Wednesday, December 30, 2015
First of all, thank you for choosing my mystery novel Wash Her Guilt Away as your book to be discussed this month. I hope, most of all, that it entertained you and would like to say a few words, before the discussion begins, about how it came to be written.
When I wrote the first Quill Gordon mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, in the late 1990s, I drew up a list of stories for additional novels in the series in the event an agent or publisher asked. Unable to publish conventionally, I put the book aside for more than a decade until Amazon and Kindle came along to make self-publishing a viable alternative.
Gratified by the response to the first book, I decided to proceed with the second on the list, which had already been titled Wash Her Guilt Away, after the Oliver Goldsmith poem at the front of the book. I began writing it in early 2013, and it was published April 30, 2014.
Wash Her Guilt Away is an attempt to put a modern spin on two tropes of the classic murder mystery — classic referring to those mysteries generally written between the two world wars. It’s a variation on the British country-house mystery, in which a group of diverse guests are thrown together and tensions arise; and of the locked-room mystery, in which someone is found murdered in a hermetically sealed chamber, or locked room, from which the killer should not have been able to depart yet somehow did.
The book also borrows elements from certain American authors. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, who wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” widely considered to be the first locked-room mystery.
Because the novel is set in the wilds of the Northern California mountains, I also drew on the work of early American writers and their depictions of a vast, untamed landscape. The discovery of the witches in the forest and their role in the community owes something to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown,” and the headless boatman at Indian Hollow is direct idea-theft from Washington Irving’s headless horseman in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Trying to Be Better
With each book I write, I try to improve as a writer and try to work specifically on a couple of issues. I felt that The McHenry Inheritance was a respectable debut novel that introduced a character, a premise, a style, and that demonstrated a level of fundamental storytelling competence.
That said, I felt that parts of it were underdeveloped and decided to work harder at developing character and creating crisp dialogue. The story line of Wash Her Guilt Away lent itself very well to this consideration, dealing, as it does, with a group of people forced together by circumstance and bad weather. More so than my other two novels, Wash Her Guilt Away attempts to build tension through atmosphere and the development of characters and situations. Each of you must, of course, judge for yourselves whether or not that effort succeeded.
Finally, in an attempt to cut to the chase, let me answer the most-frequently asked question: Where do you get your ideas? I never have any shortage of ideas; the problem is pulling several of them together to create a coherent and satisfying story that allows me to develop character and atmosphere. It takes time for the right ideas to align into a workable story, which is why I probably spend as much time outlining my books as writing them.
(I will be appearing at a book club discussing Wash Her Guilt Away in January, and a follow-up post will likely ensue.)
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
For a couple of years before America entered World War II and a year or so afterward, my father tried to make a go of it as an actor at the vaunted Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California. A number of actors went from the Playhouse to long careers in TV and the movies. Dad wasn’t one of them.
But those few years before he decided a business career was more likely to pay the bills were his bohemian experience, even though he was a bit older (early thirties) when he got into acting. And there were stories from that period that earned him a place in the spotlight at parties for years to come.
For instance, he acted alongside Raymond Burr in Arsenic and Old Lace, though “acted alongside” may be overstating the case a bit. Burr had the Boris Karloff role, the juiciest part in the play, whereas Dad was one of the two police officers who came to arrest him in the closing minutes. You probably didn’t need to remove a second glove to count the number of his lines.
I’ll Make It Good on Payday
When Burr struck acting gold by being cast as Perry Mason in the TV series, we heard a lot about how Dad once loaned him $5 to make it to payday. I never did get around to tracking down Burr’s side of the story, but they’re both dead now, so it probably doesn’t matter.
It was the dog story, though, that was the hit of the party, and Dad told it so often he had it down, like a professional comedian. In one of the plays he was in (I don’t remember the name) there was a trained dog that had been taught to bark on cue.
That particular play opened with a family sitting around the living room of its home in the Midwest, waiting for the son to come back from the war. After a few minutes of expository dialogue, one of the lines cued the dog to jump up and begin barking, signaling that the son was arriving home.
The dog was a trouper, but one night it came down with a virus, which went undetected by the dog’s handler or anyone in the cast. The play started, as usual, before a full house, and when the cue came for the dog to bark, the dog did nothing.
Ad Lib With Unintended Consequences
Had the dog barked as scheduled, one of the actors was to follow with the line, “Listen, I think the dog’s trying to tell us something.” After a brief hesitation, the actor ad libbed the line as, “Look, I think the dog’s trying to tell us something.”
