Holy Cow! by Bonnie Schroeder

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter

 

I’m wrapping up our series of pet-centric posts today and hope everyone has enjoyed reading about the animals in our lives. . . and our writing.

I’ve had pets almost all my life, mostly dogs and cats, but few have had starring roles in my fiction.

My very first “published” short story, however, featured a cow as a main character, and not just any cow. My pet cow.

Here’s how it happened:

As a child, I spent my summers on my grandparents’ farm in northern New Mexico. It was a kid’s paradise, with all sorts of animal life: dogs and cats and chickens and pigs and cows. Being semi-obsessed by Western movies that were all the rage back then (mid-20th-century, that is), I often lamented that there were no horses on the farm.

The reason? Simple economics. My grandparents were not wealthy, and a tractor can do the work of many horses, without the attendant feed bills. My grandfather tired of my yearning for a horse, and he offered me what was, in his opinion, the next-best substitute: a docile milk cow named Brindy.

Brindy and I became fast friends during my summer visits. When I arrived, I’d race out to the pasture, climb over the fence and call to her, and she always came to say hello. I’d tell her how my time in California had gone, share a few confidences, rub her forehead and give her a carrot. When she was lying down, I’d often climb on her bony back and stroke her bristly hide. She was always gentle with me and seemed to enjoy the attention.Brindy

My favorite thing, though, was to help with the milking! You need VERY strong fingers to milk a cow, and I wasn’t always successful, but I kept trying. Milk straight from the cow, by the way, is nothing like the stuff you buy at the supermarket. It’s warm and thick and has a distinct, earthy taste.

How did Brindy come to star in my short story? As the product of a “broken marriage”—which was not taken so casually then as now—I was something of an outsider in school; friends did not come easily. But in the 5th grade, I discovered—or rather my teacher discovered—that I had a knack for creative writing. I suppose it came from all the time I spent alone with my books, coupled with a wild imagination. My teacher gave the class an assignment to write a story about an animal, and without my even having to think too hard about it, a story emerged about a cow that wanted to be a horse. The cow in my story, of course, was named Brindy, and although she tried hard to act like a horse, she eventually came to realize horses didn’t have it all that easy: people riding on their backs, hauling heavy wagons, and so on. Brindy decided she was pretty darn happy being a cow.

The ”be yourself” message must have impressed my teacher, because she typed up the story, shared it with the class, and sent a note to my mother that my writing “talent” should be encouraged—which, of course, it was.

That summer when I went to visit Brindy, very full of myself for all the attention my story had received and the friends it had won me, my grandfather cautioned me that Brindy had given birth while I was away. Eager to see the new calf, I hurried to the pasture and climbed the fence. Sure enough, there was Brindy with the cutest little baby standing next to her. I called out to her and ran forward. At this point, Brindy lowered her head, bellowed, and charged. I was threatening her baby.

I turned and fled and barely made it to the fence without being trampled. When I told my grandfather what happened, he shook his head. “I warned you. She’s mighty protective of that calf.”

And so it was that I lost my friend on the farm. Brindy became a mom and had no more interest in me. It made me sad, but then my grandfather brought home a puppy, and when he presented it to me, my disappointment over Brindy melted away. We named the puppy Buck, and he lived a long and happy life, watching over me and protecting me from the many hazards a child encounters on a farm. I decided a dog was a more suitable pet than a cow, after all.

Brindy had abandoned me, true enough, but she was my first muse, and I have always been grateful to her for that. In return, I gave her a kind of immortality, at least on the written page. If cows have emotions—and I think they do—she’d be proud.

Beginnings, Middles, and Endings

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A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (G.B. Pool) writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She also wrote the SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power; Caverns, Eddie Buick’s Last Case, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She teaches writing classes: “The Anatomy of a Short Story” (which is also in workbook form), “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “How to Write a Killer Opening.” Website: http://www.gbpool.com.

