I was honored to be invited for an interview on Smart Cherry’s Thoughts YouTube channel back in December. We talked about writing, my books, where inspiration comes from, and opinions on positive versus negative reviews. Here is that interview.
I was honored to be invited for an interview on Smart Cherry’s Thoughts YouTube channel back in December. We talked about writing, my books, where inspiration comes from, and opinions on positive versus negative reviews. Here is that interview.
Greetings to all! Welcome to Rave Reviews Book Club’s 2019 October-ween Block Party! Today, in keeping with the Halloween spirit, I am sharing my short story entitled Monster, from my short story collection Strange Hwy.
Three lucky readers will win prizes! (Who doesn’t like prizes?)
Here are my prize packs:
1. A $10 Amazon Gift Card and your choice of a signed paperback copy of one of my books!
2. A $10 Amazon Gift Card and your choice of a signed paperback copy of one of my books!
3. A $10 Amazon Gift Card and your choice of a signed paperback copy of one of my books!
Those books to choose from are:
All you have to do to enter is leave a comment below!
And now, on to my Halloween short story. . .
“Indecent liberties with a minor,” my mother explained, repeating the same words Danny Deagle sprinkled on us kids earlier in the day. “I don’t want you girls trick-or-treating at his house tonight.”
The old man at the end of the street, she meant. A swirl of new words followed him into our neighborhood—words shrouded in secrecy, in a thick fog of mystery. The simple ones I’d commit to memory, intending find them in the dictionary I got for my tenth birthday this past summer—a secret gift that nobody else knew about.
Perv—that’s the one I looked up last night, right before bed. Millicent, my older sister, she used it when telling Grandma Myron about the new neighbor in question. But if there’s such a word as perv, well, old Merriam-Webster hasn’t been told. I couldn’t find it to save my life.
“I ain’t going anywhere near that side of the street,” Millicent announced. “—not as long as he’s lurking down there.”
She’d go over there, though. Millicent thinks she’s hot you-know-what just because she’s thirteen now. Besides, every kid in the neighborhood wants to be the first one to walk up those front steps and ring the doorbell. You have to be seen doing it, though, or it won’t count for anything.
I tossed in a handful of words meant to be my two cents. “Danny Deagle says he got in trouble down in Kentucky before he got in trouble here in Ohio—that old man, I mean.”
Danny Deagle knows about these sorts of things. His stepdad is a cop.
My mother lit a fresh Marlboro and proclaimed, “He’s got no business staying on this street—not with all you kids around.” Thin lazy smoke slithered from her nostrils like twin snakes in search of a meal. “Don’t let me hear that you girls went trick-or-treating at his house.”
* * *
Millicent dressed as a belly dancer again—same as last Halloween and the one before that. She just likes the attention from boys like Danny Deagle and Jeff Brahm. But they like her only because she’s practically naked in her costume.
Me? I got stuck being a hobo again—even though my mother promised me I could be the belly dancer this year.
Millicent grabbed her pillowcase from the kitchen table and said, “Ready, dweeb?”
“You’re the dweeb,” I argued, snatching my own pillowcase.
My mother said, “Don’t stay out all night.”
We’d stay out as long as it took to fill those pillowcases to the full.
Danny Deagle met us in front of his house. Those gray eyes of his drank up Millicent like she’s cool water and he’s been thirsty for days. But he really couldn’t be blamed. Booty shorts and a sports bra, that’s all she wore underneath that sheer white fabric that left her belly bare and exposed.
Our father, before he remarried and moved to Cincinnati, wouldn’t have allowed one of his daughters to go traipsing through the neighborhood wearing only a couple of tissue papers.
But our father doesn’t come around anymore. And our mother, she won’t play the villain—as she likes to say. So Millicent gets away with murder.
Kids of all ages crisscrossed our neighborhood exchanging tricks for treats. Smarties and Sweettarts mingled with fun-sized Snickers and Milky Ways in the bottom of our pillowcases. And later, when we’d finally have to call it a night, Millicent would try to swindle me out of all of my Hershey’s Miniatures, offering junk like jelly beans and peanut butter chews for trade.
Billy Pinsler found us where Delbert Avenue and McCaully Drive cross. Billy’s my age—only shorter. “Anybody going to the perv’s house?” he asked.
Danny fixed me in his sight. “You’ll go up there, won’t you, Melanie?”
My head twisted left and right. “Mom said to stay away from his house,” I told him, knowing full-well he’d poke and prod until I agreed to answer his dare.
Danny’s good like that. He knows how to get kids to do what he’s too scared to do—only he’d never admit to being scared.
Millicent joined the push, said, “Since when do you listen to Mom?”
We were already there, bags half-full, in front of that house on the end of our street. I’d be the one going, as usual.
“Melanie won’t go,” Billy announced. “She’s too scared.”
My eyes found Millicent’s eyes. “You’re the one who’s half naked; why don’t you go up there?”
“Because the guy’s a perv, nimrod!” said Danny. “You want him to try something with her?”
I tossed my gaze toward that house. A lone porch light shined out of the dark.
“If I scream,” I said, walking to my demise, “you better run and call the cops.”
A fall breeze passed through the trees overhead, sending loose leaves gliding to the ground.
My legs went heavy and stiff, unwilling to move without provocation. Somewhere on that street a dog barked warnings at kids in costumes.
