The Oxen are Slow, but the Earth is Patient*

As I read about the surrender of the Afghani troops, the rush to Kabul, and the evacuation, I can’t help but compare it to the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the subject of Pay Back, the third book in The Cooper Quartet. The parallels between the two events are too keen. The U.S. pulling out of a lost war, one fought for 18 years the other 20, money spent on arming our allies, training their pilots, and building an air force, only to see both crumble in days. In Pay Back, the Cooper family is entangled in the Fall of Saigon, each driven by the need to make recompense for their pasts. Their story begins in 1967 in Dead Legend, as the Vietnam War tears the U.S. apart; the second book, Head First, unfolds in 1972 during the Christmas bombings as the U.S. prepares to pull out our troops. The eBook of Head First will be available for $.99 on Amazon, September 9 – 12.

After the pullout in 1972, the U.S. Embassy remained open and protected by Marines. The U.S. continued to support the South Vietnamese Army and Air Force, with both advisors and weapons. In addition to the Embassy Staff and Marine units, the usual alphabet soup remained in-country (the CIA, et cetera, et cetera), plus U.S. contractors, their families, and reporters. As did the Vietnamese scouts who spent the war embedded in various units of the U.S. military, the Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. forces, and the Amerasian children of U.S. soldiers. All but the children were promised a quick exit should the North Vietnamese take the South.

When the South Vietnamese Army folded at Pleiku in late April 1975, the rush to get out was on, refugees poured into Saigon, clotting the airport at Tan San Nhut and the city. They weren’t alone. The armed troops from the South Vietnamese army rushed in with them. Masses waited outside the U.S. Embassy, at the airbase in Tan San Nhut, or floated the Saigon River on a rumor that merchant ships were waiting in the coastal city of Vung Tau. The Cooper family is caught in this mêlée, whether in the U.S. watching it on television, in Saigon, or with the Seventh Fleet. I hope I did the tumult justice.

On April 29, with 15 North Vietnamese divisions ringing Saigon, the U.S. Ambassador ordered the evacuation. The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet pumped chopper after chopper into Saigon from the South China Sea. By the last flight out April 30, over 6,000 people had been evacuated, overpopulating the waiting aircraft carriers and destroyers. A few flights got off from Tan San Nhut before it was shelled. And though, Vung Tau was attacked, and fuel depots burned, some people made it down river and out by ship or fishing boat. By any standards, the exit was messy, and many were left behind.

In my research for Pay Back, international reporters in Saigon wrote of an abiding insouciance among the population which had survived the French, the Japanese, the French, and the U.S. – an enduring patience that someday the country would be theirs. It’s been nearly fifty years since the Fall. The Domino Theory’s dire predictions proved false. Perhaps because of Vietnam’s long history of colonialism, invasion, reunification, a country emerged, not easily, not without bloodshed, but not our way, or the French’s, or anyone else’s. And perhaps Afghanistan will as well, given the similar history of the two countries. One thing is certain, there will be repercussions and blame enough to go around.

Don’t Tell, the final book of The Cooper Quartet, deals with the aftermath and repercussions of the Fall of Saigon for the Cooper family. It will be published on November 11th; the date seems apropos.  

*I stole the title for this blog from a line in the movie High Road to China.

Why Does This Character Torment Me So?

He refuses every name I give him. Argh!

Everyone else in my newest historical series is comfortable with their names. The nineteen-year-old heroine Cora Countryman’s name is a combination of names from my hometown in Illinois, the model for the booming prairie town in the books. But my hero . . . he refuses to cooperate! His name has changed so many times that my computer screen has erasure holes.

Kewanee, Illinois Historical Society

Names are everything, right? Normally, once the character sketch is complete, they pop into my head and stick. Finn Sturdevant, Grieg Washburn, Brendan Whitelaw, MacLaury and Byron Cooper. But this guy is a puzzlement. He was comfortable being Israel Francis (Rafe) Kaufman from Chicago in the first book, then when I started plotting the second book, wham, he announces he is from Tennessee and demands a new name.