Beginnings, Middles, and Endings… A Thought or Two

When I start writing a story I usually don’t have the entire story blocked out in my head. Sometimes I have a beginning and an end. That’s the best way because I know how the story opens and blessedly where the story is going to end. Usually I have at least a sentence or a paragraph that tells me what the story is supposed to be about. Sometimes I have a page or two of the gist that provides the flavor of the story. That tells me the sub-genre: a detective yarn, a lighthearted mystery, a darker tale, or maybe a holiday story because I write those, too.

notebookIf you ever come to my house you will see small notebooks all over the place that I can grab and jot down an idea if it drops out of the sky. And they do on occasion. My fellow author, Bonnie Schroeder, gave all us Writers-in-Residence ladies a notebook and pencil set for the shower that writes in the wet. What a concept. So I am covered wherever an idea strikes.

The all-important beginning sets that Tone for any piece of writing. This is when the reader bites off a chunk and chews it to see if they might like to stay around for the rest of the meal. When these ideas strike, they have to grab my imagination, too, or I’ll discard them and wait for another inspiration.

Sometimes the initial idea is a bit of business that sets up a crime. Once I know how it’s done, I have to see who does it. The all-important villain will be the second, if not the first, character I must get to know. Remember, the bad guy or gal is the reason the story is being written. If nothing bad happens, I won’t need my private detective or amateur sleuth or long arm of the law to solve the case.

The Plot might be something that I hear on television that sparks the idea. I seldom rip a headline off the front page because I can almost hear half of the writers out there in “Fiction Land” ripping it off their newspapers and I want to write something new. But I will take a headline and turn it upside down or inside out to get a story.

That’s the old “What if?” game. If there is a story about a politician killing his playmate on the nightly news, what if the playmate sets up the politician instead in the fictional take on that account? I did that in a story in From Light To Dark, a collection of short stories that run the gamut from lighthearted to down right evil.

typewriterStories are everywhere. The writer just has to see the possibilities. But remember, as a writer, you control your world and you can twist the story into something unique if you try. Just try not to twist it into something that doesn’t make any sense. More and more TV shows are turning into pretzels that barely make sense. That’s why I read more books than watch television.

So now you have a great beginning and maybe you are lucky enough to have an ending in your head. As I said earlier, knowing the ending lets the writer know where he or she is going. You don’t want to wander. And this isn’t only for the writer’s sake. If the reader gets lost along the way, they might put the book down and never pick it up again.

Make the ending as stunning as the beginning. When you are having a great meal and the dessert is terrific, too, you know you have had an experience. When someone puts down your book or even finished your short story, you want them to feel satisfied. And you want them to come back for more.

In TV shows, I can usually guess whodunit in the first ten minutes. That’s because of the formula that shows use. Sometimes it’s the lousy actor who plays the part who just looks guilty. He read the script and knows he did it and it’s written all over his face. I hate that.

In a book, I seldom analyze the story as I am reading it to see if I can pick out the villain. I want to enjoy the story and know we’ll get to the end eventually. I never read the end ahead of time, either. I wouldn’t have dessert before the main course, so why soil the meal?

I like to read the set-up, watch for clues, and at the end I’ll go back over the story in my head and see where those clues were if I missed any of them. Good writers leave them in plain sight. Readers just don’t know they were clues. There is nothing better than to say, “Boy, there was that clue right there all the time.” I love that.

The only thing I can caution writers against is dropping the villain and the clues in at the end where the reader had no chance to pick them up. Not fair to the reader or to the story. You can do better.

fat-lady-dancerNow how about the middle? There it sits. Is it a big, hulking middle that the reader has to push around the dance floor with no music or is it thin and bony with no rhythm at all? This middle section is where the reader learns all the little things that hold the story together. Some backstory and some character traits are sprinkled in along with the bulk of the plot. Whether it’s on the high-calorie side with lots of detail or maybe a diet plate with most of the fat is trimmed off, you have to make the middle tasty.

scissorsEditing happens here. Add a little to enhance the story. Cut some off to make the pages turn faster toward the climax. Sweeten it with some good dialogue. Add some choice settings to give it flavor.

