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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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Welcome to Harry's

            The publication of my second Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away is only several weeks away, and during the lull before the storm, I’m trying to think of answers to the questions I know I’ll be asked about it.
            Most of the action is set in an establishment called Harry’s Riverside Lodge. As described in the book, the eponymous Harry founded it after World War II, and for a quarter century it was a destination point for fishermen, duck hunters, and philandering politicians, not necessarily in that order. Note that this was back in the days before iPhones, blogs and press scrutiny of the sex lives of elected officials — a time so long gone that it now almost seems like Regency England.
            Based on my experience with the first Gordon mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, one of the questions I know I’ll be asked is whether or not Harry’s is based on any specific place or Harry on a specific person.

It’s Called Fiction for a Reason

            Nearly every work of fiction has a disclaimer on its copyright page saying that the persons and places described therein are imaginary and that any resemblance to real persons or places is entirely coincidental. There are excellent legal reasons for making such a disclaimer, but it’s usually bunk.
            Some works of fiction are clearly based on recognizable current events, but in most cases the draw on real life is more subtle. The late Harry (he’s dead by the time the story begins) and his establishment aren’t based on any one person or place. Rather, they are drawn from places I’ve been in a half century of fishing, from places I’ve read about over the years, and from a lot of stuff I just plain made up, drawing on my personal experience and reading.
            For example, the idea of a hunting/fishing lodge being a louche getaway destination came from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, probably two decades ago, about the closing of a legendary joint in far northern California. The story reported that on weekends in duck-hunting season during the 50s and 60s, the bar was an un-navigable mosh pit, and prostitutes were brought in from a larger city and established in the second-floor rooms, where they did a thriving business.

A Little of This; a Little of That

            From that kernel of an idea, I moved the place a couple of hundred miles to the south, added politicians from Sacramento, and took out the hookers, though the latter decision probably demonstrates that I am unfit to write a best-seller.
            The bar at Harry’s with its large fireplace is drawn from any number of such places I’ve been over the years, as is the scenic painting over the fireplace. The cabins on the rolling lawn near the river are drawn from memories of places our family stayed on vacations more than 50 years ago. In fact, they probably couldn’t be built today because of mandated setbacks from waterways, but as I said, this is fiction.
            In the end it’s on me, as the author, to make this imagined place called Harry’s seem real to readers. I put a lot of time and thought into creating a description and atmosphere for it, and I enjoyed every minute of the effort. I can only hope that if you read my book, you, too, will enjoy your stay at Harry’s and the people who were part of the story.


Friday, February 21, 2014

The One-Hour Mystery

            While up in Point Reyes a few weeks ago, doing revisions for my second Quill Gordon mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, I found myself in an interesting market for reading material.
            During the days I was working away on the book, and after dinner I would typically put in another hour or two, depending on what I needed to hit my work goal for the day. That left me in the position of having an hour or hour and a half before bedtime for free reading, and though it might seem like a busman’s holiday, what I wanted was to read mysteries.
            The problem with that was that I couldn’t be sure how much (if any) time I would have the following night or the night after that. I was holding myself to strict work goals and couldn’t really predict how long it would take to meet them. So I didn’t want to start a novel and have to set it aside for a few days. I wanted something I could start and finish in that night’s time.

The Virtue of the Novella

            For that problem, there’s a perfect answer — the novella or novelette. Longer than a short story and shorter than a novel, it can typically be read in the time I had most of those evenings. The problem is finding a suitable supply.
            Even in its heyday, the novelette was the funny uncle of fiction. It was pretty long for most magazines and too short to be bound up as a book. The authors who wrote them typically published books that collected three or four works in the genre, and that was what I wound up with. (Interestingly, owing to the popularity of ebooks, novellas and novelettes are making a bit of a comeback, with some authors issuing them individually, at lower prices than a full novel.)
            A couple of weeks before the trip, at Barnes & Noble, I came across Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Mews, a collection of four shorter cases of Hercule Poirot. It was originally published in 1937 under the title Dead Man’s Mirror, which was another of the stories in the book. There were four stories in all, ranging in length from 39 to 106 pages.

Can Be Read in One Sitting

            Typically the stories a mystery writer does as novellas or short stories are ones that have a good idea, but one the writer doesn’t want to flesh out into a full-length novel. This was early Christie, from the first 15 years of her 50-plus year career, so you’re mostly reading the stories for plot and atmosphere. Of course, if you’re reading for plot, you could do a lot worse than Agatha Christie.
            In any event, the novellas got me through two of those six dark winter evenings I was alone in the cottage. (I’d read two of the stories before I left.) For the rest of the week I worked on a short-story anthology I’d picked up at a used bookstore and brought along.
            That book was Famous Stories of Code and Cipher, edited by Raymond T. Bond and originally published in 1947. It had everything from classics such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” and M.R. James’s “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” to works by writers that even I have never heard of (Harvey O’Higgins, Lillian De La Torre). I now know more about code than I think I want to, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to work a code or cipher into one of my mystery novels.
            Oh, and by the way, one of the stories in the code book was by Agatha Christie. She did everything.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Flying With Our Pilot Son

            When our son Nick was a small child, playing in sandboxes, he would stop what he was doing whenever an airplane flew overhead and watch it go by. Since the beginning of time, man has been fascinated by the prospect of flight, but some have the flying bug more than others, and we apparently got one who did.
            Two more stories. Summer of 2001. We’re flying into Fort Lauderdale airport in a 737 during a thunderstorm, and every few seconds, or so it seemed, the plane would hit an air current and bump down sharply. I was sitting in the aisle seat, recalling my friend John’s advice that as long as the plane is still moving forward at the end of a jolt, you’re OK. Linda, sitting in the middle seat, had one hand over her eyes and the fingers of the other dug into my right arm so deep they were almost hitting bone. Nick, not yet 11 at the time, was at the window seat, and whenever we hit one of those bumps he’d chirp out, in sheer delight, “That was a good one!”

