This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Behind Every Great Picture

            In connection with my day job, I had the opportunity the other day to be present at a professional photo shoot. For years, when I was at the newspaper, I worked alongside professional news photographers and in my work as a writer and publications consultant I still work with freelance professionals. Not as many as I used to, and there’s a worrying trend happening here.
            The proliferation of iPhones and point and shoot cameras has taken some of the mystery out of photography. It’s no longer necessary to worry about such things as the choice of film, the F-stop and shutter speed, and anyone can now take an in-focus photo that’s decently exposed.
            That has led to a trap, however. Too many people are beginning to believe that because they can take a technically competent picture, they can also take a good one. Usually they can’t, and the result is a form of unconscious incompetence — what you get when someone doesn’t know what they’re doing and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

It’s Complicated

            The photo shoot referred to earlier was for a publication being done by a local educational organization. They wanted a picture of a group of kids engaged in learning on both the computer and traditional books. To get it, they lined up six kids whose parents signed releases for a photo shoot, and we all met at the library of one of the local schools late one morning.
            Greg Pio, who took the author photo for my book The McHenry Inheritance, was called in to get the picture. He arrived early, checked out the site, and set up some lighting to illuminate a corner where a table was set up in front of shelves of books.
            At 11:30 the kids came in, and Greg sat them down and talked to them, explaining what we were doing and stressing that it was a joint project where he really needed their cooperation. Addressing them as adults, in a matter-of-fact tone, he pulled them into the project right away. He then gave them some specific things to do while he took the photos. Watching from behind, it was clear to me that they were getting into it, and that the shoot was going well.

Creating the Opportunity

            He took a lot of photos, and if you’ve ever shot a family gathering, you’ll know why. Whenever you have more than two people in a picture, the odds that one of them will have closed eyes, be drooling, be making a face, or otherwise inadvertently wrecking the picture are pretty formidable. Because the kids were relaxed and acting out a scene, that was less of an issue here. Greg has told me before that when he sets up a picture like this, he’s creating an opportunity to make the magic happen, then shooting enough pictures to be sure he’s capturing it.
            Sure enough, the results were terrific. There were enough good photos that it was tough to choose among them, but that’s the kind of problem you want. The client picked one and everybody was happy. (I can’t show the photo here because it belongs to the client, not me, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)
            It would have been easy for the client to cheap out and have someone on the staff take a picture, rather than calling in a professional. And odds are, it would have been wrong in a lot of subtle ways that add up to a boring photo. There’s a lot more to getting a great picture than telling everybody to get behind the table and say “Cheese.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Literary Fuller Brush Man

            Self-publishing used to be a mug’s game — something you did because your book meant enough that you’d shell out a lot of money, with no hope of return, to get it out there. That was largely owing to the physical limitations of the printed book.
            As recently as ten years ago, an author had to spend thousands of dollars to have a book typeset and have a printer run off a few thousand copies. Without a distribution channel, the author had to take them to every bookstore within driving range, begging the stores to take a couple of copies on consignment. The author, in effect, became a literary Fuller Brush man, always having samples in the car.
            Often as not, that same author would end up with several boxes of unsold books in an attic or basement. And the area in which the books could be sold represented a mere fraction of the possible market, nearly all of which would be forever out of reach.

A National 24/7 Bookstore

            For better or worse, Amazon changed all that. Certainly from an author’s perspective it’s better. A writer like me, who doesn’t fit into the system, can publish a book through their self-publishing program, get it out in front of the whole world, have a whisper of a chance of promoting the book through the internet, and make a decent return on every sale.
            The down side, of course, is what that does to local bookstores. I believe they have a real role to play in terms of making books accessible to people and as community gathering institutions. My mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, has sold quite a few copies on consignment at Crossroads Books and Bookshop Santa Cruz, but the numbers pale compared to how it’s sold on Amazon.
            Despite the popularity of e-books, there’s still a large demand for the print version, and the wise author has a few copies in the car at all times, just in case. I can order printed author’s copies from Amazon’s CreateSpace, or have them run off on Bookshop Santa Cruz’s Walt book machine (named after Walt Whitman), and I am never without.
            In the past couple of weeks there have been a few examples of why it pays to be prepared.

Everyone’s a Potential Customer

            When I spoke at a local middle school earlier this month, there was no danger that the kids were going to spend their lunch money on my book, but there were also some adults in the audience, and two of them ended up as customers. After hearing the talk, the school principal and one of the teachers asked about buying a book. Because I had two copies in the messenger bag in the back of my car, I was able to gratify them on the spot, with autographed copies.  If they’d had to go to a bookstore or get on Amazon when they had the time, those sales could have slipped away.
            Six days later I took my Ford Fusion in for servicing at the dealership, and when I went to pick it up, the dealer, Rocky Franich, saw me and came out of the office. I know him through Rotary and he knows about the book. He had a friend in the hospital who enjoys mysteries and wanted to get a copy for the friend. Fortunately, I’d reloaded the messenger bag after the middle school talk and was able to oblige.
            That made three personal sales in the space of a week. As any Fuller Brush man would say, keep those samples handy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Mickey Spillane, Reading Instructor

            Earlier this month, I heard a school principal make a good pitch for the value of mystery novels. I was at E.A. Hall Middle School in Watsonville, talking to seventh and eighth graders about my own mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, and Olga de Santa Anna, the principal, was in the audience.
            I forget what prompted her remark, but the gist of it was that reading fun books, such as mystery novels, is a good way of both learning and getting pleasure from reading. As an example, she cited her mother, whose first language was Spanish, and who learned to read English through the novels of Mickey Spillane.
            Somewhat forgotten now, Spillane (1918-2006) was the first hard-boiled detective writer to become a huge bestseller. I, The Jury, his debut book featuring detective Mike Hammer, was published in 1947 to supplement his income as a comic-book writer.  It sold six million copies, and he never looked back. All told, his books have sold more than 225,000,000 copies.

