Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Now a disclaimer: If you are an author looking for a 3-day event to sell, Sell, SELL your book, this may not be the one for you. The focus of Magna is not on marketing or getting published or creating believable characters, it’s on mysteries/crime fiction. If you love the genre, if your idea of fun is in-depth discussions of PI novels, thrillers, cozies and/or comic crime, then Magna is for you. All this I said in my brilliant blog of November 11, 2006.
This year one of the highlights (for me) was an open discussion led by Judy Clemens on whether a mystery's focus should solely entertainment, or should they teach something/have a message. Instead of just listening to authors pontificate, everyone got to participate. Eventually someone asked ‘well, what counts as a mystery?’ to which a fan replied ‘any book I have not yet read is a mystery to me.’ I like that.
Magna also features these breakfast roundtables. Instead of just grabbing your cuppa and sitting alone, you join others to debate the table’s resolution. I chose to sit at Beverley Graves Myers’ table where a highly intelligent discussion ensued, with me adding my two cents now and then. Our topic? RESOLVED: Readers care more about plot than historical accuracy. Our table came to general consensus that this was true. Which is good news for me since I’m starting to write a historical thriller set in World War II.
Anyone who participated in the discussion led by Libby Hellmann, Michael Black and Chester Campbell on great book titles knows what I mean when I say that this was both fun and fascinating. I must have scribbled down a dozen titles that I have to check out, so thanks for adding even more to my bloated reading list. But it was more than just titles tossed out at random – we discussed the connection between plot and titles, symbolism, obtuse references and insider insights. It was a fast hour. If you don’t know Michael Black from his writings (and you should – start with A Killing Frost), get to know him for his encyclopedic knowledge of all things mystery. No one should be able to remember all this stuff so I’m beginning to wonder if he’s not some alien robot. And it’s not just mysteries – pick a branch of literature and he’ll meet there and tell you ten things you didn’t know and two books you should have read by now, you slacker. Remember what I said: alien robot.
I was on a panel called Rules of the Genre, that asked if the rules of the genre keep it from growing and limit its relevance, or are they the foundation of its strength? Good question, huh? It’s one I suggested to Jim Huang, the program guru at McM. The panel was expertly moderated by Terence Faherty, and brilliant observations were made by D.B. Borton, Carl Brookins and Keith Kahla. I had some things to say as well. I also hosted a little game show in which Judy Clemens, Libby Hellmann, Don Bruns and Sandy Balzo endured some pretty ridiculous questions and good-natured ribbing, proving themselves the stars of the show. Hats off to Austin who somehow managed to make the audio/visual equipment obey when all hope was lost.So again, it’s a love letter to Magna Cum Murder. If you still are wondering if you should go, drop me a note (via my website) and I’ll convince you.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
I'll get into the details, of which there are many, when I get back to Phoenix next week, but I did want to say that all is well, and note to Vickie that I don't know for sure if the Women Writing the West group includes western Canadians, but I'll find out. If they don't, they ought to.
Denver is a spectacular city, by the way, and anyone who hasn't checked out one of the three Tattered Cover Bookstores should make a point of putting on the itenerary next time he or she is in Colorado.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
My blog entry for last week was supposed to be about my research trip to California (it went quite well, thanks), but that got put on the back burner when I got a curve thrown my way by my publisher. You see, I had to get a cover for said book done from bare concept to (almost) finished product in not very much time.
So the past week has been spent by me, doing something most authors don't get a chance to even get close to: designing the cover of my next novel.
Publishers (generally for very good reasons) usually keep their authors far away from the process of giving their book its public face. When the cover is prepared, it's usually presented as a fait accompli to the author. Oh yes, they'll let us possibly suggested the odd tweak, but they've spent a fair bit of time coming up with the cover, and if an illustrator is involved or stock photos purchased, quite a bit of money. Unless the author runs screaming from the room, that first cover design is what will be in the bookstores. Even heavy duty authors are often told what cover they're going to get.
If the author does object, he/she will be told that whatever is bugging them is "a marketing decision". Quite often publishers have somewhat of a house style for their covers, too, so that the designer must work within that framework and it can't/won't be changed.
Another shortcoming of the process is that almost always, the cover designer only has a rudimentary knowledge of the book's story line. The editor often feeds them this, along with ideas from the marketing department. They might also get a rough design concept sketch from one or the other of these people. Then they go to work with their "designery" ideas.
Quite often, this process can come up with some pretty good results. It can also come up with some pretty horrendous ones.
Now, as I said off the top, I'm a bit of an oddball in the book publishing game (no snide comments, Benoit!) since I also work as a graphic designer. Because of that, my publisher(s) have let me submit cover designs. Look at it this way: who knows the book better? Since I (supposedly )have the understanding and skill to bring my ideas into something that LOOKS like a cover, they give me a shot at it. Do they always like the concept that I come up with? No, but I'm used to that as a designer and I don't take it personnally. Last book, I did three covers before they said, "That's the one!" Designing goes like that sometimes, same as writing.
