What Kind of Fish Have I Caught?

Now What Am I Going to Do?  by Sheila Maloney

Why did I decide to write a mystery? Let me see.

I was living half way up a mountain, suffering from a serious lack of sensory deprivation. I was surrounded by extraordinary beauty and bored out of my skull. I had read every mystery available in the Kern County Library down the hill. I couldn’t afford anymore Kindle e-books. And I wasn’t aware of digital loans. I could watch TV only if I crashed in somebody else’s living room. Internet connection could be found only at a cafe, which still wasn’t licensed to serve. Anything. Besides the connection was so slow, it took hours just to buffer.

So not a serious writer. Not driven. Just bored.

On the other hand, I had built my long life around narrative, survived by it, studied it, taught it, got withdrawal if I ran out of it. So why not?

My friends in the mountain village, fearing for my mental health, brainstormed the underlying idea – eco-terrorism. Well meaning ecologists driven over the line by ideology. Or not. Three and a half years and eight rewrites later, back home in Toronto, I published Hour of the Hawk, independently as an e-book and POD (print on demand) on Amazon.

Six months later, 300 e-books have been downloaded. Free e-books. Twenty five paperbacks have been sold, 20 to the author, the others to her friends.

So marketing?

David Gaughran who generously shares his experience in independent publishing, helped me – virtually – to publish my first book, a memoir of childhood, Never Tell with his free book, Let’s Get Digital in 2012. Now I turned to his book Amazon Decoded for finer points on accessing Amazon’s best seller’s lists and his newest Strangers into Superfans. Reading and rereading, I slowly began to refine my idea of my ideal reader.

OMG!

She was a cozy mystery reader!

➤ COZY: One of the ironic strengths of this subgenre is the fact that, by creating a world in which violence is rare, a bloody act resonates far more viscerally than it would in a more urban or disordered setting. READER EXPECTATION:
A unique and engaging protagonist: Father Brown, Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone. The crime should be clever, requiring ingenuity or even brilliance on the hero’s part to solve. Secondary characters can be coarse, but never the hero—or the author. Justice triumphs in the end, and the world returns to its original tranquility.
Writer’s Digest Oct, 2015

A world where violence is rare -Bear Mountain Place, a remote village in Southern California – check
a unique and engaging protagonist –  Joanna, a 78-yr-old who has trouble recognizing faces, Clara, an 85-yr-old who has trouble seeing and hearing, set out to solve the mystery -check
a clever, ingenious even brilliant resolution by the protagonistadd visionary – check
Justice triumphs, order is restored – of course, with two such sleuths on the case – check

So what’s the problem?

In order to find my narrative voice, I had a number of portraits taken and this is what my narrator looked like. (Phillipa C., Dundas W. Toronto)

Not cozy. Smart-mouthed. Occasionally profane. Prone to black thoughts. Convinced of Samuel Beckett’s rule, ‘Despair young and never look back’.

Gaughran told me to look at “Also Boughts’. (In my case, the term ‘bought’ has to be used loosely.) These included several cozy series including the Cupcake Series, (cozy mysteries often include recipes), several historical mysteries like Mona Lisa’s Secret by Phil Phillips, the Undertaker Series (sounds promising) and Everett by Jennifer Buff, a dark psychological suspense novel.

Oh, come on, Joyce, you did include a detailed description of a birthday dinner preparation in Hour of the Hawk. And it’s true  Clara has six cats, named Jazz, Poirot, Tennison, Sherlock and Columbo. It’s also true that Joanna, who is living with her, is allergic to cats and endures a sequence of 27 sneezes early in the book.

You, Joyce, are a terrible snob. Like most English Majors. Look how long it took you to lower yourself to reading mysteries. You were 67 when your friend Anna said she was reading Donna Leone’s Detective Brunetti series set in Venice. (A lot of Italian cooking there) Only then did you admit a reader could not live by Booker Prize alone. Since then you have devoured P.D. James, Ruth Rendall/Barbara Vine, Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, all of the Scandanavian mysteries – even Jo Nesbo, as well as Icelandic, Michael Connelly, Lee Child. Etc. Now you have had to branch out to espionage novels. You have had repeated escapes from truly awful cliched books, some of which you actually undertook to review. Get over yourself. Admit you wrote a cozy mystery.

“Can I still keep the cover? (Jeremy Von Caulert, BLack Sunset) I love the cover. I’ll have to rewrite the blurbs. Okay, Okay, but only if I can call it a cozy mystery, plus.”

Hour of the Hawk  Chapter One: Too Many Bears

The bear came down from the mountain in late afternoon. She wasn’t hungry. She had eaten well, but she was missing the cub.

