Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Last year the NBA’s Golden State Warriors decided to start a D-League team in Santa Cruz, our county seat. Although this area has a reputation for not getting things done, the powers that be were able to approve a modular basketball arena (capacity around 2,600) for the team, and it started playing in November 2012.
We never got to a game that first season, but with our son Nick coming home from the Army for Christmas, I suggested a Warriors game as a family activity and actually got everybody to agree. So that’s how, this past Sunday night, we were at Kaiser Permanente Arena at 6 p.m. for tipoffs of the game between the Santa Cruz Warriors and the Idaho Stampede.
During my misspent youth I spent a lot of time playing basketball, mostly playground and gym pickup games. I was probably the 35th best player at our high school, and since only the top 12 make varsity, was out of the picture. But I still love the game and was looking forward to checking out the new local team.
Watch Out for the Little Guy
The arena being small, all the seats were pretty good. We had tickets in the tenth row up from the floor, a bit off midcourt and could see everything pretty well. During warmups, I noticed that Santa Cruz had a player who was way shorter than everybody else and made a mental note to keep an eye on him. If you’re on the roster at that size, you must have something on the ball.
His name was Kiwi Gardner, and he’s officially listed at 5-7, though I have my doubts. He played college ball at Providence (almost everyone on the roster was in a pretty good college program), but didn’t come into the game until the second quarter.
When he did get in, he quickly made his mark. He handled the ball well, drove fearlessly through the tall trees, and tied with another player as the team’s leading scorer with 19 points.
On one play, he trailed an Idaho player several inches taller on a fast break, then went over the guy’s shoulder to block his shot, touching nothing but ball with his hand. Unfortunately, he had to jump so high, he kneed the fellow in the shoulders and got called for a foul, but even so, it takes a real athlete to make that play.
Halfcourt Shots and Dancing Kids
Both teams were shooting cold and missed a number of shots on good looks, so the final was 95-91, Santa Cruz. At the end of the third quarter, an Idaho player threw up a prayer from the sideline near the top of his team’s key and it caught nothing but net. It didn’t influence the outcome, but might have covered the spread. I didn’t check.
They played 48 minutes, just like the NBA, and got the game done in a crisp two hours and 15 minutes. There were no TV timeouts, but during breaks there were midcourt activities sponsored by local businesses. Festivities included a break-dancing competition between kids 5-10, a chance to win a thousand dollars by sinking a half-court shot (not even close), a pizza-dough tossing exhibition, and an event sponsored by a local bank, in which a blindfolded kid got 30 seconds to scoop up as many dollar bills as he could from a bagful strewn on the floor.
All in all it was pretty good basketball with some wholesome, corny fun during the interludes. At $35 a ticket, I’d rate it a good value and wouldn’t be averse to going back again.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
When World War II ended and my dad left the Navy, he decided to take one more stab at making it as an actor in Southern California. He went back to the Pasadena Playhouse, which groomed such famous stars as Raymond Burr, and was doing bit parts in the plays when he met a kid from Wisconsin who also wanted to be an actor.
Harold Stuiber (pronounced STEE-burr) was 15 years younger than my dad at the time and so green he didn’t know how to drive a car. My father taught him and they became close friends for life. Harold ended up doing my dad a favor for which I will be forever grateful.
At the time there were three women — two sisters from Idaho and an older friend — who were working at Huntington Memorial Hospital and sharing an apartment. Harold got serious about one of the sisters and thought that perhaps her older friend would be a good fit for his older friend. He arranged an introduction, which was how my father met my mother.
My parents got married in May of 1949, not long after Harold and Virginia, and Harold was Best Man at the wedding. The other sister, Patty, married a man named Walt Brecha (BRECK-uh) around the same time. My dad and Harold gave up their acting careers and both did pretty well in business. Harold became a textile salesman and kept some of his clients well into his eighties.
I grew up with the Stuibers and Brechas and their kids a constant presence. Harold was my godfather, and I recall that he felt it incumbent upon him to teach me the value of a firm handshake. He was the first person I knew who owned and drove a Volkswagen. Like most salesmen, he was a great talker — funny, tolerant and well read, with opinions and observations that were always worth listening to. He was a liberal and my father was a conservative, but politics never came between them.
In 1980, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, Harold began coming over every Sunday night without fail. He did that for a year and a half, until my father finally succumbed to the disease. Harold told me more than once that my dad was the dearest friend he’d had in his life.
The Unanswered Phone
After my mother moved away from Southern California, I rarely saw Harold, but we talked on the phone from time to time, and I think we both enjoyed the conversations. On Sunday I called him for the first time in a few months to wish him a merry Christmas. Nobody answered the phone, but even at 91, Harold was busy so I didn’t worry.
