You write

No doubt about it. Writing is a solitary pursuit. A story idea comes to you. You think about it alone. You research it alone. You write a first draft alone. Revise alone.

In between those steps, if you’re lucky enough to have writing friends and colleagues you trust, you share what you’ve written. You receive criticism, hopefully helpful, but even when it is, YOU have to decide if and how to integrate it into your story.

When it’s polished and perfect, you work on a query letter meant to inform and intrigue literary agents while you investigate said agents to find a good fit for you and your novel.

And then you query. And query. And query.

And wait. And wait. You’re occasionally lucky and get a nibble–a request for 3 chapters, or the whole manuscript. And then, while you wait to hear from those agents, you research others and query some more.

When agents answer with things like ‘solid writing’ or ‘terrific story but not for me’, you read them alone. And when you’re frustrated, you read other writers’ novels. Reading is also a solitary sport.

In singular moments, other story ideas come to you and you begin to think about where this one’s going. And you write.. alone.

You set aside a completed work which hasn’t found a publishing home to complete that second, and a third. You tell yourself it’s not your time, but that that time will come.

And you write.



In a recent writer’s exercise prompt, we were asked to create a character who had done something truly awful, and then see if we could induce readers to sympathize with that character despite his despicable act.

Do you feel some compassion for him?

Guilt, by Donna Rubino, copyright 2016

The killing was easy. Even living with the knowledge he’d done it wasn’t hard. He told himself he had no conscience; had been born without a guilt gene.

When the farm house burned, he’d sat on a tractor near the barn and watched it go up in flames—slow to catch, but then the whole thing—wood siding and roof shingles, all his ma’s homemade curtains and pa’s handmade furniture seemed to pass little spits of fire one to another like dinner servings around the table until a final belch, like Uncle Harry’s after Christmas dinner, sent a fireball skyward.

It had been fascinating the way the roof fell in with a whoosh, and sparks and cinders flew in the sky like the fourth of July fireworks. The walls eventually fell in too, blanketing his parents’ bodies, but the memory of his ma’s stare would go with him to his grave. Not that her look of disappointment made him feel guilty, no, it had only added to his frustration. He wasn’t a farmer and all their telling him he was wasn’t going to change that.

He’d walked into the fields, his ma’s last words, “you always were a mess,” reverberating in his head, and sat, hidden by towering cornstalks when he heard the fire brigade come, but they were way late; and no one even looked for him because he was supposed to be at a cattle sale a hundred miles away.

He sold the farm—every last acre—to developers. They made him a wealthy man.

After that, he’d worked hard to build a business, not that he was running from his ma’s accusation. No. More like he was showing her she was wrong. He invested well, married better. His son was 20 now and at college, a serious, industrious boy like his wife. His daughter Lily was 16 and a handful. She was a dead ringer for his ma; he remembered how she looked in that old wedding photo on the parlor wall. Since that first moment infant Lily had clapped her fingers around his, he was lost to her. Some time early on, Lily’d developed the habit of staring at him, squint-eyed, lips pressed firmly together just like his ma had whenever she’d disapproved of something he’d done.

He told himself it wasn’t guilt that made him keep bailing her out when she got arrested for underage drinking, or busting up a department store when they caught her shoplifting. He did it because she was his daughter and he loved her; and besides, she’d probably inherited his unguilty gene. There was something to be said for that.

But the day she died near killed him.

The police had called. She’d led them on a chase at speeds closing in on 100, from the interstate to the local highway to the back roads that led to the dammed river that protected the town from flood.

On the way to the hospital he and his wife passed her car—what was left of it—wrapped around a tree, the front of it split in two right into the front seat, the engine sitting beside the car as if it had been carefully placed.

His wife raced into the hospital while he parked the car, seeing Lily in the rear view mirror as he backed into a spot, hearing Lily’s baby giggle as the tires squealed against the curb.

In her room in ICU, he couldn’t see much of her. Her head was swathed; there were tubes and machines, more bandages and casts, winches and safety bars protecting every part of her. He swallowed the urge to scream as he sat in a chair beside her. All those beeps, buzzes, and whirring pumps. His wife was speaking quietly with a doctor.

