Where do you start when writing fiction? Continue reading
Home » Columns
Category Archives: Columns
The founder of my local veterans’ writing group, Lt. Col. Timothy Hansen, retired Army, invited Maj. Gen. Mari K. Eder, retired Army, to speak to the Rochester Veterans Writing Group during our ZOOM meeting on July 10. What an honor and privilege it was to share a conversation with her.
Tim read the following bio to introduce the General:
I had the privilege to meet her when she was the Deputy Chief of Army Public Affairs back in 2007. She has served in key public affairs positions in the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, theater media relations for NATO in Kosovo, and at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.
Maj. Gen. Eder published her first major work on communication, Leading the Narrative: The Case for Strategic Communication in 2011 and followed with American Cyberspace in 2020. Her articles in the communication series, Information Apocalypse, have been used from Appalachian State to the University of Tokyo. She has written several papers on leadership, military ethics, and strategic communications. She has even published two children’s books.
Her forthcoming book, The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Changed the Course of World War II, covers the lives of 15 exceptional women who served or supported WWII while purposely staying out of the limelight. This historical work is a break from her case studies and technical writing on communications.
Tim had told us she would give a 45-minute talk on her career and publications, then allow time for questions. To our surprise, she only talked about her new book due out in hardcover and Kindle at the beginning of August (pictured above) then asked us, as writers, what we wanted to talk about. We weren’t quite prepared.
In answer to our questions, she explained when she submitted the proposal, as you have to for a non-fiction book, the response was a “ho-hum, not another war book.” But, when the publisher looked at the content, they got excited and asked her to have it ready in two months. General Eder explained it was at the peak of the pandemic lockdown, so she was sequestered at home with her three dogs and was happy to have a project. The frustrating part was trying to do research with libraries closed and no one answering phones. She said she wrote the chapters she liked or could easily collect facts for first, then worked on the others. She also shared that she would read poetry to take herself out of the project when she needed a break and then returned to it with new and focused eyes.
Changing gears, we talked about reading for personal pleasure. She suggested making it a practice to delve deeper, search for what a piece has to offer that you can learn from, and thus change you as a person, even if only in a small way.
Before we finished the ZOOM call, we agreed we would reconvene after having had a chance to read The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line.
While on vacation in Richmond, Virginia, over the Fourth of July weekend, I enjoyed a tour of the historic St. John’s Church (https://www.historicstjohnschurch.org/) where I bought the book Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons, The story of Phillis Wheatly, by Ann Rinaldi. It’s a historical fiction novel about how the first book of poetry by an African-American woman came to be published. I eagerly turned page after page to experience Phillis’s extraordinary life while still being a slave.
Ann Rinaldi has brought history alive for me by giving historical figures personalities and describing what might have been their day-to-day experiences. She is careful to note what is factual and what is not. I have to admit my weakness for reading YA books. They are often quick, easy reads that leave me thinking about the characters for many days.
I am looking forward to reading more of her novels, though not all war-related, which will give me a clearer picture of events I have heard about since my early school days.
It’s also interesting to become acquainted with the people who experienced a war on the other side of the earth. I have just finished reading A Ghost and His Gold by Roberta Eaton Cheadle, a regular contributor at Carrot Ranch. This historical fiction novel is about the Second Anglo Boer War in South Africa, where Robbie resides. She has come up with a unique way to tell the story by using ghosts as three of her key characters. Roberta masterfully shares the history of the war by having her main character Michelle unravel how the three ghosts were connected in the past, why they are haunting her home, and why they have been unable to move on to the afterlife.
I developed the same empathy for the people I had the privilege of getting to know in these books as I have with the veterans in my local writing group. War is war, no matter where it takes place or for what reason. Humans, animals, and the terrain suffer from the event, and it changes lives in diverse ways.
Do you have any books on the subject of war that you would recommend or futher advanced your understanding of a past event? Feel free to share in the comments section.
Sue Spitulnik is an ex-Air Force wife who stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly you can do so at her blog, susansleggs.com
The pandemic hit us all very hard! Regardless of where one lives, the size of their household, or their employment status, COVID-19 took its toll.
As an elementary schoolteacher, every year I teach my students that we are a family. Out at recess, and in the classroom, we must have one another’s back. That means that as we learn and give things a try, we never ridicule each other. Rather, we are brought together to encourage and inspire.
We began March of 2020, as we had been doing all along. We gave a lot of high-fives and hugs every single day. Then, we had to stop all potential contact—no hand holding, no hugging, no sharing of supplies or recess equipment. If someone dropped something, we could no longer help them pick it up. It went against everything I taught. Eventually, I had to separate 22 desks and close my classroom library, reading room, and without much notice, my entire classroom.
I recall being told to pack up enough supplies to teach students for two weeks in March of 2020, so I packed a month’s worth just in case. With that, I was able to outlast most other grades, but by Easter, I was scanning work around the clock, just like my colleagues, to ensure our students received the curriculum we promised to cover. I was a puddle of tears by most evenings.
