Sunday, November 24, 2013

How To Build A Cat Box

We've been adopted.

About a week and a half ago, a very sweet stray kitty saw the giant "SUCKER" written on my forehead in ink only visible to animals, and latched on.

A few problems, though: 1) We already have two cats, one of whom has severe vaccine reactions and cannot be vaccinated, so little kitty can't come in our house with her possible diseases. 2) Every no-kill shelter in the area--every single one--is buried in cats. 3) It's very, very cold outside. And...

4) I have a sneaking suspicion she's pregnant.

Right now, she's been living under our deck, and she seems fairly comfortable and warm there. However, with temperatures going down into the teens this weekend, my husband and I wanted her to have another option. Seizing opportunity, this is how you build an insulated cat box for around $20:

Step One: Bins



Sadly, I didn't have any of these lying around, but these two were fairly cheap at Kmart; the two together were only $17. If you're really hard up on cash, though, you can achieve a similar result with two cardboard boxes, wrapped with a garbage bag for water resistance. The requirements are that one must nest comfortably inside the other with both lids on and closed. Make sure there's a little wiggle room; remember, we'll be adding insulation.

Step Two: You cut a hole in that box


Both boxes, actually. This is the most labor-intensive and frustrating step. I suggest scoring the cut lines several times with an Exacto knife, punching through, and then using a serrated kitchen knife to actually cut through the plastic. Be patient, young Padawan, or you're going to crack the shit out of those bins and make them unusable. The openings should be cut so they'll match up when the boxes are nested inside each other.

Step Three: Add Insulation

Starting with the outer box, line the bottom with newspaper. Believe it or not, newspaper is actually a pretty decent insulator.

 
Then put a layer of straw at the bottom. Straw is also a very good insulator. I got a small bale for $3 at Michael's craft store. If you live in the country, though, I'm sure you can beg some off your neighbors. If not, you can find some at pet stores. Sawdust will work, too.

 
 
Place the smaller bin inside the larger, with the holes aligned. Line the bottom with straw...

 
 Then put newspaper on top. We did it this way so it wouldn't be so prickly.

 
The towel is optional; if you have an old one lying around, though, your stray will surely appreciate it!


Stuff as much straw between the sides of the two boxes as you can fit. Again, if you don't have straw, sawdust or even crumpled newspaper will do for this step.

 
 Before placing the lid of the outer box, add another layer of newspaper on top. Remember, heat rises!

 
 
Admire your finished box! I know the edges look a little jagged around the hole, but kitty's smart enough not to hurt herself on them. If you're worried, though, you can file them, or put a little duct tape over the points. We also added a belt of duct tape, as the box is stuffed pretty tight, and we don't want the lid popping off.
 
 
Place the box near the area where your stray has been taking shelter, but don't block her out of her current hiding place or try to force her into the box. We want kitty to feel safe and comfortable, and not frighten her away into an unsafe environment. This is her, by the way. She's cute, right? Right?You want her? ;-)

 

This box cost $20 and took us about twenty minutes to make. It's a small investment of time and money that could save an animal's life, so please, bookmark this post, so if you do find yourself adopted by a stray, you'll have these instructions handy. Thanks for reading!

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Free Fiction Friday: Isabel, Part Four

Here are parts one, two, and three, if you missed them.

At first, Isabel didn’t think she’d be able to obey his instructions; her whole body had frozen in shock and fear, her skin gone so cold she could feel the warmth of her own sweat beaded across her flesh.  Slowly, though, her arms rose, seemingly under her own volition, above her head. A hand grasped her filthy hair roughly, knocking her hat off, and she couldn’t stifle a cry of pain as he pulled her to her feet and spun her around by the roots of her hair.

Three other men stood watching her, their dark brown faces crinkled into expressions of menace or amusement. She knew those faces; they’d been haunting the few dreams she’d had since leaving the bodies of her guides days before. The poachers.

Isabel swallowed; a useless gesture, since any moisture which had been in her mouth had dried up the minute the gun had been pressed against her neck. “I think there’s been a mistake,” she began, nervously. “I’m just trying to get to the village—I’m a scientist, I’m here to study the plants—”

The man holding her laughed sharply. “A scientist, eh? And you don’t hire any guides?” The malicious mockery in his voice sent an unexpected surge of rage up through her chest. “Do not play the fool. We know you are with the men we killed.”

“I didn’t see anything,” Isabel lied. “I still…I still haven’t seen anything.” She risked a glance at her captor’s face. “So you can let me go. No one will know about you.”

“That is not my concern,” the poacher said. “I keep the police well-paid. What is my concern…is what you have stolen from me.”

“Stolen?”

The poacher tightened his grip on her hair, pulling her head close so they were nose-to-nose. “Where is my leopard?”

Not trusting herself to speak, Isabel just widened her eyes and shook her head as much as the poacher’s hold would allow.

“Ah, she plays the fool again,” he said, relaxing his arm so Isabel could take half a step back. “My friend here, Daj—” he pointed with the gun to the man Isabel had seen inspecting the trap earlier “—he is a very talented man. A very talented tracker. He finds your tracks near our trap. He says you are probably nearby, watching. So we pretend to leave, and then follow you when you go. Because we want our leopard.”

“How do you even know there was ever a leopard in the trap?”

“Tracks,” the poacher replied. “And blood. Daj can smell from the blood what animal it comes from. Very talented man.” He paused thoughtfully. “Do you know how much leopard skin costs? Very many dollars, American dollars. So, when we lose leopard, we lose money. We cannot feed our families. And Daj’s wife is pregnant yet again.”

“How can you think that I—”

“No more playing the fool!” Her captor thrust Isabel roughly away, so she went sprawling into the leaves. When she looked up, he had his gun pointed at her, his lips curled in an angry snarl. “You will pay us for the leopard, or—”

But he never got to tell Isabel what her second option was, because a streak of yellow, black and white sailed out of the forest and knocked him to the ground. The gun went off, kicking up a divot of black loam an inch from Isabel’s side. When she looked up, she saw Daj raise his assault rifle and point it at the leopard.

“No!” Isabel screamed, and flung a stick at Daj. It wasn’t a very good throw, or a very big stick, but it hit him in the shoulder and made his attention waver for a split second, long enough for another, smaller streak to leap in from the side and catch him by the throat, throwing him to the ground.

The other two men seemed confused, unsure of what to do. They raised their rifles hesitantly, but both leopards were so entwined with their victims, there was no hope of shooting one without hitting the other.

At last, the man who had been holding Isabel lay still, and the leopard raised its bloodstained muzzle and looked right at Isabel. Their eyes locked in complete understanding.

Out of the corner of her eye, Isabel saw that one of the remaining poachers seemed to have rediscovered his courage, and was raising his rifle yet again. With a low growl, the leopard crossed in front of Isabel—still limping on her front paw—and stood between her and the poachers, head lowered and haunches tensed in a very deliberate gesture.

