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The Writer's Mailbag: Installment #325

Alexa Has a Mind of Her Own

I’m very polite with Alexa. I’ve come to realize that the nicer I am to Alexa, the more accepting she is of my verbal requests.

“Alexa, please play 70’s folk,” and I’m convinced the “please” in that request is the reason I immediately hear Simon & Garfunkel and not Three 6 Mafia. Similarly, if I’m polite, my request for NPR is instantly granted; but leave the “please” out, and I’m just as likely to hear Fox News as punishment for my poor manners.

I’m just passing along this tip free of charge. I think it can benefit all of you with an Amazon Echo.

Be polite!

To take that point a bit further, wouldn’t it be nice if we were all as polite with fellow human beings as we are with artificial intelligence? Just something to ponder.

The song “The Pretender,” by Jackson Browne, is stuck in my head (Alexa just played it). I’ll leave you with these stunning lyrics before we open up the Mailbag:

“I'm gonna be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
where true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender.
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender.”

The Mail Room!

The Mail Room!

Character Development

From Liz: “I can see an advantage of writing a series, in terms of character development. Do you ever have a character in mind and then find that, as you write, you end up developing them in an unexpected way due to the path that your plot takes?”

A variation of that happens all the time with me, Liz. I rarely know who my characters are going to become. It just happened in my Shadow series. In my last book in that series, “The Magician’s Shadow,” I introduced a young prostitute, Sarah, and gave her a small part in the plot. But in my latest novel, “Shadows Across The Pond,” Sarah has blossomed and taken on a major part in the novel. I had not intended that when I first introduced her, but my muse whacked me over the head and informed me that Sarah deserved more attention.

And I always listen to my muse.

I love the creative process, Liz, and one reason I do is because I often don’t feel like I’m really in control of the action. Ideas and plot-turns just pop into my head as I’m writing, one reason why I never outline a novel before beginning. For me, an outline would stifle my creativity.

Protests in the Northwest

From Peg: “I've been wondering how the latest developments of protesting have affected you in your region of the country? It's hard to know what to believe anymore, even when we see it with our own eyes. Videos can be cherry picked to show only one side of any message like text and scripture can be done.”

That’s a hard question to answer, Peg! It depends on who you talk to. Talk to business owners on Capitol Hill in Seattle and they will tell you they are fed up with the protests. Same with business owners in Portland, Oregon. I’m sure the police would say the same thing, and the mayor, and the city councils, etc. But talk to the average citizen and I’m not sure you would hear the same answers. The protests happen at night when the average citizen is home watching the Wheel of Fortune, so they really don’t affect me and millions of my fellow Northwest friends.

Having said all that, public opinion has shifted considerably since the protests began after the George Floyd shooting. Opinion is leaning more towards the negative end of the spectrum now; people are just tired of it all. The central message has been lost because of the violence which inevitably breaks out, and I find that sad, because the central message is important. We are quite accustomed to protests in the Pacific Northwest, and by and large we are accepting of them, but the random violence does no one any good.

Anyway, you asked how I’ve been affected, and the answer to that is hardly at all. I will not go to downtown Olympia at night. Period! But then I rarely went downtown at night before the protests, so there you have it.

Calm during the day

Calm during the day

Politics and Creative Writing

From Mary: “As we enter the last few months before the US election, have you written anything with a main character as a politician? If not, why?”

Scroll to Continue

I have not, Mary! Why not? From a writer’s point of view, it simply doesn’t interest me. As a citizen I’m into it big time, but as a writer it’s just not the direction I care to go in.

It’s funny, but I was just thinking about this yesterday as I was working on my second draft of my new novel, which takes place in 2020. Should I change it a bit to include the coronavirus? Should I make mention of the upcoming election? So far I have chosen not to. It is not germane to the novel, you know, so why go there?

But I haven’t published yet, so time will tell. Maybe Alexa has an opinion on it. I think I’ll ask her.

Developing characters is a ton of fun!

Developing characters is a ton of fun!

Striker and Love

From Lora: “Here are my questions for you. Does Striker have a love interest in any of your stories? I think of Sherlock Holmes and how his feelings for Irene Adler were more platonic and based on an admiration for her wit and cunning. Does Striker ever have flashbacks about those that he might have had an emotional attachment to in the past or think about events that happened earlier in his life that helped shape his life in the present?”

