by Dave Lager

The perfect amount of sparkle

Yes, I know most authors tend to think every keystroke they execute is Perfect, Carved in Stone, Beyond Reproach, just Downright Great. Not…

I have two editors, and I have no doubt they are making me be a better writer.

One of them I DO get to have dinner with all the time: That’s because we live together and happen to be married. Nancy is my first “editor.”

As I’ve mentioned before, she is my go-to person when I’m agonizing about some plot situation or some character aspect in what I’m currently writing. She patiently listens to my “well maybe this, but on the other hand that” dithering. Sometimes just by talking it out to her I will have an “aha moment” and it’ll become clear which direction I want to go. But just as often she has to smack me up alongside of the head: “No, no, no… Ro would never do that because…” And I have to admit that most of the time she’s right.

She is also my first reader. She will go through my drafts and, of course, find all those left out words – which I KNOW were there; the computer must have eaten them! – to say nothing of pulling me up short when I start to overwrite – I mean, after all, if two descriptive words and good, how come four or five aren’t better?

My second editor is Maxine Ringenberg, who works for World Castle, my publisher. I don’t get to have dinner with her, in fact, have never met her. World Castle is based in Pensacola, Florida, but in today’s digital age that means very little; Maxime could just as easily live in Perth, Australia, or Paris, France − hmm, dinner at a sidewalk café in Paris doesn’t seem like too bad an idea.

Maxine is my grammar and punctuation Nazi, which I intend as a compliment. In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to overuse the em dash, this wonderfully versatile little punctuation mark: −. That’s the problem, though: Too much “dash matter” tends to make for overly convoluted paragraphs – like trying to cram ten pounds of stuff into a five-pound bag. And while I may be enamored with the em dash, I also tend to be comma averse, that is, I leave out commas where they are, in fact, needed.

So, I will get my manuscripts back from Maxine with various phrases or whole paragraphs underlined in various colors – thank heaven she doesn’t use red; remember how we hated getting our school papers back with the teacher’s red scribbles all over them? − that says, “I think you need some punctuation here,” or, “Hey, Dave, you may want to take another look at this turgid paragraph.”

The title for this post is taken from a quote about the role of editors by the novelist Bobbi Romans: “A good editor is like tinsel to a Christmas Tree…they add the perfect amount of sparkle without being gaudy.”

I agree.

Early Ro (ten): Year Twelve – Runner

This is the second in a series of posts about Ro’s twelfth year.

It is after school late in May, 1994, just a few days following Ro’s twelfth birthday, and she is riding her bike on the Shadowbrook Bike Path on her way to visit her friend Atti, except about halfway there she has to pull over to the side because there are a dozen teenage girls running towards her, essentially taking up the whole path.

Most are wearing red T-shirts with the silver silhouette of a horse-mounted knight, clearly identifying them as being some sort of sports team from Lee’s Landing’s Neufeld High School.

Even from some twenty yards away Ro can hear the chatter and laughter among the pack of girls as they ran.

Except for one…

While there is nothing at all exceptional about her physical appearance – she is roughly the same height and build as most of the girls, she is wearing the same T-shirt, she is pleasant looking, but not noticeably pretty – Ro is nonetheless captivated.

She is running alone, maybe ten yards ahead of the pack, her strides long and effortless; where the other girls all seem to be bobbing up and down, she seems to be gliding across the landscape.

But it is her expression, or really, lack thereof, that beguiles Ro. It seems like she is both staring at everything and nothing; while she certainly seems conscious of her surroundings, at the same time she seems to be entirely lost in herself, or rather in her running. Years later Ro would learn this was what hard core runners refer to as The Runner’s Zen, their Nirvana.

It took only a few seconds for the girl to come up on and then pass by Ro standing next to the bike path, but it was a few seconds that would have a profound impact on her. The only other time she had ever seen that kind of total concentration was when she and Mike would watch a classical music concert on the public TV station and the violin or piano soloist would seem to totally lose themselves in their music − there was no orchestra, no audience, just the music.

Perhaps it should have, but it had never occurred to Ro you could find that state of inner harmony through an athletic endeavor; it was a revelation.

As the other girls passed, most continued their chatter; a few even nodded to her, acknowledging her presence. Ro smiled to herself, thinking, “I could have been standing here stark naked and she wouldn’t haven’t noticed me.”

