and after she died, Pop took Edie to the dump when Leona was not available to babysit. She stayed close to her father, or if the weather was bad, she waited in his attendant’s shack when he went outside to help a customer. Some people stared, wondering why Benny Sweet brought his youngest to such a place. Afterward, Pop told her about a treasure he salvaged from their load of trash. “People don’t realize what great stuff they throw away” was his motto. Or he’d reveal an observation, say “how the widow living near the store was dumping a lot of vodka bottles lately.”

Pop chuckled.

“Do you like the box?” he asked Amber, and after she said yes, he pulled himself upright. “By the way, next time you see Marie, you can tell her for me the chicken was a little dry this year. I’m gonna need a coupla beers to wash it down.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Yes, it is late November and I still have kale — and chard — growing in my garden despite very cold nights. Being a good Portagee, I have to grow kale. I make kale soup once a week, enough to last three days.

FINAL NOTE: Here is the link to my first novel Peace, Love, and You Know What on Amazon. If you live in Taos, you can find it at the local book stores.

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kids, Taos, Writing

Teaching Kids to Be Authors

I have added another gig: teaching creative writing to fifth-graders. It’s part of the Visiting Artists Program at the Taos municipal schools.

Others in the program are bringing what they do creatively in real life into the district’s classrooms. I work with Kathy Serna’s twenty fifth-graders at Ranchos de Taos Elementary School. My focus is on flash fiction, which I believe fits their writing level and the time I will spend with them — one or two hours a week.

I remember a similar opportunity I had when I was a fifth-grader. That year, a few children from each elementary school in my town — there were several then — attended an enrichment program on Wednesday afternoons. We were taught advanced science and creative writing.

The science was fine. Creative writing, taught by Mr. Graves, was definitely my favorite. I learned about expressing myself using similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech. At that early age I was inspired to do what I have done as an adult — write creatively.

I hope I can do the same for these kids.

My first day was last week. They got to know a bit about me, and I asked them to tell me about themselves via a writing assignment. (I admit I will have to work hard to remember everyone’s names given the short amount of time I have in the room.) I explained about flash fiction and how we will be publishing what they write in a magazine format. We read samples together.

On Thursday, I let them choose a photo  from the pile I cut from magazines. Tell me a story, I asked them. They had pictures of people and animals in a variety of locations. The animals, especially the coyotes were popular. One boy flipped his page over and decided to write about a couch in an ad. It’s a magic couch, he told me.

This time they worked on the computer although some preferred to write their first draft in longhand.

They are a great group of students, eager and polite. Several are bilingual or their primary language is Spanish. Their teacher called them “the best of the best.” I believe Kathy. She’s also a dedicated teacher. I am learning from her as well, like when she said to talk and read with them at the rug area rather than have them sit at their desks. You can lose them there.

I am also eager to learn what these students will teach me about writing.

On Tuesday, the students worked more on their stories after a brief lesson on onomatopoeia. (You know words that sound like the noise they make, like crunch and howl.) A group of girls are including each other in their stories. The same goes for a pair of boys. Kathy and I help the students as needed.

The hour flew by. Kathy told the students they could get together and share their writing with each other. They gathered in the back corner of the room, chatting excitedly when I left. Now that made me feel good.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: The students wrote about themselves on those sheets of paper.

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books, Writing

Writing about Triangles

I like triangles. Yeah, the geometric ones are interesting, but I’m talking about the triangles that can get people into trouble. That’s why I use them in my novels. Yes, The Sweet Spot has a big one.

And to complicate things, one person in the triangle is dead.

So, there is Edie St. Claire, whose last name was Sweet before she married Gil St. Claire right after their high school graduation — much to the consternation of his parents. Theirs is a tender love. But Edie’s life is turned upside down when Gil dies in Vietnam.

The third part of this triangle is Walker St. Claire, Gil’s brother. Years after his brother dies, he takes up with Edie even though he is married and has kids of his own. (There’s another triangle.)

Edie can’t let go of her love for Gil, who by my accounts was a sweetheart of a guy, and finds something to care about in his brother besides the sex. Unfortunately, Walker is obsessed with Edie.

This situation is not going to end well, I will tell you that. The tone in this book is decidedly not comic as was the case in my first novel Peace, Love, and You Know What.

Here is a scene from early in The Sweet Spot. Walker has taken Edie to his lakeside cabin. By the way, Shane and Randy are his twin boys.

Edie dressed as she walked around the cabin. She kneeled on the couch to study the dusty black-and-white photos of men holding dead game and strings of fish. Walker grinned from the edge of the bed, where he pulled on his cowboy boots.

Her face spun toward him.

“It’s Gil and you,” she said.

Walker stood beside her. Two smiling boys, wearing plaid jackets and furry hats flapped over their ears, posed with rifles.

“It’s us alright. Dad used to bring me and Gil up here when we were kids.”

“Look at you two. Just like Shane and Randy.”

Edie studied the photo. Walker cleared his throat. He wanted her to look at him.

“What do ya think it would’ve been like if he lived?” he asked her.

“Well, for one, I wouldn’t be here with you.”

She smiled. But Walker felt his jaw freeze. His words came from the back of his throat.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying we would’ve been happily married. I wouldn’t have been alone with Amber.”

“You think so, huh?”

“Course, I do.”

“Sure.”

“Walker, this is silly.”

