Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Noseless Cowboy

I had a few people email me off list and say, essentially, "The noseless cowboy?"

And I say, Oh, yes, the noseless cowboy. He really exists, somewhere out in Montana - or he did in 1998.

Here's what happened. I graduated from college with a summer to kill before grad school. My Gram was 83, I was 22, and Mom was somewhere in between. And you know what that meant? That's right.

Road trip.

The theme of the trip was "Everyone should go to a place called Saskatchewan once. Now is Gram's time." We loaded up Gram's Dodge Spirit and lit out for the plains. We had some pretty weird adventures along the way - like the 300 miles we drove with a dead bird wedged into the grill of the car because we didn't have pliers to pull it out; nearly getting booted out of a sacred Japanese temple near Calgary because Gram misunderstood and walked across the floor with her shoes on; and, of course, buying weird potions from a little Chinese lady in Winnipeg. Frankly, all pretty normal for one of our road trips.

But the most memorable part of the whole trip occurred in Red Lodge, Montana. First, it's a beautiful little mountain town, tucked in a valley next to a half-wild river. It survives on the tourist trade in the summer, and I highly recommend going if you were headed to Yellowstone anyway.

So I had just bought myself a pair of amber earrings to celebrate the Bachelor's degree, and we come out to find a horse-drawn wagon in the middle of the street. Well, I'm a sucker for horses, so up we go.

This is where the story gets good.

We're cruising down the middle of the street at 3 miles per hour. It's early evening, the sun is just setting behind the hills, and the mosquitoes haven't carried me off. I feel saucy in my new earrings, even if I am on vacation with my gram. So I'm looking up and down as the town slowly crawls by, and then I see him.

He came around a corner, the golden sun streaking behind him. It's a cowboy on horseback, leading another horse down the middle of the road (because you can do that in Red Lodge. Just try that in Chicago!) And he's wearing a cowboy hat but no cowboy shirt. The sun gives him this golden halo around his carved pecs and sculpted shoulders.

I almost bailed on the ride right then. I mean, he was leading that horse for me, right?

And then it got better. As he slowly - SLOWLY passed the wagon, I realized he was wearing an eye patch. And before my brain could even register how sexy a shirtless cowboy on horseback with an eye patch truly was, I realized it wasn't an eye patch.

It was an eye and nose patch. The stiff black leather was custom fit to his face, coming to a sharp point where a real nose should have been. It was like The Phantom of the Opera with a lasso.

The cowboy had no nose.

Now, I know this all sounds insane. But, ten years out, my mom remembers the noseless cowboy (and, more specifically, she remembers having to peel me off the floor of the wagon). And what's more, my gram - now 93 years old (and darned proud) - clearly remembers the noseless cowboy. (Actual conversation three weeks ago: "Gram, do you remember the noseless cowboy?" Brief pause. "Now, he had on a hat, but no shirt, right?")

That is how powerful the image of the noseless cowboy was. Three generations of women can still distinctly recall the sight of him riding down the middle of the street. I swear, if I hadn't been on vacation with my mom and gram . . .

I didn't think of him much, just every time I wore the amber earrings. But I never forgot him. And as I started this weird trek into writing books, he kept popping up more and more.

A man that memorable needs a book.

So when Mary Beth Hofstetter went West, he was waiting for her. In the book, he's a Lakota Indian from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, whereas he was a white guy from Montana in real life, but the scene of him riding down the middle of the road is the beginning of chapter two of A Part of Her.

Everything after that? Wishful thinking. Trust me, you'll want to wait for it. He's worth it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Make It STOP!

I can't shut my brain off!

Okay, here's what's happening (literally). Last Thursday, I was diligently working away on The Best They Could, and I typed a new scene where Mary Beth - granddaughter of Rose and Billy (heroine and hero of Marrying the Emersons), daughter of Lily and Bobby (heroine and hero of The Best They Could) - confronts her Uncle Hank (from the short story "The Girl with the Coal-Black Eyes") for being a drunken failure.

Okay, if you read last week's blog, that depressing scenario sounds normal.

So anyway, I'm writing along, and I really hadn't been able to figure out Mary Beth. She's a few years older than I am, but I really hadn't gotten past her as a seven year old. I know what her childhood was like, and I know she grows up to be a vet. I knew she could have a story, but for the life of me, I couldn't see what it was.

