23 September 2017

The Bad Girl Method to Writing a Novel (a crooked path, of course)

by Melodie Campbell

Okay, I tricked you. You thought this was going to be a humour column. Not so fast. Yes, it’s about writing humorous books, because that’s what I write. But I’m sure this could apply to most books.

Writing a novel, or even a novella, means hours and hours of work at a keyboard. Hundreds of hours. Maybe even a thousand hours for a full-length novel.

Some of those hours are great fun. Others, not so much. Why is it that some scenes are a kick to write, and others just drudgery?

Here’s what Agatha Christie said in the Foreword to Crooked House, one of her “special favourites.”

“I should say that of one’s output, five books are work to one that is real pleasure… Again and again someone says to me: ‘How you must have enjoyed writing so and so!’ This about a book that obstinately refused to come out the way you wished, whose characters are sticky, the plot needlessly involved, and the dialogue stilted – or so you think yourself. “

Christie was referring to books, but I think the same can be said for scenes. Some, you can’t wait to write. Others are purgatory. Here’s my own method for plodding through the fire.

The Bad Girl Method to Writing a Novel

I always start with what I call a “light outline.” Yes, I outline. But I don’t outline every scene, or even list every scene. Instead, I start with ‘Three Acts and a Finale.’ Here’s the minimum I know before I start a book:

Inciting moment, Crisis 1 (in a murder mystery, the first murder,) Crisis 2 (the second murder,) Crisis 3 (includes the black moment, usually danger for the protagonist,) Finale (solving of crime.)

Yes, I write it down. I use Excel for this. When I have more thought out, I add it in. When I get new ideas, I make notes on my schematic so I don’t forget them. (I understand Scrivener is terrific for this. Some people use post it notes on a white board. Different strokes, but the same idea.)

So here’s the question I often get asked by my Crafting a Novel students: Do I write in order, from A to Z?

No, I don’t.

I always write the beginning chapters first. I do that, because I want to see if the characters are compelling enough to carry an entire book. Meaning, do I like the protagonist, do I care about her, and am I really excited to write her story. It may take a whole year to do so. I better freaking well want to live her life for a while.

If that works (meaning, if I like the first few chapters) then I’ll usually skip to the end, and write Crisis 3 and the finale. I’ve just said something big there: Yes, I always know the ending before I start the book.

I like to write the ending before I’m too invested in the project, because I want to know that it rocks. If it doesn’t rock, then I’m probably not going to want to invest another 500 hours writing the middle of the book.

So once I’ve written the beginning and the end, THEN do I write in order?

Not always.

Here’s my trick: I continue to move forward. But sometimes I skip scenes I’m not in a mood to write. I’ll put a note in brackets on the manuscript to fill in later.

I can’t explain it, but some scenes are just hard to write. I put off writing them. This is where many of my students go wrong. When they hit a scene like that, they just stop.

The trick is not to walk away from the keyboard. Instead, go on to another scene that you do want to write.

When your manuscript is 90% finished, you will have the incentive to go back and complete those hard scenes. It will still be work. But the lure of the finish line makes it easier.

Why don’t I write a complete outline, scene by scene? I’m one of those authors who gets bored if I know *exactly* what is coming next. If I have to write a fully scripted story for an entire year, it feels like drudgery. So this is what works for me: know where I am going in each act, but not exactly how I will get there. Be willing to make changes along the way, if I stumble across a brilliant new route to the end. Heck, even change the ending, if a better destination presents itself along the journey.

And that’s what makes it all fun.

Here's a book that was pure pleasure to write: WORST DATE EVER

Now available at bookstores, and online at all the usual suspects.

22 September 2017

Dance Band on the Titanic

by Thomas Pluck


A lot of my fellow writers seem to feel like what we do as entertainers, is frivolous.
When there are hurricanes bearing down on people you love, politicians playing pinochle with your life, and totalitarian regimes firing missiles over your country, writing stories doesn't seem to amount to that hill of beans Rick talked about at the end of Casablanca. It feels like a futile exercise or worse, an apathetic one. Artists flaunting that we are unaffected.

