The Variable Muse

My muse can be a pain in the butt. Anyone who has a cat can sympathize—sometime around four in the morning, or some other equally inconvenient time, I’ll get a poke, poke, poke. Cats usually want food, to crawl under the covers, petting. string pulling—cat things. Muses want to tell you their ideas. The following is a nearly word for word conversation between the pain-in-the-butt and me. Nearly.

“Are you awake?”

“No.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I wasn’t until you poked me.”

“Yeh, but you are now. So, I have this great idea for a story.”

“I’m trying to sleep.”

“Yeh, but it’s a great idea. It goes like this.”

And off she goes. Sleep is a distant memory. Sometimes it really is a great idea—or at least it seems to be at four in the morning. It needs work. The details need to be hammered out. That takes thought and time. By six I’m up and writing. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But she is a persistent bugger. And if I ignore her, she gets huffy and doesn’t speak to me for a long, long time. That is a bad thing. A very bad thing.

She is extremely unreliable, my muse. If I court her and pursue her and beg her for her attention, she pretty much blows me off. Worst of all, she’ll sometimes show up when I’m having a party night, and if I’m drunk, so is she. She has great ideas. She pokes me. I write them down. If I am sane, I wait until I’m sober to look them over again. A drunk muse is not a dependable muse. Never, never write a story and submit it while drunk. That way lies embarrassment. Yes, I have done it. Only the once, and thank goodness the editor politely told me to take a flying leap. Otherwise I would have publicly embarrassed myself and her. My muse and I had a stern discussion after that.

I’m not sure where she gets her ideas. She might be stealing them from other writers. Maybe that’s where she goes when she’s gone for so long. Maybe she’s hanging out in a bar with other muses, trading ideas, brainstorming, eavesdropping. Sometimes I wish she’d steal ideas from a better class of writer. But I suspect it’s not her inspirations that are wanting but my weakness as a writer. She does her best.

Two nights ago she poked me. I did not want to be awake. She had this story. It was good. It was really good. I mulled it and chewed on it, wrestled it to the ground, beat it into submission, coaxed it, coddled it, and got it all written down. I waited a little while, then reread it and adjusted it. I sent it to a friend. He had great suggestions. I fixed it. Then I fixed it some more. Then I sent it away. It may flop. It might get published. But my muse, for all her being so annoying, really came through.

Now if she would just get back to work on the novel I’m currently trying to write. But like I said, unreliable.

Image: Muses partying. Source unknown.

Strange Past Times

Pandemics make for peculiar past times.  My friend, Chris, is making Viking grease horns for her needles and tying knots around bottles. Besides the usual writing and the more mundane gardening, I’m reading tarot cards and cataloging my weeds.

You may recall, I was the crazy cucumber lady last year; this time it’s tomatoes I’m inflicting on anyone who will hold still. I have promising cantaloupe vines, but the fruit seems to be slow to ripen. I suspect my impatience and not the vines is the issue here. 

This year for the first time, I have a butterfly garden. Among my guests have been a tiger swallowtail and a pair of monarchs. It’s also a favorite hiding place for the yard bunny.  I don’t usually realize she’s there until I water and she runs out, all indignant. I don’t mind deviling the chipmunks, but I really don’t like terrorizing the bunny. You know my opinion of squirrels.

My yard is really good at growing brush but the traditional edibles have been struggling. In fact, all the fruit trees in the neighborhood are bare. It will be a lean year for some of the creatures who rely on them. But you can always count on the poke weed to have fruit, little poison bombs the birds eat with impunity but that can kill a human (the seeds are the poison part). My chokecherry tree had a lot of fruit, too. The birds got all of it, but I don’t begrudge them. It makes lovely jam, but I have jam enough for now.

