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, October 22, 2014

What It Was Like in 1970

            In my third Quill Gordon mystery, due out next summer, one of the clues is the murder victim’s journal for the period covering September 1970 to February 1971. I just got through writing the first draft of the section that quotes excerpts from that journal and found that I enjoyed the trip down memory lane.
            As you might guess from the photograph that accompanies this blog, I am old enough to remember 1970 and remember it fairly well. But that good personal memory is only a starting point for accurately depicting the time in a book, even a work of fiction.
            To be convincing, that section would have to be correct in relevant details, some of which are critical to the story itself. What I found in the course of writing it over the past couple of weeks was that my memory told me what I needed to look for and check, and that, in the process of checking it, I struck some gold I wasn’t even prospecting for.

God Bless Wikipedia

            I’ve said before that there are days I love the internet and days I hate it. Looking up stuff from the 1970s made it all the first kind of day. How did an author ever survive without Wikipedia? Without it, I could have spent weeks trying to pin down one little fact that was at my fingertips online.
            It struck me, for example, as I was writing the section, that the woman keeping the journal would likely have been a fan of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” My memory told me it was on in the early seventies, but would it have been on the air during the window covered by the journal? Yup. In fact, I had the keeper of the journal watching it the night of Sept. 19. 1970, and checking Wikipedia, I found that this was the date the first episode aired. How good does it get?
            Elsewhere on the internet, I was able to quickly pin down the years in which two pieces of legislation were passed in California, both of which were critical to the plot. Whatever else the reviewers on Amazon might ding me for, it won’t be getting the facts wrong about the timing of those laws.

The Serendipitous Finds

            Despite what some people think, not everything is online, and I had to get some information the old-fashioned way. Three days of the journal describe events in San Francisco just before Christmas, so one morning I went to the Santa Cruz public library and looked up the San Francisco Chronicle for late December of 1970 on microfilm.
            They had great columnists then — Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Charles McCabe, Stanton Delaplane, Royce Brier, William Hogan, and even that over-the-top sexist Count Marco. A two-line item in Caen’s column became a scene described in the character’s journal. The movie listings prevented the character from seeing “Love Story” before it actually opened. And an ad for a long-gone department store provided a window into what things cost in those days.
            The internet is great for looking up specific things, but it’s lousy for stumbling across things by chance. The three issues of the Chronicle that I looked at on microfilm provided a snapshot of San Francisco at that moment of time. As with any picture, there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the frame. Still, the details I came across will, I believe, enliven my book, and coming across them in that way was a reminder of what we will be missing if (or when) newspapers go the way of dinosaurs.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

To Buy or to Borrow?

            When Amazon offered its new Kindle Unlimited program, which allows customers, in consideration of a fee, to borrow a considerable part of the library, my reaction as a reader was “No thank you.” My reaction as an author was “Hmmm.”
            Borrowing is great for some people, but it doesn’t fit the way I read. I’m a long-term guy, and when you borrow a book, you have to get on it pretty quickly. If I’m considering four books and pick two to borrow, I’m likely to forget about the other two before I come back again.
            So over the years I’ve gotten into the habit of buying any book I come across in the bookstore, whether brick-and-mortar or online, if I think I’d eventually like to read it. That way, I have it, and it’s in front of me as a constant reminder. I may get to it fairly quickly or not for years, but it’s there.

So Many Books, So Little Time

            At the moment, I have a bit more than 120 mystery novels on my shelf or in my iPad, awaiting their turn to be read. That’s about a two-year backlog, and two years from now I expect the number to be the same or greater. I’ve accepted the fact I’m going to die with books unread, so I’m all right with that.
            That does mean, however, that I have books for all occasions. If I’m ill and decide to read a mystery rather than working, I have plenty to choose from. If I’m on vacation and bad weather is keeping us inside, I know I can find something to read on my iPad. In both cases I can choose from a small number of books that already interested me, rather than looking blind through everything out there to find something that feels right in the moment. Having that sort of freedom is one of the great benefits of owning, rather than borrowing, your books.
            As an author, I also prefer readers who buy, rather than borrow, my mystery novels. The obvious reason for that is that the author gets more money for a book that was purchased than for one that was borrowed. But the reasons go deeper than that.

The Case for Borrowing

            Let me say at this point that I welcome people borrowing my books. That’s far better than ignoring them altogether, and a reduced payment to the author is better than no payment to the author. And there’s one other definite positive to borrowing on Kindle: It introduces a sense of urgency to reading the book. If you don’t get to it in a few weeks, it disappears. I look at borrows as a positive sign that someone is seriously ready to read one of my books now.
            If that reader posts a review or tells a friend, the borrow has paid for itself by building readership. I think, though, that it’s harder to share a borrowed book than a bought one, and what becomes nearly impossible is the notion of a serendipitous read.
            One of my daydreams is that some day, years from now, someone who bought one of my books will die with that book still on the shelf or in an e-reader. A dutiful child comes to clean out the possessions, and in the course of doing so, comes across, say, Wash Her Guilt Away, starts to read it, and likes it. That happened to me with a couple of books I found while cleaning out my mother’s apartment after she went, and they meant a bit more because they were hers. Never would have happened if she’d borrowed them.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


