Monday, August 18, 2014

Meet the Herd: Mr. Donkey #farming #animals

I'm starting this series thanks to a kick in the pants from my wonderful friend Jackie in England, who asked for photos of the creatures inhabiting our farm. Rather than just post photos, I thought I'd share a little about their history and personalities, so we'll start with Mr. Donkey, who is truly one of a kind.



He's a lovely brown, with a darker mane and tail, and a splash of white at his bottom. He also wears white cotton socks on all four legs and has a few white splotches on his neck. As he's aged, Mr. Donkey's muzzle is fading to gray, giving him a grizzled look.


Why do we call him Mr. Donkey? His personality demands a certain respect. He's our only donkey, but he is a key member of the herd. You see, Mr. Donkey's main job is protection. He's the muscle, which might seem odd given that he's about 1/10th the weight of a cow. But when a calf is born, Mr. Donkey assumes baby-sitter role and minds the newborn while the momma (or mommas, depending on how fast the calves are coming) grazes. He's a brave fellow despite his diminished size and has put himself between a coyote and the herd, and a pack of dogs and the herd. Neither challenged him.


He's also a bit of a punching bag. As the calves grow, he's the nearest creature to their size, so when they get tired of head butting each other, they try to butt Mr. Donkey. He tolerates it pretty well, but when the calves see his tail flick, they learn to back off or get a tap from his hoof.


While we think he rivals Methuselah in age, we're not really sure how old he is. His early years are a bit murky, but we know he did a stint as a rodeo donkey and was rescued by the Heard family (fitting, eh?), who live near my grandparent's old place. While at the Heard estate, a mule took a chunk out of his neck. We have no idea how his spinal cord managed to avoid being severed, but it did. Mr. Heard smeared a healing ointment in Mr. Donkey's wound and barring a strange dip mid-neck, he's fully recovered.


He came to live with my parents about fifteen years ago when they expanded their cattle herd, and he moved to our ranch in 2007. He's an eating machine, stopping only to roll around on the ground for a nice dust bath. Given that we've had such a lovely spring and summer, he looks a little like a barrel on legs but he'll trim down to his normal svelte size in the winter.

He's notoriously camera shy (I was lucky he tolerated my taking these photos) and even a bit moody when it comes to being petted, although if you catch him just right he loves having his ears tickled. When he makes his mind up to be immovable, he's immovable. We've tried moving him from one pasture to another by tugging on his halter (when he wears one), but have found that shaking a bucket of feed works better.

He's very patient with creatures that are smaller than he is, like kids. Mr. Donkey has not been ridden since he's lived with us, and when people ask if he's rideable, we answer that if you can catch him, you're welcome to try.

Some fast facts about Mr. Donkey:

Favorite book: The Geronimo Breach by Russell Blake (A burro plays a key role in saving the hero. I think there's a bit of donkey-envy going on.)

Favorite song: "Donkey" by Jerrod Niemann. Even though he objects to the riding part, Mr. Donkey digs the chorus: "Gonna ride that donkey donkey down to the honky tonky, it's gonna get funky funky, aw aw." The song is either stupid or brilliant, depending on the listener, but Mr. Donkey loves it.

Favorite food: Anything, really, but he'll come trotting for an apple core.

Little known fact: He was the inspiration for the strip club name 'The Ronkey Donkey' in The Devil of Light.
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Stay tuned for more posts on other members of the herd, including Elvis, Sid Vicious, 107, and Gimpy.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Right Turn, Clyde - What Happens When Your Character's Character Changes? #amwriting

My husband and I are rabid devotees of the British radio drama The Archers. It's been on the air for over 60 years, but I didn't luck into listening to it until I moved to London in 2001. Every day at 1:00 p.m. (prior day's episode) or 7:00 p.m. (new episode) we'd tune into the Beeb and wait with baited breath for the top of the hour news to finish.

BBC
We thought we'd have to give up The Archers when we moved to East Texas in 2007, but we eek out enough internet speed in our slice of Redneck Paradise to stream the 13-minute episodes. Thank goodness. We've done without McVitie's Digestives and Galaxy chocolate since the move, but I'm not sure how we'd cope without The Archers.

BBC
The BBC describes The Archers as "Essential drama from the heart of the country." Bah. It's the story of a bunch of people - many of them involved in agriculture - who live in an imaginary place called Ambridge in an imaginary county called Borchester in rural England.

More specifically, it's a delicious mix of gossip and righteousness about how their lives will be tangled up by new roads that could split a family farm, the birth of a child with Down Syndrome, personnel changes at the local pub (The Bull), an outbreak of tuberculosis among the dairy herd, e-coli in the organic ice cream factory, a gay relationship, the loss of organic status on the pig farm, or the breakup of a marriage.

The people who write The Archers' episodes are usually excellent at their jobs, but let's face it: over the course of 17,000+ episodes, the plot lines need a little jiggling now and again. Lately, the writers have taken an annoying approach to liven things up: changing a character's personality, or their character, right out of the blue. It's totally disconcerting.

Some examples:

Tony Archer, an amiable fellow for as long as I've known him, has suddenly developed a case of the whinging nasties and is on the outs with his mom, Peggy, because he thinks she doesn't believe he's capable of running a successful farm.

