Changing It Up

Writing a book is hard. I’ve been at this for more than thirty years. It doesn’t get easier, just more challenging. And it’s never a straightforward process. Start with chapter one and plow through till THE END? No, it’s a journey on a twisting, turning path.

When I start a book, I have an idea of where I want to end up. But getting there is always an adventure. My path takes me up the hills, or even mountains, down into the valleys, wandering along cliffs and thumping over potholes.

Sometimes I find myself at a crossroads. Or a big bump in the road. It’s not writer’s block. It’s more like: what do I do now?

I’ve discovered one technique that often helps me get past whatever it is that’s impeding my progress. I call it changing it up. Changing one or two details can help reinvigorate the narrative, and my writing process.

For example, in the Jeri Howard novel I’m writing, I have two important secondary characters, husband and wife, who own a small press that publishes travel books, like the ones that Jeri’s fiancé Dan writes. Their request that Jeri and Dan help them inventory the contents of a relative’s Alameda house sets the book in motion.

When I started the book, I had the characters living in Berkeley, with their company located there as well. Something about that wasn’t working. I decided to move the characters and the company to Alameda. It’s a small change, but it helped a lot. It explains the husband’s relationship with his aunt, who owns the Alameda house, and it helps with Jeri’s investigation. The crime scene is in Alameda and so is much of the background story.

I’ve made several changes to another novel. It’s the first one I wrote, back when I was learning to be a writer. At the time it was a book about broken family relationships, things happening in the past that affect the present. Well, that sounds like lots of the Lew Archer private eye novels by Ross Macdonald. I’ve decided to revive that plot. I’m seasoning it with a handful of crime.

When in doubt, add murder.

Many years ago, when I started that book, it was set in rural Colorado, the state where I lived at the time. I have been a resident of California for forty-plus years, so I decided to set the in rural Monterey County. Then I made up a town and a county, both called Rocoso, for my novel The Sacrificial Daughter. Making up a setting means I can make up all sorts of details like history, geography, local issues, without relying on the baggage that comes with a real setting. Now the revived plot takes place in my fictional county.

Then there are titles. I thought perhaps I’d christen the old novel, the one about family relationships, with a new title. I tried it on for a couple of days and decided it didn’t work. So it’s back to the original title. In the meantime, I’ve discovered that the title I’ve chosen for my work in progress has been used several times before. I do like that title but I must consider changing it. I have a few in mind and we’ll see if they work.

Sometimes as I write, I give characters a temporary name. Might even be X, Y, or Z. With my work in progress, I have two characters I’ve been calling Thug 1 and Thug 2. That tells you plenty about these two guys. If they were walk-ons, I could have left them with those handles. But as I revise, I’ve discovered that Thug 1 is related to another secondary character, and Thug 2 unintentionally reveals an important clue. Now they have names. Making that change tells me more about the way they look and act.

I’m still thumping over potholes with this book. But I’m getting closer to THE END.

Alter Egos and Alternate Lives

Oakland private eye Jeri Howard has now sleuthed her way through 14 (almost!) books. When I started writing the series, a friend often referred to Jeri as me. I would correct her, saying Jeri is a fictional character.

Jeri is taller, fitter, and more likely than me to put herself in harm’s way, all in service of solving the mystery and finding justice. She’s not aging at the same pace that I am. It’s been 32 years since the first book, Kindred Crimes, was published. Jeri is still in her thirties. As for my age—well, never mind.

Truth be told, there’s a lot of me in Jeri. I like her stick-to-it attitude when she’s digging into a case, determined to see it out. While that determination doesn’t seem to work when it comes to decluttering my condo, it did regarding my plan, hatched in junior high school, to become a published writer. And ongoing plans to keep publishing.

Jill McLeod, my crime-solving Zephyrette, was born in the late 1920s and is working on the train known as the California Zephyr in the early 1950s. As readers learn in Death Rides the Zephyr, Jill majored in history at the University of California in Berkeley. She was planning to get married and teach school, but those plans were derailed when her fiancé was killed in Korea. Instead, she rides the rails.