At which point the dog, who had been curled up by a chair, rose shakily to its feet, looked the actor in the eye, lifted one of its hind legs, and peed all over the stage floor.
The way Dad told the story, for about five seconds it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then the actor who ad-libbed the line was overcome by the absurdity of the situation and let out a snorting snicker. The other actors on stage began laughing uncontrollably, and the audience followed suit.
A minute later, the whole house and all the actors were still roaring with laughter, and the house manager made the call to lower the curtain, declare an intermission, and start the play over once everyone had pulled it together. The show went on, but everyone who was there that night probably never forgot it.
Dad never said what happened to the dog afterward.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
When you’re out fishing, you get your scorecard in real time. You know how many fish you’re catching — or at very least how many are taking your offering. When that happens, you know you’re doing something right.
On the other hand, if you’re not catching fish, you often don’t know why. It could be that you’re doing something wrong — a clumsy approach, bad technique, poor choice of fly or bait, whatever. Or it could be that you’re fishing a good piece of water and the fish simply aren’t there or aren’t feeding at the moment. Hard to say.
In other words, it’s like advertising in some respects. Which is why a common saying, attributed to F.W. Woolworth and others, is, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.”
The Author on Television
I used that quote in a post two months ago, in which I said I was going to do a test on advertising my mystery novel, Not Death, But Love, on cable TV. At the time of the posting, I’d just signed an agreement to run a 30-second spot in a relatively small cable market (Monterey County, CA) to see what sort of bump it would provide for my book sales.
It was clearly an experiment. Based on the number of people who would be seeing it, there was no way I could sell enough copies of the book to pay the whole cost of the ad. However, I reasoned that if I got a discernibly good response, that would tell me that this sort of advertising can be effective, and the next step would be to see how to use the video tool in a more cost-effective way.
I worked with a cable consultant to come up with a package that would put the spot in front of a large number of women aged 35-64, a good target market for my type of mystery. It ran a couple hundred times on six different channels in the market, and the results are now in.
It failed utterly.
What Went Wrong?
Like the angler who thinks he’s doing things right, but getting no love from the fish, I was perplexed. I had expected I’d see at minimum a modest boost in sales from the ad, yet during the two weeks it was running, I sold fewer books than I had the prior two weeks. And the prior two weeks were slow, so sales in the ad period couldn’t even clear a very low bar. No way you can put lipstick on that pig.
So the question is why did it fail? The reasons I can think of include: The ad wasn’t good; the book was wrong for the target market; the brief experiment didn’t connect with enough repeat viewers; requiring people to go to Amazon to buy the book may have been too much to ask; people screen out TV ads and nobody saw it; people needed to see it a couple more times before taking action.
My gut sense is that it likely wasn’t the first two reasons, and that the problem had more to do with the fact of hitting an audience with a completely unknown product. In such a case, it would probably take more ad repetitions than I could afford to drive a fair number of people to log on to Amazon and buy the book. Well, that’s my best guess anyway.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Last Thursday night, Linda and I went to Bookshop Santa Cruz to hear Lee Quarnstrom read from his memoir When I Was a Dynamiter, or How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Merry Prankster, a Pornographer and a Bridegroom 7 Times.
As one of our local journalists put it, there probably isn’t anyone else alive who could have written a book with that subtitle.
My interest in going was personal. I knew Lee not as a dynamiter, a Merry Prankster, or a pornographer, but rather as a newspaperman, and a very good one at that. When I joined the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian as a cub reporter in 1972, Lee was covering county government for the paper, which he did through mid-1978. He once said that if it weren’t for the low wages, he wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.
Eventually, a better paying offer drew Lee to Hustler magazine in Los Angeles, where he rose to the position of executive editor before leaving to finish his career as a reporter with the San Jose Mercury.
Remembering the Pranksters
I could write an entire blog post (and maybe two or three) about Lee’s exploits as a newspaper reporter, but those days took up a small part of the memoirs. The book actually came out at the beginning of the year, and I bought it then and read (and enjoyed) it in February.
Lee was one of the people who fell into the orbit of novelist Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and his Merry Pranksters in the mid-1960s. Their experimentation with psychedelics and alternative living was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s Book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Their home base was La Honda, a small community nestled in a redwood-shaded canyon about 30 miles north of Santa Cruz, where the book reading was held. A number of people from what is now commonly referred to as the hippie scene of the sixties are still around, particularly in Santa Cruz. It occurred to me that he should have a large built-in audience for his book reading, if only they could stay up past their normal bedtimes.
