Historical Fiction — The Halloween Factor

Halloween comes from hallow (or holy) eve, and represented the night before November 1st, which is All Saint’s Day, which started in the 8th century. Sometimes spooky things (e.g., gargoyles) were used to scare away evil things so All Saint’s Day would be clean, a tradition carried over, most likely, from the Celts who celebrated their new year after the harvest was gathered, on November 1.

In my grandfather’s teen-time, Halloween was a time for playing jokes on neighbors, like putting their outhouse (privy, porta potty) up on the house roof and having hot cider and homemade doughnuts. In my father’s youth, Halloween was the time for popcorn balls and wearing creepy masks to scare the daylights out of younger children. When I was an adolescent, Halloween was the time for trick-or-treating door-to-door (with out parental supervision) while in costume, and collecting either candy, an apple, or penny for UNICEF from strangers. When my boys were young, Halloween was a time to pass out candy from our house and go trick-or-treating in our neighborhood for about an hour, and then come home to check for razor blades or opened candy packages. Today, Halloween is about cars set up in a parking lot and kids going from car trunk to car trunk to get candy and having a full bagload in thirty minutes.

Even though my husband and I have loved participating in Halloween activities, spooky music and decorations and candy and toy choices for doorbell ringers, we have noticed that there are fewer and fewer kids coming door-to-door for candy from strangers. Why would they want to when they can do all their free-candy-getting in a parking lot or go buy a bag of their favorite kind themselves?

Historical fiction is interesting – what people did. Science Fiction is curious – what people might do.

With the gory horror films available today to people of all ages, what does a scary mask do for the scare factor? And who or what gets scared away? With bags of candy so available in stores, why get a bunch of stuff you don’t even like? Neighborhoods have changed. Kids don’t play outside much any more. Free-range kids are turned in to police. It all makes me wonder…

What will Halloween look like in 2050?

Old Friends — True Characters

This past spring, Chris, an old high school friend, discovered during a regular mammogram check up that she’d developed cancer. Although she has an exceptional support system with family and doctors, like any reasonable person facing the unknown, Chris wanted all the support and prayers she could muster. She contacted seven high school classmates to form a Circle of Friends around her, and let us know at the same time what is happening to her.

Even though it’s been decades since we’ve seen each other, even though we seven come from different family units, different faiths, different life experiences and philosophies, we wholeheartedly agreed to support our friend Chris through group on-line communication.

We are so unique from each other, it makes me wonder how we were ever friends in the first place. And yet, we were. And yet we are.

When I develop characters in my books, I sometimes pick traits from true characters–people I know. Someone who is bold. Someone who is betrayed. Someone who did something out of character (so, what lies beneath?). Also, I consider how characters view each other. Do they see someone who is unafraid on the outside, yet the character is actually terrified on the inside? The person’s reaction to conflicts (like cancer or life or death, or someone with an alternate view) prove a person’s true character. Observation and thought not only gives understanding in real life, but is wonderful writing fodder.

Though all the trials of life, and through all our differences, we in the Circle of Friends remain friends How contrary this is to the faceless Internet strangers who so easily stir up word-trouble with their comments. Can your characters be distinct enough from the others, yet retain their individuality, and yet be able to change? Ah, the wonderful challenges of writing!

Today’s Writing Challenge: Pick two of your characters. Make a list of five inner traits which make them unique. Pick two of the most polar traits between them, then put them into a situation where these differences cause feelings to escalate, i.e., conflict–something every good story needs today. Write a scene how they work out (or not) their differences.

Have a great writing week.

Hurricane Sandy and Me

Since storms started getting names besides “the big one of ’32” or the like, I always thought it would be cool to have a storm named after me. But with my first initial so far down the alphabet, and the storm season usually running out before they reach the S’s, I held out little hope. Until now: Hurricane Sandy. Yay. It’s just the beginning of her landfall today. I would have preferred just a small tropical storm which didn’t do any damage, but the reports are starting to come in.