The poachers looked at the leopard, standing protectively in front of Isabel, its flicking tail actually touching her leg, looked at each other, and turned and ran, sprinting off into the forest.

The leopard grunted to call her cub. It left off viciously shaking Daj’s limp form and rejoined its mother with a soft chirp. Before Isabel could draw another breath, they were both gone.

 
A week and a half later, Isabel was walking through the markets of Kuching, her eyes passing over the colorful silks and fruits without much interest. She’d spent a lot of time here, killing time between interviews by the police and Embassy investigators. Her caseworker at the Embassy, Amy, had assured Isabel she would be home by the end of the week, but Isabel wasn’t holding her breath.

She passed the ‘animal stall,’ selling terrified exotic animals, with her usual disgust, until something caught her eye. A new cage, right out front, with several interested spectators lined up in front of it. She peered around the sari of one woman, and her heart froze. A tiny, dirty leopard cub was curled in fear in one corner of the cage.

Isabel shouldered through the crowd and squatted down by the cage. The cub had its back wedged so firmly into the back corner of the cage that its skin bulged out between the wire. Its eyes, pupils dilated in fear, landed on Isabel.

Isabel looked up to find a mostly-toothless man in a sarong and button-down shirt staring down at her.

“English?” she asked, and he nodded suspiciously. “How much?” she asked, pointing to the cage with the leopard.

“You cop?”

Isabel sighed. “No, I’m not a cop.”

A small smile began to curl the corners of the man’s lips. “American dollar?”

Isabel nodded.

“Five hundred!” he proclaimed proudly. Isabel snorted.

“One fifty,” she said.

“Four hundred!”

“Two.”

“Two fifty!”

Isabel stood, pulling her travel wallet, which hung around her neck, out from under her shirt. “Done,” she said, counting out the money and handing it to the man. As he recounted it eagerly, Isabel hooked her fingers through the top of the wire and began to lift the cage.

“No, no!” the man said. “Cage extra fifty.”

“You suck,” Isabel muttered under her breath, as she searched for the latch. As she opened the top of the cage, the cub pushed itself even more firmly against the wire, hissing menacingly.

“You’re all right, you’re all right,” she murmured, getting her hand close enough to stroke the top of the leopard’s head with one finger. The poor thing couldn’t have been more than six weeks old. She gently grasped it by the scruff of the neck and lifted it out of the cage, settling it against her chest. The cub’s nostrils flared as it took in her scent.

“You going to freak on me?” she murmured. The leopard seemed to take a few more moments to decide before burying its head under her armpit.

“Okay,” she said, smiling. “Still more baby than tough guy.”

 
The taxi waited for her as she asked outside the Kuching Wildlife Rescue, named for the city despite the fact that it was two hours outside the city limits. The taxi was comparatively expensive, but Isabel couldn’t imagine having made that trip on a bus…not with a squirmy leopard cub determined to hide under her shirt or in her pants. She pushed through the rusty front gate and down a wide dirt track, toward a series of enclosures and squat bamboo huts.

“May I help you?” A smiling woman, dressed in a sari, with a long, dark braid trailing over her shoulder to her waist, stood next to a tree, hands folded.

“Um, yes,” Isabel said, trying to wrestle the reluctant cub out from under her now irreversibly stretched out shirt. “Do you accept refugees?”

The woman’s eyes widened as the leopard cub appeared, growling at the loss of his hiding place. “Why don’t you come into the office?” she said, gesturing to a hut behind her.

The woman introduced herself as May; Isabel thought she had probably anglicized it from something less pronounceable. She made Isabel a cup of strong, hot tea and listened to her story without comment.

When Isabel was finished speaking, May took a sip of tea.

“That is quite an experience,” May said. “And this is why you…?” She gestured to the leopard cub’s tail, the only visible part of the animal, since it had re-ensconced itself safely under Isabel’s shirt.

“Yes,” Isabel said. “I know you’re not supposed to buy the animals like that, it just makes the poachers go out and hunt more, but…”

May nodded. “In the wider sense, yes, it is not good to do. However, in the smaller sense…the cub most likely would have been bought by someone who would have kept it in a small cage until it grew large enough to produce a profitable pelt. For this animal, it was the right thing to do.”

“Can you take him?”

May smiled. “We never turn any animals away. Of course, we could unfortunately not reimburse you your investment…”

“No, of course not. And,” Isabel pulled her wallet out of her shirt again, evoking a growl from the cub. She pulled out two more one hundred dollar bills and laid them on the table. “I’m sure he’ll have a pretty big appetite.”

May eyed the money with a look of relief. “I cannot even begin to thank you for your kindness.”

“Not at all.” Isabel pulled the cub out of her shirt and held him up to her face. “Good luck, buddy,” she said. She made to hand the cub to May, but caught a glimpse of a Polaroid camera on a small table nearby. “Would you mind taking a picture? I could pay you for the film.”

May waved her hand dismissively and got up to get the camera. “Not at all,” she said. Isabel held the cub up to her face and smiled while May took the picture. When the film came out, she handed it to Isabel. “Thank you again.”

Isabel took the picture, handed over the cub, and walked slowly back to the cab, feeling light and fulfilled, as though she’d discharged at least a part of her debt.

I hope you enjoyed this little story of mine! Come back next Friday, and I'll tell you another. And don't forget...you can always click on the links to the right to buy my book, Blind Study. See you next week!

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

For The Love Of Characters

I don't usually do posts about writing. Personally, I feel that writing is like parenting...it's an experience and a craft individual to parent and child, or writer and project, as it were. There are some basic rules, but overall it's up to you to figure out how to do it.

However, I'm watching this show right now, Sleepy Hollow, and it's got me thinking quite a bit about storytelling. See, Sleepy Hollow's got quite a few problems. Plot holes you could fly a 747 through, a major arc which has been presented but for the most part ignored...I could go on. Honestly, if it were any other show, I'd have turned it off by now.

But Sleepy Hollow isn't any other show. It's got Lieutenant Abbie Mills, possibly the strongest female lead on TV right now. She's tough, she kicks butt, and yet she's also got past demons and vulnerability which don't compromise any of the former.

Then there's Ichabod Crane, a guy as impossible as his name. Redcoat-turned-revolutionary, Rip-van-Winkled by his witchy wife and resurrected in the 21st century. He's passionate and stubborn and fiercely loyal, and I could probably continue watching Sleepy Hollow if it was a show only about Ichabod investigating the wonders of the modern world.

This is how you get me to pay attention. This is how I can be persuaded to overlook history rewritten and the realm of probability stretched thin enough to see daylight through. (And yes, I'm aware it's a show about a headless horseman of the Apocalypse. I'm not asking that the story be written within this world; I'm asking that the writers make rules for their world and then follow them. A topic for another day, possibly.)