Those Were the Days
I shouldn’t have worried. When I got to the bookstore 20 minutes before the start of the reading, every seat was already taken. I was able to talk to Lee for a couple of minutes, then was able to grab a chair when the bookstore staff started putting out some extras. It was still standing room only, and I was sitting behind some of the standees, so I could hear the reading, but not see the author.
Over a period of a bit over an hour, Lee read sections from his memoir about why he was a skinny kid (his mom was clueless about cooking), how the Merry Pranksters were raided by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department, and what happened when one of the employees of Hustler went out to buy a live chicken as a wedding present for Publisher Larry Flynt. Don’t ask.
Being with Kesey and the Pranksters, Lee was an eyewitness to a distinct moment in American cultural history. It’s still up in the air how important a moment it will turn out to be, but in his book, Lee captured quite a bit of it for posterity. As he read from that book on a rainy late-fall night in Santa Cruz, all of us in the audience had a rare opportunity to be there with him.
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
We went to see the movie “Spotlight” last week, and like nearly everyone else thought it was terrific. Viewing it from the perspective of a former newspaperman, I couldn’t help but think about it in the context of today’s news business.
The film tells the story of a team of four reporters from the Boston Globe who, in 2001-02, uncovered the widespread pattern of pedophilia by priests in the Boston diocese and the systematic degree to which the Catholic Church covered it up. It took a year of attacking the story from multiple angles before the paper finally had it nailed down and ready to print.
A little more than a decade later, things have changed. Four reporters no longer constitute a special investigative team. In too many cases, four reporters is the whole newsroom, and that obviously has a limiting effect on any news operation’s ability to investigate a large, complex story.
When It Takes More Than a Tweet
This has been a while coming, but I could see it on the horizon when I left the business more than 20 years ago. I vividly remember a conversation I had toward the end with a corporate executive whose office was far, far away from the town our newspaper served. Arguing against budget cuts, I made the point that when a reporter is cut from the news staff, that amounts to two to three hundred stories a year that don’t get covered.
“That’s the old way of thinking,” the executive replied, strongly implying that there was something wrong with me for not being able to figure out how to generate professionally written news stories without any people to research and write them.
What “Spotlight” depicts so well is the phenomenal amount of hard work and ingenuity that goes into running a story to earth. It takes an understanding of the wide range of ways of getting information (from interviews to poring over documents until your eyes glaze over) that non-professionals simply don’t have. Sure, anybody can tweet a photo or a putative factoid, but a complex story that someone doesn’t want told? That’s another matter.
Making Sense out of Chaos
Seeing the movie shortly after the terror attacks in Paris brought home another point. It takes both professionalism and time to make sense out of a huge breaking story like the Paris attacks. But we have become a society that wants to wait for nothing, hence a much more partially (and dangerously) informed society.
Writing in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist, noted that the internet, and Twitter in particular, in the wake of a big, messy story like the terror attacks, is a maelstrom of knee-jerk opinion and misinformation (slightly paraphrased).
The great CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow once said, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on.” Instant communication has made that situation even worse, and I have to wonder how many people will remember things about Paris years from now that simply aren’t true, but that came out in the immediate aftermath without proper vetting.
I agree with Manjoo. If you really want to be informed about a story like Paris, turn off the TV, don’t look at the internet, and wait a day until the facts have been sorted out and the worst misinformation has receded into the background.
As if anyone will do that.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Funny how the mind works. Sunday was perhaps our last day of Indian Summer, and Linda and I went down to the Esplanade in Capitola to get a latte from Mr. Toots Coffeehouse and drink it on one of the benches looking out over Capitola Beach and the Monterey Bay.
Because other people had similar ideas, Linda took off to stake out a bench as soon as her beverage was up, and while mine was still being prepared. I paid for both the drinks and left, walking down the Esplanade toward the bench area. Because it was crowded; because I didn’t know where she was; and because I’d forgotten to get a lid for my cup of coffee, I took it slowly.
That was probably why I noticed the menu at Zelda’s, one of the restaurants facing the beach. I didn’t really read it, but it was broken down by meal, and for some reason, when I saw breakfast, I thought of my friend John.
The Business Power Breakfast
John and I had met in 1994 in connection with a political campaign his wife and I were working on, but we really got to know each other in 1996-97 when we were both working on a contentious land-use project in Santa Cruz. That was when a mutual respect for each other’s professional abilities evolved into a friendship that has lasted to this day.
One of the ways in which that happened was over a series of meals, coffees, and drinks after work, where we got together to talk about the project and the conversation branched out to other topics.