It was at that moment that Ro knew she wanted to experience that kind of totality of purpose for herself… And decided to be a runner, too.

It was to become an integral part of her life. It didn’t take more than a few weeks for her to get her legs under her, that is, to be able to run a mile without becoming breathless, and then a second mile, and then a third…

For several years the bike path, and to a lesser extent her surrounding neighborhood, was where she ran three, sometimes four times a week. But when she turned sixteen and could drive on her own, she “discovered” that the wooded trails in the state park and the adjacent forest preserve in the southwestern part of the county that she had so enjoyed hiking on with her father were for her an even more rewarding running venue – the “tree thing” again − and she was truly hooked.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Early Ro (nine): Year 12 – The Thinking Chair

I recently completed a series of posts with some background about how Ro’s tenth year would be a prophetic one for her. This is the first in a new series that will talk about her twelfth year, which will prove to be equally telling for what the grown-up Ro would turn out to be.

On Ro’s twelfth birthday – May 15, 1994 − she “inherited,” her father’s old recliner, or, perhaps more accurately, she saved it from the dumpster.

Mike and Kate were married in 1979 and moved into their new house on York Ridge Lane, a classic 70s-era split-level on a cul de sac, in 1980. On the lowest level were a pair of adjoining rooms, one of which Kate converted into a home office – even then she was thinking about starting her own business − while Mike adopted the other as his den, where he set-up his stereo and built some shelves to hold his large collection of classical CDs and albums.

One of the first purchases he made for the den was a comfortable recliner. It was curled-up in Mike’s arms in that recliner that an infant Ro would regularly fall asleep listening to her father’s music. So, almost fifteen years later, when Mike talked about replacing the aging chair Ro instantly claimed “dibs” on it. She had far too much of an emotional connection to it to let it get away.

However, fitting it into Ro’s eleven-by-thirteen bedroom became a major logistical puzzle that involved Mike and Tuck having to completely re-arrange the room’s existing furniture – Ro’s bed, dresser and small desk – because Ro insisted that the chair had to face the windows that looked across their backyard at a grove of trees bordering the adjacent Meadows on Shadowbook Golf Course behind them. Even then Ro’s “tree thing” was noticeable.

When Ro moved into her own apartment seven years later the chair went into the second bedroom she used as her study and was similarly positioned, looking out of a sliding glass door toward yet another grove of trees − the grove being one of the major reasons she’d chosen that particular apartment.

Throughout her pre-teen, teen and adult years Ro would spend many hours in the chair, not, as might be expected, listening to music, watching TV or even reading a book, but just thinking: In fact, that’s how she would come to think of it, as her “thinking chair.”

The Thinking Chair is a minor, but significant “character” in “Ro’s Handle.”

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

How Shadowbrook got its name

In the years right around 1800 the frontier wilderness along the Mississippi River that would eventually become Fort Armstrong County, Iowa, and Grand Island County, Illinois, − the settings for my Ro Delahanty novels − was being regularly visited by white men, mostly hunters and trappers, with a smattering of traders, friars who wanted to convert the savages and military people checking out the lay of the land. Farmers, settlers and town-builders wouldn’t show-up for several more decades.

These folks diligently “explored” the area, not for the specific purpose of exploration, but rather simply as a necessity as they searched for better hunting or trapping grounds, for Indian camps and villages where they might trade or preach, and for trails that could be converted into roads that might facilitate troop movements if needed. And they regularly “bumped into” one another, maybe at some primitive settlement that included a make-shift tavern and inn, or maybe just along some regularly traveled Indian path where they camped together.

And they traded stories… Stories of where they could find deer or buffalo or beaver… Stories of geographic features that facilitated their journeys, like natural draws that made it easier to get up and down the bluff that delineated the broad Mississippi River valley.

Somewhere along the way someone – no one knows who because it was never documented – talked about a natural draw that followed an old Indian trail up the side of the river bluff.

And somewhere along the way someone – perhaps, but not likely the same person – described a small stream that was just a couple of miles from the edge of the bluff as a “shadowy brook,” probably because the section where that old Indian trail crossed it had lots of old trees overshadowing the creek and probably because the originator was of English ancestry, which meant a “small stream” to him was a brook…

And so “shadowy brook” eventually got shortened and simplified to just Shadowbrook.

