Sunday, February 23, 2014

Chinese Whispers - Author to Author: A Blog Chain

The inimitable Bert Carson asked me to join in this author blog chain thing, and I was a bit dubious at first.

"What exactly is this blog chain thing about?" I asked, being a girl who likes to know.

"Not sure," Bert said, being a guy who isn't bothered about knowing. "But Christina tagged Beca Lewis and she tagged me and now I'm tagging you. Will you do it? You can be captain of the blog team."

This sounded like that game we played as kids, Chinese Whispers, but I gave his offer the brief consideration it was due and struck a hard bargain: in exchange for acting as captain of Bert's blogging team (which, as far as I can tell requires no responsibility), he agreed to supply me with a decoder ring and a four-inch long baking powder powered submarine. How can a girl say no to an offer like that?

If you haven't yet met Bert or his lovely wife Christina, you can follow them on Twitter at @BertCarson and @CarsonCanada, respectively. As we'd say in our slice of redneck paradise, they're good folks.

I was lucky enough to catch C.J. Peterson when she was distracted editing her new book, and she agreed to be tagged as the next link in this author blog chain thing without asking many questions. You'll learn more about C.J. in a minute, and she's certainly a gal worth knowing.

Now I'm supposed to answer four questions. These are the same four questions that Bert answered, and they're the same four questions that C.J. will answer. Maybe I'm getting the hang of this blog chain thing:

1. What are you working on? 
I'm starting a new series featuring Maxine Leverman, a character introduced in book two of the Cass Elliot Crime Series, AVENGERS OF BLOOD. Maxine may not be the polar opposite of Cass, but she's pretty close. Impetuous, mouthy, overtly sexy, she's decided to become a private investigator to 'help' her best friend catch criminals. This book is about Maxine's foray into the wild world of private investigation in East Texas.

2. How does your work differ from others in the same genre?
One of the finest compliments I've received about my books is that the characters are so real. People tell me they know folks who are just like Cass, or Mitch Stone, or even Goober or Hugo Petchard. I think that's pretty high praise and one of the ways my books differ from others. I write about imperfect people. Most of them want to do the right thing. Those that don't do the right thing? Well, those are the baddies and that's where the real fun comes in...
To date, my stories have been triggered by actual events that cause my sense of fair play to feel violated. When I feel violated for myself or someone else, I want justice, but life isn't always fair. The Cass Elliot books let me have my way with the bad guys, or at least they let my characters try and work things out. The endings aren't always tied up neatly with a bow, with the bad guy getting his just desserts immediately. But hang on and keep reading - eventually they'll all get what's coming to them!

3. Why do you write what you write?
I can't help it. Crime and consequences swirl around in my head and that's what spills out when I put fingers to keyboard. This is the stuff I love and at the moment, the characters in the Cass Elliot crime series speak the loudest and demand to be let out.

4. How does your writing process work?
Process, eh? That's pretty strong language there, pardner. I'm not an outliner (*she shudders*), so when I start writing, I kind of know what crime has been committed, who done it, and how the book ends. All the other stuff comes out as I write. For me, that's the fun of it all. I get to set things in motion, but the characters quickly take over, each with their own personality, and the twists and turns are a direct result of their actions. I'm almost always surprised with the path a story takes and where we end up.

And now it's time to introduce Christian author C.J. Peterson. She's the author of YA novel STRENGTH FROM WITHIN, and has published the first two books of The Holy Flame Trilogy, THE CALL TO DUTY and OPERATION A.N.G.E.L.. The book that has her so busy right now is the final part of the trilogy, due to be released in May 2014.

I first met C.J. about a year ago when she asked if I'd like to be a featured author on her blog. Since then, I've had the pleasure of meeting C.J. and her husband in person, which is a rare thing in a world driven by remote communication! We live about 80 miles apart in East Texas, but have managed to meet in the middle on occasion. She's a delight to know, but one of the things I enjoy most about C.J. is her sincerity. In this electronic world where anyone can be whoever they want to be, C.J. is consistent in her friendship and in her love of the Lord. Take the time to get to know her and read her books - you'll be glad you did.

Check C.J.'s blog on Sunday March 2 for her installment of the blog chain. You can also catch up with C.J. on Facebook and on Twitter (@authoress_cj).