Breakfast at Zelda’s was part of that ongoing experience, but I can’t say for sure how many times it happened. Not many; two or three at most, and maybe only once. Nor do I recall anything of great import being spoken or decided. It was merely one of many instances where we got together — one link in the chain, as it were.
And it may be that the only reason it stands out is that I don’t recall ever eating breakfast at Zelda’s alone or with anyone else. Lunch, yes, but the only breakfast memory is associated with John.
Evolution, Not Drama
One of the hardest things to do in fiction or drama is to show the development of a friendship. It’s often done by depicting a dramatic event that brings two people together and establishes an instant bond of trust. And to be sure, there are a number of friendships that develop in that fashion.
More often that not, however, it’s a longer, subtler process. It’s an accumulation of shared experiences that develop a common bond of trust and affection. For every friendship made in the Hollywood way, there are dozens that were forged over breakfasts at Zelda’s and other such gatherings that gave two people a chance to talk and connect and get to feel comfortable with each other.
True friendship takes time to develop, and, because of that, can weather the test of time. And it’s based on a personal connection, forged by extended periods of time spent together, getting to know each other. There’s no substitute for face-to-face experience, and it’s safe to say there will never be an app for that.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
November got off to a good start in terms of book sales. The first two days of the month were well above average, and I had high hopes that things would continue in that fashion the rest of the way.
But, as they say in the financial services industry, past performance is no guarantee of future results. On the third day of the month, sales dropped to below average, and on the fourth day, I sold no books at all.
A day without sales is not unheard of. I’m in the early stages of self-publishing my mystery novels, and while I haven’t been at it long, I’ve been doing it long enough to know that sales are random and fluctuate wildly. The day with no sales simply offset one of the two good days at the beginning, and there was nothing to worry about.
Until, that is, the day of bupkis was followed by another (not unusual), then another (more unusual), then another (quite unusual).
The Skunk on the Couch
Athletes are familiar with slumps. Sports fans can readily call to mind a ball player who suddenly couldn’t hit or a basketball hotshot who suddenly couldn’t make a wide-open shot. It’s in the nature of the game. The athletes, however, can at least practice more, work on their technique, and try to pull themselves out of it.
My book sales, however, are entirely outside my control. People buy when they do for all sorts of reasons, and with no apparent pattern. My wife thinks it’s all random; I think there’s an algorithm somewhere and I just haven’t found it. But no matter what the reason, I can’t control it.
I tried to influence the sales with tweets and other social media. No luck. I had an ad running on television. El Zippo. After days of being skunked, I began to think of the skunk as a personal entity. In my mind, the sales chart was a once-pristine retail outlet purveying my books, now transformed by a skunk on the couch, scaring the customers away.
Beer and Potato Chips
As sale-less day followed sale-less day, and my morale began to droop like a mustache in a Georgia summer, I found myself elaborating on the skunk fantasy. I pictured Skunk lying back on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, watching daytime soaps while swilling beer and eating countless sacks of potato chips. Then I began to envision him inviting his no-account relations over and trashing the room altogether.
Even my wife was saying I needed to sell a book and get this thing over with.
It was getting so bad I asked someone I know to buy a book, just to see if my sales were being properly recorded by Amazon. The sale showed up promptly and told me that Amazon wasn’t the problem.
The slump lasted eight wretched, nerve-wracking days, and then, like a heat wave broken by a rainstorm, it was over. On the ninth day, I returned home after my Rotary Club meeting, went to my sales report, and found that in the time I’d been gone, I’d sold two and a half times the normal daily volume of books. Just like that!
This slump was at the far edge of the bell-shaped curve (if not off it altogether), and I’ll probably have no idea why it happened. That’s all right; I don’t have to know. I just don’t want to go through it again any time soon.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
There are plenty of generalizations about the writing process, and some of them are even true. Today I’d like to talk about one that’s often presented as being absolutely true, even though it’s only mostly true.
It’s been expressed in various ways, but the thrust of it is, “The first draft of a book is always terrible.”
Substitute “usually” or “often” for “always” in that sentence, and I wouldn’t argue too much. From almost everything I’ve written and heard, I’ve concluded that most authors, particularly fiction authors, discover their book in the process of writing it. When the first draft is completed, they’re left with something that ended up being a lot different than what they started out to do.
Get me rewrite!
There are, however, and always have been authors who know what they want to do and pretty much nail it on the first try. In such cases there’s always some cleanup and tightening to be done, but it’s hardly a major overhaul.
The Speedy Genre Writer
I’ve read — though so long ago I’ve forgotten where — that Dickens and Shakespeare wrote quickly, channeling the muse before she escaped. When Dickens, at the urging of Bulwer-Lytton, rewrote the end of Great Expectations, he was simply adjusting what he already had, not reimagining it anew.
