A Newsletter: To Have Or Have Not by Heather Haven

The decision to have a newsletter was not an easy one for me. I didn’t come to it naturally. At first, I resented spending the time and moola sending out something I wasn’t sure anyone was going to open, let alone read. My webmistress really pushed me to do it, saying any writer worth his or her salt had one. I like salt, so I relented.

Three years ago, she began to build one. And it was an immediate disaster. The first model used SSL, I believe. If I don’t have the right name for this, it’s because I’ve blocked it out. The bad taste of it stays with me. The newsletter, itself, wasn’t actually written by me, but used info pulled from blogs I was steadily writing at the time. It was supposed to be effortless, even going out to a designated email list at a pre-designated time.

It didn’t work. Sometimes it would go out but without any information attached. Just a banner with an image of me and Tugger the Cat would show up in their emails. Other times, it would go out containing bits and pieces of Gobbledygook, not one straight word. But most of the time, it didn’t go out at all. Meanwhile, I was paying for all of this through the schnozzola.

After three months of this nonsense, I started writing them in real time. Then I was in real trouble. I had no idea what to say. Just buy my books sounded a little too blatant. And for whatever reason, I couldn’t be amusing or witty in these newsletters I was writing to a bunch of strangers. Neither informative nor entertaining, the newsletters laid there like a lump. My readership dropped off significantly. It wasn’t unusual for me to lose five to ten people a month. I was desperate.

I was ready to abandon the whole idea of a newsletter and save myself 35 bucks a month in the deal. I happened to mention my decision to Julie Smith, who not only is my publicist, but a fantastic writer, herself. She was totally against the idea of not doing a newsletter, claiming this was the only way to reach out and truly get to know your readers. Hmmmm. You mean, a newsletter is something more than just buy my books?

I should also mention, in the meantime I had been reading other newsletters, from writers like Camille Minichino and Cindy Brown. These are authors whose work I not only admire, but who have newsletters I found myself reading from top to bottom. I discovered something amazing. They not only engaged the reader but wrote about stuff they were interested in. And it had an intimacy about it, like writing to a penpal.

Armed with the idea of getting to know my readers, I became more chatty in my newsletter and even asked questions. I started receiving emails back from them filled with tidbits about their own lives. I came to know many as more than names. I learned some of their stories. They became not just readers but friends. Not only did the email list stop declining, more names were added.

And they are all really neat people. I like them. I’m happy to write to them, to share something from my life, a joke, an anecdote, or even a book I recently discovered they might be interested in reading. Sometimes I mention my own books, but not often. I also found out, incidentally, most of them do buy my books, but not because I hawk them about it, but because my style fits into their reading pleasure.

This writing a newsletter is so win-win.

Revising the Landscape

Real places. For the most part, that’s where I set my novels. When I began writing the first Jeri Howard book, Kindred Crimes, I used Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro as settings. I’ve lived in the Bay Area of California for decades, and at various times have called those cities home. In that book, Jeri travels to the town of Cibola in the Mother Lode, the old gold mining area along Highway 49. Cibola is fictional but it’s modeled on the towns I encountered there when I took a vacation in that area.

I also write about real places in the California Zephyr books, the places my protagonist Jill McLeod goes when she steps off the train. Alameda, of course, since Jill lives there with her parents. Also San Francisco and Oakland. In the most recent book, Death Above the Line, Jill is Niles, which was at that time (1953) a separate township soon to merge with four other townships to form the city of Fremont.

Downtown Niles

Writing about real places means I pay attention to the landscape as it exists and make every effort to portray it accurately. Although I will exercise the writer’s prerogative. That means if I want to put a café on that corner, I will.

I take field trips from time to time. Most recently, that involved going to the Niles District and walking around to check out what various fictional characters could see from real sidewalks and corners.

The Sacrificial Daughter will be published in mid-February. Protagonist Kay Dexter, a geriatric care manager, is an advocate for elderly clients and their families. The book is set in Rocoso, a city in a county also called Rocoso, located in the Northern Sierra Nevada. It’s the county seat and has a four-year college where Kay’s significant other, Sam, teaches history. There’s a historic narrow gauge railroad that goes up a scenic river canyon to an old mining town called Jermyn. The river itself is known for its Class Five rapids and is popular with rafting enthusiasts. At a midway point are the abandoned ruins of a resort hotel where people still go to soak in the hot springs along Lost Woman Creek.

