Sunday, October 30, 2016


I’ve always known how my books will end.  Begin with a character or two, get them in trouble, get them out of trouble, or changed, and end with most everybody as happy as flawed humans can be.  If I have a bad guy, he’s dead or redeemed.  I know my protagonist and antagonist well; I keep their biographies beside my computer and sometimes these folks get a little angrier or sexier or more understanding than I had planned.  So do my real friends as I get to know them better.

However, with this new story, I decided to “let the characters lead me,” as some novelists claim happens and they have led me to Google, dozens of times, because they keep developing in ways I hadn’t anticipated. The book starts with a depressed woman failing at committing suicide. Her son saves her. A new neighbor who is black becomes her friend, a hedge between their houses becomes a metaphor, the husbands of the women are war-damaged men, their children have/are problems.  When I started, this began as a look at depression, a symptom of a number of women, including myself at times. 

In order to follow my characters, every time I sit down (and I’m at 40,000 words), I find myself going to Google. The setting is just after the VietNam war ends. My Google searches are to determine if what I’m writing is anachronistic, since I had young children at that time and did not do much except go to their hockey games and warn them that TV would make them blind and popular music deaf.

So far, my list of searches includes slang terms for Asians, Elvis Presley, antibiotics, weapons used in the Korean and Viet Nam wars, disposable diapers, autism, Down syndrome, grenade blasts, battle fatigue/shell shock/PTSD, how the vas deferens are surgically, and by war injuries, severed, (U tube has a video I couldn’t stop looking at), drug treatment centers, the VA hospital,  Dagwood, Laverne and Shirley (which seems funny even forty years later),  Legos, DNA,  Goodwill sheltered workshops, group homes, state institution, pancreatic cancer, divorce in the 70’s, Ed Sullivan, and more, including hedge trimming.

If nothing else, I have been educated by this study of the Seventies, a decade I don’t really remember. I have recovered some dim pieces of my past and I now know when Presley died and the year our soldiers were airlifted out of Saigon, the first use of DNA. My book is trying to get itself to a climax and a conclusion, and Google and I are struggling to help it get there. As I said, I still don’t know what that will be, but I’m enjoying the trip. Here is the first paragraph of what I’m calling right now, You’ve Come to the Right Place.”
I close my eyes, my lips. Only my nostrils move as they take in what air is left. Soon, I think. Plastic film pulls taut against my nose. Now, I think.

A scream slices through the soothing fog, makes me open my eyes. “Mom!  Mom!”

I am rolled over. Cool air floods across my face. Not now, I mourn. “You weren’t supposed to come home until five.”

            I watch my son’s face crunch into its usual confusion. “We finished early. Why are you lying down on the grass?” I feel his arm slip under my neck as I struggle to sit up. “Why did you put on this grocery bag?” 

            My head on his shoulder, I smell the sweat his anxiety has stirred up.

Jo Barney Writes

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


I haven’t posted for a while. It seemed a little egocentric to discuss my small joys and pains, affecting no one but me, when the whole country is in pain with few joys in which to take take solace.  I even spent one complete day in bed, reading what is probably a very funny book and feeling a spark or two of gratitude to the author for his attempts to pull me out of the doldrums.  But I got up at dinnertime, turned on the news and discovered I was still slogging in them.

Do we all feel this way during this election month?  That our country is in for a tough few years no matter who wins—and not necessarily because of who wins, but because of our inability listen to each other? 

In the story I’m trying to write now, because I have a character who is an alcoholic, I’ve talked with people personally involved in AA and have researched Alcoholic Anonymous programs.  My character is a damaged drunk, a poor husband, a negligent father , an irresponsible worker, and he likes it that way.  AA advises that not until a disaster strikes him will he realize that he has hit rock bottom and there’s nowhere else to go––except, possibly, up.

This may be the point at which Jack, my character, will seek help, from a rehab facility, from a counselor, and from his wife if she is still around.  I don’t know yet.  My plots evolve as I write, and often times have redemptive endings, so I’m hopeful about Jack’s future. If he turns his life around, it will be because he decides to make difficult choices.  No one can force him to change, not even his weeping wife. I do not know how Jack’s story will end.

Just as I, and we, do not know what will happen next in our stymied, ineffective, damaged federal government.  Perhaps we as a people have to hit bottom before we decide to make choices that will make change possible. I’m not talking about political parties.  I’m talking about our learning to listen, as individuals, to the geographical, philosophical, ethnic, rich and poor, young and old strangers who make up our country–and to paraphrase a familiar set of words, who can make America strong again. 


Jo Barney Writes