Life Got in the Way

science fiction tales by Barbara Custer

Well, here we are in mid-November, and my Mylar balloons reminded me that I hadn’t blogged since the October Frights promo. The promo went well, and I settled into a routine with Night to Dawn, working from noon to 8:00 p.m. most days, with weekends off. I started some work on the website, cutting expenses and was about to install a different, more reasonably priced SEO. All that changed on October 30th when I had my car accident.

First up, I’m okay; my bruises and abrasions have mostly healed. I’ve gone back to the gym twice and was able to do the Pilates plank for the first time. I can’t say the same for my car; it was totaled. This means time spent with insurance agents and online researching cars. There are also trips to the doctors, to the stores to test drive cars and follow-ups with the insurance people. That meant cutting hours back to 4:30 to 8:30. I’ve had to hold off any work on the website, except for posting announcements and doing updates. Night to Dawn 35 is on schedule – I’ve always been obsessive-compulsive about getting the stories edited, so this helped.

My takeaways: If you’re ever in an accident, see a doctor fast. When you’re in shock, you don’t feel pain, and the docs may catch a problem before it gets out of hand. You can replace a car. Second, if you’re contemplating retiring from the day job, think twice. No matter how much money you’ve saved, it’s never enough. I had no choice on retiring because the lack of night vision and other health issues prohibited my working at the hospital, but I do plan on signing on with upwork.com once the dust settles.

I hope to be back in business fulltime in December. I’ve got a blog in mind on revising, too. We’re supposed to have a harsh winter—Pennsylvania winters usually are—which means I will have my butt in a chair working on Night to Dawn projects and routine chores, and my Mylar balloons to supervise me.

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Ode to Mike’s Backpack

Barbara Custer's backpack

At the outlets this week, I bought a new backpack. The battered black one I was using went into the trash. No big deal except that the tattered bag belonged to my late husband, Mike.

Mike got that backpack in 1996 before he got sick. At the same time, he got a briefcase for me. Both items were brand new, but Mike said he found them in the trash. Perhaps he was pulling my leg, but at the time, several couples near us were divorcing. You’d be surprised at what people throw away during a divorce.

That backpack served Mike well during our forays to the islands. It accompanied us on tours through Italy. After Parkinson’s Disease enforced its scorched earth policy with Mike, I used that backpack to go to my writers’ conferences. I toted the bag to Ocean City and everywhere else until this week.

Discarding the backpack felt like trashing a memory. How could I do this, I wondered? But funny thing, the new bag is black, too, and decorated with poppy, flowers. Mike once told me I reminded him of the poppy flower, so he called me Popple. So those memories will continue with the new bag.

When you get down to it, both items are plain backpacks, made of canvas or leather, and such items wear off after months, sometimes years of use. But the memories involved will live on forever.

Traveling, Balloons, and Geographical Therapy

featuring walking skeletons, zombies and a new twist on vampiresYesterday, I headed to Reading Terminal Market and bought delicious cheeses, baked goods, and a gift for someone. The ride was my Mylar balloons’ idea.

The discussion began with my forthcoming trip to Atlantic City, where I’ll indulge in geographical therapy to spur the writing muse. Since I’m taking a Greyhound bus, I decided to confirm the trip. It took me three tries to find the confirmation number.

That was when a balloon’s cheery voice popped up. “Are you having a problem?”

“No!” I snapped. “I just needed the confirmation number. I’m good to go.”

“Uh, huh.” The butterfly balloons bobbed. “When was the last time you rode a Greyhound bus?”

“I’ve taken them many times when my mom and I used to travel back in, um, 1975.”

“1975, huh?” The balloons congregated around me. “That’s over 40 years ago. Shouldn’t you read their FAQ? They may have changed their guidelines?”

“Right.” So I studied the FAQ and learned about the tagging and baggage restriction, something not mentioned in 1975. “Guess I’d better bird-dog the station.”