A few hours later his daughter, Lisa, called to say Harold had died that morning of complications from a pacemaker replacement. Despite his age and the fact he’d had a great life, the news hit me hard. It was a double whammy. I felt the loss not only of the man himself, but also of the end of the most powerful living connection to my parents, both of whom have been gone for years.
Lisa and I talked for a while, and toward the end of the conversation she said something that reminded me of the Mad Men days of the fifties and sixties, in which we had both grown up.
“I’d like to think Dad’s in heaven now,” she said, “having a martini with your dad and Walt and catching up on old times.” I hope so, too.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
When I got hired a year and a half ago to write a family history that eventually came to be called, The Borina Family of Watsonville, there weren’t many expectations about how well it would sell.
The last of the Borinas (at least in the line I was writing about) died in 2000, and the attorney who was mostly administering the family foundation they left behind thought it would be fitting to get the story captured, to the extent possible after all this time. In fact, I recall his saying at the beginning that we’d probably need only a few copies for libraries and archives.
I thought it might have a bit more appeal than that. After all, it was a great rags-to-riches story, in which a Croatian immigrant rides into town at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, makes a huge fortune as an apple grower and shipper, and raises two daughters who were independent professional women long before that became the norm. One of them was the first female district attorney in the history of California.
A Good Story Long Forgotten
The more I worked on it, the more I felt it was a good story, but since most people locally, where it took place, knew next to nothing about it, how well could it sell? Sad to say there isn’t always a direct correlation between the quality of the story and its sales.
So when it was finally ready to go to the printer, the Foundation ordered a hundred copies. They arrived just before Thanksgiving, and I got them out into the three main local bookstores. We got out a press release, talked to the two major local papers, and held our collective breath.
At this point I should probably explain that in Santa Cruz County, and specifically in Watsonville, there is a significant Croatian-American population, most descended from people who came to America in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The collective story of their migration and pre-eminence in California’s apple-growing industry was wonderfully told by Donna Mekis and Kathryn Mekis Miller in their book, Blossoms Into Gold.
Christmas Present? Who’d Have Thought?
The first news story came out Saturday and the second yesterday. Already, it seems, the Croatian telegraph had been humming and word was getting out about the book. The bookstore in Watsonville sold out in three days and the store in Santa Cruz ordered extra copies.
One of the county’s judges heard about the book and rushed out to buy a copy to see what it said about the female DA. And although the Borinas are gone, the maternal line, the Secondo family, is still quite large and they bought copies. The owner of the Watsonville bookstore told me that some people were buying multiple copies to give as Christmas presents.
In the few days the book has been out, I’ve already received some emails from people telling me how much they enjoyed it. One was from the granddaughter of the sister of the woman who became Mrs. Borina, who said she knew many of the people in the book and was glad to see their story in print.
A second printing has been ordered, and I’m looking forward to this Saturday, when I’ll be doing a book-signing at Crossroads Books in Watsonville. I’ll undoubtedly be told I got some things wrong and left some things out, but that’s all right. The book clearly touched a nerve with people who felt that, even though it wasn’t specifically about them, it told their story. You can’t beat a personal connection like that.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
One of the things about reading a mystery novel is that the closer to the end you get, the faster it goes. It might take two hours to read the first hundred pages, but only one hour to read the last seventy-five.
That has a lot to do with the inherent nature of storytelling. In the first hundred pages of the book, the reader is still getting the lay of the land. That involves processing a lot of stuff, from understanding the physical setting of the book to getting the characters sorted out. There have been some mysteries where even after two hundred pages, I was still scratching my head over whether Neville was the duke’s brother or prospective son-in-law.
The closer the reader gets to the last page, the less of an issue that is. By then the reader knows who’s who and what’s what, and the story is galloping to a finish. If the reader has made it that far, almost every mystery is a page-turner at that point.
The Author Feels the Pain
Much of what the reader goes through in reading the book, the author experiences as well in the writing of it. From my own experience, I would say that writing a novel is like running a marathon. There’s the rush of excitement at getting started, the long slog through a seemingly interminable middle, and the final burst of adrenalin at the race to the finish.
When I wrote my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I felt those three phases acutely. When I began writing, I had a deadline for finishing the first draft in my mind, and after the first two chapters, I figured I’d beat that deadline with no worries.
Not so fast. The middle of the book proved to be rough, even excruciating, sledding. I began to see previously unplanned things I had to do to both build on what I’d already written and to set up what I had in mind for the finale. Halfway through the first draft, I was bogged down and realized there was no way I’d hit the deadline.
Then a funny thing happened. As I got back to the last three chapters, the confidence returned, the fingers began flying over the keyboard, and I made up lost time, finishing at around five o’clock Christmas Eve, a week ahead of schedule.
Round Up the Usual Suspects
I’m currently wrapping up the first draft of my next Quill Gordon mystery, and the pattern has repeated itself somewhat. Learning from past experience, I plotted out the book and the characters better this time, with the result that writing the middle was less of a quagmire.