A very timely question, Lora.

For those unfamiliar with my “Shadow” series, Striker is the buddy of my main character, Eli Baker, and he is a trained killer who does work for various governments. He is about as far-removed from a romance character as you can get, and for five books he has spent his time killing the bad guys in various, creative ways.

Until now! Two books earlier, Striker met, and fell in love with, Beverly, a wheelchair-bound interior designer. Beverly tamed the wild beast in Striker (as much as that is possible), and they are now married.

This latest book in the series is as much about Striker as it is Eli Baker. I spend quite a bit of time going back in Striker’s life to point out events which molded him into the killer-with-a-heart that he now is. I think followers of this series will really enjoy the flashbacks, which help to define Striker and give him much more depth.

Alexa's home

Alexa's home

Back to Alexa

Alexa didn’t have an opinion on the protests, but she did have more music to share with me.

From “The Only Child,” again by Jackson Browne:

“Let the disappointments pass let the laughter fill your glass
Let your illusions last until they shatter
Whatever you might hope to find
Among the thoughts that crowd your mind
There won't be many that ever really matter

But take good care of your mother and remember to be kind
When the pain of another will serve you to remind
That there are those who feel themselves exiled
On whom the fortune never smiled
And upon whose life the heartache has been piled
They're just looking for another lonely child”

Good writing is good writing is good writing. Makes no difference whether we are talking song lyrics or a novel or a short story or a poem . . . good writing is good writing!

Have a great week and please, make sure you register to vote, and get that vote in as early as possible.

2020 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 13, 2020:

Thank you for the question, Rinita! I'm sorry, but I had already finished this week's mailbag, so this will be the first on in the mailbag on the 21st. Thanks so much!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 12, 2020:

I love good writing, Rajan. I don't much care about the source or the genre; I can appreciate good writing in any form.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on September 11, 2020:

Thought-provoking powerful lines by Jackson Browne indeed. Good writing is, always, good writing. Its source does not matter. Thanks for sharing.

Rinita Sen on September 11, 2020:

I'm well thanks for asking. Oh, and I do have a question. Do you know of any good software (preferably free) that converts words written on paper to a Microsoft word doc? I googled some but not sure if any of them are good. Many times I feel like writing something and I'm not in front of a computer at that moment. I may have a pen and paper handy, but then I don't use them because I'd have to retype everything on the computer later. And if I don't write at that moment I don't seem to remember what I was going to write when I go back to the computer. If you've used any such software please let me know. Thanks.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 11, 2020:

Hi Rinita! Thanks for the visit. All is well here, and I hope the same for you.

Rinita Sen on September 11, 2020:

Dropped by to say Hi. Love your advice on developing characters. And yes, good writing is good writing, no matter where it comes from. Hope all is well and take care.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 10, 2020:

Now that was funny, Mary! Me too! By the way, does anyone know the actual lyrics to Louie, Louie? lol

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 10, 2020:

Thanks for stopping by, Devika. There will always be a place for you in the Mail Room.

Mary Wickison from USA on September 10, 2020:

Hi Bill,

Thanks for tackling my question.

I guess the truth is stranger than fiction.

When I read the lyrics of songs I know, it turns out, I've been singing the wrong words for years.

I hope your week has been great.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on September 09, 2020:

All informative an impressive in your hub. I am fine where I am and happy as I am it sounds dramatic everywhere else. Thank you for sharing about Alexa.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 09, 2020:

Heidi, Happy Wednesday! It's in the 90's here today, and I'm blaming you for it. Somehow you sent us your weather and I'm not happy about it.

Reality stranger than fiction...we are living that now, aren't we? This seems like a fantasy world right now. I'm happy my dad died when he did; he would be a crazy man right now in this strange world.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on September 08, 2020:

Mailbag Tuesday? Okay, I'll use Labor Day as an excuse.

Re: Protests. We've got a similar issue here in Chicago. The looting and violence (not the acceptable peaceful protesting) is really concentrated in some areas. In most areas, it's business and life as usual. But it is rankling the downtown area and must be addressed.

Re: Politics and Writing. Who needs to write a novel about politicians? We have enough wild fiction being written in the news. And you can bet as soon as early voting is available, I'm there!