My body halted at the bottom step leading to the front door. I tossed a glance over my shoulder. Millicent, Danny, and Billy took refuge behind shrubs at the foot of the driveway.
“Ain’t gotta be scared,” the voice said, suddenly there like a spook in the night. “Just come on up. I won’t bite—except you want I should.”
A bead of sweat raced down my belly, which was stuffed with an old pillow to make me look fat.
Gray hair going thin twisted this way and that, like weeds, atop his head. Skinny, like maybe he’d been sick for a while.
My foot found the first step, brought us closer.
He asked, “You gonna say it?”
I would. It only seemed right. “Trick or treat.”
A laugh just like my father’s slipped past his lips. He kind of resembled him, too, around the eyes and nose.
“You say it with no real conviction, girl,” he said, almost accusing me of something.
The mouth of my pillowcase yawned wide, ready to swallow whatever treats he chose to dispense.
Two Hershey’s miniatures.
Mr. Goodbar and Krackle.
“Where’s your sister?” he wondered aloud, throwing his gaze like a pair of marbles down the driveway.
“Hiding,” I confessed, backing away.
But those eyes of his—cobalt blue, same as my father’s—took hold on me, wandered along my length as if sizing me for a new dress.
“You ’sposed to be a bum?” he asked.
Denim coveralls, a gray T-shirt that used to be white, and worn-out tennis shoes seemed the easiest of Halloween costumes to put together.
I corrected him, said, “A hobo.”
“Hobo, huh?” He waggled his finger, drew me closer to his grasp. “Take the rest of these,” he said, offering me the entire bowl of miniatures.
“What about the other kids?”
“Ain’t no other kids. You the only one come ’round tonight.”
It made my bag heavier and more than satisfied, this extra loot.
My voice came tight, higher-pitched than normal. “Thank you.”
“Polite—just like your daddy at that age.” The weight of his body found relief against the door frame. “Did you get the Merriam-Webster I sent for your birthday?”
My head tipped a nod, my voice said, “Thank you, Granddad.”
* * *
“Did he lose his goo over you?” Danny Deagle asked, acting like a big brother. “I’ll tell my stepdad if he did.”
“He didn’t,” I assured him, not really understanding what goo just might get lost.
Millicent’s gaze took hold on mine, passed words into my head, words demanding my silence on the matter.
Aloud, her words asked, “What’d he give you?”
“Jellybeans,” I told her. “Nothing but jellybeans.”
If you ever find yourself on the Strange Hwy–don’t turn around. Don’t panic. Just. Keep. Going. You never know what you’ll find.
You’ll see magic at the fingertips of an autistic young man,
You can exit the Strange Hwy, and come back any time you want.
See, now you know the way in, don’t be a stranger.
Naming characters might not seem like a major aspect to writing fiction, but it’s one of the most important pieces of the writing puzzle.
Names, when well thought out, convey elements of that character’s personality, region of birth, ethnicity. A memorable name will also stay with your readers—even after they’ve finished reading your book. Names like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are much more memorable than, say, Dave Johnson and Bill Smith. Over the course of many books and several movies, we have a firm image of Han and Luke. Just hearing those names takes us on a journey into the future, into the deepest reaches of space. Bill and Dave, though part of a famous story, would not be easily recognizable in the name-dropping game of story fandom.
At times, I’ll come up with a name before I even have the story. There’s a personality within the name that just might have a tale that needs telling. I’ve been known to keep lists of names I think merit investigation. This is how a current work-in-progress began. This short story sprang from the idea of a guy named Elvis, who happens to look nothing at all like the King of Rock and Roll. He’s a man who specializes in finding people who don’t want to be found.
I try to choose uncommon names for my characters. Names I’ve used include:
Nola Patterson (Named after New Orleans, Louisiana)
Addison (Addie) Markley
DeShay the piano player
Jobie Pritchett (Named after Job from the Bible)
Just speaking certain names aloud will lead our thoughts directly to the story from which they come. Scout and Jem Finch. Atticus Finch. Captain Ahab. Holden Caulfield. Scarlett O’Hara. Harry Potter. Jay Gatsby. Hester Prynne. Nurse Ratched. Delores “Lolita” Haze. Big Brother. Piggy. Names carry weight. Names remind us just how good a story can be.
I’ve written a few short stories where a main character is nameless. This works in certain situations. The point in writing is to have fun with what you are creating. This lends itself to choosing names as well. How do you come up with your character names?
Welcome to Historytellers Scavenger Hunt! This is a hunt dedicated to novels historically set in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, where all genre are welcome. You’ll get the opportunity to discover new authors, new stories, and to meet and talk to other readers who love this time period—not to mention that you’ll have the opportunity to win the grand prize. What is the grand prize, you ask? This includes digital copies of all the novels participating in the hunt.
The hunt will be online, today only, 17 March 2019, from 00:00 to 23:59 EST.
Go to the Historytellers Scavenger Hunt page to find out all about the hunt.
If you’d like to find out more about the hunt, see links to all the authors participating, and see the full list of prizes up for grabs, go to the Historytellers Scavenger Hunt page.
***THE SCAVENGER HUNT***
Directions: I’ve included my lucky number on this post (You will spot it!). All my fellow authors participating in the hunt will include a lucky number on their posts. Collect the these numbers and add them up.
Entry Form: When you have that lucky total number, make sure you fill out the form here to officially qualify for the grand prize. Only entries that have the correct number will qualify.
