A Writer’s Obsession(s)

Whether a writer or not, we all have our obsessions. Here are my top three:

  1. Striving to be a better writer
  2. Giving self-rewards
  3. Balancing writing with “real life”

The ways to strive to become a better writer is first of all read; read within the genre you write and read without. You may also watch; while watching shows, dissect plot or character inconsistences so you won’t. Watch Korean dramas (e.g., W – Two Worlds, or Goblin) to catch unexpected plot twists and characters who pull you out of this world and straight into theirs.

There are writers conferences, books, courses, webinars, writer support organizations (like SCBWI, RWA, NaNoWriMo, etc.), and critique groups. Go to them, join them. Learn, grow, read, make connections.

Of course, to become a better writer, the absolutely top thing to do is to write. A lot.

Giving self-rewards works for many writers. You may write to a word count or within a time frame or have a goal by a certain date. When you reach major goals (e.g., finished with first draft, or ready to send to agent, etc.), treat yourself to a rare and special treat for this milestone.

Balancing writing with “real life” is the trickiest. There may be obligatory events, which you do want to attend, but which take you away from writing, like with school or church or work. There may be children or aging relatives to attend to. Or when the grass climbs to knee-high, you run out of clean dishes to eat off of, or your editor returns your manuscript for edits the night before your vacation, saying she needs it back within the week (true story for me)…you need balance, and wisdom. Prioritize, but do not ignore the most important things to you. (For me, family trumps all, even writing.

Become a better writer. Reach for your goals. Balance your writing with real life.

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The Chipmunk Horrors of Honey Lane

If you are anything like me, you might be of the opinion that chipmunks are very cute. They are perfectly striped critters, with amusing antics. They’re small and darling enough to hold in your hand if you could. When gathering seeds, they can stuff their chunky little cheeks full with nearly their body weight right in their mouths. It’s also fun to watch them in early summer, quickly darting and zigzagging, chasing each other around in early summer.

(Plot twist: the cute transformed to horror.)

These cute little creatures just chased me out of my backyard, into our house.

I find it very unsettling when normally wild creatures, who really ought to be terrified of giant humans hundreds times their size, come within a few feet of said giant, weave around you faster than you can follow them, and even charge at you, running along the fence tops or pausing in the bushes next to you. You saw it go into and climb the bush, watched the branches move, and then freeze at eye-level, your eye-level.

There used to be squirrels in our backyard. We had lots. There were your typical Battle Creek black squirrels as well as the more common grays or browns. But since the 20 or so chipmunks have invaded this year, I’ve not seen a single squirrel here…nor a single strawberry from our ample-leafed patch.

Black squirrels used to be the most aggressive rodents in our backyard animal menagerie; well, and blue jays on the feathered front. That distinction has now been passed on to those cute little chipmunk horrors. At least the squirrels and birds scattered whenever I went outside.

My concerned husband went online to identify humane ways to rid one of chipmunks. Our jar of fox urine (fox = natural predator to rodents) arrived after a couple of days. I sprinkled the elixir around their most popular haunts, as well as near the entrance to their holes in the ground. This appeared to do the trick. For two days. Until it rained and washed away our magic potion. So I redid the ritual, naturally singing softly, “What does a Fox Say?” It wasn’t forecast to rain that night, but it did. Chipmunks! Again!

Further scientific observation made me realize I’d only spotted one or two of these furry little things in our front yard. The difference? Let’s just say that for the next week or two I hope our birdies are not offended, but smart enough to find food elsewhere. After all, it’s partly their fault. You see, our feathered friends like to share the wealth, or they are messy eaters, or perhaps picky eaters, dropping the seeds they do not like. Whatever the case, this scientist will not feed wildlife of any sort for a while. Now to think about how to protect my fruits and veggies growing back there when the little chimpies search for other food.

Wish me luck.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 7, NY Erie Canal

Plot twists don’t have to be concerned just about circumstances, like the surprise at coming upon a wild animal. It can involve other senses, like smell. (So don’t forget to include your sensory awareness in your writings.)

When we lived in New York, and our boys were old enough to be in school, and I had a day off at the same time as Jeff, we would play!

