Telling Stories: A Human Experience

This is a blog post I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website April 15, 2018

 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about telling stories, which is natural, I guess, considering I’m an author. Recently, I began doing some research on this topic. Perhaps I was just looking for an excuse to take a break from writing, but I learned a lot, so I’ll share some key points in this short post.

Before I begin, however, I want to tell you why I think storytelling is critical to our humanity: we are nothing without our stories. Imagine that you lived in a world where there were only facts, with no emotional attachment to them—no stories to connect these facts to the human experience. We would all be like robots, processing information without asking ourselves what it means or why it’s important.

The evolution of storytelling is fascinating. Oral storytelling was a way for early mankind to share events and to make meaning of what happened. One of the oldest surviving stories is the epic Mesopotamian poem, “Gilgamesh,” a tale about mortality. It was believed to have been written around 2100 BCE and is often regarded as the earliest surviving great work of literature. Around 1300–1000 BCE, “Gilgamesh” was carved in stone tablets and widely shared, becoming the first known written story.

Just look around you. The most successful people in their fields are great storytellers. Attorneys who weave evidence into the best, most engaging stories win trials. Business leaders, like the late Steve Jobs, use stories to get employees and customers to buy into their visions. Walt Disney created an empire from stories.

Now, we have podcasts, video, films, photography, and social media that tell the stories of our lives. In French airports, kiosks dispense short fiction to entertain travelers. The technology and methods of storytelling will continue to evolve, but one thing is certain: Storytelling will always be a part of the human experience.

Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy writer, said, “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” When I read that quote, I thought of my own novels. In Murder in Madden, I invited readers to ask themselves how much personal risk they would take to learn the truth. In my second book, The Last Sale, I presented a different query: What would you do if someone you loved just disappeared? I began writing those books by asking myself: How would I answer those questions? How do my answers reflect my values and who I am as a person? And how might others react differently? In the process, I learned a lot about myself.

Good storytelling connects us and provides meaning. The next time you’re reading a story or watching a movie, consider what questions are being posed. Examine your own emotional responses. Ask yourself, “What meaning do I make of the experience and what does that say about me?”

Juror 71

“Number 71.” That’s how I verbally checked into the jury room each morning this week. That was my assigned juror number from the 150 or so people that were summoned to the Richland County Judicial Center at 9 a.m. Monday.

After sitting in the jury waiting area watching TV, about 9:30 a.m., we were herded into the courtroom to go through the usual qualifications: “Do you know the defendant? Do you personally know either the prosecutor or defense attorney?” The judge went through a series of questions. He also gave us an opportunity to request dismissal due to unusual hardships or the need to care for the young or elderly. Even though I could have been dismissed, I chose to stay and do my civic duty. After all, if I were on trial for murder, I would hope that fine, upstanding citizens (as I consider myself to be) would put their lives on hold a short time to determine the fate of my own life.

After eliminating a couple dozen potential jurors, those of us who remained were sworn in, promising to be attentive, impartial, and to render a just verdict. It was a good week to be called to jury duty, the judge said. All the civil cases had been settled and only one criminal trial was left on the week’s docket: a murder trial. The odds of being selected as a juror were slim, he said, as they only needed 15 people.

After that, we were all escorted back to the jury waiting room downstairs. That morning had already been stressful for many of us. It was unseasonably cold, rainy, and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper. So, we sat there sipping coffee or tea, watching episodes on HGTV. Will they love it or list it? Will they add that extra room or stay within a lower budget? At that point, we were willingly absorbed in the mundane fixer-upper issues of home renovations.

Then someone in authority walked to the front of the room and the TV went silent. “When I call out your juror number, report over to the person standing at the right.” She pointed to another person-in-authority in the corner of the large room. The room was eerily silent.

When number 71 was called, I joined the other potential jurors in the corner. After a fairly large number of us had been selected, at least several times more than the 15 that were needed, we were taken back to the courtroom. The odds were still good for not being selected. This time, when we walked into the courtroom, something was different. The two prosecutors and two defense attorneys were turned around in their seats, staring at us as we filed in. They were scrutinizing us—from head to toe. It was hard not to feel self-conscious. We had made the first cut, and now the final selections would be made.

