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, December 30, 2015

Opening Remarks to the Book Club

            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.

Borrowed Elements

            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.
            Any questions?
            (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

The Dog and Pasadena Playhouse

            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

Why the Television Experiment Failed

            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

A Slice of Cultural History

            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

The Hard Work of Getting the News

            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.