One school day we went canoeing just the two of us along the Erie Canal. We took a side creek and paddled up that for a while through some farmland. I was in the bow with Jeff in the stern as usual. The creek became shallower and shallower, about shin deep, as well as narrower and narrower so we knew we wouldn’t be able to turn around.  We ducked under bushes and branches to proceed through. On either side was a slight hill only as tall as our eye level. Beyond the brushy creek area was farmland – a large pasture with barns in the distance seen over the dip to the creek. It was quite an adventure… until…

I suddenly smelled something “funny.”

We were already paddling very slowly and cautiously around and over the branches that a butterfly could easily have circled us. Being a whole seventeen feet behind me, Jeff couldn’t smell anything unusual. As the smell developed, I told him to slow down even more. Then I threw my hand over my mouth and nose, hardly able to breathe. And then I saw it, half in the water and half out…

The decaying carcass of a very large dead hog.

It seemed about half the size of our canoe and the tip of our canoe bow was coasting to nearly touching it.

“Backpaddle!” I screamed, gagging on the breath required in order to yell out that one word.

Jeff was confused, but only for a moment as the stern of the canoe came into the aroma cloud of decomposition and death.

We moved surprisingly quickly, considering there was no space to turn around and all the branches necessary to recross. We were very soon out of the range of the smell which was bad enough that my eyeballs would have melted were we to have remained that near it any longer.

Side adventure over. When the creek allowed, we turned around and stuck to the familiar urban waterway of the Erie Canal.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 5 — Wisconsin

In the continuing examples of thinking of plot twists pulled from personal experiences, here is another story of a character (me) trying to reach a goal (a river) with a twist and conflict thrown in.

I’m an early bird, rising with the sun and watching the world awake, while my husband’s a night owl, thinking best in the evening or night when there are fewer distractions. We’ve learned to work around our personal clocks.

The spring of the first year we were married (1979), we took a week’s trip to state parks around Wisconsin. We camped one night at Merrick State Park along the Mississippi River. That next morning, I heard a bird call I’d never heard before. It sounded like a cat stuck in the tree above us. I got dressed, left my sleeping husband, and grabbed the binoculars and bird book. Only one other person was awake in the campground, and he was several sites away. I sat at our picnic table and located the bird crying so pitifully and uniquely from its nest and then looked it up in the book. It was a cat bird. Well named!

I looked through the binoculars back at the tree to confirm the markings, following the trunk up towards the nest and noticed movement. A snake was climbing the tree. Who knew? I’d always thought they were ground creatures. Then I recalled that snakes ate eggs. No wonder the cat bird cried so. I could have thrown a rock to knock the snake off the tree, but it would then be on the ground, near me. Besides, there was always the next morning for the snake to make another egg-snatching attempt when I wasn’t there to be guardian of the eggs. I decided not to watch that horror unfold and took a walk alone down to the Mississippi River.

A narrow trail went out through waist-high grass and over mushy, swampy ground to the point extending out into the river. It wasn’t a long trail, about one hundred yards. I imagined that fishermen took this trail to get to the river. I watched the beautiful sunrise-lit bluff on the western side, and stretched up occasionally on tip-toes to try to catch a glimpse of the river. I let my feet be my ground eyes, feeling and judging when the soggy ground would become too wet to support me. I was nearing the end goal and my hiking boots were suddenly sinking in deeper, a couple inches, three inches, uncertain ground. I stopped. I didn’t want to sink up to my knees and be unable to get out with no one knowing where I was so early in the morning. I sadly acknowledged that I wouldn’t reach the very edge of the river, that it was flowing under the tentative ground upon which I stood. I remained still in the soft earth for a quiet moment, reflecting on God’s glory of the early morning, of the quiet, of water all around me, being both a part of water and land. Then, for the first time of the soggy morning hike, I looked down. I needed to turn around and get my bearings of the trail direction through this swamp grass.

To my horror, there at my feet and stretched across and all along as far as I could make out through the curved grass trail were brown snakes with thick diameters of two inches…and long. Hundreds of them, and those were only the ones I could see crisscrossing the narrow trail. What about in the grassy sides to my left and right?

