On Writing Well

I’m excited to announce the release of my second novel, The Ghost of Heffron College, a supernatural mystery set at a small liberal arts college somewhere in the upper Midwest. I am a little anxious about reviews, though, because my first novel, Asperger Sunset, featured a character with autism, and this book does not.

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Will people be angry there isn’t an autistic character? A lot of people follow me because I post information and articles about autism, and Asperger Sunset was unique, especially when it was published, because so little fiction has been written around autistic characters. That’s changing, with the Rosie books and TVs “The Good Doctor,” and that’s terrific – but my new book isn’t about autism.

And yet … one of the things Asperger Sunset did was speak in a clear, concise voice. No small talk, no read-between-the-lines events, nothing that would make it difficult for a person with autism to read and (I hope) enjoy the story.

Ghost of Heffron College is similar. My goal as a writer IS to be clear and concise. My characters rarely engage in small talk, and the plot trucks along pretty quickly.

Writers are often asked about the authors they look up to, the ones who inspire them. I write mainstream mystery, but my favorite writers are those who have a straightforward style, not necessarily in my genre. For example, Stephen King corners the market with his effortless style. I read Christine before I was even old enough to see the R-rated movie, and you knew exactly what was going on. The car loved her owner and was going to kill anyone who came between them.

I’m fond of Dennis Lehane, who can get verbose with his description at times, but the plot always moves forward and he keeps you guessing, not because the characters are being coy but because there are strong arguments to be made for either side of their decisions.

Randy Wayne White started out writing men’s fiction, what he called “duck and f**k” novels – lots of action and plot twists. His Doc Ford novels settle down a bit, letting him fill the story with setting and character, all with clear purpose.

There are best selling authors I dread reading because their books are full of overdramatized situations signifying nothing. Relationships, trying to figure out what the other character means when they won’t come out and say it, that’s not fun for me to read, so I don’t write that way.

It’s a myth that people with autism don’t like to read. Plenty of people with autism enjoy reading – especially girls, who are woefully undiagnosed. They just  don’t want to play the same stupid social games when they are reading that they have to navigate in day-to-day life.

So. Even though Ghost of Heffron College does not feature a character with autism, it does have the same author’s voice as Asperger Sunset. My voice. No social games, no weird reader manipulation, just a fun, straightforward mystery with a few twists and turns, and things that go bump in the night.

What more could you ask for?

The Ghost of Heffron College is available as a paperback or Kindle here.

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Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt – and Someone Finally Noticed!

I just finished reading Steve Silberman’s hefty hardcover, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. I started the autism journey over 15 years ago and a lot of the stories parallel my own.

When I first encountered the word autism, it was as if I had been handed a death sentence. The room got quiet, the social worker placed his hand on my shoulder and said “I’m sorry.” I was confused. I had seen the movie Rain Man and my kid wasn’t like that. What the hell?

One administrator, in a throw-away line that became a lifeline, said “Look into something called Asperger’s Syndrome.”

And we were off. Symptoms fit, therapy was set up to teach social skills and executive skills and now I have a senior in college. We’ve come a long way, baby!

NeuroTribes is a look at the history of autism. From Hans Asperger’s initial studies in pre-World War II Vienna, to Leo Kanner’s work in America, all the way up to groups and organizations hard at work today. Silberman isn’t kind to Kanner, suggesting he wrote a lot to advance his own career and he refused to acknowledge the lesser affected children until many years later. Asperger, on the other hand, may have painted too positive a picture when describing his charges, as the Nazis were seeking to eliminate imperfect people. In time, gas chambers were actually installed in hospitals and over 200,000 mentally afflicted people – many of them children – were murdered.

