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Making the Holidays More Holiday-ish

Just a little fun from last year ... or was it the year before? All these holidays tend to blur together ...



SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
I always feel a little disjointed when the holidays arrive. I’m never ready for Thanksgiving, which is followed within hours by Christmas, and minutes after that by New Year’s Eve, followed immediately by several months of miserable winter. I’m never ready.
And yet, the holidays come every year. So, what’s my excuse?
“Gee, I thought for sure it wouldn’t happen this time. Why was I not warned?”
My mother calls every year to find out when we want to celebrate Thanksgiving. We never celebrate Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving—that would be too easy. But many of us work in the service industry. In my 911 center, we almost never close down for the holidays. Okay, we took a few hours off when the Cubs won, but otherwise …
Many of my other relatives work in the more difficult service jobs, the ones where you have to work a register and deal with customers face to face. They don’t take 911 calls, but they often make 911 calls. I think I’d rather be on the receiving end. It’s because of their jobs that we can’t celebrate a holiday on a holiday. It used to be they were busy on Thanksgiving, setting up for Black Friday; now they’re busy on Thanksgiving, having Black Friday.
If you’re old, like me—I always feel old when the days get shorter—you’ll remember a time when everything shut down for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Go out for Thanksgiving dinner? What a turkey of an idea. Go shopping that same evening? There are ball games to watch, people. But these days we’re thankful for our alarm clock, so we can get up at 3 a.m. to work our part time job in riot control at Best Buy.
"Don’t worry, ma’am: A little ventilation will get that pepper spray right out of your new flat screen TV."
So mom calls, asking if we want to have Thanksgiving the Sunday before, or the Saturday after. “But mom,” I say, “Why worry about that in August?”
“It’s November, dear.”
“But what happened to Halloween?”
“Your cardiologist ordered us not to say you missed it until November 7th.”
“But—the full sized candy bars!”
The irony is that there are plenty of reminders that the holidays are approaching. This year I saw my first store Halloween display in August, and my first Christmas display in September. It was 90 degrees. Nothing says Christmas like watching a plastic Santa melt like the Wicked Witch.
“Ho ho oh noooooo!!!!”
Nothing left but a bubbling pool of liquid on the floor, smelling faintly of peppermint and gingerbread. It’s enough to make you hit the eggnog.
Maybe my denial about the approaching holidays is an unconscious response to the cheapening of those same holidays, the way they come earlier and earlier. It’s not special any more. One year, on January third, I started poking through Christmas clearance items when I was stopped by an employee:
“Sir, those aren’t available for purchase yet—we’re putting up the store display tomorrow.”
It gets confusing. The Valentine’s Day cupid wears a fur lined red hat, and instead of a bow carries a little bundle of fireworks. Every time you pass him he says, “Happy Easter!” and tries to give you pumpkin shaped candy, while waving a sign advertising a President’s Day sale. On Thanksgiving.
The underlying meaning of all holidays has blurred into one unmistakable message:
“Give us money, and we’ll give everyone ‘free’ stuff that will make us all happy.”
Which they stole from politicians, but never mind.
Thus my idea for a new federal law: No holiday can be mentioned more than six weeks before the actual date. No holiday decorations can be put up longer than the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No special sales can be held on an actual holiday, with the exception of President’s Day, which is a lost cause.
One exception: Christmas lights can be put up outside while the weather is still good, as long as they’re not turned on before Thanksgiving. If they’re lit (or inflated) earlier, it’s open season for anyone with a rifle, paintball gun, blow gun, lawn darts, or snowballs. Or bazookas. No, that’s overkill—literally.
Our aim should be to make holidays special again, and you can’t do that if the holiday never goes away. If you go to the party store and can’t remember if your decorations are supposed to be red and green, or pink, or red, white and blue, then you’re doing it wrong.
How do you know if you’re doing it right? Well, I suppose you’ve got the right attitude if you’re thankful. If you’re giving. If you’re getting along with people, or at least trying to. You know, the good will thing.
And if that doesn’t work, you could try giving me some of your Halloween candy.
For Christmas.

