Tree House People and Cave People

By Lisa Alber

After four years of home ownership, I finally painted the interior. The previous color was what I liked to call “snotty beige/brown” – ugly and drab and too dark. It was awful, but now the paint color lighter, warmer, and airy, and I love it.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend about cave people and tree house people. Cave people like the coziness of enclosed spaces, and tree house people prefer open and airy. I’m definitely the latter. The only room in my house that’s cavelike is the bedroom that’s my office — I never use it. Instead, I sit at the dining room table in front of the sliders that look onto my garden. In the summer, I sit outside. I inhabit well-lit coffee houses and bistros, but never the silent cubicle rooms at the public library.

I can’t even work at a desk set against a wall. That’s too closed in. A desk against a window is fine though. On writing retreats, I’ve been known to shift the desk so that it’s facing the view (which is usually the ocean).

In my upstairs office, I dream of enlarging the window or putting in a skylight. The new paint color, pale narcissus, helps tremendously. As does the giant mirror that hangs directly across from the window. And also the track lights aimed at the mirror that bounce light off it and around the room.

I recently read an article about retirement living in tiny houses. Super affordable, energy efficient, and, you know, it’s quite the thing. I tried to imagine living inside a 400-square-foot tiny house, or maybe one of those shipping container homes. Could I do it? Honestly — could I?

The thought of it makes me itchy. The only way would be if the house was mostly windows and located in a warm climate where I could plant myself in an outside living space most of the time. Frankly, I don’t see it for myself. (I don’t live in a large house, but it’s bigger than 400 square feet!)

I have theories about why I’m a tree house person. I grew up in an airy, vaulted ceiling kind of house with great views. Also, I deal with depression, which is very cavelike and unpleasant. All that aside, in the end, we like what we like. The funny thing is that I’m not a big fan of heights, so you’d never actually get me into one of those tree house homes or hotels.

Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

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Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

Words of Wisdom to Inspire

By Cheryl Owen Wilson

Please read each word listed below individually.  Close your eyes and see the vision each word brings forth.  Is it not amazing how one word can paint a vivid picture in your mind?

Joy—Peace—Love—Explore—Magic—Laugh

Depression—War—Despair—Fear—Cry

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We writers use words daily to paint pictures in reader’s minds.  We also use them to inject the remainder of the senses: sound, taste, smell, touch.  But what are the other uses for the tiny insect looking expressions of language which magically flow from our brains, through our fingers, and on to a page, or computer screen?

Words, the right sequence of words, when read at the right time as evidenced above in the few I’ve listed, can fill us with hope or bring us down to the dark depths of despair. The world in which we live at various times in history has plunged entire populations over the cliff of despondency.  Thus, I am using my blog today to give examples of how I’ve chosen to use words, in my own humble way, to help alleviate some of said gloom.

At any turn in our lives each and every one of us are in need of inspiration, positive reinforcement.  In every aspect, be it personal, work related or in the midst of an artistic block when our muse is silent, a few simple words can help to move us forward.   Give us that much needed shove to get over the hump, see the sunshine through the fog, or simply get out of bed.  For myself one of the ways I gather encouragement is through positive/inspirational quotes.

My first venture in to this realm began years ago with a deck of affirmation cards called Positive Vibes.  I pick two to four at random monthly and place them on the mirror where my morning rituals begin.  It is surprising, and then again perhaps not, how on the mornings when I would prefer to climb back in bed and pull the covers over avoiding life one of those cards tells me exactly what I need to hear.  I then carry it like a mantra throughout my day.

In my work life (as a business manager) I tuck one of the many inspirational note cards I’ve collected in each employees monthly paycheck.  I am always seeking new, fresh cards.  These cards are small tokens of knowledge discussing topics from Joy, to Dreams, to Being Thankful, to Being Successful.  I started this practice over ten years ago.  Only once did I run out of the note cards.  Unfortunately I had no time to replenish them, so no words of wisdom fell from my co-workers envelopes when opened.  I received many more comments of disappointment around not receiving those small tokens than I’d ever received over a missed hour or two of time worked, but not reflected in their pay. Now, I make certain I always have a surplus.

In another area of day to day life called social media, we encounter many negative comments. However, I’ve also found a plethora of not only inspirational stories, but also those positive quotes I seek out daily.  In turn, I personally attempt to post at least one inspirational quote a week.  I also pull some of these quotes off the internet, print them, and hang them in my art studio.  They are hung like precious clothes on a line, and interchanged often.

In the vein of all of the above I have collected some positive quotes on this solitary art form we’ve chosen called writing.  I hope you find them helpful.  I hope you print some of them, cut them out and place them where they will be seen when most needed.

What is your favorite inspirational quote?

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A Parliament of Crows: Horror that Happened (™)

Murder in the service of maintaining wealth and status. That’s not uncommon, but when it is done by seemingly “proper” Victorian women, three sisters who teach social graces in women’s colleges in the old South, the contrast sets us up for a good Southern gothic. Based on crimes committed by the infamous Wardlaw sisters against members of their own family, A Parliament of Crows, explores in fiction the emotions and the thinking behind such crimes. The novel was released this month under the new IFD Publishing imprint, Horror that Happened (™). I have changed their name to Mortlow and made some other changes to drive the story, yet I’ve tried to follow what history has told us about the Wardlaw sisters’ crimes. The tale unfolds from their respective perspectives, the chapters rotating through the three POVs.

Murders committed over the course of many years left the three Mortlow sisters, Vertiline, Mary, and Carolee, with many secrets to keep. Differing in personality, faith, and outlook, they were at odds with one another from the start—more so even than with those they killed. Jealousies, grievances, and mistrust threatened to break their loyalty and shared silence.

With a final crime, the murder of Mary’s daughter, authorities caught up with the sisters. They were indicted for murder and insurance fraud. That’s where the story begins. The backstories of all three are revealed as the court case proceeds.

The mystery here is not whodunnit, but how they found it reasonable to do what they did.

Concerning the title, some have asked if I meant owls, because a gathering of owls is referred to as a parliament. There is also a parliament of crows that is less description of them as a group and more something the group may do when they gather together in large numbers, say in an open field. In such gatherings of perhaps fifty or more crows, occasionally an argument breaks between one or more of the birds. The others seem to watch. When the argument is done, the crows turn on one of the participants, presumably the loser, sometimes maiming, killing, or even cannibalizing the creature. Some people who have viewed this phenomenon have likened it to a trial in which the defendent is convicted and punished. A parliament of crows is the term for that type of gathering. With the way the sisters go after each other and because they habitually wore black mourning clothes, I thought the title appropriate.

A Parliament of Crows, by Alan M. Clark, is the second novel to be included in the new IFD Publishing imprint Horror that Happened (™).

The outrageous is all the more extraordinary when we know it actually occurred. Horror that Happened (™), provides riveting stories in three catagories: True Crime, Based on a True Story, and Lifted from the Past. We hope you will come back to IFD Publishing for your high-quality reading entertainment.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Gratefulness: The Stone in Community Soup

FB1FBD85-58CF-4860-9801-6906C8C78E09By Cynthia Ray

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, she says:

It is said that only humans have the capacity for gratitude. This is among our gifts.  It is such a simple thing, but we all know the power of gratitude to incite a cycle of reciprocity. We know that appreciation begets abundance”

It is almost as if appreciation and gratitude create something from nothing. There is an old folk tale called “Stone Soup” in which hungry travelers without resources or food put a stone into a pot of boiling water.  Curious villagers stop by to see what is going on and are told that this is stone soup, and if only they had a bit of garnish to improve the flavor it would be quite tasty.  Intrigued, the first villager contributes a few carrots for which the travelers are grateful.  The next passer-by contributes an onion, and so on, until a delicious soup is created and shared by all.  The inedible stone becomes the catalyst for sharing and nourishes everyone and generates gratitude which begets abundance.

The value of connection with a vibrant, generous, and creative group of writers and artists cannot be overstated. Through the miracle of connection, a wonderful community soup emerges, that nourishes all of us as writers, as artists, and as a people.

When I took a writing class at a local community college, many years ago, I had no idea that it would launch me on a lifetime journey of discovery, of becoming, and of connection.  In that short fiction writing class I met writers with a similar mindset and purpose.  They were quirky, off-beat, had a sense of humor, and loved to write and read fiction of all kinds.  The teacher, a well-known published author, made her living as a full-time writer.  That in itself was inspiring, but she also had a heart for mentoring and encouraging budding and would be writers of all ages and abilities.  She created community just by who she was and what she believed in.   Just like in the folk tale, giving creates community, and is reciprocal, ongoing, and ever-expanding.

One key piece of advice that I took from her class was to join a writing critique group, and to attend writing conferences and workshops.  Since then, I have been a member of several writing and critique groups and facilitated one for several years.  In those circles, one comes to know people on a different level.  These groups provided a place to share the knowledge, expertise, challenge and joy of writing.  The connection and friendships that came from those critique groups continue to unfold.

Over time, the connections that I have made with writers, artists, and mystics, have supported me, have inspired me, and have amazed me.  When someone I know publishes a book or story, I feel pride for them.  I buy the book, read it, review it, and share it.   I know what it takes to write a story, I know what they put into that book. Perhaps I heard them read an early version at a critique group, or perhaps they shared the struggle to produce that beautiful piece of work, and I rejoice with them that it passed out of the valley of the shadow of possibility, and through their efforts into a real contribution to the community soup.

Another gift connection brings is the synergistic and creative collaboration that is born out of artistic community. Two examples from Shadowspinners include the collaborative “Collection of Dark Tales”, and the Labyrinth of Souls Novels, which started as a collaboration between Matt Lowes as the creator of a game called Labyrinth of Souls based on Tarot cards, and an artist in Germany. The game inspired a collaboration of writers to produce novels loosely based on the game, with the common theme of a journey to an underworld.  Some incredible writing came and continues to come from that collaboration.

I am eternally grateful for the indelible friendships, for the generous, open-hearted hands that helped me along the way, with feedback, with encouragement, with a kick in the backside when needed, and everything that went into the community soup, even the stones. No, especially the stone.  It’s the catalyst.

 

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Friends are Forever….

 

What I Learned From Watching 192 Episodes of The Murdoch Mysteries

by Christina Lay

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Murdoch Mysteries is a long running Canadian series; a cozy historical mystery set in Toronto in the late 1880s/early 1900s. This show is exactly my cup of tea. Cozy, check. Historical, check. Mystery, check.

Perhaps the fact that I’ve watched twelve seasons of sixteen episodes each says more about me than it does about the show, but I think there is a lot we as storytellers can learn from such a durable series.

What the show does right, IMHO:

The main character, Detective William Murdoch, is an interesting, intelligent, well-drawn protagonist. He is keenly interested in all of the technological revolutions occurring in the time period of the show, and his enthusiasm can’t help but engage the viewer. This was a brilliant piece of story crafting, to meld a fundamental characteristic of the hero with the exciting, ever-ripe-for-conflict reality of the turn of the last century. Detective Murdoch, an exceptionally clever man, is often allied with or pitted against great minds and personalities of the time. The first episode features Nikolai Tesla. Over the years, we meet Alexander Graham Bell, Teddy Roosevelt, Marconi, and a host of other inventors, scientists, authors and politicians. Even Frank Lloyd Wright gets accused of murder. Most of the famous “guest stars” are, of course, accused of murder at some point. All are proven innocent, for which history is thankful.

What can we learn aside from the obvious requirement to write interesting characters? A character is more than a set of characteristics. They are creatures of their milieu. Give them interesting times and people to react with and against, and they will grow and come to life. This is especially effective if the setting is an interesting character in its own right. For instance, Murdoch and his wife end up buying and living in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, much to the confusion and pity of their friends. In this case, the viewer gets to “be in the know” and have a gentle laugh at those silly Victorians. (Although personally, I’d rather have one of those lovely Victorian houses featured in every show!)

The secondary characters are also interesting, intelligent and well-drawn. Murdoch’s romantic interest, Dr. Julia Ogden, is not just a foil for Murdoch. She often has her own story lines, pitting her modern, progressive viewpoints against the staid, patriarchal society of the times. She’s a woman doctor who runs for office and is thrown in jail for it. She’s had an abortion, which causes a believable rift between her and the devout Catholic Murdoch. She enjoys cutting edge art and brings levity and wit to many a stuffy social occasion. This is another great conflict generator, and another way to learn about the actual history of suffrage and women’s rights.

I find it amazing that a show can go for so long and not lose or corrupt any of its core cast. The gruff Inspector Brackenreid, the charming and gullible Constable Crabtree, even the annoying journalist Miss Cherry and not-so-bright Constable Higgens are all characters that are fully drawn and reliable, and by reliable I mean that the writers do not resort to having our favorites do stupid or ridiculous things just because the creators are running out of ideas. Consistency and clarity work in the case of a cozy. When readers/viewers develop a fondness for a character, they don’t want them to change too much. Yes, the characters expand their horizons, learn, recognize prejudice inside themselves, become more tolerant, stretch their horizons, etc., but their basic goodness does not change.

A stellar ensemble of actors doesn’t hurt

Now, some readers/viewers might consider this boring. I’d suggest that these are not your target audience if you’re writing this type of series. The audience for cozies does not require great upheavals, radical shifts, or the killing off of regular characters. In fact, they will rebel. In this aspect of coziness, Murdoch excels. Perhaps Canadian actors are less likely to demand more money and leave the show?

The mysteries are often (though not always) blended with scientific developments or social issues of the times. This is another great way that the setting is put to use. Murdoch is always dreaming up innovations right about the time the real inventor shows up in an episode. In the Tesla episode, someone is electrocuted and Tesla helps Murdoch figure out how. Cameras, fingerprinting, night vision goggles, even a lie detector, are all put to good use for the first time and we get to imagine what those developments were really like, and how significantly things were changing. There is a touch of sci-fi to the series, because of all the wild inventions which were in fact real, or just on the horizon.

What the show does wrong, IMHO:

The mysteries themselves are often silly. Or, there is a whopping coincidence (or two) or something just doesn’t make sense. Yes, the show is generally playful in tone, but the writers have trained their viewers to expect truly engaging content and sometimes, the basic structure on which everything else hangs isn’t up to snuff. However, because the characters and setting are so big and well-developed, a weak plot can stumble along and no one minds too much (except a writer who is taking notes).

I spoke of consistency as one of the strong points of the show. The only times I’ve given up on an episode is when my expectation of the show has been let down. In these cases, the disappointment comes in the form of the tired and annoying plot device of the serial killer who develops an obsession with Murdoch and then just won’t die. These characters are always more persistently violent and psychotic than what jives with a cozy, and I personally find them boring, because there’s nothing to solve, only a lunatic to escape from. As a writer, if you have success in creating a cozy mystery, be wary of treading into darker, more grisly and hopeless waters. Probably you’d be better off starting a new series altogether.

Along with the occasional serial killer, the writers will sometimes fall back on tired tropes, such as using the long suffering Doctor Ogden as victim just so Murdoch can suffer the agonizing pains of worry and then be heroic in rescuing her. Also, every single regular character has been falsely accused of murder. That’s a bit much to take. Every time Murdoch and Ogden talk about how happy they are, something goes terribly wrong. That level of loud foreshadowing is just annoying.

What I learned about myself as a consumer of story: I like to know what to expect, even if it’s to expect the unexpected. In other words, I choose what shows to watch based a lot on what mood I’m in. If I’m in the mood for cozy and familiar, then by gum, it had better be cozy and familiar. As writers, we have no control over what readers want; however, if we are writing a series, we can be consistent about our tone, level of violence, and so on.

If I really love the characters, I’ll let a wobbly plot slide.

I have a low tolerance for the unsolvable conundrum of a one-dimensional psychopath.

To sum up, The Murdoch Mysteries is a fine example of one my core beliefs: Character is everything. In the worlds of mystery, fantasy and science fiction, multiple book series have become the norm. I believe this is because readers don’t want to let go of characters they love. How often have we wished a great book would never end? When that happens, it sometimes feels like we’re losing a good friend. If you can create that level of devotion for your characters, you may just achieve a 12-season level of success.

Nostalgia For What I Never Had

By Lisa Alber

I spent last week in Chicago and Lansing, MI, with my two younger sisters. We re-connected with relatives on both sides of the family: Mom’s side in Lansing and Dad’s side in Chicago. My dad passed away in 2001. My mom, last year. One of my maternal cousins, K, had found a five-year journal that Mom kept for one year, 1946. She was 14/15 years old, and she went to the movies every chance she could. She read a lot, sucked at algebra, excelled in English, went to mass and confession, loved horses, and enjoyed scrapbooking.

Except for mass and confession, that could be a description of me at that age. I got to thinking about how much she and I could have bonded. Why didn’t Mom mention her love of horses? Why didn’t she commiserate with me over my math woes? Why didn’t she take an interest in my scrapbooks?

Were we too much alike? I also recently learned that she had curly hair, which I inherited. She told me once that she never liked my hair.

Over in Chicago with my dad’s side, my one remaining aunt, J, mentioned that she’d felt sorry for us girls. She said, and I quote, “Your mom was never meant to be a parent.”

I loved her honesty, and I felt oddly relieved that she validated what I’d always intuited. I grew up with my basic hierarchy of needs met—shelter, food, water—and that was about it. Years ago, a therapist called it “benign neglect.” I was pretty feral considering our suburban lifestyle. I remember crusty, oozing, painful sores behind my ears because I was so dirty.

Aunty J recalled one of our rare family visits to Chicago, and how my parents dumped us at her house for the week and left without saying goodbye. We didn’t notice because for years they’d been handing us off to overnighter child-care minders while they larked off for long weekends in Carmel, CA, or wherever.

Aunty J also said my mom teased her mercilessly about how much she did for her kids. For example, baking cakes. To this day, I remember how amazed I was by her cake-frosting prowess. It was like I’d never seen a cake being frosted. “Wow, you’re so good at that!” She responded with something slightly grumpy, like, of course she was, no duh.

It didn’t occur to me to tell her that I didn’t know a frosted cake could look so tidy and yummy because Mom didn’t do cakes much, even for birthdays unless we begged. As the oldest child, I was the first to become aware that we didn’t celebrate birthdays and other holidays like “normal” families. I started to hector and insist on Easter baskets, birthday cakes, Christmas stockings and pretending that Santa existed (luckily, my dad was a Christmas guy when it came to having a beautiful tree), proper Halloween costumes, and please, could she cook us turkey for Thanksgiving? (Never happened.) I created rituals for us, as best I could.

I still don’t celebrate my birthday much, and I have a hard time remembering other people’s birthdays.

Anyhow, back to Aunty J. Apparently, when she spoke long distance with her brother, my father, he talked about what we girls were up to—he was interested even if he was never around—but Mom never talked about us.

I know many things about Mom now: undiagnosed depression (she was usually in bed when we got home from school); sexual abuse on her mom’s side of the family; a huge family scandal when Mom was a teenager; her own bitter, overly staunch and crusty mom; an out-of-wedlock son given up for adoption; loss of the man who I suspect was Mom’s soul mate; CIA recruitment straight out of college and life in Europe after that …

She will always be a mysterious figure—a figment that reflects too readily back onto me.

Could I write a novel based on nostalgia for what I never had? I suppose I could. A novel about absentee mothers, mother-daugher relationships, misperceptions, family mysteries … but I probably won’t. Or, maybe I already have with Kilmoon.