I say to hell with that. Whether you write stories that attack the status quo, or entertaining yarns that completely avoid any reference to current events, do what you please. We need to be entertained, and anyone calling books "escapist," like that's a bad thing, is selling their own brand of mental snake oil. We're not going to be boiled slowly like frogs in a pot because we're distracted by books, TV shows, or even our phones at this point. If anything, the phones are keeping us from distracting ourselves from tragedy. The TV shows have banner ribbons below the action, telling us to tune into the cable news to be horrified.

And stories help keep us sane.

It's been said that the classic mystery story is about returning the world to order. That's a calming prospect. If that's your bag, write them. Your readers will thank you. My life's been chaotic for a long time. My wife and I bicker over buying a house, because to her that means home and childhood; to me, it's a place I'll be forced to leave and never see again. I grew up in a donnybrook and the relatives who had houses and not apartments made me feel uncomfortable. So I prefer stories where a tornado hits and people come out of it okay. They pull together and make a new family, and weather the storm knowing that there'll be another one coming not long after. So you might feel like your horror tale, dark thriller, or anti-hero story is just adding to the anxiety of a confusing world, but to some of us it's a lullaby.

Art is not neutral. When the status quo is a boot on your neck, if I decide to write a pleasant little story that says "everything is fine," you'd perceive it as propaganda. That's a risk we take in any era. The dystopia is not equally distributed. The good ol' days were heaven to some, hell to others. Same with today.

So nothing's changed. Write the stories you have to write.

Readers will always need you.



21 September 2017

Golden Age Mysteries, Female Version


by Janice Law


Ah, the Golden Age of American detective fiction: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain; murky clubs, noirish alleys, thuggish gamblers. Love them, and yet, isn’t there someone missing? We know all the men but what about the women writers of the time? Most have dropped from sight. As a well-read librarian of my acquaintance said recently, “I didn’t know there were any major women mystery writers back then.”

There were for sure, but I am not surprised that while Chandler & Co are still household words in the mystery community, Dorothy Hughes, Helen Eustis, Margaret Millar and the like are strictly specialist fare. Consider my own experience some thirty years after their heyday. My first novel, The Big Payoff, was an Edgar nominee and went into a second printing. But when my agent approached the big paperback mystery house of the day, the answer was negative. And why? Because they already had their female mystery author in Amanda Cross. One to a customer, apparently!

Things must have been even harder back in the day, and so a lot of fine work, even work that resulted in famous films like Vera Caspary’s Laura, was neglected and good authors subtly squeezed out of the mystery canon. Fortunately, thanks to the enterprise of editor Sarah Weinman, who, as she wrote, recently realized “...that the most compelling and creative American crime fiction was being written and published by women,” and decided to look into the women who preceded the best sellers of today (and paved the way for a great many more of us).

The result is the two volumes of Women Crime Writers, Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s & 50’s, (The Library of America). I’ve acquired the first and have the second volume on order. As my ninth graders used to say, I can recommend them to anyone.

The 1940’s work overlaps the later Chandler novels and at least one of them, Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place is set in California. The novels have dodgy characters, blackmail, a lonely detective, even a serial killer – a lineup not too different from their male counterparts, but I’m happy to report also some differences. We’ve only been getting one side of the story, folks.

The settings, for one thing, are varied. There’s a posh women’s college, the sort of closed academic world destined to be utilized by P.D. James and reach its commercial apotheosis in J. K. Rowling's Hogwarts. There is a smart-talking amateur detective right out of Chandler but, wait, she’s not the glamor girl on campus, it’s her chunky friend in the flannel shirt.

Some other familiar characters appear in Hughes’ In a Lonely Place and for a while it looks as if we’re getting that familiar dichotomy of the nice domestic wife and the free-living theatrical type. It perhaps won’t spoil the plot to reveal that these two women turn out to be the best of friends.
Both Laura and The Blank Wall have complicated women who are not necessarily what they seem at first glance. Caspary’s Laura has tricky plotting, giving the heroine not only her very own Svengali, a man almost overly eager to help the police, as well as a portrait lovely enough to snare the heart of a straight-laced inspector. If you are weary of conventional femme fatales, this one’s for you.

The protagonist of The Blank Wall ( filmed most recently with Tilda Swindon) is probably in the prototypically female position: head of a wartime household. With her husband in the service, Lucia Holley has her teenaged son and daughter to worry about, as well as her elderly father. Financially comfortable, seemingly content with a domestic role, her worries are focused on her far-away husband and on teenage rebellion before her daughter’s unsuitable boyfriend winds up dead in their boat house. A refusal to call the police sets Lucia on a slide from domestic security to unsavory company.

