About Sandra Hutchison

Indie author and publisher of THE AWFUL MESS: A LOVE STORY and THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE.

Two steps forward, a whole bunch of steps sideways

So clearly I’ve developed some sort of deep resistance to marketing my books. I still like to write them and design them, but I can’t seem to make myself do the things necessary to actually sell them.

If I knew why this was, presumably I’d get over it, right?

Right now I have the perfect excuse that these are the last few weeks before winter closes in for painting exterior doors and rooms and radiators. Of course, I have a lot of resistance to doing that, too, it turns out. (I also got seriously interrupted when I discovered a bunch of sloppily-disguised old termite damage in one of the rooms. Now I have to repair that because I made it much worse in my panic that my house might fall down.)

I need more excuses, though.

Can I blame my uncomfortable office chair? It’s an old wooden swivel chair, if that helps paint the picture. But is it really uncomfortable? Do I ever sit it in it long enough to find out? I suspect there may be a whole industry selling high-end desks and desk chairs built on people in denial about the real reasons for their procrastination.

Could it be my current fascination with low-sugar foods? My glucose is now slightly above normal, so prediabetic, and both my father and relatively slim brothers have long had full-fledged Type 2 diabetes, so I’ve become one of those wackos who’s not only tried red lentil penne, but even bought more of it. (It’s not bad, if you like red lentils. There’s plenty of chew.)

I also recently learned that regular pasta and rice have a lower glycemic load if you cook them, refrigerate them, and reheat them. Weird, right? Suddenly leftovers are even more our friend. In any case, I find changing over my entire diet takes a lot of brain space and leaves me looking up things like “What is the glycemic load of ice cream?” (Surprisingly low. I’m sorry I looked.)

My other hobby right now is putting items in my IKEA shopping bag and then checking to see if they will be there when I drive the two or three hours to New Jersey or Massachusetts to get them. You would not believe how quickly a certain perfectly narrow shelf with a single narrow door can fly out of stock. Add on a desire to tack on a visit to the grandchildren if it’s NJ – which requires baking because that’s basically the only thing I’ve got going for me as a grandma – and it’s kind of like playing the lottery.

Meanwhile I also really love to just sit and read other people’s stuff, a habit I got into big-time during the pandemic. Writers can claim that’s “research,” but usually I’m just happily chowing down on a story I don’t ever have to think about selling to anyone.

Caitlin Doughty, from her website caitlindoughty.com

However, one book I read recently was research for the next Lawson novel, assuming I get around to volume four, which I expect to be focused on young, make-up-obsessed mortician Marlena Didsbury (who memorably overshared some dead body details over pot roast with the Jennings in THE UTTER CATASTROPHE). If you can stand the subject matter, Caitlin Doughty’s SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES: AND OTHER LESSONS FROM THE CREMATORY is a pretty amazing read: funny, warm, thought-provoking, and very well-

written. (And as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.) Doughty is a genuine, passionate advocate for “a good death,” but she also has a very entertaining YouTube account.

I also wrote a synopsis for the current novel, the one that’s a romantic comedy and thus a bit of a departure, but my synopsis is 1000 words and I need to somehow get that down to 500. That does at least make painting termite-damaged rooms and writing web posts like this sound like fun again.

So there is some slow, turtle-like progress being made. I finally got my web site verified and authenticated. (My primary computer still refuses to visit my own site, though.) And everyone’s panicking about how Apple’s new privacy policy will ruin the way authors use email, while I have the consolation of knowing I never got around to depending on it in the first place.

Anyway. With this post, I’ve officially achieved two blog posts in two months, after years of silence! So yay me, right?

Any advice? What do you do when you realize you’re deeply resisting doing something you really want or need to do?

 

Tap, tap. Does this thing still work?

CONFESSION TIME. For at least two years now, I’ve been ignoring this blog and (most of) this web site and all my email subscribers, too.

The Lent before last I decided I was spending too much time and money trying to keep my Amazon sales rank high, and it was time to detox.

Then I took that to the extreme. I guess I was curious to see just how bad it could get. (Short answer: Bad.)

Also, I wanted to focus on expanding THE AWFUL MESS into a trilogy, which I did. Then I started another book, a romantic comedy stand-alone. (That’s now in first draft and I’m trying to forget it so I can go back and do a decent edit.)

Anyway, the first year of ignoring marketing I made money instead of losing it, mostly because there’s a long lag in Amazon profits if your books were ever popular in Kindle Unlimited, and I’d stopped bleeding ad expenses.

But by the second year I was losing money. This wasn’t such a bad thing in my case since I quit teaching during the pandemic and had lost an easy way to fix my taxes via the college’s payroll system (I’d always had extra deducted). So tax season was less painful than it could have been. Yay, business failure!

Anyway, for the most part the books have been trending down into oblivion and I’ve been alternating between thinking “that’s not good” and “yeah, whatever.”

Like a lot of folks in this pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time doom scrolling. I’ve also been escaping into books written by other people. I read 102 books in 2020 and I’m at 78 so far this year, and that’s only counting the books I feel I can heartily recommend. So that storehouse of recs I hope will allow me to confidently move the future focus of this blog more towards recommending other books (in addition to the usual personal tidbits).

Cover of THE UTTER CATASTROPHE by Sandra HutchisonI have still been writing and publishing. I put out THE COMPLETE DISASTER, sequel to THE AWFUL MESS, in Kindle, way too fast. (Yes, I seriously thought I had COVID-19 and might die and no one would ever get to read it, ha ha.) That was embarrassing, so I kind of ignored it for a while, but then I needed to publish the third book, THE UTTER CATASTROPHE, so I fixed it (with help from my usual excellent proofreaders). Of course, now the back matter is out of date. And all my titles need to go wide, but first I need to comb through them for errant mentions of the mighty retailer that shall not be named.

Because here’s the single most crazy-making thing about being an author-publisher: Everything I need to do requires me to do something else FIRST. For example, it’s not really worth restarting this blog until I get my mailing list working again. But there’s no point in doing that until I verify my web site with my list manager. But FIRST I need to change my list management service … which means setting up a whole new series of automated and landing pages for a whole new set of freebie “reader magnets.” A few of which still need to be set up on the downloading service.

Complicating all this, the computer I do most of my work on refuses to open this website because it refuses to forget the last web host I had and fixing that is apparently impossible without wiping the entire computer and starting over. But it’s a machine I bought used, so it might not give me access once I have to start over because I might not have the right key to unlock it. (I am, in fact, writing this on a new Apple laptop because it’s the only way FOR ME to get into MY OWN web site. But switching from PC to Apple and from desktop to laptop has its own learning curve.)

And this is why, for the last couple of years, I have tended to head back to whatever book I’m reading, or whatever book I’m writing. I get frazzled thinking about what I need to do before I can do other things.