This is how you get me to care what happens next. Create a character I fall in love with. Make them flawed. Give them demons. Have them make crappy decisions. Wound them and leave them dying on the floor. Because every time Abbie's doe eyes fill with tears or Ichabod is once again gasping his last, I want to jump in that story and fix it for them. I've been made to love them. Now it doesn't matter how many other rules the writers break. I'll notice, and I'll roll my eyes, but I won't change the channel. I won't leave them.

That's the crucial difference between a story that's okay or good or a story that OMG I LOVE SO MUCH HAVE YOU READ THIS YOU HAVE TO READ THIS HERE I BOUGHT AN EXTRA COPY READ IT READ IT NOW. Without characters you care about just as much as real people, a story's just...a story. A fable, a parable, a dry paragraph on the page of a history book. It'll pass through you without making an impression. A real story leaves claw marks on your heart.


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Friday, November 1, 2013

Free Fiction Fridays: Isabel, Part Three

If you need to catch up, click through for Part One and Part Two.

As soon as it was light enough to see, Isabel checked her snares. She’d had luck again, as she’d caught two more moonrats out of four traps. Both leopards were just as happy to see these as the other two. They chomped busily away, Isabel eating a durian fruit, when a gunshot rang out, startling the jungle into a symphony of discordant shrieks, whistles and howls. Isabel dropped her fruit; both leopards sprang to their feet, the mother leopard with her trapped paw extended from her body, so she didn’t put any weight on it.

“They’re coming,” Isabel whispered. The shot they’d just heard was probably the poachers finishing off another trapped animal a mile or two down the road. Isabel scrambled across the stream, just as the mother leopard grunted softly to her cub. With several backward glances at its mother and Isabel, it slunk off into the creepers.

Isabel knelt down just outside what she thought of as the ‘leopard’s circle’. Heart pounding, she looked at the leopard, whose eyes were still focused in the direction of the gunshot.

“I know you don’t trust me,” Isabel said. “I know I’m one of them. But you have to let me help you. You know that, don’t you?” The leopard turned and looked at Isabel, her yellow eyes inscrutable.

The leopard stood about a foot and a half away from the edge of her six-foot across circle, which meant that Isabel had to come well inside the animal’s strike range. She crawled slowly, on hands and knees, to the point where she could just reach the release plate of the jaw-hold trap. Bit by bit, she extended her arm, her eyes never leaving the cat’s face.

Up until this point, the leopard had remained perfectly still except for the white tip of her tail, which twitched as she watched Isabel’s approach. Now, as Isabel’s hand came close to her foot, the leopard pulled back slightly and swiped at Isabel’s arm with her good paw, lip curled in a warning snarl. Isabel snatched her arm back to her chest, but luckily the swipe had been a statement, not a true attack.

Another gunshot.

“Please,” Isabel said, meeting the leopard’s eyes. “Please.” They stayed there for almost a full minute, Isabel on her knees, the leopard a few feet away in a half-crouch, their eyes locked.

It was the leopard who broke eye contact first. With a grunt, she lay down, her trapped paw extended, her other paw tucked beneath her chest. A peace gesture. Or so Isabel hoped.

She edged forward again, extending her arm once more, watching the cat for any sign of a reaction. There was none. After what seemed like an eternity, her fingers touched the release pad. Isabel took a deep breath and pressed.

The trap didn’t budge. It was old, dirt-and blood-caked, left outdoors in several monsoon seasons, and the parts simply weren’t gliding against each other like they used to. Isabel pressed with her fingers until she thought her knuckles would crack, but the pad didn’t give an inch.

With a shaky gulp, Isabel inched closer, until she was kneeling right next to the trap. The leopard’s whiskers were mere inches from her arm; she could feel warm breath tickling the hairs below her elbow. Isabel straightened up, placed her hands one atop the other on the pad, fingers interlaced, and pushed down with all her weight.

The trap groaned open, and before Isabel could even turn her head, the leopard was gone, a spotted flank and white-tipped tail disappearing into the green.

Isabel stayed in her position, kneeling by the trap, her eyes focused on the place she’d seen the leopard disappear, not even aware she was smiling, before the sound of a not-so-faraway human voice snapped her out of her reverie. She crossed the stream and grabbed her pack, then jogged several hundred meters back in the jungle and threw herself down under a curtain of creepers, still grinning.

There was a soft rustling in the distance which grew louder as the minutes passed. At last, four men stepped into Isabel’s vision, whom she immediately recognized as the four who’d killed her guides.

Three of the men gave angry shouts at the sight of the sprung trap, but the fourth simply went quietly to the steel jaws and squatted down, brows knit in concentration. He ran his forefinger on the inside of the closed trap, then held his hand up to his face, rubbing his thumb and finger together.

The other three men had stopped talking, and were intently watching this fourth man as he directed his attention away from the trap and toward the ground. His dark eyes scanned the disturbed leaves of the forest floor. Suddenly, he reached out and gingerly traced a shape in the dirt with his pinky. He looked up at his companions and said a few quiet words in Luru.

A subdued tension fell over the group. One of the men still standing snapped a question at the man who still squatted on the forest floor. The first part of his response was phrased seriously, then a slow smile spread over his face for the second.

Two of the men still standing laughed, and the third just smiled and shrugged. The fourth man stood, and they walked back the way they came, disappearing into the forest.

As the jungle noises slowly trickled back on after the men’s departure, Isabel let out a harsh breath and let her forehead fall onto her folded hands. Even though her fear of the poachers was still making her heart race, a thrill of rebelliousness prickled under her skin. They’d taken something from her; she’d taken something from them. They still weren’t anywhere near even, but it was still a victory, something to keep her going on her grueling journey back to civilization. She wriggled out from under the bushes, brushed herself off, and set off the way she’d been going, the opposite direction from the poachers.

Around mid-afternoon, Isabel found another small stream and dropped her pack for a short break. She mixed some iodine tablets with a fresh bottle of water, drank the whole thing down, and then made up a new one, putting it into the side pocket of her backpack. She took off her hat so she could fix her ponytail, grimacing at the film of sweat and dirt soaked into every strand of her light brown hair. Civilized women took things like clean hair and toilet paper for granted. She worked her fingers experimentally through a snarl, realized all she was accomplishing was ripping her hair out by the roots, and twisted the whole tangled mess into a wild bun at the back of her neck. She would have to soak her head in a bucket of detangler for three days to get this mess out.

Isabel looked around her and spied a durian tree. Her stomach cramped. A diet heavy in fruit was wreaking havoc on her digestive system; most of the vegetables she was finding now required cooking. She could happily kill someone for a steak and a baked potato. With a sigh, Isabel gathered three of the fruits to put in her pack, knelt quickly by the stream to freshen her protective layer of mud, and set off once more.

She’d just stepped over the stream, though, when a prickling sensation on the back of her neck made her whirl around and peer into the forest. She squinted into the thick, leafy green, trying to discern a flash of movement, a patch of color that didn’t belong.

She saw nothing.