As they called a juror number, that person went to the front of the courtroom and spoke into a microphone. When they called my name, I walked up slowly. I didn’t want to trip. If I was going to be disqualified, I wanted it to be for something substantial, like being redheaded, rather than for something more frivolous, like being clumsy. After I gave my name, occupation, former occupation, and spouse’s occupation, the prosecution smiled at me and said to the judge, “Please seat this juror.” The defense attorney added, “Please seat this juror.” I was the first alternate, juror number 13 for this murder trial. I was a bit stunned when I carefully, without tripping, made my way to the jury box.

The judicial system is full of rules, and once we were gathered as the jury panel for this trial, the bailiff began reciting a litany of “don’t do this” examples. Cell phones would not be allowed in the jury room, so each day they would be confiscated and locked up and returned to use for the lunch break only and at the end of the day. Over and we were told not to talk to each other or to anyone else about the case. “Don’t do your own research,” the judge said. Also, “Don’t use the restrooms in the hallways. Use only the jury bathrooms.” If their intent was to whip us into submission for the week with all these rules, it worked.

As a young girl, I loved to watch Perry Mason. In fact, Della Street was my first female role model. I wanted to grow up and wear suits and carry a briefcase like she did. (And I did.) Real-life courtrooms are much duller. It takes mental discipline to stay focused on testimony that goes over and over the same thing. This is a person’s life at stake, I kept reminding myself. Stay focused. While the jury was not on trial, at times it felt like we were. Both sides  intently watched our reactions to the testimony or evidence being presented.

By Thursday morning, both the State and  the defense had done their best to convince us their side was “the truth.” We heard closing arguments, and the judge went through a 30-minute explanation of the various laws that were applicable: murder with malice aforethought, transferred intent, self-defense, reasonable doubt, and a host of other things. Then there was nothing left for anyone to say. Mr. Robert Geter’s life was in the hands of the men and women of the jury. I’ll digress a moment here to say that I’ve always worried about juries. If I were on trial for my life, would I get a decent set of “peers”? I can’t speak for any jury other than the one I was on this week, but I would trust these people with my life. They were all courteous, attentive, and intelligent. When the first 12 jurors were sequestered and we three alternates were dismissed, I felt that at least Mr. Geter’s life was in competent hands.

The judge called the three alternate jurors back into the courtroom and thanked us. “Being an alternate is like being invited to the party but never asked to dance.” I had to think about that for a moment, then decided she was probably right. She also said, “I hope this has been a positive experience for you.” It had, indeed, been an educational experience and a positive one for me. Unquestionably, it had been an inconvenience and I was now even more behind in my writing and other tasks. But I had seen the process from the inside now—great research for a mystery writer. And I had done my civic duty.

Before we left today, the Clerk of Court took my juror badge (another “rule”: you must wear your badge at all times, even when out to lunch at a restaurant), and she returned my phone from the little black, locked box on the wall. She collected our phone numbers to call us when the verdict was in. Lunch was provided, today only, for the jurors, but the alternate jurors were free to take it with them or eat in a conference room. We three alternates went to a conference room with our boxed lunches. While there, since we were now free to discuss the case, I asked how they would vote. They answered quickly. I wasn’t surprised, but I was concerned.

The man whose fate we were discussing was Robert Geter, the defendant on trial. In March 2015, he got into a poolroom brawl about two o’clock in the morning. As a result, one man was stabbed to death and another man who got in the way was stabbed in the eye. Depending on whose side you were on, Geter had either committed “murder with malice aforethought,” or he had been beat up by several men who had been drinking and using marijuana. Geter claims he slashed at his attackers in self-defense with a pocket knife used in his work as an electrician temp worker.

All during this week, I have prayed each night that the jurors, and I, if I had to step in for one of them, would do the right thing by Mr. Geter. If he was guilty, he should be held accountable. If he was not, he should be declared “not guilty” of the charges against him. I prayed that each of us jurors would be impartial and just,  as we had sworn to be.

As I left the courthouse around 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, 2018, my heart ached for Mr. Geter, for the two victims, and for all those who had been affected by this incident more than three years ago. I also worried that Geter would be judged by his color, his socio-economic status, and his dreadlocks. To me, he appeared a bit menacing. He had gained a lot of weight over the three years since the incident, and he looked BIG. As much as I hate to say it, being black in the judicial system makes it hard enough to get a fair shake. Being big, scary looking, and black—well, that’s hard to overcome. Yet, the one time I made eye contact with him, he smiled kindly. Was he a murderer or a victim of the very system he looked to for help? I honestly don’t know.