A certain number of genre writers, working within an established format, are able to figure out the book beforehand and come up with a first draft that works, with a few changes. I have recent evidence of this. Over the weekend I read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mystery The Second Confession, written in 1949. And I do mean all written in 1949.
According to a note at the end of my edition, Stout began writing the book (some 240 pages long) on March 16, 1949 and completed it April 23. It was then submitted to the publisher and after typesetting, final editing and legal review, it was published September 6.
That’s five and a half months from first keystroke to book off the presses. And he did it with typewriters. And 65 years later, it’s better written than many current best-sellers.
Doing the Thinking First
It takes me a year to get one of my mystery novels written, but it isn’t the writing and revisions that take up most of the time. A lot of that time involves prep work and outlining. I’m one of those writers who needs to know where the story is going and how it’s getting there before I actually start writing it.
Since I’m not writing mystery novels for a living, and since I have a day job, and since I have a life outside writing, my books get written when I can get to them, which is often in fits and starts. Some weeks I can work on the book nearly every day. At other times, it goes a week or two (in one instance a month or two) without any attention.
But because I’ve imagined the book in considerable detail before writing it, what finally gets into print (or e-book) is essentially an amended and improved version of the first draft. I’m not saying that’s the way any other author ought to do it, but it works for me and it’s worked for other writers who have been deemed good. I won’t tell you how to write your book if you promise not to tell me that my first draft can’t possibly be any good.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
It’s a sign of my age, no doubt, but there are certain new developments I just don’t get. Like Fantasy Football.
It’s all the rage now, and very much in the news, what with a couple of large firms being looked at more closely by the government. But I look at it and ask two questions: Who has the time? And, How can you win?
It turns out those questions weren’t so bad. A recent story in the Times said that in order to succeed in any consistent way in Fantasy Football, a person has to devote huge amounts of time to studying the game and developing algorithms for figuring out which players will do well within the gaming system (as opposed to doing well in real football, like winning games).
Most people who play spend a lot of time on it, but their understanding is so limited that they might as well be picking lottery numbers by using their aunts’ and uncles’ birthdays.
If you’re a business, you have to love customers like that.
The Old Way Wasn’t Easy
Before Fantasy Football came along, people who wanted to bet on the sport usually bet on the outcome of a game, with a point spread factored in to give the underdog a fair chance.
Betting on games in that fashion was never easy. People extremely knowledgeable about the game rarely did much better than 50-55 percent over any period of time, which is essentially breaking even. No matter how much you know and how shrewd your insights about a game might be, an injured quarterback or a couple of freak turnovers can upend everything.
Even so, I like to give it a try once a year. My friend John and I go up to South Lake Tahoe in late October or early November to catch the fall color and make some football investments. The fall color is pretty much a sure thing; the football investments — not so much.
Don’t Kick a Field Goal!
By this time of year, the pro football teams are settling out, and a shrewd observer can get a pretty good sense of which teams are good and which ones aren’t. (Shrewd observation #1: A team with a 1-6 record isn’t very good.) Three weeks beforehand, I started compiling statistical information about teams and tracking their records game by game in order to make informed bets. Well, as informed as it gets, anyway.
One of my picks, for instance, was New Orleans minus 3.5 points over the New York Giants. The game was in New Orleans and ended up being an epic. With seconds left, it was tied 49-49 and the Giants were punting. New Orleans got a good return to just past midfield, but the Giants grabbed a face mask, adding a 15-yard penalty and putting New Orleans in position to kick a long field goal on the last play of the game.
The field goal would win the game for New Orleans but lose the bet for me, since I had them winning by four points or more. Sure enough, the New Orleans kicker booted it right between the goalposts to win the game, but I lost my bet by a stinking half-point.
This is why it’s called gambling.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
F.W. Woolworth is reputed to have said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.” I just signed an advertising contract and can hardly wait to find out which half it gets me into.
A bit of backstory is in order here. For my first two mystery novels, I produced video trailers to promote them. I thought they were pretty good, but when they went up on YouTube, even with extensive flogging on my part, hardly anyone was looking at them. The videos were essentially an unrecovered expense.
My third novel, Not Death, But Love, came out at the end of May, and though I retained Chip Scheuer, my video guy, to do one for that book, I held off on getting it shot. The way I was looking at the whole thing was evolving, largely as the result of an article I read in Vanity Fair earlier this year.