Not only were the demands of my job doing me in, but so too, were the bigger fears like worrying about the health of my parents, family, and loved ones. The local, national, and global news were frightening, but felt necessary to watch to maintain awareness of what was going on out there…in the big, scary world.
An introvert, I was okay with staying tucked inside my home with my immediate family, but I worried about my large extended family. Throughout the course of the year, my family became the statistics we watched on the news. Pandemic job loss hit us hard. Educators were appreciated for a moment, then scrutinized again by summer’s end. Some of us got COVID-19 and some of us survived, but forever changed. Then, there were the beloved ones who died alone due to pandemic safety protocols in hospitals. Every day things seemed to change and fast.
Just a few weeks ago, I stood in my school’s parking lot collecting the academic supplies I had given to concerned parents back in August. After over a year of the pandemic, parents are more aware of how to safely bring their children to both meet me in-person and simultaneously say goodbye to me as their teacher. As with every year, I took many end-of-the year pictures with my students, but this time, we were placed many feet apart and our eyes had to show the smiles we had under our masks. I taught and created a virtual family with students that I never got to be in the same classroom with.
Over the weekend, my family and I ventured out in public to celebrate a milestone anniversary for my parents. I saw my children hug their grandparents for the first time in over a year, and the tears the hugs brought to my mother’s eyes. Our extended family finally reunited as we reminisced about our shared pasts. There was real laughter, all together, in the same place at the same time. It was not virtual and there was no delay. Slowly, the return to our loved ones is coming back.
Just as our family prepares to welcome one another with open arms, we prepare for a final farewell for my last paternal aunt, my godmother. She died over a year ago, at the height of the pandemic. As a registered nurse, she lived her life caring for others. In the end, she left Earth without our family being able to gather, say goodbye, and celebrate her life. I was so distraught when she passed, not only because she was my beautiful godmother, but because I couldn’t be with my cousins as they mourned.
There are things the pandemic stole from us: time, health, education, trips, holidays, but most of all it took family and loved ones from us. Although my godmother did not die from COVID-19, the pandemic made it impossible for my family to do what we do best, come together to lean on one another, love, and laugh! The familiarity of belonging to a specific group—a family, means everything. While distanced, we worked vigilantly to survive so that we could be together again.
I have said since the beginning of the pandemic, that this was put upon us to teach us something. I believe we needed to slow down and take in the blessings we have around us. We’ve become an intolerable and impatient society. I see it coming up in the next generation of children. As this is written, there are cars honking and the sounds of revved engines because someone is probably driving too slow for another’s liking. I still hold out hope that our planet will come together as the greatest family of all…the family of mankind where all are accepted and respected.
Here’s to families everywhere. The ones given and the ones chosen. Treasure them. Protect them. Love them. Hug them and laugh with them often because what we know for sure is that time together is uncertain.
Anna Rodriguez is a wife, mother, and writer. She is completing her first contemporary novel set in California’s Central Valley. Family and friendships are important themes for Anna’s work because of the influences they have had on her life. When Anna is not writing or hanging out with her family, she can be found reading or searching for music to add to her eclectic playlist. She will complete her MFA in Creative Writing in the next few weeks.
My 99-word story for the recent flash fiction collection, a new way to office, is about as social worker’s unease about office humour. Was it derogatory? Disrespectful of the clients? Or was it an essential part of the professionals’ toolkit, a barricade against burnout for those dealing daily with distress?
I cheated when I turned in my story. I used a character and situation from my new novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. The topic drew me because, like my character, I’m currently preoccupied with the role of humour in the book itself.
Humour and delusion
Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is about a brother and sister, separated for fifty years, and the ardent young social worker who seeks to reunite them. What has kept them apart for decades? Will they reconnect?
My novel is set in a long-stay psychiatric hospital and a seventy-year-old patient is the star. Matty perceives the world differently to those around her: Ghyllside is a country estate, the nurses are servants, her fellow patients are houseguests and the psychiatrists are journalists researching stories about a society heiress.
I didn’t intend to write a comical novel. In fact, I cringed when Matty turned out to be funny. Mental disturbance is no laughing matter. People given a psychiatric diagnosis are too often the butt of jokes. Yet I couldn’t find any other way around it if Iwanted Matty to be both good company and authentically mentally ill.
Humour and dementia
Until reminded in a recent interview (see above), I’d forgotten I had a model for Matty in Emma Healey’s beautiful debut, Elizabeth Is Missing. Eighty-one-year-old Maud is a decade older than Matty, and is diagnosed with dementia rather than schizophrenia, but both characters contain a similar blend of poignancy, humour and tragedy.
Dementia renders the ordinary unfamiliar. Names of people and everyday objects are forgotten; life becomes a mystery to be solved. This aspect of the condition is beautifully played out in the novel as Maud attempts to resolve the dual mysteries of the sudden absence of her good friend, Elizabeth, as well as the disappearance of her elder sister in her 1940s childhood. If you haven’t read Elizabeth Is Missing, I urge you to give it a try.
