Writing after a Loved One Dies

 

Michael was very supportive of my writing endeavors.

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My family took the picture to the left a year before my husband Mike went into the nursing home. You hold onto the good days when you get them, and Christmas, 2009 was one of them. When he passed on January 29, the pain of losing him shot through my heart like an arrow. I wondered how this would affect my writing and other activities.

When my mother died in 1990, an instructor advised me to keep a daily journal. This journal evolved into fiction pieces, and months later, I submitted them for publication. In 1995, after my father died, I sat down and penned a short story in three hours. It got published within a week. Losing Mike has come with its own circumstances, though.

I seldom discussed Mike on social media, but if one wanted a true measure of my grief, they only had to look at my checkbook entries for March. I’ve had to scribble out and rewrite most of the entries, and it was hard to read what I’d written when I had to balance the checkbook. The writing dried up as well; I have written only two or three blogs during the last six months. It was like my internal gadget for blog making had gone into hibernation. As it was, the handling of Mike’s estate and increased need for sleep left no time for blogging. On my days off from work, I had numerous appointments lined up with the lawyer, the bank, insurance folks, etc. By 7:30 at night, I was ready for bed. Thankfully, I had previously pulled together Night to Dawn 29, and my authors have been understanding regarding other projects.

The story writing did a big slowdown, too. I’ve been trying to work on a sequel to When Blood Reigns, which should see a fall, 2016 release. I began writing it with visions of Alexis and Yeron setting up house and beating down the renegades. The thing was, when I attempted to write from Alexis’s point of view, I managed only a few paragraphs at a time. The appointments and the phone calls that came with them got in the way.

I found a lot of help from my writer’s support group in Hatboro and The Writers’ Coffeehouse. This has helped get the words moving. Night to Dawn 30 has gone together without a hitch; NTD released Sandy DeLuca’s Lupo Mannaro, and I’ve just released a new edition of Rod Marsden’s Ghost Dance. I will likely do a blog tour after my book When Blood Reigns goes live, so there should be more blogs coming.

The parade of Mylar balloons has grown, although the intense heat we have now has laid some to rest. At any supermarket, you’ll find a balloon or two trailing me to the cashier’s line. I tried getting around the writer’s block by introducing a new character into the book, one who likes balloons. She was supposed to be a secondary character, but … she’s taking over the book. When I work on a chapter that involves this character (she’s also dealing with grief), the words flow like balloons do toward me at the markets. Perhaps I am journalizing after all. In any case, I find myself jumping around and writing the material from her point of view. I anticipate completing this book, but it’s liable to turn out way different from what I had imagined.

This leaves me to wonder how grief affected other writers. Did you find yourself changing genres or going off on a different tangent? Did you keep a journal? I’d be interested in hearing your experiences.

Ghost dance, a horror tale written by Rod Marsden.

Parkinson’s Scorched Earth: The Conclusion

Mike was living a real life horror tale with his disease.

You grab the good days when you can.

The conclusion happened January 29th at about 2:00 p.m. The scorched earth warfare waged by Parkinson’s and dementia against Mike prohibited his ability to swallow, and that was when he died. I should have seen it coming; he’d been losing weight and getting frequent infections. My Mylar balloons tried to warn me. Every time I browsed Amazon to order him fresh supplies, the balloons stayed my hand. “Wait,” they advised me quietly. “He’s not going to need those. Save your money.”

Speaking of balloons, it was Mike who introduced me to them. He brought me some when we got engaged, and after his hospital stay in 1996, he thanked me for his care with several Mylar balloon bouquets. He loved my cheesecake, and I told myself that as long as this continued, no worries. Denial can be a comforting place.

He often regaled people with tales of his years in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Later on, he added that the Navy gave him the happiest years of his life, and now I can see why. Time spent around other people enabled him to escape the reality of Viet Cong capturing people and Parkinson’s disease invading his body.

