Monday, October 31, 2011

Scary, Scary Night

For most of us, Halloween represents kids in cute costumes and parents idling on the sidewalk while their little ones pirouette or rawr at a neighbor's door. We stuff candy into plastic pumpkins and pillowcases and marvel at babies with whiskers drawn on their faces and at six-footers in hockey gear.

Others, however, "see" ghosts and "hear" things that go bump in the night. Halloween raises the hair at the backs of their necks and turns their skin to gooseflesh. These people don't find this time of year precious or fun—and with good reason. They understand things about it that would make the rest of us lock our doors and cower under our beds.

I cede the floor to three writers who know what's afoot tonight: Catie Rhodes, Amanda Stevens, and Debra Kristi. In addition, K. B. Owen gives us an overview of how Halloween traditions arrived in the U.S. and were celebrated in the past.

Catie Rhodes writes about real people in scary situations, and many of her stories are set in her native Texas. She dubs every Friday "Freaky Friday" and recently told tales about a headless Texas horseman and horror in a Houston suburb.

Houston author Amanda Stevens (The Dollmaker, The Restorer) tells an appropriate-for-Halloween story featuring Houston's old Jefferson Davis Hospital at Dark Fairie Tales.

Debra Kristi gets creepy with the tale of a child's encounter with the supernatural .

According to K. B. Owens, we must thank (or curse) the Irish and Scots for the Samhain traditions we celebrate tonight.

I sincerely hope you survive this evening.

Friday, October 28, 2011


Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays. At least that was one of the theories thrown around when I was in college. I don’t remember the Earl of Oxford being mentioned, but then again I may not have been paying attention. Probably wasn’t paying attention. And now we have ANONYMOUS, a movie that proposes William Shakespeare was the “barely literate frontman for the Earl of Oxford".
The New York Times review says: “Anonymous,” a costume spectacle directed by Roland Emmerich, from a script by John Orloff, is a vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination. Apart from that, it’s not bad.
The outrage is rather amusing. In Warwickshire, where Shakespeare's home town of Stratford-upon-Avon is located, road signs are being covered in protest of the film. Of course, it’s all really an excuse to promote the local tourist spots. Still, as the Showtime hit, THE TUDORS, proved—if it’s great entertainment, nobody cares if it’s rubbish history.
I guess the numbers will tell on Monday whether ANONYMOUS sparked enough interest to bring in the audiences. I’ll see it, but not this weekend. Nope, I’m headed for a flick about another literary great, Hunter Thompson (haven’t figured out the proper font for ‘tongue in cheek’)—RUM DIARIES starring Johnny Depp. Hey, I never claimed to be intellectually enlightened and it is Johnny Depp.

Anyone have any other movie suggestions?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Writers on the Silver Screen

Do lawyers enjoy the depictions of themselves in movies? Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch probably propelled a lot of college students into law school, but lots of courtroom dramas serve up procedural inaccuracies and rafts of bad-guy attorneys. If I were a lawyer, I'd squirm when watching those flicks.

I've read of chefs who consider the finest film depiction of their craft to be Disney's Ratatouille, but car salesmen probably wish Fargo would disappear from the earth.

Writer protagonists in movies often suffer writer's block. They're frequently shown as desperate hacks in thrall to money or alcohol, not art. I can't get enough of them—and I'm not alone.

A recent post at Book Riot about author protagonists on the big and little screens triggered many retweets on Twitter.

Like Dr. B, the Book Riot post's author, I'm a fan of Stranger than Fiction, Castle, and The Squid and the Whale. Warning: the latter serves up adult characters so self-absorbed the movie's painful to watch although well-crafted. I haven't seen Down with Love or Spaced but plan to put both in my Netflix queue. Simon Pegg's in Spaced, and that's all I need to know since I belly-laughed through Hot Fuzz. Go ahead, judge me. I don't mind.

The comments that followed Book Riot's post yielded more movies with writer characters. Judy Lunsford nominated Paper Man, Misery, The Hours, Shakespeare in Love, Finding Forrester, Miss Potter, and Romancing the Stone.

Nice going, Judy! I missed Misery because I'm a 'fraidy cat who avoids anything that hints at horror but recall the others fondly, especially Miss Potter, (which featured Renee Zellweger as children's book author Beatrix Potter) a memorable movie that didn't seem to find its audience. As for Romancing the Stone, be still my heart. Two or three people may think I write because I want to entertain or illuminate the human condition. They're wrong. Deep down, I yearn for the adventure and happy ending the Joan Wilder character found in RtS. Go ahead, judge me. I don't mind.

