Excerpts, General

Between the covers of Spiral

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“Just ordered my copy.  I so enjoyed Sundagger.net: such vivid depictions of place & time and such interesting characters. I lost many hours of sleep staying up late to read because I just had to know what happened next. “— Sarah F.

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Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

“The Center of the World”, Chapter 1 of Spiral by Margaret C. Murray

It was the most special of days, the fall equinox, a time of equal day and night in the canyon, the center of the world, and above the canyon too on the flat mesa tops with their sinkholes, badlands, scarce pinyon and twisted juniper.
Willow waited by Chaco Wash in her best deerskin skirt, biting her lip. She stood very still, small for her age, fourteen, and sturdy, with long shining black hair falling to her waist. Each time Willow bit her lip, the single dimple in her cheek deepened. But what did that matter since Water Hunter was not there to admire it? She threw her sandals at a sagebrush tumbling by in the wind.
What if Water Hunter did not come? But he must. She could not bear that possibility and so put it quickly out of her mind. Hoping for any sign of him, Willow squinted on tiptoe in the sunlight, her eyes following the sage, as her mother taught her, until it disappeared into the horizon. “Become the rolling sagebrush to find what you are looking for,” Mother had counseled.
The soft autumn wind behind her blew her skirt out and away from her strong, taut body, but she didn’t feel the pleasure of the wind. Willow was troubled. The tumbling bush reminded her that her mother did not approve of her waiting here at the Great House, Pueblo del Arroyo, for Water Hunter. But more troubling was that the sagebrush had not shown Willow where he was.
Nothing seemed to move in the haze beyond the wash. Willow scanned all the way to the south mesa gap where the People were gathering for the great celebration.
She clasped her hands to her chest to stop them from trembling. Today the powerful and frightening Elders were climbing the Butte, as they did at each turn of the year, to implore the sun to bring rain. At the top where the sun dagger appeared, they made sacrifices so that the sun would bless the People. Soon Willow would hear their ominous shriek-chanting and the beat of their foot drums as they danced and prayed to the sun to return them to that perfect balance of light and darkness that their ancestors saw when they crawled out of the sipapu, a hole in the third world leading to this sacred canyon.
Abandoning the thought of finding the disappearing tumbleweed, Willow focused on thinking like Coyote, scanning east, west, north and south.
“Coyote, help me find him!” she called.
After all, she was named after a coyote cub. Her secret, never-to-be-spoken name was Srahtzee, meaning Close to the Ground, an attribute of the clever coyote. But Coyote wasn’t helping her now. Willow blushed with pleasure and shame, recalling that she had told her secret name to Water Hunter. How then could he have forgotten she was waiting for him? Her heart dropped.

Coyote in Chaco Canyon
Coyote in Chaco Canyon

She rubbed her eyes, hoping to see him loping over the desert; she would recognize him by his powerful frame and his uneven gait.
“I have made friends with my one short leg,” Water Hunter had told her in his slow, quiet way the very day they met. She vowed his lame leg would be her friend too! She loved his one short leg as she loved all the rest of his big hunter’s body. Willow shivered with longing. How desperately she desired him this very moment. She ached to have him stand next to her now. Her mother would never understand.
The sun of midday streaming down swallowed Willow’s compact shadow along with the shadows of the Fajada Butte and the Great Houses of the canyon. Behind her and across the grassy bottomland, the block-long, five-story complex that the Spanish centuries later would call Pueblo Bonito was marking the sun’s trajectory. It had been built to match the path the sun took across the landscape this very day, when all the shadows hid, and day and night were equal.
At this moment everything was perfectly aligned. Every year at this time all the clans from far outliers journeyed to Chaco to see their shadows disappear too. And as always, Willow’s own Coyote Clan, and her mother especially, made the preparations for the Elders’ supplications on the Butte. Her mother’s people were shamans in their own right and once had been favored allies of the Elders, but no more.
Oh, when would he come? Willow gave a little cry and pushed her fists into her eyes to hold back her tears. Carefully she placed her bare feet on the ledge of the gully above the wash and peered across toward the broken south mesa. A great fissure cut through the middle of the mesa, and through it the crowds were coming, chanting, blowing conch shells, and dancing with tinkling footbells. There were so many people! She hoped Water Hunter wouldn’t be coming from that direction. He never had before. Besides, he was of the Bear Clan, and everyone knew they came from the North where they served the High Ones on Standing Rocks Mountain.
But he would come! He must. It would be like the first day when they met on the Great North Road, one full moon ago. She had been holding her little brother’s hand. Her mother was carrying her best bowl. Behind them traveled the entire Coyote Clan on their way to the Giving Place, laden with offerings to the ancestors in their best jars that they would smash when they reached the great hill of shattered potsherds.
Willow had trusted Water Hunter at first sight when she saw him walking with the Bear Clan. She had heard of this famous diviner who found water where there was none, thus attracting the big game that followed the water. She was amazed when he singled her out, smiling over the crowd at her alone. Even her mother noticed and stopped to introduce her daughter to him, saying that the Coyote Clan welcomed the Bear Clan as cousins. It was the Bear Clan who, before migrating north, had laid the foundation for the newest of the Great Houses, Kin Kletso, where Willow and her mother and brother lived before the Elders forced them to move further away down the canyon.

