The Strange in Your Past

One of my earliest memories is of rolly pollies (Armadillidiidae, pill bugs, etc.), the small bugs that roll up into balls when handled. I played with them often as a young kid, but there’s a particular event that stands out—my baby sister, laying in a crib on her back and wearing only a diaper, and me maybe three years old, putting a small handful of rolly pollies on her chest. There was no malice intended, at least none that I can recall now, but rather a desire to share these amazing things.

Some of my most accessed memories for writing are like this—not the extreme highs or lows (though I draw from those as well), but the weird, the strange in my past. These visceral experiences are often my most inspirational.

When I was twenty-three, I helped my step-father and older brother with a house renovation. The house was old, and probably had not been occupied for a few years. As I was the youngest, and possibly the most wiry at the time, I got the privilege of doing work in the attic. It was a small ranch-style, and the attic was one low space I crawled through, rafter by rafter. It was dirty, hot work, and I’m sure I hated it at the time. But I don’t remember it that way—instead, what always comes to mind is the dozens of mouse bones I found in there. Most were skulls only, but many were full skeletons. Each were bone-white, either extremely old or possibly baked away during the heat of summers past.

I collected many of the skeletons, and decorated the dashboard of my car with several of the skulls. Morbid, sure, but a great memory to tap into as a writer of fantasy, horror, and the weird.

In my younger years I was a bit of a pyro. I have many distinct memories of burning things—frozen hotdogs blackened to a crisp on the outside and still cold in the middle, stormtrooper figures melted into creative disfigurements, or setting a small fire at the edge of the school yard during recess (where I hid the burnt matches in the sandbox, and a few girls dug them up to turn me in). The strongest memory, though, was a small fire out in a field behind my house, nestled in this hollow of trees and wild growth. What we were burning was scavenged wood, underbrush, and leaves, and it grew to a pretty good size. We kept it under control, though, and when we left we made sure it was out. However, because of all the leaves we had burned, a great amount of smoke had built up, and it covered the entire field like a low-hanging fog, just a couple of feet off the ground. I can remember the surreal, serene feeling, the otherworldly nature of it all, even as sirens started growing in the distance.

Once, for work, I visited a cadaver lab at the Mayo Clinic. I was treated to a number of anatomical lessons regarding the heart from a surgeon who removed a few for this very purpose, straight out of a body, and right before my eyes. This happened the day before Thanksgiving (there’s a lot of parallels between what I saw there and what is typically on a table for Thanksgiving, but I’ll spare you).

These kinds of memories are formative. All memories are, really—from the excitement of travel to the mundane of the day to day—but the weird events occupy a special place in my heart. They’re personal experiences with odd little twists, and they’re just right to spark new ideas, or fill in a well-honed detail.

Have Pen, Will Travel

Keith Souter is a Scottish-born writer living in England within an arrow’s shot of ruins of a medieval castle. A part time doctor, he writes medical books and general non-fiction books. He also writes crime fiction under his own name and Westerns as Clay More. Souter’s novel Raw Deal at Pasco Springs was reprinted as the debut title in The Western Fictioneers (e-book) Library.

Many moons ago, as a youngster I used to sit riveted to the floor in front of a small nine-inch, black and white television and watch suave Richard Boone as Paladin, a gentleman gunfighter solve some mystery or dispute, using both his brains and his weaponry. He gave out calling cards with the picture of a white chess knight and the words ‘Have Gun- Will Travel’ emblazoned across it. For that half hour I was transported back to the Old West.

It was not long before I discovered the joys of reading westerns. I devoured all the novels that my father had lying about the house by the likes of Max Brand, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. I dreamed of being able to conjure up tales such as they were able to tell.

I started writing children’s stories for magazines when I was studying medicine at Dundee University in Scotland. Inevitably, I longed to have my name on the spine of an actual book. It was then that I came across that old adage, ‘write about what you know.’ It is one of the nuggets of writing wisdom, except it can be a bit of a stumbling block, because it is often misinterpreted.

In my case as a medical doctor I assumed that it mean that I should write a medical thriller or maybe a medical romance. The problem was, that I worked in medicine and didn’t want to spend my thinking and writing time in medicine. So I had several false starts on various non-medical novels, and like most writers I have a drawer full of opening chapters for several books that never saw the light.

