Friday, September 30, 2011
My husband and I traveled the length of Yosemite in July and were surprised to find so much snow in the mountains, which range in elevation from 2,127 to 13,114 feet. Some 3.7 people visit the park each year.
The park is not only breathtakingly beautiful, it can also be dangerous. The day we were there, three young people were swept over Vernal falls to their deaths because they had climbed over the guard rail to take pictures. We read the following day that 17 park visitors had died in the first seven months of this year.
Half Dome (in the background) attracts a great many rock climbers each year and we saw quite a few that day.
I was surprised to learn that the park encompasses 761,268 acres and three counties over the western slope of the Sierra Nevadas. It's a horticulturist's paradise with 7,000 diverse plant species and 160 varieties of rare plants that exist within the park. It's also a geologist's dream.
I once lived in the San Joaquin Valley for more than a dozen years and visited Yosemite a number of times, but each trip reveals something new to admire and photograph.
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
I’m well into the sequel to Writer’s Block, which is due out this November. Tentatively named The Insomniac, it is based on a real haunting within Fort Worth’s Scott Theater. The main culprit is a spirit that has been residing there since a young man hanged himself in 1970, a mere four years after the live theater was completed. As this suicide was a relatively recent occurrence, it became the perfect setting for homicide detective Maxx Watts to determine whether this was madness or a cold case homicide. Writing this story has involved some very interesting paranormal research.
I’m having fun playing characters who believe in the paranormal against those who don’t. While I haven’t seen any ghosts or experienced any odd phenomena, my wife Lyne has. Over the last few years while working in the backyard, the side gate has opened and closed with no wind or anyone around, she’s felt something touch her thigh when no one was nearby, and twice the running sprinkler has been shut off at the twist valve directly behind her with no one else in the yard. Such unexplainable events tend to run in the family, too, with relatives seeing manifestations and experiencing strange things.
Needing expertise, I contacted Long Island Paranormal Investigations for an explanation of what another paranormal team claimed to be photographic evidence of orb manifestations in the Scott Theater. LIPI is of the opinion that the white dots in the Scott Theater photos are actually dust spots on the lens. Interestingly, one such dust spot appears on LIPI’s web page crew photo. When I asked them about the peculiar events my wife had experienced, I was told that some people are more receptive to spiritual events than others. Ironically, it seems that those who desperately want to experience paranormal events are the least likely to. I see that as proof that spirits retain their sense of humor in the afterlife.
There is a significant difference between manifestations and poltergeists. Manifestations are spirits that show themselves in one shape or another, whereas poltergeists may create chaos while remaining invisible. What I have written into my story parallels what has actually been witnessed and recorded at the Scott Theater. Why would I reinvent ghosts when they are already dancing for you? I hope these spirits enjoy the story. I’m sure they can download it on their G-net. If they disapprove, I suppose Lyne can expect more “polter” events.
When discussing the paranormal, most people automatically envision the poltergeists invented by Hollywood. According to Wikipedia, a poltergeist is “a paranormal phenomenon which consists of events alluding to the manifestation of an imperceptible entity. Such manifestation typically includes inanimate objects moving or being thrown about, sentient noises (such as impaired knocking, pounding or banging) and, on some occasions, physical attacks on those witnessing the events. Since no conclusive scientific explanation of the events exists up to this day, poltergeists have traditionally been described in folklore as troublesome spirits or ghosts which haunt a particular person, hence the name. Such alleged poltergeist manifestations have been reported in many cultures and countries including the United States, Japan, Brazil, Australia, and all European nations, and the earliest recorded cases date back to the 1st century.”
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
In general, I enjoy research. It's fun, whereas writing is sometimes fun but sometimes sheer hard work. However, it's maddening when the information you need eludes you or is contradictory.
I've been trying to find out about ocean currents in this beautiful bay in North Cornwall:
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
I also became well-versed in billing and accounting, plus circulation, advertising, promotion, and anything else required. Since the operation was touch and go financially at times, I wound up doing most of those tasks at one time or another.
Later on in my business career, I got into the field of association management. As executive vice president of a 4000-member statewide trade association, I got involved in lots of other jobs necessary to the operation of a large volunteer organization.
All this is prelude to saying what I'm currently doing that I probably shouldn't be. I recently decided to resurrect the first novel I wrote after getting into the business of fiction writing back in 1990. I had just retired from my association job and had told everyone I intended to write novels. Following up on my love of the spy genre, and filled with much research on the CIA and KGB, I wrote the first book in a trilogy involving a disgraced former FBI agent named Burke Hill.
