Lessons from HGTV

No, we’re not writing a blog about buying, flipping, destroying, restoring, or being elected to houses of any kind. Sorry to disappoint, but we’re still writing about writing.

One of us will confess to watching HGTV. About ten in the evening, it’s time to unwind from the day by snuggling up with the dog, sinking down on the coach, and watching something mindless on TV, which is pretty much everything on TV. Knowing that the outcome of House Hunters is, like a short story—predetermined— we often enjoy watching the drama unfold. [Our favorite moments are when a couple encounters the horror of kitchen appliances that are not stainless steel: goodbye, cruel world), or when they decide the perfectly functional five-year old kitchen is not to their taste and will have to be completely gutted before they move in.] We confess to learning critical life lessons, such as the fact that you can hardly hold your head up in public if you don’t have granite counter tops. Similarly, one of us is ashamed to admit that she feels her life is—sob —incomplete without a spa tub. These little dramas, and comedies, have lessons for writers.

Lesson 1: Characters have to be realistic. It’s hard to watch a program or read a story about a character that seems to be from a different planet, unless you are reading Sci-fi. One episode of House Hunters International featured a couple that had moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, with no savings and no jobs. The man wanted a place close to a club where he hoped to make a living as a stand-up comedian, in English. The woman wanted a quiet place amidst the other 1.5 million residents so she could practice her yoga for hours at a time. We couldn’t watch: how does one identify with or care about such characters? A good short story need believable characters or the reader will have no faith or interest in the story that follows. (Moving to Phnom Penh to start a drug cartel would have at least been plausible: how else to afford the Must Have walk-in closet?)

Lesson 2: The resolution must make sense. We watched a couple debate their way through the usual three homes offered for sale. Usually, the TV viewer has a good idea which way the couple will go, but this time, it was a surprise. The husband loved one house and the wife loved another. They talked it over and, we kid you not, decided to go for the house that neither of them liked as much. Even though the outcome is foreordained, but the pretension for the viewer is she is watching reality. Is reality that a couple makes their largest financial investment in a house neither much likes? Since they were both Polish [NOT an ethnic slur] is there a cultural dynamic we don’t understand? In a short story or novel, the resolution must make sense to the reader, particularly in a mystery where the reader likes to be able to find hints of the outcome and ‘solve’ the case before the end. We’ve all invested time reading a story to discover the ending is implausible. Naturally, we feel cheated and are less likely to read that author’s work in the future. In this case, we feel it would have been more plausible if one killed the other for not getting the house with the “neutral palette throughout and the open floor plan.” Religious (housing) differences can well and truly scuttle a marriage.

With that, we are off to design our next short story, the plot of which will not at all revolve around the importance of hardwood floors.

Got Any Chloroform?

With our move to short stories––as the next Emma Jones book simmers on the back burner––comes tighter writing, a shorter turnaround, and more opportunities to contemplate how to off someone. In a delightful literary sense, of course, as we have no plans to do a dry run, even if one feels especially homicidally inspired when being tailgated at high speed by a real %#&^%$$er. It is so difficult to visualize world peace in those situations, don’t you think?

One of our inspirations is Cruella De Vil who, while a real baddie, was a baddie with style. The title of this blog entry comes from a scene in (the original animated) 101 Dalmatians, wherein Cruella De Vil is contemplating offing the Dalmatian puppies she has amassed for their coats. She exclaims to her henchmen, Horace and Jasper: “I don’t care how you kill the little beasts, just do it. Poison them! Drown them! Got any chloroform?”

Says Jasper, “Not a drop.”

Never fear, Cruella, there are so many more delightful ways to dispatch someone (but leave the cute doggies alone, please!)

It’s astonishing where we get our inspiration. A summer of hiking in the Sawtooth Mountains made us contemplate how you’d kill someone on a hike and get away with it (and make natural phenomena like eclipses work for you). Skiing together made us think about how to off someone in a blizzard. In one story, we used animals to finger the perp after one of us read a book about how intelligent corvidae are, and that they remember faces and hold a grudge.

