Best Dogs for Policing

Just for you: a chapter from If You’d Asked Me…the ultimate collection of bathroom or waiting room reading, A new chapter appears here every three weeks, usually by Friday. You can get a complete copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

26. Are German Shepherd dogs the best dogs for security forces?

My last GerShep was trained by a woman who trained dogs for the police and the feds. When I would visit, she’d have a number of breeds that she was working for. Hunting dogs—esp. gun dogs like retrievers—seemed to be candidates for drug sniffing.

The local cops in our parts tend to favor German shepherds for harrying the perps. They sicced their K-9 pal on a home invader who had made it into my garage. It really wasn’t very good for the poor schmuck. Oh well. Don’t stick up pawn shops, kidnap the patrons, and run away from the cops.

Why Do Some People Favor Cats over Dogs?

25. Why do a lot of people prefer cats to dogs?

Cats carry a parasite that infects the mammalian brain—including that of humans. It causes its host to adore the cat, thereby facilitating the parasite’s reproductive cycle (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/rage-disorder-linked-with-parasite-found-in-cat-feces/ ).

This is one reason you’ll hear people telling you cats are cleaner than dogs (they’re not; they’ll urinate and poop all over your house, and the stink is impossible to remove), smarter than dogs (they’re certainly not), that their cats must be allowed to run loose to pee, poop, and depredate wildlife on your property, and on and on and on. Their minds may have been altered by infection with this unpleasant parasite.

The parasite, by the way, has been fingered as a cause of schizophrenia, among other mental illnesses:

Dogs may annoy you, but they don’t make you crazy.

Neighbor’s Barking Dog!

Just for you: a chapter from If You’d Asked Me…the ultimate collection of bathroom or waiting room reading, A new chapter appears here every three weeks, usually by Friday. You can get a complete copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

 24. Is it normal for the neighbor’s dog to bark at nothing every time it gets let outside?

It’s possible to train a dog not to yap, but it’s difficult. There are devices such as citronella-spraying collars and collars that dispense a mild shock that discourage a dog from yapping. While you can put these unpleasant gadgets on your own pet (if you must and if cruelty is your thing), you can’t inflict them on the neighbors’ animals.

Try taking a recorder—digital or otherwise—and placing it on the wall between your house and the neighbor’s. Then politely take it over to the person and run it, and explain that the noise is waking you up at an unacceptable hour and that the dog needs to be trained to quit yapping. Possibly you could share some printouts from Amazon showing a few reasonably humane gadgets designed to help with that training.

Good luck. Some people are reasonable about their pets and some are just not.

Protecting Pets in Natural Disasters

Just for you: a chapter from If You’d Asked Me…the ultimate collection of bathroom or waiting room reading, A new chapter appears here every three weeks, usually by Friday. You can get a complete copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

23. How can a pet owner protect animals during natural disasters?

What type of pet; what type of disaster?

If you are fleeing floods or wildfires, you will probably not be able to take your animal into an emergency shelter for people who have been unhomed. Thus you will need either to have sturdy camping gear or a couple of credit cards to cover the cost of a motel that will let you bring your dog or cat.

In an earthquake, you probably will not be able to move fast enough to get your animal under a table or into a bathroom where the plumbing may hold the walls in place.

Mercifully I have had no experience with tornadoes but expect that if you have a storm shelter you should take the animals in there with you and pray for the best.

In general, though, I’d say if you have a dog or a cat, you should keep leashes or harnesses in the car along with the usual stuff you should have for yourself: ample water, blankets, and a first-aid kit. Before fleeing, package up enough kibble or canned pet food to last for at least a week. Bring cash and more than one credit card. Bring a functioning cell phone and a charger that will recharge the thing from your car. Have a “go bag” that includes paperwork for yourself and your animals—for example, proof of rabies and other vaccinations.

In a really serious disaster that affects large numbers of people (the New Orleans flooding after Hurricane Katrina comes to mind), the police may not be friendly (they will be extremely stressed) and the weather may be inclement. Bring rain gear for yourself and towels to wipe down your dogs. Be prepared to fend for yourself, as your pets will not be welcome in emergency shelters.

When Your Dog Damages Your Friend’s Stuff

Just for you: a chapter from If You’d Asked Me…the ultimate collection of bathroom or waiting room reading, A new chapter appears here every three weeks, usually by Friday. You can get a complete copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

22. What is the right thing to do when my dog damages a friend’s property while visiting in their home?

Oh, horrors! You should have offered to buy or repair the damaged item.

One of my German shepherds once ate a friend’s (expensive!) sunglasses. Ingratiatingly strolled over, lolled around my friend’s chair, snuck up on her purse, snabbed the shades, and chewed the darn things up.

Of course I offered to buy her a new pair. My friend declined . . . but I’m afraid she wasn’t very happy with that dog. Or me.

Why Does My Dog Sit on Me?

Just for you: a chapter from If You’d Asked Me…the ultimate collection of bathroom or waiting room reading, A new chapter appears here every three weeks, usually by Friday. You can get a complete copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

20. Why does my dog sit on me?

She’s bigger than me but continues to sit on my chest. Is she protecting me?

