Webb's Blog

Read the first chapter of DESERT WIND (Publishers Weekly starred review) at
http://www.bettywebb-mystery.com/

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Method Acting for Writers


  
Something strange happened yesterday while I was writing – or, rather, attempting to write – a scene in a new Lena Jones mystery. The scene didn’t work; it just lay there, stagnant and stinky as a four-day-old cod fillet.

Here was the original set-up. P.I. Lena Jones is interviewing the next-door neighbor of a murdered family. The Scottsdale, Arizona, neighborhood is pricy and the homes accordingly elegant. The neighbor – who was out of town during the slaughter, and can prove it -- is not a suspect, but Lena thinks he might be able to give an overview of the family’s activities in the months leading up to the murders. I had originally planned to write the neighbor as one-half of a married gay couple, an affluent, educated, art-collecting nice guy who had nothing but good things to say about the dead family. Because I believe in setting the “scenic” part of a scene, I went into great detail about the interior of the neighbor’s house: white leather furniture, a wall-sized painting by de Kooning, a sculpture by Giacometti, etc. As the interview continued, the man’s partner came into the room. He, too, was an affluent, educated, art-collecting nice guy who contributed more warm-hearted stories about the deceased family.

The scene didn’t work. It was dull as dirt. All that niceness -- ick! Where was the conflict? Where was the tension?

As I sat there staring at the computer screen, an idea popped into my head. Why not take the same house and the same elegant furnishings, but turn this neighbor into someone you would not ordinarily associate with such tasteful, high-art surroundings?

The minute the idea popped into my head, so did a new character. For the few hours, I pounded out a scene that was surprising, unsettling, and even a bit scary. My fingers flew over the keyboard, typing in this new character’s startling dialogue and some very creepy body language. There was incredible tension in the scene because an ethical and personal conflict now existed between my P.I. and the new character. Lena was repelled by him – and also a bit frightened. Yet she needed to stay in that elegant house alone with him in order to get information about the murdered family.

The weird thing about all this is that I don’t remember writing a word of it. I was so lost inside that creepy new character’s head that I, as an individual, ceased to exist.

When Hubby (it should be noted here that he’s a psychologist) came home from work, I told him what had happened.

“You had an out-of-body experience,” Hubby explained. “It's the same type of experience that method actors use to create their characters. You forgot about yourself and what you originally wanted to do, you forgot about your own ideas and expectations for the scene. Instead, you got deep down and dirty into the mind, heart, and soul – or lack thereof – of this new character. When you disappeared, he emerged. That’s why the new scene works so well, because it wasn’t something you, as you, created. You were channeling him, and he created the scene – not you.”

Creepy.

This morning over coffee, we continued to talk about yesterday’s odd experience.

“You’ve often wondered why you can write two separate series that are so different in tone, from the first-person point of view by two protagonists who have nothing in common,” Hubby said. “But the answer’s easy. You’re using the same method -- method acting, if you will -- that you did in writing yesterday’s scene. When you’re writing Lena, for instance, you become her. Lena, because of her difficult childhood in all those abusive foster homes, trusts no one. She has compassion for crime victims, but her compassion doesn’t extend to allowing anyone to get close to her. Because of her global mistrust of the human race, Lean’s personal relationships – the few that she has – are a mess. She lives in a perpetual state of anger, is always close to the breaking point, and she has an itchy trigger finger. This is a dangerous combination, and that’s why readers either love Lena or are repelled by her. But regardless of all her mental and emotional issues, Lena has a strong, unwavering mission in life – to bring justice to the dead.

“Teddy, the zookeeper in your Gunn Zoo books, is just the opposite. Because she was given so much love as a child, she likes just about everyone. She trusts people – at least until they prove themselves untrustworthy – and she loves both her fiancĂ© and the animals she cares for at the zoo. Her personal circumstances are a little unusual: a houseboat for a home; a self-centered, multi-married, clotheshorse of a mother; and an embezzling father on the run from the FBI who is always turns up just in time to wreak havoc in her life. But for all this, Teddy remains an uncomplicated woman with only one major tic: her mission – besides protecting the animals at the zoo -- is to not become her mother.” 

 And yes, Hubby continued, when I write these highly divergent characters, I totally immerse myself in them the same way a method actor immerses himself in a role. I put myself and my own personality aside, and instead, I live, breath, move, and speak like that character. For all intents and purposes, I am that character.

Which is what happened yesterday. I was so busy being my new character that I put aside all my previous plans and simply “channeled” the new guy. I didn’t force my ideas about character on him. Instead, I slipped into an altered state of consciousness and let him tell his own story, thus surprising the holy living hell out of myself.

Stephen King once said, “If the writer can’t surprise himself, how can he surprise the reader?”