At the same time I was writing the middle of the mystery, I was finishing work on a nonfiction book of local history, on which there was considerable time pressure to publish this year. That slowed down the writing of the mystery, but once the history book was off to the printers in early October, I was able to devote my attention to the mystery, with gratifying results. The penultimate chapter was completed last night, a week and a half ahead of schedule.
With the holidays coming and my business workload easing, I’ll be writing fast and furious the rest of the year. Allowing for revisions, formatting, and all the other minutiae of finishing a book, I’m hoping to have it published in the spring of 2014. The race to the finish is on, and it’s every bit as much fun as it was the last time around.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
This year we’ll be doing something completely different for Thanksgiving, but before I get to that, allow me a little trip down memory lane.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are about getting together with the family to celebrate, so many of my Thanksgiving memories have to do with just that. What’s interesting as I think about it is that in some cases, the act of traveling to the Thanksgiving gathering was more memorable than the day itself.
Take, for instance, my freshman year in college, when I came home for Thanksgiving feeling considerably more adult than I had a few weeks earlier, and quite a bit more adult than I really was at the time. I don’t remember a thing about the dinner or anything else that happened that weekend, but I have vivid memories of taking a Peerless Stages bus over Highway 17 in the rain and flying home on PSA from San Jose. The plane fare was $14.18, which might explain why PSA is no longer in business. Neither is Peerless Stages.
Snow in Seattle
In 1986 we were planning on leaving for my mother’s place in Glendale at noon the day before Thanksgiving, but we were making an offer on the house we now live in, and things heated up. Following a frenzy of negotiation, we finally got a deal about 7 p.m. and hadn’t even begun packing. We drove down the next day, and the only thing I remember after we left Santa Cruz is that we stopped at Denny’s in Paso Robles for breakfast.
A year before that, we went up to Seattle, where my sister Kathe had just given birth to a son. (We were at the son’s wedding this summer, which shows how time flies.) Seattle had an uncharacteristically heavy snowfall just before Thanksgiving that year, and it was tough sledding for the whole weekend. That was the year Kathe insisted on taking us for coffee at a new place that was then the rage in Seattle. I think it was called Starbuck’s, or something like that.
Then there was the year Kathe and her family flew down Thanksgiving morning. No sooner had we got back from the airport than we found that our oven had gone on the fritz. The turkey ended up being hastily driven to Linda’s mother’s house, where it was cooked and rushed back in time for dinner.
Our parents are all gone now, and the rest of us are more scattered, so the Thanksgiving tradition has changed in recent years. For some time now, it’s been just the three of us — Linda, Nick and me — at home for that holiday. Nick, over the years, developed a flair for seasoning and he’s been in charge of the mashed potatoes, a job he’s performed with distinction.
This spring Nick went into the Army. He’ll be home for Christmas, but not Thanksgiving, so Linda and I are trying something different. Without a ravenous young man around to help polish off the leftovers, we couldn’t really see preparing a large meal that we’d never be able to finish. So we did some scouting around and made arrangements to pick up turkey meat, stuffing and gravy from a local establishment. We’ll make mashed potatoes and veg to finish the dinner.
The potatoes won’t be as good as the ones Nick made, but they’ll remind us of him, and they’ll also remind us to be thankful for our many blessings. And after all, isn’t that what the holiday is all about?
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
A while back I wrote about the vexing question of how to handle background detail in a book, more specifically a mystery. The question the author has to decide is whether such material slows down the book and annoys the reader or whether it adds verisimilitude and atmosphere to the mystery.
As with anything else in writing, a lot depends on the execution. A good writer can pull off things that would send a lesser one crashing to the pavement. Still, some of the reaction is bound to be reader-specific. Certain people just want to get on with the story and really don’t want to pause for a digression, no matter how witty or erudite.
In the earlier piece I raised the issue because of feedback I’d received on my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance. The story involves a man who goes on a fly-fishing vacation and winds up getting involved in some serious local intrigue, which results in a murder and a murder investigation.
Had to Be There for a Reason
As I tried to put that book together, I reasoned that since the protagonist was on a fishing trip, I should have a couple of fishing scenes in the book, and that they should be detailed enough to be real. It was also the case that the victim was fly-fishing when killed, and the two key witnesses were fishing downstream and out of sight when it happened.
Therefore, I reasoned, fishing scenes would be as much a part of the book as wetness is a part of water. And certainly if my character had been mountain-climbing or bird-watching, I would expect to include descriptions of those activities. So I put the scenes in and took considerable care in writing them and making them as real and richly detailed as possible.