Jill remembers World War II and the Korean War is still in the headlines. My knowledge of WWII and Korea comes from books and research, but I was alive during the Vietnam Era. These days I travel by plane, but as I did research for the Jill books, I became a rail fan. I enjoy train travel, though Amtrak bears small resemblance to the California Zephyr of Jill’s era. Jill and I do share curiosity about the world around us and a desire to get to the bottom of things.

Kay Dexter is the protagonist of The Sacrificial Daughter. She’s a geriatric care manager in a fictional city in Northern California. Alter ego or alternate life? Maybe. I don’t live in that town or work as a professional care manager, but in the past twenty years, I’ve experienced some of the things that Kay sees. I’ve helped with aging parents and observed a lot with aging relatives and friends. I have plenty of stories.

In my novella, But Not Forgotten, semi-retired reporter Maggie Constable attends her 50th high school reunion, where she sees a poster listing the names of deceased classmates, as well as the dates and causes of their deaths. Her best friend Fern is on that list, but with a question mark next to her name. Fern disappeared after graduation and Maggie is determined to find out what happened to her friend.

I saw a similar sign at my own high school reunion and asked myself, “what if?” Maggie and I both went to journalism school at the University of Colorado and both worked at small town newspapers in Colorado after graduation. However, I joined the Navy as a journalist. Maggie moved to California and worked for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s. In fact, she puts in an appearance in the Jeri Howard novel I’m working on, The Things We Keep, and tells Jeri, “I started working for the Chron in 1974, just in time for the whole Patty Hearst circus.”

Two roads diverged, as Robert Frost wrote in The Road Not Taken.

Perhaps Maggie is me in an alternate life. I took one road and she took another. Stay tuned! Maggie will appear in future projects.

The Not-So-Distant Past

Left Coast Crime 2022 is coming up in Albuquerque, and I’m on a panel called “20th Century Historicals.”

A historical novel is defined as one that has “its setting in a period of history and that attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity which is in some cases only apparent fidelity) to historical fact.”

Another definition, from the Historical Novel Society, says a historical novel is one set fifty or more years in the past. I moderated a similar panel at an earlier LCC, and one of my panelists had written a mystery set in 1967. That was sobering. I graduated from high school in 1967.

I write a series of historical mysteries featuring Jill McLeod, who is a Zephyrette, or train hostess, working onboard the California Zephyr, a historic train that ran during the 1949-1970 time period. The first book, Death Rides the Zephyr, takes place in December 1952, with subsequent books set in 1953.

Since I’m old enough to have graduated from high school in the sixties, I was certainly alive in the early 1950s. But I was a kid. What I remember is a mixed bag—Captain Kangaroo and Miss Frances and the Ding Dong School on television. I figured out that the days were getting longer in the spring when I realized that it was still light outside when I tuned in to The Mickey Mouse Club.

Ike was president. I don’t remember much about the Red Scare, the McCarthy hearings, and the Rosenbergs. My school was segregated. So were the downtown department stores. I remember seeing signs for segregated rest rooms and water fountains.

In The Ghost in Roomette Four, there’s a scene where Jill and her sister are cleaning up the kitchen after a family dinner. Were they doing those dishes by hand? Or did the McLeod family have a dishwasher? When I was growing up, we did have a dishwasher. But that was later in the Fifties and my dad sold appliances.

That’s when I turn to the Internet. Off I went to my search engine, to find out when dishwasher hit the market. I was surprised to learn that the appliance was available in the Thirties.

An example of what happens when 21st century assumptions bump up against writing 20th century historicals? When I was researching Death Rides the Zephyr. I was fortunate to discover two retired Zephyrettes living near me. One evening, I bought them dinner and listened to them talk for over two hours. I asked what the onboard crew of the California Zephyr would have done if they’d found a dead body in a Pullman car, which is what happens to Jill, my Zephyrette protagonist. Would they radio ahead to the next station to contact the authorities?