King was right. But there’s an irony here. And it is…

Only by losing yourself can you find your story – and your most intriguing characters.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Weepy Female Characters


Besides being the author of several mystery novels, I also review books for Mystery Scene Magazine and teach creative writing, so you could say that books comprise a large section of my life. When a character trend emerges – or disappears – I notice. Yet in my thirty years of professional writing, teaching, and critiquing, I am continually plagued by one character stereotype that just won’t go away.
The weepy female.
The novel’s genre doesn’t seem to  matter: literary, mainstream, mystery, thriller, sci-fi, Western, or (of course) romance. Regardless of the book’s genre, the cast list usually includes at least one female character who bursts into tears on a regular basis, whether from joy, sadness, fear, shock, or frustration at missing the last pair of Tommy Choo knock-offs at Macy’s Spring Shoe Sale.

Why, for God’s sake?
In an age where women have been cleared for combat, and are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan minus arms and/or legs, why this continuing insistence on weepy female characters?

When one of my students recently turned in a suspense novel where the female protagonist fainted twice and cried eight times (I counted), I took her to task for creating such a stereotypical character.
“But everybody knows women cry a lot,” my student answered.

Intrigued, I asked her when was the last time she’d cried, but after several moments, she said she couldn’t remember. She wasn’t much of a “crier,” she admitted.
“I’m not, either,” I said. “Nor are any of the other women I know. Maybe we tear up while watching a sad movie, but we don’t have time do that in real life. When a real life problem come along, we deal with the situation, we don't cry about it.”

I told her to rewrite each crying scene so that her protagonist never shed a single tear, regardless of what was going on in the scene. And to take out the fainting. While not happy about this, she finally agreed to do it. A few weeks later, she handed in the rewrite.

Guess what?

When all the facile blubbering had been removed, my student had been forced to write more deeply, to delve more completely into her character’s psyche -- to actually deal with her heroine’s emotional and intellectual complications instead of avoiding them. Gone were the dull, knee-jerk tears, gone was the cheap and easy sexist stereotyping. The result was a complex, many-layered heroine who dealt much more realistically with her internal demons while grappling with the book’s already complex, many-layered male villain.
The heroine had transitioned from a shallow, cardboard character into someone memorable. Someone real.

The world has changed and our female characters must change with it. We are no longer living in the Victorian age, where -- because of too-tight corsets -- women actually did weep and faint, although I’m sure it happened much less often than writers of the time would have us believe. We are now living in the 21st century, where real-life women shoulder their assault rifles and head off into combat.
And they’re not crying about it.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The True Story Behind THE LLAMA OF DEATH

People are always asking writers where they get their ideas, a question so hard to answer that a few wiseacres just give up and say, “I buy them at Wal-Mart.”

I’m never that snarky, probably because I don’t have to be. Where my Lena Jones mysteries are concerned, I take my ideas straight from the newspaper. Human rights abuses in Kenya? Hey, they’re happening right here in Arizona, too – enough of them that I could write a hundred novels and not cover even half the world’s (and Arizona’s) crimes against humanity.

But it’s a different case with my Gunn Zoo mysteries. For those books, I lean heavily on my volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo. Lucy the Giant Anteater lives there (her real name is Jezebel), and so, at one time, did Wanchu the Koala, who was on loan from the San Diego Zoo. But every now and then...

I actually have a photograph of the moment the idea of The Llama of Death came to me. My husband Paul and I were attending the Renaissance Faire, held each year in Apache Junction, Arizona, and as I passed the Queen’s Royal Privies, I made a pit stop. When I emerged, my husband was across the way, grinning at the screen display on his digital camera. He called to me, “Hey, Betty, come see this!”

I did. Thus The Llama of Death was born.

Paul had taken a photograph of a sour-looking young woman, dressed in Renaissance trollop garb, leading around a llama with a toddler on its back. The toddler was thrilled, and so, apparently, was the llama. The llama’s ears were up, and he had a big, smirking grin on his face.

“As I live and breathe,” I said, giggling at the picture. “It’s the Llama of Death!”

When my husband began to laugh, I realized I had just come up with the title of my next Gunn Zoo mystery, a book I couldn’t wait to write. You see, I had a history with llamas.

A couple of years before Paul took that wonderful photograph, I was still a reporter with the Scottsdale Tribune, where every fall, my editor “volunteered” my services at the Arizona State Fair. Usually this meant becoming one of the media contestants in the goat-milking contest, but after submitting to such a humiliating exercise for four years straight, I rebelled. “I’m not milking another goat!” I told him.

“No problem,” my editor replied, almost amiably. “I’ve put you down for the llama race. Wear your running shoes, ‘cause you’re gonna be running an obstacle race while leading a llama.”

I don’t run, and my most strenuous daily exercise is making coffee in the morning, but I know determination when I hear it, and my editor was determined to make me take part in some sort of animal activity at that bloody fair. From what I’d heard about llamas, they were genial creatures (goats aren’t as genial), so when race day arrived, I laced up my new running shoes and headed over to the llama track.

Turns out, some of those llamas were pretty big. I’m not (I have to stretch upwards to make five feet). Intimidated by the giant, hairy quadrupeds, I chose a small brown and white llama as my running partner. The llama wrangler told me the little guy’s name was Lil’ Al, and that he had a sweet, placid temperament.