So what does the new cover look like? You'll have to wait until next week, since we have only the broad strokes done at this point. My photographer/design buddy, the talented Andre Leduc is still having his kick at the can with the images (there are three being used in a composite).
Stay tuned! And I'll get back to my visit to Portola, CA, promise.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Like Vickie, I missed my last posting day as well, but for an infinitely less dramatic reason. I've been in Colorado Springs for the past week at the Women Writing the West conference, and the hotel computer's parental control filter wouldn't let me log on to the site. I'm guessing it's because of the word "Murder" in the address.
I'm in Monument, Colorado, now, visiting my in-laws before I do a couple of events at the end of this week, one at a Colorado Springs Barnes and Noble on Thursday, and one at a Denver Tattered Cover on Friday. My brother-in-law's computer is much more forgiving.
I just joined the Women Writing the West group a few months ago. As you might guess, Dear Reader, this is a group for women writers who live in and/or write about the Western United States. It's the only writer's group I belong to that isn't specifically for mystery writers, and just for that reason, the conference was quite different and interesting. Many of the women write non-fiction books and articles, as well as fiction of other genres than mine, but it seems that all writers have pretty much the same concerns about their art, their skills, and their business. There were about 100 attendees, so the conference was certainly smaller and much more intimate than Bouchercon. I was able to meet a large percentage of the people who were there and make a bunch of useful new contacts. WWW is quite a supportive group, too. I especially want to mention a lovely women by the name of Irene Brown who was so complementary to the group about my The Old Buzzard Had It Coming that the conference bookstore sold out of the title. I wish I could hire her as my publicist. This is the group that gives out the annual WILLA Literary Award for outstanding writing in several categories, and the conference ended with a beautiful banquet and awards ceremony.
Yesterday and today, I've been trying to hit libraries and bookstores in the area to shamelessly tout myself, and I'll do the same tomorrow, then Thursday I'll be at a Barnes and Noble in Colorado Springs, and Friday at a Tattered Cover in Denver before I head home to do some more events back in AZ. It's the joy of the new book promotional push.
Monday, October 22, 2007
I missed my regular posting day last week for a very good reason - I was in the hospital.
But, to begin at the beginning. I haven't been feeling well since I left Anchorage. My little dust up on the highway didn't help, no doubt. So on Thursday I went to the walk in clinic. The doctor sent me to the ER. Where they admitted me. I had surgery on Friday. It's Monday now, and I'm back at my daughter's and coming along fine. Good thing, as I'm supposed to be leaving on my book tour on Wednesday.
The moral of the tale is this - always have a good book at the ready. I happened to have a copy of Charles's Noble Lies in my bag when I went to the clinic. It's a great book, fast-paced with plenty of excitement and exotic locales to keep me entertained during the long hours in the hospital. Thanks, Charles
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Charles at the helm.
Friday night I officially launch Noble Lies here in Rochester. It’s a big soirée at the two-story Barnes & Noble in Pittsford and to say I’m excited is one of them there classic understatements you always here about. But more than excited I feel humbled. I don’t know what to say – not at the launch, that’ll come easy. I mean right now, this moment. It’s all so unreal.
Noble Lies is my third book. Third. That blows me away every time I think about it. I know, I should be the confident author, boldly launching book after book, so self-assured he can’t imagine anything less. But sometimes I can’t imagine any of it has happened for me. People I don’t know, who owe me nothing, read my books and enjoy them. A lot. That’s frickin’ amazing. The reviews have been excellent, I’ve won a few awards, been nominated for more, and as for sales, well, I’m not starving. I won’t say anything so cliché as ‘it’s like I’m living in a dream’ because it’s not since nobody’s riding a giant pink giraffe and George Washington isn’t singing Minnie the Moocher as he eats a bowling ball, but it is really strange. Cool strange, yeah, but strange, like when you’re thinking about a song and you turn on the radio and there it is, only a lot cooler and stranger.
I think of myself as a reader first, a writer second. I’ve spent many more hours reading than writing or even thinking about writing and while you could say that the reading process is part of the writing process, I was too deep into the story at the time to think about anything but the next line. Maybe it’s subconscious, I don’t know. But somewhere along the way, I started writing things I wanted others to read – Vanity? Posterity? Ignorance? – and somewhere along the way, people started to read it – Pity? Curiosity? Accidentally? – and then it turns out I’m a good writer and people like to read it and there you go, it’s all too strange to figure out. Which is why I don’t know what to say right now and why this entry really reads that way, like I’ve never written a coherent sentence in my life.
So Friday night I officially launch Noble Lies here in Rochester. I wish you could all be there. And I wish, I realize now as I write it, that I want this amazing humbling frickin cool strange feeling to last forever.
Monday, October 15, 2007
October is breast cancer awareness month, which brings a wide-spread illness to many people’s attention. This is a good thing. As one of the members of this clan, I am glad the days of reticence about this disease are gone. We still have a long way to go, though.
