This ‘n’ That

For all I mostly sat at home and did a massive Swedish Death Cleaning declutter, it has been an eventful summer. I know, I should have written it all as it happened, but I didn’t.

First off, I got COVID. It might not be a big deal to some people, but it was for me. Which isn’t to say I had a dangerous case at all. I actually had a pretty mild case. But I’m here to tell you that a mild case of COVID is NOT just a cold. Not even close. I was never in respiratory distress, but I felt like a hot garbage sandwich for over a week. Even now, a month out from testing negative, I still have some mild neuropathy in my left arm that comes and goes. Never had that with a cold! So please, keep taking precautions and go get your vaccinations!

What really made me mad, though, was just getting it at all. I taught for two and a half years with COVID, with pre-teen germbags in my classroom with their chinstrap masks, with my janky air filter I made, constant masking, vaxxed and boosted, never going anywhere but necessary appointments and the grocery store once every two months (not a typo), and I still got it. I was PISSED. We think my husband dragged it home from work or somewhere because he got it first. The next goal is to not get it again. Long COVID is no joke, and you know, I’d just rather not experience that again.

Speaking of not going anywhere. This fall, I’m also not going to work! After 21 years of teaching in Wyandotte County–reading, language arts, social studies, and reading intervention–I made the decision to retire at the end of the last school year. I love teaching, but it was time. The plan is to have more time to write, but I will need to find some, hopefully less stressful, part-time gig. Currently, I’m taking free-lance copyediting/proofreading jobs, so that’s been a good work-from-home situation.

For now, we’re content, but I anticipate small changes will be afoot soon-ish. For now, I’m healthy, I have work to do, and my closets and cabinets are pristine!

Space Race

I’m wanting to get something out this year, and I’m still navel-gazing about Wolf Moon. So now I’ve turned my thoughts to Space Race, the second book in my YA science fiction Hi-Lo series. Hi-Lo books are especially for struggling or reluctant readers. It stands for high interest-low readability. Space Bugs was the first in the series, featuring three teens–Zach Bergman, Trudy Jackson, and Brian Walsh–who have to learn how to get along to prevent an invasion of super-intelligent insectoid creatures called Gregarians.

This second book brings them back to their school, where Brian encounters bullies and a new friend from another planet. I got this graphic all done up, and now, of course, I’m noticing all sorts of things to edit. It’s a super rough cut, let’s say, but it gives you a peek.

Another moment passed.

And ::bloop:: there goes another six months. I was going to be better about this, wasn’t I?

Narrator: She was not better.

The pandorica continues to rage, despite all the people whistling past literally their own graveyards saying it’s over, and I continue to attempt to teach in a school that remains open, stuffed with kids of undeclared vaccination statuses, with their masks over their chins, hanging off their ears, and other places that are not firmly over their mouth and nose. Oh, and my district is making masks “recommended” in a county with a 16.6% positivity rate, so hahaha, we’re all going to die.

Which is to say that writing continues to be a struggle. Low mental energy and brain fog make focusing difficult, never you mind about any actual creativity. Except for a couple of new project ideas that keep bobbing up from my subconscious, presenting themselves like little gifts, and yeah, just what I need–new projects to distract me from something I really want to finish with their shiny freshness. But I digress. Again.

The one saving grace that leads me back into Wolf Moon is my after-school Creative Writing Club. It’s a small, but dedicated, group, and I’m grateful for them. One 8th-grader is writing a sci-fi novel, and the 7th-graders are involved in varying degrees of horror short stories and fanfics. Still it gives me an opportunity to sit with my manuscript and model writing for them–and manage to get some of my own work done in the process. It’s only an hour every two weeks, but that’s more than I’m managing to demand of myself on my own.

Here’s what I’m attempting on this hot mess at this point. I’m going through it and, at the beginning of each chapter, I’m marking the passage of time, writing the months and the number days between events of the story from full moon to full moon. I’m hoping it will help me figure out where to stick those two or three events that are crucial to the plot development, but which so far seem to have happened outside the space-time continuum. *heavy sigh*

So that’s the situation here in Kansas City, friends. Not much progress to report, but no devastation either. Perhaps that’s all we can expect to finish out a year such as 2021. I’m leery of saying something like 2022 has to be better, but it might hear that as a challenge. I’m just going to move into tomorrow, do the best I can, and keep doing that for what I hope is a lot more days. A Happy New Year to us all!