Heading North to Chacra Mesa
Chacra Mesa

That day Willow felt so special. She had felt even more special when Water Hunter motioned her to walk beside him. It was midday then too and she could not see her shadow. The sun had been a shining orange ball in the sky, the land bleached and brown from summer drought, and dead stalks of flowering cacti spotted the sandy ground.

They were walking slowly, she following his lead, enjoying the sunlight warm on her shoulders, bare breasts and arms. Facing ahead, her gaze was steady in her deep, dark eyes. Balanced, straight-backed, Willow paced herself to the hunter’s slow, up and down gait. “I will walk in a way that we will be together,” Willow had thought then.
Her unspoken words filled her with satisfaction now as her eyes skimmed the brown rocks, the fissures and outcroppings, twiggy bushes and cacti, the whole landscape in harmony with her and the sun above. She felt her heart sing again. He must come. He promised.

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Dear Diary, General, Journal

Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

Heart Love
Heart Love by Sophie

Reading my very old diary seems like a perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, a time for nostalgia and love. Diaries go along with flowers, candy, lace-trimmed red heart-shaped cards, romance, passion, flirting, secrets and wide-eyed innocence.  And diaries are where we reveal our true love. But so far, reading you, dear diary, leads me to just the opposite–shame, embarrassment, and sadness.

It was June 9th, 1962 when I began this diary. I had a new bright yellow Easyrite notebook, all the pages blank. However, I wrote my first entry on the last page, following my penchant for doing the opposite, the unusual, a habit I had perfected.

My Diary, 1962-1964

“BITCH BITCH BITCH,” are the first three words I wrote and now read. The words are in capital letters, underlined three times. I’m sorry to admit that my mother is the object of my fury. Why am I so angry with her? Putting it simply, we had a love-hate relationship.

That June day I was furious because my mother had “banned” yet another of my precious books, yet again torn it up and thrown it in the garbage. The book my mother threw out three days after my high school graduation was Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself”.  In the first paragraph I made a list of the other books she’d thrown in the garbage can. They included Andre Gide’s “Point Counter Point”, Aldous Huxley’s “Barren Leaves”, Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and something by Kahil Gibran which might have been saved because his name is crossed it out.

When I realized what she had done, I rushed down the driveway to retrieve the book. I remember those garbage cans standing in the alley at the foot of the driveway behind our newly built two-story red brick house on Fairlawn St. All along the alley were backyards like ours with only a few lawns, mostly coppery, yellow dirt left from the tractors of the construction crews bulldozing this new small subdivision in the East Hills. The street dead-ended at an open woodsy area where I walked my dog and seven years before read the complete Sherlock Holmes in a tree by a stream where violets grew.

Dear Diary, 1st sentence

Oh, I was seventeen and unsatisfied, lovelorn and resentful, rebelling against my parents and their expectations, contemptuous of the status quo. My only recourse was books, their wonderful stories, and from them I fashioned the story I desperately imagined for myself. Obviously, my mother suspected that these books were corrupting me and would not fit me for success. Maybe she blamed the books for my lousy, jaded, faux-superior attitude?  Maybe she wanted her first daughter to be as sweet as those pink, lacy, Valentine cutout cards?