Meaning? Don’t Even Think About It

            Critics hated his books, which they panned for their graphic sex and violence, but Spillane ignored them and laughed all the way to the bank. In later years, some post-modern critics tried to find deeper meanings in his books, and, to his credit, he dismissed them as well. He was a hack who had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and was content with that.
            Olga’s remark about her mother, though, took me back to eighth grade. I learned to read before first grade, by following Sports Illustrated on my father’s lap. A lot of my childhood was spent with my nose stuck in a book. When I reached junior high school, my mother, in one of her few failures as a parent, tried to get me to read Literature — stuff like Moby Dick and Great Expectations.
            It didn’t work. I much preferred trashy mysteries and sports stories, and mom was beside herself. Finally, she went to Mrs. Castlen, the librarian at our junior high school, to vent. Mrs. C. heard her out and finally said, “Don’t worry about it. Just be glad he’s reading and enjoying it. His taste will get better as he gets older.”
            Perhaps she should have stopped after the second sentence. It’s true that two great high school English teachers, Carroll Irwin and Ruth Carruth, taught me to appreciate and enjoy Moby Dick and Great Expectations, and it’s true that I subsequently received a bachelor’s degree in English Literature.

The Redeeming Value of Junk

            The college degree in that subject has hardly guaranteed me a lifetime of well-compensated employment, and it’s an open question what reading the great books has done for my character and moral fibre. There are no doubt plenty of people out there who would be happy to tell you that I’m far from a model citizen.
            Would the world be a better place if everyone read Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Mark Twain?  I have my doubts. But I have no doubts at all about the wisdom of what Mrs. Castlen and Olga de Santa Anna said.
            Learning to read, and learning to enjoy it — however that may be accomplished — is always a good thing. Reading is the most fundamental skill of the educated person, and when it isn’t accompanied by a sense of dread, there’s always room to move on and acquire new depths. Some will dive in head first, and others will barely dip a toe in the waters. Mickey Spillane may lead to Henry James, or maybe to Jim Thompson, but either way the door’s been opened a crack.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Long Lines and Cursive Ledgers

            Yesterday morning, combining civic duty and business, I drove to the county courthouse in Santa Cruz. It was the day property tax was due, so I figured I’d pay in person then see what my money was getting me by sauntering over to the superior court clerk’s office to research a legal matter in connection with a project I’m working on.
            Most years I pay my property tax in person. It makes it seem more like a civic gesture than an anonymous sendoff of money, and it can be a social occasion as well. More often than not I run into someone I know, either in line or because they’re doing other business of their own at the county offices.
            Last year I went a day before the payment deadline and there was hardly any line at all. I wrote about it at the time, wondering if tax paying had become one of those civic rituals, like waiting for election returns, that has become privatized. I was worrying for nothing.

Counting Out the Hundreds

            When I arrived a little after 11 a.m., the line was out the door of the tax collector’s office, extending to the door to the county building itself, nearly a hundred feet away. It took 40 minutes to get to the window, and when I reached the door to the office it became obvious what part of the problem was.
            Several of the people ahead of me were paying their property tax in cash. Why anyone but a drug dealer would do that, I can’t imagine, but even in this county it’s hard to imagine that there are that many property-owning drug dealers, so I guess they had their reasons.
            In any event, two payment windows were open, and only one of them accepted cash payments. People were taking a fistful of hundreds out of an envelope, counting them out, handing them over, then waiting while the clerk counted the money again and made change. Tax bills here aren’t rounded up to an even number, so the clerk had to count out a lot of dollar bills and coins.
            Me, I handed over the bill and a check for the exact amount, got a receipt and was off the window a minute after I arrived. Then I walked around the corner to the civil division of superior court, where the line was considerably shorter.

Handwritten Ledgers

            For a historical research project, I was trying to find out how often a local businessman had been in court between 1921 and 1932, either suing someone or being sued. I had no idea whether it would be possible to get the information without a ridiculous amount of going through files, but figured I should ask.
            As it turned out, they had a system for that. For years the county had kept alphabetical ledgers of all the parties in lawsuits, the names written out in beautiful cursive. They were on microfiche , and I was able to check out the period in question in less than an hour.
            There was no big story; he was the defendant in one suit for an unpaid bill (they were able to retrieve a microfilm of the original filing) of $781. Nothing much in itself, nor did it appear to be part of a pattern, but it ruled out a possible angle, and that’s a big part of research as well. The two women at the desk were extremely pleasant and helpful, and I left feeling that the check I’d just handed in around the corner was actually paying for something tangible. Not a bad feeling in the age of The Cloud.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Tough Questions From Eighth Graders

            Wednesday of this week I was invited to E.A. Hall Middle School in Watsonville to talk to a group of seventh and eighth graders about writing my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance. Early in the game it became obvious I was facing a tough crowd.
            The students were part of the Reading Buddies program sponsored by the Rotary Club of Watsonville, which has adopted the school. As part of that adoption, club members volunteer to go to the school once a week and spend an hour reading with a student. It’s been wildly successful, and the kids who take part typically show a significant improvement in test scores and classroom performance.
            Since they have been reading books, one of the club members thought of asking me over to talk about writing my book. It’s probably a bit above their grade level, but I was happy to do the presentation. No author should ever turn down an audience, and I wound up selling two copies — to the principal and one of the teachers.