And suddenly, I knew who she was. Everything gelled in the scene where she defends her mom from a guy she's not really sure she believes is her uncle with a Mr. Microphone. Everything made perfect sense. And as a result, I spent the rest of the evening talking like a mouthy 12 year old to my hubby. He didn't seem to appreciate that literary breakthrough too much.

And then I went to bed and had the weirdest freaking dream (not uncommon for me, but Don Cheadle in a hotel maiming a pregnant giraffe? Too weird). And in the dream, I was Mary Beth trying to save the giraffe. Thank God the alarm clock went off, because I'm not sure the giraffe was going to make it.

And somehow, this weirdness was my brain kicking into overdrive. OVERDRIVE. Within two hours of waking up, I figured out what Mary Beth's story is. The whole plot exploded from my mind like Athena springing forth from Zeus's noggin. And I can't make it stop! I keep babbling about buffalo and knives and cattle! I swear, I don't know who's going to strangle me first - my hubby or my lovely coworker!!

And the odd thing (as if the rest of the story wasn't odd enough) is that it didn't make sense. Why, I wondered for two days, is the albino child key? (Told you it didn't make sense!) Why does the noseless cowboy defend her? (Oh, yes, you read that right. He's a whole 'nother can of worms. I'll explain later.)

So I started writing. I got 68 pages down in less than 48 hours of semi-normal working, cooking, cleaning, and putting a toddler in time-out.

And it still didn't make sense, except that I knew it all worked.

So I started doing some research, trying to shore up this brand new novel, and discovered that my brain remembers more than I give it credit for. Everything I'd envisioned was there - the tribe, the albino, the noseless cowboy, the great-great-grandmother - and it all made sense. It all dovetailed perfectly.

The albino is the key. The noseless cowboy is sworn to defend her. And Mary Beth is going back to the land of her ancestors to confront her demons, real and imagined.

A Part of Her is there. I just have to write it all down.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Everyone suffers, everyone wins

First, let me say I am NOT obsessing about the editor. Nope. Not me. It's no big deal that I finally figured out Google Analytics and saw that I had two page views from New York, even though I don't know anyone there. Nope. Not a big deal, no obsessing. Not here.

If you buy that . . .

But let's move on to business.

As I may have mentioned, I write women's literary fiction with strong romantic elements (I think). My mom reads all my stuff (quickly, too) and occasionally I get comments like, "Are you sure you had to kill off Henrietta?" and "Did everyone have to die, honey? Isn't that a little dark?" And don't forget, "Are you sure he did that during the war? Did he have to get captured?"

And the answer is always, Yes, they all have to die, and yes, they all have to suffer. Everyone suffers. Everyone. No single character goes unscathed or unmarred. I am a mean, cruel authorial god who takes my people right up to the breaking point, then, just when they think everything's okay, pushed them over the edge.

If you've read the short stories at, you'll know what I mean. There are no happy endings in the short stories. Not even the hope of a happy ending.

It's not all bad. The short stories have some great sex scenes (there has to be something fun, after all) and they do have a happy resolution in the novels. The novels are quite lengthy, and all sorts of bad things happen to my people, but in the end, everyone comes out stronger and everyone gets a happily-ever-after. The unhappy endings for the short stories are at least resolved and put to rest in the novels. (Which, I know, sucks right now, because you may be wondering how there can be a happy ending when Frank did what he did, and how there ever be a happy ending for Hank after Saigon falls. Wait for the novels. Please.)

The odd thing is, I am not a morose or unhappy person. A little OCD, maybe, but in the grand scheme of things, I have never been pushed to the edge, never given up hope. Sure there have been trials, but mostly I look back and see that what was once so important, now isn't as much.

In fact, people who know me, even people who just met me, generally comment how funny I am. (Tangent alert: And I always say, you should meet my sisters, I'm the boring one. And no one ever believes me, ever. My hubby didn't until he met the rest of my family, and then even he had to agree that, compared with the crackling, sensual humor of my drama queen sister Leah and the goofy-yet-urbane, quirky storytelling of the natural comic sister Hannah, I am almost staid by comparison. Almost.)

And that humor almost never comes through in my writing. It peeks out occasionally, but my people are too busy having their souls crushed by something horrid to be too awfully funny.

When I write my women's literary fiction, I tap into a dark, fearful place in my soul, the part that knows that, just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't watching you. The part that spends the three days before my hubby flies to a business trip imagining the thousands of terrible things that would keep him from coming home to me and our son. The part that can't watch the evening news because every deranged act, every accident, every natural outcropping of a society working through the bugs becomes real and personal. (That's right, I don't watch news. Haven't since I got pregnant almost four years ago, when the world got a lot scarier for me.)

