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Tricentennial Trivia

April 14, 2018

For anyone who’s spent any time in New Orleans over the past several months, there’s been no escaping all the tricentennial coverage, signage, and just all-around hullaballoo over this city’s 3ooth birthday.

I spent this past Saturday in the French Quarter, amidst some volatile Spring weather. I think tornadoes hit in North Louisiana, but we were spared down in the Southeast corner of the state. Walking the streets, and getting soggy, I wasn’t necessarily soaking up history, but I was definitely thinking about it. (I’m a pretty sensitive sort, and there’s a lot of misery in this city’s history. Gotta be careful about what I soak up, for self-preservation.) Several questions came to mind, that Google and Wikipedia helped answer:

  • Is there an actual date for New Orleans’s founding? According to Wikipedia, yes and no. It was founded in the Spring of 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, who was heading up the French Mississippi Company at the time. The actual date has been lost to history, but someone apparently picked May 7 as a good springtime date to celebrate the anniversary. And as an aside, Bienville’s name has not been lost to history. He did a lot of settling all along the Gulf Coast.
  • Does the iconic St. Louis Cathedral predate the founding? Nope. There was a wooden church in the same location in 1718, not the big cathedral that stands today. It was upgraded in 1727, destroyed in the “Great New Orleans Fire” in 1788, and rebuilt by 1794. So the structure that stands there today is only 224 years old. It received its “cathedral” status in 1793, so it is, at least, one of the oldest, if not the oldest cathedral in the U.S.
  • What’s the big deal? Okay, well, neither Google nor Wikipedia could answer this question. But in the course of my searching, I discovered that New York City was founded in 1624 (as New Amsterdam). The English renamed it New York in 1664. So will New York go all woo-woo for 400 in six years? And then again in forty-six years? And what about St. Augustine, Florida? It’ll turn 500 in 2065. That seems like a big deal. (Yes, Brother David, it really is the oldest city in the U.S. The city of St. Augustine has been an inside joke between the two of us for roughly forty years, now. No way to make that long story short).

I don’t want to seem like I’m not supportive of all these celebratory efforts with that last bit of snark. It is a pretty cool thing to live in a city that’s been around longer than the United States. I guess I just feel that a celebration of that many years should be tempered with some recognition of all the things those years encompassed, the good and bad. And tempering, or temperance, is not one of the things this city is known for.

February 18, 2018

Writing and Taxes

Photo credit: http://www.indiana.edu

In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.

I looked up the source of this quote in the process of writing this post. Certain aspects of its context are pretty interesting. Certain things I’d forgotten, or might have not even known in the first place, like:

  • It’s commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, from a letter he wrote to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789
  • The phrase actually appeared at least twice before, earlier in the 18th century, in Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil (1726) and in The Cobbler of Preston by Christopher Bullock (1716)
  • Ben Franklin’s quote is in reference to the newly-minted U.S. Constitution

That last bit is particularly interesting, considering that tax issues were one of the chief reasons we wound up creating a constitution of our own in the first place. Here’s the full quote, as I found it on Google:

“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

And as an aside, I’m afraid to look up The Political History of the Devil, because I’m thinking it might be the thickest book in history.

Anyway, as much as I’d like to say I spent the better part of this past weekend writing, I can’t, because I was finishing up our 2017 U.S. income tax return (and the corresponding Louisiana state return). I have filed my own tax returns for as long as I can remember, for as long as I’ve had to file taxes, really. Back when a 1040EZ did the trick, and loooong before TurboTax or any similar tax software existed.

I feel compelled to write about taxes because, just as they are as certain as death, they place me in a certain firmament as a WRITER. This is my third year claiming “writing” as a sideline business on my return. While I know that this is more than a hobby, proclaiming it as a business with the U.S. government REALLY puts it on record.

But I don’t go through this rather laborious exercise purely out of an effort to “force” my legitimacy as a writer. That would definitely not be worth the effort. It really goes more toward intent. I intend to, one day, make some kind of living as a fiction writer. And I intend to, one day, make enough that I would have to pay taxes on the proceeds.