None of these places exist, except in my imagination. And now, in the pages of my book.

To be sure, anyone who has ever been to Durango, in southwest Colorado, or who has ridden the Durango & Silverton Railroad will recognize their counterparts in Rocoso and the Rocoso & Jermyn Railroad. The landscape and hot springs at Princeton in the Colorado Rockies might strike a familiar chord. The river could be the American or Yuba in Northern California, the Animas or Arkansas in Colorado, or any rugged river where rafters challenge the rapids.

Train above Animas River

The advantage of creating a fictional setting is that I can arrange the streets to suit me, as well as the topography. And most important of all, the history and culture of the place. Kay’s office is located in the former stables behind Rocoso’s historical society and museum, a building that once housed a bordello. That derelict hot springs resort at Los Woman Creek plays a role in the plot. So does the river and the rapids.

That’s what writers do. We revise the landscape to suit our needs, whether it’s putting a nonexistent café on a corner in a real town, or making up a whole county full of towns and populating them with characters.

Calypso Swale Is Smarter than Me and I Created Her!

The wind hit at about three in the afternoon. A stiff breeze that turned into a raging blast. At a hundred miles an hour, it tossed trees, tore off shingles, smashed roofs, and tangled wires into a massive mess that Pacific Gas & Electric took six days to unsnarl. In the meantime, a refrigerator full of food sat unused, the propane furnace was useless without electricity to the thermostat, matches were required to light the range, and no water without the water pump, no washing, no showers, or toilets flushing. So, there we were roughing it at the edges of civilization. In a normal year, let’s say without a pandemic, one would make reservations at the nearest hotel.

That may not have worked anyway because every PG&E employee plus ten was housed in the local hotels. So, we set about making the best of it. We drove down the hill to the local drive-through for breakfast and bought sandwiches at a grocery store, which we then ate sitting in our car in various parking lots, listening to the news, and charging our phones. We weren’t the only ones.

The wind tore chunks of shingles off our roof and deposited limbs with abandon. Our realtor recommended a roofer, he didn’t do repairs anymore. But at the mention of her name, he recommended someone who did and said to use his name with specific instructions on how to reach said roofer. That is why we are the only people in our area with our roof restored and not blue tarp dangling where trees bisected the house.

Now we have snow, eight inches of it, effectively snowing us in. Electricity is still up, our internet provider is not, but we have hotspots on our phones and a jetpack, and we can charge them without the car, so we aren’t without. No Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or… Thankfully we have a handful of prized DVDs.

What have I learned? That it would have been nice if our new fireplace had been delivered and installed before the wind hit. That we should have a generator and maybe a whole house generator like our neighbors. Listening to theirs humming away caused waves of jealousy. That Calypso Swale, of my thriller Saving Calypso, was savvy enough to have a peddle-charger to light her cabin at night. Having done the research for that book that takes place just northwest of where we are snowed in, you’d think I would have learned something about living off the grid. Because, when the power is out, you are really, really off the grid.

I did learn that if your freezer is stuffed enough, and your refrigerator door lined with cold wine bottles, and you don’t open either, you might make it six days without any loss of food. We’ll find out when we eat the jambalaya I made just before the power went out.

I’m not a stranger to camping or staying on an island without power or using an outhouse. In fact, I relied on that experience in writing my soon to be released book Booth Island. But losing power, when you have it, is a weird thing. First, you assume that the power will magically come on in the morning, then it doesn’t, so you think it will by 6:00 pm because it always has. Then you get into the bringing in buckets of rainwater to flush mode and doing anything to ease through the day. Should I have been writing? Yes, but my computer was on when the power went out, and my battery was dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

With a book coming out, losing six days is a big deal. I’m behind on everything, including promotions, ads, and, well, everything. But here’s a preview of Booth Island:

My clothed body bumps off granite rocks as it descends into the frigid depths of a Canadian lake. A swirl of red drifts on the bubbles escaping my lips. I watch each pocket of air grow smaller as it ascends toward the surface. A concussion rams my hip against a cement post. I glance to my left. Another body bobs next to mine. Recognizing it, I reach out…

I woke with a jolt knowing I was out of my depth again. I chose to believe that was the message of the dream. The nightmare, really, had haunted me at random intervals since my brother, Roy, drowned at the age of seventeen. I was fifteen at the time. We had been a team.

