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, January 28, 2015

Innocence Abroad

            Nobody knows me personally in England, Scotland or Wales. The same is true for Germany. Ditto Japan, India and Australia. And I think I know one person in Canada, though it’s been a while since we’ve been in touch.
            Yet in all those countries, I have, or might have, people who know me through my mystery novels. Or so Amazon tells me. Digital copies of The McHenry Inheritance and WashHer Guilt Away have been downloaded in those countries, and I’ve even sold a couple of print books in the UK.
            Not bad for a little-known author.
            The ability to sell books worldwide in modest (all right, very modest) numbers is one of the few unqualified good things about the internet. And since those books are downloaded, I don’t even have to mess with lugging copies to the post office and calculating overseas shipment and customs declarations.

Inventory in the Car Trunk

            In the bad old days, like 10 to 15 years ago, a self-published author had to print up a bunch of copies of his book and try to unload them himself. In practice, this meant a lot of driving around to bookstores, practically begging them to take a few copies on consignment. Even when you live, as I do, at the periphery of a large metropolitan area, that’s a daunting task.
            The rule of thumb used to be that a self-published author typically sold 150 copies of his or her book. There’s a basis for that number. It’s estimated that the average person in America knows about 150 people reasonably well through friendships, work, neighborhood, and religious and affinity groups. Self-published books were sold mostly to friends and acquaintances, with a few being picked up by browsers at the handful of bookstores that carried them.
            Although I’ve had paid sales outside the U.S., most of my foreign downloads have been on days when I did a free promotion on one book or another. One day I had a huge response in Germany; on another, India; and yet another in Australia. Why the books go out the door in a country one day and not another is yet another Amazon mystery.

The Joy of Connecting

            I have some reservations about Amazon, but one thing I can’t kick about is the way they let me put my books in front of the whole world and possibly connect with readers all around the globe. It’s my hope that the numbers will grow as the years pass and more books come out.
            From time to time, well-meaning friends will make suggestions, such as trying to get my books into sporting goods stores, because there are fishing scenes in them. I am dubious. My experience so far has indicated that people who fish don’t necessarily read mystery novels, and someone who doesn’t read fiction is unlikely to read it because it contains scenes about their hobbies.
            No, I think mysteries are read by mystery readers, and my books are out there now for them to see and discover. There’s so much competition it’s not easy to reach an audience, but some people are finding me. If it isn’t as many people as I’d like, it’s still much better than all the years when the manuscripts sat inside my computer, out of the world’s view.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Frank F. Orr, 1914-1985

            It’s hard to believe that the end of January marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Frank F. Orr, the man who led a small-town newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize and became an icon in his community.
            Frank was born in San Diego in 1914, descended, on his mother’s side, from the Bockius family of Watsonville. As a boy, he paid long visits to the town during summer vacations and fell in love with it. Eventually, he was able to call Watsonville home for most of his adult life.
            He got into journalism early. As a student at Stanford in the 1930s, he ran for editor of the Stanford Daily, but lost to another student, who wasn’t as good a journalist but who was a better politician. That other student’s name was Alan Cranston, and he went on to serve four terms as U.S. Senator from California.

He Didn’t Like Ike

            When World War II broke out, Frank was married and working as managing editor of the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian. He enlisted in officer training school and ended up working directly under General Dwight D. Eisenhower as chief of photo operations in the European Theater. As a result of that experience, he twice endorsed Adlai Stevenson for president.
            He returned to Watsonville after the war and in January of 1949, at the age of 34, was appointed editor of the newspaper. Within a year he had turned a docile small-town paper that protected the town’s bigshots into a first-rate operation that covered the news without fear or favor.
            The best-known example was the coverage of a young district attorney, Charles L. Moore, Jr. Moore was elected in 1954 on a platform of cleaning up vice in Watsonville. There had been plenty of it during the war years, but little remained by the time Moore took office. His largest campaign contributor, however, seemed intent on bringing back large-scale gambling and using his connections with the local prosecutor to do so without penalty.
            Throughout 1955, the Register-Pajaronian covered the story thoroughly and asked pointed questions editorially. Late in the year, photographer Sam Vestal was held at gunpoint after taking pictures of the DA’s car parked in front of the gambler’s house in the wee hours of the morning. In the confusion that followed, Vestal slipped the film to Orr, and when the pictures appeared on the front page of the paper the next day, they led to an investigation by the state Attorney General’s office and indictments of the DA and the gambler and a Pulitzer Prize gold medal for public service for the Register-Pajaronian.

