Cheri's Blog


I'm Cheri Baker, an author of mystery and science fiction. Welcome!

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A silver walkman and a Paula Abdul cassette

Good morning, universe.

Last week we ran across a vintage store specializing in Seattle sports merchandise. Not being a sports person, I'm not sure why I went inside, but it looked interesting, and it was. I found a small pile of music cassettes near the register, including two albums I recognized.

I have a happy nostalgia for cassettes, having gotten my first Walkman when I was around ten years old. By the time I was a teenager CDs had taken over, but you never lose your fondness for your first format, I suppose. Cassette tapes have seen a small resurgence over the last five years as young people embrace the tactile enjoyment of music you can hold in your hands. And probably there are 40-somethings like me, swept up in nostalgia.

So I brought those two tapes home, and later, I dug a preserved Walkman out of my storage unit. Right now, I'm listening to Milli Vanilli's Blame it on the Rain on cassette. I'm surprised at how even a basic plastic Walkman feels sturdy and light compared to modern electronics. Those old, foam, disc-shaped headphones sound great, and it's easy to slip one earphone back so I can hear the people around me.

There's a lot I'd forgotten about playing cassette tapes. Like the longish pause at the start of each side, long enough that I wondered if it was broken. The click of the play button popping up when you've reached the end. That momentary hesitation as you flip the cassette over, trying to remember which direction is the front or the back. There's no such thing as shuffle. The Milli Vanilli Tape is 35 years old, but it still sounds pretty good. It'll wear out eventually, just like me. Until then, we'll keep on rolling.

Back Into It

I took a couple days off from the novel, so it feels as if the connection between me and the story has been snipped. 😩 Getting my head back into it will take some time, so no writing exercises today. I'll back up a chapter or two and see if I can pick up the thread.

Have a good one!

#today #music #cassettes

Good morning, universe.

The crows are not messing around today.

Last week I saw them standing atop electrical boxes and lampposts like feathered secret service officers, heads on the swivel, silently monitoring human foot traffic. Today, they're dive bombing people as they walk into the coffee shop. Two crows took a swing at me as I crossed the street, and when I was in line, waiting, I saw a woman running, her hands over her head, ducking, the crows CAW CAW CAWing at they chased her down.

I felt bad, laughing, but how could I not? She was like Tippi Hedren in The Birds. Only there was no real danger.

So I drank coffee and watched the crows continue their reign of terror. I figure they must be expectant aunts and uncles. There's a crow baby somewhere nearby and they're outside the nursery, ready to kick some ass if you get too close.

The crows didn't bomb anyone walking a dog. Having a dog is like having private security. The crows glare, but they stay on their perches.

This wasn't the only wildlife sighting of the morning. We were jogging when a fat brown bunny burst out of a bush and ran out in front of us. Run! P called out. Run, rabbit!

The rabbit needed no encouragement. It left us in the dust. Later, at the coffee shop, the barista told me that bunnies are overrunning the central district. Coyotes have returned too. Nature is returning to balance, he said.

The coffee shop was playing late nineties music on the stereo. We'd come to the end of the road, Boyz 2 Men crooned. It's been a cool, drizzly summer so far and I keep seeing signs of health in the city. Little things. People holding doors open for strangers. More transit lines coming online. Old, abandoned retail becoming art spaces, galleries and collectives. Thriving nonprofit cinemas. Small businesses. We stopped outside a cafe under construction and one of the owners stepped outside to introduce himself. His husband was inside, painting, getting ready for the opening. We introduced ourselves and shook hands.

There's so much life here, I keep thinking. So much pop and crackle that the city is bursting at the seams.

Lexicon Work

Let's begin the writing day with lexicon work. A lexicon is just a writer's collection of words. Contrary to popular imagination, words don't just fall out of the sky, they need to be gathered up like pretty rocks on a beach.

Today, I'm thinking about words linked to darkness, cold, fear, metal and dizzy. I have a scene coming up that needs those words, and it's worth picking up some pretty rocks now, so I have them at the ready.