Some writers over-write their work. They cut and paste so much that they lose the story completely with all the tape and staples and glue. If your story is ponderous you will lose readers faster than if it is short and sweet.

But don’t shortchange the reader either. They paid for a story, so tell them a story. Give them the details, not an encyclopedia. You want them to know the characters, but remember: some characters are only there for color or to give some vital information before going off stage. Have a few main characters, some minor ones, and everyone else is just there to set the stage.

This holds true for novels and short stories. I have read quite a few mystery novels that packed in so much extra stuff that I lost track of the plot. The characters might be fun and the banter clever, but that dead body lying in the living room still needs to be discovered along with his killer.

Tell me a story first. I’ll get to know the people along the way. Have a beginning that pulls me in. Have a middle that holds my interest. Have an ending that makes me glad I bought your book or read your short story. I’ll look for your books on the shelf again if you can do that.

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DEAD MICE, An African Tale – Turning Experiences Into Stories

By Jackie Houchin

In last week’s Writers in Residence blog post, Gayle Bartos-Pool asked the question, “What do I bring to the party?”  She went on to tell of her extensive and varied experiences and personal contacts that have helped in research for her detective and spy novels. It got me to thinking about what I “bring to the party” of my story writing.

(1) I have a good knowledge of the Bible. (2) I’ve been on three short-term mission trips to Malawi, Africa. (3) I have 3 granddaughters who were once little and to whom I told and wrote many stories. (4)  I teach the 4th-6th grade Sunday School class at church and I occasionally help in the K-2nd grade Junior Church.

What a set up for writing children’s stories that take place in Africa and that have a Bible truth woven into them. Hey! That’s just what I am doing. I write the “Missionary Kids Stories” series (about a family serving in Malawi) and I send them out to about a dozen young kids (6-11) at church via email every 1-2 weeks. They are entertaining (according to  the kids) informative about Africa and mission life (occasionally gross as in the story that follows), “safe” (one mom’s comment), and have truths from the Bible as a take away.

Here is the first one I sent out, introducing the family and setting up the series. It is the shortest and simplest one. The stories vary in age level depending on the MK (Missionary Kid) who is telling the story. Stories five and six – told by a teenager – is one story in two parts with a cliff hanger at the end of five.

Dead Mice

Introduction

 These stories are about the (make-believe) Matthews Family, who went to Malawi, Africa about eight years ago to be missionaries.  This family has a dad and a mom, and seven children (three boys and four girls including a set of twins). As part of their names, each of them has the month that they were born in as a first or middle name, like Melody May or April Grace.  All of the stories are written to you as letters.  The first story starts like this: 

Hi kids!

My name is Melody May, and I have a twin sister whose name is Charity June. I also have three brothers and two more sisters. We all have the month we were born in as part of our names. It’s really cool I think, but some people think it’s weird.

My mom – her name is Mrs. Matthews – is really fun and creative. She picks out all our names. My dad – his name is Mr. Matthews – just smiles at her with love and agrees to the names.

People call me Melody, but they call my twin sister “June.” You may wonder how twins could be born in two different months. Can you guess how? It’s kind of tricky.

I’ll let my brothers and sisters tell you about themselves in other letters, but right now, let me tell you about what happened to my sister June and I a week ago.

We are MKs (Missionary Kids) who live in Malawi, Africa. Our dad is a college teacher at the African Bible College. We go to a school there too, but in a different building.

One day, an African boy in our class showed us a mouse… a really DEAD mouse. Then he dared us to do something with it. At first June and I refused, but then…..

Here’s how it happened.

The boy’s name is Kukana (Koo-KAH-nah). On that day, the first day of the new school year, he dared us to EAT a dead mouse! Ewww! Would YOU eat a mouse, especially a dead one? (I guess a live one would be worse!)