“Scorched earth” comes from the military strategy the US used to fight the Viet Cong. This strategy involved the destruction of crops, homes, and resources vital to the enemy. I don’t recall exactly when Michel’s war with Parkinson’s disease got ugly, but I know that dementia had imprisoned his talents. It whispered “scorched earth,” with gardening, driving, and activities of daily living becoming the first casualties. His frequent falls echoed “scorched earth,” necessitating admission to the Veterans home. The ability to swallow became dementia’s final target; yes, dementia can affect swallowing in its late stages. The patient’s cognitive function worsens until finally, his brain forgets how to swallow and sustain life. After his admission to the home, I learned that deep brain stimulation, when done in the subthalamic nucleus where Mike had it done can cause cognitive changes, including dementia.

I can sum up Michael’s fight with Parkinson’s by using an analogy about life. When I was ten, my mom sent me to a summer camp for three weeks. Other kids spent the summer; some stayed a week.  Some preferred sports; others leaned toward arts and crafts. One kid remained a loner and avoided most activities.

In many ways, life is like camp. God drops us off to “stay” for a while; some of us will remain here longer than others. Some people become writers or artists. Others go for medicine or law. Mike came to the camp of life with many talents, but as the years passed, he reminded me of the little girl who didn’t fit in.

His problems became apparent when his doctor attempted different medicines that resulted in intolerable side effects. At work, customers complained about his softening voice, accusing him of drinking (he was a teetotaler). Although surgery contained the tremor, it aggravated his cognitive changes and speech difficulties.

After Mike went on disability, he joined the neighborhood’s beautification committee. He had his horticulture skills behind him, and this seemed to give him purpose. Instead, after a few months, he came home, reporting that he’d been “ousted.” One of the other members who happened to be a nurse explained that Mike was exhibiting personality changes and none of them pleasant. Toward the end, he became a lone wolf like that little girl at camp.

Thankfully, the Veterans home nurses treated him like family. They appreciated the sense of humor and kindness still lingering under the dementia. He’d been supportive of my writing, and this continued on his good days. Up until a month ago, he giggled at my balloon adventures. I suspect that his relatives in Heaven will welcome him with love, balloons, and flowers. Whatever Mike saw upon passing must have been beautiful, for he had a look of awe on his face. His suffering is behind him, and I’d like to think that he’s filling up on cheesecake, picking balloons, and thinking of me. Heaven has surely gained an angel.

Personal Demons Revisited

Harold Kempka writes a series of chilling zombie tales in this book.The other night, I had a visitor over my house and she’d asked me how I got to writing horror. I told her how it started with Dark Shadows and the Hammer films. Stephen King, among other authors, only fanned the flames, I said, ignoring the fact that my dance with horror began 51 years ago, during a trip to Atlantic City with my mother. Had Mylar balloons existed, Atlantic City would have never happened because the balloons would have shielded my eyes from the sight. But, Mylar balloons didn’t exist, so I was left to face the monster on my own. And I never mentioned anything about Atlantic City to my friend.

After all, this story isn’t the kind of thing I’d tell to the uninitiated. I usually reserve this one for Halloween.

This mystery tale was written by JoAnna Senger.When I was a child, my mother and I used to go to the Italian Village at Atlantic City’s Million Dollar Pier. The Village knew how to make some mean hoagies, and gluten never entered the picture. At the time, there were amusements and goodies such as those booths where you could take four selfies for a buck. One day, they had a pavilion closed with a curtain, seated on a dais. The billboard read, “See live 1000-year-old woman.” That sounded awesome, so I got in line.

The people ahead of me formed a C-shaped ring around an ornate bathtub. Later on, I learned that bathtub was actually a sarcophagus.  Further ahead, I made out jet black hair and a shriveled face. The woman had on an ornate vest, but nothing else. I stepped up to get a closer look. Not a woman after all, but a mummified skeleton. I stood there frozen, and the people just kept looking and chatting among themselves, as if they were gathering at a party. Seconds later, she turned her head and raised her arms, extending her hand. At that, I bolted from the pavilion, screaming.