One aspect I’d like very much to see changed is the term “Breast Cancer Survivor.” As a writer, I’m a bit picky about words, and this one really bugs me. Survivor is defined by Encarta Dictionary as “somebody who remains alive despite being exposed to life-threatening danger.” Also, “somebody who shows a great will to live or a great determination to overcome difficulties and carry on.”
We live in a competitive culture that already measures people in terms of wins and losses. The word survivor underscores this. There is a connotation of toughness to the word, a winner versus loser, us versus them implication that shouldn’t apply to breast cancer or any other physical condition.
Let me tell you a story. I was diagnosed with breast cancer a few months after a friend of mine, whom I’ll call Gina. Gina and I had fourth-graders in the same school, and we saw each other frequently. We got our mastectomies, shared surgical stories, talked about getting back to our exercise programs, whether we’d change our diets, the stuff people do when they get bad health news.
Meanwhile, another colleague, whom I’ll call Marie, got diagnosed with breast cancer, a type that usually occurs in both breasts, but is slow-growing. Marie shared her worries, but finally decided that she wouldn’t have surgery because her husband found the idea of a mastectomy too disfiguring.
Then Gina’s breast cancer returned. She had a more aggressive tumor than Marie or I. Marie was still fretting over treatment.
Two years later, Gina died. The youngest of her three children was five. Gina’s husband, his face drawn with grief and shock, drops the three off at school. Within the year, three other acquaintances died of breast cancer, one of them a man. Gina’s husband is dreadfully lonely, but he isn’t alone. Marie got a double mastectomy.
I often run in the Susan G. Komen race for the cure. Susan G. Komen is a terrific organization, and this event is one of hundreds that funds research and programs that comfort and treat people with the disease. But I have the feeling that the sense of entitlement among the women wearing the pink shirts and hats is growing. They’re proclaiming, “We’ve won, we’ve survived.”
The last year I ran in the race, Marie led a pack of pink-shirted women. They were whooping it up, jogging arm in arm in a joyous phalanx. An artistic type, Marie wore a skirt cleverly made of hundreds of bras sewn together. I liked the bra idea, but the mood struck a sour note with me. This disease is not about win and lose. Great determination has little to do with whether one lives or dies. Gina had great determination. I saw it, especially in her pain and sorrow when she knew she was going to leave her husband and young children.
Cancer is a crap shoot, and living through it depends on who got the best genes, the least aggressive tumor, the least disruptive mutation. This year, I sent a check to the Komen Foundation, but I didn’t run in the race. I wish we could change the term Survivor. If it didn’t exclude men, I’d opt for Sisterhood.
Any one have any ideas?
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Not feeling busy enough? Looking to add a sense of urgency to every day? Here’s what you do. Take almost 2 weeks off from work, return in the midst of several key projects, all quite important and, as we say in the biz, all quite hot. At the same time, try to organize the local launch of your new book and while you’re at it, help finalize details for a convention appearance by your state chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. Now, just to make it fun, you and your loving spouse need to strip off all the tiles in your home’s one and only shower so you can put in one of those 3-piece shower stall thingies (which, you must note only after you realize it is no longer possible to return, has a nice little crack in it) and while you’re putting it in, for reasons you will never fathom, you must cut a hole in the wall that is exactly 6 inches above – not below, as the instructions illustrated – the eventual top of the said shower liner, requiring you to patch the dry wall and add several days to the entire process. Want more? Host a weekly radio show, teach the first class in a mystery writing course at your local writing center, write an hour’s worth of mystery-related quiz questions for your upcoming appearance at Magna Cum Murder, and try looking at your self in the mirror when you, the so-called writer, haven't written a word in your new book in 21 days. That ought to keep you busy.
Here’s a fun one. This past week, I was a guest on Valerie Connelly’s hit web-radio show, Calling All Authors. Valerie is the author of several mystery thrillers, as well as the popular primer Calling All Authors: How to Publish with Your Eyes Wide Open that explains all the publishing myths, misconceptions and realities for the first time author. Valerie is the publisher of Nightingale Press, and is one excellent talk show host. You can hear the entire radio show – as well as many others, probably more interesting – by clicking here. The date of the show was October 19th.