I am very sad to hear today’s news about the sinking of the HMS Bounty’s. I had the opportunity to walk her deck when she was moored in Cleveland, Ohio, for a tall ships race several years ago. Worst of all is the tragic loss of life, or at least as of this writing, the report of two missing crew members. Secondly is the loss of history. Not being a book-reader as a child, I did read true adventure stories, so I loved the book. I loved most of all the truth behind the book (and movie) which did not make it into either one. The news of her sinking is as if a part of me killed off a part of me. I really hope HS doesn’t do much more damage.

You’d think so far inland like we are, that we wouldn’t be affected by sea storms. Not so. When the clouds of Hurricane Ike headed north from the Gulf, it rained on us here in Michigan for four straight days and nights and our house developed leaks in many rooms. Two new roofs later (counting the second one from our 110 mph storm seventeen months ago which sent trees into our house), our current area forecast resulting from Hurricane Sandy way over here is to expect 55 mph gusts and snow by morning. Whatever did we do without forecasts? Actually, the answer to that is a lot less worrying about what may or may not happen, plus the facts that lots of unwarned people died and lots of property was lost.

Well, I’m filling up the tub of water for tonight for the possible electrical outage related to Sandy. I always have a dozen water jugs filled in the garage. For, if our power goes out, so does the pump to our water. It’s amazing how essential water is to our daily living. I have my storm bag packed up and in the basement. We’re keeping the heat on overnight at 68 degrees. Usually we have it at 62, but if there is snow and no power, our poor house and its inhabitants will stay warm for a bit longer tomorrow. I’d rake more of our yard before the snow turns the leaves to near-cement consistency, but with the wind a’blowin’ the way it is, I don’t see the use.  Hopefully, all this preparation will be for naught. Still, I pray for the safety of people in the wide path of Hurricane Sandy.

However, in my fictional stories, none of this preparation or worry about what might happen ever goes to waste. It’s only more storm experience to add to the trouble I can put my poor characters into. So, if you, too, are affected by this storm, batten down the hatches and make sure you put into your storm bag those old-fashioned writing tools of pen and pencil and paper.

True Character and Priorties Displayed at the Toot of a Horn

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I had come to a stop sign at a T intersection. The cross-traffic did not have to stop. But I was certain the car coming from my left was going to turn down my road. He was driving slowly, much slower than the speed limit, and even swerved to his right, heading towards me. He straightened up the wheel, and as he drove past, I saw his iPhone held up at eye-level and over where a passenger’s head might be. He wasn’t talking into it, but his thumb was quite active. Well, mystery driving accounted for.

I followed him the block to the traffic light. Actually, not exactly followed, for he swung into the other lane a couple of times. The light changed green several yards before he reached the intersection, but his break lights went on and he was coming to a stop. Green light. Stop. Pedestrians stood on each of the corners. One not daring to step into the street. He probably saw the driver was texting. The other started to cross the street against the light, to go in front of him.

That’s when I did it. I don’t do it very often at all, maybe once a year. I tooted my car horn so the guy would pay attention and not run over or into anyone. What was this man’s reaction? He looked in his rear-view mirror and raised his phone at me. I think he was attempting to flip me the bird, but all I saw was a raised phone.

So what is the true character and priority of this driver? Certainly not anything legal. Safety of others isn’t too high on his list. And to attempt an offensive sign to someone…

Time for a writing exercise. Round him out as a character: Give him a name. Who was he texting? Why was it so urgent? Where was he coming from? Going to? Who is is best friend? How did they get into trouble two years ago? How many girlfriends does this guy have? Occupation? How many times a week does an exclamation or bird-flipping event happen? Who has mentioned “anger management” to him and under what circumstance?

Real life. Real characters. Write them into your fictional ones. How would YOUR main character react to a toot of a horn?