I quickly found an agent for Beware the Jabberwock and toiled over the second book while eagerly awaiting action on the New York front. The agent's associate, who handled fiction, sent me rejection letters from editors at several houses including William Morrow, Harper Collins, Grove, and the Berkley Publishing Group. The Berkley editor wrote:
"It is a very well written thriller, but this genre is just too hard to sell in mass market at the moment. Maybe this would work well in hardcover."
Another said "it's a competent and entertaining piece of work" but not the kind of novel Grove was publishing.
It was the usual story, nice book but not one we can use. Unfortunately, following these letters was one from the agency saying the associate was leaving and the primary agent intended to concentrate on non-fiction. Now, twenty-one years later, post-Cold War stories seem to be in vogue again. So I've revised the manuscript and plan to put it up as an ebook. Which brings us full circle to my earlier reminiscing.
I need a cover for the book, and I'm working on an idea. I have a fair sense of design, but I'm no artist. I'd like to incorporate a swoosh into the design, but that's a little beyond me at the moment. When it's done, I'll put it up here for your viewing pleasure (or not).
Visit me at Mystery Mania
Monday, September 19, 2011
It’s been a few years since I’ve done any “serious” writing. By that I mean something more than randomly jotting down an idea or messing around with a paragraph or two only to later lose it to an infected laptop or the clutter on my desk or in my life. Last year I tried to get it going again by setting a schedule that I promised myself to strictly adhere to. I set my alarm for seven each morning with the intent of devoting my first hour of the day to writing. It didn’t work. I can’t predict when the muses will inspire me, which is just a fancy way of saying: I can’t make myself feel like writing. For me writing is like going to the gym; sometimes you’re in the mood for it, sometimes you’re not.
Well now I’m in the mood for it, and have been for a fair clip. I’m working on my second book, loosely entitled Beneficiaries, in earnest. I want this to be my White Album, the capstone of my writing life. That isn’t to say that I don’t feel like I accomplished what I set out to do with my first book. It’s just that my intentions were modest: to write a humorous, light read that would appeal to my sophomoric friends. For this book, I want to feel like I never have to write another one.
What’s strange, I suspect, is that unlike most writers, I don’t really enjoy the process of writing. When a sentence or idea comes together, it’s deeply satisfying, but not always enough to overcome the constant feeling of being distracted. I’m not a person who can compartmentalize writing and simply put my thoughts away for another time. Instead, I become totally preoccupied with it. I ask for deposit slips at the bank so I can jot down sentences. I litter my car with Starbucks’ napkins full of messy little, red, blue, and black notes that I can’t decipher later. What’s more, I’m often frustrated by the shortcomings of my memory, which, coupled with the fact that writing doesn’t come easy to me, makes the entire process a chore.
Yet, I soldier on, leaving my comfortable habitat, compelled to move forward with the task, like the march of the penguins. I guess that’s why for people like me “The End” feels so rewarding.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Remember Orson Welles?
Friday, September 16, 2011
Some writers start with a setting, others with a theme. I’m one who begins with characters. But how do you breathe life into people who inhabit books to make them more than cardboard characters?
Characters have both inner and outer lives, according to Bharti Kirchner. I agree. Inner lives consist of beliefs and motivations while outer lives are your characters’ public personas. There are a number of techniques that can be used to reveal both.
Dialogue demonstrates a character’s personality, background and education. It also reveals how they feel about others. The following exchange is between my protagonists, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty, two 60-year amateur sleuths who are caught in an Arizona flash flood in Murder on the Interstate:
Sarah warned about the amount of water on the road: “We’re going to hydroplane.”
“Too much water for that.” Dana switched the headlights to low beam and drove forward. “Where the hell is the road?”
“Stay between the delineator posts. There’s one off to your left.”
“I see it. Where’s the next one?”
Dana heard a scraping sound and Sarah yelled, “You found it.”
Later, when their Hummer is washed onto a sand bar, Sarah says: “Thank you, Heavenly Mother. Thank, you—“
“We’re not out of danger yet. If it starts raining again, we’ll be washed away.”
“What can we do, Dana?”
“Pray for all you’re worth.”
“I asked that the power angels be sent to help us.”
“Good idea. Maybe they’ll fly us out of here.”
There’s obviously a difference in religious beliefs between the two women as well as emotions and cynicism.
Physical descriptions also help the reader to visualize characters. Dana and Sarah are as alike as Mutt and Jeff. Dana’s tall with auburn hair and is said to resemble the actress Gina Davis while Sarah is short and plump with curly blonde hair.
