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Isolating Times

I had a nice little holiday, though it ended up being fairly busy, as my new refrigerator was delivered Friday, and that meant spending Thursday preparing and Friday putting everything back in order. Now I’m going to dive back in to work before I take my next holiday around my birthday in early August. I did a lot of cooking, listened to a lot of classical patriotic music on the radio and on TV, and watched a livestreamed fireworks show.

Now, though, I’m determined to wrap up these mystery books and get them out into the world, and then get the next one written. Three books should establish the series, and then I can space them out a bit more and write a few other things in between those books. I know most of the advice is to have one series with a lot of books, but I already know that’s a recipe for burnout for me. Maybe I can get by with juggling a few different things. July isn’t good for much around here other than huddling indoors, so I might as well spend the time productively. Then maybe in the fall when it’s cooler (and possibly safer to be around people) I can ease up and let myself play some. Right now, there’s no travel from around here to the rest of the country or to most of the rest of the world because I live in a hot zone and I’d have to quarantine for two weeks. I just hope that comes under better control within the next month or so. Even I’m starting to miss people. Not necessarily large groups or people in general, but there are specific people I would like to see in person again. Though it is nice to not have to come up with excuses not to have to go to social events I’m not super keen on.

This summer has reminded me of a summer I had as a kid. The summer between fifth and sixth grades, my mom had a job and my little brother was in nursery school. I was too old for the nursery, and my parents figured I was mature enough to stay home alone. I did have some rules about not having anyone else in the house and needing advance permission to go to anyone else’s house or to leave the neighborhood, but otherwise I was pretty free, and I recall riding my bike to the next village to go to the swimming pool with a friend quite often, so I don’t think permission was denied. And this was in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language! I have fond memories of that summer. While I did go out and do things with friends, I also spent a lot of quiet time at home (since we were in Germany and the weather wasn’t always ideal for going outside). We had one TV channel in English. During the mornings, they showed old TV series like Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies and (my favorite that summer) Daktari. Then there was a block of soap operas, and that’s when I’d go outside or do something else. In the late afternoon, they tended to show British science fiction things, and I believe that was where I first encountered Doctor Who. We went to the library a lot and I had a good supply of books. I also created an entire city for my Barbie dolls in the basement playroom. I completely remodeled the Dream House and built on additional things, and I sewed clothes for my dolls.That was long before the Internet, and even the phone wasn’t an option because they charged by the minute even for local calls. The phone was only for emergencies.

Although I did get a lot of social interaction when I played outside with friends, and my family was home in the evenings and on weekends, that was a lot like the current lockdown. But now at least I have the luxury of Internet access and phone calls. Although the daytime television programming on broadcast TV isn’t as good as the one channel we got then, there’s so much streaming (even though I don’t watch much). In addition to getting books from the library, I can get just about anything I want electronically.

That summer made me very self-sufficient. I learned how to manage my time without any kind of externally imposed structure, and I got good at amusing myself. It was good training for being self-employed and working at home, and it prepared me for this time.

Romanticizing Small Towns

I’ve been looking at more women’s fiction, and in addition to the “when her husband left her …” plot, it seems another common thread is small towns.

In the days of chick lit, in the early 2000s, urban settings were the big thing — the single career girl in the big city. Now everything seems to be leaning toward the small town. The woman whose husband dumps her or cheats on her may already be in a small town and has to deal with the social fallout. Or when she leaves, she heads to her small hometown, the small town where a relative lives, the small town where she went on vacation as a child. Even the single woman books, the ones written by authors who got their start in chick lit, seem to be focused on small towns. They’re all about women who leave London to go to a village and open a bookstore/bakery/cafe/shop. Then there are all the Hallmark movies about successful career women in big cities who end up chucking it all to go live in a small town with a down-to-earth guy.

I know a few of the British authors actually do live in small villages, but with the rest of them, as someone who’s actually from a small town, I have to wonder if any of these people have actually lived in a small town. Because starting over in a small town is incredibly difficult. The social circles are generally closed. There aren’t a lot of single men, since most of the men get snagged in sixth grade. There’s not much to do unless you like high school sports.