When I had asked my two fellow alternates if they thought Mr. Geter was guilty, they said “yes” without hesitation. For context, both of these men were males, obviously well-educated and middle class. They were nice, polite, and very white—just as I am. While I am in no way accusing them of being prejudiced, I had hoped they would hesitate before declaring Geter “guilty.” One of the men said he had to get back to the office and he left. While the other man and I ate lunch together, I went through my list of doubts with him. While he admitted my questions had merit, he still felt Geter was guilty.

From my perspective, both the prosecution and defense had done a decent job during the trial—with one exception. One of the State’s witnesses against Geter was exposed in court as being a jailhouse snitch who was clearly lying. The prosecutor looked ridiculous for putting him on the stand. And the defense attorneys left some questions on the table that should have been asked of their witnesses. I gave each side gave a solid C+. But after days of testimony, I still had doubts as to guilt or innocence. There was no question Geter had stabbed these two men—that fact wasn’t contested. The question on the table was murder vs. self-defense. Even though Geter had been outsized by men bigger than he and outnumbered in the altercation, the State had charged him with murder. I couldn’t help but wonder if winning had become more important than the truth for those prosecutors.

We finished eating, I said goodbye to the other alternate juror. While I was walking to the parking garage, my questions and doubts continued to bounce around in my head. I don’t think Geter is entirely innocent. But I don’t think he is guilty either—based on definition the judge had explained. I was unsure, and according to the judge, that meant I would have to vote “not guilty,” as I was not certain “beyond a reasonable doubt.” I said another prayer for the jurors to do the right thing—whatever that might be.

As I’m writing this, it’s nearly 6 p.m. I haven’t gotten a call yet from the Clerk of Court, so she’s forgotten to call me or the jury is still deliberating. I hope it’s the latter. I hope the jury, those men and women I got to know this week, will take whatever time is necessary to go through the evidence, re-evaluate their first impulse, and make an impartial and just decision. Whichever way it goes, I’ll continue to pray for Mr. Geter. Not because I’m convinced he’s innocent, but because he deserves the best treatment by our judicial system.

When I do learn the verdict, I will trust that the jury did their best. Serving on a jury, especially on a murder trial, is a very difficult job—not because of the bad traffic, long hours, inconvenience, acrid coffee, and endless HGTV programs, but because putting your prejudices, bias, and fears aside to decide a person’s fate, a person who is very different from you, is perhaps the hardest thing you’ll ever be asked to do. In fact, it’s damn near impossible.

UPDATE: At 7:01 p.m. tonight, I got a call from the Clerk of Court. Robert Geter was found guilty on both counts and was sentenced to 40 years.

 

I QUIT!

This is a blog post I wrote for the SC Writer’s Association, Cola II chapter. It was originally published on the chapter’s website March 4, 2018.

 

Several years ago, I participated in a writing workshop with the late Jerry Cleaver, author of Immediate Fiction. At that time, I had started and stopped writing a couple of different mystery novels. I was frustrated, and his feedback, though fair and accurate, frustrated me even more. I can still hear him saying, “More conflict. You need more conflict in your story.” When I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to write a decent manuscript, he gave me some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever gotten: “Quit writing.”

I was stunned. There I was paying him good money to encourage me, coach me, help me write that elusive book. Yet, he told me to quit. I wasn’t sure whether to be mad or ecstatic. Mostly I was confused. When I finally got the courage to challenge his advice, he said, “Writers quit all the time, including me. But if you’re a real writer, you’ll have to start again. You cannot not write.”

After letting his last comments sink in, I then became afraid. What if I quit and never wanted to write again? That would, according to Cleaver, mean I had never been a realwriter anyway. Nonetheless, I did quit. I mean, I totally quit with the intention of never writing fiction again. I avoided anything related to writing and went about my life. At first, I was giddy with the lightness of not being a writer. No more worries about plots and characters—or conflict. I could enjoy reading a book without analyzing it. The freedom of not being a writer was intoxicating.

After a couple months of not writing, the impact of Cleaver’s message finally hit me: I needed to reevaluate why I was writing. As simple as that sounds, I had been focused on outlining, story structure, and all the other nuts-and-bolts of the craft. Was my goal to write the perfectly structured novel, worthy of an MFA thesis? While I wanted to write a quality novel, what I really craved was to write a novel that readers could connect with.

