Rowena Carenen

What We Watch

My long-suffering wife and I enjoy watching British murder mysteries. In fact, we reserve Sunday evening specifically for their viewing. Netflix, Hulu, and other sources provide a smorgasbord of great stories. However, I must admit a couple of things. One is that we watch for different reasons while agreeing that the story's the thing. But my wife likes to point out the gardens while I'm saying, "Look, there's a body over there!"

We have also come to the conclusion that there are only 47 actors in the UK. We'll be watching an exciting episode and simultaneously say, "Oh, she was also in The Midsomer Murders," or "That guy was the killer in Broadchurch!"

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Peggy Sue, Bubba, and Billy Bob Walk Into a Bar

I am happy to be back blogging after a brief hiatus to get my feet under me again. One goal I recently completed was the reading of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I am not going to critique it because Woody Allen already did so:  "It's about Russia." A common complaint about the novel, other than its length, is all the confusing names. Obviously, they're confusing and, being forewarned, I decided to give the characters American names; specifically, southern American names, to reduce my confusion. Natasha, for example, became "Peggy Sue," Dolokhof became "Bubba," and Rostof, "Billy Bob." And so forth. Worked for me, anyway.

I must say, however, I took on War and Peace as a chore, an attempt to plug a hole in my literary education, an effort to quell a vague sense of guilt about my never having read it. And I was surprised to discover that Tolstoy is a master storyteller. Look for future hints on how to enjoy classical literature. I am here to help.

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Hit the road, Jack...

The last time I wrote that having a variety of job experiences is a good thing for writers, just for their overall education and background to draw from. I realize it also made it look like I couldn't keep a job, but there's nothing I can do about that. You may reach any conclusion you want.

Today I'm addressing another topic, and that is the benefit of travel as a source of education and material. I tend to believe this one, although I know it's possible to travel in one's imagination and still come out sounding knowledgeable. I'm confident Arthur C. Clarke did a fine job with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I have traveled a lot, including 47 states and the District of Columbia. I have actually lived in Iowa, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. I lived on USAF bases in Texas and Massachusetts. I also traveled in 24 countries, living in Germany, Turkey, and Israel, and stationed by the USAF in The Republic of the Philippines for eighteen months.

I have yet to live on another planet, but if that ever happens, there'll be something I can use for my stories. Travel!

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Working Writer

I was told while attempting, and failing, to grow up, that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to "experience life," which meant be exposed to a variety of different jobs for background material. I believe this is a valid point, at least from my own experience. 

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Here's a (partial) compilation of different kinds of work I have performed over the centuries: morning paperboy, corn detasseler, stockboy in California liquor store, shipping department in women's dress factory, rotocast operator in auto parts factory (made arm rests, head rests), Chaplain's Assistant in USAF (Republic of Philippines and Hanscom Field, Massachusetts), bar back in Officers' Club in Germany, grapefruit harvester on Kibbutz Y'fat near Nazareth, Israel, insurance sales (I hated sales), Teaching-Parent in community-based therapeutic group homes in North Carolina, consultant/trainer/evaluator for such group homes, English professor, and professional writer. I have also milked Bulldogs, but that's another story.

Did all those jobs help me become a better writer? Yes, I think they did. Wide exposure to different people, cultures, and countries is a great education. So, yes, I do recommend a variety of experiences for writers. I do NOT recommend milking Bulldogs, however.

Attorney/Author Privilege

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I am not even close to being a legal expert, but I have friends who are. On a novel I'm working on (stand-alone, not Thomas O'Shea), I was into my 11th chapter and hit a roadblock. The protagonist reports seeing two men commit a murder. Then he asks the sheriff, "Are you going to arrest them?" And up jumped the roadblock. Could a person be arrested on heresy? If so, then what? When does the District Attorney get involved, would the men be jailed, how much would bail be? And more questions.

So I contacted a friend of mine who's been a county prosecutor and is now a defense attorney. Invited him to lunch and sat down, munched out, and the questions flowed. He cleared up several key details to keep me from sounding like an ignoramus. The novel is not going to be a legal thriller, but I did need to know a few important facts before I could move on. He supplied them, we enjoyed lunch, and he said he'd be glad to help anytime. Roadblocks blown to pieces.

So, let me encourage you writers out there to be sure that the writing ground you're standing on is not shifting sand. Don't hesitate to tap into the expertise of your friends. You might be surprised to see how eager they are to help you. Just don't forget to acknowledge them when you're published.

I'd rather be before...

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Have you ever noticed the "before" photos that show up in the endless diet program advertisements on TV? Have you ever notice that, with the exception of Marie (who lost 50 pounds!), nearly every one of those people were smiling, look happy, and exude contentment in their "before" photos? I didn't think so. I didn't until it occurred to me that those people appeared to be quite happy regardless of their size. Got me to thinking.