I do not know what urge suggests to your dog that she should sit on your chest, but I’d suggest if you don’t like it, you should simply train her not to do that. Remove the pooch from the throne and set her aside gently but firmly. Say, without yelling or sounding unduly annoyed, “No. Do not sit on me.” (Believe it or not, if you combine a short sentence with a term or phrase the dog already knows, such as no or good dog, a dog can pick up the meaning of a short sentence fairly quickly. You have to repeat it a few times but she’ll get the idea.)

This behavior will probably not stop soon, and it will require you to respond consistently Every time she takes up her position on your boobs. But eventually it will work.

The dog is sitting on you because you allow her to sit on you.

Writer’s Block: Three Strategies to Beat It

The Complete Writer

Section IX: Creative Strategies

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. You also can find links to the chapters that have appeared so far at our special page for The Complete Writer. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

[48]

Writer’s Block: Three Strategies to Beat It

Back in the day when I was a working journalist, various writers’ conferences would invite me to speak. Invariably, aspiring freelance writers would ask that classic question: How do you cope with writer’s block?

Well, I didn’t: reporting on assignment is not an activity that elicits writer’s block. A reporter an artiste does not make. The collected flip answers lacked something in the helpful department:

  • Visualize your byline on a paycheck’s Pay to the Order of line.
  • Imagine your editor’s response when you call to say you’ll be late on deadline.
  • Write a letter to your mom describing all the things you learned on assignment. The story will write itself after that.
  • Go play with the cat.
  • Pour yourself a (glass of wine, cup of coffee, can of soda).
  • Go for a walk.
  • Quit with the drama already and get down to work!

Fiction, however, is one heckuva lot harder to write than nonfiction. So much so, in fact, that you really do reach impasses where you know what you want to say (you think) and you imagine you know what your characters are going to do and you can envision the time and the place and the action but it just won’t come out in words!

Nothing makes coping with this phenomenon easy, but a few strategies have come to hand. Try this one, for example:

§

Enter your notes, no matter how fragmentary, at the bottom of a chapter or scene. Use these notes as cues to help jump-start the narrative and keep it rolling around.

§

In this problematic scene, Lhored Brez of Grisham Lekvel (he’s roughly equivalent to an Anglo-Saxon king) visits the widow and two sister wives of one of his followers (Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos), murdered while catting around the trading center of the known world. Bett Kubnath of Cham Fos is a potentate in her own right. Her son Lenn is a chip off his father’s block, not an altogether flattering comparison. The action is seen through the eyes of Hapa Cottrite, a kind of public intellectual who has been sent into exile among the backward peoples of the north.

Draft

She nodded patiently. “Let’s sit down.” She waved us all toward the fine leather and wool chairs and benches that populated the hall. Lhored was directed into a comfortable armchair and I was seated nearby. The three women pulled up smaller chairs to make a conversation circle around Lhored, the two mayrs, and me. Food and drink appeared, borne by two [women who look working class] and a young boy, and we were all served, the solid stoneware dishes a luxury after our weeks of eating off tin plates.

“You’ve heard the news we bring,” Lhored began.

“Yes. We heard before Mak’s men reached Rittamun. One of the outlying herdsmen brought word a couple of days ago.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She let this rest briefly. “They say he didn’t die in battle. Can you . . . will you tell us how this happened?”

Lhored looked pained. This, he had said more than once, was the conversation he dreaded, and here it was upon him. “Bett,” he said, “we don’t really know.”

Notes at the end of the file:

What is going on here? What is Hapa observing? Move forward into some other part of this chapter and then come back here. This piece is going nowhere!

Lhored is about to speak when Lenn shows up. Lenn is surly, aggressive, and obnoxious. He demands to know what happened to Mitch. What was he doing out there alone? Then he demands to know why they let him go out alone and D says he tried to go along and was rejected & the others say that’s so. They work their way around to saying HC was sent as a gift from the seeyo; they’d prob’ly better tell them about the elaborate funeral and the loot first.]

 All right. Let’s try that. It’s better than working, anyway. I guess.

Next draft

The front door opened, letting in a beam of light and the shadow of someone passing through the vestibule. A tall, slender young man, still beardless, entered the hall. Dressed in work clothes and boots, he pulled off a pair of riding gloves and offered a hand to Lhored, who, with Mak and Jode, stood to greet him.

”Grisham Lekvel,” he said, accepting a firm squeeze on the shoulder from the brez. “And gentlemen: thank you for coming. Mother,” he addressed the kubnath, who remained seated, “sorry I’m late. We were working the stallion up on the other side of Nole’s Butte. I came as soon as Wood let us know you were on the way up the road.”

”It’s good to see you, Lenn,” Lhored replied. “And good you were able to be here.”

He gestured as though he was about to introduce me to the young new kubna, obviously Mitchel of Cham Fos’s son, but Lenn interrupted.

”Lhored,” he said, “let’s get down to business. What the hell happened to my father?”

