Where Did You Go Joe Dimagio? part 2

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

Thus I began my mystery in the summer of 2014. I was temporarily marooned in a hot hotel room. I could see the mountain from my balcony so why not weave it into my mystery. I wrote and wrote. Various things happened. I found myself writing in widely different rooms with different scenery and colder temperatures. I ended up in another place I never expected to be, on the 14th floor of an apartment building. In a suburb of Toronto! There I discovered I was ready to publish my second book.

So, find an agent, find a publisher. I had the tools: books that told me how to write a killer query letter and three kinds of synopsis. An almost up-to-date copy of Jeff Herman’s comprehensive list of both. It’s a fat book, so the  one before that and the one before that, etc. had gone into the recycle bag.

Somewhere I still have a collection of rejection letters for my previous book, most formulaic, but at least one from an agent called Victoria dissecting my character. So self-publishing again, an ebook but now, hurray, a paperback, print-on-demand.

Things had changed since 2012. My nephew is now capable of designing a cover and a website. (Sorry Stewart Williams) I can now format my own book using Vellum. (Sorry 52 Novels) I can now use Twitter to access help self-publishing. I am following  half a dozen companies that gave me advice and offer to publicize my work. Among them is Book Marketing Tools, more than generous with free information and advice.

Helpfully, they inform me that 6,500 books are published every day. What do I care? Last year I declared an income of $120 from my writing, with a net loss of only $571 (all figures Cdn). Clearly, I’m on a roll.

I had looked at Book Marketing’s time-line for how to prepare for a book launch earlier, but now I downloaded an up-to-date one and set about reading it in front of that floor to ceiling window on the 14th floor.

I wish I could say that it left me laughing. I wish I could say I didn’t go for the Alan key to remove the locks that kept my windows from opening more than 4 inches. Evidently, I should have started marketing this book long before it became a gleam in my eye. Ideally, the week I was born.

Book Marketing sets off its timeline a year before the book launch. It  continues with a list of tasks to perform at  3-4 months, 2 months, one, etc., climaxing with a book launch party. The list assumes I have many friends. I have maybe 6, several of them relatives, two even older than me, several living many thousand miles away. One of my friends refuses to read the book, which focuses on eco-activists, because an animal dies-off-stage and before the action starts. Only my niece and my son-in-law stuck with me through the endless revisions, and even son-in-law could do so only because I read it aloud into iTalk and put it in a shared dropbox. (He has a long commute.) I am extremely grateful for the excellent advice I got. But…

There’s a strategy that’s been around for 20 or 25 years. Artists are encouraged to draft their friends into their marketing process. Thus I was instrumental in getting a friend a show hung in a club I belonged to. I thought I had already done my bit by buying more of her canvases than I needed. Then I found I was also expected to serve refreshments.

Exactly why would anyone from that group of six people want to become my ‘street marketers’? And are they actually expected to knock on doors?

I am called upon to seek endorsements from other writers. “Dear Margaret Atwood, You don’t know me but I am a young beginner novelist and I would like you to take four or five hours to read my mystery. I expect you to do this because I have read all your books and taught Surfacing to my Can. Lit. class…” Dear Peter Robinson, You don’t know me, but we both live in the Toronto area and my ex-husband came from Yorkshire, (where your Inspector Banks does his sleuthing). And I make an excellent Yorkshire pudding. I could drop one by, but it would be better if I came to your house for fear of it falling. I could bring my new mystery..” “Dear Mar Preston, You met me once in the lobby at the Pine Mtn. Club. I have set my mystery  Hour of the Hawk in the same town as your book The Most Dangerous Species and there are striking coincidences, although honest, I wrote my book before I read yours…”

How am I doing?

But this is mean. Book Marketing Tools just wants to help – and possibly to sell me advertising space on Twitter.

Agents demand to know if we indie writers are up to editing, proof-reading, printing, publicizing, all those things a real publisher does. Well, yes, if Book Marketing Tools has anything to say about it?

 

 

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Where Did You Go Joe Dimagio?

Have you had the experience of meeting someone after years apart and feeling that no time has passed. You start up your friendship right where you left off, all those years ago. Me too.

I went away a year ago. Part of the reason can be found in my last post. I was about to lose my decade-long home. The other reason can be found in my Dec. 15, 2015 post, Getting the Hawk off the Ground. The picture said it all. I had to rewrite my mystery, Hour of the Hawk.

I last posted in Sept. 2016 – A Gold Finch This Morning. I had just finished reading Donna Tartt’s book The Goldfinch, and had been greatly heartened by her description of terrible depression, my own default setting. It had made me laugh, horrible though it was: it was so dead on.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Happily, I can report I am not homeless, although I am writing this in my favorite Starbucks. My resourceful sister took me in hand, announcing that I needed to live near her and her daughter because of my advancing age. Any day now, apparently, I will need a zimmer frame and a tag pinned to my coat, giving my address and saying, “If found, please return.”