She turned at the bottom along the well-worn path, picking up the scent of honey in the distance, and closer up, traces of many other bears, including the cub. The cub was old enough to manage on her own now. There would be a new cub in winter. She was almost there when another darker smell stopped her in her tracks. Blood. Bear blood. She took it in. Not just any bear blood, her cub’s blood.

The man got home from work early. He was the boss. He could leave when he wanted. This bear thing had him all upset. All he had wanted to do was help his fellow creatures. They were hungry and starving in this four-year drought.

To continue reading sample https://www.facebook.com/joyce.howe.75

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‘Am I in your book?” – The Worst Kind of Thief

The mountain village of PMC in Kern County California, which served as the prototype for Bear Mountain Place.

Awake, I lack imagination. Asleep, I dream whole new worlds. Unfortunately, I do my writing awake. And so, I identify with Sheryl Crowe’s ‘worst kind of thief’.

In her song, The Book, Sheryl Crowe (from her 1996 self-titled album) sings that she read the book and discovered she knew that girl in it ‘a little too well’. She’ll always remember three days in Rome. She got “written down, sliced around, passed down among strangers’ hands”. She ‘laid her heart out, laid her soul down’. She learned that ‘the love you once made/can’t be undone’. ‘Will I get revenge?’ Well yes. By writing this song.

I longed to find proof that this was autobiographical. It seems too heartfelt to be fiction. But I didn’t.

Why do I care? I “carry a pen and a paper” and “no words I waste”.

I started writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk, when I spent several months in a California mountain village waiting out a family problem. My amateur detectives are two elderly women who set about finding out who is terrifying the town with acts of ecological terrorism, which steadily grow more deadly. I modeled one of them on a friend.

Clara was a disarming little old lady, cute, with flashing blue eyes and a lovely smile.  She had a great schtick. She could seem charmingly helpless-a girl just out in the world, or alternately, a slightly confused elder. The first week she was in Bear Mountain Place, a woman stuck $10 in her purse and told her to buy herself a decent meal.
“Why did she do that?” Clara asked me.
“Generosity,” I said. “But next time tell her you need $20 for a decent meal up here.”

I shamelessly stole other identities as well. Two of these people read the manuscript, and, although they both offered advice, neither objected to the theft. ‘Clara’ still had not read the book when I published it as an e-book on Amazon. Since she didn’t have a tablet, she still couldn’t. Then in February, I published Hour of the Hawk through Amazon’s Print on Demand. Now she could read it.

I’m such a coward that I tried the indirect approach. None of her close relatives would hazard a guess about how she’d react. Fictional Clara is hard of hearing and sight, so much so that the villain of the piece – or one of them at any rate – is able to sneak past here while she is watching television. Real Clara has had her vision corrected, but has also fore-sworn her hearing aids on the grounds that elderly fingers can’t handle tiny, tiny batteries. Would my friend resent these handicaps being used for humor?

The other amateur sleuth, Joanna Hunter, can’t recognize faces, a disability I am familiar with.

So I found my courage and wrote Clara a long letter, explaining my concern and enclosing a sample or two.

Then Jesus, the cable guy, arrived.
His card read Jesus Morales, Direct T.V. He pronounced it for me, Hesus.
“Hesus, Hesus,” I kept repeating to myself. I wasn’t used to Jesus as an ordinary name. I wasn’t used to Hispanic accents. I could understand Chinese or West Indian accents, and, of course, South Asian, but not Spanish.
He wasn’t used to Canadian accents. He didn’t understand ‘rooof’, so I had to say ‘ruf’. We kept asking each other to repeat. I held the record. I just didn’t get Hesus.
“Sit down. Why don’t you sit down?” Reg/Doug called to me.
Clara could tear herself away from them only for a moment. “Joanna can show you whatever you need,” she told Hesus.
He turned on the new 70-inch television set. It hung on the wall in front of the couch where Clara and her company sat. We were all jammed into a ten-foot wide space, crowded with unpacked boxes. When the sound came on, Clara cried out, “I’ll never be able to hear that.” So Jesus turned the volume up and up, until Clara was satisfied. The screen told us the volume was 87. Then she and the ‘boys’ resumed shouting.
Jesus showed me his work sheet, and began to ask questions. A bald guy on the screen was yelling about the shoddy workmanship on a renovation. Jesus was shouting questions at me. The boys and Clara were splitting their sides at some long ago anecdote. I grabbed the remote control, and turned down the volume.
“It says one box here,” said Jesus.
“No, no. We were promised two,” I said. “There’s another set in a bedroom. Colin talked to the company several times. There are to be two boxes.”
Then I moved Jesus over near the utility room, so I had access to the landline.
“Oh, Jesus-with a J-God, I’m going to lose my mind,” I thought.
Once I’d got hold of Colin, I handed the handset to Jesus, and locked myself in my bathroom.
It didn’t work. I had to come back out into the din. Jesus called.
When I came out, he assured me everything was all right now. The bedroom set was working as well. I dragged Clara away from the boys, explained what had been done, and asked her to sign her name. Suddenly, she decided she should take charge, and began to ask questions that had been answered an hour ago. Jesus tended to mutter in his thick accent.
“Do I have two boxes? Colin said I would get two boxes.” She went into my bedroom and came out. “There’s just this tiny thing in there, no real box.”
Jesus began to reassure her that both sets worked, independently of each other
“You’ll have to speak louder,” I told him.
He started shouting. I searched frantically for the remote control, found it at last on top of a pile of boxes and pushed mute. I gestured at the boys who were laughing with each other. Now there were only two voices shouting.