It isn’t merely humans we consider dispatching: a current short story under development involves an act of revenge for killing someone’s pet. After long and exhaustive market research and big data analytics (okay, we didn’t use big data analytics but it’s a techno-sexy term we wanted to use), we decided to dispatch a cat (because we both like doggies too much to––gulp––kill one, even in a literary cause). We also decided the cat would be really nasty, so we don’t feel the slightest bit bad for offing Satan, er, Fluffy. (For you ailurophiles: never fear, the cat will be avenged.)

Poisoning, long a favorite tool of mystery writers, is becoming harder to execute. The sales of many poisonous substances are controlled, and others one might cultivate in the garden are easy for the medical examiner to detect. Planning murders requires one to consider more exotic methods of dispatch. Some of the following we’ve actually used: faulty medical devices, robots with an attitude, hacked self-driving cars, lightning strikes, rampaging elephants, meteors, Hawaiian spirits in the form of sharks, super glue, and creamed corn. Okay, we haven’t worked out how the last one could kill anyone, but the last time one of us ate it, she was convinced her mother was trying to kill her.

We are happy to consider suggested methods of killing off people who deserve it. Feel free to leave a comment with your ideas, and please don’t feel the need to check its validity by conducting a test run.

We Interrupt This Broadcast …

For one of our ongoing writing projects––more on that in a later blog––we have been researching attitudes towards women athletes in the 20th century. It comes as no surprise that while moderate exercise has long been considered healthy for all, women in the first half of the century were warned of the potential harm to their reproductive systems of engaging in vigorous exercise. Even after World War II, when women worked long, hard hours in factories and played baseball with its attendant running, diving and sliding, the attitude persisted in some quarters that strenuous exercise threatened a woman’s fertility.

Since the 1950s, such pseudo-science about women’s biology seems to have diminished. So, we were astonished to find an article this week in The Daily Telegraph section on Women’s Health an article entitled, “Is the gym ruining your sex life?” Let us say again, this was in the Women’s Health section and made no mention of how men might be ruining a woman’s sex life … or their own.

Here are the five horrible things that could occur through exercise.

  1. Sensitivity: Studies [which were not cited] have shown “intensive cycling could potentially have a negative impact on a woman’s pelvic floor and cause genital insensitivity” [emphasis ours]. Based on the rationale given for this occurrence, we recommend you wear biking shorts, don’t squirm in the saddle, and /or make sure handlebars are at the right height.
  2. Self-Confidence: Failing to lose weight through exercise could serious damage one’s self-esteem. Our recommendation is to take up boxing or one of the martial arts; if someone makes a crack about your weight, floor ‘em. Don’t forget to say, “have a nice day” afterwards. It’s very important to be polite when dispatching a jackass.
  3. Libido: The stress of working out on top of work anxiety, parenting, and running a household could cause one’s reproductive instincts to shut down. There are many ways to attack this. Our favorite is to learn to live with a dirty, messy house. When you are dead and gone, no one will say they miss you because you kept such an immaculate home. Also, it’s ok if someone writes their name in the dust as long as they don’t put the year.
  4. Injury: You could get hurt and might spend too much time with ibuprofen and hot water bottles to think of sex. Really! We are NOT making this up. Our advice: teach your husband/significant other how to do massages. Better yet, try the Mai Tai method of pain relief.
  5. It’s expensive: Spending all that money on gym memberships or equipment could stretch your budget, making you anxious; when you are anxious and unhappy, you are not beautiful and your sex life suffers. Yup, that’s what it said. So, we recommend you buy used equipment to keep the cost down, and sneak into the health club so you don’t have to pay. Or better yet, take up running. You can run down the doofuses (or is it “doofi?”) who write such drivel and let them eat your dust.

Feel free to visit the website to read the entire thing, although we’ve given you the best bits.


Now that this blog is written, one of us is off to Nordic ski. (She is letting her dog pull her on skis. She isn’t too worried about his sex life being affected by exercise since he has already been neutered. ) The other, fearful of engaging in too much exercise, is headed for the couch with a mojito and bonbons.

Our Story Was (Gasp) Rejected?