“Dat’s wight, wabbit.” The balloons patted me on the head. “While you’re at it, how about walking through the Reading Terminal Market and Di Bruno Brothers? You plan to do some running around at the shore. See how that would work with your neuropathy.”

“Aw, shucks, why’d you have to mention that?” I groaned, knowing better than to argue. “Why don’t I just take a day trip to Atlantic City?”

“That won’t be necessary, but when you do go, take a cab to the hotel instead of walking. Betcha there will be cabs lined up, offering rides.”

With the balloons’ suggestions duly noted, I headed downtown. The ride to the bus station went without a hitch. Because the humidity had made yesterday a low spoon day, I needed to sit between every store I visited and I was pretty sore by the time I finished. Nevertheless, I got gf treats at the Flying Monkey Bakery. At the Pennsylvania General Store, they’ve got holiday ornaments, Philadelphia souvenirs, and other goodies. Reading Terminal Market has great cheese shops, but because I’d gotten there early, they were closed. If I don’t get my cheese, I’m gonna be an unhappy camper, I thought, so I headed off to Di Bruno Brothers. There I got my cheeses and prosciutto. After that, I went home to rest.

I got three takeaways from this: first, you can find anything you want at the Reading Terminal Market and Di Bruno Brothers, and yes, most of the shops cater to food allergies. If you leave hungry, you’ve done something wrong.

Second, bird-dog a place you’d like to visit if you’re not familiar with the area. This can apply to your writing if you want to create a realistic setting. I may bird-dog some places while I’m at the shore for my work in progress.

Finally, if you have neuropathy or any kind of health issue, travel light and consider the benches your best friends. I’ve decided to forego my laptop and opted for a journal and pens I can stow in my suitcase. Geographical therapy aside, it will be interesting to see how writing by hand affects my creativity.

Stay tuned. 🙂

A Good Reason and the Real Reason

science fiction tales by Barbara Custer

Yesterday, I headed to the supermarket to take advantage of the sales. Well, that was a handy excuse. The real reason I went was because I’ve contemplated the colorful Mylar balloons on their display shelves. Perhaps someone might cite ill health or better opportunity as a reason to quit a job, but deep down, they were simply unhappy working at their company. In both cases, we have our good reasons and our real reasons.

This principle applies to writing, too, so I have a confession to make. A while back, I blogged about The Forgotten People, citing my reasons for rewriting and publishing the stories. My post didn’t ring true. The reasons I gave were valid—the stories feature timid, bullied people who didn’t fit into society. I started working on spinoffs of these tales after the Termite Invasion of 2017. Along the way, I stumbled and needed the help of a good editor.

My real motive kept me going through the tough edits: our unstable political climate.

In particular, healthcare. The two last stories in The Forgotten People anthology, “The Forgotten Ward,” and “Good Samaritan” take place in 2050. Medicaid no longer exists, and due to the high costs, hospitals will not treat you without insurance or cash card. When your insurance runs out, better hope you have money. You can’t barter with real estate or other valuables unless you can find a buyer fast. Without money, all treatment stops. The protagonists in these tales find a way to smuggle life-saving medicine to indigent patients, but they pay dearly for their efforts.

I got to thinking about Trump’s proposed 2019 cuts to Medicare, SNAP, and Medicaid. His pending changes include Medicare enrollees paying the same copay on every doctor visit, whether it be routine or a specialist. This could shortchange specialists who may in turn refuse to treat Medicare patients (shades of “Forgotten Ward”). If I met Mr. Trump, I’d ask, “Since when did age and money define someone’s right to life and medical care?”

Granted, I took plenty of artistic license. In “The Forgotten Ward,” the sickest patients are warehoused into a dirty ward where they’re left to die. In reality, if we continue on this slippery slope, the hospitals of the future may simply discharge patients who run out of funds. But there you have it, folks: my real reason for publishing this book.