Storm Exposed, Part II

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Last June, I posted how after the storm took down our trees, I felt exposed. To give you an idea of what happened here: A year ago, from our living room window even after the leaves fell off the trees, we could only see parts of two neighbor’s houses and the door of a shed. Today, looking out that same living room window, I see parts or all of thirteen houses, six sheds, and two detached garages. It’s like we moved from a wooded park, to a new housing development, like from “Hidden Forest” to “Prairieview.”


We used to keep our living room window curtains opened day and night, we now close them at night. I feel like I live in a cave. I feel like we’ve moved without actually moving. And why write about all this in a writing post? I must remember it. Writing fodder. Someday when I’m not as close to it — our yard is still trashed from downed trees, especially our tiny back yard — I will remember the feelings and the experience and incorporate them into a tale. It’s all good.

Emotional Beginnings (to stories)

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Writers are told that in order to draw readers into your story, we must present many emotions in the first couple pages. This summer, I’ve experienced and stored up enough emotional beginnings to start and make plot twists in dozens of novels. It started with the catastrophe (tornado or straight line winds), and continues so much more beyond mere storm damage.

It involves an anticipated birth, an accidental death, and a suicide. There is abuse as well as over-the-top generosity. There is mystery in a friend’s past, and the mystery in a neighbor’s silent move in the middle of the night. There is a new sky-view with hot air balloons, aeronautics, fireworks, constellations, blueness and sun. There is fear for our lives, and joy in the anticipation of hoped-for realities. It’s been a summer of emotional extremes, and I’m trying to remember what “the lazy days of summer” means.

My task as a writer: to absorb these experiences, the good and the mysterious and the horrid, step back, and translate them onto paper.

What are your real (emotional) adventures this summer? Write them out now, even as “rough drafts,” before their rawness fades.

Tree Removal Guys (and Gals)

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Four weeks ago tomorrow, the storm came through our neighborhood. Both damaged and living trees continue to be cut down and chipped or hauled off. (Four weeks! Have I mentioned that we lived in a heavily wooded area before the storm knocked down our trees?)

The tornado/ 100 mph straight line winds struck here at 4:29 Sunday evening on May 29. Within a couple of hours, neighbors and relatives of neighbors were out with their chainsaws, getting some of the branches off of houses, clearing some of the trees to make a single path along the road. This was a bit nerve-wracking to watch, especially with across-the-street Mark’s grandkids running around, and occasionally parents yelling at them to get out from beneath the limbs they were sawing.

Although no injuries happened at the time of the storm, that dark Sunday evening (without power, naturally), as our next door neighbor’s son-in-law was chain-sawing a large limb from one of the several trees on Rob’s house, the limb’s weight swung around and knocked his feet out from under him. He fell 20’ to the ground and got a large gash on his head and didn’t know where he was. The fire truck and ambulance had to park two blocks away because of the fallen trees across the roads. Watching in the twilight as the EMTs rolled that stretcher down the debris-strewn road is an image I won’t easily forget.

The next day (Memorial Day), our son came in from Milwaukee with a new chainsaw and sawed away for his 24-hour stay. Ironically, seven years ago, when we moved from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Michigan, we’d given away our own chainsaw because we were moving from the Hills to a city in a populated state. We’ve needed a chainsaw here a lot more than we ever did in the Black Hills.

For the two weeks following the storm, professional tree removal services crowded our narrow little street with no painted lines upon it. There were literally dozens of companies represented both from town and from all over the state. We have no curbs and gutters. Our lawns near the road became muddy parking areas filled with heavy trucks.

The day after the storm, we called the local C&D tree service, recommended by neighbor Mark. We could never get a hold of them. Whenever a tree removal truck drove past, we all watched it like salivating dogs. Please come take the trees off our houses. On Wednesday, a woman canvassed the neighborhood, taking down names of people for Joe (not his real name) to come and remove the trees from our house. Four days later, after my husband called Joe to find out when he’d be coming. Joe got mad at him and grouched that he was different from all the other tree removal services because he completely finished one job at a time before moving on, but he’d be there the following afternoon. That evening, an out-of-town man knocked on our door. (Contractors and roofers and tree and stump removal companies knocked on our door from 6:15 am, at the earliest, to 9 pm.) He talked us into at least getting a bid on our tree removal, even though Joe was to come the next day. Joe hadn’t even seen our house and yard. He hadn’t made a bid for removal. He was just going to come cut trees away and haul them off, and then tell us how much we owed. This out-of-town guy was friendly, happy, and gregarious. Although he seemed expensive ($4,000), we liked him, but we had made this verbal commitment with unseen Joe. Neighbor Sue gave us the name and number of their company, coming Wednesday, no, Thursday, no, Friday. We were discovering that there was no uniform way of contacts with tree-removal people, with some giving bids, and some not.

