in a courtyard

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Robin checked out of her room at the Hotel Provincial early to drive back home to Pensacola. It was an easy three and a half hours with no commitments waiting, but she was more than ready to go. She and Harry had been coming to this quirky, elegant small New Orleans hotel just at the edge of the French Quarter for romantic getaways for decades. Their last visit, however, had been a surprise treat for their granddaughter’s senior high school spring break.

The room had an old-fashioned wing chair just like the one Robin sat in one year when Harry took her picture before they happily drifted over to the now-defunct, over the top restaurant Stella. It was her favorite photograph of herself, a prized memory. Somehow the slinky black dress and animal print scarf just worked with her cropped black hair and the chunky tumbler of single-malt scotch in her right hand, eyes bright with love for the photographer.

Robin slung the strap of her overnight bag over one shoulder, car keys in hand, opened the door, then turned to look at the room one more time, wanting to burn every detail of it into her memory. She didn’t expect to return here again.

Coffee and cinnamon smells wafting into the parking lot from the hotel kitchen slowed her determined trudge to the car. “What’s another few minutes?” she thought. “Nobody’s waiting for me at home.” God, it hurt to say that. She and Harry had talked about cremation, but when the time came, she just couldn’t do it and went the full memorial service at the old church Episcopal church downtown where they had been arms-length members forever. She sighed and went into the small lobby area where a continental breakfast was laid out on a starched white tablecloth. This was a quickie for travelers ready to hit the road, so while there were beignets and cinnamon rolls on a round silver tray, local bean purveyor Community Coffee’s paper cups were stacked beside the coffee maker, ready to go.

Robin filled her cup with the pungent black chicory-laced brew, wrapped a cinnamon roll in a paper napkin and went to the desk to check out. “Why don’t y’all take a few minutes and enjoy the courtyard before you hit the road? Mama always told me eatin’ and drivin’ ain’t good for the digestion.” The smiling clerk spread her fingers toward the open door leading to the courtyard, nodding her head in encouragement.

It seemed rude to turn down such a nice invitation. “What’s another ten minutes?” Robin found a table and sat, eyes angled down at the table, sighing. She felt so tired. Maybe if she just closed her eyes for a minute.

Robin’s eyes popped open. Did someone shake her? Had she fallen asleep? Was someone staring at her?

“No, cher, ain’t nobody starin’ at you.” Robin looked around. The voice was a deep baritone. But the courtyard was empty. She looked around for the first time, taking in the frilly pink bougainvilleas, lush banana plants and elephant ears, and the stone face of a lion.

The lion. He was definitely looking at her, a slightly grumpy gaze on his marble face. Water streamed in an arc from his mouth to a blue-green pool. For the first time, she noticed bougainvillea petals floating in the pool and couldn’t help but think how they were beautiful on the tree and beautiful floating, fallen, in the water.

Robin suddenly felt hungry, really hungry, for the first time since Harry died three months earlier. She ate half the cinnamon roll in one huge gulp and washed it down with the now lukewarm coffee. Its bitter taste mingled with the too sweet of the iced bun into perfection in her mouth.

Robin still felt someone’s eyes on her. “It’s just me, darlin’, we’re all friends here.” The voice was silky, neither young nor old, male or female. It sounded happy, though. She turned and saw a cherub. Was it made of wood? It looked warm and shiny, like carved and shellacked butterscotch.

“Huh,” Robin murmured. The drive home didn’t feel so urgent after all. She returned to the lobby for another cinnamon roll and some hot coffee, sat back down between the lion and the cherub, took out her notebook and pen and began to write.

Ten Forty-Five on a Piney Woods New Year’s Eve

THE GOOD OLD BOYS deep in these panhandle Florida pine woods couldn’t wait until 11:59 to kick up a fuss.  It’s only 9:15 when I hear the first muffled whumps and booms of roman candles, aerial repeaters and shells, and firecrackers.  When I step outside I feel a frisson of electricity in the air and hear the crackle of sparklers. The cloudy night sky erupts into a poor-man’s kaleidoscope.