Rules: Anyone can take part. To be eligible for the grand prize, you must submit the completed entry form by Sunday 17 March 23:59 EST. Entries sent without the correct number or without contact information will not be considered.
Beem Weeks here. Born and raised in Michigan, USA. I’m an indie author, blogger, blog talk radio host, Social Media Director for Fresh Ink Group, and reviews coordinator/Rave Waves producer for Rave Reviews Book Club. I have written many short stories, essays, poems, and the historical fiction/coming-of-age novel Jazz Baby. I have also released Slivers of Life: A Collection of Short Stories and Strange Hwy: Short Stories. My current work-in-progress is a novel entitled The Secret Collector, set in 1910. I live to create with the written word.
Taken in by an aunt bent on ridding herself of this unexpected burden, Baby Teegarten plots her escape using the only means at her disposal: a voice that brings church ladies to righteous tears, and makes both angels and devils take notice. “I’m going to New York City to sing jazz,” she brags to anybody who’ll listen. But the Big Apple—well, it’s an awful long way from that dry patch of earth she’d always called home.
So when the smoky stages of New Orleans speakeasies give a whistle, offering all sorts of shortcuts, Emily Ann soon learns it’s the whorehouses and opium dens that can sidetrack a girl and dim a spotlight…and knowing the wrong people can snuff it out.
Jazz Baby just wants to sing—not fight to stay alive.
Jazz Baby is set in the summer of 1925. The locations drift between a little town in Mississippi called Rayford, and New Orleans, Louisiana. The story is told from the point of view of a young teenage girl named Emily Ann “Baby” Teegarten. Emily has been blessed with an incredible voice for a young white girl—she sounds like a soulful black woman when she belts out church spirituals. But Baby doesn’t want to sing just spirituals. It’s jazz that gets her motor running. When both parents are taken from her early in the story, all she has left in this world is an aunt who really isn’t up to raising a rebellious teenager, and her talent as a singer. This talent—as well as her beauty—catches the eyes of those who might help her as well as those who would hurt her.
The idea for this story came from multiple sources. There are elements that came about through stories my grandfather told when I was a child. His stories didn’t make it into the book, but the era and the environment were certainly influenced by his tales. The main character is based on a composite of three girls I knew in my teenage years. These girls were eager to live life, reckless in their pursuits, and often foolish where common sense would have been better served.
Emily is a curious girl. She’s curious about people, and about the world in which she resides. And she’s curious about sex and the power of her budding sexuality, and the various taboos attached to such forbidden fruit. But sex, to her understanding, isn’t about relationships or commitment. It’s about urges, and about moments in an afternoon or an evening. While traversing the seedy underbelly of New Orleans, Emily comes to understand that sex is often a currency. It can be used to bribe the wills of others, or it can be a means to put a few dollars in a girl’s pocket. And while Emily personally rejects such ideas, New Orleans is full of people with ideas of their own—ideas she may or may not be able to resist.
I sought to create a character that is at once fierce, independent, and determined, yet vulnerable, naïve, and dependent on others for her very survival. I want readers to come away with mixed feelings for this character—caring for the girl, while shaking their heads at her dangerous—even stupid—endeavors. I want her to be real. And to be real, there must be flaws. Judging by many of the reviews, I believe I’ve accomplished this goal.
Add up all the lucky numbers and you’ll have the secret code to enter for the grand prize!
To keep going on your quest for the hunt, you need to check out the next author, Jennifer Lamont Leo!
This is number: 3
The link to the BLOG NEXT IN LINE: http://jenniferlamontleo.com/blog/
Link to HOW TO HUNT: https://sarahzama.theoldshelter.com/historytellers-how-to-hunt/
Link to the AUTHORS PAGE: https://sarahzama.theoldshelter.com/historytellers-scavenger-hunt-the-authors/
Link to the ENTRY FORM: https://gleam.io/gH08g/historytellers-scavenger-hunt
What drives my spirit? That is such a wonderful question. So often we live life in the past, nursing ancient grudges and scarred-over wounds inflicted by those for whom we once cared, or it’s spent reliving some special moment in time when all seemed right in the world. We focus so much on the past—and even the future—that we forget to appreciate the present. As writers, we can use those old wounds as plot lines for another compelling story, a life-affirming essay, or a cautionary tale. As human beings, we must learn to live for today before our time here is finished. We must seek balance. Living life in the here-and-now is what truly drives my spirit. We are not promised tomorrow, and yesterday cannot be relived. But just look at all the inspiration to be discovered today!
Letting Inspiration Take the Wheel
What drives your spirit? It’s a simple enough question—though the answers can be quite complicated. As writers, inspiration is that very substance that leads us on our journey of telling believable stories. But what about those who don’t write?
Inspiration drives my spirit. And not just the writer side of me, either. Through three of my young nieces, I have been inspired to giggle like a schoolboy again. These lovely girls just have that sort of charm. We lost their father—my youngest brother—some years ago. This loss came rather suddenly, and, for the most part, unexpectedly. As a then-forty-three-year-old man, that news knocked a hole in the very center of me. I took the loss rather personally. What the heck were all those prayers for if they’d only gone ignored? And I wasn’t the only one praying for my brother. I went into a dark place afterward, found myself angry and confused. I all but abandoned my prayer life. I mean, what’s the sense of praying if God either won’t listen or just says no? (For the record, I still believe in prayer.)
