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 highergroundbooksandmedia@gmail.com.

What I actually said was…

One thing I really hate is when a person reviews or otherwise gives you feedback about your book that doesn’t even match up with what happened in your story. Now, just to be clear, I don’t have any problem taking criticism. In fact, I like to know what I’m doing wrong so that I can improve. I can also recognize when someone is having a bad day or just being shitty. I can look past alot of things, but what I can’t excuse is when someone begins to dissect a story and it is painfully obvious that they didn’t really read it.

For example, I once heard from someone who had reviewed one of my books and in her e-mail to me, she said something about how she didn’t think readers would buy the fact that a teenage Rona Shively told her father about what she mistakenly perceived as her mother’s infidelity and that, as a result, he sent her packing. Well, the truth is, I don’t buy it either. I don’t buy it because that’s not what I wrote. What I actually wrote was that Rona, being a teenage girl, was very upset by seeing her mother with another man and she told her father what she had seen. Rona asked her father if she could move to Nevada to get away from her mother. Her father had been so heartbroken by the news about her mother that he had helped Rona get away from the situation by sending her to spend some time with a friend of the family. I think, for anyone who knows a dysfunctional family, this type of scenario doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Rona Shively is clearly the product of a family that has issues. Little by little, I’ve explained this throughout the series and I think it’s pretty easy to follow.

This person also said, “What PI would not have a laptop, and need to take one from the pool guy?” Well, in answer to that, I can only say, “Why ask me? That’s not really in my book.” What is in my book is that one of Rona’s clients paid her with a laptop because they didn’t have any money. The client had hired Rona to find out if his wife was cheating on him. Rona found that his wife was cheating on him with the pool guy. She didn’t take a laptop from a pool guy. Close, but not really. And it isn’t necessarily unheard of that a P.I. would not have a laptop. I’ve said that she isn’t necessarily the best detective in the world or even within a twenty-five mile radius of where she lives. She’s what I affectionately refer to as the P.I. who’s better than nothing. She’s not going to fit into anyone’s idea of what a P.I. should be, so, if she prefers to use the computer at the library to do her research, that’s her prerogative.

I point these things out just to illustrate some of the nit-picking that writers run into when they open themselves up to reviews. Yes, we all want to know how we have done. Yes, we would like to think we’ve done well. No, we’re not happy when someone points out the flaws in our work, but we deal with it. We fix it. We write it better the next time around. Well, that is, unless the criticism is based on something you didn’t actually write. Then we tend to wonder whether or not the person reviewing us is actually paying attention.

Surely, this incident is karmic payback for all of the papers I wrote in high school based on my understanding of classic novels I never actually read. Oops…I may have said too much there. In any case, I always tried to at least have the main points of the story clear before offering up any kind of analysis. It’s only fair that we at least be accurate in our criticisms if not tactful. If you can’t get through the reading, then say so. Don’t just make things up. I may forget things on a regular basis, but I remember most of what I write. I think.

Until next time…

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My 50th post…

What to say? What to say? Well, I guess I will go with more of the same. I’m still reading several books that I think you might find interesting. Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin is still holding my interest. It’s not that long of a book, but I tend to have limited pockets of time during which I can sit and read. Browsing through non-fiction books seems to work better for me than trying to read through the latest book by my favorite fiction writers. Luckily, there are audiobooks. Without these, I might never get to hear the latest Lisa Scottoline or Janet Evanovich stories.

Right now, I have several “browsing” books on hand. The first is called, Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In by Anahad O’Connor. O’Connor is the “Really?” columnist for The New York Times. If that prompts you to ask “Really?” then you’ve got bigger issues than I can help you with. Anyway, this book is about dispelling myths such as “Does the Spanish Fly really exist?” or “Does grilled meat cause cancer?” or the title question of “Do you risk electrocution if you shower during a thunderstorm?” Intriguing? Yes. I picked a few at random and here’s what I found:
The explanations given in this book are too involved for me to share here. I was going to dispell a few choice myths for you, but then decided that it really wouldn’t be cool for me to spill the beans. Sorry if I got your hopes up on this one. My advice would be that if you are really interested in things like this, it wouldn’t hurt to pick this one up. The book has tons of great statistics and so forth and would probably make a great gift for the inquisitive types on your Christmas list.

The second book I am looking at right now is called The Wish List by Barbara Ann Kipfer. I like this one because I am always looking for interesting things to want to do. Not necessarily to do, but just to want to do. It doesn’t hurt to keep your dreams fresh. For example, I know that I am not likely to find myself in a situation where I am swimming with dolphins. For one thing, I’m terrified of deep water and big fish. For another, I don’t trust them. Although they are built up to be this wonderful mammal (I guess) that wouldn’t harm a human being, I don’t trust any animal that can do the things that dolphins can do. Hell, I’m not even sure what they can do, but they kind of creep me out. In any case, this didn’t stop me from putting “swim with dolphins” on my list of things I might like to do at some point during my life. Kipfer’s list includes this and other crazy things like visiting all of the Major League Baseball stadiums in the U.S., tasting the native foods of every region on earth, and even flirting with Paul Newman. The book makes for interesting conversation with those around you and it gives you something to think about other than the usual lists of things you have to do to keep your household running. My new list, for example, includes learn how to read music, truly understand football instead of just watching in hopes of seeing a fight break out, and having dinner with three of my favorite men, Bob Barker, Richard Dawson and William Shatner. Can you imagine the conversation at this table? What a dream come true this would be! I might have to add James Garner to this list, too. After all, that’s what wish lists are for. If you get a chance, pick this little book up and carry it around with you. Wishing is good for the soul.

In my never-ending quest for knowledge, I have also stumbled upon several good books about organizing your home. I have so much crap that I work with on a daily basis that it is sometimes difficult for me to keep everything tidy. I found 1000 Best Quick and Easy Organizing Secrets by Jamie Novak to be very helpful. Novak is the founder of Clutterproofing products. This is trademarked, but I couldn’t figure out how to put the little symbol beside it, so I’ll just have to spell it out. In any case, the book gives an itemized list of things you can do to make each area of your home and your life a little more organized. I have been using some of these and I have to say, I’m impressed. Several of these have been very helpful and I’m only halfway through the list. If you are into organizing, check this one out!

As usual, I’m always looking for inspiration and I have a few standard passages that I like to read from time to time to keep me grounded. Cynthia Kersey’s book, Unstoppable has been a motivating force in my life since I found it years ago. I often pick this one up and read through it until I find the one that fits where I am in my journey. For today, I will share this poem:

Often your tasks will be many,
And more than you think you can do…
Often the road will be rugged
and the hills insurmountable, too…

But always remember, the hills ahead
are never as steep as they seem.
and with faith in your heart start upward
and climb ’til you reach your dream.

For nothing in life that is worthy
is ever too hard to achieve
if you have the faith to try it
and you have the faith to believe

For faith is a force that is greater
than knowledge or power or skill
and many defeats turn to triumph
if you trust in god’s wisdom and will…

For faith is a mover of mountains.
There’s nothing that god cannot do.
So start out today with faith in your heart
and climb ’til your dream comes true!

Helen Steiner Rice
Climb ‘Til Your Dream Comes True

If that doesn’t motivate you, try a couple more cups of coffee and check back with me later. Try to have a good day and possibly, a good week. Until next time…