November 20, 2013

All about the best-laid plans

I recently ran across several short stories about Sheriff Earl McCoy, who is the Goodguy in Dead In Dutcher's Mountain. Then a funny thing happened to my plan for The Man from Xopec, it got shoved to the back burner.   I wrote the short stories mostly because Earl McCoy is another of several man I can't ignore, and he's real.

Earl McCoy (pardon me if I've told you this before) is modeled on a real sheriff I once reported on when I was a journalist.  The guy was good-looking, mid-thirties, single, fun, smart, and held the two most high-end degrees in two of the most difficult fields known to man: a Ph.D. in criminal justice and an M.D. as a doctor.

Now, this was in a tiny town in an underpopulated county whose most well-known citizen was Bigfoot.  Unemployment was criminally high.  Blacks and tree-huggers were chased away at the end of a gun.  Deadly family feuds lasted for generations and were still current. 

Me, I was fresh from Hollywood; cocktail parties attended by casting directors; voomy cars with license plates that said "13 wks" which meant the driver was an actor with a good contract.  "What are you doing here?" I asked the sheriff when I learned his qualifications.  "What are you?" he answered. 

So I tried to guess his reasons when I wrote that novel, and it turns out I was right; he was a home-town boy, an overqualified, big-minded hero. So I'm putting those stories about him into an anthology, and it'll be available as an e-book in a week or two.  Watch for it: McCoy, Sheriff.

The cover sports a photo of my fun, smart, good-looking, heroic son.  Sosume. 

September 2, 2013

Go to

I don't understand Greg Sarris, the award-winning, kick-ass Native American novelist's, novels.

I feel I should: I've won several prizes as a writer.  Further, from girlhood private, in-group allusions were easy because I attended first grade on the Pala Indian reservation, my very first crush was on a Navajo boy (he could hit a baseball to any designated where) and I've worked with and for tribes upon and off of seven different reservations.

That has nothing to do with my ability to understand prize-winning English.  There are several things about Mr. Sarris's work that leave me flummoxed, and I have yet to finish reading even one of his novels.  He claims to come from a subtle people; maybe that's my (all-Anglo) problem.

In Watermelon Nights we are introduced to a con man - at length - and the Indian hero, named Severe, says he has a reaction to the guy.  I don't get it because throughout the interchange I'm not sure which, or whether, one of the characters is being truthful.  Upon rereading, I'm still not sure.

In Grand Avenue, a collection of short stories, Mr. Sarris flies in the face of received wisdom and "tells" us, in throw-away phrases, about appalling violence; this without harm to either the horrified reader's comfort or peace of mind.  I am left wondering what in hell is going on because he didn't "show".  (Show-don't-tell; remember?)

I have a stack of Mr. Sarris's books in front of me.  Not even in his biography of Mabel McKay, Weaving the Dream (I finished that one) am I sure what point he makes when quoting her, his teacher and mentor.  As a result neither am I sure of the woman's point, although he claims she usually had one.

This is a bummer.  Greg Sarris is a hero. 

Writer, professor, scholar, a whole bunch of other things including world-class hunk, and maybe most important of all a politician, Greg Sarris has achieved more in one short life, for more people, and I mean hundreds of thousands of us, than ninety percent of our elected officials.  He is restoring open-space land to its rightful use, funding health  and jobs for at least two Indian tribes, and providing cash benefits to dozens of other California tribes.  His efforts restored tribal membership and leadership to a people which once was reduced by western perfidy from thousands of members to - get this - fourteen female slaves.

I don't understand Greg Sarris the novelist.  Yet.  You can bet the farm I'm about to try again.  This time I'll read really slow. 

August 23, 2013

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard died last week. It's not a shame; at 87 he was old enough. I'm sorry because he was a man who continued to grow in his craft until it became an art. Then he kept on writing.

I have a paperback of his short stories that demonstrates this. It's titled When the Women Come Out to Dance [Dark Alley, an imprint of HarperCollins publishers]. It contains nine stories. The first stories are early, early Leonard; the later ones are, well, later; they progress, textbook fashion, from so-so to polished to superb. The title story, "When the Women Come Out to Dance", took my breath away.

Today the press is full of his accomplishments; that'll last until the weekend, so I won't elaborate. There is something I haven't heard yet, though, and it is this; everybody could enjoy his work. My mom discovered Elmore Leonard in her mid-seventies and fell in love, especially with his wicked sense of humor. I watched a bunch of his movies and when I decided to write fiction, began reading his novels - at first to learn, then for the fun of it. My son swears by him.

That's three generations and counting. In my book, a record like that argues for the man's art and genius. It's true: Elmore Leonard will be missed. Sorely.

May 26, 2013

Fiction: what is reality, anyway?

I still don’t have a definition of “fiction” that covers all the territory, but I have discovered (!) that published stories aren't always fiction.  That's another duh for me.  I mean...

...take a look at The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston.  It came out in 2007 after its meaty core about the tallest redwoods appeared in The New Yorker.  That book would never have hit the New York Times bestseller list (which it did) except that Preston, in naming the discoverers of the tall ones, turned the men and women into three-dimensional characters with goals, problems, virtues and faults.  Like in fiction.

Gavin Menzies, in 1421, The Year China Discovered America, (2003) did a similar thing.  In fact, his book is written a lot like a mystery novel and reveals history one clue or episode at a time.  It was another best-seller.

And then, consider some terms we use about fiction: novel,‭ ‬novella,‭ ‬short story,‭ ‬ flash,‭ ‬playscript,‭ ‬video/movie script,‭ ‬graphic novel, narrative poetry.  Each genre concerns a made-up story, right?  So what did Menzies and Preston make up, and why did I eat 'em up like candy? 