The following afternoon, Thursday, we received a generator from friends who had power restored to their neighborhood. The C&D company we’d called, but never could get a hold of, was cutting the part of our tree which had fallen on neighbor Julie’s house. They had stopped at our property line, which was what we’d expected. It would be less tree for our own people to remove. My husband and I went into the basement doing generator-related things. When we emerged an hour later, we’d discovered we had a ten foot trunk stump in our front yard. They had cut the rest of the tree off our house! Yay! But… Surprise! My husband went out and negotiated the full yard, then cancelled grumpy Joe who was to come later that day, or whenever.

So, we went from trying to contact one company, to agreeing to Joe’s removal service by some woman (never sure about her relationship to Joe), to actually getting a bid we never used, to the original company cutting off our trees without our knowledge.

We’ve had convicts remove shoulder-high brush hauled to the roadside. We’ve had another city come to remove our hickory tree close enough to the road to be considered city property. I’ve seen two wooded lots, across the street and to our west, harvested and bulldozed down. Our eastern next door neighbor sold two of the three surviving living trees bordering our yards and providing welcomed shade. (I’ve heard people can get paid $2,000 to $5,000 per tree, if they like it. They didn’t like any of ours.) Our neighbor’s two trees were harvested and removed in one afternoon. And now it seems we’ve returned to family and friends cutting down trees. The remaining oak, about twenty feet from our living room picture window, is being removed by volunteers from their church.

Two days ago, these young people (at first I thought they were the youth group) put up four levels of scaffolding surrounding the tree and cut off the lower branches damaged in the storm. It’s now day three of continual working and music playing, including cutting some of the fallen trees at the back of the property. I’m guessing our neighbors are gone for this, since the workers have asked to fill their water bottles from our outside spickets, which is fine with us. Have I mentioned that these trees are huge? Up beyond the scaffolding, they have nailed sections of 2” x 4” strips to the trunk as a ladder. It reminds me of an old way of getting up to a tree house, but those were closer to the ground. Then, these people drag a chainsaw with them as they climb and sit on a limb to saw a higher limb. No helmets. No goggles. Fuddy-duddy me simply can’t look. I’m waiting to find a human limb falling from 100’ instead of a tree limb. I’m waiting to find a once-youthful body impaled on our chain link fence far below.


My writer-imagination is worse than reality. (I hope.) I just can’t decide whether to draw the drapes and ignore them, or keep a nonchalant eye out on them, with my phone nearby, of course, ready to dial 911 if necessary. Maybe I should just write – I mean, non-blog writing.

Bzzz. Bzzzz…

Gotta go.


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Today, I took a raking-break in and from our backyard. I sat on the swinging bench in the shade on our patio, looking north. The storm (tornado or 100 mph straight line winds) has changed our yard from 90% shade to 90% sun. Today I noticed our next door neighbor’s shed crushed beneath a tree. Before the storm, the shed was hidden by woods. Another strange thing is to see a neighbor’s blue tarped roof – so common a sight around here these days. The thing is, I never realized there was a house that close to us! Then, during my work break-pause, a ‘dart’ caught my eye. I looked out and realized I can now see and hear traffic on busy four-lane Columbia, three blocks away. Before the storm Columbia Avenue was also hidden from our yard by one hundred foot tall oaks.

I feel so exposed. Of course, getting dressed each morning in the living room, because that’s where our dressers are while our bedroom walls get replaced, doesn’t help.

