Weird and Wonderful Surprises

I love the unexpected, don’t you? Celebrating unusual experiences is part of being a writer. I’ve had a number of unexpected encounters with humans and other animals over the years.

Once I was standing at a bus stop in Seattle, along with a number of other people, when a woman walked up to me and asked “Ou est La Bon Marche?” (Where is the Bon Marche? Bon Marche was a big department store at the time in Seattle.) I pointed in the general direction and said, “La-bas, l’edifice beige.” (“Over there, the beige building.”)

Now, how weird is that? This woman asked a perfect stranger on an American street corner a question in French and that stranger happened to be me, who sort of speaks that language. She didn’t even look surprised when I answered.

One time I was scuba diving at night off of Grand Cayman with a group of friends. We were in fairly shallow water (maybe forty feet), down in a canyon, when we heard rumbling and saw lights shining over the ridge. I didn’t think much of it because we were in an area with a fair amount of boat traffic, and I knew we were deep enough to be in no danger from boats zipping by overhead. Then suddenly, a small submarine zoomed over the canyon rim and nearly mowed us down.

Yeesh! Who knew you had be on the watch for deadly underwater vehicles?

In college, I was crossing the campus in Oklahoma, my eyes focused on a newspaper in my hand that I was reading as I walked, when I heard what sounded like a very loud trumpet from an elephant. I looked up. Standing before me on the sidewalk was indeed an elephant. The man on his back waved to me. I stepped off the sidewalk, and the elephant and rider continued on their way.

Elephants wandering around the University of Oklahoma. Of course. Why not? (I later found out that one of the fraternities was having a circus fundraiser that day.)

When I was having tea on vacation in Kenya and gesticulating with my spoon to emphasize some no doubt fascinating comment to my comrades, a Colobus monkey leapt onto the table and grabbed my spoon. I held on. He bared his teeth. We played tug-of-war for a bit. I won. Maybe that incident is not such a surprise if you have a lot of experience with monkeys. I gained a bit more experience with those furry devils on that trip, especially on one memorable day when the crew left the windows down in our Land Rover and returned to find an entire troop of monkeys partying inside.

During a spectacular meteor shower, I was standing out in my yard on my rural property at around 3 a.m., simply amazed by the light show going on all around. There were so many meteors that I stopped counting at 100. They looked as if they were falling so close that I kept expecting to hear explosions on impact.

Then I heard a loud snort behind me (ACK!!) and whirled around to see a magnificent buck standing only a few feet away, starlight gleaming off his incredible rack of antlers, his breath steaming in the cold air.

I can never see meteors now without thinking about the “magic buck” I encountered that night.

Those are just a few of the weird and wonderful encounters I’ve experienced in my lifetime. They enrich my life and add spice to my novels when I can find the right places to sprinkle them in. What surprises have you had that delighted you?

Confessions of a Confused, Disorganized Writer

Does the drifter know anything?
     That’s what it says at the top of a page of writing notes (okay, scribbles) that I found a while ago in my desk drawer.
     I’d give anything to find out if the drifter knows anything. As a matter of fact, I’d give anything to know who the drifter is.
     The most troubling aspect of this question is that the note is definitely in my handwriting. Perhaps the query refers to my grandpa-may-have-been-a-serial-killer screenplay, since there are other cryptic notes on the same page such as Maybe Jessalyn was her mother, not her aunt, and I do have a deceased character named Jessalyn in that story. There’s also kind of a down-and-out handyman, but he’s always been part of the community; he’s not really a drifter.
     Then again, since there’s another scribble on the same page about designer sunglasses that I recognize as a reference to Undercurrents, my marine-biologist-dies-in-the-Galapagos mystery, maybe the question pertains to that novel. But while there’s a drifting corpse in the ocean, there’s not really a character that I would really call a drifter in that one, either.
     I search my memory banks. How about Call of the Jaguar, my find-the-other-lover-in-war torn-Guatemala novella? Endangered, my missing-kid-in-national-park mystery? Shaken, my earthquake/arson/is-our-heroine-committing-insurance-fraud romance? Nope. No drifters.
     Perhaps I was going to add a drifter somewhere? Or perhaps it belongs in a future story? I have another note about a mystery solved due to an error overlooked in digitally altered photographs, and that doesn’t match up with any story I’m currently working on.
     I haven’t always been this way. Who’s to blame for my current mental and physical confusion? I blame editors and agents.
     When I first decided to turn my writing talents from “how-to” manuals and books to fiction, I sat down and wrote Endangered, my first mystery novel, in about six months. Total focus. I sent out query letters.
Not taking new clients at this time.
Not distinctive enough to stand out in a crowded market.
     Not for us.
     Not right for us, but this is subjective; others may feel differently. Good luck.
    
