Back to Real Life?

Like so many, especially those of us who live alone, to me life has felt in suspension for the last two years. So it’s fantastic to get back to doing all those things I did in pre-lockdown days, although I know that the pandemic is not quite over and this newfound freedom may be temporary.

Happy Mystery Authors at Left Coast Crime Conference 2022 Banquet

Last week I attended the Left Coast Crime Conference, in person, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There were challenges. The hotel had recently changed hands and the staff seemed surprised to have a conference on their hands, although the contract had been in place (with the old owners) for two years. The hotel bar closed at 9pm, which, if you’ve ever hung out with authors, you’d know is a crisis, and the surrounding areas in Albuquerque seemed to be occupied now mostly by the homeless and drug-addicted. The only food venue in the hotel was understaffed and under-supplied. But the Left Coast Crime organizers had intelligently required all attendees to be fully vaccinated, so we felt reasonably safe and oh, so happy to see and talk to all our fellow mystery authors and mystery lovers. Left Coast Crime is not a writers conference but a fan conference, so many attendees are not writers, but readers and leaders of reading clubs, which makes this conference all the more special. And of course, we are all mystery fans.

It’s impossible to take a good photo at Carlsbad Caverns without professional gear, but here’s a hint of the scenery.

After the conference, I went on a little exploration of southern New Mexico. First, to Carlsbad Caverns, which turned out to be much more spectacular than I anticipated. Rather than taking an elevator, I walked down the spiraling path into the caverns (1.25 miles and a descent of around 750 feet) to get to the Big Room, which has a 1.5 mile path that encircles the cathedral-like structure. The experience was magnificent, and I loved the cool, quiet, uncrowded walk down so much that I walked back up the same way.

I also went hiking at Dripping Springs Recreation Area near Las Cruces, where I visited ruins of an old ranch, asylum, and mountain lodge wedged back among the rock formations. The park volunteer told me there is an oryx (!) in the park, and I kept a sharp eye out for that African antelope, but he stayed hidden. I felt so sorry for the poor oryx, an exotic import from a previous landowner who favored shooting rare species. What does an African antelope think about being stranded in a foreign country with only free-range cattle for company?

Lodge Ruins in Dripping Springs Recreation Area, New Mexico

I explored the area as a solo adventurer this trip, happy just to be outdoors and seeing new sights. And it was marvelous to be in the company of all the creative authors and appreciative readers at Left Coast Crime.

Is this real life again? I’m cautious, and I’m fully vaccinated, and oh, I so hope we can all share in many good times to come!

Unplanned Adventures

Most of my favorite experiences in life have been unplanned adventures. There’s nothing I appreciate more than a good surprise, and they make great fodder for writing, too. Here’s one of my favorite unplanned adventures that I will never forget.

When I was a teenager in Oklahoma, I had a horse, and so did many of my friends. I’d worked hard and saved all my money for years and carefully planned on how I would buy and board my horse in a nearby pasture, and as a teenager, I finally accomplished my dream to have a horse. My mother always thought riding was a reckless activity, and she told me that if I hurt myself, I couldn’t complain to her.

One day I was a guest at another girl’s horse farm, and we decided to go on a trail ride. I was given a big white gelding to ride, and we set off, with me in third place behind my two friends. Near the beginning of the trail, our horses needed to jump a log that lay across the path. It wasn’t more than a foot thick, so no problem. But after my horse leapt over it, he started acting wild, wanting to get off the trail, and as I held him back, he reared. “Hey,” I yelped at the owner, “What’s wrong with this horse?”

When she glanced back, she said in a casual tone, “Oh. I forgot. That’s the beginning of the jump course, and he’s trained to finish every time he starts. So please, just let him go and ride him around the course.”

This is definitely NOT me

Uh. Two problems with that. 1) I’d never ridden a jumper, and 2) I was riding in a western saddle, which is definitely not designed for leaning forward against the horse’s neck, which is needed on jumps, especially high ones. But I figured, what the heck, this horse clearly knows what to do.

And he definitely did. He cantered into an arena that was close by, and we soared over the first few relatively small jumps. I was only hanging on; the horse was the expert. Then we approached the final pole jump, which was about five feet tall, my own height. Yikes. I will always remember thinking that it would be a miracle if I ended up in the saddle on the other side. The horse rose up beneath me, launching himself in a nearly vertical position, and I did my best to lean forward over the saddle horn. Then he came down on the other side in just as vertical a position, but forelegs first, of course, and I tried to sit back.