Buck is writing at his desk in a bright circle. I’m already in bed, leaning against a stack of pillows, listening to a Spotify playlist for a random search of the word “Talisman,” and typing on the extension of my fingers also known as a Surface Pro 2, my all-time favorite gadget tool.

Ah, here he comes now with our treat for the evening, a bag of Dove dark chocolates.

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Earlier this evening we lightly steamed a pound of blue crab claws (the little, cocktail size) and nearly two pounds of sweet and tender Pensacola Bay shrimp. Buck stirred up his special dipping sauce, a mix of horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, ketchup and a smidgen of mayonnaise. I doused a small plate of sliced Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and house-roasted meaty red peppers with olive oil, ground pepper and oregano. We took our feast to the room we call the Snow Porch (the naming of that room is a story for another time), along with a bowl of Naked Pita chips and our drinks, and fell to.

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Tonight is merely an arbitrary convention to delineate one measure of time from the next, but I welcome it as a conscious pause button, a mindful thumb on the scale.

I washed our bed linens today, the Oxford stripe blue sheets and the warm gold duvet cover.  The serene blue and burnished gold please me.

I’ve moved past the Talisman music and have gone to a favorite created playlist for my characters, Grace and Jess. They still have a lot of mountains to climb, a lot of growing to do.

Eons ago when I worked as Director of Communications for the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, we began each year with what we called a “Program of Work.” I have a loose program of work of my own to start the year off with a bang that includes a challenging ten-week online course hosted by Creative Nonfiction, called Boot Camp for Writers.  It begins next week. Mid-month brings a six-week online course, Advanced Fiction. I’m fired up and ready to go.

So am I blogging again?  The title is The Do-It-Yourself Writer, subhead Elizabeth Westmark’s Scribble Space.  Maybe the sub-subhead should be Making It Up As I Go Along.

Hope you chase down or get covered up by clouds of bliss this year.

Palahniuk and Monday Catfish

1-IMG_8371My penchant for kosher salt is sprinkled all over the plate.  This is the essence of a plebeian Monday supper: farm-raised catfish (gasp) from our local Publix grocery store, a sliced tomato, and turnip greens dipped from the quart container we take out once a week from a phoned-in order to the local Cracker Barrel.  Hershey Bar with Almonds to follow to bed with a book.

I’m reading a raft of things, some of which have dribbles of toothpaste on them because I’m trying to eke out a few more paragraphs here, a few more paragraphs there.  Some wind drew me to Chuck Palahniuk’s book ,  Damned which is  one hundred percent out of character for what I might normally choose to read, and I’m loving it. Actually, Palahniuk only sprang onto my radar screen because I (somehow) wound up reading a writing lesson from Chuck wherein he forbade writers to use “thought” verbs for at least the next half-year. The big takeaway for me was his exhortation to not be lazy, and to “unpack” characters. Whoa. I see when I do that it works, when I don’t, the writing may as well be in hell, it’s so dead. So, thanks, Chuck.  I bought your book (one of many) and now I’m hooked.

Gotta run. I have a chocolate bar to eat and a good book to finish.

Grace as a Rock

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The diminutive rock I picked up at Back Beach in Bernard, Maine on Bass Harbor last September is no more than three inches long. One end has a slight hump and a shaped concave area, while the other is slightly tapered. To me, it looks like an abstract sculpture of a dolphin.

The cool, obsidian stone is smooth as a freshly shaved leg. At one end, near where the dolphin’s mouth might be, there is a curved line in the rock, perhaps a smile.

When I see those rocky beaches, so different from our own on the Gulf coast, I want to pick up every third rock on the beach and take it home. I like their feel. The shape of this one drew my eye immediately. I picked it up and slipped it into my pocket.

The rock is small, but solid all the way through. When I turn it upside down, it looks like a person meditating, their arms crossed across their chest, serene.

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It is clear, that I need the rock more than it needs me. The rock is self-contained. In fact, I believe this is the lucky rock I have looked for all my life.