Re: Alexa. I see you and your robot are getting along well. She seems to prefer Jackson Browne. Hmm. Of all his songs, The Pretender is the one that just sticks with me, too.

Back to labor after Labor Day!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Lora, I don't know how you folks do it with that heat. I have become a temperature wimp. It's supposed to be in the 90's tomorrow and Thursday here, and I am not happy at all. I just melt and wait it out.

I have a small group of dedicated followers who always buy my books. I don't think any of mine will ever be a "hit," but it's nice of you to say that.

Have a wonderful week, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

You're missing out on great fun, Linda, but I understand why you don't have her. You're probably wiser than I am.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

I'm with you on that violence, Bill. It makes no sense. Everyone was behind BLM for the first week of peaceful marches, and then the torching and looting began. Now they've lost 90% of their supporters, and that's sad.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Jason, that is way too funny! I love when she starts talking while I'm in another room. It's like who the hell is she talking to? And my wife doesn't leave a space between saying "Alexa" and her request, so Alexa is terribly confused when my wife asks her anything.

All good fun and cheap entertainment.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Alyssa, you had me laughing with your manners. Playing it safe is wise. You just never know when we will wake up and AL will have taken over the universe.

Thanks for the laugh, my friend, and Happy Tuesday to you.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

I keep hearing that rumor, Sha. I have no idea if there is any validity to it or not. We unplug ours when we don't need her for music, just in case the conspiracy theories have some merit.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Hi MizB! We are having summer return this week, in the 90's the next few days. Just shoot me now; it would be kinder for this wimpy old man.

Too funny about Siri! And the fact you apologized made me laugh.

Best wishes this week, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Hi Liz! Yes, the same thing happens here with Alexa. We unplug her if we aren't using it, just in case those concerns about spying on us have some merit. :)

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

I like that line, Dora...every topic has its writer! Very true!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Mary, those are wonderful examples of how both sides could have meaningful discourse about problems without anger or violence. Thank you for sharing that. It gives me hope that maybe one day we can do the same in the U.S.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Thank you Chitrangada Sharan! Think about that for awhile...being polite to artificial intelligence. lol That makes me laugh and yet we do it, don't we?

Have a brilliant week, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

I like that, Linda...creating something that is timeless. That's as good a reason as any for me to leave the virus out of my stories. Thanks for that, and I'll listen to that interview as soon as I catch up on sleep.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Hi Peg!

I'm afraid any city of any size has the same problems with homelessness. I don't know what the answer is, but they sure better think of one soon. This is a problem that won't go away until some forward-thinking politician dreams up a solution, and other politicians come to an agreement.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

So very true, Peggy! Let's hope brighter days are ahead of us, my friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 08, 2020:

Thank you Ann!


Lora Hollings on September 08, 2020:

Well, it certainly looks like my question was timely alright, Bill. What an interesting guy, Striker sounds like. I'm so happy to hear that he met Beverly and they are now married! I'm sure that readers will love the flashbacks in your latest book that show what events molded him into the character that he is today and give him more dimension.

I love the lyrics from the song, "The Pretender," by Jackson Browne. It is sad that so many lose the ideals that once dominated our thoughts and our lives. Or do we just compromise until what we once were becomes almost unrecognizable? So we must be careful not to compromise too much or else we risk losing ourselves.

Your approach to writing, Bill, reminds me of the words of the great composer Gustav Mahler who said "It is strange how one feels drawn forward without knowing at first where one is going." -Gustav Mahler.

Wonderful mailbag this week, Bill. Tomorrow, hopefully, will be our last day of triple digit temps. I can't wait for Fall to actually start here! The hot temps don't have a good effect on my mood and deplete me of most of my energy. I will have a more positive outlook on life with the change of temperatures and, hopefully, with a change of leadership! I will definitely vote early. You can count on that!

I'm sure that your latest book will be a real hit!

Take care, Bill.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 07, 2020:

Alexa sounds like an interesting character! I haven't brought her into my home and don't plan to, but I enjoy reading about her behavior.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on September 07, 2020:

Jackson Browne was one of my favorites during my college years. Thanks for the lyrics, brought back some great memories.

Western Mass has been quiet in regard to protests, which is fine by me as they seem to lead to violence. I just can’t understand the violent aspect of this where businesses get torched and looted and more people get hurt or worse. As you said, the central message gets lost in all the violence and I find that very sad.