A Future Investigative Journalist

            My plan was to start out by showing the two-minute video trailer for the book, ask if there were any questions about it, then move on to other topics based on the initial response. So at 11 a.m., the lights were dimmed, the video was shown, and when it was over, I stepped forward and said, “Any questions?”
            A boy at the back of the room raised his hand, and I called on him. “How old are you?” he asked.
            Damn. The kid has a future on 60 Minutes, and I mean asking the questions, not answering them. I couldn’t think of a clever evasion, so I answered as quickly as I could and called for the next question. As it turned out, the questions filled the hour, and I never had to go to my prepared talk.
            Some of them were from adults, but still provided an opportunity to share a point with the kids. One of the Rotarians asked, for instance, how hard it was to get a copyright, and that led to my explaining to the students what a copyright is and why it’s important. I also talked about print-on-demand book machines, such as the ones they have at Amazon and Bookshop Santa Cruz.

We Talked About Fishing, Too

            When we asked for a show of hands, it turned out that more than half of the kids had been fishing, though only one had been fly fishing. In anticipation of such a response, I had brought some props, including a 9-foot graphite fly rod, a vest of the sort worn by fly fishermen, and a selection of trout flies, including a Quill Gordon, the fly for which my main character is named.
            The props enabled me to talk about several of the detail points of the sport. It was raining, so we couldn’t go outside for a casting demonstration, but I tried to use the furniture in the room to explain how precise an angler has to be in casting to a rising fish. What I think really impressed them was my description of how the fishing vest allows a fisherman to pull out and tie on a new fly while standing in the middle of a river.
            Any time I speak to a group of adults, I can generally read the audience pretty well. With kids, it’s tougher. It’s hard to say how interested they were or how much of this will stay with them. But I was happy to do it because it can’t hurt for students to see that books are written by real people. Maybe some of them will write their own books down the road.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

64 Megabytes? More Than Enough

             Four years ago, at about this time of year, I bought a new MacBook laptop. The economy was crumbling, people were talking about an upcoming Depression with unemployment of more than 20 percent, and I had no way of knowing, at the time, whether I’d bring in a single dollar in income in 2009.
            But I bought the laptop anyway because it was time, and because I considered it a business necessity. In late 2004, the laptop I’d bought at the end of 1998 went kaflooey, taking half my business with it. After a couple of days of tense waiting (plus a not inconsiderable expense), a computer guru was able to retrieve most of it. From then on, I’ve made a point of upgrading every four years.
            And so it was that last Friday found me at the Apple Store at Valley Fair in San Jose, purchasing a new MacBook Air. It’s not set up yet, but once it is, by the end of December, it should see me through the Obama presidency.

More Space Than You’d Ever Need

            My first laptop was a Macintosh PowerBook, bought at the end of 1993. My consulting business was in its infancy, cash flow was tight, and it was unclear if I would succeed. But I bought the laptop anyway because I could see the value of it for my business and because I’ve always believed you have to spend money to make money.
            That first PowerBook had a black and white screen, would have gagged if you’d tried to run a movie on it, never got connected to the Internet, and had 64MB of hard drive. I couldn’t imagine using all that space, and I never did. But I did do a lot of the revisions to my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, on it, and it’s still in the garage.
            Being equipped for business hasn’t yet turned out to be a losing proposition for me. After buying the PowerBook in late 1993, I had a breakout year in 1994. Despite the fears over the economy at the end of 2008, the year 2009 turned out to be all right — not great, but far better than I had feared. Experience has shown that getting what you need for the job, even if you have to bet on unknown revenues to pay for it, is a wise move.

The Dread Before the Setup

            Working out of my house for the past four years, I’ve become even more dependent than before on my laptop. If the power goes out, I take it to Starbucks to check my email and get some work done. If we have people working at the house for the day, I take it to one of the shared office spaces in Santa Cruz and work from there.
            Right now, I’m waiting until I can figure out where to get the best deal on Microsoft Office, without which I can’t function. In years past, I would have set aside a weekend to get the computer set up (there was always a maddening glitch that took hours to sort out), and I had to be fairly certain I wouldn’t need the new or old one for work during that time.
            Now I have the luxury of an in-house computer guru, my 22-year-old son, Nick. At a mutually convenient time, I’ll hand him the old and new laptops, leave him alone for a couple of hours, and everything should be good to go after that. Technology is a beautiful thing when you have someone around who understands it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Odyssey of a Book

            This past weekend I read Ellery Queen’s The Player on the Other Side. Published in 1963 it was one of the last works of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, who wrote under the Queen nom de plume, and while interesting, is probably not as good as the earlier works that made their name. But it’s not the written book I want to discuss today.
            What I found myself thinking about after I finished it was the physical book itself — the copy in my hands. I had bought it at Logos used bookstore in Santa Cruz probably a year ago, brought it home and put it on the shelf for later reading. It was a hardcover book-club edition of the original Random House printing, which sold used for $3 — probably about what it cost new nearly a half-century ago.
            It still had the original dust jacket, only slightly frayed, and when I removed the dust jacket to read the book (as I always do with a hardcover copy), I saw the thing that got my imagination going.

