Emergency Kit Essential: Books on Paper

It’s May 28th around 9:30 in the morning.  I’m guessing about the time because every clock in the house is off due to a power outage, and my watch is too far away to bother with.  As I sit listening to the hum of my neighbor’s generator, I think about my other emergency kit.  Not the one with batteries, flashlights, water, duct tape and whatnot.  I’m talking about my list of things to do when I have no electricity.

For years, the top of that list has been ‘Read a Book.’  Today, the question dawned on me: What if I go completely digital in my reading?  How long would an eReader battery sustain my primary activity if the power were out for days?  Will I find myself visiting my generator-owning neighbors asking, “Please sir, may I power up my tablet?”  Will I join an anxious mob at the local bookstore chanting, “Must have books… must have books…”?  No doubt, it’s a serious problem.

I had my first chance to try an eReader on a vacation when my sister, Colleen, brought along her Gameboy and a cartridge of public domain books.  A novel by G. K. Chesterton called The Napoleon of Notting Hill caught my eye due to an off-kilter, Monty Python kind of humor.  Even with a screen only a quarter the size of a standard paperback page, I found the read enjoyable.  I didn’t finish reading the book before the end of the vacation because Colleen, oddly enough, wanted to play games with her Gameboy.

When eBooks started making the scene, I didn’t know how the technology should or would fit into my life.  My questioning the role stemmed from my sense of wanting to “do no harm.”  From that perspective, I wanted to understand if authors would gain or lose from digital books.  Also, how would the technology affect the local economy?  Brick and mortar bookstores fuel the local economy in many ways and especially by employing people from the communities they serve.  Indirect support comes from the delivery channels it takes to keep the shelves full.  At least when you buy from Amazon you still help the local economy via the delivery pipeline.  With eBooks, you cut out all benefits after the initial purchase of the eReader.

With time, it’s become clear that digital publishing can be a big boon to authors.  Unfortunately, brick and mortar bookstores have not been fairing so well.  While I believe that bookstores will not disappear completely, we haven’t reached a comfort point of knowing how many will survive.

After I returned home from that vacation with Colleen, I went to the bookstore to pick up a copy of the G.K. Chesterton book and found they did not stock it.  This is the first time I couldn’t find a book I wanted in a local store – a truly paradigm shifting moment for a booklover like me.  With the book in the public domain and no money to be made by an author, I decided to load the book to my smartphone and further test the experience.  I found some very good reasons for adopting eBooks:

I can carry a large number of books at the same time without a bone-breaking, heavy backpack

  • No matter where I’m at, if I have a few minutes I have something to read
  • If I want something new to read, I can download a new book instantly

Yet, there are some good reasons to continue purchasing books on paper:

I can’t write in the margins of eBooks

  • Flipping through an eBook to find a certain passage is harder to do without the spatial memory you need to help remember the location
  • It pretty much takes an act of God to destroy a paper book, but one momentary act of human stupidity can wipe out an entire electronic library

So, that brings me back to sitting in my house with no power, wondering what I would do without something to read.  The answer is: I’m not going to let that happen.  Truly, there is room for both literary forms in the world.  It doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both.  I want the books that mean the most to me to live on my bookshelves and share my space.  The ones that I enjoy in transience can exist on an eReader.  And the books I want with me during an act of God will be in my emergency kit.

Author’s Note: What books would you pick to be in your ‘emergency kit?’


With the possible exception of cookbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias, everything written has some sort of pace to it. From greeting cards to poems to speeches, each piece opens, gives a few high points and then comes to a conclusion. When done correctly, the reader takes no notice of pace. Getting a suspense novel to the point where pace fades into the fabric requires a lot of work. There are two aspects of pacing you will want to consider even before writing the opening scene: your characters’ traits and the conflicts your characters will face. More than anything else, traits and conflicts determine pace because they are the consistent threads throughout your story.

Character Traits.
Your main characters carry the story, so it is their actions that set the pace. Don’t be concerned with what your protagonist looks like at this point, just think of the conduct of your character. Think of how they act. Are they fast talkers? Are they methodical? Compulsive? Arrogant? Do they yearn for approval?