Nice mailbag this week, Bill. Have a great week.

Jason Nicolosi from AZ on September 07, 2020:

I loved this mailbag, Bill. Fantastic work. Very interesting stuff overall, but back to Alexa. Sometimes Alexa will drive me crazy. I find my self yelling at the device all the time. I literally have like 10 of them around my house (it's a love-hate relationship.). I'll ask one directly in front of me for the time and another down the hall will answer. Sometimes I'll ask for the weather and Alexa will be like "ok playing music you like". When that happens I usually just stand there puzzled while scratching my head thinking "what the heck?

Alyssa from Ohio on September 07, 2020:

Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for pointing out manners, Bill! I feel the same way whenever I make a request with my Google Assistant. Not only do I say, "please," but after my request has been granted, I say, "thank you." You never know when AI will take over, and it's my hope that they'll remember me as being polite-- perhaps even going as far as making me one of their own. haha! I kid, (but honestly, you just never know.) I just hold manners in high regard.

Excellent mailbag as always. I was also curious how things were going in your neck of the woods with current events. Glad to hear all is well!

Have a wonderful week!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on September 07, 2020:

Bill, if you don't mind I'd like to add to MizB's comment about Siri. I have Siri on my phone because it's an iPhone. I thought she was supposed to determine when I was talking to her. One day I had my cell phone outside with me because I was expecting a call. My neighbor came home and I said, "Hey, Terry!" and Siri responded with, "I'm here. How can I help you?" I thought it was a hoot but scary at the same time.

I've heard that homes that have Alexa are spied upon. I'd rather turn on the water, change the channel myself, and dial the radio to my favorite station than risk that. Sometimes technology isn't always a good thing. It's bad enough we rely on remote control. If we can't get off our asses and do what we've been doing all our lives for the sake of convenience, something tells me there's a price to pay.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on September 07, 2020:

Interesting experiences with Alexa, Bill. We don't have Alexa. We have enough problems with Siri. For example, I was sitting on the couch with a cat on my lap. I heard a voice say, "I'm sorry, Doris, I don't think I can do that." I moved to see where it was coming from and discovered I was half sitting on my phone. I picked it up and read what I'd said to the cat: Hop down, Cici, I've got to check on supper." Of course, I apologized to Siri.

Anyway interesting questions and most interesting answers. Our weather is still hot, so we're staying home out of covid's way, we hope. Have a good week, my friend.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 07, 2020:

I laughed at your comments about Alexa. In the UK, many households have them, but some are concerned about Alexa being used to spy on them. Ours used to spark up if we said a word with X in it, which was a bit spooky.

Thanks for answering my question about character development.

I was interested in your comments about plot development and the way it just flows, rather than sticking to a plan.

References to your novels whet our appetites to read them.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 07, 2020:

Thanks for the tip on Alexa. I like her too. Your explanation about not wanting to write about some things is insightful. Every topic has its writer!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 07, 2020:

I love the focus on character development. I dream about developing some characters when I meet people who are very interesting or quirky that they will fit in so well in a novel.

About the protests, I am happy how it is unfolding here in Canada, at least in Ontario. The protesters are not angry but speak clearly about the issues. One time, a person got heart, and one of the protesters took care of him. When interviewed, she talked about how, when a person gets hurt, we need to help them. There was no anger in her, and that impressed us. We talked about it with friends as they also noticed that. I had dinner with neighbors in the cottage who are not political at all, but their daughter, who was there and one of my favorite humans, talked about how our police force is affected by it. We talked about the issues, both sides of it freely. I hope that it remains peaceful here in Canada.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on September 07, 2020:

Hello Bill!

Loved your reference to Alexa. Yes, it’s always good to be polite with everyone, even Alexa.

Loved the lyrics and the session of interesting questions- answers.

Have a great week. Thanks for sharing another wonderful installment.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on September 07, 2020:

Bill, the question and your answer about politics and creative writing reminded me of an interview I heard yesterday, Mo Rocca (CBS commentator) on "The Takeout" by Major Garrett. I will email the link to you.