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NaNoWriMo special: Naming characters

45,000 words! Way ahead of schedule.

Naming characters is one of the great joys of a fiction writer, when it's not one of their great nightmares.

We all want to come up with the next Sherlock Holmes, or Indiana Jones, or Stan Lee. (Isn't he a character?) It can be more complicated according to the genre: With science fiction you might need a Han Solo, with fantasy a Bilbo Baggins. Alliteration is your friend ... sometimes. After all, we have Clark Kent, or anyone invented by the previously mentioned Stan Lee.

Sometimes I go to great effort to give my character names meaning, while other times I just go with what sounds good. In my first published novel, my male protagonist was famous for taking extreme risks, even as he denied being a risk taker. His name? Chance, of course.

With its sequel, The Notorious Ian Grant, I was creating a character who already had a last name--he's the son of a minor character from Storm Chaser. I wanted something to fit his rakish, shall we say notorious personality, and settled on Ian. I also had to take into consideration what his father, an old school type, would have named him.

Often I painstakingly go through the meanings, sorting through my close to a dozen books about names (hey, I'm ready to name your baby!) And that's fine, but it might be more important to pick out a name that just doesn't conflict in other ways.

Do you have two characters whose names begin with an R? Or do all your characters have one syllable last names? Do the first and last names fit together? Say my name fast, without the middle initial ... I wouldn't give a character my name. Look at your cast list, and make sure two of the names aren't too like each other.

You might also consider whether to give your characters names that could apply to either sex, like Robin. I love the female name, Dani. But if Dani's best friend and her family all call her Dan, it could cause some confusion with the reader.

Then there's the question of ethnic names. In the Storm Chaser series is a character named Fran--her full name is Francesca. In my unpublished novel Beowulf: In Harm's Way is a character named Sachiko Endo, whose parents hail from Japan by way of another planet. Now, that story is set 500 years in the future, so there's no reason to think someone named Maria Nejem or Mohan Singh are from any particular place on Earth, or even from Earth at all. But there's also no reason to think my ship's crew will all have names like James and Leonard.

My current novel in progress is a romantic comedy. While the romance genre doesn't have the strict rules it once did, there are certain limitations on names, at least for American audiences. Colin and Wyatt are fine names for male protagonists, depending on the sub-genre; Larry Duckworth would probably not be your male lead.

I named my male protagonist Reed Carter. Why? Because I liked it; I had a backache at the time and didn't feel like looking up meanings. These things happened. Similarly, my female lead is Alice Delaney: I've always liked Alice, and Delaney had an extra syllable that seemed to work well with the first name, and Reed's name.

Now, with secondary names you can have a bit more fun, but be careful if your character might end up with a larger role in a sequel, or series. In Storm Chaser, I gave Chance Hamlin's little sister the name Beth, mostly as an afterthought. She was just a minor character, after all. But in the tradition of Urkels and Fonzies everywhere, she took on a life of her own and has so far shown up in three novels and a short story collection. If, in the new book, Alice's friend Rina Quade takes off, hopefully I'll be able to live with the name.

Finally there's naming characters after friends, family members, and enemies.

Don't.

Well, not without their approval, anyway. Never underestimate the power of people to be offended. Of course, if the character has a different last or first name, and their hair color is different, or even if they're of different gender, hey--just a coincidence, right? Before you do this, know who you're honoring. If you're dishonoring them, change the character around a lot.

My new book (working title Fire on Misty Creek) is set in northern Kentucky. It features a volunteer fire department, and to fill out its membership roles I chose popular last names from Knott County, where my relatives came from--even though its in southeast Kentucky. A little honoring of the roots, there.

The important part, when choosing names, is to have them fit the character, and to avoid confusion. If you end up with a Sherlock Holmes, that's just gravy.