Get to know your characters personally, too. How far did they get in school? Do they have any military service? Are the married? With kids? Pets? Are they religious? What is their career, and how is that going? Any health problem that could slow them down? And, most of all, know their date of birth. All of this stuff determines your character’s psyche, and that determines how they behave. Spend one hour “interviewing” each of your main characters – like a reporter or detective would – and you will prevent a lot of future problems with pace, not to mention character traits. You’ll never use all the material garnered in an interview, but you will write more vivid characters and show truer action because you understand them better. At that point, your characters will tell you how gorgeous their eyes are, how slender their figure is, and all the rest of the eye candy.

The other aspect to consider before starting out is conflict. What has to be conquered to achieve your outcome? In lifelike fiction, you’ll need to consider timelines, material assets and the kinds of professional and emotional help your hero will need to succeed. You can’t have your protagonist globe-hopping conflict-to-conflict without allowing for enough time for him or her to get from hop-to-hop. The same can be said for how long it takes to build a boat out birch bark or to give birth to a baby. Lifelike fiction reads like it could really happen. Fantasy fiction, like Ian Fleming’s Agent 007, allows the author to play with things like timelines and history, facts and follies. So, for example, when Mr. Bond is dining in London at 10:00 p.m. and playing roulette in Monte Carlo at midnight – a distance of 641 miles – it does not take us out of the story. Fleming pulls this off because his character is immortal, but in mortal-drawn fiction, we have to pace ourselves to the dual drums of time and nature.

Opening scene.
Once you know you main characters and understand the obstacles they have to overcome, then you can write the opening scene. This sets the pace of your story. If you want to forecast fast and furious, then open with a tightly drawn scene that presents your protagonist already in peril. Show him witnessing a crime and then exit the scene with your character hastily being pursued by the bad guys.

However, if your story is going to evolve over several months or longer, you will want to open instead with a character-building scene, like a dinner with hubby, wife and family before he flies off to meet his fate. Then, when the lights go out in Scene Two, we care what happens to him. You’re pace is set.

In the first approach, you’re broadcasting to the reader, Hold on, this is gonna be some ride! With the second approach, you’re saying, Here’s someone you’re gonna like. Or dislike, if you choose to open on the antagonist. The difference is compelling.

Word choice.
As far as word count is concerned, the faster the pace, the shorter the sentences. If you want to broadcast a slower pace, then use more commas, and longer, compounded sentences, so you have to use even more commas. Really, it’s that simple.

Action should be consumed in small bites, but tension-building descriptions and internal reflections that lead up to the action scene should be drawn-out affairs. Action sprints across the page, and like a sprint it should be over in no time. Tension uncoils like a spring. That doesn’t mean the entire scene is completed in one or two paragraphs. It means the action is shattered into shards of short, breath-taking bits, and the tense descriptions into nail-biting disquiet.

In fast-paced scenes, use descriptive words by their first reference only, not their second or third meaning. Use words that are easily understood, or words that play on a previous scene or trait. Stick with simple character tags of he said and she said so as not to slow down the pace. Find the fewest words possible to keep the action moving.

Pause scenes.
Another strong consideration should be the pause button. After an action scene, give your readers a break. Use this time for your characters to reflect on what just happened; they need a break, too. Use this space to have them discuss how that last action scene changes what they need to do next. Pause scenes are excellent places for foreshadowing.

Read it out loud.
“Read your piece loud enough for the folks in the back of the room to hear you.” That’s the best advice I ever received involving pacing. If you read it in the same tone your character speaks, you’ll hear the cadence in their voice, too, as well as the meaning of the words. Does this “sound” like this character? You’ll pick up on idiosyncrasies like back-to-back tongue-twisting words, unnecessary adverbs or adjectives, and weak or overstated nouns. Reading aloud forces you to enunciate every word and hear every syllable through your outer ear. That shows you – the writer – what it sounds like to the reader’s inner ear. Now have someone else read it to you. Close your eyes and imagine that you’re someone who just bought this book and is hearing this for the first time. Did they stumble? Did they emphasize the right parts? Did your inferences come across? Does it sound like the same one you wrote? That’s the acid test!