I begin with the easy stuff. Cracking open my copy of the Emotion Thesaurus, a Writer's Guide to Character Expression, I note down some of the reactions that accompany fear. I note down reactions that feel like they'll fit my character.

  • Leg muscles tightening, preparing to run
  • Gripping tightly, knuckles going white
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Skewed sense of time
  • Images of what-could be flashing through the mind

That's a good starting place, but I find the words gripping, racing, and flashing to be rather common. That sends me to my Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus in search of alternatives.

Under grip I find clutch, hold, clasp, clench, and seize.

For race I think of gallop and surge, and the thesaurus offers specific options for a heart racing, such as pound, throb, thump, hammer, pump, pulsate, and thud.

An image can flash in the mind. Can it do anything else? Possibly light up, flare, blaze, burn, burst, or display.

I don't know what words I'll need but at least I have some possibilities scribbled down. Sometimes, the simplest word is best, other times, I want something stronger Lexicon work can feel tedious, but I've pasted my notes into my lexicon under the heading Fear so I can use this again in the future.

Switching gears, I think about dizzy. There is a moment where my character will be extremely dizzy. But we're in a world of show, not tell, and if I was the kind of writer who had my characters say things like “Wow, I'm so dizzy!” I'd be writing screenplays for Disney+, where the narrative arts go to die.

(I digress)

I have to be more specific. What do I mean by dizzy? In this case, I mean floating through space! Dizzy is a weak word. A placeholder.

They will spin.

There will be nothing to grab onto.

It will be dark.

Objects will blur with motion.

It will be cold.

There will be total silence.

Complete disorientation.

For each offshoot from the concept of dizzy, I'll think for a moment on my own. Try to visualize. Then I'll poke into my thesaurus if needed. Bland words like “cold” and “dark” annoy me the most, but in truth, I know it's the rhythm of the sentence that will guide me in the moment. Sometimes “dark” is the right word as much as it irks me.

Can I also think about metaphor here? As dark as... ? What things are dark? Things that are so dark that they frighten you. So impossibly black and empty that you feel every bit of hope and warmth drain from your body?

Hmm. Hope and warmth draining away... is that something? Possibly. It sounds rather melodramatic.

Things that are dark include caverns, shadows, the inside of a monster's throat, locked rooms with the light off, the woods on a moonless night, walking through a big park alone after midnight, sewers and tunnels, the trunk of a car, being deep underwater, closets, walking through a cornfield, being on the water far from land, the heart of someone evil.

What other things could be dark? A dark truth. A dark secret. A dark discovery. The darkness we hold inside; all those things we want no one to see.

At this point, I'm just spitballing. Playing around. I haven't written the scene yet, thus I'm not really sure what words I'll need. I have blurry mental pictures of what will happen, a vague sense of the emotions involved.

When it comes time to describe what's happening, I hope that some of this work will be useful. Either way, I'm expanding my lexicon. Not just the one I have written down, but the one inside my head.

Okay then. Enough prep. Into the book I go!

#today #wip

Good morning, universe.

Let's begin the writing day with a copying exercise. I'll set a timer for five minutes and type out a section of Craig Johnson's The Dark Horse.

It was the third week of a high-plains October, and an unseasonably extended summer had baked the color from the landscape and had turned the rusted girders of the old bridge a thinned-out, tired brown.

I topped the hill and pulled the gunmetal Lincoln Town Car alongside the Pratt truss structure. There weren't very many of them in the Powder River country, and the few bridges that were left were being auctioned off to private owners for use on their ranches. I had grown up with those old camelback bridges and was sorry to see the last of them go.

My eyes were pulled to the town balanced on the banks of the anemic river and pressed hard against the scoria hills like the singing blade of a sharp knife. The water, the land, and the bridge were sepia-toned, depleted.

I told Dog to stay in the backseat and got out of the car, slipped on my hat and an aged, burnished-brown horsehide jacket, and walked across the dirt lot. I studied the dusty, wide-planked surface of the bridge, and, between the cracks, the few reflecting slivers of the Powder River below. The Wyoming Department of transportation had condemned and, in turn, posted the bridge with bright yellow signs—it was to be removed next week. I could see the abutments that they had constructed off to the right on which the new bridge would rest.