A Young Man Who Knows His Planes

            Then there was South Carolina, June 2006. We were driving from Hilton Head to Charleston, and along the way passed the U.S.M.C. Air Station at Beaufort. By the front gate were a half-dozen vintage warplanes, representing a historical exhibit of sorts. Nick looked out the car window and without pausing for breath, rattled off the correct names of all the planes.
            So it was not surprising that in the fall of 2011, just before his 21st birthday, having taken aviation classes at the community college and San Jose State, Nick started taking flight lessons at Watsonville Airport. It took time to rack up the necessary hours in the air, and there were some frustrations. Last summer he was ready to do his night flying, but every time he was scheduled to go up, a dense coastal fog would roll in, scrubbing the operation.
            The determined and persistent typically prevail, and so last week Nick went up with a flight examiner and passed the exam for his pilot’s license. He now needs to get his instrument certification, then the next level of license, and after that he can fly passengers for money, at least as a charter pilot.

Mom and Dad Go Flying

            In the meantime, he can fly family and friends around as long as they pay for no more than their share of the flight cost. Two days ago he took his parents up in a four-seater Cessna Skyhawk SP. The day began with dense coastal overcast, but by the 2 p.m. flight time it had burned off and it was clear and a bit hazy.
            We took off from Watsonville and headed north up the coast toward Santa Cruz, flying at around two thousand feet. Below us were farmland, ocean, subdivisions, and forested mountains. We went all the way to Ano Nuevo Island at the southern end of San Mateo County, then came back, swinging south all the way to Moss Landing before returning to Watsonville.
            Nick guided the plane, seemingly without effort, and pointed out the things below as we flew. It’s a perspective you don’t get from a commercial jet, and it gave us an entirely different look at the place we’ve lived for four decades. Up there, above it all on a beautiful day, doing what he’d always wanted to do, Nick was in heaven for an hour. So were his parents.

            Postscript: After this article was first posted in February of 2013, Nick joined the Army May 6 of that year, graduated from the helicopter mechanic training program at Ft. Eustis VA and is now stationed at Ft. Campbell KY with the 101st Airborne Division.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Week in the Country

            Back in the days when giants like Harold Ross, E.B. White and James Thurber roamed the hallways of The New Yorker, that magazine regularly ran fillers  consisting of mistakes made in other publications with a wry comment added.
            One of the regular headings was “Our Forgetful Authors,” which appeared over excerpts from a book, usually fiction, in which several passages on different pages stated a fact differently. For example, a female character’s hair might be described as light brown on page 32, auburn on page 68 and reddish-blonde on page 131. When I was in college, I always thought it was hysterically funny.
            Now that I’ve written a mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, and have a second coming out in a couple of months, I’m not as inclined to laugh. Truth is, that hits a bit close to home, and having walked that mile in an author’s shoes, I can see all too easily how mistakes like that happen. It’s a miracle there aren’t twice as many.

Time Dims the Memory

            Implicit in writing an inventive work is that there are no pre-existing facts. The author is sole custodian of the information and has to catalogue it as the writing of the book proceeds. That sounds a lot easier than it actually is.
            Part of the problem is that a book is typically written over an extended period of time — six months to two years is a normal range. By the time you’re two-thirds of the way through, it’s easy to forget what you wrote in the first 30 pages months ago. And if you write the way I do, you’re focusing relentlessly on getting the prose right as you go, and not necessarily on noting those finer details for future reference.
            Working from a good outline helps, but is no guarantee. In my second Quill Gordon mystery, Wash Her Guilt Away, I did a thorough outline, setting forth what would happen in each chapter, and also outlining the various aspects and personality quirks of the characters in the book.
            Then, in the course of writing it, I decided that an important scene planned for Chapter Two should be moved to Chapter Three. A couple of months passed between the time I made that decision and reached the point in Chapter Three where the scene should appear, and by then I’d forgotten all about it and left it out of the first draft altogether.

The Total-Immersion Revision

            I’m happy to report that I was able to catch that mistake, and several others, by taking a different approach to editing the first draft. I decided that I needed to get away and focus on that task to the exclusion of all else. So through the magic of the internet, I found a cottage in a secluded rural area north of San Francisco, booked it for six nights, and spent the past week there, fixing the book.
            It took about 13 months to write the first draft, so as I say, there were plenty of inconsistencies to be cleared up, in addition to the ordinary polishing and revising. But the benefit of being able to do the revisions in a short time frame (which would have been impossible at home, with all its myriad distractions) was incalculable. I’m doing it this way from now on.
            The other piece of good news is that even after spending a week with the book in close quarters, I still like it and think it’s a step forward from the first one. In a couple of months it’ll be up on Amazon, and we’ll see if the readers agree.