I’m not at that point yet.

Fiction writing has been a loss leader for these past three years I’ve claimed it on my return. And I fully expect it will continue that way for at least a few more years. It’s one of those things I remember from getting my Minor (in Marketing) from Arizona’s school of business. To expect a new business to operate at a loss for at least five years. At least, I hope I’m remembering that correctly.

I’m more than halfway through that five-year period, and I’m starting to get a little nervous. What if it takes more than five years to show some decent proceeds? Who keeps track of these things? Will the IRS send me a letter, telling me to “get on the stick” and get after this writing thing? (Although it’s more likely they’ll send me a letter with something like a-u-d-i-t in there somewhere).

I know I can’t be the only person to face this quandary. Writing as a profession—and taxes—have been around a very long time. So the bigger question is: what did Ben Franklin do? Or Daniel Defoe or Christopher Bullock, for that matter? And the biggest question of all: how the heck did they do it without TurboTax?

Unexpected Stories

An unexpected view from a shop window in Mykonos

So, I’ll be making some changes to this website over the coming months. . .nothing major, essentially, just getting it ready for the launch of my second novel by late summer/early fall. Well, I don’t think it will look like anything major to visitors, but it’s minorly major to me. I’m trying to put some thought into the changes, improve the site’s searchability, and give the folks who’ve never heard of me (so, read: most folks, everywhere) some idea of what I’m about.

This website will turn three years old this summer. It’s no longer a start-up. And marketing habits die hard. While my day job is no longer in the day-to-day business of marketing, it’s still heavy in the communications arena. And I feel like some of the communicative elements here are getting stale.

What I’m getting at is, in marketing parlance, I’m saying it’s high time for this website to undergo a “branding refresh.”

For all things branding, once again, I turned to Sally Hogshead, creator of the “Fascination Advantage.” This is a personality assessment that’s supposed to help you figure out how everyone sees you (or your “brand”) when you’re at your best. I signed up for her “One Hour Personal Brand” workshop. (The fee was very reasonable. I’ve certainly spent a lot stupider money on less productive exercises trying to help me figure out what the world thinks of me.)

So far, the workshop is telling me I need to come up with an “anthem.” Her definition of anthem is “a tagline to describe myself,” or “my personal brand.” You can see the tagline I’ve been using these past three years, right at the top of this page. “Fiction writer. Yippee ki yay.”

I’m not so sure I’m ready to lose the “Yippee ki yay” part. Jury’s still out on that, even though the people who performed the search optimization audit on the site (a different company, in no way affiliated with Sally Hogshead) said something about how “it doesn’t add anything to search.” I wanted to respond back “oh yeah, but it says a lot  about me, mutha somethin,” but I didn’t. ‘Cause, yeah, as an aside, I paid this company more than twice what I paid for the One Hour Personal Brand, and it was like pulling teeth to get them to deliver the audit. About two months later than they promised.

Anyway, I’m very ready to refine the “Fiction writer” part. I’d like to replace it with “Unexpected stories.” I could make that my anthem: “I write unexpected stories.” But there’s something holding me back from using that phrase, which I’ll get to in a bit.

This is how I came up with “Unexpected stories:” the One Hour Personal Brand workshop told me to come up with an adjective from my Fascination profile, and pair it with a noun. The noun I’d really like to use is “stories.” Stories feels like the most appropriate word tying my long and short form works together. (Another aside, I have a short story that should publish later this month, in the sci-fi anthology Just A Minor Malfunction #4.)

Here’s why I like “unexpected” best: not only does it seem like a good descriptor for the paranormal and sci-fi themes in what I write, it also feels right for my fiction writing career. I think I always expected I would be doing this some day. . .but the rest of the folks in my world? Not so much.

But finally, here’s why I’m reluctant to forge ahead with a brand new “unexpected stories” tagline: it’s also the title of a collection of Octavia Butler’s short stories, published posthumously just a few years ago. Would using it usurp any of the rightful praise due this Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning author? The first speculative fiction writer to win a MacArthur “genius grant?” Or would using it honor her?