Reader reaction, at least the reaction I’ve heard, was divided. Some people said they really enjoyed the scenes and were intrigued to learn about something they’d known little if anything about. Others said they got bogged down in them, and some older readers in particular seemed to suffer because they felt they had to understand those scenes before they could continue with the reading of the book.
Try Harder and Punt
Aside from trying harder to make sure the scenes would be as clear and understandable as possible, I didn’t, until last week, have any ideas about how to handle this issue in the second book featuring the same fishing character. Then it occurred to me that a note to the reader might be in order.
Any writer considering such a device has to contend with the reality of being unable to top the note Mark Twain put at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn:
Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
Still, you can’t shy away from a necessary task because someone else once did it so much better. With that in mind, I’ve decided to put this note to the reader at the beginning of my second mystery novel:
This book contains several descriptive and detailed passages about fly-fishing. They are there for the benefit of those who fish, those who enjoy the outdoors, and those who might want to learn more about this pastime. These passages are not germane to the solution of the mystery, and readers who fall into none of the categories above may feel free to skip past them, if so desired, without missing out on a vital clue.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
It may well be that the flaws in an author’s first novel are among the things that motivate him or her to keep writing. The sense that it was not bad but could have been better can make a writer want to build on the strengths of the first book and try to come up with a better second one.
Think of writers who, to whatever degree, nailed it on the first try. Harper Lee, with To Kill a Mockingbird, and Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, come to mind. In her own way, and at her own level, each of them may have written the best book she was capable of, and going on with fiction writing was sure to be a disappointment.
Sometimes an author overcorrects in the second book. In trying to improve on the weaknesses of the first one, he or she can forget its strengths as well and end up with a different but lesser work. Sometimes the third one is where the author gets it right, as Fitzgerald did with The Great Gatsby.
The Mystery of The Mystery
After publishing my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, last year, I’ve been working on the second, which I hope will come out in the spring of 2014. Neither of my books is in the same league as the ones mentioned above; they’re intended as nothing more than trashy entertainment.
But even trashy entertainment has its standards and achieves varying levels of quality. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this second book lately and wondering and worrying about how good it is.
While The McHenry Inheritance received generally good reviews on Amazon and seems to have sold a bit better than the average first book by an unknown author, I felt that the characters and dialogue could have been stronger and the story, though crisp and fast-moving, could have been more complex. The second book relies on characters and atmosphere more than it does on action. I’m trying to do something a bit different and find myself constantly wondering if I’m pulling it off. The hell of being an author is that you have to rely on your own instincts as you write, and it can take a long time after publication to get enough feedback to know if you pulled it off. That uncertainty and anxiety have driven many men and women to drink.
The Puzzle Leaps Into Place
One thing that’s happening the second time around is that the elements of the story are coming together more easily, and I’m getting more spontaneous ideas as I write the book.
Before beginning to write, I made pages and pages of notes about the plot and the characters, going into considerable detail as to what would happen and who the people in the book would be. Then, halfway through the first chapter, as one of those characters was about to appear, I had a flash about a significant new quality for that person that would alter some of the rest of the book. In another instance, a New York Times article I’d just read rattled around in my head and bounced off something my sister had mentioned when visiting recently. The result: A key clue that hadn’t been in the original outline.
What to make of those brainstorms, and other like them? The most likely explanations are a) that I’m gaining the ability to write this sort of thing; or b) that I’m losing the ability to recognize a bad idea when it pops into my head. It will probably be a few years before I know which explanation is right. That’s the hell of being an author.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
When our son, Nick, went into the Army in May, one of the things I thought as I said goodbye to him was that for the first time in his life, he wouldn’t be home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. For some reason, that bothered me more than I thought it would.
That surprised me, because I’ve never been terribly sentimental about those holidays. When I was a kid, they were often days with obligations, where I couldn’t do what I wanted to or play with my friends. Because of that, the days often felt more like chores than celebrations.
When I went off to college, the emotional level of the holidays kicked up a notch. Going home then seemed to really mean something and was a way of reconnecting during the period between childhood and adulthood. The difference between home and college provided a yardstick for measuring my progress during that transition.
The Yearly Negotiation
In 1977, Kathe, my younger sister, and I both got married, and the holidays took on a hitherto unknown dimension. She was living in Seattle, I was living in Santa Cruz, our parents were in Glendale, and the in-laws were in Watsonville and Spokane.
At that point the holidays got complicated. We would try to get our whole family together for one of the two, and one of us would try to spend the other holiday with mom and dad. That, of course, had to be worked around our spouses’ commitments to their parents, the work schedules of four people and so forth. Planning for the holidays came to seem less and less like a spiritual family bonding experience and more like an acrimonious labor negotiation.
The parents are all gone now, and the kids are grown up, so it’s a bit simpler. The past few years we’ve either stayed home — Linda, Nick and I — or occasionally gone to Seattle to be with Kathe and her family. It has been considerably more low-stress than before, and there was the certainty that at least our small family would be together.
