A beginning and an end

December is a weird month.

In the Catholic calendar, last Sunday (December 2) was the first Sunday of Advent. The season of Advent marks the beginning of a new calendar year in the church. In a way, this means I’m at a beginning, much like January is the beginning of a new calendar year and September always feels like the start of something new because it’s a new school year.

But December is also The End. Father Time with his long, white beard is getting ready to hand things off to a brand-new Baby New Year (if you’ve seen the old Rudolph special from Rankin & Bass you’ll have a visual to go with those words). Snow covers the ground. Mother Nature is in hibernation. It feels like the perfect time to cuddle up with a book and a blanket, to look back at the year to see what’s been accomplished, what’s left to do, and what might be done better next year.

Hello, dichotomy anyone?

2017 was the year the universe reminded me this writing gig is a long haul. After so much success in 2016, I went 1 for 6 on submissions for the year. Humbling, ain’t it? Yet at the same time, I’d say the stories I wrote this year were better than some I’ve written previously. I have a number of lovely rejections from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to show for it. I could let those rejections be “the end,” but I choose to view them more of a “not yet.”

The Girl (my 17-year-old daughter) is also feeling this “beginning-end” tug of war. In a couple weeks, she should receive a decision on her application to her college of choice. An acceptance means the beginning of a new phase in her life and education. At the same time, senior year is The End–the end of high school, prom, curfews, and the ability to rely on parents for all your meals and clean laundry.

So where am I?

Well, some things are definitely ending. After searching for an agent for two years, it’s time to consider other paths to publication. That’s an end…and a beginning. It’s time to close the book on some stories (at least for the time begin) and start new ones, something I’ve already done.

Maybe there is no beginning or end. Maybe time is more like the infinity symbol: looping and twisting, sometimes going up and sometimes dragging you down. Maybe this concept of “beginning and end” is just a human conceit.

See? December is a weird month!

But here’s a definite beginning! We’ve got exciting new things coming to Mysteristas in 2018 and we’re kicking off the year with a contest? You’ve seen our “peeping girl” icon (top of the page at the right). We’ve decided she needs a name and who better to name her than our readership? And we’re giving away a Kindle Paperwhite to the winner!

Here’s how to enter: Comment on this blog, or on our Facebook page, with your suggested name and a contact email address. The contest will be open for the entire month of December and over our scheduled holiday break. It will close at midnight on January 6. We will contact the winner and announce upon our return in January 2018.

And stay tuned for more awesome beginnings next year!

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A Family Affair

tkwc5Family is a key component in my newest short story, “A Family Affair,” included in the recently-released The Killer Wore Cranberry 5 from Untreed Reads (see, “family” is even in the title).

The story centers around the family of Tom Burns, the deputy coroner in my Laurel Highlands Mysteries series. He’s gone home of Thanksgiving, always a dicey proposition. Because families can make for wonderful holiday memories…and not so wonderful ones, too.

The not-so-wonderful would include your uncle face down in the pan of slightly-dry dressing, dead as a turkey leg.

In the story, Burns (who has a the kind of humor common to all those who work with death on a daily basis), says “Holidays are a time when family members decide to off one another.” His cousin is not amused, to say the least.

My beta readers were divided over this line. In truth, I spent a fair bit of time debating on whether to use it. In the end, I did. As Burns goes on to explain:

“Holidays really do bring out the worst in some people. I know a guy in the State Police who sees this all the time. Last year he was called to a scene where one family member had stabbed another over who got the last turkey drumstick.”

That, dear readers, is a true story – lifted from a newspaper (names removed to protect the innocent AND guilty).

What is it about holidays that can bring out the worst in families…and the best? Little hurts long forgotten are blown into giant injuries. Small acts of kindness can take on a heroic cast of epic proportions. Is it the pressure of the holidays? Or the pressure-cooker nature of daily family interactions, built up over days, months, years?

Whatever it is, family makes for good fiction.

Oh, who killed Burns’s uncle? You’ll just have to pick up a copy of The Killer Wore Cranberry 5 to find out!

Real-life villains

As we still – as individuals and as a nation – reel from the tragic events on Las Vegas, villainy is at the top of our collective minds. Not only were the events Sunday night horrific, but it brought out some truly dark and divisive comments in society, including people who claimed that the victims didn’t need relief money because “they were rich” to the now-former CBS attorney who said the victims were undeserving of sympathy because “country fans were mostly Republicans” (apology since posted).

