The Songs That Tell the Story

I like having music play while I’m writing, but I usually stick with instrumental/ambient because I find the words too distracting. I like classical, particularly music of the Baroque. When it comes to ambient, Timothy Wenzel and Brian Eno are favorites. Takashi Suzuki. 2002.

But sometimes a song with lyrics triggers something with respect to the story I’m working on. A scene. A feeling that reinforces a story line. And every so often, a character. I don’t go looking for these songs–like wands and wizards, the songs find the characters, and not every character gets a song. In my Jani Kilian series, no particular song found Jani. Each of the men in her life, however, had one find them.

Lucien Pascal, my engineered sociopath-assassin–has had a lot of darkness in his life. Some of it, he brought down on himself. But too many things were done to him at too young an age, and he alludes to them during his rare moments of self-reflection. When I hear Depeche Mode’s “Walking in My Shoes,” I think of him:

Now I’m not looking for absolution
Forgiveness for the things I do
But before you come to any conclusions
Try walking in my shoes

John Shroud, Jani’s on-again off-again lover, sees himself as a benevolent force, a benefactor. His song is “Time of the Season” by The Zombies :

What’s your name? 
Who’s your daddy? 
 Is he rich like me?

Niall Pierce is Jani’s best friend. He’s come a long way since the criminal life of his youth, but there are times when his past and present collide. His song is “Stolen Car” by Beth Orton:

You were sitting
Your fingers like fuses
Your eyes were cinnamon

Unlike the Jani books, the supernatural thrillers I wrote under the name Alex Gordon had specific theme songs. I forget when, over the course of writing Gideon, I first heard Vashti Bunyan’s The Train Song, but I remember it was used in an NFL commercial, eerie images of athletes marching into a stadium. The song inspired thoughts of a more private search, a journey that would end in confrontation:

It’s so many miles and so long since I’ve met you
Don’t even know what I’ll find when I get to you
But suddenly now, I know where I belong
It’s many hundred miles but it won’t be long

I found “Shivers,” the instrumental that served as Jericho’s theme, in a more roundabout way. A favorite show is A Chef’s Life, about Chef Vivian Howard’s life in Eastern North Carolina. The incidental music caught my attention–I hunted online, and found it had been composed by the North Carolina band Shark Quest. So off I went to iTunes, where I found their albums, played various excerpts, and found “Shivers.” It has a country feel, with the bell-ringing guitar that I love. Outdoor music. Walking in the woods music.


I listened to both songs over and over as I wrote. According to iTunes, I’ve listened to The Train Song almost 300 times. I only listened to “Shivers” 55 times, but I didn’t find it until Jericho was well on its way.

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The Great Decluttering of [insert year here]

Decluttering–it’s all the rage, the subject of classes, TV shows, and bestselling books. I have lost track of the number of times I pledged to once and for all dispatch all the books I will never read, clothes I will never wear, old financial records I don’t need to save anymore. The odd piece of furniture, old tools, handbags and costume jewelry and general household detritus.

But, for all I wish I could regain control of my space, I always seem to fall short of the mark. Toward the end of last year, I had made some dents, cleaning out a couple of bookcases, organizing the armoire in my bedroom, and freeing up drawer space in the spare bedroom. In the process, I found things I had forgotten I had. For instance, the half-dozen pairs of sunglasses, including a very nice pair of Smiths that have to be at least 25 years old. I bought them because hey, we have the same name. Also, the frames are purple. I love purple.

I know that one rule of thumb for this process is that if you haven’t used or worn something in the previous year or two, you should get rid of it. I can’t always agree with that. Sometimes you do lose track of things that you really liked or that went out of style and then came back in, which is my way of saying that I will be keeping the sunglasses.

That said, the one thing that has always stopped these clean-out sessions in their tracks wasn’t that I didn’t want to get rid of things after all, but  that I didn’t know how best to get rid of them. I don’t want to deal with the hassle of a garage sale, and simply tossing the stuff in the trash is wasteful and in the case of some electronics and household chemicals, ill-advised if not illegal. So I talked to friends, then poked around online, and found that I have more options than I thought. Not all of them are free, but they’re out there.