If I imagine this rock as a person it could be Grace Ringer, my character in Eye of the Storm. Grace has gone through life self-contained, and she has not picked up any baggage. Smooth like the rock, with no barnacles, seaweed, or cracks in the surface. She moves through life swiftly, seemingly without need of other people.

The inward smile implies a secret. This rock was once a part of something larger. The idea of joining with a large family, a clan, will thrill and terrify this hard, small, smooth rock of a person. It will be a challenge for Grace to preserve her individuality in their midst. Will she run or will she stay?

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Rainbows and Writing in Bass Harbor

Rainbows are a meteorological and optical phenomenon that can cause the most jaded person to leap from their chair and dash outside, camera in hand. The definition I like most is this simple one: a rainbow occurs when raindrops and sunshine meet in a particular way. This one, over Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine, looks more like a painting. The day had been blustery, with a few squalls and hardly any sun. That bit of magic was a fine surprise; emblematic of our time away.

This trip to the Maine coast was not idyllic in the way we have come to expect. My one-bag packing job that seemed so sensible bit me when Delta sent it to Detroit instead of Bangor. It eventually arrived two days later, but in the meantime I continued to wear the Florida-style white cropped slacks I wore on the plane, plus a black undershirt and soft old flannel shirt courtesy of Buck. Luckily, I had put a pair of socks and jogging shoes into his duffel bag, and so was able to put my sandals aside and keep my feet warm.

There is a point in the life of an old house where it goes from charming to . . . something else. This was the year when the old cottage we’ve stayed in several times before turned a bit, like milk left too long in the fridge. You know that point where it’s not quite sour, and the non-squeamish will go ahead and pour it on their cereal.  (I am not that person). And yet. Had we not gone, would the breakthroughs we experienced have come for either of us?

Something about an old wing chair gives a person cover for their thoughts. I took 100 pages of my manuscript to work on, a copy of Brian Kiteley’s remarkably helpful book, The 3 a.m. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction, along with several outstanding books downloaded to my Kindle to work through, including Jerome Stern’s utterly wonderful Making Shapely Fiction and the vintage The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner. Many people have sat in that dilapidated chair. The place on the arms where people clutch and tense their hands is threadbare, and the seat has been reinforced with a folded bed sheet. I bolstered both height and comfort with a pillow from one of the beds upstairs, and there I sat every morning to watch the big tides rise to cover nearly all the rocks, and ebb away again, exposing everything. I watched the sun rise or the rains come. And I read, studied, wrote, and thought. Buck worked mostly at the table. We broke only for rainbows, to marvel at a young eagle flying right in front of the picture window, or for a half-sandwich or cup of soup at midday, and smoked salmon tidbits with red onion and capers or some such treat in the evening.

I thought I was writing a quick-read, supermarket paperback kind of mind candy book. And maybe that’s what it will grow down to be. But of the two main characters, one has a near pathological fear of commitment and the other a near pathological need to connect and dread of loss. Emerging themes cover the waterfront: Who am I? Who can I trust? Why can’t things be simple? Why can’t good things stay the same? Some things can’t be fixed.

This is beginning to get interesting.

Dragon Update

Okay, so my keyboard gets a little sticky, who really cares? Bailey’s Farmer’s Market is next door to Sacred Heart Rehab Center where I am spending an hour twice a week to get my shoulder ready for next year’s baseball season (ha). I could eat this breakfast every day for the rest of my life. It’s nonfat Fage Greek Yogurt (soft and almost fluffy), Bare Naked Vanilla Almond Granola, walnuts, and cinnamon topped with berries and peaches.

Back when I agreed to type and edit Buck’s manuscript for him, I didn’t know he planned on writing Gone with the Wind reduxYesterday morning at physical therapy when I mumbled something about typing 10,000 words on Sunday, Don the PT guru said, “I thought you were using Dragon.” Duh. Well, I had planned to, but it just seemed like too much sugar for a dime, and I was continuing to do it the same old manual way.

Yesterday, though, when Buck cheerfully delivered two more full legal pads to my desk, just as I had come to the awful realization that one of my own characters has to die, I rapped my knuckles on my hard head, and decided to give it another try.