Georgia lives in Mississauga, a suburb west of Toronto. I had lived there 15 years before. As a young married woman, I had lived in Scarborough an eastern suburb. I had already done my time in suburbs

But Toronto rents for a one-bedroom were $900 to $1000 more than I was paying for my two-bedroom, rent-controlled home. In Mississauga, we found a one-bedroom on the 14th floor for only $500 more. The library, recreation center, pool and park were one long block away. And I could count on invites to dinner every week.

So I moved, got rooked by the movers, lost things – some didn’t make it onto the truck, some unpacked by others- I had to get niece to come back and find the battery box, and just generally lost my mind. Getting groceries from my car and up to my eerie flummoxed me. Ditto doing laundry on the ground floor. My muscles took turns seizing up. I discovered that reading in bed not only helped with that, but had the additional benefit of a floor to ceiling window on life in the burbs: a major thorough fare, two schools, parkland, a community of houses and the front door of the building.

I hated it. Of course I did. I could see all the way to Lake Ontario and, on a clear day, half way across. I wasn’t God. Why would I want to do that?

I wanted my green old neighborhood with the crazy Polish woman next door, who persisted in thinking that I understood her rapid Polish, and had the ability to influence my landlord. I missed the maples and the deer that lived in the oak savannah next to the river. I missed the kids on the other side of my house. I missed the “girls” upstairs. I could hear all 4 of them in my place.

In the new place I had a wood burning fireplace. I had a gym on the penthouse floor and a sauna. In the brief summer I had an outdoor pool. I got to go to house parties where beautiful African Canadian and Muslim children softened my heart. I was in a minority. Let’s just say that Donald Trump would not approve. Even the province of Quebec in my own country would look askance, although we have no burkas, just a lot of very colorful hijabs and African prints. The West Indians and Haitians fill the halls with lilting English and distinctly un-Canadian French. And, of course, I got to go to dinner two blocks away.

Well, okay.

I got the place in order eventually, sat down at my desk in front on another floor to ceiling window, and pulled up version 7 of Hour of the Hawk. It was as usual, completely silent in my tower. And warm. Did I say warm? Those windows face south

Version 8 coming up.

Next post: Getting the Hawk off the Ground 2017.

 

 

A Goldfinch This Morning

goldfinch

MAY TRIGGER DEPRESSIVES.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/17/goldfinch-donna-tartt-review

I borrowed an e-book version of Donna’s Tartt’s The Goldfinch from the library. (Still pretty amazed I figured out how to do that, but a rent crisis made it necessary.) This morning, I arrived at 870/1427. In this passage, the protagonist Theo Decker, who suffered a terrible loss when he was 14, as well as a remarkable, if dodgy, gain, is now 26. He decides to wean himself off his drugs of choice, Oxycontin 80s, et al. These enable him to carry on a successful life, whereas alcohol, his father’s drug, or heroin would not. So he says. (This does not reflect the views of the writer who has trouble with 100 mgs of Sertraline.) The physical withdrawal is bad enough, but after that comes the DEPRESSION.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Elsewhere I have confessed to a black sense of humour. I embrace Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “despair young and never look back.” except I tend to apply it to life in general. So these few pages cheered me up and made me laugh.

My 80 yr-old-body had hobbled out of bed this morning with full awareness that today more strangers would file through my apartment. Eventually, one of them would buy the triplex. Very likely, they would then evict me. My place is the only unit renovated. The only available apartments are $200-800 more than mine. (We’re having a really big real estate boom in Toronto.) I try to remember that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, but getting into those seems too radical altogether.

So I’ve been ruminating on divorce, recession, illness, housing bubbles that burst, and those that haven’t yet. But this despondent passage in Donna Tartt’s book was so beautifully written that I didn’t care.

Goldfinches, especially painted ones, do not have voices like nightingales or mockingbirds. They twitter as they swoop, parentheses of bright flashing light.

 

The Story of How Handwriting Evolved, and May Soon Die Off (From the NY Times)

THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING
By Anne Trubek
Illustrated. 177 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.

“I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject,” the Dutch scholar Erasmus declared in 1528 in his treatise “On Handwriting.” As Anne Trubek’s new book, “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” demonstrates, 500 years later the debate simmers on. Trubek ­traces Western script from Sumerian cuneiform to the Roman alphabet and on through Carolingian minuscule, Spencerian and Palmer scripts. When an Ohio second grader joins in to whinge about achy pen-holding fingers, handwriting — and specifically cursive, now eradicated from the Common Core curriculum — becomes as hot a topic as in Erasmus’s day.