Thanks so much to Bert for asking me to play, and to C.J. for agreeing to be tagged!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

How Do We Know When Justice Is Served?

just (adj): fair, impartial; according to justice; due; deserved; righteous. [The Chambers Dictionary, 2005]

Justice is a concept that fascinates me, mostly because I find it to be nebulous and applied arbitrarily. I write the Cass Elliot crime series and in those books, the bad are not always immediately caught and punished. Which is the way I think life works many times, fairly or unfairly.

I've been thinking more about justice lately due to a recent bit of news that hit my slice of redneck heaven (more on that in a minute), and this blog post on why we need books about justice by fellow author Stephen Woodfin, where he said:

The law is nothing but a reflection of the customs and morals a society approves at a snapshot in its history. What the law favors in one decade, it may abhor in the next.
He gives slavery as an example. At one time, it was an acceptable practice under the law. In hindsight, we see slavery for the heinous institution that it is and the law has changed accordingly. To explain why we need books about justice, Stephen says:

...they nudge us toward a higher good. By approaching our society sideways, they demonstrate our blind spots and motivate us to reconsider where we are and where we are going.
Interesting. And true.

Now for the recent bit of news...

The little town nearest our spot of redneck paradise is suddenly struggling with the notion of justice. Seems its most famous killer, Bernie Tiede, might be set free despite receiving a life sentence for murder.


In case you aren't familiar with Bernie's famous crime, you can watch the 2012 movie BERNIE starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine; you can read my blog post about the accuracy of that movie; or if you're short on time, you can read the brief synopsis below:

*Spoiler alert* A rich old man dies, an assistant funeral director (Bernie Tiede) befriends the mean ol' wealthy widow (Marjorie Nugent), she gives him power of attorney over her assets, he spends on her behalf, she drives him crazy, he shoots her in the back four times, stuffs her in the freezer, and then continues spending her money and pretending that she's alive but unavailable. When her body is found about nine months later, Bernie gives a tearful confession, but nobody (except the District Attorney) wants Bernie to go to jail. *Spoiler over*

Bernie was beloved in the community when the murder happened in 1996. Lots of little old ladies were grief-stricken over his confession (not over Mrs. Nugent's murder, mind you, just over the thought that Bernie might go to prison for it). They tried to post bail for Bernie and when that didn't work out, brought treats for him to the county jail.

Bernie has served almost sixteen years of his life sentence for murder, a first degree felony. Why is his case being reexamined? Bernie has opened up about the sexual abuse he suffered at the hand of a relative and how Mrs. Nugent's controlling behavior cracked the protective mental walls he'd built around that trauma. Due to her mental abuse, he snapped and shot her.

A new lawyer believes these factors combined to make Bernie's shooting of Mrs. Nugent a crime of passion rather than premeditated murder. The difference? A crime of passion is a second degree felony with a sentence ranging from two to twenty years. If the court decides that a jury would've convicted Bernie of a second degree felony rather than murder, it is conceivable that he could be released in the near future for time served.

(In his favor, it's hard to find people who speak positively about Mrs. Nugent. By most accounts, she was downright ornery. But does being mean justify murder?)

Regardless of whether Bernie snapped when he shot Mrs. Nugent in the back four times, he cleaned up the crime scene and hid her body in her own freezer. He then continued to spend her money and lie about where she was until her body was found. Some say this is exactly what a child would do when he realizes he's done wrong. But Bernie was 36 when he killed Mrs. Nugent, not a child, and he carried on this charade for nine months. I cannot imagine the pain he experienced as a victim of sexual abuse, but to his credit, Bernie went to college, held a responsible job, and was a respected member of this East Texas community for a long time. In other words, he was a functioning adult.

And here we are back to the notion of justice, what it is and how it applies in this case.

What should happen to Bernie? In a statistically insignificant survey I conducted, 80% of five people questioned thought Bernie should serve his life sentence. One thought he should go free. Back in 1997 when Mrs. Nugent's body was found, most people supported Bernie. Now, rumor has it that most of the town thinks he should stay in jail. (This probably means that most of the little old ladies who so fiercely defended Bernie back in 1997 have died.)

What will happen to Bernie? Only time and the courts will tell. Will justice be served? Perhaps it depends on which crime we're looking at.

I don't think there's any amount of 'time served' that can provide justice for Marjorie Nugent.

Was justice ever served for the sexual abuse Bernie endured as a child? Not to my knowledge. 
Is it just or fair to try and compensate for the abuse he suffered by shortening his sentence for Mrs. Nugent's murder?

This, to me, is one of those times when justice becomes nebulous and arbitrary. I'll be curious to see what our legal system thinks about it all.

