Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Research has shown that two of the things that lead to obesity and eventually a whole barrage of health problems are a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits.  In addition, the mental health of a person whether he/she is old ( or young ( is greatly improved by interaction with their peers, a fact not lost on the prison systems of this world.  Writing as a profession lends itself to two of the three contributors to poor physical and mental health: sedentary living and solitary confinement.  That begs the question: is being a writer bad for your health?

From the limited number of writers conferences I’ve attended I’ve noticed that many of the participants were a little on the plump side.  Moreover, when it was time for personal interaction many writers found themselves confined to their hotel rooms entangled in a ménage-a-trois with their IPads and laptops.
So seeing that writing may be a mental and physical health hazard, what can we as writers do about it?

For one, we can take a little time from writing to maintain a regular exercise routine.  I jog.  I didn’t always do so, and no, it does not make me petite, but it does keep me feeling good and my creative juices flowing.  I know you’re thinking that jogging is solitary and spending time with your characters in your mind does nothing to foster peer interaction.  Before I took up jogging I tried a variety of exercise classes: step aerobics, jazzercise, aqua-aerobics, you name it.  But I am an uncoordinated left hander who leads with my left and is spatially challenged.  The group goes left, I go right, they go up I go down.  After a while of paying to look like an idiot, I discovered jogging. 

The advantages of jogging:
1.    It’s cheap: the only investment is a decent pair of jogging shoes.
2.    No one’s judging you: you can jog alone or with others but you never look like an idiot
3.    You can go at your own pace: you can choose the time you jog, the pace, or whether to mix walking and running
4.    You can be free to explore all your thoughts without the clutter of everyday life, at least for a few moments
5.    And it's good for your heart

I have had some of my most creative moments while on jogs.  I’ve encountered inspiration for my characters, scenes, settings while observing things on my routes. I have combated writer’s block and hashed out difficult conversations in my manuscripts.  However, jogging is not for everybody; so as a writer knowing that your occupation lends itself to a sedentary lifestyle, find what exercise routine works for you and do it, even if it is Zumba on the Wii (now that is fun).

Ok so exercising does not necessarily address those long hours of solitary writing, though it can.  Find time for interaction with others outside of your family.  I think that is the hardest part for me.  Being wrapped up in my kids after school activities and juggling the demands on my time makes it difficult to carve out time for peer interaction.  Fortunately for me, my job allows me some interaction, but not nearly enough.

Here are some suggestions that I need to take for myself:
1.    Have fun with your friends
2.    Join a club
3.    Mix your exercise with socializing and take an exercise class (not for me).
I’ve dealt with two of the three lifestyle impediments to a writer’s health that is really a hazard of the job.  The choice of healthy eating, well that’s for another person, who given the choice of carrot cake or carrot sticks would choose carrot sticks, to blog about.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Writer power

I'll just go ahead and confess: I put people I know in my stories. Some of those people are based on me or a fantasy version of me, such as the main character in Magic Island. Others are people I know who have no idea that I do this stuff.
  • The ex-gigolo in Cafe au Lait? Based on a friend of my brother's.
  • The psycho cousin in Give me the Night? Based on one of my real-life cousins.
  • The leering, drooling African doctor in the aforementioned? Based on two Nigerian acquaintances. (Yes, I often combine several real people into one fictional character.)
  • Most of the characters in what I'll facetiously refer to as The Great West Indian Novel--one of my works in progress--are modeled on relatives close and distant, dead and alive. While the situations are pure fiction, the settings and characters are rendered from the living cloth of my memories.
  • A character in Sultry in Blue, my third romance novel, is based on Naughty Niece. This is proving problematic as Nefarious Nephew now wants me to write a story about him. (Lesson: Do NOT tell people when you base characters on them.)
This habit of co-opting people to populate my stories gives me an unfair amount of power. Mess with me and you're likely to end up as a despicable villain who gets his or her just desserts in one of my fictional universes.

Unfortunately, I cannot claim to use my powers wisely. I threaten people. For instance, I tell my mother that if she isn't careful she'll end up in one of my books as a dotty old harridan who potters around the yard in a nightie, wide-brimmed straw hat, bright green Crocs and wild hair. This has not scared her into dressing appropriately before wafting out the door, so I'll have to up the ante to something even more embarrassing: a dotty old harridan who potters around the yard in a nightie, wide-brimmed straw hat, bright green Crocs and wild hair--and who disembowels kittens! That'll teach her...