If you remember that the apocalypse I have always been preparing for is retirement, you’ll appreciate that I’ve discovered many of those weeds in my yard are culinary, medicinal, and otherwise useful. It’s weird how much we don’t use these days that in the past were the stuff of home remedies and the dinner table. But while chicory and dandelion root coffee may be interesting, I think I’ll pass for now. I’m not that desperate yet. Still, all this is useful fodder for writing. Especially the poisons. Always gotta love the poisons if you plan on writing mysteries. Did you know…never mind. Wouldn’t want to give bad ideas to anyone stir crazy from quarantine.

As for the writing, it’s had its ups and downs. Last night I wrote a really terrible flash fiction piece. In fairness, I was quite drunk. I’ve got to stop writing drunk. It may have worked for Hemingway, but I need all my wits to keep from embarrassing myself. If somehow that story ever escapes into the wild (it’s about taking a van to the apocalypse), promise me you’ll ignore it.

It’s being fun releasing a chapter at a time of The Gingerbread House. I’m making final edits as I go, and it’s good to revisit it from a distance. I don’t know how the experience is for the readers (drop me a line and let me know, if you are reading it), but I’m liking it even better now than I did before.

That’s how I’m doing. Now back to the tarot and my weeds.

Image: Butterfly garden. By Marilyn Evans

Plague Journal

As I’ve said before, my survivalist and prepping interests have always been to prepare me for the impending disaster, not of nuclear war or a solar flare or the zombie apocalypse–but for the disaster that will be my retirement. If I don’t manage to have enough savings or investments or social security to feed my husband, myself and the cats, the disaster will be right there in our faces. Turns out, the disasters have hit a bit sooner than I expected, so I’ve upped my timeline. Toward the goal of being less dependent on the world at large that is failing to provide, I’ve started by analyzing my yard. As Euell Gibbons used to say, many parts are edible. I’ve been amazed at the variety of medicinals and edibles merrily jumping out of the ground that most people would be dumping weed killer on. On top of that, the herbs I’m growing, especially basil, seem to cure everything. If I have food and medicine covered, what’s next?

Since I’m planning on being in quarantine until there is a safe and effective vaccine (for the sake of the at-risk people I might infect if I should get sick), I’m staying in and trying to keep from dying of boredom. I genuinely believe people can die of boredom. It’s caused me to leave more than one job. Our first line of news, education, and entertainment is probably the television followed closely by the computers and magazines and newspapers. But my greatest source of comfort is reading a book–paper, electronic, audio, it doesn’t matter. Besides, as so many writers have said, you have to read to write. I’m chest deep in reading material right now. My husband is slightly horrified at how many books I currently have piled on my desk. That happens when you’re trying to research more than one topic at the same time.

The library has a reserve and pick up service so, like your favorite takeout meals, I can carry out books I want to read. Right now, among others, I’m reading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. While it was published in 2016, and covers Milwaukee, I figured it would be relevant to our times of people not being able to pay rent or mortgages. Even with eviction moratoriums, homelessness is coming. Already the park across the street from my house has more homeless people camping out in it. One has a dog. One has a scooter. I’m not sure what will become of them when winter comes. Maybe by winter things will be better, but that’s not the way I’m going to bet. I worry about these people a lot. As for us, for a retirement present, my husband paid off the mortgage. If we keep up the taxes and don’t have a tornado, earthquake, fire, or gas explosion, we’ve got a place to sleep.  The way 2020 is going, I’ll keep my fingers crossed, even though it makes typing tough.

Then there are family and friends, essential survival resources for sanity and humanity. My mom is in lock down in an assisted living facility. I call. It’s not the same as visiting. My neighbors are cautious about visiting at a distance. We chat across yards and streets. My friends post on Facebook. I’ve seen a couple of them in person, carefully after self quarantine when there was any chance of exposure. We chat on the phone or by e-mail. It’s not the same.

And finally, the other essential of survival, useful employment, to keep up my sense of self worth. I’m writing. Finally. The pandemic took several months away from me, but I’m finally writing again. I eased back in with non-fiction, but I’m working on fiction again. I’m posting The Gingerbread House as a serial on tapas.io, and I finally know what the sequel is going to look like. You may have noticed (or not) that I haven’t been blogging much. It’s hard to know what to say when you’re not writing and everything you want to say seems so bleak. But here it is, my current survival status. I hope you’re surviving as well. I worry about you. It’s what I do. And I write.