Overlooking the obvious and assuming I have some control over my stories, perhaps I should have given more time upfront to his backstory. I thought I had it all figured out; it’s just . . .

In book one we learn that he was a drummer boy at the Battle of Chickamauga, went to an Eastern college, and is now a newspaperman. Then while plotting book two, he insisted he was a Southern drummer boy, not Northern, and all bets were off.

Bless his heart, the change added depth to the plot, the series, and his character.

So, Israel Kaufman from Chicago permutated to Bedford Kaufman because what name conjures Civil War Era Tennessee more than General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The former Israel Kaufman was semi-okay being Bedford Kaufman, but the Tennessee census indicated that there were literally no Kaufmans in the state in the 1870s.

So, we settled on the surname Kanady. Bedford (Ford) Kanady appealed to him, enough for a complete name change. But he is a tad prickly about his image and worries that the name is a bit card-sharky. There was talk of Harry Kanady, but he claims it is a gunslinger’s name. ‘Just not me‘ has become his mantra. In addition to the census, we have tried to find his using name generators, birth records, online family trees, yoga, and standing on our heads in a corner.

He insists the name must convey savvy and internal toughness. Oh, and a hint of danger, a hazy past, a sharp tongue, and a few visible and invisible scars. He believes he is the kind of guy you see buying stamps at the Post Office who conjures an intriguing fantasy involving magic markers and dark rooms.

Come on . . . you know the type!

Wait a minute! Would Jason Bedford work? Jason . . . Jase, perhaps, to his friends. He isn’t thrilled with Jason. It feels a bit modern, possibly too Western movie for him. There is definite hesitation on his part.

I’ll let him ponder Jason for the night, maybe introduce himself to a few of the other characters. You know, try it on for a while before another search and replace. Wait! Now he speculates that he likes the initial J. and is leaning toward J. Bedford Kanady. Why an initial makes a difference, I don’t know. But he likes the unknown of the J., the rhythm of the full name, and the hint of je ne sais quoi in the diminutive of Ford.  It could work. Maybe? Sounds stuffy to me. But if he likes it . . . whatever!

THIS GUY IS DRIVING ME NUTS!

As promised, here are the solutions to LAST MONTH’S FIRST LINE QUIZ. I am sure you all aced it.

First Line of BookTitle of Book
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderlay again.Rebecca
All the Venables sat at Sunday dinner.Cimarron
The whole affair began very quietly.Madam, Will You Talk?
They were interviewing Clint Maroon.Saratoga Trunk
Nothing ever happens to me.My Brother Michael
It was a cold gray day in late November.Jamaica Inn
They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.My Cousin Rachel

It’s a Heat Wave

It is 108 degrees outside my front door. That’s hot. But it is a dry heat, shorthand for the moment you walk into an air-conditioned room, you sweat like a stevedore. It also brings on combers of nostalgia for Michigan, feet dangling off a tethered raft in Gull, Gun, or any lake, including Michigan, waves nibbling at my toes, reading summer books that widened my horizons.

July on a raft in a Michigan lake

Edna Ferber was from Kalamazoo, Michigan, once known as the celery capital of the world and a place dear to my heart. I whipped through Cimarron, adored Saratoga Trunk, and still love Giant, one of the ultimate summer books filled with indelible, strong, resilient, tough female characters. I often think of Vashti and wonder what the heck was going on in Luz’s mind. Edna Ferber told big stories about big people, personal growth, and bigotry. That’s a lot to deal with at sixteen years old wearing a bikini on a raft in a lake with boys waterskiing close enough to splash your pages and rock your raft. I also devoured Michener’s Hawaii and Leon Uris’s Exodus and Jessamyn West’s Friendly Persuasion while sashaying about in my favorite madras two-piece.