Was this why you raised a child? So she could bedevil you? Tear out your heart? So you could try to save her over and again and still she was hell-bent on suicide? He remembered the time she jumped out of the old oak tree and broke both ankles; the time she tried riding her bike over the earthen dam at high water and was swept away and almost drowned.

He touched her hand. It was barely warm. He slid his fingers under her palm.

She turned her head toward him, and, despite intubation, pressed her lips together, eyes squinting his way. And then her lips parted. “Mess,” she said, and flat-lined.

A pain skewered his heart, a fire hotter than the one he’d set that night long ago. He heard a scream, but only realized it was his as his head hit the floor.

Whining about wine

A departure here from my usual never-to-be-missed ruminations about writing, or those dazzling reviews of recently read novels. (And yes I know I’ve fallen down on the reviewing job lately but I lost my reporter’s fedora and I’m useless never mind witless without it.)

Today’s blog post is about foibles. Yes. Foibles. And wine. To be explicit, my weakness is the inability to pick the correct wine–i.e., the one I’ve been tasting in my memory but can’t reproduce in real life with real alcohol.

You see, in real life a Cote du Rhone or Beaujolais Nouveau would be perfect. Unfortunately, it’s mid-spring, and you don’t want a Beaujolais Nouveau now. It’s, well, it’s not nouveau anymore. It’s past its prime and can be akin to cotton. Maybe it’s good for bathing. But no, the Japanese do that in hot springs fortified with Beaujolais Nouveau in November.

And though I’m told gamay grapes–those which make the fresh and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau–have been described as the ‘younger sibling’ of pinot noir, I never liked pinot noir. But I allowed myself to be convinced that this was what I wanted and came home with a bottle of a Burgundy region Beaujolais blend.

It wasn’t light, and the dryness was overwhelming. In fact, all we could taste was dry. No grape. No fruit. Not even leather (though I don’t know who’d want their wine to have leather notes. All I think of regarding leather notes are saddle cinches. Not pleasant.)

Not to waste the bottle, I dredged up a favorite old chicken recipe that calls for a sauce composed of a butter/flour roux, a 6 oz can of tomato paste, and the 26 oz bottle of dry red wine. Of course, there are herbs and slivers of raw ham added, but you get the gist.

The sauce was superb.

I crossed the gamay blend off my list and trekked back to the wine shop.

“I’d like a grenache,” I said, and was instructed that that grape originated in Spain, where it’s routinely blended with other varieties.

I bought a bottle blended with Syrah (or Shiraz). It was drinkable, but while not full-bodied or heavy, it lacked the fruitiness I wanted, and so I used half the bottle along with some sugar to poach pears. They were yummy.

Back to the store. By this time, I didn’t want to be lectured. I was downright demanding. I wanted a true grenache and that’s all I wanted. A Cote du Rhone, I told the wine expert.

He told me that they, too, are usually blended–over 80% grenache in the Southern Rhone area of France, and sold me a Chateauneuf du Pape.

I thought ‘I have struck gold!’ I knew the region. Knew the grape. Its tannins would be very subtle, its nose fruity, its body light. But when I got home, I saw the blend was only 59% grenache.

Now, I don’t think I failed to make myself clear. Writing fiction, which is what I do, demands clarity–of images, actions, setting. And so I’m sure I explained myself well. Whether the wine merchant understood me or had his own ulterior motives is another issue.

I haven’t opened the bottle yet. I’m saving it for Sunday supper. I sure hope it’s what I want because honestly, I don’t have any more recipes that use a 26 oz. bottle of dry red wine.




The birth of a minor character

Among the many rules for creating good fiction are these: that conflict must ratchet up the tension continually throughout the story, and that all characters—even bit-part players—should be fully fleshed out. They should be physically described—even if it’s only in shorthand, and have a backstory that sets them firmly in the story. Paramount, they must have a reason to be there.

And so Father Thomas Roos elbowed his way into The Luck of Two Magpies after another minor character, Father Cletus of Escomb, was murdered.

I knew nothing about him and so I resorted to my usual method for familiarization, I asked him questions. Here are his answers.