Yet Trubek’s intriguing history is something of a bait and switch. As a writer and professor at Oberlin College, where she offers a course called “Technologies of Writing: From Plato to the Digital Age,” she’s the expert reporters call when weighing the merits of teaching traditional penmanship — she’s skeptical — and her book is a eulogy, urging a long goodbye to handwriting as we know it and an embrace of a neurological metamorphosis already underway as we adapt to new technology. But her revelatory deep dive also shows just how much we stand to lose.

Of course, as Trubek points out, resisting this probable, if not certain, transformation is nothing new. “Unsurprisingly, the most vocal opponents of new technologies are those who dominated the old,” she writes. There’s Socrates, for instance, railing against the treachery of writing, which he thought inferior to oration and risky too, eroding the necessity of memory.

“Writing preserves only the thought of literate peoples,” Trubek points out, quoting the scholar Barry Powell, attentively exposing the politics of access in her subject. In ancient Egypt, as in so many cultures, only well-born boys learned writing, and whether used as a branding tool of church and state or as a signifier of privilege, script is never neutral. Ambitious 17th- and 18th-century clerks changed their fortunes by mastering difficult new hands, while aristocrats wrote sloppily “as if in open proclamation of scorn for the arts by which humbler people oftentimes got their bread,” Thomas De Quincey noted.

Perfecting penmanship became a Christian ideal in 19th-century ­America, one occasionally credited with disciplining the mind, initiating an era of ­pseudo-psychological graphology that lingers today. Handwriting’s sketchy scientific past makes good reading, but Trubek errs in underplaying the contemporary research that shows handwriting’s role in cognitive development. Studies show that a child drawing a letter freehand activates the neurological centers that reading and writing do in adults, while using a keyboard ­produces little effect. Children composing text by hand generate more words more quickly, and also express more ideas. Students who take class notes by hand better retain that information, and, fascinatingly, not only does the brain process capital letters and lowercase letters differently, but block printing, cursive and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns. It all seems more tantalizing and tangible than the “advantages ­unimaginable” Trubek believes the future holds. She calls the science behind the new studies “fuzzy” and judges their findings unconvincing. But while American public education has abandoned cursive, France surveyed the evidence and ­began teaching connected script even earlier, at age 6.

A tension between style and substance pitted ornamentation against speed at the start. As Trubek tells it, the Sumerians’ first notations were solely bureaucratic, recording financial transactions in symbolic shorthand. By the medieval era, scribes went through 60 quills a day copying a single book for some three months, reaching perhaps the “apogee of handwriting in the West,” she writes. Though their work was “neither creative nor original,” occasionally a little ego spilled into the margins. “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” one monk scribbled. “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.”

How we write is delicately connected to what we write and why. Trubek suggests relegating cursive to art class, but removing it to the realm of the exceptional limits our expectations of experiencing beauty in the day-to-day. Today’s second graders, including my own, will learn to type — one day, my daughter might even out-key Stella Willins, who banged out 264 words per minute in 1926. But we can’t quantify the value in an ability to forge a rare harmony between utility and beauty, the handsomely scripted grocery list, the love letter, the diary I write just for myself.

“We will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less, but loss is inevitable,” Trubek concludes. Though one technology often supplants another, that doesn’t necessitate concession. Considering its rich significance, instead of hustling handwriting off to the graveyard, perhaps what’s called for is resurrection.

Ian McEwan: Nutshell (NY Times review)

Photo

Ian McEwan Credit Urszula Soltys

With “Nutshell,” Ian McEwan has performed an incongruous magic trick, mashing up the premises of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Amy Heckerling’s 1989 movie, “Look Who’s Talking,” to create a smart, funny and utterly captivating novel.

It’s a tale told by a talking fetus who’s a kind of Hamlet in utero — a baby-to-be (or not-to-be, as the case may be), who bears witness to an affair between his mother, Trudy, and his uncle Claude. This adulterous pair are plotting to kill the baby’s father, John. Can the narrator prevent this murder — or later exact some sort of revenge? What will happen to the narrator should his father be abruptly dispatched to heaven, and his mother found out and sent to jail? And what do these depressing developments portend about the world into which he is soon to be born?