Yesterday, Becky posed the question that with all this going on, why do we even need fictional villains? Real life seems more than capable of providing enough villainy for everyone. Of course I–like her–believe we do need fictional villains because we need fictional heroes. We need triumph. And you can’t have a hero without a villain. The bigger the hero, the bigger the villain.

But it strikes me there’s another, more insidious, type of villain at large in society. One that is more difficult to overcome.

Despair.

Events like natural disasters and mass shootings can bring on despair like nothing else. What can we do? We’re just little cogs in a big wheel. We seem to be doomed, so why bother?

Once again, I think fiction comes to the rescue. If we can write and read about the triumph of heroes, there’s hope for us. Soldiers, cops, firemen, private detectives, fabric store owners, pet shop owners, clockmakers, Quaker midwives–all these heroes look at the circumstances in their own lives and say, “no.” They could turn around and walk away. Yes, even the professionals. There are other jobs out there. But they don’t. They look despair and chaos firmly in the eye and say, “not in my town.”

I think we need that. Too much grimness and depression clogs the news cycle. We need to see someone triumph to believe we can triumph.

Even if that person is fictional.

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Image courtest of Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan retreat center, Friendship, NY

A long, late night

Otherwise known as…oops, I did it again.

I could blame the late night reading. I could blame the switch to working at home, which means one day is pretty much identical to the next. I could blame the chaos of a release week.

I stay up too late at night. I know I do. Except…late nights are the only time I get to relax. Read. Think about…things. From the time the alarm goes off at 5:30am to about, oh, 10:00pm, my day is concerned a lot with other people. Get the kids up, dressed, out the door (yes, even though they are teenagers). Work the day-job. Fix dinner. Talk–or at least try to talk–to the kids about their day when they get home (see above reference to teenagers). Squash some writing time in there. Watch TV and spend some time with The Hubby.

You get the picture.

But late at night, the house is quiet. No one is making demands on my time. It’s just me and the book du jour. Bliss.

Except that it keeps me up. Makes me forget stuff – like doing my post for the blog.

I need a better calendar. Or I need to give up those late nights and go to sleep.

{Pause}

Anybody have a favorite calendar?

Teenagers – cats or vampires?

As you might know (or maybe not, because hey, are you really that interested in my home life?) I have two teenagers. The Girl is 17 (and a high-school senior – ack!), The Boy is 15. Some time ago, I put forth the following theory:

Young children are like dogs; teenagers are like cats.

Here’s my thinking. Young children are generally happy to see you, always willing to play, will happily eat at any time of day (ususally) and smother you with affection, whether convenient for you or not. Teenagers might be happy to see you – if you come bearing gifts or car keys; are rarely happy to play (I submit our family board games as evidence); eat when they want to, regardless of whether that coincides with the dinner hour or not; and give affection on their terms, again, usually when you are offering gifts or car keys.

Based on the past summer, I’ll offer an amendment: teenagers may also be vampires.

Think about it. They sleep until noon. They stay up until the wee hours of the night. They are often pasty from lack of sun (because they are holed up playing video games or watching Netflix – although The Boy does not exhibit this symptom), and their food choices are often…a mystery. Those cupboards opening and closing at 1 a.m.? What in the world is he looking for? Why is she suddenly not eating salmon, one of her favorite foods? Why are all the marshmallows missing from the container of Lucky Charms?

Hmm. That last one might also be attributable to their father. But I digress.

The point is, teenagers are creatures of the night. I remember those days. Now? Well, as the meme says, “I’m not an early bird or a night owl, but I can rock 11 a.m. like nobody’s business.” Maybe that means vampire is a step in the evolution of the teenager.

In the meantime, those bumps in the night? Probably my kids foraging for a snack.

Pride before a fall

“Pride goeth before a fall.”

I’ve always prided myself on organization. I knew where I was supposed to be and when. I scheduled my Mysteristas posts well in advanced and I’d never messed up.

Until today.

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I have no excuses and I have no post. Mea culpa. So just tell me: what’s your best (worst?) “pride before the fall” moment?

By way of an apology, I’ll give a $15 Starbucks gift card to a random commenter.

Photo courtest of Oleg Afonin, used under Creative Commons license.