Mind you, most of these fictional “small” towns aren’t what I’d think of as truly small. They tend to use “small” to refer to populations under about 50,000. A lot of the small towns are in the 20,000 range, which might have more going on. When my family moved to the small town I’m from just before I started high school, the sign at the city limits said the population was 2,180. It might be closer to 5,000 now, but it’s grown rather dramatically, and they expanded the city limits. When we moved there, your dining options were limited to Dairy Queen, a small cafe, a local barbecue place, and a fried chicken place. While I was in high school, we got first a McDonald’s, then a Burger King, and then there was a locally owned restaurant that kept changing, with nothing in that building staying in business for as long as a year. I think the Pizza Inn came after I was out of high school because we had to drive to another town about 14 miles away to go to Pizza Hut when I was in school. It wasn’t at all like the idyllic fictional towns with all their bustling downtown areas with local cafes and coffee shops and romantic date restaurants, and a busy social calendar of festivals, fairs, concerts, and other arts events. There is more of a nightlife there now because a major country music star is from that town and has opened some performance venues that draw big acts, but that was far into the future when I lived there (and I’m not sure how successful it’s been).

Most of my books have been about people who’ve left small towns. I think people from big cities daydream about a romanticized version of small town life, a simpler, quieter place with less traffic, less stress, where everyone knows everyone. If you’ve lived in a small town, you know that’s not necessarily true. The mystery series I’m developing does take place in a small town and involves a heroine who moved from a city, and it probably is closer to the idyllic fictional version than anything real, but for a cozy mystery that’s a genre trope, and I am trying to insert a bit of small-town reality even while making it a place where I wouldn’t mind living.

But it does make me wonder if I could get away with a women’s fiction book about a woman who goes to the small town, learns something about herself, and then takes that lesson back to the city rather than finding love and a close circle of friends and a new home in a small town.

Customer Service

My big distraction this week has been customer service issues.

I noticed that something funny was going on either with one of the electrical circuits in my kitchen or the refrigerator. I looked it up, and after doing some testing, it seems like the problem is with the refrigerator. This is something that’s known to happen with older refrigerators, and this one is nearly 16 years old. It’s working, and I’ve got a workaround going, but it probably needs to be replaced. With the likely issue and with the age of it, this repair would not be worth it.

So I went to order a new refrigerator. Home Depot said they couldn’t deliver anything before mid July, but I found what I needed at Best Buy, and they said they could deliver as soon as Monday. So I placed the order and took the Monday morning delivery slot they offered. Then last night, I got an e-mail saying I needed to set a delivery appointment. I followed their link, and they had the appointment I’d chosen as my second choice and said I needed to choose a first choice before that date, but none were available. I tried doing the online help chat thing, but nothing happened other than it sitting there for two hours saying it would connect me to an agent. I called this morning, used the callback feature, and eventually talked to someone. It turned out that the problem was that they didn’t have that unit in inventory and couldn’t even set a delivery date. I don’t know why they didn’t just say that instead of letting me order and set a delivery date, then telling me I needed to set a new date. So I cancelled that order.

I found almost the same thing at the same price at Lowe’s, and they said they could deliver in 3-7 days, but said they’d be in touch to schedule delivery. I’m waiting on that now. We’ll see if they actually have something. The order confirmation e-mail just says they’ll call with a delivery appointment, but says there may be “delays.” It would be nice if they built the delays into the information they give you when you order. If it’s going to be 4-6 weeks, then put that in up front. Don’t promise 3-7 days.

It seems that this is a combo problem between the pandemic and the trade war. There were already issues from the trade war with China, and then they shut down manufacturing. Plus, people sheltering at home are buying home stuff. I just hope my fridge holds out, since it’s pretty full. The freezer is my main concern. The stuff currently in the fridge will probably be eaten over the weekend, but I’ve got about a month worth of food in the freezer. If I get really desperate, I’ll pick up a dorm fridge and cook the meat in the freezer.

But I did not need this distraction. I’m trying to revise a book, and with having to buy a new refrigerator, I definitely need to get some books out there so I can bring in some money.

Lockdown Self-Improvement

If you found my discussion of some of the panels from the Nebula conference intriguing, you can still retroactively attend the conference, and the conference will also be continuing online all year. If you register for the conference, you can see all the panels, and now there will also be other networking and learning events going on all year. You don’t have to be a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to participate, and there are scholarships available. All the information is here.

