Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest Blogger: Deborah Cota

Storytellers are not writers...well, not just writers.  Deborah Cota is a storyteller to her bones.  She takes you into her novels like that gentle neighbor who invites you to sit beside her on the porch swing and sip some Lipton.  Then once there, listening to that slender chain creak, you begin to see the tempting slips in reality telling you that you are somewhere you do not recognize.  It's too late at this point, of course.  Instinct tells you to find some place safe, but the other part -- that part Deborah finds so easily -- says "Okay.  In a minute.  But let's just see what happens next."

I am honored and thrilled that my friend and paranormal novelist Deborah Cota is guest blogging here today.  And she's saved some of her best quirky off-the-wallness just for us.

You can find Deborah's first novel The Kindred on Amazon.  Book two of The Dante Chronicles, The Brotherhood, will be available January 30, 2012

She also writes her own blog The Dante Chronicles.


The Muses: Clio, Euterpe, Thalia, Melpomeni, Terpsichore, Erato, Polymnia, Ourania and Calliope, were Greek deities said to have been sent to inspire man. What most history books don’t know is Zeus fathered a tenth Muse named Sandy; an incorrigible little imp with an attitude as high and wide as Mt. Olympus itself. 

Sandy had been with me as a child, encouraging me to explore things and touch objects that invariably would raise my mother’s blood pressure and send her voice into the stratosphere. Sandy would whisper in my ear, “Go ahead and touch the expensive, ceramic statue. Play with the matchbook...its okay. Trust me!” 

This would have been all well and good with most children, but being me and the klutz that I am, the statue ended up in pieces, the matches nearly singed my eyebrows off, and Sandy was not allowed to hang around anymore. 

Thirteen years ago, when I toyed with the idea which is now The Dante Chronicles, I caught up with Sandy. I was sitting at an outdoor table in front of Starbucks, and she was sitting at a table next to me; mumbling to herself and shifting papers in front of her, looking and sounding a lot like Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny.”

“Hey! Remember me?” I asked.

Sandy looked me up and down. Wrinkling her forehead, she squinted, “Cat statue that shattered, and the big match plate that went poof, right?”


“Yeah, I remember you? How’s your mom?”

“Good. She hasn’t forgotten you.”

“Most mom’s don’t.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked looking over at her table-top covered with pictures of paintings. 

“Hell if I know...this guy...? He’s a bass player who wants so bad to be a painter like his girlfriend, but...I just don’t think I can get anything better out of him. Look at this mess! He’s worse than her! My Peekapoo could paint better with her tail.”

“You have a Peekapoo?”

“Yeah, her name is Trixie! Wanna see?” Sandy grabbed her over-stuffed wallet from a giant, bright-red purse and rolled out a photo strip of color portraits; every one was of Sandy and Trixie in matching outfits, posed like something out of an old Montgomery Wards catalog. 

“Cute,” I said, smiling approvingly and doing my best Meryl Streep.

“Oh! That’s right! Acting classes with Dakin Matthews. Uh-huh. Very good. Oscar worthy, even.” Sandy turns her back to me, goes back to scrutinizing her photos, and sighs. Taking out my notebook, I start scribbling some notes on Eli and the cloaking spell and then stop to read what I’ve written. 

“What’s the book about?” Sandy asks over her shoulder. 

“What book?”

“The one you’re writing, Silly?”

Covering up my notebook, “Oh, I’m not writing a book, I...”

“Uh-huh...sure. What’s it about?”

“Really, it’s just some stuff I’ve goofed around with...”

Sandy gets up, turns her chair around and sits at my table, “Spill!”

“Well...I was thinking about a paranormal story...about a family that is split up and forced to fight demons to survive.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, like I said…I was just….”

“Got a villain?”

“Not yet.”

“Not yet? NOT YET?” Sandy reached behind her, grabbed her purse, pulled an iPad out and whipped her fingers across. 

“What’s that?”

“Something new…you won’t see it for a few years. I just turned the idea over to Steve, a new client. You’ll love it when it comes out….Okay, let’s see…one, two, three, four, five….”

“What are you counting?”