If I can use my writer powers to blackmail my own mother, what might I do to you? Tread carefully or I'll wave my magic quill and you'll find yourself trapped between the pages of my next book doing some really, really embarrassing (if not downright illegal) things.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Crispin Guest Saved Me that Year

I don’t know what book I was reading when Ann and I decided to do a short sale on our house, but I know I started Jeri Westerson’s Blood Lance soon after. I was told that Jeri was a good reader, and I was thinking about having her out to read at the college where I teach.

It was a difficult time. I had a good job, and I had bought the absolute cheapest house in my part of Los Angeles, but I hadn’t gotten the cost of living pay increases that had been standard, and the repairs on the house had been tens of thousands of dollars more than I’d been told they would be. After years of trying to keep up, it made sense finally to do a short sale on my house, a process that’s just one step up on a foreclosure. I’d give up my house and ruin what had been a near perfect credit rating. It destroyed my sense of self and my ideas about ownership and security.

Plus, it just kind of sucked.

That’s when I started to read Jeri Westerson’s medieval noir series, which follows Crispin Guest, a fallen knight turned tracker -- what we would think of a private detective.

I love period pieces. I love mystery novels. I loved this series. And I’d finished all the Cadfael novels years earlier. I found myself preferring Guest to Cadfael. Why? He was exactly what I needed when I needed it.

That he had lost his property and his home was lost to me at the time, but that had to have something to do with it. But despite his setbacks, he was brave and good. The writing was clean and direct and the good guy kept doing good things.

The Crispin Guest novels are all powerful and fun. I lost myself in their stories which moved quickly and Guest is always on the edge or dying or losing, but he pulls himself out in the last minutes. They are absolutely brilliant and all consuming.

And that’s what I needed then, to be consumed by something other than the fact that I was losing what I’d worked so hard to keep. And Guest helped to remind me that property and things aren’t the most important parts of my life. If, like him, I could keep my important friendships and my honor, if I could help other people out when I could, that was all right. That was enough.

They were written well, and they hit me just exactly when I needed them to hit me.

That was more than enough.

By the way, Westerson has a new novel out, just out. Check it out on Amazon!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

It’s Almost NaNoWriMo Time Again!

Over the weekend, I wrote up a rather lengthy response to a question about National Novel Writing Month, the annual event taking place each November and with which we are now on a collision course. The person posing the question wanted to know how they might go about organizing themselves in preparation for taking the NaNoWriMo plunge and writing fifty thousand words in a month. Basically, the question boiled down to: “How you do you prepare to write a book, or at least a good chunk of a book?”

Questions like this aren’t the easiest to answer, because there really is no one “right” answer. What’s right is what’s right for you, based on your writing style or regimen, along with your schedule and the other demands on your life. Even that’s a moving target, because what may have worked for you a year ago might not be worth squat this time around.

That said, I think there are a few general things that most writers looking to tackle NaNoWriMo can do to gear up for the forthcoming challenge. I’m going to borrow from the answer I composed for the original question I received, in which I offered up a few basic hints. Bear in mind that these originally were aimed at writers who might be attempting the contest for the first time. Your mileage may vary:

Have a plan. Most writers looking to tackle NaNoWriMo have probably written up some kind of outline or synopsis, or a list of story beats, or other semi-readable scribblings which might pass for their story’s rough idea. I have no doubt that there are writers who plan to start cold on November 1st, putting fingers to keys (or even pen to paper) and just seeing what happens, but I’m definitely in the “outline camp.” For short stories, I don’t need the whole thing mapped out, but I prefer to at least have a few bullet points and a few other brief, informal notes to give me some kind of direction before I get started. When I plan a novel, the level of detail definitely increases. Might things change as the writing gets underway and words are flying about? Sure, but that’s part of the fun, right?

Make a schedule. This is aimed more toward trying to instill a semblance of consistency and the month wears on. November can be a crazy time of year, with Thanksgiving, kids out of school, travel—yours, or relatives and friends coming to you—and so on. Try to anticipate these interruptions to your writing routine, and factor them in to whatever schedule you might be attempting with respect to daily or weekly word count goals. You’ll hopefully avoid at least some stress while trying to make up for lost time later in the month.

Hold yourself accountable. No, this doesn’t mean punishing yourself if you miss a day’s writing goal, or even if you get to the end of November and you haven’t hit the 50k mark. Just by announcing your intentions on your blog, or your Facebook or Twitter feed, your friends and followers will know what you’re up to. People do the same thing with diet and exercise goals, so why not for writing? Post regular updates about your progress, good or bad. Celebrate when you hit or pass your daily mark, and be honest if a day’s writing falls short of expectations. Keep your circle in the loop, and let them give you encouragement and support.