Meji gasped softly. The other two widows glanced at Lhored expectantly. Jode and Mak looked on, stolid as ever.

If Lhored was annoyed or otherwise perturbed, he didn’t let it show. “He was murdered,” he said.

”Yeah, so we’re told. How did that happen? And who did it?”

”He died on a street in Lek Doe. Apparently the killer was a thief that jumped him.”

”That doesn’t make any sense. My father would take out anyone who tried to bring him down.”

”He probably didn’t see the guy come up on him. It was stone dark that night.”

”Night?”

”Mm hm. We think it was pretty late. He’d been out on the town. And he was in a lane where all the shops were closed.”

”Come on, man! What the hell was he doing out in the middle of the night, on some godforsaken back street in Lek Doe where nothing was going on?” Behind him, Bett sent Lhored a narrow-eyed [CAUTIONARY? GIMLET? PIERCING? SHARP???] look and shook her head, almost imperceptibly, no.

”We don’t know, Lenn. He must have gotten turned around and lost his way.”

”How the devil could something like that happen? Who was with him?”

”No one.”

”No one? What was he doing out there?”

Lhored regarded Lenn while he let this set for a second or two. “He was celebrating, lad. Far as we can tell, he’d just come from a saloon.”

Salon was more like it, I thought. Liana’s place did let the liquor flow, so one could call it a bar. Sort of.

“Celebrating? If he was partying, why wasn’t anybody with him?”

Notes at the end of the file

At least we’ve got some conflict going on, between the chief warlord and the surly young son of the deceased potentate, heir to his father’s rank.

We haven’t gotten around to the delicate matter of why Mitchel refused to take anyone with him when he went out for a night on the town—he was haunting his favorite houses of ill repute—nor have we explained the potentially explosive matter of why Hapa Cottrite is present: he was sent by the town’s governing councilors as a kind of “gift” to express their regret at the loss of a powerful and dangerous warlord, their hidden motive being to exile a troublemaker to the farthest of all possible boondocks. But at least we have something in glowing little computer characters.

§

Remember that gold is a soft metal. Your golden words are malleable—NOT graven in granite!

§

Regard what you’ve written as draft at all times. Never stop revising. And be aware that it’s a lot easier to revise and rework than it is to choke out brand-new creative content. Just get it down on paper. Or on disk. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Not the first time around, not the second time around, not the third time around.

Knowing that you can always jimmy the copy, add to the copy, cut the copy, totally change the copy makes it a lot easier to get something out.

Just write it, and don’t worry if it isn’t perfect.

Chapter 1, take 1

It should feel good, Kay thought. Watching this happen should feel good. He ought to feel back-slapping, hollering, falling-down-drunk happy, or at least for God’s sake like raising a swig of whiskey to the moment.

He and his cousin, Mitch–Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos–stood atop a promontory, just a low butte, actually, about a hundred feet tall, and surveyed the battle’s aftermath. Fallon, still clad in his leather chest armor, saw them climbing up here. He followed and joined them a few minutes after they stopped at the bluff’s edge. When he reached the two, he shook Kay’s hand, punched Mitch on the shoulder, congratulated them on a fine day’s work.

And the men had done a day’s work. Together the three looked out over the scene. Hengliss allies–Okan and A’oan marching under the Okan brez, Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel–had taken the town in three weeks flat. It was an incredible feat.

Roksan, the principal city of their principal enemy, should have been impregnable. But they had shown it was not. Now the men, scruffy irregulars, most of them, pressed into duty by the obligations of their betters and not because they knew much about soldiering, spread over the plain before the burning town’s gate. No one down there seemed to suffer any qualms. Their noise reached the hilltop as unruly hubbub like a huge outdoor party gone too far in drink. Men laughed and shouted, a few surviving women squealed as the boys had their fun with them, horses and wagons rattled around. Guys compared plunder, traded booty–some had set up open-air markets to trade or sell the loot they’d carried from the city before the heat pushed them out.

A brown and gray pillar twisted upward toward white clouds that galloped before a chasing wind, and Kay knew the smart breeze would keep those fires going until they had done their job. The place would burn to the ground before they smoldered out. The flames would leave a pile of ashes, maybe a few blackened rafters, charred bricks. And scorched bones.

Fal, wiry and saturnine, his dark beard and mustache trimmed as if to cut down wind resistance, offered his boda to the two older men. They accepted the liquor cheerfully. The drink passed between them while they gazed at the scene below.

“Beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Mitchel remarked.

“Oh, yeah,” Kay said. “That it is.”

“Must do your heart good.”

“You bet.”

“How long has it been for you?” Fal asked.

“Twenty-eight years,” Kay replied.

This actually was not the first but  the third or fourth time I’d tried to craft this opening scene in Kaybrel’s point of view. Hated it the first time; still wasn’t thrilling me. So I tried a new tack.

