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September 11, 2018
(In honor of the super-fun LIAR'S PANEL I was on in Bouchercon this past weekend, I'm reposting this April 2017 Easter story, every word of it true.)
Something bizarre happened to me yesterday. It was so strange that I haven't been able to fully process it even 24 hours later. It involved an impossible feat of physics, coincidence, and a brutal exercise in perspective. See this picture of my car's grill, noting the 2" x 4" openings in it? Hang onto that image because it is pivotal to this story.
But first, I need to tell you that it's been a difficult few weeks. The end of March, my sister announced that she and her partner of 17+ years are divorcing. He's a good guy. We love him, and of course we love her. My nieces are grown, but this still affects them. These sorts of lifequakes stir up unresolved family issues and arguments, too, at least they do in mine.
On top of that, my writing retreat business folded before it even got started. After five months of working like mad dogs with only a handful of sign-ups, in early April my partner Allison and I decided this is not the business for us. It was good to step away, but the whole experience is failure-scented.
Finally, my first and probably only nonfiction book releases in two short weeks. In it, I step out from behind the cloak of fiction to share how I turn my life into stories. I LIKE THE CLOAK OF FICTION. That's why I write novels and not memoirs, for the love of Pete. But the fact-to-fiction process has been so transformative for me, so healing and so much the seeds of great writing, that I can't keep it to myself. Sharing it is the right thing to do, just like the TEDx Talk was the right thing to do, but I've still felt like a naked freeway turtle for weeks now, that sensation growing stronger as my May 1 release date approaches.
So yeah. I've been on edge lately, pessimistic, overwhelmed, looking forward to something just around the corner that'll make me happy, promising myself life'll get better soon. (That's what's referred to as Minnesota optimism. You can put up with really cold winters if you spend your time thinking about summer.)
That's a recap of my recent life up until yesterday, which is where the weirdness begins. I was traveling the 3.5 hours south from my in-laws to my parents. I was driving fast, but not too fast. My mind wandered as I drove. I unraveled the guilt I felt for not spending the previous day with my kids, with Z only home from college for three days and X stressed from all the family changes. I worked through plot holes in Mercy's Chase, the next thriller in my Salem's Cipher series. I daydreamed about the honeymoon Tony and I would finally take when we saved enough money and carved out enough time.
I was mostly feeling relaxed when I crested that hill and discovered...a flock of pheasants sitting on the road, in my path. I gasped. A car was coming toward me and the ditch to my right was steep. I had to stay in my lane. I slammed on my brakes, but it was too late.
Have you ever hit an animal with your car? It's one of the top five worst sounds in the world. It's visceral. It's hollow and solid and feathers and bone. It's pain and you created it. I sucked in my breath and my eyes shot to my rearview mirror. I grew up in the country and knew the rules: you didn't leave an animal to suffer. Please be dead please be dead please be dead. Except...I didn't see a carcass in the rearview mirror. My stomach dropped. The pheasant must be hung up somewhere on my vehicle. I drove a few hundred feet and parked on the shoulder, scanning the ditch for sticks. I was almost in tears because if I had to remove that poor creature from my car and then put it out of its misery with my bare hands...well, I couldn't think about that.
And for one sweet minute, I didn't have to. When I stepped out of my car and walked on trembly legs around to the front, I saw no bird. No feathers. No sign of an accident. I dropped to all fours. The pheasant wasn't under my car, either. I stood, glancing all around. I felt a little dizzy. No way way had I imagined this. I leaned against my car to catch my balance.
That's when the flapping began. The pheasant was trapped behind my grill.
Like some rural David Copperfield, that bird had squeezed his chicken-sized body through one of my grill's 4" x 2" openings while the car was traveling at 60 mph. Not possible. (Let me share the photo again here so you can see how impossible this was.) There was no way a pheasant was trapped inside of my car looking at me through my grill like my own personal zoo creature. Except that it was happening. I popped my hood, felt the seams along every inch of that grill, scoured the tire wheels and underbody, looked for any other possible explanation, but there wasn't one. The speed and angle must have been freakishly perfect.
Here's something they don't cover in driver's ed: what do you do when you find yourself on a lonely country road with a huge wild bird magically trapped in an inaccessible part of your vehicle? You get in the car and start driving, that's what. And then you call your husband who is 40 miles behind and to the east of you and has no suggestions off the top of his head but to be fair this was new territory for both of us. We agreed to meet 25 miles south where his road and mine converged. It seemed like a solid plan until I'd driven all of two miles and started crying. That poor bird. It must have been terrified. I couldn't drive slower because then he'd be there longer, but I couldn't drive faster because the radiator would heat up faster. I was torturing this creature.
When I smelled burning feathers, I thought, That is the unluckiest bird in the world.