In between big beach books, I delighted in Dauphine du Maurier. My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca, and Jamaica Inn. Slathered with Coppertone, I adored the dashing Jem Merlyn. I re-read Jamaica Inn recently and wondered at my choice. I suspect it was that Jem was a bad boy, not good, not unredeemable, but a bit sexy and more than a tad sullen. I had the same crazy adoration for ‘Wild Whip’ Hoxworth (Hawaii), Ari Ben Canaan (Exodus), and Jess Birdwell (Friendly Persuasion). What teenage girl wouldn’t love him or them? Or Daphne du Maurier with her brooding houses and equally brooding men, slightly overwhelmed heroines, and crazy housekeepers. She introduced me to a tightly controlled world of threat, romance, and creepy moors.

This brings me to the best read while babysitting during a thunderstorm. The only book I ever threw at a ceiling was Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart. I was babysitting, the kids were all in bed, their parents late, thunder roared, rain rasped against the windows. I kept watch in the living room, shades drawn, listening to the night rumble and whack. I turned the page; the heroine sees a shadow gyrating in front of a burning funeral pyre. A window shade snapped open. The book hit the ceiling at about ten miles an hour. The joy of it is that Mary Stewart’s booksare as fresh as ever with their strong female leads, engaging, slightly sexy male protagonists, and intriguing travelogue plots.

I still have the paperbacks of each of these books, some with water spots on them. My copy of Giant made an appearance on the cover of a magazine, red-checkered tablecloth, paper plates, sunglasses, and Giant open spine up. Most of the books have a price of $.75 or less printed on the cover. Giant, because it was giant, cost $1.25.

Those hot, humid, muggy Michigan summer days, replete with gigantic mosquitos and buzzing cicada, sit on my shoulder as I write. In particular, my book Booth Island captures the essence of being a teen vacationing on a lake when anything is possible, including love, death, and Tiger Tail ice cream.

For fun, try this summer book quiz. MATCH THE BOOK TITLE with the book’s first line and marvel at the few words used to set the scene. Answers will be in next month’s blog. To get you started, the first one is a gimme:

First Line of Book Title of Book and Author
Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.Saratoge Trunk – Edna Ferber
All the Venables sat at Sunday dinner.Madam, Will You Talk? – Mary Stewart
Nothing ever happens to me.My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier
They were interviewing Clint Maroon.Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
The whole affair began very quietly.Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier
It was a cold gray day in late November.My Brother Michael – Mary Stewart
They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.Cimmaron – Edna Ferber
HAVE A WONDERFUL SUMMER!

The Readers’ Responsibility – Valid Reviews

As readers, I would like to suggest that we have a responsibility to leave reviews, especially if we love the book. Reviews help other readers discover new authors, ones not touted by major publishers but by independent publishers and self-publishers. Getting a good book noticed as an independent (whether publisher or self-publisher) rests almost entirely on the reader’s shoulders. It isn’t hard to leave a review. In fact, most e-books end with the option. And as reviewers, we don’t have to write a treatise explaining what we liked or didn’t like; just assign a star from 1-5 on most sites.

Besides helping the book get noticed and sell, reviews help authors in three ways; 1) eat, 2) improve so that your next reading experience is better, and 3) keep a publisher publishing an author you like.

Unless a book has ten reviews on Amazon, it is at a disadvantage. So, for authors, ten reviews is a decent but frustrating goal. As a publisher and author, I ask that you take the time to give any Bodie Blue Books book a star rating, if not an actual review.

A Common Scale

The biggest challenge to comparing reviews across books is that there is no consistent, holistic scale used across readers. Simply put, each five-star review is given on a personal scale that may not be consistent book to book, much less across genres. For instance, a five-star book may be one you were driven to finish that delivered a rip-snorting solution to the mystery. Others may consider it a three because something was missing for them, even though they finished it in one reading.  

Momentary rant: Nothing is more frustrating for the author than to get a great review and a three-star score when the same review written by another reader would result in five stars. Worse, some readers seem to believe that they have the sensibilities of a New York Times book critic. Here is a hint: most don’t. What we do have is an absolute sense of what we enjoy as readers and what annoys us.

