Fresh Eyes

I recently sent the manuscript of my latest Jeri Howard novel, The Things We Keep, to a writer friend. This is the third complete draft and it’s ready for a pair of fresh eyes.  At this point I’ve been working on the book for nearly two years, give or take a few hiccups in my life and adventures.

I know what I mean to say. And since this is the 14th book in the series, I am quite familiar with Jeri and her world. Plot, character, setting—I think all the parts fit.

But— Did I say it in a way that will engage readers and draw them into the book? Are there any plot holes lurking between points A and Z? Are the characters behaving the way I’d intended? Or are they escaping from their personas, wandering down byways I didn’t intend and bouncing off unexpected walls?

Will that other writer’s fresh eyes see what I see?

Well, I just got those comments, so I’ll find out.

Speaking of fresh eyes, yeah, I have a pair of actual fresh eyes. Well, fresher. I had cataract surgery in August. Double knee replacement last year, cataract surgery on both eyes this year.

I really hope I’m done with repairing and patching body parts, at least for the time being.

When traveling by air, I have to tell the TSA folks at the airport that I have bionic knees so they can send me through that booth where I have to raise my arms and get scanned. I learned that the hard way when I set off the alarms at Denver International Airport.

As for the eyes, the surgery is recent and I’m still doing the drill with eyedrops, being careful about bending and lifting. I’m told it can take four to six weeks to adjust. So far, so good.

My ophthalmologist tells me my vision is now 20/20 in both eyes. Considering that I’ve worn glasses since I was ten years old, and probably needed them before then, this is a big deal. I still wear glasses for reading and the computer, essential activities for a writer, of course. I can now drive without glasses perched on my nose. And things are really, really bright. Wearing sunglasses all the time when I go outside.

The onset of cataracts was gradual. Optometrists started mentioning it about 15 years ago, saying something like, “You’ve got the start of cataracts but it’s not too bad yet.”

Last year, I went to see the optometrist and told him my distance vision had “gone to hell,” as I put it. It was increasingly difficult to see street signs. Those cataracts that weren’t yet a problem? Now they were. Like having gray clouds in my field of vision. Now I don’t. Did I mention that things are really, really bright?

Fresh eyes. All the better to edit and revise The Things We Keep.

The Social Media Conundrum

Facebook. I first heard about it maybe 15 years ago. I was about to be laid off from an administrative job at the University of California and part of the deal was a bunch of classes offered by UC on how best to look for a job. In addition to tips on writing resumes and interviewing, one suggestion was to create a Facebook account. Supposedly that was to get the word out that I was looking for employment.

In the long run, I found LinkedIn more useful for the job search. I tried Twitter because an author at a book event said that one had to be on Twitter. I thought and still do, that Twitter is absolutely useless and I don’t get it. Talk about a waste of time. I’ve posted things on Pinterest, but not lately. As for the rest of the social-media-de-jour, Instagram, TikTok, or whatever else is out there or might be next week—not interested.

But Facebook had a certain appeal and still does. I like posting photos of my kitties, the roses blooming in my garden and that peach pie I baked (For me! All for me!). Posts with news from friends and acquaintances. Posts that alert me to an article or a video that might be interesting.

But I’m at the point where I’m thinking seriously of leaving Facebook.

Thinking. Not quite there, though getting closer. Adorable kitty pictures aside, it’s a real time-waster. The political stuff—well, we’ve all been inundated with that over the past few years.

And I’m really tired of all those ads. I have only to think about buying something and I swear, my Facebook feed is full of ads for the very same. More ads than anything else these days.

So yes, thinking of leaving Facebook. But— ???? Is Facebook useful to me as an author? As a way to connect with readers? I don’t know.