Going Directly to the Reader
It was a profile of the best-selling mystery author James Patterson, and one of the things it mentioned was that when he first started writing mysteries, he advertised his books on local television. Having been an ad man himself, Patterson knew the value of promotion, and his ads were simple, but, apparently, quite effective.
That got me thinking that perhaps my next video trailer should be 30 seconds long so that it could be used as an ad on TV. Cable advertising is pretty reasonable these days, and I figured I could do a trial run somewhere at an affordable cost. If it gets results, I could try to build on it. If not, well, I tried.
Rigo Torkos, who edited my previous videos, put me in touch with a cable TV consultant, and after considerable back and forth, I decided the idea of running the video on television in a closed market, just to see what happens, was feasible. Last week, I signed a contract to do a two-week test run in Monterey County in November.
The Target Audience
Because the book centers on a retired English teacher who starts out to write her family’s history and gets dangerously close to a long-buried secret, I felt the book would be appreciated by female readers, who, after all, are the majority of readers — especially fiction. So the consultant and I targeted cable channels that deliver a high number of women viewers between the ages of 35-64.
The video features my wife, Linda, as the retired English teacher, with a simple voice-over and atmospheric lighting. The cover of the book is prominently featured, as is the address of the website for the mystery series and the fact that the book is available on Amazon. Short of putting a link on the TV screen, I tried to make it as easy as possible for people who see the ad and are intrigued to buy the book.
And so the story begins. It has been represented to me that enough people will see this TV spot in the two weeks it runs that if one percent of them buy the book, I’ll see a bump in sales, regardless of normal monthly variation. Regardless, I’ll have an answer. I eagerly await it.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Something there is that doesn’t love a traffic jam. And because of that near-universal feeling, we have become virtual prisoners in our house most weekday mornings.
The way from our home to the outside world leads through the village of Aptos, California. We drive three-tenths of a mile down our road to Trout Gulch Road, then three-tenths of a mile down Trout Gulch to its intersection with Soquel Drive. Soquel is one of the main arterial roads in the county. Trout Gulch ends there, but a left turn takes us toward the state highway leading to Watsonville; a right turn takes us to the highway leading to Santa Cruz — those being the two major urban centers.
Most mornings, the 0.6 miles to Soquel Drive would be a 2-4 minute drive for us, but in the past month and a half it’s turned into a nightmare. One day last week, it took 19 minutes to get the last three-tenths of a mile. Yesterday, it took 12.
Blame the Students
The local community college, Cabrillo, is about two miles down Soquel Drive from us, in the direction of Santa Cruz. Many of the students come from Watsonville. For those who drive, the fastest way is to take the state highway exit on the Santa Cruz side of Aptos Village, turn left, and go the last mile to Cabrillo.
Because the state highway is heavily congested during rush hour, there are always some people who try to beat the congestion by getting off the highway at the exit on the Watsonville side of Aptos Village and taking Soquel Drive three miles to the community college. Bad idea.
Driving that arterial adds three-quarters of a mile to the trip, and the additional length is broken up by five traffic lights and one stop sign (Soquel and Trout Gulch). Even with light traffic, it would usually be faster to stay on the highway and drive a shorter distance and go through only two traffic lights to get to the same place.
And with all the people getting off the freeway early, traffic is anything but light. In fact, Soquel Drive has become two miles of gridlock. That, in turn, backs up Trout Gulch Road and creates a situation where there are 50-100 cars queued up on each flank of a T intersection at a four-way stop sign.
Something Has Changed
In years past, we would have the sort of traffic jam I’ve described for maybe the first three weeks of the community college school year. By then, most people figured out that there was no point in taking the arterial, and traffic returned to normal, with queues of 7-8 cars each way during rush hour at the Soquel-Trout Gulch intersection.
We’re now in the ninth week of the school year, and the gridlock has shown no signs of abating. What’s different? The only thing I can think of — and a recent news story lent credence to the idea — is that the severe drop in gasoline prices has led more people, and in particular the college students, to drive alone, rather than carpooling or taking the bus.
If that’s indeed the case, and if the situation doesn’t let up soon, I might find myself in the position of rooting for higher gas prices. I never thought that would happen, but the morning traffic jam is beginning to turn me into the oil companies’ best friend.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Last month I went on a dual-purpose trip to the mountains, aiming to catch some fish and do a bit of location scouting for my Quill Gordon mystery novels, which are set in small mountain towns. The trip was a success on both counts.
I’ll spare you the fish stories, but will pass along an example of the location scouting. In my next mystery novel, the local high school plays a significant role, and I was pleased to discover on my trip a high school that can be used as the basis for describing my fictional one.