You know, Isabel thought, your parents spent about a hundred thousand dollars of college tuition on your mind. They’ll probably be pretty annoyed if you lose it in the middle of the Bornean jungle.

Shaking her head, she turned and was on her way.

By her estimate, Isabel had about two more days of walking before she reached the small village she and her guides had set out from. Someone there could probably arrange transport for her back to the city, and once there the Embassy could get in contact with her university, get Professor Keegan on the phone so she could explain everything that had happened. Keegan was in charge of several field biologists, and had been for years; she often thought of him personally, and not the university itself, as base camp. He’d be able to sort everything out. After all, it wasn’t as though she only had to worry about getting out of Borneo a month early; there was the investigation of three murders which had occurred in the presence of a foreigner to think about. She’d probably need a lawyer.

Her stomach growled, and Isabel stopped, kneeling and swinging her pack off her shoulders to dig for the fruit she’d gathered earlier. She should probably think about setting up camp for the night soon…

Isabel was so lost in thought, she didn’t hear the man approaching until the steel barrel of his gun was pressed to the base of her neck.

“Take your hands off the pack,” said a heavily accented male voice. “Move very slowly.”

Tune in next week for the conclusion!


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Friday, October 25, 2013

Free Fiction Fridays: Isabel, Part Two

If you need to catch up, click here for Part One. Otherwise, please to enjoy the second installment!

Seconds passed, and Isabel’s throat remained intact. Carefully, she pushed herself up to a sitting position and looked across the stream.

The leopard now lay with its back to her, legs splayed unnaturally. Curious, but still cautious, she stood up—and discovered the reason she was still alive.

The cat angrily gnawed at one front paw, encased in a heavy steel jaw-hold trap. The trap was anchored by three feet of thick chain attached to a stake driven into the ground. The leopard must have sensed Isabel’s movement, for it whirled around to face her once more with ears pressed flat against its head, snarling angrily.

No, it’s not angry, Isabel thought, as she looked at the cat’s dilated pupils. It’s scared.

The leopard backed up jerkily, making the chain rattle, lips still pulled back from ivory daggers. Isabel felt a hot wave of sympathy wash over her. This cat wasn’t stupid, she was sure. It probably knew any human it saw at this point was coming to kill it.

The leopard’s snarling still filling the air (and the macaques screaming overhead—she now realized they hadn’t been screaming at her, but at the leopard) Isabel slowly opened her pack and extracted a small cooking pot, which she filled with water from the stream. She stepped smoothly over the stream, a move which freshened the pitch of the leopard’s snarls, and set the pot down in the leaves. Looking around, she found what she was looking for, a long branch (really, a small tree) with a wide fork at the end. She used this to push the pot of water inside the circle formed by leopard and chain, careful not to push it directly at the leopard—given its current mood, she was pretty sure it would whack the pot away with its good paw and upset it. Then she withdrew back to the other side of the stream.

Isabel knew she would have to be patient and quiet for quite some time while the leopard worked up the courage to approach the strange, shiny object full of water. How much time depended on how long the animal had been in the trap before she found it. Luckily, botanists are as a rule very patient people. They have to be—it’s literally part of the job description to sit around and watch the grass grow.

So, Isabel took her shoes and socks off to let them dry out, rested her back against a tree (checking for fire ant nests first), pulled her hat down over her eyes, and meditated on her situation. Her inner cynic immediately spoke up.

You do realize, she said, that you are hundreds of miles from anywhere, with no food, no bug spray, and no guides, on an apparent poacher’s route, and here you are, snuggled up against a tree, waiting for the leopard to give you your pot back.

I couldn’t just leave it, Isabel argued. The poor thing has been trapped within spitting distance of a stream for God only knows how long without being able to take a drink.

And what are you going to do once it’s had its drink? the cynic asked.

For this, Isabel had no rational answer. She knew what she should do; collect her pot, put it back in her pack, and continue walking, following the road from a few feet away in the jungle until she came across a village, or another traveler, one without leopard skin hanging from his pack. She knew the poachers would be back here to collect their prize, and she should really make every effort to not be here when they returned.

The fact was, though, every time she thought about leaving and turning her back on the animal, her stomach twisted into a snarled bundle. Maybe it had something to do with leaving her guides, feeling their ghostly, accusing glares, unable to do anything more for them; maybe it was just that she was a sucker for animals. But Isabel felt pretty sure that, even though she knew, she knew she had to leave five minutes ago, her feet would never obey the directive.

“Oh, Iz, you stupid, stupid woman, you,” she murmured, just as the sounds of gentle lapping reached her ears.

Against all odds, since she’d only ever seen it done and never really had the concept explained to her, Isabel had managed to catch two moonrats for the leopard with snares made from her guides’ shoelaces, which she’d taken when she left, knowing anything even roughly resembling rope can come in vastly useful in the jungle. She’d also found a fair quantity of fruit and other plants that were edible raw. The moonrats looked much more appetizing to her, despite the rotten garlic odor the possum-like animals were famous for, but she didn’t dare risk a cookfire—in her mind, that would be the equivalent of putting up a billboard for the poachers saying, “Come and get me, suckas.”

The leopard didn’t snarl this time when Isabel approached. As she stepped across the stream, she held the dead moonrats up in the air for the animal to see. Its eyes widened, but otherwise it lay stock-still, focused on the carcasses. Isabel tossed them both inside the leopard’s circle.

At once, the cat attacked the meat with a violence that made Isabel flinch back. It was tearing greedily at the first carcass, its muzzle wholly entrenched in the moonrat’s stomach, when suddenly it lifted its head and gave a low, rhythmic grunting call.

The leaves opposite of where Isabel stood parted, and out tumbled a half-grown leopard cub which, with a cautious glance at the strange two-legged creature, settled down by its mother and began devouring the second carcass.

“Good thing I set more snares,” Isabel said with a sigh.

Night had fallen, the most uneasy night Isabel had known since her guides had been killed. She’d spent each night alone without a fire so far. Fires were wonderful for scaring off wildlife, but they were also wonderful for attracting attention, and the only other people in the jungle right now other than Isabel, as far as she knew, were cold-blooded murderers, and she certainly didn’t want to risk attracting their attention.

She had plenty of experience dealing with the creepy-crawlies of the jungle. Tonight, though, Isabel was trying to go to sleep with the knowledge that, a few yards away from her in the pitch-black, two leopards were watching her, one chained, one loose. Granted, clouded leopards, the kind native to Borneo, were much smaller than their Indian cousins; this meant that the unchained leopard cub, half the size of an adult, was only about fifteen to twenty pounds. But fifteen to twenty pounds of carefully evolved and heavily sinewed predator, however inexperienced, could conceivably kill her, and if not, deal her crippling injuries which could mean the difference between getting out of here alive—or not.