“People who have hurt you, used you, broken your heart, or been needlessly mean to 
you…twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-….”

“You have a list?”

“…thirty-three…of course. You don’t?”

“No…I try to forget all that.”

“Listen, kid…if you are going to write about demons and a family forced to fight, what better place do you have to conjure up the villains? Every writer does it…come on just try. What about her? Or him…Oh, he deserves to be ripped to shreds, got any plans for….”

“You are enjoying this way too much…” I said, packing up my notebook and coffee. 

“Kid, listen…I know what you are keeping inside you and I know how much talent you have. You need to do something with this. You’re good. You just need a little push.” 

Sandy leaned over and whispered something in my ear that I had pushed all the way to the back of my mind. I grabbed my pen, and wrote with force until the imprint of my writing pierced the page beneath. 

“Corson? What is that?”

“Not what, Sandy. Who. It’s a combination of a few different names.”

“Ahhh…I like it. This is good. What about a love interest?”

“No…I don’t want to write anything like…” 

“If you are writing about a family, then there is going to be love. May as well go for it all. Action, adventure…make it the book you’ve always wanted to read, but could never find.” 

“But a love interest?”

“You of all people can do this with your eyes closed. Just picture the man you’ve never found and hope to meet one day…Write about your friends, family, acquaintances….” 

“But a whole book? I don’t think I can…”

“Oh, honey,” Sandy said taking her purse and stuffing the pictures inside before standing up and pushing her chair back to her table. “Pull out all those composition notebooks of yours and paste it together. You had these books written twenty-years ago.” 

Later that week, as I was constructing a real outline, I decided to take a break and go do some shopping. Walking around the now defunct Tower Records, I heard a song. When I got back in my car, I heard the same song. As I walked into Safeway, I heard the same song blasting from a shiny, black Charger. 

So close no matter how far
Couldn't be much more from the heart
Forever trust in who we are
And nothing else matters

All through the grocery store and on the way home, I was mumbling to myself these lines over and over till my sister looked at me and sternly said, “What the hell’s the matter with you?”

Deciding to stop for lunch at Emil Villa’s I told her of my plan and my meeting with Sandy. 

“Oh, God…not her again!” my sister said, holding her head in her hands. 

“Yes, her again…but I’m older now and I won’t be touching anything lethal.”

“That’s great, but why were you mumbling to yourself like that? I thought you were losing your mind!”

“I think she was sending me a message…you know, like a Muse is supposed to…the song…it’s my theme. The message I want to convey.”

“Metallica? Your message is Metallica?”

“No…well, yes…but no.”

I began to run my idea across to my sister and at a key moment of my explanation her eyes twinkled. I knew I had the right plan there and then. She reached in her purse and pulled out a tiny notebook and pen. 

“Here…right it down.”


“Write the lyric down so you’ll stop walking around mumbling to yourself. You were doing it all through the produce department at Safeway, and people were staring at you while you were reciting it to the tomatoes. I don’t want anyone thinking you’re as nuts as I know you are. I’m just grateful it wasn’t that sanitarium song or ‘Enter Sandman’.”

Now ­I was the one with the twinkling eyes! Thanks, Sandy!

Sandy still comes by now and again; usually just when I hit a small plot snag, or at first edit. Mom is a little more receptive to her, although she still hides the good china, her shoes, and locks-up our dog in the laundry room. After she leaves, my sister does some finger exercises to get ready for me because I usually write up a few thousand words or so, every day, for the next couple of months. 

Encourage and be nice to your Muse. Troublesome or not, they are pretty good to have around.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Kindred Spirits with a Flashlight

My friend and one of my favorite novelists, Deborah Cota, asked me to write a guest blog for her site.  You can read it here.  Hope you enjoy, and I would love to hear your comments.

 You can find Deborah's book here:

The Kindred

Sunday, January 8, 2012

And Yet He is Still a Yeti

I've got a treat for you.  My best friend since first grade, Yancy, is guest posting today.  He has some amazing stories to tell, as you'll see by following the links below.  

--- Sam    

*                    *                    *

Oil and water.  Fire and gunpowder.  Spiders and…well, anything, because I hate spiders.  I’m talking about things that don’t go together, and often have serious consequences when placed in close proximity.