The Soldier Far Away
Nick’s going into the Army changed even that dynamic, and we just figured that, buck private as he was, he wouldn’t be able to get time off then. It looked as if, for the first time in 37 years of marriage, it would be just Linda and me for Christmas.
After basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Nick went to Fort Eustis, VA, for advanced training as a helicopter mechanic. If the class had started right away, he would have been done in late October and low man on the totem pole at his new posting after that. But the Army works in mysterious ways.
It turns out that they didn’t have enough people to start the class right away, so he spent a month at Fort Eustis doing janitorial duty every day, which I’m sure built his character no end. Once training got under way, graduation was set for the day before Thanksgiving.
Given Linda’s work schedule, flying out then wouldn’t have been feasible. But then the Army struck again. Nick was chosen to stay for additional training on the next generation of Blackhawk helicopters, and his training end date moved to December 14. At that point he’d have two weeks’ leave and wouldn’t need to report to his next post until the first of the year.
So he got the leave, and he’ll be home for Christmas, arriving late the night of December 18. Given the nature of the Army, it could be his last Christmas home for years, but I’m trying not to think about that. Let’s just enjoy this one.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
After more than a year of research and writing, The Borina Family of Watsonville, a history I did for that family’s foundation, will be published next month, and I expect it to make a modest contribution to the knowledge of local history in our area.
A couple of months ago I blogged about how the research for the book sometimes seemed like chasing ghosts. That piece was about the difficulty of running down information on people who are all gone now, with few others remaining who knew them personally. The handful of people alive who still remember the Borinas will soon be gone themselves, but the book will keep the family’s memory alive to at least some small extent.
There’s another issue involved in doing a family history like this, and it’s a paradox. In the course of running it down, the author comes across a heck of a lot of information, and massaging and condensing it into some sort of halfway interesting narrative is a true challenge.
The Histories Nobody Reads
Quite a few people try their hand at writing a family history every year. Most of them can handle the first part of the job, which is ferreting out the information. Whether there’s a lot of information or a little, it’s generally available to anyone who can muster a bit of dogged persistence when it comes to going through raw materials — whether those are online sources or old-fashioned letters and diaries in a box in the attic.
Figuring out what to make of it and how to use it is the rub, and that’s where family histories can turn unreadable.
In my case one storytelling challenge was that the family patriarch figured out a way to develop a lucrative market for apples in Asia during the 1930s. The details of how he did it eluded me; he never recorded the story, and whatever part of that story his daughters knew died with them.
There was, however, a considerable body of work about developing markets for California fruit in Asia at the time. One 1930s article on the subject, which I encountered in an archive ran about as long as my entire book. How does something like that get worked into the story in a compelling fashion? (I used the gist of it and a piquant quote.)
The Great Unraveling
It occurred to me at some point along the way that researching a book like this is a bit like picking up scraps of yarn here and there. At the end of the research process (and it ends when you decide it does, because in theory it could go on forever) you have a ball of yarn 20-feet in diameter.
The writing process is about turning that enormous ball of yarn into a beautiful Christmas sweater with a reindeer pattern. In order to do that, you have to remember all the individual bits of yarn that went into the ball and spend a great deal of time and effort unraveling it in search of the bits you can use.
Most of the yarn you’ve amassed never goes into the sweater, and some really nice material inevitably gets left behind. Part of writing involves being ruthless about leaving out good material that doesn’t fit your pattern. I seem to have a mind that’s naturally inclined to do that sort of thing, but I have no idea at all how I would go about trying to teach someone else to do it. All I know is that my way seems to work for me, and in a couple of months, we’ll find out if it works for the readers of the book as well.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Watching an episode of Elementary recently, I perked up when it got to a scene where the detectives were visiting a witness who had just emerged from a coma after being shot by a multiple killer. Sherlock Holmes had already deduced the identity of the killer and the detective in the hospital room whipped out a photo of the perp and held it up, at which the guy in the hospital bed pointed to it and said “Yeah …”
So not right.
Also not so big a deal.
It wasn’t right because any competent defense attorney could have raised questions about the identification; the victim was essentially asked a leading question of the type not allowed in court. That’s one of the reasons most modern police departments seeking an ID from a photo give the witness a half-dozen pictures of potential perps to choose from. That way the identification does a lot better if the case ever comes to trial.
When a Mistake Doesn’t Hurt Too Much
On the other hand, the scene occurred in the context of a show in which the basic premise is that the New York City Police Department is using Sherlock Holmes and his associate, Dr. Joan Watson, as consultants on major crimes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s a certain amount of reality avoidance in the show to start with.
From that perspective, a violation of police procedure for the purpose of wrapping up the story within an hour is at most a minor infraction. Had the scene occurred in a drama that prided itself on being grittily realistic about the details of police work, it would have been a howler.