Something bumped her foot, and she bit back a scream, pressing herself back against the tree she leaned against and folding her knees against her chest. She heard a soft, surprised whuff at her flinch, then soft, warm breath, snuffling over her ankle, up her calf and down her thigh. At the top of her thigh, the nose forced itself between Isabel’s leg and stomach into her lap, investigating her crotch as a dog would, then continued upward, over her stomach and chest, poking into her armpits. A damp nose was pressed against the place where her neck met her shoulder, then pushed under the angle of her jaw. Isabel’s vocal cords trembled with the urge to scream, but she miraculously managed to remain still.

The leopard cub now investigated Isabel’s right ear, its fur brushing against her cheek. Then, it turned its head so they were nose-to-nose, warm meat-redolent breath washing over Isabel’s face and flooding her nostrils.

Just as quickly as it had come, the leopard cub was gone, and Isabel’s muscles, tensed to the point of rictus, collapsed, leaving her slumped on the damp earth of the forest floor.

Tune in next week for Part Three!

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A My Favorite Things Giveaway: Veronica Roth's Allegiant!

Hello, and welcome to my second My Favorite Things giveaway! If you read the title, you already know I'm giving away an ebook copy of Veronica Roth's Allegiant. I was going to do this anyway, but I became even more determined to do so after seeing all the problems this poor author has been through over Allegiant. First, a Canadian bookstore accidentally shipped copies of Allegiant over a month ago. Simple mistake, and honestly you can't blame the people who read it early.

Warning: Soapbox moment imminent.

However...some total toolbag leaked a digital copy of the book online. Before the links were shut down, a lot of people read it. It was a total dick move by whoever posted it, and a dick move by those who downloaded it. You can try to make all the excuses you want, but bottom line, that's stealing, not only from the author, who you as a fan profess to love, but the team of editing, publishing and marketing people who worked very hard to bring that book to life. If you're one of the people who downloaded it for free, illegally, you're a dick. Moving on.

So, here we go...throw your name in the hat via any and all of the methods listed below in the Rafflecopter giveaway below. Up for grabs is not only an ebook copy (Kindle, Nook, or Kobo) of Allegiant, but you'll also receive a copy of my book, Blind Study. It's a two-fer! Drawing will take place next Wednesday. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Free Fiction Fridays: Isabel, Part One

Last week, I promised you a little buried treasure, in the form of short stories which have been mouldering on my hard drive. So, on the first of hopefully many Free Fiction Fridays, I give you Isabel, part one.
 
Isabel used the front of her shirt to wipe the paste of sweat, tears and dirt off her face, jammed her wide-brimmed hat back down on top of her head, and stood up, brushing off the seat of her pants. She took one last look at the bodies of her guides, which she’d arranged neatly on the side of the rutted track, their army blankets covering their faces, then turned and walked into the jungle.

Isabel had been a few feet off the track, hidden by a curtain of jungle creepers as she collected samples of an unfamiliar moss she thought might be an undiscovered species. Her guides, by now used to the strange American girl suddenly shouting, “Oooh!” and tripping off into the jungle, chatted as they waited for her on the rutted mockery of a road. Only one of her guides, Jasraj, spoke English, and Isabel herself wasn’t much of a talker, so for the most part they simply followed her along, talking, laughing and singing in Luru. It was liberating; their voices gave her the comfort of knowing she wasn’t alone, and yet they expected nothing of her, no uncomfortable airplane-type small talk, no, “What brings you to Borneo?”

She’d been crouched down in a small gully, carefully digging her sample, and smiling as she listened to them hooting with laughter over something Prasoon said. Suddenly, the laughter had ceased, like someone had cut it off with a knife. Isabel heard Jasraj whisper something.

Then the sound of automatic gunfire shattered the silence, startling a flock of parrots into flight, their alarmed caws  and madly flapping wings mixing with the sound of the bullets to make a screaming cacophony frenzied enough to shatter the mind. Isabel threw herself face-down into her moss, pressing herself flat and hoping her khaki-green hiking gear would be enough to hide her.

A second or an hour later, the gunfire stopped. Over the pounding of blood in her ears, she heard four unfamiliar voices in Luru coming from the area where she’d left her guides. Slowly, thankful for the soft cushion of moss which wouldn’t crackle and give her away, Isabel raised her head above the edge of the gully and peered through the green.

Four men, dressed in BDU’s, kicked at the blood-spattered bodies of Isabel’s companions with dusty boots, their rifles slung over their shoulders while they picked carelessly through the dead men’s pockets and backpacks. All four were wearing large duffel-style packs, and a scrap of leopard skin dangled from the opening of the man’s pack nearest to her.

Poachers, Isabel thought. She’d seen poachers before, but only in the towns that bordered the jungles, huddled in seedy bar doorways, their flat gazes making her shudder as they passed over her breasts and further downward before turning away. This was the first time she’d ever encountered them in the jungle, and she was rapidly coming to the conclusion it might be the last.

Miraculously, though, they turned away, stepping over the bodies of her guides and chuckling quietly among themselves. They continued along the track until, finally, the jungle swallowed them up as quickly as it had regurgitated them. Isabel waited for the alarm calls of the surrounding birds and small animals to stop before crawling back to the road.

           
They had been good men, all three of them. Isabel shuddered, imagining she could feel the accusing stares of their spirits on her back, angry with her for leaving their bodies in the open for the ants and the leopards. But the small camp spade now strapped to her pack could never have dug even one grave, much less three. Not to mention the more time she spent here on the road, the more chance the poachers would return. And there would be no one to dig her grave.

 
Three days later, Isabel was in trouble. The poachers had taken most of the food that Jasraj, Prasoon, and Taran had been carrying; luckily, she’d been in such a hurry when she spotted the moss that she’d taken off into the brush, pack and all. Now, she sat by a small stream, licking the wrapper of a granola bar, the last bit of food she had. Above her, a troupe of macaques chattered loudly, leaping from branch to branch and knocking dead twigs down on her head.

The lack of food made things difficult, but not impossible; Isabel’s extensive knowledge of jungle plants meant she could probably sustain herself for a good long while. She wouldn’t be dining like a queen, but she wouldn’t starve to death, either. More worrisome was the fact that she was out of bug spray. Before she became a field botanist, Isabel would have laughed at someone being more concerned about bug spray than food. But the numbers of mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects that swarmed in the rainforest could actually drink enough to make a person anemic, not to mention that being covered in thousands of itchy bug bites would eventually drive a person to near-insanity. And sanity was one thing that Isabel could not afford to lose, not now.

At least I’ve got plenty of iodine tablets, she thought, dropping one into the bottle of water she’d just drawn from the stream. She swished the water around inside the bottle until the tablet dissolved completely, then took a swig, grimacing at the bitter taste. She set the bottle aside and, trying not to think about the kinds of exotic bacteria that could be living in the mud of the stream bank, began smearing gloppy handfuls on her arms. Mud or malaria.

Isabel was spreading the mud across her face, eyes closed, when suddenly it felt as though someone had dropped a small, cold stone into the pit of her stomach. She was being watched. Slowly, she dropped her hands from her face, opened her eyes—and froze.