A Range Telephone Cooperative trailer sat by a power pole holding a junction box and a blue plastic service phone that gently tapped against the creosote-soaked wood like a forgotten telegraph, receiving no answer.

“You lost?”

I like to start work with a copying exercise a few times per week. I open up a novel — any novel will do, but one with high quality writing is best — and I simply type out a page or two. In going through those motions, I can almost feel the shape of the author's hands beneath mine. Where do they put their commas? How is this writing different than my own? What have they done here that's interesting?

Johnson has a strong sense of place in his writing, brought to life by Walt Longmire's knowledge of the setting, combined with all those specific details. Right away, I notice his use of hyphenated descriptors.

thinned-out sepia-toned burnished-brown wide-planked creosote-soaked

There's a lot of color in the text. Not just sepia or that burnished-brown but also a gunmetal town car and those bright yellow signs. It's a lot of description, but it doesn't feel like too much because it's all tied in with Walt's actions. He's interested in the bridge. He's taking in his surroundings and we're watching, enjoying the view but also noticing the way he thinks, what the man pays attention to. And right at the point where the description might begin to feel like too much we're interrupted by dialog. No dialog tag, because Walt doesn't know who it is. When he turns, we want to know who is standing there.

I appreciate his writing. It feels specific and grounded. Fifteen minutes after starting the exercise, I've jotted down some notes, considered some tricks I might borrow in my own work. I'll think about colors, and hyphenated descriptors. I'll muse on how a protagonist thinks about familiar territory, how a reader can sense if someone knows the ground they're walking on, or not.

But I won't think too hard about those things today. It's more like they're in the back of my mind, bubbling away.

Offlining, continued

My new writing setup is working well for me. I'm using Novelwriter, but by setup I'm not really talking about software. A tool is a tool is a tool. You find the one that fits you, and you're grateful for it. But what I mean by setup is everything that surrounds the writing.

Sleep is always important. If my sleep is shit, I can't write. My focus lately has been on moving away from distractions, especially those that clutter up my brain. Switching to a dumbphone has been great. My latest obsession? Learning how to avoid mindless web browsing.

I took an old page from a tide calendar and cut it into four pieces. Scrap paper! When there's something I want to look up online, I write it down. When my list starts to add up, I'll pop online and take care of business.

I'm so jazzed by this dumb little trick. Yesterday, I grabbed my list. Over the course of half an hour, I added some books to my wishlist, looked up several things I'd been curious about, and made a quick purchase on eBay. Before I knew it, I was finished!

Bim bam boom.

Any online stuff that involves communicating with actual people is still fine and good. Internet friends are indeed friends, so that means I have a few blogs to read, and people to chat with. Yet beyond that, I think I'm simply... happier offline. And creativity comes easier when my mind is uncluttered.

It's been a good week for discovery.

Onward

Well, I've done my writing exercise, and I've had some time to jot down what's working for me lately. It's time to get back into The Hard Way Home, to keep the story rolling forward.

There's an action piece coming up, and I'm setting up the moments that lead into it. When it comes to action, I find it helpful to think about cinema. The director might show you different groups of people, all moving toward a showdown. You see group A, then group B, and maybe group C. They're speeding toward a big collision, and the pace picks way up. For me, that means shorter chapters, more concise narration. It gets tricky because I can't reveal everything to the reader. I want surprises in that action piece, so I have to make each lead-up scene believable and natural without giving the whole game away.

When I was a baby writer, I used to worry more about things like chapter length. I believed chapters needed to be fairly uniform or else the story would feel jumbled and chaotic. Now though, I think about the chapter's length and pace as something you can use intentionally. These are short chapters, and I hope, exciting ones. The drumbeat is speeding up, and I can't wait for the moment when it all goes POW.

In space opera, I live for the POW. 😁

💬 on Mastodon

Good morning, universe.

You win some, you lose some. We spent the morning at the dentist, getting a small preview of work to come. Teeth coming up on a half-century of heavy use are like an old freeway in need of refurbishment, and it seems basic bodily maintenance gets more expensive over time. Eye glasses get more complicated and less effective. Last month, a team of dedicated healthcare professionals stuck a high-tech camera up my arse. I'm prepared to be a good sport about what cannot be changed, but sometimes I have to laugh at the strange things we do to keep ourselves going.