To say my brother had a talent for making babies would be an accurate statement. He left nine children fatherless when he passed away—including a newborn baby boy who will never know his father. But these girls, they were five, seven, and eight at the time. They knew their father. They would certainly miss him in ways none of us will ever comprehend without having lost a parent at such young years. These same girls are beautiful and silly and kind and so full of life. It’s that silliness that is infectious. They make me laugh. But even more so, they make me giggle—much like a schoolboy. They’ve not forgotten their daddy. They’ve just bounced back the way kids will. They see there is still life left to be lived. They’ve quietly inspired me to follow suit.
They need not be tragic, those circumstances driving our spirits. Some of my greatest inspirations have been found languishing in boxes beneath tables at so many yard sales. A 1965 telephone directory for my home town led to the writing of one of my most-read essays. I mean, think about it: A telephone book. Who writes about that sort of thing?
Consider the lost history found in the pages of that directory and you’ll see where inspiration stirred her magic inside of me. My father, a young newlywed and first-time dad, is forever a nineteen-year-old with his entire future ahead of him between those pages. Restaurants that catered to my parents’ generation are still open for business within those musty pages. Long-dead relatives remain alive at former addresses that, in the real world, no longer exist. This time capsule conjures all sorts of soul-driving inspiration. It can lead one to write essays or short stories based on such a find. It can also inspire a deep inward examination of self. Have I lived up to their legacies? Am I reaching accomplishments of which my lost ancestors would be proud? I think so—at least at this point in my life. See, my grandfather and father, both deceased, were aspiring writers. They found inspiration to craft short stories and, in the case of my grandfather, a memoir of his teen years, working aboard a Mississippi River paddle wheel steamboat. Neither my father nor grandfather ever found fulfillment in seeing their work published. I have to believe they’d both be thrilled to know I succeeded in that area.
I believe inspiration dwells among the living, daring us to seek it, to discover it, to make it our very own, allowing it to drive our spirits to greater heights.
A few years ago, I moved to the country after years of living within the city limits. Night time in the country, out among corn and soy bean fields, is vastly different from night time for city dwellers. In the city, there are lights everywhere, making it next to impossible to look up and admire God’s handy work. But there are no lights—outside of the moon—here in the country. I find myself stepping out to the back patio or to the front porch many nights, just to look up at the millions of stars flung against the expanse of an inky-black sky. It’s a simple pleasure, really, but one I have come to truly cherish. This, too, inspires me. The night sky has a way of making even the biggest soul feel small and insignificant. It puts life and the cares of living into a proper perspective. These are the same stars the ancients gazed upon thousands of years ago. Three wise men searching for the newly-born Messiah used the brightest of these stars to guide their way. Ancient Egyptians built temples and ascribed names to these same heavenly bodies. Sailors relied upon these beacons to lead them to brave new worlds beyond the shores to which they’d been born.
Those stars will still be here long after all of us are dead and forgotten.
Did somebody mention the dead? Yes indeed. Even obituaries offer some of the greatest inspiration to those of us left behind. And you need not have even known the deceased. Obituaries are often small biographies detailing lives lived to the fullest. A few years ago I stumbled across a death notice of a woman named Merrien Josephine Cushman-Vail. Merrien died at age 100. That in itself is quite an accomplishment. One hundred years? Just imagine the things she witnessed during her time on planet Earth. But it’s her childhood story that really grabbed hold of my spirit and demanded an essay from me.
In any good story there is that jumping-off point, that one big moment that sets the stage for what’s to come. For Merrien Josephine Cushman, that big moment came a few weeks before her 14th birthday way back in 1927. The young girl had achieved excellent marks, and because of this, there’d been no need of her presence in class on a fateful May day. She offered to walk her 7-year-old brother, Ralph, to school that morning, the way she normally did. But the boy declined his big sister’s gesture, not wanting the other kids to tease him.
Merrien had busied herself picking flowers when she heard the explosion that ended her little brother’s life.
On May 18, 1927, a disgruntled 55-year-old school board treasurer, angry over his defeat in the spring 1926 election for township clerk, rained mayhem upon the tiny community of Bath, Michigan. Andrew Kehoe had spent the better part of a year quietly hiding dynamite and incendiary pyrotol in the basement of the Bath Consolidated School. A timing device ignited the horror that quiet May morning, killing 45 people, 38 of which were children, while injuring 58.
In today’s world, such acts of inhumanity seem almost commonplace. Grief counselors are often on call to help children deal with the unimaginable. But way back in 1927, there existed no such occupation as grief counselor. Survivors like Merrien were left to deal with the wounds and scars on their own. But deal with it, Merrien did. She went on to enjoy a full and happy life, marrying Clare Vail and raising a family of five daughters and two sons.
“You just have to make up your mind to get through it, if you want to go on,” she told her children whenever they’d experienced tough times. “There’s no other choice.”
I wrote an essay inspired by this amazing woman. And had it not been for her obituary, I may not have found that spark needed to start the creative fire.
A pair of great song writers have claimed dreams as inspiration for some of their master works. Paul Simon tells the story of the way many of his best songs came to him while he slept. He’d wake in the morning and there they’d be, sitting front and center in his mind, just waiting for his guitar to add melody and texture to those words sown like seeds in the night.