There are kids from America and Canada and Holland and South Africa in my class. There are many Malawian kids too. We have three grades in our classroom because, well, our teacher is very smart and can teach three grades at once! At least that’s what I think.

That day, when Kukana stood up in class with a closed box and told us he brought something for us to eat, we all smiled. We thought it might be some roasted peanuts, or those small super-sweet bananas they grown in Malawi. Yum.

Then he opened the box and reached in and held up this really stiff, black, hairy thing.  Some of the new girls screamed, but June and I didn’t. We almost did, but we grabbed each other’s hands and squeezed real tight.

“This is a mbewa,” he told us.

(You say mbewa like this – mmmmm-BEE-wah.)

“They are very tasty to eat,” Kukana said.

Then he held the mbewa up high by the stiff tail, tilted his head back, put the old dead mouse’s head into his mouth… and crunched it off!!!!!  He smiled big as he chewed it. The Malawian boys cheered and stomped their feet!

Our teacher frowned a little, but she didn’t say anything.

Kukana smiled again, real big, and there were little bits of black fur in his teeth!  He leaned very close to June and me and showed us his icky tongue, trying to scare us, I think.

Then he ate the rest of it….. even the tail. There were more hoots from the boys, and this time Mrs. Molenaar said, “Okay. That’s enough. Now tell the class about mbewa. Why did you bring it – and eat it?”

Mrs. Molenaar knew about mbewa – we could tell by her look – but she wanted Kukana to explain about this “famous Malawian snack food.”

“We eat mbewa because it’s good protein food,” began Kukana.

June and I looked at each other, our eyebrows raised way up and our eyes got big. OUR family eats  eggs, chicken, fish, and sometimes pork or beef for protein.

Kukana went on, “Village families here in Malawi are very poor. They raise goats and sometimes cows to SELL but not to EAT. They do this to have money for beans and maize to eat, and seeds to plant.”

I thought about what else OUR family eats. We like the beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, and peanuts that the villagers grow. We also eat yogurt and canned fruit and oatmeal. Sometimes Mom cooks nsima (nnnnnn-SEE-mah) which is made from white corn, called maize, and tastes like thick hot cereal without any salt. (Mom adds some for us.) Poor Malawians eat that every day. Sometimes that is all they HAVE to eat.

“There’s LOTS of mbewa around,” said Kukana. “You just have to catch them. We go to where old maize stalks or dead grass is piled up. We stand around the pile with sticks. Then someone lifts up the pile with a long pole and mice run out everywhere.  We have a lot of fun killing them with our sticks!”

Kukana laughed and all the boys laughed too.

“Then we put five or maybe ten of them on a long stick and roast them.”

Kukana looked right at June and me, opened his eyes really big and added, “….just… like… your… marshmallows!” Then he laughed in a mean way.

That made us feel mad and scared and icky, but we didn’t do anything. I think it was then, that I started to think….. maybe I WILL eat a dead mouse!

Mrs. Molenaar gave Kukana a stern look and he finished his talk like this. “Sometimes our fathers burn off the maize stubble (old stalks) in our fields. Then all the people stand around the edge of the field to catch the mice that run out.”

Mrs. Molenaar told the rest of it. “After the mice are roasted, which dries out the bodies but doesn’t burn off all the fur, they will keep for quite a while. Maybe you American children have tried jerky. It’s a bit like that.”

She turned to Kukana. “Did you want to share your mbewa with the class?”

He walked through the desks with the box down low. All the Malawian boys and girls took one out and started crunching and chewing. One American boy, named Benji took one too.

When the box came to June and me, my sister leaned way back, but I….. I reached in, grabbed a stiff hairy burned mouse and took it out.  Before I could think about what I was doing, I leaned back, held the thing up, and crunched off its head!!!!!!