Because I was involved in the, er, story.  Because the characters seemed real and their goals interested me.  Because the settings were exotic.  Because the writing was good. 
As I remarked before, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” He might have said the same thing about poetry, but maybe the whole argument, about genre and its relevance, is beside the point, and maybe his claim is the best definition.

February 14, 2013

Okay, so I lied

I promised I would never, never allow anyone to see my first novel.  However, then I opened the box that held the manuscript.  I began reading the thing, expecting lord only knows what.  And sure, it's terribly written.  BUT…  The crime in that story is outstanding

So I'm writing the sucker again.  It has a new title: The Man from Xopec

You see, this rich Indian is not altogether trustworthy.  He deals in stocks and bonds on his computer and has made a fortune, but he wants more. (You can tell right now that this is a fantasy, can't you?  I mean, a rich Indian?) So he cooks up a crooked land deal and forges a bunch of papers and photos so everyone thinks he inherits a few miles of really prime real estate.  But then this lady figures things out, and people are killed.  And then the Indian falls in love with her…

I'm a sucker for a really good badass, and I think this oversized, oversexed, over-endowed good-lookin'millionaire has it all.  Got the bit between my teeth and I'm running with it.

More next month.

November 28, 2012

The Skunk Under the Oak: A Story of Research

I write suspense novels, so apart from knowing something about the protagonist's profession and the various ways people frighten or kill one another, what topics do I need to research? Plenty, of course; the more I know and the greater number of options at my command, the more fun I have when I'm writing. Now I find that there's nothing like new information to plump up a plot.
This week, with barely 40,000 of my projected 50,000 words of A Murder of Crones to be dictated by month's end, and with lots and lots of other writing to do, I checked out two library books which promise to become game-changers: Encyclopedia of the Unexplained and Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. On these topics I am a fount of misinformation and conjecture; I'll need to rely on their indices in order to study. But here's the thing: based on just a cursory scan of an entry about Wales, I've altered a couple of scenes, added a death and implicated a group of nice old ladies (NOLs).

The NOLs want to explore the occult, so they meet at the full of the moon in a tiny garden stuffed into a parking lot beneath a large oak tree. Now, the oak was worshiped by the ancient Druids of Wales. Since they probably performed human sacrifice in their rituals, the rest, i.e. the new death and the fact that it happened under the oak, became irresistible to me.

Reading further about Wales, and I really really love this, I found, "... there were reports of mysterious luminous phenomena associated with revivalism" during the 19th Century. Who wouldn't want to put that into a paranormal suspense novel? Obviously as the NOLs do their stuff, something luminous and airy has to ascend toward the rising full moon and infuse their fear with an unforgettable sense of, well, horror.  So here's another bit I already had (!) from previous research; when the wandering nocturnal skunk is startled into releasing his smelly weapon, said weapon rises, a luminous green cloud, airy and ethereal as a puff of smoke. Luminous.  I kid you not.

I've been having fun with this book about old women, and always knew that the basic story is one of half-admitted magic.  If I thought I could get away with it, I'd reincarnate Merlin as the hero, or maybe Leonardo.  If.  Obviously I didn't count on the factual, useful skunk under the oak.  Lucky me.

November 21, 2012

She's a Real Character

She's a real character; that's what we used to say about a girl in high school who was different from us; someone who didn't wear clothes like ours, or liked a different flavor or color; generally one who was an individual .  Those are the people we write about, the ones who grab our attention.  While some people are turned on by a story; for me it's the character every time.

As I began writing My More than Sister, or rather decided it was time to write another book, the following words intruded themselves between me and my breakfast:

"I'm Glinda Parfit, and my earliest memory is being talked down from the old Guerneville bridge.  That was three years ago.  I don't worry about that as much as I used to."

I quickly became aware that the woman whose voice I had just heard had a sense of humor and was extremely vulnerable.  That's when I became interested in the character, really truly interested.  At some point within those first three sentences, all of Glinda's personality and predicament is implied; the story - the plot - grew out of my curiosity about the person who would say them.  This woman would pretend not to take herself seriously.  She had problems that she made light of.  And she was hiding something besides her fear.  Most of my stories begin that way; a phrase or a sentence enters my head from the Great Beyond, and my conscious mind responds with a shudder because the sentence contains the emotional description of the main character. 

Don't misunderstand me; I don't claim to take dictation from a disembodied spirit or to receive the inspiration from "on high."  I have spent my life watching people, that's all; it's so much a part of me that it isn't even a hobby, it's a vocation.  I make up backgrounds for anyone in a cafe, telling myself the waitress has two children with Down's Syndrome, the fry cook has an Aston Martin in his garage, that the matron in the adjacent booth has four grandchildren and has provided for all of them in her will but not for her son, their father.  I do the same thing in the supermarket, at the gas station, wherever there are people.  I have a very rich fantasy life.

Even when I try to begin with a plot, nothing special happens until a couple of the characters possess me.  In No Reservation, my intrepid heroine on page one was merely an object in a room until I heard the man she was interviewing begin to stutter and make outrageous claims for himself.  At that point my I H got ticked off and decided to bring him down in the press.  From then on, writing that novel was easy, and if you want to see what movie producers are after, take a look at the monsters I create and how I build them until they bring about a miniature Armageddon; for a time, two movie studios were dickering for that story -  and it didn't have a single thing to recommend it until that hapless lady, the I H, got mad at an arrogant man.

In both No Reservation and My More than Sister the protagonists are women who stand out from the crowd; they're different from you and me.  They engage my interest so much that I can live with them for a year and never be bored.  For me, at least, the beginning is in the character every time.