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.