And, in fact, most of you probably won’t get this, because of everything I haven’t gotten around to doing first. But I have to start somewhere.

Do you have things in your life that don’t get done because of all the annoying things that need to be done before you can do them? (Tell me!)

Anyway. Here’s notice that I’m still alive and still writing and publishing, even if the sales rank suggests otherwise. So let me know if you got this, and if you’re an actual subscriber, keep an eye out for an actual email from me one of these fine days, though I pretty much expect to have to start that over from scratch.

Cheers,

Sandra

THE AWFUL MESS gets a wiki video treatment…

Not sure what to think about it, but I was invited to post this link to a video wiki of “13 Charming Books Set in Small Towns that Range from Friendly to Terrifying” that includes THE AWFUL MESS at #3 (at the 2:12 mark). Malwarebytes didn’t warn me off the site, so it should be safe. The narration seems spot-on, but some of the images were surprising. (Palm trees?) Anyway, I’m mostly just happy they spelled my name right.

The sequel for this, THE COMPLETE DISASTER, really is coming out soon, probably in November or whenever the research papers are all graded.

In truth, I have been feeling fairly disgusted by my chances as an author recently, but last Friday, in the course of a single day…

  • My father included DISORGANIZE ME in his weekly newsletter with the note that he and my mother think it’s my best novel yet. (They finally read it, since I sent them the paperback.) Which is nice to hear, since it doesn’t sell worth beans.
  • I got the wiki notice above.
  • I got invited to opt back into a curated library platform, this time with royalties (although said royalties were not specified, so I still have questions).
  • An acquaintance I ran into at a Stewart’s parking lot (she had acted in one of my short plays) told me she’s opening a new store and wants to stock my books.
  • I got two checks from Amazon. Granted, they were refunds for Goodreads ads that suddenly and mysteriously ran out of money years ago when they bought the joint, but I’ll take it as yet another sign from the universe.
  • Bonus sign from the universe: The next day, a guy at a booth at the farmer’s market ribbed me gently for being a “famous author,” and thus not interested in getting involved in their project. (I knew writing was going to be good for something.)

I also just read a really lovely little book called DEAR WRITER, YOU NEED TO QUIT. It’s by a writing coach and about not getting sucked into believing you must do things the way other writers do them (even if it appears that’s the only way to make any money). Highly recommended for anxious author types everywhere.

So, I guess this means I’ve finally updated my blog, after more months than I want to count. Maybe that’s a habit I should get back into. Or maybe not. Let me know what you think. (Deafening silence works as an answer.)

By the way, if you helped me out in a substantive way with DISORGANIZE ME, your paperback is very, very, very slowly coming to you. Apparently there’s a paper shortage out there, and my order of author copies is taking weeks to print and ship as a result. (I paid full price for the copy I sent my parents, before Prime ran out, in case a hurricane might reach them first.)

It’s yet another reason paper is problematic. The most annoying to me, at the moment, is that resellers can swoop in and offer your book for a lower price, cutting authors and small publishers out of any profit. I haven’t been on the Amazon-Is-Going-To-Destroy-Us-All bandwagon, because it’s obviously been good to me, but it does seem to well on its way to destroying the paperback market for authors outside of bookstore distribution. Bookstores should probably take some pleasure in that.

Ribs is FREE this Thursday and Friday

By Sandra Hutchison

THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE is free today (March 29, 2018) and at least in theory on Friday, too, before it leaves Kindle Select (and thus Kindle Unlimited.)

I’ve had a frustrating couple of months with Amazon. I raised my book prices to match some more literary titles I was hoping to compete with, and — to my delight — actually began to compete with them. My “also-boughts” began to include authors like Celeste Ng, Claire Messud, and Gabriel Tallent. My book sales rose steadily.

Then Amazon yanked the rug out from under me, and as a result I’m leaving Kindle Select and going wide again, after a number of years of being happily (sometimes VERY happily) exclusive to Kindle.

What happened? Amazon Marketing Services decided THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE is too provocative for me to advertise on their platform. This is a literary title, mind you, not erotica. It doesn’t even have any explicit sex scenes. It does have edgy themes, though. This episode might not have raised my ire so much had it not required multiple unhelpful, mutually contradictory emails from their awful customer service over a long period of time for me to finally realize I was truly shut out and not just the accidental victim of some wayward algorithm.

NOT the cover, though I suppose it might be worth testing.

Their communications were so unclear that I assumed at first (as their email said) that it was just the cover that was an issue and designed a new one, thankfully without spending any money (thanks, Canva!). But that wasn’t it (as I finally resigned myself to after weeks of torturous customer service discussions), so I went back to the original.

Anyway, Amazon Marketing Services killed this book’s trajectory so effectively I figured I might as well take advantage of my last chance for easy “free” days and depart Kindle Select with a little burst of something. (Also, I spent Wednesday testing whether you can buy BookBub free downloads by using Bookbub ads without actually getting selected for a BookBub featured spot, which is now something akin to finding the Holy Grail. The short answer: No, not really.)

I also let my subscribers know yesterday, because they’re the ones who should get first dibs on any special deals.

Anyway, there it is. Feel free to tell your friends. If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can download it through the 30th, and read it any time you want (I’ll even get paid for those page reads). But it won’t be available to download in Kindle Unlimited after the 30th. And the ebook will still be for sale on Kindle, but not exclusive to Kindle. (This is good news for those of you who’d prefer to buy it on Kobo or iBooks or whatever.)

And, as always, I’m hoping this will earn this book a few more reviews. Believe me: YOUR REVIEWS MATTER — A LOT — for me or any author.

In other news… I’m doing final polishing on DISORGANIZE ME, which the beta readers are excited about, but after this discouraging experience with Amazon I’m going to try to query that the traditional way, and that can take quite a while. I’m also making good progress on a sequel to THE AWFUL MESS called THE COMPLETE DISASTER. That one will, I hope, be available before the end of 2018 or very shortly into 2019.

Cheers,

Sandra

So I can meet other goals in 2018, this blog is going ad hoc

By Sandra Hutchison

My writing goals for this year:

  1. Write 1,000 words a (week) day on the next novel (or two)
  2. Revise and either query or publish DISORGANIZE ME
  3. Try some new promotional techniques
  4. Maybe publish an audio book or two — though it would help if I could stand to listen to audio books myself.

So far I’m succeeding with the first one, slowly getting through the second one, and learning what I need to for the third one. Fourth one may have to wait for next year.

The problem: these goals are not compatible with blogging regularly, even monthly, because it often takes me at least a good day of work to get a decent post up. (Also, I’m a fan of having weekends.)

Mary and Winslow are getting a sequel!