Jury’s still out on that question, too.

Three things I learned about Pacific Rim

I saw Pacific Rim: Uprising this past weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The events in this sequel take place ten years after 2013’s Pacific Rim. So, only five years passed in real life, while ten years went by in movie time.

Still, that five years in real time is notable. By Hollywood standards, it’s a little lengthy for a sequel release. It seems to me, the hit movie makers don’t want to give audiences time to forget what they love about a movie. It seems even the most persnickety of filmmakers get their sequels out in no longer than a three-year time span.

But maybe I’m thinking way too much about this. Before the movie, I saw a trailer for Incredibles 2. That’s a fourteen-year lapse since the first Incredibles. Who knows?

Anyway, regarding Pacific Rim: I did not forget what I loved about the first one. That’s why I saw it opening weekend. I accompanied Niece Nicole and her friend Rachel to an early Saturday IMAX showing.

So what do I love about the world of Pacific Rim? Lots of stuff, but underlying it all is probably that it’s a story about kaiju. Who, in the Pacific Rim universe, are giant, engineered sea monsters. I have a very special place in my heart for Godzilla, so Pacific Rim pretty much had me at “giant monsters.”

When you mix in giant robots (Jaegers), who require a neural link (a drift) between two humans to operate, a plotline that incorporates the imminent destruction of Earth, and a compelling love story (at least, the first one had this). . .well then, count me in.

Oscar-winning Guillermo del Toro produced Pacific Rim: Uprising, but he didn’t direct it. He was producer and director on the first. So there is definitely some differences in style between the two movies, but I didn’t mind that. I appreciated that the second film begins with a voiceover, a recap of the events in the first film. The voiceover also sets up the main character, Jake Pentecost (wonderfully portrayed by John Boyega), without any unnecessary exposition.

The movie opens with Jake squatting in the abandoned, palatial homes of Southern California, an area that was never rebuilt after the events of Pacific Rim. I knew right then and there the movie would be a hit with me. I’ve always figured that would be something I would do, should the current paradigm of our world shift. As a matter of fact, that’s the only way I ever see myself living in a huge, palatial estate. I don’t see the point of it, even if I won the lottery.

Anyway, here are the three things that came as news to me:

  1. Guillermo del Toro didn’t write the original story. I had just sort of assumed he did, or at least had come up with the concept, and had someone else write the screenplay. But no, the credits at the end of Pacific Rim: Uprising said something about “Based on characters created by. . .
  2. . . .Travis Beacham.” So I guess the story concept, and the screenplay for the first, were written by this guy, Travis Beacham. Kinda made me think of how Roderick Thorp has a “Based on the novel by” credit on Die Hard. That novel is Nothing Lasts Forever. I’ve never read it, but Husband Tim has. From what he’s told me, it’s pretty different. But I digress, because the third thing I learned about Pacific Rim was:
  3. It was scheduling conflicts that kept Guillermo del Toro from directing, and Charlie Hunnam from returning to reprise his role as Raleigh Becket from the first movie. That’s what Niece Nicole told me. I knew Charlie Hunnam wasn’t supposed to be in the sequel, but in our post-movie discussion, Nicole and I marked all the opportunities there were for a nice little cameo.

And how there’s a wide open possibility for Raleigh Becket to return in Pacific Rim 3. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another five years for that.

You asked for miracles, Theo?

I give you the F.B.I. — Hans Gruber from Die Hard

Jersey barrier, chain link, sign…we get the idea

On Monday, I had the amazing opportunity to attend presentations at the FBI field office in New Orleans. Many thanks to the New Orleans chapter of Sisters in Crime for arranging this outing for its members. Sisters in Crime is a national organization offering networking, advice and support to mystery authors. (While I wouldn’t qualify myself as a “mystery author,” I certainly seek to incorporate elements of mystery into my stories. My membership in this group has proven very worthwhile).

Having never been in any real trouble with the law, my impression of the FBI is mostly formed from movies. So, of course I’ve had Hans Gruber’s aforementioned quote from Die Hard going through my head as I attempt to write this piece. And then there’s also Agent Kay from Men in Black, when he’s posing as an FBI agent: “We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of.”