Deciding it might be wise to make Lil’ Al’s acquaintance before we headed to the track, I walked up to him, held out my hand for him to sniff, and said, “Hi, Sweetie.”

Lil’ Al and I got along like a house afire. After spending a few minutes talking to him and assuring him that we were going to be BFF, he nuzzled my neck said something that sounded like, “Maaaaa!”

Then he tried to eat my hair.

Hair-eating propensity notwithstanding, Lil’ Al ran well. And so did I, surprisingly, mainly because I had a llama hot on my heels, and that little llama had decided to show the big llamas who was who on the llama-racing circuit. Lil’ Al and I jumped over hay bales, waded through a kiddie pool full of water, rushed past a squealing pig, faced down an angry-looking goat (probably the one I’d tried to milk the year before), and we ran and we ran and we ran.

We ran so fast that even on our collection of six short stubby legs we finished second out of a field of twelve. When the “winner” was disqualified for spitting on a competitor, Lil’ Al and I were bumped up to first place.

We were the champions! (Cue Queen song here)

I hadn’t seen Lil’ Al since that day, but as I gazed at the photograph my husband had just taken at the Renaissance Faire, I realized that it was time to immortalize my furry friend.

I started writing The Llama of Death that evening, and six months later, I typed “The End.” In the book, zookeeper Teddy Bentley takes Alejandro, the Gun Zoo llama, to a Renaissance Faire, where the child-loving llama spends a blissful day giving children llama-back rides. All appears to be going well until the local wedding chapel owner playing the part of Henry VIII is found dead in the llama pen, and…

Oops. Better not give away too much. I am in the business of selling books, you know.

I wish I knew where the real life Lil’ Al is now. If I could find him, I’d tell him the critics are as beguiled by him as was I. Publishers Weekly said, “Animal lore and human foibles spiced with a hint of evil test Teddy’s patience and crime solving in this appealing cozy.” Library Journal wrote, “Webb’s third zoo series entry (after the Koala of Death) winningly melds a strong animal story with an engaging cozy amateur sleuth tale. Set at a relaxed pace with abundant zoo filler, the title never strays into too-cute territory, instead presenting the real deal.” The Llama of Death was a hit.

So wherever you are, Lil’ Al…

Thanks, Sweetie.





Tuesday, November 20, 2012

That Pesky First Chapter



Writing Chapter One can be hell. When beginning the first draft of a novel, Chapter One is almost always clumsy, confusing, vague, and written with all the expertise of a college freshman whose brain is fried on a combination of ganja and energy drinks. In fact, these first chapters are such miserable messes that most newbie writers feel compelled to fix them before they move on to Chapter Two.

Then Chapter Three, then Chapter Four, then…

“Oh, the hell with the thing!” the newbies wind up screaming before storming away from their manuscript, possibly forever. “This book just doesn’t work.”

To which I say, “Of course your book doesn’t work, because you didn’t write it. Instead, you wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote your first chapter until it died in your own hands. You were so obsessed with getting Chapter One ‘just right’ that you ignored your novel.”

And that’s a shame, because in the end, that first chapter will probably be cut anyway. It’s worth rephrasing. First chapters are usually cut from the finished manuscript.

Why? Because by the time the newbie writer has finished his manuscript, his book has taken on a shape and maturity he didn’t have when he was slaving away on Chapter One. The final chapters of his book are more universal in scope, deeper in tone, and more assured in craft than anything he could possibly have accomplished when he began his manuscript. Somewhere along the way, between page 50 and page 410, the writer grew up.

Am I speaking from experience? I sure am. My critique group has been operating for two decades now, and during all those years, I’ve watched attacks of Chapter One-itis kill many a newbie writer’s dreams. I’ve seen the same thing while teaching creative writing at various workshops across the country. Too many newbie novelists with truly great ideas just can’t move past Chapter One.

But it’s not only the newbies who fall victim to Chapter One-itis. It can happen to seasoned pros. In fact, it’s almost happened to me.

My 13th book -- The Llama of Death -- will be released on January 6, and I am here to tell you that all my first chapters were eventually cut from my final manuscript, including Llama. In my first chapter, I’m always flailing around, trying to find the novel’s “voice,” trying to clarify my ideas while at the same time introducing various characters. And my poor protagonist? In my first draft of Chapter One I find myself explaining over and over how my protagonist got to where she is, what her life was like before the book started, and why she feels compelled to solve crimes.

This clumsy flailing around is par for the course at the beginning of a first draft. At that point, I’m so insecure about my story that I tend to explain things to death. Therefore, Chapter One comes out overcrowded, over-described, stagnant, and dull. Nothing much happens in those pages – instead, it’s all cerebral in-the-head stuff, muddled and fatally passive. In short, Chapter One reeks.