Similarly, in the novels of Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey, a mistake about the effects of arsenic on the spleen is not a deal-breaker, provided, of course, that the solution to the mystery doesn’t revolve around the reader catching the mistake. Those authors were more concerned with the motives of the suspects, and having one of the suspects behave out of character would be far more serious in their books than getting a scientific detail wrong.
Yielding to the Story
Nobody who writes a book wants a glaring and laughable mistake in it, and a certain due diligence in that regard is important for all authors. But there are ways of dealing with it other than rigorous research. For example, Catriona McPherson, author of the Dandy Gilver mysteries, said in a newspaper interview that one of the reasons she did a series set in the 1920s was so she wouldn’t have to waste a lot of time learning forensic stuff and writing it into the books. Like Christie, Tey, et. al, she wanted to focus on the characters and situation.
In the course of doing the final revision for my first mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, I had to make a call in that regard. Re-reading the book, I realized that at one point I had the local sheriff doing something the FBI chief on the scene would surely have done himself. The scene was unrealistic in the same way as the one-photo lineup in Elementary.
On the other hand, the story was at that point barreling toward its climax, and introducing and developing a new character at that point would have sapped its narrative drive. So, reality be damned, I let the sheriff go ahead and do the FBI chief’s job. When you’re writing fiction, there are times you can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
I was looking through the obituary section of the local newspaper the other day (something I do with increasing regularity, checking to see how many of the players are younger than I am) when I realized something jarring.
Out of the seven or eight people in that day’s report, nobody died.
Most of them “passed away” or “passed on,” euphemisms from which my first managing editor quickly weaned me. One of the departed, if memory serves, came to rest in the arms of God, Jesus, or both, to which the same managing editor would have asked, “Who’s your source and how do they know?” There is no good answer to that question.
But that experience with the local obituaries got me to thinking about my years as an obituary writer for the paper (a job I actually perversely enjoyed) and the way in which the rendering of obituaries has changed over the years. Not for the better, I might add.
When the Family Calls the Shots
The biggest change in the past couple of decades has been the shift from obituaries being news stories, with all that entails, to being paid notices written and inserted in the paper by families and friends. That, in itself, tends to greatly reduce the amount of interesting information in any given story, such as that the deceased was shot to death by a jealous husband.
It’s all part of a general trend toward outsourcing, which is something small-town newspapers have been doing too much of lately. Instead of having a paid reporter write a factual obituary, the paper now charges families by the column-inch for putting in their own stories, thereby converting an ongoing expense into a revenue stream. In today’s business climate, I suppose few newspapers (or many other businesses, for that matter) can ignore that sort of financial imperative.
One problem (out of many) with this approach is that after a while, the handful of remaining reporters and editors at the newspaper stop thinking of deaths in the community as news, unless there’s a police report involved. In the past year there have been several instances of people dying who were active in the community and in the news back in their prime. Yet their deaths merited no news story, just the paid obituary. I shake my head.
Stick to the Known Facts
In my obituary-writing days there were other rules we had to follow. If the deceased was relatively young (under 60 back in the 1970s), we were supposed to try to ascertain a cause of death, especially if the demise was sudden. That’s something you don’t see too often any more, unless the family wants to make a point of the departed’s “heroic” battle with cancer or some other disease that’s respectable enough to print.
We also weren’t allowed to editorialize. The first time I wrote in an obituary that someone was a “loving” husband and father, the managing editor deleted “loving” with a vicious stroke of his pencil. (This was before computers.) “How do we know he was loving?” he asked. “For all we know, he was a miserable bastard who beat his kids and drove his wife to drink.”
The old obituary style was about strict accuracy and a forsaking of wishful sentimentality. When my time comes (not for a while, I hope), the obituary, if I have any vote in the matter, will say that I died, not passed away. I’m also hoping it says I was 90 years old, was shot to death by a jealous husband, and that a 27-year-old suspect is in custody.
Wednesday, September 18, 2013
One of the pleasures of traveling is coming across a lovely little local bookstore where you’re staying. I have fond memories of several such places, some still around and some not.
In the latter category, I’d put the Pink Cadillac bookstore in Chester, CA by Lake Almanor in the mountains northeast of San Francisco and Sacramento. That one’s been gone for some time now (the town’s probably not a big enough market to support it), but I stopped there in the late 1980s and bought a couple of used mysteries. When a nasty, afternoon-long thunderstorm confined me to my motel room, I was glad I had them with me, even though I can’t remember the name of the book I read that day.
Still with us is the Gallery Bookstore in Mendocino, where I go to recharge my batteries for a few days every couple of years. The Gallery sells mostly new books, and I always make a point of browsing the store and buying a couple of titles when I’m up there.