The most hilarious combination, I have found, is intelligent people and boredom.  I have been privileged to lead some of the finest soldiers the Army has to offer, in a less than ideal setting – western Iraq, just as the war was starting to wind down a bit.  Our job was one of the hardest I think, because it wasn’t to destroy, but to fix.  People.  My team ran the emergency and trauma section for one fourth of the country, but it wasn’t a continuous flow of broken bodies.  In between the hellish moments sat long periods of nothingness that would last days.  Buddha would have seen it as an opportunity.

My nirvana came when we received a new Doppler from medical supply.  About the size of a walkie-talkie, the device uses ultrasound to amplify certain bodily noises through a speaker – quite useful in quickly detecting heart rates of unborn babies or even blood flow of patients in shock.

I was trying to think like an officer, and give the guys something meaningful to do.

“Gentlemen, go into the trauma room and play with the Doppler.  Use it on each other, that way you know it forward and backwards.”

They willingly disappeared into the trauma room, and I heard the whoosh-whoosh of the machine periodically as one soldier would find another’s pulse.  Then I heard loud gurgling and laughing, as one soldier’s internal rumblings were broadcasted to the world.

Those of you who are parents know that when the room gets quiet, you better get up and check on the kids, because they are into something.  Soldiers are the same, so I started toward the trauma bays as I overheard.

Chad: That just doesn’t sound right to me.  Have you ever had any heart problems before?
Taylor:  No, never.  What does it sound like?
Ariel:  No murmurs, arrythmias, valve problems?
Taylor:  Nothing. Should we ask the captain?  Or the doc?
Chad and Ariel (mumbling together):  Definitely.  Absolutely.  Yeah, I think so.
Ariel:  The doc will want an EKG, should we just get one now?
Taylor:  Do you think that’s necessary?
Chad:  If we don’t, she’s just going to ask for one.  This should be looked at right away.
Taylor:  Is it that serious?
Ariel:  It’s probably nothing.
Chad:  Probably.  I'm sure you're fine.  No chest pains or anything?
Taylor:  We should get it now. (Peels off his shirt and walks over to one of the patient exam areas.  Pause for background - when Taylor goes shirtless, the number of bigfoot sightings spikes.  The man is a YETI.)

Chad:  The electrodes won’t stick, I’m going to have to shave a little.
Taylor:  Just do it. (More background: prep razors are extremely sharp, one dry swipe can clear a six inch path of chest hair without pulling.  An EKG requires ten electrode sites.  In a matter of seconds, Chad and Ariel had cleared almost a square foot of carpet from Taylor’s chest in a disorganized pattern, a fact of which he was not yet aware)

Taylor stared at the ceiling as the EKG machine hummed and printed his report.  He pulled the wires from his own chest, and practically sprinted, still shirtless, to where the doc sat, reading some notes from her computer.

Dr. Fraley:  What’s this?
Taylor:  My EKG.  Does it look all right?
Dr. Fraley (after a few seconds):  Looks perfectly normal, why?
Taylor:  Well the guys heard something in the Doppler…
Dr. Fraley:  What did they say they heard?
Taylor:  Some kind of murmur or something, they said they thought I should have an EKG.
Dr. Fraley (Checks out Taylor’s bare chest and giggles, as only a 50-year old woman with ten years of college can do):  There’s nothing wrong with it, but look at yourself.  (She wasn’t even trying to control herself now)

Taylor realized that he had been had.  The series of shaved patches looked roughly like a large smiley face, using his natural anatomical features as eyes.

Chad:  Look!  It’s a man-o-lantern!
(Howls of laughter follow, as Taylor’s face turns red, more from embarrassment than anger)

Due to concerns that this is to remain a family blog, I am unable to print the remainder of the dialog.

I will invite the reader, however, to read about one of Ariel, Chad, and Taylor’s more serious moments in Angel.   I implied in the beginning of this story that this bunch of clowns had my deepest respect, and they do.  I love them all as much as family, and even if they are like a gaggle of dysfunctional kid brothers, they are focused mind-readers when dealing with a trauma patient.