These are four writers who deserve to be remembered and more, republished, and I am happy to conclude with the information that Dorothy Hughes’ The Expendable Man, another really bold and imaginative novel, is available in paper from the New York Review of Books.

20 September 2017

Cold War Words, Hot War Words


by Robert Lopresti
You may remember that my last piece here was about the importance of empathy as illustrated by two very different books about intelligence work: John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Nicholas  Rankin's Masters of Deception.  Today I want to go back to those books to discuss a  different topic: language.
Le Carré is renowned for his plotting and characters but it is his use of words that dazzles me the most.  He invented a vocabulary of spying, most of it in Tinker Tailor, which is both memorable and believable.
When TTSS was adapted for TV and appeared on PBS there was a full-page ad, sponsored by Mobil, I believe, promoting the show and explaining the vocabulary.  Clearly someone thought the average viewer would be baffled by the jargon and give up even before they had a chance to be baffled by the plot. 
The most famous example, of course, is mole, for a double agent, especially one who was working for Side A even before he dug his way into the ranks of Side B.  Le Carré says he borrowed it from Russian intelligence circles although it turns out Sir Francis Bacon used it in the 1600s.  Le Carré says he had not read Bacon, and why should we doubt him?.  What is certain is that mole is part of everyday usage now.
Here are a few more of Le Carre's memorable coinings:
The Circus: MI-6 , so nicknamed for its (fictional) location in London at Cambridge Circus, but of course suggesting the chaos that often goes on there.
Lamplighters: The secret communication and dead letter people.
Breakage: People quitting the Circus.
 Scalphunters: The dirty work crowd, killers, kidnappers, etc.
Joe: Any agent in the field.  "I have to meet one of my joes."
Coat-trailing: Trying to convince the other side that you are a likely candidate to work for them. 
Honey trap: An attractive person set to woo a spy with their physical charms.
And so on.
But it isn't just terminology that makes Le Carré's language so vivid.  Let's take a couple of examples from a later book, Smiley's People.  An old Russian wants to tell George Smiley that he has acquired three facts that might be used to destroy their deadly enemy Karla.  But the coded message he gives is "I have three proofs against the Sandman."  Sends a shiver down my spine.
A few pages later Smiley reflects on the fact that a spy in trouble immediately discards the most valuable thing he is carrying.  But here is how that comes out:  "in the spy trade we abandon first what we love the most."  And that brings it to a whole different level, doesn't it?

My favorite of Le Carre's non-Smiley books is A Perfect Spy.  The protagonist of that one, Magnus Pym, is a double agent (this is not a spoiler) and he writes a confession to his son, although he certainly knows that the boy will never be allowed to read it.  Discussing the years just after World War II, he writes, "Vienna was a divided city like Berlin or your father"  For me, that's a real gut-punch.

What about the new le Carre novel, A Legacy of Spies?  It's very good but only two bits of language leapt out for me.  There is a safe house which Smiley named the Stables.  If that strikes you as having a mythological reference, at least one character in the book agrees with you.

And in a flashback we see the old spy's protege Peter Guillam demanding an explanation of the dodgy operation they were involved in.  Smiley tells him some of the story and then asks:

"Do you now have all the information you require?"
"No."
"I envy you."
 
Classic Smiley.

Moving on to Rankin's book about deception in the wars.  I was fascinated to learn that certain important and familiar words came from World War I. (Rankin notes that they did not appear in the famous eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, which appeared in 1911, but received major attention in the twelfth, after the war.)

Among the new words are propaganda and camouflage.   Also, in the British empire the best shooters were those who could kill small, fast-moving marsh birds called snipes. And, of course, those shooters were called snipers. 

I knew that tank, the word for heavily armored fighting vehicle, came from a bit of World War I deception - they're just spare petrol tanks! - but I had not realized that Ernest Swinton is credited with both the concept and the name.  Swinton was also a writer; his much-imitated Defence of Duffer's Drift turns what could be a pedestrtian lesson in military strategy into a fascinating story. 