The Outdoor Bookstore
On a recent visit to the Santa Barbara-Ojai area in Southern California, I made the acquaintance of two locally owned bookstores. The first was Chaucer’s, which is located in an unprepossessing strip mall on State Street in Santa Barbara. It’s primarily a store that sells new books, and it fits a lot of them into a space not all that large.
I can’t recall ever seeing a bookstore so densely packed with books as Chaucer’s. The aisles were tight, the shelves were high, and the available space was stuffed to the gills with books shelved sideways and up and down. They had a terrific selection of contemporary mystery authors who are in print but not always readily available because they don’t necessarily appeal to the airport crowd. I scored several books there, including three Dalziel/Pascoe mysteries by the late Reginald Hill.
Even more interesting was Bart’s Books in Ojai, which bills itself as the largest outdoor bookstore in the world. It doesn’t rain too much in Ojai, so it was possible to build the bookstore around a large, open-air courtyard, with overhangs protecting the inventory from the stray shower.
Phoebe and Father Knox
Rain was not an issue the day I was there. The high temperature that day was almost 100F, and by 10:30 in the morning, it was pretty oppressive in the store. The books at Bart’s are nearly all used, and the fiction section alone is probably as big as a lot of community bookstores. (Mysteries were included in the fiction section, so searching was a bit of a slog. I checked to see if anyone had turned in a copy of my book, The McHenry Inheritance, but no such luck.)
This is a place where a patient search of the shelves can turn up books you never heard of or despaired of finding. I was able to come away with several older, out-of-print books by authors in the classical era of the mystery (or closer to it than today).
Included in the haul, in order of publication, were Emile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (1869), one of the first detective novels and an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes; The Footsteps at the Lock, a 1928 classic by Father Ronald A. Knox, a contemporary and friend of Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, et. al; Beginning With a Bash (1937), a New England mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor, writing as Alice Tilton; and Coffin Scarcely Used, a 1958 British mystery by Colin Watson, a master of mordant humor.
A good day’s shopping, and now, with winter on the way, I have some treats set aside for those long, cold nights.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
In a recent email exchange with another mystery author, she brought up the late Elmore Leonard’s dictum, quoted in many of his obituaries, that a big part of the revision process on a manuscript consists of getting rid of the stuff the readers will skip over.
That’s a fairly old line, with a lot of variations. For instance, Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theater Company, once did a production of the complete plays of Shakespeare in two and a half hours. Asked how he could possibly condense all those plays into a length of time generally taken up by one (if abridged a bit), he replied, “Easy. I just left out all the boring stuff.”
And there’s the rub. If someone could argue that the greatest writer ever was boring nearly 98 percent of the time, what hope is there for the rest of us? Not much. And it comes down to the question of how does the author figure out when something is boring. I mean, you wouldn’t have written it in the first place if you thought so, and a line like Leonard’s isn’t much help when the devil is in the details.
To Fish or Not to Fish?
In my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance, the protagonist is on a fly-fishing vacation in the High Sierra when he gets caught up in a web of local intrigue, culminating in murder. Because of his reason for being there, I put in a couple of detailed fly-fishing scenes, describing the scenery and the technique in some detail.
Is that the boring stuff that readers will skip over? I’ve heard from some who did, but nonetheless said they enjoyed the rest of the story. I’ve also heard from a number of people who don’t fish but said they really liked the descriptions of place and enjoyed learning more about fly-fishing, which was more complex than they had imagined it to be.
So help me out here, Elmore. Who do I listen to?
Actually, the decision has been made. I’m halfway through the second book with the same protagonist, and since the running story line is that he goes on a fishing vacation and ends up in the middle of a mystery, I’m including the fishing scenes, a few pages’ worth anyway. If the reader wanders, so be it.
Just Tell the Damn Story
This calls to mind something one of my mentors at the newspaper, Bud O’Brien, used to say. Every young reporter would inevitably get carried away with some story and try to overwrite it and be too clever for his or her own good. When Bud was on the city desk, those efforts would get bounced back to the reporter with the following advice:
“You have a pretty good story here. When you have a good story, don’t try to be clever; don’t try to be cute. Just tell the damn story.”
Excellent advice as far as it goes, but again, the problem is how does one “just” tell the story? It’s a question of knowing the structure and having a sense for when and where to bring in the piquant details. Not to mention knowing what those details are and being able to separate them from the details that don’t matter and should be left out. That’s the problem with writing and the reason so many people fail at it. Anybody can get the general idea, but figuring out how to make it work one sentence at a time is a bitch.
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
One of the things my father liked to do when I was growing up was to take us out for a Sunday drive. We’d leave our home in Glendale (or, earlier, Altadena) after breakfast and spend the better part of the day on the road, typically heading up north and getting into the countryside.