My Mylar balloons, who have an opinion on everything, from politics to writing, suggested that focusing on the real reason for telling a story may result in better writing. Methinks they have it right; it did, after all, motivate me to complete the book. Your thoughts?

Behind The Forgotten People…

science fiction tales by Barbara Custer

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” People have told me I’m different; you won’t find many people who collect Mylar balloons the way I do. Whenever I go to a supermarket, a balloon follows me and my cart to the cashier.

And so it goes with the protagonists in my newly-released, SF anthology, The Forgotten People. A lone woman grieving over her father’s death seeks comfort in painting. Another mourns the loss of her husband so much that she can’t focus, thus jeopardizing her job. It was as if someone from another planet had dropped these people off on Earth, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Perhaps the music they hear may come from an alternate universe. And, speaking of Mylar balloons, Chloe discovers balloons galore in “Popple Land.” However, the tales of The Forgotten People are not all balloonery and fluff. Some of the characters come packing heat. Two of the tales, in particular, “The Forgotten Ward,” occur in the future at a time when Medicaid stops. Without cash or health insurance, the indigent patients must go without treatment. The protagonist, a nurse, gets a front-row seat to the horrors of watching the sick being evicted to the Forgotten Ward, where all treatments stop. In recent years, evictions of the poor have occurred in some nursing homes and “The Forgotten Ward” is a depiction of what could happen if this is allowed to continue.

Is there a solution? I’d like to think most problems have answers; and with the Forgotten People, the boundaries are so thin, anything can happen. What if their circumstances changed? Suppose one of the loner’s paintings attracted the attention of visitors from outer space? What would happen if our nurse managed to smuggle medical aid to the poor?

Of people who march to a different drummer, Thoreau says, “Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” So I shall continue to waltz to the music my Mylar balloons play just as the characters in The Forgotten People will dance to the tune they hear.

Balloons like these flourished in “Popple Land.”

Endings and the “I Gotta” Revisited

zombie fiction by Barbara CusterLast night, I worked out an ending paragraph for “The Good Samaritan,” one of the stories in the upcoming anthology, The Forgotten People. It took me over an hour to do it. Tonight, I’ll go back and review what I wrote, and if it still doesn’t feel right, then I’ll look at other endings to short stories that have worked. Endings have been my bane since I first got into writing in the early 90s. Coming up with a workable conclusion was part of the reason I took a break from my sequel to When Blood Reigns.

Okay, I’ll have a slice of Provolone cheese to go with my whine.

I took a Facebook survey on endings, and found that most people are facing the same struggle I do. Stories don’t have to end on a happy note, but they should come full circle. One can tie up all loose endings or end at a cliffhanger, but the bottom line is: satisfy the reader. My Facebook buddies gave me an invaluable piece of advice: make sure I have a definite ending in mind, if not written before I write the story. Going forward, that’s what I will do. It won’t help with my current anthology or the sequel to When Blood Reigns, but I have a plan for the future.

So why do I keep going? Stephen King calls it the “I gotta.” I wrote the stories long ago for different magazines, and then last summer, after my adventure with the termites, I sorted my material and realized these stories spoke about the same alien race, the Athyrians. In case you’re wondering about the Athyrians, you’ll have to wait until the book goes live to find out. Science fiction appeal aside, many of the stories had a common theme: how health care was becoming more cost-prohibitive. All of them needed significant updating and revisions, so the “I gotta” was born, and now I feel driven to finish these revisions, including the ending, and get them into print. The “I gotta” for The Forgotten People was the main reason I took a break from my sequel, but once the anthology goes into print, I’m heading back to my sequel. The main character in the sequel loves her Mylar balloons, and some readers have been asking for a “balloon” tale.

The “I gotta” has kept me going strong despite the breakdown of two computers and a host of other winter mishaps. None of them have challenged me as much as these endings.

Do you find your endings challenging? How have you resolved the problem? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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