If only I could bring my body in for an annual oil change and be done with it! Truss me up in a sling like a prize thoroughbred, knock me out cold, and do all the scoping, scraping, measuring, and scrubbing while I snooze. Wake me up with a minty mouth, irradiated boobs, and a thoroughly inspected colon. Heck, hang an air freshener on my uvula while you're at it!

In truth, I'm just grateful to have medical care. That's by no means a guarantee in this inhumane, upside-down system of ours. And I'll do my best to appreciate the teeth scrapers, the laboratory vampires, and the gastric cinematographers who help keep me alive.

We try to stay healthy so we can live longer, and we live longer so we can spend time with the people we love. Also, so we can do the things we like. So we can enjoy the many experiences of being human.

Every day lately feels full to overflowing. I'm ready to turn off my internet and work on my novel until P makes lunch. There's a big bag of lemons in my pantry that I want to turn into curd this afternoon. Half a basket of laundry to put away. Maybe I'll fit in a run or a walk, depending on the weather. Chapters to read. Books in my TBR pile. Friends and family to connect with.

I never have enough time to fit in everything I want to do.

Keep on going, body of mine! I promise to keep on changing the oil. Rotating the tires.

#today

Good morning, universe.

Clouds are rolling over the city today, casting my world in a soft gray light that feels perfect for staying inside and getting some writing done. This morning was unexpectedly nice, however, and we wandered along the waterfront for a bit, weaving our way through the crush of humanity arriving at pier 66 to board the Norwegian Encore.

I'm almost done setting up my computer just how I want it. Last week I installed Debian KDE, and I moved my current writing project over to Novelwriter, which is excellent. I'm glad to be on a so-called “stable” version of Linux, one that only does major updates every two years. Some people are fiddlers. They like to fuss and optimize, to always have the latest and greatest. I'm more of a slow and steady kind of gal. Give me something that just works and don't ask me to futz with it. I'd rather save my futzing for my novel, not my computer.

I've been enjoying these small, happy shifts. A new operating system. New novel writing software. After working out a few technological kinks (being on Linux is occasionally inconvenient) I've shifted my e-book buying from Amazon to Kobo. That is, when I can't buy from the author directly. I like to archive my purchased EPUBs in Calibre, but I will say, the Kobo reading app is extremely nice. If I ever go back to an e-ink reader, I'll certainly use one of theirs.

I'm reading What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami. His memoir is an interesting overlap between his passions for running and writing fiction. I enjoyed reading about how his (and his wife's) life changed when he left a rather extroverted and social job to become a writer:

It was a major directional change-from the kind of open life we'd led for seven years, to a more closed life. I think having this sort of open existence for a period was a good thing. I learned a lot of important lessons during that time. It was my real schooling. But you can't keep up that kind of life forever. Just as with school, you enter it, learn something, and then it's time to leave.

I also liked what he had to say about the role of pain in our lives:

As I've gotten older, though, I've gradually come to the realization that this kind of pain and hurt is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, it's precisely because people are different from others that they're able to create their own independent selves. ... Take me for example. It's precisely my ability to detect some aspects of a scene that other people can't, to feel differently from others and choose words that differ from theirs, that's allowed me to write stories that are mine and mine alone.

There's a lot in the book that I can relate to. It's been a good read.

It's been a good, futzing around sort of morning, but it's time to get to work. Have a good one!

PS: Into the book, I go.

This morning I noticed a weird little crease above my elbow. This afternoon, I ran on the treadmill for twenty-one minutes without stopping. My life is a bit different than it used to be. Food, for instance. I spend a lot of time chopping fruits and vegetables, weighing various bits of cheese, counting up kalamata olives. I eat less than I used to, sure, but I only eat things that I like. Mostly things that grow, with a few luxuries thrown in. Like chocolate. An occasional Big Mac without the fries.