More gratuitous self-promotion:  My Facebook page is called The Pen and The Sword.  If you see something you like, then please like it, comment, or best of all, share it on your own page.   I need every fan I can get, so I can share my stories and those of others with a world that doesn’t always understand them.

Yancy W. Caruthers, CPT, AN, USAR (Ret)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve in SamSpace

  It's Christmas Eve. 

I blog now, but in social networking of Christmas Past, I remember that after days of diligently Googling, I mastered the art of cutting and pasting HTML code into the "About Me" box of MySpace.  I can write some simple HTML unassisted by any major search engines.  For example, I know that body's must be followed by /body's and that the command "font face =" works much better at making your webpage prettier than does sacrificing an old typewriter to the computer gods.  Still, there are great volumes of HTML that doesn't look a whole lot like English to me. 

Take for instance, "navbar hover."  Is that actual code?  Probably not, but I found it in the About Me box, so I'm running with it.  For some reason, the phrase fascinated me.  Why?  Well, let me put it this way:  Some of the certifiably oddball things that pop into my head and fall out of my mouth often make my wife turn to me and say, "Are you all right?  I mean, really, I think you should be on some sort of maximum strength anti-goober medication, or something."  Hmm. 

Where was I?  Oh yes, "navbar hover."  Okay, so I began to wonder that if it could hover, what would happen if you typed in:

Navbar sit
Or . . .
Navbar play dead

My wife wanted to type in "navbar bite me" but that one made me nervous, especially since the webcam spontaneously activated and started looking around the living room.

            Anyway, it's Christmas Eve.  I'm a little worried.  Not so much recently, but in Christmas Past my son was terrified of Santa Claus.  We have a picture of him sitting on Santa's knee, red faced, and screaming as if the old man had just told him, "Now, this won't hurt a bit."  My wife and I have elected not to tell him that tonight is the annual night that The Claus inevitably prowls around the neighborhoods of the entire planet. 

My wife said, "No, you can't tell our son that an old man with supernatural powers will get inside the house while we are sleeping."

I said, "How about --."

"No," she answered.

"Just that --."


I smiled and donned my best humble look of innocence.  "I just want to explain to him that Santa Claus will leave behind things -- things that no one knows what they are.  And, that no one will know until the crack of dawn."

My wife crossed her arms and explained to me politely and calmly how my idea needed a little work, and that we should concentrate on heightening the enjoyment of the Yuletide traditions. 

I mean . . . that's not her exact words.  Her exact words were more like, "I know where you sleep."

But I knew what she meant.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Paint Conan with Photoshop CS4

Have you seen the 2011 Conan movie yet?  I'd like to.  (I say so, because obviously the title of this tutorial greatly obscures that fact for all but the most Sherlockian minds out there.) 

For this painting, I used a reference image from the movie, but I am not a professional artist.  In fact, I got brave enough to use color for the first time only about 6 months ago.  Mainly, I sketch portraits in graphite, which I have been doing for a couple of years.  You can see an example of a Stephen King sketch I did here.  Everything I know is self-taught from the Web. 

In addition to Photoshop, I am using a 6" Bamboo tablet and stylus.  I just don't have the dexterity to paint with a mouse.  A mouse works great for photo editing, creating vector images, and stealing cheddar, but most digital painters refuse to use anything but a stylus.

I usually start with a gray background.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, it allows me to say, "Look Honey, I started a painting!"  But also, since gray is neutral, it keeps the colors in the foreground from growing too bright or too dull, since a color looks different depending on the values surrounding it.  For example, put a yellow circle on an orange background and it will feel warm without being terribly dramatic.  Put the same yellow on a blue background, and the contrast will almost hurt your eyes.  

On a new layer above the gray, I draw a line.  The line is important, because, once it is done,  I immediately say, "Hey Honey, can you come back and tell me what you think so far?"  It also is the same color blue that real comic book artists use.  There is a part of my brain that thinks that is extremely cool.  And, it has these hairy looking tick marks growing out at specific intervals.  Actually, this is the vertical center line that goes down through the middle of the figure, helping me to see it in 3D.  The tick marks are evenly spaced, marking the brow, the nose, bottom of the chin, collar bones, rib cage, etc.