From Indiana to California

            On the inside front cover of the book, hidden by the dust-jacket flap when I looked at it in the bookstore, was one of those return address labels that used to be commonplace back when people actually used the mail. It said:

            M Francis
            7934 Delmar
            Hammond IND

            For some reason the first thing I noticed was the absence of a ZIP code on the address label. That’s not surprising, given that ZIP codes were introduced in the year the book was published and quite a few people had a lot of those return address labels to use up. Still, it dated the book as having come from a simpler, more innocent time.
            On the heels of that observation, there was the obvious question of what the M in the owner’s name stood for. Michael or Mark? Mary or Myrtle? No clue whatsoever as to even the gender of the owner.
            Hitting the computer, I Googled the address and found that 7934 Delmar Avenue is a three-bedroom one-bath home in the Chicago suburb of Hammond and is currently valued at $80,000. No owner’s name was shown, but odds are no Francises have lived there in a long time.

The Really Intriguing Question

            Finally, the really big question: How did the book get, in nearly pristine condition, from there to here? I’d like to think that it first was taken aboard the Orient Express, with a secret code slipped in between pages 136 and 137, and that some spy risked his or her life to get it back to America. The more likely and prosaic explanation is that It was passed down a couple of generations and that some latter-day Francis, who wound up in California, finally sold it to the used bookstore.
            The book was in such good condition that it’s possible I may have been the first person to read it since it was mailed to Indiana. Which raises another point. One of the reasons for writing a book is that it conveys a form of immortality. Long after an author dies, even a forgotten book can, through yard sales and used bookstores, find its way into the hands of someone who reads it, as I did, and in so doing, brings the author alive again for a few hours.
            I can only hope that 48 years hence, someone comes across a copy of my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, at a yard sale or on a family bookshelf, opens it, and starts reading. Wherever I may be at that moment, I’ll smile if I can.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Thoughts from Serving on a Jury

            Serving on a jury, as I recently did, is one of those things that prods you into thinking about larger issues of how our social, legal and governmental systems work. Having been made a part of that process, whether you wanted to be or not, you see it in a more real and tangible way.
            By dint of circumstance, one element of the jury experience hit me between the eyes. Here in California your exposure is limited to a week. You call in the night before to see if you have to go in the next day, and if you haven’t been called for five days, you’re off the hook.
            As chance would have it, I was called in on Monday morning, which exposed me to being seated on the jury for a six-day civil trial. Had I been called in any other day of the week, I would have been exposed to a three-month murder trial. Six days is a manageable inconvenience; three months is a business or job-destroyer. I cheerfully did the six days.

Why Does It Take So Long?

            When the concept of trial by jury was first introduced a few centuries ago, they didn’t have forensic specialists, psychiatric experts or most of the other things that add greatly to the time of a trial. Practically every case was heard in a few days, and just about anyone could afford to put the plow down that long.
            They also didn’t spend a lot of time picking the jury. The idea was that it was supposed to be 12 people who knew the defendant well enough to know whether he was probably lying or not. Now the idea is to come up with people who know nothing and have qualities that make them likely to be sympathetic to your side.
            During our little trial we would step out into the courthouse foyer during recesses and see dozens of prospective jurors for the three-month trial filling out a questionnaire that looked to be about 10 double-sided pages long. I hate that sort of thing. Most of the time the questions aren’t very good and force you to give an oversimplified and un-nuanced answer. For a nuance guy like me, that’s painful.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

            The jury process itself is more than a bit humbling. A big part of that is that as a juror you have to make a decision that means a great deal to the people involved, but you have to do so based on incomplete knowledge derived from incomplete evidence presented to you. When our jury was in deliberation, I asked at one point, “Is it just me, or does anybody else feel like the evidence presented to us doesn’t adequately explain what the heck happened here?” There was a chorus of “yeas” and nodding heads.
            We moved forward and decided on the basis of the evidence we had that there wasn’t enough of it to prove the case and ruled in favor of the defendant. In casting my vote, I did so realizing that if I knew what God did, I might have voted the other way.
             Deliberations, in our case, brought out the best in most people. Another humbling thing about jury service is the realization that not everybody else looks at the evidence and sees it as you do. Tolerance and courtesy nonetheless prevailed for the most part, and we were eventually able to talk ourselves into agreement. For a fleeting moment I wondered how things would be if Congress and state legislatures behaved like juries, but that’s not what they’re elected to do. Nice fantasy, anyway.

