Do you remember your first time?

Reading your favorite mystery novel, that is. What did you think I was talking about? Get your mind out of the gutter and join me as I talk about the first time I read a book by one of my favorite authors, Sue Grafton.

Back in the early nineties, I was working at a home for unruly children. There’s probably a better term for this, but at the time that’s what I called it. I worked the third shift and part of my duties included sitting in the back hall at night and making sure that the girls on the unit stayed in their rooms. I occasionally had to walk around and check each room to make sure that they were, in fact, sleeping and not hurting each other. For the most part, they behaved, so it was a fairly easy assignment. We were allowed to read while we sat in the back hall, since there was really nothing else to do. So, one night I grabbed a random book from the shelf in the office before venturing back to my post. The title was, simply enough, “B is for Burglar.” I thought it sounded fairly mild and that it wouldn’t require much thought on my part, so it seemed like a good choice. Little did I know that waiting for me beyond that cover were pages of a story that would inspire me to start writing my own mystery series.

It was around 1993 or ’94 and the book had been published in 1985. The author, was Sue Grafton. One of the reigning queens of mystery (in my opinion). And after reading this book, which was the second book in the series, I immediately went in search of the first book. And from there, I later read every single one up to the very last book Grafton published before she passed away in 2017. I read them in paperback and listened to the audiobooks throughout the years, sometimes several times over. They were comforting, in the way that old television reruns are a comfort. And when I needed inspiration or just motivation to keep going, listening to Kinsey Millhone work her way through a case without the help of the internet, cell phones, or other modern-day accoutrements was refreshing. It reminds me that anything is possible no matter what it may look like on the surface.

In 2006, I actually received some advice in a letter from Ms. Grafton. Unfortunately, it was not what you’d call uplifting. It was early in my writing career and I had stupidly sent her a copy of my first book, In the Wash: The Rona Shively Stories. She had read a few chapters and then decided to let me know that my work was substandard, in her opinion. I had been so hurt by her feedback that for a time, I couldn’t even look at her books for several years after that. In the letter, she made the snap judgement that my first attempt at a hard-boiled private eye novel was something I’d not taken seriously and implied that my motivation was simply to be published quickly and get famous. She decided this without knowing anything about me and I was so absolutely deflated by her comments that I nearly trashed the whole writing thing. But I knew that my motivation had never been anything so lame or pretentious as just wanting to be published or popular, so I decided to press on. She had no idea how many hours I’d spent in the library researching all of the pieces of the plot I’d put together in my head. She had no idea that I’d been discouraged from being a writer when I was still a teenager and that I’d only just picked it back up after nearly fifteen years of not writing. She had no idea that the birth of my first and only child had inspired me to try writing again. Or that reading her books was why I had decided to write a book in the first place. She just assumed that I was another of hundreds of amateur writers who would never put in the kind of time and energy she’d put into her novels. But she was wrong. She was an excellent author, but God rest her soul, she knew nothing about me, my personal struggles, or what kind of writing I was capable of and her criticism became the number one reason why I went on to write books two through ten of The Rona Shively Stories series.

Eventually, I did read the rest of her books, as I indicated above. I read the whole series and was always impressed by how she could weave a story together so vividly and with so much detail. She was an excellent writer and I’m truly sad that she did not get to finish the Kinsey Millhone series. It’s probably one of the greatest injustices a writer can suffer; leaving a great series unfinished. But no one will ever be able to write Kinsey like she wrote Kinsey. And no other author should want to do that. As authors, we should want to write our own characters in the way that we want to write them. And we should write unapologetically, using our experiences and the skills that God has given us to create stories of our own; stories that will speak to readers as no other author’s stories can. Her words may have ripped my heart out at the time (even if that wasn’t her intention), but in that pain I found what I needed to justify writing Rona the way I wanted to write her. She was my character and my characters don’t always know everything they need to know when they need to know it. My characters are on a journey, trying to figure out what it all means and why we bother.

