Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey

postcards from the future

by Toni

I am writing this before my son’s wedding, but by the time you read this, they’ll be off on their honeymoon and I’ll be at a film shoot. So this is the shortest blog for me. Ever.

One of the very best websites for writers (screenwriting or prose) is Wordplay — particularly the columns written by Terry Rossio.

This story, however, is one of my favorites of his and well worth the read. Enjoy!

where ideas come from (the cranky version)

by Toni

Last weekend, I was asked the question a lot of people tend to ask writers: "Where do you get your ideas?" And I understand that what they really want to know is, "How do you make a story out of it?" because an idea, by itself, isn’t a whole story.

For every writer… probably even for every story… there’s a different method. Here’s one way that it happens:

My thought processes as I’m leaving a shipping office…

Dear F..E.. employee:

Did you murder the real employee in the back and bury his or her body and then decide to come out front and screw with the customers just to see if you could drive us batshit? Were you aiming to create such a chaotic meltdown that one of us started shooting the others just for some relief, and you could then duck out the back on your phone call to your "boss" (and really… twelve calls later… she’s not going to forgive you for Friday night, so quit begging her)? Because I’m standing there watching you in your non-regulation green shirt, and you are either brand new on the planet, (which in case, welcome, and we call these things jobs which means you actually have to know how to do something, unless you’re the president), or you are the dumbest excuse for the use of oxygen since Paris Hilton. Standing there dumbstruck like a minister asked to officiate at another Pamela Anderson wedding doesn’t exactly count as "working" when you should be using this thing called a computer in front of you. Did you notice I remained calm and polite? Did you notice how I did not walk around the desk and rip your arms off your body when you kept typing in the wrong zip code and then kept telling me I had the wrong zip code, in spite of the fact that I kept saying, "that zip code starts with a three" and you kept typing a two? Seventeen. Times. Seventeen. I felt damn near Zen just by walking out of there without your severed head tucked under my arm. I WANT A DISCOUNT FOR THAT.

and then… a few minutes later…

Dear Little Old Lady Driving In Front of Me While I Go To A Different Shipping Office To Find Someone Who At Least Knows How To Count to Three:

I’m really glad you’re being careful. Really. I’m especially impressed with your conscientious use of the turn signal a mile before you actually slowed down to turn. When your car came to a complete stop and you scooted forward in your seat in order to be tall enough to peer under the top of the steering wheel and yet, over the dash, I felt a rush of relief that you were checking out the oncoming traffic and making sure that you weren’t about to turn in front of someone. I sense from the multiple dents and the lack of a right rear quarter panel that this might be a lesson learned from experience. But if–while I’m waiting for you to make up your mind in spite of the fact that there is no other traffic on the road–I could have logged onto the internet, checked my bank balance, paid a few bills, checked my email, wrote a letter to Congress about ancient people driving, scheduled a dentist appointment and filed a tax return, maybe it’s time to admit that you shouldn’t be trying to make snap decisions like when to go ahead and make a left turn.

and then about two minutes later…

Dear Young Man Who Is Trying to Placate Your Woman While Sitting At The Stop Light:

You are not invisible, just because you’re in a car. Honest-to-God, those clear things that you can see out of? Means we can see inside. Yeah, I know. Nifty. And the rest of us at the intersection want you to know that when your woman is yelling at you and pushing you away so abruptly that we can practically hear her snapping her fingers as she wags her head, the best course of action is probably not to try to grab her boob and tweak it, especially while you forget to leave your foot on the brake and you then roll into the intersection. I’m pretty sure the list of "How to Score With Your Woman" does not start with "humiliate her and then get her maimed in an accident." I may be crazy, but hospitalized women aren’t generally all that affectionate. Just a thought.

Now, none of these are official ideas yet. Just character sketches, really. Vignettes. Moments of observation, coupled with a reaction, but they are not, in and of themselves, a story.

And so… I finally make it home from what was supposed to be a "quick" errand, and I scan a couple of dozen headlines, and two pop out at me:

Man [newlywed] burned alive for not washing his feet before climbing into bed… and then Airport Stops Women With Human Remains in Suitcase.

(After reading the second one, I will never look at little old ladies the same, ever again.)

And this is where the being-a-writer part happens, because a lot of the headlines just don’t naturally combine with my observations for the day, but now these two have my attention. Tonally, they fit.

Almost without thinking about it, a story starts forming. I could see a really incompetent shipping employee, whose grandest achievement was being a vertebrate, who didn’t have a clue how to treat a woman… and the woman who finally snaps, killing him, and then using the old, "it was his last wish" to take the not-quite-decomposed body parts abroad. I could see the woman (and the man’s older sister) forging a death certificate and moving the body, thus making future exhumation impossible.  And the only one who suspects the real truth is the frothing at the mouth customer who’s pissed off that she didn’t get to do the honors herself, who become insatiably curious. I don’t know if she’s the detective, yet, or the next victim, but there’s a combination there that I could use for a story: character in conflict.

Of course, that’s just riffing… but there are enough elements there and enough ways to combine them (or pluck out a few more headlines for inspiration) to generate multiple stories. And this is after only an hour or so of interacting with the world and cruising the headlines. Give me a day of brainstorming (and, God help me, having to go to the grocery store), and I’d have a full length novel’s worth of characters and conflict.