I’m afraid I’ve become That Person during lockdown, the annoying one who’s using the time for self-improvement rather than sloth. I’m studying a foreign language, attending online workshops, reading a lot, listening to classical music, watching Shakespeare productions online, trying new recipes, practicing the flute, and doing a massive home organization project. Sometimes I annoy even myself.

In addition to the Nebula conference, I’ve been watching some online seminars my university has made available to alumni, and I’ve been looking for educational videos on various topics on YouTube. I’ve really been enjoying the National Theatre productions that have been posted each week, along the the weekly musical. I’d thought I might need to get another streaming service, but so far I’ve hardly been watching the one I have. I might look into Netflix or Disney+ this fall, but during the summer I’ve been going outside in the evenings.

I did have actual social interaction last week when I ran into a friend from church while I was out walking, and we stood a safe distance apart and chatted for a while. I think that’s the first time I’d talked to a friend in person since March.

I’m getting close to the end of revisions on this book. I just need to rewrite the ending. What I’ve written is rather anticlimactic, so I need to write something entirely different. But first I have to figure out what that should be. That’s today’s challenge.

A Brief Real World Intrusion

I’ve been struggling with what I should say about recent events in this country. I know that a lot of my readers turn to my books to escape from the real world, so the last thing they want to hear from me is stuff about the real world. I also don’t want to make these issues about me or come across like all those “we’re here for you in these uncertain times” e-mails I’ve been getting from every company I’ve ever given an e-mail address to. I use my online presence to promote my books, and I don’t want to use other people’s pain to promote my books.

At the same time, silence is cowardly. Some issues are big enough that you have to speak out. So, on this occasion, I’m going to let the real world intrude.

I like to think of myself as someone who isn’t racist. I’ve always had a fairly diverse group of friends, which is one of the benefits of growing up on military bases. I liked to think that everyone was pretty much alike inside and we were all equal.

But the fact is that the world treats us differently, and we have to acknowledge that in order to change it. My big wake-up call came when I tried to watch the movie Hidden Figures on HBO. I couldn’t deal with the opening scene, in which the women were confronted by a racist cop. I got so infuriated on their behalf that I was actually shouting at the TV. I wanted to throw things. I wanted to hurt him. I had to turn off the movie because my blood pressure was spiking.

And then it struck me: I didn’t have the strength to watch a movie about that treatment. Just imagine what it must be like to have to live it — all those daily indignities of dealing with people who regard you as lesser. It has to take so much strength to not be exploding with rage all the time.

It would be nice to say that things have changed since then, but clearly they haven’t, and what we’ve seen has to be the tip of the iceberg, given that this is how some police officers are acting when they know they’re being filmed, when there should be heightened awareness because of so many other recent incidents. That suggests they don’t fear the consequences, and that means there’s some rot at the core for them to feel safe acting that way in public view. I have friends who are cops or former cops, and I know that there are a lot of good ones, but the fact that there are those who fearlessly act this way in public suggests that there’s not a lot of peer pressure to the contrary. Things have to change, at the very least to the point where police are afraid to be brutal to the people they’re supposed to protect because they know there will be consequences. I don’t care what crime has been committed, the police are not judge, jury, and executioners.

It’s alarming how similar today’s world is to the Gilded Age era I researched for Rebel Mechanics. We still have so much systemic inequality. I wish I could make everything better. In the meantime, I’m trying to listen and learn so that in my own interactions I can do better. And I vote. I would encourage my readers to do likewise.

Splitting the Team

I’ve been reading some Old School epic fantasy, and this weekend I read the novelization of The Rise of Skywalker and rewatched the movie, and it’s reminded me of one of my “epic” pet peeves: splitting the team.

I usually get into a story because I like the characters and the dynamic among them. The story usually starts with the team coming together, often beginning with an existing group, and then adding members along the way. And then just as I’m enjoying that, it generally seems that the author feels the need to split them up, with different groups going off in different directions on different missions. I suppose that’s necessary to make things truly epic. We can’t see enough of the world and what’s going on if we only see the small slice experienced by one group of people. That means we need multiple groups, and it’s easier to establish the characters and make readers care, so they have to start out together before splitting up. Usually in an epic fantasy series, they make it through the whole first book together and split up about a third into the second book, which is where I tend to lose interest in series. I may keep going to find out what happens, but I don’t enjoy it as much.