And speaking of writers, the Director of Information for Britain during part of the war was John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps.  Oh, and one more?  During World War II, the assistant to the Head of Naval Intelligence had to be a real extrovert, a glad-hander who could play talent-spotter, make nice between competing agencies, and represent the office to the outside world.  The job went to a fellow named Ian Fleming.  Wonder whatever happened to him?

19 September 2017

The Terror of Daylight – Neo Noirs for a Rainy Day

by Paul D. Marks

Fall’s coming and winter’s sliding in behind it. So I thought I’d talk about some rainy day movies for crime writers and readers: neo noirs, mysteries and thrillers. All movies I’ve seen more than once, some many times, and never get tired of. All of which I like and would recommend to anyone who’s into these genres. All of which I own in one form or another. And I know I’ll have left out some of your faves and even some of mine, but I have to leave some for another list some time down the road. And I know you won’t agree with some of my choices, but that’s what makes a horse race.

Many of these flicks involve the terror of the everyday, of the mundane. The “terror of daylight” as some have put it.

So here’s the list as they popped into my head, in no particular order:

Pacific Heights, with Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine. I’m not a big fan of horror movies these days. They’re just too predictable for my tastes, plus they’re more shock fests than true horror. But to me, while probably technically a neo-noir, Pacific Heights is a true horror movie. Why? Because it’s the kind of thing that can happen to anyone. We’ve all probably experienced that bad neighbor (or tenant) or the guy who lives in the apartment upstairs and makes noise at all hours of the night. Well if those things bug you, you’ll be creeped out by this movie.


Malice: with Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman. Written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame. There’s just something about this movie that I really like. I think it’s very clever, good twists. Engaging cast. I don’t want to give away too much but you think this is going to be a straightforward serial killer mystery, but it spins off in a totally unexpected way.


Masquerade, with Rob Lowe and Meg Tilley. Part love story, part crime movie, but very noir in the sense that everyone is doomed, even as they’re redeemed.


Body Heat, with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Double Indemnity for the 80s, and today. I recently posted about this movie on FB and found some people hate it, so I guess to each his own, but for me personally this is the perfect updating of noir to a more recent (if you can consider the 80s recent) era.


The Firm, The Client, The Rainmaker, Pelican Brief: A John Grisham Quartet, starring respectively: Tom Cruise, Susan Sarandon, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts/Denzel Washington. All of them really good movies. And, while not neo-noir really, these also help satisfy that craving for crime, suspense darkness and evil and are entertaining at the same time.


Derailed, with Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston, based on the novel by James Siegel. I didn’t like the movie when it first came out, but it’s grown on me. For whatever reasons, even though I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, I gave it another shot. And another. And each time grew to like it more. A hapless family man is lured into a trap by lust – a very noir theme. And the bad guy (played to rotten perfection by Vincent Cassel) is so vicious and cruel, it makes my skin crawl every time.


The Lincoln Lawyer, based on the novel by Michael Connelly. Matthew McConaughey playing a sleazy lawyer – what’s not to love? When I first read the Connelly book this is based on, I wasn’t a big fan of the character, but the movie gave me a new appreciation for him. While not classically noir, you could make a case for the Ryan Philippe character as an homme fatale.


Fracture: A clever, intelligent psychological thriller. Great twists in this one. Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling play an intriguing cat and mouse game. I love this one so much I bought the download off Amazon so I could watch it multiple times.


Final Analysis, with Richard Gere, Kim Bassinger and Uma Thurman. Very Hitchcockian with a twist of noir, reminiscent of Vertigo. Another one I could watch over and over.


Drive: Ryan Gosling as a movie stunt driver, who moonlights as a getaway driver for crooks. But that’s just the plot. The “story,” as one development exec used to tell me is something else altogether. The film has an urban fairytale quality that  makes it very memorable.


The Big Easy, with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. Not noir, but fun to watch. After seeing this movie I went out and bought a bunch of Cajun/Zydeco music CDs.


Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington, as Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. The book is one of my faves and, of course, since it’s the first Easy book the one that turned me onto the character. I didn’t love the movie the first time I saw it, but it’s grown on me over the years in subsequent viewings. And it plays off the noir theme of the soldier returning home after the war to a very changed country.