A Personal Connection

            It was 17 years later, in the fall of 1972 that I came to work for the paper, and I considered myself to be the luckiest cub reporter alive to be learning the business from Frank, Sam, Ward Bushee, and Howard Sheerin, all of whom had been around for the Pulitzer story.
            Frank was a tall man with an erect military bearing and a deep, gravelly voice, toasted to perfection by years of smoking Pall Mall unfiltereds. He was cowed by no one, but could be warm and supportive when he approved of something. To the reporters who worked for him, there was no higher compliment than one of his personal notes of praise, banged out on his typewriter (on a half-sheet of copy paper) and placed in the recipient’s.
            In his 70th year, Frank was still the editor, but increasingly looking not so good.  In September, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and spent his last few months mostly at home before dying January 31, 1985. He was the editor of the paper to his final breath, and wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Journal for Father and Son

            I remember reading (somewhere in a book review, I believe) that John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, was the original tweeter. Not that they had Twitter, or even computers, back then, but he kept a journal that was notable, even by the standards of the time, for its sparse entries.
            For example, in the section of his journal dealing with the period of an ocean voyage — high drama in those times — the entry for a given day might read simply, “High winds, rough seas today.” That sort of thing.
            Several years ago, I tried keeping a journal and stayed with it for close to a year before drifting away from the project and eventually abandoning it. One of the reasons for letting it go was that I was having a hard time getting beyond descriptions of the minutiae of any given day, and my days, frankly, aren’t that exciting for the most part. In short, my writing suffered from John Quincy Adams disease.

Writing Fiction Makes a Difference

            During the period of my journal-keeping, I wasn’t writing fiction, and now that I am — with two mystery novels published on Amazon and a third on the way — I decided a few weeks ago to give the personal journal another try. I went to the local stationery store, bought a Moleskine journal, lined up my fountain pens, and set to the task.
            Part of the impetus for this was that our son, Nick, was home for Christmas from the Army. He spent two and a half weeks with us before heading back to Fort Campbell, KY, from whence he is expected to be deployed overseas within a couple of months.
            We may not see him again until next Christmas, and possibly not even then, so I wanted to write down not only what we were doing during our time together, but also my impressions of him and his situation. I don’t know if my fiction-writing experience was the reason or not, but I felt that this time around the journal was going better and becoming much more than a simple document of the day’s activities. I feel pretty good about the results so far and plan to keep going with it.

Passing on the Tradition

            Keeping a journal is a worthwhile activity for anyone, and particularly for a writer. There’s something about writing things down by hand that engraves them in your mind in a way that typing them into a computer just doesn’t do. And for a writer, it’s a good way of recording material — the details and observations that could end up being incorporated into a story or novel.
            Nick is observant and a fairly capable writer, though I can’t see him ever doing it for a living. Nevertheless, it occurred to me as I was starting my journal, that perhaps I should encourage him to do the same when he goes overseas. So as an extra present for Christmas, I bought him his own Moleskine journal and a good gel pen, wrapping them up along with a note suggesting that he write down his impressions while abroad.
            I don’t know if he’ll do that; he is, after all, 24 and under no compunction to heed his father’s advice. But if he does decide to keep the journal, I have little doubt that as the years go by, he’ll be glad he did.