On the other side of the stream, about ten feet away, a pair of yellow eyes, narrowed in concentration, met her own. Isabel’s mind raced in mad circles around her options—back off slowly, or stay still and hope for the best? Move? Stay?

The cramping of her fatigued muscles finally made the decision for her. Knowing she was making a move that might end her life, Isabel slowly rose from her kneeling position to a low crouch.

The leopard sprang; Isabel leapt backward, but tripped over her pack and sprawled out flat on her back, hitting her head on the ground hard enough to turn the world into a sickening, spinning carnival ride. Her eyes finally focused on the light trickling down through the canopy, the macaques screaming above her. This is the moment, she thought, calmly. This is the end.

Tune in next Friday for another installment!


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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

TV Storytelling

I have to tell you, I'm not that big a fan of movies anymore. In the past several years, the medium of television has come so very, very far. It's not just cheesy sitcoms and miniseries specials anymore. With shows like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, and Game of Thrones, television is now the place to go for drama.

The medium of television is so much more flexible than movies, mainly because of the time constraints movies face. Television has somewhere between 13 and 24 hours to tell you the story, and that means there can be so much more story. For instance, the Harry Potter movies are, in my opinion, one of the best-done book-to-movie series that exists. But stop and think for a minute, about all the stuff that got cut, all the little bits and pieces that didn't make it into the movies. Now reimagine Harry Potter as, say, an HBO produced series. Thirteen episodes per book. Suddenly, the possibilities are endless.

I think writers can learn a lot from television, too. One of my absolute favorite shows is The Vampire Diaries. Not only is it entertaining, but it's one of the most useful shows to watch if you're interested in the craft of storytelling. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either--a few years ago, io9 posted an article about their successful plot pacing and story arc, which I really tried to find but it was written a long time ago and I kind of got bored looking, so sorry. I call it the, "Ask a question, give a cookie," formula.

"Ask a question, give a cookie," basically works like this: in each episode of TVD, viewers are given two things: a piece of information which fills in a bit of the puzzle (and by puzzle, I mean "story arc"), and then a new question or complication which extends the story further.

It's an excellent strategy. If you keep asking questions, and never giving answers (cookies), your viewers/readers will get frustrated (starved) and give up. OTOH, giving them small pieces of information at a time keeps them satisfied enough to be happy, but hungry enough to want more.

There's a lot more to The Vampire Diaries's storytelling (moral grey areas, the appeal of an imperfect protag who makes crappy choices), so if you haven't already, I highly recommend you check it out. Seasons 1-4 are now on Netflix, I believe.

Ok, enough deep thoughts. A few news items for you:

--My thanks to everyone who participated in the giveaway! If you didn't win, don't fret--I'll be giving another "bundle" away in a few weeks. And it's a biggie. Stay tuned.

--I have a few short stories sitting around my hard drive collecting dust, so I think I'll put some up here for your reading enjoyment, starting Friday the 18th . So stop on back and check it out!

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Friday, September 27, 2013

The Becoming

Friends, I've been feeling a little odd this week. Tears spring to my eyes at the slightest provocation. I suddenly can't help asking strangers to tell me their deepest, darkest secrets. And I've had the irrepressible urge to dress exclusively in jewel tones.

Just as I was about to go to the doctor, I realized what was wrong with me, and canceled my appointment. Because no doctor can cure what ails me.

I am becoming Oprah.

There's no sense fighting the transformation (and really, why would I, when clearly I'm on my way to becoming queen of a multi-million dollar empire?) so, in keeping with my new self, I've decided to run the first of hopefully many My Favorite Things sweepstakes.

Here's how this is going to work. About once a month or so, I'm going to be hosting a Rafflecopter giveaway here on my blog. The winner will receive two ebooks. One will be my own book, Blind Study. The other will be a book that I'm head-over-heels in lurve with. (You can tell when I really love something, because it's not love, it's lurve.)

This week, I'm going to be giving away a copy of Sarah Rees Brennan's Untold, the gorgeous follow-up to her brilliant Unspoken. If you haven't yet read Unspoken, and would prefer to receive that instead, let me know when you win--but it's one or the other, kiddos. Those millions my new destiny has promised haven't started rolling in yet. Also, remember you're competing for a digital copy, not a physical book. Sorry, but Jackie doesn't do USPS. Ain't nobody got time for that.

Enter below, and good luck!


a Rafflecopter giveaway


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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Skill Sets

This is going to be a weird one, but hey, my freak flag has always waved proudly from the very top of the flagpole.

I like to learn stuff. All sorts of stuff. Not only because that stuff helps you have a better understanding of related stuff, but because it often helps you with unrelated stuff. For a simpler, less weird metaphor than the one I'm about to unleash on you--mechanics. If you know a little something about cars, chances are you'll be able to figure out how to get a balky motorcycle or boat motor going.

There's one skill I really never thought I'd use again, at least not on a regular basis, and that's horseback riding. For almost ten years, I took weekly English riding lessons. I went to horseback riding camp, too, where my skills were tested to the limit by a horse named Razzle, a half-Thoroughbred, half-Welsh pony who was the chosen mount of Satan (Those of you who know anything about horses are probably shaking your heads right now, wondering what crazed sociopath decided to put that horse in the lineup at a children's summer camp.). I also worked for a summer as a trail guide, where I was further tested by a scrappy little mule called Rosie (why does everyone always give me the difficult horses?) while trying to keep shrieking tourists from New York in their saddles.

Never, though, did I ever expect horseback riding to so fully prepare me for jogging with my dogs. There are so many parallels and applicable lessons, though, it's amazing.

Hold the reins properly. A lot of people hold their leashes with the end closest to the dog coming down through the top of their fist, or worse, wrapped around their hand. In horseback riding, you learn that your ring finger is the strongest, apart from your thumb. So I hold my leashes exactly as I hold the reins, the end closest to the dog looping up between my pinkie and fourth finger, through my fist, and out between my thumb and first finger. It's the safest and strongest way to grip.

Keep your elbows in. You're not going to stop a horse, or a large dog, just with the strength of your arm. Keeping your elbows close to your sides allows you to use your core strength as well.

Watch the ears. When you look at your horse's head while riding, what you want to see are ears that are cupped loosely back toward you. That means he's paying attention to his rider. Follow those ears. If those ears suddenly prick sharply forward, there's a good chance you're going for an abrupt and unexpected ride. Same thing goes for my dogs--I've averted many disasters simply by watching the direction of their ears.

If the worst happens, choke up the reins and sit down. I may have mentioned this incident in my "Things I'm Good At" video blog, I'm not sure. Once, my dogs spotted a loose dog at the bottom of our street. I wasn't watching their ears and I didn't have my elbows in, so they caught me off-balance. I ended up running at top speed to keep up (and keep from falling) until finally I threw myself backward and sat down. I rashed my leg on my impromptu baseball slide, but it stopped them pretty much dead in their tracks and allowed me to regain control, the same way I stopped Razzle and Rosie from bolting, oh, about a hundred times. A day.