I didn’t pause to measure exactly how long the snakes were. I didn’t even pause a heartbeat to tell God what glory there was in his variety of creation. I did a high-step, sploshy run back to the campsite, only occasionally looking down to try to not step on one—a nearly impossible task. I bolted up the dry hill to our campsite and sat cross-legged on the picnic table until Jeff finally woke up.

Finding out that snakes climbed trees had been difficult enough to swallow. Discovering from a park ranger later that day that these are harmless bullsnakes didn’t calm my heart much. Imprinted in my mind for a thousand years to come was the image of hundreds of large slithering brown snakes, blocking my way to non-snake safety.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 4 – Iowa

In the continuing saga of memories of Carlson animal encounters, and how these are never sought after, but add an interesting twist to our average, ordinary, normal lives, which is exactly how we writers need to think about plot twists in our stories…here is another Carlson true animal encounter story.

When I was five months pregnant, in August, with my first child we had moved to a church in Fort Dodge, Iowa. We moved into the church-owned manse (parsonage, rectory) because we didn’t have the money to afford a down payment on a house of our own, and weren’t familiar enough with the town to know apartment areas. They’d been trying to sell the house for over two years with hardly a nibble or even low bid.

One of our first nights in the manse, while Jeff was off to a night meeting at his new job, I attempted to get the house all ready for the new baby. I’d been working for two or more hours and realized I was exhausted. I sat down on the couch in the library area, and rested my head back. And a bat flapped to within inches of my head, darting off into the living room.

I was concerned about rabies and being pregnant. I was so new to town that I didn’t have any new churches phone numbers, and since this was pre-cell phone era, I couldn’t call or text my hubby. I bolted next-door to my new neighbors to wait for Jeff to come home. Her husband was also gone for the evening. Neither of us felt brave enough to investigate. Besides, she had a sleeping five year old she didn’t want to leave. So we waited until I saw Jeff’s headlights head down the alley and go into the garage.

I explained to Jeff what I’d experienced and we made a quick search of the house. I did not want rabies! During our search, I’d put a sleeping bag over my head and had a badminton racket in my hand to swat the invader away. My husband carried a fishing net at his side. We then did a thorough search of the house closing rooms off that we had checked. We finally thoroughly checked our own bedroom and shut the door to the hallway. We’d found nothing. Being the informed reader that he was, he had read about the nervous conditions and hysteria of pregnant ladies. He was going along with me on this bat search, but he wasn’t exactly believing me without the evidence.

It was a warm night. Our bedroom windows were open, screens in tact. We slept with just a sheet over us. About 5:30 in the morning I heard a sound of wings flap over our heads. I threw the sheet over both of our heads and screamed to Jeff, “We locked it in here with us!”

Now Jeff has never been a morning person and it took him a while to figure out why is she was over his head and why his hysterical pregnant wife was yelling at him. We carefully peeked over the sheet. There was no bat. Again, poor new husband was worried about his wife emotional state, but groggily agreed to search the room…again. This time we found it. I wasn’t hysterically crazy after all. The night creature clung inside the folds of the curtain between the curtain and the window screen.  Jeff tried to shake it loose, but it was clinging pretty tightly. We finally decided to take the screen off the window pulled the curtain over the open window where Jeff then whacked it out of the house with the badminton racket. The only place we figured it could’ve come in was down the chimney.

For good or bad, we didn’t stay in that house for much more than a month after that when we were forced to move, and after all my moving boxes had been tossed and things all ready for the baby. The church had finally, with us moving into it for that “lived-in look”, sold the house.

I often wonder if the next owners also had some bat encounters, and if they figured out how the sneaky night creatures could enter human habitation.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, Part 3 – SD Black Hills

Plot twist are the unexpected. They are what keep the story interesting. A plot twist happens when a character is heading toward his goal when suddenly something or someone unexpectedly appears and changes that course.

Opportunities for plot twists can be observed in real life. This is a story which happened to my husband when we lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

He had a day off when I did not, so he decided to do some mountain biking in the Hills. (Consider this a character goal.) He drove about 45 minutes from our house, got on his bike, and started on a remote mountain trail. He had  the only car in the two-car parking spot along the side of road near the trailhead, and to his knowledge, the only human on the trail that day. Peaceful. At one point the rocky trail became quite steep, so he got off his bike and walked it upward.

