Disturbing Coincidences

Ever had that oh-no-no-no feeling that you’ve written the same book as another author? Or borrowed a character’s name, or inadvertently duplicated a clever conversation from another book?

This sort of thing has happened to me multiple times. After I wrote my first Summer “Sam” Westin mystery, Endangered, I sent it out to multiple editors at publishing houses. They all told me that it was very good, but way too similar to Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat.

What? At the time, I’d never heard of Nevada Barr. But I bought the book, and dang, if the editors weren’t right! We both had female park ranger protagonists and cougars in our plots. We even wrote in similar styles! Nevada and I are clearly twins separated at birth.

So, I rewrote Endangered, making my protagonist an internet blogger type working for conservation nonprofits and outdoor adventure organizations. I changed my writing style a bit. And finally sold that book, along with two sequels, Bear Bait and Undercurrents.

Since then, I’ve published three other books in the Sam Westin series, as well as my three Neema the Gorilla Mysteries, and my Run for Your Life trilogy. For years now, Nevada Barr has been one of my favorite authors. Jodi Picoult is another.

A few years ago, when I read Picoult’s latest novel, Leaving Time, I immediately panicked. Like my Run for Your Life trilogy, the protagonist of Leaving Time is an orphaned teenage girl. And elephants romp through both our plots. Yikes! I emailed Jodi Picoult about the similarities. She was kind enough to reply, and said she wasn’t concerned.

As a lesser-known novelist than these two famous authors, I worry that readers may think I’m borrowing from them. But hey, my trilogy came out before Jodi Picoult’s novel, and really, the plots and tone of hers and mine are nothing alike. Then, just as I was working on my book Cascade, which includes a wolverine, Alice Henderson’s first novel, A Solitude of Wolverines, was published. Wildlife researcher, wolverines, winter setting… Not such a similar plot to Cascade (thank goodness), but still a lot of similarities. Her latest book, A Ghost of Caribou, is set in Washington State. Where I live and hike and write. (But not about caribou.)

Am I on the same brainwave frequency as these other gals? It’s downright scary! When I wrote my Neema mysteries, I came up with the name Neema by perusing lists of words in Swahili. I didn’t want to use any name close to Koko, the real signing gorilla that I used for inspiration. Now, just a couple of days ago, I read an article about a gorilla named Neema in the Munich zoo, who (sadly) rejected her baby.

I just can’t get away from all these coincidences. But hey, I just Googled “Neema the gorilla” and guess what? My Neema mysteries top the results list. Either the Munich zookeepers and I are on the same wavelength, or maybe that gorilla is named after my Neema.

So, I guess I’ll stop worrying about all this. At least until the next time it happens.

How to Survive Christmas

Some of us (actually, quite a few of us) detest the holidays. If you are single and childless, the constant commercial emphasis on family can make it seem like there’s a flashing neon LOSER sign pointing right at you, even if you cherish your purposely chosen independent existence. And if you’re not Christian, well, that’s another aspect of Christmas that you can’t appreciate. Throw in the sappy music that we’ve all heard thousands of times; it usually starts playing in stores just after Halloween. And then, there’s the ever-present reminder to buy, buy, buy; that also usually starts in stores around Halloween. All the stoppage of normal activities and the travel challenges due to the predictable bad weather add to the stress. What’s an intentionally single, childless, non-materialistic, non-religious person like me to do?

First of all, I go for a walk. There’s a foot of snow on the ground at my house right now, and it’s 13 degrees out, but I will nevertheless bundle up and go for a walk every day. Fortunately, I live close to miles of green belts and trails, and nature always soothes my jangled nerves and jumpy brain. The bare tree branches reveal bird and squirrel nests, and I like to watch the animals that are flitting about. Yesterday I saw a black squirrel leaping from one snowy tree to another. A flock of noisy varied thrushes was excitedly pecking away at apples still clinging to a tree; I’ve never witnessed that before.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

I try to do things with friends. This doesn’t always work out so well, because a lot of them have families and are happily sucked into that holiday vortex and disappear for days, but there’s always someone who is eager to get out. I hope that families who get together actually do something other than giving gifts. I don’t remember a single Christmas from childhood for the gifts, but I do remember a few with special activities, like playing games or building snow people together.

I might give small gifts to children or the few people I know who actually need something, but I mostly resist the urge to buy more stuff that my relatives and friends don’t need. Instead, I give a nice card that includes a promise of time to help friends and family with something—an evening or day of childcare for a young couple, a miniature golf outing or beach day for kids, a helping hand with household chores or remodeling projects, a chauffeured ride for an elderly relative to visit a beloved friend in another town. Charities receive most of my year-end funds.