Holiday re-run; originally published July 29, 2011

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Talking to Students About Fly Fishing

            This week I sat down with Ron Kinninger, a retired school administrator, to talk about meeting with the Reading Buddies next month. Ron and I are both members and past presidents of the Rotary Club of Watsonville, which sends club members into E.A. Hall Middle School once a week to read with the kids who go there.
            It’s a great way to get them interested in reading and to expand their reading skills. Reading a book aloud with an adult who can ask questions and point things out can dramatically improve a student’s reading skills in a short period of time. It’s not uncommon to see kids who have read with a Rotary reading buddy for a year show a dramatic increase in standardized test scores.
            Ron had invited me to speak to the students and Rotary reading buddies on Dec. 5 about my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance. He felt it would be a good idea to show the kids that real people write the books they’re reading and to have the kids hear something about how it’s done. And since I’ll stand up in front of an audience any time, I was an easy “get.”

Relating to 12-Year-Olds

            The students in the Reading Buddies program are sixth and seventh graders, so we’re talking about an average age of 12. That’s younger than my usual crowd, but I’m not going to be making any special preparations for the age group. Even when I speak to a roomful of college-educated people, I try to use simple, direct language. That ought to be good enough for the kids, as well, and in my experience, kids appreciate being talked to as if they’re adults and hate it when someone talks down to them.
            To begin the presentation, I thought we could show the video trailer for my book, which is two minutes long and starts with an explanation of where the idea for the story first began. Then I could talk a few minutes about writing the book and open it up to questions from the audience.
            Ron suggested something else that I hadn’t thought of. Since my book has a fly-fishing backdrop (the protagonist is on a fishing vacation in the High Sierra when he becomes embroiled in all the crime and drama), why not bring some fly-fishing paraphernalia to the presentation and talk about that as well?

Now We’re Talking Fishing

            Great idea, but all of a sudden I’ve become transformed from an English teacher talking about writing a book to a science instructor explaining how fish feed, the various stages of the insect development cycle, and the mechanics of casting a fly rod.  What the heck. In the new global economy, we’re all required to be multi-taskers.
            Still, it was an inspired idea of Ron’s to add this to the presentation. I could begin by asking how many of the kids have ever been fishing with their parents or an older sibling, then ask about fly fishing in particular. My guess is that most will have been fishing but none have been fly fishing, so it should all be new, yet related to something they’ve done and enjoyed. It’s a good way to get the audience involved.
            It even occurred to me that if the weather permits and the school authorities were agreeable, we could go outside for a fly-casting demonstration. Then I had second thoughts. It’s hard enough to make a good cast when you’re alone, no one is watching, and there’s no pressure. Doing it in front of an audience all but guarantees the yips. Besides, they can see me casting in the video.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Researching a Mystery Novel

            One of the comments I get from time to time about my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, is that I must have done a lot of research for the book. That’s a compliment, of course, because it means that readers — or at any rate the ones who are talking to me — found the book real, at some level anyway.
            Generally, my response is to shrug and make a vague, noncommittal comment. The real answer, as they say, is that it’s complicated, but the accurate short answer would be that there wasn’t that much book research but a lot of field research.
            Because the book is set only a few years in the past, in a time that will be remembered by even the youngest readers, there wasn’t any need to research it, in the way that the author of a book set half a century or a century ago would have to do. At most I had to do a quick double-check on whether a couple of specific things would have been around then (anybody remember CompuServe?) or whether my memory was off by a couple of years.

How to Challenge a Will

            A key element in the story, as you might guess from the book’s title, involves a challenge to a will that was changed at the last minute and cut out one of the adult heirs to a substantial estate. That, I had to research, but it was pleasant going.
            I simply called up Bill Locke-Paddon, who is the pre-eminent estate attorney in our county and invited him out to lunch so I could pick his brain about how to mount an effective challenge to a will. He was gracious and highly informative, discoursing at length not only about how a will could be broken, but also about how a good attorney, anticipating a challenge, could take steps to create a will that would be more bulletproof in court.
            Bill’s expertise helped me frame a realistic situation in which the precautions weren’t taken and the appearance of undue influence would rear its ugly head in court, as it does in the book’s first chapter. If anything in that chapter is wrong, legally speaking, the fault is mine for misunderstanding Bill’s clear explanations.

Paying Attention on Vacation

            As for the rest of the book — the sense of place, the fishing material, etc. — most of it came from observation and memory.
            Earlier in this life I spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. It’s one of those professions (police work is another) where you never really get away from thinking as you do on the job, even when you’re on vacation. In practical terms that means eavesdropping, asking questions, and paying close attention to what you see and hear.
            When I go to the mountains on a fishing trip, I love to go to breakfast at the local café (there’s always a joint like Mom’s in my book), newspaper in hand, and listen while I’m looking at the paper. Nobody pays any attention to a solitary reader and you can generally monitor several conversations in the immediate vicinity. If you know a piquant detail when you encounter it, there are plenty to be found in such a place.
            I also talk to store clerks, law enforcement officers, park rangers, basically anyone I meet. And when it comes to describing the fishing, that’s easy. A fly fisherman has to pay close attention to the water and to what he’s doing, so that’s all between my ears. And fishing a stream is the pleasantest research of all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lessons From a Nevada Weekend

            When I was young and westerns ruled television, one of the more popular ones was Maverick. It featured James Garner and Jack Kelly as two brothers who were professional gamblers traveling around the old west, catching a bad guy here and there.
            The concept of product alliances was in its infancy back then, but nonetheless someone came up with the idea of a how-to book based on the show. It was called, if memory serves, The Maverick Guide to Playing Poker.
            One of the running gags of the TV show was Garner recalling bits of wisdom that his “pappy” had shared with him. At the beginning of the book, purportedly written by the Maverick brothers, there’s a story about pappy taking them to a casino and pointing out the roulette wheels, dice games and blackjack tables. “Boys,” he said, “that’s gambling. Don’t never gamble. Play poker instead.”