Image: Basil, a universal cure? By Marilyn Evans

Buy My Books! (Or Read for Free)

How’s that for shameless self promotion? Thanks to everyone who has already acquired one or both of my published works, the novel Beloved Lives and Undeniable, the anthology that contains my novella “Wasting Water”. And to all who are about to buy them. I appreciate the support.

But if you’re broke or are not willing to spend money in anticipation of further impending apocalypses, you can read my newest book for free (Yes! Free!) by going to https://tapas.io/series/The-Gingerbread-House

Tapas offers free serialized novels, comics and other such fun stuff. You can subscribe for free, tip the authors in some cases, and in other cases the authors can have ads on their pages. I’m still working out all the ins and out of it, but so far, so fun.

My novel is The Gingerbread House , a mystery that is being released as a series, two episodes a week. Here’s the summary:

Philly MacPherson is stuck in the Midwest with a struggling tea and herbs shop, a surly cat named B. Bub, and the responsibilities of being a “public” witch. While she might be up for advising possibly-pregnant teens and Ouiji-board-haunted college boys, she’s a little less prepared for the wealthy Lawrence Michaels asking her to banish a destructive ghost from his 150-year-old house.

Meanwhile, a local missing persons case might be just another runaway wife, or something more sinister involving a homeless veteran with PTSD or the missing woman’s jilted lover. When Detective Wilmount of the local police finds his search keeps bringing him back to The Gingerbread House, Philly and the detective decide to join forces to solve more than one mystery. 

The story has a cat (of course), a witch, haunting, romance, Tarot, tea and herbs, mystery, a good-looking police detective, and what is sometimes called magical realism. The latter means nothing that happens in the story is out of the realm of everyday life, if your life contains a few inexplicable things from time to time.

I had a lot of fun writing The Gingerbread House, and I hope readers will enjoy it. If you subscribe, you’ll be notified when new episodes come out, and I’ll get nice praise and angel kisses.

Image: The Gingerbread House cover. By Marilyn J. Evans.

In Context

Those of you who know me know I’ve been going through a rough patch due to the sudden death of a close friend. The tragic car wreck that took her life left her daughter and son-in-law and her friends stunned. As we have tried to sort out her belongings and deal with finding homes for horses and cats, we’ve also tried to find the best places to take her most important things. Some will go to charities, some to friends and relatives. But the hardest things are the most personal ones.

When people in the midst of disasters are asked what they try to save first, often it is family photos. These have no monetary value, you can’t eat them or wear them, yet they have great value to their owners, so much so that people sometimes risk life and limb to save them. But the thing is, without someone who knows who and what those photos represent, they are random pictures, pictures of strangers or strange places with little or no relevance to anyone not familiar with their context.

When my father passed away, we were going through a building used for storage of long neglected items and found some boxes of old photos. I took some of these to a family reunion so I could ask my father’s last living sibling, an older sister, who the people in the photos were. She knew some of them, but not all. I wished that I had known about these pictures when my dad was alive so I could have asked him to tell me the stories they contained, but now everyone who knows is gone.

In our home we have a screen saver for our computer that runs a slide show of all of our archived photos. I haven’t labeled all those pictures, but I think I should, otherwise we may in time forget the circumstances that the photos represent. There are lots of people who love to hate on Facebook, but I have found I really enjoy posting pictures of family and friends, of places I’ve gone and people I care about. It is a record not only of the pictures but of the context for those pictures.

Let me share this bit of wisdom: share your photos with people you love and tell them the story behind the picture. Give them context so they won’t some day just be random pictures that no one will understand or remember, stories lost for all time.

Image: Brother-in-law, Vestal, NY. By Father-in-law.

