Update: I’m no longer at home alone. In fact, as you’re reading this, whenever it is, I’m surrounded by my loyal Dobermans and protected my advanced security system that uses facial recognition software to identify you from a mile away.
Who doesn’t love Forensic Files?
I’ve watched it, in one iteration or another, on one channel or another, for most of my life. Sometimes I forget it’s there, specifically in the era of Netflix and the ID Channel and My Favorite Murder and endless reruns of Law & Order: SVU. But then, flipping channels idly on a Friday night when my husband is out of town and all my friends have better, more interesting things to do (that presumably don’t include watching decades-old, sometimes cheesy reenactments of crimes)—I discovered it again.
It might not be the best idea to watch true crime when alone at night—a thought I’ve had remarkably often throughout the years when I find myself doing just that.
And yet, I’ve set the house alarm. My 8-lb. rat terrier with the surprisingly vicious bark is at the window, surveying the street for me. I’m wearing comfortable clothes and—even though I’m lounging on the chaise—a pair of running shoes, because should something happen, I’m going to be ready. My phone is charged and within arm’s reach. I know what I would use as a weapon should someone appear in the window.
And, honestly? I probably have Forensic Files to thank for all this preparation.
I complain a lot about being alone at night, even though it happens rarely. I don’t sleep well, I don’t like being the sole person responsible for letting the beagle with the small bladder out one last time late at night, I don’t like that I have to sleep with the light in the other room on just in case.
But still, there’s something nice about doing one’s own thing, whatever that is. Stretching out just one more day between showers. Wearing the same sweatpants as yesterday. Getting up and dancing during commercials (which conveniently happen every four minutes or so on FF.)
So I’ve decided to spend the night toggling between books. (Surprise!) I’m reading Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, which is somewhat blowing my mind, and rereading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a book I’m teaching this spring—both of which are arguably true crime. And in the background is the calm narration of Forensic Files, where no matter how badly things are going, voices are never raised.
You see, there’s always a person in control of the narrative—sometimes a detective in a suitcoat and tie, sometimes a lab technician, talking about the science.
It’s very relaxing.
When I’m home alone, I’m more annoyed by the presence of my neighbors. Or maybe it’s just that I’m more aware of them, three houses away, gathered on their porch at the tail end of one of the warmest days in months. They don’t so much talk to each other as stand very close and yell things at each other. In all the years they’ve lived there—five? No, it must be more—I’ve never had a single conversation with them. I’ve called Animal Control on their dogs, which occasionally escape, run loose, and try to bite people biking past. I’ve called the police department about their weapons-grade fireworks, which are deployed randomly anytime between the middle of June and the end of July, and then again in the week surrounding New Year’s Eve.
Once, the female resident took a tire iron to her boyfriend’s Camaro, smashing the windows and denting the doors and hood. I was sorry to have missed that (it was reported to me excitedly by another neighbor), but the evidence was there for weeks—the crumpled and sad-looking Camaro parked at their curb, before it (and apparently the relationship) could be patched up.
So now I wonder, Forensic Files on mute, the neighbors’ voices rising to the level of what could be an argument, whether I should fear these neighbors who don’t even make eye contact me when I pass a few times each day, or whether I should thank them—is it possible their volatility is somehow keeping other criminals at bay?
There was a time, years ago, when our house was broken into—two doors busted through, two laptops stolen (one containing sixty pages of novel-writing that had not been backed up…), one beagle left cowering under the table when the alarm began to shriek.
Worse, in my mind at least, was realizing that I’d talked to the thieves the day before, when they were in the backyard of the house next to mine, a house that was currently on the market and was frequently trafficked by realtors and prospective buyers. My beagle, hearing their voices, bayed at the fence. I got him by the collar and dragged him inside, apologizing to the soon-to-be-thieves, and then I got in my car and drove away. The next day, at exactly the same time, our house was broken into.