Here’s the answer:  I talked through an entire legal pad in about one-fourth the time it would have taken me to type. Was it perfect? No, but close. Really close. It only took a few minutes to go back through and clean it up.  I was so excited I called Buck in to see the magic for himself. He was astonished. After listening to me reading his words and watching them appear on the screen with paragraphs in perfect order, he finally said. “Maybe I could learn how to do that.”

Oh, he fell into my clever trap big-time. I smiled sweetly and said, “And for your second book, my love, you will.”

I know you’re probably thinking, “Why doesn’t Buck type his own damn manuscript?”  Simple, practical answer to that one. Buck can perform many feats of derring do and has, all his life, including being a marksman and athlete. But he was born with a congenital amputation of most of the left hand which makes rapid typing a challenge. As a working journalist years ago, he could hunt and peck with the best of them on an old Royal typewriter, but just as he does all sorts of things for me every day, as in any great partnership, this is one good turn I can do for him.

 

Sit Still Long Enough and Maybe Something Wondrous Will Find You

Let this be a lesson to me.

Buck and I went down the mountain yesterday for lunch at a delightful Maggie Valley spot called the Nutmeg Bakery Cafe. More on that in another post. An impressive thunder and rain storm rattled the windows shortly before we left. Bright sun turned the wet road to curling steam. I watched mountain laurel and rhododendron buds time-lapsing before my eyes into delicate, multi-chambered pink and white blooms.

When we returned to the cottage two hours later, tummies full and a bag of ragged ripe South Carolina peaches in tow, the power was out thanks to a tree that fell after the storm. No TV. No computer. We called the property manager to report, and then decamped to the porch. I’ve been troubled by the original ending I’ve had sketched in for the novel I’m (still) working on, so I decided to sit, rock, and pull back the camera lens of my mind to focus on the larger picture of what this woman is really all about.

Sometimes an “Aha!” moment is more of a “Yes!” It happened, sitting out there with Buck quiet, hip-deep in a lengthy, small print doom and gloom economic analysis. Just a girl and her legal pad.

A few minutes later, I kid you not, a shimmering rainbow appeared. Yeah, yeah, I know the atmospheric conditions decreed that a rainbow would appear when and where it did. I don’t care. I consider it my own personal Rainbow Moment and declare that it sent me a message that I’m finally on the right track with my story.

The power came on after a while, but apparently the television cable was dragged down along with the power lines when the tree fell, so there was still no internet or television. Funny about the TV thing. We don’t actually watch very much, although we’re stock market and news junkies, so the background drone of CNBC tends to be on, at least during the trading day. But TV is a presence, and when it won’t deliver pictures on command, things feel a little “off.” Silly, but there you go.

We made scrambled eggs and toast and headed for the porch again to enjoy a sunset supper. I sipped from a mug of Tazo Zen green tea. We had finished our feast, when Buck spoke to me very quietly: “Move slowly, but get your camera and turn to the right. Bear.”

Two tiny cubs were just out of camera range. Mother Bear approached the porch, leaned snout-first toward us for a long moment, then slowly turned and retreated back into the woods. Much as I wanted a picture of those cubs, I stayed put right there on the porch. Buck and I looked at each other and grinned. Did you know that WOW is an acronym for Wonder of Wonders?

p.s. There’s still no cable service, but I rigged up my cell phone to deliver a little internet so I could post this!