Finally, something more on Alaska. I have to give a special shout out to Marta Cobb and the students at Dimond Highs School in Anchorage. When I was traveling back from Point Hope, Marta graciously put me up for the night – picking me up at the airport at well past midnight, too. Marta was able to arrange it for me to speak at her school – I did two sessions in the school’s impressive library with about 60+ students each. Now I’ve spoken to a lot of large student groups before but I have to tell you that the students at Dimond High were just about the best I can recall – and this is from a former High School teacher. Attentive and polite, sure, but engaged and thoughtful, witty and creative – it was a real honor to speak to them. Afterwards, several students recommended books to me, as well as some comics/graphic novels that I plan on tracking down this week. And Marta dropped me off at the airport with enough time to ask the bookstall managers if they had any books by that popular writer, Charles Benoit. So, thank you, Marta, for making the tail end of my fantastic trip equally fantastic. And to the students of Dimond High, remember to thank me when you are accepting your Nobel Prize.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
Last Monday, I had the local launch of my new book The Drop Edge of Yonder at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ. Also debuting books at the event were Richard Benke from New Mexico, with his Cities of Stone, and Nancy E. Turner, she of These is my Words fame, with her new book The Star Garden. The turn out was fair, but not quite what I expected. I guess that a Monday evening and Columbus Day to boot isn't the best time to hold a book launch. In a couple of hours, I'm going to speak at a charity affair here in Tempe with fellow Poisoned Pen author Ken Kuhlken. We'll see then if people are back from their holiday outings and in the mood to hear about books.
It looks like Fall is travel time for the authors on this blog. On Tuesday, I'm off on a driving trip to Colorado to attend a Women Writing the West Conference in Colorado Springs. I've set myself up a couple of signings afterwards, one at a Barnes & Noble in Colorado Springs on the 25th, and one at the Tattered Cover on Colfax in Denver on the 26th. If anyone is in the vicinity on those days, feel free to drop by. I'd love to meet you.
Now if I could just get enough time together to finish my next book ...
Friday, October 12, 2007
Only a week since I last posted? I've done enough to fit into a month.
First, my visit to McLaughlin School in Anchorage was a wonderful experience. It's a juvenile correction facility, barbed wire surrounding the property, all dorrs locked, quiet, well-behaved kids forming neat lines. I had a short time in the secuire part of the facility where the students all wore prison garb. I talked about the writing life as it applies to me. I only had a short time with them, and could have used more. The boys (all boys) were very enthusiastic listening to me. They asked lots of good quetions. When I mentioned something about the Constable in my books, one boy spoke up and suggested that some of the others might not know what a constable is. I was impressed that he wanted to be sure everyone was included in the discussion.
I didn't have nearly enough time with them before I was taken to what they call the cottage, where it is more like a school, except for the locked doors. They brought in about 40 kids and several teachers and staff to the library to hear me. in this group there were some girls, sitting in the front tow. The only time the boys and girls are allowed to be in the same room is when when they have a guest speaker. I thought that I had two forty-five minute classes, but it was one ninty-minute period. That would normally present quite a problem, but with this bunch the questions were so good and the discussion so active, that I easily filled the time. It was by far and away the best time I've had giving a talk. The kids were polite (they have to be polite) but also attentive and very engaged. The questions and comments were far better, in quality and quantity, than I've had in regular high schools. When I was finished, I handed out some of my bookmarkds and postcards and they all rushed me for an autograph. That was fun!
I was most imporessed with the school, with the dedication of the staff I met, the facilities and the programs they have for troubled kids. I was told that their re-offender rate is about 30% and I thought that was pretty good!
I decided to drive back to Canada via Fairbanks because I had a bit of time to spare and I wanted to see Denali. The clouds cleared enough that I got a glimpse of some of the closer mountains, at least. About a hundred miles outside of Fairbanks, I ran into a sudden snow storm. And off the road.
Into the ditch. In the middle of nowhere, Alaska, I took out two mailboxes on my way past. The mailboxes knocked out the back window and the left tail light and punched a couple of holes in the bodywork. The car came to a halt against a tree, but there was no damage to the front, so I suspect the mailboxes slowed me down just enough. It migh te a cliche, but I was lucky - I'd passed a cliff about fifty feet earlier.
I stood on the side of the highway trying to flag someone down and two cars drove right past me. I couldn't believe it. But then a nice young couple stopped and placed a call on their call phone. They stayed with me until the police (what they call in Alaska the 'trooper') arrived. I didn't get their names, and I'm sorry I can't write to say thanks.
The tow truck arrived, dragged me out of the ditch and put on the spare tire. With a hefty cheque and a wave, I was on my way.
On the bright side I sold the tropper a copy of In the Shadow of the Glacier. If he happens to go to my web page and follows the link to this blog, many thanks for your help.
I could continue writing about the challenges of winter driving in the mountains, but that would take up too much space. Let me just say that I'm beginning to get some idea of the incredible amount of wilderness in Canada. I've driven for days without cell phone reception, hundreds of kilometers without seeing a house or driveway. or farm, fifteen or twenty minutes at a time wiotht passing another car. And that's on the highway beyond which there is even less all the way to the North Pole.
I'm in Edmonton today, for a brief rest before heading back to Nelson. Then it's off again, this time to the US west coast on my book tour.
I'm sure I'll be having more adventures.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Seems as if everyone here at Type M has been out and about recently, and from what I've read, we've all had good experiences, maybe not as potentially life-altering as Charles standing on the shore of the Pacific, but good experiences nonetheless. (I fully expect Charles to pack up his wife and a few meagre effects -- including his sax, of course -- and head off to a cabin to write more of his delightful fiction and in the process becoming an enigma to the mystery writing community.)