When I kill a character or drive him into insanity, I'm giving that dark part an outlet, a place to go. I've been ruining my people's lives and putting them back together for almost a year now, throwing the worst at them and then letting them rebuild, one painful day at a time.

And I think I'm happier for it. I pour out my fear and pain onto a page instead of letting it fester inside. When I give my people a way to go on, I give myself a way to go on, even though nothing bad has happened to me.

And I pray it never does.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Bookworm

I have a dirty little secret to confess.

I don't read very much.

Before you all faint in despair at what the world is coming to, let me explain. I am a born and bred bookworm. I distinctly remember the taunting, snide comments from the kids on the middle school playground as I slowly walked out the door, reading. Slowly walked to the benches, reading. Read the whole recess. Slowly walked back in, reading. Reluctantly had to put the book away to listen to the teacher explain something I already knew. Cynthia Voight, Scott O'Dell, Madeline L'Engle, Margurite Henry - I devoured them all. I even tried Uncle Tom's Cabin. (Tried, but even a fifth grader had her limits.)

Needless to say, I loved the gifted teacher who also taught 5th grade history. My parents are history teachers, and she knew I already knew more than any other kid in the school about the American Revolution. She let me keep reading, God bless her.

Like I said, born and bred. You can guess where this led me, right? Bachelor's in English, and on to Ohio State for the Master's (where, if you remember, I was known as the Queen . . . aw, go read the post yourself).

But two things happened in grad school. One: A love of books wasn't enough. I also had to love theory, and I couldn't. I just couldn't. I will never forget the day the post colonial professor looked at me as I interrupted an argument about what it meant that Friday didn't have a tongue in a retelling of Robinson Caruso to demand to know where it said in the book that he didn't have a tongue.

"You are such a literalist," he sneered. And I knew I didn't belong any more.

The second, more important thing was that the OSU Masters in English didn't require a thesis. Nope, it required an oral exam, on a predetermined list of the 75 or 125 or some arbitrary number of the greatest literary works ever written in English. All your major players were there, your Beowulfs, your Canterbury Tales, your Hamlets. But there were others, some I'd never heard of.

I had three months of no classes to read. Three solid, uninterrupted months to read. The only distraction was the 7:30 a.m. Comp II class I taught. Then back to read some more.

Finally, back in my comfort zone, I mowed through the books. You know Dickens, right? Dickens, who never met a word he didn't use (sucks to have bills and be paid by the word). A Christmas Carol may be short, but just about everything else tops out at about 800-900 pages.

I read Bleak House, quite manageable at 598 pages, in one day. And, just because I had time left, I started another book, and read another 175 pages before my eyes began to cross.

Yup. Born and bred bookworm.

But 90 solid days of reading can wear a person down. I already knew I wasn't going to continue. I passed the oral just fine, and began packing to come home. I packed up all the books, the ones I loved. Boxes and boxes of books.

And they sat. For months in my parents' barn. For more months when I got my next apartment. I didn't get them all unpacked before I packed again to move in with my soon-to-be-hubby. I unpacked and repacked when we bought our house. It was the first time I'd touched them in years. The only time for years to come.

I didn't read another book, a novel, a piece of fictional literature, for almost five years. And I didn't miss it.

I read the paper voraciously, and all the business magazines my hubby got. I still read, just not books.

Slowly, I eased back. I did a condensed novel in the ESL class I taught. I started reading Dave Barry's humor column collections, and then read his novels (hilarious, of course). Big Trouble was the first real book in nearly six years.

And I read it in less than a day. It was good, and it only took about 4 hours. But it was the only one for months.

I'm reading again. I like to pick up a book when I'm stuck on my novel because, whether it's good or bad, it kick starts my brain again. But I've been stuck a bit on how to get to what happens next. So I read two books in less than two days. I read Stephanie Meyer's Twilight in less than six hours, and that includes dinner and playtime for the toddler.

And that's the problem. When I'm enjoying what I read, even just a little, I want to keep going. But now I have a life that demands my attention. I really cannot read more than one book a week, because otherwise it turns into a time-suck, and suddenly it's one in the morning, I've got to get up in 4 hours, and I haven't written a damn thing, more or less picked out the kid's clothes for the morning.

It's not easy being a bookworm.