Why should they spend time and money and incur frustration when they were happy just being themselves before being persuaded by body shaming advertising to chase after some societal "norm" of what should be their ideal size? The word "jolly" comes to mind, a word now associated only with Santa Claus, the right jolly old elf. I mean, if Santa is jolly regardless of his girth, or maybe because of his girth, shouldn't we be like Santa? Obviously, being his size hasn't affected his life span. Maybe it has extended his life span. The Bible says that a merry heart maketh like a medicine, right?

Next time you see one of those diet ads, and they are ubiquitous, take a look at the "before" pictures of those tricked into spending money to lose weight. A happy face is the best advertising for not going on those pricey diets. And with that, I rest my case.

I do bite my thumb at Thee, sir.

As some of you may have noticed, I am a writer of self-admitted minimal success and enormous failures, but I still write. I think psychologists call that "self-injurious behavior." So be it.

Today's "Writing Wednesdays" blog is about a weird kind of retribution for all the rejections I've suffered from agents. When I research a literary agency, I review what each agent is interested in before deciding whether or not I should contact them. I wouldn't send a murder mystery to an agent who only handles historical non-fiction, for example. This is a standard process.

Now, I do the rejections, dumping agents that aren't appropriate for my work. "Take that!" I shout at the computer screen when I reject an agent. "How do you like that, you arrogant, elitist, literary snob!" Of course, they don't know I've rejected them; whereas, when they reject me I get it in writing or, even worse, silence.

This approach is recent, and I know it may fall short just a tad from reality. But therapy can take on many faces. I find comfort in it, but I suspect it is only temporary. Stay tuned for next week's "Writing Wednesdays" blog.

Squirreled Away

I have been outsmarted by a squirrel. Twice. Now, for those of you who know me, this is not fresh news. 

We have a squirrel in our crawlspace overhead. It does not make itself known except in the middle of the night, when it wakes me up, gnawing on something for about thirty minutes. Actually, we don't know for sure if it's a squirrel. Could be a mouse or a rat, but based on information provided by friends and neighbors with similar experience with annoying mammals, it is very likely a squirrel, flying type or earthbound. Doesn't matter. 

Our overhead crawlspace is not accessible to someone my size. Let's let it go at that. Suffice it to say that there isn't much room up there, it is not floored, and I have never actually been any further into it than waist height. We did have small people go up there and blow in tons of cottony insulation when we renovated the cottage a few years ago.

We told a friend of ours about the problem and he promptly said his live squirrel trap would work. It had worked for him. He loaned it to us. The trap has an opening at each end and a small metal plate in the middle, upon which one slathers peanut butter and sets the hair trigger device guaranteed to trap the intruder. The slightest nudge will release escape-proof doors at each end. After the trapping, the squirrel should be driven ten miles from the cottage and set free to bug other people.

Once, I heard the trap go off. I put a little two-step stool on the bathroom counter beneath the access point to the crawlspace. I shone my flashlight on the trap. Nothing inside. Two other times I checked the trap and it had NOT gone off. But the peanut butter was completely gone. My long-suffering wife thinks the squirrel has a straw.

I returned the live squirrel trap to my friend, who was as baffled as I.

This afternoon I'm going to drop by the Army Surplus Store and see how much they want for an AK47, night vision goggles, and maybe a Claymore mine or two.

Stay posted. 

Lily the Brave, Sorta

Our rescue dog, nearly three years old now and weighing sixty pounds, is mostly pit bull with some terrier thrown in. She is sweet-natured, intelligent, playful. She is also willful, having learned all basic commands that she follows. When it suits her.

Sometime people acquire pit bulls for the wrong reasons. You know what they are. We acquired Lily to give her a good home and to provide us with company. Every day, she makes us laugh at least once. Yet, despite the fact that is the most passive dog who has ever owned us, her breed carries that reputation.

Last night during a storm my long-suffering wife heard a banging just outside our bedroom window. "It's something alive," she said.

So I got dressed, picked up a flashlight, and went forth to confront the source of the banging. Since we live at the edge of the woods and at the base of a small mountain, a wide range of "alive" things could have been the source of the banging. Raccoon, fox, bear, and yeti all came to mind. So I asked Lily to join me as backup as we went out the back door and around the house in the wind and the rain and the dark.

I turned around once to see if Lily had my back in case I needed protection. She was not there. I called and she appeared, or least, her head appeared at the corner of the house, so I proceeded and found the source of the thumping. A small access door under the crawlspace was loose. I secured it and turned around. Lily was not to be seen.

But she was nearby. On the back porch, wagging her tail. Lily now has a middle name. It is "Liver."

Moving Right Along

Recently, I took my 12-years-old Honda Accord to the dealer to have a dead headlight and a failed brake light replaced.  The technician said it would take about an hour, so I just turned over the key, and retired to the customer waiting area, which had comfy sofas and chairs and a big screen TV.  I took with me some writing materials because I wanted to work on a few details for my fourth Thomas O'Shea novel, Of Mists and Murders, details I hadn't ironed out yet, in my iron head.