So, who's taking up the challenge? If you’re one of the brave souls setting out on this year’s NaNoWriMo quest, I wish you the best of luck.

Monday, October 14, 2013


I wrote my first mystery, Fools Rush In, in nine months. To celebrate finishing the book I bought a modestly priced bottle of champagne to toast my accomplishment with my family. That was 1998. The bottle is still in my refrigerator. For whatever reason, my family saw nothing to celebrate.

Where Angels Fear took five years to finish. I carried the manuscript to the hospital every day while my mother was dying. I put it away out of guilt and took care of my father until he passed away. There are more important things in life than finishing a book.

Last week I put the final touches on A Snitch In Time. It took a decade to write. During that time frame I retired, moved three times, was poisoned and nearly died, lost one kidney and got on the transplant list. I also worked as an acquisitions editor, lectured, learned about the industry and marketing, blogged and networked. I know it wasn't time wasted but I feel like a slacker.

Writing books should become easier, not harder--right? Theoretically, they should take less time to pen and, with experience, better crafted. There was no writers' block involved, no lack of faith in the storyline. My fans have been patient but they'll probably have to read the first two books all over again to refresh their memories. I have to do one more edit to make sure everything tracks before handing it over to my publisher.

Every book has a different story behind it. The first novel was written in a critique group. I was competitive and eager to be read so I handed in a new chapter every week. Lots of feedback, lots of encouragement. It was also based on a real case I worked as a secretary with a narcotics team. The investigation unfolded as I was writing the book.

The second in the series was loosely based on a case I handed over to the vice squad. Half of the book was heard by the critique group but I dropped out before I finished it. Only a few close writers whose judgment I trusted got to read the full manuscript.

But this book—nobody has read this book. And that's scary. I haven't had any feedback and sometimes wonder what I'm holding in my hands. It's like flying on a trapeze with no safety net. I trust my talent to tell a story, but I've been out of law enforcement for ten years and this time I'm working solely from my imagination.

My point is, no two books are written under the same circumstances, no two writers are alike. I get irritated when interviewers want to know what my “routine” is. There is no routine to my routine, it changes every day. Writers are not wind-up dolls placed in front of their computers, fingers automatically plucking out words. Our minds get fuzzy with age, our energy lags, life makes demands. While living inside our imagination is a wonderful experience, it can be limiting. There's a very real world out there that needs our attention as well.

However, last week I wrote “The End” and called a few friends, demanding them to take me to dinner to celebrate. I've learned not to wait for kudos or someone to pop the champagne cork. This is my celebration of another milestone in my career and my life. Party on!             

Friday, October 11, 2013

And the Emmy goes to ...

As a writer honing the art of short-story writing, I was very pleased to hear that Alice Munro was selected as the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. In the past, the prize has generally been awarded to authors of novels and very often to authors of novels with a political slant. In Ms. Munro's words, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.”

While Ms. Munro was getting her news I received some news of my own. The nominations for the 2014 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award were presented yesterday at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I scrolled down the list and found my name on the list;

Ottley-Mitchell, Carol
Saint Kitts and Nevis

Four entries below Joyce Carol Oates and in the company of Eric Carle and Beverly Cleary.

So often one hears award hopefuls say "It is an honour just to be nominated." Now I know that it is.

Monday, October 7, 2013

10 New Tools No Writer Should Be Without

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of knocking out that first draft.  The storyline is tight, the characters fresh, and the plot compelling.  But there’s also nothing quite like the first proofread, when you confront your own sallow, grammar-free, meandering prose.

Rewriting is half the battle, more than one writer has noted.  But recently I’ve discovered ten new apps that make rewriting much easier:

1) Dwindle – this is one of my favorites.  Dwindle scrubs through your pages looking for redundancy, excessive verbosity, and all manner of unnecessary words.  For example, here’s an excerpt from my new mystery Lady Agatha & The Nine Cumberbunds:

“Agatha approached the cruller like a bear would, if a bear had a cruller.  She circled it twice, then moved in.  The cruller didn’t stand a chance.  Within seconds it was diminished by a third, then another third, then a couple of sixths until it was nothing but crumbs and memories.  Agatha devoured the former and cherished the latter.”

Here’s what the sentence looked like after Dwindle was through with it:  “She ate a cruller.”  It’s much cleaner.