It's wild to me that I've lost a bunch of weight while eating things like Big Macs. Moreover, it makes me furious at every other diet I've ever tried. All those weird restrictive diets and points systems and “rules.” This time, it's mostly been math. Eat less than I burn, to lose. Up my calories to maintain my weight whenever I need a break. (Diet breaks are fantastic!) Don't freak out if there's an off day, because off days are a part of life. Chill, I remind myself when I feel impatient. It'll take as long as it takes.

What was once a hassle has become routine. I log all my food into one of those handy apps. My bloodwork is looking great, so the changes are working, but I'll likely have to keep tracking for the rest of my life to avoid rebounding. That notion used to bum me out, but at the moment, it sounds okay. It takes less than five minutes a day. Why worry?

Like an archeologist exploring the fossil record, I've excavated shirts and pants from deep inside my closet. Everything that fits is painfully out of date. Low rise jeans are hilarious! Why did we wear them? I don't want to spend money on clothes until my size is stable, but I did break down and buy a new bra. The underwires were spearing my armpits and it was time to end the war.

Earlier, when I was jogging my twenty-one minutes (a new record!) my underwear fell down inside my leggings. It felt like being pantsed by a stealthy ghost. 😂

I don't think I look any different. This morning I picked up my jeans and eyed them skeptically. Surely they wouldn't fit. Yet somehow, they did. My eyes haven't caught up to my brain. Will they ever? I'm getting closer to a “healthy” weight and I feel mildly astonished that the boring old “track calories and walk” thing is still working. It feels like a scam. A trick. Surely the scale is making a mistake. Someone is paying it to lie to me.

The running part is pretty new. I've tried it before, but it sucked, and this time I'm actually enjoying it. I'm mystified to be one of those people. They who have always existed across a gulf I couldn't cross. But I got bored after four months of walking, so I ran. There's less of myself to carry, so it feels easier to do. Could it be as simple as that?

That little crease above my elbow feels real though. Tangible. I'm deflating a bit, like a balloon. It left a small fold. I keep poking it. Wiggling it. It's evidence that my gym ghost isn't real. Proof that change is possible.

Anyway, I think I'll spring for new underpants. It's time. 😅

#health #running

Good afternoon, universe.

It's been a good-busy kind of day. Coffee. Grocery shopping. Chores. Plus a visit to the “pocket beach” near the sculpture park to check out the sea creatures at low tide. I saw a vast army of sea snails, a bunch of ochre sea stars, red burrowing sea cucumbers, a painted anemone, and a teeny crab no bigger than my thumbnail. A few weeks ago I picked up a local tide calendar from Metzger's Maps at Pike Place. It shows the daily tides as a blue wave running across the calendar square. When the blue wave dips, there are things to see!

I'm feeling very grounded in home lately. I want to know and understand all the wildlife that live around me. I want to buy bread at the little shop along the waterfront, and pick strawberries when the season starts, and walk around Lake Union when the sun comes out. I have a library book ready to pick up, and tickets for Furiosa at our neighborhood movie theater. This morning we walked to Uwajimaya because they have the best vegetables, don't you know. Everything I need is right here, accessible by foot or bike or bus. Tourists have returned like migratory birds, flapping their maps open, pointing and squawking, forming long lines at their traditional feeding grounds: the “first” Starbucks, Piroshky Piroshky, and of course, Biscuit Bitch. Cruise ships rest fat and heavy nearby, their announcements carried on the breeze, always preceded with the soft pim pon of their public address system.

Life is a mellow blur. Writing, eating, walking, sewing, reading, volunteering, napping, hanging out. How lucky I'll be if summer goes onward just like this. I don't need anything else, universe. If it's okay with you, I'll stay right here.

Friends and Readers,

How have you been? Sunshine has returned to Seattle, at least some of the time, and I've been enjoying afternoon walks after work, sauntering beneath the leafy tree canopy and watching the crows zoom around with mouthfuls of snacks.

Late spring is a great time for wildlife viewing around here, especially near the waters of Puget Sound. I was walking along the waterfront when I saw a sea lion taking a nap. He'd attracted a big crowd of admirers too.

A plump brown sea lion naps on a low concrete pier, next to ripply blue water.