Chapter 1, take 10 or 12:

Fallon Mayr of Cheyne Wells rarely gave himself over to speculation. If on this good day you had asked him how the Hengliss tribes came to see themselves as one being, a living organism whose limbs and body and soul formed a single piece—or even if they did—he would have laughed. He would direct your attention to the pillar of smoke twisting skyward where Roksan burned, and he would turn your question obliquely around. He would ask you, then, had they not, the bands of Okan and A’o fighting as one under the Brez Lhored Kubna of Grisham Lekvel, had they not done a fine thing?

He passed the lambskin flask that was making the rounds among several companions to Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek. Bova, a chunky flaxen-bearded northerner whose heft made Fal’s long, wiry frame look slight by comparison, lifted the boda in a friendly salute, swigged its unrefined contents as though he were taking a deep drink of water, and passed it to Kristof Mayr of Oshin.

“That was one hot maneuver you two pulled inside them gates,” Robin Mayr of O’a remarked to Fal. A slender, muscular young man with a smooth chestnut-colored beard, he accepted the boda from Kristof and lifted it vaguely in Fal’s direction.

“Mostly Kay’s idea,” Fal said. He shrugged as though he’d had little to do with the swath they’d ripped through the defenders in the long chaos after the Hengliss had breached the enemy city’s entrance.

“Bull!” said Jag Bova. “He couldn’t have done it by himself. And I’ll tell you—when he takes them kind of ideas into his head, I’m sure as hell glad I’m not the one who has to fight on his flank.”

Fallon laughed with the others. But he was glad, too, that it wasn’t Bova. He wouldn’t have traded his place at Kay’s side for any honor the brez could dream up.

“He had his reasons for going after the bastards like that,” Kristof remarked.

“Must have felt damned good,” Robin added. “If it’d been me, I’d have tried to squash every cockroach I could catch.”

“Yeah. Well, we just about did that,” Fal said. “Not too many of ’em left in there.”

Even where they were standing, a mile away, heat from the fires burning the sacked Espanyo city reached them. It took the chill off the cool air that drifted down the distant snow-covered Achpie and Serra peaks flanking the wide bottomland along the Wakeen Ribba.

“Ain’t none of ’em gonna crawl out of that place no more, no how,” Robin agreed. He passed the drink back to Rozebek.

Bova raised the flask to that, and they all murmured their appreciation of Robin’s whiskey-laced profundity.

“There goes your kubna with his cousin now,” said Bova. “Looks like they want to get a view of the doings.”

By “your kubna” he meant Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek, the man to whom Fal, Robin, and Kristof owed their first loyalty. The cowndee of Rozebek belonged to the house of Puns, and Jag Bova served its kubna, Rikad of Puns.

They watched Kaybrel and Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos stride through the festive troops gathered on the plain before the burning city. Kay was carrying his leather helmet in one hand, his silver-streaked hair flowing loose around his shoulders. To Fal’s eye, he looked tired, but the others didn’t see that. The two kubnas cleared the mob and headed toward a low butte that rose above what had a few hours earlier been a battlefield. They disappeared around the side of the promontory, seeking the gentle rise up the hill’s backside.

“How long has it been for him?” Robin asked.

“What? Since Moor Lek fell?” Fallon read meaning into Robin’s question. “I think he said . . . no, it was the kubnath who said that. Maire said it was twenty-eight years ago this spring.”

“Twenty-eight years! She wasn’t even born then, eh?”

“Neither were the rest of us,” Fal replied, and what he said applied to everyone there but Jag Bova, the only man among them to have reached his early thirties.

Sometimes if you can’t move forward with the new writing, going back and revising material you already have will help. Notice how radically different Take 2 is from the first effort: a different character’s point of view, an entirely different set of characters with the protagonist taken off center stage, facts presented in a slightly different context through the mouths of different characters, and a different kind of characterization of a central figure.

Every time you rewrite a scene from beginning to end, it improves. Often, even very small changes—a turn of phrase here, a gesture there, a detail or a word choice—have a large effect.

You may never use this evolving material. Or you may use some of it, whole cloth or much massaged. Whatever becomes of the drafts, it will give you some insight into what’s going on with your writing, and that may be all you need to put your Jeep back in gear.

[1] https://writersresidence.com/blog/2009/12/02/samples-of-query-letters-that-work/

[2] “The Good Order: Routine, Creativity, and President Obama’s U.N. Speech,” The New York Times, September 25, 2014.

[3] https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/FAQ_Sept_2012.pdf

What’s a cat to a dog?

haJust for you: a chapter from If You’d Asked Me…the ultimate collection of bathroom or waiting room reading, A new chapter appears here every three weeks, usually by Friday. You can get a complete copy, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

Section II: Going to the Dogs
(Or Cats)

19. Scientifically speaking, what do dogs recognize kittens and cats as?

Prey.

Jump-Starting the Creative Engine

The Complete Writer

Section IX: Creative Strategies

This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. You also can find links to the chapters that have appeared so far at our special page for The Complete Writer. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.

[47]

Jump-Starting the Creative Engine

A client, needing to do rewrites of several chapters, suddenly felt a bit stymied. Mostly, I think, this happened because he was feeling tired and impatient to get finished. The end was in sight, and he really just wanted to get the book done!