I’m reassured to imagine the ghost of Maud lodged within my laptop in the years I toiled on Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. Of course, there were other influences, but none with the same kind of humour. But I’ve read a couple in the space between turning in my manuscript and publication. If you didn’t think mental ill-health could be both funny and serious, get hold of these and think again.
Humour and depression
As the world prepares to see out 2008 with a party, forty-year-old New York writer, Bunny, is clinically depressed. If she wasn’t, it would be a fine excuse to opt out of dinner with her husband and two other couples at a pretentious restaurant, followed by a party hosted by people she hates. But one of the paradoxes of depression is that those who are prone to it often aren’t very good at taking care of themselves, and they’re especially bad at taking care of themselves when they need it most. So despite her husband’s best efforts to dissuade her, despite not having had the energy to wash for a week, Bunny is determined to go. And where does that determination take her? Seeing in the New Year on a psychiatric ward.
It’s hard to write honestly about depression without sucking the reader into the mire; Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum must be the best fictional representation I’ve read.
Humour and hearing voices
Tom doesn’t expect life to be easy; it’s more important to follow true path. Single, jobless and reliant on benefits, he prioritises abstinence, spreading kindness, and devotion to his god. For twenty years he’s trod the tightrope between sanity and madness, with those who police the boundary as much a hindrance as a help. When the novel opens, Tom is under pressure from both his sister and his care coordinator to participate in a drug trial, for a substance initially developed to treat athlete’s foot. His psychiatrist refuses to prescribe the only medication Tom deems effective but, in the British mental health system, the patient’s assessment of his own well-being is often overruled.
Jasper Gibson was inspired to research and write The Octopus Man after the death of a family member who had a schizophrenia diagnosis. In my work as a clinical psychologist, I met many people like Tom. They also had a love-hate relationship with voices that would both protect and persecute. They felt a similar ambivalence about their dependence on a service system that defined their cherished beliefs as insane. They experienced the daily humiliation of underperforming, and being patronised by care staff who were younger, and/or less intelligent, than them.
But this is a novel, not a case study. It’s a beautifully written and absorbing story, narrated by an unusual character who is as lyrical communing with nature as he is conversing with his personal god. I strongly recommend it for its compassion and humour, and, most of all, and in every sense, for the voice.
Which – if any – of these novels takes your fancy? Can you recommend any that portray mental ill-health authentically and with humour?
Anne Goodwin is a clinical psychologist turned author who writes entertaining fiction about identity, mental health and social justice. She is the author of three novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill. Anne posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal.
When choosing what to write for the “Into the Past” column this month, I felt conflicted. With Juneteenth so close to the writing date and Pride month ongoing throughout June, I didn’t know what I should focus on.
I decided I wasn’t going to skimp on either Black history or on LGBTQ+ history: there’s plenty that clearly fits into both categories. I chose one of my favorites.
Also, up front: I’m going to apologize for the lack of pictures, but I had difficulty finding royalty-free images for this.
Why Should I Care About Sylvester James?
The first time I finished listening to the seminal disco hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and saw the accompanying music video, I turned to my husband and said, “That may have been the gayest thing I’ve ever witnessed.” So we watched it again, just to confirm. (Warning: the video tends to be on the loud side).
And I wasn’t wrong. It turns out that “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” has an enduring legacy in Pride month, and Sylvester was a gender-defying person who embodied a whole gamut of LGBTQ+ experiences. One of Sylvester’s friends, when trying to describe the singer, couldn’t put him in a box. His song, while not sexually explicit, still clearly describes a gay relationship as satisfying. He inspired many LGBTQ+ people to acknowledge the ways they “feel real” through “You Make Me Feel”, and he contributed to the long process toward LGBTQ+ liberation and normalcy.
When interviewing with NPR about Sylvester’s legacy, historian Joshua Gamson said:
“Embracing who you are, celebrating who you are, being as fabulous as you could possibly be, I think that’s the message that he’s preaching in the song. And I could’ve used a dose of that as a teenager.”–Joshua Gamson, for NPR
Even if you want to ignore the Pride elements of the song, the sound itself was revolutionary and inspiring. The electronic, synthesized sound and rapid beat were popular in dance music and – along with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Hot Butter’s “Popcorn Song” – could have been seen as the inspiration and start of electric music overall.
It Wasn’t All Dancing and Stardom
Sylvester James was born in Watts in 1947. Though Watts has been considered an impoverished area of the Los Angeles metropolitan area since the 60’s, in the 1940’s it was an area where working class black people were allowed to live. Until the 60’s, L.A.’s laws limited what property you could buy depending on your skin color, not just the size of your bank account.
Sylvester gained his love of singing the same way many American singers do: through church choir. Unfortunately, churches contain people, and many times people don’t necessarily treat LGBTQ+ folks right. Though we often conflate black and LGBTQ+ issues today due to the way party politics have aligned, churchgoing black folks often have the same misgivings churchgoing white folks do. Sylvester eventually left the church. Unfortunately, too, is the fact that parents are people, and people don’t necessarily treat their children – especially LGBTQ+ children – right. Sylvester left home at 15, living instead with his grandmother or friends until he moved to San Francisco in the late 60’s.