When we first touched down, I whacked my little finger on the saddle horn, and I’m pretty sure I broke it. But I remained in my saddle, and the pain was nothing compared to the thrill of riding that horse. After the ride, the owner showed me a whole gallery of photos of that horse in action; he was a champion jumper. I splinted my little finger at home and said nothing to my mom. But I smiled for days.

Now, when the weather is damp, my little finger is often very stiff, but that reminds me of the day I accidentally rode a champion jumping horse.

Those Darn Words

I think every writer has words or phrases that she writes too often. I know I do. My particular nemesis is the word “look.” In my rough drafts, my characters are always “looking” at the landscape or each other, “tossing someone a look,” “giving something a hard look,” “looking bad,” “looking like a fool,” etc., etc., looking etc.

Just how many times did I write “look”?

After I finish a rough draft, I always have to go searching for this enemy word and do my best to annihilate it whenever I can. But I find it difficult to use substitutions without sounding stilted or losing the meaning I want. Do you have repeated words or phrases that haunt your writing?

Then there are the words or phrases that make me cringe when I hear someone say them. I guess it’s the editor in me. At least I’ve learned over the years not to constantly correct others, but sometimes it’s hard to keep my lips zipped. The common phrase that I cannot hear without wincing is “I could care less.”

I just want to scream, “That doesn’t make sense! We could always care less about anything. What you mean is that you couldn’t care less! Could not care less! That’s the insult you’re aiming for—use it!”

But of course, carrying on like that would probably get me banned from the few social gatherings I’m invited to in these times of lingering Covid restrictions. Another word, not quite so grating for me, is “irregardless.” It means the same thing as “regardless,” so why add the extra “ir”? But Webster insists it is actually a word. I have to remind myself that language does evolve and it sometimes evolves in nonsensical ways.

My mother hates it when I write that a character “trekked” somewhere. To her, a trek is only a major expedition in the Himalayas; it can’t be just a long arduous hike like my character Sam Westin often undertakes. Another one of my writer friends takes the word “pray” to always mean beseeching God when I often mean “fervently hope”; she marks that word and also the adverb “hopefully” every time she finds them in my drafts. So, I guess we all have our word challenges. What are yours?

And yes, in between rants, I am s-l-o-w-l-y crawling toward the finish line on Cascade, my sixth Sam Westin wilderness mystery, which involves avalanches and wolverines in the North Cascades. I’ll dig out of the snow filling my brain and finish one of these days. I promise.

Real Settings vs Fictional Settings

One of the important choices a novelist needs to make is whether to use a real or invented setting in a book. When this comes up, I envy science fiction or fantasy writers. Heck, just set the story on a made-up planet! Sure, you have to keep track of the rules you created to be sure your world stays consistent, but nobody is going to write to tell you that you didn’t describe the place accurately.

That can (and does) happen when you choose a real place as a setting. You may get readers commenting that there’s no way your character can drive from Main Street to Oak Boulevard in ten minutes, or that the turnoff to the waterfall is not at milepost 85. And if you mention a real business in your setting, you should check to make sure the owners don’t object to the corpse you’ve placed in their building, or they may complain that you damaged their reputation.

On the other hand, fictional locations can get you into trouble, too. My setting for Endangered was an invented park in Utah. One reviewer wrote “Fantastic descriptions! I can’t wait to visit Heritage National Monument.” Kind of embarrassing, when the setting doesn’t really exist.

So, I tend to compromise, using a real place for inspiration, then giving it a fictional name. (“No, I did not say the killer worked at Burger King, I said he worked at Burger Kingdom.” “Sure, in The Only Witness, the location of the gorilla compound may seem a lot like Ellensburg, Washington, but look again, those gorillas are in Evansburg.”)

Then, to make the issue more complex, setting includes not only place, but also time. And over time, things change. Now that I’ve been published for more than a decade, I’ve run into this time problem a lot. I recently read a good article (http://www.exactlywhatistime.com/other-aspects-of-time/time-in-literature/) that described four distinct time frames that will affect a book: author time (when the work was originally written or published), narrator time (when the narrator in a work of fiction supposedly narrates the story), plot time (when the action depicted takes place); and reader time (when a reader reads the work)

Ack! None of my books is historical, so each story is set in the “present,” and I’ve run into this time-tangle on multiple occasions. When I wrote Endangered , I did my best to incorporate state-of-the-art technology so my character could blog from the backcountry. Now all those gadgets are out of date. When I wrote my novel Backcountry, I was attending weekly country line dance lessons, and I set a pivotal scene in the dance club, convinced that this would help advertise the place. Around two weeks after that book was published, the club was sold and the name changed. Thanks to Covid, that club is now out of business. So much for using a real place for authenticity.