The beauty of Forensic Files—which is also the beauty of the ID Channel, and true crime blogs—is that you don’t get to be naïve. You don’t get to sit comfortably in your home at night. You don’t walk casually down the street even in broad daylight, even on your own street. Instead, you’re a hawk. What was that sound? Just the neighbors yelling or something else? Why did the motion sensor light in the backyard go off—a cat, a Peeping Tom? Why is that dude sitting in his car across the street? And--shit--did he see me looking out the window at him?
I have friends who are very dear and lovely people who don’t get it at all, this true crime obsession. They are relatively unimpressed with my knowledge of forensic science--yo, let’s get his DNA from that cup he tossed in the trash, I literally think every time I’m at Starbucks—and are puzzled by what might look like paranoia, but feels quite reassuring to me.
It’s better to know what’s out there, isn’t it? Or at least, it’s better on nights like these.
Eventually, the neighbors go inside to yell at each other, the dude in the car across the street drives away, and a new episode of Forensic Files starts—this time the woman appears to have poisoned (I suspect the husband from the second sentence), and look, now there’s a whole other thing to worry about.
For 2018, I set myself a reading goal, tracked by Goodreads to keep me accountable: 65 books.
Maybe I aimed too low, or maybe I listened to a whole lot of audiobooks on my commute or while I was weeding in the backyard or during the four weeks I spent with my leg elevated and in a giant brace from my crotch to my ankle, but my grand total for 2018 is 103 books.
Not saying this is some kind of record—I follow people on Goodreads who seem to read a book or two a day, and THIS IS THE LIFE I ASPIRE TO, but it was a lot for me.
(Also, I set myself a goal to read more non-fiction, and there are 23 non-fiction books on this list—not bad. I put an asterisk next to those titles.)
So what did I read in 2018? Fortunately, due to the magic of the internets, I have a complete list (presented here in reverse chronological order with annotations).
Currently reading: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren and The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
103. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsey
102. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (My second read, after The Nightingale, by KH and I’m convinced she’s just a darn good storyteller.)
101. Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell (I’ll read anything she writes.)
100. Visitation Street by Ivy Pochada
99. The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
98. The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson
97. The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine
96. Cut and Run by Mary Burton
95. In-Between Days by Andrew Porter
94. November Road by Lou Berney (I have a writer crush on Lou Berney. Shhh.)
92. The Sixth Extinction* by Elizabeth Kolbert
91. The Good Goodbye by Carla Buckley (Gripping—a surprise for me.)
90. Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
89. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (A family on the brink of Katrina. Heartbreaking.)
88. A Death in the Small Hours by Charles Finch
87. True Crime Addict* by James Renne (File under: A cautionary tale.)
86. Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid
85. Half Moon Bay by Alice LaPlante
84. A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler (Historical fiction from the author of one of my favorite historical fictions ever, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.)
83. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
82. Blind Your Ponies by Stanley Gordon West (Please immediately buy this for all the sports-loving or small-town loving—or both—people in your life. Thank you.)
81. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily J. Danforth (Recommended by a friend who grew up in Miles City. Such a good story.)
80. The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes
79. Her Secret Son by Hannah Mary McKinnon (Coming soon! Don’t miss this one.)
78. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (I somehow don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but this had me captivated from the first page.)
77. A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes
76. What I Was by Meg Rosoff (Brief but devastating coming of age book.)
75. Trust Me by Hank Philippi Ryan
74. The Third Wife by Lisa Jewell
73. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (And now I know why that’s a classic.)
72. Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Omg. Loved it.)
71. Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers (One of my all-time favorite books is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by CM.)
70. Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris
69. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal (A surprise hit for me. Charming.)
68. Providence by Caroline Kepnes (Love Lovecraft? This is for you.)
67. Black Water by Louise Doughty
66. Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (What if we didn’t think of Hemingway’s wives as Hemingway’s wives, but recognized them for their own accomplishments? Martha Gelhorn was an amazing woman.)
65. Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
64. Everything that Follows by Meg Little Reilly
63. Sin & Syntax* by Constance Hale (If you love a good grammar joke, this is for you.)
62. Three Days Missing by Kimberly Belle (Intense thriller, well-developed characters.)
61. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Powerful in every way.)