And I remind myself that this, too, will pass. After all, Christmas comes and goes every year. New Year’s is more my kind of holiday; a happy, hopeful start to the next year. Whatever you’re doing this holiday season, I hope you’re doing it with joy. Now, I’ve got to go out for a walk in the snow and enjoy the birds.

My Love Affair with Animals I Have Yet to See

One day when I was still employed at Microsoft, I was out walking the trails behind my campus, no doubt in an attempt to avoid committing homicide. (I was not cut out for a corporate career.)

What the heck is this creature?

But homicide is not what this post is about. I was walking along the trails in a wooded area, inventing all sorts of creative murder scenarios in my head, when I almost tripped over a creature I didn’t recognize. It was about the size of an adult rabbit, with small ears and gray-brown fur and a short tail. I was, frankly, amazed. It was an animal that I, a lifelong nature lover, had never seen before! It ignored me as I watched it nibble the vegetation. I poked it with the tip of my shoe. It squeaked, but immediately went back to eating and ignoring me.

A jogger trotted by. I stopped her and asked, “Do you know what sort of animal this is?” She shrugged, replied, “Looks like a giant rat,” and jogged away.

What’s wrong with you?!” I wanted to yell. “How can you not be fascinated by an animal you’ve never seen? Do you spend your whole life on Amazon shopping for athletic shoes?”

A male bongo

Okay, that’s probably not (completely) fair, and such rudeness only takes place in my imagination (most of the time). Personally, I just don’t understand how any person can walk past a tree completely filled with birds without even noticing, or how someone can not want to see a bongo in real life. (It’s a really cool striped African antelope, and no, I haven’t seen one yet.)

I went back to my office, now on a mission to identify the animal I’d seen. (Definitely a more rewarding activity than the spreadsheet I was supposed to work on.) My mystery creature was a so-called “mountain beaver” (Aplodontia rufa), which is actually not a beaver at all and doesn’t necessarily live in the mountains, which just goes to show you how common names can misdirect you. Aplodontia rufa is a “living fossil,” a very primitive mammal that’s been around for thousands of years.

I’ve since run into another mountain beaver one other time (again, not in the mountains). They really don’t register their surroundings much, but are totally focused on their food. I actually picked up the one I found in my yard and moved it away from the bush I wanted to preserve, but it merely squeaked and then went right back to the same place. I had to put these astounding creatures in a book, so I added one to a scene in my second Sam Westin mystery, Bear Bait.

All my books include at least one type of wildlife. As a hiker and scuba diver, I know some animals well: black bears, mountain goats, bobcats, way too many raccoons and coyotes, squid, octopus, morays, etc., etc. I’m always excited to see any kind of wildlife. (Rattlesnakes? Well, okay, not so much.)

Cascade is finally published!

In my latest Sam Westin novel, Cascade (#6), I was determined to include a wolverine. I’ve never seen a wolverine, but I’m always looking for them in the North Cascades, or at least for signs of them. So is my protagonist, Summer “Sam” Westin. Of course, Cascade is a suspense novel, so I had to add a couple of avalanches, a collapsed ski lodge, and the mystery of why two teens wanted to trap a wolverine.

Maybe, one day, I’ll be lucky enough to spot a wolverine in the backcountry. And I hope I will find that bongo in Africa, too, someday soon. It’s important to me to see all these rare creatures before we humans drive them out of existence. I want to see vaquitas (tiny porpoises), pangolins (scaly anteaters), blue whales (the largest creature on earth), and oh, so many others I’m not even aware of yet.

I hope you don’t just jog by the Earth’s amazing wildlife, uninterested in any creature that is not a pet. People share this planet with so many other incredible beings! I hope you have at least one mind-blowing encounter with an awe-inspiring, non-human creature in your lifetime.

The Words No Writer Wants to Hear

Not for us. Good luck elsewhere.

Okay, that’s one we’ve all heard, or at least seen, in rejection slips. I no longer take this personally, because I understand that every publisher buys only a certain number of books per year; some slots are taken by their established authors; and my timing is off. (I recognize there’s also a slight possibility that they just don’t like my story or my style.) No problem, I’ll just publish it myself.

“I don’t really read.”