Wherever you are, I hope you have a chance to enjoy some nature this month!

Deals & Discounts

Bargain hunters, this one is for you! Death by Team Building is on sale this week, only at CheriBaker.com.

The book cover for death by team building. Business reports, a coffee cup, evergreen branches, and a knife.

Group work always bites you in the ass. That was true in ninth grade history class, and just as true in a murder investigation.

Kat wasn't thrilled to be “volunteered” to attend the Holy Heart Medical Center team building retreat, but after settling into the remote mountain cabin with the team, she has to admit it's not all bad. The setting is beautiful and there are plenty of snacks. She having more fun than she expected. Unfortunately, enjoyment turns to terror when a member of the group is literally stabbed in the back.

Buy for $2.99 at CheriBaker.com

Adventurous Reads

What makes a book gritty? Well, the word grit can refer to roughness, toughness, or ugliness, for sure. But it also implies a certain perseverance. The willingness to keep on going despite the roughest conditions.

I love stories with a bit of grit, be they fiction or non-fiction. And along those lines, here are some interesting reads for your consideration:

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson

The book cover for The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson. It shows the silhouette of a cowboy on a horse.

Wade Barsad, a man with a dubious past, locked his wife Mary's horses in their barn and then burned it down. In return she shot him in the head six times – or so the story goes.

Craig Johnson's Website

Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

The book cover for Tokyo Vice. It shows an American reporter among a red and black color scheme.

Jake Adelstein is the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, where for twelve years he covered the dark side of Japan: extortion, murder, human trafficking, fiscal corruption, and of course, the yakuza.

Buy from the Publisher

True Grit by Charles Portis

The book cover for True Grit. It shows a stylized cowboy on a horse riding at sunset. The cover uses bright, cheerful colors.

While I haven't read it recently, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the aptly titled True Grit, which was such a surprisingly vivid read. I adored the young heroine.

True Grit is the story of thirteen-year old Mattie Ross who, allied with the stone-faced Rooster Coburn, embarks on an adventure to bring her father's killer to justice.

Buy from Publisher

I thoroughly enjoyed all these books! Sensitive readers should be aware they contain a fair amount of violence. That's especially true of Tokyo Vice, which discusses many real life criminal cases.


Works in Progress

An exterior wall with an interesting ornament on it. It looks like a face surrounded by brown leaves.

The writing is going well on my end, and I’ve passed the halfway mark on both The Hard Way Home and my next cozy mystery novel. I’ll let you know when I have official news to share.

In the meantime, I'm happy to share a few new posts from my blog:

Some Thoughts on Generative AI and Synthetic Voices

We can care about each other! It's a thing we're allowed to do. In a sense, it's the only power we have.

Life with a Flip Phone

My flip phone arrived, and just like that, I'm transported back to a different time.

To paraphrase Jessica Fletcher, that's all she wrote! As always, if you’ve read anything great lately, I’d love to hear about it, so shoot me a note anytime.

Have an excellent week, and I’ll talk to ya soon. :)

All my best,

Cheri B.

This letter was sent to my newsletter subscribers via email. If you’d like to receive these notes in your inbox, along with discounts, new releases, and a free starter library, you can sign up here.

#news

Here's an assortment of interesting things from around the web:

Cara.app – Now that DeviantArt is a shambling husk of what it once was, it's tricky to find places online where you can appreciate human-made art. Cara is trying to set up a new platform for artists to replace what's been lost.

Seattle Aquarium's Beach Naturalist program is back for the season. Wander around at low tide with expert help from a marine science interpreter!

Cowboy Slang – An amusing collection of old-timey words. (Thanks, P!)

The Cardan Grille – I've been reading about the use of cryptography during the Revolutionary War, and this is one method that George Washington's Spies used. Source: Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose

A Clip-on Handcuff Key – This seems more practical than the bobby pins used on television.

The Beautiful Disassociation of the Japanese Language“In particular, a whole realm of consciousness exists in the sphere of Japanese speakers that's perhaps truly unique in the world, more so than the sushi and the nature and decorum. It even allows for new literary techniques that are unimaginable in any other language.”

#links