Double Jeopardy / Kiss the Girls: Ashley Judd double feature. Both are great fun to watch. Ashley Judd at her best in these kind of action flicks. Instead of playing the femme fatale here, she is our every “man” noir hero/heroine, who takes matters into her own hands.


Angel Heart, with Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Charlotte Rampling. I know people who claimed to have figured it out before the leader even finished spooling through the projector. I guess I’m not that bright. But definitely a good twist. Very dark. And a beautifully shot film. This was when Mickey Rourke still had a promising career.


John Dahl triple header: The Last Seduction, Kill Me, Again, Red Rock West, starring respectively: Linda Fiorentino, Val Kilmer, Nicholas Cage. All great neo-noirs based on the classic formula, with modern twists. I wish Dahl would make more.



The Grifters, The Getaway: Noirs based on Jim Thompson novels that start with G. And it must be noir if it’s Jim Thompson, right? Starring John Cusack and Angela Huston in the former, Alec Baldwin and Kim Bassinger in the latter.



And let’s not forget L.A. Confidential, based on James Ellroy’s 3rd novel in the LA Quartet. I loved the book when it first came out. I loved the movie when it came out. I re-read the book – I think I love the movie more! With Kim Bassinger, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce.

So that’s my starter list. What are some of your fave neo-noirs?

***

And now for the usual BSP.

I’m happy to say that my short story “Bunker Hill Blues” is in the current Sept./Oct. issue of Ellery Queen. It’s the sequel to the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll winner and current Macavity Award nominee “Ghosts of Bunker Hill”. And I’m surprised and thrilled to say that I made the cover of the issue – my first time as a 'cover boy'! Hope you’ll want to check it out. Available at Ellery Queen, newstands and all the usual places.




My story “Blood Moon” appears in “Day of the Dark, Stories of the Eclipse” from Wildside Press, edited by Kaye George. Stories about the eclipse. Twenty-four stories in all. Available on Amazon.



18 September 2017

To Be or Not to Be Shy


TO BE OR NOT TO BE SHY

by Jan Grape


Facebook did one of those reminder items asking if you wanted to share what you were doing 1 to 8 years ago? One popped up for me. Last year about this time I was attending Bouchercon in NOLA and having a wonderful time. And looking on my calendar it is almost time for Toronto Canada Bouchercon. Wish I could go this year, however, I chose to attend my 60th High School Reunion instead. I haven't been to a class reunion in many years. Maybe fifteen or sixteen years. 

I am hoping you Bouchercon 2017 attendees, will do a get together, Meet the SleuthSayers you don't know and renew friendships with those you've known for years.I tried to do something like that last year, sent letters out to y'all but never heard back from anyone. Turns out no one got my email note. It obviously got lost in cyberspace.

I went to a Toronto Bouchercon a number of years ago. It's a beautiful city. I think it was around 1991 or '92. Right after I checked in and unpacked, I went back down to the lobby and immediately  ran into Editor, Jane Chelus who told me she was buying one of my short stories for the second Malice Domestic anthology. I was thrilled as this was third story publication I had sold in six months. All in anthologies. I was never published in AHMM or EQMM but to be honest, at that time I had not ever sent one in.

 Or wait, maybe I did send one in and was rejected and just didn't try again. It wasn't because I was upset it's just that I started to sell for anthologies and couldn't find the time to write something for a magazine. A bird in hand, you understand. 

That's also close to the time I had finished my first novel and was sending it out. That one never sold but the second one sold and it became, AUSTIN CITY BLUE. I always be grateful to Bob Randist for giving me that title. The Austin City TV music show had grown in popularity and my book featured an APD female officer so the title was great. I know it helped sell copies of the book.   

Bouchercon can be great fun, but can also be intimating to some folks. I guess I was born without a shy gene. It has always been easy for me to meet people. Because of that anti-shy gene it's difficult for me to understand someone who is shy. But since all my children are a bit on the shy-side, like that I also can sympathize.

Going to B'Con is where you can get over shyness fairly quickly if you want to meet a writer you admire. Go to the bar. Even if all you want to drink is Diet Coke. If you see the writer you want to meet, call the waitperson over and say you want to buy a drink for your object of admiration. If you don't get a response from them...don't blame me. We all know most writers never drink, right? Realistically, they will be appreciative and perhaps even stop by to thank you personally. Perhaps other writers will have witnessed this and drop over to the table where you are and want to chat. 