What? I’m never quite sure how to react to that statement. Does it mean that the person I’m talking to has no imagination, or that s/he is just so happy with the status quo of her/his own life that s/he needs nothing more? Sometimes I attempt to sleuth out whether that person at least adores movies so I can be assured that s/he does appreciate stories. But mostly, I just take my glass of wine over to talk to the next person who might know how to read. Personally, real life is just not enough for me.

“How much money do you make from your books?”

Really? Do I ask you how much money you make at your job? When this is followed by questions about lavish book tours or sumptuous dinners with my editor, I know this person has fallen for the movie stereotype of the bestselling-author. A very rare species indeed.

And then, in recent years, here’s one that I’ve heard too often, from the voracious readers that we might expect to be our best friends:

“I couldn’t put that book down! I read it in only two days, so I returned it and didn’t even have to pay for it!”

If you write fast-paced stories (like I always try to), you too may be aware that Amazon allows buyers to return ebooks within seven days of buying them. This is happening to me more and more, and has me wanting to belt out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T! You know what that means to me?” (Okay, I changed that line “just a little bit.”) I typically price my ebooks at $4.99, and these smart shoppers want to keep me from my massive $3.49 royalty? That hurts, readers! How am I supposed to pay my cat food bill? I’ve never even returned ebooks that I detested.

In general, Amazon has been nicer to me than my traditional publishers and certainly nicer than most bookstores, who think nothing of “returning” (or in reality, destroying) print books (that the publishers and authors have to pay for), but allowing returns on ebooks for seven days after purchase? That’s a punishment authors don’t deserve, Amazon. Show us a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T and shorten that up to 24 hours! (I realize anyone can make a mistake and purchase a book twice; God knows I’ve borrowed the same book more than once from my local library.)

Readers, if you really must plow through my ebooks and then return them to Amazon, at least do me the favor of writing me a nice review, okay?

Writers deserve R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Explaining Why

Sometimes we get questions about why we are the way we are, and as writers, we often need to think long and hard about the answer.

I recently told my sister that after several weeks of attending conferences and having relatives visit, I was feeling desperate to get out in nature. She asked, “What do you like so much about nature?”

Frankly, at first the question confounded me. How could it not be obvious that the natural world is absolutely fascinating and rewarding? There’s a reason I write mysteries with wilderness settings. But after thinking about it, I decided that the question really deserved an answer from me. So here are my personal thoughts on the subject.

For me, nature has always been magical. The world is so much bigger and grander than human civilization, and we know so little about the plants and other creatures we share our planet with. Even plants have superpowers; they can absorb sunshine and water and soil to create their own food before they become food for us. Mosses and lichen and fungi inhabit mysterious and extensive ecosystems. Scallops and snails use their bodies to synthesize shells from the elements in which they live. Birds and many insects can leap into the air and fly. Bats can not only wing their way through the sky but find food through echolocation.

As a scuba diver, I’ve watched an octopus hunt along a reef at night, squeezing its boneless body through tiny holes and narrow crevices, changing its colors and skin patterns as it explores. I’ve hung motionless in seawater among a school of big-eyed squid for long moments before they jetted away at warp speed. I’ve peered through the bodies of jellyfish—how can a creature that we can see through be alive? And like so many of my diving compatriots, I’ve spent hours searching through books and websites trying to identify some otherworldly organism that I observed on the ocean floor.

Many creatures are shape-shifters. They spend their lives in several different forms. How amazing it is that a caterpillar and a butterfly are the same animal! Some fish appear completely different as juveniles than they do as adults. Larval forms of most sea creatures look nothing like their final shapes.

Some creatures can change genders. Others have no gender but simply clone themselves to perpetuate their species. Wouldn’t that ability change our lives if humans possessed it?

Watching an elephant pick up a small nut with its trunk makes me wonder if dinosaurs had the same dexterity. Observing porpoises and whales always causes me to contemplate whether it’s a blessing or a curse to be an air-breathing creature that lives in water.

Even meteorological forces are captivating. How can anyone not be impressed by the crystalline formations of snowflakes and frost? By the ferocious forces of lightning and tornados? I’ve enjoyed meteor showers so dense and bright and seemingly close that I expected to hear the impacts of the streaking objects as they hit the earth. My brief and limited experience seeing the aurora borealis nearly brought me to tears; visiting a place where I can witness its full majesty is definitely on my bucket list.

Perhaps, as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, familiarity breeds contempt, but it has always seemed to me that, when compared to the natural world, humankind is limited and repetitious and self-centered. After all, humans are only one species. We are forced to invent supernatural beings and imaginary powers, when they abound in nature all around us. The natural world promises an infinite variety of species and experiences. How can anyone not be awed by that?