I couldn't keep driving for another 23 miles, not with that poor animal suffering. There was a closer town straight east. Going there meant I'd miss Easter dinner for sure, but I couldn't keep this up. Ten minutes later, I found myself pulling into a gas station, wondering if I should park with my pheasant facing or away from the store. I decided on facing. He flapped when I walked by.
Inside the gas station, I spotted a couple farmers talking. "Hey," I said, "I've got an odd situation and I'm hoping you can help?"
They gamely followed me outside, and in true Midwestern fashion, did not lose one ounce of their cool. "Well I'll be damned. That's a full-grown rooster you've got in there." They chuckled. They told me maybe I'd have pheasant for dinner. They looked every which on my car and came to the same conclusion as me: the only way in was through the grill, and the only way out was by dismantling the front bumper. I didn't have the tools. They didn't either. They pointed me toward the police department. The situation could've only grown more surreal if one of them had taken to the air himself.
At the police station, Officer Jeff didn't bat an eye when I told him I had something weird to show him--you guys, you really do need to visit Minnesota--and as soon as he laid eyes on the pheasant, he jogged back inside to grab a pair of gloves, some tools, and spent the next 20 minutes wordlessly removing my bumper. The longest sentence he strung together came after I asked him what we'd do when we got that poor bird out. I was not looking forward to seeing the shape he'd be in. He was surely broken every which way but Wednesday.
I wanted the officer to tell me that he'd take care of the bird. Instead he said, "Hopefully, it'll fly away."
Officer Jeff, for all of his quiet capability, was clearly a dreamer.
The top seal of the bumper was finally off. Jeff directed me to pull the lip of it forward and down, keeping out of sight because if that pheasant had one ounce of sanity left, he was going to hide from humans. I was still 99% sure that bird was never coming out and that I'd have to sell my car when a big pile of pheasant poop dropped near my feet, I heard a glorious mad fluttering, and that bird took off. Like, IT FLEW, low and wide, that graceful path that only a male pheasant can fly, most of his gorgeous tail feathers still intact. He disappeared over a hill into the nearby woods. I let the bumper slam back, ignoring the deep indents its left in my fingers. Jeff and I were standing side by side, watching the pheasant fly.
"It's an Easter miracle," I finally said. We both laughed.
He reassembled my bumper. Just another day at work for him. I thanked him profusely. Tony pulled up four minutes later and hugged me. There were a couple of those soft poofy underfeathers up by my engine, but no other evidence. We slid into our cars and drove to my mom and dad's, where everyone had waited to eat until we arrived. The food was cold, the company good, and I couldn't stop thinking about that bird. He'd survived a collision with a car at 60 mph, had broken no bones as he slid through the tiniest of holes, and avoided being cooked alive on the radiator as we'd driven another 13 miles.
He was the luckiest bird in the world.
I'd thought the exact opposite when I'd hit him. I know life is about perspective, but it's a hard truth to remember. Thanks to the pheasant, though, there was no missing it yesterday, and I began to realign my own perspectives accordingly. My family shake-up sucks right now. It really does, but it's an opportunity for my family to clean out some calcified garbage. I lost $5000 and hundreds of hours trying to start that retreat business, but in the process, I remembered that I'm on this earth to be writing, not travel-agenting and marketing.
More importantly? I realized that I've been living my life in the future for years now, waiting for the money and the time to finally enjoy myself. The time is now, always, and it was worth $5000 and hundreds of hours to learn that (I hope it's cheaper next time I have to re-learn that, which'll probably be in a few weeks). Also, thanks to that damn pheasant, I booked two trips yesterday, one of them my honeymoon, a year after my wedding. Yay! And finally, my book, Rewrite Your Life, my super-personal how-to guide that comes out May 1? Well, as my friend Aimee wisely said, for good or bad it's no longer my book. It now belongs to whoever reads it. I hope it brings them what they're looking for.
I'm smiling as I type this. I'm the luckiest bird in the world.
p.s. If you ever have a ridiculously weird crisis that need judgment-free help with, I can't recommend the Pelican Rapids police station highly enough. Ask for Officer Jeff.
September 2, 2018
The Lourey-Baker Doublebooked blog tour is stopping here! Read on as I interview and am interviewed by Shannon Baker, author of the recently-released BITTER RAIN. If you like strong female characters (and who doesn't?!?), you're gonna love Shannon's writing.
Shannon: Jess, we’ve been bopping around the internets on our Double-Booked Tour talking about all kinds of things, but we haven’t really talked about our new books. So, tell me the quick lowdown about MERCY'S CHASE.
Jess: Thanks for asking, lady! In this sequel to SALEM'S CIPHER, out September 8, FBI cryptanalyst Salem Wiley is sent to London, where she discovers that Stonehenge is actually an ancient code that holds the secret to the greatest feminine mystery of all time. Woot! Tell me something about BITTER RAIN, the latest in your engrossing Kate Fox mysteries.