60. An Excess Male by Maggie Shen King (Gets the originality award, for sure. In a China where the one-child policy has created a nation of excess males, women take on multiple husbands.)
59. Educated* by Tara Westover (Like the rest of the world, I recommend this one.)
58. After the Eclipse: A Mother’s Murder, a Daughter’s Search* by Sarah Perry
57. Killers of the Flower Moon* by David Grann (Just… wow. Revealed a segment of American history of which I have been completely ignorant, and I thought I was aware of how horribly we treated native people.)
56. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
55. Tracks* by Robyn Davidson
54. The Search for the Green River Killer* by Carlton Smith
53. The Murder Stone by Louise Penny (Depending on who you ask, I either stole this book from a charming hotel in Wales or I traded one of my husband’s books for it. Ultimately unimportant. Another winner from Louise Penny!)
52. Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson (I bought this at a little shop in Reykjavik. Made me glad I wasn’t visiting in the winter.)
51. This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel (Just do yourself a favor and read it.)
50. Ohio by Stephen Markley (Fantastic characterization, somewhat depressing. As an Ohio native, I had to tune in.)
49. Evicted* by Matthew Desmond (I ended up respecting the heck of out of this book and the research that went into it, and I’m teaching it this semester, too.)
48. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
47. Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent (Love a messed-up family and things buried in the backyard? This is your story!)
46. A Burial at Sea by Charles Finch (I remember that I listened to this whilst painting my hallway. It’s a lovely shade of gray.)
45. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
44. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Late to the party on this one, but I enjoyed it.)
43. The Hemingses of Monticello* by Annette Gordon-Reed (It literally took me months to read this book, especially because I kept going to the footnotes and then to lesser scholarly sources like Wikipedia to get more.)
42. The Rules Do Not Apply* by Ariel Levy
41. A Stranger in Mayfair by Charles Finch
40. Not that I Could Tell by Jessica Strawser
39. Every Note Played by Lisa Genova (Powerful look at living with/caring for a person with ALS.)
38. Dispatches from Pluto* by Richard Grant (There was a moment in this book when the author and his girlfriend are spending their first night in their new/old house miles from anything on the Mississippi delta where this was a legit nightmare.)
37. Birds of Wonder by Cynthia Robinson
36. The Brightest Sun by Adrienne Benson
35. Tangerine by Christina Mangan (Worth the hype? I say yes.)
34. The Ice House by Laura Lee Smith (I’m calling this the most surprising book on my list, because I actually picked it up and abandoned it for some time before giving it another go, and oh. That characterization. It’s so good.)
33. The Fleet Street Murders by Charles Finch
32. Men We Reaped* by Jesmyn Ward (Holy heartbreak. What in the world are we doing to our young black men?)
31. Beautifully Cruel* by M. Williams Phelps
30. My Name is Venus Black by Heather Lloyd
29. I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiaschi (I was mad at the narrator for the first 85% of the book, and then thought the whole thing was genius.)
28. Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown. (Just a damn good story. Brown did an amazing job with the setting here, and at the end, I felt like I knew this place like the back of my hand.)
27. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark* by Michelle McNamara (Hands down the most anticipated book of the year for me, and one that sent me down an online rabbit hole to find everything I could about the East Area Rapist who by the way was caught shortly after this book’s release.)
26. Nomadland* by Jessica Bruder (Fascinating and horrifying. Note to self: start putting more money toward retirement. Also: Don’t get sick. Don’t lose home. Don’t work for Amazon.)
25. A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch
24. The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian (So good. Bohjalian’s morally compromised narrator had me cringing at times, but in a good way. Not sure how that makes sense… so just go ahead and read the book.)
23. The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin (I like my medical dramas with smart and successful women, and if you do, too, here’s your book.)
22. Girl at the End of the World* by Elizabeth Esther
21. The Partly Cloudy Patriot* by Sarah Vowell
20. The Woman in the Water by Charles Finch
19. Rust & Stardust by T. Greenwood (Did you know Lolita was based on a true story? Wowza.)
18. The Michigan Murders* by Edward Keyes (The cover of this book is the most ridiculous thing ever, and for an unknown reason the author changed the name of real people including the murderer, which can clearly be googled… but I was still hooked on the story.)
17. The September Society by Charles Finch (Love affair with Charles Finch/Charles Lennox, MP and detective, began in 2018 and will continue in 2019.)
16. Far From the Tree by Robin Benway (Young adult! I loved it.)
15. Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski
14. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (So good.)
13. Man’s Search for Meaning* by Viktor E. Frankel
12. Force of Nature by Jane Harper (A disappointment for me after The Dry, but rooting for #3.)
11. Just Mercy* by Bryan Stevenson (Want to get really mad? Read this book. Have a friend who thinks racism is dead? Buy her this book.)
10. Elmet by Fiona Mozley
9. Dare Me by Megan Abbott (Wowza.)
8. Population 485* by Michael Perry (A couple friends of mine have recommended Perry for years, and I’m a slug for not getting to him sooner. Small town but universal, quirky and big-hearted.)
7. Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates (Disturbing. Good.)
6. Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?* by Jeannette Winterson
5. The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir* by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (This book was everything. Is it weird that it reminded me of a true crime podcast? Or that I hold true crime podcasts to the standard of TFOAB?)
4. Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
3. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
2. The Dry by Jane Harper. (OMG. Loved this. Lent it to Mom & sis immediately afterwards.)
1. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. (This was the first time I’d read anything by TJR, and boy did I fall hard. I read another later in 2018, and have an ARC of Daisy Jones and the Six in the hopper.)
It was a little rough going last night. I had a hard time with the rereading/editing. The prose is much more refined here, the dialogue sharper, but the things that nagged at me were big things: too repetitive, too unlikeable, and I found myself bogged down in those adjustments.
Which is okay—I tell myself today, looking at things more objectively, out of the moment. This is the work that needs to be done. And if it was slow-going and I didn’t accomplish everything I planned, so what? This writing retreat gets to be whatever it wants to be.
I wrote until about 10 a.m., then decided to take a shower, just to clear my head more than anything else. I don’t intend to set foot outside again until checkout time tomorrow at 11 a.m., so it’s not like anyone will see me.
And then, in the shower, it hit me.
It was just a line: It began with… and suddenly I was rewriting the whole first section of the book in my head. All those parts that nagged at me, those well-articulated but somehow wooden scenes. They needed to be condensed, written almost like microfiction—four short, snappy vignettes.
There was no time to blow dry my hair. I put back on the clothes I had just shucked off and ran into the other room for my laptop. It began with Simon’s headache…
The result, two hours later, was the kind of math that might make sense to no one but a writer. I condensed thirty-nine pages of prose into six pages and the result is a very little sort of miracle. The story starts sooner, doesn’t get bogged down in scenes that contain one flashback after another. Basically, the introduction gets out of the way in service of the story. And even though the new beginning needs a close editing eye and a few select details may need to creep back in—it’s good.
It’s funny—this piece nagged at me for a long time. And it was the opening part of the book, so I saw it every time I double-clicked on the file. I’d workshopped the opening with my writing group, did a sort of beta-test on some unsuspecting readers, sent it to my agent, and even though it felt like there wasn’t much enthusiasm, I didn’t get a specific sense of what was wrong.
Now I know.
It just needed to be scrapped.
At 1:32 p.m., the rain started. And how.
And for some reason, this made me horribly homesick. Three days is a good amount of time for me—four days without much contact with the rest of the world is a bit too much. How did Annie Dillard do all that time in the cabin, with nothing but Rimbaud and a dying moth? I text Will, who reports that he has picked up our dogs from their spa stay with my parents. (They tend to get a little spoiled there, what with all the dog walking and lap-sitting and ball-throwing.) They’re at home now, the three of them, and I’m still here, and it’s raining, and dammit, I just have to do this.
Rewritten, revised opening chapters—13,545 words.
One more morning, and it’s back to real life.
I went to sleep around 11, ignored my alarm at 6 and slept all the way to 7 o’clock. This is more sleep than I’ve had in a single go since… ever. The bed isn’t amazingly comfortable, so all I can figure is, it’s the break in routine. It’s literally not having anything else to do (no dogs to walk, no laundry to start, no dishes from the night before to half-heartedly rinse and cram into the dishwasher. No freaking responses to grade). For the most part I’ve been avoiding social media, and other than the odd text here and there from my husband, friends have known to stay away.
This is the beauty of the writing retreat.
By the time I was on my feet, my brain was telling me it was WAY TOO LATE in the day to have not had caffeine, and so I wrangled with the coffee pot, which is like a Keurig but a different brand, for a good fifteen minutes. The first cup came out with a smear of grounds, so I disassembled the whole thing, rinsed every part in the sink and started over. Some previous Air BnB guest apparently thought the grounds needed to be poured into the water canister. The second cup: drinkable. The third: back on solid ground.
And ready to go.
I’ve got to write the third of Jolene’s new scenes (which upon thinking this through as I held the coffee maker under the tap, is probably two scenes, with one large time jump).
Traditional wedding vows
Hit music from the early 90s
Carseat laws 1990
Synonyms for “devastating”
1:57. Think I finally finished with Jolene’s scenes, in first draft form. Word count total for the last 21 hours: 8500.
My brain feels a little fried.
I’ve been trying to get up after every 1,000 words and take 1,000 steps, so right now I’m at 4K steps. Haven’t left the house yet. There’s not really a need, except fresh air, etc. It’s a good thing I stopped worrying about what others thought about me, because I’m sure with the shades drawn and the lack of movement, my hosts think I’m pretty weird.
Also weird: There’s no trash can here, except for a tiny one in the bathroom meant to hold Q-tips and a very decorative canister by the font door that is possibly an umbrella holder, and neither seems like a good place for my coffee grounds and on-the-go soup containers. There doesn’t appear to be a place to recycle anything, either. Right now I have my trash neatly stacked on the countertop, in hopes of coming across a trash bag.
I also had time to browse the books on the tiniest book shelf: mostly self-help titles. What Color is Your Parachute? Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus. 40 Days to a Life of G.O.L.D. Leadership by the Book. There’s a sneering, judgmental part of me that looks at those titles and laughs. And then there’s the more practical, writerly side of me who realizes that those books probably made way more money than my little yet-to-be-finished manuscript will ever make.
Also, there’s a copy of Beloved and The Thirteenth Tale, in case I get bored.
The self-help library.
I took a nice break—laid down but didn’t sleep, went out for dinner and I’m back. Hoping to get a good amount of work in yet tonight. These won’t be new scenes, but revised and rewritten ones. I’m following an idea I had in October but couldn’t do much with until now. I’d simply made a note of it in the composition book I carried in my bag all semester and let the idea sit. It was a pretty big “what if?” and I liked it, although it turned some of the things I thought I knew about my main character on their head.
It’s at least a small bit terrifying to go back to these scenes, one my agent has already seen, and flip the script, as it were. It’s still experimental at this phase.
Called it a night around 11 o’clock. Or, tried to. There’s an Air BnB apartment above me, too, and that was the time that the people (at least two) above me decided to start moving furniture around. What other explanation for the scraping of heavy objects above me? But I read for a bit—toggling between The Great Alone and The Artist’s Way, which seemed apropos (and THIS is a self-help book I can get behind, if it’s appropriate to call TAW a self-help book), and eventually the furniture must have been arranged to their liking, and everyone went to sleep. Including me.
I arrived at the AirBnB where I’ll be staying until Monday, a little later than planned due to a stop at HomeGoods (but necessary!) and some traffic on the freeway. But I’m here! And the place is gorgeous. It’s a 1bed/1bath casita, separate from the main house. The owners showed me around and then freaked me out about five minutes later by knocking on the sliding glass door and handing me a vase of calla lilies. I was glad it wasn’t a plant that had to be watered, because I would have felt horrible killing their plant after they were so lovely to bring it to me.
Paula Treick DeBoard