Book Riot commenter Jeff O'Neal nominated Barton Fink. Good call! The title character, a playwright, leeaves New York for Hollywood lured by the promise of easy screenwriting money. Instead, he finds writer's block. Because misery loves company and I'm often stalled in my writing, I reveled in Barton's agony even though the movie left me with a fear of wallpaper and John Goodman. (I ache for myself and writer friends who hit roadblocks, but when a writer on screen stumbles, the schadenfreude is delicious.)

Speaking of which, another excellent nomination came from commenter Jape: Adaptation. Yes! Barton Fink mined writer's block, but Adaptation drilled a deeper, darker shaft. Its high misery-loves-company quotient invigorates me because, miserable and sick with fear as I am, I'm not quite as anxious and self-loathing as the Charlie Kaufman character, bless him.

My writer-as-protagonist nomination? Ghostwriter. This movie requires the writer to unravel a mystery. When he does, bwa, ha, ha, he must pay the price.

Your turn. What movies or television shows featuring writer characters did/do you find entertaining? Why?

Monday, October 24, 2011


It shouldn’t be this hard. I’ve done it before—four times, seven if I count re-writes. So why can’t I finish this damn book?
My usual strategies—self-imposed deadlines and hours of WRITE OR DIE—have failed to get the WIP to the end. What’s the matter?
I know where I’m going, but my conscious has lost faith that my sub-conscious knows how to get there. Plotters will shake their heads and tell me I should have worked this all out from the beginning. That, however, isn’t how my process works. Sure, I started with a premise and even wrote a preliminary synopsis.  Unfortunately, my characters took off in their own directions. Now when they need to wrap this story up, they’re still surprising me with twists and turns that create more dire problems I have to work out! Come on, guys, give me a break! Quit getting in worse trouble, behave, get along. Work out your differences, foil the bad guy—let me finish this damn book!!!
So any advice? I'd love to hear how other writers wrangle their WIPs into submission!

Friday, October 21, 2011

What Weighs on My Mind

I ramble every day. By ramble I mean walk. (I lose my train of thought every day, too, but it's hard to write a blog post about forgetfulness because the topic keeps slipping my mind.)

Since January, I've covered almost seven hundred miles on local park paths. I like being outdoors and love the chance to spot rabbits, possums, and the occasional blue heron. My blood pressure's good and I've dropped a few pounds. In August, however, I hit a weight-loss plateau and haven't, sob, shed an ounce since.

The Tibetan Plateau is so massive it's nicknamed "the roof of the world." I've met my personal Tibetan Plateau.

My husband nudges me to walk faster, and I've added sprints to my daily ramble. I also take an exercise class. Eventually, the scale's needle will budge. I believe that. In the meantime, my motivation dissipates—and my inner child whimpers.

Yesterday, as I trudged along the park path, feeling a little baffled and a lot sorry for myself, I had a breakthrough moment. Ta da!

We all know someone who sticks around past the party's end and won't or can't pick up time-to-go cues. My fat cells are either clueless or defiant, and I pictured them clumping together to belt out, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the song the Effie White character sings in Dreamgirls.

The image of fat cells, raging against being unwanted and unloved, cheers me. They wouldn't be raging if I weren't winning, right? I will make it off this plateau.

What unwanted and unloved thing have you ditched? How the heck did you manage it?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011



On Monday I was surprised and delighted to find a message in my inbox with the subject De vos nouvelles ..........  from a French friend I'd not heard from for over three years. Christine is an art-dealer who speaks no English and up until recently didn’t have email. We met her when we rented a wing of her chateau in the small village of Soumensac almost fifteen years ago and quickly became friends. Face to face, she and I always manage to communicate with my less than fluent French and her patient willingness to help me along.  Her significant other, André, is a marvelous sculptor and over the years we've collected several of his exquisite pieces. I'll never forget the first time they invited us to dinner at André house/studio. She proudly presented a platter to the table--a roasted duck with head and feet intact. She'd bought the duck live as a special treat for us in the village farmers' market that morning. After we got over our shock, Steve and I managed to admire her masterpiece which turned out to be delicious.  