Though Sylvester had several experiences in niche, LGBTQ+ bands like the Disquotays and the Cockettes, neither of these bands made the mainstream. He sang soul and what was, at the time, considered “Black Music” (what is now known as the R&B/Hip-Hop chart was known as “Hot Black Singles” from 1982 to 1990, and at one point was called the somehow even worse “Race Records”). According to a profile in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the music industry at the time wasn’t interested in selling “black music” to white people or “gay music” to black people. Sylvester and his music failed to fit into the industry’s pre-defined labels, and his bands floundered in what could have been eternal obscurity.
Then: Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” happened. Electronic music with Black vocals was viable.
Disco was all the rage. Sensing that he needed a hit, Sylvester worked with James Wirrick, who wrote the start of an R&B song called “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Sylvester decided it needed to be disco-fied, so he took it to Patrick Cowley who introduced the electric elements inspired by “I Feel Love”. Despite any of the R&B band’s misgivings, the song became a smash.
After “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”, Sylvester continued to stick around with other modest dance hits, all without sacrificing who he really was. It was a pretty big deal to manage that in the 70’s and 80’s as a black, genderqueer person, and yet he did. He even managed to land a spot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (American Bandstand was a TV show and the white version of Soul Train) and an interview with Joan Rivers in the 80’s. (I found this video through the aforementioned NPR article).
But being fabulous, openly gay, and sexually active in San Francisco during the late 70’s and early 80’s came with a terrible, unknowable, unpredictable risk: HIV had just appeared on the scene. Despite many early warnings and cries for help, the government, several doctors, and many other important people who could have otherwise done something failed to protect the people most at risk. At his shows, he encouraged safe sex practices and brought awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Yet, it wasn’t enough to escape.
Death and Legacy
On December 16th, 1988, Sylvester died from complications due to AIDS. He was buried as requested, in a red kimono and a pearl-colored casket. His estate’s future earnings would go to help the AIDS Emergency Fund and Project Open Hand.
Despite making hit dance music and doing so much for the LGBTQ+ community and combatting HIV/AIDS, Sylvester only got a small obit in the New York Times. If you click on this link, the NYT will ask you to subscribe and get a better image, but you don’t need it. Right above the tiny block announcing Sylvester’s death at 41 is a bigger block and a picture for a white football player, and right below is an ad saying “buy more NYT” or something equally stupid.
Only as LGBTQ+ issues have become more mainstream has Sylvester been remembered more fully, more fondly, and more accurately.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.
I write contemporary fiction genre with themes that revolve around the facts of life.
Bowled but Not Out (BbNO) revolves around second chances. Often, an individual who has been let down the first time from a dysfunctional relationship will not have the courage to stand up and look out for another opportunity. Despair and discouragement will envelop her.
“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise, they’ll kill you.”
― George Bernard Shaw
That’s when I thought of sprinkling humor in my protagonist’s life, Saru, by using cricket as a metaphor throughout the novel. I have projected Saru to be confident, empathic, funny, and silly at times. She bats away the sarcasm and negativity in the stadium that is her life.
Humor isn’t easy to define. While you know that comedy is a cognitive and emotional experience that often leads to laughter, you may not know why.
Why is something funny?
No one knows how to answer that question definitively. Humor is personal, subjective, and biased.
Humor is often the result of surprise. An unexpected action or phrase can be a delightful treat when set up in the right way.
“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
― Erma Bombeck
There is a thin line that separates laughter from pain. I embraced some tips to be able to make it an entertaining read.
- Mold a protagonist to appear silly. I portrayed her as a die-hard Bollywood fan who would love to sing and dance around trees and even get emotionally charged if someone did a favor for her. This easy-going personality came in handy when I showcased her in a dysfunctional relationship. But then I also tried to have a character support her transition during that period and not give up.
- Compare two lives. One was the protagonist who had entered a dysfunctional relationship, and the other was her co-sister happily married. This contrast helps the reader get a grip on what my protagonist is going through, and it helps generate empathy for her.
- Use metaphors to define her tragedies in addition to happy moments keeps the mood light. I used the terms of cricket to do the above.
Example: “Go and hit the ball out of the park.” Saru’s dad cheered when they reached their destination. Saru realized that she had received a beamer and was quick to duck figuratively to avoid getting hurt. Her self-pride was bruised, but she continued to glare at the maid’s audacity.
4. Place a character reader love to hate. That prevents the plot from becoming too spicy and intense.
Example: “Just remember, Saru, the whole world will be watching you.” Mom got comfortable on the dining chair with the rotary phone on her lap.
“What a smart way to encourage your daughter, Sushma!” Her dad scorned his wife then inquired, “What are you doing?”
“I have to inform our relatives, Colonel. How will they know that our Saru is going to be on TV?”