Here are a few other headlines I’ve come across:

Nipple Ring Falls Foul of Airport Check (hmmm… makes me think twice about those multiple piercings I was contemplating just yesterday… and if they seriously thought the nipple ring could have been dangerous enough that she couldn’t wear it on a plane, as in, a potentially explosive device, did they really want to stand that close when they were forcing her to take it out?)

Teen’s Underwear Dance at McDonald’s Leads to Robbery, Assault Arrest
(and I really don’t want fries with that, thanks)

Man Arrested for Having Sex with Picnic Table (… I just cannot add anything to that one… except this is one time I seriously wished for there to have been ants.)

Drug Smuggler Caught as Swallowed Capsules Burst (… hi, honey, would you like a little BBQ sauce on your insanity for today?)

Cemetery Full, Mayor Tells Locals Not to Die (and passed an ordinance that says "offenders will be severely punished"… um, how?)

and probably my favorite, the Look Good for Jesus Cosmetics Line. (I suddenly see a cosmetics line that poisons you and sends you to meet your maker.)

So here you go — you get to rant at anyone you want to today in the comments, and then tell us how you’d kill ’em. Fictionally, of course. Any method you want. Bonus points if you find a crazy headline to go with it. Have at it…


by Toni

Back when I was screen writing, my first script to go out wide was a military action/thriller. Very dark, told from the hero’s POV. I got a lot of meetings off that script, and people kept looking at me oddly when I’d first walk into the meeting. I assumed it was because I’m from the deep south and sound every bit of it. Finally, I was in Joel Silver Productions in their office on the Warner Bros lot, meeting with a VP (very sauve looking guy), and when I first stepped in the room, this guy looked at me and said, "Uh, no, honey, down the hall, second door to the left."

I frowned, and looked down at my day planner at the itinerary my agent had given me to make sure I was at the right production company, and while I was doing so, he said, "Really, honey. Down. The. Hall. Two doors. To the left."

I looked at his name plate and then at the day planner again and said, "But this is where they sent me. I have a meeting here."

He sighed. Put his pen down. And spoke soooo slowly, as if I was learning impaired and was the bane of his existence. "Honey. They are interviewing for the interns down the hall. Two doors, to the left. You need to go on, now, because I have a meeting with a screenwriter due any minute."

"You’re meeting with Toni McGee Causey right?"

He looked perplexed, as if I’d just spoken Farsi. "Yeah. How’d you know that?"

"I’m Toni McGee Causey."

He looked utterly blank. Looked down at my script on his desk. Up at me (boob level). Down to the script. Up to me (again, boobs). Down. Up. "But… you’re a woman!"

I looked down at my boobs and said, "Holy shit, how’d THAT happen?"


We had a really long meeting that went well, but he must’ve asked me twenty times how I’d come up with all of those action scenes. He loved them, he said, but after a while, it was clear that he assumed that because I was a woman, I couldn’t possibly have figured out how to shoot guns or make that "action stuff" happen. When he asked yet again, I said, "You know, you’re probably right that I had help. Whenever I got to an action scene, I just grabbed onto my husband’s penis and channeled."

He quit asking.

(He did laugh, though. And offered to develop a project with me, so it turned out fine.)


At Left Coast Crime, Lori Armstrong, Karen Olson, Joanne Pence and I had a panel called "Walking the Mean Streets in High Heels." Now, I loved LCC. It was a fantastic convention and our moderator, Christine Goff rocked. And the panel title was catchy enough and we had a full room, so this is not a complaint. But we realized as soon as we saw the title of our panel that three of us had female protagonists who did not wear heels. Ever. Only Joanne’s character did, and we were amused and at the same time, a little frustrated with the preconceived notion that if a book had a female protagonist, shoes mattered. Shoes. I have never really understood the whole "shoe" thing for women, but then I have a construction business with my husband and our office is at home. I like dressing up and I have a few heels, but at Thrillerfest this past summer, I mentioned that I had somehow lacked the "shoe" gene for women and several people inhaled sharply; I offered to give back my Certified Female [TM] card.

I am almost 100% positive that if the LCC panel had been made up of men, the title of the panel would not have been "Walking the Mean Streets in Loafers." And the point I hoped we made, ultimately, was that we should be asking the tougher questions about our characters–whether we’ve made them riveting, whether we’ve made an initially unlikeable character compelling to read about, whether we’ve reached for layered nuances, whether we’ve presented our character with interesting obstacles, and whether or not the story works. We should be embracing the characters as characters, not a collection of traits, and there’s room enough in any genre for all kinds of women and men.

Does genre and / or gender bias affect success… or just the perception of success?  One of the ladies in the audience asked if we believed that men had an advantage selling to a publisher (I am sadly paraphrasing — she asked it in a much better way), and I said that I didn’t think so, and that I wouldn’t want to be assumed to be at a disadvantage because I was a woman. I’d like to believe that if you write well, people will find your book. But in this day of crowded bookstores and uncertainty, there’s no surefire guarantee that this is true for anyone, and there’s been a lot of interesting discussion over on David Montgomery’s blog about why that’s so.

At lunch later that day of the panel, the fantastic Tim Maleeny (who’ll be guest-blogging for me in a couple of weeks) pointed out a stat I wish I had remembered on the panel, which is that women make up a majority of the book buying public. I’ve heard everything from 60% to 80% of books are bought by women (and MJ Rose mostly likely has that figure around somewhere), but whatever that number is, it’s not small.

