Friday, November 15, 2013

Happy, happy happy!

I feel like Snoopy when he's doing his happy dance! Today, I received word that I just got my first book contract ever (from a book publisher other than my own company)!  It will be a photographic history of Vado, NM, and—a wonderful opportunity for me to gather background information for MY MYSTERY NOVEL! (Since it is to be set in the Mesilla Valley, hence the name of my blog, Mesilla Valley Murders.)

Soooooooooooo . . . if you lived in Del Cerro, Berino, La Mesa, or Vado, I'm interested in scanning your family's historic photos (that means from the earliest photos you have—from the late 1800s, forward). While we will primarily focus on Vado, all of these little unincorporated villages, called colonias locally, are pretty intertwined. The resulting book should be a valuable asset to the community and to scholars who are researching Vado and the Mesilla Valley.

Finding out something about the area in which one lives is always fascinating to me. There is much to be discovered, things that, once documented, should help Vado and other small communities in the area take their place in history. Do you know someone whose family is from one of these communities? Comment here or see me on Facebook. I will look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Got Susto? Call a Curandera

What would you do if you had just experienced susto (magical fright or shock)?  How about mal de ojo (evil eye)?

Eggs, mint, and lemongrass, some of the items
that might be used by a curandera. Beth Morgan photo.
If you were among the Mexican-American population in the U.S. or Mexico who believe in curanderismo, you’d probably seek out a curandera or curandero, for a limpia (cleansing) or other ceremony to counteract the experience.

The ceremonies that I have heard of personally usually involve using an egg, which is passed over a person’s body—sometimes focusing only on a certain part—for cleansing. Usually, the egg is checked sometime later to see whether it is black, cooked, partly cooked, or unchanged.  Often, the egg is disposed of in a ritual manner.

“The use of the egg is quite common in curanderismo,” says Eliseo Torres, in his book Healing Herbs and Rituals: A Mexican Tradition. He explains that others who have gone before him suggest that the egg is an appropriate choice because, although it is used as a food, it also qualifies as a “sacrificial object,” being an animal cell.

Torres, a native of the Mexico/US border near Corpus Christi, Texas, is vice president of student affairs at the University of New Mexico. However, having grown up with this ancient, honorable, and for many, one of the few forms of accessible and affordable health care, Torres came to revere it so much he focused his studies on it and eventually earned a doctoral degree. He defines curanderismo as folk healing which arose around the time of contact between the Spanish and indigenous peoples of Mexico, although it contains some elements of Moorish tradition the Spanish apparently brought with them. It contains the idea that all healing comes from God, and thus, has strong, Judeo-Christian influences, as well as concepts and practices known to the indigenous populations of Mexico.

Some might consider curanderismo a thing of the past. However, this is not the case. While Torres has written extensively about a trio of well-known curanderos, one of whom was a woman exiled to the U.S. because of her political beliefs, he notes that curanderismo is alive and well today. He has worked with a curandera in Albuquerque and annually presents a class at UNM involving curanderas and students from around the country. I’ve also encountered people in my community who have studied curanderismo and traditional massage, and recently, I accessed the Facebook page of a Colorado curandera.

Why do I bring this up here? Well, because some of my mysteries’ characters will be clients of a curandera.  I’m sure that there are male practitioners out there. However, since I began hearing of these healers, I have heard only of the feminine variety, thus, my characters likely will work with a female healer.

Like many other systems of healing, curanderismo is thought to work on the physical, spiritual and mental planes.  Many curanderas, therefore, are those who treat only physical ailments. These folks are usually called hierberas, because they work with herbs. Those who use traditional massage (sobadoras) to treat physical illness may also treat issues affecting the nervous system or the mind. “That sobador might be said to operate on the psychic level as well,” Torres states.

Thus, when we speak of susto, we are not speaking of the medical condition of shock. We are referring to something more. From what I have read, this condition sounds very much like post–traumatic stress disorder, which can be deeply rooted and which may affect all areas of a person’s life. So, for people who are victimized in some way, or who have seen something they weren’t supposed to see, a consultation with a curandera may be just the thing to pull them back from the brink of madness.

You must wait a bit, if you want to know who consults a curandera in one of my Murders in the Mesilla Valley.  As always, your comments are welcomed.