In comparison, my trip to the High Sierras in California seems a bit tame.
First let me say that I did find success. The topography (as opposed to the typography) and flora were pretty well what I had imagined they would be. I had the location of my primary plot item smack dab in a wilderness only reachable by four-wheel-drive vehicles moving very slowly, and that gave me a bit of a bad moment, but it turned out to be easily solvable, thank goodness!
So, I'm taking a week off and getting to play full-time author, something I haven't done for a number of months. Also, I'm on a research road trip and I'd forgotten just how much I enjoy that.
Why? The people you meet and talk with. In order to get the flavor of a railroad town in the mountains of Northern California, one needs to talk -- a lot. And to as many people as you can. I'm not the type of author who goes in for paragraph after paragraph of description (I don't like to read it, so I'm not going to make anyone else do it, either), so I need quick hits of local color. What I'm aiming for is small details that would make a local say, "He's been here." If I can do that, I'll convince readers who haven't been there, too.
So you talk, and more importantly, get your interviewees to open up. The citizens of Portola came through with flying colors. I don't remember when I've met a group of nicer and more loquacious people. I got way more material than I'll need, advice on where to put things, inside tips on the town and it's more colorful characters, basically, all the detail that will make this part of my novel come alive.
I can't wait to get back at the manuscript. Unfortunately, I have a gun to my head with the book's cover. You see, I also wear a graphic designer's hat and my current publisher actually let's me submit what I'd like to see on the cover. She's taken my previous 2 designs, so I see know reason why she won't take this new book's cover.
If I can deliver the goods.
And that's the subject of next week's blog.
Monday, October 08, 2007
After retired teacher Joan Anderson picked me up at the Anchorage Airport, she took me to meet my hostess, Susan Brusehaber. We then went to Susan’s home, a magical haven on thirty-five acres of forest, with turrets and a light house tower overlooking the rushing Salmon River.
That evening, Susan raided her greenhouse and herb garden to make a wonderful dinner for five of us. During dinner, I discovered that Susan and Joan wrote the curriculum for the Authors in the Schools Program.
Here I’ve got to confess that I thought this lesson plan was directed more to processing a crime scene than to writing crime fiction. Treading on eggshells, I broached this issue. Since both Susan and Joan had ties to Eagle River Elementary School, the teachers at the school had already begun to prepare the students for my visit by constructing the crime scene, complete with a paper brick fireplace, a scepter poker, and a rabbit pelt standing in for Viola Hare’s body. Both the kids and the teachers were having a lot of fun with the scenario, and the LAST thing I wanted to do was squelch their enthusiasm. To my relief, Susan and Joan rallied to work with me on how to ease my concerns and still implement their plan.
The day before I left for Anchorage, an email had arrived with my schedule at the school. My first duty would be to conduct an hour and a half assembly with about 150 students. I’ve been substitute teaching for ten or twelve years, and I paled at the thought of trying to keep 150 kids attentive for that long. One thing I’ve learned, both from teaching and from having two boys of my own, is that kids have high energy levels and short attention spans. It’s a fact of life. So I ran out the morning of my departure and bought two mysteries and one book of ghost stories, written by Hawai‘i authors. I figured it would be a gift to the school, a thank-you for having me as their guest.
The school principal and teachers welcomed me warmly, and wanted me to spend the assembly discussing my writing method, especially how much re-writing and editing I do. They thought this would be an important lesson for the students. The students were seated on the indoor/outdoor carpeted floor of a large room that, in a couple of hours, would be transformed into the cafeteria. About two minutes after I began my spiel, they began to squirm.
It was time for plan B. I opened THE KILLER COCKROACHES to a part where the suspense was escalating. This worked, thank heavens. Ten to twelve year olds love gross stuff. And they seemed to know all about cockroaches, so it wasn’t hard for the students to get into the story about how two kids had to rescue their scientist father from cockroach mutants who discovered he was developing a special pesticide. We had lively discussions about how the author developed tension, what words she used to show fear in her characters (chicken skin, chattering teeth, prickling scalps), and whether cockroaches would survive a nuclear blast. The latter wasn’t part of my plan, but heck, roll with the punches. THE SHARK MAN OF KAPU BAY also had a high creep factor, so was a big hit, too. Time whizzed by and I think everyone, teachers included, was happy.
The second half of the day revolved around the crime scene. Again, the groups of students were large. This took place in classrooms and the teachers were present, so we divided about ninety kids into groups of three. One group studied fingerprints, one group drew wanted posters, and one group—mine—got further divided into groups of three to five and wrote an interrogation dialog between the Village Public Safety Officer and an assigned suspect. Assigned because kids arguing about who got what suspect.