Does gender or genre bias exist? Do we lose potential readers when we diss what they’d been reading in the past?

Or maybe you’d just rather contemplate the breaking of another preconceived notion… and watch The Easter Bunny Hates You…

(swiped from the ever fabulous Max Adams)

100 Things To Do Before I Go…

by Toni

Just a week or so ago, I read a blog by Maggie, where she was starting a list of 100 things to do before she dies, and I was fascinated with the variety on her list. Okay, I have to confess that the first thing I thought was who has time to make a list of 100 things? and then the second thing I thought was that, if I had to make a list of what I wanted to do before I died, I’d be hard pressed to keep it at just a hundred. Or keep it serious.

23. Get roaring drunk in an Irish pub
68. Meet royalty

(preferably not at the same time)
(unless the royalty’s paying)

And then a bunch of other people started their own lists and sometimes they made me smile (ride a giraffe) and sometimes they made me question their sanity (spend the night in the room where Janis Joplin died).

32. Learn to be an expert at firearms

(probably best not mixed with #23)

Sometimes, sandwiched in between simple desires, like learning to bake a puff pastry and making great marinara sauce, they would slip in the one that’s a quiet knife to the soul: quit being mad at my parents or learn my biological dad’s real name.

How often do we admit to these things? It’s brave, I think, to face the hurt, the pain, and want to find a way to write it on a list and check it off as done.

79. Live in a big city for a year

And I wondered, then, what kind of lists would my characters write, if they had to make a list? I know the character’s backstory, but since I’m writing a series, I’m still discovering little things about each of them along the way, which makes the process interesting. While I know them well, they’re growing and changing from book to book, and if I ever thought I knew them absolutely, that there was nothing left about them that could surprise me, I’d instantly be bored and wouldn’t be able to write another word of that series. But even though I’ve thought in terms of goals and desires and internal conflicts… I haven’t ever thought of a list like this, of all of the little things they’d randomly want to do before they died.

If they each got everything they wanted in the current story, what sort of things would they want to do next? What are the small things, I wonder, that aren’t life threatening, that would bring them joy? Or peace?

2. follow dad’s advice, and keep it fun

It’s different, too, to think of the list I would have made for myself ten years ago vs. the list I’d make now. I’ve accomplished some of the things I’d have originally felt were necessary, and just as important, I’ve realized that others weren’t things I really wanted, or needed, to do. I haven’t regretted those choices (but then, I tend to not worry about regret, because life’s too damned short and I’ve lived a good one). But this led me to think in terms of what my characters would have thought was important to accomplish a few years prior to the story starting vs. what they would put on their list right now. In using this simple tool, I can see their growth (or lack thereof) and the continuity of their lives.

What are some things that would be on your list? or your characters’?

liars and cheaters and con men, oh my

by Toni

She made the dumb mistake of trying to steal it all right before Christmas. Three weeks before, to be exact, and if she’d picked any other month, I probably wouldn’t have caught on quite as quickly.

She didn’t come in a villain package. She was 26, married with two kids, and when you met her, there were a few things you noticed right away: she had some sort of defect with one eye (it didn’t track with the other) and then inside of a couple of seconds, you quit noticing because of her smile and warmth and vivaciousness. She was pretty. Not gorgeous, not beautiful, but pretty, and she made you comfortable.

I needed someone capable in the office, someone versatile, so I could finally have time to write.

I interviewed a lot of people for that position–accounting / clerical –and there were several very good candidates, so if the top two choices had fallen through, there were others. She had a personality that caught my attention and there was an easy-going charm about her that I knew would give her an edge on the phone. Still, had it not been for her stellar references, there might have been a toss-up between her and the next candidate, a young man who probably had a little more experience, but who interviewed with the personality of a stick of wood.

His references barely remembered him, so they couldn’t really vouch for him. Her references raved. The references were from very large corporations; I’d looked up the numbers myself instead of relying on the ones on her resumé, called directly, went through the phone system and the secretaries, so I knew the people I spoke to were legitimately employed at the companies in question.

They could not say enough good things about her.

So why wasn’t she still working for them? I’d ask, and was told that it was an unfortunate matter of their company having completed a big project and then laying off extra employees, last one hired, first one fired. She had the unlucky misfortune to be late to the game. This was typical in the area–there had been a lot of construction surges and downturns in the previous five years, so I understood how that could happen. I understood how a young mom could be trying to build a career only to have it sidetracked, and with the economy the way it was, have a hard time finding a stable place. Each reference stated they’d hire her back if given a choice.

I would find out later that those references were relatives or, in one case, a friend of hers.

It’s hard to prove fraud for a telephone reference, especially when it didn’t occur to you to record it.

The insurance background check was the last hurdle, and she was clear. She went to work for us some time in October. We had a new accounting software package, but since it was new to us, we also did one other thing: we made her manually track what she did for the day. We were a small company–tiny, actually, so this wasn’t abnormally difficult.

This was pre-online banking. This was get-a-statement-once-a-month times, and if you wanted your bank balance, you had to call and talk to an officer of the bank because the tellers wouldn’t tell you over the phone.