No problem. I never try to “fix” Chapter One while writing the first draft of a novel. I leave the ugly thing to stew in its own juice while I move on to the first draft of Chapter Two. Then I write the first draft of Chapter Three. Then… You get the idea. I never look back. I don't “fix” the mess I left behind in Chapter One until I type THE END on the very last page of my manuscript’s first draft.

Once the first draft is completed, then, and only then, do I go back and address the problems in Chapter One. And what a surprise I find waiting for me! As it turns out, Chapter One no longer fits into my book. You see, once my story caught fire, it headed off in a different direction than I’d originally intended -- a better, more creative direction. Chapter One now looks like a donkey’s head stuck on a Thoroughbred.

So I just dump the nasty thing.

Then I write a brand new Chapter One. But while doing so, I often receive another surprise. I discover that what had originally been Chapter Two works even better as Chapter One, because Chapter Two has more action and less in-the-head stuff. I also learn that my later chapters handled most of the necessary explanations, so they weren’t necessary in Chapter One anyway. Therefore, my old Chapter Two – now evolved into Chapter One -- sizzles. All it needs is a light rewrite to start the book off with a bang, instead of the dull thud that my clunky old Chapter One delivered.

My point here is that you never know where your story will go, so why bother torturing yourself trying to perfect a chapter that will wind up in the trash anyway? Don’t let yourself succumb to Chapter One-itis. Write the darned thing fast and dirty, then move on to the rest of your book, because that’s where the magic is going to happen.

To reiterate: don’t try to fix that subpar Chapter One until you’ve finished the entire first draft of your manuscript. Then go back and write the wonderful Chapter One your book deserves.

X X X

P.S. If you found this helpful, continue on to the article about the Shadow Self.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Me and My Shadow

As a mystery writer, I firmly believe that each one of us is capable of murder. I know I am. If someone ever tried to hurt my husband, my children, or my grandchildren, I’d cheerfully blow their heads off with a shotgun. Maybe it would be wrong, but I’d do it anyway. You see, I’m in touch with my “Shadow Self” and know how nasty I’m capable of being.

The Shadow Self is the darkest part of our nature, and it encompasses what are called the Seven Deadly Sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. How many of these do I have? To one extent or another, all of them. As a writer, that’s a good thing. Writers who aren’t in touch with the negative side of themselves are incapable of writing believable characters, because you can’t believably describe something you’re not intimately familiar with. Imagination can take you only so far; after that, you must rely upon your own experience of the human condition, which means yourself.

In my latest mystery, DESERT WIND I used elements of my own shadow self for each of its characters, both female and male. P.I. Lena Jones is enriched by my rage over social injustice. Journalist Olivia illustrates my own journalistic desire to get to the truth, no matter the cost to myself or others. My unease with strong emotion is seen in cold-hearted Nancy, who refuses to grieve over her murdered husband. My frequent inability to let go of the past gives texture to the character of Gabe, the aging wrangler who substitutes conversations with the ghost of John Wayne instead of forging new relationships.

As a writer, I can’t afford to ignore my Shadow Self. Neither can you.

Besides being a mystery novelist, I’m also a book reviewer for Mystery Scene Magazine, and before that I was the book critic for a nationwide newspaper syndicate. At the newspaper (I retired seven years ago), I received up to 100 books per week. Years and years of reading my way through bushel baskets of lousy to wonderful books taught me how to separate a fully-formed writer’s sensibility from the wannabe. The best writers – whether novelists, self-helpers, or memoirists – were always deeply in touch with their Shadow Selves. The mere wannabes were afraid to go there, so they didn’t. As a result, their books came across as shallow and weak.

Humans are fallible animals. We know we should love our brothers as we love ourselves, but we don’t. We know we should honor our parents, but we frequently don’t. We know we should always behave ethically, but we don’t. Instead, we are walking, talking, ill-behaving creatures who fumble our way through life, leaving wreckage and hurt feelings in our wake.

Fortunately, that’s just on our bad days. We usually behave pretty darn well.

What does all this philosophical soul-searching have to do with writing? Think back on the books that made a lasting impact in your life. The mystery novels. The romances. The literary novels. The memoirs. The histories. The spiritual books. The political tomes. How many of them failed to address the Shadow Self? I venture to say that every single book of consequence addressed the Shadow Self. The writers knew that nothing was more phony and off-putting to serious readers than rah-rah books about flawless people who behave with flawless virtue every flawless day of their long, flawless lives. Heck, even Mother Teresa had a temper. And as for Jesus? Remember the money-tossing, table-wrecking snit fit he threw in the Temple? Oy veh.

Serious readers want to read about characters who remind them of themselves, warts and all. Yes, we do want our heroes and heroines to be stalwart and brave, but not so much that we can’t relate to them. We want to see our characters struggle and win against their inner demons, just like we do. The best writers among us look deeply inside and pick from their own Shadow Selves the particular sins that meets their characters’ needs in order to develop them fully. In other words, the very best writers have the courage to allow their book’s characters to mirror themselves at their very worst.