I also smack into this issue of author time vs reader time as a reader. I’ll be reading along and think, wow, this author is ignorant about recent events, then look at the copyright page to find that the book was published a decade ago. I hope my readers do that instead of choosing to believe that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

As a writer of suspense, I often run into problems with plot time in real settings. In my novel Undercurrents, those who are familiar with the Galapagos Islands may realize that there’s no way my character can get from this island to that one in only a few hours, but hey, I needed her to do that. It’s hard to maintain tension with a lot of travel time between islands, unless there’s a murderer on the boat.

My most recent Sam Westin mystery, Borderland, takes place along the Arizona-Mexico border wall. Sure, there’s a wall there now, but will there be a decade from now? This setting stuff is tricky.

My Conflicted Feelings about Bookstores

I am a voracious reader as well as a mystery author. Although of course I read many books in my genre, I also enjoy nonfiction adventures, science fiction, and the so-called “women’s fiction” categories. (In my opinion, nearly all books are “women’s fiction” for most of us.) But I digress, as I so frequently do. Back to bookstores.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I adore bookstores! What could be better for a reader than being able to sort through thousands of books? I find new authors and great reads in both new and used bookstores; they’re some of my favorite places. So, of course, as a reader, I am a big fan of bookstores.

As an indie author, I have very mixed feelings about bookstores. I am both the author and the publisher for my books. The thorny issue involves returns. If a bookstore orders books through a major distributor, as they all want to do, the publisher typically discounts the price by 40-55% so the bookstore can make some money. That’s painful enough for the publisher (and explains a lot about the cost of books), but if the bookstore doesn’t sell all the copies it orders, it can demand a refund to “return” the unsold books. (I put that word in quotes because due to the cost of shipping, “returned” books are typically destroyed instead of actually returned.) To make matters worse, many distributors/publishers have deadlines by which books must be returned, so if a book is approaching that date, bookstores may “return” them to get under the wire, knowing they can just order additional copies later, beginning the cycle again.

Self-published indie authors don’t have to make their books returnable, but if they don’t, the odds are that bookstores and libraries won’t put them on their shelves. As Publishers Weekly has written, “selling to the book trade is a gamble, and you need to decide your comfort level at playing the game. If you don’t play, you won’t sell.”

But when indie authors do decide to play the game (as I most often do), we can get burned big-time. My worst moment was when I was attending a Left Coast Crime Conference in Honolulu. A bookseller typically handles book sales at conferences, and when I walked into the book room in Hawaii, I saw piles of my books. While this might make some newbie authors celebrate, I cringed, knowing this would come back to haunt me. Number 1, I am not a well-known bestselling author. Number 2, most attendees for these conferences arrive via air, and they’re not going to lug back 100 pounds of printed books. Get a grip, bookstores! (But why should the bookseller care? They can simply “return” those books.)

Photo by Liza Summer on Pexels.com

Sure enough, I later got a bill from the printer/distributor for around $600 in returns (destroyed books) from that Hawaii conference. Having learned painful lessons like that over the years, I no longer sign up to have bookstores handle my books at conferences, unless that’s the only choice. Instead, I bring a few copies on consignment, and tons of bookmarks to remind interested readers later about my books. I sometimes supply books on consignment with local bookstores, too. Yes, I still have to discount those books and I have to pay for printing and shipping, and I have to deliver them, which reduces my profit to near zero, but I will get unsold copies back instead of having to pay for no-longer-existing books.

My understanding is that this whole “returns” business came about during the Great Depression of the 1930s to encourage stores to stock the non-necessity of books. And (of course) stores liked it so much that the policy has never gone away, to the detriment of publishers and authors. Traditional publishers consistently hold back a substantial portion of the royalties they owe authors in case there are future “returns.”

So now you can understand why indie authors have mixed feelings about bookstores. But please know that nearly any bookstore is willing to special order a book for you from your favorite indie author. If you’re willing to wait a bit for a book, you can support both the author and the bookstore that way.