She made me laugh. Daily. I enjoyed her company, and really liked her. We had a lot in common. She was one of those rare people I didn’t mind being around every day, and I’m fairly grouchy and introverted and would just as soon be a hermit most of the time, so this was a major feat. Three weeks before Christmas, she came into the office in tears. She’d just discovered she was pregnant for her third child. She couldn’t afford to lose her job, and didn’t want us to think she’d misled us. We told her not to worry–she had already won over some of our crustiest clients and she worked hard, was very efficient, and we figured we’d find a way to work something out. We couldn’t offer her maternity leave, but when it was time for the baby, I could hold down the fort for a while ’til she could come back. She was elated.

I think she cashed the first forged check that day.

She came in for the rest of that week and everything seemed perfectly normal. We talked about what we were going to get for our kids for Christmas. Our Christmas was going to be relatively small that year because we were climbing out of a construction slump and we were just that month starting to have a real turn-around. We didn’t want to over-do it or be too optimistic, and there were a lot of reasons not to be. We hadn’t even done the first bit of Christmas shopping yet, but that was okay because that year was going to be the first in a couple of years that we were going to be able to shop a little ahead of time instead of just a day or two before. I didn’t explain that to her–almost everyone here in this state had been through some tough times. Just being able to afford to hire her had been a victory; we’d seen companies two or three times our size go belly up the previous few years and we’d managed to survive.

She told me the things she’d been able to buy her kids. It was going to be one of their best Christmases, she said, because she finally had a good job.

We’d not only survived, we’d managed to grow, and now, here was a young family, benefiting.

She’d cashed several more forged checks by that Friday.

She started missing work the first couple of days the next week. Morning sickness. I understood that, and she was great about calling in.

I went to make a bank transfer, and there was no money in the accounts. None.

I double-checked the accounting program, and there was money according to the balance showing on the computer, but somewhere, there had been a mistake. Thousands of dollars of a mistake, and my honest first assumption was that we’d written a check we’d forgotten about and hadn’t remembered to tell her, or else we’d input a deposit twice. I then compared the computer register against the manual one, and the balances were the same.

But some of the entries were vastly different.

Which didn’t make sense. The room grew icy cold, my hands felt numb and there was a chill up my spine. It was a surreal out-of-body moment where I could not believe what I was seeing. I was almost certain I was making a mistake, that there was a logical explanation for this, and it had to be somewhere in that data. Because it could not have been purposeful. The numbers on the ledger grew large and bold as the world around it grew fuzzy and I thought you’re making it up. You’re just making it up because somewhere you screwed up and you’re just wishing for a better excuse. Right? I couldn’t possibly have been that naïve.

I went to the bank the next day and had a copy of all of the checks pulled. The bank was quick to help, and by that afternoon, I had copies of everything that had cleared to that date. I normally wouldn’t have seen these checks for another two weeks, when the bank statement came in.

Multiple checks had been made out either to cash or to her or to people we didn’t know. The signatures had been forged; she’d endorsed the back. When I compared these to the checks on the computer, I discovered a flaw in that program (which ended up being the demise of that program, nationally). A check could be written, printed and then voided and never show up as having ever been written.

By going through the blank checks in the office, I realized there was one more check out. It would turn out to be a very large one, which coincidentally matched the amount of the very large check we were expecting. I put a hold on the account.

Two days before Christmas.

The police issued a warrant for her arrest. She called in sick again that day. Then she said she didn’t think she’d be able to come back to work for us because the morning sickness had gotten so bad, and she knew it wasn’t fair to us to not work for another month. She’d understand that we would need to replace her. We confronted her over the phone with the facts; explained that there was a warrant for her arrest. Explained that she had one shot at not being arrested for Christmas, and that was to turn herself in. We’d work with her through a first-offenders program, and this was strictly because she had kids. She’d have to plead guilty, but she’d get to stay out of jail and repay while she was on probation and, once she’d paid everything and if she stayed clean for a year, her record would be expunged. She agreed.

She failed to show up the next day.

The police don’t care if someone’s having Christmas, by the way, if they’ve stolen thousands of dollars. In fact, it often makes the criminal a wee bit easier to find.

There were witnesses, handwriting proofs, and evidence galore. When the police arrested her, her car was packed with luggage–she was moving to Arizona, to live with a sister.

Later, I would see a photo of evidence of all sorts of new toys and electronics they’d found at her house.

We really didn’t have much of a Christmas that year; wouldn’t have had any, had it not been for family who stepped in and helped. My kids were 8 and 4.

I was 28.

Crime wasn’t new to me. I’d had enough of it in my life at that point, and was aware enough of the world to realize it was common. But it was the first time I’d experienced a targeted, systematic con aimed directly at me. It was the first time my judgment had completely failed. Everyone who’d met her was stunned, but that didn’t help assuage the fear that if I could so completely misperceive something of that magnitude, how the hell could I trust what I believed about anyone else?

The financial damage she did lasted a very long time. The economy here was about to take another downturn and we’d struggle. But what she took from me was more valuable than money: faith. Faith in my own judgment, a willingness to trust. Eventually, I’d realize I didn’t want to let the actions of one person poison my perceptions of everyone else I met, and I’d find a balance, but it would take a long time. It would take even longer to forget.

This past Christmas was the first Christmas day I didn’t think about her. Not even once. And I didn’t realize it until a month later.

17 years.

What she gave me, though, turned out to be more valuable than what she took.

She didn’t come in a villain package.