With our trees gone, I no longer feel I am part of a quaint, forested neighborhood, but now part of a city. My eyes have city vision from our property v.s. the wooded park-like area we moved into seven years ago.

Okay. The good side to being exposed? (Think. Think. Brainstorm.)

First, I get to see my neighbors more – physically. It makes us more neighborly, I think, to have to eyeball one another.

Secondly, I get to see Baby Hawk, who is also exposed. The red-tail hawk couple built a nest in the tree across the street a couple of months ago. As the trees leafed-out in early May, I’d lost sight of the hawks, although I could occasionally hear them. Their tree survived the storm. The baby chick flaps to the top of a tree at the end of our driveway, and sits on the top dead branch for most of the day. Yes, it sits. I’m not sure it’s coordinated enough to call what it does as roosting.

Thirdly, when the hot air balloons come, like they do every 4th of July, and I hear the “fffft” overhead, I’ll be able to run out and see where the balloons are right away v.s. having to hunt for them through the leaves and branches like some grand puzzle search.

And fourthly, on clear nights, I can see constellations, entire constellations, instead of merely a star here and a star there.

So, how can I pull this back into writing? Setting. This post is definitely all about setting, and perhaps a bit about what a person’s (character’s) reaction is to her surroundings.

Our Catastrophe Saga Continues… Contrasts

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Today at 5:23 p.m. WE GOT INTERNET!  *dancing, dancing, leaping and giving myself a high-five and landing on my face*

It will take me a long time to catch up, but I “needed” to get out a post today. Still partial power in our house (for most likely months), but we also have running water (more dancing). The irony of having the Internet up and running is now being able to see the storms coming this way over the next couple of days. I’m not saying I’m a worry wart, but…

I’ve found this storm and recovery full of contrasts.

Remember how the day before the tornado, I walked about my yard picking up a couple handfuls of 3-4” twigs, and the next day trying to figure out how to pick up the trees from my lawn?

Well… Yesterday, I decided after 11 days without rain, and with most of our yard chopped up by falling timber, tipped root balls and stumps, trucks, bobcats, etc, that I would water this one section out near the road. It looked so pretty this morning. The grass perked right up, a lovely, beautiful, healthy, living green.

This morning we came back from prayer meeting (we can use all the prayer we can get these days), to find a tree crew from a nearby city (Charlotte) taking down our leaning hickory tree.

Backstory: As it was only 3’ from the road, and as I’d “heard” that if a tree is within 30’ of the center of the road, it was city property, last week I’d called our city Tree Foreman to find out if the city would take it down, or if it was our responsibility ($$$). I never heard back from him. I suppose he was a mite busy this past week with a few thousand other trees and the fact that Battle Creek only has four men working in the tree department.

But when we came home this morning, there they were, those wonderful guys from Charlotte,  cutting down that 100’ tree right where I’d watered the night before. (Hopefully I’ll put photos on my FB page tomorrow.) They told us that Battle Creek “had a doozie” for them to remove today. They were professional and skilled and awesome. Their extended chain saw from their fully extended cherry picker only reached about 30’ from the top of the tree.

It was difficult to take my eyes off of them as 200 pound chunks of trunk thunked deep holes into our lawn. I felt rather giddy – not about the bit about our beautiful green lawn with huge dents in it, but the thrill of it 1) falling such a great distance and 2) the sound of the landing and ground shaking even from up near the front porch and 3) not killing anyone in the process. I thought how those little orange hard hats wouldn’t make a hoot of a difference if the cherry-pickin’ guy up in the sky lost control. He didn’t. Everyone was safe. It was still a thrill, although not so much for my poor lawn, nor for my jealous neighbors who drilled me on how I got the city to respond. Of course, I told them the truth: you have to be an hysterical damsel in distress about a city-owned tree, leaning at a forty-five degree angle threatening power lines which were only recently restored. Wish I could have given them more helpful advice. It worked for me.