Gambling Without Gambling

            Pappy’s point was that poker is to some degree a game of skill. Knowing the odds and observing the other players to see who can be bluffed can give a good player an edge. You can’t control the hands you’re dealt, but if you play them well, you can outperform your cards.
            In a similar vein, when I visit a casino (which has been twice in the past 11 years), I don’t gamble. I bet pro football instead.
            The NFL is a small enough league that you can get to know all the teams and develop a sense of how the game works. That, in turn, enables you to place an intelligent bet, which, I hasten to point out, is not necessarily the same thing as a winning bet.
            It’s one thing to determine which team has the better chance of winning (and never mind the spread for now), but that team still has to go out and play the game, with all its turnovers, penalties, dropped passes and injuries. Not to mention the defensive coordinator with the new scheme, the journeyman player who goes out-of-his-mind great for one game, and so on.
            Nevertheless, the intelligent bet remains a possibility, and one that offers satisfaction. Not only is there a slightly better (emphasis on the slightly) chance of winning, but you don’t lose any sleep over losing since you at least played smart.

Now That’s Gambling!

            This past weekend my buddy John and I played some football (in the betting sense) at Lakeside Casino in Stateline, Nevada. It was a hoot. A lot of locals play there, and the sports area was full of people looking around for hours at two dozen television screens showing all the games. The last of the second-hand cigarette smoke I inhaled should be out of my lungs by Christmas.
            Looking at the NFL matchups, I picked out five games where I felt I could see an advantage for one team and bet on that team with no regard for the point spread. At the end of the day, I’d won four out of five against the spread, and my winnings covered our cheap motel room and the gas for the drive up. Saturday night I even placed a very small bet on Boston College plus 20 over Notre Dame, just to put some interest into an unwatchable game, and won that one as well, going five for six overall.
            Some day I may do it again, but at least I have the sense to know three things: Don’t bet on the 49ers; Really, really don’t bet on the Raiders; and don’t think you can go back next weekend and win five of six again. To that, I’d add one more: Don’t bet on college football. That’s gambling.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Some Bookstores I Have Known

            Bookshop Santa Cruz is celebrating its 46th birthday this weekend. I’ll be out of town and not present for the ceremonies, but since they’re asking people to reflect on independent bookstores , I can make a modest contribution.
            The first bookstore I really remember was Vroman’s on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. We lived in nearby Altadena the first 12 years of my life, and my memory of Vroman’s is mostly of going there a couple of times a month, always on a Saturday afternoon, to spend part of my allowance on Hardy Boys books. Years later, after I had moved a few hundred miles away, I’d still make a pilgrimage to Vroman’s when I was in Los Angeles to visit my parents. The parents are gone now, but Vroman’s remains.
            In my high school years, I took to going to the Pickwick bookstore in Hollywood. It was bigger than Vroman’s and more chaotic, plus Hollywood in the sixties was a pretty dodgy place, which added a bit of a frisson to the expedition. The Pickwick, alas, is no more.

Surveying the Local Scene

            Our county now has four major bookstores and several smaller ones. Bookshop Santa Cruz is the leader, active in independent bookseller circles and industry change. They recently invested in a book-printing machine that has gained considerable community attention and use.
            Crossroads in Watsonville, where I had the first book-signing for my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, is a gem of a small bookstore, providing a vital service for a community where people would otherwise have to make a 25-30 mile round trip to buy a book.
            Capitola Book Café is another good general bookstore, serving the area between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Logos, in downtown Santa Cruz, is a behemoth of a used-book store.
            In all the stores I’ve mentioned, there’s a wonderful sense of serendipity, a feeling that you could stumble across something new and wonderful that you never knew about before you walked through the doors. To me, that’s the single most important thing a real bookstore offers.
            Browsing and chance discovery are somehow easier when the actual books are in front of you, rather than up on the computer screen as you scan Amazon. Amazon has its virtues, but it’s best when you know what you’re looking for going in. It rarely surprises you.

Bookstores Encountered by Chance

            Over the years there have been a number of bookstores I came across on trips, often completely by chance. I’ve been racking my brains, with no success, to come up with the name of the bookstore in London where I scored some incredible British mysteries and thrillers by authors I’d never heard of. That score included my first Dornford Yates book.
            Then there was Murder Ink in New York City, where the scenario was the opposite. It had quite a reputation and was one of the things on my to-see list when we made our first trip to Gotham in 1988. Murder Ink lived up to its reputation.
            And finally there are some small-town bookstores in getaway areas. Three I particularly recall. There was The Book Keeper in West Yellowstone; I still have one of their bookmarks, but the store vanished some time after our last visit more than 20 years ago, and a Google search today turns up nothing. Toyon Books on the Plaza in Healdsburg in the California Wine Country had a great cat and amazing selection for its size. It’s now Copperfield Books. And finally, one that’s still around, and from which I bought a couple of volumes in March, Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino on the California coast. Long may it thrive.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feeding the Bulldog