Mr. McEwan’s narrator is one well-spoken, highbrow baby (a kind of less diabolical Stewie from “Family Guy”), who possesses all the verbal gifts of his creator (Mr. McEwan, not Trudy or John) and the sophistication of a 21st-century member of London’s chattering class — thanks to eavesdropping, from the womb, on the podcasts and “self-improving audiobooks” his mother is fond of. He is thrilled by Joyce’s “Ulysses,” prefers Keats to most modern poets (“Too much about the self, too glassily cool with regard to others”) and worries a lot about things like climate change and nuclear proliferation. Thanks to Trudy’s love of fine vintages, he’s also something of a wine connoisseur with a taste for Sancerre.

Like his 1998 novel, “Amsterdam,” “Nutshell” is a small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan’s narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can be perform. The restrictions created by the narrator’s situation — stuck inside a maternal nutshell — seem to have stimulated a surge of inventiveness on Mr. McEwan’s part, as he mischievously concocts a monologue for his “almost child” that plays on “Hamlet,” even as it explores some of his own favorite themes (the corruption of innocence, the vulnerability of children and the sudden skid of ordinary life into horror), familiar to readers from such earlier works as “The Child in Time,” “The Children Act” and his 2002 masterwork, “Atonement.”

The narrator understands – or thinks he understands — the three legs of the adulterous triangle around him in very clear terms. John is a not-very-successful poet and small-time publisher — kindly, impoverished and eager to please, persuaded by his pregnant wife to move out of the ancestral manse because she needs a little “space.” Trudy is a manipulative green-eyed beauty who has fallen out of love with John and fallen in lust with his “priapic, satanic” younger brother, Claude — a dimwitted real estate developer and first-class dolt who “knows only clothes and cars.”

Photo

Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

As time passes, however, the narrator begins to wonder if things might not be a little more complicated than he first surmised. Has his father been having an affair with Elodie, a pretty young thing who writes poems about owls? And why does his dad seem to have so little regard for him, his soon-to-be-born son? For that matter, what does Trudy plan to do with him once he is born; will he simply be given away or put in foster care?

“Nutshell” cleverly takes its title from a line in “Hamlet”: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.” And the novel is brightly studded with allusions not just to “Hamlet” but also to “Macbeth,” “Lolita,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” Montaigne’s essays, Dante, Nietzsche and Kafka. Mr. McEwan’s little homunculus is, by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent, especially when his mother has had several glasses of wine and he’s reeling from a contact high. He worries about being contaminated by Claude’s sperm when his uncle is having sex with Trudy. And he tries giving his mother a strong kick when he wants to remind her of his existence.

When he isn’t trying to piece together Trudy and Claude’s nefarious plans, the narrator spends a lot of time musing about the state of the world outside “the bouncy castle” that is his temporary home. How can commentators declare that it’s “dusk in the second Age of Reason,” he wonders, when there are “commonplace miracles that would make a manual laborer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry, electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine of a dozen cultures”?

On the other hand, “Europa’s secular dreams of union” are threatening to dissolve “before the old hatreds, small-scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord.” While poverty and war are “driving millions from their homes, an ancient epic in new form, vast movements of people, like engorged rivers in spring, Danubes, Rhines and Rhones of angry or desolate or hopeful people, crammed at borders against the razor-wire gates, drowning in thousands to share in the fortunes of the West.”

It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus should be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his sleight of hand. At the same time, his unborn Hamlet’s soliloquy leaves us with a snapshot of part of London that’s as resonant as the portrait of the post-9/11 world he created in his “Mrs. Dalloway”-inspired novel “Saturday,” a snapshot of how a slice of the privileged West lives — and worries — today.

Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing a mystery

db exp:hatThis is the 4th in a series of posts about writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk. See links to the others.

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

https://115journals.com/2015/11/03/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-writing-a-mystery/

https://115journals.com/2015/11/07/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-editing-con/

At a certain point in the editing process, I began working on a more authentic voice. In Hour of the Hawk, I was using a first person narrator telling the story in the past tense. Past tense lends distance. First person doesn’t. Because my narrator, Joanna Hunter, had a history similar to mine, one of my first revisions had been aimed at eliminating quirks and ways of speaking that were more me than her because, of course, we were different people. I liked the new, sparer, less elliptical, more direct voice. Then I got the bad news. The voice was not authentic, which is to say, uninteresting. “A lot of it was only mediocre,” said Critic A.

So glad I keep my kitchen knives sharpened to a gleaming edge!

My authentic self was fascinating, she added, and so, therefore, was Joanna’s. Where was my effervescent personality, my wicked sense of humour? I needed to let things fly. Characters hooked readers and made them read on. And I needed to love all my characters, even the irresponsible guy who put honey in a tire swing to attract bears, and ended up getting killed by one.

I wrote the beginning again. I sent it off by email. “Not working yet,” replied Critic A. I went back to work. Several weeks later, I knew enough about Tom Braddock to write a book on him alone. He had a Chumash great grandmother and a college football career, as well as three kids, and an articulate, wife who worked at a Bakersfield hospital. Most of all, I liked him. He passed muster.