Follow your plot line by alternating between action scenes and pauses. Sometimes, because of timelines and whatnot, one action scene will need to get dumped right on top of the last, or a longer pause will be needed to allow for time to catch up to your next scene. These deviations in pace need to be written with tender, loving care. You’re asking your reader to change cadence from the pace you set in the beginning. Where this does happen in your novel, try to connect the change in pace with a common thread or theme, to give it a pace of its own. Done correctly, your readers won’t even notice, but write it haphazardly and folks are going to trip up.

Subplots work nicely for pause scenes, especially in longer stories, providing they conclude with your story’s ending. Subplots need their own satisfying ending, too, so you’re effectively telling two stories at this point. Subplots need to be fully fleshed out and relevant to your main story. Subplots don’t need to be action-packed, but they do need to develop “in character” and in a timeline with your main plot. Ironically, the best subplots give rise and reason for dramatic character changes. Give subplots a lot of forethought because they are not easy to do well. Subplots not only take the reader out of the main story, but you as well, and a poorly developed subplot will only bog you down when you want to be at your most creative. And remember: What you put in your story, you must take out.

Next month: Plotting.
When Founding Father Ben Franklin famously said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” he could have been talking about the fate of a story’s plot line instead of the fate of new nation. Plotting is a game that fiction writers play while conjuring up good ideas for their story. We’re the only genre of writers that plays What if…?

Changes throughout your story are the plot line’s development. And, like an architect’s set of detailed drawings, your plot line must conclude with a full rendering of your House of Cards if you expect anyone to buy it. Next month, we’ll look at how a plot line “hangs together.”


Suspense! That’s what brings readers back again and again. If you want your readers to keep reading, you have to give them a reason to go to the next paragraph, turn the page or come back a month later. That’s why I ended my blog last month the way I did.

What did happen to Abram? He had the visa. He could come to America right away. Why did he insist on stopping off in Switzerland first? And, most of all, why did he never get to America?

Abram tried. He really did. His plan was to go from Beirut to Geneva by train.

I just finished looking at a Google Map of the area. I can’t imagine what made him think he could pull it off. He was a Jew, in the middle of World War II. He’d have to travel from Beirut, Lebanon to Aleppo in Syria and then on to Istanbul, Turkey. From Istanbul, he’d have to pass through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia to Trieste, Italy. Then it would be a relatively short shot to Geneva.

This is a journey of over 2,395 miles. It’s the same distance as from San Francisco, California to St. Petersburg, Florida. Only he’d have to travel through seven countries, all of them either at war or on the edge, and most of them on Hitler’s side. Today, when I put the information into Google, it said, “We could not calculate directions between Beirut, Lebanon and Geneva, Switzerland.”

Map Picture

I would love to know what he was thinking. How did he plan to do it? Why did he even want to?

Traveling by train, all that distance, would be difficult. How many days would it take? Where would he sleep? How would he pay for his tickets and food? Money was already a problem in Beirut. He wouldn’t be able to travel first class like in the past. And, at his age, he was in his sixties…

I wonder, was Abram ever frightened as he planned his journey? Did he feel overwhelmed? Did he worry that he wouldn’t be able to do it?

To try to figure out how Abram might have planned it, I did a little research on my computer. If I wanted to make the trip today, I’d have to take a bus or taxi from Beirut (A on the map) to Aleppo (B). That’s 186 miles. Then I’d take the train to Istanbul (C) for 768 miles. After that I’d travel for another 991 miles by train to Trieste (D). From there it would be 450 miles more to Geneva (E) and he would have made it!

But I’d be doing it as an American on an American passport. Abram was doing it in late 1941 as a Jew with an American visa that could be dangerous for him to show until he boarded the ship because the countries he was passing through were controlled by the Nazis.

Germany’s puppet government in France controlled Lebanon and Syria until the Allied Invasion of July, 1941. Turkey was neutral in 1941 but Hitler had taken Bulgaria on March 1, Croatia on April 10 and Serbia on April 17. Abram didn’t start out until sometime after June.

