Coronavirus and the Golden Rule

The Columbia Study

A study by Columbia University mathematicians estimated that if the United States had instituted aggressive shelter-in-place and social distancing requirements one week before they in fact started, as many as 36,000 lives could have been saved. Had the lockdown and social distancing order been given two weeks earlier, as many as 54,000 souls could still be alive.  

A caveat: The estimates are based on dense mathematical formulae, and the study has not yet been peer-reviewed. This means that it should not be used to guide clinical practice. However, nothing precludes using it to think about future personal practice in dealing with the pandemic, pending peer-review and certification of the accuracy of the mathematics. 

What do I mean?

Suppose the study is correct. We might be tempted to blame leaders who did not impose the restrictions until later, but that is fruitless: The dead are still dead. We face the same dilemma now and will face it for a long time to come: How can we balance opening society with saving lives? If the study is accurate, perhaps it offers some guidance. There may be value in considering stricter social distancing as we slowly reopen society.

 Staying at Home, Keeping our Distance: Two Views

How often do we hear—or say—that we’re tired of being kept at home, tired of keeping our distance and wearing masks in public. There are significant downsides to sheltering in place—a rise in domestic abuse being an important one. Even absent domestic abuse, “lockdown fatigue” remains a problem, and both our mental health and social needs and the perilous state of the global economy argue for some degree of “opening” society and returning to work. 

But there are equally compelling arguments for opening in very tightly focused ways and for maintaining stricter social distancing, masking, and stay-at-home when possible orders. The opening-up of the states is being handled sloppily in most instances, with no states meeting CDC guidelines for doing so. As a result, in nearly all the states, the rate of new cases of COVID-19 have not fallen to the level the CDC considers reasonably safe. Indeed, in many states, if not all, the rate of new cases is steady or increasing. Naturally, given the state of American politics, any discussion of the merits of the two viewpoints—open faster to save the economy and open slower to contain the pandemic—swiftly becomes partisan. Red versus Blue, Trump people versus non-Trump people (the majority). I’d like to take a thoughtful approach.

Flip the Debate

I do not want people who are infectious sneezing on me, coughing at me, singing around me, talking too closely to me, or violating my space (which has expanded to six feet). Nor do I want to do that to them. If people are required to be out and about (by their employer, for example, or because they’re deemed “essential” workers), I want them to have the safest possible conditions to move about or work in, and everyone else does too. 

This is simple justice. What I’m saying boils down to the Golden Rule, the single moral injunction common to all the world’s religions: Treat others as you want them to treat you.

Instead of debating on political (or economic) grounds, what if we think about the vexing question of how to open our economy safely as a question of morality? What if instead of “I’m tired of being at home and I need a paycheck,” we were to say, humbly, “By staying at home as much as possible and wearing a mask and socially distancing when I’m out, I am doing what I can to protect others as I wish to be protected”?

Book 5 of the Monastery Valley series

What’s in a name?

The manuscript of my fifth novel in the Monastery Valley series is at the editor’s desk. It’s perhaps the ninth or tenth draft–I lose count after six or so–and it’s working title expresses the main story and sub-plots: The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle. Without spoiling the story, I want to share how I came up with that title.

The first four books of the Monastery Valley Series . . . the fifth is in the works!

Briefly, the main story of number 5, like all my books, is inspired by events in the news–in this case, the takeover of federal land by right-wing extremists affiliated with the Posse Comitatus. The Posse is named after a law passed by Congress in 1878–at the end of Reconstruction–explicitly banning the use of Army or Navy personnel to enforce the law within the United States. It was a reaction against Reconstruction, during which the Union Army was used in some states to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment (which freed the slaves and allowed for penalties against states that prevented freed slaves from voting). The “unreconstructed” (vengeful) supporters of the Confederacy hated Reconstruction and did all they could to weaken the federal government in retaliation for it.

In the late 1960s, Henry Beach, from Portland, OR, founded the modern Posse Comitatus (the Latin name means “power of the county”). Beach’s extreme anti-Semitic, racist, and anti-government views included the belief that there is no legitimate government higher than the county, and that the county sheriff is the highest authority in the land. Beach wrote that if any local sheriff were to allow federal authorities to come into the county and impose regulations, “He shall be removed by the Posse to the most populated intersection of streets in the township and at high noon be hung by the neck, the body remaining until sundown as an example to those who would subvert the law.” Note: Beach founded the Posse in 1969. Yep, 1969.

In The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle, against the extreme threat posed by the heavily armed Posse members–whom Deputy Andi Pelton must confront to prevent violence–a summer wildfire threatens St. Brendan’s Monastery high on Mount Adams. St. Brendan’s is Monastery Valley’s namesake. As many of you know, “hotshots” are twenty-person teams of elite wild land fire fighters deployed on the most dangerous fires. But before the hotshots arrive, even as she works to contain the Posse’s danger, Deputy Pelton needs to mobilize the community to build a fire line to protect the monastery–in case the hotshots can’t get there in time.