I am Thomas Roos. I was born and raised in Bishop Auckland, a wealthy market town in the Durham diocese and home to the Durham Prince Bishops’ Auckland Castle. My father and mother and their siblings were born and raised here. My closest companion as a lad was my cousin Cletus. We attended the school supported by the Church of St. Andrew in Bishop Auckland.

When Cletus was 6, his father was gored to death by a boar. When Cletus was 8, his widowed mother remarried, this time to a farmer met at market, and moved with her children to Escomb, a separation that affected me greatly. My own father was not an easy man to please, and though I am chastened to admit it, often I did bully my cousin Cletus to feel some sense of empowerment.

In time, we did both became priests. I did so to escape my fate as father’s whipping boy, but more so because I was ambitious. My cousin Cletus, who loved letters from the first time he put chalk to slate, entered the priesthood because he had no talent for anything but ‘scribe-ing.’

I met Father Justin at a synod in Durham. As I sensed the same sort of ambition in him, and in truth was impressed by his royal stature, I applied for the position as his secretary, and was accepted. Father Justin knew I was acceptable to the King as trustworthy for passing messages, but ittle did Justin know but that our King, ever suspicious of his cousins Beaufort because they were his Uncle John’s progeny, had recruited me to spy on Father Justin.

And now, my ambition may lead me to outdo Father Justin in bringing down the House of Grifon and in gaining greater favour with His Grace King Richard. I was on my way to accomplishing this when I made myself agreeable to Lady Elisa. Her trust enabled me to spend time at Grifon’s writing desk, sampling his ledgers. This is the way to bring Grifon down—not through reporting treasonous activities, but by proving the man withheld monies owed to the King. It would be a triple satisfaction. Bringing down Grifon, besting Father Justin, and gaining justice for my cousin’s murder, for I am certain that either Beaufort or Grifon ordered it.

Whether he succeeds or not, we’ll have to wait to see. As of now, Father Thomas has gone silent.

Don’tcha just hate it when a good story ends?

Downton Abbey, the acclaimed PBS Masterpiece series, has ended after six exciting seasons. The main characters all received happily ever afters: Lord and Lady Grantham, hale and hearty, parental duty done, have grandchildren in the nursery. Robert has Mary and Tom to help run the estate, and Cora has her hospital work. Mary and Henry, Edith and Bertie, and Isobel Crawley and Richard Grey have all happily married. The indomitable Dowager Countess Violet is healthy and as pithy as ever. Barrow has metamorphosed from his self-centered, angry, conniving self into a man who realizes the value of friends and ‘home’ and has earned the title Butler, while Mrs. Hughes and Carson retire on Downton property with a pension, and Anna and John Bates have a son. Fellowes has even left us with a hint that Tom Branson might find favor with Edith’s new magazine editor.

What made it a hit? The attention to period detail in fashion and costuming, in history and news, in servants and service? In the interplay of station upstairs and downstairs? The beauty of Highclere Castle and  its natural surrounds?

All that, and the uniqueness of the characters and their personalities, certainly. The drama, births and deaths (and occasional resurrection… or maybe not), the interplay of fate as crafted by Fellowes and by history with these characters, surely.

Did we love Mary at her bitchy best? No, but we did love to hate her for it. Did we root for Edith to earn a happy ending through all those seasons? Yes, and were disappointed, as often happens in life. And dear Sybil. How we cried at her death, and our hearts broke knowing that Tom would have to raise their darling daughter without her.

We made it through the war to end all wars, through turning the Abbey into a hospital, went from horse and carriage to horseless carriage, watched candles give way to electricity, and telegrams to telephone. We saw the modern evolution of the kitchen–fridge, toaster, mixer, and all.

We learned that Cora was one of the golden era American princesses whose parents married them to British nobility, surrendering fortunes to gain them titles. Thankfully, for Cora and Robert, it was a love match–even if he didn’t seem to let us know it initially. But even that rang true. After all, his upper class Victorian and Edwardian upbringing didn’t allow for public displays of affection, so his coolness was appropriate. But in time, Fellowes warmed him up.

