Eerie is researching an Insane Asylum

via Daily Prompt: Eerie

Beginning in 1889, the Southwestern Insane Asylum thrived in San Antonio. The facility occupied 640 acres and could hold 500 patients.

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Excerpt from The Last Bordello:

“Ticktock, ticktock, they’ll put you under key and lock,” she’d said. Lucinda had made good on her threat.

Too skinny from institution mush, my skin peeled off a layer at a time. Curled on top of a thin, lumpy mattress on a rusted bed frame, I traced the scratches on the wall made by another’s bloodied nails, the dark red stains proof of another’s determination to escape a world unworthy of its inhabitant.

Earlier, the attendant had pushed my forehead back and forced open my jaw. Unnecessary effort on his part. The medicinal haze thickened. I found myself calm but without spirit.

Strange how I felt erased, yet without the rubber remnants to remind me I once existed.

Any bits of green paint that had remained on the wall, I peeled off the first day. I didn’t know if I had been there three weeks or three months.

The cell remained still, inactive, and almost empty. A bucket to catch my excrement. The bed, fetid like the bucket; the whole place a shit hole.

A cockroach scurrying across the floor would have been a welcome sight. Or a black widow working tirelessly to create a fine net to catch its prey. I stared at my idle hands.

I wanted to float outside where flowers bloomed, where the great oaks of San Antonio provided shade from the sun. The rattle of trains and trolleys would have been welcome sounds over the never-ending cries and moans of despair.

Despair. “Do not cry. Do not cry,” I told myself. But tears came anyway. It didn’t matter. If they heard, they never came.

My eyes blurred as if I were drunk. I trembled like the women escorted to surgery before their reproductive parts were cut away and discarded like the contents of my shit bucket.

I heard the click of a door key. It wasn’t mealtime. They had already drugged me. What did they want? Confusion—as potent as a heaping spoonful of laudanum laced with arsenic.

The attendant in white stood firm, stoic. “Come with me.”

 

Eerie indeed.

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Remembering Who You Are

I had a birthday. A big one. I wasn’t ready and felt a bit down. Then, my sister called. Our dad often told us “always remember who you are.” So, when Pat read me what she wrote, I knew it was the best, most sentimental gift of a lifetime.

Here is an excerpt of what my sister, Pat Witherspoon, read to me on on birthday.

Our Baby

            I don’t remember seeing her until we brought her home. I sat in the middle of the back seat, by myself. Then they put her in my arms. I didn’t move. She was asleep. She was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. Of course, I hadn’t seen too many babies in 5 and ½ years, but she was still the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. Many years later I gave our mother a little plate, a picture of a little girl looking down, smiling, at a baby. That plate reminded me of the first time I saw our baby.

            Our baby has always been a butterfly. She crawled; then she walked, then she flew. We never knew where, or when, or if, she would land, or what she would do when she landed.

            We watched her run, which she could do really fast. We watched her play with her doll babies. We watched her play in sand and in the mud. We watched her swim, which she loved to do. We watched her ride horses, and bake cookies, and play with clay. We watched her paint with her fingers.

            We watched her sneak out of her bedroom window. I never understood why she didn’t sneak out the front door. That seemed easier to me. But butterflies must need to escape out of windows. We watched her dance, and play the piano, and fly.

            We watched her play the guitar, and write music, and dance, and sing. We watched her write poetry and prose, with no capital letters. I always use capital letters in the right places. I discovered that butterflies don’t need to use capital letters.

            We watched her fall in love, and out of love, and in love. We watched her get married. We watched her become a wonderful mother…and a loving grandmother. And all the time, we watched her fly…and paint, and write, and play the piano, and tap dance, and box, and paint and write books. (Now she uses capital letters in the right places, but probably wouldn’t if she had the choice.) She writes books about things that are hard to write about…like Dad. And I know that made him happy, like she did many, many times. We watched her speak Italian, and travel to places away from our house, just like butterflies do.

            She is still our butterfly, and our baby. She still flies, and we don’t always know when or where she will land. JRR Tolkien once wrote: “Not all who wander are lost.” Our baby has always wandered. But she has never been lost.