What I found fascinating was Mo's comments on one of his first jobs, writing for the children's TV show "Wishbone." (WIshbone was a sweet little Jack Russell terrier who in a 30-minute show would imagine himself as the central character in a classic story--Treasure Island, Romeo and Juliet, etc.--It was brilliantly written, retelling a well-known tale in a way that children could relate to.) Mo said that they never inserted pop culture or current events in the stories because they wanted the show to be timeless.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on September 07, 2020:

Hello Bill, Thank you for the update on how things are going out your way. I'm glad to know you're away from the worst of it. The same goes for me about downtown Dallas. I worked downtown for a short time and remember stepping over homeless people on the sidewalk or being accosted by others drinking out of paper bags while asking for donations. Going to and from the creepy parking garage was the pits.

At my house we don't say the "A" word for reasons that she's just too nosy for comfort. It's bad enough that our ring camera announces every moth or bee that flies within reach. But we sure do get some interesting video of possums and visiting cats.

I'm also glad to know that you don't make an outline of your stories, rather let them lead you wherever they go. I like that method, too.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 07, 2020:

Thanks for sharing the lyrics of those two songs with us. I particularly liked the second one. "Let the disappointments pass let the laughter fill your glass..." We can all use more laughter in our lives these days! Stay safe and well.

Ann Carr from SW England on September 07, 2020:

Thanks, you too bill.


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 07, 2020:

Thank you Pamela. Labor Day, like most holidays, has very little importance for me. It's a workday like any other. Bev is home, though, and she's enjoying her day off.

Have a wonderful Monday!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 07, 2020:

Sha, it seems you and I stopped reading just about the same time. I used to read a book each week, but I really haven't done any serious reading for about two years. I wonder why that is? I've just gotten out of the habit and can't seem to return to it, for whatever reason.

Anyway, Striker will be here waiting for you when you return.

Take care, dear friend.

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 07, 2020:

Thank you Rosina! At least Alexa gives me what I ask for, giving me the illusion of being in control. lol

Happy Monday to you, too!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 07, 2020:

Tough times for us all, Ann, in this constantly unsettling 2020. I don't think these are problems which are simply going to fade away. I have the feeling this is going to continue into 2021, and that is not a comforting thought at all.

Take care, my friend, and have a peaceful week.


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 07, 2020:

My pleasure, John! Glad you liked them, and thanks for always being here. Have a great week!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on September 07, 2020:

I think many of us are staying away from downtown area this summer, Flourish! I would imagine Richmond is quite the active place. Hopefully things will settle down a bit after the November election.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 07, 2020:

It sounds like you enjoy your Alexa, Bill. The protests are important but the violence is horrible. I feel bad for businesses and people who have been attacked for what looks like no good reason. I don't like writing about politics either.

This is an interesting mailbag. Hope you are having a nice Labor day.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on September 07, 2020:

Bill, I love your "Shadows" series but am embarrassingly behind in reading. For some reason, I haven't done much reading (other than HubPages) for the last couple of years. As such, I'm behind in ordering your books. I left off with "Shadows Over a Hangman's Noose". Now I see I need to break the cycle. Striker is my favorite character in the series (Liz is a close second). It seems a lot has happened in his life that I'm missing. I need to catch up!

Rosina S Khan on September 07, 2020:

Bill, I usually prefer not to meddle with politics or the current pandemic in my writing, even not in my current story series, "Keily, the Bookworm" on HubPages.

Nice to see Alexa give you good song choices all the time. LOL!

Have a great Monday.

Ann Carr from SW England on September 07, 2020:

There are protests all over the place now in our British cities. It's becoming more and more violent. One young male was killed in Birmingham last night, one death amongst lots of injuries when a knife-man went berserk. Other cities have similar problems all the time. A 15-year old was shot on his way to school this morning, somewhere in London I think - just minding his own business it seems. How sad it all is. I just concentrate on my own and make sure they are all well and happy.

Great mailbag, as ever, bill!

May you and yours stay safe and well - just keep talking to Alexa and she'll make sure you're ok, even if it's just for the music!


John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on September 07, 2020:

An interesting mailbag, Bill. Thanks for sharing the wonderful lyrics of those two Jackson Browne songs too.

FlourishAnyway from USA on September 07, 2020:

We don’t have protests like you do in Olympia but we have had a hornet’s best of protests on and off regarding removing those Confederate war statues in the downtown areas this summer. The crowd did the honors for the most part and local businesses are boarded up. I stay away from downtown Richmond day or night until we have a little more peace.

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