The Zephyrette who had been riding the rails in the early Fifties shook her head. Back then they could radio from car to car, but not as far as a station or a town. No, the engineer would stop the train, the brakeman would climb a telegraph pole, and send a Morse code message to the next station.

That’s how it was done way back when. Of course, that went into the book. It made the telling more accurate and certainly added layers to the isolation of a train deep in a remote mountain canyon.

If you are attending Left Coast Crime in Albuquerque, check out my panel. It’s schedule on Thursday, April  7, at 1:15 PM on Thursday, April 7. The panel is moderated by Susan McDuffie, and fellow panelists are Michael Kurland and Rosemary Lord.


Last month, I wrote about the tools of the trade that I use to create my fiction. That got me thinking. What tools do my fictional characters use?

When I was writing Kindred Crimes, the first in my series featuring Oakland private eye Jeri Howard, I wasn’t using a cell phone, and neither was Jeri. I was using a computer, a clunky dual disk drive model, and I thought it was a major step up from the electric typewriter.

Jeri and I have made our way into the 21st century. She uses her cell phone for everything from directions to looking up information, and for talking with people, of course. As for computers, like many real-life private investigators, she uses them for research. In addition to news archives, there are many paid databases that one can access by purchasing a subscription. Jeri also uses government records that are available online.

For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Things We Keep, Jeri goes onto the California Department of Justice website to check the missing persons database. I did this myself, so I could describe it accurately. And it certainly gives flavor to the narrative.

But it isn’t all Jeri at the keyboard, looking at the screen, or Jeri on the phone, interviewing someone. That would be boring for the reader and the writer. At one point in Water Signs, Jeri says:

I could just as easily interview Rachel Leverson over the phone, but whenever possible, I prefer to do so in person. That allows me to gauge reactions, facial expressions and body language. It also gets me out of the office.

Interviewing people face-to-face gives Jeri more information than pixels on a screen. In the world of my fictional private eye, there’s no substitute for shoe leather. But it really does help that Jeri can make a call without looking for a phone booth.

Kay Dexter is the protagonist of my novel The Sacrificial Daughter. She is a geriatric care manager and has access to all the tools that software and the Internet can provide. Her clients are mostly elderly people and their families.

Once again, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. A client might be minimizing problems or feelings and Kay might not pick up on that over the phone, but she can usually read people when she’s with them. As for those online tools, there’s a scene in the book when Kay is doing research in the library at the local historical museum. She’s looking at files and photocopies, because not all the information the museum has is digitized. Those online records frequently go back only so far.

Kay uses her powers of observation as well. Some valuable items have gone missing from a client’s home. While doing an errand for another client, she visits a local antique mall:

I turned and glanced at the glass display case on the booth’s back wall. What was that? I moved closer to the case. On the top shelf, I saw a sterling silver sugar and creamer. They looked exactly like the ones I’d seen in the china cabinet at Betty’s house, right down to the floral detail on the handles.

I also write a series of historical mysteries set in the early 1950s, featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod. Computers? Not happening there. For Jill to solve mysteries onboard the train, and off, it’s strictly person-to-person sleuthing. Jill’s job, when she’s aboard the California Zephyr, is to observe the passengers and help with their needs. Jill notices things and she files them away in her mind, ready to access the information. Along with her ability to talk with people and tease out information, these are her biggest assets as a detective.

And that’s gumshoeing, on the ever-changing streets of the Bay Area where Jeri sleuths, to the fictional mountain town where Kay oversees clients, to Jill’s shiny train as it streaks across the west.

Tools of the Trade

Back in the ancient times when I was first published, a question I frequently got at author events was whether I did my writing on a computer. Something about that query hinted that the person asking the question hoped that, if one somehow picked the right gizmo, it would function as the magic wand and one would be a successful writer.