            Yesterday I emailed to Santa Clara University a 600-word article I wrote based on an interview with a finance professor who has been researching why central banks in developing nations have been accumulating a high level of international reserves (a catchall term for foreign currency and other financial instruments with broad global liquidity). Today I email them the invoice. It’s what I do for a living.
            If you’ve been reading this blog, it would probably strike you that central bank foreign reserves wouldn’t be a primary area of interest for me, and you would be right. It’s a subject I don’t know much about, but in some ways that makes me a good person to write about it for a general audience.
            That’s because once it’s explained at a level where I can get it, I can then write it so that a reasonably educated, but not academic, audience can understand it as well when it appears in the university’s publication. It’s sort of the academic version of Willie Stark’s political dictum in All the King’s Men: “You gotta get your message down so low that even the hogs can get it.”

Once a Journalist, Always a Journalist

            In a sense, it was my two decades of working at a daily newspaper that qualifies me for this sort of work. In the movies newspaper reporters are always chasing scoops and doing all sort of muckraking, often at great risk to their lives and careers. Nice work if you can get it, but in real life, the newspaperman’s lot is a much more prosaic one.
            Most of what newspaper reporters do, even at big name papers, is compile a lot of information, evaluate it, throw out the unimportant stuff, and reduce the rest to its essence, typically in a few hundred words. Doing that anywhere close to right requires skill, experience, a mind that makes connections quickly, and an initial period of tutelage by a wise mentor. Sadly, there are very few wise mentors left in the business these days.
            Another considerable part of the journalist’s trade is taking a report that has been written in the jargon of a certain tribe, figuring out what it really means, then rewriting the gist of it in plain English. If you’ve ever had to read a raw police report or an environmental impact report, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you’re lucky and should do everything you can to preserve your innocence.

Does It Translate to Fiction?

            An obvious question is whether or not this type of training is helpful to someone trying to write a novel. Earlier in this space, I addressed that question in detail, but one point I’d make is that it certainly could be of help to someone writing mystery fiction.
            That’s because the genre depends on puzzles, surprises, and the details coming together in the right way, as well as upon the reader being able to follow the complexities of a story. Much more than the author of so-called serious fiction, the mystery author needs to constantly be asking, is this making sense?
            When I was writing my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, I tried to think of Ward Bushee, my first managing editor, who was a stickler for clarity and accuracy. Reading over something I’d written, I’d say, WWWA, or What Would Ward Ask? If I got the answer to that right, the passage probably worked. If I didn’t, well, too bad Ward isn’t with us any more to work it over with his pencil.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Mysteries I've Been Reading

            If you’re a writer, one of the ways you keep in shape — mentally, in any event — is by reading a lot. There may be an exception to the rule that good writers are good readers, but I can’t think of one offhand.
            Having just published my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, a little over three months ago, I find myself reading more mysteries than usual lately. As I consider writing a second book, reading what others have written in the genre helps me keep my head in the game, so to speak.
            In a typical month it would not be unusual for me to read, for example, Eric Ambler, Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Louise Penney and Henning Mankell. I like to mix the Brits, the Yanks, and authors from abroad, or who set their stories abroad, and am partial to writers who have stood the test of time but open to checking out the new guy. After all, I’m one of the new guys now.

The Obsession and the Procedural

            Here’s a look at three books I read and liked in October. We’ll begin with Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell, published in 2004. Rendell, probably best known for her Inspector Wexford series, is one of the grandmasters of the genre. The Wexford books are stylish whodunits, with a perceptive eye cast to the vagaries of modern English life.
            Thirteen Steps Down is a stand-alone book and belongs to a subset of books she’s written that follow a non-police character whose life is unraveling. Here, the protagonist is an exercise-machine repairman who seems normal but quirky at the beginning of the book and by the end has gone crazy over an obsession and committed a murder. It’s a testament to Rendell’s skills that the former is almost scarier than the latter.
            Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are a husband and wife Swedish writing team who wrote ten Martin Beck police procedurals together before Wahloo died in 1975. The Laughing Policeman is the fourth in the series, published in 1968. It follows a group of Stockholm detectives as they attempt to solve a massacre on a city bus where one of the victims was a fellow detective. Over a period of months, the clues gradually and painfully come together to form a surprising picture. It’s a near-perfect book, and I don’t say that often. Jonathan Franzen liked it enough to write an appreciative introduction for a recent Vintage Crime edition.

Found Among the Used Books

            Last weekend I read Deadstick by Terence Faherty, first published in 1991. I’d never heard of the book or the author, but came upon it while browsing the racks at Logos used bookstore in Santa Cruz and picked it up for two bucks. It’s easier to “find” a book like that in a bookstore than on Amazon. The books and their publishers give off clues in their physical form that you just don’t get on a computer.
            Deadstick follows the adventures of Owen Keane, an ADD researcher for a Manhattan law firm retained to look into a 40-year-old plane crash that killed two people. As you may already have guessed, there was more to the “accident” than authorities discovered at the time, and Keane is kept busy following that trail and attempting to sort out his relationship with a nymphomaniac red-haired librarian named Marilyn. It’s a good book (all three were), and now that I’ve discovered Faherty and Owen Keane at the used bookstore, I look forward to following further adventures through the bookstore and Kindle. That’s the way of the book-shopping world these days.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The First Day on the Job

            October has been so busy that I nearly got to the end of it without pausing to remember that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of my 19-year stint with the newspaper. Given how formative the experience was, the milestone can’t be allowed to pass without comment.
            For half the time I was at the paper, my starting date, 10/16/72, appeared on the paycheck, so I’m never going to forget it. Not only the date, but the day itself will be in my memory until my last breath.
            A major storm had blown in, and it was pouring rain as I drove to the office for that first day. I arrived shortly before 8, and Ward Bushee, the managing editor who had hired me, showed me my desk, with a beat-up Underwood manual typewriter, handed me a box of business cards and a list of phone numbers for the local fire stations and the Monterey County Highway Patrol. Making those calls was my first task.