An older woman soon joined me, asked if I would care if she turned on the TV.  I was fine with that.  The lady, who looked like an octogenarian Hobbit, settled into a sofa and began watching "The People's Court," a show I had never seen before.  It was distracting, but I worked hard to ignore the peculiar people on the tube.  What was even more distracting was that the local advertisers for the show looked like twenty-something blondes with Barbie figures enhanced by implants.  And they were advertising for personal injury local lawyers.  Every single ad had the same kind of woman, whose feet never get wet in the shower, promoting one lawyer or another who really, truly, cared about me.

The aging Hobbit had zoned out, staring at the screen, mouth slightly open, nearly catatonic, taking it all in.  I fought off my tendency to be judgemental, ignoring the court cases, sneaking a peak at the commercials.  If I ever need a personal injury lawyer....

GOOD NEWS ALERT! I now have my very own website! From now on, you can catch my blogs and lots of other information about my work, and me a little, at www.johncarenenwrites.com.

For that, I am entirely grateful to my Book Concierge, Rowe Carenen, and David Garrison, genius website guru.  Come see!

The Bison Codicil

“Codicil: an addition or supplement that explains, modifies, or revokes a will or part of one” (Oxford English Dictionary).  Now, why would I start a blog with a definition?  Hang tight, dear reader, and I will explain.  Some of you know that my long-suffering wife and I took a little road trip in September.  It turned out to include 20 states, 4 time zones, 5,000 miles, and a variety of experiences.  Overwhelmingly good ones.  However, there was an exception.

The exception took place one evening as we drove back from a day at Yellowstone National Park.  It had been fun bumping obnoxious tourists into the hot springs just to hear them scream, encouraging teenagers to throw rocks at bears to get their attention for a better photo, and telling children that the bighorn sheep liked to be petted.  It was dark out, and we were slowly heading for our cabin when, quite suddenly, an enormous mass came into view directly in front of us in the road.  It was a bull American Bison and I was looking upat his backside.  My catlike reflexes had us swerving quickly around the land mass and back on the road, a good thing because on one side of the road was a sheer rock wall and the other side was an abyss.

I could not believe we had missed the bison.  If we had struck him, all 2,000-plus pounds would have ended up in our laps, thrashing about, swinging his horned head and hooves.  I am confident that would have left a mark.  Once we realized we weren’t dead, a kind of giddy relief came over us from the near-death experience.  I talked to a Park Ranger the next dead and he said bison occasionally get struck by cars at night and it usually turned out badly for the people in the cars.  I wondered why I didn’t see the big buffalo until the last moment, and the Park Ranger went on to say that the hide of the American Bison absorbs light, rather than reflects it.  Oh, and coming up behind the impediment meant we didn’t have any eyes or horns to reflect illumination from our headlights.  Good to know.

Back to the codicil.  When we realized we weren’t dead, but could have been, we also realized that parts of our last will and testament were incomplete.  We do have a will, but we suddenly realized it was not specific enough, and that for our two daughters’ sakes, we needed to be clearer.  So we have set ourselves to the task of defining which daughter gets what, after consultation, so when we move on to the true country, there won’t be any confusion about our villa in the south of France, our offshore accounts in the Bahamas, or the Lear jet.

We have peace of mind now about our assets, and, in a way, we can be grateful to the assets of the bull American Bison for helping us focus.  The codicil attached to our will shall be known, officially, as “The American Bull Bison Codicil”.

Have Yourself an O'Shea Christmas

Now that Thanksgiving Day is past, and so is Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you will continue to be deluged with ads on TV and radio extolling all the “perfect Christmas gifts” for your loved ones.  Everything is “that perfect gift.”  For example, a six-pack of Tidy Bowl is perfect, and so is a new Lexus. Diamonds, dog beds, electric toothbrushes, ear wax remover, exercise equipment, Omaha meat,and Michael Jordan underwear all seem to qualify as that “perfect” gift.

Now, to be transparent, I am going to make a suggestion for a nice gift for Christmas; really a stocking stuffer kind of gift, not guaranteed to make your significant other fall in love with you or simply smother you with kisses. If you have someone you care about who is a person who reads lots of books, I suggest two.  Both of them were written by me, and are the first two in a series about Thomas O’Shea and his adventures.  (The third in the series is done and due to come out in early 2017, and I’m working on the fourth.)  Their titles are Signs of Struggle  and A Far Gone Night.  They combine mystery, intrigue, romance, and homicide with humor in a small town in northeastern Iowa. Really.  You’ll like them, and your friends and family will, too.  You can purchase them on Amazon, hard copy or e-book.

Whether you purchase these books or not, I hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. But if you do buy the books, you won’t be sorry.  Way better than a pair of red and green boxers, or a Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer car freshner. Seriously.