Remember two things throughout this tutorial:  Anything can be fixed.  And, you start simple, then keep adding layer upon layer until it looks dense and realistic.  The more detail, the more realistic it looks.  At first, expect a lot of color banding and for the image to look rough.


On a layer between the line drawing and the gray background, add color.  For the thrill seekers out there, you can pick whatever colors you want.  It doesn't matter.  In fact, it's fun to glob on something off-the-wall, like teal or chartreuse, and whenever someone walks by to stare, you tell them that it looks just like them. Usually, however, I look for medium skin and hair tones.  Some artists start with the brightest highlights or darkest shadows.  Go with whatever makes you feel most comfortable.  You'll end up at the same place.  Then use the line drawing to start adding some basic shading and highlights.  Don't try to be precise.  That comes later.  We are just pushing around color now.

Hiding the line drawing layer allows you to see that the painting already has begun to take form.  Turn it off or on periodically to keep your bearings, but you will soon see that you don't need it anymore.

At this point, all paintings should vaguely resemble Gene Simmons from Kiss.  I don't care if you are painting Gandhi or a 1971 Chevy Nova.  Trust me, all paintings will look like Gene Simmons at some point.


But then Gene will get lost in the details.

The fact that nothing in real life is a single color is probably one of the most complicated steps in painting.  Take Conan's hair for example.  It is supposed to be dark brown, maybe black.  But for it to look realistic, there are many colors in his hair.  I'm not talking about how people may have a few brown hairs, some blond, and a red or two in the same clump.  In this image are black, a dark brick red, beige, gray, white, and even purple (sometimes on the same strand).  In reality, highlights blending into shadow will create these effects, but also most objects reflect everything around them to one degree or another.  His hair is going to reflect his skin tone.  And vice versa.  This is part of what gives an object a 3D illusion.  Also, the lighter the highlight, the more shiny it is.  (His hair is slightly wet.) 

Don't stress over drawing each individual hair, either.  See sections as individual shapes with highlights and shading.  The same is true throughout the image, which is why you can turn it upside down and still paint it accurately.

Smoothing.  The colors may not be blending well yet, especially if you have been painting with the opacity set to 100%.  To eliminate the striping and make the different colors look like a continuous gradient, turn down the opacity of the brush.  The exact percentage will depend on the color combination.  Typically, I will set mine from 10%-15%.  If you are, for example, trying to shade with pure black, though, that might be too high.  You might have to turn it down to 2%-6%.  Experiment.  If it takes too many strokes to see the color show up, increase the opacity.

I try to render a section completely before moving to the next.  That's my personal preference. Different people paint different ways.  Just depends on the artist.  It is a good idea, however, when there are two similar objects, like the eyes, to paint them simultaneously.  Otherwise, your Conan might look like his plastic surgeon was having a bad day.

Zoom in on sections and try to paint everything in detail.  A piece of leather will be as distinctive as a fingerprint, and you should be just as meticulous with it as you are the face.  Some artists tell you not to waste your time with these details.  This is true when a deadline is involved.  But if you are painting without a time constraint, this attention to detail will make a difference.

The last step.  The background only took a few minutes.  I simply took all the colors that were in Conan and arranged them so that the lighter colors were closer to him and darkest fell near the edges.  Then, I used burgundy (which is the darkest shadow in the scarlet cloth at his waist) and made a glaze.  I created a blank layer above all the others and filled it with the burgundy, then turned the layer opacity down to 27%.

Near the middle of the painting, my son came into my office.  I expected him to say something along the lines, "Dad, that is really cool!"  He looked at my computer screen.  I waited.  Finally, he said, "The mouth isn't right." 


I had been working on it for about two days at this point.  I was crushed.  Then, I reminded myself that my son is six.  Also, he occasionally forgets to use eating utensils, even when foods practically scream for them, like macaroni and cheese or Jello.  This, of course, only made me feel a little better.

Over the next several days, however, I think I made a lot of people uncomfortable when they realized I was staring at their mouths.