What do you think about justice?

photo credit: marsmet526 via photopin cc
photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

Sunday, February 16, 2014

We All Live in a Four-Inch Long Baking Powder Powered Submarine...

Okay, my title doesn't play as well as The Beatles' lyrics, but this thing is loads of fun. Thanks to friend and fellow author Bert Carson, I am now in possession of my very own diving sub. No muss, no fuss, hours of entertainment for those ages six and up (me included), and it fits quite neatly into one of my mixing bowls. All I need now is the skipper's hat.

To clarify, I received my diving sub for agreeing to be the captain of Bert's blogging team. Now that I've played with the sub, I think I got the better end of this deal. (I'm still waiting on the decoder ring, but maybe Bert's having trouble decoding it.)

How can a toy requiring no batteries generate fun? Watch and learn:

A tiny sub, a little baking powder, and a deep bowl. Too cool.

Still confused? It's all about the imagination, folks. I spent a great deal of my childhood obsessing over decoder rings, solving imaginary mysteries, and making mud bowling balls to roll down the swing-set slide. What a glorious addition a baking powder sub would've been.

Those were the days, eh? Wooden blocks became castles. Mud pies formed majestic feasts. A stick and a piece of wood made a fine sword and shield, and empty boxes built fabulous forts.

I kind of feel sorry for the kids whose toys are all battery powered or require charging, but I'll bet if the batteries ran out and the charging stations ran dry, even those kids could enjoy a baking powder powered submarine.

Is it just me, or does anybody else remember a time when toys required imagination-power?


(Sorry the video is so cloudy - that's the natural gas bubbles in our water. Yes, you can set the water that comes out of our tap on fire. Guess that comes from living in a part of the country where natural gas wells and pipelines are everywhere and fracking is ever present. But that's another blog post.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Girl Called Gus - The Art of Naming Characters

I've always been fascinated by names. Probably because Gae-Lynn is so uncommon. But having a weird first name isn't enough for my family. I'm also blessed with an unusual nickname. Seems my paternal grandfather held me as a howling, red-faced newborn and said, "She looks like a Gus."

And that was that.
Family and friends call me Gus, I'm Auntie Gus to my nieces and nephews, and my husband calls me 'Gus the Destroyer' because it ain't been built that I can't break. In fact, Gus is the one word I hear in any circumstance. (Watching people react to a girl called Gus is pretty humorous.)

My name and nickname are part of who I am, how I define myself, and perhaps how others define me. If I had to choose which name, Gae-Lynn or Gus, suited me best, I'd struggle. Both are me.

Names are important, aren't they? Parents agonize over what to call their offspring. Some believe that a name influences their child's personality and future success and happiness. Some delay naming their kids until after birth. In certain families, the naming of a child can divide loyalties or guarantee inheritances.

Sid and her first calf

[We have no kids and there's no money hanging in the balance, but the name game affects us, too. Our cows have names, usually influenced by their personalities. Sid Vicious has a quiff and an erratic personality like the late punk rocker. Sweet One simply is. Our bull is Elvis because of the peculiar way his lip curls when he's chasing the ladies.]

Just as in 'real' life, choosing a name for your characters is important. It's heady stuff, bestowing a name that will live on as long as someone is reading your books.

Rightly or wrongly, names paint an image of a character's physical or emotional characteristics in my mind. Because this imagery is so powerful for me (and possibly for others), I let it influence my character names. For example:

Scott Truman - an honest, loyal, hardworking young cop
Judge Shackleford - a tough minded judge
Hugo Petchard - a distasteful cop who relies on his daddy's money to buy influence (he also isn't huge, which bothers him greatly)

I try to pick names that don't look or sound alike, unless it doesn't matter that they do. The Cass Elliot Crime Series includes teenaged twins, Matt and Mark Grove. They're always together, always in trouble, and it doesn't really matter who is who.

In cases where it does matter, I like unique names. It helps me set the stage for 'who' a character is and what he's about, both for myself and for the reader. Names are one way to give characters an identity, and they're an easy touchstone to help the reader stay focused.
The name thing matters so much to me that I've abandoned books if I can't keep the characters straight. I'm about to shut down a story now because two characters have names so similar I get confused: Mark and Marcus. Their roles are also similar (police / security guys) and that makes it even harder to keep them straight. about you? Do names resonate with you? Have you ever stopped reading because the names were so similar you couldn't keep them straight? Is naming an important part of your writing process?

photo credit: abbey*christine via photopin cc

photo credit: elisabet ottosson via photopin cc