What was he planning to use for papers? What acceptable reason could he give for traveling? How did he disguise himself so he could blend in with the other travelers? How did he get enough sleep and to eat so he could function?

The one thing he did have going for him, besides his American visa, was that he spoke a number of languages: Romanian, German, French, English, Italian and probably Yiddish.

Looking at the map, I still can’t believe it that Abram made it as far as he did. He must have been very brave, determined and resourceful. He had a lot of guts. He made it most of the way. He was so close. Then he had bad luck, very bad luck.

Somewhere on the train between Serbia and Italy some Nazis found him. He had almost made it to Trieste, only half a day’s travel from Geneva.

The Red Cross finally found out the truth but not until after the war was over. So for years my parents and Grandma and Papa wrote, telephoned and cabled the Red Cross and anyone else they thought could find Abram and help him come to America. They always believed he was still alive until the night the telegram came.

It was a Sunday in 1948 or ’49. There was a knock at our door. It was Western Union. The messenger had gone to my grandparents’ apartment in Pacific Heights first, and when no one answered, their neighbors told the messenger that every Sunday night Grandma and Papa went to their daughter’s house out by the ocean. They gave him the address. The telegram was from the Red Cross.

I remember my father coming into the dining room, taking my brother’s and my dinner plates, telling us to bring our glasses of milk, and come with him. He took us to our room, put the plates on the floor and turned on the radio to the “Lone Ranger”. Dad told us to stay in the room, keep the door closed and listen to the program. He’d come back and get us.

I remember thinking, this is strange. We were never allowed to bring food to our room or listen to the radio during dinner.

Then I heard my Grandmother scream. I can hear it today in my imagination as I write this. It was so loud and so sad and it came again and again, drowning out “The Lone Ranger”.

I could hear Papa saying, “Clara, Clara”, over and over.

The telegram was from the Red Cross. It said that Abram had taken the train to Switzerland. Somewhere, along the way, just before Trieste, Nazi soldiers had boarded it and found him. When they got to Trieste they took him off and to a hotel room. There they robbed and killed him. All this had happened in 1941. He’d been dead all this time and we never knew.

Why, once he had the visa to America, didn’t he come right away? Why did he insist on making this long, dangerous journey to Switzerland first?

We may never know for sure. But I don’t think it was what he told the family: He was sick and wanted to see a doctor to help him get well before he came to America. I think he had a much bigger, more important reason, one that would make him, a man in his sixties, a Jew in a world at war, make this 2,395 mile journey first.

Next month I’ll write about what I think his reason was.


Mental images: zombies and coffee

Good, strong writing is found all in the presentation.  Consider the images that come to your mind when you read the following sentence: She was a zombie in need of more K-Cups.

So, what does that refer to?

Right now, you may be floundering and drowning in a sea of possibilities.  You need context to anchor your thoughts.  What should you be thinking of?

Figuratively, that sentence could describe a human female who cannot function without that first morning cup of coffee.  Literally, it could mean that a reanimated female creature drinks coffee and is running low on the packets.

Either way, the writer has set up the scene with specific, descriptive words about setting and circumstance.  Human or supernatural, your female character is of a certain social status to prefer the disposable, single-serve packets used in a Keurig brewer.

Let’s not forget the implied tension.  What if either one of them runs out of the single-serve packets?

Certainly, the story subject matter material is crucial to the events that happen next.  However, without any specific framework, your mind still generated images, thoughts, or presumptions about what that sentence means.  The presentation of that one sentence was strong, just strong enough to engage the reader and yet give freedom to create his or her own specific image.  After all, what does the female look like: blonde or brunette, or is her hair matted and covered in mud?  Is her skin dark or light, green or blue?

You want to choose the right nouns http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfnXUWJz0sE&feature=kp , words that create dancing images in the readers mind to solve the puzzle of the author’s intent.  If done well, the descriptions keep the story moving forward and the reader interested and engaged.  Are you intrigued?

If you’ve read this far, then you are and I did my job.  This is how inviting your writing should be.  What kind of images do you want to create for your readers?