That old Indian trail eventually became Old Post Road in Lee’s Landing, Iowa, which ran alongside the Westwynd Apartment complex where Ro Delahanty lives. And eventually a bike / running trail was developed alongside the creek. So, what’s quite possibly ironic is that he might well have been describing the area around Ro’s apartment that nearly two centuries later would become known as The Bottoms and that was one of her favorite places to run.

And that would turn out to be a crucial element in a future Ro novel I’m thinking about…

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Early Ro (nine): Year 10 – “Be a cop”

This post recalls when Ro was in fifth grade, just a few months before her eleventh birthday, and first announced she wanted to become a cop when she grew up. Readers might recognize it as a verbatim excerpt from Chapter Two of “Ro’s Handle.” I am including it here to place the story in its proper historical context with the other prophetic incidents from Ro’s tenth year. In this scene Ro is in her apartment’s bedroom about to dress for the first time in her new Fort Armstrong County deputy sheriff’s uniform, but is recalling what happened in Mr. Singer’s fifth grade language arts class a little over ten years ago:

The class was about to read Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” and Mr. Singer was introducing to the class the concept of symbols in literature. As examples, he showed overheads of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of opportunity to millions of immigrants, and of a cross, a Star of David, and a crescent and star as symbols for three of the world’s major religions.

Then he’d asked the class if they could think of any other kinds of everyday symbols.

After a few seconds of silence, somebody tentatively mumbled, “A stop sign?”

“Yes,” Mr. Singer had said with enthusiasm, hoping to encourage more responses. “That’s definitely a symbol for traffic laws. But you’re missing a really big one right here in this room.” After another few seconds of silence, he added, “I’ll give you a hint: It’s known around the world as a symbol of freedom.”

“The flag!” came several overlapping responses, everyone glancing up at the American flag hanging from a short pole in a back corner of the classroom.

“Right!” he affirmed. “But come on, I’ve given you some easy ones. There are lots more if you just use your imaginations a little.”

After another short silence, Ro raised her hand and Mr. Singer nodded, “Ro?”

“A police car,” she’d said. She was picturing in her mind the black and white Lee’s Landing squad cars she frequently saw around town.

“Cops! All they do is hassle people,” someone muttered sarcastically from the back of the room. There were several snickers of agreement.

“No, no…,” Mr. Singer said, gesturing with his hand to quell any further snarky remarks. “Why do you say that, Ro?”

“Whenever I see a police car it makes me feel better, like someone’s there to…to….” She frowned, struggling for the right words. “To be there when there’s trouble…like stopping bad people, or helping in a disaster.”

Mr. Singer looked at her for a second or two and just nodded, like he understood completely but didn’t have to say it.

And then, without ever having consciously thought about it before, Ro straightened up in her chair, squared her shoulders, and added with a self-assurance that surprised even her, “I’m going to be a cop someday.”

And over the ten years since then she had never once strayed from that aspiration.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

The BookWorm hosts author signing for “Ro’s Handle”

The BookWorm, 110 S. Riverview Dr., Bellevue, will host a book signing for my first novel, “Ro’s Handle,” Saturday, December 2, from 1 to 3 p.m.

“Ro’s Handle” is about the first few months on the job of Ro Delahanty, a rookie female deputy sheriff in an eastern Iowa county. It is part thriller and part police procedural.

Some early reviewers on Amazon have said “Ro’s Handle” is “…a fantastic read,” and that it “…keeps you engaged from beginning to end.”

“Ro’s Handle” is the first in a projected series of Ro Delahanty novels. The second, “The Berlin Riddle,” is nearly done and the third, with the working title of “Losses,” is currently being drafted.

Copies of “Ro’s Handle” will be for sale at the BookWorm.

Early Ro (eight): Year 10 – More Atti

This is the fourth post in a mini-series about the decisive year between Ro’s tenth and eleventh birthdays; it is part two of how Ro met her best friend, Atti Mehra.

“Dr. Mehra,” Ro said as she shook the new girl’s hand; it was not a question so much as a statement of recognition. “I’ll bet you’re Dr. Mehra’s daughter. My mother’s been a member of the chorus for as long as I can remember,” she added, sure the girl would know what she meant.