He clasped her arm tightly and brought his face close to hers. Her smile went flat. Edie cried out, and when he let her go, she dropped the photograph to the floor.

When I think back on the characters in the book, I see other three-pointed relationships, most of which don’t involve intimacy or sex, like Edie’s relationship with her mother and father in-law. Marie is frank about her disapproval of Edie but she puts up with her. Fred has a clear fondness for Edie although his wife runs that marriage.

There is Edie’s relationship with her father and aunt, who like to spar.

And figure in Harlan Doyle, the stranger who moves into town.

Yes, I like things in threes.

The Sweet Spot’s launch, in paperback and Kindle, is expected mid-January, when we’ve all recovered a bit from the holidays.

And here’s the link to Peace, Love, and You Know What on Amazon.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: As we ponder the cover, I’ve been researching images of the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts on the internet. I found this vintage postcard of Worthington, where I once lived.

 

 

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pottery shards
hilltowns, Western Massachusetts, Writing

Finding the Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot is the next novel I will be publishing. I like the title very much, and I’ve stuck with it from the start because it has many layers.

This is the first of what I call my hilltown novels. They are set in Western Massachusetts, where my family and I once lived for many years. I call the novel’s town Conwell. It doesn’t exist, but if it did, it would be located in the hills west of the Connecticut River and to the east of the Berkshires.

But not only did I live in one of those hilltowns, Worthington to be specific, I reported on them for the local newspaper. I sat in numerous meetings, interviewed countless people, and covered whatever news happened in them. I got schooled on how people talk and act. I am grateful.

So like other authors, I take what I know and, as I’ve said before, have my way with it.

Yes, in my mind, the hilltowns are indeed a sweet spot even though this is not that kind of a book.

Here is a brief synopsis: Most in Conwell love Edie St. Claire, the widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam, until her affair with his married brother ends tragically. She tries to survive this small town’s biggest scandal through the help of her rough-sawn family and a badly scarred man who’s arrived for his fresh start.

(For the record, that didn’t happen.)

Other Sweet references. Edie’s last name was Sweet before she married. The family, notably her crusty Pop, who runs the town dump, and her outspoken aunt, like to say, “We Sweets stick together.”

She also plays on the Conwell Woman’s Softball Team, and naturally batters try to hit the ball where it will create the most velocity aka the sweet spot.

Then, there is this quote from Walker St. Claire, the aforementioned married brother-in-law, as he describes Edie:

“Gil’s the only one who’d understand how I feel about her,” Walker said. “My parents sure as hell don’t.” His voice faded as he lit the butt. “She always dressed up nice for me. Her hair shined and smelled good. When she laughed, the sound bubbled up from a sweet spot inside her.” He took a drag. “You ever see the way she talks with the people in the store? I’ve seen her give an old barfly at the Do her ear for an hour. She lights up everything and everybody, including me. That’s why my brother loved her. That’s why. Jesus, the last time he was home, he didn’t want to leave her for a minute. I had to shame him to get him up here with me.”

(For the record, absolutely no characters in this novel are based on real people.)

Right now, I am still giving The Sweet Spot extremely close reads. I am compiling parts for the back of the book, my bio, acknowledgements etc. for Michelle, its designer, when she is ready.

Expect to read more posts about the novel, like how I typed the first draft with one hand while recuperating from being hit by a car. I will write about the novel’s characters — Edie’s family is a colorful group — and other topics.

For those posts, I will be pitching The Sweet Spot.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Those are ancient pottery shards spotted on a hike above the hot springs at Ojo Caliente in New Mexico, not too far from where we live. There are many shards scattered on the ground, and I am pleased my fellow hikers let them be, as we did.

 

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books, Peace Love and You Know What, Professor Groovy, Writing

I Say Uncle

I am not a quitter. One of my favorite quotes is “Perseverance furthers” from the I Ching. But I finally found a fight no longer worth my time: creating an audio book.

For this project, I chose Professor Groovy and Other Stories, a collection of four short pieces. These stories predate my novel Peace, Love, and You Know What. Prof Groovy has only 10,000 words. Peace etc. has eight times that amount. A piece of cake, right? Uh, no.

I enjoyed a bit of pride learning the Garage Band program on my Mac and getting the settings down. I turned my office into a humble studio using every darn piece of foam in the house. I learned to breathe and read in a pleasant narrative. I figured out how to edit the tracks.

But, alas, no matter my effort, I felt strongly the audio tracks weren’t good enough to sell. I am not a professional, and it showed.

And, worse, I was spending too much time fixing audio tracks and not writing. I don’t even want to guess at the amount of hours spent on this project.

But I will make myself feel better and say I didn’t give up easily. I tried, I really did.

I haven’t given up on the idea that my published books, now and in the future, will also be audio books. But my new cosmic plan is to attract enough bread so I can hire someone who knows what the heck they are doing.

So what have I been doing besides feeling relieved? Writing-wise, I’ve started a new novel, this one a mystery set in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I once lived. I like where it’s going.

Also, I’ve started the last copyediting go-through for The Sweet Spot, the next novel I will be publishing later this fall. That one is set in Western Massachusetts, too, but in 1978. A lot more on that in the near future.

Finally, another new project: a bilingual novel for adult students taking ESL. I had a wonderful experience visiting the class of Teresa, my friend and collaborator. That experience deserves a separate post.

So I’m an audio book failure. No regrets, however, as I have other creative things to do.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Summer hangs on a bit.

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