Now, I remember who I am and my wings are still intact.

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artwork by DJ Bates

Birthday Blues Music?

Before I turn that big corner, I’ll have to look both ways.

Twenty years ago, on the evening before my fortieth birthday, I wrote a little cathartic something for myself. Something about “anything goes,” how I might dye my hair purple, get boobs, a tattoo, spit when I want to. In these past twenty years, I did one of those things. And before you wonder too hard, I’m not a spitter. I’m not good at it and don’t have a hankering to learn now.

So, I’m at the corner. To my left is the past, my right, the future.

Obviously, unless I live to be 121 years old, there is much more to see on my left, sixty years worth.

I was very fortunate to have loving parents and a sister, five and a half years older. I often tell her it’s one of the many things I love about her. She’s been every age before me and can tell me what it’s like.

Am I being overly sensitive?

Yes. But sixty? It’s so hard to believe.

I know when that big day comes a few days from now  (not just my birthday but early voting day in Texas), I will settle peacefully into a new decade.

But what will I see? Do? How many more novels live inside of me that beg to be allowed in public?

How many empty canvases can I fill with paint and like the result?

When will I have to stop boxing? (pads and bags, not people)

Mostly, I wonder, what will I learn?

That’s the exciting part.

Sometimes, I want to return to the years when my children were young. The fun we had at parks, reading stories, making up stories, and endless other happy times. I loved watching them grow.

I smile now after typing that last sentence. They are adults and I still love watching them grow. And each of my two children have given me a grandchild. I will watch them grow too, just not for quite as long. It’s okay. Because now it’s my children and grandchildren’s turn to experience that joy.

And that thought makes me smile like the birth of a new baby.

It’s the circle of life. And it’s beautiful.  

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What Author Doesn’t…

love a great review!
Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 stars You’ll really enjoy this thrilling work of historical fiction, October 17, 2016
This review is from: The Last Bordello: A Novel (Paperback)

In 1901, Meta Duecker boards a train in her hometown of Fredericksburg, Texas, bound for the big city of San Antonio. She’s looking for higher education, and finds it in ways she didn’t expect.

At Madam Fannie Porter’s Boarding House, Meta finds refuge from a storm, but is soon caught up in a maelstrom at the intersection of women’s rights, prohibition, and free enterprise.

THE LAST BORDELLO is a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Dennis-Willingham deftly constructs a page-turning whodunit from a colorful pageant of historic characters and a well-researched portrayal of a young city shaking off its frontier dust.

As Meta finds herself employed playing piano at a brothel, she finds herself in many ways. This is a spellbinding account of colorful times, but the things we learn about tolerance, loyalty, and compassion are timeless.

Without giving anything away, the book’s title is not what you think. You’ll understand it soon enough. Let’s just say the perseverance and determination of women like Meta and Madam Porter is a lesson for today.


Your First Sentence in EVERY Chapter

We all know that the first sentence or two in a novel needs to, not only grab a reader’s attention, but flip them out of bed, melt them into their recliners, or make them forget the lasagne in the oven.

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Like you, I’ve written so many first lines for my novels, I could add them up and the page count would be the same as the novel itself.

They, editors, agents, writing experts say:

Make it more engaging.

Don’t start with dialogue and  (read more) 

So, let’s say, we finally think our first line of the entire novel kicks butt. We breathe. All good, right?

Yeah, but…

How are the last sentences of the first chapter, the seventh or thirty-seventh?

Let’s say the endings of your chapters follow “the rules” and beg the reader to continue on. In other words, we’ve got them hooked.

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Here’s another point. Let’s say our readers close the book at the end of chapter ten, and it’s a couple of days before they can get back to the story. Will they remember what’s going on when they open to page eleven or will they have to flip back some pages to be reminded?

That in itself is not terribly important. However …

Are your beginning sentences in other chapters as good at the first?  Are they close? Ponder and consider. I think beginning sentences in all chapters are important. Think of the reader in a book store trying to decide what book to buy.  They randomly flip to the beginning of chapter three and find something like, “She got dressed and left her apartment.” Boring.