* * *

For more information about curanderismo, see Torres’ book mentioned above, and Curandero: A Life In Mexican Folk Healing, also by Torres, both published by the University of New Mexico Press, in 2006 and 2005, respectively. 
© Beth Morgan, October 2013

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Quirks and Style Make the Character

How does one create a character that is believable and memorable? I would humbly submit (chuckle, snort), that it is one's quirks that make a memorable character—just as it is these same characteristics that make we humans who we are. By quirks, I don't just mean our hinkiness: I mean our mannerisms, our speech patterns, the things that matter to us, our "personal style," our pastimes and habits. All of these things and more, like a clay sculptor adding layers to his creation, build upon a memorable—or simply a useful—character.

Here's an example: Joan was an average American: she did not distinguish herself in school nor in taste. She had no major gift for conversation, limiting her comments to what she saw on TV last night and what she and her friends bought when they went shopping. She drives a white sedan that resembles every other white sedan on the road. She dresses in a style that makes her blend into the crowd: sweat pants, T-shirt, and athletic shoes. Her medium length, light brown hair she has twisted up on the back of her head and secured with a hinged comb. She wears tiny diamond studs in her ears. She is not a beauty; neither is she ugly. If you met her on the street, your impression of her would evaporate like a drop of water on a griddle.

However, Juana, while also no beauty, couldn't be any more dissimilar.

"What you lookin' at, gringa? Haven't you ever seen anyone roll a smoke before?" Juana is making herself a professional-looking roll-yer-own, which she will spark with a lighter that looks like a gun. On her bare left arm is a tattoo with a heart that reads "Mamacita;" on her right bicep is a chupacabra. You know it's a chupacabra, because the word is incorporated into the design. She wears tight jeans, stiletto heels, and a black leather motorcycle jacket is draped on the back of her captain-style bar stool. Her head is encased in a red bandana tied in the back, and her hoop earrings are so big they reach her shoulders. Although her hair is hidden, her makeup is chola-style, and her lipstick matches the bandana. She has enhanced a mole near her left eye.

Mr. Stripeypants in his stronghold (B. Morgan photo).
"Well, come on; sit down. I don't bite, bitch," she growls. She takes a deep drag of her fag and pops out a smoke ring. "That's right—beauty and talent. Now, what are you sniffin' around here for? I don't got all friggin' day." After she's heard your story, Juana leaves, in a hip-twitching display that makes all the male bar patrons howl, mounting her Harley and taking off in a deafening roar.

My thought is that when you are creating a character he must have something that makes him stand out from all others. Maybe she takes off her glasses every time she looks you in the eye. Maybe she dresses in bright colors and a flurry of ruffles. Maybe he pees outside whenever possible. He displays his nerves—or his boredom—by flipping his buck knife into a nearby log. Maybe he stutters or picks his pimples; maybe he whistles when engrossed.

It's the terms of endearment we use with our loved ones, Poopsie, the pet names we give our pets. Our cat has a name, but we call him Big Kitty, or B.K. for short; Big Galoot, because he weighs seventeen pounds, Mr. Stripeypants, because he's a tabby; Biggus Cattacus, and His Royal Hineyness, just because. It's the goofy songs we make up while on a road trip, the personal adornments we choose (or don't choose) that define us for others. It's mannerisms, speech patterns, thought patterns, presence, and a whole lot of other small details that distinguish  us from each other—the same being true for characters.

This is not to say that choosing vanilla over Boom-Choco-laco-laco-boom! has no value. Some characters must blend in. When that's what you want, they won't be flamboyant. Maybe they'll be like Joan.

What are some of the quirks of your favorite characters? I'd love to hear from you.
© Beth Morgan

Friday, July 5, 2013

Humility: Every Writer Needs It

Open Punctuation

I’ve just had a lesson in humility. I’ve been editing a manuscript written by someone else. When I felt that it was as good as I could make it I sent it to a proofreader. Her main comment when I got it back was that “if I shook it real good a lot of commas could come out.”

Well, she was right about that. I don’t know how much difference that will make in how I write. However, I have noticed that fewer commas are used in modern books. What I have learned from and because of my proofreader is that:

  1. If both independent clauses are short, using a comma to separate clauses in a compound sentence may not be necessary.
  2. Not every phrase or clause has to be set off with a comma. Sometimes things make just as much sense without them.
  3. “Open” punctuation style displays not only fewer commas but other punctuation as well.