A moment passed.

Oh, whoops. Looks as if it was a whole year. We barely thought we would survive 2020, and now 2021 is about half over. And it’s been pretty much a brain fog for me. One would think that the down time would be so productive, but it wasn’t that way for me at all. I just couldn’t put my mind to anything, at least in terms of working on unfinished projects.

But looking back, I did get out a whole book, after all. The formatting headaches were myriad, and don’t let anyone tell you that KDP is just the same as CreateSpace. If you’re doing a picture book, it’s kind of a nightmare. But I did persevere, and Finn and the King was released on St. Patrick’s Day this year. And you’ll notice I never wrote about it here. Brain fog, I tell ya.

BUT, the series is now complete, and our youngest readers have a scaffolded series they can enjoy and read independently, which was always the goal. I guess I can’t call the Pandemic Times a total waste, after all!

Birds in the Barnes?

What a lovely little book I’ve run across! I try each summer, when I’m not working, to visit our local Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art here in Kansas City, but alas, that is not to be this summer. In the meantime, though, there’s this sweet find from the Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia.

Julie Steiner’s Birds in the Barnes is a clever collection of artwork and fun.

Legend has it that when Dr. Albert C. Barnes founded his art museum, the renowned chemist, philanthropist, and gonorrhea-crusader, placed a bird in every room of his famous eclectic art collection. The museum, of course, has moved since Dr. Barnes’ days, but the tradition lives on there. You can find out all about it in Julie Steiner’s beautiful book.

Filled with lovely colorful photographs of the collections, Birds in the Barnes Foundation is part guided museum tour and part scavenger hunt. Just the ticket for art lovers who miss their museums during a pandemic-ridden summer!

You can purchase Birds in the Barnes Foundation from the museum website here: https://shop.barnesfoundation.org/collections/books-media/products/birds-in-the-barnes-foundation-pre-order

or from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Birds-Barnes-Foundation-Julie-Steiner/dp/0764359053

Writing During Trauma and Social Upheaval

Which is to say I’m not, really. And there’s a part of me that feels really guilty about all the prime real estate of time I’m just frittering away. I’ve been at home, except for infrequent trips to the grocery store and to get my drivers license renewed and other “essential” errands as we’re calling them these days.

Clearly, a haircut has NOT been deemed essential in my household, regardless of whatever “phase” of reopening my community is in right now.

So what have I been doing? Baking a lot of bread and other goodies, for one. Deep cleaning and decluttering the house for another. And it’s just as I’m sitting here updating this blog that I’ve realized that I’ve pretty much just been feathering my nest, making it comfy for the duration, and enjoying the space. But I haven’t been writing.

In my “defense,” I did spend the time between spring break and the end of school trying to teach online. I’m not sure how I can explain to a not-teacher what that was like. I had to deconstruct all my lessons, then reassemble them in accessible bite-sized bits and create new ways to assess that were trauma-sensitive. I had to learn new technologies for the presentation and delivery of those lessons. All the while, I just wanted to make sure my kids were okay. It was, and I am not exaggerating, traumatic.

We’ve been living in trauma for months, and whether you’re a person who takes this pandemic seriously or not, it has changed all our lives. We’re under stress. My husband works at a retirement care center and nursing home, so we both live in constant concern that our trip to the grocery store will expose us, and then in turn, expose and kill somebody else’s grandma. And these are real stressors, keep in mind. These aren’t just a bunch of paranoid delusions. And while we don’t live in abject terror, other people’s parents and grandparents are a burden we take very seriously.

We’re also all in a time of social turmoil. African-Americans and other oppressed folks in the U.S. have had it. As an ally, I want to devote whatever energy the pandemic hasn’t sucked right out of me to support equity and justice. The two things are intricately linked in all the ways that make the black population more at risk of COVID-19, and at opposing ends in the ways that require folks calling for justice to put their lives literally on the line. And never mind the ongoing, overwhelming ways this president is eroding our government and our democracy in a death of a thousand cuts. It’s all just . . . a lot.