In the 1930s my father had driven a gasoline tanker truck, bringing fuel to Shell Oil stations between Ventura and Paso Robles. A lot of the places we visited on these drives were places he used to cover in his fueling routes. It now occurs to me that he was revisiting scenes from his past and trying to get a sense of how things had changed.
The rest of us were along for lunch. If we were around Ventura at lunchtime, it would often be at a coffee shop called Loop’s. Again, I’m guessing, but it was probably a regular stop for him back in the day.
The Road to Ojai
If we were up in Ventura, we might keep going to Ojai (pronounced OH-high). Originally a farming valley with a lot of citrus and avocado trees, it became, early in the 20th Century, an artists’ colony and vacation getaway for people from Los Angeles. In fact, the first vacation we took as a family was to a place in Meiners Oaks, which is just up the road from Ojai, and we went there on a couple of weekend getaways as well.
It’s probably been 45 years since I was last in Ojai, but this week Linda and I are there for a short vacation. After a foggy summer along the Santa Cruz coast, we wanted a spell of dry heat, and we’re getting what we bargained for. As I write this, it’s 97 degrees outside.
We’re staying at the Ojai Retreat, which is on a hilltop just outside of town. Looking out the window of our room, we can see the Ojai Valley below us, and next to the building, with the same view, is a patio area that ends at a stone fence and almost sheer dropoff. We are very quickly getting very relaxed.
Not How I Remember It
Given how long ago the last visit was, my memories of Ojai are more than a bit sketchy. I had definitely forgotten how high and steep the surrounding mountains are. The town itself is fairly nice, in a Carmel-touristy sort of way, and the powers that be seem to have done a reasonably good job of keeping sprawl and cookie-cutter development from getting too out of hand. Judging from the signs by some of the open areas, there is an active land conservancy at work.
And already, I’ve had one case of sudden recall. Yesterday, when we were going for an afternoon drive around the area, we took State Route 150 east out of town and over a hill to the next valley, then the one beyond that. Something about it seemed familiar, then a memory came back.
It was a Sunday in October or November in the early to mid 1960s that we were driving on that same road in the middle of the afternoon, with the car radio tuned to KMPC Los Angeles, where Bob Kelly was calling the Los Angeles Rams football game. I’m sure of it. My mother and sister were no doubt not as enthralled by the football game as Dad and I were, but they raised no objection. And however boring the game may have been for them, they at least had some pretty scenery to look at.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
One of the things I’ve been doing over the past year, when not writing a mystery novel, is a family history, which is now getting close to publication. The family in question died out a decade ago, but left behind a charitable foundation that gives millions of dollars a year to local nonprofits.
It was the administrator of that foundation who decided a family history would be a good idea and brought me in to do it. He sensed, correctly, that time was running out to talk to people who still remember the family members, and that the story might be lost if it wasn’t captured now.
Running down that story (or as much of it as possible) has been one of the most interesting and challenging things I’ve ever done. I find myself in the position of trying to bring to life, for a modern reader, a group of people I’ve never met, and of making their story interesting. The latter isn’t too hard because they accomplished quite a bit; for instance, one of the daughters was the first female district attorney in California when appointed to that position in 1947.
The finished product resembles an unfinished jigsaw puzzle that conveys a definite image, yet one with a number of pieces missing. Some of the people I wanted to interview turned me down. Some that I did talk to died after talking with me (I’m not implying a connection here), and at times I’ve felt as if I’m chasing ghosts, one step ahead of the undertaker.
One of the things that made the task difficult is that the family in question wrote down almost nothing. If they kept diaries or journals, none has survived. Correspondence is similarly sparse. The two daughters wrote letters to each other regularly when they were off to college, but the collection the Foundation has is surely only partial. With the exception of the daughter who was district attorney (and even she, not so much) they weren’t often in the newspapers.
One of the daughters did do an oral history interview with the University of California in 1977, and that was helpful, if far from complete. By and large, putting together this story has been like building a beach one grain of sand at a time.
A Date Would Have Meant So Much
There are several photo albums, one of which has handwritten captions. But on a couple of the really critical photos, there is no date and the caption information is sparse at best. One, for instance, shows a row of people standing stiffly in front of the family packing house. The caption reads: “Ma with Chinese visitors from Honolulu.”
Based on my research, I can hazard a highly educated guess as to who the visitors were, but it’s still only a guess. Without their names, I can’t be certain. And if the visitors are who I think they are, the date of the photo would have been hugely important, but it’s not in the caption nor in the processing stamp on the back of the print.
Experiences like that have led me to some philosophizing. Most of us go through our lives thinking we’re the most important person in the universe, but we don’t act like it in other respects. If we were really that important, we’d figure that people in years to come would be looking at our stuff and needing information. I’ve come to believe that everyone who has family artifacts, should pull them together and catalog them as best possible. You never know who might need the information 75 years from now.