However . . . . .

In attempting to research “open” punctuation online I find that it is a recent innovation (thank God!) brought about by the electronic age and most references to it have to do with business letters. Phew! I was starting to wonder if I’ve become passé.

Pop Quiz

I’ve only used three commas in the passage above. I could have added at least ten more. Where should they go?

Have you had an experience involving “open” punctuation? I’d love to hear about it. Please use the comment form below.

© Beth Morgan

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Kind of Crazy Kills?

I've often wondered what makes a person a murderer. In today's blog, I will discuss a couple of psychological types I've encountered, and I will explore whether these folks could be killer material. As far as I know, I've yet to meet an actual murderer; other types of criminals are a dime a dozen.

Borderline Personality Disorder Sufferer

Over the past decade, I've become increasingly aware that some of the folks who've crossed my path are just plain sick. This does not mean that they are hopeless cases, but they generally are resistant to treatment, because they think it's everyone else who has a problem. The first category of individual I'd like to discuss is the person who suffers from borderline personality disorder. To quote a local psychiatrist, these people are "angry, needy, and narcissistic."

With this type of individual, you will never win an argument: this person is always right. The world has wronged him or her (i.e., the individual has a "victim" mentality), and the sufferer may have become quite bitter. Such people often self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, because they are so miserable that they will go for anything, if it can can relieve their pain. Whether that means they isolate themselves, drink, take drugs, or lash out, there likely will be something or some activity they use to feel better. These folks are often lonely, because they tend to alienate people. I mean, really: don't you have better things to do than allow someone to rake you over the coals when you don't even deserve it? And there is the needy aspect: this type of person needs a lot of stroking, and if she doesn't get it, she will make your life a living hell (think Fatal Attraction). There is one is every family, every church, every business place, and in every institution of higher learning. After many painful experiences with such folks, I've learned that the best way for me to take care of myself is to get the hell out of their way!


The only schizophrenics I can talk about are those I've actually met. These folks really do hear voices and see things—and to them, these things are as real as the 100-plus-degree weather in the summer where I live. (That's real!) They may be rude and abusive and say things to complete strangers that have nothing to do with reality. They may be so paranoid that they must move every couple of months to be comfortable. They cannot process information rationally, because there is so much going on in their heads, they don't know what's real and what isn't. They will use you, lean on you, and be your best friend, until you piss them off (like the BPD individual above). Then, nothing you can do will change their minds. I have seen the aftermath of a suicide attempt by a schizophrenic. Thus, I know they can be suicidal.

While I couldn't say that it is typical for a schizophrenic to self-medicate, the individual I am acquainted with has had addiction issues. Unfortunately, the medicines this person should be taking to help her condition are generally the ones she doesn't take, and if you suggest that she is getting a little wierd and has she taken her meds today, she just gets resistant.


The sociopath may be charismatic, a veritable silver-tongued devil. However, he lies with every breath he takes. He has absolutely no conscience: he does not feel regret for anything he does that may hurt or inconvenience another, nor does this individual learn from having to pay the consequences of his actions. Life is all about him. He is convinced that he is a superior being and, therefore, deserves special treatment. These folks usually blame others for their problems. They are manipulative and have poor impulse control. My understanding is that these folks are somewhat different from psychopaths. I've looked into this some, because it interests me. These two antisocial personality disorders have many similar characteristics, but psychopaths are more violent and more erratic.

The individual I know best that I would term a sociopath does have addictive behaviors, as do several of his family members. Whether they are self-medicating is questionable: perhaps they just have to have something extra in their lives to keep things exciting (or in turmoil, which feels normal to such folks).

Potential Murderers, All

My personal belief is that, given the right circumstances, all of us are capable of taking a life. Thus, that would have to be true for all the crazy people I have mentioned above. I can easily see someone with borderline personality disorder getting so angry that she whacks someone over the head with a hammer.  The schizophrenic could always claim that it was the voices in her head who told her to snuff someone. The sociopath would blame someone else; the psychopath is probably the only one who would take credit for the kill.

I am not a psychologist, so I have much to learn about who kills. What do you think? I'd like to hear your ideas.

© Beth Morgan

Wednesday, April 24, 2013



All one has to do to get material for one's book is
read the news. Or, perhaps, make it. One evening recently, my husband went for a walk near where we live in a rural area above the Mesilla Valley. I was fully expecting him to be home within the hour he is usually gone. However, instead, he used his cell phone to call me.