The few agents who asked for samples hinted that the story seemed awfully close to Nevada Barr’s writing. I’d never heard of her at the time, but when I read some of her books, dang if they weren’t right, my protagonist (park ranger), setting (national monument), and story (was the missing child eaten by a cougar?) could have been written by her. The tone was even similar. I suspect Nevada is my long-lost twin.
     So, I changed the protagonist and the story slant substantially, and sent it out again.
My client list is full.
     Not distinctive enough to stand out in a crowded market.
     Well written, but I advise you to lose the technical stuff and focus on the outdoor adventure.
     Excellent writing, but add more technical stuff and lose some of the outdoor adventure and nature aspects.
     Not for us.

     Oh, I did get a contract in the mail from an agent who wanted money up front, which seemed a little suspicious. I called to get more information. When I asked about this person’s experience and publishing contacts, I discovered she was no more of a literary agent than I am.
     My novel did finally intrigue one agent from a reputable house sufficiently that she jotted down several very good suggestions for changes (bless her!) and agreed to see the novel after I made changes, along with samples of all my other work. Thank God, I thought, and applied myself to making the changes. Five months later (hey, I was working full-time in a software firm), I eagerly mailed my much smoother novel to her. I promptly received in reply a note from the head of the agency:
This agent has quit agenting. We shredded your manuscript.
    
If my four cats hadn’t kept reminding me of an imminent tuna crisis, I might never have scraped myself off the floor.
     I wrote a children’s book about a Kikuyu girl who wanted to save the hippos around her village in Kenya. It was a prizewinner in a local contest. A publisher was interested until she found out that I wasn’t African-American.
     I went to screenwriting school in an attempt to revive my sagging creative spirit. I wrote my first romantic adventure screenplay, sent it around.
Not taking new clients at this time.
     Client list’s full.

Not for us.
     I heard a romance editor talking up an outdoor adventure novel as ‘exactly what we’re looking for.’ After reading that book, I was a) confused, because in no way was it a romance (the protagonist’s lover is dead from the get-go) and b) enthused, because the book had a tone and theme similar to Endangered. I fired off a query to that editor, referencing the conference and the book she’d mentioned. No response.
     Meanwhile, having read that it’s much easier to publish mysteries if you’ve got a series, I worked on sequels to Endangered. (That series has five books now.)
     I finished a romance. I started to send out queries on it, while still trying to find a place for Endangered and its sequels Bear Bait and Undercurrents.
Not taking new clients.
     Got any non-fiction proposals?
     Not right for us, pardon the form letter.
     Agent deceased.
    
I did finally get a contract for three mysteries with Berkley Prime Crime. After the first one was published, my editor/champion moved to a nonfiction position, and no editor left in the original group was even mildly interested in marketing my mysteries. So, after two years of stagnation, I got the rights back and published them myself.
     Now I’ve got eight mystery novels, three romantic suspense novels, two drafts for children’s books, dozens of outlines, crowds of characters, hundreds of clever clues, and a score of half-baked plots romping through my head. “You must like banging your head against the wall,” my mother once remarked. (I’ve always had such a supportive family.)
     I’m a fast writer, and a good one, according to my fans. If I had only had honest feedback on what editors and agents wanted, or encouragement to run down any particular path, I would have galloped to the kill like a cheetah after a bushbuck. Instead, I still seem destined to become like the giant sunstars I see on my scuba expeditions; a creature with so many appendages that it’s a miracle it can move at all.
Does the drifter know anything?
    