2) BORK – this app is great for anyone writing legal mysteries, or anything involving courtrooms, lawyers, judges, etc.  BORK ensures that your legal prose stays honest.  Here’s a report they sent me after I submitted my first few dozen chapters:

By chapter eleven, Judge Tingle has already sentenced six people to death; four for carjacking, one for besmirchin’ Lady Agatha’s good name, and one for the aquarium massacre.  But because the only victims of the massacre were six clams and an octopus, it seems unlikely that the death sentence would be applied.

3) NyPL – by far the best sex-scene manager I have used.   Writing complex romantic interludes requires both imagination and attention to detail.  And it’s easy to screw up.  NyPL keeps your naughty parts honest.  Here’s what they had to say about one of my early chapters:

A structural error has been identified in the third orgy, on page 23.  Given the relative positions of Agatha, Enrique, Princess Tina, and the UPS driver on the boathouse futon, the only toes available for Lady Agatha to nibble on would have been her own.  Please revise.

4) ImbiBr – this one is a must for those who write hardboiled detectives or any characters who drink a little too much from time to time.  ImbiBr ensures that your characters are drinking realistic amounts of alcohol.  And this is important.  I’ve seen a lot of writers get in trouble here, myself included.  Here’s what they said about chapter nine:

Within a seven-hour period, following the deaths of Enrique and the octopus, Lady Agatha drinks eleven vodka martinis, four liters of gin, and a Budweiser.  If Lady Agatha weighs 190 pounds, as chapter eight suggests, she has already consumed too much alcohol for life to be sustained. 

I’m glad they caught that. 

5) PetScrub – too often, mystery prose becomes laden with references to pets.  Nobody enjoys reading this, so PetScrub catches these irritating passages before your reader does.  For example, here’s a passage from chapter twelve:

Princess Tina smiled as Captain Woofers McPuddle bounced up onto her lap, his long whiskers caressing her cheek as his giant velveteen paws grasped for purchase.
            “Who’s my favorite beasty?” Tina asked rhetorically as Woofers settled in for some well-deserved cuddling.

Here’s what PetScrub came back with:  Please remove this entire offensive passage.

6) Ghast – this app is a must for any horror writer, or for anyone who wants to incorporate a bit of the supernatural in their work.  Ghast will alert you right away if your scary prose falls flat.

Here’s what Ghast had to say about chapter fifteen:  The chance of both Enrique and the octopus being turned into zombies is slim.  Also, Enrique only has one leg, and the octopus is an octopus, so why would Lady Agatha flee to the boathouse?  It’s not scary.  Consider revising this whole section.  Although a zombie octopus is a novel concept, it is not a good one.

7) BakStory – too often we get caught up in the moment, so BakStory fills in the gaps when a character has not been effectively introduced.  Here’s a passage from chapter nineteen that I thought was very good:

            “Take me,” Lady Agatha purred as she let her kimono fall to the kitchen floor.
            “Yes, ma’am,” said the UPS driver as he scanned her with his hand-held unit.  “Special delivery guaranteed!”

BackStory took issue with the passage, reworking the entire second line: 

“Take me,” Lady Agatha purred as she let her kimono fall to the kitchen floor.
            “Yes, ma’am,” said the UPS driver, who originally hailed from Oswego, the son of Belgian immigrants fed up with substandard public housing, as he scanned her with his hand-held unit.  “Special delivery guaranteed!”

8) GunDork – this all-important app will scrub through all your firearm passages to make sure you aren’t committing any logistical or second amendment errors. 

Here’s what they told me about a scene in chapter twenty: Since Lady Agatha is naked in the kitchen, it seems unlikely that she would be able to produce a derringer “from her folds” as well as a crossbow from “parts unknown.”  It is also unlikely that she would then “fire wildly, again and again, and yet again, hither and nither, as the octopus neared.”  First – neither a derringer nor a crossbow can be fired again and again and again without reloading.  Second – nither isn’t a word.  And third – crossbows aren’t firearms.  For help with crossbow-related scenes, please consult BoltMaestro.

9) RoofingTile – this actually has nothing to do with writing, but it’s a great app for comparing roofing tiles if you find yourself in the market.

10) PUUUKR – no writer should be without this kissing app.  PUUUKR takes even the messiest make-out scenes and cleans them up.  Here’s a section from chapter thirty, just after the second aquarium massacre.  Princess Tina is overcome with emotion.