Throughout the book, stories of parents who refused to institutionalize their children echo over and over. It’s these parents who refused to believe the professionals who pushed forward to get education rights and therapy programs that fit and helped their children. Finally, in the mid-2000s, people with autism themselves got involved, fighting back when NYU’s Child Study Center posted billboards to recruit new study subjects: “We have your son. We will make sure he will not be able to care for himself or interact socially as long as he lives. This is only the beginning. Signed: Autism.” The billboards were soon removed. Autistics had found their voice. And it was strong.

I was caught up in this sea of confusion. My son was never as difficult as other kids I had read about. Yes, he was prone to tantrums and craved routine and was deeply absorbed in clipping out the MasterCard and Visa logos from the phone book and taping them in a long line on the wall throughout our house when he was three years old. We knew he was different and had challenges but finding help was difficult. Six different diagnoses from six different professionals. Then we, too, like so many parents described in this book, found the Autism/Asperger’s trail. We got away from the stereotypes and found the real people underneath.

We’re still fighting stereotypes. Though Rain Man was wonderful at the time in that it introduced the word “autism” to the general public, it was hard for us because we weren’t dealing with issues that severe. We said “autism” and people refused to believe us. We heard all the hurtful comments, from “I’m sorry,” to “kids with autism are better off dead.” I became estranged from some family members because they refused to support us when we were struggling and later marked off my son’s success to “maturity.” Being early in the autism “epidemic,” I had to introduce the concept of non-Rain Man challenges to each and every Special Ed teacher along the way.

We’re winning, though. The biggest discovery over the years is that kids with autism, no matter how severe, can LEARN. They improve. They grow. What they need most is love and understanding.

Silberman talks about this in his book. He explains that neurodiversity has always been around and it should be treasured and celebrated and accommodated as needed.

Finally. Someone understands.

Small Talk and Complaining About the Weather

Yesterday, after my dental cleaning, the hygienist set up my next appointment, which would fall in August. She laughed and said, “By then, we’ll be complaining about the heat instead of the cold.”

I laughed with her, but I cringed a bit inside. Complaining about the weather seems to be reaching Olympic heights this year, with the Polar Vortex affecting so much of the nation, more and more schools closing due to extreme weather conditions, and peoples’ general obsession with griping about the current conditions.

As someone who has cultivated the skill of small talk over the years, I’ve always known weather is a part of it. Weather is something that everyone experiences so it is quick and easy common ground, readily available fodder for small talk. I’ve prided myself on coming up with small-talk-based discussion revolving around other things – when I fall back on the weather, I consider it a weakness in my own social skills.

Yet people seem obsessed with weather! It’s too hot, it’s too cold, there’s too much snow. Is it small talk, or do they really hate the weather outside? I don’t quite get it.

I love weather. It fascinates me. Living in Wisconsin, I get all the extremes. The newly named Polar Vortex, frankly, is normal for us. We expect high temperatures below zero for a period of time each winter. We expect an average of 55 inches of snow per year. In the summer, we are a bit cooler than other places, but we still have days that settle in the mid-90s and the humidity is intense.

When a storm is poised to hit, I turn into a weather geek – I’m watching for the severe weather bulletins, I move the pets and important papers and such to the basement if tornadoes are threatening. If it’s snow, I work ahead if I can, so I can take a day off and enjoy it with the kids if school gets canceled.  

You’d think I’d LOVE talking about the weather! But discussing what is actually happening isn’t on most people’s agendas. They just gripe about the cold and snow, or complain about the heat and humidity. And I’m at a loss to explain why they do that. Is it just small talk, or is it something more?

I know some people do suffer Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) where they are depressed during the winter months. There are places where the unusual winter weather causes genuine problems for people – like the horrific traffic jams in Atlanta last month where ice and snow coated the twelve-lane highways while too many people were trying to use them. And I always feel great compassion for anyone whose life is upended by a tornado or a hurricane. But that’s all different from griping about another day of cold weather.

I suppose I should consider the weather a gift, an easy tool to use for small talk, but sometimes I wish there was a bit more substance behind it all.

How’s the weather by you these days?