While we were thinking about how he could re-energize himself for the last sprint, an Insight! occurred to me. And it’s an insight that appears to work.

Before inflicting it on him, I experimented with it on a passage of my own novel, where I also had run out of gas and dropped the narrative.

Here’s the idea: Whatever genre you’re writing in requires you to use a set of techniques specific to that genre. In the case of fiction, for example, these would be dialogue, narrative, description, setting, characterization, point of view, and the like. Other genres require other techniques—poetry, for example, demands more attention to imagery, iconography, meter, form, and the like.

When you feel you simply can not move forward with a scene, try writing that scene in some other genre. Instead of prose fiction, what if you wrote the passage as a scene in a stage play or a movie script? What if you wrote it in verse? What if you wrote it as a letter from one of the characters to one of the other characters? Or as a letter from you to your best friend?

With fresh ideas and action on paper, now go back and convert what you’ve written into the genre you’re actually writing.

Different genres require different writing techniques. Engaging these different modes requires you to engage a different set of mental skills and attitudes. If you take what you want to say and write it in a different genre, you force yourself to shift gears.

Let’s see how this worked on the passage of mine that ran out of energy.

First draft, replete with frustrated notes to self:

Shortly after midday, Jag Bova’s bands crested the pass through the low hills that cradled the southeast end of Rozebek Town. Warm as an Indian summer, the pleasant autumn afternoon was still and clear. A sapphire sky, unblemished but for a few distant, fluffy clouds, rested over the brown and gilded farmlands below. In the orchards, apple and walnut trees had already dropped their leaves, but here and there a maple or a pear clung to its scarlet and gold.

When he saw the village spread out before them, Bova’s heart filled with joy. Narrow lanes led out from the town plaza like spokes on a wagon wheel, the spaces between them filled with stone houses built four and six and sometimes even eight to a compound. Huddled together around common walls, the dwellings gained a little extra shelter from winter’s deepest cold. And there, entwined within the village, stood his own home, Rozebek Keep. Its high defensive fortifications were built of local gray stone, as was his private family compound’s tower that rose above the stokhed walls.

Alone among the Okan aristocracy’s fortifications, the Mayr of Rozebek’s keep formed a part of its village. The people’s homes came right up to the moat, making the keep an island in a small lake of human activity. Usually a kubnath’s or a mayr’s keep and dwelling stood atop a low rise anywhere from half a mile to two miles from its village. This difference pleased Jag Bova. If anyone disapproved, they hadn’t ventured to complain.

No one was complaining now. Around him men cheered, hooted, and laughed, delighted to find themselves within sight of home. [THEY SHOULD PASS A WATCHTOWER—AN OLD PERSON—MALE, FEMALE? SHOULD COME OUT WITH A COUPLE OF KIDS TO GREET THEM.]

A distant sound wafted up the hillside: music. Horns and fiddles, drums and tambourines, whistles and ghitters and recorders and pipes rose a merry clamor down in the village.

Semel, [WHAT DOES HE LOOK LIKE?] Bova’s monja, grinned when he heard the racket. “The party’s started without us,” he said.

One of the other men overheard and added, “Let’s get our asses down there! Don’t want to miss any more than we have to.”

“Little Mama’s a-callin’,” another voice exclaimed. Here and there, men broke out of line and started to run or jog ahead.

“Get a grip on those clowns,” Bova said to Semel.

“Whoa! Settle down there!” Semel shouted. A few marchers, rowdy and not inclined to settle anywhere just then, gave him puzzled glances.

“Now listen to that, boys!” Bova hollered. His large presence got immediate attention. “The folks have brought out the band for us. What d’you say we return the favor?”

“What’ve you got in mind, Mister Mayr?” a grizzled fellow on the sidelines hollered back.

“Let’s play them a tune or three of our own,” Bova replied. “Let’s us get ourselves

lined up here like respectable gents, and Semel, get the pipers and the drummers and let’s pipe the men to town.”

A ripple of laughter washed over the company closest to Bova and Semel. “That’ll give the girls something to remember through the winter nights,” someone remarked.

“That it will,” Bova said. “Into columns! Where are those pipers?”

The band began to fall into rough columns, and shortly two men with small bagpipes, a couple of drummers, and a fife player gathered at the head of the company. Meanwhile, Bova lifted bags of gear off his charger, loaded them on a pack pony, and climbed into the saddle. Semel scouted up company’s banner, unfurled it from its pole, and handed it up to Bova, who secured it to its saddle, where it waved cheerfully in the crystalline air.

DESCRIBE THE CHIVAREE

§

This was where I gave up. Wrote the second half of the chapter. Went on to another client’s work. Sent a bill. Came back. Gave up. Did some other paying work. Graded student papers. Came back . . . and so on. I simply could NOT get past this scene or move on to the next one.