Entering the FBI field office was certainly serious business. We had to pass a limited background check in order to access the facility. And as the picture above shows, you can’t just waltz through the front door once you’ve been approved. We had to sign in at a guard gate, and then we were escorted by private security to the front door, where “Federal Bureau of Investigation” appears etched in invisible ink around the arch. You can barely make it out in the picture—which is, by the way, the only one I have, because we were not allowed to bring cell phones or any electronics into the field office.

Once inside, we were escorted by the community liaison to the “Old Case Files” room, where we were greeted by the Special Agent in Charge, Eric Rommal. He explained a little bit of how the FBI is organized around the country. The largest offices are in New York and Washington, D.C.; but they each cover a relatively small geographic area. New York covers the five boroughs, and Washington the D.C. metro area. By comparison, the New Orleans office covers the entire state of Louisiana.

After the SAC’s introduction, the newly-appointed Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) from the local Cyber division presented a case study on the investigation into some criminals, who stole about $100,000 by hacking into and assuming someone’s personal email address.

Later, when it was time for a bathroom break, I got a glimpse into why there was so much pre-screening before the FBI just let anyone into their facility. We had to be escorted to the toilets, too—right past an open door with “Gun Vault” marked alongside the door frame. I could see a line of rifles—I think they were rifles, I’m no gun expert—secured against the wall inside.

Our final presentation in the “Old Case Files” room was from the SSA of New Orleans’s Counterintelligence division. He played a lead role in the investigation of Tai Shen Kuo, a New Orleans resident who was convicted of spying for China. The case has been declassified, so SSA Bob Thibault was able to present a fascinating, first-hand account of all the cool, espionage-y details. My imagination was definitely sparked.

Finally, before we left, we received a quick demonstration of FATS, a firearms training simulator. It was a sobering look into the use of deadly force, and how every single time it boils down to a judgement call on the part of law enforcement.

It was pretty phenomenal to get a look inside an institution as public, in-the-glaring-spotlight/news-every-day-kinda-public, as the FBI. They’ve been at this for over a century! In the few hours I spent in the New Orleans office, I got a sense of earnest people, just trying to do their jobs, protecting honest folks from bad actors. Sorry, Hans, that may not be miraculous, but I’m grateful people remain willing to do the job, just the same.

Does every picture tell a story?

There’s more to this thistle than meets the eye…

On a run through New Orleans City Park this past Saturday, something caught my eye. My runs these days are a sorta walk-run combo, so I’m not opposed to breaking my stride to satisfy my curiosity. I’m at a point in my life where finding the unexpected is more important to me than reaching some particular cardiovascular fitness milestone.

I was pleased to find a few thistles blooming, right at the shoreline of the lagoon. When you think of New Orleans flora, “thistle” is not one of the first plants to come to mind. Not for me, at least. So these prickly, lilac-colored-bloom beauties were a pleasant surprise.

They were in a fairly secluded area of City Park, set back about fifty yards from the nearest roadway, but only a few feet off the paved walking path. I don’t like to run with my phone, so I made an intention to return the next day for a more leisurely picture-taking expedition.

That’s where the story comes in.

I was out and about early on Sunday morning, so I cheated and drove to the thistle spot. Or rather, I parked near there as I made my way back home. Traipsing the fifty yards across the grass and fallen oak leaves, I could see someone was already there ahead of me. I first thought it was a photographer, setting up to get their own thistle pic. (Photographers are definitely not a rare sight in City Park.)

As I approached, I could see it was a man closing up a backpack. It looked like a nice, solid backpack, not something cobbled together. And he seemed pretty intent on his task—striking camp, I assumed—and not so interested in the nearby runners and / or amateurish iPhone photographers.

But still, I had to do one of those instant threat/need assessments. You know, all the questions and answers that run through your head in a split second. “Does this person look dangerous?” Maybe, but he’s behind and bent over his pack, so it’s not like he’s lying in wait. “Does this person look like they need help?” He does not look like he needs or wants help. “Is this person supposed to be camping here?” Probably not, but I’m not about to call him out on it.