Paul McCartney has listed numerous points of inspiration for his immense catalog of music. The song “Yesterday” came to him in his sleep. The melody had such a familiar feel, he became convinced it belonged to some other musician, a song heard on the radio perhaps. The same can be said for another of McCartney’s greatest compositions. But this time a lyric in his song “Let It Be” supposedly came to him in a dream featuring his late mother Mary. According to Sir Paul, he’d been wrestling with the idea of leaving The Beatles. The way he saw it, they’d run their course. Cracks had long formed within the band, causing divisions and hard feelings. Should he stay or should he go? That question found its answer in his mother’s otherworldly admonition to just let it be.
I suppose that’s just the way the soul works in some people. John Lennon’s brilliantly nonsense-laden gem “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is the result of a simple drawing his young son Julian had conjured of a girl in his class.
George Harrison wrote the beautiful “Here Comes the Sun” one early spring morning while sitting in his garden playing guitar with friend Eric Clapton. When inspiration arrives, greet it with open arms and a ready pen.
Without inspiration, human beings go nowhere, see nothing, and contribute little—if anything at all—to society. In the absence of creativity, the soul withers and dies long before the body will. Think of any single invention man has ever created and there will be some person, notion, or purpose that has inspired the inventor.
What about those creative souls that wow the world before vanishing from our collective conscience? One hit wonders, is what society has branded them. Look at Harper Lee, who wrote one of the greatest novels in the history of writing and then offered nothing else. Sure, there’s a “new” release from the storyteller, though that seems to be a manuscript written before To Kill A Mockingbird.
How many musicians have written that one great song, only to find an empty tank when seeking to create their follow-up? Does inspiration dry up? Does it die? Has it left us for another? Inspiration certainly changes because our appreciation changes. As we grow older, wisdom takes root within us. A subject we may write about as young people may not be something we hold onto any longer as we age. Those songs about young love and partying and living a carefree existence are entertaining when written by a young soul. But let’s face it: The songs Taylor Swift writes and sings would come off as ridiculous coming from an older soul like Loretta Lynn.
Inspiration never dies or leaves us. It changes as we grow up. Those who fail to recognize such changes will eventually wither and fade. We begin to compete with self, attempting to re-capture the same processes that went into those early creations that helped establish who we are as writers or musicians or actors or inventors. An audience, no matter how loyal, will always see when a soul has ceased growing.
A quote from the late author Jackie Collins implores us scribes to write what we know. That sounds fine on the surface. After all, if we are ignorant of a subject, why take the chance of coming off a fool? But if our world is limited due to circumstances beyond our control, our work will reflect that need for experience and thus may be found lacking. Inspiration allows us to step out from under those constraints. It is inspiration that pushes us to investigate a matter. Research is itself a great fuel in driving the soul to create. I knew very little of the Roaring Twenties or Mississippi or New Orleans or jazz music—until inspired to research these subjects for my novel Jazz Baby. The deeper I dug down, the more inspired I became. The past came alive before my eyes. Books and photos and old music recordings sprinkled flavors throughout my imagination, breathing life into the story I intended to tell. I learned about these things so I could write about these things. That’s how creativity works.
A well-told story is, to me, one of the greatest joys on planet Earth. By well-told, I don’t mean proper punctuation or sentence construction or even strong writing mechanics. A well-told story is simply one that is believable. The characters are so real and so vivid the readers begin to care about your protagonist. They begin to despise or pity your antagonist, even viewing that character with suspicion. The story will read as a truthful recounting of some event that has its roots in your spirit, your mind, and no place else. A well-told story will transport us to faraway lands while transforming our own opinions on a matter we’ve maybe never really considered. It will burn itself into the psyche, forever remaining mere steps from our thoughts.
I’ve read several amazing books that remain with me in this fashion: The Poisonwood Bible, Winter’s Bone, The End of Alice. Every so often, a scene from one of these masterpieces will disrupt my thoughts, usually unbidden, and remind me why it is I enjoyed reading that particular work. When that happens, I’ll grab one of those lives from my box of books, and begin again thumbing those pages, sampling portions of brilliance, often discovering some great line or scene I may not have appreciated during that initial reading.
What drives my spirit? Life and the effort required to live it to its fullest.
It’s a word that we’ve all heard bandied about from time to time, usually attached to some famous figure in history known for inventing something important that has changed the nation—or the world—in ways modern generations could not contemplate living without. Take Steve Jobs for example. Mr. Jobs is considered a true visionary. He’s the father of the modern personal computer, a device with which a life without would seem unimaginable in this modern world. Or consider Henry Ford, automotive tycoon. Mr. Ford certainly didn’t invent the automobile, but he did perfect the assembly line, bringing costs down, allowing for the common people to afford their very own car—and through employment in Ford’s factories, a stronger middle class arose.
The Oxford American College Dictionary contains multiple definitions for this complex yet simple word. The definition I like best reads as stated: a person with original ideas about what the future will or could be like.
The Oxford could be very well be describing a writer. Writers, by nature, are visionaries. Writers, in the name of creativity, must envision worlds that do not exist, populated with people that are not real. But the above definition mentions only the future. What about the past? Can a writer be a visionary in regards to a time that has already faded? The answer is most certainly yes. We construct alternate accounts of real events—like making Abraham Lincoln into a vampire hunter. A program on an internet site’s streaming service poses a world in the 21 century seen through the lens of a Nazi victory in World War Two.