What do you want the reader to feel?

This?

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Or, this?

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When I checked my WIP, The Moonshine Thicket, I was happy with the ending sentences in my chapters. I had paid more attention to them.

But when I checked beginning sentences of other chapters? I felt like this…

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So I made some changes.

Old: “We eat a quiet supper in the Hutchings’ kitchen.”

Revised (for the moment): “Mama had made vegetable soup and cornbread, but we eat slow, like its been over salted. Nobody talks.”

Old: “The surging creek pulls the brute, and my best friend, downstream.”

Revised (for the moment): Four arms flail in the rushing water, their heads bobbing up and down as they disappear downstream. “No, no!” I cry. “Frank!”

As authors, we want to make every sentence perfect. I won’t ever be able to manage that task unless my novel is two pages long.

Still, we struggle for improvement and do the best we can.

Let’s be flawless in our imperfections!

Happy writing!!

-Carolyn

The Red Bordello Door-To Enter Or Not?

 

If you choose to go inside…

Madam Fannie Porter will answer your knock, her  head tilted back and a hand on her protruded hip. If you are a customer, she’ll first point out her list of rules and if you don’t follow them, the ratchet of a shotgun will show you the way out.

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Then, she’ll point to one of her soiled doves –Chubby Greta from west Texas with her big brown eyes and no nonsense attitude; timid Lillie who grins but rarely exposes the gap where her tooth had been knocked out by a brute; Sassy Sarah with her flaming red hair and ample bosoms. Then there’s Sadie. Well, Sadie …

If you are a lost young woman steered to the wrong “boarding house,” Madam Fannie will keep you safe. She might also offer you a job as the bordello’s pianist.

But perhaps you choose not to enter.

You may be against vice, the Social Evil, the Grand Wrong. Then go to the public forum in Alamo Park. Hear Minnie Fisher (Cunningham) speak out on women’s rights. Listen to Women’s Christian Temperance Union‘s Texas president, Helen Stoddard, speak out against prohibition. But prepare yourself. Texans likes their beer.

Whichever choice you make, know this. The Last Bordello is not a novel about what goes on behind closed bedroom doors (okay, perhaps a tad), nor is it merely a whodunit. It’s about powerful women at the turn of the twentieth century who fought for their standing in life. While some found prostitution to be their only means of survival, other women fought for equal rights.

The Last Bordello depicts the struggle and determination of both sides.

Oh, and I suggest NOT entering Southwestern Insane Asylum.

It is 1901. So, would you enter or not? Are you curious about what’s inside? Appalled? There’s no wrong answer. There’s no right one, either. I’d love to hear your response and a reason or two why you chose to go in or stay out. 

All the best,

Carolyn

 

‘Righting’ Disturbing Childhood Incidents in our Novels.

Simple, really. Life experiences affect the way you write. And, as authors, you have the power to change, modify and/or right the pains you may have endured when younger.

Sometimes, when writing, you don’t even expect a terrifying childhood event to pop into your consciousness. Especially if that incident has nothing to do with the story’s plot line. But memories pop in, don’t they? When that happens, your fingers peck down on the keys and type a different scenario, a different outcome.

I won’t go into the gory details. But I’d like to share a disturbing memory.

It’s my fault. That’s what I thought as a ten-year old.

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Me with Buffy

 

After my friend discovered our missing eighteen-year-old Cocker Spaniel dead in the creek, she gave me a new puppy for my birthday, part Lab, part Beagle.

‘Buffy,’ named after the girl in 60’s show, Family Affair, was still young–two, I believe. I let her come with me across the quiet residential street to play with neighborhood friends. She was so happy before she ran in front of a parked car. The driver didn’t see her. (To this day, I accuse him of speeding, especially when he was driving past a group of kids  playing in a front yard.)

Not disclosing the images still in my mind, my dad called me from the vet clinic. “Carolyn,” he said, his voice choking with tears. “Since she’s your dog, you have a decision to make. She can live with three legs or we can put her to sleep.”