He is Groot.

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The opening scene of my NaNoWriMo novel

Now remember, this is still the rough draft of the book I'm doing for National Novel Writing Month. Certainly changes will be made before it's finished, maybe many changes--it's already different from how I originally envisioned it. Changes might include the name of the dog, which right now is named after a Dalmatian I once owned--I just gave it the same name out of convenience.

The same goes for the title. I like Fire On Mist Creek ... although it should be pointed out that at no time in the story will there be a literal fire on the creek. Anyway, here's the opening scene:




FIRE ON MIST CREEK

CHAPTER ONE

Alice didn’t have to be a firefighter to know the truck had been on fire.

She switched on her SUV’s hazard lights and slowed down, passing the pickup truck before coming to a stop on the berm. It didn’t take great detective skills, either: A red fire extinguisher and an empty water jug stood near the truck’s hood, which was propped open. The underside of the hood was covered with whirls of smoke and scorch marks, and in the glow of her taillights she could see the slightest wisp of smoke drift up from the engine.

Grabbing her Maglite, Alice opened the door and stepped out. Her passenger let out a mournful howl, and she turned toward the elderly Dalmatian. “You need a potty break, Halon?”
Halon wagged her tail. “Well, it’s not like there’s a lot of traffic at three in the morning.” She left the door open, and the dog climbed down. There was a passing lane here, a third lane added to let drivers get by semis climbing the slope away from Mist Creek, although the truck had been headed toward the town. Passing lanes were common in this hilly section of northwest Kentucky, but at this hour it just meant a lonely stretch of highway seemed lonelier.

Alice played her light over the pickup truck while Halon headed for the side of the road. After a moment Alice approached, shining the light inside to confirm a lack of occupants. Two old, battered suitcases and a backpack appeared to have been abandoned in the truck bed. She was reaching for her cell phone when Halon started whining and she glanced over, to see the old girl beside the guardrail, wagging her tail.

Along with another shadowy figure.

Alice’s heart skipped a beat, and it took a second for her to recover enough to shine the light that way. The man sitting against the railing paid her absolutely no attention—he was busy petting the dog.

“How you doing, girl? Love a Dalmatian, and you’re an extra cute one.” Now he glanced up, shading his hazel eyes. “Is this your guard dog?” Halon laid down and rolled over, presenting her belly to the stranger. “Guess not.”

“She’s supposed to be tearing your arm off right now.”

“Well, I’m sure she’ll get around to it.” He commenced belly rubbing, making one of Halon’s back legs twitch.

After an automatic moment of caution, Alice had to relax a bit at the way Halon took to the man. Usually the dog was a bit standoffish toward anyone who wasn’t a Mist Creek resident, or a …

Ah. When he looked up again, Alice recognized the Maltese cross on the newcomer’s t-shirt. A glimpse of his wristwatch showed the same symbol, and she relaxed more. “Have a fire, fireman?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle—I had a backup supply of drinking water. If that hadn’t done it, I’ve been on the road for a while and haven’t seen a rest stop.” He stood, revealing himself to be half a head taller than Alice—maybe six foot three. His sandy hair was cut short, but he sported at least a day’s stubble. Halon stood on her hind legs to lean against his muscular chest, so he went back to petting her. “Oh, and I believe the term these days is firefighter. You look like you are one.”

“The dog?”

“The front license plate that says ‘Mist Creek Fire Department’, and that little red light bar on your Ford. Where I come from there’s no place for a vanity plate.” He smiled.
Nice smile—wherever he came from apparently had a good dental plan. She could so be a detective. “I’m Alice.”

“Reed Carter.” They shook hands, which struck her as faintly ridiculous. He had a good grip, and less calloused hands than she would have expected. Halon wedged between them in a push for more loving, which this time Alice provided. “I would have called for help, but it appears your hills are phone service resistant.”