Now… on to some more normal life of luxury (a home-cooked supper and maybe watch some tv, ’cause, we got tv when we got Internet *dancing*).

More Tornado Stuff

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We’re still without internet — 11 days and counting. This is killing me. It’s difficult not to be able to communicate in my normal, daily way, using my normal, daily workspace. Right now, I’m using my husband’s work computer while he is off on a staff retreat. Which reminds me, thanks to the many people who have offered their homes for my internet communication addiction.

Before I speak about yesterday’s events, I want to say how furious I feel towards thieves, especially thieves who take advantage of tragedy victims. Strangers are canvasing our storm damaged neighborhoods, asking for down-payments for tree removal ($500 to $2,000), and then never returning. I knew of things happening like this from after Hurricane Katrina. I thought everyone knew that. Maybe not. Maybe it was just because I’d helped out down in Mississippi, and therefore heard lots and lots and lots of stories. But this I know, if any stranger comes to our door asking for a down-payment before work, he’d better have his cell phone ready for a 911 call because I’ll be all over that guy! (Actually, our trees are now off the house, and the rest in process of being removed, so these thieves probably won’t bother knocking on our door. Oooo. But if one does…)

Yesterday (Tuesday), three major things happened.

1) Our official insurance claims agent came out and spent three hours assessing our damaged property.

2) Garbage. I need to back up this story two days, to Monday. I called first the disconnected number in the phone book, let City Hall’s number ring 15 times, then called the number to ask for a dumpster, figuring they could direct my call. I was dead-set on speaking to someone about our missed garbage collection. I learned for the first time in living here seven years, that this job is outsourced, out-of-town. I was put on hold  for 45 minutes (not letting that wiggling fish at the end of the line get away this time), waiting, waiting, waiting, with no speaker phone. Four days previous, half of our street was collected. I can only assume tree removal and construction trucks blocked their way on our regular garbage collection morning. But with homes in our neighborhood having cleaned out our refrigerators, and after four days in 90 degree heat (visualize waves of stink rising from each driveway end), and animals starting to dig into the bags, not only did the 8′ piles of tree debris on our lawns block our view of the pavement, but  the garbage piles made it tricky to pull out. 45 minutes later, and then grilled for details, like my waste management number (didn’t even know we had one) and exactly how many bags did I have out there, I was told they would pick it up the next day. They did. My neighbors call me “The Garbage Police.”  I call me desperate.

3) At noon, with the temperature hovering at 90 degrees, one of the many still-leaning trees around here took out a transformer box, leaving hundreds of homes and businesses in my area without power. The lights flickered on and off about eight times before they went off entirely.

It got me thinking about different people (and therefore character) reactions. (This IS supposed to be a writing blog, after all.) My sister would have said, “Let’s get out the flashlights.” My father would have said, “What the &%#@!” and then gone to check our fuze box. My mother would have sighed, then looked disgusted. Another may have stared at the light, blinked, and then waited for his spouse to tell him what to do. Others may have said, “Oh, well,” or “Here we go again.” (This is a great writing exercise, by the way: take any situation, and then have each of your characters respond/react to it in their own way.) My reaction to the this incident? I know it was still daylight. I knew we had gallons of tap water for flushing, and bottled water for drinking. We’d just gone through six days without power, and knew all the what-to-dos. But, actually, that was the point. We’d JUST gone through six days without power, and only had it on for three days. While the light in our hallway flickered, I went from ut-oh mode to hope each time it flashed back on. But then, when it went off for good, I tried not to burst into tears in front of our insurance claims agent, continuing business as usual. It was only off for four and a half hours, but somehow, I was still rattled — cool, calm, collected me, rattled at a daylight loss of electricity.

Well… I may not be doing the novel revision work I’d planned on doing this week, or this month, but I sure am gathering writing fodder for future stories. I have 71 journal pages (mostly random thoughts and facts) and counting, and that doesn’t even count my blog words.

I hear rain and wind storms are coming the next couple days. Why do I feel shaky when I think about that?