Here’s what happened when I switched from narrative mode to screenplay mode:

Second draft:

Characters

Jag Bova Mayr of Rozebek, late the recipient of the honorific “Snow-Killer,” a massive chunk of a man with blond hair and a thick, curly blond beard.
Samel: Bova’s second-in-command (“monja”)
Gray-Bearded Regular Soldier
Assorted impressed fighters in the raiding bands of Rozebek
Pipers
Fifer
Drummers
Lieze Mayreth of Rozebek: Bova’s only wife; in her early 30s, plump, pretty, and self-contained.
Ada: Lieze’s mother; Bova’s mother-in-law, an aging image of her daughter
Erysa: Bova and Lieze’s elder daughter, a pretty young woman of about 16, as blonde as her father.
Mandeh: Bova and Lieze’s younger daughter, about 12
Deke: Bova and Lieze’s young son, about 8
Townspeople of various ages and gender
Rand, Belindeh, and Cammish: townspeople assigned to watch duty
Willard: Belindeh’s grandson

Scene 1

The crest of a low hill above a fertile valley. At the forested hilltop, birds sing, squirrels call, and a hawk drifts overhead as if watching the procession. Below lie farmlands, pasture, and the town of Rozebek, dominated by its mayr’s keep. The time is past noon on a clear, crisp autumn day. Jag Bova and Samel are leading their rag-tag band of Fighting men, all of whom are tired and anxious to get home.

As they reach the trail’s summit, they pass a stone watchtower. Its occupants, Rand, Belindeh, and Cammish turn out to welcome them.

Rand is a teenaged boy, Belindeh a hungry-looking middle-aged woman, and Cammish, an old man. They are all dressed in the homespun clothing of the time a nd place. Like the men, Belindeh wears rough work dungarees rather than a skirt.

Rand, fairly bouncing out the tower’s door: Mister Mayr! Mr. Samel! God bless you!

Belindeh, following Rand by some yards, advances to BOVA with arms extended and hugs him.

Belindeh: Thank God you’re home. Thank God!

Bova shakes Rand’s hand while he’s being hugged by Belindeh. Cammish, supported by a walking stick and hobbling after the other two, takes Samel’s hand and then Bova’s.

Cammish: Where’ve you been, boys? We’ve been waiting dinner for you so long the food’s gone cold!

Rand: Where are my brothers? Are they with you, mayr?

Bova: Sure they are, lad. They’ll be down the line a ways.

Rand starts to make his way along the trail in search of his returning brothers.

Belindeh: And Willard? Did you bring my grandson back to me, Jag Bova?

Bova: Yes, ma’am. And hale and hearty he is. In fact, yonder he comes—in search of you, I reckon!

Belindeh and Willard spot each other at the same moment and fall into each others’ arms.

Samel, soto voce, with a look at Bova” Thank God for small favors.

Bova: Getting all three of them back here alive and in one piece is more than a small favor, Sam.

Samel responds with an affirmative nod and a grim smile.

Cammish: Tough campaign, was it?

Bova: Yessir, Mister Cammish. That it was. You’ll be hearing about it soon. And all winter long, I expect.

Cammish: I’m sorry to learn that, Jag Bova. How many men did we lose? If you don’t mind my asking?

Bova: Thirty-eight. That’s the ones who made it into the other world. More are coming home wounded. They’ll take some time to heal. Those that ever do.

Cammish falls silent briefly, staring toward the village below.

Cammish: The boy has already ridden into town on his mule, a-spreadin’ the word that you men be coming up the road. Then he come back to greet you all, looking for his brothers. Listen to that racket down there!

From the distant valley, a sound of music and celebration reverberates up the hillside. The men toward the front who can hear it laugh and jostle. Bova and Semel also smile and look pleased.

Semel, grinning: The party’s started without us.

Fighting Man 1: Let’s get our asses down there! Don’t want to miss any more than we have to.

Fighting Man 2: Little Mama’s a-callin’!

Men break ranks and begin to run or jog ahead, down the trail.

Bova: Get a grip on those clowns!

Semel, shouting: Whoa! Settle down there!

Several men give Semel puzzled glances.

Bova swaggers in front of the restless Men: “Now listen to that, boys! The folks have brought out the band for us. What d’you say we return the favor?

Gray-Bearded Fighter: What’ve you got in mind, Mister Mayr?

Bova: Let’s play them a tune or three of our own. Let’s us get ourselves lined up here like respectable gents, and Semel, call the pipers and the drummers and let’s pipe the men to town!

Men nearby laugh.

Fighter (ironically): That’ll give the girls something to remember through the winter nights.

Bova (deadpan straight): That it will. Into columns! Where are those pipers?

Men begin to assemble into rough columns while Bova moves bags from his war horse to a pack pony. Two men with small bagpipes approach, followed by two drummers and a fife player. Bova mounts his horse, and Semel hands a banner up to him and Bova secures it to his saddle. It waves in the light breeze. Pipers, fifer, and drummers strike up a bright marching tune.

They march down the hill in a celebratory mood, the wounded riding in supply wagons. As they approach the town, townspeople come up the road, dancing to the sound of fiddles, drums, and horns. Women, children, and old men stream into the band of weary, road-worn men. Shouts of joy and relief ring out as family members find their wandering men. A few call out names repeatedly, getting no response.