When I eventually returned to writing, I wrote the story I really wanted to tell. While I didn’t ignore all the workshop advice and education I had acquired over the years, this time, however, I began writing from my heart, not my head. I wrote for my readers, not for other writers.

About three years later, I published my first novel, Murder in Madden, which recently received Honorable Mention in the Writers’ Digest Self-Published Book Awards. And my second novel in the series, The Last Sale, will soon be out.

During the past year, I have enjoyed the book signings, festivals, book clubs, and other interactions with readers. I’ve never had so much fun. And each time a reader tells me about her favorite character, or someone says, “I couldn’t put it down,” I thank the writing gods that I found the courage to quit.

My Birthday Gift to Me

Today is my birthday, and I gave myself a wonderful present: The Last Sale. I released the second book in my Enid Blackwell Series today. The first copy of my book always goes to my wonderful husband. He is the hero of all the stories in my life.

Thank you to everyone who has been patiently waiting for the second book, and to all my loyal readers. You are the reason I write!

I’ll say more later about The Last Sale, for for now, I’m going to enjoy my special day. I have much to be thankful for.

Murder in Madden Wins Award!

I always seem to be apologizing for not posting more frequently. So, here I am again, apologizing. Let me bring you up to date on a couple of things.

I finished the manuscript for the second book in the Enid Blackwell series, The Last Sale, in September. Like Murder in Madden, this book was inspired by a real-life event—the disappearance of a young woman in Columbia, South Carolina. Ironically, the week that I finished the manuscript was the 25th anniversary of her disappearance. However, out of respect and privacy for the real family, I won’t mention her name specifically here or in the author’s notes in the book. People familiar with the real-life cold case will recognize it immediately. Let me be clear, however, that The Last Sale is purely fiction and only “inspired” by the actual case.

Excited as I was to finish the second book’s manuscript, a few weeks later I learned that Murder in Madden was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards contest. There were approximately 2400 entries, so I was very excited and honored to have placed.
Bolstered by my award, I then entered Murder in Madden in the Book Pipeline contest. Winners will be announced early 2018. Who knows, maybe my first book will be made into a movie. Stay tuned!

 

 

Reflections on the Decatur Book Festival

Like any mostly-full-time writer, I get discouraged at times. As a profession, writing is solitary and often frustrating, which is probably why I enjoyed the Decatur Book Festival, September 2-3. Connecting with readers, face-to-face was invigorating. I loved being able to talk about my book, rather than just writing about it.

Reflecting on the festival brought up another issue for me: I really don’t like social media. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love being able to keep up with friends and family whom I don’t see often. I even enjoy their cute kitten videos and recipes. I also enjoy seeing what my newly acquired friends are doing, as it helps me get to know them better.

What I don’t like is trying to connect with potential readers who are total strangers via social media. Unfortunately, I’ve got to learn to embrace it if I want to “make it” as an author. And then there’s this whole Amazon monolith thing. I haven’t learned a tenth of what I need to know about marketing with them. It’s pretty overwhelming at times.

And then, I reflect on events like the Decatur Book Festival and am reminded why I write. So, I am doing what I can to put my story out in the universe and trust that somehow I’ll figure out how to do the right things to connect with you, my readers.

So, if you bought Murder in Madden at the festival, THANK YOU! I am honored that you have read/will read my story. Please let me know if you like it (or if you didn’t). And, if you have any thoughts on social media, let me know.

Murder on My Mind

“I’ve had murder on my mind a long time.” That’s what I told a book club recently while discussing “Murder in Madden.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved mysteries. My first books were the Nancy Drew series—I still have most of them. In the late-1950s, when I was a child, my allowance was 50 cents a week, but to encourage my reading, my parents gave me the extra to buy a 59 cents book, plus tax. I’ve been reading ever since.

As I grew older, I began reading books by Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, and later, by Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Now I read John Grisham, John Hart, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and many other authors I’ve discovered along the way.

Until recently, I’ve never asked myself “why mysteries?” Why don’t I read great literature or at least other genres as much as mysteries? All I can say in my own defense is that I’m not alone. In fiction, thrillers are the number one sellers. I’m pretty sure it’s because the stakes are higher in a murder mystery than, say, in a bank robbery. Sure, the latter is a mystery, but losing money just isn’t the same level of thrill and danger.