There were all levels of writing abilities, temperaments, and attention spans, but I was happy with the groups’ progress. The teachers seemed to be, too, (whew) as they selected students who would act out their group’s dialog to the class later. This was a big hit, and in some cases we had more performance practice than writing, but that was okay. Their imaginations were working at full speed.
I loved the experience. Any time I teach, I find that I learn. Even when it requires a lot of energy and leaves me physically tired, I’m renewed in other ways. This day I learned what speaks to ten to twelve year olds, what stories ignite their creative gifts and grab their attention. I watched for the words that turned them on and paid attention to the aspects of story-telling that captured them. Just watching their smiling faces gave me a glow.
Sunday, October 07, 2007
I have so many things to say about Alaska that it’ll probably take a few blogs to get it all down. I’m going to start backwards, with my trip to Point Hope, because as good as Anchorage and Bouchercon were, my time in Point Hope was the best thing about the trip. And Point Hope will no doubt take a few blogs.
Point Hope, for those of you who haven’t been there, is a Tikigaq whaling village about 300 miles north of the Bering Strait. It’s located on a narrow spit of sand and stone and tundra that stretches about 20 miles out into the Artic Ocean. People have been living at the site for more than 4,000 years, often in large communities made up of whalebone-and-sod homes. Today about 1,000 people live at Point Hope, and while there are still a few abandoned whalebone-and-sod homes, folks live in wood-frame homes about the size and shape of a double-wide trailer. There is electricity and running water and the Internet service is generally as good as what I have at home. Other than the traditional handmade Tikigaq parkas with their gorgeous beadwork and fur trim, folks wear the same North Face and Carhardtt coats, Gap shirts and American Outfitter sweaters. Most kids have MP3 players and every kid at the school had a new Apple laptop. They’re up on the latest music, movies and TV shows, and, of course, the community suffers from the same teen problems you’ll find anywhere. The adults feel that the kids were not as tough or as motivated as when they were younger, and many I spoke with feel that the best way to spend a long winter’s night is with a cup of hot tea and a good book.
Lesson number one: I have much in common with the people of Point Hope.
Point Hope is a whaling community. I know, when I heard that I said to myself, ‘that’s just a tourist thing.’ But since there are no tourists at Point Hope, I had to rethink that assumption. Nellie Sears, the wonderfully kind librarian at the school, let me know in no uncertain terms that, next to family, whaling is the most important thing in her life. She told me how every winter they get ready for the whale hunts and how she is still the cook for a whaling crew. They still go out in wood-frame/walrus skin boats and, while they use high-powered rifles, they still have to harpoon the whale first or they risk losing it under the ice. Nellie told me how the whole community gets involved when a whale is killed, from helping in the butchering, the rendering of the blubber and the sharing of the meat. (For the record, whale meat tastes like really fishy, really oily fish – not as bad as I had feared but not as mouth-watering as I had hoped.) Then there are the community celebrations and the blanket toss and all these really cool, very traditional things that I was way too early in the season to experience. The people I met loved the winter, said they got depressed in the spring when everything started to melt, enjoyed hunting no matter what the season, knew everybody in their community, enjoyed the town’s isolation and had no interest in living in a big city.
Lesson number two: I have nothing in common with the people of Point Hope.
A couple more things for this post. First, I stayed at the home of Kurt Schmidt, a science teacher and a guy who has spent many years in Alaska. He’s a hunter, he raises a real falcon, he’s a self-taught guitar player of some caliber, a good cook and a frighteningly good writer. After some convincing, I got him to share an essay/story/poem he was working on. I don’t know if it’s the cold or the months spent alone, but his words resonate with an icy-sharp clarity and a bone-chilling honesty, all at a depth I’m afraid to explore. I tried to convince him to get his stuff out there, but like most self-made people, he’s not big on public acclaim, happy if he can capture what he’s feeling in just the right words. I envy his vision.
The second was my ‘perfect moment’, that one moment that crystallizes the whole trip, the essence of the experience. For me it was standing alone at the very tip of Point Hope – to the north nothing but the Artic Ocean and the pole, to the South the Chukchi Sea and the Bering Strait, and in front of me, far over the horizon, the north coast of Siberia.
I picked up two rocks. One I tossed out as far as I can throw – not very far but far enough so it came down where waves from both bodies of water collided.The other I put in my pocket.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
Like Vicki, I haven't written a post in a couple of weeks, because I was up in Anchorage attending my first Bouchercon. I didn't take my laptop with me, so was pretty much computer incommunicado for four days. I had 455 e-mails waiting for me when I got back, but otherwise, it was rather nice to have to only deal with people face to face.
I live in the Phoenix, Arizona, area, only about seven miles from my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, so when I found out that PPP was celebrating their 10th anniversary by taking all their press and bookstore employees to Bouchercon, I called them up and asked if I could tag along. I made my own hotel and conference arrangements, of course, and paid for my own plane ticket, but Rob, the publisher, was kind enough to include my plane reservation with the group's, and they allowed me to travel back and forth from the Anchorage airport with them. I used to travel by plane a lot, back in the day, but for the eleven years I owned a gift shop, I hardly ever left town. The last time I flew was in Feb. 2000, so I pretty much no longer have a clue, reservation and regulation-wise. Going with the group was an excellent way for me to get back into the swing of things.