When the Writing Prompt is “Objects”

“Huntsman” - Victorinox Swiss army knife with ...
“Huntsman” – Victorinox Swiss army knife with knife chain and belt clip (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rory is a Swiss Army knife created by a drunken evil genius. He is a whirligig of moving parts and a thrower of dice. He corkscrews into the hard crust of the world. He uses the digging tool to scoop out the warm heart of the earth. He is a blunt instrument: loud by temperament, silky smooth by devious intent. It costs him to put a lid on it. Rory is a human screwdriver, violently opening people in places far from where he sleeps, then filing his teeth, cleaning his nails and folding himself up into a shiny package for the corporate board room.  He slips himself back into a well-tailored pocket, ready at a moment’s notice.

low-brow mind candy

Okay, I’ve cleaned the pantry, mopped the kitchen floor, and gotten my head screwed back on halfway straight. Time to pull ye old manuscript out of the drawer and dive back in. Buck has shown me up big time in the completing a manuscript department. He completed the first draft of his novel on Christmas Day, and we’re talking words, baby, somewhere around 225,000. I ought to know, ’cause my classically trained fingers typed every one of them. The boy’s already talking sequel, oh my Lord. But first, there’s the not-fun of editing. Heh — that should keep him busy in his own corner for a few days.

Meanwhile, I’m back on the beach with my characters: Bree Morgan, Jess Harper and a two-legged pond scum named Bo Perlis. Just read this excerpt  and you’ll know beyond the shadow of a doubt that my book aspires to be low-brow mind candy.

Excerpt from Eye of the Storm

Longleaf Shores, Florida

Well, now ain’t love grand. When Bo Perlis chuckled, a nasty sound came out of his mouth, gritty like old coffee grounds. He didn’t sound amused. He leaned against a post, right leg cocked at the knee so that his boot heel rested against the wood piling. Perlis lit one cigarette from the butt of another, and occasionally lifted a small pair of Leica bird-watching binoculars in Bree’s direction for a closer look. He had caught her and the Mayor’s conversation thanks to a small deer hunter’s “bionic ear.” He continued to observe Bree until she got up from the table and walked back toward the parking lot.

Shit. I hate the damned beach. Perlis left the pier and stepped as lightly as he could from the beach back to the asphalt parking area, trying to avoid getting sand in his pointy-toed boots.

He pulled in a few cars behind Bree’s red pick-up truck and followed her back across the bridge. He broke off when she turned in to the gated entrance at Balconies on the Bay, punched the key pad and disappeared from sight.

Perlis drove on a few blocks, and then pulled into the busy parking lot at Sam’s Seafood. He found an open space at the back of the lot beside a scraggly looking scrub oak. His nondescript rental car looked like half the other vehicles in the lot. By now, it was fully dark and right in the middle of the restaurant’s dinner hour. Perlis lowered his window, turned off the ignition and flicked a cigarette butt onto the pavement. Then he pulled out his cell phone and punched in the one number he had on speed dial.

“Report.” The voice creeped Bo out the first time he heard it. It was sultry and breathy like a Marilyn Monroe clone. The client used some kind of voice changer software. Bo suspected the client was actually male, but there was no way he could know for sure.

“I found the girl.”

“And?”

Damn, that come-hither voice was distracting. “Nothing suspicious. Acts like any young kid on their first job. Spent the day at the beach participating in a community hurricane drill; then made out on the beach with the Mayor, got into an argument with him; he left; she drove back to her condo. End of story.”

“Did you say ‘mayor’?”

“Yeah. He looks like a kid, too. Must be the youngest mayor in America.”

“And the argument?”

“Don’t know for sure. Something about her job. It’s real windy out on the beach and I didn’t catch every word.”

“Her phones?” The voice had a slight southern accent, but Perlis couldn’t place the region.

“Got her land line at the condo. No luck yet with her cell.”

“Not a matter of luck, Mr. Perlis. Skill. The cell phone is critical. Nobody under thirty uses a land line anymore. I was told you could do this. Do not disappoint me. Get it done and report back tomorrow.”

That was the longest speech Bo had heard from his client so far, not that he was crazy about the content. “Will do,” he said, and disconnected.

Goodnight, Marilyn. Jeez, that’s weird. Bo put the phone back in his shirt pocket and reached under the seat for the pint-sized flask he kept filled with Early Times. He took a long pull, recapped it, lit up another smoke and drove away from Sam’s Seafood in search of a drive-through double cheeseburger and fries. Bo hated any type of seafood: fried, stewed or nude.

 The End (of the excerpt) — thanks for killing a few brain cells to help a struggling wanna-be novelist.