5. Make them laugh when they least expect it. Never set the expectation that you’re about to try to be funny. It’s much easier to be funny unexpectedly. Attempting to be funny is a subtle side effect; humor is a pleasant deviation from an expectation. Then create a scenario where laughter is induced skillfully.
Example: Saru goes for a TV interview, and things don’t go as planned. But she turns out to be everybody’s favorite towards the end.
I usually project the mental growth of my characters as they learn from their failures. And in my Bowled but Not Out novel, I project the same. This young lady knows to groom herself to be a confident achiever and strengthen the platform for her daughter and her future.
The use of simple language, smooth transition of the story plot, humor, relatable and straightforward characters all make this book enjoyable and a must-read by one and all.
This post comes from Rough Writer Ruchira Khanna
A Biochemist turned writer who gathers inspiration from the society where I write about issues that stalk the mind of the man via tales of fiction.
I blog at Abracabadra which has been featured as “Top Blog” for five years. Many of my write-ups have been published on LifeHack, HubPages to name a few.
I can be found at:
Growing up I had a blueprint in mind, a family ideal loosely based on a 70s television show. It consisted of a white-collar husband, responsible and kind. And exactly two children, a girl and a boy. I envisioned meals around the table, Sundays in church, sleepover Saturdays, and a collage of my children’s artwork magnetized to our fridge. What I hadn’t envisioned was what came to be. Yes, I had the kind husband, two children, the artistic fridge door. But it was a late addition that altered the plan: our third child—an Olde English Bulldogge named London.
She appeared to us all paw and leg. Adventure in her blood. Endless pup. Though she was the last remaining of the litter, her coat was first class, striped gold and black, a stark white stop and snout with boots and chest to match. Her tail had been cropped to prevent it from drawing up like a fiddlehead fern, and her fudge-like eyes—sweet and dewy as they were—possessed a hue of curiosity, a dab of mischief. She was both awkward and adorable, three months old and filling in fast, except for the wrinkles. Those would always remain.
When first we met, she clasped a bird in her jaw, a corpse she’d discovered beneath the spirea, or perhaps it was a viburnum. The farmer scooped her up, pried two fingers between her teeth, tossed the bird off to the side. “Eck,” he said.
What were we getting ourselves into?
We tried to hold her that muggy July evening, to cuddle her like an infant. She flailed about, ears flopping, bum wiggling, head hung over our forearms. Her body was too busy. I grimaced. “She’s got an awful lot of energy,” I said. But I could see both son and husband were smitten with her, taken in by her fierce independence, her fearlessness. They set her down in the grass, her home turf, and interacted there on her terms. Hesitancy niggled. Did we really want to own a dog? But the look on Noah’s face told me my feelings were moot. The plot had shifted. This dog now owned us.
In her first days in our home, London, as she came to be called, was more interested in sniffing than snuggling. Her nose was ever to the ground. She was under the chairs, under the tables, beneath the beds and the sofa (from which she needed help getting out). She even found her way inside our dishwasher. But when she had finally learned the lay of the land, she settled in to learning more about us. One day, as I reclined on the sofa for my afternoon nap, she didn’t want to be left out. She perched at the cushion’s edge, nuzzled, grunted. Moist eyes pleaded. I had set a rule that she would not be permitted on the furniture. We had just redecorated, and I was bound and determined that ‘the dog’ should remain on the floor. I hung my hand over the edge, caressed her brindled fur. “Lay down, London,” I said. “Go sleepy.” But she persisted, as was her way, working from one end of the couch to the other, trying to make the leap, her legs a hair too short. “Alright,” I said, and gave in, hoisted her up. “Just this once.” She rooted about my neck like an infant, let out a big sigh, then she was out. “Baby girl,” I whispered, then drifted off too, warm puffs of puppy breath upon my skin. Our afternoon naps became the norm. Another plot shift.
As months passed, many pet no-nos fell by the wayside despite earlier learned philosophies. I had descended from a line of old-school dog keepers. My childhood home had supported ‘free-range’ pups, Skippy and Poopsie, who were more like traveling salesmen than household pets. Noah, on the other hand, never had a dog in his childhood. His first experience with one was after he’d moved out on his own. He’d adopted a male pup almost immediately and raised it as a backyard pet before we met. Together we’d adopted a female in our early years of marriage, one you might call a hybrid model who spent her days in the backyard and her nights asleep at the hearth. London was something altogether different. She wasn’t a breed for roaming the great outdoors, even though, given another body, that may have been her preference. A brachycephaly, she couldn’t tolerate temperature extremes. Heat and humidity were especially hard on her with her compressed snout. She couldn’t cool herself, so we had to be watchful of her. As it turned out, that wasn’t the only thing we had to be watchful of.