I'm aware this post has been a little silly, but bottom line? Learn everything you can. You never know when or how it'll come in handy.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Exercise, Part 2

Last week, I talked about all the tools I used to help me get in shape. This week, I'm going to talk about how I changed my outlook on exercise to make those tools work.

In my experience, there's one single, simple obstacle to getting your workouts done, and that's excuses. In this post, I'm going to go down the list of my excuses, and how I tore them down.

Disclaimer: I'm not terribly nice when I give myself these little pep talks. Don't feel like I'm screaming at you as you read; this is all from me to me with love. Further disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, so all that stuff about pain is my own personal feeling, and not medical advice.

1. I'm really tired, and I just exercised yesterday... Well, you just slept yesterday, too, so you shouldn't be tired. And you ate yesterday, so I guess we won't be doing that today, either. New day. Get up and get out there.

2. But I'm so sore! Suck it up, princess. There's a difference between muscle soreness and actual pain, as you know full well. Muscle soreness isn't something to flinch from; it's something to revel in. That pain you think you're feeling is actually the sensation of new muscles growing. Stop training them, and they'll stop growing. Pop a couple of ibuprofen and lace up your shoes.

3. I just don't have time today. You make time to eat, to sleep, to shower and to brush your teeth. Exercise is just as essential to your health as any of these things. Sure, you might not have as much time as usual, but I think you can find twenty minutes to squeeze in a kickbox workout. The more consistent you are with it in your daily routine, the easier it will be to keep up with it.

4. This isn't working. Try something else, then, dumbass! You're a weirdo, which means that the stuff that works for everyone else probably isn't going to work for you. Hell, the stuff that worked yesterday might not work today. There's no law that says you must do exactly the same thing over and over again. Tweak it till it works.

5. Argh, I'm bored. See #4.

6. I did a lot of work around the house/yard! That counts as exercise. Well, of course it does, sweetie. Poor baby. Why don't you just lay down on the couch and take it easy!
Or you could stop being a whiny, underachieving baby, handle your shit like a grownup, and then at the end of the day, when your house is clean and your yard is neat and you've run two miles, you can sit back and relax and actually deserve it.

Six excuses, six smackdowns. Your excuses may be different than mine. If you like, leave them in the comments and I'll be happy to yell at you like I do myself. ;-) Honestly, though, it's fairly easy to do yourself--just treat your own excuses like they're someone else's.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Exercise, Part 1

Way back in March, I embarked on a diet-and-exercise kick. I had two reasons; first, that I was sick of looking at my chubby ass in the mirror.

The second is silly, but oddly enough has been the one that's kept me going more than anything--the fact that I could not possibly survive an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise, at my current level of fitness. I mean, have you watched these movies? Those people are running all the time. Back in March, I would have made it maybe a block before I got eaten by a zom or swallowed up by the giant flood of lava or something. Bottom line, I have this image of myself as a badass that my level of physical fitness just wasn't matching. I decided to change that. Six months later, I'm still doing it, and it worked.

Now, six months does not an expert make, by any means. But I've tried and failed often enough to know the difference now between this winning program and the losing programs I've tried before. Only about half of it has to do with what I'm actually doing; the rest has to do with the way I've changed my attitude toward diet and exercise. So I figured I'd put my little tips down, and if you're struggling, or mulling a plan, maybe it'll help you. Today, I'll cover the tools which helped me do what I've done.

I've always wanted to be a runner, even though I considered myself to be exceptionally bad at it, so that was the first part of my program. I did a bastardized version of the Mayo Clinic's 5k prep program.

Here are the benefits of this plan--you do not destroy yourself on day one. Most people, myself included, when they decide they want to start running, will run as far and as fast as they can, until they've got a stitch in their side and they're dry-heaving on the pavement. Wake up. The whole reason for getting into shape is you're not in shape now. If you wreck yourself on the first few days or weeks, the chances of you sticking with it decrease exponentially.

I also bought two workout videos, both of which are available on Amazon Instant Video: Jillian Michaels' 30 Day Shred Level 1 and Jillian Michaels Kickbox FastFix. I did one of these pretty much every day, because they're only twenty minutes, and they worked out all the parts of me that the running neglected. Workout videos are boring, so I suggest you keep them short, and get a couple so you can rotate them, like I did.

I found a few apps for the iPhone which are really helpful, too. Top of the list is MyFitnessPal. Weight loss is simple math, and MyFitnessPal does the math for you. The app is free, and you can calculate calories burned in the app, scan foods in with the barcode scanner or search by keyword. And they have everything. Seriously. Once, I swallowed a bug on my run, and looked it up in MyFitnessPal as a joke. And:

I also like to track my runs with an app. I used to use Runtastic, but got really turned off when I started using the "share to Facebook" feature. Runtastic posts the map of your run. To the internet. No, no, hell no. Don't do this, ever. Posting maps of your runs, especially if you're female, is basically posting a nice big neon sign saying, "I will be here, between 5:30 and 6:00 every day, come and rape me!" I switched to NikeFit after that--same features, but they give you the option to publish without the map. Also, free.

There are two more tools I use, and without a doubt they are the most crucial in my toolkit.
 They are my dogs, Sirius and Dobby (right to left). I started out on the run/walk program with them in March. Thanks to them--and their enthusiasm for going fast--I'm now running seven days a week. They are the most ball-busting trainers in the world. Too bad if Mommy had a shitty Monday and wants to take it easy. They want to go, and they don't accept excuses. So if you have a dog--and please be reasonable about your dog's physical ability, do not attempt to take your Pomeranian or Yorkie or seventeen-year-old Labrador on a jog--get them involved. You won't miss a workout, I promise you.

Next week, I'll be back with more on this, focusing on the attitude changes; the internal cheerleading, if you will. See you then!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bad Book Choices

Today, I'm going to tell you the story of the worst book choice I ever made.

The book itself wasn't bad, mind you. It was the timing that sucked. Back in the summer of 2000, I worked at as a camp counselor at a Girl Scout camp in Illinois. My future husband was going home to Sweden during summer break from college; this gave me something to do, and maybe a little bonus adventure. Unless you count the first two years of my life, I'd never lived anywhere but Pennsylvania. Illinois isn't exactly exotic, but it's not spelled P-E-N-N-S-Y-L-V-A-N-I-A, either.

Problem was, I didn't know anyone in Illinois. That meant I had two choices during the one-or-two day breaks between sessions--stay with a host family, or stay in camp alone.

There was never really a choice for me. As a socially-awkward introvert, the simple thought of staying at a strange family's house, eating their weird food, making polite conversation and hanging on as an extra wheel in their weekend family activities, was enough to make me shudder. So I told the director I preferred to stay at camp. I was the only one who did.