So I’m struggling to give myself the grace and permission just to be not okay right now. Sometimes I just don’t have the energy, “spoons,” or brain meat to get much done. I’ve even experienced times when I literally lose the words for things. This is a real, actual conversation I had with my husband. “No, the man coming in (once it’s safe) is supposed to repair and paint the ceiling and walls, not the . . . the . . . wood bits around the bottom there.” The baseboards. I couldn’t remember the word “baseboards.” I can’t even watch much new stuff on TV. It takes too much brain to focus and pay attention. I have, however, rewatched Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, all the David Suchet Poirot episodes, and just yesterday, I finished all of the Joan Hickson Miss Marples on BritBox.

So that’s how writing is going, in case you wondered.

2019 in Retrospect

I look back on the year, and in a lot of ways, I don’t feel as if I lived up to much potential. A lot of that is my frustration with Wolf Moon, the sequel to Cat Moon in The Were-Children series. I’ve been working on that for a heck of a long time, and I’m only just now seeing even the remotest possibility of maybe starting to smell the end in the far distance.

I have to remind myself, though, that I HAVE A WHOLE NEW BOOK! Millie McLendon: Jayhawker! came out in mid-November, and it even went to Number 1 in it’s category on Amazon. Even without that claim to fame, it’s a story I’m so proud of, and for that reason alone, I’m declaring 2019 a success.

What’s ahead for 2020? Well, my illustrator, Adam Clark, is hard at work on the third and final picture book in the Finn the Hero series. We hope to get Finn and the King out by St. Patrick’s Day. I also have the aforementioned Wolf Moon with a reader who hasn’t read the first book, and I’m finding that to be helpful in a lot of ways. I’m busting my butt to get that one done in 2020, as well. And I need to remind myself that I still have a slew of stories ready to go in the Space Cadets series.

Three books out in 2020? That’s pretty ambitious. Still, I might as well put it out there in the universe. Here’s to a new year, with new opportunities and new stories to tell!

Cover Release!

Millie McLendon: Jayhawker! has a cover! I am so thrilled with this cover. Every time my graphic artist, Vanessa Hull, creates a new cover for me, I think, yup, this one’s my favorite. Well, this one’s my favorite, with the blue sky and golden wheat. The countdown to publication has started!

The Back Story

Ten-year-old Millie McLendon is about to become a part of history.

I suppose I could have written some cogent and pithy things just to fill up the space here. Thing is, I’m not that good at idle small talk.

So this me, waiting until I have big news to write something. I’m justthisclose to a publication date for my new book, Millie McLendon: Jayhawker! Jayhawker! is a first in many ways. For one thing, it’s the first middle-grade book I’ve written. It’s also the first straight-up historical fiction novel I’ve done.

I just got so tired of having 8-10 year olds come up to my table at tabling venues and walking away disappointed when all of the books were either too babyish (Finn the Hero series) or too mature (Cat Moon, The Second Battle, and Space Bugs.) I decided I needed something just for them.

I rolled around ideas for several stories, but then one morning I woke up, and Jayhawker! popped into my head, almost fully-formed. Even the name of my protagonist, Millie McLendon, came soon after. Every other story idea faded into the background, and I knew had the story I was looking to write.

The story of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence, Kansas, is a well-enough known part of U.S. Civil War history, but let me tell you that for eastern Kansas, it is THE story. An argument can be made the Civil War didn’t really start at Fort Sumter. In fact, it started in many ways in the territories of Kansas and Missouri the decade before, in the 1850s.

As these territories (land stolen from Native Americans, I should add) were applying for statehood, the United States Congress decided to angle for a balance of power to keep the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions equal, so that one side would not gain dominance on the national scene. We sure wouldn’t want our government to disagree with anyone who thought that those who bought, sold, and owned other human beings were “very good people,” would we?

That, of course, set the stage for the “Border Wars” along the dividing line between the two territories. The town of Lawrence was, in fact, founded for the express purpose of bringing abolitionists to Kansas to ensure the state stayed slave-free. Eventually, Missouri entered the Union as a slave state, and Kansas as a free state. As you might imagine the trouble did not end with that. Raids and skirmishes, looting and pillaging, and even murders went on for years before and during the Civil War.