But Critic A had more to tell me. I needed to create a relationship with my reader. Joanna, for example, knew what it means to age. A person could be spiritual and loving but also skeptical and cynical. That reminded me of one of my favourite sayings: Samuel Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “Despair young and never look back.” I find that hilarious, especially with a glass of Guinness. (My biological grandfather was Irish, I have just discovered.) The notes I jotted down from that long distance conversation also include the words,”dangerously compassionate”. Don’t ask me.

So I went to see Phillipa C. on Dundas W. in Toronto and arranged for her to take a series of portraits. I brought along props. I thought I would be painfully self-conscious. I wasn’t. I have done enough acting to know how to slip into a character. When I saw them a few days later, I learned more about Joanna.

I knew she wore jeans and a cowboy hat. I’d forgotten the leather jacket. I knew she was the survivor of a dangerous family and had cop phobia. (Does knowing about a crime make you guilty?) I knew she had a rock and roll side, a toughness she could trot out driving on dark desert highways. She was capable of salty language and had once been taken to the principal by a senior student. Poor fellow had aggravated her while she was on top of a ladder adjusting a bulb high in a TV studio. Joanna also saw the world through the prism Shakespeare’s plays and the St. James Bible. Her heart had been broken more than once in a been down so long it looks like up to me sort of way. And she caught glimpses of the future from time to time, and could keep track of dead people. I went back and added this point of view in brief reflections throughout the action.

By now Critics C and D had finished reading the book. They were satisfied. Not about to sort through it again for such gems. Critic B plays golf a lot, and Critic A was now deeply into her own writing. I wait on tenterhooks. In December, we will be together in Pine Mountain Club, and we will sit down to sort our book out.

Meanwhile, Critic A/Writer B had a small breakdown on the phone because she couldn’t find her authentic voice. I thought of her horizontally stripped stockings and her three print  outfits. I thought of her exuberant dancing in hiking boots on the golf green. Only children dared enter her orbit. I said try zany. Then discovering that Roget regarded that as an insult, I came up with a list: joyful, full of life, eccentric, empathetic, outside the box, dangerously unpredictable, aggressive, digressive, diverting, out of left field, hippy, unexpected, nuclear powered love and empathy generator which heals on contact.

From what she’s read to me, she’s getting on better now.

Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing con.

red tailed hawkThis post is one of a series of posts about my experience writing and editing my mystery, Hour of the Hawk, which may interest and help other writers and mystery readers. The previous two are linked below.

https://115journals.com/2015/11/03/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-writing-a-mystery/

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

When you go on-line for advice on how to edit your novel, you are advised that you need a professional editor – by professional editors, of course. They say this is essential if you are going to self-publish. Been there. Done that. Paid for formatting in both Kindle and Smashwords by 52 Novels and for a cover design by Stewart A. Williams. Still haven’t made back the costs, so I’m glad I didn’t add another $500 for an editor.

It’s my fault Never Tell didn’t sell. It was a memoir about an abusive childhood , and, although it has a bouncy, resilient narrative voice, I lost heart trying to market it. Of course, I went the self-publishing route after a valiant effort to find an agent. Here I am again.

The Book Butchers also advise  that you do your own edit before you hire an editor, and let you download free advice: 25 Self-Editing Tips for Indie Writers. As we know, you have to give away your work to build a market these days. They say you can save money by getting your book into better shape before you submit it to them – if you have the nerve, given their name. Plus you save them the bane of my teaching life, correcting grammar errors.I found their ideas useful.

I downloaded Stein on Writing ($9.99) onto my iPad,and found his editing advice more helpful. By now I was taking multiple trips through my manuscript as I followed instructions. I also signed up for thecreativepenn.com. Joanna Penn advised a three step edit: a structural edit, a line edit for word choice, grammar and sentence structure and a proof reading edit handled by someone else. There were a number of other e-books I considered, but I figured the basics had been covered.

I have a friend who is a great proof reader, but she can’t do my book because a bear cub was harmed in its making. Off-stage,I hasten to add. We don’t witness the cub’s death by game warden, nor do we witness its mother’s revenge, which, while somewhat misguided, is fatal. I told her it is fiction, but she remembered that such a thing actually happened in the mountains where I was staying and that made it real enough for her. As I said last time, I taught English. Critic A learned from me. Critic B also taught English. Critic C can cover a page with red ink. I trust the real proof reader at the end of the line will find only typos. Or not.

In my next post, later today, I will go back to the topic of editing for narrative voice.