I really hope so. And I hope he shows up soon to share it with me.

The Dilemma of the Little-Known Author

Note: This a pre-Covid memory, so don’t be alarmed at the close proximity of strangers mentioned in this post. Remember those days when we weren’t afraid of breathing the same air?

“Hi, I’m Rae Ellen Lee, an internationally unknown author,” my friend says to the bicycle rider who has stopped to chat with us in a Utah canyon.

Rae Ellen Lee is a fellow author and artist, and she’s more forward and much funnier than I am, and I love this line. It cuts through the embarrassing back-and-forth that, for me, usually goes something like this:

Me: “I’m an author. I write mysteries and romantic suspense.”

Polite Stranger: “That’s great!” Then, peering at me with curiosity, “Would I have heard of you?”

Me (mortified): “Probably not. My publisher never promoted my books.” (Unsaid: And I’m obviously a total nincompoop when it comes to marketing, still true now even after I took back my rights and self-published.) “But here’s a card describing my books.” (Nervous laugh.) “Do me a favor and leave it in a public place.”

Sigh. It’s such a dilemma. How and when does a clueless introvert author make herself known to new readers? Personally, I avoid anyone who constantly hawks herself or her products; why would anyone appreciate that? But I don’t have a big family-and-friends network out there supporting me, and I can’t afford to advertise in expensive venues. I write outdoorsy animal lover mysteries and although many hikers and nature enthusiasts are big readers like me, we outdoorsy animal lover types don’t tend to sit around chatting on social media.

So when I pass up the opportunity to tell a friendly stranger that I’m an author, I never know whether to feel like I’m being just a nice normal person or some sort of expert self-defeating anti-preneur. So I generally say something only half the time and almost always end up feeling like a complete loser.

A couple of days after meeting the bicyclist, as I ride the shuttle from St. George to the Las Vegas airport, I chat with my very nice seatmate. We talk about Utah and other places we have visited, and after a while, she mentions that she reads constantly. Aha-an opening! I tell her I am a voracious reader, too. And then she says she likes mysteries. Feeling like a hunter with a deer in the crosshairs, I tell her I am a mystery author, pull out my card that describes my books, and hand it over. She says she’ll definitely look for my books.

Later, at the airport, I share a restaurant table with an interesting man from Germany who has been visiting all the western parks. I love Germans; they are such adventurers, and like me, many are enthusiastic about the American West, its culture and its beautiful wild places. We talk about places he visited on this trip (he flew to the Cook Islands, too!) and a bit about how Americans and Cook Islanders eat unhealthy diets and will pay for that in the long run, and briefly agree on how politics need to move away from the current all-about-the-profit mode to the work-for-the-common-good mode.

Close-up of magnifying glass focusing on two people

Of course, while we talk, I’m thinking, do I tell him I’m an author and three of my books are published in Germany? Would that be a typical it’s-all-about-me American move? Besides, he’d probably ask me the name of my books there, and my cards are all in English. I can’t even spell the German titles, let alone pronounce them. Nor could I cough up the name of the German publisher. So we part politely without exchanging names and wander off to catch our separate flights back home.

From now on, I’m borrowing Rae Ellen’s line: “Hi, I’m Pamela Beason, an internationally unknown author.”

And I’ll keep using it until a stranger says, “Oh, I know that name! I love your books!”

I really am an author! This is me signing books at Seattle Mystery Bookshop
I’m not lying. Really, I am an author. Here I am years ago, signing books at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, which, sadly, no longer exists. I have 13 novels in print and ebook forms today. Really!

Will We Ever Evolve?

All fiction writers would like our novels to be considered timeless, so when we incorporate historical events or trends into our stories, we often fret that although that makes a story seem more currently relevant, our books could be considered “dated” as the years pass.

However, with my Sam Westin mysteries, I have found that hasn’t been a problem. And that is, frankly, disturbing. My first book, Endangered, was published a decade ago. Its theme of the media and the public inflaming each other to the detriment of truth is still all too relevant, as we have all watched Twitter and Facebook and even television channels spread misinformation to capture the headlines and the public’s attention on a daily basis.