I’m sure our readers will be deeply shocked to learn that sometimes, very rarely, our short story is rejected by a publication. (Quelle horreur! Break out the smelling salts!) The one of us who usually does the submissions is, of course, prostrate with grief. But that only lasts for a few moments, because she soon realizes the editors of the publication that turned down such a masterpiece are incredibly poor at their jobs. Clearly, these people cannot recognize greatness when it is staring them in the face.

Not that we would put ourselves in the same category as the following authors––we’re barely on the same planet (especially since they have all gone to the Great Library Up Yonder)­­––but they, too were rejected, sometimes brutally.

  • Rudyard Kipling was told, “you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
  • Publishers wouldn’t touch Beatrix Potter’s work so she initially self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit
  • And Saul Bellow’s believed rejections “teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’”

Post-rejection, one of us embarks upon a flurry of activity, searching for other contests, anthologies, or magazines worthy of such a magnum opus. If those publications have an imminent deadline, all the better: the sooner submissions are closed, the sooner we will hear that our story has been accepted, and we can adjust our egos accordingly.

Now, on those once in a blue moon, more often than we would like times when the story is rejected again … Well, it’s not pretty. It’s darn right amazing that more lamps and vases aren’t broken the house. (Okay, I put the vases away after losing half of them to a particularly egregious rejection.) Frantic emails ensue to one another as we spew assurances that our story is maybe not a masterpiece, but is still exceptional. The search for a new outlet resumes. But there is a difference this time. One of us rereads the story.

Clearly, there is a computer bug. Why else would we have started a story in a 3rd person vignette, which switches to 1st person for the remainder? Or used three lines to describe a character when one tightly written construct would have sufficed? Or inserted some beautifully written phrases, so utterly unnecessary to the advancement of the story? What we thought was a tightly knit story is full of dropped stitches and holes. Not just a computer bug, but literary moths are to blame.

Writing and rewriting, reading and rereading, and we failed to see it. Sigh.

The rewriting begins. The story is shaved to the bone, and reconstructed. Everything in questioned: why does a character do one thing and not another? Is this adjective or adverb necessary? Were there perhaps, the wee problem of five too many coincidences to be plausible? Does it matter that the 80-year-old woman drives a red Chevy Camaro and flies jets on the weekend or that her cat (not just any cat, but a Maine Coon cat named Jasper) understands Arabic?

Finally, the story hangs together. Another publication is found and the story submitted. And when we hear the story has been accepted, there is rejoicing, a fair measure of gratefulness and a few remote high fives that some entity has agreed to publish our good, but not quite great, story.

And what if we are rejected, yet again?

We persist.



The Short Story

Some of our millions of devoted fans and followers… OK, maybe thousands…OK, our mom…has asked us when the next Maddi Davidson book is coming out. Truth is, we did start another book but got a ways into it, and, with a big “meh,” deciding that we didn’t want to write another book just to write another book, not when we were having so much fun with the characters. (Haven’t we all had that experience of loving a mystery series and then deciding after the 15th book in the series that it was time for an apocalypse to kill everyone off?)

For now, Emma and Keoni and crew are on an extended surf vacation, and the waves are epic. As for us, we decided we were going to explore other literary venues like … writing epic poetry! But our Latin and Greek weren’t up to it, so we settled for short stories.

Truth be told, short story writing is a lot of fun and it hones your writing skills. You don’t have 150 pages to blather on about bad childhoods: if it is a mystery, you have a few scant pages to kill someone off and hook your reader (without making it too obvious whodunit, like only having one other character in the story). You have to keep the pacing going, as someone expecting a short story is not going to suffer through 8 pages of angst-written background material: they want to get to the blood and gore, pronto. Or neat knife in the neck.

Another fun part of short stories is – contests! There are short story contests where you have to work your story into whatever the heck the contest theme is – uncomfortable underwear, for example. Sometimes we’ve written a story that we are trying to foist…ah… submit for a contest, and we find ways to rewrite it to include a thong as a core plot device. Hey, we didn’t say we were successful all the time! We have explored not only our writing style (we aren’t always snarky and funny in the short stories), but geographic locale. We’ve set a couple stories in Idaho and one in Hawai’i. We’ve set them in modern times and in the 1880s. We’ve done sort of science fictiony ones, and some that are low tech and character driven (one character was driven right off a cliff). Best of all, we’ve had some successes in getting our stories in anthologies, “placing” in some of the contests and generally have had a ball with trying something new.

