The Story Behind Rubicon Ranch

Almost a year ago, I got the idea to write a collaborative novel online. I broached Second Wind Publishing authors with the concept, and I found eight other writers willing to participate in the experiment. It took a few months to hammer out the details, which seemed an endless task back then, but now I see as incredibly swift. The story was, after all, a committee production.

We started out with what we considered the most heinous of crimes — the death of a little girl. In the first chapter: Chapter 1: Melanie Gray — by Pat Bertram, which was posted on October 24, 2010, Melanie found the girl’s body stuffed in an abandoned television console when she was wandering in the desert, trying to come to terms with the death of her husband. Poor Melanie. So much death!

Each author created a character who might have a reason to kill little Riley. And each character was hiding something.

Could Kourtney and Jeff Peterson have killed their daughter, mischievous nine-year-old Riley, to protect their secret?

Moody Sinclair had once killed an eight-year-old boy. Has she killed again?

Fifteen-year-old Dylan McKenzie is a straight A honor student. By day. Did Riley discover the other Dylan, the one who prowls at night?

Cooper Dahlsing does strange things while sleepwalking. Could he have killed and not known it?

Mark and Jamie Westbrook, self-styled private investigators, show up to help solve the murder, but perhaps they had a hand in creating the crime?

Eighty-two-year-old Eloy Franklin sits on his porch and watches. But does he do more than watch?

Forty-three-year-old Melanie Gray found Riley’s body stuffed in a television console that had been dumped in the desert. But is she as innocent as she seems?

Sheriff Seth Bryan is bitter and cynical at having lost everything he values. Is he manufacturing crimes to bring him the notoriety he craves?

So many villainous characters! And until the very end, no one knew who committed the dastardly deed, not even the writers.

The novel was supposed to be a promotion stunt, but halfway through, it got derailed by life. One author had to deal with colon cancer, including three debilitating operations. Another author had to deal with a flooded house that was uninhabitable for six months. Still other authors had to deal with grief after the loss of significant people in their lives or heavy job pressures. When we started in again, we’d lost all our readers, so there was no longer any promotional value, but still we persevered.

And now the book is finished. You can read the entire novel online for free. If you prefer to read the book on an ereading device, Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story is available as a Kindle or in the ebook format of your choice from Smashwords. It’s also available in print from Amazon and Second Wind Publishing.

But . . .

That is not the end of Rubicon Ranch! Though some of the authors went on to other projects, enough wanted to continue the Rubicon Ranch saga, so we lassoed a few additional authors into creating characters. And now we have a new story.

Three months after finding the body of the little girl, poor Melanie is again wandering in the desert, still having a hard time dealing with her husband’s death, when she sees a congress of ravens pecking at a dismembered foot. Who was the victim and why did someone want him so very dead? Everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s life will be different after they have encountered the Rubicon. Rubicon Ranch, that is.

Although some of the characters from the previous collaboration are featured in the new story, Rubicon Ranch: Necropieces is a stand-alone novel. The first chapter will be posted Monday, June 11, 2012 on the Rubicon Ranch blog, and a new chapter will be posted every Monday after that.

I hope you will join us in this new serial adventure. It should be a devious tale.

Map of Rubicon Ranch.
A) Melanie Gray
B) Moody Sinclair
C) Eloy Franklin
D) Leia Menendez
E) Ward Preminger
F) Egypt Hayes
G) the Peterson house

Rubicon Ranch — The Saga Continues

More than a year and a half ago, nine authors from Second Wind Publishing got together to write a novel online. We knew nothing more than that a little girl’s body had been found in the wilderness near the desert community of Rubicon Ranch. Was it an accident? Or . . . murder! But who would want to kill little Riley? Everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s life will be different after they have encountered the Rubicon. Rubicon Ranch, that is.

From that short proposal grew a novel with intriguing and nefarious characters, each completely different because each was created by a different author.