Back on topic: I spent a good deal of my business career teaching people how to evaluate student creative writing on a holistic scale. Reviewers were trained to apply a set scale consistently to rank students writing. A simple holistic score is easy to use. Further, it assesses the overall book not that one annoying swear word or mistake in the setting or time, but your overall reading experience. Below are a couple of example scales.

Example 1

5 Enjoyed it a lot, could be convinced to love it, a lively entry into the genre.
4  Enjoyed it, had elements that I loved, a solid entry in the genre.
3 Ahhh, liked it but average for the genre.
2  Expected more, below average for the genre 
1 Argh, got lost in a black hole

Examples 2 and 3

5 Loved it.I can’t wait for the next book from this author
4  Enjoyed it.I look forward to reading this author again
3 OkayI would consider reading this author again
2  Readable but . . . I would have to be convinced to read another book by this author 
1 Where is my red pencil?I have banished this author from my brain

The Point

A single holistic scale applied across online book sites would provide buyers a consistent, realistic method to compare books. Not having such a scale supports the dominance of mega-authors with big advertising budgets and faithful fans, not because the books are better, but out of habit and accessibility. This leaves writers who write as good as or better books in the weeds. Because sites, such as Amazon, rely almost entirely on reviews to determine who gets the best placement for advertisements, which books are featured, and which books pop during a genre search.

So, I beg you, when you finish reading a book, leave a review. Until we have a common scale, use your best judgment but be consistent in applying it. And remember, every review you leave helps an author EAT.

On Writing and Liberation

During a recent zoom meeting with other writers, we discussed a new toy I bought that frees me from losing the notebooks that I use. The group of four split in half over the writing process. Two did everything on the computer, and two used paper and pencil in the form of the small spiral-bound notebooks for plot notes while writing. Clearly, I was one of the latter. Which got me thinking about the act of writing a book.

It is as individual as the writer. For instance, those who write historical fiction split into two camps, as well. One camp does all their research upfront, adding to it as needed. Others get the idea, plunge in, and do the research as they roll along, adjusting as need be. There may be a third camp of folks who immerse themselves in the period, then let rip.

Three of these books had title changes.

Some writers are uncomfortable knowing the ending because then there is no point in telling the story.  Some wouldn’t start a book without knowing exactly how it ends. Some writers never talk about a book while writing it because, once told, the ink is gone from the bottle.

Some know the title and write to it. Some let the book title itself. Which is how a book titled Gridlines ends up Saving Calypso.

Some writers outline: for others, the first draft is the outline. I suspect writing an outline first is the professional way to attack it, especially with a series. But there is also a lot to be said for letting the characters tell their own story. Admittedly, you don’t always end up where you thought you would. Characters have a habit of misbehaving.

Your characters should be breathing before you begin to write, in my world anyway. If you know them, and they know you, you can rely on their help to get out of tight jambs. And, if in your mind they walk the earth, each character will have their own voice and pitch. Writers split on character building, too.  Some use templates that provide essentials about their characters, and some use notebooks as the characters grow and change. It happens, the good guy becomes the bad, the bad guy—good, the slimy one the romancer, the romancer the killer. Writing is a messy business. Though I suspect for some, it is well ordered, precise, and disciplined. Not me. I am admittedly messy.

I do know if you have a story that you think is worth telling, a mystery in your heart dying for the light of day, or a newspaper article that sets off a chain reaction like a nuclear plant melting down, then the first step is to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair. The daily discipline of writing is how you get 70,000 and 100,000 words between a printed cover.

Once you are seated, you can draw, outline, noodle in notebooks, talk to a recorder, or just open a blank page and start typing. The point is there is no right or wrong way, only getting started. Like a lot of writers, I’ve been struggling recently to write anything at all. During the telephone call above, my writer friends confirmed that they, too, were in the same fix until now. What changed? We are all vaccinated. The world feels a little freer; no more worries every time you step outside your bubble. It turns out in addition to applying your bottom to a chair, feeling safe frees the inner storyteller.

For more on each book, http://dzchurch.com or https://www.facebook.com/mysteryhistorysuspense.