Back then, I had never seen a dog with three legs. My young, limited brain had to make a choice. Guilty Carolyn said, “Every time I look at her, I’ll remember my mistake.” Compassion Carolyn said, “I don’t want her to suffer.”

“Put her to sleep,” I whispered into the phone, because I didn’t have the life experience to tell me otherwise.

Later in life,  when I had children, I sat in the living room in our new house, my five-year old daughter next to me on our sofa. As we  watched my baby-grand piano being set up, she said, “Mommy, why does it only have three legs.”

Spontaneously, I said, “Because, sometimes, that’s all you need.”

Then, I thought of Buffy.

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Now, fifty years later, I’ve met many three-legged dogs.

In my latest WIP, THE MOONSHINE THICKET, the plot line doesn’t require a dog. Even so, eleven-year-old, Emma June has one.

Page 41: I’d asked Daddy why Choppers had the guts to forget he lost something so important as a leg. “Because, Jellybean, he got used to the change. He adapted,” Daddy said, then pointed to temple. “Choppers knew that, even with three legs, he still had plenty of life to live and enjoy.”

And there is was, a theme relevant to my novel. The new outcome put a different kind of smile on my face. Buffy (Choppers) is happy with three legs.

One way or another, aren’t we all three-legged dogs doing the best we can?

If you’ve had a memory-thumping moment while writing, I’d love to hear it! Please share!

Traveling Mercies (Anne Lamott),

Carolyn

Writing to heal-   http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun02/writing.aspx via @APA

How to Turn Traumatic Experiences Into Fuel For Your Writing  https://shar.es/1Efxfr via @sharethis

 

Pondering Slang in Historical Novels

Have a listen while you read!

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As a Texan, I have no problem understanding southern dialect and the slang words and phrases that go with it. But what if you are writing in a different time period? What changes?

In 1928 rural Texas, eleven year old Emma June understands words like “fixin’ to” and “fair to middling”. And she knows what it means to be Cooter Browned. But does she know the terms blotto or hoary-eyed, spifficated?

So when and how does the slang of the 20’s hit her isolated town? From newspapers? The radio? City transplants?

That’s what hit me while writing my current novel.

Let’s say her father saunters into the washroom. Is he bleeding his lizard (Texas) or ironing his shoelaces (Jazz term)?

If a woman dresses to the nines, is she ritzy or wearing her best bib and tucker? (Women’s fashion stays relatively consistent)

I WANTED TO USE JAZZY TERMS, Dagnabbit!

So thirteen year old Frank moves from New Orleans to Holly Gap, Texas. He made it possible to use both- Texas and Jazz Age Slang.

Now, everything’s Jake and I’m sitting in tall cotton!

The Moonshine Thicket, coming soon.

Jazz Age slang :  home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm

More Texan-isms  https://shar.es/1xYMnH via @texasmonthly

Here’s a great video of how dialect changes by area:  https://youtu.be/mNqY6ftqGq0

How Research Creates Historical Novels…

… And helps with historical treatment.

I hated history in my youth. But now? I love research. It takes my mind to places that existed long before and can exist again in a historical novel.

The Library of Congress – Historical Newspapers – can take you back to the late 1800’s. I needed 1901 so I found myself in good shape (except I spent hours upon hours finding interesting articles that had nothing to do with my MS, The Last Bordello.) Once I focused, ALL these articles played a pivotal role in my plot line. (I had many more, these are just a few.)

Let’s start with the secondary, still-important, characters and work our way down to Madam Fannie Porter.

 

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union:

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Now, for a sense of place:

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The politicians, Mayor Hicks, former Mayor Bryan Callaghan, Captain James Van Riper:

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The “then” never solved murder of Helen Madarasz.

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The outlaws:

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Now, Madam Fannie Porter:

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After reading this article, I found a writer’s connection to the man Madam Fannie may have married, and the location that was plausible for meeting Butch Cassidy for the first time.

 

If you are writing historical fiction, The Library of Congress is a great place to start!

Keep writing,

Carolyn