So, with heartfelt appreciation for the fun of doing something different, here is an excerpt from our story “Heartfelt,” the lead story in Mystery Times 2015, available through Amazon.com

Hannah felt the chill of the mid-February day: cold, dreary, and the kind of damp that made your bones hurt if you were old enough. Today, she felt old enough and then some. Bob lay on the frost-nipped grass, gasping for air and periodically flopping about as spasms gripped his chest.
He looks like a freshly landed fish, she thought. Funny, I’ve always pictured him as a snake. But now? Decidedly a fat trout. A catch-and-throw-back trout.
The cacophony of sirens reached a crescendo as a fire truck and ambulance rounded the corner and screeched in stereo down the street.
She wondered why they always sent a fire truck with an ambulance; she’d told them specifically it was a heart attack. Nothing on fire here: Bob’s heart had been stone cold for years.
Two men in dark blue jackets with reflective EMT logos on the back jumped out of the ambulance and sprinted to Bob’s side while neighbors popped their heads out of half-opened doors to discover the source of the hubbub. Most gave in to curiosity, venturing forth from their sepia-toned ranch homes to join the flock gathering across the street from the emergency vehicles.
Intent on watching the medics working on Bob, Hannah was barely aware that a man from the fire truck had approached her. It wasn’t until he spoke that she realized he was there.
“What happened?”
Hannah turned to find baby-blue eyes staring at her. Innocent eyes, she thought. She blinked for a few moments, considering his question. Shit happens. Thirteen years of it.


Mystery Solved!

We’re baaaaack! After a short long unprecedented hiatus, we are returning to the world of blatant self-promotion blog writing. I’m sure y’all have been wondering about the mysterious silence. The solution lies in one of the explanations below.

  1. We’ve spent the last two years as Church of the Humane missionaries to the Chinstrap penguins of Antarctica who are no closer to being “saved” but at least squawk blessings over their herring.
  2. Contracts for each of our recently published stories stipulated that we not blog about our success.
  3. One of us has had severe amnesia leading her to believe she was a mixed martial arts fighter. A recent blow to the head restored her memory that she was, instead, an extremely gifted writer who can opine on the finer points of Calibri vs. Palatino ad nausea.
  4. One of us took a timeout, and has been sitting on the beach in Hawaii for the past 18 months, drinking Mai Tais, surfing, and listening to Hawaiian music. (Guess which one of us) <Hey, that was MARKET RESEARCH. Someone has to do it!>
  5. Technical problems with our Internet connection <No lie! Power outage yesterday for 2 ½ hours. Which doesn’t explain the entirety of our blog outage, dang it, but it’s a start…>

If you guessed a), you are correct. Having served humanity mankind global interests, we have returned to selfish noble literary pursuits on the order of Count Leo Tolstoy—ok, make that lyrics like Count-LT, the famous rap star—pursuits. Not that we’ve been entirely quiet; we’ve had a number short stories published in the past 18 months. “Vehicular Homicide” received an Honorable Mention in Grammar Ghoul’s 2015 Short Story Contest and appeared in The Ghoul’s Review. The story concerns driverless cars and what could possibly go wrong with the technology. Here is an excerpt from the story.

“When I give it instructions to tootle around, it takes me for a scenic drive.”
For a split second, Jumpsuit just stared at me. Then he laughed. “You’re pulling my leg.”
My weak smile must have served as confirmation, for when I impulsively mentioned it had taken a dislike to someone who had spilled beer on her seat, he whooped and slapped his thigh.
“That’s a good one; a car with vanity instead of vanity plates. Don’t tell me: it made a mad dash for the car wash where it demanded to be detailed.”

The full story is available here: https://www.joomag.com/magazine/the-ghouls-review-summer-fall-2015/0470749001444854998?short

Happy reading! And look for our next blog on Monday, Jan 23. (2017, not 2023.)