But I had decided I was beyond romance. I had read “Gone With the Wind” too long ago. Now I was desperately yearning for significance, wanting to be grown-up and a real writer too. I think I was hoping that if I were angry or bitter or isolated enough I’d feel as important as the characters Dostoevsky, Hemingway or Charlotte Bronte wrote about. In the poetry of Keats and Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas,  I took “love” to mean “loss” and “desire” to mean “despair”.

Everyone knew those Valentine cards were corny, didn’t they?

After I graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school, I felt like I lost my school friends. My boyfriend, with whom I was desperately in love just like those Valentine cards promised, disappeared from my life. I thought I should leave everything I loved behind.  Angry and bitter, hard and brutal were the desirable characteristics of the new adult world I saw I must enter.

Hell. Death. Suffering. These were the important words. On the back of my diary I had printed in a quivery hand three quotes from some famous philosopher that I don’t recognize: “Hell is the inability to love. Death is the inability to hope. Suffering is the inability to believe.” I thought if I could embrace hell, death and suffering, I’d be important too!

But the irony did not escape me. I was nothing if not ironical. I confess, dear diary, all I glean from reading you now is the contempt I felt for myself then. Who dared to care about that bookish seventeen year old girl from the comfortable suburbs of Pittsburgh in no apparent danger or distress?

Dear Diary,  With shame I write in you.
Dear Diary, I write with shame.

I admit I’d love now to read more scenes like my first angry one.  But “BITCH BITCH BITCH” may be the only really compelling line in the whole diary. I don’t know because the truth is I can only bear to read a little at a time. Dear diary, I confess you are boring and repetitive, empty of any meaningful characters or memorable details. Each sentence requires that I step back and forgive myself for my unpleasantness and the insufferable righteousness I claimed for myself while blaming my mother. Such tortured, melodrama! I guess I thought I was a true romantic.

Now I promise to read you. Taking my cue from the Buddhist practice of meditation, I will become aware of all that isn’t said, all that is bungled  or disguised.  Reading you will be my challenge–my practice, like the practice of zazen. Think of me sitting on a pillow,  naming my thoughts and letting them go while I read on.  You, dear diary, hold all I have left of that lonely teenager who was myself. I want to embrace that girl.

Maybe I could fall in love with her.


Happy Valentine's Day!
Happy Valentine’s Day!

I Hate Romance Novels & Now I’ve Written One

It's a romance of the '60s.
Dreamers, a Dangerous Romance of the '60s

I hate romance novels and never buy them, never even look at them at the supermarket checkout counter. Why? The very first sentence turns me off. I feel angry. How stupid the writer of this must think me to expect I’ll believe this  preposterous story! The plots are stupid and embarrassing, the settings outlandish, the language trite, the characters cartoonish. “When you’ve read one, you’ve read them all,” as my dad would say. Another word he’d use is “trash”.  According to Wikipedia, “Despite the popularity and widespread sales of romance novels, the genre has attracted significant derision, skepticism and criticism.”

Given all that, why the hell did I subtitle my new novel, Dreamers, a dangerous romance of the ’60s?

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I liked historical romance novels once–when I was young, a pre-teen, maybe as old as thirteen. What I liked (though I didn’t realize it then) was the secret, forbidden, dangerous adventure of sex! Yes, I loved all the twisted longing in the historical romances about pirates, counts, renegades, swashbuckling commanders, deposed kings and would-be outlaws. And oh, how I longed to be their women–those princesses and countesses, those ladies-in-waiting, the half-naked milkmaids and abandoned orphans, so young, so innocent and so beautiful with wet, red lips and long, curling tresses. All those women destined for capture, for adventure in their rags, their voluminous silk dresses, who were seduced and Yes! seduced in turn. I wanted to be them! I reveled in the veiled sensuality, the heated embraces, the–sex.

What is romance anyway? Is it love? Is it illusion? Is it dreams? Is it reality? According to Wikipedia again, the bottom line is that, for a book to be a romance novel, the romantic relationship between the hero and the heroine must be at its core.

In many ways Dreamers is the opposite of romance. Neither the hero, Thomas, or the heroine, Annie, believes in romance nor has faith in the other to provide it.  When he meets Annie accidentally, Thomas, the black actor from Pittsburgh, is mired in a painful, impossible affair with Lana, a rich, self-absorbed WASP from Connecticut. When she meets Thomas, Annie, naive as she is, struggles in a bind of acute family tension, wrapped in a rope of self-criticism too tight to breathe in, much less prevail against.