Other than putting up a post when I really need to share some big news, I may try to start a routine of updating old posts, or posting reviews I have up in other venues, or just leveraging what I’ve already got by sharing it better. But right now I’m maniacally focused on the next book, a sequel to THE AWFUL MESS called THE COMPLETE DISASTER, in which new arrivals test Winslow, Mary, and the little town of Lawson.

After that, hopefully, will come another sequel called THE FULL CATASTROPHE. (I don’t even know what that’s about yet.) If I can get them BOTH drafted before next fall, I’ll know I can push my productivity up to where it needs to be to make this writing gig something that could compete with a day job.

Maybe the cover. Maybe not. Either way, sign up for my mailing list if you want to hear when it’s available.

Of course, DISORGANIZE ME still needs (more)  revision and edits and then I have to decide once and for all whether to give the traditional route a try or just stick to my current indie strategy. I’d love the next novel to get wider distribution if it can, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to have an official credential, for whatever that might be worth. But to be honest, it feels like a gigantic gamble, like farming a child out to somebody else who claims they can raise it better. Can they really? I see an awful lot of neglected children out there. So this is really a tough one for me. (If you want to weigh in, feel free.)

Thanks to the new tax bill, I already estimated my taxes and discovered that 2017 was a surprisingly good year for Sheer Hubris Press, which complicates all this decision making. I priced the books up a bit and right now I’m reaching readers who don’t just read indie books or even just eBooks. Is this a fluke, or something I can build on? Is this a smart strategy for indie publishing, really, or only for gaining a traditional toehold? (If you know, tell me!)

Selling along with Celeste Ng

IN GOOD COMPANY: Ribs is currently selling with a literary title that has a cover I coveted from the moment I saw it.

Anyway, if you’re a subscriber who actually looks forward to these monthly blog posts, my apologies. I’d be happy to simply correspond via email with you. I’m also addicted to Facebook and Twitter, so you can find me there (but I don’t recommend Twitter unless you can stand the obnoxiously partisan version of me).

I’ll let you know when anything major happens, and I’ll be updating the subscriber freebies  fairly soon, too. So please stay tuned!

P.S. I’m also trying a new cover for BARDWELL’S FOLLY. This poor baby is my problem child. I know it needs more reviews, and I’ll be trying to do something to give it a better shot at success, eventually. If you have any suggestions, feel free to pass them along.

 

 

Writing about mental illness when it hits close to home: An interview with Barbara Claypole White

Sandra Hutchison interviews Barbara Claypole White, bestselling author of THE PERFECT SON.

Author Barbara Claypole WhiteBarbara, I enjoyed THE PERFECT SON, about a mother coping with her son’s Tourette syndrome, her husband’s undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and her own heart disease. All your novels involve challenges from mental illness to some degree. What inspired that?

I was working on my debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, when my young son was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. After I put the story aside to focus on coaching him through therapy, a character barged into my mind and refused to leave. His name was James Nealy, and he was a brilliant entrepreneur determined to reclaim his life from OCD. James came from my darkest fear as a mother: What if, when my young son grew up, no one could see beyond his quirky behavior and obsessions to love him for the incredible person he is? Infatuated with James, I took the novel apart, ditched the original hero, and rewrote the story with James as the love interest.

About the same time, I joined a non-fiction project—EASY TO LOVE BUT HARD TO RAISE—created by a group of parents raising kids with invisible disabilities. As my fiction and non-fiction projects merged, I found my passion: chipping away at the stereotypes of mental illness. I have my own little niche in the fiction world, which I call hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness, but I credit James with everything. Thanks to him, I went deeper and darker until I found Felix, the hero of THE PERFECT SON. (Felix has undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, which is quite different to obsessive-compulsive disorder.)

There’s something I didn’t know. I’ll have to go learn more about it. But to get back to your work, what’s your number one hope for what your readers will get out of it?

I see fiction as a powerful vehicle for navigating life and emotions. My hope is that while my characters come from my imagination, their private wars can help educate people about the impact of mental illness on families. There is so much misinformation about mental illness, and it’s time we treated it on a par with any chronic illness that needs treatment, management, and understanding.I see fiction as a powerful vehicle for navigating life and emotions. -- author Barbara Claypole White @bclaypolewhite Click To Tweet

Agreed! My own family hasn’t escaped these issues, either. I’ve actually been a little surprised this semester by how many of my community college students chose to write their research papers about anxiety and depression, which they admit to suffering from. (I ask them to write about a topic they have a personal connection to, so that’s not entirely out of the blue.) I’m not sure if this suggests anxiety and depression are actually becoming more widespread, or if it’s a sign we’re finally putting the stigma it once carried behind us. What do you think?

Such a great question, and after reading a recent article in the New York Times about the rise in reported cases of anxiety and depression among teenagers, I’ve been wondering the same thing. I’m not a therapist or a sociologist, and I’m sure the causes are many, including the increased collective anxiety among adults about the future, climate change, politics, economics, etc.

We’ve made progress—not enough—against the stigma of mental illness, and in part that can be attributed to celebrities openly discussing their own struggles. I’d never heard of OCD when our son was diagnosed, but I’ve seen a substantial shift within the OCD world as public figures—for example, David Beckham—have come out of the OCD closet. There’s even a reality show on English television about OCD, and yet… certain manifestations of OCD still carry unbearable shame, and many people suffer in silence. (Both harm OCD and pedophile OCD fill your mind with intrusive, unwanted thoughts of the darkest, most horrific fears you can imagine—things you know you would never do, but your brain shows you otherwise. Even if you understand that the fear is irrational and comes from messed-up serotonin levels, the anxiety you experience as a result is still real. Yup, OCD is one sick bastard.)

The holidays can be especially challenging for those who suffer from anxiety or depression, and those who love them. Any recommendations to help people enjoy this season despite that?

Think small and be aware of loved ones who need to retreat from planned events. While structure is important—along with good sleep, exercise, and eating habits—even planned family gatherings can trigger anxiety and depression. If you’re a caregiver rather than a sufferer, make time to nurture your own mental health (yes, you can garden in December!).

Think small and be aware of loved ones who need to retreat from planned events. -- Author Barbara Claypole White on helping those who suffer anxiety or depression survive the holidays @bclaypolewhite Click To Tweet

I’m thinking North Carolina is way more amenable to that than upstate New York! But I do start my garden planning when the snow is on the ground.

So far you’ve published with MIRA Books and with Lake Union (an Amazon Publishing division), and I recall you mentioning recently that you are now off contract for the first time in five years. What does that do to your own mental health and personal writing momentum? What do you hope comes next?

Writing to deadline adds a heavy layer of stress to an anxious family, because despite your best intentions, you’re never in control of your own time. Throw two aging parents into the mix—one an ocean away—and I’m often struggling to meet contractual obligations while juggling the latest family crisis. The universe has a nasty habit of throwing me a curve ball at the worst moment!  As I write this, I’m hyperventilating about how to manage another mad dash to England—to see 87-year-old my mother—with book launch looming and a dead laptop. However, my guys are incredibly supportive and know that writing is my therapy. They understand that my novels help me process our world and craft stories that always ends in hope. I need that hope!