"Bring the truck and my GPS unit," he said. "I think I've found some human bones." I did as he asked. By the time I found him, a couple of miles north of our house, he had called 911: he had found additional remains that confirmed what he'd found was human: the lower jaw. As an archaeologist, my husband is fairly well-acquainted with the human skeleton, however, I think even I would have recognized a human mandible.

While waiting for officers from the Sheriff's Department to arrive, we pinflagged all the remains he had found and some that we located after I arrived. When the deputies got close, we had to meet them farther down the dirt road and lead them into the rough, rocky country, where my husband had found the remains. This area sports a variety of plant life, including yucca, ocotillo, prickly pear, and creosote.

We spent the next couple of hours showing the deputies the remains we'd found in and near a small wash and assisted them in looking for more. It was getting on to dark; however, one of the deputies found the skull not long after they had arrived. We left after a period of not finding any additional remains; we had missed dinner and were getting cold and hungry.

The deputies and others stayed out there all night, looking for additional bones or bits of clothing that might have belonged to the individual they had decided was a male, probably in his 20s or 30s.
My husband had first found clothing; a belt buckle and a shoe, before discovering any of the bones, the first of which was a femur.  Although they found what they believed to be a fragment of some boxer shorts, law enforcement officers found little more that night. They've been out there since that night and found a cap.

How did this man come to be there? We are not in an area of the state where people regularly cross the border from Mexico into New Mexico. Was he a murder victim someone dumped or did he die at the scene? Was it a drug deal gone bad or something else? How long has he been out there? Was he a hiker who died of exposure? (My husband and I do not subscribe to this theory, as he was within sight of houses, which even at night, would have been lit well enough that he could have navigated toward them.) Temperatures can fall below freezing here, but based on the shreds of clothing that were found, I would guess he didn't end up out here in the dead of winter.

The deputies informed us there are numerous unsolved missing persons cases, quite an interesting tidbit in itself. Perhaps someone who recognizes the cap, the buckle, or the shoe will come forward and give some grieving family a sense of closure. Or maybe the mystery man will remain just that: a faceless, nameless individual who met his death in a unknown manner, alone in the desert.

© Beth Morgan

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cholo Style

OMG! It is
Sandra Bullock!
"Cholo" style is today's subject, as some of the characters in my mystery novel fall into the Latino gangster category. According to one online source, cholo style was an outgrowth of the pachuco style of the '50s. Living in New Mexico, we've actually been exposed to a good deal of that. We may not have recognized it for what it was, but in hindsight, yeah, fooz.

Point in fact, in recent years, many (particularly, young) Latinas have worn a certain makeup style that would nicely fall into the "chola" category. Sometimes these women will actually shave off their eyebrows and paint them back on, as one YouTube source suggests, "so that you look angry all the time." There's also a lot of white eyeshadow, black eyeliner that goes up in little wings at the outer corners of the eyes, sometimes a little teardrop or heart drawn on under one eye. The other major characteristic of this makeup style is heavy outlining of the lips, which are then filled in with a lighter color of lipstick or worn without lipstick.

The hair is the finishing touch. A pompadour may be prominent, or some other point of interest at the top of the head. Locally, there was a time when the bangs were worn with so much hairspray in them that they stood up for three inches or so all by themselves.

A NM cholo, one of the
characters in my book
The clothing worn is often baggie khakis, sneakers of certain brands (Nike, Converse), white T-shirts, and flannel shirts with only the very top button fastened. Check out Sandra Bullock's makeover on the George Lopez show. This is available on YouTube.

The male version is shaved heads or very short haircuts (according to one source, this was more popular in the '90s and 2000s, but it takes everything a little longer to get to New Mexico, so, they're still doing it here). Tattoos are popular for both men and women. Guys tend to wear certain styles of black sunglasses. Baggy Dickies pants are popular, as well as "wifebeater" undershirts, and again, oversized flannel shirts (long or short-sleeved) with the top button fastened. Some men, particularly in California, wear sports attire associated with certain football teams, especially those of Los Angeles Raiders. Bandanas seems to be ubiquitous, and are usually worn folded and tied low around the forehead, sometimes with the point sticking up or down.