The last time we saw her, she and André threw a lovely dinner party in our honor at the chateau. When we got home, I sent her a thank you note, a New Years’ card and a few months later emailed André with a “hello to you both” note. I never got a response, so I assumed an unfortunate exchange with a couple of obnoxious American ex-pat guests at dinner (they were bizarrely hostile!) might have soured the friendship on her end. Apparently from her note the long silence wasn't intentional, she just didn’t have email.

Her message (in French) was warm and she said she hoped we would visit soon. I felt as though I’d been given a gift—the renewal of a friendship I’d cherished and thought I’d lost. It will be a while before we can visit her part of France, but she and André have met us in Paris in the past so they might do that again. The important thing for me is we’re still friends. And I plan to teach her to use Babelfish so I can write to her at least partly in English. 

Postcard of Chateau circa 1900
Christine and André

Monday, October 17, 2011

Stray Hearts

Two cats appeared in my backyard a few weeks ago, and I assumed they'd come to howl "Nanny, nanny boo boo" to my two indoor cats who must look at the world from a kitchen window. The visitors showed off: stalking geckos, slurping water from the saucer beneath a hibiscus, sunning themselves.

At first, the interlopers turned up early in the morning and at dinnertime. I ignored them, even when they stuck around to watch me weed and water.

Then, the bolder of the two, a black and white with caramel-colored eyes, took to bounding toward me whenever he saw me at the back door. Intellectually, I know a human, any human, represents food source. Emotionally, the sight of him running toward me registered as You like me; you really like me.

His companion, a white with patches of gray and brown fur (pictured), was warier but began to venture closer. Eventually, both rubbed against my legs and flung themselves on their sides to be petted.

Their coats were glossy, so I didn't expect them to be hungry, but they devoured a bowl of Purina One. The next day, I put out another bowl of food. A week later, my husband caught me at it.

"They'll keep coming back if you feed them."

"They already keep coming back."

We've been married long enough to have learned to choose our battles. He didn't want any part of this one. "I hope you know what you're doing."

I didn't, of course. You like me; you really like me.

A few nights ago, husband spotted the little black and white wending around my next-door neighbor's legs. "Is that your cat?"

"No, but we've been feeding it and one of its friends."

"So has Pat."

"So has the new family up the street."

Yesterday, my neighbor and I marveled at the progressive meal system cobbled together by two small tabbies. We'll continue our feeding arrangement, but the black and white has grown partial to her patio, and the white/gray/brown mix spends most of his time in my yard. (By the way, my neighbor checked out both cats and thinks they're neutered males.)

When winter nears, the cats will need shelter.

I hope I know what I'm doing.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Jules, Sue and David at St. Paul de Vence
Re-entry. After two weeks in the south of France, I’m back in Houston, back at my job and recovered from the 20 hour trip home. While I was gone my husband re-arranged and/or switched out all the furniture in the house including my office. He’s a brilliant architect and interior designer so this isn’t quite a weird as it sounds. Still, there’s a surreal quality to returning to find a different house from the one I left.
And yet, I too change whenever I travel abroad. The people I meet, things I do, places I see alter my perspective in large and small ways. This time I came back wanting to walk places like I had in France. Luckily Houston’s weather has cooled from its 100+ degree summer highs and walking is actually pleasant. Yesterday I walked three blocks to the Uptown Park shopping area at lunch for the first time, braving the Loop 610 underpass and aggressive traffic. Today, I’m considering walking the five blocks to Target to buy a birthday card. In a city where nobody walks, I feel oddly free—thankfully, since my husband has to use my car while his is in the shop.
Perhaps this weekend, I’ll explore my neighborhood on foot for the first time since spring, walk to Rice Village for coffee or to shop. So many choices in this fine weather. Just like Monaco or Nice or our little French village of Plan de la Tour!
How have your travels—near or far--changed your perspective?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Seasons Change and So Did I

One day is much like another during Houston's long, hot summer—a season that unofficially starts in May and wraps up in October or November. This year, Texas is suffering a drought, so we miss out on rain clouds and monotony-busting afternoon showers. Blue skies, high humidity, and temperatures reaching for a hundred degrees equal same old/same old, and I'd swear I'm an extra in Groundhog Day.

Remember the 1993 movie that features Bill Murray as a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on whether or not a groundhog sees his shadow? In Groundhog Day, the Murray character gets caught in a time loop and must repeat the same day time and again. Eventually, he makes the most of his do-overs and teaches himself French, ice-sculpting, and how to get along with people. When he finds love, he breaks the spell that's been holding him in place.