I have a personal Facebook page that is limited to “friends” and an author Facebook page which is visible to everyone. On the author page, I post announcements—news of a new book that I’ve written, alerts about a deal for one of my books. Links to one of my blog posts here at Ladies of Mystery. Information on a forthcoming newsletter or a favorable review. In the pre-pandemic days, I would let people know that I would be speaking at this library or that bookstore. Or announcing the title of my panel at one of the mystery conventions.

I do that as well on my “friends” page, but I limit it. The “buy my book” stuff gets old, I know. Maybe the kitty pictures do, too.

So, what’s the solution? Or is there one?

I can certainly address the time-waster issue. Right now I’m on a Facebook diet, limiting my daily exposure. And if I leave the platform, what next? Do I post kitty pictures on LinkedIn? It’s not really that sort of platform.

I’m interested in hearing suggestions, so put your thoughts in the Comments section.

We Hold These Flaws

Today is the Fourth of July. I’ll spend a couple of hours this morning watching the local parade, which passes my condo complex, sitting in a camp chair and greeting neighbors. I’ll shut the windows to keep out the sound of those @#$%^&* illegal fireworks.

I’ll also watch a movie. That may seem like quite a segue, but I grew up at the movies. In years past, my mother’s family owned movie theaters, from the silent era on.

The movies also play a role in my novels. In my Jeri Howard book Bit Player, Jeri’s case takes readers back to Hollywood in the 1940s. My most recent Jill McLeod book, Death Above the Line, finds Zephyrette Jill taking a break from riding the rails, She winds up in the cast of a film noir. She also meets a former actress who was blacklisted.

The movies of choice for the Fourth of July are Yankee Doodle Dandy and 1776. In the first, Jimmy Cagney dances across the screen as that quintessential song and dance man George M. Cohan. And 1776 gets me every time, with William Daniels as John Adams. Benjamin Franklin is played by Howard Da Silva, who was blacklisted, for real.

So, watching these movies is a holiday tradition. It’s all good, right?

Yet lately, I’m bothered. There’s a blackface number in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

I know blackface is a theatrical tradition dating back to minstrelsy in the mid-19th century in the United States. In the 20th century, there are Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn. That’s why I can’t watch Holiday Inn, for all that many folks consider it such a classic. That blackface number in Holiday Inn is excruciating. And the one in Yankee Doodle Dandy makes me wince.

So, 1776. I’ve seen the musical on stage several times, and I have the DVD of the movie. The most difficult part, for me, is the battle and compromise over slavery. Just a movie, right? With terrific performances and wonderful songs? Well, it’s a movie with lots of undercurrents and lots to think about. Those founding fathers “twiddle, piddle and resolve,” according to the lyrics of one song, as they argue about whether to declare independence and then about the writing of the declaration. We’re still arguing about the constitution that followed, facing—or not—the consequences of those actions in Philadelphia all those years ago.

Flawed people, living in different times. Those founding fathers were white men of property who viewed the world through that lens, despite Abigail Adams’s admonition to her husband to “remember the ladies.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. And the slaves? Well, three-fifths of a person, a compromise at the constitutional convention that increased the power of slave-holding states.

For decades, from the 19th to the 20th century, many white performers and audiences didn’t see anything wrong with performing in blackface, though this 21st-century person finds it difficult to look at those stereotypes.

What does this have to do with writing? A lot, in my opinion. Flawed people. That’s what we’re dealing with when we write fiction. The characters I create wouldn’t be very interesting if they were perfect. In Witness to Evil, Jeri Howard’s case leads her into a confrontation with white supremacists. I wrote that book in the mid-1990s. I wish it wasn’t so relevant now.

In the Jill McLeod books Death Rides the Zephyr and Death Deals a Hand, readers glimpse how passengers aboard the trains in the early 1950s often treated African American porters with disdain and disrespect. And in the first book, a baseless accusation of theft. That’s the way things were back then and including that in the novels informs the picture I create of the times.

I make decisions when I write, determining how much, or how little, information about those flawed people goes into the book, and what it’s meant to convey.

We hold these flaws—a necessary part of the creative process.

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.