The Strangest Apocalypse

I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s when we were all pretty certain that sooner or later someone would drop a nuclear bomb on us. We went from the naivete of duck and cover to building underground bunkers with at least two weeks supply of food, medicine, and other essentials. The reasoning was that after two weeks, the radiation levels would be sufficiently low to allow us to emerge and get back to whatever was the new normal. That was before the days of really dirty bombs that could Chernobilize a nation and render it unfit for humans for centuries.

Perhaps this childhood was the cause of my life-long love of disaster and post apocalyptic books and films. I am prone to critiquing the characters and assessing how well or badly they addressed their particular disaster. I loved the TV series “Doomsday Preppers”, and even follow some on-line “prepper” sites. I have on occasion contributed articles when I felt I had anything useful to add to the conversation. My novella, “Wasting Water,” is an environmental, post-apocalyptic story that originally started as a how-to article for dealing with climate change, but I realized would make better fiction.

I’ve always kept a full pantry and freezer, know how to forage and garden, can come up with sour dough yeast and bake on a stone, if required. I even have a zombie apocalypse plan. But what we are dealing with in the days of Covid-19 is not what I think anyone was expecting.

This is a strange apocalypse where there is plenty of inexpensive gasoline and lots of food and supplies except for the rolling shortages–in my neighborhood, first toilet paper, then bread, then flour and yeast. But so far the supply chain is unbroken, and if you wait, the shelves are restocked in a few days. Contrary to everything we came to expect of an apocalypse, the way to avoid danger during this strange time is to stay home and amuse yourself.

It is safe to walk the streets and in the parks, enjoying spring, as long as you stay six feet away from everyone else. So far, there are no raiding gangs or angry mutants, only friendly dog walkers and neighbors eager to say hello. People put teddy bears in their windows so children in their neighborhoods can be comforted and amused as they walk by with their parents. Children, sent home from schools, are being taught remotely by sometimes frantic teachers learning to navigate on-line classes for the first time. The National Home School Association (https://nationalhomeschoolassociation.com/) has dropped it’s annual fee to $10. If children who got their meals from schools still need them, organizations are doing everything in their power to see that they are fed. As businesses close, food pantries, restaurants, churches, and volunteer organizations do their best to help those who have been laid off to have what they need.

Books, movies, concerts are all free and available on-line or on television. Museums give virtual tours, zoos have live cams of penguins and otters. People share information and comfort on line or by phone. Drive-by celebrations are held for any occasion that once would have drawn a crowd, helping to maintain social distance. Restaurants have switched to carry out and curbside pickup. The news is uninterrupted, there is water and electricity.

Our heroes are health care professionals, but also grocery store workers, trash collectors, anyone who keeps us safe and cared for. No novel or movie in my experience ever foresaw the level of mutual support and cooperation that has occurred during this pandemic. But we have had our villains–hoarders, deniers who encourage people to gather under unsafe conditions spreading the illness, incompetent or self-serving politicians.

Although this is unlike the horrific scenarios of the apocalypses we expected, hardships and loss of life are real and will continue to grow, nor has the worst passed. We may yet see the people who think an arsenal is necessary in the face of any crisis have their opportunity to protect their stores from the desperate. But in light of what I’ve seen so far, I think we will find ways to aid and support one another rather than “hunker down” and turn away those in need. The question we seem to be asking most often during this strange apocalypse is not “How can I protect what’s mine,” but “How can I help?”

The novella “Wasting Water” is in the anthology Undeniable: Authors Respond to Climate Change, available from Alternating Current Press or Amazon

http://www.press.alternatingcurrentarts.com/2020/02/undeniable-writers-respond-to-climate-change.html

http://www.amazon.com/Undeniable-Writers-Respond-Climate-Change/dp/1946580155

Image: Forsythia. By Marilyn Evans.

Doing Good

In 1902, the Agriculture Department’s Chief Chemist, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, began what he called “hygienic table trials,” but soon the Washington Post reporter George Rothwell Brown came up with the name The Poison Squad. Dr. Wiley was attempting to prove that additives and adulterants in everyday foods were unsafe and unhealthy. In doing so, he took on powerful industries and their bought-and-paid-for government supporters. It took years of fighting, issuing reports, doing the right thing, but it wasn’t until Sinclair Lewis published The Jungle in 1906 that headway was finally made. Dr. Wiley’s story is told in Deborah Blum’s book, The Poison Squad, and in the  documentary based on the book (you can watch it in it’s entirety at the American Experience website https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/poison-squad/).