I write about crime and try to find the absurd and a way to deal with it while showing its repercussions. I think reading about an interesting villain failing to succeed will always hold a certain lure. So what draws you to crime fiction?


If you’re anywhere near Denver from Thursday through Sunday, come on out to Left Coast Crime. A ton of us will be there and we’d love to see you.

that’s the way I like it…

It’s just been one of those days… one of those good days when all is right with the world, or at least a little piece of it, for a few minutes, and I’m happy at work on something that’s new and exciting. Which means my brain is full of that new world, teasing out the nuances, and all other subjects just seem to glance off, stones skipping over the surface.

Somewhere in all of that process, there’s the hope that the new stuff will resonate with readers, which of course, leads back to the curiosity of what makes them buy a book. I know. We just discussed this.

But this time… it’s a poll.

I know, I know. Completely original idea.

But hey! It’s easy! It shows a running total! It coordinates with the colors of the blog! What’s not to love?

(I am not guaranteeing that this thing will actually work or that you won’t break the entire internet as soon as you click “cast your vote.” Seriously. If you click and your computer doesn’t explode, we’ll count that as a success.)

A book buying poll:

So, tell me please, what book did you buy this year that was a new-to-you author? And if you want to tell… how did you find them?

And… who have you been recommending to others?

sense of place

by Toni McGee Causey 

I always knew we were close when we got to the silos on highway 190. Tall, white, built to house the predominate crop of rice, their domes gleaming in the sun, they were a sign that we were almost to my paternal grandparents’ home. I thought of the silos as the three soldiers, guarding a gateway to a different place in time. We would have been driving west two or so hours by that point to get to Kinder, Louisiana, (pronounced kender) — just northeast of Lake Charles — all the way from Baton Rouge, where my parents had moved so my dad could find a job.

My very first memory–I think I might have been two or three–is of me sitting in the middle of my grandparents’ living room on the hardwood floor in their small house, the attic fan rattling, dragging in muggy air from the hot spring day outside the screen door. Aunts, uncles, cousins were standing, leaning or seated in stiff ladderback chairs around the perimeter of the room. Most of the ladies wore cotten print dresses and flat shoes; the men had on slacks and short sleeve shirts, and cowboy boots, of course. A few of the men had their dress straw hats propped on their knees. My Paw Paw (for that’s the common term there, Maw Maw and Paw Paw) usually had the nicer chair next to the door. It would be years before I would realize that worn, green, stained-armed, sagging seat, broken-back chair wasn’t a throne.

Hazy cigarette smoke swirled above our heads, sucked into the attic fan and the evening light dappled through the open windows (always with screens to keep out the mosquitoes). Something played in the background, a crackly radio sawing out Cajun music, and the quiet room would ebb and flow with stories. Always the stories. Sometimes, the story tellers would be quiet, somber, sometimes picking up to a lively jaunt. Cajuns thrived on the telling, passing along reminiscences, which in turn, passed along heritage. Tales which gained in fame and embelishments with every incarnation. Cajuns loved good practical jokes, crazy lore, and it was more about the event of telling and hearing the story than the facts, anyway. It was, as my friend Kitty says, the ‘supped up version. And sometimes, in the telling, they would switch over to Cajun if they didn’t want the kids to understand, saddened, though, that they knew the kids wouldn’t understand. Most of us grandkids were far flung from our heritage already.

Like my dad, I was born there, in pure Cajun country. Unlike my dad, I would never know the language, not in its full, rich glory, neither French, nor a corruption of it, but an altered language, spoken still in old cafés with threadbare linoleum and formica countertops in small towns, dim and dusty and far from the interstate. My dad spoke only Cajun until he was in the first grade, when the teachers had been instructed to force all of the kids to speak only English, and stabbed a heritage in its soul without a single blade falling.

I remember spending time in Kinder, sometimes a week in the summer, and exploring the creek in the back, watching the crawfish build their mud huts, "fishing" for them with a piece of bacon tied to a string, running barefoot through grass and always getting stickers embedded in my toes, never wanting to put on shoes in spite of that because the loss of the feel of fresh, cool grass between my toes was a greater loss than the annoyance of the stickers. I remember watching the ceiling fans, listening to the rhythm of the attic fan, and always smelling the dark, loamy aroma of coffee brewed so strong, it practically sat up and had a conversation. I remember my Maw Maw hanging the white sheets on the clothesline that was strung from a post near her back door out toward the edge of the lawn near the creek, and the game we’d make of dodging around them, and the sweet, sunny smell we’d breathe in from them at night, as if they’d absorbed our happiness. I remember the spicy food, the rice with every meal, the constant ribbing and teasing and arguing. I remember the nights so quiet, I’d get up and walk around just to make sure I was still alive. I’d sit on the front porch, listening to the crickets and the croaking bullfrogs and the grunts of other animals not far away, sometimes still seeing fireflies dancing in the dark. I remember the biggest treat was hand-cranked ice-cream, which usually signalled our last night there, and I remember the voices in my dreams.