Jeff and Kourtney Peterson are Riley’s “adoptive” parents who didn’t go through legal channels to get the child they so desperately wanted. Would they kill to protect their secret?

Moody Sinclair had once killed an eight-year-old boy. Has she killed again?

Fifteen-year-old Dylan McKenzie is a straight A honor student. By day. Did Riley discover the other Dylan, the one who prowls at night?

Cooper Dahlsing does strange things while sleepwalking. Could he have killed and not known it?

Mark and Jamie Westbrook, self-styled private investigators, show up to help solve the murder, but perhaps they had a hand in creating the crime?

Eighty-two-year-old Eloy Franklin sits on his porch and watches. But does he do more than watch?

Forty-three-year-old Melanie Gray found Riley’s body stuffed in a television console that had been dumped in the desert. But is she as innocent as she seems?

Sheriff Seth Bryan is bitter and cynical at having lost everything he values. Is he manufacturing crimes to bring him the notoriety he craves?

***

Life sometimes got in the way of this collaboration, so instead of posting a chapter every week, we went through a long hiatus where the authors suffered variously from cancer, death of a family member, house flooding, job loss, but we picked right up where we left off, and now this experimental novel is finished!

The book will be published during the next couple of months, but you can read the entire story online here: Rubicon Ranch, Book One: Riley’s Story

But that is not the end!!! Next week, we will begin posting chapters to a book in the series, Rubicon Ranch, Book Two: Necropieces — Residents of Rubicon Ranch find body parts scattered all over the desert. Who was the victim and why did someone want him so very dead? Eight Second Wind authors are collaborating to create another innovative crime novel set in the desert community of Rubicon Ranch.

Again, we will be posting a new chapter every week. I hope you will join us as the Rubicon Ranch saga continues.

Saying “Yes” to Life, and to Steampunk

I’ve been invited to participate in another collaborative novel, similar to the Rubicon Ranch project, only instead of a thriller, this collaborative effort will be steampunk.

I don’t know anything about steampunk. Know even less about the Victorian era. And know less than less about steam-driven machinery. So, of course, I agreed to do the project.

I crave anything that is different from what I know — different tastes, different experiences, different challenges. Ever since the death of my life mate/soul mate, it seems a waste (or a stagnation) to do what he and I always did. He might be moldering in the grave (or rather in a funerary urn) but it’s a disservice to both of us if I molder, too.

John Berryman wrote:

A voice calls, “Write, write!”
I say, “For whom shall I write.”
And the voice replies,
“For the dead whom thou didst love.

This quatrain could just as easily exhort, “Live, live for the dead whom thou didst love.”

Sometimes it feels as if this is still our life — his and mine — only I am here and he is . . . wherever. Perhaps I’m here to live for both of us. Or maybe, now I’m here to live just for me.

When we met, I was at my most spontaneous. Something about his being in the world made it seem as if life were full of possibilities, and I grabbed hold of life with both hands and ran with it. Years later, as he got sicker, as life took its toll on our finances, and the possibilities shrank, our lives became staid and planned to take his infirmities into consideration. He told me once he regretted that the constraints of our life destroyed my spontaneity, and he was sorry to be the cause of it.

It’s not something I like to face, but the last years, and especially the last months of his life were terrible for both of us. And, something I like to face even less is that his death set me free. The best way to honor my mate’s life and his great gift of freedom is to take back the thing he thought he stole from me, so I’ve been practicing spontaneity. Which means, saying yes to challenges. Saying yes to life. Saying yes to steampunk

So why steampunk? Why not? I’m a writer. I can fake it. I’ve also got the internet with all its research capabilities to help me. And it’s something I would never have considered writing. All good reasons.

Wikipedia defines steampunk as “a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, horror, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s. Steampunk involves a setting where steam power is widely used — whether in an alternate history such as Victorian era Britain or “Wild West”-era United States, or in a post-apocalyptic time — that incorporates elements of either science fiction or fantasy.”