Bova soon finds Lieze, Ada and his three children, proceeding up the road amid a knot of followers and friends. The moment Lieze spots Bova, she runs through the crowd to greet him. Ada grabs Mandeh and Deke, murmuring an admonition to let their parents say hello before rushing their father. Bova looks like he would melt into his wife if he could. He sinks his face in her long chestnut hair, which she has allowed to flow loose for the occasion.

Bova: Oh, my God, Lieze, I’ve missed you so!

Lieze hugs him tightly.

Lieze: We’ve all been worried about you. Thank God you’re home and safe.

Bova kisses her face and then plants a passionate kiss on her lips. A couple of men nearby cheer this. Lieze blushes. Bova laughs, takes her hands and spins her around him exuberantly. Ada approaches, the three children in tow.

Ada: Welcome home, son!

Ada and Bova hug. The three children can no longer be restrained. Deke jumps on his father, who easily lifts him for a hug. Bova puts him down and greets Mandeh and Erysa with hugs, too. The two younger children chatter excitedly at him. Erysa’s manner is more contained; she has a natural dignity like her mother’s.

The party of townspeople and returning fighters enters the town, many gravitating toward a park and paved square in the town center. Bova and his family go with them.

Lieze: We have a wonderful dinner for you—a lovely lamb, and your favorite sweet winter squash, and two grand pecan pies… And we have so much to catch up on. Wait until you hear what the kids have been up to all summer!

Bova smiles and laughs in undisguised pleasure.

Bova: What’s this son of mine been up to now?

Ada: He’s started to learn his fencing. Lieze decided he’s getting big enough to start some lessons, so old [NAME] has been coming to the keep every few days to work with him. And he’s been helping Mandeh and Erysa practice with the bow.

Bova: Is that so? Well, those two could shoot a walnut off a tree. And as for you, Mister Deke, can you hold your own against this Mandeh?

Deke: O’course I can! I’m so good now, I bet I can beat you, Dad!

Bystanders laugh. Mandeh rolls her eyes heavenward.

§

Interestingly, the stage-play iteration of the scene that I wrote so unhappily came out with a great deal more detail and action, with new characters, and with some convincing forward motion.

Writing stage directions forces you to articulate details that one too easily elides in writing narrative, simply because a fiction writer may have the large picture in his head and so presume that everyone else can see it. In a stage or movie script, you have to provide enough specifics to allow a stage designer, a costume designer, a director, actors, and a whole slew of other folks to bring that picture vividly to life for the audience.

The momentum established by the genre switch allowed me to keep rolling into the next scene, which eventually will bring the mayr and mayreth (approximately the equivalent of a Middle English duke and duchess) Jag Bova and Lieze to the problem of how to address the large number of families whose men were lost during the summer’s disastrous engagement with the enemy.

Third draft:

Shortly after midday, Jag Bova’s bands of weary, road-worn men crested the pass through the low hills that rose above Rozebek Town. Birds whistled in the hilltop forest, and a squirrel, still busy stashing acorns and pine nuts for winter, chattered shrilly as the men hiked past them. A hawk drifted overhead, looking for all the world like idle curiosity brought it to watching the procession pass.

The autumn afternoon was clear and crisp beneath a sapphire sky, unblemished but for a few distant, fluffy clouds. Below lay farmlands, pasture, and the town of Rozebek, dominated by its mayr’s keep. In the orchards, apple and walnut trees had already dropped their leaves, but here and there a maple or a pear clung to its scarlet and gold.

When he saw the village spread out before them, Bova felt his heart rise. Narrow lanes led out from the town plaza like spokes on a wagon wheel, the spaces between them filled with stone houses built four and six and sometimes even eight to a compound. Huddled together around common walls, the dwellings gained a little extra shelter from winter’s deepest cold. And there, wrapped within the village, stood his own home, Rozebek Keep. Its high defensive fortifications were built of local gray stone, as was his private family compound’s tower that rose above the stokhed walls.

Alone among the Okan aristocracy’s fortifications, the Mayr of Rozebek’s keep formed a part of its village. The people’s homes came right up to the moat, making the keep an island in a small lake of human activity. Usually a kubnath’s or a mayr’s keep and dwelling stood atop a low rise anywhere from half a mile to two miles from its village. This difference pleased Jag Bova. If anyone disapproved, they hadn’t ventured to complain.

A fieldstone watch tower stood at the height of the pass. Three villagers came out of the door at ground level to greet the arriving fighters. The first, a wiry youth barely more than a boy and not quite a young man, fairly bounced up the road.

“Mister Mayr! Mr. Samel! God bless you.” He bounded over and shook first Bova’s hand, then Samel’s.

The men at the front of the line pushed forward, pleased to see the first of their kin and friends that they’d laid eyes on in five months.

“Would that be Rand the cooper’s boy?” Someone said. Another laughed in unfeigned delight. “You’ve grown a good three inches!”

Shortly behind the lad came a tall, lank, and wrinkled woman clad in rough-cut homespun pants and shirt, her grey hair straggling out beneath a knitted woolen cap. She advanced to Bova with arms extended and wrapped him in a hearty hug.