It’s frustrating to read and watch when that group and those friendships are what you love and then the writers take it away from you. I think that was in part why I was a bit disappointed in The Empire Strikes Back when I first saw it. I loved the trio of Han, Luke, and Leia. They bounced off each other so well. There was Han’s world-weariness, Luke’s idealism, and Leia’s focused determination. Luke on his own could be a little too earnest, but when he was bouncing off Han, he had to rise to the occasion and match the snark. Leia didn’t suffer fools and goaded both of them into taking action. The best parts of the movie were when they were all working together once they teamed up. They did split up a bit as they were running around the Death Star, but that was only for minutes. When The Empire Strikes Back started, it was a joy to see our friends again, all together as a team. And then they were split up for the entire rest of the movie, Luke off on his own (where he became a bit less interesting) and Han and Leia on their own. They had this wonderful team, but we didn’t really get to see them working together. The opening of Return of the Jedi was so much fun because it brought the team back together, and it looked like the rest of the movie would be that way, but then Luke went off on his own again. I get that he had to deal with that situation one-on-one, but I still feel like a lot of the energy left the movie once the team split up.

The newer movies did a weird thing where they teased the possibility of a team, with us just seeing a couple of different combinations of characters, then split the team entirely, then didn’t bring them all together until the third movie, where the dynamic was so much fun that I felt robbed of what might have been. And then they split them up again.

I guess one benefit of mostly writing in first person is that you can’t split the team. If you want the characters to be in the story, they have to be around the narrator. I haven’t really written that kind of “found family” team yet, even though I love that trope so much. It’s on my list of things I want to do. And then maybe I’ll be faced with the dilemma of whether or not to split my team up.

Exciting Things

My excitement for the day yesterday actually was kind of exciting. My area got the Blue Angels flyover, and the route took them pretty close to my neighborhood, about 9 miles from where they’d be directly overhead. I live in a pretty deep valley, so I walked up the hill to the parking lot of the movie theater that’s at the top of the hill. I can pretty much see the whole region from there, so I figured it would be a good vantage point. There were a few cars in the parking lot with people watching, so I wasn’t alone in that idea.

And we did get a good view. We could see part of the loop they made around downtown Dallas, and from that distance they looked like one plane (in fact, I wondered where the rest of them were). Then they flew right by us on the way to their next “stop,” and we could still see where they turned on their vapor trails for the next hospital. I grew up around military bases, so I’ve seen a lot of stunt flying and air shows, but I don’t think I’ve seen the Blue Angels before. That was some really tight flying, so close that they really did look like one plane from not that far away.

Then I came home and tried to go back to work. I’ve figured out how to fix some of the problems with the second mystery novel, and I even managed to do some writing on it this morning. I haven’t been able to put words together in a while, so that’s pretty exciting. I can already feel a difference in how the book’s working.

So maybe I’ll get these books finished and launched this year, after all.

Title Brainstorming

I made my excursion into the outside world for supplies yesterday morning, and I timed it well, as the stores were relatively uncrowded. They had flour, but not the kind I prefer, so I figured I could get by on what I have, and they still didn’t have the kind of bread I like. Oddly, there was no cumin at all, but I think I’ve got enough for the things I’m planning to make in the next couple of weeks. But I did get some dark chocolate in the post-Easter sale, and I got the last of the plain hams (the rest were the fancy ones with glazes). I was torn about when to cook the ham, since the “use or freeze” date is in June, but I think I’m going to bake it today, since we’re having an odd cold snap, and it’s a good day to have the oven on. Then I can freeze some of the leftovers and also use ham to cook so many things. Plus, I managed to get some dried peas, so I can use the bone to make split-pea soup.

I’ve got enough food to last me a few weeks, though I may need to go out a couple of weeks from now to get dairy and some fresh produce. I’ve got bread flour and whole-wheat flour. It’s just all-purpose flour I’m running low on, and that’s mostly for pastries and sweets, which I don’t really need (and my brownie recipe only uses 1/4 cup). So I’m pretty well set.