Being off contract is both liberating and terrifying. I have more time to excavate my characters and find their story, AND more time to listen to doubt. My poet-musician son and I have talked about co-writing a memoir on OCD, but right now a new idea is chewing at me—the story of an ex-addict who, while on an impossible mission to earn her family’s forgiveness, discovers that her long history of failure has the power to save lives, including her own. It’s a story about social outcasts, teen bullying, and the influence—both good and bad—of social media. Mostly it’s a story about how our greatest triumphs can grow from failure and defeat. The moment I have a functional laptop, I’ll be back to bashing out my daily word count!

As a traditionally published author, what’s your #1 piece of advice for aspiring authors?

Let writing be the cure. Publishing is a tough industry, and books don’t always perform in ways that make you happy. The secret to adapting and staying alive as an author is to keep writing. Write through bad writing days, disappointments, and rejection. Always keep writing.

Tell us more about THE PROMISE BETWEEN US, which releases January 16, and is available to pre-order now.

THE PROMISE BETWEEN US is based on a simple premise: Can you be a good mother if you abandoned your baby? It’s the story of Katie Mack, a metal artist who is hiding a dark secret. Ten years earlier, unable to escape the thought that she was a monster, Katie abandoned her baby—to protect her. What Katie didn’t know at the time, but knows now, is that she was trapped in postpartum OCD, with her brain playing non-stop images of her deliberately causing Maisie harm. Ten years later, when Katie accidentally crosses paths with Maisie, she realizes her daughter is also struggling with the irrational fear of bad things happening to someone she loves. Katie is faced with another dilemma: Should she reach out to the husband she left behind? Should she reinsert herself into Maisie’s life and risk triggering more anxiety? What would a good mother do?

Bestselling author Barbara Claypole White creates hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Originally from England, she writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina where she lives with her beloved OCD family. Her novels include The Unfinished Garden, The In-Between Hour, The Perfect Son, and Echoes of Family. The Promise Between Us, a story of redemption, love, and OCD, releases January 16, 2018. She is also an OCD Advocate for the A2A Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes advocacy over adversity. To connect with Barbara, visit www.barbaraclaypolewhite.com, or follow her on Facebook. She’s always on Facebook.

 

A practical inheritance: A bowl, a strainer, a brush, some tweezers, and sex

By Sandra Hutchison

While helping my mother clean out my 96-year-old grandmother’s house before and after she died at the beginning of this year, I was of course tempted by a number of items, mostly old tools. They became my grandmother’s legacy to me. But my favorite items are not what I would have expected.

My great grandmother’s bread bowl

Thelma’s mother set her bread to rise in this bowl. It’s not in perfect condition at this point but is clearly beautifully made (and easy enough to restore, when I get around to it). I used to make bread before I did the math and realized the increase in my electricity bill more than offset any savings in the bread budget. My current stove is gas, though, so one of these days I may actually use this bowl for its original purpose again. (Of course I have a solar roof now, so electric would save me even more money.) In the meantime, it holds just about anything that isn’t wet. In the picture above, it’s the temporary home for a stalk of flowering balsam my neighbor gave me for next year’s seeds.

This really ugly food mill

I actually bought one of these in shiny stainless steel some years back to help me process tomatoes. Maybe I didn’t know to adjust it or something, but it ended up trashing 90% of my tomatoes, so I happily ditched it in a garage sale when we moved (and warned the person who bought it that it might only be good for applesauce). But I figured I’d try again when I saw this in my grandmother’s kitchen and could see that it had clearly been used a lot. This one works like a dream, so homemade tomato sauce and tomato soup are finally in my repertoire.

A clothes brush

I only recognized this because of Downton Abbey. This is a cheaper version of the brush John Bates would use to clean Lord Crawley’s beautiful wool suits. All I can say is that I’ve finally found something to clean wool and fleece of cat hair that actually works! Yes, lint tape works, too, but it takes a lot and that stuff isn’t cheap. (And in case you haven’t already figured it out, those little red velvet lint “brushes” you may see for sale are just a good way to fill up the landfill with useless plastic.) Of course, the challenge for me is finding a cat-hair-free spot on which to brush clothes down.

Tweezers and scissors

I found a whole set of different kinds for personal grooming. No one ever warned me getting older would mean growing hair in places I never had before (and losing hair in places I had it, not that I mind that when it comes to my legs). I’ve reached the age when I occasionally just take a razor out and shave my face and neck, but plucking is way more satisfying — if I can just get a grip on the little buggers. Over the years I’ve accumulated innumerable cheap tweezers that have proven useless for anything but cleaning dirt from under my fingernails. Most of these hand-me-down instruments from Grandma’s house, on the other hand, actually do what they are supposed to. (Yes, of course, I gave them a good cleaning.)

Sex

Just kidding. Except not really. In the back room we found a stash of relatively wholesome old girlie watercolors that probably belonged to my grandfather. And in the bedroom, near the bed, we found a pretty heavy-duty electric vibrator. My mother was appalled and threw that thing away faster than I could say, “Hey, let me see that!” Still, I thought it was pretty cool that my grandmother’s libido had clearly persisted well into old age.

Of course, I’d had clues earlier, like when she gave me a bunch of really kinky science fiction novels by John Norman back in my teens. And just a couple of years ago she passed along a big bag of old perspiration-stained lingerie, as if she thought it was all too precious not to find new use. Then there was the time she insisted my mother take her recently-deceased last husband’s penis pump back to the urologist so someone else could use it. (Poor Mom!)

The young Thelma Mae Quick

In truth, Grandma Thelma was always a bit more hot mama than doting grandmother. She could be self-centered and manipulative (especially of my mother), and some of her lies stretched far beyond the social lies of the traditional Southern female. Yes, she could cook up great fried catfish or lima bean soup, but she didn’t do much other grandmotherly stuff. I never got the feeling she was aching for a conversation with me. It honestly surprised me to discover she’d carefully saved every card or letter or school photo or homemade gift she’d gotten from us over the years.

So we were never all that close, but she was still my grandma. In the end, she showed me what ninety-six years of fairly cheerful persistence looks like. I think I’ll take that as the most valuable gift of all.

Thelma and Sandra

A peek at DISORGANIZE ME

Some time ago I promised a look at the first two chapters and then … nothing happened. I realized I wasn’t ready to share.

I’m still not, really. These two chapters are so rough I haven’t even opened the feedback from my beta readers on them yet. (For which I deeply apologize, beta readers.) I’ve had a weird reluctance to work on this novel since the semester began, and I’ve been indulging it. Sometimes you just know you need some distance from a project. (Sometimes you are also too busy teaching and figuring out things to do with way more garden produce than you ever expected.)