(Drat! I should have used this endless summer to teach myself another language.) Like the Murray character, I've repeated the same tasks and followed the same routine every day for months. The weather's hot and humid when I wake up and hot and humid when I go to sleep. The sight of my lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing makes me cranky. (Make that crankier.)

On Sunday, the weather broke. Three inches of rain fell on Houston in one glorious day, and the overnight lows dropped, resulting in cooler mornings and the hint that fall will, indeed, make an appearance this year.

Spring claims the season-of-renewal designation for herself, but autumn energizes me--and I'm not alone. The squirrels in the park seemed peppier this morning, and the ranks of walkers, runners, and bicyclists have swelled.

In the weeks to come, trees will shed leaves, but I'll plant flowering bulbs that will draw strength from their chilly resting place underground. Fall is the perfect times to begin projects that require extra germination, like degrees, business plans, and manuscripts.

I can't wait to turn off the ac and fling open windows, bake an apple and cranberry cobbler, and make soup.

What do you look forward to in the fall?

Monday, October 10, 2011


For the last two weeks I’ve been in the south of France—at first alone and then with friends. I brought plenty of clothes, but my carry-ons were most filled with electronics—netbook, digital camera, converter, chargers and one essential device I never leave behind—my iPhone.

Luckily, the French love wifi and everywhere I stayed I was able to access the internet on my iPhone and netbook. Practically, however, the iPhone was my device of choice for everything except writing and posting here.  Every day I video conferenced with my husband in Houston iPhone-to-iPhone via SKYPE. We could see each other, I gave him tours of our digs, and our entire group could join in on the visit. And it was FREE!! Yep. No charge at all.

I checked and responded to email—personal and work, checked and uploaded photos to Facebook, listened to music on house sound system, watched video clips, checked the weather, planned travel routes, proved points in trivia discussions and checked flight status.

Yesterday at St. Paul de Vence I heard and older American man comment to his friend as I took a photo on my iphone that he was surprised at how many “young people” used them in place of a camera. At that moment I had my Nikon digital in my bag and admitted my iPhone had better resolution than my older camera. I didn’t add, I could also directly upload to Facebook on the iPhone and had to download the camera pics first.

Okay, so this isn’t much a of tribute to a man who made a huge difference in the lives of so many people. But I am continually awed and grateful for Steve Jobs and the vision that changed the way I live my day to day life is so many ways! Thanks, Mr. J. You were one of the great geniuses of our time!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Typecast in Stone?

My favorite television shows are ensemble dramas, and, if one appeals to me, I'll spend hours with its cast of characters over multiple seasons. Over time, I'll figure out what makes the characters tick and learn their strengths and weaknesses. In short, I bond.

The downside of bonding becomes clear when one of my must-see show ends and familiar actors turn up in different shows with different personas. Confusing! Disorienting! Yes, I know there's a difference between reality and play-acting, but surely I'm not alone in blurring the line.

If you watched The Wire, an HBO series now immortalized on DVD, you spent hours with the ensemble cast and thought you knew them. Actor Idris Elba will always be bad guy Stringer Bell to me, and I marvel at the mother-of-all-redemptions that brought him back as a police detective in Luther, a British series on BBC America.

Jimmy McNulty, the disheveled, blue-collar cop at the core of The Wire now plays a suave, 1950's-era newscaster in the British series The Hour, also on BBC America. Actor Dominic West made Jimmy McNulty suave? Is that a Hamsterdam-fueled hallucination? Detective Bunk Moreland, aka actor Wendell Pierce, left Baltimore for New Orleans and now plays a trombonist in Treme. Huh? I didn't know Bunk played an instrument. Detective Lester Freamon, played by actor Clarke Peters, also turned up in Treme playing bass and serving as Big Chief of a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. Remember Detective Kima Greggs? Sonja Sohn is still detecting but does it without the Ballmer edge in Body of Proof.

Dillon, Texas is the fictional setting for gone-but-not-forgotten Friday Night Lights, and I like to think the Panthers and Lions are still playing football there. Imagine my surprise to learn Tami Taylor has up and left Coach Eric to appear in a new show, American Horror Story. I wish actress Connie Britton well, but horror? Glazed eyes, pierced hearts, can't win. In a recent interview, Britton said the new show attracted her because it's about relationships and making a marriage work. If that doesn't sound like Tami, I don't know what does.