It took a week for the letter to escape the confines of Canada Post and the U.S. Mail and end up being released into Clara’s California post office box. Yes, she wanted to read it, I heard. A mutual friend handed her a print copy. I waited for her verdict.

“I’m so flattered,” she said when she called.

I have started writing the second Joanna Hunter mystery and Clara, who will soon be 90, will be part of it.

joycehowe.com

The e-book version of Hour of the Hawk is free to download on Mother’s Day May 13/18 and May 14/18. If you decide to read it, please leave a review on Amazon. The print edition is also for sale.

 

 

On Turning 82

This was my thirtieth year to heaven, Dylan Thomas wrote in 1944 in his lyrical and joyful way. I was 30 when I fell in love with that line. That was a good year for me, 1967. It was the year we moved our young family to the house under the hill, where pheasants called in the copse above, where we planted rock gardens and shrub gardens and put up a martin house and built a dry stone wall around a pool. It was the year I got a job as assistant English head at the school down the street, where my husband was head of math. It was the year Canada turned 100. Everything was going to be fine.

Of course I knew that the poet had one last – joyful, I hope – alcoholic binge one November day in 1954 and never got to write This is my fortieth year to heaven, I also knew that he had admonished us not to go gentle into that good night, but to rage against the dying of the light. It seems as if Thomas had an ambivalent attitude to death. Or life. Like many of us.

This is my eighty second year to heaven. Too late to scan. I should have written this two years ago.

I want to say I never expected to live this long and then impress you with all the reasons why: murderous parents, malignancy, suicidal inclination, but it is truer to say I never intended to live this long. At least, the conscious part of me, presumably the part that writes, did not intend to.

I intended to get my siblings to live into adulthood. Then having recklessly brought two more souls into the world, I wanted to do the same for them. So forty two?

That brought me to 1978 and a dark time when I bought only the smallest quantities of pain killers and never looked at bridge abutments on the highway. The next thing I knew a persistent vision of a grandchild called me back. Another generation to get through childhood.

Would you believe that now there is yet another? I’m not in the front line any more, of course, and this little girl is a merry soul who faces no immediate threat.

Except the world as we know it.

My belief is that the real me always intended to grow old, She kept it a secret from me because I couldn’t deal with longevity. She was right.

This week, I did the driver retest mandated for the elderly here in my jurisdiction. It involved sitting in a room of mostly little, old people who found drawing a clock showing ten after eleven a challenge. The instructor pleaded with us to make a list of alternatives to driving which we would shortly have to use. As I merged into rush hour traffic at 100 k. an hour on the busiest highway in North America without breaking a sweat, I thought perhaps the rumor of my decline was premature.

Here’s what I loved: babies, apple orchards, cherry trees in blossom, the full moon over the Tioga Pass, the beach on the Gulf of Corinth, a bunch of pre-schoolers crazy playing by themselves, a teen-aged boy of a Raleigh Racer, his older self in a racing green MGB, the bridge on the Seine near Notre Dame, mountains, pine trees, blue birds, coming about on a sailboat in a good wind, a feather bed, a kite straining at its leash high above Myrtle Beach, mockingbirds, the trade wind through an open window at 2 p.m. on Maui, orange blossoms scented from high on a wall in Morocco, Venus seen from a farmhouse veranda, a brook running with thaw melt, bells rung for victory, the Warsaw Concerto, a big, old Gardenia tree, an enormous date palm, a bench in Bois Fort, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sterling silver, barn owls, swallows, hawks. I have to stop here. There’s a party.