The Give Back Box is a free service that allows you to use an old Amazon shipping box or other cardboard box to send clothing or household goods to Goodwill. The US Internal Revenue Service Publication 526, Charitable Contributions and Publication 561, Determining the Value of Donated Property, contain guidelines for defining charitable contributions and in general how to estimate value. Goodwill has also put together guidelines for calculating the worth of donated items. In addition, this Donation Calculator references valuations from several charities (the online spreadsheet showed up in Firefox, but not in Safari). Some Habitat for Humanity websites also have guidelines for estimating the value of donations of appliances, building materials, and tools.

For me, that means spreadsheets and photographs for tax purposes. Yea, spreadsheets.

When it comes to clothing, I always forget about resale/consignment shops, which are a good option for my old office clothes and dressy coats I haven’t worn in years.

Old VCR tapes are currently one of the banes of my existence. Some resale shops may take the old movies, but I doubt they would want the scores of History Channel WWII programs that my dad recorded. Companies like GreenDisk can recycle the tapes, along with electronics such as laptops etc, though the service is not free. Local municipal agencies–in my case, the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, accept all sorts of household waste, including chemical and electronic. My local OfficeMax accepted an old printer of mine for recycling, and they also give credit for returned ink cartridges if you make in-store purchases. Check the website for details.

Lots of places accept donated books. My local library. Goodwill. A number of online charities.

So, with some work, I hope to  finally, FINALLY, get rid of the junk. I will try to recycle most of the things I no longer want, and minimize the garbage destined for the landfill.

How about you? I know there are any number of recycling and donation options I’ve missed, so if you have favorites, please do post them.

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Indoor garden

Warning: nothing but flowers ahead.

I’ve never had much luck with indoor flowering plants. Green plants, no problem–philodendrons, palms, schefflera. Anything that wasn’t all green leaves, nope.

My luck may have changed this year. All three African violets are blooming, including the one that almost died in the spring due to, I think, overwatering.




The violet on the far right is the one that came back from the brink. The buds look light in color–I’m wondering if they’ll be pink or even white. I was sure it was a purple flowering plant, but maybe not.

The kalanchoe is going nuts as well, and while the prayer plant has slowed down, there still appears to be one tiny flower starting to bud.


The prayer plant flowers are adorable, like teeny tiny orchids. Here’s a photo from back in September:

All this color in the dead of winter is enlivening.

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My ConFusion Schedule!

Looks like it will be fun. Moderating twice, which is a newish experience for me, but good in that it makes me think of topics and questions in advance:

Kristine Smith

Reading: Amal El-Mohtar, Cherie Priest, Kristine Smith

Authors read from current or forthcoming works


1:00 PM


Amal El-Mohtar, Cherie Priest, Kristine Smith

Kristine Smith

Autograph Session (5 PM)

Come meet your favorite authors, artists and musicians and have them sign things! (Please limit your signing requests to 3 items per person.)


5:00 PM

St. Clair

Sarah Bauer, Tobias Buckell, James S.A. Corey, J.C. Daniels/Shiloh Walker, Brandon Draga, Max Gladstone, Joe Hill, Jim C. Hines, Emmy Jackson, Elise Kova, Merrie Haskell, Mallory O’Meara, Andrea Phillips, Diana Rowland, John Scalzi, Kristine Smith, Ferrett Steinmetz, James L. Sutter, Vanessa Ricci-Thode, Mary G. Thompson, Patrick S. Tomlinson, Gregory Wilson

Kristine Smith

What’s Your Favorite Apocalypse?

A discussion on scientific advances that might tip the world towards an apocalypse.


7:00 PM


Kristine Smith (M), Andrew Zimmerman Jones, Julie Lesnik, Anthony W. Eichenlaub

Kristine Smith

Blurring the Lines

Genre is sometimes described as little more than arbitrary marketing categories, but readers and writers often define themselves by their preferred genre. What makes a genre distinct, and what happens when those distinctions are imported into another genre? Is it just a crossover, or an illustration that the distinctions are arbitrary?


10:00 AM


Brandon Black (M), Jackie Morgan, Cherie Priest, Jason Sanford, Kristine Smith Jason Sizemore

Kristine Smith

Rail Guns, Power Armor and Killer Robots

How close are we to the military technology heralded in SciFi books? Experts will talk about what is on the horizon.