I haven’t kept the accent, though I fall back into it as soon as I’m around my cousins or friends back there. I haven’t kept as many of the customs, though we do have our own version of a fais do do (party) here every year, with everyone knowing what date and time and if they ever cross my threshold, they have a permanent invitation to return for the party. I haven’t kept as many memories as I wish I had, though I can still see my Paw Paw, strong as ever, approaching the porch and taking off his hat before he entered. My dad told me that since I was the oldest granddaughter and we lived with them at the time, my Paw Paw loved to come in from work and chat with me, only I’d cry as soon as he’d approach. It broke his heart, because apparently, I hung the moon, quite a feat for a two-year-old, but I was always an ovearchiever. And then one day, he took off his hat first (a straw cowboy hat), and I laughed and went straight to him. My dad said that he never had a memory of his father without a hat on prior to that, not once. I have no memories of him wearing one.

I’m usually amused by what people think of when they think of Cajuns, or horrified (may Adam Sandler die of a thousand paper cuts from the atrocity that was Water Boy, and no, I’m not even giving it the courtesy of linking to it… in fact, if you substituted any other ethnic background for that main character in that film, there would have a full-on battle cry of discrimination.)

I digress.

Cajuns are not just about the food and the accent, the fais do do, the playing hard. Yes, the food is important, because it was the social gathering. Yes, it’s spicey, and full of flavors, as befitting a people who had to flee a country and hide out in a land and learn to live off it, best they could, and use what they had to hand. No, we won’t eat everything, though many eat a few things I think are weird. Believe me, we’re pretty freaked out over you eating (drinking?) wheat grass and tofu (which I have yet to understand) or go purely vegan.

Cajuns are stuborn, ornery, argumentative, ornery, muleheaded, ornery, determined, bossy, ornery, and in case I didn’t mention it, ornery. They each are one hundred percent certain they are right, except when they’re not, and it’s your fault they weren’t anyway, so what are you arguing about? At the same time, we’ll work hard to go the extra mile, give whatever needs to be given. I grew up with people who thought it was normal to give whatever they could give and not count it as favors which needed to be repaid. It was just a matter of course that if they needed something in return, it would be done. Part of that came from being a people desperate for survival, clinging to their own cultures and traditions, knowing that to survive, they needed each other as well as their neighbors.

When we’d drive back home to Baton Rouge, the time travel reversed itself as fields fanning out to the side of the car gave way to small towns and industries and then the scary red extremely narrow Old Mississippi River bridge and finally into the suburbs of a city. There was a campaign here not so long ago, and the pithy slogan someone came up with to encourage city pride was, "We are B.R." Each time I’d see that slogan, I’d feel a disconnect, and then I realized, one day, that no, I’m not. I live here, and it’s been my home most of my adult life and the few years I spent in Cajun country shouldn’t have had such a profound lasting imprint.

But it did.

My Louisiana is a place of swamps and rivers and lakes and eating crawfish out at the fishing camp and drifting in a bateau with my dad, fishing early in the morning for the big bream. My Louisiana is a place of flavors and seasonings, a place of coffee and heat, of mosquitoes at sunset and screen doors. It’s a place of hard work, intense play and loyalty beyond life. It’s a place of belly laughs and counting on your neighbor.

And I’m glad it’s mine.

I love stories where I not only get to know the people, but the places they live. I especially love it when I get a sense of the person from what they choose to tell about the place they’re from. So if you would, I’d love it if you chose the place that means the most to you, and tell me a little about it — maybe something that only the locals would understand.

p/s…. winner of the challenges contest in a completely random dawing (I asked the waitress to pick a name out of my empty crawfish tray) is Miri… so Miri, email me at toni [dot] causey [at] gmail [dot] com so we can arrange for your gift certificate.

p/s… I’ll be having another contest at the end of Feb, which will include a Shuck Me, Suck Me, Eat Me Raw t-shirt as well as a gift certificate.

POV — persistence of vision

by Toni

We often discuss point of view (POV) when it comes to writing–both the specific point of view chosen for the work (first, third, etc.) as well as the point of view or voice of the author.  However, whenever I hear the term POV, I also think of the psychological phenomenon of persistence of vision.

Persistence of vision is a phenomenon described back in 1824 by a physician, Peter Mark Roget, who was trying to figure out the mechanism whereby we perceived motion when we saw images in a quick succession. His research was the precursor to years of follow-up study which was seized upon by film theorists as a way to explain why we see motion, or how the still images create the perception of movement. As Joseph and Barbara Anderson point out, Roget and his successors were trying to find the answers to the questions:

Why is the image continuous, and why does it move?   In other words, why do the separate frames appear continuous rather than as the intermittent flashes of light which we know them to be?  And why do the figures on the screen appear to move about in smooth motion when we know they are in fact still pictures?

The Andersons spend a lot of time (and have in the past in other prominent essays) trying to debunk the "myth of persistence of vision" because biologically, the mechanism Roget used (and was expanded upon by later researchers and theorists) was flawed. As researchers, the Andersons are focused on refuting the prevailing myth of persistence of vision and look to several other explanations of why we see movement, but in the long run, I think they miss why people cling to the myth: we see because the images create the opportunity to see. We connect the images–whether it’s because of speed or flow or distance or some combination, we see the images and interpret "motion" because that makes sense from our experience of things-in-motion.

We recognize motion.

Even if it’s something in motion that we haven’t ever seen personally, like a specific person walking across a specific room.