Uncomfortable, yes, but so is life. One good thing (among many good things) about getting in touch with our Shadow Selves is that in doing so, we not only make our writing better, but we are given the chance to become better human beings. When we identify and name our Shadow Selves, we can finally begin to do battle against them.

After all, you can’t fight something until you admit it’s there.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Sure-Fire Best Seller!

When I asked my Facebook friends last week to send me the elements that would guarantee a book become a best seller, I was amazed at the response. Here are some of the "must haves." Young adult genre. Zombies. Vampires. Romance. The Ming Dynasty. Small Georgia town. Key West Cemetery. Mutant dogs and cats. Evil clowns. The Shroud of Turin. Knights Templar. Nuns. Amoral jerk scientist. Sassy female protagonist. A hi-tech Russian submarine defecting to the U.S. that falls into a time warp. Lots of sex and guns. A space alien who attacks Earth out of revenge for his brother whose UFO was shot down by the U.S. in Roswell. Poisoned cereal. African gray parrots. A mysterious manuscript that reveals an age-old conspiracy. A crooked U.S. senator who pretends to be a Christian but who is really an atheist who was taken over by an alien species. A ghost that cooks. Recipes. An alcoholic down-on-his-luck detective whose one true love was killed by a psychopath. Adorable-acting triples who are actually evil. 10 drunk men who have sex with 10 drunk women who all get pregnant, and the men draw straws to see who marries whom. Parachutes. An over-imaginative little girl who sees all this insanity as an adventure.

So there you have it -- a bubbling cauldron of random ideas. Since I don't have time to actually produce the entire book (hey, I'm knee-deep in "The Llama of Death"), you'll have to be content with a five-part synopsis of "Love, Death and Zombies in Waycross, Georgia" You get the first part today (Chapters One through Three), and the rest will be parcelled out over the next two weeks. Enjoy the madness.

INSTALLMENT I of LOVE, DEATH, AND ZOMBIES IN WAYCROSS, GEORGIA


Nanjing China, 1382 AD
In 1382 AD, the emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming Dynasty, is building his tomb at the same time he receives a visit from Ali Afaq, an Arab trader, who shows him an ancient jeweled chalice for sale. The chalice, Afaq tells him, is reputed to be the cup used more than a thousand years ago by a Jewish rabbi named Yeshua who was crucified by the Romans. The legend also claimed that three days after dying, Yeshua rose from the dead, but if the chalice is ever drunk from again by anyone other than Yeshua – who still lives – a terrible curse will befall the world. “Truly this cup possesses magical powers!” Emperor Yuangzhan exclaims. Yuangzhan, who is terrified of death, signals his money handlers to pay Afaq a king’s ransom, and takes possession of the chalice. Years later, Yuangzhan dies, the chalice in his hands, believing that its powers will raise him from the dead, too. After his body begins to compose, his faithful priests finally realize that their beloved Emperor must go underground, so they bear him to an innermost room of his large tomb. They leave him with the chalice still clutched in his hands.

Moscow, 1917 --The chalice disappears for centuries, until in 1702, a team of grave-robbers, working by night, uncover the chalice. All die miserably by the end of the year, and the chalice disappears again. It reemerges in 1917 in the hands of a Russian Orthodox priest, who makes a pilgrimage to the Imperial Palace, where he gives it to Tsar Nicholas II, who is trying desperately to hold on to his besieged throne. The priest convinces the Tsar that the chalice is the Holy Grail, and will grant the Ruler of All Russia eternal life – as long as he doesn’t drink from it. But when the Tsar is forced to abdicate, his shattered nerves make him forget the priest’s warning, and he fills the chalice with vodka and drinks deeply. Within a year, the Tsar and his entire family have been slaughtered by the Bolsheviks in Ykaterinburg, and the Grail – which now carries a curse as well as a promise – is stolen by escaping palace guards.

Turin, Italy – 2013 -- Having “liberated” the Holy Grail from a Russian gangster, descendants of the Order of Knights Templar turn their attentions to the Shroud of Turin, which prophecy says must be reunited with the Holy Grail and the Holy Lance (which their order found centuries earlier in Palestine). After shooting tear gas into Turin Cathedral and securing the Shroud, they take refuge in Castello del Piagnaro, in Tuscany, where their treasures – including an ancient scroll supposedly written by Jesus himself -- are reunited for the first time in 2000 years. But before they can lock away the Shroud, the Lance, and the Grail, the castle is stormed by the Pagliacci Assassini, a vicious band of art thieves wearing clown masks. The Assassini kill all the Templars. Sir Reginald Montgomery, the lead Templar, is still clutching the Chalice when he is run through by the Holy Lance. While Sire Reginald’s body is still twitching, the Assassini celebrate their successful operation by drinking a rare 1978 Montrachet from the Chalice. They, too, are dead within the year.