The premise of the novel is that wildfire and heavily armed protesters have something in common: The capacity to do great violence to a community. Poised against that violence is the character of the community and its leaders.

Okay, that’s enough for the “Posse” and the “hotshots.” What about the “miracle”? I’ll save that one–maybe you’ll read the book when it comes out. Suffice it to say, this isn’t a “walking on water” kind of miracle. It’s the sort that can happen when folks in a small community face a daunting challenge and must eke out a way to confront it.

The Posse, the Hotshots, and the Miracle will be released late in 2020, or very early in 2021. Watch this space!

How Do I Do That?

The Question

A couple of days ago, a friend wrote, “I’m 200 pages in!” (That is, she’s reading Standing Our Ground, the fourth book in my Monastery Valley Series of novels.) “It’s a page-turner! How do you do that?” Her question gave me an idea for this post.

Writers have rules for how to do it . . .

I suppose there aren’t really rules that writers must follow–after all, any rule you could possibly name has been broken by wonderful writers. Take the often-proclaimed “rule” that “you must grab your readers’ attention and interest on the first page, or you’ve lost them!” In fact, writing coach and editor Ray Rhamey says you have to do it in the first 17 lines! But Richard Powers’ powerful novel The Overstory opens with four pages of trees talking about humans before even introducing a character. By the way, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

There may not be hard and fast rules for writing, but there sure are some powerful agreements among readers and writers. And one of them is simple: It all comes down to conflict, internal and external. And a corollary to that is equally simple: Make it worse. There are other agreements readers and writers have, but I’m going to reflect on these two today.

It all depends on conflict.

Without conflict, there is no story. Period. “Conflict,” of course, does not need to mean war, violence, mental illness, or loud angry arguments. If a character wants something and cannot get it, that’s conflict. You’ve no doubt read Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. (No? Do read it. You will be changed.) Enzo, the dog who is the main character, is old and dying–and he wants to die, because in his next life, he will become human. Dying and becoming human is his goal, his desire. But he loves Denny, his human, and he knows that dying will mean losing him and all it has meant to them both. Conflict. The story’s question is how–indeed, whether–Enzo can resolve his conflict, say farewell to Denny, and die happily into his next life. And the ramifications of that conflict and that question make for a marvelous and profoundly beautiful story.

That conflict is at the heart of story-telling is an idea as old as Aristotle, who placed conflict first in his list of the essential features of drama. But why does conflict have this honored place? Isn’t character more important? According to Aristotle–and to every writing teacher I’ve ever learned from–the answer is “No.” Character is only revealed through action (“Watch what he does, not what he says.”), and action requires conflict to reveal character. (Watching their actions, not their speeches and Tweets, isn’t a bad admonition in this political climate, eh?) Conflict spurs action and action reveals character.

Example: Suppose a story shows a man getting up, stumbling to the bathroom, brushing his teeth, shaving, washing up, drying his face and hands, returning to the bedroom and getting dressed, and picking up his briefcase and saying to his wife, “See you after work, honey.” See any conflict? You want a whole book full of this kind of no-conflict action? Okay, now try this:

The angry buzz of his cell phone beside the bed jerked Ted awake. He growled a half-startled, half-angry ‘What?’ into the phone, listened, jumped out of bed, grumbling.

His wife said, “Where are you going? It’s your day off!”

“Damn office called. We got a problem. I don’t know when I’ll be home.”

“Come back to bed, Ted, it’s our anniversary!”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Conflict, both internal (Ted wants to stay in bed with his wife but also wants to keep his job) and external (he wants his anniversary day off but also wants to solve the problem at work, not to mention his awareness that he’s disappointing his wife).

Books have been written about conflict in story-telling, much deeper than what I’ve just written, but this is enough for now. Let’s look at conflict’s corollary.

Make it worse!

Romeo wants Juliet, but their families stand in the way. Can he find a way to be with her? Scout (in To Kill a Mockingbird) wants to believe people are good and kind, but the racism in her town disturbs her. Can she come to terms with it without losing her belief in people’s goodness? Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) wants to be closer with her friend Peeta, but to protect her sister’s life she must compete against him in the lethal games. Can she survive without harming him or losing their friendship? The PI/detective/deputy/cop in any mystery or police procedural wants to get the bad guy, but it’s next to impossible to find the evidence or even to identify who the bad guy is. Will she win or lose the case? The formula for all this is “desire plus obstacles requires action.”

Most readers and writers agree that if a character immediately succeeds in getting what she wants, the story ends, because no more obstacles means no more conflict. So how does the writer keep the story going? By seeing to it that the character fails: The obstacles win.