“Just passing through?” A reasonable question, she thought. Technically they were on a Kentucky state highway, but it didn’t get much traffic, especially lately.

“Well …” Halon jumped up, planting her forelegs on his chest again. He rubbed her back, then gently lowered her to the ground. “It depends on whether your dog is the biggest tourist attraction. Is there a motel in Misty Creek?”

“Mist Creek. A few miles past, but it’s right along this highway. How do you plan to get there?”

Apparently he hadn’t thought of that. “Um …” He glanced back at the truck. “Well, I’ll just walk. The weather’s nice for this time of year—it’s October now, isn’t it? Seems like it should be cooler.”

Alice’s mind was on anything but the weather. Reed Carter looked a few years older than her, maybe thirty-five, and he was built like—well, a firefighter. Overall he seemed like a pretty normal person, if you could call firefighters normal, but she had to keep in mind that he was a stranger.

Halon broke away from her and rubbed against Reed’s leg. He reached down to scratch behind her ears.

Okay, Alice might have lost her skills at judging men, but Halon could be trusted all day long. “Put your stuff in the back. I’ll give you a ride to the motel.”

Reed blinked. “You will?”

“Firefighters.”

She didn’t miss the look of gratitude on his face, but he said only, “We’re all brothers … and sisters.”

She reached into the pocket of her windbreaker, which suddenly seemed too warm, and pushed the button to unlock the SUV’s gate. “You’re not a pervert, are you?”
“No more than average. You’re not hauling uranium or nitroglycerin, are you?”

“Not this week. This week I’m serving with the Town Watch.” She felt a little silly identifying her more or less official position, and realized she never had to before. But sometimes that kind of thing cut down on the chance of someone acting wrongly.

“I see.” He carefully set his luggage into the back of her Ford. “So we’ll make our Escape. See what I did, there?”

“I do … I’ve never actually had anyone make fun of my vehicle’s model.”

“Ouch.”

Alice opened the car’s back door, as Reed walked around to the other side. “Halon, get into Lucy.”

Reed paused with his door open. “Lucy?” The dog vaulted into the back seat, then lurched forward to lick his hand.

“She’d a redhead” Alice patted the Ford’s top, then got in at the same time Reed did. There was a moment of uncomfortable closeness before they situated themselves and belted in. “Does your truck have a name?”

“Clunker. But I named her—it—him? Just now. I’ve never driven it much, and never out of town … I’m not all that surprised it didn’t hold up for a road trip.”

“Good thing you were the right man for that particular breakdown.” She made a mental note to notify the county dispatch center of the vehicle’s location and the status of its driver, then gave him a sidelong glance before pulling out onto the highway. “Do, how long have you been fighting fires?”

“Fourteen years, but I don’t do it anymore.” His voice seemed to tighten a bit for a moment, then relaxed again. “How about you?”

She couldn’t help smiling. “Fourteen years.”

“No kidding? We should start a fourteen-year club.”

“I have a feeling you were on a busier department, though.” His t-shirt did indeed have the fire service’s traditional Maltese cross on it along with a pattern of firefighting tools—crossed ladder and ax—but there was nothing to identify his department. She’d noticed words across the back: “Just Point to the Smoke and Get Out of the Way”. Definitely not an official department shirt.

“Oh, probably. They all burn the same, though.” He reached back to pat Halon, who had rested her head on his shoulder. “I decided to move on a few months ago.”
Moving on from firefighting? Alice had a hard time imagining that. “Have you considered—?”

Halon sat up straight and gave out a blood-curdling howl.

Shrill beeps came from the pager on her belt. She jumped a little despite herself, while Reed leaned forward, his eyes narrowed. The female voice that emerged from the little speaker made her heart start pounding.

“Mist Creek Fire, respond to a house fire, 5364 North Old Trail Road. CP advises heavy smoke from the second floor.”

Alice’s foot, almost unconsciously, pressed down on the accelerator. Then the address kicked in, and she eased up. “Oh, boy.”


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