Ultimately, Grafton’s words did motivate me to become a better author and to help others get their stories out there (hopefully without ever making them feel as low as I felt back then). I’ve always felt that there is more than enough room on the stage for all of us. Writers who have just started and writers who have been around a while. And I never saw the logic in making someone feel terrible about their writing if they had the courage to at least try it. Everyone has a story to tell; some may not be as exciting or endearing as others, but they don’t have to be. We can all learn from one another’s experiences and if someone wants to try and share those experiences in a book, what harm does it do to encourage them to do just that? As a publisher now, I always try to look at the stories I receive through the lens of someone who is looking for advice in whatever the subject mater area presented in a manuscript may be. Some are a fit for my company, some aren’t. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t serious about writing. Or that they shouldn’t bother. We can’t all be Sue Graftons or Lisa Scottolines or James Pattersons or Janet Evanoviches (pardon the pluralization on these). It would be ever so boring if we all were. I’d much rather be Rebecca Benston writing Rona Shively and reading all of these other great authors who have given me such inspiration and joy over the years. I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Rebecca Benston is the owner of Higher Ground Books & Media and the author of over twenty titles currently available through Amazon and other outlets. Her books include a mystery series (The Rona Shively Stories), empowerment resources such as Wise Up to Rise Up, Don’t Be Stupid (And I Mean That in the Nicest Way), and From Judgment to Jubilee, children’s books including Grumble D. Grumble Learns to Smile, All the Scary Things, and See How Strong You Are. Benston lives in Springfield, Ohio with her awesome daughter, Mya and enjoys traveling, reading, writing, and telling it like it is. She enjoys being able to help other authors get their stories out there through Higher Ground and has recently expanded her freelance services to offer more extensive guidance as a writing coach and social media manager. For more information, you can contact Benston at

Poverty and learning: What’s my problem with this USA Today article?

As some of you may have seen, I work with children and I get a little disgusted when I read things that just don’t make sense. My blog today addresses an issue that really tweaked my bad attitude:

How damaging and irresponsible is this article from USA Today about how poverty dramatically affects children’s brains? As a person who came from a family that has experienced its fair share of poverty (even to the point of homelessness), I have to take offense at some of the assertions made in this article by Mr. Greg Toppo. This is a classic example of the old chicken and egg debate. Which came first, the poverty or the impaired brain function? To say that poor kids are more likely to have lowered brain function is just ridiculous. How did they come to this conclusion? Did they ever think that the impaired brain function might be the reason for the poverty and not the other way around?

To say that poor children aren’t necessarily as sharp as kids from middle class families is just prejudicial. It has been proven time and again that kids can rise above their family circumstances if they are given the right opportunities to learn and grow. I don’t believe that poverty has anything to do with their capacity for learning or their ability to function in society other than its impact on their ability to fit in with middle and upper class kids on a superficial level. If a poor child were to read Toppo’s article, they would definitely get the wrong impression and feel as though they were doomed to failure. Of course, from the sound of it, maybe poor kids aren’t capable of reading articles? It’s simply absurd to write something like this and put it out there as a substantial finding.

Poverty causes a lot of things, but the inability to learn and think is not included in that list. Those things come from a lack of exposure to what they need to know to succeed. Instead of doing studies on how a lack of money translates into cognitive dysfunction, they should be putting their funding into finding ways to get the necessary resources out to schools that have no money. Poverty is the lack of money and resources. It is a direct result of kids who get lost in a system that fails to recognize that no matter what their economic status is, all children do not learn things the same way. It is a direct result of a failure to provide adequate funding to schools so that they have what they need to encourage all children to learn. A child who is not getting their needs met due to the conditions of poverty is more likely to be preoccupied by a rumbling stomach or the lack of clean, suitable clothing to wear to school, but they are by no means, unable to figure things out.