“Thank God you’re home,” she exclaimed. “Thank God!”

“Sister Belindeh,” Samel greeted her, accepting the next round of handshakes and crushes. “You’ll be doing guard duty now?”

An even more grizzled man hobbled after her, supported by a walking stick. “Where have you been, boys?” the old fellow exclaimed. “We’ve been waiting dinner for you so long the food’s gone cold!”

A ripple of subdued laughter murmured through the men within earshot.

“Where are my brothers?” Rand asked. “Are they with you, mayr?”

“Sure they are, lad” Bova replied. “They’ll be down the line a ways.” Rand made his way up the trail to find his returning relatives.

“And Willard? Did you bring my grandson back to me, Jag Bova?” Belindeh asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Bova said. “And hale and hearty he is. In fact, yonder he comes—in search of you, I reckon.”

Belindeh and Willard spotted each other in the same moment and fell into each others’ arms.

Samel glanced at Bova and said quietly, “Thank God for small favors.”

“Getting all three of them back here alive and in one piece is more than a small favor, Sam.”

His monja nodded and smiled grimly.

“Tough campaign, was it?” the old man asked, overhearing this.

“Yessir, Mister Cammish,” Bova agreed. “That it was. You’ll be hearing about it soon enough. And all winter long, I expect.”

“I’m sorry to learn that, Jag Bova,” said Cammish. “How many men did we lose? If you don’t mind my asking?”

“Thirty-eight. That’s the ones who made it into the other world. More are coming home wounded. They’ll take some time to heal. Those that ever do.”

Cammish fell silent briefly, staring toward the village below. Then he said, “The boy has already ridden into town on his mule, a’spreadin’ the word that you men be climbing up the hill. Then he come back to greet you all, looking for his brothers. Listen to that racket down there!”

A distant sound wafted up the hillside: music. Horns and fiddles, drums and tambourines, whistles and ghitters and recorders and pipes rose a merry clamor down in the village.

Semel, Bova’s monja, grinned when he heard the racket. “The party’s started without us,” he said.

One of the other men overheard and added, “Let’s get our asses down there! Don’t want to miss any more than we have to.”

“Little Mama’s a-callin’,” another voice exclaimed. Here and there, men broke out of line and started to jog ahead.

“Get a grip on those clowns,” Bova said to Semel.

“Whoa! Settle down there!” Semel shouted. A few marchers, rowdy and not inclined to settle anywhere just then, gave him uncertain glances.

“Now listen to that, boys!” Bova hollered. His large presence commanded immediate attention. “The folks have brought out the band for us. What d’you say we return the favor?”

“What’ve you got in mind, Mister Mayr?” a grizzled fellow on the sidelines hollered back.

“Let’s play them a tune or three of our own,” Bova replied. “Let’s us get ourselves lined up here like respectable gents, and Semel, get the pipers and the drummers and let’s pipe the men to town.”

A ripple of laughter washed over the company closest to Bova and Semel. “That’ll give the girls something to remember through the winter nights,” someone remarked, boldly sarcastic.

“That it will,” Bova said. “Into columns! Where are those pipers?”

The band began to fall into rough order, and shortly two men with small bagpipes, a couple of drummers, and a fife player gathered at the head of the company. Meanwhile, Bova lifted bags of gear off his charger, loaded them on a pack pony, and climbed into the saddle. Semel scouted up the company’s banner, unfurled it from its pole, and handed it up to Bova, who secured it to his saddle, where it waved cheerfully in the crystalline air.

§

Another draft to come. As you can see, a fair amount more is already in draft, ready to be transposed out of script format into narrative, description, dialogue, and whatnot.

This strategy was time-consuming. But it worked. And I suspect it’s no more time-consuming than sitting for minute after minute and hour after hour staring at an empty page or a blank screen.

If you’re worth your salt as a writer, you’ll write several drafts anyway. Why shouldn’t one of the drafts be in a different genre?

Grammar Goof of the Day

Ya gotta love the j-school grads that staff TV station websites these days. “J-school”: does that stand for “janitorial school”?

This week we have a report of this Herculean accomplishment:

Phoenix police: Man fatally stabbed 80 times, suspect jailed

Think of that! Killed the guy 80 times over! Sort of like the tailor who killed seven in one blow.

Does the old editor really have to hold forth about this moment of hilarity? Okay, okay…look:

You only die once. If you’re stabbed fatally, you’re stabbed fatally once. You do not die and then spring back to life at every blow. It may take 80 jabs to send you off to the other world, but you’re not stabbed fatally 80 times. Well, unless you’re a vampire and your assailant keeps missing your undead heart…

Is there a workaround? One could dream up a few…

Murder victim stabbed 80 times, suspect jailed
Violent knife attack kills man, suspect jailed
Stabbed 80 times, man dies, suspect jailed

If you really wanted to write like a grown-up, you’d replace the comma with a semicolon in that last one. But this is 21st-century journalism: we don’t do that because we don’t know any better and, by and large, neither do our readers.

😀