INSTALLMENT II of LOVE, DEATH, AND ZOMBIES IN WAYCROSS, GEORGIA

Key West Cemetery, Florida. November, 2014 -- Miami homicide detective Benjamin Nash wakes up in a cemetery surrounded by nine men and ten women, all of whom are as naked as he. Waking up with strangers hasn’t been unusual for Nash, or anyone else this past year, but as he studies his companions, he realizes his behavior has reached a new low. Judging from the clothing spread around the area, several of the women were nuns – or at least had been playing the parts of nuns in the local dinner theater production of “Sister Act.” Nash, born Catholic, hopes it was the latter, because the thought of attending an orgy with nuns horrifies him almost as when the news broke that a slow-spreading virus was turning the world’s inhabitants into hollow-eyed, shuffling zombies. Studying the sleeping forms near him, he sees the tell-tale signs of the infection on at least half of them: black buboes under their arms, darkened lips, an unnatural gauntness in the face. “My, God, have I caught it now?” he thinks. Just as he is about to pick up his clothing and flee, one of the uninfected women wakes up, looks around, and says, “Talk about not being in Kansas anymore.” Spying Nash, she demands, “Who the hell are you?” When Nash introduces himself, she smiles. “Nice to meet you, Detective Nash. I’m Sister Mary Catherine.”

Waycross, Georgia. February, 2030 -- Fifteen-year-old Aimee Lee Nash wishes her father would shut up already about the Before Time. She was tired of hearing how good things were and how rotten they are now. So what was the problem with picking up the weekly food supplement drop from the Capitol? There was no problem, that’s what. Well, other than the weird stuff going on with the Gro-Glo Cereal, of course. “It sure beats having to fight off all those zombies who overran The First Settlement last year, doesn’t it, Cody?” Aimee’s best friend, sixteen-year-old Cody Branson, always accompanied her through the thick rain forest to the food drop site, and only partially because he enjoyed getting out of The New Settlement. He was in love with the pretty little redhead, and just being near her made his day. He’d decided to tell her about his feelings as soon as they tested the cereal packages. Aimee, who he had to admit was smarter than him, had long suspected Gro-Glo had been laced with something other than vitamins, something that kept the villagers oddly tranquil even in face of the End Times. Not that he believed all that religious rot. Amiee, who paid more attention to politics than he did, said that hyper-religious Ulysses Graham Marshall, the 48th President of the United States, was a fraud. “He ran on the God First ticket only because he knew it would get him elected,” she’d said. “Just before my mother was murdered by that crazy man last year, she told me she’d once met him at an orgy in Key West, and he was a flat-out atheist then, and judging from some of the things he said later, he still is.” Cody raised his eyebrows. “Your mom attended an orgy?” Aimee shrugged. “Who didn’t in those days? What with the virus and all, everyone thought they were going to die any second so it was, like, gather ye-rosebuds-while-ye-may time.” Cody thought about that for a moment. “Do you think Marshall may be your father?” Aimee shrugged again. “He has red hair, but that doesn’t mean anything. Dad told me his mother had red hair, so even though he’s a blond, he could still be my biological father. He thinks he is, anyway.” Cody laughed aloud, scaring a flock of African gray parrots out of the trees. Along with other tropical animals, the parrots had migrated north once Global Warming had turned much of the U.S. into a tropic zone. Cody paid them no mind because he’d just realized something startling. “Wow, to think I might be hanging out with the daughter of the President of the United States!” Aimee responded with a string of expletives. Cody felt himself blushing, but he loved it when Aimee talked dirty.

Waycross, Georgia – June, 2030 -- Watching the inhabitants of The New Settlement slip into blissed-out stupors after eating their ration of Gro-Glo, Aimee’s suspicions about the cereal were confirmed, but she and her father still had to eat, so she picked up her bow, slung her quiver of arrows over her shoulder, and set back out into the forest. Let the others pursue their druggie Nirvana, she and her father would live on what she could kill. On the way to the area where deer were known to graze, she passed Dog Town, where a Golden Retriever exited his hut and ran out to meet her. “Whatcha doin’, Aimee, whereya goin’, can I go with, oh please oh please oh please?” the retriever begged in his doggy patois, jumping up and down with excitement. The virus that had created so many mindless human zombies had had the opposite effect on dogs and cats, raising their I.Q.s enough that they could not only build crude huts, but talk, too. Dogs, being pack animals, glommed together in ramshackle villages; not so the cats, who had always been loners. Cats emerged from their individual lairs only to hunt or torment the dogs. “I’m looking for deer, Yellowfur,” Aimee answered the eager retriever, “but I’d rather do it alone. Every time you spot a herd, you start barking and scare them off.” Yellowfur’s doggy face looked stricken “I won’t I won’t I won’t I promise, Aimee, please please please let me go with and I have this tick on my back and can’t get it could you could you could you get it please please please?” Aimee dutifully removed the tick and threw it to the ground, whereupon Yellowfur pounced and ate it. “Yummy, Aimee, yummy, sorry I didn’t’ leave any for you I’m so sorry I’m a bad dog but maybe there’s another one and if there is you can have it if you find it, so yummy, Aimee! See how unselfish I am, I am, so can I go with please please please?” Knowing Yellowfur well, Aimee turned down his offer and continued on her way. In the background, she could hear Yellowfur dog howling his disappointment. Almost drowning out his howls was the satisfied hisses of a flame point Siamese, who as Aimee walked away, stopped hissing long enough to remark, “Me loves the sound of unhappy dogs in the morning!”