One of the many things that disturbs me is that over one hundred years later, the same excuses are being used to prevent doing the right thing. The arguments go: changes will adversely affect business, it’s too expensive, the people advocating for change are misguided radicals or alarmists, and other common protests. Special interests still buy off politicians, seek to cut funding to watchdog groups, delay, sue, ignore the law–whatever it takes to not do the right thing.

Writers have a unique opportunity to draw attention to bad behavior. Certainly journalists and writers of exposés do this, but writers of fiction sometimes make far more headway in capturing the attention of the public, raising awareness, and calling people to action. Sinclair’s novel was written to draw attention to the inhumane working conditions of the meat packing industry, but in exposing it his disclosures inspired  changes in hygienic practices. Science fiction writers have a long history of asking questions, proposing worst case scenarios, making us look at ourselves and the people we trust but maybe shouldn’t. Fiction puts us in the story so we can see the real costs of failure to do good.

I feel strongly that truth has great value, that lies once told take on a life of their own and can cause real harm. I believe doing the right thing s may sometimes be difficult but is never the wrong way to go. I am proud that my writing has been included in the anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change. I am proud to be one of the voices saying, take notice, this is important, we need to act. It is my personal goal to always try to write with truth and compassion. Though I may not always succeed, I will always try to do good.

Image: The Members of The Poison Squad. THE U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION/FLICKR/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Why We Walk

My friend, Chris, used to read Lord of the Rings in its entirety every autumn. She stopped for a while, but is back to it this year, although she started later than usual and is reading it through the winter. The appeal to me of LOTR is the journey. I’ve always loved any story that involves a long trek on foot. I have the same passion for movies that depict grand journeys.

Sometimes the algorithms work, and Amazon Prime offers you movies like the ones you just watched that might interest you. That’s how I got sucked into watching several documentaries on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the Camino de Santiago, the Hayduke Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and others. What I’ve found interesting about the people who take on these really long journeys is why they do them. Often they are looking for something, usually wildly different somethings. Some are looking to escape, some to spend serious time inside their own heads, some are running toward something. I don’t think anyone who starts one of these great treks is the same person when the journey is done. All of them seem to find something, but it isn’t always what they expected to find when they started.

There was a time when I would have aspired to hike one of these trails, but old age and sin have taken their toll, so not likely in this lifetime. That’s not to say I won’t try something less ambitious–the Katy Trail, perhaps. Maybe I haven’t started one because I don’t have a good enough reason yet. Just walking to walk doesn’t seem like sufficient justification to ignore everyone and everything and walk for a couple of weeks, although a walk across Missouri in the spring seems like a pretty good reason all by itself.

Of course, I can’t help but make a comparison to why we write. I suppose there are as many reasons to write as to walk. The beauty of crafting words is perhaps comparable to scanning a spectacular vista. Spending days inside your own head, plumbing the depths might reveal the means and motives of a character. Writing for redemption, for amusement, for adventure, to find out who we are.

I’m not sure I’ve taken the really grand trek in my writing yet. In many ways, I feel like I’m still at the trail head. But as I write more, I think I’ll be moving on down the road, and perhaps some day, when I’ve reached a stopping point, I’ll have found something transformative. And when I do, I promise to share.

And speaking of writing, I’ve just read the final proof of my novella, “Wasting Water”, that is due out this spring in the anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change. It’s been a long time coming, but finally seems to be on its way.

Image: Chris and Marilyn walking at Dragonfest in Colorado, 1999. By Jonathan Hutchins.

The Year Gone By

The year that we just got through, 2019, was the fiftieth anniversary of a bunch of things. In 1969, men walked on the moon, Woodstock happened in a bigger way than anyone imagined it would, the first troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the Stonewall Riot occurred, Sesame Street premiered, and a lot of other pretty remarkable things happened. And, by the way, I graduated from high school.