In a redemption almost as startling as Stringer Bell's, The Wire's Wallace, a young drug dealer who made sure the kids he watched over had food and went to school, was killed and reappeared in Dillon as quarterback Vince Howard. Fans of both shows got to see the young-man-formerly-known-as-Wallace mature and reach for his potential on Friday Night Lights. Actor Michael B. Jordan made both Wallace and Vince tough, vulnerable, and unforgettable.

In FNL, actor Scott Porter played football hero-turned-paraplegic Jason Street. Later, when he turned up as a creepy investigator on The Good Wife, his ability to walk restored, I knew he'd made a deal with the devil. Matt Lauria, who played quarterback Luke Cafferty, didn't join the Army as FNL would have had us believe. No, he left Dillon to be a homicide cop in Chicago Code. The list goes on. The other night I spotted the Billy Riggins character from FNL in a cameo role elsewhere. Clearly, he'd gotten his act together, and I caught myself giving credit to Mindy, Tim, and the twins for Billy's transformation.


Writers who create believable characters and the actors who inhabit those characters deserve viewers who can imagine themselves in a Baltimore or Dillon--for the length of an episode, anyway.

Some of us stay longer.

What television-show locale is real to you? When an actor you thought you knew turns up in a different role, how do you react?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The washing machine in our French house takes over two hours to do a single load. There’s no dryer so we’re hanging our clothes on the line out in the garden,  or at least we tried that and after six hours everything was still wet. This morning we draped our jeans and khakis over the pool furniture in the sun hoping they will dry in time to wear when we go out later.  Laundry in France just isn’t the easy process we Americans are use to. In contrast, the English of our party think this is totally normal.

In the past week, I’ve been reminded of the many differences between the US and France. Outside of Paris, most places—businesses, stores—close between noon and 2:00 or even 3:00. Forget grocery  shopping at a supermarket during those hours, they’re not open. Restaurants are full of people having a leisurely multi-course meal. Fast food? A quick sandwich? Aside from the traditional filled baguettes, the French frown on such barbaric practices. Sure, McDonald’s has popped up in the larger towns but even then the menu is far different than in the US, offering wine, beer and filled baguettes along with burgers and fries.

Here in the south of France, the pace is slower than in Paris except for the abundance of motorcycles constantly weaving in and out of traffic at an alarming pace. Even though the summer season ended  September 1, one gets the impression everyone is either on holiday or catering to the holiday crowd. Yesterday we visited St. Tropez in the afternoon and found the area around the waterfront bustling with activity. Many of the impressive sailboats which participated in the races last week were still tied up at the dock along side of huge motor yachts. The day was sunny and hot. Only the sale signs in the shops indicated the season was over. The sale signs and the lack of celebrities. But the glamor and mystic remained—it was after all St. Tropez.

Monday, October 3, 2011

DAY FIVE...Loving life on the Côtes d’Azur

Observation…I’m the palest person in the South of France, or at least I was when I got here. It’s hard to believe I’ve been here for five days already and at the same time, I’ve easily slipped into the casual holiday lifestyle of this part of the country.  And somehow in my wanderings acquired a slight tan glow.

There’s a reason this is called the Côtes d’Azur—Gold Coast—aside from the glorious sunshine which has inspired painters for centuries.  Everyone here is bronze, apparently the dire warnings against tanning we get in the States don’t make an impression on this Mediterranean coast. And yet there’s an undeniable elegance to the place with its private beaches and chic cafes, shops full of white linen and colorful cotton clothes, and the ever-present exotic sports cars.

The first few days here I was on my own in a charming chambre d’hote near Nice. Driving along the coastal road, I passed beaches (pebbled rather than sandy), boats of all sizes from tiny sailboats to multimillion dollar motor yachts to the most enormous cruise ship I’ve ever seen.  My destination, the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, is a stunning estate on a point on the top of a hill overlooking  a bay on one side and the sea on the other. It wasn’t difficult to understand why in 1907 one of the richest women in Europe chose the site for her extravagant residence.

On Saturday the rest of the party arrived. The house we rented Plan de la Tour near St. Tropez is everything one could wish for with its pool, outdoor kitchen and dining, and spacious living space decorated in the Provençal style. We’re within walking distance to the village and stroll in each morning for baguettes and pain aux raisins. As I finish this up, Cheryl and Jules have returned from the boulangerie and its time to have breakfast and start another beautiful day.