And I. Loved. It. Loved it. After a week of screaming, crying six- to thirteen-year-old girls, it was bliss. I was alone in the woods. Miles from civilization. It was so quiet. I could get up at whatever hour I wanted, read a book, use the payphone to call my parents or fiance and stay on as long as I wanted, raid the kitchen for whatever I wanted to eat, lounge on the staffhouse porch...you get the idea.

So, preparing for one of these blissfully quiet weekends, I caught a ride to Walmart and bought a book.

It was a new Stephen King, one I hadn't read yet. And, being Stephen King, I didn't even glance at the back cover copy before I bought it; it was a default decision. I didn't give it a second thought. Horror doesn't really creep me out; mostly I find it more exciting than scary.

I kept myself busy throughout the first day alone, so I didn't get a chance to read until after the sun went down, and I was stretched out on my cot in my platform tent. I turned on my taplight and started to read. And realized what a terrible mistake I'd made.

The book was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. It's about a nine-year-old girl who gets lost in the woods and is pursued by a monster. Definitely not the kind of book you want to be reading when you're alone in the woods. So alone that, before everyone leaves for the weekend, you're given a radio. On the other end is the park ranger, who's available 24-7--but that "other end" is three miles away.

Also definitely not the book you want to be reading on the night the pack of coyotes living behind the Pine Tree campsite one up from yours start a sing-a-long. Or the night when several raccoons/possums/some-damn-things are having a dance party out behind your tent. And certainly not on the night when thunder is rumbling continuously overhead, and the wind from the storm keeps snapping the heavy canvas tent sides inches away from your head.

But did I stop reading? Nope. Neither wind nor rain nor howling coyotes will keep me from a good book. I finished the book around 1:30 a.m., just when the storm hit full-throttle. Which was fine. I didn't get a whole lot of sleeping done that night, anyway.

Monday, September 2, 2013

How To Learn To Drive A Stick



Today, I'm going to teach you how to learn to drive stick.

Now, don't get too excited—notice I said how to learn, not how to. You might be wondering, though—why bother? I mean, isn't that the point of automatic transmissions, that they automatically shift through the gears? If that's what you're thinking, here are a few things to consider:

1. Manual transmission cars are significantly cheaper than automatic, so if you're looking to save money, learning to drive stick is a good investment of your time.

2. There may come a time when knowing how to drive manual will save your butt. Maybe you have to get an emergency rental car and all they have are manuals. Maybe a friend or coworker will have some sort of situation, or be too drunk to drive their manual transmission car. It's not terribly fun to grind and hitch through gears with a pukey drunk in the car.

3. Major cool points, especially if you're female.

 
Now that you have the reasons, let's move on to the technique. I consider myself something of an expert on this; not driving stick, but learning to drive stick. When my car in college died, the only one I could afford was a manual. I had to learn in about twenty-four hours to be proficient enough to drive myself 40 miles to college and work by myself. Here's how I did it:

 
Step One: Read the directions. I went to ehow.com and searched on "how to drive a manual transmission," and found several great step-by-step entries. This was before YouTube, but I'd imagine there's probably a lot of great video tutorials on the subject as well. Basically, your goal is to learn the theory and the physical mechanics of shifting gears.

 
Step Two: Practice at home. Once I'd gotten the basic concept, I drew out the gear positions on a large piece of paper.

 


Then, I sat down on the floor, with the piece of paper under my right hand, and...practiced. Practiced coordinating left foot with right foot with right hand, shifting first through fifth and back down, over and over and over. This might sound unnecessary, but believe me, this is the step that counted the most. The coordination of feet and hands, the positions of the gears—being comfortable with that before I got in the car made a huge difference.

 
Step Three: Choose a teacher. If you don't know anyone who drives stick, you may have to go to a driving school. If you do know people, though, make sure you're selective about the person you choose. Example: my first attempt at learning to drive stick not only failed miserably, but gave me a near-phobia of trying again. That's because my ex-boyfriend taught me, and my ex-boyfriend was an asshole. However, when my then-fiance/now-husband taught me, he was patient and calm and kind. Don't pick a screamer, basically, is what I'm trying to say.

 
Step Four: Cut yourself some slack. You're going to grind gears in a parking lot right next to a restaurant's packed patio dining area, and everyone will stare. You will stall out in traffic and cause a gridlock. You will stall out at a traffic light on a hill, with some jerk pulled right up to your rear bumper, attempt the very complicated handbrake start in order to not roll backward into him, and stall again, just as the light turns red.

Relax. Try again. This is not something you're going to master in a day, or a week, or even a month. It's not a talent, it's a skill. Skills are learned through practice, and as long as you keep practicing you'll master it in no time.

 

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Recommendations (Part 1?)

I'm considering turning this into a series, so let me know if you like this sort of thing and want to see more of it. I'm really passionate about these books, and they have follow-ups coming out in the next month or two, so hurry up and get on these so you're all caught up for the sequels!

Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy Book 1) , by Sarah Rees Brennan: This is my new comfort book; I've probably read it about three times since it came out last fall. Unbelievably hysterical (there are very few books that I will laugh out loud over, and this is one of them), and heart-wrenchingly tragic at the same time. One of the best unrequited/forbidden love stories I've read in forever. The suspense is so well done, too--even when you know exactly what's about to happen, you're still on the edge of your seat. Untold (The Lynburn Legacy Book 2) , comes out September 24, and it is my absolute most-anticipated book of the year.

The Raven Boys , by Maggie Stiefvater: There are so many seemingly mismatched themes to this book. It's kind of like my London broil crockpot recipe, which calls for a can of cream of mushroom soup and a packet of dry onion soup mix, and you wonder, how can this possibly work? Until you put it in your mouth and it's the best thing ever. Don't put this book in your mouth, though, at least not until you're finished. The mashup of Celtic mythology on American soil, a bohemian family of all-female psychics, and an unlikely group of friends from a prestigious boys' prep school works just like the London broil, though. The Dream Thieves: Book 2 of the Raven Boys (Raven Cycle) , comes out September 17.

Darkest Minds, The , by Alexandra Bracken: I have to admit, I almost didn't buy this one. There was a lot of hype surrounding it, and in my experience, at least fifty percent of the time, overly hyped books tend to...well, blow. This book didn't blow. It blew me away. Think X-Men meets The Hunger Games; a dystopian world (an overdone genre, IMHO, but freshly made here!), fugitive kids with superpowers, and a truly well drawn supporting cast. The sequel, Never Fade (Darkest Minds),comes out October 29.

I am always on the hunt for new books, so if there's something you think I should be reading, let me know in the comments, tweet me, or leave a post on my Facebook page! Links are below! And don't forget that my book, Blind Study , is out in the wild and available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo!

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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Douchebag Defense

 
Please note: as I state in the video, I am not a self-defense expert. However, I know a few tricks. Sorry for the length of this video, but watch it, if you have time...I think it's pretty important.


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