I sometimes think getting old is the price you pay for not dying, and while it’s not really punishment, there are days that feel like it. When I went to my fifty-year high school reunion in the early autumn of 2019, I found a lot of old people there. Not me, of course, I’m not so very old, or maybe….

My graduating class was just under 200 people. Some of them are dead, some didn’t come. Some people I wouldn’t have known without their name tags, some looked nearly the same. In all, it was a slightly frustrating experience because you can’t really summarize fifty years of life lived in a few minutes. I haven’t stayed in touch with any of my fellow graduates, so there would have been a lot of ground to cover if I’d tried to reacquaint myself with everyone. Still, it was interesting.

I grew up in a smallish town and went from kindergarten through high school with many of the same folks. At the ten year reunion, I saw little kids running around and knew exactly who their parents were because they were the spitting image of their parents at the same age. It was eerie.

This will probably be the last reunion for my class, but I’m glad I went. I’ve always thought my greatest accomplishment was escaping the small town I grew up in, but it was nice to go back and revisit the place. There is nothing to go back to now except my father’s grave. I have no friends or family there. Still, it’s where I’m from, and it gave me a lot of the foundation for who I am. But more than the place I’m from, my family gave me myself. I was reminded of this when, after the reunion, I went to visit my father’s last living sibling, my Aunt Virginia, and many of her children and some of her grandchildren. It was good to be reminded where so much of my personality was formed–my cousins have the same sense of humor as my dad. They get my jokes.

So this autumn, I got to revisit my roots. Now, going into 2020, I’ll have the opportunity to grow and change and experiment and, now and then, even go back and remember who I am and where I came from.

Image: Bittersweet, squash and pumpkins at the Chillicothe Kid’s Day Parade. By Marilyn Evans.

Only God Can Make a Tree

I’ve probably mentioned this before–when I was a scientist, I saw a tree as a living entity with a paleobotanical history, a structure, metabolism, reproductive cycle. In short, I loved it as only a botanist could. Then I learned to oil paint. Suddenly I had new eyes, artist eyes. Now I saw a tree as texture and light and shadow and a play of color that changed with the changes of the day. I had learned to love it as only an artist could.

But I have recently acquired a new addiction. I have discovered woodworking. I’ve flirted with it for a while, but with the aid and abetting of my husband, I’ve begun to acquire the tools, the patterns, the materials for yet another hobby. And I have begun to see trees in yet another way. That dead branch doesn’t have to be fire wood. It could be almost anything. I just never knew it before, I could never see with a woodworker’s eyes until now.

We all know knowledge is a dangerous thing. It makes us do crazy stuff. It opens worlds. For a writer, the fun part is often that once you know the things you get the joy of telling someone else about them. They say write what you know, but learning, research can lead to a whole new “what you know.” And once you know, don’t you have to share?

One of my favorite mystery writers, the late Dick Francis, worked with his wife who apparently loved doing research. Mr. Francis started writing his stories in the racing world, a world he knew well. But later he  and his wife took me into other amazing worlds, each one described in a way that drew me in, convinced me he knew what he was talking about.

Lately I’ve gotten a little crazy about learning new things. I’ve been experimenting with “going back to school”, but by way of home schooling. It’s like this: every day I spend an hour studying Spanish, an hour in gym class (exercising followed by yoga), then at least an hour writing (English class). Home Economics is all the cooking and other household chores. That leaves time for Science–watching “Nova” or some other appropriate video– then Shop when I do my woodworking. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a day if you’ve got a schedule. Not sure how long I can keep this up. I might become a drop out, but so far, I’m having a lot of fun.

I like having all these eyes. I like seeing things in a new way, and I like how old things, old friends like trees, become new again. The trick is the sharing part, sharing well and letting everyone else have the fun of discovery.

Enough English and writing. It’s time for shop.

Image: Sunset through trees. By Jonathan Hutchins.