I've been to several writers' conferences since my first book was published in 2005 (long distance driving), but this was my first Bouchercon, and my first trip to Alaska. It was an excellent experience, and gratifying, too, since perfect strangers would come up to me and tell me they liked my books. I was surprised that anyone had heard of me at all, other than my fellow PPP authors. It's very nice to know that you're not just writing in a void and that people do actually read your books.
I moderated a panel on historical mysteries, which went off very well. My fellow panelists were up-and-comers Clare Langley-Hawthorne and Sharon Rowse, fellow PPP author Ken Kuhlken, and Big Name Author Robert McCammon, who is very well known for his fantasy/horror novels, but has recently switched to historical mysteries. We panelists rather bonded during the event, and all of us showed up en masse at each other's author's choice events. In the end, we were pretty much having a party.
At the Poisoned Pen Birthday Banquet on Friday night I met many other Poisoned Pen authors for the first time, including Charles Benoit, Vicki Delaney, and Deborah Atkinson of this very blog. Vicki asked me to participate in the web-radio broadcast she did from Bouchercon, and I was very honored to do it. I did my bit after Charles Benoit and Dana Stabenow, and right before Barbara Peters. I had a great time, but I told Vicki afterwards that I kept thinking of that old George Gobel joke: "Did you ever feel like the world is a tuxedo and you're a pair of brown shoes?"
I didn't get to participate in the "Authors in the Bush" program, since I didn't have time to stay, but I'm very envious of those who did. (see Vicki's previous post) I haven't heard anyone who went say anything but wonderful things about it. The group I was travelling with left Anchorage at 1:00 on Monday morning, which meant getting to the airport at about 11:00 p.m. Sunday, which meant not going to bed at all on Sunday.
We couldn't have if we had wanted to, anyway, since we had to check out of the hotel at noon on Sunday. So several of us rattled around Anchorage in the rain and drizzle all day Sunday. Poor Charles Benoit got stuck going to dinner with a bunch of bored women who were desperately looking for some entertainment until it was late enough to go to the airport. And royally entertain us he did, and never for a moment acted like he wished he were somewhere else. Charles, you're a mench.
We left Charles getting ready for his own trip to the Alaska hinterlands, unsure of whether his hosts had quite decided where they were going to put him when he got there. I hope he made it out all right.
This post grows lengthy, and I should be preparing for an event in Scottsdale on the 8th, so I'll close. In a couple of days, I'll post more on my own website (www.doniscasey.com) about my B'Con adventures and all the many varied and famous authors I met.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
I haven’t written for a couple of weeks because I’ve been on the road, yet again. I’m writing this sitting at the Juneau airport. Juneau is a beautiful city in a fantastic location. Its airport is not. I’m heading back to Anchorage for the last in my authors-in-the-schools school, and then to pick up the car and head off into the wild once again.
I drove north – way north – from Nelson. Through B.C. to the Yukon and then to Alaska. Destination: Anchorage for Bouchercon.
What a great conference it was. It was particularly special for those of us published by Poisoned Pen Press as the fan guest of honour was our editor, Barbara Peters. Barbara and her husband, Rob Rosenwald, Publisher of Poisoned Pen, closed the bookstore and the press and brought 22 people up from Arizona. On the Friday night, Poisoned Pen hosted a big party at which they launched Charles’ new one, Noble Lies, The Drop Edge of Yonder, by Donis Casey and my own In the Shadow of the Glacier. It was a great party, good food, great music, and lots of wonderful people.
After the conference I was lucky enough to be part of the Authors in the Schools programme. I was sent to Juneau, where I gave several talks on the writing process (as it works for me, anyway) and a workshop on writing dialogue at Juneau Douglas High School. The librarian, Barb, and her husband, Ron, were kind enough to host me in their home, show me a bit of the town, and get me to and from the airport. Then on to Tenakee Springs (population 80).
Tenakee is a great little town. There is no road, thus no cars. You can only get there by boat or float plane, as I did. Every house has a fabulous view of the inlet and the surrounding mountains (when the clouds clear), and whales frolic in the bay. Really - I saw some. There are ten children in the school, from grade one to grade ten. And that is certainly a different learning environment than I’ve ever been exposed to. But from the little that I saw, I’d say it works extremely well. The little kids learn from the big kids and the big kids learn valuable lessons in accommodating others and in caring for and getting along with smaller, more vulnerable people.
I met many members of the community as well. Adults came to my dialogue workshop given at the school, and the library put on an evening reception at which I was the guest of honour.
I felt sort of like Oprah must have when she visited Alert Bay this past summer.