So in that instant, I decided to proceed with a few quick thistle pictures, but not dally doing it. I told him “Good morning” as I approached the lagoon’s edge. He looked up, but didn’t respond. (That’s when I got the idea that he neither needed or wanted any kind of attention). I took the photos, and then hightailed it out of there.

Being a fiction writer, I’ve had nothing but possibilities running through my head ever since. Daylight savings time had begun just about seven hours earlier, so did backpack man think he was striking his camp earlier than he actually was? Was he wondering why so many runners, walkers, and just general people were out so blooming early?

And then, don’t get me started on the thistles. Are they a sign for off-the-grid backpackers, “Here You May Camp”? Kind of like the scarlet pimpernel? Or does some scout come and seed them for off-the-grid backpackers? Is there a Secret Society of the Thistle?

Reality still creeps in. I don’t want it to seem like I am making light of this person’s circumstances. I get the gravitas. Outdoor living is tough, and especially so if it’s not by choice. My sense was his was mostly by choice. But my sense has been wrong before.

Which brings me to one of those things I’ve learned about writing, my writing, in the eight or so years I’ve been at it. And here it is: ideas for fiction—even the zaniest ideas, especially the zaniest ideas—are rarely worth pursuing if they aren’t backed up somehow by the weight and gravity of the real world.

 

The Writing Spectrum

Last weekend was jam-packed with writerly endeavors. I spent all day Saturday down in Houma, Louisiana, at the Jambalaya Writers’ Conference. But Friday and Sunday each had significant entries, too. So herewith, in chronological order, the highlights:

Friday at Community Book Center: I had the pleasure of meeting Jan Miles of Brown Bird Books. She presented The Post-Racial Negro Green Book, which documents acts of racial bias against African Americans in the U.S., from 2013 to 2016. She read from a list of incidents—some from the recent years captured in the book, and some from the Civil Rights era—and had the audience guess the century they occurred. We got many wrong; it was an amazingly eye-opening exercise. She compiled this archive “for the sake of review, consideration, discussion, and action.” I would love to do my part to help spread the word.

Saturday at the Terrebonne Parish Main Library: This library hosted the 15th Annual Jambalaya Writers’ Conference. Houma is about an hour’s drive southwest of New Orleans, and this was my first time attending this event. I was so impressed by all the new voices I encountered; here are a few who stood out:

  • I started the day with a presentation by Chanelle Benz, author of a story collection titled The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead. These stories feature a wide range of characters from different centuries, so she was the perfect person to present the topic: “Write What You Don’t Know: Finding Diverse Characters.”
  • Maurice Carlos Ruffin, a New Orleans-based writer, moderated a panel on setting (called “Where to Hide the Bodies.”) He did an admirable job of making sure all the authors on the panel had equal time. (I recall him saying he’s a lawyer in addition to a writer, I think he was using that set of skills). Random House will publish his first novel, We Cast a Shadow, early next year.
  • R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series, is certainly not a new voice. While I definitely know who he is, he’s never been in my sphere, since I was far from the target demographic when Goosebumps hit its peak popularity. But it was great to hear one of the best-selling writers of all time talk about his writing process, how he got his start (as a humor writer, Jovial Bob Stine), and read from the really funny letters he’s received from children over the years.

Sunday at home: You always hear how writing is a solitary pursuit. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to it, I think. So, there had been a lot of people and lots of activity the twenty-four hours prior, and I HAD to finish the manuscript for my second novel. I had promised to submit to my publisher before the weekend was up.

I spent the entire day at my computer, only getting up to run two loads of laundry, and put a Costco lasagna in the oven. It was a beautiful day outside, it would have been perfect for a run. And, I could hear bands all day, at the finish line of the Rock’n’Roll marathon, just a few blocks away in City Park. But, I got into a massive disagreement with Word and inconsistent formatting of quotation marks, which ate up the break time I had hoped to take, for a quick jaunt into City Park.