The second book, Bear Bait, originally published in 2012, features armed, racist, anti-government movements intent on perpetrating violent acts against government employees across the nation. Hmmm. Have we seen anything like that lately?

The third book, Undercurrents, includes two parallel stories, one in the Galapagos Islands and the other in Arizona, both with villains fueled by malice toward foreigners coming into their countries. That anti-foreigner attitude clearly hasn’t changed, as our recent leadership seemed hell bent on building a wall on our southern border and tried to prevent travelers from Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

I did manage to more or less escape the political arena for the fourth book, Backcountry, which deals with the effects of the murders of two women hikers. I say “more or less” because the story does include a lot of issues with guns in the wilderness. Sadly, murder is a recurring theme throughout human history.

Then, after a trip to the aforementioned wall along the U.S./Mexico border, I just had to write about the crimes, the environmental destruction, and the ruin of so many lives and livelihoods in that area in Borderland. And all those issues will no doubt affect Americans for decades to come.

I’ve also written the Run for Your Life trilogy (Race with Danger, Race to Truth, Race for Justice), about a champion teenage endurance racer who is living under an assumed identity because of the unsolved murders of her parents, who worked for a pharmaceutical company that supplies vaccines for a continuously evolving virus. Yeesh. I wrote those books between 2015 and 2018.

What does it all mean? That Americans, or maybe even humans, are incapable of evolving? Are we stuck in some sort of endless loop, doomed to forever repeat the cycles of hate and violence? Whether we’re discussing sports or religion or politics or wearing masks in a pandemic, we can’t seem to get beyond some sort of “us against them” attitude. It’s all a bit depressing. But it’s also good fodder for fiction.

And then, just yesterday, I watched a woman become vice president for the first time 100 years after women won the vote in this country. That milestone has been slow in coming, but it offers a spark of hope for the future. Which is also good fodder for fiction.

To Make Things as Awkward as Possible, I Created a Male Protagonist

Let’s face it, nobody can know what it’s like inside another person’s mind or body, so why create protagonists of the opposite gender?

In my Summer “Sam” Westin mysteries, my protagonist is female, and we’re so much alike that many people confuse her with me, which is somewhat understandable because, like Sam, I am a scuba diver/kayaker/hiker, although it amazed me that one reader thought I’d actually barely rescued myself from death at the top of a waterfall. If I was as death-defying as Sam, I’d probably be, well … dead. But Sam and Pam are very similar in many ways, so her character is easy for me to write. Although Sam is often socially awkward, she’s at home in the wilderness setting, and so am I.

On the other hand, when I set out to write my first Neema mystery, The Only Witness, I wanted to set the story of a signing gorilla witnessing a major crime in the most awkward place possible: a conservative, gossipy small town that is not open to the idea that an ape might have something to “say.” I also wanted my detective character to feel awkward in the setting, so I made that character a big-city transplant whose spouse deserted their marriage for a local love shortly after their move. I knew I wanted to include teenage mothers in this story of a missing baby. So, which gender should the detective be?

Husbands leaving their wives for younger models is an all-too-common story in real life. So, I decided that a man would probably be more embarrassed by that happening to him. And it seems to me (rightfully or not) that more women are open to the idea of animal intelligence than men, so I created Matthew Finn, a detective who moved from Chicago to the small hometown of his younger wife because she thought it was a wonderful place to start a family. And then she runs off with her old sweetheart, leaving Matt, who is decidedly not an animal lover (in the beginning), with her two cats and a huge dog. And then, after a teen mom’s baby goes missing, a gorilla unexpectedly enters the scene, and she may be his only witness.

All eyes are on Detective Finn. The town hosts a small college that teaches broadcast communications, and amateur reporters are following him everywhere. Strangers tell him they’re sorry about his wife, and try to set him up with an available woman. To solve the case, he needs to interview a bevy of young teenage girls in this uncomfortable #Me-Too era. And talk to a gorilla? How much more awkward can the situation get?

Yep, the situation definitely called for a man.