But being a visionary, it runs deeper than merely being a creative writer—or musician or artist. In a sense, everybody is a writer. If you write emails or texts, you are a writer. Here’s where the differences come into play. Not everybody is an author. Writers are not all authors. There are those who write down their personal thoughts and experiences in the pages of diaries or journals, never intending any other living soul to pry. Authors, they have to be bold and brave. They write to be read. If the words we seek to share with others are not visionary, you can bet you’ll hear from those who invested the time in sentences we’ve strung together.
Diaries, texts, personal correspondences; these are not meant to entertain the reader. These are merely there to convey a message or to act as reminder to the future self that, on this particular day, so-and-so made me angry or happy or sad.
Authors, writing to be read, must envision their story from beginning to end—before the writing process begins. We must see what does not, at this juncture, exist anywhere in this world. This will almost certainly require research of some sort—unless you’re creating your own Middle Earth setting. Research itself requires vision.
In beginning my work on Jazz Baby, I needed a road map through the 1920s. I am just past the half-century mark, having drawn my first breath of life in 1967. I had nothing by way of personal experience to shade my notions of the America of 1925. And we can’t just assume, either. Assumption is an enemy of the visionary.
As I started to dig into my research, scenes from my story began to construct themselves behind my eyes. Scraps of paper quickly filled with ideas found within the pages of an old U.S. history book; situations came to life while watching documentaries on PBS or The History Channel. They didn’t have radio in their cars until 1932—so scrap the scene where the characters are driving to New Orleans singing along to jazz tunes on the radio. So how do we fill that void? Dialogue! These characters are now forced to speak to one another, sharing hopes and fears, and in the process, introducing their deeper selves to those who would come to read the finished product. A visionary finds ways to stay on point when something like reality cuts in and says, um, that can’t be. We make it work. And we don’t just make it work; we use it for the profound or the poignant. Statements are made in those quiet moments between Emily Ann and Tanyon—statements that wouldn’t exist had I stuck a radio in that car.
Being visionary is about seeing what’s not there, seeing it in multiple views, and possessing the ability to determine the best view. It doesn’t work very well to write about characters of which we know little or nothing. Vision allows us to see these characters, to meet them, to discover the personalities behind mere words on a page. To the visionary writer, his or her characters truly come alive before they ever occupy space on the page.
The fact is anybody can write a story. But the visionary writes the sort of stories people will want to read. The really good ones build a following of readers just waiting for the next story to unfold. The best storytellers throughout history possessed vision. And it’s that vision that gives both the writer and the story life eternal. Those without vision, well, nobody recalls the stories they’ve told. Nobody remembers their names.
Greetings to everybody stopping by. Today is one of my stops on the 2017 RRBC Holiday Train Book Trailer Block Party. Just follow the link to the video, post a comment on YouTube, and you’ll be in the running to win a signed paperback copy of Jazz Baby and a $10 iTunes gift card.
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I decided to have a little fun with this post. In the years since Jazz Baby first saw publication, some readers have been curious as to what happened to Emily Ann “Baby” Teegarten. Did she ever make it to New York? Were her dreams of singing jazz professionally ever realized? Did she find success? Well, presented here, is an interview with Baby Teegarten, which takes place ten years after the novel ends. This is meant to be a glimpse into the life our protagonist may have created for herself.
April 15, 1935
She chose the meeting place. I could lie and tell you readers that I arrived thirty minutes early just to get a feel for the room. But the truth of the matter is, I get a little nervous with this one. Most of you have been reading my column for the better part of 15 years. You know the names that have graced my page: Babe Ruth, Harry Houdini, Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd—even Charlie Chaplin agreed to a sit-down chat back in 1924.
Still, this one is different.
The she I’m referring to is popular jazz vocalist Baby Teegarten. They don’t come any bigger than Baby these days. Three consecutive years as the country’s highest-paid entertainer proves this fact.
I lock down a table at the rear of McSorley’s Tavern on East 7th Street—which also happens to hold a strict policy for not allowing women inside.
But Baby Teegarten, well, she’s not just any woman.
“This is her neighborhood,” the fellow tending bar tells me. “She has a swanky place overlooking Central Park. Bought it from Babe Ruth himself.”
It’s the Babe who introduced Baby to McSorley’s.
“Nobody bothers her in here,” the barkeep explains. “Besides, if she’s pals with the Babe, she’s all right by us.”
I knock back a Scotch and soda. It’s what steadies my nerves. Only Mae West ever had me taking a nip before an interview.
I’ve seen Baby perform a dozen times easily—this going back to those first shows she did at Swelby’s Joint. Two thousand patrons lined up every night just to witness the Baby. She’d been just shy of her fourteenth birthday back in those early shows. But any fool with eyes and ears could tell she was special.
Oh, sure, we all recall the backlash at allowing a mere child up on those club stages. But nobody could—or would—stand in that girl’s way. No, sir. She’d have busted any full-grown man in the chops, should one be so bold as to try.
Prompt, this one. She arrives at 3 o’clock sharp, with her entourage in tow. By entourage I mean her manager, Abe Horowitz, and Job Pritchett, husband of Baby.
Mr. Pritchett, he’s a large fellow, to be sure. Tall and wide, real sturdy; the sort of man who likely spent his youth throwing bales of hay around the farm, maybe even punching cows—literally. Hollywood handsome: blond hair worn messy, pale blue eyes, an easy laugh. He’s more threatening than threatened. Famous in his own right, he’s known the world over for his paintings and sculptures.