What is worse, the fact that their relationship is interracial makes all thought of romance a forbidden secret played out in the prevailing strife of the civil rights showdown in ’60s America.

But, though in many ways Dreamers is the opposite of romance, Thomas’ and Annie’s relationship IS the core of the book. What they both believe in is the pursuit of their art; for Thomas, art is theatre. For Annie, art is music.  And they believe in each other.

As artists, we are all romantic dreamers. All art is romantic and allows, even demands, we fall in love with it. It’s we who are the romantics.We have to fall in love with a book in order to even want to turn the page.

I’m hoping you’ll fall in love with Dreamers,and that’s why I wrote it.


Events, General, Journal

New! WriteWords Press is Expanding

NEW!  WriteWords Press is set to launch two more books in 2011!  In addition to Sundagger.net, WriteWords Press will publish:

Dreamers, an interracial romance of the ’60s, by  Margaret C. Murray

Floating Point, Endlessly Rocking Off Silicon Valley, a memoir by Shelley Buck

WriteWords Press began on a gray day four years ago.  It was January 19, 2007 and I was in Martinez, CA. I had just walked into a small old brick one-story office to register the fictitious business name of WriteWord Press at the County Clerk Recorder’s office.

The quaint town of Martinez lies on the water’s edge where the Sacramento River meets the San Francisco Bay. In the goldrush days, it was a ferryboat transit point across the Carquinez Straits on the way to the gold fields.

There were many birds in the wetlands near where I had parked my car. A few gulls followed screeching as I walked the two blocks down Main Street to the County Building.

It was a new moon in the sign of Capricorn, signifying a goat who climbs mountains.  I had the planets of Mercury (mind) and Mars (energy) in the sign of Capricorn when I was born and I was going to need that mountain goat energy now.

Ahead of me were two couples applying for marriage licenses. One couple was young with both sets of parents as witnesses, the other couple  past middle-age, like myself. We all stood in a straggling line that ended at a glass-windowed linoleum countertop.  On the other side of the glass, a harried clerk with touseled hair sat hunched over her computer.

I felt focused, clear-headed and resolute. Why was I taking on this Olympian task of launching WriteWords Press? Simply put, I was ready. I was ready to put my novels into the world.

You might say I’ve been addicted to good books since I was seven and could read. I had studied the great works of English and American literature as an undergraduate and graduate English major.

I practice the art of fiction reading and writing as a way of seeing beyond myself, into the meaning of my life, the way one might practice meditation to gain awareness. I had written at least five unpublished novels.

What’s more, I was sick and tired of hoping I’d write the perfect query letter to the understanding publisher. I was sick and tired of mailing out novel manuscripts with the accompanying SASE (for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope).

No, I was finished with all that. No more did I want to spend my time frightened of the big, brown, stuffed envelope with my returned manuscript that sooner or later would appear in my mailbox.

No more did I want to spend my time praying for the agent who would recognize my work and take me on despite the overwhelming odds. The truth is I HAD that agent decades ago, a famous agent from New York City.

All that long ago, water under the bridge, and I was not looking back.

But neither the couples to be married at the registrar’s office, my planets in Capricorn, my publishing hard knocks or my literary expertise would have kept me in that line I was standing in. No, I owed my courage to more.

A lot of it had to do with my children, especially my oldest son who complained loudly in no uncertain terms, “I don’t want to have an failed novelist as a mother!” I couldn’t let him down! I deserved to give Chris a better image of his mother than that.

Then there was an educational program I had begun a year before.  I did it to come to terms with myself as a writer. But an amazing thing happened. The terms I assigned to myself disappeared. Instead I was coached to strike out into uncharted (and up till then unacceptable to me) territory.

But was it really unknown–this new independent publishing world? From my years as a technical writer, I knew well the nuts and bolts of writing, editing and putting a book together. With each contract job, the documentation, user manuals, white papers, and procedures I was hired to write took shape and direction on my watch.

I would not wait any longer for someone else to take me by the hand. I would make it happen myself. Why not take a leap into a new land and birth a small press? Yes, I was ready to become a small press publisher.

And now, four years later, WriteWords Press is expanding!