Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Reasons for Feeling Proud

 In a week when my progress on my WIP has amounted to a total of two sentences, it is astonishing to think that I actually feel proud of this accomplishment. Yes, I am proud to have written two sentences. I am proud that I haven't given up in the face of daunting circumstances. 

I thought that I would have lots of time to write when I retired from my day job in April of 2020.  Ah, 2020, that magical year of plague, an overwhelmed health care system, and a major disruption of life as we knew it. The challenges of 2020 were large and frightening. COVID-19 was a rampaging beast that the United States downplayed and downright ignored. Americans were more worried about the toilet paper shortage than they were about their dying neighbors. 

In our household, there were no children to be homeschooled, but my desktop computer was the only one in the house that could serve my wife's needs as she began to work from home. This was my personal sacrifice to the pandemic. Writing on a laptop may not be a big sacrifice, but it is so much easier for me to type on a full-sized keyboard.  I ended up attaching a keyboard to a laptop on a makeshift desk. 

I was just getting into the swing of working from my makeshift desk when my wife's mother took a turn for the worse. At the time I didn't realize how much of my time would be taken up by caretaking responsibilities. She continues to decline. Six months ago she moved to a memory care facility. Anyone who has been through taking care of a family member with dementia knows that being in care doesn't stop the need for family caretaking. I spend three to five hours a day helping her. That is the equivalent of a full-time job. Instead of giving me more time to write, retirement has allowed me to be there for her when she needs me.

The need is exhausting. We go step by step through how to stand up, get in the car, use a fork, wash her hands...all those little, everyday tasks, we take for granted. I hunt the hearing aids that she put away in the toe of a sock, place the phone back on the base to charge because it has been in her walker or under the bed all day, find the door key that is "put away" in the bottom of the laundry hamper, and try as hard as I can to help her laugh at these things instead of feeling foolish.

I wrote two sentences in my book today. I am really proud of that.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Gangsters in Tampa

When I think about the speakeasy culture of the 1920s my mind conjures images of Chicago and outfits like Al Capone's or the infamous O'Banion's Northside gang. The movies brought images of beer barrels chopped open with axes, late-night runs across the Great Lakes to smuggle booze from Canada, and of course baseball bats and Tommy guns. In Chicago alone, there were more than 25,000 men and boys who belonged to one of the gangs. 

Moving to Florida over a decade ago and starting to explore the history of this state introduced me to a new group of 1920s gangsters. Here Charlie Wall's mob clashed with Italian mobster Ignacio Antinori. With the plethora of inlets around Tampa Bay rumrunners were unstoppable. But the real power of the Tampa outfits was Bolita, a type of lottery that was popular in Cuba and among Florida’s working-class minorities. Charley Wall, the black sheep of his blueblooded family,  got into the game early and pretty much cornered the racket. At the height of his power, nothing of importance got done in central Florida without his nod. Gambling, car theft, human trafficking,  prostitution, rumrunning, bootlegging, speakeasies, and music halls were sources of his wealth. That wealth bought him elections, courts, police departments, and city halls. 

What wealth could not buy was protection from a racket bigger than all the others combined. During prohibition, no self-respecting gangster would engage in the dope trade. But, drugs flowed through Tampa's port. Self-respect was of little import to the men whose lust for money fueled the drug trade. Crime syndicates formed and crime was big business. Individuals like Wall were squeezed out by networks spread around the world. After a Decade of Blood, the Trafficante family took over Tampa.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Inside a Home for those with Failing Minds

 There are very few situations harder to cope with than dementia. It is heartbreaking at best. At worst ... there are no words for the nothingness. Dementia is the great abyss staring back at you through the eyes of a loved one. I think that may be why so many families don't visit their loved ones who are living with dementia. 

After nearly half a year of making daily visits to Sarah's mom, I know just how hard it can be to answer the same question a hundred times. I have had to deal with fits of anger and demands that I take her home. I have given her my phone number ten or twelve times a day only to have her call me and ask me to verify the number again. Yes, she uses the number I gave her to call me and ask for my number. The little frustrations are endless.

All I can do is encourage her to enjoy the moment, bring her little things to make life easier, and be there.  Being there is the most important part.  

Grace was quite aware of being in a memory care facility in Clearwater, Florida. She was telling me that this time last year she would never have believed that she would be in a place like this when the new year began. She would have thought we were crazy if we had suggested it. She is aware that her memory is failing. That awareness makes her position harder because she gave her son the power of attorney he used that power to put her in care and deny her friends access. 

She is 97 and she does need help. What she needs most is for him to be present and supportive. Instead, he makes her life harder and keeps her friends away. In the months I've known her, he has visited twice. Once to steal the phone her friends gave her, and once to attend the Christmas party the facility hosted for families. Her friends have hired an attorney to help her out of this situation.  I don't know how their efforts will turn out, but I hope she continues to be Kathy's friend.

Deloris and Grace have been good for her. There are half a dozen other women there who also befriend Kathy and help her. In fact, the residents help each other in many small ways. They are a small community of friends who often do not remember each other's names. Some don't remember which room is theirs or how to get there. They do remember kindness. I have also discovered that it is not just Kathy who looks forward to seeing me walk through the door each day.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Writing takes a Back Seat to Family

My blog has been erratic this month. For that, I am truly sorry. Please hang in there. My life should get back to better order soon. This month was, is, and is going to continue to be crazy. Sarah and I have been busy touring memory care facilities because her mother has reached the point where home care isn't enough.