In other words, writers keep making it worse for their characters. Every action taken by the character to resolve the obstacles fails, and the character finds that the problems he faces have just gotten “bigger and badder.”

There’s one more ingredient in how to write a spell-binding or page-turning story (novel or short story or screenplay or stage play): Helping the reader care about the characters. “Care” doesn’t have to mean “like.” Dudley Smith in Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (and other novels) is a proficient detective and a thug, but he has a mesmerizing personality and does good as well as thuggish things. He fascinates, and being fascinated by a character often means one cares what happens to him.

But although I can easily make things worse for my characters, I can only make my readers care about them to a limited degree. The rest is up to the readers themselves. But if everything clicks and my readers care about Andi and Ed and Grace and other important characters in my Monastery Valley series, watch what happens: In Standing Our Ground, the fourth novel in the series, Deputy Andi Pelton desperately wants to prove her suspicion that Daniel Essex wasn’t “standing his ground” in self-defense when he murdered young Bernard Cirilo, he had cold-bloodedly planned the shooting. At every turn, though, she fails to find the crucial evidence. Do the readers give up, throw the book against the wall because Andi is thwarted, send me nasty emails about writing such an incompetent cop?

Nope. They write, “I’m 200 pages in. It’s a page-turner!”

Why? Because readers have a goal too. Their goal is to find out whether Andi succeeds–which they want because they care about her. And each time I make it worse for Andi, I also make it worse for the readers, and we all know what humans do when their goals are frustrated: Almost every time, they forge ahead, hoping this time it’ll come true.

And that’s how I do that.

Celebrating “Standing Our Ground” release day: Scene 3

Here we go . . .

If today’s your first day at the blog, we’re celebrating tomorrow’s release of my fourth novel in the Monastery Valley series, Standing Our Ground. I’ve been sharing the opening scenes to give you a taste of the book. If you want to review scenes 1 & 2, they’re available in the previous two days’ posts.

You met Deputy Andi Pelton in scene 1, where she’s notified of “shots fired” in town. In scene 2, you watched Andi’s “step-girlfriend,” Grace Northrup (Ed’s adopted daughter), packing to leave for her first year of college. You saw a bit of Ed’s and Grace’s relationship. But now it’s time to meet the shooter. Here’s scene 3 from Standing Our Ground:


Andi pulled up at 206 East Cedar Street, lights flashing, siren screaming. Xavier’s squad sailed around the corner just behind. As her tires screeched, braking in front of the darkened house, she switched off her siren. Xavier pulled up fast, his own tires squealing. His siren died. Both flashers stayed on, spraying red and blue lights around the dark neighborhood. Scanning the shadows, she made sure her body armor was secure and, cautiously opening her door, stood behind it. Jefferson had never put streetlights in its neighborhoods, but the flashing lights illuminated a figure in the deep shadows near the house. No lights inside. She drew her weapon as Xavier climbed out of his squad, staying behind his door, gun drawn. 

“Identify yourself,” she demanded of the shadowed figure. 

Raising its hands to shoulder height, then higher, the figure replied, “I’m Daniel Essex.” His voice carried on the cooling air. “This is my home.”

“Did you hear shots?”

“Of course. I fired them.”

What the hell? she thought.

“Mr. Essex, I want you to keep your hands where they are. I’m going to approach, and my weapon is drawn. I will not shoot unless you move suddenly. My partner will come toward you from the side. Are you good with that?”

“Sure, Officers. Come on.”

She glanced at Xav. He nodded and moved off to the side, flanking her. 

As she approached Daniel Essex, she said, “Are you alone?”

“I am.” 

Coming closer, her eyes adjusted to the dark, and the red-and-blue flashes from the squad cars showed a bulge at Essex’s hip. “Mr. Essex, are you armed?”

“Of course, Officer.” He started to lower his hands.

“Freeze, sir.” Oh, man. Don’t make me shoot. She was ten feet from him. A few feet to her left and a bit behind, Xavier had his weapon trained on Daniel Essex, but that didn’t slow her racing heart. Essex froze, hands high. 

“Sir, please turn around slowly, keeping your hands in the air. Don’t do anything fast.”

“Sure. Whatever you say, Officer.” His tone was cool, almost friendly. When he turned, Andi approached, saying, “I’m going to disarm you, so please be still.” She patted him down, found the gun, and took it. She stepped back. “Do you have any other weapons on your person, sir?”

“Just that one.” His voice sounded less friendly. “And I want it back.”

She moved a step back, holding out the weapon grip-first to Xavier, who took custody of it. “One thing at a time, sir,” she said. “You’ll get it back once we straighten all this out.” Which could be a long time. “You can turn around, but please don’t make any sudden moves.”