This “Bloody Kansas” period is full of colorful characters. John Brown, who was fanatically devoted to the abolitionist cause was in Kansas during this time. “Bloody Bill” Anderson was a feared pro-Confederate guerrilla leader. General James Lane was another anti-slavery fighter. Frank, and later Jesse, James were famous pro-slavery proponents who began their outlaw life as bushwhackers. And then there was William Quantrill.

It was Quantrill who organized the Lawrence massacre of August 21, 1863. Ostensibly an act of revenge for abolitionist jayhawker raids into Missouri, Quantrill led his band of mostly drunk and disorderly ruffians west into Kansas in the early hours of the morning. By noon, when they retreated in the wake of United States Army, the town of Lawrence lay in waste, burning, and two-hundred men and boys were dead.

The legacy of Quantrill’s Raid and the other acts of border violence is a population still on oddly precarious terms. The Kansas City metropolitan area is, of course, transversed by roads and bridges. Crossing back and forth over the state line is an everyday occurrence. And for the most part, residents of the KC metro rub along quite nicely together.

The rivalry, though, still runs deep in unexpected ways. The two Kansas Cities and their suburbs vie to attract business to “their” side of the state line with economic incentives. People often use unflattering language to refer to those who live on the other side of the river–often ridiculing each other over which state is the most right-wing and reactionary. (Spoiler: most days, it’s a tie.)

Nowhere is this rivalry more apparent than in the passions of fans of the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri.The annual games between the two schools are even given the unfortunate title of “Border War.”

It is against this backdrop of historical and modern hostility that the story of the fictionalized Millie McLendon: Jayhawker! unfolds. I can’t wait for you to read it!

Care and Contentment

I’ve settled on that as a working title at least. I have yet another work-in-progress in my brain, possibly for NaNoWriMo this upcoming November. The premise is “Whatever happened to Mary Bennet?”  

Jane Austen gives precious few bits of information regarding the futures of the Bennet sisters in her letters. Obviously, Jane and Lizzy get their respective happily-ever-afters. And I don’t care one bit what happens to Lydia or Kitty. Not really, anyway. Lydia deserves what she gets, and Kitty is kind of boring. I wish her well with her vicar, but I’m not interested otherwise.  

But Mary? Sure, she was foolish and self-important and prudish in P&P. But think about how very alone she was. Jane and Lizzy had each other. And, well, Lydia had Kitty to domineer and influence, if it wasn’t equally requited to Kitty’s benefit. Still, they had each other for companionship. Mary, however, was simply in the middle and alone, merely tolerated by both her older and younger sisters.  

I was noodling the information Austen revealed in letters around in my head one day, just before Creative Writing Club one morning at school. Mary, she wrote, grew somewhat  more social when forced to go with her mother on outings and visits after all her sisters were married and out of the house. Eventually she married a clerk in her Uncle Phillips’ law office and became quite content with her status as a social big fish in the small Meryton pond. That’s it. That’s all that Austen revealed about Mary’s outcome.

I started imagining the when and how of all that, and I eventually wrote this little drabbly-bit to get myself started. I think it has good potential.

_____________________    

It is an occurrence commonly understood that it will befall an unmarried daughter to be required to care for her parents in their waning years, and so it had turned out for Miss Mary Bennet. Mary smoothed down the coverlet and placed a small pillow under her dear Papa’s head, that he might breathe more comfortably.  

In her head, Mary had become, the older she got, brutally honest with herself. As sure as she was that the joy playing her pianoforte and singing afforded her was far outstripped by any actual talent she might possess, Mary was also cognizant of the fact that Mr. Bennet had not, by her, always been considered “dear Papa.”  

Mr. Bennet had made it no secret to a younger Mary, that he, when he considered her at all, thought her to be dull and disagreeable. When Mrs. Bennet had surprised her family by succumbing to influenza some years ago, and not, as they had expected, outlived her husband after all, Mary became the mistress of Longbourne, her childhood home. The propinquity thrust upon them gradually fostered in father and daughter a new respect and understanding between them. This happy feeling had, in turn, grown into an honest and forthright affection.  

Mr. Bennet patted her hand and murmured, “Mary, my dear. Such a comfort to me. Such a good girl.”  

Mary’s typically stern countenance was broken by a tight smile. She was not a girl. It was the year of Our Lord 1832, William IV was on the throne of England, Mary Bennet was eight and thirty years old, and her father was dying.