In “How Do I Write A Steampunk Story?” Dru Pagliassotti says, “Steampunk fiction consists of two elements — the steam, or gaslamp aesthetic, iconography specific to the genre — and the punk, a critical ideology or political stance that satirizes, challenges, or subverts societal trends.”

Kat Sheridan, a friend who took a steampunk writing class wrote me, “Remember, steampunk is all about breaking the rules and throwing conventions out the window!”

Should be fun. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Rubicon Ranch: A Collaboration

Rubicon Ranch is a collaborative novel I am writing online with eight other Second Wind authors. 

A little girl’s body has been found in the wilderness near the desert community of Rubicon Ranch. Was it an accident? Or . . . murder! But who would want to kill a child? Everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s life will be different after they have encountered the Rubicon. Rubicon Ranch, that is.

If you haven’t yet checked the story out, you can find what we’ve written so far at: Rubicon Ranch.  Here is the current chapter, told from the point of view of my character, Melanie Gray, a recent widow who found the child’s body.

Melanie had taken the long way home from the restaurant, winding for hours through Rubicon Ranch, stopping to shoot exotic blooms in landscaped gardens and dainty wildflowers in unkempt yards. By the time she reached Tehachapi Road, she was exhausted. She half expected the sheriff to come after her, but apparently he’d accepted her brush-off as final — if you can call a full-fledged tantrum a brush-off.

Why did he keep getting under her skin? He wasn’t her type. Not that she had a type. Alexander was the only man she’d ever loved, and she’d fallen for him so hard she could still feel the bruises twenty-three years later.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered her husband when they first met. His hazel eyes had blazed with golden lights as he smiled at her, and young fool that she’d been, she’d been dazzled. They had a great life, or so it had seemed. She’d felt safe with him as they traveled the world over. And free. What need had she of a house, a car, kids when she had him?

Well, now she had nothing but debts. And doubts. Had Alexander ever loved her as she loved him?

“Are you okay?”

The voice startled Melanie. She scrubbed away her tears and looked around. An old woman with tan, leathery-looking skin and dark eyes shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat was standing by an open mailbox, envelopes clutched in her hand.

“Are you okay?” the woman repeated as she closed the mailbox.

Melanie curved her lips in what she hoped was a friendly smile. “I’m fine. Just hot.”

The woman brushed a forearm across her brow. “Too hot for this time of day, that’s for sure. Tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter if you can imagine that. Well, at least all this sweat is good for the complexion. Keeps one looking young.”

Laughing, the woman minced up the sidewalk to her front door.

Melanie let the smile drop from her face, glad she didn’t have to pretend to be amused at the woman’s feeble joke. Nothing amused her any more. Not the irony of Alexander dying while texting. He hated texting. Said it was creating a new language and a cult of idiocy. Not the sheriff and his unsubtle attempts at flirtation. Not finding a little girl stuffed in a television set. Had that been someone’s idea of a joke? A fitting resting place for a child who watched too much television?

She hastened up Tehachapi, but her footsteps slowed as she reached Delano Road. This neighborhood had never been welcoming, but now it felt threatening, as if unseen storm clouds were gathering above the custom-made houses.

Maybe, finally, the sheriff was going to investigate the murderer instead of investigating her. Maybe, finally, he was going to turn his predatory gaze in the right direction.

She almost felt sorry for the villain.

Rubicon Ranch: A Collaborative Novel

I am involved in a wonderful project with eight other Second Wind authors. Rubicon Ranch is an ongoing collaborative novel that we are writing online. It is the story of people whose lives have been changed when a little girl’s body was found in the wilderness near the desert community of Rubicon Ranch. Was her death an accident? Or . . . murder! But who would want to kill a child? Everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s life will be different after they have encountered the Rubicon. Rubicon Ranch, that is.