Baby is a true vision, greeting patrons by name up by the front door. She’s resplendent in a violet-colored summer dress that falls just below her knees. Diamonds sparkle on her fingers and wrists, her ears, at her delicate throat. There’s even a gold bracelet on her right ankle.
Eyes as green as emeralds track me down in my corner.
There’s a subtle sweetness in her scent.
“Hey, there,” she says. “I’m supposed to talk with you today?”
I’m lost for words in this moment, so I just nod like a mute fool.
“You don’t mind it here, do you?” Her accent is rich, wrapping her every word in a southern twang thicker than molasses—and just as sweet.
My voice carries a slight tremble, but I manage a quick, “No, ma’am.”
Baby Teegarten settles on a bar stool next to mine. “This is Mister Pritchett, my husband,” she says.
Job Pritchett’s massive hand takes mine with a gentle squeeze. “Good to meet you,” he tells me in a boyish tone. A lucky fellow, this one.
Abe Horowitz needs no introduction: Club owner, manager of a handful of singers and musicians. Connected. He mined gold when he discovered Baby Teegarten.
Job’s lips brush Baby’s lips. His voice comes soft, almost a soothing thing. “Me and Abe will be up at the bar—if you need us.”
It passes there in the space between them: his subtle caress of her cheek, her gentle squeeze of his hand. These two are infatuated with one another.
“Lord a-mercy, I love that boy,” she says, once we’re alone. “We got our tenth anniversary coming this summer.” She waves her right hand in my face. “He just got me this one right here.”
She means the full five carat diamond set in white gold on her ring finger.
“What does it feel like to make more money than the president of the United States?” I ask, leading us into the interview.
Her petite shoulders give up a shrug. “Just means I can buy whatever I want—’Cept Jobie’s the one buys my jewelry. That boy makes nearly as much as me.”
She’s a tiny thing, maybe five foot two. I’m guessing it might take an extra big lunch to push her past a hundred pounds. And though she doesn’t mention it, this day is her twenty-third birthday.
I ask, “When did you first start singing?”
“Since I can recollect. Pastor Pritchett first had me up in front of the congregation when I was just five. That’s when I took to singing for other folks who ain’t just my kin.”
Her head tips a short nod. “Down Rayford—up a piece from Biloxi.”
“A Delta girl, huh? You pick cotton down there?”
A silver cigarette case finds her hand. “Picked a bunch. Mister Kuiper used to pay me a dime for each sack I managed. I made a dollar a day most days.”
“Doesn’t sound like much.”
“It does to a little girl ain’t got much of nothin’.”
A Lucky Strike settles between her lips. Smoke rolls from her dainty nose.
Questions my editor suggested filter through the small talk. “You’re working a lot with George Gershwin. How’d that come about?”
“Georgie’s sweet,” she says, sending smoke rings chasing after her words. “His family knows Mister Horowitz’s family. He liked my voice and wrote some songs for me—’Cept I’m the one writes the words, since I’m the one has to sing ’em.”
Sales figures wedge their way into the conversation—nobody sells more phonograph records than Baby Teegarten.
“A million,” she offers. Says it as if she doesn’t really believe it herself. “I mean, a person can reach into his pocket, grab a hundred of something, and toss it on the floor and say, ‘Yep. That’s a hundred.’ But nobody can throw a million anything on the floor and count that.”
She’s had three of them reach that plateau in recent years.
“Where’s your favorite place to play?” I ask, scratching off another one from my editor.
“Paris is nice.” Her hand gives up an abbreviated wave, catching the barkeep’s attention. “What’s so amazing there is, those folks don’t speak no English, but they sure know all the words to my songs.”
A bottle arrives at our table. Not exactly what I expected.
“Co-cola,” she says, drawing a long pull. “Mister Horowitz don’t like for me to drink liquor while I’m gabbing with newspaper fellas. He says I just might talk too much.”
I feign shock. “Secrets?”
There’s an endearing sweetness in her giggle. “Oh, I got plenty of secrets.”
“Horowitz really looks after you, huh?”
“He’s the best. Like a second daddy. Doesn’t let anybody get close enough to take advantage.”
She spends a lot of time on the road, traveling by train, singing in places like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Big theaters, is where she sings these days. Gone are the smoke-filled clubs with dance floors and drunken revelers.
“I like the theaters,” she says. “And I really like seeing different places. But I do miss the New York clubs. I could do two shows a night and be at home with Mister Pritchett by one in the morning. Now, I do one show for five thousand people—nobody drinking or dancing—a night at a hotel, then up before the devil and off to the train station and the next city.”
There’s a weary tone creeping into her answers. Well, maybe weary isn’t the right word. Cautious, perhaps.
“Do you ever take time off? Maybe stay home for a while?”
She does—but only because the men in her life force her to do so.
“Once Mister Pritchett and Mister Horowitz get together, they’re worse than two fathers.”
Baby Teegarten will soon add actress to her resume. She just this week signed to play a role in a new James Cagney movie.
“It’s only a small part,” she explains. “I play a singer in a jazz club. I’ll sing two new songs they wrote just for the film.”
Just one. But that’s fine by her. “I ain’t no movie star.”