What she wants is to stay in her home. That is simply no longer possible. She often doesn't recognize it as her home, and sometimes forgets she is in Florida. I frequently have to tell her that I can't take her home because she is home, that she no longer lives in Kentucky, and that Sarah and I do not live in Kentucky anymore. 

Then there are the expenses. The amount of home care she needs, and the costs of maintaining a house that is over 100 years old, is more than she can afford. The care alone is more than ten thousand a month. Sarah's brother arrives next week and together we will make the choice that we think is best for Sarah's mom. We will wade through the paperwork and get her the best possible place we can find.

In times like these, writing takes a back seat to family. Sarah and I are going to be stretched pretty thin until we find a place that can provide her mom the care she needs, get the work done to move her in, and make sure she settles into her new home. It is not going to be easy. She will hate giving up her home, probably hate us for forcing the issue, and hate any memory care home we choose. 

Dementia has taken away our other options. Nothing about caring for a loved one with dementia is easy. I am sure any caregiver will confirm that. For us, the hardest part is reversing the mother-child relationship. We must do what is best for her no matter how much she resists.

Friday, July 09, 2021

Becoming a Micro-Publisher

Tomorrow, Sarah and I are going to be talking to the Derby Rotten Scoundrels Chapter of Sisters in Crime about our publishing journey. Preparing for this talk has made me do a lot of thinking about our micro-press and all the work that has gone into learning to create books. It required learning about formatting, new software, what fonts worked well together, what kind of covers were needed, how to get covers, and what budget they needed. Timetables had to be set up for what needed to be done to take a book from manuscript to published. We had to learn about everything from hypertext and metadata to ISBNs and Library of Congress numbers. 

The strangest part of this journey is that neither of us started out with a plan to go into publishing. Frankly, we were and are still writers first, which is why the press will never grow beyond being a micro-press. It is not possible to write and publish a large number of books at the same time. Each is a full-time job. Now that I have retired there is more time I can devote to other projects, but not that much more. I didn't gain those eight to ten hours a day that used to be taken up with my job. Instead, there were new responsibilities that ended up on my plate. 

Publishing is challenging. There are so many other books on the market that it is very difficult to get one book to stand out from the pack. The pack for us isn't the big publishers. It is the other small independent presses and the self-published authors that we vie for shelf space with. Standing out is about finding the right keywords on Amazon, the right blurb for the back cover, the right places to get reviews, and the right price points to get sales. It is all still a work in progress. 

I am grateful for the people who have helped us along the way and awed that I have reached a point where others consult me with their questions. It is quite a journey from writer to publisher, one that I could not have made without Sarah and her editing skills. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Thinking Inside the Box


I was listening to a well-respected mystery writer talking about how writers needed to think outside the box. The term makes me cringe. The first time I heard it was in the 80s. Businesses were making a huge effort to convince all of us that we need to think outside the box when most of them hadn't bothered finding out what was in the box, to begin with. 

While it started with businesses trying to approach problems in new and creative ways. Now it has been applied to every aspect of our lives. Even elementary school children are being badgered to think outside the box before they have even learned what the box holds.

I don't object to the idea of brainstorming ways to solve a problem. I find objectionable the colossal waste of time this practice is when we haven't exhausted the possibilities inside the box. Doctors refer to this as looking for zebras. They teach medical students to look for the obvious first. Once you have ruled out all the common ailments, then start looking for the more unusual ones.

You might wonder why I'm talking about inside-the-box thinking for writers. After all, we are supposed to be creative. Our plots take all kinds of twists and turns. This is why readers pick up our books. 

But here's the thing, the story needs to make sense. The writing doesn't need funky punctuation, new and different spellings of names, experimental structure. Tell the story. Tell it well. Take your readers into your world with the words you use. The journey can be as wild and imaginative as you wish, filled with layers of secrets and deception. Keep your readers guessing until the very end. 

We have an incredible toolbox of language, grammar, style, structure, and plot. There is no good reason to throw away what is in our toolbox and go looking for a new tool when most of us are still learning to write with the tools we have. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

History of Flogging in Tampa

Flogging holds a prominent place in Tampa history; in fact, from the turn of the 20th century into the 1930s, "professional flogger" was an acceptable, if not entirely respectable occupation. If you didn't like someone and didn't want to get your own hands dirty, you could hire a flogger to deliver a public whipping. There are reported cases of men, women, and children who died from injuries received in a flogging. It is a sad fact that flogging in Tampa and Hillsborough County was widespread and accepted deep into the 20th century. 

As with most other punishments, flogging took the worst toll on people of color. Instead of the leather strap, a whip or chain might be used. Other targets of the lash were Jews, Catholics, women of ill repute, and criminals. Prisoners were systematically abused. The use of the lash in law enforcement was a daily practice. It continued for decades and no prisoner was immune to the threat of flogging on the whim of city and county officials. Judges even beat children in the courtrooms of the city. 

Judge Whitaker of the Tampa municipal court is said to have set the legal precedent, "by personally applying the lash to two boy offenders convicted in his court." The judge believed a good whipping would be better for their character than jail time. Perhaps he was right, but by the time of Ybor City Blues, Hillsboro County had instituted a policy of flogging four prisoners a day even if there had been no infractions of the rules. 

Hillsborough County Chain Gang 1925

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to serve time in the county jail. First of all, jail usually meant the county work camp. Prisoners worked twelve-hour days building roads, cleaning ditches, and cutting brush using hand tools. They were shackled together to form a "chain gang." Then, every afternoon a flogger would walk down the row and pick out four random men to flog. If you were disliked, unlucky, or a shade or two darker than the next man in line, you could end up with daily floggings through your entire sentence.