INSTALLMENT III of LOVE, DEATH, AND ZOMBIES IN WAYCROSS, GEORGIA

Waycross, Georgia – June 2030 -- An hour after Aimee distributed the Gro-Glo Cereal, former homicide detective Benjamin Nash noticed the villagers of The New Settlement falling into a near-stupor. And as they always did when in such a state, they began to scrapbook. Scissors snipped and hand-made paste stuck salvaged photographs, news articles, and even leaves into hand-bound books. As soon as the Gro-Glo wore off, they’d look at their creations as if they’d never seen them before, but for now, scrapbooking was the obsession. Nash wondered what it meant. “They’re fools, aren’t they?” he said to Mary Catherine, his dead wife. Her frowning ghost hovered near the stove, anxious for Aimee to return with the meat from the day’s hunt. Her vocal chords not being what they once were -- the decay of death does take it's toll -- she used her hands to signal disapproval of her husband’s judgmental tone. “Sorry, sorry," he said. "I know you think I’m being rough on my neighbors, but I’m getting pretty tired of me and Aimee – well, and maybe Cody – being the only people who work around here. You’d think the rest of them would have figured out by now that the Government is poisoning them into submission. They used to say that religion is the opiate of the masses, but now we know it's scrapbooking.” Mary Catherine’s expression changed to one of sadness. Relieved that she was no longer angry, Nash continued, “A runner from North Encampment came by yesterday, delivering news. Did you know that? I mean, you weren’t here at the time. Where were you?” Mary Catherine pointed skyward. “Why are you able to come back?" he asked. "Are you the only ghost around? Or are there others?” The ghost shrugged. They’d had this conversation many times before, and all she ever did was shrug, leaving the workings of God or whomever was up there these days as mysterious as ever. “Anyway, dear, the runner from North Encampment said there’s a rumor going around that the Holy Relics have finally arrived from what’s left of Rome after the zombies sacked it, and that the relics were moved to the Smithsonian. They’re under lock and key, the runner said, and the President is the only one who’s allowed to see them. Which kind of makes me wonder. The runner also told me that the Jesus Letter has finally been translated into English from Aramaic but that the President won’t tell anyone what it says. Why does he…?” Nash was interrupted by the loud wail of a dog, “Oh, gimme pelt, Aimee, gimmie pelt please oh please, me loves to chew pig, pig tastes so good with all the bristly hairs and runny luscious red and white stuff, oh please oh please, Aimee!” It was Nash’s turn to scowl. “It’s that damned Yellowfur again. I don’t know why she puts up with him. It’s not like the lazy thing ever does anything other than eat us out of house and home. Why doesn't he hunt with the rest of his pack?" Aimee staggered in, dragging a dead wild boar. “Dad! I've got something to tell you. I heard…” Nash looked over to the kitchen where his wife’s ghost still hovered near the stove. “I laid out the barbeque sauce recipe for you again, Mary Catherine,” he called. “I know your memory isn’t what it used to be.” The ghost blew him a kiss. She couldn’t talk and her memory was fading, but at least she could still cook up a storm.

SISTER MARY CATHERINE’S BLOW–THE-TOP-OF-YOUR-HEAD-OFF BARBEQUE SAUCE

One bottle Heinz catsup
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup brown sugar (more if you like a sweet sauce)
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 minced cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon mustard
3 tablespoons Tabasco sauce (more if your mouth can handle it)
3 minced Ancho chili peppers (culinary weaklings can cut it back to one)

Mix ingredients in a saucepan, bring to boil, then cover and simmer for 2 hours. Serve on pork or chicken cooked almost to charcoal in an open pit barbeque or smoker. Have plenty of white bread and water on hand to absorb the heat.

Aimee stood over the slain boar and frowned at her father as Yellowfur danced around her legs, begging for a piece of hide. “Dad, will you listen to…” Nash smiled and said, “I’ll butcher the boar and start the fire. Dinner should be ready in a couple of hours.” He started to go outside to the open pit they’d built out of cement blocks and wire, but Aimee blocked his way. “I said listen to me!” his daughter yelled. “Aimee, I have to…” “Dad! A runner from East Encampment just brought the news that a Russian submarine washed up on Marlin Rocks! And he says it’s from 1954!”

THE LAST INSTALLMENT OF "LOVE, DEATH, AND ZOMBIES IN WAYCROSS, GEORGIA"

Gentle Reader, this is the last installment of the book. Unlike previous installments, where actual dialogue is used, the remainder of the book is only a brief synopsis of the action. Why? Because this project, begun mainly as a joke, has entertained me so much I’ve decided to actually write the book – zombies, talking dogs, contemptuous cats, Knights Templar, UFOs, mad scientists, Ming Dynasty kung fu concubines and all.