NeverTellCover-3

 

 

 

Writer Unblocked

wildanimalfightclub.com

wildanimalfightclub.com

https://115journals.com/2014/09/17/square-one-writers-block/

I wrote the blog above last summer after several people suggested I write a mystery. In it I lament my inability to get started. The post is about writer’s block. When I complained to those urging me that I couldn’t come up with an idea, they started brainstorming. Between us, we came up with a series of crimes, involving eco-terrorism, acts of protest or revenge against those who mistreat the environment. I brought the notes home with me when I returned home to Toronto in November. First, I had to catch up on a whole bunch of things after being away for six months – see the doctor and the dentist, that sort of thing. Then my brother visited from Brussels for several weeks and I was immersed in family. All the while I was thinking. By the beginning of January, I was ready to begin.

One morning, I sat down at the computer and bought Microsoft Office. I had found that Pages wasn’t what I wanted, but I had had an older version of Microsoft Word on an earlier computer and knew I would like it. Having done so, I thought, “You can’t waste that money,” and just started writing. The upshot has been that I have neglected this blog. Fortunately, readers have not and the stats have remained what they were when I was posting at least once a week. I thank Eleanor Catton and her book The Luminaries for that in large measure. Readers have helpfully corrected and added to the time line I posted so long ago that they now are closer to the material than I am.

https://115journals.com/2014/04/05/deconstructing-the-luminaries-a-timeline/

I have over 70,000 words of the mystery written and probably 30,000 more to write. I set it in same sort of the mountain village I spent the summer in in Kern County, California as well as in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. So the setting is in part high desert in a time of drought, which gives scope for ecological angst. It is also home to a newly flourishing flock of giant birds, the reintroduced Californian condor. At the same time, the area is threatened by development, particularly on one of the biggest ranches in North America and ground zero for the endangered condor. Although much of the area is set aside as Los Padres National Forest, the Angeles National Forest and a privately owned wild wolf conservation area, where bears, cougars, deer and mountain lions roam, there is also hunting. A recent regulation prohibits the use of lead shot because the condors, scavengers, die after eating unclaimed creatures killed with lead shot. Since there has been almost no precipitation for over three years, the forest is tinder dry and yet bright sparks (pardon the pun) are still lighting campfires and starting wildfire.

We had come up with six possible crimes and, drawing on my personal history, I created a group of ecological activists, who seem to be responsible as one event succeeds another.

In the beginning, the narration is third person, but soon switches to first person, the narrator, Joanna, a woman of my age -78 – who is more or less stuck in the mountain village with not much to do, except speculate about the ‘crime wave’. She has a companion, who is even older and who has a gift for befriending everyone she meets and the curiosity to gather information.

(Excerpt:

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 and there would be a new cub in late 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, the cub’s blood.)

The first ‘crime’ is committed by a vengeful bear, a bear that shouldn’t be there and may have had a human accomplice.

I haven’t settled on a title. At first I saved it under the heading Bear Mountain Mystery. Now it’s Murder at the Center of the World, which is what the Chumash Indians called the place. Bear Mountain -not its real name- the center of the center and the highest point was where everything was in balance. The bear comes from there and seems intent on restoring balance on the lower slopes.

A good deal of the action, however, occurs in Bakersfield, or Bako, as it is fondly known. The Kern County Sheriff’s Dept is headquartered there and the nearest hospitals. The Bakersfield farmland is part of the Central Valley and produces an astonishing amount of food consumed by North Americans. It also produces Valley Fever spores, that live in desert soil and are released by development. In addition, farmers are draining the aquifers, as irrigation is being cutback by drought regulations. The land is actually sinking in places.

The most surprising thing about writing this is the interesting characters that emerge effortlessly. The main detective, Al Guevara, is not at all the good old boy I expected. His belly doesn’t hang over his belt, he has a sense of humor, he is unusually forthcoming, he is married to a defense lawyer, has five children and has trouble making ends meet. Another surprise was a romance novelist, Arta Dietzen, a best seller in your local drugstore, who is writing her way through the alphabet, beginning with Love at the Aswan Dam. Joanna can’t read these books, but finds herself admiring the writer.

This is not the first book I have written. My memoir Never Tell, an e-book, has a link on my blog’s home page or http://nevertell.ca/.

Here is another except. This part depicts Arta Dietzen at a public meeting which is about the proposed new Condor Ranch Village, which she supports, but which ecologists oppose.

Good evening,” said Arta and she was speaking directly to me, warmly, just short of taking me in her arms. Of course, everyone else was having the same intimate experience. “I’m soo glad you could take some time out of your busy lives to support me here. Thank God for PVR’s.” And we all laughed a little too long.