What holds our attention, though… for any length of time… is how we see the images. The angle of the images, the lighting, the mood, the way they’re framed, the context, the tone (coloring), etc., can all work to create what I like to call (and I think I am totally making this up), "recognition dissonance" — where what we see is both familiar (we can tell what it is that we’re looking at) and unfamiliar (we’re looking at it in a slightly different way/angle, etc., or with something that intrigues our visual comprehension or the composition is unsettling enough to make us work to figure out what we’re seeing)… so that we keep looking. Give the same script to two different directors and you’re going to end up with two different films. Give one of those scripts to a great director, and you’ll be riveted.

Okay, so what does that have to do with writing?

When we’re writing, we’re creating the mythology of a world. As the author, we (hope we) have a persistence of vision, a way of seeing the world and communicating that imagery to the reader to help them hook into the images and the characters and stories. We have to bring recognizable things to the reader (sights, sounds, etc.) but with an angle of vision that is uniquely appropriate to that world. It’s a step beyond just creating setting; it’s translating the dream.

If we think about it, there’s no clear reason why we should see motion in film. There’s also no reason why people should "see" the world we create with these discrete words on a page. Words are strung together in such a way that maybe they make grammatical sense, and surely they hold meaning, but for this sentence to create an image that leads into the next sentence which enhances that image and keeps the image alive in the mind… continuous… is a sort of deliberate magic.

One of the things I think about as I write is not only "what is the right detail for the image here?" but "will it keep the image flowing, will it keep the forward motion of the story, will it break or keep the mood?" The last thing a writer wants to do is to have a moment where the flow stops, like a broken film strip, flapping in the projector (or, to update, a scratch on a DVD). The reader stops, the continuous image is broken, and it’s easier for them to put the book down.

I think writers tend to do (or want to do) the above naturally–it’s a part of creating that unbreaking story. We’re mythmakers, and everything we write goes to the creation and sustaining of that myth, and we learn it by trial and error. But we can’t forget that part of the reason why the reader connects to the story through these bits of alphabet is because they want to see the world. We’re creating an opportunity and they are supplying the faith. It’s our job to give them something unique to look at, to hold their attention, to both recognize and intrigue their curiosity. If the world I create (the setting, the people) could be plunked down into someone else’s setting, then I’ve failed at creating that dream, that worldview that is unique.

Some writers out there are so damned good at creating those worlds, that the imagery last for years and can be recalled as clearly as if the reader had actually, physcially been in the location of the story, witnessing it unfold. I have a long list of writers who’ve done this, but I’m curious about you… who have you read who creates this sort of vision, this sort of world? Who are the mythmakers you admire?

— a side note… I am omitting about a zillion points on the psychology and physiology of recognition and how that relates to film. I can geek out, but I’d like more than two people to finish reading this.

–second side note… In addition to Pari’s novel THE SOCORRO BLAST being out right now, don’t forget Louise Ure’s THE FAULT TREE and, coming out TUESDAY, THE 29TH, friend of the ‘Rati’s Allison Brennan’s first in her new trilogy, KILLING FEAR. Three unique worldviews, three unique visions, all fantastic. Seriously.

changing space

When I started writing many years ago (stuff for the local paper, then magazines), I wrote wherever I had enough space for the computer. In the first house we had, that was a sliver of a back porch which we converted to an office space for our construction company. I wrote with a four-year-old zooming in and around and an infant in a playpen. If there was a square inch of floor space, it probably had a book or a toy piled on it. I think the only free space was the tiny spot where my chair fit. I don’t think it was entirely a coincidence that I excelled at finishing short projects (news articles), but floundered at anything beyond a short story length.

The second house wasn’t much larger–just arranged slightly better so that more of the square footage was usable. In that house, there was a third bedroom. The boys liked bunking together (well, most of the time, except when they were trying to kill each other), so the third bedroom became the office. I thought at the time: wow, all of this room… I’ll never use all of this room. Yeah. I know. Delusional. The construction business grew, and its need for office space grew, and pretty soon, I was back to having a zillion filing cabinets and construction stuff cluttered around and the kids still zoomed in. I had a hard time focusing, though, because that room was pretty much in the center of the house. It was the front bedroom, and when you walked out of the kitchen into the hallway, you were facing that door, and everyone in the entire universe tramped through that kitchen. Yes, including you. It didn’t help to close the door because everyone then knocked and stood there. I started writing at night just to have enough consecutive uninterrupted minutes to be able to form a thought and then actually write it down. (I have always been a night owl–but when the kids were younger and I had to drive them to school at the buttcrack of dawn, I did not have the luxury of staying up late to take advantage of the quiet. I did it anyway, and functioned for years on three or four hours of sleep.) I managed to write slightly longer projects (screenplays), but anything longer than that was impossible for me to conceive. Not just produce, but actually conceive. I didn’t have the quiet, the head space, to work out the characters and dynamics of a longer story.

When we moved to the house we’re in now, the kids each had a room and we converted the front formal dining room into an office. We still have the construction company and still have tons of stuff for it, and for a long time, it was all still piled together. When the kids moved out, there was a spare bedroom and, joy of joys, my husband moved his office there and I had this entire office space to myself. My husband had built floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for me, and I was in heaven.

Except, heaven had a glitch: the office was still at the front of the house, next to the kitchen. My husband’s new office was further away, which meant everyone in this universe and the next one over tramped through the house back to his office. Yes, even you, do not try to deny it, I saw you and the chocolate chip cookies you ate.