Winter here, wind calm, jetpack working. All is good. Twelve inches of snow predicted for tonight.

An Unusual Month

Not  sure how I feel about the first month of 2021 starting off with some strange happenings. I’m hoping it isn’t a forecast of things to come.

My latest book, Not As We Knew It, made its debut. My sister ordered a book immediately, read it, and reported a couple of typos. Told my editor/publisher and she fixed them. Then my daughter read the book and found more typos and other errors. (Both said they really liked the book despite the problems.) I also heard from other who said they loved the book and ignored the typos. All has been fixed and the new version available on Amazon.

Others have bought copies, and of course, I purchased copies to sell. My editor/publisher is sending me some of the fixed copies to replace the ones with errors. I’ve offered to replace the books of others who bought from the first batch. Only a few have taken me up on the offer.

I’ve been complaining about being unable to participate in any in-person events—and in this case, a good thing, until my new books arrive. However, I was invited to give a presentation on writing at the local Art Gallery, and told to bring some books. Once a month, different artist demonstrate new techniques, and this time it was me to talk about writing. A huge article was in the paper about my appearance along with a warning that everyone had to wear a mask and social distancing would be in place.

Frankly, I doubted many, if any, would come. To my surprise the room already had about a dozen people in it when I arrived; more sat in the next room to listen. (One of the members of the art association said 20 in all attended.) All wore their masks. Among those there were a teenage boy who wants to write mysteries, a young man who is writing a book set in World War II, two older men writing their autobiographies and another writing non-fiction. None of the women spoke up about what they were writing or wanted to write, but may have been there just to support me. However, they were the main book buyers. I also gave away copies of the book with the typos and errors to everyone’s delight.

I spoke for two hours mainly about writing in general and answered lots of questions. I had a great time, and I think those who came did too. Hope I can do it again somewhere in the not too far future.

And if anyone is interested in the re-edited Not As We Knew It, it is available on Amazon for Kindle and in paper. (I write this series as F. M. Meredith.)

One more thing, from February 1-5, I’m offering Kindle copies of Seldom Traveled for .99 cents.


A Regional Anthology Continues

Last year, in 2020, Level Best Books announced that it would no longer publish its annual anthology of stories about New England, and would instead focus on its mystery novel line. Everyone who had ever been involved with the anthology was disappointed. The annual Best New England Crime Stories anthology was a much-loved collection, but it had changed over the years. One aspect that remained constant, however, was publication of the winner of the Al Blanchard Award.

The crime fiction world offers lots of anthologies for readers, so the end of one was sad, but the loss of the publication of the Al Award winner seemed a huge loss. Leslie Wheeler, who has been chairing the award committee for years, was especially concerned, and trying to figure out what to do about that drove early discussions among several of us until all of a sudden three of us had signed on to continue the anthology—Ang Pompano, Leslie Wheeler, and myself.

Best New England Crime Stories will be published by our new press, Crime Spell Books, and will include only short fiction by New England authors. 

A little history is in order here. In 1993 Kate Flora, Skye Alexander, and I founded Level Best Books to publish an anthology of crime fiction by New England authors. When Skye moved to Texas, Ruth McCarty took her place. Eventually we passed the LBB on to another group, Mark Ammons, Kat Fast, Barbara Ross, and Leslie Wheeler. After several years they passed LBB on to a group around DC, associated with Malice Domestic. They changed the requirements to stories set in New England by writers living anywhere, not only in the six New England states. 

Crime Spell Books intends to return to the original parameters—stories by writers living primarily in New England (we admit that some of our favorite writers escape New England winters by moving south; we’re jealous but forgive them the error of their ways). Regional anthologies occupy an important place in the world of fiction—opening up one region to readers in another. A good anthology presents a sufficiently varied group of stories to take the reader deep into the territory but also an assemblage of characters closely related enough to give the reader the feel of a novel, an immersion in a way of thinking and living.

We know that many writers who appeared in earlier volumes will be disappointed—unless, of course, they move here. But we are excited to focus on New England authors. Over the years LBB published many first stories by writers now well established and well known. We want to continue that tradition of giving new writers a strong start while also supporting other writers well known and not so well known. Look for our first anthology, Bloodroot, coming in November 2021.