Campfire chillers features a series of horror fiction tales by Rajeev Bhargava.As I got older, I realized that most likely the folks who engineered this constructed machinery and invisible ropes to make the body move. But when you see a dead body look your way, you don’t consider possibilities. You run. For most of my life, thereafter, I’ve had this fear of skeletons—I’d discussed this in previous blogs. I think I worked my way through it; noticed that I have skeletal images for illustrations. I’ve got a real beauty of a skeleton photo in NTD 29. All the same, I rarely buy Halloween balloons. I go with floral shapes and Mylar butterflies.

I’d say this sighting in Atlantic City ignited my fascination with horror. Then I moved on to Dark Shadows and the Hammer films which fueled the flames, followed by Stephen King. Thankfully, my Mylar balloons serve as a moderating influence.

I’m offering two giveaways: A signed copy of Steel Rose and a copy of Night to Dawn 28, to be given to a random commenter during this blog hop. And if you can guess how many Mylar balloons I have, the person with the closest guess will get an eBook copy of Close Liaisons and City of Brotherly Death.

Balloons and Branding

Barbara Custer loves her Mylar balloons and horror tales.Jonathan Maberry, a wise author and mentor, once told me that the best way to get readers is not by pushing your book but by “branding” yourself. Perhaps you have a favorite shirt you might wear to signings. Perhaps everything you live and breathe resonates with Star Trek. I’ve been doing mine via Mylar balloons. Why balloons? I can’t say why, but I find it impossible to shop at most supermarkets without being waylaid by the balloons at the floral aisle. How many balloons do I have? A lot. If you’d like to guess how many, there’s a giveaway involved.

Barbara Custer wrote Close Liaisons, a science fiction book featuring aliens and Mylar balloons.Any time you blog or go to a writing venue you’re “on,” meaning that the way you carry yourself will become part of your brand. So whenever you blog, you’ll want to keep it positive. If you had a quarrel at home, leave it there. Give yourself plenty of time to get to an event because if you show up late, people might associate lateness with your brand. “Oh, yeah, that’s Barbara of the Balloons – she takes her time,” and so forth. When I’m with writer buddies, doing the editor letter for Night to Dawn, or blogging, I usually open the top with my latest balloon escapade at the Giant, Acme, or other market. And I find that balloon analogies have a way of getting the point across.

Michael DeStefano wrote this coming of age novel.Sometimes your brand can creep into your books. NTD author Michael De Stefano, for one, loves baseball, and you’ll find a lot of scenes involving baseball in In the Times of Their Restlessness and his other two books. Tom Johnson’s bouquet of balloons is his life in the military, and his experiences and love of science fiction creep into his Jur novels. Rod Marsden brands himself with his love of history in Ghost Dance, among his other books.

So … I guess you’re wondering if Mylar balloons have crept into my books. Well, let me put it to you this way. Did God make little green apples? Does it snow in Pennsylvania during the wintertime?  Heroine Alexis of Steel Rose kept a squadron of Mylar balloons in her hospital room because she felt that the helium in them, being especially poisonous for Kryszka aliens, might protect her from the renegades. You will also meet balloon queens in Close Liaisons and City of Brotherly Death.

The most important part of branding though is having fun. Why is it so important? Because the branding tool enables people to get to know you in a good way. When that happens, good reviews, if not sales, are likely to follow.

So … how do you go about branding yourself and your work? Do you have a special interest in something that works? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

I’m offering two giveaways: A signed copy of Steel Rose and a copy of Night to Dawn 28, to be given to a random commenter during this blog hop. And if you can guess how many Mylar balloons I have, the person with the closest guess will get an eBook copy of Close Liaisons and City of Brotherly Death.

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An Intense Discussion on Italicizing Thoughts

Barbara Custer loves her Mylar balloons and science fiction tales.One evening, I headed to a writers’ group meeting where of all things, we had a discussion on whether or not to italicize thoughts. Why are we talking about this, I wondered? My mind kept wandering back to my visit to the Giant earlier in the day, when a humongous Disney Princess Mylar balloon waylaid me. I still kept reliving the touch of the balloon against my hair as it blocked my view from the other balloons that wanted my attention.

Italicizing thoughts? Indeed. All of my writing life, I’ve been taught that anything in thoughts should be italicized in fiction manuscripts. Actually that’s not true. In the early days, when I submitted, I had to underline my characters’ thoughts, with the understanding that the editor her would then know to italicize. That’s not required now unless you’re doing a college term paper. Mind you, people send me work with stuff underlined, and I’ll change it to italics without complaining.