“Now first thing, I know I’m going to disappoint you. I promised y’all that Oliver my good friend Oliver Warren, the CEO of Condor Ranch, would be here. He isn’t. Just wait till I get my hands on that no-good, low-life critter.” She screwed up her face and hunched over so that she looked like the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Whoops of laughter. Howls of laughter. Tears of laughter. The audience had been well and truly salted with supporters.

She straightened up, did a resigned face and said, “He has sent Roger, dear Roger in his stead, like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. I only hope God and this audience will appreciate his willingness and not demand his head. I give you Roger Smith, Public Relations Officer for Condor Mountain Village. I’m just a shill, a poster girl if you will.” She withdrew to the seat in front of the podium that had been reserved for her.

 

 

 

Why You Should Read All 8 Outlander Novels: pt 2

outlander series pictureThis post is supposed to convince you to read The Outlander, the first book in Diana Gabaldon’s 8-book Outlander series. (A 9th book is in the offing.)

I say “supposed to” because looking back over the plot outline (see The Outlandish Companion by Gabaldon) and reading comment strings, I realize I have a difficult task before me.

The difficulty is not the vivid sex scenes. Those are quite lovely, as you will remember if you saw “The Wedding” episode of Starz series last summer. The difficulty is corporal punishment and what some call spousal abuse.

Now Gabaldon is quite clear that flogging is a BAD thing. Jamie Fraser’s scarred back is evidence of just how bad, although it takes a few books to document how it got that way. Spanking is another matter. Jamie says that his father punished him by application of a switch and look how well he turned out. Of course young Jamie was never punished unjustly and, although he found it hard to sit down for a few days, he didn’t resent his father. In fact, the “beating” was a great relief to his guilty conscience. So – when Claire Beauchamp puts herself and Jamie’s men in danger – and indeed her actions are very ill-advised- he spanks her.

Ever since the book was published in 1991, readers have been arguing about that. Personally, I found the argument interesting, but creepy. I decided that Gabaldon was just taking her inner sadomasochist out for a walk, and then I got on with reading. Yes, from time to time, she seems to skirt into the true romance territory of rape fantasy.

The obvious answer to the offended crowd is “Stop reading. Put the book down. Walk away. Give it to Goodwill with your next box of used clothes. Someone out there wants it.”

The Outlander has a great idea. Claire Randall, neé Beauchamp, is having a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in the Scottish Highlands in 1946. They have been separated during  the war because she was a nurse treating front-line wounded, and he was an intelligence officer in London. They hope to get pregnant now. Frank has come to research the Randall family’s genealogy. Claire is taking the opportunity to study local flora. Not only is she trained in western medicine, she has an interest in herbal treatment. She also has an unusual background. Orphaned as a child, she grew up with her uncle on archeology digs in Egypt. Important preparation for life in the HIghlands two and a half centuries ago.

Returning to their Inverness Bed and Breakfast, one rainy night in April 1946, Frank sees a figure in a kilt watching Claire at their window. Is this Claire’s wartime lover or a perhaps, a ghost?

On the Feast of Beltane, May 1st, she and Frank go to the nearby circle of standing stones to secretly witness, a dance by an equally secret group of local women, welcoming the sunrise. Claire returns the next day to get a sample of a certain blue flower, inadvertently touches one of the stones and gets sucked through time to 1743.

Of course it takes her a while to figure out that she has not simply fallen into the middle of a movie shoot, complete with kilted Highlanders and Frank’s red-coated look-alike. One of her first clues is that the look-alike tries to rape her. She is rescued by a kilted savage. In no time at all, she is treating a wounded Scot, despite the fact that the Scots can’t understand why an English woman is wandering around the highland moor in her shift.

Surely she must be an English spy.

Soon she finds herself revisiting -previsiting- historic ruins which she and Frank visited -will visit- only now the Castle Leoch is standing whole and invulnerable. Her only hope is to somehow escape and get back to the Stones and to Frank. Meanwhile, she finds herself practicing 18th century medicine. The time comes, during her attempt to get back, that the only way to avoid falling into Black Jack Randall’s clutches – he really is Frank’s remote forefather – is to marry Jamie Fraser, red-headed, six feet tall, commanding but reduced to menial labor because of an English warrant. It’s not really bigamy after all. Frank isn’t born yet, and if Claire isn’t careful, he may never be.

If that isn’t intriguing enough, Claire gets to stand on the edge of Loch Ness and see the legendary Water Horse. This is the beginning of her reputation as the White Lady, which comes in handy in the next book, Dragonfly in Amber.

Trivia question: who gave Claire a dragonfly in amber as a wedding gift?