Each of us writers is responsible for the development of our own characters. My character is Melanie Gray. She has traveled the world with her husband, a world-renowned photographer. Together they authored many coffee-table books (she did the writing, he the photographs). One of the books told about mountains of the world, one about rivers, one about oceans, one about forests, and now they have a contract to do deserts. After they rented a house in Rubicon Ranch to begin their in-depth study of the southwestern deserts, he died in a car accident.

Now, not only does Melanie have to deal with the pain of losing her husband and figuring out what she’s going to do for the rest of her life, she needs to fulfill the publishing contract or she’ll have to reimburse the publishers, which she cannot do because the advance is all but spent. Since she is not a photographer, she roams the desert bordering on Rubicon Ranch, taking hundreds of photos, hoping that a few of them will accidentally end up being as brilliant as her husband’s photos always were. She finds the child’s body and takes photos of the scene after calling 911. At first she is a suspect but once the Sheriff has ruled her out, he requests her help in reading the desert and desert-related clues. Still, the sheriff does not trust her completely, thinking she is hiding something.

Chapter 26: Melanie Gray — by Pat Bertram

Fury, like wildfire flashed through Melanie. Fury at the sheriff for paying his silly games when people were dead, fury at herself for playing his fool.

She’d been flattered that he thought she could help with his investigation, but apparently the only thing he’d been investigating was her and how to get in her panties. And she’d fallen for it. Cripes, what an idiot! All her resolve not to let him get to her had been for nothing.

And that whole seduction scene—”So maybe, when I need you to help me, I won’t have to bully you. You’ll cooperate with me because you understand that getting my job done honestly is the most important thing to me.” Did he believe his own drivel? And anyway, how could she help when he wasn’t doing anything? It had been two days since Riley died. Didn’t they say that if they didn’t catch a killer within the first forty-eight hours that chances are he or she would never be caught? And the sheriff had wasted those precious hours trying to seduce her.

She’d fallen for Alexander’s crap and apparently she hadn’t learned anything, because here she was again, playing straight-woman for another unprincipled clown. Alexander, at least, had offered her adventure and marriage, and for a while he had even been faithful. But Seth? What did he have to offer? Nothing. He was married, and he was a taker. He’d take everything she had, which wasn’t much, just her integrity, and she’d be damned before she let him tarnish that with a tawdry affair. She’d seen the look in his eyes when he’d said “And I know you’d rather claw out my eyes and slash my throat than let me touch you.” And that look had belied his words. He seemed to think all he had to do was pretend to know her and she’d fall into his oh, so understanding arms.

“What?” he said, sounding as if he didn’t know exactly what was going through her mind. How could he not? He, Sheriff Seth Bryan, the great detective.

“As if you don’t know.” Melanie spit the words from between clenched teeth.

Seth’s brows drew together in an almost believable though comic look of confusion. “That’s such a typical womanish remark. I thought you were different.”

“You thought I was gullible and naïve. You thought since I put up with Alexander’s philandering, I’d put up with yours, too, but that is not going to happen. Only a fool gets involved with a married man, and whatever you think, I am no fool.”

Seth held up his hands, palms toward her. “Whoa.”

“Being a widow does not make me ripe for the plucking. I don’t need to be serviced like a bitch in heat. Believe me, the last thing I need in my life is a man, especially a married man. Calling it separate maintenance does not make you any less married.”

He flashed his teeth. “So you do like me. You’re protesting too much.”

“Not protesting enough, apparently, or else you wouldn’t have that silly grin on your face.”

He lost the grin. “What’s going on here? I thought we were having a nice meal while we went over the case.”

“You should be going over the case with your deputies. They, at least, seem to understand how inappropriate it is for you to include me in your investigation. Unless I’m still a suspect and you’re trying to get me to let down my guard and confess?”

“I told you, you were never a suspect.”