The long-time director of the Illowa Community Chorus had retired last year; early in the summer Kate had shared with her family that they had hired a new director: Dr. Bala Mehra.

Atti nodded and smiled, appearing glad for the instant connection. “We moved here from Iowa City just a few weeks ago.”

“There’s an open seat next to me,” Ro suggested, gesturing toward the front row. It would turn out Ro and Atti were the only one’s occupying front row seats in the classroom.

Just as the homeroom teacher began to call out, “Let’s get seated, everyone,” which was his way of trying to get his rambunctious flock of jabbering and giggling ten-year olds settled down, Ro leaned over and whispered to Atti, “Lunch later?”

Atti nodded.

They would, in fact, become constant lunch mates not only through the fifth grade, but all the way through high school. And lunching would quickly turn into regular after school visits to each of their respective homes – the Mehras, it turned out, lived barely a mile from the Delahanty’s, a short ride away on the Shadowbook Bike Path – which, in turn, quickly became regular sleepovers on weekends.

While the two girls would discover lots of differences between them…

Ro liked classical music; Atti favored “head banger” rock.

Ro tended to take herself too seriously; Atti was sassy and impertinent.

Ro pretty much ignored the fact that she was a girl; Atti liked to flaunt her gender – even as a 10-year-old she wore make-up and had small, but noticeable chest bumps.

Ro liked visiting the woods with her father; Atti thought there were “too many itchy things out there.”

But they also discovered many spheres in which they were like-minded…

While they did not at all dress alike – Ro tended toward comfortable hiking-style shorts and loose-fitting plain T-shirts; Atti favored tight-fitting, solid color outfits, most often black – they, in fact, dressed the way they did for the same basic reason, because it was what they liked as opposed to what was expected of them (i.e., fashionable).

Neither much cared for the chatty-giggly-whispery conversations that seemed so important to many of their female classmates.

And what they especially abhorred were the girl’s often sneering attitudes, especially regarding anyone who seemed “different” to them.

Because, of course, Ro and Atti knew they were among those deemed “different,” except that, much to the annoyance of their contemporaries, it was a role they were entirely comfortable with.

Finally, that shared self-acceptance and, at the same time, shared “otherness” status, in turn, grew into a closeness and mutual trust over the years that meant they could tell each other anything without fear of being judged.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

QC libraries now have “Ro’s Handle”

I’m happy to announce that we have donated copies of “Ro’s’ Handle,” my first Ro Delahanty novel, to all of the Quad-City area public libraries – Bettendorf, Davenport, East Moline, Moline, Rock Island and Scott County (Eldridge).

The novel covers the exploits of a rookie female deputy sheriff in an eastern Iowa county that local readers will find bears many similarities to a real eastern Iowa county, although, as I say in my disclaimer, “I take lots of liberties with local place names, local geography and local history.”

I hope you’ll “check it out” (pun intended).

Early Ro (seven): Year 10 – Atti

This is the third of a mini-series of posts about Ro’s prophetic (although she didn’t know it at the time) tenth year – roughly from May, 1992, when she turned 10, to early May, 1993, just before she turned 11. This is the story of how she met Atti Mehra, her best friend who was not a relative.

It is the end of August, 1992, Ro’s first day as a fifth grader at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School in Lee’s Landing and she was at loose ends as she chose a desk in the front row of her homeroom, but as near to the windows as possible.

While her cousin Justin, who lived only four doors away and was just twenty minutes her junior, and was her second closest friend, was still at Emerson, it was the first time in their years at the school they’d been assigned to different homerooms.

And her closest friend, who also happened to be her older brother, Tuck, was “gone;” as a seventh grader he had moved on to John F. Kennedy Intermediate School.

Ro greeted or responded to the greetings of the students filling the room, most of whom she knew from previous years. They generally said “Hi, Ro!” or waved and gave her a brief smile, but then found a seat nearer someone else, either continuing or starting conversations about what they’d done the previous summer.

The classroom was perhaps two-thirds occupied, as always leaving the first couple of rows of desks mostly empty, when the new girl entered − well, more like just slipped in.

Where everyone else had more or less burst into the classroom, quickly surveying the room for their friends, calling out their names, often with some friendly jibe − “Hey Skip, I thought they held you back in fourth grade!” − she was suddenly there, in the doorway, looking around.