I think I came up with a title convention for my mystery series. It’s somewhat lacking in imagination, but I was thinking of doing it like the Nancy Drew books and just naming each book after the case. Of the books I’ve written so far, I have “The Mystery of the Dead Editor” and “The Case of the Curious Crystals.” My concern is that this doesn’t really say anything about the underlying “gimmick” of the series. For instance, the bakery-related mysteries have titles like “Tart of Darkness” or “Risky Biscuits.” My gimmick is that these books are set in a small town where a carnival sideshow got stranded during the Depression — and a lot of the sideshow performers had real paranormal gifts, like mindreading, fortunetelling, channeling electricity, etc. Now their descendants are spread through the town, and a lot of them have inherited the gifts. The crimes generally involve the use of these gifts, but the good guys also have abilities that help in solving the cases. The challenge is that reading a suspect’s mind doesn’t count as probable cause, so they still have to find clues and evidence to be able to take action. I really should probably find some clever, punny titles involving sideshow stuff, but I haven’t been able to think of any ways to take a common phrase and change it around to add the sideshow element. Plus, it would probably end up being a spoiler if I highlight the gift involved in the case in the title. There really aren’t a lot of words or phrases that apply to sideshows. I think the term “freaks” is rather nasty when applied to people in this situation, and most of the other things I can think of are more related to a circus than a carnival. I’ve even gone back and watched some episodes of the series Carnivale, which is about the kind of group I imagine ended up in this town, but it didn’t give me any ideas.

While I was brainstorming, I may have come up with the plot for the next books, so I’ll have to work on developing that.

I may have spent more mental energy trying to come up with title ideas than I did to write the books.

Little Events

I’ve decided to treat this as kind of a holiday, since it’s Holy Week, even though there are no physical church services. We’ve got some online things tonight and tomorrow night and then on Sunday morning. For the first time in ages, I won’t have to get to church before 7:30 in the morning and then sing for three services. I’ve already done my singing, which is going to be edited into a choir.

We had a really nice morning here, so I had breakfast on my patio. I found a tiny jar of Devonshire clotted cream in the fridge (I’d bought it a while ago but never got around to using it), so I had a nice cream tea for breakfast, with scones, cream, strawberry jam, and tea. I know a cream tea is usually more of an afternoon thing, but it’s a delightful breakfast. It was nice just sitting outside, listening to the birds singing, watching the little lizards play among my plants. I’m doing research reading right now, so I may work outside today, as long as the weather permits (we’re supposed to get some rain later).

My survival strategy in lockdown seems to be to find little pleasures in everyday life, to turn routine things into events — like a cream tea for breakfast on the patio, or a movie night, or a reading afternoon. Last night was spa night, using my facial sauna and a clay masque and some skin treatments.

Since I have my sewing machine out for making a mask, I may see what else I can make with the material and patterns I have (which isn’t much), or else just practice sewing straight seams and controlling the machine. If I get really desperate, I suppose I could dig up something I don’t wear anymore from the donation bag, take it apart, and put it back together.

Not that I’m bored. I’m just trying to look for more constructive uses of my time so I don’t fall into the Internet sinkhole. It helps to stay active rather than mindlessly clicking or watching. I’m finding writing difficult, so I’m doing writing-adjacent things, and then maybe I’ll find myself inspired to write once I get my mind settled down.


I got back to the mystery project yesterday, staring a round of revision, during which I hope to come up with a plot for the next book and an idea for series titles.

You’d think I’d have more time to write right now, but I seem to be being more social during lockdown than I usually am. My parents and friends are checking in on me, so I’m talking on the phone a lot more. Then there are video meetings and livestreams. People are putting concerts and shows online. Our local PBS station is doing educational programming for various levels of school during the day, and their “high school” programs are the kinds of things I like to watch, with history documentaries and literary adaptation movies.

As a result, it takes a lot of willpower to get to work when there are so many distractions.

Not to mention, cute animal videos. I love the videos of penguins getting tours of their aquariums while there are no visitors. I think in my next career I’m going to be a penguin wrangler. Or there’s the orangutan playing with the otters, or the one who’s now washing her hands a lot after seeing her keepers washing their hands more often. And there’s the bear who set the fallen traffic cone upright. And the mountain goats who are invading the Welsh town now that there are fewer people around (the version with the video edited to “Ride of the Valkyries” is classic).

In real life, I just have squirrels, lizards, and the Canada geese who seem to have decided to stick around in my neighborhood. Most of them are gone, but there’s this one pair that’s hanging out with a mallard family. If I hear them honking, it makes me think of fall, and then I remember what time of year it is.

This is shaping up to be a really weird year (and I imagine that’s the understatement of the century).