But I’m already a day late with a blog post this month, and I don’t have time to work up what I wanted to work up, so here you go, in all its glory. Consider it a peek at a writer’s work in progress and know that there may be wholesale changes before the actual book appears, including losing one or both chapters from the final version.

At this point this lovely cover by Damon Za is also subject to change.

What’s it about? Here’s the blurb, also subject to change: Hoping to recreate the serene and beautiful life she remembers before her mom left, Kathy gamely takes on her deceased aunt’s organizing business, not-so-organized house, and favorite employee, the handsome and hardworking Diego. But when their budding relationship triggers a cascade of disasters – including the discovery that he’s not the U.S. citizen he thought he was – Kathy will be forced to decide what she’s willing to let go, and what she’ll fight to save.

And here’s (the current!) Chapter One and Chapter Two:

Chapter 1 KATHY

Katherine White felt that everything in the world had a proper place, and that true happiness would follow naturally – she would attract the right man, have the right children, and live the right life – if she could just get everything put where it belonged.

She wasn’t sure why she believed this so passionately, but in her mind she always visualized the perfect life as a specific moment one Saturday afternoon when she was fourteen. Almost everything in the house had been cleaned that day, even the floors and the windows, and she and her mother were putting freshly laundered drapes back up in the dining room. Through the window her father waved at her and pointed at his pile of autumn leaves, flexing his muscles to show off his manly yard skills. Kathy had smirked at him and gotten down from the stepladder, only to stop, transfixed by the golden square of afternoon sun that lay across the old honey oak table, illuminating a basket of yellow chrysanthemums her mother had arranged earlier that day.

Her mother saw her stop. “Isn’t that beautiful?” she said. “Look at how those petals glow in the light! Doesn’t it just say come in, sit down, stay awhile?

And even though Kathy resented giving up her Saturday for all those annoying chores, she thought: YES. Yes, it was beautiful. Maybe there was even something heroic in cleaning a house and setting a table like that against all the disorder of the world.

Of course, not that long after that, Kathy’s mother had moved out.

Now twenty-four, Kathy was trying to make a living by creating beautiful moments of order and serenity for her clients, even if she hadn’t quite yet managed it for herself. She helped them get rid of what they didn’t need or want and put everything they did need or want in a place where it belonged.

Her phone erupted into the catchy beat of “I Need to Know” by Marc Anthony. Diego. She considered it an appropriate tune for him not only because he was Puerto Rican but because he always needed to know if she had any work for him.

Organize Your Life LLC had been her aunt’s before it was Kathy’s, and Diego had long been her aunt’s go-to for extra help. He was a young man who’d moved up from the city a few years back and, despite being hardworking and personable, had somehow never landed a full-time job. He’d never gone to college, so maybe it was that. Unfortunately, Kathy didn’t have enough work these days to keep herself fully employed, let alone Diego.

So that was awkward.

“Hey, there,” she said. Did he always call instead of text because his old flip phone made typing a pain? Or was it because he knew it would make it harder for her to say no?

“Hey! Just checking to see if you need me for any jobs in the next couple of weeks.”

“Well, I’ve got a couple of estimates today. I’ll know better after that.”

“Oh, good. I’ll hope to hear, then. Everything all right?”

“Yes, everything’s fine. I’ll let you know as soon as I can, okay?” she said, and added “Bye.” She didn’t ask how he was doing because he was probably hurting for money or he wouldn’t have called.

Also, she wasn’t sure how friendly she should be now that she was the boss.

Which was also awkward because they were the same age. Also, technically he’d been doing this work longer than her. After bringing Kathy into the business, her aunt had continued to give Diego parts of any project where it made any sense at all, even when it would reduce their profit on the job. When Kathy questioned this, Lucy said, “Honey, you’re going to need him when I’m not up to this anymore.”

Truth was, if Aunt Lucy hadn’t made Kathy promise to watch out for Diego, she might have taken the lawyer’s advice by now and farmed out all her extra labor to a firm that would manage its own payroll, its own insurance, its own bonding. Of course, those firms were also way more expensive, which could mean losing a contract or making less money. So it probably wasn’t just affection for Diego that had driven Lucy to stick with him.

And she’d been right in one very important way: Diego had been a great help with her aunt in her final illness. And he had refused to take any pay for any of it.

So, really, Kathy owed him.

Obligations were a kind of clutter, too, really.

Chapter 2 DIEGO

She’d sounded a little impatient, hadn’t she?

She was probably going to cut him loose soon. Maybe she already had and he was just refusing to accept it.

Diego wasn’t an idiot. He could tell Kathy was having some trouble getting enough new business. Everyone was struggling in this rotten economy. Supposedly 2010 had brought with it some improvement from the depths of the Great Recession, and supposedly the Capital Region with all its state employees had never suffered the worst, but it was still pretty damned grim. Even more so for someone like him.

He looked at his insurance bill one more time. Maybe he’d misread it.

Nope. It still said he needed to pay over almost a hundred more than last time. And this even though he hadn’t yet done what Lucy had told him to do – let the insurance company know he used the truck she’d given him for business. He’d held off on that. Thank God.

There’d been no tickets, no accidents, no claims, nothing. He’d already had it for over six months, after Lucy had decided it was too hard for her to get into anymore, let alone drive. It was old enough that he’d foregone comprehensive coverage, too.

So why the increase? Was it the address change? He’d only recently moved into his third-floor walk-up in downtown Troy because he couldn’t stand sharing that disgusting garden apartment in suburban East Greenbush for one more month. Both his roommates apparently thought it would be a pussy move to ever wash a dish or clean a toilet. They were always helping themselves to his food, too. And God forbid a man might favor the Mets over the Yankees.

So there hadn’t really been any choice. And this new space was bigger, even if it was mostly empty. Like a lot of the third floor walk-ups in Troy, his apartment had high ceilings, beautiful old woodwork, and noisy plumbing. It was not any cheaper than his old share of the rent, so he was hoping the heat would rise from the lower floors in the winter and save on the gas bill.

But at least it was all his. The landlord hadn’t asked a lot of questions. Even better, he let him park his truck in the driveway off the back alley and let him store scrap there, too, though he wouldn’t guarantee its safety. Diego stood up and looked down through the old rippled glass. Yep, still there. A full load didn’t bring much – maybe $70 bucks on a good day – but that was better than nothing.

In recent months his business, such as it was, had mostly consisted of occasional gigs with Kathy at Organize Your Life LLC, supplemented by driving around on trash days looking for scrap metal, and doing favors with the truck for guys he knew who might buy him lunch or a six-pack and occasionally even give him some cash. The organizing work and scrap metal paid some, and his part-time on-the-books job at a local convenience store paid a little more. Those friend favors were mostly a sucker’s game.