Shannon: In BITTER RAIN, Kate investigates the disappearance of her deputy’s younger sister, bringing all kinds of feelings of loss and worry over Kate’s own missing niece. Of course, there’s Kate’s meddling family to contend with and all the quirky characters that populate her Sandhill’s home.
I love the Nebraska Sandhills and since it’s a unique place, I like to write about aspects of it most people wouldn’t know. I can’t remember what got me thinking about the town of White Clay (Dry Creek in Bitter Rain) but I was horrified to find out this town with the population of 12 people sells 4 million cans of beer annually. It is located two miles from the dry reservation of Pine Ridge and is purveyor of so much tragedy.
The Kate Fox books contain a fair amount of humor, so writing about someplace so bleak was challenging since I didn’t want the book to be something readers wouldn’t expect. But life is always like that, isn’t it? We laugh, we cry, we feel loss and celebrate victory, sometimes simultaneously. Wow, that’s pretty deep for me. I think I need a nap.
Jess, you did some interesting research involving travel for MERCY'S CHASE. Tell us about that.
Jess: Between you, me, and the world wide web, I planned my honeymoon around researching the book. My husband, Tony, and I booked a small-group tour inside Stonehenge, rodeup in the London Eye, toured Parliament, touched down in Scotland, and explored Wicklow County and St. Brigid’s Cathedral in Ireland. It all went into the book!
Here I am inside of Stonehenge:
A real challenge in writing MERCY'S CHASE was continuing to advance Salem’s character. In the first book, she went from agoraphobic computer genius to FBI cryptanalyst. Getting her to cross the pond in MERCY'S CHASE took some finessing, but I think it set her on a path that will allow for many books to come. Can you tell me about Kate’s character arc?
Shannon: The Kate Fox series is the first time I ever planned for several books. I set Kate up with lots of brothers and sisters thinking I could have them all involved in some adventure in different books. But Kate is growing and changing with each book and I’m enjoying her journey.
Unlike some of my earlier protagonists, Kate is headstrong and pretty solid in who she is. But she faces challenges and needs to find her way. In Stripped Bare, she loses everything she’d built her life and future around and needs to find other avenues of opportunity. In Dark Signal she’s figured out how to get some traction under her wheels. And in Bitter Rain she’s making a place for herself and thinking about where she wants to go. The next book will involve Kate’s search for her niece and will take Kate out of her familiar setting to navigate the bright lights of the city.
Jess, what’s next on the horizon for you? Indie pubbing? New books?
Jess: I have a book of my heart out on submission. It crunches two timelines: that of the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, which happened in 1989 just up the road from where I grew up, and two weeks of my life when I was 12, which would have been 1982. Please send positive publishing thoughts for that one! Then, the plan is to write APRIL FOOLS, the last in the Mira James Mysteries, before...I don’t know what. What should I write next??? What are you writing next?
Shannon: It’s a whole new publishing world out there full of opportunity and sinkholes. I’m thrilled and terrified at the same time. I’ve thrown chips into the indie pub basket with writing steamy romance and now with BITTER RAIN.
I wrote a book I’m proud of but was a totally different direction for me, and sadly, it didn’t tickle the enthusiasm of the New York houses. I’ve got another suspense plotted and would like to get after that, but there’s a Kate book calling, and this romance gig. So, as I write this, I’m really a fart in a skillet, trying to figure out my direction.
Please, in the comments section below, let Jess and Shannon know what you’d like to see from them next, and ground these two skillet farts. All comments will automatically enter you to win a signed copy of BITTER RAIN or MERCY'S CHASE!
Sign up for Shannon's or Jess' newsletter for another chance to win, and to automatically receive a Kate short story from Shannon and MAY DAY from Jess. You can also find out more about Shannon on her website. Finally, read the blog post right before this one to find out our next (and previous) tour stops! There's laughter, cocktails, and writing insight at each stop along with more chances to win.
August 9, 2018
Join Shannon Baker and me for laughs, free book giveaways, and WISDOM on our Third Annual Double-booked Blog Tour!
August 3-September 26, 2018
August 3: "Better as a Duet" on Career Authors
August 23: "Two Middle-aged Introverts Write a Sex Scene" on Criminal Minds
August 26: "Write What You Fear" on Writer Unboxed
August 27: "The Five Stages of Author Grief" on BOLO Books
August 29: "Tools and Tricks that Changed the Game" on Femmes Fatales
August 31: "Write a Great Scene" on Fiction University
September 2: “Author Interview” here, on my own blog!
September 4: "The Unexpected Places Authors Get Their Ideas" on Wicked Cozy Authors
September 8: "A Day in the Life of Our Characters" on Dru’s Book Musings
September 11: "Your Theme Is Your Brand" on Write Now! Coach
September 13: "Most Embarrassing Author Moment" on Jungle Red Writers
September 15: "Create an Author Persona" on The Creative Penn