12:00 PM


Kristine Smith (M), Karen Corbeil, Tobias Buckell, Kameron Hurley

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Things of Beauty, Blank Forever

A few years ago, while I attended my first C2E2 comics convention, I made the mistake of wandering through the dealers’ room. I was able to withstand the temptations of the cool clothing, books, and collectibles. I avoided the posters, and the original artwork.

But then I passed a leatherworks booth, and stopped. So many lovely things. I wound up buying a rustic shoulder bag in a rich cognac shade. I also bought a notebook. Whip-stitched, ruddy brown, with an ornate hook-and-eye closure and paper that appeared handmade.

leather notebookrustic paper

I’ve never written in it. Every so often, I page through it, and ponder the possibility of using it. But I fear spoiling those roughened silk-like pages with scraps of dialogue that will likely never be used, or notes that will never be formed into a story. I would want anything I wrote in that notebook to stand the test of time. I would want it to mean something.


Moleskine* notebooks. I know folks who buy them by the pack and use them to the exclusion of all others. Some time ago I splurged on a three-pack, which rested unopened on a bookshelf until one day I finally tore off the cellophane. I use one of the notebooks as a mileage log, but the other two remain unused. Blank. Clean.

puppy notebook Cheap notebooks, on the other hand, get filled up pretty regularly. They’re the medium that holds so many messages, the story notes, lists, doodles. Maybe it’s because they’reinexpensive, so I don’t minactual writingd filling them with words that may never go anywhere else. Maybe it’s because the pages are often removable, so that at any given time, I can tear out all the used ones, and have a clean notebook again. Another fresh start.



Still, I like to think that someday, I will grab a pen and make that first mark in one of those special notebooks. They say that you can’t enjoy a new car until it sustains that first ding or scratch. Only then does it become something that you can sit in comfortably and drive. Maybe after I write that first line or sketch that first flower, they will become like any other notebook. A tool, nicer than some, but a tool just the same.

Do you own something that you love but have never used? If so, do you think you’ll always keep it pristine, or will you finally wear it, or use it, or make that first indelible mark?

*I confess that the name puts me off. In my mind, I delete the ‘e’, which leaves me with the odd notion that the covers are made from mole pelts.

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See a penny

I don’t believe that I am particularly superstitious. On a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being “not in the least” and 100 the score of your average major league baseball player on a hot streak of wins/at-bats, I doubt I crack the low end of the scale. I don’t think twice about walking under ladders. I love black cats—years ago, one crossed my path when I was on my way to take a linear algebra exam, which I aced. Friday the 13th is just another day.

Pick it up

I’ve broken mirrors, spilled salt, and opened umbrellas indoors, all without a second thought. But there’s one superstition that has settled in several years ago, unpacked its bags, and made itself at home. When I see a penny on the ground, I pick it up. Usually.

All daylong

My only condition is that the penny has to be face-up. At one time I heard or read that if it’s tail-side up, all the luck has run out. So if it’s heads, it’s mine. Tails, and I pass it by.

I don’t know why this became my quirk. Rational Me knows that it makes no sense, that the existence and orientation of a stray zinc coin washed with copper can have no influence on my life. I understand that existence is one uncertainty after another, and the need to quell the fear that this can inspire, to seek order in a disordered world, can lead me to find meaning in meaningless events.

You’ll have good luck

From this point on, maybe I’ll start doing what some variations of the story behind the superstition describe, and turn over the pennies that are tails-side up so that someone else to have the luck. I could also dig more deeply into the history of this and other superstitions and use the information in stories.

And I will probably continue to collect pennies I find in the street. As long as they’re face-up.

If you’re curious, here’s an article with short histories of common Western superstitions, and one with more information about the penny legend.

(This post also appeared over at the BookView Café blog)

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Unexpected Art, or Things Seen While Wandering

I’m a walker. At home, I take my dog, Gaby, for long morning jaunts through the neighborhoods or nearby state park. When I travel, I try to make time to wander. I take ghost tours, which are great ways to learn the history of an area as well as local legends and scandals. I window-shop. And sometimes, I stumble upon unexpected art.