I had been loathe to trade offices with my husband, even though he’d offered to do so several times, because I love the size of this space and the beautiful shelves. I love the gorgeous French doors he hung for me, which was an attempt to dissuade people from walking through (doesn’t help, people come and stand at the door and watch me write) (I feel like a science project). I love the convenience (I can burn the bread really close by, which means I can put it out before the fire department gets here).

But I want the quiet.

I know a lot of people write at places like Starbucks or at a restaurant, and I shudder at the thought. I need the quiet space, the lack of movement around me. I am too easily distracted, and I enjoy talking to people, which means, I end up talking to people instead of writing. And, it occurs to me that a lot of people who go out of their home to write do so to have the stimulus of life and people around them. I have always had the universe tramping through my house, so I’m not really at a shortage for company.

So today, as you’re reading this, my husband and I are moving my office. He’s building a bigger place for himself outside. I am either packing up stuff, or purging it, or I’m at the hardware store, buying paint. This office is far away from everything else. I’m going to expend a little extra effort to make it feel like it’s mine, like it’s a sanctuary. It has a large walk-in closet, in which I’ll have plenty of storage, and a small kitchenette. My husband just built two large white-erase boards that I’ll use for brainstorming and keeping track of the big picture of the novels in progress.

Changing space is a little scary. After all, I had success here. I wrote the first two books mostly in this room, and like any superstitious writer, I don’t  want to jinx a good thing. But on the flip side, I’ve always had good luck with change, and I know the new space will give me what I crave: quiet, room apart from the busy world.

What about your ideal space? Do you already have it? If so, tell me about it. If you’ve got a fantasy of what your perfect space would be, I’d love to hear it today. You may just be my inspiration as I’m changing spaces.

breathing sanctuary

A little over a week ago, Andrew Olmsted had someone post his final blog; it was something he’d prepared in the event of his death. Andrew was a Major in the army, stationed in Iraq. A sniper bullet killed him and Capt. Thomas J. Casey on January 3rd, and Maj. Olmstead–a regular blogger–left words behind for his readers, friends and family.


In his post, Maj. Olmstead asks that no one politicize his death and use it to make any pro or anti war arguments, and I think that greatly reflects the man he was. What struck me, though, and has stayed with me for days, is the description of himself he put up in his sidebar. It is the description of his philosophy, the thing he’d want the world to know about him:

"This is a vanity site that gives me the opportunity to comment on current events, or anything that catches my eye. What I post here is intended to put my thoughts on particular issues up for discussion; I do not pretend to be infallible or anything close to that. When I post something, it is what I believe, but it may be based on inaccurate information or faulty analysis. Where that occurs, I look to my readers to help me find the facts and improve my analytical abilities."

I did not know him, but I would have liked him. In addition to intelligence, he obviously had a sense of humor:

"But all the tears in the world aren’t going to bring me back, so I would prefer that people remember the good things about me rather than mourning my loss. (If it turns out a specific number of tears will, in fact, bring me back to life, then by all means, break out the onions.)"

I couldn’t begin to say for certain whether or not his words brought comfort to his family and friends, but I would imagine they did. I think one of the major drives in this fundamentally isolated society we have is a desire for connection, to know that we somehow have left our thumb print on the psyche of the world. It’s one of the reasons blogging has become so popular.

Years ago, before blogging, there was "online journaling" where everything was hand coded. By the time I joined into the fray, there were probably a whopping two or three thousand online journalers. The group got so large, they were able to stage conventions where they talked about how to journal, how to write the entries, topics of interest, etc. We all joined "journal rings" which were the result of cutting edge software that allowed a reader to move from one journal to another. These rings were generally organized around something the journalers had in common: location, political affiliation, eye color. And everyone proceeded to put their life online, much to the horror and shock of their parents and family and friends. The press would occasionally note the trend, and more often than not, the article would have the air of "what are these crazy people up to?" about it. And mostly, people wondered why on earth journalers would want to put their lives up for all the world to see.

We come into this world with shouts and exclamations and we go out with someone (hopefully) saying a few words over our grave. A couple of centuries ago, the in-between of those two stages pretty much guaranteed that the world we lived in would at the very least know us: as a society, we tended to stay put. We lived near extended family, traditionally had the same friends all our lives, the same neighbors. But now, we’re often separated from family and friends by miles or continents, we move around for jobs, we have MP3 players or cell phones shoved in our ears, computers on when the family comes home for dinner (if they even all manage to get there at the same time), and a world full of news of mismanagement and war and loss and need. It’s hard to feel connected.


Friday, JT posted about the refuge she felt at the library and Saturday, Alex posted about a writing retreat, and it reminded me that we are breathing the sanctuary of words.

I got a letter a few weeks ago that meant a lot to me. A woman wrote that her mom was dying of cancer and things there had been incredibly tense and difficult; she’d read my book and in the middle of all of that heartache, she’d laughed until she cried. If I could have ever chosen a few words to say about me at the end, I would choose her letter. I know the things (the life philosophies, the themes) that creep into my writing on what I’d like to say to and about the world. But if all that fails and I’m gone and the only thing the world sees is what my writing says about me, and it’s that laughter is a gift to share, then I’m good with that.

Words. Sanctuary. Refuge. Remembrance. Future.

When we write, we hope to entertain. Connect. We’d like to consider what we have to say to the world and look at our writing as a venue. But I think we also know that the words have a window back into our soul. So what does your writing say about you? Readers, what does your favorite author’s books say about them?