“I won’t hurt you, Officer.”

“Glad to hear it. And please, call me ‘deputy.’” The guy must be new to the valley, she thought. Doesn’t know we’re deputies, not officers. “Sir, you fired the shots a few moments ago?”

“Like I said, yes.” 

Andi noted that his voice remained friendly, but his words were clipped, exact.

“Why did you fire, sir?”

He pointed toward the open garage. “He’s in there.”

“Who is?”

“The intruder who invaded my home. I stopped him.”

Andi’s chest tightened. She said, “Is he all right?”

“I doubt it, Officer. I’m a good shot.”

She moved toward the open garage. “Mr. Essex, Deputy Contrerez will wait with you while I look in the garage.” 

When Essex nodded, she glanced at Xavier. He nodded. “Go.”

She holstered her weapon and moved toward the garage.

She heard Essex say to Xavier, “Contrerez? Name like that, you must be Mexican.” He no longer sounded friendly.She smiled faintly as she heard Xavier say, politely, “No, sir. Born and raised in Billings.”


Did you like it?

I would deeply appreciate your letting me know your thoughts about these scenes. I realize that reading them on a blog is not the same as sitting in a comfortable chair and opening a new novel with the anticipation that fiction lovers feel as they begin. But perhaps you have some response–positive or negative–that can help me improve my writing for book 5 of the series.

You read that right: There’s a book 5 in the works! Meanwhile, I’ll be exploring, in this blog, some of the challenges in writing a psychologist as the protagonist. There are plenty! Hope to see you back here soon . ..

Celebrating the release of “Standing Our Ground”: Scene 1

Book 4 of the “Monastery Valley Series”

Release Day is January 23rd!

I’m excited that my publisher, Black Rose Writing, will release my new novel, Standing Our Ground, this week–Thursday, in fact, January 23rd. To celebrate, I’d like to share with you, over the next three days, the first three scenes of the novel, one each day. They will be brief, so as not to take too much time to read. I believe you will enjoy them (if you like mystery stories enriched with a deep dive into relationships and a strong comment on current events). 

If you’ve already wondered whether the title says something about the “stand-your-ground” laws, you’re right on target (sorry, pardon the pun). So here we go, without further ado, with Scene 1 from my new Monastery Valley novel, Standing Our Ground.



9:37 p.m. The hands on the big Howard Miller wall clock above her cubicle seemed like they hadn’t moved in an hour. Deputy Andi Pelton yawned and then called home. Ed would still be up. Just as he answered, she yawned again. Stifled it.

“Hey, kid,” Ed answered. “How’s the shift?”

“Shoot me. I’ve never been so bored. If this was Chicago, we’d have four, five drive-bys by now, a couple rapes, runaway kids. Here, everybody must be in bed.” She glanced up at the clock: still 9:37.

“I miss you on these evening shifts.”

That touched her. “Me too. Ed, let’s go public with our marriage. I want everybody to know.”

“How about we talk about it tomorrow on the way to Missoula? Grace’ll be in her car, so we’ll have plenty of privacy.”

“It’s a plan. Let’s—”

Suddenly, the receptionist’s voice cut in. “Andi, 9-1-1 call. Shots fired.”

“Oh, man, I gotta go. Shots fired.”

She heard Ed yell, “Be safe,” as she hit End. She grabbed her outer vest and started putting it on as she rushed out to Reception. She passed Marla without slowing. “How many shots?”

“Two. Caller said it sounded like a handgun.”

Andi kept moving toward the parking lot door. Over her shoulder, she yelled, “Where?”

Marla called after her, “206 East Cedar Street. The call came from the house next door.”

 “Radio Xavier. Tell him to meet me there and . . .” She shivered. “And to wear his armor.”

 She ran out to the lot. Just before flicking on her siren and lights, she heard Xav’s siren fire up north of town. Good. He’s close, she thought. She finished adjusting the vest as she drove. Four minutes after the call, she swerved around the corner onto East Cedar Street, Xavier’s siren close behind. 

Shots fired, she thought. “Be careful what you wish for,” she whispered. The dashboard clock read 9:41.


OK, that’s Scene 1. Tomorrow I’ll post Scene 2.

Authors are told (relentlessly), that if we don’t “grab” our readers in that very first scene, we’ve lost them. I think that’s an exaggeration, frankly, but I do try to infuse that first scene with a “story question,” and some emotional connection with the character(s).

I’d love to know if the scene raised a “story question” for you–What’s going to happen? How might it affect the deputy? Did someone get shot? Who? Why? If you’re so inclined, leave me a comment with your thoughts.

And if you want to pre-0rder Standing Our Ground, you can get a 15% discount before Jan. 23 at Black Rose Writing. Use promo code PREORDER2019. Click here to go to their website.

See you tomorrow!