Thing is, all of this is what makes for a great novel. The depth of fully realized characters, the tension and conflict between them, their goals, and the world their occupy. Drama, Humor. Setting. Detail. Story. Story. Story.

Downton may have ended, and will remain a fond memory for many of us, but that empty Sunday night space only means an extra hour or so each week that we can lose ourselves in a really great novel.

The rooster crows, the hatchet falls

When Jenny was four, her dad brought home a dozen adorable fuzzy yellow chicks for Easter–Peeps come to life! She was delighted when he said she could raise them, and helped him set up a quasi-chicken coop in the garage of their tract home on suburban Long Island. Jenny fed them Cheerios every morning. Mom was downstairs a lot, so Jenny knew she saw to their other needs.

She didn’t know whether dad had intended to butcher them from the get-go or not, but it seems his hand was forced when several of the chickens turned out to be roosters who woke the neighborhood every morning at 5 am with their crowing. That, and the loud, cackling squabbles that broke out several times a day, necessitated their demise.

She never wondered if dad knew what to do. After all, he wasn’t farm raised. He grew up in the Bronx. So did mom. Jenny just assumed he did. After all, he was Dad. So, she matter-of-factly watched as dad set up a wide board in the laundry room atop mom’s washer and dryer one June day, and she kissed each bird goodbye before dad chopped their heads off. She wasn’t squeamish. No. She was curious, and observant, fascinated as a few ran around the laundry room floor, headless, and others continued to flap their wings, sending a flurry of down and feathers skyward to fall gently after the guillotine had dropped and dad tossed their heads into the slop sink. She was delighted with the chicken foot he gave her, especially when he showed her how to make the claws open and shut by pressing one particular spot.

She tucked the treasure in her pocket, and gave the whole exercise no more thought, knowing that dad said he’d pluck the chickens and mom would be the one to clean the blood spatter from her sparkling white appliances and always spotless cement floor.

Shortly thereafter–at least in her four-year-old frame of reference–six-year-old Joey came knocking on her door.

“Can I play with Jenny?” he asked.

She was so happy when mom let him in. Other kids were gone for the summer at camp and she was lonely, but it wasn’t long before Jenny broke a vase trying to pitch Joey a ball. She’d given no thought to what a baseball could do to inanimate objects, and she had no idea how to make a ball go straight when she threw it.

Mom banished them to the backyard.

“What do you want to play now?” Jenny asked, eager to please the only playmate she’d had in what felt like forever. He proposed follow the leader, and so she trooped after him down the slide, then up it, and then they played Simon Says, which she really didn’t understand and lost interest in. She didn’t have rollerskates, and Joey wasn’t allowed to use his brother’s skateboard, so she was at a momentary loss as to what to do.

And then inspiration struck.

“Let’s play house,” she said. “I’ll be the mommy and you be the daddy.”

Joey agreed, and raked a stick across the sparse grass of the lawn, while Jenny knelt and pulled what she thought were weeds like her mom did.

Joey dropped the stick and dusted off his hands. “There. Yardwork done,” he said while glancing about.

Jenny knew with some certainty he was bored and that she could lose her playmate, and so she hopped to her feet. “Time to kill the chickens!” she said, and explained about the hatchet, the blood, the headless carcasses fleeing the scene. To make it more interesting, she pulled the chicken foot out of her pocket and showed Joey how the claws clenched and unclenched.

Joe paled, looking a lot like the white hens themselves had, and then he said, “Mom’s calling. I gotta go.”

What goes into an antagonist?

Recently, I’ve been mulling over the effective traits of antagonists, so it was ironic that  the commercials of a particular yogurt company I’d been aware of worked as a primer in creating those traits.

The first two commercials, which aired around mid-year 2015, featured a kind of spunky brunette in 60s mod fashion who danced around while a voice-over in mock-French accent proclaimed good news–the product had reduced its sugar content by 25%. And, as the French-accented voice insisted, the yogurt still tasted good–or “gyud”.

That high-pitched voice didn’t sell either sincerity or ‘gyud-ness’ to me, but I thought she’d make a ‘gyud’ devil in angel’s clothing type of antagonist. After all, who’d think this cutesy innocent capable of malevolent activities, of acting on some deep-seated personal desire, or capable of vengeance? Terrific!