            “I don’t care,” she sobbed.  “I love you.”
            Enrique shuffled near.  “It could never work,” he gurgled.  “I’m a zombie.”
            “Shhhh.” Princess Tina pressed Enrique’s finger to his lips, snapping it off in the process.  Then she kissed him deeply, fervently, hungrily, and mightily.  Her lips thrilled him as they moved from ear to ear, her tongue darting from his chin to his eyebrow.

Nice, right?  Here’s what PUUUKR had to say: Good Christ, this is disgusting.  What? Is she eating him?  Isn’t he the zombie?  Also, where’s the finger that broke off?  Is it still in there somewhere?  Barf.

These are just ten new writing tools out there designed to make our writing lives easier.  If you’d like to learn more, please visit

And please have a look at my new serialized novel Continent Incontinent.

two powerful families
three dreams of territorial expansion
four failing bladders

Chapter One is out now at


Saturday, October 5, 2013

A year later...lessons learned

So, it's been more than a year since I self-published for the first time back in March of 2012. That first effort was Jessamine and, since then, I've published a few other books and novellas. My last book, Jamaica Dreaming, was published in August. I'm still very new at this but I thought I'd share some of the lessons I've learned. (They may or may not apply to you and your work. Everyone's experiences will be different and what hasn't worked for me may very well work for you.)

1.) Reviews. Some time last year I wrote a NS blog about the difficulties of getting reviews. I posted that for every one hundred or so requests I might send out to bloggers, Vine reviewers, book clubs, etc., around fifteen might ask for the manuscript and then three might actually write a review. That was my experience, anyway. I'd literally spend days scouring the Internet and Amazon for bloggers and reviewers and then many more days sending out the emails. With Jamaica Dreaming I didn't bother. The return on my investment of time just didn't seem worth it so I didn't contact a single blogger or reviewer. Imagine my surprise then when a day after I'd published JD, it had a review. And a lovely one, too. (JD is on the short side but, even so, the reviewer must be a fast reader.) Since then, the reviews by readers have continued to come in. Lesson learned - if I write in a genre with a lot of dedicated readers, they will find the book and they will review it. (Putting a review request at the backs of all your books is also a good idea.)

2.)  Covers. For my earlier books - Jessamine (first cover) and The Water of Sunlight I had custom covers made. They were wonderful covers but those two books have yet to earn me back what I paid on the covers alone, never mind the editing. For me, premades are the way to go until I start making the kind of money that would justify a higher outlay. Lesson learned - quality premades look good and won't hurt your pocket.

3.) Another word about Covers. As a corollary to the above - I'd planned JD as a series of Caribbean-set romances from last year and had the covers custom made back then. The series name I came up with was Caribbean Heat. Then, this year when I finally finished JD, it was sexy but perhaps not as sexy as the sub-title implied. Changing the covers would have cost around $25 each so I didn't bother. The result has been that a few of the reviews have lamented the lack of heat. Sigh. Lesson learned - write the book and then purchase the cover. (This has been a hard one for me - I have quite a few covers - a mix of premade and custom waiting on manuscripts. Premade cover sites are particularly addictive and dangerous!)

4.) I read in all genres and thought all right then, I'll write what I want. My books cover crime, romance, literary and gritty literary (and I've also bought at least one speculative fiction cover). What that means, though, is that building an audience will take longer. Someone might have signed up for my newsletter on the strength of my crime book but then they get a notice that I've written a romance. One or two might be curious and buy it, but the rest will either ignore the new publication or unsubscribe. Lesson learned - stick to one genre. This way when people who've signed up because they like my romances see that I've got another one out they'll jump on it right away and give me a boost right out of the block.

5.) Amazon Exclusivity. KDP Select didn't do a thing for me and may actually have done me a disfavour. I went into Select for my two crime stories - a novella and a collection of short stories. They both did very well on their free days, climbing the charts to reach into the top twenty Free in African American Crime. After each free time block they both plummeted in the ranking to about where they were before. There was no post-free bump. While I did pick up a couple of nice reviews, I also got a couple of bad ones from reviewers who may have gotten them simply because they were free and not because they cared for the genre or were interested in the subject matter. Lesson learned - skip Select unless maybe I have a series and I want to get people hooked on the series (and, even so it might be best to go perma-free).