Poverty also causes things like determination, spunk and ambition. How do you explain that? Tell me why a poor kid wouldn’t be able to achieve the same things as a rich kid if they were shown the way. Guess what, poor children develop differently because their parents don’t have the time or ability to sit down and read to them or play games that reinforce their learning. Why? Because they are working or worrying about how to pay the bills or they were never shown what they needed to learn themselves, that’s why. Put anyone in a house for eighteen years where no one has time to talk, let alone read and you will get the same result: some level of deficiency in that person’s ability to learn or take an interest in learning. Hell, half of us can’t think straight until we’ve had our morning coffee. What if you couldn’t afford to have coffee? Would that mean you were disabled? This study implies that poor kids were somehow born with a deficient brain. The reality is that parts of the brain may be under stimulated due to circumstances created by poverty. I’m no scientist, but I believe that there’s a big difference between the two.

I’m sorry, but I think the USA Today article is a bunch of bull. The people who did this study must be in league with the same people who created the performance indicator system that so many companies now use to measure their effectiveness. They enjoy making people pay attention to things that really never mattered and having them measure insignificant details. This takes your attention away from some of the bigger problems like where the money for the schools is actually going and why we can’t do more to work with students who need a little more attention. As always, inducing panic in the masses equals job security for the privileged few.

Until next time.

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Being catty does not a Catwoman make…

Though I had little to no interest in seeing the last Batman movie, The Dark Knight, I would like to weigh in on some recent discussion about the possible choices for the next Catwoman. I truly enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal of this character from way back in 1992’s Batman Returns. Although she isn’t one of my favorite actresses, I thought she did a great job with this role. I also thought that Halle Berry did the role justice in the 2004 Catwoman movie. But to say that Angelina Jolie would be “on the nose,” as Catwoman is just way off base.

For some reason, Jolie has become very popular. I don’t happen to like her, but that’s just my personal preference. It has nothing to do with whether or not she is a good actress. I do recall that I didn’t mind her much in her pre-Pitt days. For me, there’s just something about knowing too much about her personal life that taints any kind of screen presence she may have. She’s just too annoying for me to watch now. But this is another topic to be saved for a day when I’m feeling a bit more fiesty.

The point is that there are several other talented actresses out there who could easily play this role and that Jolie’s popularity should not be the only criteria used to choose. I agree that some possible candidates would include: Rosario Dawson, Rachel Weisz, and maybe even Katherine Heigl. I’m no expert on the subject, but I would just hate to see Jolie cast simply because she’s popular. For me, it would take the Batman series to a whole new level of icky.

Ok, I’ve said what I needed to say on the matter.

Until next time…

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What I’m Reading…

I find it hard to read just one book at a time…it’s kind of like the potato chip thing. I’ve always been big on information. If I see something that looks like it might contain valuable information, I have to pick it up and at least give it the once over. This week, I decided that I should share some of what I am reading with you. Just for fun.

First off, I picked up a copy of Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. Obviously, it was the title that caught me. This book has been tauted as “a no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous.” Fair enough. From what I have read so far, with chapters titled, “The Dead, Rotting Decomposing Flesh Diet, You Are What You Eat and Don’t Be a Pussy,” I can see that these ladies mean business. They provide alot of good information about how different foods can affect the body, including explanation of how sugar is made. This is good to know if you are one of those people who needs to know the whole truth about things before you can make up your mind. As someone who rarely drinks milk, I had to appreciate their words about dairy products. For years, I have worried that I’m not getting enough nutrients because I’m not drinking milk. As it turns out, the ladies say, “Bullshit.” I’m dying to read more, but alas, there are several other books in the stack calling out to me. I’ll have to bring you up to date on the rest of this one later.