I was always quick to disabuse aspiring writers of that notion. My answer was usually along these lines:

Hey, it doesn’t matter what tools you use. What matters is that you write. Get those ideas out of your head and onto paper, computer screen, whatever.

An aside – best advice I ever heard came from Edgar-award-winning author Julie Smith: Don’t get it right, get it written.

Still, it’s great to have the tools of the trade. Updated tools, if that’s what you want.

I’ve always used pen, pencil, and paper. Still do. Though more about that later. I am old enough that for me, graduating from a manual typewriter to a correcting electric typewriter was a big honking deal. And when I finally got a computer, well! Dual disk drive and those big five-inch floppy disks. That was an even bigger deal. No more retyping pages over and over and over again when I made changes to the manuscript.

Then there was that dot matrix printer, the one that had strips and sprockets on both sides of the page. The pages had to be separated and the strips torn off. Those were the days!

At the time, I had a rotund gray cat named Gus. He thought it was great fun to raid the wastebasket and festoon the apartment with all those strips. I mean, the whole apartment. Out of the office, down the hall, and all over the living room.

Getting the laser printer was a step up, even if it did take up a lot of space and I could barely lift the damn thing.

How things changed over the years. The huge desktop and monitor gave way to the smaller desktop and the flatscreen monitor. Eventually came the leap to the laptop. Which certainly freed up more space on my desk.

When the laser printer died of old age, I replaced it with an inkjet. Much smaller, and I could lift it without straining my back. Even the inkjet that I replaced a couple of years back was much heavier than the one I have now.

Those big floppies became smaller disks. Then came the hard drive, with lots of space. Flash drives! Nowadays, there’s the cloud – iCloud, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive.

Back in July 2019, I was walking down a sidewalk in front of the Oakland Main Library. Uneven sidewalk, and next thing I knew, I was face down on the pavement. I drove myself to Kaiser, more concerned about the skin scraped off the palms of both hands than I was about the increasing pain in my left arm. Sure enough, I’d fractured my wrist. Six weeks in a cast and two of those in a sling. I had a book due in September.

I’d never learned the Dragon software, where one speaks into a mike and the voice translates into words on the computer. Microsoft Word has a similar function but it needs training and I don’t have the patience for that, particularly when I’m on deadline. I wound up dictating lots of notes into my iPhone, finding the voice recognition to be much better. Hello, Siri! But I found out that dictating a work of fiction doesn’t work very well for me. I am definitely a fingers-on-keyboard writer.

These days, I’m writing away from home, more than I used to. Even at home, I frequently get away from my desk in the office to camp out on the sofa, with my laptop, lap desk, and my black cat Clio, who doesn’t understand why she can’t get on my lap.

I also have two terrific tools that work at home or away. The Microsoft Surface Go is my baby computer. It’s a small tablet with a cover that’s also a keyboard. The only problem is that I use a separate ergonomic keyboard at home and on my Go, I’m forever hitting that Caps Lock key.

My other favorite tool is a ReMarkable 2. It’s a tablet with a stylus. I can write in longhand on the screen and can even erase what I’ve written. I can send something from the big computer to the ReM2 and edit in longhand. I can sketch out the street map of my fictional town and draw a chart or diagram to show how characters, plot points, and settings are linked.

It’s a 21st-century update of my trusty lined notebook and pen. I love it and find it quite useful, using it at home and when traveling.

It’s always about the writing, of course. But the tools of the trade can really make it so much better.

The rights to the four most recent Jeri Howard books (Bit Player, Cold Trail, Water Signs and The Devil Close Behind) reverted to me when Perseverance Press closed its doors in the summer of 2021. As a tool of the trade to increase sales, I’ve have just republished those four ebooks with new covers that mesh with the nine previous books. Plus a box set, The Jeri Howard Anthology, Books 10-13.

Now if I can just get cracking and finish Jeri Howard #14, The Things We Keep!