Thing is, the high school I discovered was hundreds of miles away from the locale that will be the basis for the setting of the book. In fact, the high school wasn’t even in the mountains; we drove past it on the way up, and I immediately said, “That’s it!” even though nothing like it exists in the alleged area where the alleged story will be taking place.
Well, It Is Fiction
People often ask if the settings of my books are real places with the names changed, and the best answer I can give goes something like this:
I often start out with a real place, using it as a skeleton to be fictionally fleshed out. I’ll take away things from the real place, add stuff that isn’t there, and make up some stuff that could be from anywhere or nowhere at all.
For example, my most recent novel, Not Death,But Love, is set in a location that bears enough of a resemblance to a real place that one or two people have guessed the connection. But unlike the real place, mine boasts such fictional amenities as a courthouse, a posh lakefront restaurant, the home of a prominent state senator, and an unusual house, depicted on the cover, which plays a critical role in the playing out of the story.
Actually, all those things I added were done for the sake of the story, which was why I borrowed and moved them or made them up out of whole cloth.
Truth be told, I take a similar approach to characters in my books. The inspiration for a character often begins with someone I either know personally or whose public persona I’ve observed.
In either case, I take what I’ve seen and build on it. With characters, much more so than with locations, I give free rein to my imagination. I try to imagine what a certain type of person would be like if some of his or her qualities were carried to a more elevated (or lowered) level. Then I try to imagine what that person would say or do in certain situations that he or she will encounter within the book.
It’s a lot of fun. Really. You should try it some time.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Lawrence Peter Berra, known to most of the world as “Yogi,” died last month at the age of 90. A Hall of Fame catcher for the great Yankee teams of the late 1940s to early 1960s, he might almost be better known these days for the quotes attributed to him. (By the way, he claims he didn’t say some of them.)
Reading his obituary in the Times, which, of course, was chock-full of said quotes, it struck me that a number of his observations (with a bit of interpretation, of course) are relevant to the craft of crime and mystery fiction writing.
Figuring that someone else must have had the same idea, I Googled it and came up empty. So I decided to run with that idea for this week’s post because, as Yogi himself once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Wisdom for Writers of All Stripes
That quote, actually, is a decent one to start with because one of the problems writers of all stripes have is reaching a point in the manuscript and not knowing which way to go from there. I suspect that over the course of human history, the amount of wasted time owing to writers hitting such an impasse rivals the accumulated waste of all governments since the beginning of time.
Yogi’s advice — essentially, make a decision and go with it — is well worth taking. Most of the time, either direction will work if the writer applies him or her self, and if there is a wrong choice, trying to make it work will render it more quickly apparent than intellectualizing about it and doing nothing. Action trumps uncertain hesitation.
“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him,” is another Yogi-ism. Applied to the business of crime fiction, I would take it to mean that writers shouldn’t try to assume the styles of established writers, such as Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Elmore Leonard. They all found their own style, and while we can certainly learn from them, the rest of us have to adapt that learning to something that’s ours.
The Crowded Canon
“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” How many writers, I wonder, waste their energy trying to come up with totally new ideas, when there really aren’t any? Many, many, I’m guessing. The world of the mystery/crime novel is rich and diverse enough to accommodate a fresh work in an area of endeavor that seems pretty crowded.
Or, in other words, there’s always room for another drunk and cranky detective if he or she is rendered with telling detail and a good story told in vivid prose. If you can do that, why waste time on impossible searches for the ungraspable “new.”
And finally there’s my favorite, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” That one should be pretty self-evident. If you want to get good detail and color for your books, a great starting point is to shut up, look and listen.
When my first mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, came out, a lot of people commented that I must have done a lot of research to make the small-town setting so authentic. Actually, almost everything was picked up by virtue of observing, listening, and filing things away. If you eavesdrop in a small-town café, you can learn more about the town’s economy there than you could from reading a dozen government reports. And I can just about guarantee you’ll hear some dialogue you couldn’t possibly make up. I hope you write it down and put it in your next book. I always do.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Every business wants to know if it’s getting satisfied, repeat customers. And every business has a different measurement.
In a small town café, for instance, the owner and employees can simply keep an eye on who’s coming in and how often. That can be more effective than other considerably more complicated techniques, such as tracking credit card sales or use of reward cards.
No system is perfect. A friend of mine used to go to the same coffee house for his morning brew every day without fail, and was on a first-name basis with the owner and all the employees. Then he got a new girlfriend and moved 30 miles away. A thing like that can wreak havoc on a man’s coffee habits. Neither personal observation nor electronic monitoring will explain a situation like that. It takes a face-to-face conversation.