I picked up The Lexicon of Stupidity by Ross and Kathryn Petras simply because I thought it might be funny. The book is a collection of quotes that are less than brilliant taken from the mouths of some of our most famous celebrities. I figured I would go straight to the ones that had to be the best…the politicians. Unfortunately, I didn’t find one there that I felt like sharing here. The one I found that was an unlikely candidate for being held up in the spotlight was this, “We were disturbed by the ridicule because death, especially to the person who has just experienced it, is not funny.” A spokesman for a National Funeral Director’s Association is responsible for this one. I guess he would be the expert.

Moving on through my list to a similar book, The 776 Even Stupider Things Ever Said by our friends, Ross and Kathryn Petras. They seem to be making a good living off of the ignorance of others. Why not? It is perhaps the only thing that is out there in overwhelming abundance. This book is more my style. My personal favorite is the quote by Bob Feller, Hall of Fame pitcher as he talks about the intentional lack of profanity in his autobiography, “You won’t find a single four-letter word in there, I don’t go for that bullshit.” You tell ’em, Bob. I like to hear the facts from both sides of the person’s mouth. As a former Human Resources professional, I could appreciate this one, “A review of your application indicates that you are not qualified because…you were not selected.” This was in an EEOC personnel memo in 1973. Cool. Just one more and I’m moving on to the next book. Being the nostaligic person that I am, I really enjoyed this one from Mike Ingham,an announcer on BBC-2 TV, “Thank you for evoking memories, particularly of days gone by.” I’m still scratching my head about this one.

The fourth catchy title that I picked up over the last few weeks is, 101 People Who Are Really Screwing America. This one by Jack Huberman intrigued me because I’m sure that there are thousands of people out there who are screwing America and I wondered how he could narrow it down to a sensible 101. In this book, Huberman provides the name of the “offender” and some details about how they are sticking it to America. For example, I was surprised to find country singer, Toby Keith on this list. Huberman says of the lyrics to Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, “Too much crowing ‘proud to be American’ only makes one ashamed to be American, Individual or nation, a braggart is a braggart.” Well, clearly, he would rather hide his light under a bushel. Sounds like his problem to me. I read on, hoping I might find an example of how I, as a non-bragging American might be getting screwed. Right behind Toby Keith was Joe Francis, the Girls Gone Wild guy. I thought to myself, well, maybe this one is valid. After all, I hate Girls Gone Wild and most things associated with it. I agree that this is blatant exploitation of women and that it needs to be stopped. Huberman states that this type of smut is “well-suited for the conservative Bush era” because it is basically R-rated porn and is slyly winding its way through our culture because it isn’t actual sex, just nudity and skanky behavior. I’m still not sure what Huberman’s stance on this one was and how it made it into the book. I am not exactly sure if he was against GGW or if he just wanted to point out that it is out there.

The last thing from this book that I want to share is Huberman’s inclusion of Dr. Laura Schlesinger. I’m not sure if he has listened to Dr. Laura’s show or if he just doesn’t like people who call themselves Dr. He states that she spends “three hours a day on nearly three hundred stations” making people feel stupid, sinful and utterly ashamed of themselves. I’m not sure that is Dr. Laura’s aim. My personal take on her show is that she is one of the few people out there who is not afraid to uphold values that used to be taught in every household and in church. There’s nothing candy-coated about Dr. Laura and that’s what I like about her. As a feminist and as someone who was raised as a Baptist, I have no problem listening to Dr. Laura’s views on marriage, life, and family. She’s as entitled to her opinion as anyone and I don’t think it hurts for people to be exposed to a little bit of conscience if they don’t already have one. Huberman seems to hate all things that point out that it is ok to be human and that it is ok to take responsibility for our actions. Although I have had lots to say about this book, I’m not sure I’ll finish reading it. I can only stand to be disgusted for a small portion of every day.

Well, I’ve taken what started out as a well-intentioned rant and turned it into a bitch-fest. On that note, I’ll give it a rest. Though I could go on for days, I figure I’ll give this time to sink in. Be on the lookout for the next edition of the Rona Shively newsletter. It’s coming soon.

Until next time…