We'll go into some related matters in another post. This is getting long. However, I want to thank a certain Estonian friend (you know who you are) for assisting me with some of the technological details of using blogger (they don't explain everything).

© Beth Morgan

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ernie, Rosie's sidekick and cousin

Chope's Bar in La Mesa, NM. Restaurant is brown building, center
Beth Morgan photo.
Ernie is three years older than Rosie. At 45, he is a sufferer of Tourette Syndrome, one of the ones who, unfortunately, have as an uncontrollable tic the urge to shout obscenities. He has always been this way, although, as a child, his obscenities were somewhat milder than they are today. We are in the process of observing Ernie, so that we can learn just what he typically says, when he's nervous or feels threatened. Suffice it to say, it will be in Spanish, his first language. His favorite phrases will be a topic for another blog post.

Ernie is fairly high-functioning, but it's a good thing that Rosie is more than happy to keep an eye on him. He has helped her out of a jam more than once, so she is fiercely loyal to him. He is essentially non-violent, but he is quite tall, and although not obese, he is on the plump side, thus, he cuts a rather imposing figure.  His demeanor, at least toward Rosie, is nearly always pleasant, and generally, he's quite sweet. To other people, he probably seems cold or withdrawn; that's not inaccurate. He tends to keep quiet--except when he can't help it. He works as a janitor at the county courthouse, now more a complex than a building, per se, with the Sheriff's Department next door to the south. He's only responsible for the courthouse, and that only part-time. His boss, Chuy, is primarily responsible for the cleanliness of the courthouse, but he has Ernie clean all the men's restrooms three days a week, and he cleans the commissioners' chambers once a week.

He was born and raised in La Mesa, home of Chope's Mexican restaurant. Folks who live in Las Cruces or elsewhere in the Mesilla Valley generally know of Chope's, because they have great Mexican food there and one of the most authentic (and unpretentious) bars in a 30-mile radius. Just like Rosie's parents, Ernie's folks farmed near La Mesa since before the area became part of the U.S., on the occasion of the Gadsden Purchase. His parents raised chile and cotton, and although they are mostly retired, other family members still farm their land.

Ernie is quite intelligent. He's very good at fixing things, both mechanical and electronic, and he likes to read comic books and graphic novels. His favorite comic book is in Spanish and features a Mexican wrestler who moonlights as, if not a superhero, at least a do-gooder with muscles. Sometimes, he and Rosie watch TV together. Robot Chicken is one of their favorite programs. He lives roughly a block away from Rosie with his parents. He doesn't drive, so Rosie often chauffeurs him around.

He's a little neater than some of his friends. He prefers a nice plaid shirt and chinos to jeans and T-shirts. He sticks to athletic shoes, though. He wants to be prepared, in case he needs to help Rosie on a case. And when he wants to be informal, he wears a black hoodie with a burning skull on the back. He also sometimes wears a black T-shirt with the image of his comic-book hero on it. He has several of them.

What do you think of Ernie so far?

© Beth Morgan

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Testing, testing

Hello, girlfriends (cats, dogs, husbands, etc.),

Hillerman Country
B. Morgan photo

I'm starting this blog, because I thought it might be a good way to share chapters and character profiles and the like from my mystery novel. I've yet to decide what I'd like to share first, but stay tuned.

One thing I could say: I went to Albuquerque the weekend of February 2 to do research for the mystery. The friend I was staying with had a lecture date planned for us on Saturday morning. Anne Hillerman, a former co-worker of mine, and daughter of my former journalism professor, Tony Hillerman (that's right! The one who wrote the Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn mystery series!), was speaking to the Southwest Writers group. During her talk, she mentioned the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference, an event she started through her business, WordHarvest. They will hook up a first-book author with a publisher and give the author a $10,000 prize, if her book is chosen. The timing is such that I don't think I will have anything ready to submit this year, but I might make it for next year. (Or I might have a publisher before then, who knows?) Anyway, I think it's a great opportunity to get a leg up for anyone writing their first mystery novel.

This is my first—no, actually, my second—attempt, at creating a blog. Please bear with me while I figure out what I'm doing. And feel free to give me constructive criticism. I know a little bit about layout and design but not a lot about creating a blog. Right now, access to this blog is limited. If you like it, I may open it up some more.

I'm hoping to give you a character sketch of my mystery's heroine in the near future. Hope to be writing more, soon!