A recreation of an extinct breed, the Olde English Bulldogge was said to have better health outcomes than the more well known English Bulldog. That was the primary reason we chose it. Unfortunately, for London, this didn’t hold true. From puppy vaginitis to skin allergies to pododermatitis to gingival hyperplasia, London experienced it all. Our closet overflowed with limited ingredient food and treats, medicated shampoo, antihistamines, ear medications, creams and salves, and antifungal wipes and solutions. Because of her skin allergies, we took to showering her at home rather than taking her to the groomer’s. I learned to trim nails, flush ears, soak inflamed paws, and treat yeast infections. Mama’s good girl, I’d say after I cleansed her facial folds with a foul-smelling wipe, an activity she would only tolerate because it was followed up with a treat. She’s always good for Mom-Dog, Noah would say, though I wasn’t sure how I felt about that moniker.
It was the combination of it all that made London more like our child than our pet. Through the cuddles and the playtime and the ailments and the treatments, a deep bond developed. She wasn’t ‘the dog’ anymore—she was our Baby Girl. We’d take her for car rides when she was bored. I’d surprise her with toys when I returned from the store, for which she would wait at my feet at the sight of a bag. She even took possession of Noah’s club chair, something I never dreamed he’d allow. We’d line it daily with fresh bedding, to protect the upholstery we said, but really it was to make her more comfortable.
When we moved to a new home, London’s needs came first. The home lacked a fence, so she couldn’t be off-leash. There were a lot of other things the home lacked too, but the first thing Noah built was a pretty wooden fence for London. She loved to lie in the yard, to watch the neighbors through the pickets, to duel the chipmunks, to hear the buzz of the hummingbirds. It was within this fence that she experienced those joys. And it was within this fence where she first showed signs of what was to come.
We were sitting on the patio swing when Noah noticed it, a slight drag of a rear paw, the scrape of nail on pavement. “Something’s going on with her,” he said. There was gravity in his voice, a shadow uncommon to him.
“It’s just her lazy walk,” I assured him. But that was just the beginning.
She began slipping on the floor of the new home. “This floor just isn’t her thing,” I said, and added some rugs. Soon she began slipping outside too, losing her balance when she ran, tumbling in her turns. While grooming her one day, I noticed the nail of one toe worn away to the quick, a result of the dragging. She began struggling to jump into her chair, climb the stairs, leap into the truck. “Are you getting too old for climbing?” I asked as I hoisted her hips. She turned to me, gave me a sloppy kiss. Translation: Thanks, Mom.
We brought our observations about the dragging foot and growing lack of strength and stability to her veterinarian. Concerned about a spinal injury, we tried laser therapy. Her condition didn’t improve. An MRI was recommended. We travelled six hours to a southern Wisconsin clinic. They coaxed her down the hall. She looked back at us. Our hearts ached. “We’ll be waiting,” I called. Baby girl, I thought.
The vet met with us afterward. “There’s no evidence of spinal injury,” she said. What they saw instead were symptoms of a condition called degenerative myelopathy, a disease affecting the spinal cord. She wanted to run a test on spinal fluid they had drawn to see if she carried the DM genes. “That will take a few days,” she said, “but we’ll call you when we get the results.”
The test returned positive; both genes were present. Other conditions ruled out, London was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease of the spinal cord, a fatal condition. It began in the hind quarters and would ruthlessly work its way through her body until all was gone: the wag of her tail, her legs, her bark, her ability to swallow, and eventually her ability to breathe. London was dying, and we couldn’t help her.
“She may have a year or so,” the vet said. “I’m so sorry to have to deliver this news.”
In the months that followed, we managed to provide for our girl as best we could. We ordered special booties with bands to help with foot placement and grip and to protect her skin from abrasion. We exercised her, created resistance on her rear paws to promote muscle tone. Walking became more and more difficult. We ordered a cart, and though she learned to use it, she wasn’t happy. Noah took to walking her in a sling instead. He bore the weight she couldn’t. She was thrilled to be out of the cart again, tooling across the open field, just like the old days. Now, it wasn’t her feet dragging behind her—it was Noah. I would watch from the window as he scooted along at her hip, struggling to keep up with her momentum, holding the straps with his right arm, using his left as ballast. She’s doing great! the neighbors would say.
Though we did all we could for London, we couldn’t stem the tide of her disease. We couldn’t change its outcome.
It was mid-January when our vet made a house call. The pandemic was among us, so she couldn’t come inside, but she was willing to meet outdoors. Fortunately, the mild winter showed mercy. We dressed London in her jacket, lined the frozen ground with a thick pad, covered it with her favorite bedding, and placed a sprig of sage in the center. Noah helped her outside where she met the vet with a kiss-filled lunge and a tumble. We gathered close around her, held her, whispered endearments to her. I told her how much I loved her, what a very special girl she was, how much she meant to us. I heard the murmurs of Noah and Sam. We were all together there, suffocating in a stew of grief. I saw out the corner of my eye the syringe that delivered London’s departure, wished I could have reversed it. She let out a big sigh, just as she had as a puppy when first she laid on my chest for our nap, rested her head on her front paws, closed her eyes. “My baby,” I whispered into the thick folds of her neck. “My baby.”