Then came a commercial featuring a burly bald man in a lovely gray suit who looked like he belonged either in a boxing ring or working for the mob. His stomach rumbled as he strove to convince us that dining on his tiny cup of yogurt with what appeared to be a demitasse spoon would assuage his hunger.

i didn’t buy it. Of course, this actor’s been seen on TV and in the movies, and surprise of surprises, among his many roles he’s played a boxer and a bounder. Well, he’d work as an antagonist based on his all-too-cultivated malevolent looks alone. I mean, he looks like a bad guy. But if satiating his hunger with tiny spoons and such manly victuals as yogurt is his thing, I fancy him as my type of quirky brainiac antagonist; perhaps, the industrialist ex-Nazi type who plans to eliminate mankind and create a new world a la Ian Fleming’s Dax character, highly if bizarrely motivated (at least to finish his yogurt).

After those two, the company released a commercial that features some poor fella on a ladder waiting for permission to pick fruit, while a young woman in farm duds stands below in the orchard. After telling him ‘not yet’ a few times, she finally yells “Pull that peach!”

Of course, I didn’t understand her command the first few times the commercial aired, and when I finally did, I thought the exercise silly.

But I know what kind of antagonist she’d play, a dominatrix, maybe seeking a partner with sticky fingers for a bank heist. Clearly, he’d play her minion–no, not like Stuart, Kevin or Bob–but the unquestioning dupe in her evil plans. I can see her hiding her nefarious deeds, using her minion as a foil. As for him, I presume he’d be an adaptable minion, and therefore, in the end, might overtake his dominatrix antagonist out of revenge and claim supreme power–bwah-ha-ha!

The most recent commercial viewed features mom, dad, son and daughter, lounging about the kitchen spooning yogurt into their mouths. Of course, as their mouths are full, all they can manage are eyebrow wiggles, smiles, and a lot of ‘mm-mm’s.

This cast put me in mind of happy-go-lucky soldiers of the dark, the zombies who unconditionally follow their evil master’s commands, their brainlessness mirrored in their empty smiles and their ‘mm’ing sounds. In the end, they too, might turn on their leader and become more amorally ruthless than he was.

So, yes, all of these commercial characters are candidates for antagonists, either with annoying qualities that would enhance their vicious deeds, or with innocuous qualities that clearly must hide a diabolical mind.

So ultimately, what goes into an antagonist? Yogurt. And no, I don’t remember the brand.

The best, the bad, and the ugly

For writers, one of the greatest worlds to drop in on is a writer’s conference. One of the best on the North American continent is held each year in a suburb of Vancouver, BC, called Surrey. The Surrey International Writers Conference is an annual event that draws writers of fiction and nonfiction, agents, editors, and luminaries from the publishing world. It’s earned its ‘international’ status, as writers come from Canada, the US, Europe, and farther. Many years it’s a sellout. This year, its 23rd annual installment, was one of those, with about 600 in attendance for 3 days of sessions geared to beginner and advanced, fiction and nonfiction writers, with opportunities to pitch to agents, and have your work vetted by published authors and editors.

It’s always an engrossing conference, rich in opportunities for polishing skills, deep-diving into new elements of craft you’ve been dying to explore, and flexing creative muscles that are just itching to be worked.

Most first timers are agog at the variety of offerings and the bonhomie of other attendees. Most repeat attendees relish the creative atmosphere, the opportunity to meet other writers and talk craft, books, and shop, and to renew friendships face to face.

The Surrey International Writers Conference is certainly the best.

The bad is, well, seeing it end and having to leave, knowing your batteries won’t be charged as well until next year.

The cost of attending a conference isn’t cheap but it’s always worth it. The cab ride to and from the conference, however, isn’t so lovely. About $80-85 Canadian. But that’s not the ugly.

The Ugly is having your flights delayed both ways, and worrying if you’ll make your connecting flights, and in some cases not making them at all. I’ve learned over the years to seek connecting flights at least 90-120 minutes apart… just in case. (And yes, I’m snobbish enough to wonder why there aren’t any direct flights from my home town. It’s NYC for Pete’s sake!) And I am appreciative of the flight info updates I get on my phone. I understand flight delays or paths changed due to bad weather.