Ah, but when I went to my trusty references, I found that while italics can make a useful tool, something too many is overkill. Italics might definitely work for thoughts that are especially significant. Otherwise, find an unobtrusive way to express thoughts.

Barbara Custer edits Night to Dawn magazine, featuring horror, zombies, and science fiction.So let’s figure this out with a scene describing my balloon purchase. Example 1: The Disney Princess balloon called to me as soon as I entered the Giant. Whoa, I thought, that looks like one pricey balloon. (Internal dialogue) Using “I thought” and italics serves to distance me (the character) from this internal dialogue. Example 2: I examined the balloon, smiling, holding it up to the light, wondering how it would look near the butterflies in my living room. This sentence gives a different way to word thoughts, without italics, along with body language to demonstrate my feelings. This technique brings the thought closer to me. Which way is best? Either will work. It depends on your story and the effect you’re trying to achieve through your character.

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We also had a debate on whether intent was an adjective, and that maybe intense should be the adjective, while intent is the noun. So I headed to my trusty references. Sometimes Google, but often times Chicago of Manual Style.  Here’s another one just to confuse y’all: intensive. So let’s clear up the mystery.

Intense is in fact an adjective, meaning exerting extreme force, or being having strong feelings. So … if you want your book to read well, it may need intense editing. I have an intense interest in Mylar balloons.

Intensive means focused on one topic. So an intensive edit might be focused on characterization.

Cross genre horror / science fiction book by Barbara CusterIntent can work as an adjective or a noun. Intent is synonymous with intention which means a general plan to get something done. Intent is stronger, meaning a firm resolution to get something done. Example: In spite of the distractions from the Mylar balloons, I was intent on finding every item on my grocery list.

As a noun, intent can mean aim or goal. Example: My intent was to get all of the groceries, but the Mylar balloons got the better of me.

So … I’d like to hear your thoughts on italicizing and the use of intent versus intense.

I’m offering two giveaways: A signed copy of Steel Rose and a copy of Night to Dawn 28, to be given to a random commenter during this blog hop.

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Does Geographical Therapy Help Writer’s Block?

Infinite Sight, a science-fiction tale by Barbara Custer, features a young woman waking from surgery with psychic powers.

Can traveling help with editing this book?

Someone once suggested that the best therapy for any stress is an old-fashioned vacation. I’d planned a few days at Ocean City, NJ months ago. Lately, I found myself having a tough time with the edits for Infinite Sight, soon to be going live. After whining about it on my Facebook posts, I asked my Mylar balloons whether geographical therapy, that is, a vacation would help me through this conundrum, for anything major I do always involves a discussion with my balloons.

Well, my balloonies, who have an answer for everything, replied, “Put a balloon lady on the bus in Franconia, a balloon lady gets off in Ocean City.”

Still, it had been years since I did something like this, back when Mike was healthy. So I went and spent the three days shopping, soaking up sun, reading, and socializing. I didn’t lift a finger to write or edit anything, not even so much as taking notes. I didn’t sleep my best – I never do in a strange bed, away from my balloonies – but the day I came home, I slept 10 hours that night.

40 Flash Fictions, written by Allan Heller, features zombie tales.I’m not going to say that geographicals work for everyone, but when I came home, I found myself better to handle the edits. I found a plot hole that no one had mentioned and fixed it. I’ve made a big dent in the editing mess that I had … enough with confidence that this winter could turn out to be a happy one as far as book releases go. Still, my Mylar balloons had a point. Once, I woke up, thinking that I was in my bed, and rubbed the back of my head against the pillows, searching for Mylar balloons until I remembered that I was in a hotel.

So … I’d like to hear your thoughts on geographicals and writer’s block. Have you tried traveling to wake your muse? I look forward to hearing about your experiences.

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As part of the October Frights Blog Hop, I’m offering giveaways to random commenters—a signed, print copy of Steel Rose and Night to Dawn Magazine’s 28th issue.

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