Being Cheap With Cheap Paper

            When it was time to write up a story, a reporter would put a piece of cheap paper, the type with chunks of wood in it, into the typewriter. If the story was three paragraphs or less, you were supposed to use a half-sheet to save money. When you’d typed out the story, double-spaced, you were supposed to make any necessary changes or corrections with a #2 pencil, then jam the corner of the paper on to a spike on Ward’s desk, from which he would collect it for editing.
            Many young reporters, I’ve been told, impaled their thumbs on the sharp end of the spike in the early going. The fact that I never did no doubt singled me out as potential executive material.
            I was at the end of a row of desks, with Andre Neu, the school reporter, to my right, and Howard Sheerin, the city hall reporter, behind me. Howard retired two years later, and Andre left about the same time, eventually ending up as a journalism instructor at the local community college.
            The telephones were beige and covered with a layer of permanent grime from having been repeatedly touched by ink-stained hands. The headpieces had attachments screwed on that allowed a reporter to rest the phone on a shoulder while typing or taking notes longhand.

A Scoop on the First Day

            Late that morning, Marj Von B, our legendary crime reporter, called in with an exclusive story: Nick Drobac, one of the county’s three superior court judges, was resigning to go into private practice. There were no remote computers or even fax machines in those days, so she dictated the story to me over the phone while I typed it on the Underwood. Two hours later, one of the circulation staffers came into the newsroom with copies of that day’s paper and laid one on my desk. The Drobac story was right there on the front page.
            My beat was to be North Monterey County, so that afternoon, Bill Akers, who had been covering that area, took me out and introduced me to the harbormaster, the school superintendent and business officer, and the justice of the peace. Midway through that tour, the rain finally stopped. By the time we got back, it was almost quitting time.
            Andre Neu and Judge Drobac are still alive, but the others are all gone, though I’ll never forget them. In fact, I recently had occasion to contact Drobac in connection with a publication job I’m doing for a client. That first day was the beginning of something that still continues.

Friday, October 26, 2012

"I LOVED Your Book"

            A wise person once told me that the best way to respond to a compliment is simply to say “thank you” and leave it at that. It’s good advice, and I do my imperfect best to follow it.
            In the past couple of months I’ve had more occasion than usual to follow the advice, or try to. The publication of my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, and the resultant publicity led to the realization that a gratifyingly high number of people I know were willing to buy the book, read it, or both. Consequently, there were a number of follow-up compliments.
            Back in August, I wrote in this space about the problematic nature of evaluating reviews of one’s book — especially the type that can be put up on Amazon by anyone who bought it. That’s a plenty daunting proposition, but it’s easier than trying to assess the validity of compliments from friends and acquaintances.

Experience of a Cynical Newspaperman

            My attitude toward receiving compliments will be colored, to my dying day, by two decades of working for a newspaper. For more than half the time I was an editor with the power to determine which stories got written. In that position, there was a pretty simple rule about compliments. At least 98 percent of the time you got one, it would soon be followed by a request for a favor and ha to be considered insincere.
            As the proud author of a book, I’m not dealing with favor-seekers anymore, but with well-meaning friends. And the first consideration in evaluating their compliments is to remember that almost no friend is going to tell you your book is a piece of crap and you just made a public jackass of yourself by publishing it. So when they tell you they loved it, what do they mean?
            You can go nuts obsessing about that, and I try not to. But I have, for whatever it’s worth, come up with a few rules of thumb for evaluating praise. If someone says, “I loved your book,” then changes the subject, it may mean they didn’t like it (or didn’t read it) but felt they had to say something nice. Or it could mean they did like it but are uncomfortable giving a compliment. I give the friend the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter but try not to assign much weight to it.

The Compliments That Resonate

            What really gets my attention is when the compliment is followed by further discussion of the book. If the compliment is followed, for example, by a number of questions about the book, how I got the ideas for it, how long it took to write, etc., I figure that’s probably an expression of genuine interest and take the compliment more seriously.
            Better yet is when the person who compliments the book talks about its content in some detail and with genuine perception. Last week I got a call from one of Linda’s friends, who wanted to say she enjoyed the book and went on to talk about some of the details she liked in Chapter 7. They were details I felt I had nailed, so the compliment was particularly meaningful.
            Best of all, of course, are the rare compliments from total strangers. A woman in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, who has never met me, wrote on a blog that she had read The McHenry Inheritance while recovering from a major surgery, had really enjoyed it, and planned to recommend it to her book club. Now that’s a compliment you can take to the bank.