But when an outbound flight is first declared to be 60 minutes, then 90 minutes, and finally 2 hours late, and the reason given is that ‘debris’ got in the way of a door closing and ruined the seals so that a new plane had to be put into service, well, <sigh>.Maybe I give them a point for originality.

I know airlines realize we are captive audiences. They also want our business. Without it, they have no airline. Likewise, all the cutbacks have forced patrons to expect and settle for less, but it doesn’t mean we are content with less. Altered flight times are unacceptable to everyone–business people with meetings to make, families on vacations who have paid for hotel rooms and theme park tickets going unused because of delays, conference presenters who miss their speaking and session engagements.

Ugly. Purely. I won’t name the airline. I tweeted about it from the airport so they’ll go un-noted here. But as they say, ‘vote with your feet’ or in this case with your wings, I’ll not book with them next year.

Marketing’s nothing new

In honor of the Halloween  season, a friend and I took a lantern walk through the Sleepy Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (640x480)Hollow Cemetery last night. Unfortunately, no apparition guided our walk, and no spirit appeared beside his monument.

Still, the evening was lovely, and the monuments were gorgeous, so beautiful, in fact, that I wished it was daylight so the pictures I took would do them better justice.

We learned about architectural differences, for instance, the Rhinelander family, a familiar name in New York history and society since the 17th century, has two mausoleums seated side by side. One built in 1890, and one built in 1905. Those 15 years saw a change from the Gothic style popular in the latter Victorian era to a more Classical style in the early 1900s.

Gothic style 1890

1890 Gothic style

1905, Classic in granite.

1905, Classic in granite.

There were monuments in granite, in marble, and in a wonderfully clean, white (though our guide said it was pale blue) and smooth stone-looking material that wasn’t really stone. It was poured and cast zinc! Cheaper than either marble or granite, doing away with the necessity of a stonecutter, the monuments were particularly appealing.
Zinc poured monument

A monument to those who died in the Revolutionary War (erected in 1890) sat atop a high point where lookouts during the War could see the City (New York City) and the Hudson River, and watch for British incursions by land and sea. With the moon overhead, it was easy to imagine them sitting around a fire watching for the enemy.

Watching the city and the river (640x572)

There are so many important people buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery that they’d fill a book! George Jones, co-founder of the New York Times, Brooke and Jacob Astor, Andrew and Louise Carnegie, Edward “Major” Bowes, John D. and brother Lawrence Rockefeller, and so many soldiers, artists, the occasional politician, philanthropists and journalists it boggles the mind.

One of my favorite inhabitants, however, has to be Washington Irving (1783-1859), lawyer, diplomat, and internationally famous author of short stories, histories, essays, and biographies. (My photo was distant and very dark, but here’s one that’s perfect.) It’s ironic that a D student who hated school should grow to write classics that are required reading for students today. Of course, his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is renowned as a seasonal favorite.

But Irving’s masterstroke of marketing occurred in 1809, when he posted a series of missing person notices in New York newspapers seeking one Diedrich Knickerbocker, a Dutch historian who’d gone missing from his New York City hotel.

For months afterward, people would write him with Knickerbocker sightings, that he’d been seen upstate, or claiming that  he didn’t look well and should be taken in and cared for. New York City officials even considered offering a reward for his safe return.

So, when Irving published the satire “A History of New York” by Diedrich Knickerbocker in December of 1809, he’d already created a following clamoring for Mr. Knickerbocker and his book. Sheer genius.

Oh, and Ichabod Crane? Real fella. It seemed Irving had a habit of using the names of people he met or knew for characters in his works.

Mr. Crane was not amused.

Night sky at cemetery (640x480)


Writing about relationships… in the fast lane

They say write what you know, and so many of my stories revolve around relationships–with mates, children, friends, and pets. These relationships inevitably feature humor, pathos, frustration and the patience to endure, all the result of human interaction.

This post, a short story entitled Life in the Fast Lane, is one example of how real life informs fiction.