Now the scrap yards were warning him of new record-keeping rules, probably thanks to too many jerks ripping the copper and brass out of houses and parks and cemeteries and whatever they could get into. Once a friend had even asked to use his truck for one of those jobs. It blew his mind: This guy wanted to get paid good money to build a house during the day, and then get paid again by stripping it down at night.

Not a friend anymore, that one.

The thing was, if the yards started reporting his scrap sales to somebody, he was going to have to start declaring it in his taxes. There just weren’t that many different yards to spread the wealth around to. And would it still be worth doing, then? Probably not.

Lucy had been trying to get him to go on the books with all his income and expenses for years. “You need to pay social security taxes on it,” she told him. “If you don’t, you won’t have anything to live on when you retire. I know it’s painful in the short run, but in the long run….”

Poor, sweet, naïve Lucy. She’d always tried to play by the rules. It wasn’t like she ever got back any of the money she’d contributed to her social security. Not even a dime of disability before she died.

Fortunately, Kathy had been around to keep the business from shutting down completely and keep her aunt cared for.

He leaned back in his scavenged chair at his scavenged desk and let a prettier picture replace his memories of a skeletal Lucy. Kathy was a sweet girl. Attractive, in her own way. Not too skinny, not too boyish, with a nice round ass and beautiful long hair, though she usually kept it back in a ponytail. At first he’d thought her nose was a tragedy, but he’d gotten used to it. It had character. Sometimes he even thought it was cute.

Also, it was not like he was so swarmed with adoring women that he was going to get picky.

He knew he had decent looks. He caught women admiring him often enough. But it took money to really get any action. Seemed like they all wanted him to dress to impress. They all wanted to be taken out for food and drink and movies and shit. They all wanted to be given presents all the time. Having a girlfriend was like having to properly impress his mother on Mother’s Day and her saint’s day and her birthday practically every day of the week. Even his last girlfriend, the one he’d thought wasn’t all that demanding, he overheard telling a friend, “Hey, he’s a ride. You know?” He wasn’t sure whether she meant sex or transportation, hadn’t even been certain she was talking about him, but he hadn’t been able to muster any real enthusiasm for her from that moment on.

But, of course, to Kathy he wasn’t even a ride. He was just a convenient laborer her beloved aunt had inexplicably attached herself to. Kathy was always polite to him, always respectful, but she showed zero interest in him as a man.

She had begun to rely on him with Lucy, though. When he’d been there to sit with her aunt, she could get out, run errands, get some business done, tidy the house, or just take a break. She almost never called him up and asked him, no matter how much he told her she could, but she looked grateful whenever he showed up on his own.

And she’d made sure he felt welcome at Lucy’s funeral. He’d even been a pallbearer.

And there was still occasional work coming from her. Just not as much as he needed.

So he hoped those estimates panned out, and that they were big jobs that required some brute strength.

But they might not be. He looked at the city map he’d pinned to his wall. The next day was trash day on the East Side. Some people would already have theirs out. Might as well go see if he could find some scrap.


And I’m putting this out there just to let you know that yes, there really is another book coming someday. I promise. I just can’t promise when, exactly, yet.

If you want any tomatoes, however, come see me right now.

 

 

What happens when you run out of novels? Kathryn Craft on starting from scratch

Sandra Hutchison interviews published women’s fiction novelist and writing retreat leader Kathryn Craft about that moment when you’ve seen all your book babies published and have to start from the very beginning.

Novelist Kathryn Craft

Kathryn, you’ve told me that your first two novels, THE ART OF FALLING and THE FAR END OF HAPPY (which I found riveting), were projects you’d had cooking for a long time, and then you faced some challenges getting to the next one. Can you elaborate on that?

Sure, elaboration is my jam, lol. Thank you for your kind words about THE FAR END OF HAPPY!

Some writers claim to have a spigot of ideas they just can’t turn off. Not me.

No doubt this is due to the long gestation for my first two novels. It took me eight years to learn how to tell my debut, THE ART OF FALLING, which was built on my platform as a dance critic and choreographer. THE FAR END OF HAPPY then sold quickly on proposal. Although I only had ten contracted months to write, I’d been drafting the memoir material it is based on—my first husband’s suicide standoff against police—on and off for seventeen years. Once that work was turned in, I had no idea where to head next with my writing.

Still, selling on proposal is an act of faith on the part of the publisher (mine was Sourcebooks), and with an open option, I would not squander a repeated opportunity to submit one. My agent had always loved my practice novel, about a renowned horse therapist whose ten-year career is brought into question when the boy who inspired it is jailed for his mother’s murder and retreats into mutism, so first we spiffed its opening 85 pages and synopsis and submitted. The sales and marketing team did not see a great sales hook. Onward.

Next I combined an ancient myth and an original fable with a Yangtze River cruise disaster and came up with another proposal. My agent was excited about it, but the feedback from the publisher was that it wouldn’t reach the same market as my other books—it seemed part women’s fiction and part thriller. My editor’s exact words: “It doesn’t feel like a step up in brand.”

“Excuse me, but I have a brand? What is it, and how do I step it up?” - Kathryn Craft Click To TweetAt this point I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but I have a brand? What is it, and how do I step it up?” My agent was willing to go out on wide submission with the Chinese cruise novel, but what my editor said resonated with me. I felt my “step up” had slipped sideways. I’d worked too hard to achieve the readership I had and I did not want to abandon them. It was time to figure out who I was as a novelist and how to step up my game.

As someone long involved in local writers’ organizations, the Tall Poppy Writers, and Women’s Fiction Writers Association, as well as leading your own workshops and retreats, were you surprised to hit this moment in your career, or had you expected it?  Did having writing pals and an agent help you resolve it, or do you think this is something a writer pretty much has to solve for herself?

If it took me by surprise it was because I hadn’t thought about it for a moment. I was driven to share the story about my husband’s suicide with the fervor of a calling, and was so focused on achieving its publication that once I emerged from my tunnel vision into my current reality, I could only blink as I realized that after seventeen years, I’d done it!

Kathryn Craft and her sons and her book based on events they survived in real life

I did ask my agent, Katie Shea Boutillier at Donald Maass Agency, what she thought my brand was. Her thoughts: high stakes that are immediately apparent, psychological tension throughout, and the use of back story threads to add depth and mystery. While Amazon can get a lot wrong—for some reason they had listed THE FAR END OF HAPPY as #1 in American Literary anthologies for many weeks, lol—even they helped, because for the most part, they categorized my novels as “psychological women’s fiction.” That resonated with me as well, as I am endlessly fascinated by what makes people do the things they do. When I added in my own desire to continue to explore issues like body image and suicide, which are rich with possibility for further thought, discussion, or debate, the notion of a brand started to form.