6.) Giveaways. I did a Goodreads giveaway earlier this year for Dido's Prize, an older book which I hadn't self-published. Hundreds of people entered. Three winners were chosen and I also sent out a copy to somebody who'd put it on their must-read shelf a few months before. (I alerted that person about the giveaway and, when she didn't win, I sent her a copy anyway.) She's the only one, who at the time of writing this blog, had done a review. Two or three people who entered the giveaway also put a couple of my other books on their To Read list and there was a slight rise in the rankings for the book at Amazon, representing maybe two or three sales. The results were, thus, not spectacular. I've also done Facebook group and blog giveaways. None of those has so far resulted in any reviews. Would I bother doing other giveaways? Maybe, maybe not. I'd prefer to do giveaways of ebook versions but, even so, I don't know if the result justifies the time spent. I've heard that putting books on permafree at Amazon is one of the best things for sales of a series and that might be the way I'll go when I have a series. Lesson learned - the costs of mailing copies of books out isn't worth it since the reviews aren't guaranteed. If a giveaway can be done at no cost and for very little investment, it might be worth looking into but other than that, I'll pass.

My goal is to, one day, be able to live off my writing or, at least, have it contribute mightily to my quality of life, so I keep writing and learning. I'm not there yet. While writing is an act of creativity, publishing is a business, and I now know much more about that side of things than I did last year. Here's to the future!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

My name is Marissa Monteilh, and I'm a Scandalholic!

Yes, I'm addicted. The TV show Scandal has me hooked. As a viewer, I love the look of the show, the acting, the drama, the suspense, the feel. As a writer - I simply love . . . the writing!

Sitting down to watch an episode (which I refuse to watch on DVR, simply because I have to get my fix of the fixer live, at that very moment, as it's delivered to the world) is like food to my writer soul. It moves fast, it's sexy, it's deep, it's beautiful, and honestly, it's necessary creatively, as it challenges me to want to do better as a storyteller. I want my stories to unfold. I desire to match the intrigue, the twists and turns, the passion. I feel as though I'm blessed to be able to view great television and great movies, listen to great music, and of course, read great books that are crafty, well thought out, and that bring the characters to life, some who you love and some who you hate, who are either complex or simple, yet they just move you.

When I watch Scandal, from the opening line to the closing line, I think about the words and I learn. Shonda Rhimes and her writing staff are masters at delivering the drama on this show. Grey's Anatomy is a close second for me, and I loved Private Practice, which unfortunately was canceled. (BTW - my dream job is to write for Shonda Rhimes - no duh, huh?)

So, being that today is the 3rd of October, the long-awaited day of the first show of the 3rd season, how could I, a Scandalholic who is scheduled to blog, not take this opportunity to compliment the Scandal writers, and also to admit my addiction? Without admittance, one cannot get help, right? But like Diana Ross sang."If there's a cure for this, I don't want it, I don't want it!" Because once the show is over and I grab that cigarette, I, Marissa Monteilh, will have the sweetest hangover, I don't wanna get over! Oh my, I'm feening as I type.

So, Gladiators unite with pride! And if there's a show you think I might be missing out on, please share. I hear that Breaking Bad was/is good. Though I cannot possibly cheat on my first love, of course - Scandal!

Happy writing, happy viewing, happy blogging!!!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Fog and Dreams

Back when I lived in the mountains above Los Angeles, I used to walk Archie, my dog, to the rim just about every day where I could look out over the city, and the dog could pad around, sniffing and exploring, chasing a lizard or squirrel. I loved looking down like that on the city I commuted to every day, but I liked it so much more when the hikes were foggy.

There’s something about walking in fog in the middle of a forest. Someone told me once that one of the effects of playing the didgeridoo is that the player is in a kind of trance dream state. It’s an interesting feeling and a little of what the forest fog walks are like. We’d be out there in the middle of the woods listening to the slow drips of dew, lost in our own world of thought, and then a bear would come ambling by. Neither I nor Archie would be surprised. The bear wouldn’t be either. She’d just move on her way.

There were other things that might have seemed surprising too, cars abandoned where there were no roads, a coyote who thought he was alone and playing with an old rag like a pup, stones stacked as monuments by local kids. Nothing was surprising here, and it felt like everything was as it should be out in the cool, nearly silent morning air.

The only thing that’s ever been comparable is that willing suspension of disbelief when I’m reading. It’s dreamtime same as the didgeridoo, same as fog walks. I love a writer who can drag me out into the fogscape and make me believe that not only do I belong there but so does everything else I’m seeing. Pat Barker’s been taking me back to World War One lately. Bonnie Hearn Hill took me on an adventure the other day.

Even better than that though is when I do it to myself. When I get into that space in my own stories, that’s a magic that I haven’t felt since I was ten years old and my conservative teacher forbid me from reading J. R. R. Tolkien. That was the best gift that person could have ever given to me.