“As if playing with me, gigging me as you called it, is any better. So let’s discuss the case. What were the results of the autopsy? Was Riley murdered or was it an accident? If she was murdered, how was it done and who did it? Were there drugs in her system? Have you interrogated her parents yet to find out what they’re hiding? Have you found out who the dead man is and what, if anything, he has to do with Riley’s murder? You pretty much ignored me when I said he looked liked Riley, but then, that’s understandable. I never got a good look at the girl. All I saw was her jaw line, her nose, and her eyebrows, so whatever I blurted out after seeing the man’s corpse has to be discounted. Did the same person kill both of them? Or were there two different killers? Or . . .” Melanie paused to grab the thought that flitted through her mind. “Did he kill Riley and someone else kill him?”

Seth picked up his sandwich, dipped an end in the au jus, bit off a piece, and chewed slowly.

Melanie nodded. “That’s what I thought. You’re all talk.” She deepened her voice and mimicked him. “‘We have to solve these murders.’ Yeah, like there really is a we. Well, there was a we, but that was Alexander and me. You and I will never be a we.” A cough shuddered through her torso. She took a long drink of water, hoping she wasn’t coming down with a cold but was merely dehydrated from the strong air-conditioning and her rare monologue.

Seth gave her a searching look, opened his mouth and then closed it again with what sounded like a resigned sigh. She wondered what he’d been going to say and why he thought better of it, then she let out a sigh of her own. It didn’t matter. She had enough to do with grieving and fulfilling her book contract. She had nothing left for the sheriff and his investigation. Whatever he might think, she really didn’t know anything. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. She did know one thing.

She threw her napkin on the table and stood, ready to flee.

Seth gaped at her. “What’s going on?”

“I’m going home, Sheriff Seth Bryan. I’m through with your games. You lied about investigating Alexander’s accident. I saw the photos in the newspaper and I visited the scene of the accident. There was nothing there to indicate that the crash had been anything other than an accident. Perhaps someone had tampered with the car, but the only way to find that out was to investigate the vehicle itself. And you didn’t care enough to check it out.”

***

An additional chapter of the book will be posted every Monday. Please join in the adventure — it should be fun! We don’t even know whodunit and won’t know until the end. You can find the earlier chapters here: Rubicon Ranch

On Writing: Family

If a character has well-defined family members – that never-satisfied mother, that demanding great-aunt, that silent father – then we authors don’t have to create that character. The family does it for us.

The family of Mary Stuart in Daughter Am I truly helped create her. When Mary found out that she was the heir of grandparents she never knew existed, she had to find out who they were so she could find out who she was. Once I set the family dynamic, that determined the character of Mary. Her father was close-mouthed, wouldn’t talk about why he disowned his parents or why he told his daughter they were dead. He also bonded more with his daughter’s fiancé than with her. The mother seemed to be mostly a shadow of the father. Because of this, it was inevitable that Mary got engaged to the guy they liked, and it was also inevitable that she dumped him when she became her own person. And even that “own person” was created by family — turns out she was just like her dead grandfather, with his set of values, a desire to build his own life despite social conventions, and an intense loyalty. Even her “adopted” family helped create her. As she followed her quest to learn about her grandparents, she accumulated a crew of travel companions — all friends of her grandparents — who become a new family of sorts.

Rubicon Ranch, the collaborative novel I’m doing with some other Second Wind authors, is all about family. The birth family who’s been searching for the girl and who fall prey to con artists, the couple who wanted a child so bad that they kidnapped one, the old man who suspects his son of the crime, the woman who suspects her father, the boy who is being abused by his father, the sleepwalker who is still haunted by his dead sister, the woman who is grieving for her dead philandering husband. It’s interesting how the theme of family has evolved in such an extemporaneous project. We never planned this theme, but each of us separately chose to deal somehow with family skeletons.

The family of Bob in More Deaths Than One certainly helped create him, especially since that was the basis of the story. He comes home from an 18-year sojourn in Southeast Asia to discover that the mother be buried before he left is dead again. He goes to her funeral and sees his brother, but they had never been close, so he doesn’t make contact. Bob also sees himself, but a doppelganger isn’t really family, so it doesn’t have any part of this discussion.