This time June DID scream. “Melody! Noooo!! You are going to get sick and die!! And Mom will be very mad!”

I didn’t look at her. I stared at Kukana as I chewed the prickly, scratchy thing. It tasted kind of like burnt peanut shells and grease to me. Finally I swallowed it and stuck out my black-specked tongue to prove I ate it.

Kukana was surprised. He smiled at me (nicely, this time) and gave a little nod.  After that, he didn’t tease June and me. He kind of respected me, and since I was usually with my sister, he didn’t dare tease her either. After a while we even became friends.

Let me tell you a secret now. I didn’t finish the dead mouse.  I passed it to the boy behind me who snatched it up and ate it.

And you know what else?  I didn’t get sick and die.

I just became a Malawian.

But Mom DID get mad at me and told me never to do that again. I promised her that I wouldn’t. I figured I would never HAVE to do it again.

Later in our Sunday School class at the International Bible Fellowship church where my Dad sometimes preaches, I learned what Paul wrote in one of his letters in the Bible. He was a missionary to MANY countries. I don’t know if he ever had to eat mice, but he did say in 1 Corinthians 9:22, that he wanted to “become all things to all men that he might save some” for Christ.

I hope Kukana will someday want to know Jesus too. Maybe he will listen to me now when I tell him the gospel story ….. BECAUSE I ate the mouse.

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~~ Facts ~~

          Malawians DO eat mice like this for protein. Sometimes you can see them along the road, selling mbewa still lined up in a row on the roasting sticks, or in piles on a piece of cloth they spread out on the ground. They also eat big grasshoppers for protein which they fry in oil and sprinkle with hot pepper. 

What the Heck Do You Write? by Kate Thornton

Reading and Writing – The Basics by Kate ThorntonKate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona.

 

# # # # #

 

I write Mystery and Science fiction.

I used to say, I write short stories. And while I do indeed still write short stories, I also write novels.

We tend to identify ourselves by the most comfortable label, or by the one we’d like to fit, as well as by the one that seems to fit the best, based on what we have actually written. Or maybe just by what we wish we could write: “Yes, I write archaeological papers with a bit of whimsy,” or “Yes, I write about the cosmological implications of French cooking.”

So I have identified myself for decades as a mystery and/or science fiction writer. But even as my short story career – long and semi-illustrious as it was – began to wind down, I started writing real full length novels, whole stories over 65,000 words, some of them in the 85,000 word range..

I found that I liked it. It’s a whole other world. Worlds within worlds. Multiple characters, multiple settings, a story arc that can encompass several plot threads. It’s wonderful, and the discipline I learned as a short story writer helps me to keep it concise and not wander all over the page.

But there was a danger I had never thought about, a hidden pitfall to the novel-writing game that never occurred to me. The characters, so spare and driven in a short story, are under no obligation in a novel to do as the author says.

The characters, fully fleshed, do as they please. Whether you outline meticulously or are a seat-of-the-pantser, the characters have a way of driving the story, sometimes into a ditch or over a cliff. They become real enough to take on their own lives and are no longer a simple Mary Sue reflection of the writer, but become individuals who possess a weird amount of self-determination.

You might want them to murder or solve murders when they are busy developing relationships with other characters. You might plan for them to journey into space, when what they decide to do is stay home and build a fire in the fireplace. You might outline a tidy little puzzle, and they may turn it into a messy romance.

Yes, you are the all-powerful Author and can line your ducks back up into their neat little rows, but sometimes listening to your characters can help you take the story in a completely different direction, a better place, a more interesting and life-like place.

So before you proudly say, “I write such-and-such!” take a look at where your story is going. You might find that your characters have taken your sweet little cozy into noir territory, or burned up the spaceways with hot inter-species encounters.

I used to say I write Mystery and Science Fiction, but now I have to add Women’s Fiction and Romance to that description.

So what do you write? And has it changed from what you thought you would write?

PS – It’s all good as long as you keep on writing!