Tony's son Tom (he of the Tom Archer's Organic Sausage empire) leaves the lovely Kirsty at the alter, abandons his pigs in their fields, and makes off for Canada. Only a couple of months ago his grandmother named him as primary beneficiary in her will, and he was focused on his future with Kirsty, building a house, and expanding his sausage and ready-meal business.

Steadfast Roy Tucker cheats on his sweet wife, Hayley, with his posh boss Elizabeth Pargetter who is still mourning the untimely death of her husband Nigel four years ago (I'm still irked over that) and has shown no interest in a relationship, sexual or otherwise, since.

Granted, these character changes can send the story off in new directions, but the ham-handed way they're delivered makes you wonder if the writers have had a hay bale dropped on their heads.

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of these changes is that once the drama is over, the writers often drop the characters back into their normal lives with nary a ripple of the change remaining. Take the 2011 discovery by Tony and Pat Archer that after their eldest son's death, his girlfriend gave birth to a son. She so despised Tony and Pat that she didn't tell them. Once they learned about him, Pat obsessed for weeks about meeting her grandson but once she did - poof - that storyline disappeared into the ether. We're left wondering why they wasted so much airtime on Pat's anguish if the kid can so easily vanish from the story.

At times it's enough to make me stop listening, but after 13 years of knowing these (admittedly imaginary) people, I'm committed.

Lessons for the author? First, if there's a change coming in a character's personality, give the reader hints that something's going on. In fairness, the writers tried to do this with Tom Archer's hard-hearted dumping of Kirsty by making Tom moody and forgetful before the wedding. We knew something was going on, but thought it had to do with his old flame, Brenda Tucker. Were there signs that the weight of the pig farm was too much for Tom? That his assumption of the 'heir' role rather than the 'spare' role after his brother's death years ago was haunting him? If so, they were so subtle as to not exist.

Second, once a character's character changes, make sure the impact continues to flow through the story so readers believe the change was essential, rather than a cheap way to hold their attention. The writers are trying to do this with the Roy Tucker / Elizabeth Pargetter affair, but Roy's behaving so badly after Elizabeth told him their one night stand was only a one night stand, that we wonder if Roy was ever the steadfast guy we thought he was.

And third, over the course of the story help the reader understand why a character's character changes. There has to be a reason Tony Archer's in such a tizzy and battling with his mother all the time. Doesn't there?

http://venturegalleries.com/author/gaelynnwoods/How do you feel when a character's personality makes an unexpected turn? Does it throw you out of the story?





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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Making Hay While the Sun Shines #farming #amwriting

One of the blessings - or curses, depending on how you look at it - related to writing crime fiction is that I can't help but look for danger in almost any situation. It's summer, and that means it's time to make hay in East Texas - or not, depending on the weather. We've had a beautiful spring and summer so far, and the pastures are lush with grass. Some farmers are working on their second cuttings of hay, but we've just had our first cutting done.

Since many of my friends live overseas or have never had a chance to see hay baled, I wanted to share a few photos of how the process works. And, as usual, I'm looking for creative ways to kill my characters. It's that blessing or curse thing.

The Musick Men are our hay balers and they start checking out our pastures in May, but we're usually not thick enough to cut until June. Hay baling is a five-stage process if you count the growing stage, and I guess we should.



Stage 1: Growing. Pray for rain and hope the grass grows. Yes, it's that simple. You can fertilize and amend the soil, but without rain, there's not much hope for hay.



Stage 2: Mowing. Essentially, you hook a great big mower to your tractor and drive around the pasture in ever decreasing circles until you've cut all the grass. Leave the grass to dry and pray for no rain.

(Nope, those aren't the Musick Men, that isn't our house or pasture, and their tractor doesn't look like that. I had a great photo of Mr. Musick the Younger cutting hay, but can't find it. If you squint and tilt your head just right, this is kind of how our mowing went.)



 
Stage 3: Fluffing. The technical term is raking, but it looks like fluffing to me. After the hay dries, attach a rake to your tractor (the attachment looks like modern art against the sky, doesn't it?), and drive around the pasture in ever decreasing circles.












 
The rake fluffs the hay and leaves it in neat little rows, like this:
 


4: Baling. This is where the fun comes in. Attach the baler to your tractor and drive around the neat little rows, sucking the hay up into the baler, rolling it into a round bale, then tying it with twine and dropping it out the back. Looks like a dinosaur giving birth, if you squint and turn your head just right.


 



















 (Those babies are nothing to mess with - they weigh in at 1,500 pounds or more. Hefty.)


5. Stacking. This part might seem silly, but you've got to get the baled hay off your pasture so you can start growing grass again. 



The Musick Men are kind enough to stack our hay where it stays relatively dry and is easy to access in the winter.

Now for the killing part. Is there opportunity for one of my characters to die when baling hay? Absolutely, particularly if the baddies are baling the hay. Sadly for real life farmers, the risks related to hay baling are all too real. Accidents happen every year, resulting in amputations, deep cuts, broken arms and legs, crushing, and death. The Musick Men are some of the good guys and thankfully, are conscientious when they're working with farm equipment.

In the fictional world, there's a great chance that one of my bad guys won't be so conscientious and will die while baling hay, or maybe when an errant bale rolls over them. Oh the fun we have in the country...

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