How do you do this, find colorful language words to express nuances?  Start with a basic word and look to thesaurus or dictionary.  Typing the word “zombie,” an online thesaurus gives synonyms and antonyms for “odd person,” “ghost,” and “machine.”  Various dictionaries define a zombie as, among other things, a supernatural spirit inhabiting a dead body; a snake god; a tired, apathetic human; a spicy rum drink; and a computer virus.  Think of what other magic you’ll find typing in a different word.

Consider colloquial slang.  At some point zombie came to mean a lethargic person.  The word “shorty” now refers to clothing, cookies and an often-derogatory term for women.  What words can you mesh into new meanings?

You can also create your own connection.  It’s easier to take liberties in fiction and fantasy by the nature of creating a new world with your own rules, but nonfiction benefits from it.  That’s how I wrote the zombie sentence, with a human in mind.  It’s much more exciting than writing The tired woman had no more coffee. It also creates images that are more vibrant.

After writing it, I wondered, what if she was waking up in a post-apocalyptic world?

What does a sleepy zombie look like to you?

What Happens in Vegas, Doesn’t Have to Stay in Vegas

Timing is interesting. Just before our meeting at Barnes and Noble was to begin, my writers’ group was interrupted by an adorable boy who was obviously young enough to be an elementary school student, maybe about seven years old. He held his arms straight down at his sides as he stood tall and still, almost at attention, just outside our circle of chairs. Adorned in a dark-colored dress shirt and slacks, he looked like a miniature version of a suit and tie guy on business casual Friday. This young entrepreneur didn’t waste time on pleasantries or even smiling. He had a very serious look upon his face as he spoke clearly and loudly. I listened as he rushed through a well-practiced, robotic-sounding speech and asked us to donate five dollars for a Mrs. Fields cookie. The money would help him travel from Michigan to Washington, D.C. where he would visit the nation’s capital with his school.

Despite the formality, he was cute as could be. I compared him to my own boys, now young men, who used to get dressed up (at my insistence) for church and significant occasions. Neat and tidy, clean and respectable, he was dressed for success. The innocent youthfulness of this child was persuasive enough to cause several of us to waver as we tried to determine if we had any cash on hand. One verbally acknowledged what some of the rest were thinking: five dollars for one cookie was a lot (unless it happened to be really big).

That’s when a young adult woman stepped forward from a nearby aisle. I hadn’t noticed her until that moment, but it made sense that the boy wouldn’t have been there alone. She pulled a cookie out from the purse she was holding and restated the need for our help in sending the boy to DC with his class at school. Was she his older sister or his mother? I sized her up based upon her appearance, her voice, her request. The two didn’t really look very much alike. I remembered that my own children didn’t go to our nation’s capital with their school until they were in eighth grade.

Her intrusion into the exchange had made me uncomfortable. Because she was hiding the cookies, I was confident that the bookstore management didn’t know the two were working their way through its customers. I wasn’t sure if the money would ever help that little boy. How would it really be used? Had this woman just engineered a very good way of soliciting? I wanted to ask questions of the pair and caution the other writers, but I felt like such a scrooge and I certainly didn’t want to appear like one.

I had a good reason to be skeptical. Years before, my husband and I helped a stranger at a service plaza along the Ohio Turnpike. The stranger claimed he had left his wallet behind as he rushed out from home to drive to a hospital where his daughter was giving birth to her first baby. He had run out of gas and needed money to fill his tank before he could continue the drive. I was at that rest stop long enough to witness the man hand over our $20 donation to a female companion, who then went shopping inside the plaza and came out with a newly purchased video to watch in their gas-tank-empty car as the not-so-much-in-a-hurry-anymore man continued to ransack the parking lot.

