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 28, 2015

Advertising the Book

            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

The Mother of All Traffic Jams

            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

Location, Location, Location

            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.

Composite Characters

            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

Yogi Berra's Wisdom for Crime Writers

            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.