A couple of years ago, during a visit to New York, I spotted these images. I’m pretty sure I was walking through the West Village when I came upon Liberty Lou Reed. Phone Guy turned up nearer the Meatpacking District; I also spotted his brother decorating a nearby sidewalk.

Liberty LouPhone Guy

This past May, I took a research trip to Park City, Utah. Originally a mining town, it’s known now as a ski resort and the site of the Sundance Film Festival. One evening, I signed up for a ghost tour, and in addition to locations of long ago murders and mayhem, our small group also visited a few alleyways to see graffiti left by Banksy, the UK artist. These works were set off with frames and protective shielding, but according to our guide, at least one piece was painted over by folks who didn’t want graffiti on their building no matter how famous the artist.

Banksy 1Banksy 2

I don’t expect to find unexpected art close to home, so during a recent walk along a park trail, I was surprised to find these images stuck to a sign. When I got home, I searched for Smallest_Giant online, and found several sites on which folks had posted drawings and photos of images, including the very same daydreaming fox and cat that I had spotted.

daydreaming foxcat

I thought it was neat that the same images that I saw had been viewed and photographed by others, and that there are places online where these bits of whimsy can be displayed.

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Slowly but surely….

I’ve felt pulled in all directions these last few weeks. I start one thing, and three others clamor for attention. So the goals for next few weeks are to settle down, focus on writing, finish dealing with the leaves, add a few more batches of soup/stew/something to the deep freeze…

…and that’s too many things to plan. I know I should focus on work and let the chores fall where they may. It’s the never-ending battle between the immediate sense of accomplishment I feel when I do something around the house and the mix of emotions related to writing: accomplishment, but also aggravation, that feeling of wandering lost in the woods because one word after the other–what’s up with that?

Meatloaf is simpler.

My reissued light fantasy stories, Continuing Education and 8 rms., full bsmt., are now available at Amazon as well as BookView Café.

Upcoming contest! From 7-14 November, you can enter for a chance to win ebooks of GIDEON and over 30 other thrillers AND a Kindle Fire. I will post the link as soon as the contest goes live.

No hard freeze yet in far NE Illinois, which means I still have flowers. The mums have faded and the hibiscus are losing their leaves. But the begonias in the planter are still plugging along despite nights in the 40s and squirrels digging holes in the soft dirt.

Autumn Begonias

Autumn Begonias

It’s nice to see shots of pink and white and leafy greenery amid all the warm shades, the yellow, orange and brown. I’m going to miss them when they’re gone.

‘Tis the season, so pumpkin spice is everywhere. I’m not a fan of the flavor in coffee and tea, but I do like pumpkin pie. So when I found a recipe for baked oatmeal with pumpkin, I decided to give it a shot. I used regular milk instead of almond milk, whole wheat flour instead of white whole wheat, added extra spices, and used pecans instead of walnuts. Imagine not-too-sweet pumpkin pie. A good way to start a chilly day. Definitely a keeper.


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Contests galore (and even more)!

October will be a busy month for contests and sales.

  • GIDEON is one of 25 ebooks you can enter to win at the Ultimate Horror Book and Prize Giveaway. Two lucky winners will get the ebooks, while one Grand Prize winner gets all the ebooks and a collection of classic horror novels along with matching Funko Pop figures. The contest runs through October 30th, with the winner to be chosen on Halloween.
  • CODE OF CONDUCT is one of more than 35 SF ebooks one lucky person can win, along with a Kindle Fire to read them on. Contest runs until 10/10. Enter here.
  • The first four Jani Kilian novels (CODE OF CONDUCT, RULES OF CONFLICT, LAW OF SURVIVAL, CONTACT IMMINENT) are being offered as a $9.99 bundle over at Book View Café. Sale end 10/11.
  • The ebook editions of GIDEON and JERICHO are on sale at all the usual outlets. GIDEON can be had for $3.99, JERICHO for $4.99. I don’t know how long the lower prices will be in effect, so grab them now.
  • And finally, on 10/4, a couple of my light, sweet fantasy short stories go on sale at Book View Café. They will be sold there exclusively through October, after which they’ll be available at Amazon and other outlets that sell short stories.

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