Based upon that experience, with the boy standing before me at the bookstore, suspicions flowed freely through my mind. I found an easy way to avoid the conflict going on between my cynical thoughts and my interest in helping the child reach his goal. Since I didn’t carry cash on me that night, there was no way I could have contributed to his trip even if I had become convinced of his sincerity. Instead, I sat and watched as several writers each traded their money for an over-priced cookie. The woman and boy left, and I felt relieved that the confrontation was over.KellyDeadwood-20146June-VegasPhoto

Two days later I left for Las Vegas, Nevada. Popular entertainers, including Britney Spears, Celine Dion, and Rod Stewart, commanded hundreds of dollars for good seating at their shows. Their performances took place inside richly ordained, tall and extravagant buildings set along streets lined with lowly panhandlers, who had positioned themselves (somewhat strategically) amidst bustling crowds. Bachelors out to party, girls on their nights out, married couples hoping to reconnect, singles looking for excitement, business professionals, mothers, fathers, families with children, and now I walked by the homeless.

First I saw a thin, unshaven, dirty man about my age, sitting on the edge of the sidewalk in his work clothes: a gray hoodie and jeans. The same clothes, I presume, he wore to sleep in. Video advertisements towered above us on the sides of The Mirage. The bold efforts to entice passersby to spend money were in sharp contrast to the small 10” x 12” cardboard sign this frail man held in one hand as a cigarette dangled from his rotten, tobacco stained teeth. My first reaction was to look away, but instead I stole a quick glance at what the sign said: “Need money for weed.” I’d been in Sin City before, but this was the first time I wondered whether a marketing exec had developed a new business plan for one of the locals. I couldn’t help but smile at the creative ploy. The man saw my expression and thought it gave him the opening he needed. He asked, “Hey, where ya goin’? Got any spare change?”

I didn’t want to talk to him or address his need, so I quickly continued on. I passed several more casinos, restaurants and hotels before I came across another homeless man, sitting opposite an escalator that led to a busy McDonald’s. He was in between two other men; all were smiling and laughing with one another. (Perhaps the location was lucrative.) This man held the top of a large 3’ x 4’ cardboard sign which was resting on the ground in front of him. On it was written the same proclamation I had recently seen: “Need money for weed.”

The writer in me wondered who plagiarized whom. Would there be a fight between the two at some point because one was profiting from another’s creativity and hadn’t given credit where credit was due?

I overheard a woman’s reaction to seeing the larger sign. She didn’t just smile. She burst out laughing and pointed the sign out to the man she was with. They talked about the “truth in advertising” approach to begging and seemed as impressed as I had been when I first spotted the novel way to pander. It made us take notice. For a fleeting moment, we actually paid attention to the plight of these destitute individuals.

The awareness spurred serious thinking within me. Do I or don’t I spare a little something? Do I really help someone by giving directly to his cause, or am I enabling him to continue a forlorn lifestyle? I found it difficult to decide.

During the next ten minutes of my walk, I encountered a woman who struggled to take care of a handicapped son, a young man who was stranded and needed to get home, a middle-aged man who was being encouraged to “Keep moving!” along the sidewalk of a posh hotel (The Venetian) and another man holding nothing but a plastic cup as he huddled at the base of a highly traveled escalator. Each down-and-out individual brought me closer to giving. They seemed to be in far greater need than the freshly showered salespeople who stood outside store fronts, shoved cards in my face, and slyly forced samples of pricy lotions (that I didn’t want) into my hands.

I passed a woman dressed neatly in a white shirt and jeans. She was holding a bucket and asking for donations to “Help the Homeless.” The permit sticking out of her white container made her look official…but I was once again suspicious. I wondered if the money collected would be used as promised. I thought back to the boy who was selling cookies at Barnes and Noble. Whether or not he and his female guardian were actually fundraising for a trip, I may never know.

So there I was, withholding spare change and scrutinizing the intentions of each beggar I had passed, even that cute little boy back in Michigan. I wondered why some people give so freely and others, like me, have to strictly analyze situations. Yes, too many people knock on my door to try to sell me something. Yes, my phone often rings with incessant telemarketers. Yes, I’ve been taken advantage of by unscrupulous strangers. Admittedly yes, because there is no end in sight to the number of upturned palms that are in need, I am compelled to carefully consider how best to share what God has blessed me with.

He directs Christians like me to “…stop just saying we love people; let us really love them, and show it by our actions” (1 John 3:18 of The Living Bible). Knowing there is widespread poverty means that I can’t ignore the situation. What I offer may seem like just a small drop in a very large bucket, but it’s the least I can do.