No, she’s not. But that doesn’t stop the real movie stars from turning out wherever Baby Teegarten treads a stage. It’s fashionable to be seen at her shows.
“Jean Harlow got my autograph last summer in Chicago.” She says it like it’s a normal thing that happens to most people.
“How’d you come to be friendly with Babe Ruth?”
That shrug raises her shoulders again. “He came to my shows most nights he was in town—back when I still played the clubs. Once he decided to buy a house in the country, I bought his apartment.”
“I guess that makes you a Yankees fan, huh?”
It’s a playful thing, that sideways glance she throws at me. “Ain’t no self-respecting Mississippi girl gonna ever cheer on no Yankees.”
Abe Horowitz’s approach signals a wrap to our discussion. I’d been promised twenty minutes, Baby gave me thirty.
“Gotta get ready for the trip to Hollywood,” she says, gaining her feet.
She offers a handshake, which abruptly becomes a friendly hug.
Job Pritchett, arm around Baby’s shoulders, sweeps the girl away, following Abe Horowitz out the front door, into the crowd moving along 7th Street.
It takes a few moments for my head to clear itself of her scent, her voice, her very presence. It’s not a difficult thing to see why so many have fallen for this lovely young woman.
“She just has a way about her,” the barkeep says as I make my getaway.
She certainly does, I tell myself. She certainly does.
Putting together a believable historical story, long or short, requires more than a plausible plot. You must pay extra attention to the little things, the details. While preparing to write my novel Jazz Baby, I consulted many sources for those authentic details. A high-school history book proved immensely helpful in creating the right mood for a story set in 1920s Southern USA.
Knowing the era is as important as knowing your characters. You can’t have a young girl in 1925 rural Mississippi (or any other place in 1925) making calls on a private-line rotary phone, much less a mobile phone she carries in her pocket. In fact, my character was poor, and thus would not even have access to any kind of phone even though they existed in her day. Besides, she wouldn’t have anybody to call. Thus:
Fashion is important, as well. Knowing what people wore in any particular era is key to verisimilitude. Emily Ann, the POV character in Jazz Baby, had no concept of tennis shoes or fashionable jeans, let alone modern name brands and today’s common designer styles. She did live in the era of flappers, but she would not be exposed to those outfits until she traveled to the big city. Still, would she dress that way—and why? Where would she get the clothes? Would she even know how to wear them properly? We have to consider these issues before deciding how to dress our characters from one scene to the next.
Sure, it’s obvious that Emily Ann wouldn’t see Gulfstream Jets flying overhead or hitch a ride in a Corvette, but you’re not always safe simply putting her in a Model T Ford. I wanted her to hear something important on the car radio while parked, but I dared not assume a radio could be found in the Model T. A bit of research, and I learned radio did not come into any automobiles until 1932. Most readers won’t know such a detail, but some sure will know, so for them the facade collapses beneath such inaccuracy. Keep it as airtight as possible.
Patient research shines a light on more facts than you might be looking for. Just as whether a car radio would have turning dials or push buttons, verifying might lead you to realize you can’t refer to an FM station back them. Would a character drop a letter in a street-corner mailbox, or did they not exist in small southern towns because people simply left mail in their roadside mailboxes for pickup?
Pay attention to language, as well. Slang changes from era to era, and from region to region. A young white girl in 1925 Mississippi will not greet her pals with a “Yo, dawg! ’Sup?”
Cultural norms are critical elements of authentic time and place. My story is set during Prohibition, which to many evokes images of either abstainers or scofflaws. However, “bonded liquor,” prescribed by doctors for “medicinal purposes” and sold by pharmacists, was quite popular in many areas, albeit under watchful government eyes. Cultural changes that older readers recognize might not be so familiar to younger readers. In Emily Ann’s world, African Americans were prohibited from patronizing restaurants, and segregated in places like theaters, restrooms, and even from whites-only drinking fountains. Emily’s fraternization with blacks could have cost her her life.
Behavior often is not best described by laws. Though women received the vote in 1920, many were still viewed as the property of fathers and husbands. For a girl who found herself orphaned at 13, the official social-services response rarely happened if kinfolk might be able to “handle the situation.” Thus, Aunt Frannie arranging a marriage that we might find outrageous today would have been applauded as admirably expedient back then. Likewise, looking up the official 1969 USA drug laws would not offer much help in deciding how your young-adult characters actually acted during a campus party.
The point of all this is simply to remind you to check your facts while looking beyond the facts, stay loyal to the era you choose, and wow us all with your brilliant stories.
Grab a copy of Jazz Baby in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, Nook, or iBook.
© 2017 Beem Weeks
Greetings from beautiful Michigan! Just letting everybody know that we have winners (three of them) from my recent RRBC Book & Blog Block Party stop here at The Indie Spot! These lucky folks won prizes for simply posting a comment here on the day I had my party! That means you still have the opportunity to win prizes for yourself by visiting the remaining Book & Blog Block Party stops and leaving your comments. But you’d better hurry. Once August is over, so is the party!
Here are the lucky three winners:
1.) Gwen Plano
2.) Stephanie Collins
3.) Jo Ann Wentzel
Each of these winners scored a $10.00 iTunes gift card (though Gwen Plano opted instead for a copy of some book called Jazz Baby for her Kindle).
Good luck to everybody else in grabbing freebies from the other amazing blogs along this incredible party tour!