A character’s birth place also contributes to her persona. Sarah Cafferty grew up in rural Nebraska and spouts expressions such as: “He took off like a scalded cat.” Dana, on the other hand, is a native Californian, who is a little more sophisticated, and I’m sure readers wonder why they became best friends. By transplanting both women from their retirement village in the San Joaquin Valley, in A Village Shattered, to Wyoming in the second novel, Diary of Murder, both women have to learn to adjust to a new lifestyle and that helps to define their character.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Several years ago, I attended my first Bouchercon. It was wonderful, yet overwhelming. Somehow, in my mind, it expanded to a convention of 7,000 people, a vast swarm of humanity I could hardly even fathom. Today, I arrived at the St. Louis Bouchercon. Turns out it's about 1500 people and has ALWAYS been about 1500 people. Somehow, the huge, scary con became a huge, not-so-scary con in just a few years.
I was lucky enough to share the drive from Nashville and a hotel room with another Nashville author, Jennie Bentley )aka Jenna Bennett). Jennie writes a cozy series for Berkley Prime Crime and an e-series of real estate mysteries. If you like well-written, well-crafted light mysteries, you'll like Jennie's books.
I started the day at a panel called "Laughter of the Clowns," moderated by Jerry Healy and featuring Allan Ansorge, Alan Orloff, Gary Alexander, Jack Frederickson, and Robin Spano. Parnell Hall, one of my all-time favorite writers of humor, wasn't on the panel but got a tip of the hat from the panelists. If you've never seen his videos about the writing life, check out "Signing in a Waldenbooks," "Kill 'Em," and "The King of Kindle." Funny guy. Funny panel. I've read Allan Ansorge's books, since he's a beloved member of the Killer Nashville family, but I hadn't read the others. Obviously, I'll have to remedy that.
The panel by the guests of honor was remarkable--at times serious, at times hilarious, at times enlightening. At one point, a humorous and slightly off-color anecdote by Val McDermid rendered the panel speechless as the room erupted in laughter. Add Colin Cotterill, Charlaine Harris, Robert Crais (I heart Joe Pike), and moderator Oline Cogdill, and it was one of the most entertaining panels I've seen. I also enjoyed seeing Charles Todd on the military panel moderated by Matthew Funk.
I've heard a lot of Irish, English, and Scottish accents already and am looking forward to the panel of Irish authors on Saturday. I'd like to pin some of these folks down and just have them talk to me for about a year. Especially John Connolly, whose Charlie Parker series is among my favorites. I just finished The Reapers a few weeks ago and am in awe of the man's talent. And did I mention the accent?
I also got to see one of my favorite authors in the world, Timothy Hallinan. Tim's graciously agreed to let me pump him for information for my third book. As several people today have said, "Mystery writers are some of the nicest people in the world."
To top it off, I finally got to meet our own Leighton Gage. After reading so many of his charming posts, it was a pleasure to see him in person.
Having a great time. Wish you were here!
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
While age may take its toll on comprehension and retention, advances in technology have minimized our thinking to the point that our brain is rarely challenged. Calculators are used in math classes, computers tell us when our tires and engine fluids are low, sensors turn on our lights -- we don’t even need to dial phone numbers anymore. Just talk and it dials for you. I can’t speak for everyone, but when my brain lacks exercise, it forgets things. A recent flight with my buddy Dan reminded me of that.
For decades, I regularly flew light airplanes, but I sold my bi-plane in 1985 and then stopped renting planes after 9-11 temporarily grounded the fleet. As much as I miss low and slow flying, other obligations have made it more difficult to stay current. So when Dan wanted to take me flying in his aerobatic airplane for my birthday, I was elated. However, when he handed me a local area chart shown above that depicts all of the airspace restrictions, I realized the airliner’s moving map display (also shown above) had reduced my ability to perform basic skills that I spent years training others to do. Then again, how much exercise can my brain get from an electronic display that tells me where I am, where I’m going, where other traffic is, and what the terrain and weather is like? Not that I’m complaining because I’ve grown quite fond of this technology – but when Dan handed me this chart, my brain reacted as though it had never seen one before. This revelation was rather disconcerting considering I am still a licensed flight instructor and just renewed my certificate last spring.
Dan’s single engine plane requires that we fly by visual references, and since we took off from an uncontrolled airport, we never once spoke to an air traffic controller. The rejuvenating feeling from this type of flying is magnificent and it didn’t take long to feel comfortable. Navigating by mountain peaks, highways, and lakes is much more stimulating than following an electronic magenta line. I look forward to the day when I can acquire another light airplane so I can navigate off the charts I will have downloaded onto my iPad. Hey – once you’ve experienced technology, it’s hard to go back.