A bit of background: When he was a young teen he had hunted with his father and brothers. He was used to being left alone in the forest and listening to the minutest of wilderness sounds. The slightest scratch on tree bark, the sound of moving stones or the soft crunch on pine needles would make him aware that he was not alone.

Back to grown-up Jeff, alone, walking his mountain bike up the trail…

He heard a quiet sound and stopped. He expected to discover a tree which was creaking or spot a squirrel or chipmunk. Those rodents often stop for a first moment of freeze, and then return to their tree climbing or nut searching. But nothing sounded nor caught his eye Since the scurrying had stopped he continued up the trail. He heard a noise again and turned in that direction, but still saw nothing. He was getting a little disturbed when it sounded a third time. He stopped and determined he would not move again until he could identify what made the noise. It certainly wasn’t from a single tree. Then he saw it. About fifteen feet from him. Cougar eyes peeking from behind a boulder.

Jeff’s first thought was how beautiful the animal was, and so close to him that he could see the individual whiskers. His second thought was that even though his mountain bike was between them, that he, walking alone in the hills was in the process of getting stalked by a wild, maybe hungry, certainly overpowering beast.

With this second realization came action. Jeff spun his bike around, leapt upon it, and raced down the trail towards the car. Rocks and pebbles spun out behind him as he swirled around larger boulders. Riding speedily over the rough terrain made for an awfully lot of ruckus in the normally quiet hills. He only looked back after he’d reached the vehicle and strapped the bike on the carrier in a few seconds record-time before climbing into the safety of the car. But there were no more cougar sighting. He figured the noise and the flying pebbles might have discouraged the feline.

In this real life story, our hero didn’t reach his goal of mountain hiking to the top of the hill on little-used trail. But the reason for him not reaching it makes for a great story and was an adventurous twist. A plot twist. He waited for another time to do that particular trail, and to take with him a traveling companion. The cougar’s goal was foiled once. With more human company along and support, the cougar’s goal would mostly likely fail again. Long live wise heroes!

Now as a writing challenge, go think up some plot twists you can toss in the way of your character.

Plot Twists from Animal Encounters, part 1 – NY

Lately I’ve been recalling several wild animal encounters our family has had over the years. I started writing some of them down. I’m only to 10K so far, so not sure it would be enough to make a book. But I thought I’d share one of the encounters here. It made me realize how wild animal encounters are similar to plot twists in our books: they are unexpected.

In the late 1980s and early 1990’s, we lived in Cheektowaga, NY. We were a fifteen-minute drive west to a bridge to Canada, and a half-an-hour drive north to Niagara Falls.

There was a lovely eatery in Tonawanda called Mississippi Muds. It overlooked the Niagara River. We went there a few times for their fabulous ice cream. The entire other side of the road was dedicated to a riverwalk park with several playground areas scattered throughout. Next to the path on the river side, the bank was piled with large rocks to keep the water back and keep the land from slipping into the river. Bikers, runners, strollers, fishermen…the path and park was well used.

We’d gone to Mississippi Muds for an after supper dessert treat. We decided to walk the pathway at sunset while we ate our ice cream. We walked the path in the growing dusk. As it got darker, people began leaving the parkway. We kept on walking, appreciating the time as a family and the fact that there were less and less people to avoid. After a while, we were the only people on the path.

One of the boys spotted a black creature along the rocks which they had been earlier leaping from one to another upon. It looked like a small dog or large cat. We naturally stayed away from it and kept walking, telling the boys to stay on the path now. We came to a small arched bridge going over a narrow runoff leading into the river. We stood on the top of the arch and looked around us in the gathering dark. It felt great to have the park entirely to ourselves. Then I looked down and found we were not alone.

The bank edges and the water below us was alive with movement. It took only a few seconds to realize the movement was not running water, but scrambling animals. The gully was alive with rats, big black rats.

We turned and started jogging the mile or two back to our car. We no longer stuck to the path, for more and more rats appeared from the rocky barrier next to it. We ran parallel to the path, about twenty feet inland, jumping through the playground areas, keeping ever alert and minding our distance from the nighttime creatures of the Niagara River. They were not small dogs. They were not large cats. They were very, very, very big rats.