If I could travel back in time, I would choose the 18th century to go to. It was not as old-fashioned as the 19th. Modern thinkers would feel at home there as rationalism and the scientific age began and early democracy was born. Claire finds it a challenge to be an independent minded woman then, cf wife spanking. She finds herself in a warrior society in a violent time, and does not take orders easily, cf marrying Jamie. Like most strong women in male dominated societies, however, she finds ways to take charge.

Okay, so you have to be a certain kind of reader, a bit rough and ready – for a good story, a good long story with a terrific idea and characters that grow. So does Gabaldon’s skill.

 

 

Why You Should Read the 8 Outlander novels – pt 1

GabaldonDiana Gabaldon published her 8th Outlander novel –Written in My Own Heart’s Blood -in the summer of 2014 and the first 8 episodes of the first novel The Outlander appeared on Starz. I had never heard of Gabaldon and disliked historical romances, but watching the series hooked me. Between August and November, I downloaded all 8 novels on my iPad, one after the other and spent weeks immersed in the 18th century. My response was not always positive. https://115journals.com/2014/10/10/diana-gabaldon-outlandish-outlander/

So why do I recommend that you read them all?

I had the impression as I read the last one that it was the best of the lot and it would be hard to understand it if you hadn’t read the others. You could buy Gabaldon’s The Outlandish Companion, the most expensive of her books on iTunes and get plot summaries of the first four, really detailed summaries. They come in handy if you have read them, but have forgotten why Jamie feels responsible when Stephen Bonnet turns out to be a cad, but I don’t recommend reading them instead of the books because you’d miss all the fun.

Above all else, Gabaldon is an exuberant writer. She is exuberant about sex as you have already discovered if you watched the series. The episode called “The Wedding” was not one you would have wanted to watch with your parents or your children. There was more naked flesh per hour than has ever been seen outside of porn. Her main characters Claire, from the 20th century, and Jamie, from the 18th, not only have great sex in every possible location and position, across 35 years, they genuinely adore each other in sickness and in health and deathly injury and post traumatic stress, in grief, in long separation, in loss and in wealth. All this, despite the fact that each presumes the other dead at times and Claire is in her early 60’s in the 8th book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood.

Gabaldon does all her own research, which is extensive particularly with regard to military history, medicine in both relevant centuries, sailing ships and whore houses, among others. She says that she doesn’t do drafts and that her editor doesn’t interfere, but lets her write a book as long as she wants. (I’m curious what he does do.) Reviewers do not always agree that these are positives. Bethany of Postcards from Purgatory, for example, sees the last book as one of the worst along with The Fiery Cross, the 5th book. http://postcardsfrompurgatory.com/2014/07/04/final-thoughts-on-diana-gabaldons-written-in-my-own-hearts-blood-by-bethany/  Others describe it as Gabaldon’s best. That makes me feel better, but I’m a notorious softie. When I’m hooked by a book, I have no critical judgement.

Those who don’t like Written in My Own Heart’s Blood complain about the tedious battle scenes. Like the 7th book, An Echo in the Bone, the 8th is set mostly during the American Revolution, including obscure battles that give the author leeway to invent. Jamie was expected to fight on the British side because he had been given a large land grant by the British authorities, but, of course, he is a Scot through and through and not much given to supporting King George. Both Claire and the reviewers complain that they didn’t pay close enough attention in history class. I was caught up in the sheer improvisation of the battles. No one seemed to know what they were doing, they just ad libbed. In the end, they often couldn’t even tell who had won.

While I couldn’t always tell what was going on either as the battle lines changed, I was intrigued by descriptions of swordplay, the use of guns and mortar, the fate of the horses and one particular donkey.

The lines seemed to be very permeable. Jamie was welcomed into the British camp when his relative was dying and, at one point Lord John, a high ranking officer in the British army masquerades as a rebel soldier -with one eye.

The Brianna/Roger story line is particularly suspenseful, involving the search for Jem across two centuries. Suppose you tried to travel through time and ended up in the wrong era.

I enjoyed the book on a more general level because it is full of joi de vivre, of life affirming energy even in its darkest moments when Claire and the unobservant reader think that Jamie is lost. I like the idea of the large family and their loyalty to each other as they muddle through life. And war. Then, of course, there is Gabaldon’s usual quota of comic scenes, one in which William discovers who his real father is by laying eyes on him, and another when Claire’s two 18th century husbands face off against each other. Mostly, I love the books because they are full of love.

Initially, the 8th book was supposed to be the last, but no longer. That’s a good thing because there are still a number of loose ends. Call this sloppy, as some reviewers do, or just another advantage of reading an exuberant, prolific writer.

I intend to write several more posts on why you should read all eight novels, giving highlights of each book in turn.