            Over the weekend I read a mystery-thriller that, according to the review at the top of the back cover, was “chilling without being predictable.” Why, then, was I able to correctly predict half way through that the babies had been switched at birth and that one of the characters in the backstory would turn out to be an ancestor of one of the characters in the main part of the novel?
            Was it because the book was poorly done? Not at all. It was actually a pretty good book, and I wish I could recommend it, but having given away a big part of the ending, I can’t tell you its name. The larger point I’d make is that even though I found the book somewhat predictable, that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it.
            And the even larger point I’d make is that predictability, particularly in genre fiction, is pretty near unavoidable and shouldn’t, in itself, be held against the author. It’s not necessarily a crime in its own right — only when it’s handled badly.

Somebody Ought to Get It

            Being a mystery writer myself, I read a lot of mystery novels , both for pleasure and to see what ideas I can steal and adapt to my own ends. Sometimes that allows me to spot what the author is doing. For instance, I was reading a Scandinavian detective novel a few years ago, and in the first 40 pages, the author cut from the main narrative to a scene written from the killer’s point of view. As I read it, I thought that if I were writing that scene in that way, it would be because the killer was a police officer. Bingo!
            It’s also true that when a mystery novelist is playing fair, a certain number of readers ought to be able to figure out the ending. Based on reader feedback, about a quarter of the people who told me they’d read my first book, The McHenry Inheritance, said they’d guessed who did it. That’s about right, and a number of people who didn’t guess, said they were really surprised by the ending.
            The reality is that any mystery writer today who fools everybody has either written a new classic or an incoherent book — most likely the latter. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was unpredictable because no one had, up to then, done what Agatha Christie did in that book. A book that used her idea today would be guessed out by half its readers.

Not What You Do, But How

            When you get into the realm of mystery-thriller-suspense-crime fiction, there’s practically no such thing as a new story, so the relevant question is what has the author done with an old one. Has she created a structure and set of details that make it difficult to guess the ending of this particular iteration of the old story? Has he created interesting characters and a sense of pace? Is the writing style muscular and vivid? All those things, I would submit, are more important than the so-called predictability of the story?
            If you read a lot of mystery fiction, as I do, there are pleasures to be had from seeing how each author spins his or her variation of an old tale. When we were kids, we would fall in love with one book and want our parents to read it to us over and over. As genre-reading adults, we read different variations of the same stories and enjoy the twists and quirks of each particular book. I suppose that amounts to growing up as readers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Searching for All-American Ice Cream

            Last week Linda and I were in the mountains for several days. I was fishing for trout, she was reading a mystery for pleasure, and we were both scouting locations to get local color for future Quill Gordon mysteries.
            This has been a terrible season for wildfires in California. On Monday, the valley where we were staying was choked with smoke from one of them ( I don’t know which), coming from more than a hundred miles away. Some wind came up in the afternoon and blew it away, but my throat felt the effects well into the following day.
            On Wednesday, we drove home and ended up going through the smoke from the King Fire near Sacramento. We were driving 50 miles to the north of it, but the smoke was drifting in that direction. It was so dense you could barely make out mountain ranges a couple of miles away, and the air quality … Well, let’s just say it made a smoke-filled Vegas casino look like a medical office by comparison.

We Deserved a Break

            The original plan was to stop at Colfax in the Sierra foothills for ice cream, but the smoke was still awful there, so we kept going. Several miles down the road, we suddenly came out of it into clean air and blue skies. At that point, the search for ice cream began anew.
            One of the great things about the small mountain towns we were visiting is that they have great locally owned frosty stands that look as if they came straight from the 1950s or earlier. Coming out of the mountains, we had a craving for that sort of place, but in more metropolitan areas they’ve all but vanished.
            Nevertheless, hope springs eternal. When we stopped for gas in the town of Rocklin, I asked the young lady at the cashier in the convenience store where we might be able to get a frosty locally. Her first response was Wendy’s or McDonald’s.
            I kept pressing, saying we were looking for some place local, and she mentioned an establishment called Taylors, about a mile and a half down the road in the nearby town of Loomis. Armed with her directions and no GPS, we set out to find it.

Going Back to 1947

            We almost didn’t because it’s surrounded by trees and the only signage was on the building itself. It was a white wood building with red trim and a shake roof; it looked as if it had been built in 1947 and maintained well, but otherwise left unchanged.
            School must have let out early because there were a number of junior high school-aged kids at the tables outside. Inside were hand-painted signs advertising the offerings, which included a milkshake made from any available flavor of ice cream. I didn’t count them all, but it looked as if there were about 200 flavors of ice cream. The smell of fried burgers wafted from the kitchen into the interior of the stand.
            When I was a kid, going on trips with my parents in the fifties and sixties, we stopped at places like Taylors for a treat. They were everywhere, and it’s jarring now to think how few of them are left. Linda had a loganberry shake and I had a large frosty. We took our goodies outside and ate them at a round shaded table. For a quarter of an hour we were transported back in time, in a positive way. It was the gastronomic highlight of the trip.