Then it dawned on me. It didn’t mean that I had to write exclusively about a medical world, but that I should use my medical knowledge to really make a character stand out and be believable. Or I should be able to drip in details about drugs, operations, or snippets of medical history. And that is just what I did in my first western novel Raw Deal at Pasco Springs. I did the same with several other westerns before turning to crime! I created an island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and peopled it with believable characters, including the local doctor, who doubles as a police surgeon. And here my Inspector McKinnon can solve crimes using his brains rather than depending upon forensic science and DNA.

Crossing one genre gives you the confidence to do it again. The bridge that I use, which allows me to adopt the ‘Have Pen – Will Travel’ approach, is medicine. I am able to create believable medical situations. For example, I have very much enjoyed doing this in the ‘shared world’ of Wolf Creek, where my character, Dr Logan Munro is the town doctor. Similarly, I use it in my historical novels, which are set in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

In addition to fiction I write non-fiction books and here again I cross genres. I write about medicine and health, which is an extension of my work as a doctor and medical journalist, and I write books about sport, science, history and games. The bridge is not always medicine, may be another of my special interests. As a western novelist I have immersed myself in nineteenth century history. One result was a book that linked up Victorian quackery, magical entertainment and fraudulent spiritualist mediums, Medical Meddlers, Mediums and Magicians – the Victorian era of Credulity. It had all been sparked by my interest in the pseudo-science of Phrenology, which was in vogue in the nineteenth century. Phrenologists asserted that the lumps and bumps on the head reflected the convulsions of the brain, and that the character of an individual could be determined by having the head read by a phrenologist. From a Victorian perspective, it was totally plausible. Having written the book I picked up my pen and travelled over to the Wild West and wrote a tale for Western Fictioneers’ latest anthology Six-Guns and Slay Bells: a Creepy Cowboy Christmas. My story is called Snake Oil and is about a creepy phrenological snake oil salesman.

I then travelled across another genre, this time back to my roots as a children’s writer. My latest novel The Curse of the Body Snatchers is for 8-13 years olds and is set in Victorian London. It too is a ghost story with a mysterious phrenologist and mesmerist. And the plot revolves around medicine. Essentially, my message is that you don’t have to set your story in your relevant world. What you can do is drop in a character that shows your expertise. That way, you can use your pen to travel across the genres. Happy travelling.

Three Days in the Belly of a Poodle

Robert V.S. Redick studied literature and Russian at the University of Virginia, tropical conservation and development at the University of Florida, and fiction writing in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He has worked as the editor for the Spanish and French websites of the antipoverty organization Oxfam America, and as an instructor in the International Development, Community & Environment (IDCE) Department at Clark University in Worcester, MA. The River of Shadows, Book III of The Chathrand Voyage Quartet, was published April 19, 2011. The final volume, The Night of the Swarm, will be published February 5, 2013.

Oh, dogs. What on earth can one say? The subject is both too small and too large. Small, because in my clan the dogs have rarely taken center stage, haven’t rescued children or been found baying in the oak trees after tornadoes. Large, because they have always been there, for generations, watching, waiting, needing things, urging us on. They are family, but also witnesses, rarely silent and never impartial. They’ve served as guards, babysitters, fellow hunters, timekeepers, clowns. They’ve been our incorruptible friends and our impossible children. We take them to births, weddings, reunions, dances, sit-ins, pig roasts, river floats, funerals. Too often, we’ve taken them for granted.

I am the child of yarn-spinners, Virginians with drinks in hand, doors and mouths wide open, hungry for jokes, gossip, scandal, sentiment. We guild our memories, wrap them in our particular, gleaming spider-silk, a silk made of sighs and laughter. There was Old Ned, the bane of my grandfather’s boyhood. Ned was a huge, scrofulous, hunting hound, long since retired to a life of scraps and memories beneath the porch steps of his aunt’s careworn West Virginia farmhouse. My grandfather (“Pa”) was only five during the height of Ned’s reign, and the dog harbored a deep resentment of his visits. He growled and nipped, and Pa lived in terror of the beast. There were no ill consequences for Ned, who retreated to his cave when the child wailed, and stayed there until the adults forgot about his crimes.