Another way to get acquainted at Bouchercon is to team up with a friend who is NOT one bit shy and then follow around with your friend, Your not-shy friend can lead you to a group of people who you might want to know. They could be fans, or authors or editors or agents. Meeting people is simply a matter of smiling and saying, "hi." 

Attending a large convention like this in a city where you have never been or it has been a long time since your last visit is a perfect time to explore. Schedule a little time to do some sight-seeing. If you don't have anyone to go with you, go by yourself. In fact, my personal MO in going to a convention is to plan to go a full day early and once I've checked in and unpacked, I explore the hotel. Check out where the bar is located, where my panel room is located, or panel rooms of talks you want to attend. locate where the book room is and most especially where the bathrooms are located. 

Once I've got the hotel at least partially figured, I go outside and look around. Take a taxi to a famous landmark or museum or river front.  I think it's important to go outside for five or ten minutes every day. Get some fresh air. The canned smell of even a large hotel can get to you in a fairly short time.

If you have a book out or a short story anthology out try to go to the book dealers room right away. Introduce yourself to these booksellers even if your book came out last year. These are folks who sell books and spending a few moments with them is all important.

Writing all this reminds me how much fun I always have at cons and it makes me a little sad I won't be there. But I'll soon be seeing all the people I spent time with for ten or eleven or twelve years, many from second grade when I first moved to Post TX until I graduated. I know I will be wondering who are all these old people and did anyone think to print the name tags in large letters so I can see who it is. I know they will be wondering who I am.

The same works at cons. Please let me be able to read the name tags when I'm at least five feet away. Have fun at Bouchercon 2017, and lift a glass to me.    

17 September 2017

Road Trip

by Leigh Lundin

Shortly before Hurricane Irma struck, I closed shop and ran, thinking Alabama looked pretty desirable as the massive storm trampled South Florida. I’d gassed up a couple of days earlier, fortunate because stations in Orlando and along the interstates had closed for lack of fuel. I came across a full-sized bus (like a tour bus) abandoned on the Interstate, which made me wonder if it had run dry.

I shot north on I-75 fighting rain and high winds. Before hitting the Georgia border, I turned west on I-10 churning as much distance as possible from the hurricane. Past Tallahassee, my gauge read a quarter tank and it had become obvious no place had fuel. News article had mentioned people driving until they ran out of gasoline; I didn’t want to be one of those gamblers.

Angel from Alabama

The first of a series of quiet heroines helped out, an Alabama emergency services operator who monitored shelters not only in her state, but took the time to look up Georgia and Florida as well. With her guidance, I turned back toward Tallahassee and located a refuge in a Baptist Church… closed… but a sign offered directions to a Red Cross shelter in a nearby elementary school. They squeezed me in and gave me a cot. A women lent me a blanket and sheet.

I’d brought Valentine, my 30-year-old cockatoo. His old travel case was long gone, and pet stores and Walmart had been sold out out of pet carriers and cages for days. I nested a couple of plastic baskets and later borrowed a plastic kennel from the Red Cross until I could buy a cage.

Through our stay, the pets were universally well-behaved– several dogs, a kitten, a gecko, a fish, and Valentine. A couple of adults could have taken lessons.

Do Unto Others

Bunker living comes with unspoken rules, mainly a duty to intrude upon others as little as possible and likewise ignore annoyances as much as possible. Good citizens don’t notice tetchy babies, major bra adjustments, and peculiar pajama habits. Really, it was okay that one lady chose to spend day and night in her pajamas… there wasn’t much to do anyway. I have little knowledge of other guys, so I never guessed any male past the age of eight wore pajamas. Now that I’ve witnessed man-jammies, I’d consider legislation outlawing them.

Several of us wanted to shampoo, but we encountered an unanticipated problem. Sinks for 1st and 2nd graders are only knee-high to an adult. It just ain’t possible.

Restrooms presented an additional problem. Florida classrooms are built very differently from their northern counterparts. Schools in the cooler north are constructed with indoor corridors and inward-facing rooms, more like a hotel than a motel, where the latter’s room doors open onto a walkway. Florida schools usually take the motel approach with outward-facing rooms opening onto sidewalks. That meant people visiting the loos had to force their way outside and stagger through driving winds and rains. Fortunately, a teachers’ lounge contained a couple of indoor restrooms, so one could choose to queue up or brave the elements.