My host in Tenakee was Liza, justifiably famous throughout town for the quality of her cooking. Ann at the school, and Leba, and everyone made me most welcome. It was very foggy this morning, and there was some doubt as to if the plane would be able to get in. But it cleared up around noon. I was almost hoping that I’d get another day in lovely Tenakee.
At a meeting of the authors visiting the schools, we were advised that it was polite to eat everything offered. I myself was forced to consume several glasses of Australian Shiraz. Just to be neighbourly, you understand.
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
After a summer that was far too busy with my outside work to do much of anything except look longingly out windows at the beautiful weather, I'm finally taking a week off. Yes, don't tell me that I should have gone up to Alaska to hang out with all the crime writing types at Bouchercon. With a book coming out next spring and deadlines beginning to loom large, I have to get serious about finishing research on it.
Now, the odd thing here is that I furiously wrote the book last spring in 11 action-packed weeks. Don't ask me how I did this, because all I remember at the end is that I felt like someone had hit me repeatedly in the face with a shovel. But finish it I did!
Then all sorts of "outside" things started bombarding me: my duties as president of Crime Writers of Canada, organizing a celebrity book reading at the Toronto Reference Library (a really large and ultimately thankless task), various gigs with the band I currently tootle on trumpet for. Before I knew it, summer was drawing to a close and I had this HUGE research gap in my novel staring me right in the face.
Let me explain a bit. The last third of the book is set in Northern California, in and near a little city called Portola. Never hear of it? Neither had I until I decided this would be the setting. I did a fair bit of research on the Internet about the place and its nearby environs. I even found someone who'd driven through it and actually eaten a meal there. My good friend and fellow author, Simon Wood, help out with a bit of extra knowledge since he lives more nearby to Portola than I do (California as opposed to Ontario).
All this is to day that I have never visited the place I've written about. Having almost made that mistake once before with _Cemetery of the Nameless_, I'm not about to mess around and fake it. With my luck, this new novel, _A Case of You_, will finally achieve a big breakthrough and get reviewed in the _New York Times_ and it will turn out that the reviewer is a Portola native. Having gotten a whole whack of things wrong, this reviewer would then gleefully tear my novel to shreds -- and I wouldn't blame her/him. In my opinion, a writer has an unspoken covenant with readers not to fake things. In crime writing you can lie all over the place (and should) in telling your story, but if you're going to write about real places, you darn well better know what you're talking about. The more I write, the more I believe this.
So next week, it's off to Portola I go. I fly into Reno on Tuesday and will spend Wednesday and Thursday in Portola and the hills behind it, getting the flavour of the place and what it looks and feels like firmly planted in my head. With what I learn, I will then have to fix all the things in my novel caused by my temporary faking of the place. I only hope that I haven't written myself into too many corners. There are some very specific things I need for my story and I _think_ they're in Portola and the hills. My one really great fear is that I will discover that they aren't there. With the shortness of my trip, I don't have much time to find alternatives. That's a pretty frightening prospect.
The only way out then is to lie completely and make up a town in Northern California and that's always something fraught with its own dangers.
Wish me luck!
Monday, October 01, 2007
Joan Anderson, a retired teacher, met me at the airport and took me to meet my hostess, Susan Brusehaber, at whose home I would be staying. Susan not only welcomed me with warm hospitality, she prepared a delicious dinner and a delightful evening with her husband Don, and Joan and her husband, Paul. I could go on about the great food, the company, and an evening of new friendship and laughter, but what I really want to tell you about is Susan’s slice of Alaska, a land of mountains and jaw-dropping extremes.
Susan and Don have constructed a haven where fairies surely dwell. Their thirty-five acres on the banks of the Eagle River is a sanctuary of peace and almost mystical beauty. Susan believes in fairies and I assure you, if they exist, they’re at Susan’s home, living in harmony with the other creatures that thrive in that fertile, green forest of lush ferns, toadstools, towering trees, tiny lichens, and a thousand shades of green.
Susan loves to garden, and she dashed out to the garden and her greenhouse for the broccoli, tomatoes, tarragon, leeks and onions she used to prepare dinner. I’m not sure where the salmon came from, but if someone told me they were lured by the fairies to leap onto the banks of the rushing opaque waters of the glacial river, I’d believe it.
If we ever figure out how to post pictures on this blog, I’ll upload photos, because Don and Susan took an old log cabin and expanded it with loving hands. Don is a magician with wood. Two graceful spiral staircases, each step lovingly carved and edged, a lighthouse with a widow’s walk overlooking the river, rooms lined with shelved books, antiques, heirlooms, and seasonal treats (I tried to keep from decimating the bowls of chocolates that were in nearly every room), and a fire in the old wood-burning stove welcome guests to the sanctuary. Don has an extensive wood shop, and all rooms in the house provide a view of either the river or the forest, where leaf-cushioned paths weave past lichen-covered wood benches and underground-fed streams.
What a privilege to have been a guest in this magical place, where visitors are greeted from far and wide.