All’s well that ends well, though. I submitted the manuscript around 10:30 pm Sunday, and had a contract in my inbox by 7:15 am Monday morning. The Trouble on Highway One is tentatively set to release in September. 🙂

Back to Running

Photo credit: S.M. Frost

So, I’ve still been hard at work, putting the finishing touches on the manuscript for The Trouble on Highway One, my second novel, and the follow-up to The Incident Under the Overpass. That’s how I spent the bulk of this past weekend, except for two breaks.

On Sunday, Husband Tim and I saw Black Panther. I really enjoyed it, and found it to be one of the better offerings in the Marvel movie franchise. And the character T’Challa as portrayed by Chadwick Boseman is a definite favorite. (I like to root for the good guys with a sense of humility. And for the record, I’m Team Cap all the way.)

On Saturday, I (mostly) ran the 504k race in Crescent Park. (504 is the area code for New Orleans. And this race is 5.04 kilometers long). For me, having run this race is worth noting for several reasons:

  • It’s the first race I’ve run in over two years. I really don’t remember the last race I ran. The years started catching up with my legs and lower back roughly two years ago, and I followed an orthopedist’s advice and took a break from running.
  • Strike that, I do remember the last race I ran. I (mostly) ran one of the two-mile races they hold in City Park over the summer. But that turned out to be an anomaly. Legs or knees or something started bothering me shortly thereafter.
  • This time around, I followed a physical therapist’s advice and got back into running s-l-o-w-l-y. Like build the miles slowly. Like try running for five minutes, then add a minute a week at a time.

Okay, didn’t mean to go so far into my wonky physiology. What I really wanted to say was how good it feels to be running again, and how much I missed it. And how much fun it was to run a race I’d never run before, in a park I had not yet been to.

Many thanks to my friend Samantha for the entry to the race. She’s on the Board of Directors for Youth Run NOLA, the organizers of the 504k. Youth Run NOLA partners with schools and the community to “help youth develop healthy habits for life through distance running.” All photo credits in this post go to Samantha, too.

Interestingly enough, it’s been about two years since I’ve written about running in this space (I think swimming has made more entries.) Take a look, if you’re interested, it still rings true for me: Writing and Running

Photo credit: S.M. Frost
Photo credit: S.M. Frost
Photo credit: S.M. Frost
Photo credit: S.M. Frost
Photo credit: S.M. Frost

The Second Time Around

The second time is
So much better, baby
(The second time around)
And I make it better
Than the first time

—Lyrics from “The Second Time Around” by Shalamar

I remember this song from my youth. It’s from Shalamar’s album Big Fun, which Wikipedia tells me was released the day after my tenth birthday. Like a lot of songs from that era, if they received radio airplay, there’s a good chance those lyrics and melodies are lodged somewhere deep in my cerebrum. Just waiting for the right catalyst to release them to get stuck in my current brain.

In this instance, the catalyst has been the work I’m pouring into my second full-length novel. I’m into the final edits, and I remember being at a similar stage with my first one, exactly twenty-four months ago. February 2016.

Shalamar sings “the second time is so much better.” Related to my own efforts, I agree—but on balance. The pressure’s higher this time around, so that has leavened my joy a bit. I guess stress has a way of doing that. But the reason the pressure’s higher is an absolute positive—my publisher has asked me to submit this manuscript. No one was asking first time around. Here are some other ways I agree with Shalamar:

  • Some readers have indicated they want to read the continuation of the story I began in the first one. That’s pretty cool.
  • Working with a developmental editor this time around was a HUGE improvement to the writing process.
  • I’m a touch more confident in my abilities. But just a touch, because I still struggle daily with anxiety, and “am I worthy”-type thoughts.

And finally, there’s the last bit of lyric quoted above. “I make it better than the first time.” On that point, I’m unequivocal. That is my intent, 100%. For every novel and short story I write to improve upon the previous.

There’s a quote I’ll see on social media from time to time, I think it’s from writer and editor David Schlosser: “The only writer to whom you should compare yourself is the writer you were yesterday.”

I think that sums up my thoughts nicely. Enjoy Shalamar’s catchy song, and their super-sparkly outfits: