Dead in Dakota: The Mysteries of MK Coker

I read myself to sleep every night. Ideally, my bedtime reading is a mystery that lifts my mind away from the subjects of my own writing and eases me into rest.

For some reason I no longer remember, because I am not trying to break any speed records, I write down the title of each book I read, many of them mysteries. My records show, for example, that I read 367 books in 2011.

Classics like the Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey series by Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, and whodunits by John Creasey, Elizabeth Lemarchand, Margery Allingham, Gwendoline Butler, Georgette Heyer, and Michael Innes have helped me to rest for years. The Brother Cadfael series written by Ellis Peters (Elizabeth Pargeter) have made me laugh and taught me about history on the Welsh border between 1135 and 1145. The names flow past: Ngaio Marsh. Arthur W. Upfield. Reginald Hill (Dalziel and Pascoe.) Martha Grimes (Richard Jury). Jonathan Gash (Lovejoy, a British antiques dealer with flexible morals). In 2012, I read 345 books, but only 344 in 2013.

Among more modern writers I like both Laurie King’s Mary Russell and her Kate Martinelli series. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher allows me to picture myself driving her Hispano Suiza at unwise speeds through the curves of the Black Hills, and the Corinna Chapman books, centering on a bread baking heroine of real human proportions, always makes me hungry. Sharyn McCrumb’s Elizabeth MacPherson series are hard to find, as are her unusual novels set in the Appalachian South, but I persist. I only buy books I’ve read and enjoyed once and am sure I will re-read, so I just bought all of Jane Langton’s Homer Kelly series. I own most of both Ann Perry’s William Monk and her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series. Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books are on one shelf and Louise Penny’s Three Pines books will soon occupy another. Elly Griffiths has given me an acquaintance with Ruth Galloway, a slightly overweight archaeologist, whose humanity keeps me coming back. The historical density of the sixteenth century settings of Cora Harrison’s series featuring a female judge in Ireland keeps me turning pages, though their weight and detail may be why I read only 260 books in 2014.

If you recognize any of those names, you know I read writers who love language, and who use scholarship and humor at least as much as criminal activity to entertain their readers. While plot and characters are important, eloquence can keep me reading even if I lose track of the action. Conversely, spelling and grammatical errors cause me to startle the dogs by hurling the book across the room. (To my friends at various libraries: if the book belongs to a library, I write a sticky note pointing out the error, tuck it in the book and place the book gently on the floor.)

When the discards that I own pile up in the corner of my bedroom, I toss them down the stairs into the box that I’ll take to the secondhand bookstore to trade in on better books.

Now that I have established the seriousness of my interest in mysteries, here’s the punchline: I’ll never sell my copies of the South Dakota mysteries by MK Coker.

MKCokerBookGroup

SPOILER ALERT — though the comments below do not reveal any critical information about whodunnit, they do mention a few plot and character developments in each book that may spoil your speculations about the future. Proceed at your own risk.


 

In Dead White, the first in the series, we met Detective Marek Okerlund as he drove through a Dakota blizzard with his pickup door open far enough so he could see the interstate’s center line. I’ve driven in storms like that, so I was hooked by the accuracy of the description. By page two, the reader has been ushered into the town of Reunion and the presence of Sheriff Karen Mehaffey, whose experience as a police dispatcher has spurred her to hire Okerlund, a more qualified detective. Already the reader is wrapped in the storm and the intertwined relationships typical of a small Dakota town like that where the author grew up. I live in the western half of the state, but I went to school in the part where these books are set, so I was ready to pounce on any wrong note, in spite of the fact that the book was autographed to me by the author.

By page 3, as the blizzard howls, the story had captured me as completely as the dying man who had been chained to the barbed-wire fence. Hired by Sheriff Karen because he has the experience she lacks, Detective Marek Okerlund had arrived with a silent daughter and a shadowy past. As Coker began to populate the mystery with a cast of characters that are varied but believable, I found myself slowing my reading, both to keep the players straight and savor the writing. As is clearly indicated by the number of books I read each year, I can finish some light mysteries in an evening. The Dakota books take longer, but they are worth it.

In each book, several small stories play out against the broader backdrop of the mystery, but all fit into a portrait of a small town woven together with generations of interaction, with loves, hates, disagreements and blood. Still, the writing is tight and always pointed toward the outcome, even while the story appears to ramble all over the landscape. Everyone in town fulfills several roles; the town drunk may also be the town comedian or a news reporter; the minister may coach the basketball team. I know Coker was not on the playground where I learned how to make my place in the rural heartland after moving there from a city—but the writing touches on my memories because the author knows what went on there.

Dead Dreams, the second book in the series, brings a failed actor back to his home farm just in time for the murder of his mother, who has been declining mentally and is surrounded by city sharks who hope to use her land for the disposal of hazardous waste. Coker was able to draw on actual events in the state’s history to lend credibility to the story; South Dakota officials have fallen for the lure of “money and jobs” in several instances, to the detriment of our citizens.

Similarly, every plot is linked to authentic problems that confront Dakotans and other citizens of the plains. These difficulties sometimes center on situations typical of the region and connected to its latitude, like a blizzard or a flood. At the same time, each book features a problem that is associated with a broader view. In each case, the author has researched actual events and skillfully woven them into the story, while creating a foundation of typical Dakota behavior.

Dry Dakota humor is an integral part of the writing in these books and I find it impossible to describe out of context. Dakotans, and some others, will chuckle as they recognize landmarks in local culture. The one finger wave in Dakota is not the same as the one finger wave in some other areas of the country, for example.

Coker interweaves characters and social commentary in a dense forest of writing, but always keeps the underbrush clear so the reader can follow the path of the plot. Each book leads us deeper into the thicket of relationships that typify every small community; everyone is related to everyone, or has a history with everyone else. Except for the Bosnians in the basement. In each book, the author leaves just enough questions to lead us cheerfully onward to the next.

Dead Wrong opens with a dead man who was headed the wrong way at the exit ramp for Reunion, South Dakota, but his death may be accident, suicide or homicide. Complications include a new female pastor who is a widow, an illegal immigrant or two, and someone who pulls the plug on the Sheriff’s husband, who has been in a coma for years. Naturally, the Sheriff falls under suspicion, which complicates her murder investigation, as do the meth addicts. Coker’s plot is enlivened by two women basketball stars known as the Twin Towers. She slips in a good word for grass-fed beef and a dig at a former governor of South Dakota who blew through a stop sign and killed a motorcyclist.

The murder that launches the fourth mystery, Dead Quiet, is announced via horse and buggy, and occurs in the peaceful German Anabaptist community near Reunion. This mystery is so full of tricky situations it opens with a family tree revealing that Sheriff Mehaffey is related to members of the secretive sect; the author admits on her website that she needs a family tree to keep the relationships straight for herself. As always, the plot is decorated with references as varied as Shakespeare and song lyrics; in an earlier book, for example, the Sheriff drives her Chevy to the levee but the levee is dry. The characters are so comfortable with themselves and each other in this book that I found myself having conversations with them when I put the book down to fix lunch.

Here’s the required disclaimer: I first met MK Coker when she came to Windbreak House Retreat with the dream of writing and publishing mysteries. We had a wonderful time analyzing, discussing, dissecting, and comparing our tastes in mysteries. She returned in 2010, and then, after her four long years of hard work and disappointments in the world of publishing, the first book in this series, Dead White, appeared in my mailbox. For more information about her work, look at www.mkcoker.com.

I’m sure it’s an unwritten rule that reviewers must always say something negative about the book; I seldom see a review without a smug adverse remark or two. So, to prove that working with MK has not tainted my reviewer’s detachment, here are my negative remarks.

The paperback books measure 9” by 6” and are 1” thick, so they are heavy, requiring that I hold one in both hands while reading. This means I must be very careful when I can’t put one down even though I’m taking a bath.

But here’s a positive note, which also proves that MK is a dedicated reader of mysteries: the books are numbered on the spine so you can read them in their proper order!

And there’s another solution to that weight problem: the books are available as ebooks on Amazon USA (and worldwide sites), AppleBarnes and Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. The trade paperback is available at AmazonBarnes and Noble, and independent bookstore Powell’s. It can also be ordered from your local bookstore.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

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Lovers’ Leap, Pussytoes, and Poison Ivy

Custer State Park sign 2014I didn’t want to go on the Lover’s Leap hike in Custer State Park that morning. I wanted to be writing, but I hadn’t written anything significant for weeks, so I couldn’t see much point in going to the computer.

The description of the hike made me nervous because my left knee is unreliable after numerous injuries, so sometimes it’s painful or causes me dangerous stumbles on rough surfaces. Since the proposed hike was described as “strenuous,” with “many” creek crossings, I was afraid of the consequences.

I also believe in exercise and in testing my limits. This spring’s stormy weather has kept us away from our usual weekend hiking regimen. Flash floods have occurred in many areas of the Black Hills, and trails have been soggy. Since the morning’s weather looked dry, I was anxious to inaugurate summer the day before the solstice with a good hike.

So we drove into CusterLovers Leap rock climbing LMH State Park on U.S. Highway 16A and tucked our car into the lot behind the old schoolhouse slightly north and across the highway from the Norbeck Visitor Center. We looked at the topographic map on the sign, and started up the well-marked trail.

Jerry set a slow but steady pace, and we climbed gradually upward on the rocky ridge. The trail switched back and forth along the steep slope, so that we were not climbing straight up, but at an angle. Rains had washed out a lot of the dirt cushioning the rocks underlying the trail, so I was wary of ankle-turning narrow clefts. Still, the trail is wide enough to offer a variety of footing choices, and solid wooden water bars are placed every few feet to channel runoff away. I used my stout walking stick to provide a solid tripod stance whenever a foot slipped.

As I walked, I remembered the accident that made me what my father later referred to as “a crippled girl.”

When I was about twelve, my friend Mikkey and I formed a horseback drill team made up of about twenty of our 4-H friends with horses.  Today I can find some of the forms we ran by searching the Internet for “horseback drill team patterns,” but we made our own diagrams and led our team into intricate maneuvers: figure eights, double circles, cloverleaves, loops and whirls. Each horse had to work with every other to perform at speeds that varied from a walk to a gallop.

A light breeze ruffled my hair. I set each foot solidly before taking the next step, leaning forward into the hill the way I had leaned with the horse as we circled the arena. Dust rose behind Jerry’s steps, smelling just like the dust the horses kicked up as they trotted.

When we worked out the drill team patterns, each horse and rider had to know precisely where each horse’s foot was at every moment. If we were riding a wheel pattern, the horses on the inside might be barely moving while the horses on the outside were cantering.  None of us had fancy horses, just mounts who spent most of their time moving cattle. Like us, they seemed to enjoy the variety of working together to create these intricate configurations, and they all seemed to enjoy the applause.   

The sun shone high above us as we walked, and the ponderosa pine trees close to the trail had been thinned, so we could see between them a few feet into the mottled shade. Occasionally, though, an oak tree stood in a column of light, as if standing center stage. I paused to take deeper breaths and noticed prairie grasses under the oaks, among sage, yarrow and salsify plants. Diamond-shaped blue markers appeared at head height every now and then to show us the trail.

Our hike settled into the slow process of lifting each foot and setting it down as I recalled the day I first hurt my knee.

As leaders, Mikkey and I carried flags on tall poles which we set into our stirrups just ahead of our legs. For the pinwheel, we formed a long line which eventually split in the middle. As the two halves of the line rode toward each other, the horses on the inside turned in place but Mikkey’s Firefly and my Rebel, on the outside of the circle, first walked, then trotted, and then galloped as the riders crossed for the third time. We’d done this maneuver many times before and always grinned at each other as our horses swept past each other, the flags snapping over our heads.  

On that occasion, we were too close together. Our flags crossed. Her flagpole struck my knee.

Firefly was slightly bigger than my little Arab, so the impact of the opposing flag slamming into me wrenched my hip sideways. I did the important thing for a horsewoman: I stayed on the horse. We finished our set and dipped our flags to the applause. I even got off the horse by myself, though I immediately collapsed and had to pull myself up by my stirrup. The next day my knee was the size of a basketball. My mother probably wanted me to see a doctor, but since I could walk, my father said my leg wasn’t broken. I limped for weeks.

Remembering kept me marching up the trail behind Jerry, and even at our slow pace, we passed the steepest and most strenuous part of the trail within forty-five minutes. We paused at that height to listen to the traffic far below. Once in awhile, we glimpsed a car or two zipping along the hot asphalt, with no idea of the cool breeze on the ridge. Though the trail is marked for hikers only, we saw bicycle tracks, but met only other hikers. We strolled along the top looking at the crunchy pale green lichen on the limestone. I saw a line of magenta flowers, like beads on a string, and could tell only that they belonged to the vetch family.

Lovers Leap Cairn 2015--6-20Jerry spotted a tall pile of stones twenty feet off the trail, artfully arranged and balanced like the stone johnnies used by early travelers as trail markers. While he took a picture, I sat on a rock and realized a tiny spring was seeping out from under it– not enough for a human drink, but a trickle that might allow small mammals– voles, mice, even birds– to sip delicately.

Birds I couldn’t identify sang high above us, hidden in the pine branches. Along the trail stood the furry blooms of the Rocky Mountain pussytoes, or antennaria media, one of my favorite Hills plants since I identified it after reading Ed Abbey’s comment in Desert Solitaire that he liked it, “if only for the name.” The delicate flowers are white and clustered in a way that does remind one of a kitten’s toes– but what amuses me even more is thinking how some serious field botanist probably chuckled as he or she submitted the name to officialdom.

Both above and below the trail, we saw depressions in the earth surrounded by stones and softened by a century of rain, evidence that the discovery of gold in 1874 not far from here brought hundreds of gold-seekers who probably climbed every ridge overlooking a creek to dig for treasure. They could not have imagined that we would be able to see where they worked almost 150 years later. We stopped to rest by a huge outcropping of pink and white quartz where someone had been breaking rocks; glittering chips littered the trailside– perhaps a modern gold hunter, or someone illegally stealing the beautiful quartzite.

Lovers Leap Trail SignAt the trail’s highest point, 4,780 feet, is a sign, regularly painted afresh, that describes the park as “a place where one can still be an unworried and unregimented individual and wear any old clothes and sit on a log and get his sanity back again.” While the comment sounds like it might have been made by Charles Badger Clark, the state’s first poet laureate whose “Badger Hole” homestead is within park boundaries, no citation is given, and I have found no evidence it’s his.

“Lovers’ Leap,” says another sign. The legend preserves the romantic tale that the promontory was named for two Indians who were in love but for some reason unable to be together, so they leapt to their deaths here. I wish my home state and nearest state park wouldn’t participate in such an embarrassing, prejudiced, and unlikely cliché. Wikipedia describes Lovers’ Leaps names in several other countries as well as 27 similarly named sites in the U.S.– not including this one. As Mark Twain sarcastically wrote in Life on the Mississippi, “There are fifty Lover’s Leaps along the Mississippi from whose summits disappointed Indian girls have jumped.” Did disappointed lovers among the settlers manage their heartbreak some other way? And couldn’t any of the early climbers of this summit think of another way to describe it?

One could leap to a painful death from the top of the 200-foot cliff, but you might just provide practice for our well-trained search and rescue teams. I’m uncomfortable with heights, too, but I had no trouble following a sloping path upward on rough conglomerate rock worn nearly smooth by zillions of climbers. At the top, I stood in a circle of taller rocks with narrow openings between them; I had to lean out to see the broad sweep of the 1988 Galena fire, the Cathedral Spires, Harney Peak and Mount Coolidge. Tucked into crevices in the convoluted rock were the dead stalks of mullein, and tiny yellow rosebushes. A nighthawk circled and called above. The bowl formed by the rock lay sunny and warm; surely most pairs of lovers who visited it might find something to do other than leaping to their deaths. But I suppose someone would object to renaming the place Lovers’ Love Nest.

Lovers Leap Trail rest LMHWhile we rested, I sipped water, nibbled lemon-pepper chocolate, and flexed my knee, pleased to feel no pain. Jerry spotted a buzzard circling overhead just as I noticed another couple coming up the trail.  As we headed down the west side of the ridge, we could hear Galena Creek bubbling below. I used my walking stick to keep my pace steady and smooth.

Once we reached the creek, the trailside vegetation became lush, a tangled jungle of dewy foliage including birch and ash trees, blackberry bushes, Bicknell’s geranium, wild pink roses and many species I couldn’t identify. I did see Queen Anne’s Lace, which is really poison hemlock and resembles wild carrot closely enough to have killed a fair number of folks who forage for wild food. But it took me an inexcusably long time to identify the most striking plant along the creek, because the unusual moisture had created monstrous plants. The poison ivy was knee high in many places, lining both sides of the trail.

The creek’s water spilled out of its banks everywhere, so sometimes we walked in soggy areas or detoured around piles of dead trees and other debris left by flooding. Watching the rushing water reminded me of the second reason I’d been nervous about this trail: I was afraid that in one of the numerous creek crossings, I’d reinjure my abused knee.

I was in my second marriage on this second occasion, and my husband George and I were moving cattle to our winter pasture in January, when Battle Creek was partially frozen. I let the cattle move slowly, watching as they paced through the water and up the bank. When I tried to ride my horse, another Arab, named Oliver, into the freezing water, he balked and spun and sidestepped– dangerous moves on icy ground. So I debated. I did not want to walk into that freezing water wearing my riding boots, but the horse and I would both be safer if I led him through the creek. I dismounted and waded into the knee-deep water, cringing as the icy flow filled my boots. The horse followed quietly until I got to the narrow trail on the bank, worn three feet deep by generations of cattle hooves. I was looking at the slick mud of the trail, considering just stepping aside to let the horse climb out, when Oliver must have slipped on a rock and scared himself. He jerked back, so I let go of the reins and tried to scramble out of his way.  

While I was picturing that day, we’d arrived at the first creek crossing. To my delight, it was bridged with two stout planks set solidly into the mud, so I didn’t have to wade in the creek wearing my new hiking shoes.

I tried to leap aside, but my boots were full of water and I fell in the path. I raised my arms up over my head, remembering I’d been told that a horse won’t walk on a human being. This horse was terrified, and he climbed over me. Later we found five distinct blue hoof prints on my left leg, plus a few more on my back and shoulders. The pain was terrific, but I could put weight on the leg so I assumed it wasn’t broken. While I sat on the ground recovering my wits, my leg flooded with warmth as broken blood vessels exploded. The warmth almost made up for the pain.

I hobbled around for a couple of days before George insisted I see a doctor. He yanked on my leg a couple of times, said no bones were cracked or broken but that I had torn most of the ligaments in the leg– “much more painful than a break,” he assured me with a grin. He put my leg in a splint and gave me crutches and painkiller. Years later, after the leg had collapsed on me a couple of times, dropping me into an embarrassed heap, another doctor suggested an operation to repair the kneecap, but I declined.

The second creek crossing was bridged as well, though we could see that the bridge had been moved because its previous location was under water. I practically skipped across it, carrying my hiking stick and thinking of Little John and Robin Hood.

Lovers Leap bridge LMH 2015--6-20Sometimes, in order to get to the bridge crossing, we had to walk around flood debris that had been cut out of the creek and dragged away from the path. After crossing several of the bridges, we realized that these are a brilliantly engineered answer to a creek that hosts frequent floods. Most hiking bridges we’ve seen in other areas consist of two heavy planks laid across the creek. Each time the creek floods, trail crews have to find the planks and return them to the proper place, or haul in new lumber if the first bridge can’t be recovered. But not on Galena Creek. These bridges didn’t wash away because of their ingenious construction: one end of each bridge is chained to something solid, like a tree or rock. Floodwaters may lift one end of the bridge and swing it downstream, but workers won’t have to chase it; they can lift it back into place.

Still, clearing the trail after every flood during a wet spring like this must be a terrific job; we were amazed and delighted by how easy the trail made our walk through this rugged country.

After bridge number five, the creek passes below a soaring black cliff with water springing from a dozen cracks on its face. From the cliff’s top to the bottom where it plunges into a dark pool, several ecosystems, varying from ferns to sagebrush, thrive in niches. In this gorgeous place, I finally admitted to Jerry and to myself that making this hike was a good idea not only for my physical health but for my mental state. Still, it was several days before I understood how important the hike had been to my writing.

All together, we crossed the creek ten times, marveling at evidence of the work it takes to keep up the trail. Anyone hiking immediately after a heavy rain might have a harder time before the trail crew gets there.  Once we climbed over flood debris to reach a bridge, but several trees had been cut and moved aside and the maintenance crew probably planned to return. We never got in mud or water over our shoe tops.

The end of the trail, after three miles, was confusing and a little disappointing. As the trail sloped downhill, we slowed down, sensing we were about to step out of the serene woods into the chaos of tourism in summer. But we still weren’t ready when the trail turned into a graveled, then a paved road among park cabins. We walked past several houses, feeling like intruders, until we saw a blue triangular marker. Soon we were engulfed in families hustling into the Coolidge Inn store, and laying out lunches on picnic tables; we followed the busy highway to the correct parking lot.

As we finished the walk, we discovered and discarded the ticks we’d collected during the leisurely four-hour walk, and I made notes for this article.

LMH Maine sunrise 2013--6-15The next day I resolved to get myself back into my usual routine. During our vacation, I’d wondered whether it’s wise for me to insist on writing every day, but I constantly noted what we were doing and seeing. Some of my favorite vacation hours had been at dawn when I sat on the deck with my first cup of coffee, looking at the moving ocean instead of the waving prairie grass, letting my mind tell my fingers what to write with no limits. With no specific project in mind, I’d simply recorded my delight in the smooth oval white and round red stones of the beach. I’d tried to find a way to describe the way the water seems to flow out of the land, the way the cardinal sounded in the bush beside the deck.

But when we returned home, I became immersed in the daily busy-ness that can overwhelm anyone, and let it carry me along. I told myself I need to take my writing less seriously, that with my experience, I didn’t need to write every day to keep my interest up. I kept busy with jobs I usually fit around my writing. I told myself each night that tomorrow I would write, until many tomorrows had passed. When I returned to my trip notes, I found them lifeless. Maybe, I thought, I’m finished. Perhaps I’ve said all I need to say.

My husband George used to say, “Linda’s not happy when she’s not writing. And when Linda’s not happy, nobody’s happy.” After a couple of weeks of not writing, I found myself waking up grouchy, so I knew I had to do something.

That’s when Jerry proposed the hike. I made myself do it, told myself it would be good for me. Of course, there may be good reasons we don’t want to do something. But sometimes we need to go ahead and do it anyway. The delight I felt in walking and taking notes on the hike reminded me why I write, but just enjoying the hike and taking notes wasn’t enough.

The next morning I followed my own rule: I organized my day around writing and produced a draft of this article. As I re-read it that night, my mood dropped again: it was flat, listless, comatose, limp, tedious and a few more synonyms for lifeless.

Wild rose buds 2014--6-9I went back, mentally, to that black cliff face, and looked up at the vibrant color of the plants that grew because they somehow tucked hair-like roots into granite slits. Writing something, and then perhaps getting it published, requires the same patient persistence as the feathery blue sagebrush needs to grow on that inch-wide ledge. Sitting around telling myself I might be finished writing was synonymous with telling myself I was dead. And apparently no matter how experienced a writer I am, I still need the discipline of a daily schedule.

Some writers begin each day with a particular assignment, such as a haiku. I’ve never done that, but have advised my students to begin each day with writing something. It doesn’t matter what it is, I said; it’s the discipline of the writing that will carry them on to the next step. A person who writes a letter every day will be a better writer after a year. I believe that the simple act of writing makes us see what we might miss. As Norman Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t visible.” Seeing is writing. I can’t write if I can’t see.

I broke my own rule.

Over the next day or two, I made this essay my first priority of each day, revising and revising and revising. Perhaps in giving myself time off from writing I had just been lazy, avoiding what is, after all, hard work. My goal as a writer is to discover something in each writing I do, and to be able to communicate my discovery to a variety of readers. Even writing about a stroll through the woods requires patience and attention to detail if the goal is, as it should be, to help the readers visualize the action and gain something from the writing to enhance their own lives.

Bill Kloefkorn, the late Nebraska State Poet, began his writing classes with an exercise he called “Finding the bulls eye inside the epiphany.” With his permission, I copied down his directions to use with my own students.

First, write down a word or phrase that reminds you of a painful experience; possibilities for pain are not necessarily physical.

If you can’t do that, then guess at it.
If you can’t do that, lie.
“If lying bothers your conscience, you will never be a writer,” says Bill Kloefkorn.

Then ask questions about the word you’ve written down.

What country were you in?
What cosmos?
How old were you?
What town were you near?
How far were you from (insert nearby town name)
Were there any lower animals with you?   Any people?
What were you wearing?
Was it too big?
If it wasn’t too big, where was it tight?
Were you outside or inside?
If you were inside, what color was the wallpaper?
What were you walking on‑‑ pavement, or another human being?
Did it smell?
Does it smell now?

After answering these questions, you should free-write on what you’ve come up with for 45 minutes or so. That is, put pencil to paper and don’t lift it for 45 minutes. It’s best to time this, because if you think you can estimate the time, you will be surprised how long it can be, and you don’t want to stop writing to look. From this writing comes material from which you might write almost indefinitely.

This is torture, of course, even if you are writing on a computer.  Work up to it: set a timer and write for 10 minutes without stopping, or even five.

Kloefkorn said that the mind, pressured in this way, might begin by spewing nonsense: “This is ridiculous, I can’t do this, and there is nothing in my brain.” But after a few minutes of gibberish, the mind realizes it cannot abide a vacuum and it will begin to dredge up something serious, something more important than the student would have discovered if asked simply to “think of a bad day in your life.”

Bill told me his students sometimes spent the entire semester writing about whatever emerged from their writing on this day in class. They continued to break it down, and kept discovering “the bull’s eye inside the epiphany.” If you write enough on one topic, you eventually begin to dig down into subjects that are hard to write about, and that therefore matter.

Another result is that the more specific sensory detail you include, the more the reader will identify with what you have written. This is an odd fact, but true: even if the dress you wore to your first day of school was long and blue while mine was red and short; even if your hair was long and black and mine was short and blonde– your specific memories will bring mine back to me, and I will then identify with what you have written.

On days when you don’t have a specific writing goal in mind, write anyway. Put the pencil or pen to the paper, or your fingers on the keyboard and begin. Write through the gibberish and the advertising slogans; write until something more important begins to arrive from the depths of your mind.

Only the discipline of writing was enough to lift me from the doldrums of not writing. I’ll try not to forget that rule again.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2015

Writing: Where I’ve Been — Dressing for Success in the Soggy West

Rain in the West is always an occasion for celebration, and this year we have a lot to celebrate.

People say, “How much rain have YOU had?” with their teeth gritted. To complain about moisture would be Against The Code of The West. Heck, the Code doesn’t let us complain about broken legs, either.

Several neighbors casually mentioned that they’d greased the haying machinery in May and by late June they hadn’t cut a blade of hay yet. No hay means no winter feed for the cows unless they go out and chew it off the hillside which might be difficult if we get the usual deep snows and brisk winds.

“I’m not complaining,” though, they all said heartily with a glance upward. “Maybe this will end that drought.”

Ranchers are always nervous about weather and we learn early not to count on anything. One day when the rain paused, two neighbors were trying to pull a truck out of thigh-deep mud. One observed, “This could be the first day of the next drought.”

When the rain stopped, everybody started chopping down hay with any machinery available. Tractors so rusty their original color is impossible to discern are chugging along the fields, hauling haying equipment made for hauling behind horses. One rusty rake I saw was towed by a sedan, with a passenger leaning out the window yanking on the rope that lifts the tines and dumps the hay in a windrow.

The foliage is so tall we can’t see the tractors, only hear the motors. A couple of guys started mowing our big hayfield three days ago and haven’t reappeared. We hope they didn’t run out of gas and try to walk out. The creeping jenny is so strong and lively that if you walk into a patch, it wraps around your ankles and drags you down.

Yesterday the dogs ran into the greenery and didn’t come when we called, though we could hear them yip. We hacked a path with a machete and found them so tangled up in creeper they couldn’t move. Of course, they’re small dogs; a Malamute might have gnawed his way clear.

And then there are the mosquitoes.

BugHats

Mosquito veils also help protect the face and neck.

I dress in the morning as knights of old prepared for battle, laying out each piece of armor that may protect myself from West Nile virus. Only one case has been reported this year, but like most people, I don’t want to be second.

First I don long, heavy socks; then winter sweat pants too thick for the proboscis of most mosquitoes. Boots laced up over the pants. Two turtleneck shirts. Since commercial mosquito repellents make me break out in big red blotches, I mix natural oils with unscented hand lotion and smear the mixture over my hands, face and neck. (Equal parts eucalyptus, lemon and citronella in a base of unscented lotion.) I rub lotion on the shoulders of my shirt and on a big scarf tied under my chin. Sloshing more lotion on my floppy hat, I jam it down and step outside.

A breeze helps deflect the mosquitoes, but as soon I walk, I sweat, and mosquitoes rise from the grass in squadrons, regiments, phalanxes. Their low humming sounds like the Hells Angels, on their way to the Sturgis motorcycle rally starting the end of July.

With a garden to tend, I march to the pump house, turn the appropriate handle, and gallop to the garden. There I dive into the heaving, throbbing mass of creeping jenny, hoping I’m not stepping on a rattlesnake, and grope around until I find the end of a soaker hose. I snap the supply hose into it and stagger out to the tilled area. Behind me, a black swarm of mosquitoes rises, and my arms and legs are covered in a moving veil of wings as the critters probe for an opening.

A swarm of mosquitoes rises from the underbrush howling a war cry: ZZZzzzzzzZZZzzzzZZZ. I swat a mosquito that has sucked most of the blood from my right ear. When I feel a throbbing at my jugular vein, I mash it, spurting blood. I laugh like Margaret Hamilton, Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz. Imitating her banshee laugh was one of my first attempts at drama, and is today one of my few talents. Uttered at the back of a slow herd of cows, it moves them into a brisk trot. And it once got me out of a rather tricky situation in the dating game. But it has no effect on the local mosquitoes.

Economists are always urging Western ranchers to diversify. “Take in tourists who will pay to sleep in the bunkhouse! Make tourists pay to help fix fence!” So we have a diversification plan. As soon as we find the branding irons– we’re sure they’re inside the barn or under that tangle of weeds– we’ll brand a few of these monsters, and haul them to the sale ring: the new red meat.

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© 2010, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Originally published in “Writers on the Range,” July, 2010

Afterword to “Dressing for Success in the Soggy West”:

High Country News, the fine Western magazine, published this short article in “Writers on the Range” (a syndicated opinion column about issues that affect Westerners) in July of 2010, when we had a soggy spring. Even then we were concerned about West Nile virus and the story is accurate: so far this unusually wet year only one case has been reported in South Dakota.

Writing: Where I’ve Been

The writing that appears in this category, “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.

Re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.

Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.

I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.

No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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