Lack of family also helps define characters.

In my just-published novel Light Bringer, two of my main characters found each other when they were searching for their birth parents. Those characters were truly a product of their upbringing and their birth. That is the whole crux of the story — who the characters are and why they were birthed.

How does your character’s family make her who she is? (Or make him who he is.) How do they bind her? How do they set her free? Do they add to her conflicts, either internal or external, or do they help her on her life’s journey?

Rubicon Ranch Preview

I am working on my next chapter for Rubicon Ranch, the collaborative novel I am writing online with eight other Second Wind authors. If you haven’t yet checked the story out, you can find what we’ve written so far at: Rubicon Ranch.  JJ Dare’s chapter is especially chilling. My chapter isn’t due for a while, but I need to get a head start, since who knows what writing projects I will be involved with when my turn rolls around again. Here’s a bit of what I wrote today:

The sheriff poured two cups of coffee from an urn on a rosewood sideboard, set them on the table, and slid into a chair opposite Melanie.

“What do you want with me?” she asked.

He gave her an innocent look as if he didn’t know what she meant. “I just want to feed you.”

“Yeah, feed me to the sharks,” she muttered.

“You’re very clever, aren’t you?”

She sat up straight. “What?” The word came out almost as a shriek. She modified her tone, but did not try to conceal her anger. “Are you suggesting that I had something to do with that little girl’s murder?”

“Why do you assume she was murdered?”

“You’re saying she wasn’t murdered?”

“Did you know the girl?”

“No. I might have seen her, but I didn’t pay much attention to what went on in the neighborhood. Wait! I bet she’s the one Alexander told me about. Right before his accident, he caught a little girl snooping around in our backyard.”

“I never saw the report.”

“Report? Oh, police report. He didn’t turn her in. Professional courtesy, he said. He was a bit of a snoop himself. Supplemented our income with photos of celebrities.”

“Did he ever take photos of your neighbors?”

Something in his expression—an added alertness—alarmed her. “Are you thinking Alexander might have been killed?”

“Why do you ask that?”

She shot him an exasperated look. “Having a conversation with you is like trying to talk to a four-year-old who has an attention disorder.”

Introducing Rubicon Ranch: A Collaborative Novel

I am involved in a wonderful project with eight other Second Wind authors. Rubicon Ranch is an ongoing collaborative novel that we are writing online. It is the story of people whose lives have been changed when a little girl’s body was found in the wilderness near the desert community of Rubicon Ranch. Was it an accident? Or . . . murder! But who would want to kill a child? Everyone in this upscale housing development is hiding something. Everyone has an agenda. Everyone’s life will be different after they have encountered the Rubicon. Rubicon Ranch, that is.

Each of us writers is responsible for the development of our own characters. My character is Melanie Gray. She has traveled the world with her husband, a world-renowned photographer. Together they authored many coffee-table books (she did the writing, he the photographs). One of the books told about mountains of the world, one about rivers, one about oceans, one about forests, and now they have a contract to do deserts. After they rented a house in Rubicon Ranch to begin their in-depth study of the southwestern deserts, he died in a car accident.

Now, not only does she have to deal with the pain of losing her husband and figuring out what she’s going to do for the rest of her life, she needs to fulfill the publishing contract or she’ll have to reimburse the publishers, which she cannot do because the advance is all but spent. Since she is not a photographer, she roams the desert bordering on Rubicon Ranch, taking hundreds of photos, hoping that a few of them will accidentally end up being as brilliant as her husband’s photos always were. She finds the child’s body and takes photos of the scene after calling 911. At first she is a suspect but once the Sheriff has ruled her out, he requests her help in reading the desert and desert-related clues. Still, the sheriff does not trust her completely, thinking she is hiding something.

These chapters have already been posted:

An additional chapter will be posted every Monday. Please join in the adventure — it should be fun! We don’t even know whodunit and won’t know until the end.

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