To Ro, everything about her said new kid and different…

Maybe it was because opposites attract…Where Ro was already the tallest girl in the room, the new girl was among the shortest. Where Ro was a bit on the skinny side, the new girl, while not fat, was thick. Where Ro had merry blue eyes, the new girl’s were dark brown, huge, and baleful. Where Ro had bushy, fiery red hair pulled back into a pony tail that emphasized her broad forehead, the new girl’s hair was nearly jet black and cut in a short bob with a square bang that emphasized her large eyes. Where Ro’s complexion was fair and pink-cheeked, clearly reflecting her Irish heritage, the new girl’s skin was the color of coffee au lait, reflecting her Indian heritage. And where virtually everyone in the room was dressed in shorts or jeans, and T-shirts or tank tops favoring bright colors and pastels, she had on tights that came below her knees and a long, loose-fitting long-sleeved T-shirt, both solid black.

While Ro noted all these things, perhaps more unconsciously than consciously, what also struck her was the girl’s demeanor. Yes, she stood erect, with squared shoulders and her chin up, appearing to send a message of self-assured confidence, but what Ro saw deep in her eyes was an unmistakable longing for someone to acknowledge her.

So, striding across the room, Ro stuck out her hand, “Hello. You’re new, aren’t you? I’m Ro… Ro Delahanty.”

Looking up at Ro, her eyes expressing both a touch of reticence and yet gratitude, the girl took Ro’s hand. “I’m Atti Mehra,” she said, pronouncing it “meer-uh.”

To be continued…

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

Early Ro (six): Year 10 – Preteen

This is the second in a mini-series about Ro’s pivotal tenth year. It’s just an anecdote, but is one that demonstrates how even as a kid Ro had a strong sense of self-reliance.

In 1985 Ro’s mother started Kate Delahanty Design, specializing in commercial interior design work; her clients were architects, contractors and commercial developers. To schmooze with both existing and future clients, in the spring of 1992 she joined the exclusive Captain’s Club on the top floor of the Captain’s Hotel, regularly lunching or having a drink at the end of the day there.

While the club’s weekday habitues were a who’s-who of the local business and professional community, the club was also famous for its family-oriented Sunday brunches. Their strict weekday dress code – jackets and ties; dresses or pants suits – was relaxed for the brunches – sport shirts and slacks; blouses and even capris − and for the children was for all intents and purposes non-existent.

On a Sunday in June, when the Delahanty’s were set to go to their first brunch at the club, Kate had chosen as her outfit a long-sleeve paisley print tunic over white capris; Mike had chosen khaki slacks and a dark blue golf shirt; and Patrick, Ro’s older brother by two years, had chosen dark slacks and a yellow short-sleeve button-down oxford shirt.

Then there was Ro…

Kate suspected – and later was proven right – that most of the girls Ro’s age would be decked out by their moms in some form of party dress. Ro had only one dress in her closet, a plain Kelly green, short-sleeve with the barest hint of laciness at the short skirt’s hem. It was Ro’s one and only outfit for any event that involved dressing-up, like weddings. While Ro didn’t go so far as outright hating it, she made it clear she was not fond of wearing it.

Which is why Kate wasn’t at all surprised when she suggested that Ro might like to wear it, her daughter made a face as if she’d just tasted something disgusting.

Being a smart mom and knowing better than to try to order Ro, Kate instead just set the goal. “This is like going to a party,” she’d told her daughter, “so you’re supposed to look nicer than what you’d wear to school every day.”

With this information Ro scrunched her face into a thoughtful frown for a moment, then disappeared into her room. What emerged twenty minutes later first elicited a raised eyebrow of surprise, then a rueful smile from Kate.

Ro had chosen a new pair of dark, skinny jeans and a three-quarter-sleeve white knit T-shirt, by themselves definitely “schoolish,” but then had ditched her usual sneakers in favor of the black stub-heel pumps she normally wore with her dress and had looped a multi-colored scarf that her Aunt Eileen had once given her but had never worn before around her neck.

What stood before Kate was not just another “little girl in a party dress,” but someone who had struck a balance between studied casualness, yet with a hint of sophistication − a ten-year old who for all the world looked like more like a preteen.

Kate’s rueful smile was not for the outfit, which was perfect, but for the realization that her “little girl” was growing up right before her eyes.

(C) 2017 Dave Lager

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