* * *
Throughout the winter, I often looked for signs of London in our yard. At first, there were sink holes in the snow where her feet had been, but fresh precipitation soon erased them from view. In the spring, I waited for the snow to melt, anxious, hopeful. Surely there would be signs of her left over from the fall, a chew toy, a ball, some droppings here and there. But when the snow receded, I found nothing. No sign of London. No sign of her life.
It wasn’t until the temperature warmed and the grass began to thrive that London’s former presence at last made itself known. It appeared as crop art, burn spots in the lawn, traces of her urine in unusual shapes. A comma here. A figure eight there. “Sweet baby,” I said. “Thank you.”
I know one day these spots will green again. They’ll fade away, erase what is left of our girl from the lawn. But not from the heart. Never from the heart. For now, I’ll cherish them, cling to them. For as long as they last, I’ll treasure these precious works of art, just as I do the ones on my fridge.
London “Lundy Lu” McAlister
April 2011 – January 2021
Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. Her work has appeared online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press, 2020) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.
California is hot. Sun-blazing, earth-baking, dry-dusty hot. I came there from England and I didn’t know what hit me. I held my breath from May to November until the rains came.
Except they didn’t.
‘When will the hills turn green?’ I naively asked my neighbour a few months after moving there in 1986.
‘Around November time,’ she replied, neither one of us knowing a seven year drought lay ahead.
I had moaned about the rain back home. Now I longed for it. Was it true it never rains in California? I started believing it so. Decades hence, how I wish now I could send over our rain.
But at the time, the novelty of being able to plan a barbeque or a picnic without worrying about a cloud burst felt almost decadent.
As a girl, I went camping with my family, once or twice. Long before “glamping” was a thing, we used my grandparents’ canvas tent which I suspect, given Granny’s penchant for recycling everything, dated back to the war. It had flaps for sides you could roll up for airing and a separate groundsheet. Not the warmest of places.
We once hired a static caravan (trailer) in Cornwall on a bluff overlooking the sea. But done in by the constant lashing rain and buffeting winds, we couldn’t sleep so went home early.
As I said, we camped once or twice.
Most often, we hired a boat on the waterways of the Norfolk Broads.
And I think of those halcyon summer days in England. When the breeze drifts soft and warm and everything feels lazy and slow.
Those days when I hopped off the school bus, walked down our drive and found that Mum had laid a blanket and cushions out on the grass.
She appeared from the kitchen, tray in hand.
‘Let’s have tea in the garden.’
Whatever the weather, I treasure all those childhood memories.
I raised my own family in California. Tent camping in the summer for my children brought an entirely different experience for them. Instead of shivering cold and damp to the skin trying to keep warm as I had, we flopped about, too hot sleep until dawn’s gift of fresh, cool air.
Nestled among the grand sequoias, we watched out for bears. And on one sultry, sleepless night we indeed had visitors: not a bear but a family of wild pigs. The cutest tiniest piglets of spots and stripes snuffling around while we observed from the window safely snuggled inside our tent.
And a cheeky racoon who stole our Cheezits. Before our eyes, it jumped up on the picnic table, grabbed the bag with the crackers inside and made for the trees, loot in paw, leaving the empty box behind.
Campsites in California allow an open fire pit. This was the kind of camping I had dreamed of. As the sun went down and the sky turned inky-black alive with stars, we gathered around the glowing embers and roasted hot-dogs and marshmallows and made S’mores. We told ghost stories and kept guard for mischievous racoon’s cousins, eyes darting at each tiny rustle.
My heart is joyful for the memories I hold dear of those experiences with my children.
My dad was a sun worshipper. If he was in the garden at the weekends pottering about, sleeves rolled up, and the sun came out, he was ready. He’d whip off his shirt, grab the deckchair from the shed and bask in the sun until the clouds stole it back again. Five minutes or fifty. There he’d be.
‘He only has to look at the sun to get a tan,’ Mum always said.
But in California, I hid from the sun. Summer and our neighbourhood was deserted. Windows shut tight, blinds down. Not a breath of air in the noonday sun. Too hot to sit outside in the shade.
Too hot for mad dogs and Englishmen and women at any hour.
Of course, summers with my children called for days at the beach and the outdoor pool, maybe the store and a diner. Blips of heat bursts of 100 plus degrees so avoided by hopping from house to car to destination, all conveniently air conditioned.
But a large portion of the hottest part of the day was spent confined inside our darkened, shut-up house, ceiling fans whirring in every room.
And that is how I discovered something else about my new way of life: going to “the movies” on a bright sunshiny day. The idea of it was at first unthinkable – nobody goes to the cinema on a hot day in England (yes, we do get them when it’s humid and sultry but we don’t have much cooling when it does) but I soon understood the appeal in California.
What better than sitting inside an air conditioned movie theatre with an ice-cold drink and a bucket of popcorn watching the latest blockbuster with your children? I could almost forget the punishment waiting outside when we emerged, blinking, like bats from a cave.
The heat went on and on and I longed for the turn of “fall”. I yearned for that first gust of wind and smell of damp in the air. The first drop of crisp, orange leaves on the fading grass, pulling jeans on for the first time in months.