And here we go...

When Aimee, her father, and Cody reach the Russian sub, they learn from the English-speaking mad scientist on board that the sub fell into a time warp and wound up in the Ming Dynasty, where they met Peony Sun, a former concubine who had become a martial arts master. Peony told them about the Emperor’s terrible illness, and warned them not to go anywhere near the bejeweled chalice he’d bought from an Arab trader. It carried a curse, and anyone who touched it dies within a year. However, its fellow treasure, the Sacred Scroll, was written by Jesus himself, and was reputed to contain the formula for eradicating the zombie curse. The Holy Grail, the Holy Lance, and the Sacred Scroll have been hidden at Castello del Piagnaro, in Italy, and are guarded by descendants of the Knights Templar, who have sworn to fight unto death to keep their treasures out of the hands of Infidels.

Getting to Italy is no problem, Aimee, Cody, and her father decide, because the Russian sub – named Krasnyi Mest (Red Vengeance) – is in good shape, although much slower than before due to the depletion of nuclear fuel. It’s getting the Scroll away from the Templars that they fear could be problematical. Yes, lives will certainly be lost in the battle, but the Russians, Americans, and the kung fu princess all decide to chance it. They will somehow steal the Sacred Scroll, decipher the formula, and manufacture the life-saving cure. During the trip across the Atlantic, Peony and Aimee become close friends. The Russians, using a method developed by the mad scientist, learn excellent English. The Americans learn Russian, and everyone learns Mandarin Chinese. During their language lessons, they discover they have a stowaway on board. It’s Yellowfur, who wants to do his part to save the world. Yellowfur is discovered to have a lovely singing voice and gives nightly concerts as they travel slowly across the Atlantic.

But before the Krasnyi Mest finally makes landfall, it is attacked by an American submarine captained by U.S. President Ulysses Graham Marshall, who, it is revealed, is Aimee’s true father. Marshall wants the castle treasures for himself; he who rules the Grail rules the world! Unlike the crew of the Krasnyi Mest, he’s convinced that he’s immune to the Grail’s curse – after all, isn’t he a God-fearing man? The Krasnyi Mest wins the ensuing sea battle, and as the sticken renegade sub sinks to the bottom of the ocean, Yellowfur – who bears no animosity towards anyone – sings a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Upon their landing near Genoa, the crew marches inland to Castello del Piagnaro, where they engage in a fierce battle with the remaining diseased Templars. Aimee, Cody, Peony and Nash fight bravely. Yellowfur bites much Templar ass. As the leader of the Templars lies dying, he reveals the secret of the curse. According to legend, a UFO crashed somewhere in China during the Ming Dynasty, and a wounded alien staggered out. An Arab trader happened to be passing by and attempted to render aid to the alien by giving him a drink from the jeweled chalice he was carrying. Unfortunately, water was poisonous to this particular alien and he died on the spot – after vomiting into the chalice; the chalice has remained poisoned ever since. Having delivered his story of the origin of the zombie curse, the Templar, covered with black boils, dies.

During the vicious battle, all the treasures, including the hopefully life-saving Holy Scroll, are recovered, but Yellowfur has been badly wounded. The mad scientist – who’d never liked Yellowfur’s singing anyway – wants him left behind, but after an enraged Peony kung fu’s the crap out of him, the mad scientist has a change of heart and says he’ll do whatever he can to save the dog. A weeping Aimee carries the courageous Yellowfur back to the Krasnyi Mest. The crew, now reduced to a quarter of its original size, begins the trip back to America with their Holy treasures.

The mad scientist, having been kung fu’d back into sanity, saves Yellowfur’s life after applying mouth-to-snout resuscitation, then rubbing the Holy Lance across his wounds. Having been schooled in ancient Aramaic, he is able to translate the Holy Scroll and discovers the formula. He says that it will either kill everyone on Earth or eradicate the zombie plague forever. Everyone on board agrees that it’s a chance they must take.

Back at Waycross Georgia’s New Settlement, the now-sane scientist sets up shop. It’s a race against time, because during the trip back across the Atlantic, everyone on board the Krasnyi Mest – including himself – developed black boils. They all know that within weeks, they’ll turn into zombies. But books like these always end happily, so the scientist succeeds, the New Settlement’s ham radio operator sends out the formula for the cure, and everyone once infected with zombie-ism is soon cured. Out of gratitude for his life-saving efforts, Peony marries the formerly-mad scientist. Aimee marries Cody. Yellowfur marries a German shepherd named Lily Marlene. And after her ghost is exposed to the now-cleansed Holy Grail, Nash’s dead wife, the former Sister Mary Catherine, is brought back to life. In the book’s final scene, Nash and Mary Catherine renew their vows under a flowering apple tree. The wedding is attended by every person (and talking animal) mentioned in the book. At the reception, Yellowfur delivers a stirring rendition of “Feelings.”

The world is saved and everyone lives happily ever after.