But one day Pa took his courage in hand. More decisively, he took he took up the ball-peen hammer someone had left in the kitchen, and crept on hands and knees out into the enemy territory of the porch. With infinite care he lowered himself onto the topmost step, lying flat on his stomach with head and shoulders extending just beyond the step’s edge, the hammer raised above him to strike. There he waited. More than an hour passed. The adults either overlooked or ignored his vigil, and his ostensible guardian, an ancient grandmother shelling peas a few feet away, had not spoken in years.

Such stories have a narrow range of endings. Ned emerged, the child bonked him squarely; Ned ran howling into the woods; the mute grandmother shrieked with laughter and spilled her peas, and Pa never feared the poor animal again.

Our history of animal abuse extends no further, I’m glad to say. But the lore is inexhaustible. There were Truffle and Amber, the standard poodles of my father’s childhood, who ran like cyclones through the Piedmont countryside, and whose campaign of goofy terror ended when they chased the local pig farmer’s $5000 breeder boar and nipped off its tail (money changed hands; the dogs’ freedom was only slightly restrained).

There was my beloved Suzette, another poodle, who growled at me when I was a newborn, only to repent of her jealousy and adopt me with such ferocious love that not a morning passed in my first decade without her muzzle nudging me awake. Suzette, who was blind for two-thirds of her life, who chased balls and found them by their rubber scent, who did so even after the cyst in her legs made her struggle to walk. Suzette, who one freezing winter night when she was thirteen slipped away in a freezing blizzard, and wandered blind and lame and tiny through the woods and ravines in snow as deep as she was tall—and whom Dad found, still walking, still hoping, about an hour before dawn. She was unharmed; she greeted me each morning for a last happy year.

There was Henry, a dog so white my father decided one day to try painting his flanks with pokeberry juice. Alas, the word he chose to write was “Dumbo”, and the juice proved indelible. His owner, one of Dad’s best friends, has remained angry for almost fifty years.

There was Tana, the Afghan hound, possessed of such dignity that she passed her whole life without deigning to use her vocal cords. Tana, whose dreams of ancestral glory in Baluchistan were interrupted one evening by my young sister’s Jack-in-the-box, which fell and disgorged its leering, motley Jack with a frightening bleat. Tana sprang straight up five or six feet, impala-like, came down on my sister’s spring-mounted hobby horse, was flung skyward again, landed on my mother on the couch, ran the length of her torso (my mother’s vocal cords very much in use), flung herself off the end of the couch, slid helplessly across the newly-waxed floor, struck the kitchen wall near the sink, and brought down the remains of a meatloaf.

There was Truffle II (another huge poodle) who never stopped teething. He minced my clothes, my cassette tapes, my first computer, the right side of a couch, two legs off a wooden stool. Calmly, methodically, with great thoroughness and sense of mission. One almost hoped for another display; his execution made the sacrifice worthwhile. Truffle II also ended my brief career as a clarinetist—not by eating the instrument, but by offering a loud and soulful accompaniment the moment I began to warm up.

There was Truffle III (yep, same breed), who lived a quiet life until age eight, and then resolved one day never again to be alone, and fought to escape the house whenever my parents turned their backs. She gnawed through doors. She hurled herself through plate glass. She bashed her way through a second-story window, crossed the porch roof and flung herself into the boxwoods below. After this my parents took her nearly everywhere. She also ate mulch. And poison ivy. And the neighbor’s son’s cherished beanie-baby, whole. The latter passed three days in the poodle’s belly, the only place no one thought to look. At last Truffle III returned it, with ample stomach bile, in the middle of our kitchen floor. My mother washed it thoroughly and returned it to the boy.

You will run out of patience before I run out of dogs. But there is a point to these anecdotes. We Redicks make a cult of decorum, and we feel a deep and solemn obligation to entertain. The latter duty always came down to words. No silence could be left unfilled. We had to tell our stories, mostly to each other but often enough to dates, dinner guests, colleagues, visitors from abroad: anyone unlucky enough to tumble into our web. It wasn’t celebrity we were after but a state of grace. Our words had to give delight, move our listeners to a zone of greater comfort and sympathy, make them see us in the best and most benevolent light. In this one regard we were idealists, if not outright fanatics. I’m not saying that we were the Brave Speakers of Our People–far from it. Truth was a lesser ideal. Our first mission was not veracity but vividness. I believe I learned this lesson well.