In California, summer shut us away. I waited with my children for autumn’s escape.
Today in England, we are shut away because of a virus. But this time, I am without my now adult sons.
The year is almost half-way through, and this interminable separation is too much. Too many cancelled plans thanks to tiers and lockdowns. Yes, I am grateful we are all safe and well, but when the heart of your way of family life is stolen from you, the toll is great. It brings its own brand of loss and sorrow.
Dare I say our reunion is imminent? Yes, I dare. I wait to hug them soon, counting down the days.
Raise the blinds, throw open the windows, embrace the light.
We’re breaking free.
We’re coming home.
Sherri has published a collection of non-fiction articles in magazines, anthologies and online at her Summerhouse blog, and a memoir column at Carrot Ranch, an international online literary community. A keen walker and photographer from the UK, she raised her family in California for twenty years. Today, she lives in England’s West Country, hoping soon to publish her debut memoir.
Do we unknowingly write ourselves into pieces of fiction where we hide out of view until somebody unexpectedly points out that we’re in the story?
When Charli Mills (Head Rancher) here at the Carrot Ranch prompted us to write a 99-word piece of flash fiction with the prompt ‘Swift Passage‘, I immediately saw a big ship. No, I wasn’t at the beach or by the sea, but some prompts can make me think I’m there.
The image stayed with me for two days until my fingers started the journey that would bring a comment that got me delving deeper into what I had written.
I did a little bit of research for this flash fiction piece, something I’m not always very good at doing. As my eyes scrolled a list of names, hoping that I would find my name by a strange coincidence, I felt disappointed when it was missing. Not even a person with the same surname as me was on it, but my eyes were drawn and focused on somebody with the first same name as me – Hugh.
I instantly felt connected with that person and felt sad that Mr Rood had not survived his journey.
By the time I published my response to the prompt, I didn’t think much more about it. I sat back and waited for any comments to come in.
‘You might have a connection,’ were the words in one comment that got my attention.
It got me wondering. Had I’d unknowingly written myself into this piece of flash fiction, I’d titled ‘A Night To Remember.’
After all, I’d always been interested in the location of the true story where my flash fiction piece was based, and this was not the first time I’d used it as a location.
Earlier in my blogging journey, one of the first short stories I’d written and published was partly centred around the same location as ‘A Night To Remember.’ I particularly liked that some of the comments for that early short story highlighted the twist. The twist, it seems, was the last part of the story’s location – a place most thought they knew but which had them making the wrong assumption.
In that early story, I’d included a framed photograph, which was the main item the story was centred around. I laughed out loud when somebody asked in a comment, ‘is the photo in the frame, you?‘ Why had they thought it was me in the picture?
I read the story back to myself before responding to that comment. Although I denied it was me in the photo, something at the back of my mind disagreed. Then somebody else mentioned that they’d thought I’d written myself into the story. It was not long before I started to ask myself if all writers do the same thing without really knowing about it.
When we write fiction, do we sometimes write about our previous lives?
However, back to my piece of flash fiction, ‘A Night To Remember.’ Although my real name was not on the list of the dead, a further comment mentioned I could have had a connection to the actual location of the story. I then remembered that I’m terrified of water. If it goes above my knees, I start to panic. Despite many swimming lessons, I’ve never been able to swim, and I won’t go into the sea or board anything that floats on it.
Had I been on board the ill-fated Titanic (the location of both stories I’ve mentioned in this post)? And in my current life as a writer, author and blogger, had I written fiction based on events that I’d witnessed?
Have you ever written yourself into a piece of fiction? Did you know you were doing it, or did somebody point out that you were in the story? Do you believe some of our stories are based on our previous lives?
If you missed my first post on Diversity With A Twist, here it is.
Copyright © 2021 Hugh W. Roberts – All rights reserved.
Hugh W. Roberts lives in Swansea, South Wales, in the United Kingdom.
Hugh gets his inspiration for writing from various avenues including writing prompts, photos, eavesdropping and while out walking his dogs, Although he was born in Wales, he has lived around various parts of the United Kingdom, including London where he lived and worked for 27 years.
Hugh suffers from a mild form of dyslexia but, after discovering blogging, decided not to allow the condition to stop his passion for writing. Since creating his blog ‘Hugh’s Views & News’ in February 2014, he has built up a strong following and now writes every day. Always keen to promote other bloggers, authors and writers, Hugh enjoys the interaction blogging brings and has built up a group of online friends.
His short stories have become well known for the unexpected twists they contain. One of the best compliments a reader can give Hugh is “I never saw that ending coming.”
Having published his first book of short stories, Glimpses, in December 2016, his second collection of short stories, More Glimpses, was released in March 2019.
A keen photographer, he also enjoys cycling, walking, reading, watching television, and enjoys relaxing with a glass of red wine and sweet popcorn.
Hugh shares his life with John, his civil-partner, and Toby and Austin, their Cardigan Welsh Corgis.