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.