The Author’s Dilemma
Book authors also want to know if people like their work, but figuring that out isn’t easy. You can look at sales numbers, but those don’t tell you how many people actually read the book, and, if they did, what they thought of it.
On Amazon, you can look at the reviews, but, again, those aren’t terribly helpful. If one out of a hundred readers bothers to write a review, an author is doing well. When the reviews reach a certain number, you can kinda sorta assume they’re representative of the sentiments of readers at large. But it’s still pretty squishy.
Amazon doesn’t provide authors with a whole lot of information about who’s buying the books, but it’s possible to read between the lines of the information and draw some conclusions.
My Quill Gordon mystery series is now three books strong, with book four due out next year. Having a few books out there does allow me to make some deductions.
A Loyal Fan Base
For starters, Amazon tells authors what other books your customers have bought, and for each of mine, the other two in the series figure prominently. That certainly suggests a growing base of support for the series as a whole. And I recently noticed that they’re now offering customers a chance to buy all three books with one click. I like that.
It’s also possible to get a handle on things in a smaller market, where connections are more obvious. For instance, in late July, I sold a copy of my first book, The McHenry Inheritance, in Spain. It was the first sale ever in that country, where the book is available only in English.
In early September, I sold a copy each of books two and three in Spain in a two-hour time frame. Considering how few sales there are in that country, it’s unlikely that two separate customers each bought one book in that slender a time frame. Far more likely that the July customer liked the first book and decided to buy the others.
In the USA, which is my primary market, I also assume that most people who are giving my books a try for the first time will buy either the first and original or the third and most recent, then buy the others if they like what they thought.
Assuming I’m right about that, sales of the second book, Wash Her Guilt Away, should be a good indicator of repeat customers, and that book has been selling well.
Few authors get rich, but most of us, I think, want to feel that people are reading our books and enjoying them. Faith in that is enough to give us the resolve to keep on writing, and based on my reading of the tea leaves, I want to write some more.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
One of the great fallacies of scientific management is that everything at the workplace can be measured. Perhaps in a basic sales or manufacturing operation it can (though I have my doubts), but there are plenty of areas where judgment calls have to be made.
Reading the recent news stories about the work culture at Amazon, I was glad I don’t work there and never will, and I was reminded of the time our small-town newspaper was prodded (with little success as long as I was around) to engage in its own form of scientific management
The time was the mid 1980s, and the paper had been going through a spot of labor trouble, with a unionization effort that ultimately proved unsuccessful, but that made the company take a harder look at itself. Some good things came out of that, like performance appraisals and formal pay scales (I know, 50 years late, but, hey!) along with some notions that I can only regard as crackpot propositions.
Clean Desks? For Writers? Really?
One was a suggested requirement that every desk in the newsroom should be completely clean before the occupying reporter or editor left for the day. Supposedly this was supposed to instill order and cleanliness to the operation, but to me it smelled like a recipe for mutiny. I never lifted a finger to implement that suggestion.
Many newspaper people in those days took pride in the messiness of their desks. A typical reporter would have on the desk surface, at any given time, notes for various stories, a solid selection of coffee-stained government reports (with the most necessary one at the bottom of the stack), agendas of coming meetings, press releases needing to be rewritten, etc. These days I suppose it’s all on the computer, but back then you actually had to touch the stuff.
A good reporter or editor knew (or claimed to know) exactly where in the mess any given document was and could, if you believed him or her, be able to produce it upon demand. Scotchy Sinclair, the longtime editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, had a desk that I never saw with less than three vertical feet of paper on it at any time. In multiple piles.
That’s tradition, friend. You don’t mess with something like that.
Two Stories, Hold the Quality
A second recommendation that died in my arms was that reporters be required to produce a quota of, say, two stories a day. To someone who doesn’t understand the business, that might seem reasonable, but to someone who does, it provides an excuse for malingering.
If all a reporter is being judged by is how many stories are turned in, it’s easy for someone sharp to game the system. Just take two press releases you’re given, make a phone call or two on each one, and write them up. You can meet the quota in half a day and spend the afternoon on the golf course or wherever. On the other hand, if a reporter is going after the stories that should be gone after, those stories may be more difficult to complete, and some days, it won’t be possible to do two.
A good editor ought to have a sense of whether or not a reporter is producing, and should be directing reporters to the stories that really need doing. That can take longer and call for some judgment and discrimination, but it’s what leads to a quality news product. Story quotas satisfy the bean counters — not the readers, who are, of course, the ultimate customers.