It goes way back, this compulsive wordplay, this gilding of reality with whatever handsome language our middle-class minds can proffer. This is Jefferson country, after all. The house I was born in stood eight miles from Monticello, until it collapsed.

You can lose your bearing in all these words, and the codes they subtly transmit. Of course, you don’t have to learn the codes. You don’t even have to acknowledge their existence. Some of us rarely visit the family any more, couldn’t care less about the loss of farmland to sprawl, or artisans’ jobs to Ikea, or the Blue Ridge itself to tree pathogens and weather extremes. That’s another way to lose your bearings. Forget the language of your family or your region, and you may indeed escape their limitations. You may also miss their embrace.

Twin chasms, then: babbling tradition on my left, cold and lonely liberty on my right. In darker moments this has felt like the sum of my options. But in lighter moments I know that this is bunk. Identity is not an either/or proposition. For every instance of estrangement, there’s an opportunity for reconnection. And there are aspects of life that are both deeply intimate and quite nearly universal. Of the latter, I know of no better example than dogs.

They are, of course, emblems of identity, like the scraggly cedars along the driveway, the shotgun tucked behind the pantry door. But for a writer—for this writer—they were also a way out of the quicksand of words. I say again: the dogs you love are beyond fooling. They must be reached with empathy and careful solicitude. You won’t bamboozle them with rhetoric.

Have they shaped my writing? I am certain that they have. Witnesses alter what they see; dogs change the humans who adopt them. We perform for them. They’re the first readers of the story we tell of ourselves, and I like to think that they’re impossible to fool. Grandstanding, flattery and other falsehoods can hurt but not deceive them. The dog you love sees you too clearly. Only honesty stands a chance.

All this is to say that they make us better people. Better because more genuine, better because more true. This work of theirs, expressed in neediness and loyalty and naughtiness and contrition and suffering and early death, is ceaseless, from the first opening of puppy-eyelids to the last closing over milky cataracts. It’s a job from which they never retire. It’s a gift they live to bestow.

There’s more to say, but Chloe (the poodle) is waiting for her walk. I could share her stories, before I go… but she doesn’t need that. She needs me out of this chair and by her side. And I owe her that, so goodbye.

Stress, Real Life, and Professionalism

Sometimes life throws you a curve ball and it’s all you can do to not strike out. And sometimes that curve ball shows up in the middle of a deadline, when you’re in the home stretch of editing your book, when everything is so close yet so far and your capacity for higher-order thinking skills are being put to the test. At this point, you have two options: you can push through and get that deadline handled despite the chaos, or you can set aside the work to handle life.

I’ve always been the kind of person to take the first option. In college, dealing with personal crisis, I pushed through my courses as hard as I could, eventually driving myself into a five-month case of bronchitis that to this day will flare up whenever I get stressed or exhausted.

Since then, however, I’ve slowly been learning that sometimes you don’t push through. You just don’t.

Recently, a part of my life that was once-stable has flipped, and a lot of changes have happened in the past week. It’s been emotionally and physically draining, and the lack-of-sick I’ve blessedly had all winter long has started to waver, and there’s a constant press in my chest and a nagging cough. All little signs that are saying “Hey, we might be pushing things a bit here.”

I made a tough personal call to let people know that I would not be meeting certain deadlines I’d set, because of this nonsense. Really hard conversations to initiate, really hard emails to write. I take it as a point of personal pride that I make deadlines when I say I will. But sometimes, it’s just not possible. And sometimes when it is possible, it’s just not responsible.

I’ve been really surprised, to the point of tears, the kindness that people have shown me in dealing with my professional life, both in writing and in my dayjob as an engineer. I’ve always believed the world to be fairly unforgiving of failure and of personal problems, but not everybody is like that, and it’s comforting to work with such wonderful people.

And let’s be real, folks: when your head is somewhere else entirely, you’re just not going to be able to put together a good book. So if you’re dealing with personal crisis, take your time, handle your shit, and come back to the work when you’re able to make it the best. If you’re a perfectionist like me who has to push through everything to meet your deadlines, take a step back and give yourself space. You might be surprised by how understanding people are.