Can you hear me now?

Unlike Houston, Irma disrupted phone land lines. Cell service and SMS (texts) still remain spotty… sometimes one bar, sometimes zero. The most reliable communications has oddly been wifi, although with so many people using it at once, the internet crawled.

Here the etiquette rules broke down when one hardheaded mother tried to stream Barbie videos while the rest of us simply prayed for email to respond. Worse, she let her daughter play video games on her tablet keeping others awake at three in the morning. As residents and Red Cross volunteers begged her to shut down the racket, she slept– or pretended to sleep. I offered ear-buds, an offer ignored.

Next day, some of the ladies tried a quiet chat with the young mother who pointedly turned her back. Later, those frustrated women were seen stirring a cauldron, chanting into the winds and wearing odd black hats. Soon after, that mother vanished. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but…

Cross at the Red Cross

Another complained loudly and bitterly about the Red Cross, especially that they weren’t feeding us, which seemed strange since they provided coffee, food and snacks 24-hours a day. I think she meant they weren’t offering seafood and chateaubriand, but she became so belligerent, volunteers refused to deal with her without a deputy present. A worker asked if I could speak with my wife– she camped next to my cot. When I explained I didn’t know her, the worker said, “Lucky you!” As soon as the main crisis abated, the sheriff’s department escorted the overstressed woman and her son away, reportedly to a homeless shelter. Potential murder mystery material here.

I don’t know if it’s related, but as I was driving through the fringes of the hurricane, a radio broadcast urged people not to donate to the Red Cross. I don’t know what the hostess’ issues were, but frankly, the Red Cross became my heroes and heroines. Not only did they feed and shelter people, but they cleaned up after us. Criticize the ladies (and men) of the Red Cross, and I have a few words to say about it.

One young father was proactive in cleaning up, getting kids involved and he himself swept up, but as local all-clears were given, nearby residents walked out, leaving the cleanup to volunteers. I discovered most out-of-state Red Cross helpers pay their own way to drive into disaster, deprivation and danger to help others. If that’s not quietly heroic, I don’t know what is.

The Kid in Me

Children liked me mainly because I haven’t grown up. My reply to people who say “You’d make a great father,” is no, I simply make a great uncle.

The young dad who helped with the cleanup was terrific with the kids. On a stage at one end of the auditorium-cum-cafeteria, he organized dodgeball with the kids. Somewhere he found a scaled-down basketball goal, a huge pink dollhouse perhaps 4’ by 4’, and a similarly-sized kitchen cabinet/oven/dishwasher/sink/refrigerator play set. While little girls climbed all over the dollhouse, the boys were a bit frustrated with the lack of boys’ toys except for Star Wars action figures. Then the boys decided the kitchen set sorta, kinda looked like a castle. Thus it became Darth Vaders’s palace quarters.

I’ve now moved into a motel, although phone and SMS problems persist throughout this area. Calls drop, the internet crawls, and text messages arrive jumbled if at all. Minor stuff. People are safe and dry.

But… good news.

Yesterday, I received word power has been restored in my neighborhood. Reports say others on the street received damage including a tree crashing through the roof of the ladies who live opposite me. Fortune may have been with me this time as my house is reputedly intact.

I’ll head home but not before car repair. In the blinding rain on the interstate, I ran over a sailboat or a cow or a 4x4 or something… and it popped loose a fender on my old Acura. Once that’s dealt with, I’ll make the return journey. Gas stations have been getting fuel, although running out by afternoon. At least I won’t have the pressure of a hurricane.

I've gone through Hurricane Andrew and later three devastating hurricanes in a row: Charlie, Frances, and Jeanne. This time, evacuating was the sensible step with such a huge storm and dire predictions. Camping out in my badly damaged house for two weeks in 2004 was bearable, but 13 years later, I was not excited to repeat it.

Remembering

At least three dozen people have lost their lives in this storm. Those in the Caribbean didn’t have the option Floridians enjoyed to get the hell out of Dodge. It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are. There’s a fine line between a mini-adventure in a hurricane bunker and a catastrophic disaster.