But how to step it up? I mean, I already had three women facing shameful secrets as they tried to cling to hope during a loved one’s suicide standoff—did I now have to hold an entire country hostage? One of my writing friends suggested that instead of thinking of “stepping it up” as a linear progression, I could think of it in terms of new challenges that would help stretch my growth as a writer.

Upon being moved to tears in answering a question from my weekly writers group about things I feel deeply about, I realized I wanted to write about the sense of belonging to a specific geographic place. Combining that with questions always asked at book clubs about how my sons and I healed after my husband’s suicide, a piece of my own story not yet addressed in my fiction, I came up with a new idea, which I soon titled THE ONLY HOME I KNOW.

I believe I stepped up my game with a romantic element, which I hadn’t previously done; with a recurring structural element that will keep readers guessing; and by putting one major character on scene only in the opening and the ending, yet having her drive the action throughout.

A problem, though: I lost faith in my ability to write a proposal. I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like a plotter, not a writer. I wanted to do what I knew how to do—go write a novel, fleshing it out and adding depth over many drafts. With my agent’s blessing, over the past year-and-a-half, that’s what I have done. It’s now finished, and she is planning to read it mid-September.

So how are these for high stakes? I have no idea if Katie will like it. Have I wasted my time? Even if she loves it and a sale goes through immediately, when it releases, I will have been out of the market for a possible career-ending four years. Will my readers even remember me? I am sixty and my parents both had dementia. Who knows how long I have to continue working at this.

But something happened this past year that gooses me forward: I fell in love with the characters in this new novel with a depth of attachment that surprised me, and their specific situation opened my mind to a new way of thinking about something I’d thought I was very clear on. The power of story is still strong within me. I’m not done yet.

I’ve heard some published authors say they wish they’d realized how quickly they’d need to produce the next book. As a self-published author, I’m also conscious of the clock ticking on the next pub date. You managed to put that aside for this project. What’s your best advice for handling that pressure?

  1. Be proactive. If you want to avoid this type of career hiccup, before you even start querying, come up with at least a half-dozen story ideas you believe are strong enough to pursue.
  2. As I wrote in my Writers in the Storm post, Managing Deadline Stress, your challenge is not acclimating to high levels of stress. We need to become more sensitive to it so we see its ill effects before succumbing to its undertow.
  3. Self-acceptance. Our main stressor is feeling we can’t live up to expectations, whether others’ or our own. We have to accept that we are biological beings who can break down, that it’s only feasible to work so many hours in a day, and that we must tend to other details of life. These are tough realities for the type of addictive personality that tends to succeed in such a competitive business, who’d much rather swipe everything else off the desk, dig in, and get ’er done. In the final weeks of a project, that’s what you might have to do—I got up at 4 a.m. and wrote until 8 pm every day during the final three weeks of revising THE FAR END OF HAPPY—but that’s no way to live on a daily basis.
  4. When dividing the days until deadline into a daily word count, build in a couple weeks for things to go wrong. Note “biological beings” in #3 above—and chances are, there are other biological beings depending on you who might break down, as well.

Given all that involvement, do you have any advice for writers on striking a balance between networking with other writers, writing, and the demands of daily life?

The balance will be different for everyone, so I guess my advice is to know yourself. Watch what does and doesn’t work. For example, I am both an introvert and extrovert by nature. My volunteer activities in the writing world, on boards, etc., have helped me span long periods of career disappointment, especially during the querying years. It helped that I believe I am playing a bit part in a much larger story, and did not believe the Great Creator would save me from the suicide action only to fail. I thrive on being around other writers, but after several days of being “on,” such as presenting at a conference, I need to hole up and recharge. Yet as one of five children I am socially motivated, often to the point of doing things for others that I won’t do for myself, so leading groups for other writers helps me achieve my own goals, send good karma into the world, all while supporting the industry I hope will support me. Win-win-win.

Time is at a premium. Always try to come up with scenarios that offer at least a triple win.

Try to come up with scenarios that offer at least a triple win. - Kathryn Craft #amwriting Click To TweetYou mentioned your column, “Turning Whine into Gold” for the Writers in the Storm blog, which focuses on finding positive solutions as a writer. If you had to distill your top three pieces of advice for writers, what would they be?

Most of these are contained within my first post there, “10 Writer Affirmations to Bolster Optimism.”

  1. Have faith that the process will hold rewards beyond those you seek.
  2. Use your writing to create a life you love. Love is the only reason to choose such an uncertain pursuit.
  3. Cast the word “rejection” from your life. No one is rejecting you, or even your ideas. They just aren’t suited to be your best advocate—and why wouldn’t you want to keep looking until you found your work’s best advocate?

Tell us about your writing for Writer’s Digest.

I love the way life happens sometimes. While I was floundering around for my next novel idea, Therese Walsh asked me to come on board at Writer UnBoxed (you can find me there on the second Thursday of each month with my craft column, “Mad Skills.”) Very quickly she also asked me to contribute a chapter to a book she was compiling for Writers Digest Books, AUTHOR IN PROGRESS. My chapter, “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters,” was a lot of fun to write. At the same time, another friend, Janice Gable Bashman, had pitched an interview with me for the 2017 NOVEL & SHORT STORY MARKET on how structure supports meaning in my novels. The interview was accepted, published, and then reprinted earlier this year, bundled with essays by writing luminaries such as Khaled Hosseini, Donald  Maass, and Jodi Picoult, in THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING. That was a real thrill, and a boost as I sorted out my fiction writing.

About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, THE ART OF FALLING and THE FAR END OF HAPPY, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter, “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters,” was included in the writing guide AUTHOR IN PROGRESS, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET, has been reprinted in THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING, both from Writer’s Digest Books.

About THE FAR END OF HAPPY

Ronnie’s husband is supposed to move out today. But when Jeff pulls into the driveway drunk, with a shotgun in the front seat, she realizes nothing about the day will go as planned. The next few hours spiral down in a flash, unlike the slow disintegration of their marriage—and whatever part of that painful unraveling is Ronnie’s fault, not much else matters now but these moments. Her family’s lives depend on the choices she will make—but is what’s best for her best for everyone? Based on a real event from the author’s life, The Far End of Happy​ is a chilling story of one troubled man, the family that loves him, and the suicide standoff that will change all of them forever. You can arrange to get a signed copy by calling in your order to the Doylestown Bookshop. All other buy links are at Kathryn’s website.

Learn more:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KathrynCraftAuthor
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kathryncraft/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/kcraftwriter

Niagara Falls, book research, wrong turns, and bucket lists

By Sandra Hutchison

This summer I took a 3,000-mile road trip inspired by…

  1. The need to do some research for my next novel;
  2. The desire to bring home some bulky items left over after I helped my mother clean out my grandma’s house (you would not believe how excited I get by free power tools I will probably never use); and,
  3. The desire to check a few places off the bucket list.

That last one had felt more urgent after my last (plane) trip to my parents’ house. My folks  now refuse to travel serious distances. (Ocala, okay. Tampa, no.) They also refuse to get on a plane. Dad isn’t comfortable sitting in one place for any length of time. But it’s not just that. At one point during lunch in Crystal River I suggested a visit to their recently renovated park, which was apparently a good place to see manatees. Their response: “If you’ve seen one manatee, you’ve seen them all.”

That’s when you know your parents are old.

This suggested to me that someday I, too, might not be interested in manatees, or in getting out and doing anything that doesn’t revolve around a good cheap lunch. And you never know how soon that moment might arrive. So it was time to get cracking!

My first destination on this road trip was Niagara Falls. I always love waterfalls, yet had never gone there. Hadn’t even really thought of it. If anything, whenever I heard “Niagara Falls” I thought of what my ex-husband would immediate quote. (And he did it again, when I told him my plans.)

But because of the novel I was writing I wanted to better visualize a scene set there, when hero and heroine accidentally cross into Canada.

While it’s possible to google a location and read about various people’s experiences with it  and maybe do some interviews and then fake your way quite through a lot (God knows I do plenty of that), there’s nothing like actually being there.

Also, I was puzzled by the number of people who claimed to have accidentally crossed the Rainbow Bridge to Canada. (That’s the real bridge to the real country, not the metaphor for pets who’ve died.) How, really, could that happen?

So I drove off to Niagara Falls as the first stop of a very long road trip west and then south and back — about 3,000 miles over 10 days. This first half would include one night in Canada, one with a friend in Pittsburgh, one with another friend in Berea, Kentucky, and one in a hotel in Tifton, Georgia, mostly because I didn’t want to arrive at my parents’ after their bedtime, which has moved earlier at the same pace as their interest in manatees has shrunk.

The trip did not start out well. I was not even halfway along I-90 towards Buffalo when I noticed a cloud of vapor billowing behind my car. Luckily, an exit appeared just then and I was able to coast through it to a gas station, where I discovered a long trail of liquid behind my car. Two hours later, after negotiations with my insurance company for a tow to a local garage that lasted nearly as long as the transmission hose replacement that followed, I was back on the road, hoping that was the last car problem I’d have.

I was pretty frazzled at that point, which may be why I didn’t even attempt to ask the officer on the Canadian end of the bridge if a lot of people REALLY arrived by accident. She wasn’t the least bit friendly, for one thing. (When I got to the hotel, I realized I’d left a big scary garden knife just under the front passenger seat — after telling her no, I had no guns and no knives. It can really pay to be a harmless looking white lady.)

Anyway, I was tired, but I walked down the hill anyway before the light was gone and, yes, the falls were amazing.

 

They tasted better than they looked.

I walked around, but it was getting late, and I was hungry, so I hiked back up to the hotels, hoping for a little comfort food before bedtime. Almost every restaurant in Niagara Falls, Ontario appears to belong to a huge tourist chain. I finally settled on oddly disintegrating pancakes at IHOP for $15.99, which was, apparently, the minimum you can pay for anything in that area unless you go to Tim Horton’s, which I hadn’t found yet.

The next morning I went down the hill early, before breakfast. It was worth it because of the beautiful morning light.

After a couple of hours of exploring and having a long conversation with a lady from Singapore who just wanted to talk and eating breakfast at Tim Horton’s, I checked out and hit the road and the Rainbow Bridge again.

I didn’t even try to ask the very friendly American official at the end of the bridge about people accidentally crossing. I’d already figured I’d need to change my plans there. Really, who could accidentally cross that bridge? There were plenty of signs. Even if it sometimes happens, people would think it wasn’t plausible. (There are A LOT of things in real life that don’t seem plausible when you put them in a book.)

I figured I’d at least stop in at the Niagara Falls State Park, since it was easy enough to drive in and park. You don’t even have to pay parking if you stay for less than twenty minutes. And the falls are RIGHT THERE, so it’s easy enough to pop over and take a look.

This park has been renovated recently, apparently (renovations are still under way in some places), but it’s AMAZING. I had so much fun, I stayed half the day. The falls are one thing, but the river streaming towards them is beautiful in its many various sections, too. The park is beautifully laid out with walking trails and overlooks and, if you want, the Maid of the Mist and other attractions. The people-watching is great, too.

I decided to forego anything that would drench my shoes and leave me blinded by spray on my glasses for long stretches of time. Still, at moments I felt overtaken by sheer awe. It’s amazing to stand RIGHT THERE next to all that pounding power.

Time was passing, and eventually I needed to head for Pittsburgh. Once there, I told my friend Ann that I was going to have to change my plans for the book, because there was no way anybody was really going to go over that bridge accidentally.

She said, “Well, I’ve got a story to tell you.”

Turns out a few years back Ann was hosting an exchange student from Thailand when she and another host, Peg, rented a van and took a load of exchange students up to Niagara Falls. Just the American side, because the students were here on visas. Crossing the border would be way too complicated. So they left their passports at home.

After a fun day at the park, they decided they wanted to go eat dinner, and voted on pizza. (Or Chinese food. There’s some disagreement between Anne and Peg on this.) So they put that in their GPS, followed its directions and suddenly realized they were already on the approach to the bridge and could not back out (literally, their tires would be punctured if they tried).

So they drove into the duty-free shop, where the woman said oh yeah, it happens all the time, the Canadians will give you a sheet of paper to say you didn’t really enter, and send you back.

But what about all those students who might be denied re-entry without their papers?

Oops. So Ann walked them to an ice cream shop just off the bridge, while Peg went ahead and drove across with the van. The Canadian officer laughed and responded just as the duty free clerk said she would. The American officer, however, was suspicious. Peg got questioned at length, with the same questions over and over, and then he searched the van before finally letting her go on her way.

Oh, man. Never have I been so glad to hear someone’s GPS horror story.

So, Kathy and Diego get to accidentally cross the Rainbow Bridge after all, and will have to cope with all that follows.

It’s just the power of suggestion, probably, but I see Niagara Falls everywhere now. On the way back up from Florida, they were in a painting in Juliette Gordon Lowe’s birthplace in Savannah (that city was a bucket list item), in Jefferson’s dining room at Monticello (another bucket list item), at the Farnsworth in Rockland, Maine (a stop I make every year), and at the Albany Institute of History and Art (couldn’t believe I’d never been there before!).

I’d love to take this as a sign I’m being carried on to something good with this book. It could just as easily mean I’m heading for a fall. More likely, I’m just noticing something I hadn’t noticed before. And that is good enough for me.

If you’d like, comment with your own GPS horror story, or some of your bucket list items.


Next month’s blog post will feature another author interview (and a chance to win a free copy of THE FAR END OF HAPPY) with the talented women’s fiction author Kathryn Craft.