One thing I really love about mysteries is the way clues come together. I am, by nature, a problem solver, and finding the bad guy or gal is the ultimate question to be resolved. I also love closure, and finding the perps brings the story to its rightful end. There’s something satisfying about having all the loose ends tied up and all the questions answered. But I also love the characters in a mystery, and how they use their wits to solve crimes. Oddly, though, I’m not that interested in police procedurals. I’m far more interested in ordinary people who defy the odds and discover what eludes law enforcement, or how ordinary people get caught up in something way bigger than themselves and manage to think their way out of it.

And, of course, I just love a good story. I remember hearing ghost stories as a child and how I loved to be scared. I read once where the human mind can’t distinguish between sex and fear. So, when you’re scared, you think you’re having sex. Wow! Who knew?

Anyway, now that I’m a mystery author myself, I really do have murder on my mind almost all the time. Every conversation, every event, every weird thing that happens is fodder for the next book. And, just so you don’t worry about my psychological state, I abhor violence as much as the next person—that is in real life.

Do you have murder on your mind, too? If so, let me hear from you.

Sit Down and Power Through It

Last night I attended my Wednesday night cycle class. As Kathleen, the instructor, led us through a series of exercises, one was a “hill climb,” in which we stood up to cycle using higher gears. I ramped up my gears and followed along. Then Kathleen said, “Now sit down and power through it. Don’t touch those gears,” which meant that it was going to be a more challenging ride. Sitting while cycling with a higher gear is much harder than doing it standing, because when you stand, you use your whole body weight.

As I sat down and struggled to “power through it,” it occurred to me that these cycle instructions would also apply to writing. When you first start a writing project—like a novel, you stand up and put your full weight into the ride. It’s not effortless, but it’s easier than at any other point in the writing process. Later, as you get further into your project, you eventually have to sit down and power through it. That means writing when you want to quit and ignoring the urge to get out and enjoy the spring weather. It means writing when you are ready to give up because you feel like you’re an idiot for ever thinking you could write a book. Powering through it is where most people lose it. The hill climb overcomes them and they drop out of the ride. I know. I’ve been there.

While writing my first book, I dropped out a few times. “I can’t do this.” Or, “What was I thinking?” You know, all of those self-recriminating statements we make to ourselves in our lowest moments. Thankfully, I was able to get back on track and finish my first novel, Murder in Madden. Now that I’m writing the second novel in the Enid Blackwell series, I am again facing that same hill climb. It ain’t easy, nor should it be, but I will make it to the top of this hill and finish the second book. I’m confident because I have been up this hilly path before. And I know I can sit down and power through it.

The Joy of Book Clubs

Last week, I met with a book club in Prosperity, South Carolina. What an experience! It was such a pleasure to meet with a group of people who had read the book and who asked very insightful questions. In particular, they were interested in the characters and how they were developed. We had an enlightening conversation about the writing process.

Here’s what I learned from the book club discussion:

  • Never underestimate your readers. They may be reading for entertainment, but they put a lot of thought into what they are reading.
  • Characters trump plot. With the exception of the occasional (usually male) readers who want nothing but action, most readers want to experience the characters’ lives in an intimate way. They want to understand the characters’ motivations, fears, and joys. As my writing coach often said, plot springs from the characters being in situations. How they react to the situation creates plot. The book club ladies’ interest in character development just confirmed this assertion.
  • Readers interpret based on who they are, not on who you are. The French essayist and memoirist Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” The same is true for your readers. Their world view and values will determine how they see your characters, no matter what you do. It’s okay.
  • Being with this book club reinforced for me why I write—to connect with readers.

 

I’m looking forward to many more book club discussions about Murder in Madden and its characters, many of whom will return in the second book of the “Enid” series. Please contact me if your club is interested in a personal visit, Skype or phone discussion with the author at one of your club’s meetings.

Beginning on book #2 in Enid Blackwell series

Before I say anything, I want to acknowledge my writer friends to manage to juggle a full-time job, fulfill family obligations, market their already-published books, and still find time to write. It’s a challenge!

As I begin the second book in the Enid series, a year has passed in the story. If you’ve read the book, you know book one left some unanswered questions to be resolved. Most will be addressed in book 2; others in later books.

I’ve missed Enid, Cade, Jack, and the other character friends I made writing the first book. Reconnecting with them is like going to a reunion and seeing folks you haven’t been in regular contact with. It’s exciting to hear what they’ve been up to. And they are anxious to share the second story with me. I am, after all, just the channel they use.

Stay tuned–more about writing the second book as it progresses.