While our flight was absolutely exhilarating, recurring thoughts about how I struggled with this chart reminded me of how important it is to challenge my brain. I don’t like the feeling that I’m learning to read all over again, and I was fortunate that things came back so quickly. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for those less fortunate as they try to recall things they once knew but can’t seem to find. My experience gave me a better appreciation for those who struggle in their later years. While I once believed that crafting stories was enough to keep my brain active, it’s clear that I must expand its stimulus. Reading fiction and non-fiction helps, as do crossword puzzles and Sudoku. Thinking while walking the dog exercises the brain as well as the body, and the dog is always willing to assist.
Of course, there is no way to predict what my mental or physical health will be in the future. Alzheimer’s seems to strike people as randomly as lightning. But doctors are certain that those who mentally and physically exercise will retain their capacities longer than those who sit in rocking chairs watching the world go by. Dan, I thank you not only for the flight, but also this lesson in life. I have learned to read again, and I’ll be brushing up on “old school” flying before age takes another bite out of my brain. I’ll also keep writing for as long as I’m able to do so.
Monday, September 12, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
She saw they're,their house on the way to her office.
No one was their, there, so she passed/past it.
She decided to stop awhile/a while at a coffee shop.
There/Their she wrote on her next mystery.
She sure drank alot/ a lot of coffee besides/beside eating a chocolate cupcake.
She, along with her book, is/were taking up too/to/two many chairs.
Did you like grammer/grammar/Grandma while in your/you're classes?
Okay, so I taught English/english for twenty years, and now I'm getting to fulfill a lifelong dream--write novels. They're/There/There fun, romantic murder mysteries.
(In case you aren't sure about any of the answers above, please ask. I still have my red pen: )
Friday, September 9, 2011
by Earl Staggs
Some decisions around my house are simple for my wife and me. Who takes out the trash cans on Sunday evening? If there’s a flying insect in the house, who chases it down?
More important decisions, however, are different. Say we have to decide on a big purchase, a new car, for example. We shop, we test drive, we ask questions we Google. In short, we want all the information available and all the facts we can get our hands on before we make a critical decision. I think that’s the same for most people.
Can you imagine people having to make major decisions without knowing all the facts?
It happens all the time.
Imagine twelve people confined in a room with the responsibility of deciding the future of someone’s life. Suppose their decision is whether a person lives or dies? What can be more important than that?
Now imagine those twelve people are not allowed to know all the facts. Imagine some information which would affect their decision is withheld from them.
It happens all the time.
I’m talking about a jury, of course, and I’m talking about situations in which certain facts and information are declared “inadmissible” by a judge. I’m talking about a jury being “sequestered” so they cannot be privy to what’s going on in the outside world. After all, they may hear or see something which could have an impact on their decision. Heaven – or rather, His Honor -- forbid they should have all the facts related to the guilt or innocence of the accused.
What’s wrong with this picture? The Law is getting in the way of justice.
It happens all the time.
It happened in the O. J. Simpson case. It happened in the Casey Anthony case. Those are only the two best known examples. After the Simpson trial, more than one juror remarked to the effect that if they’d known such and such, their decision would have been different. During the Anthony trial, one of the TV analysts said basically the same thing: “If they jury knew such and such, their decision would be easy.”
Why do these things happen? Because The Law gets in the way of justice. The Law is too often treated as an entity which must be adhered to strictly as written even if justice is not served. I think that’s wrong, wrong, wrong. The Law is supposed to be a tool for achieving justice. The intent of the law should be applied, not the letter of the law.
Suppose my wife and I are shopping for a new car. We are not allowed to know the miles per gallon of the different makes. We are not allowed to know that one particular make has experienced a large number of brake failures. That information might affect our decision, you see. Those facts might prejudice our choice of one make over another.
Suppose a man is accused of raping and murdering a ten-year-old girl. The jury is not allowed to know this man has been accused of rape and murder three times in the past. The man’s record of six convictions for spousal abuse is declared inadmissible. That information, you see, might prejudice the jury against this man.
Damn right it would. It most certainly would and it most certainly should. How can any fact be withheld if that fact would have an impact on making the right decision?
Yet, it happens all the time.
SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS – An ebook steal at $2.99:
Available at Amazon and Smashwords. Now available as a PRINT version at CreateSpace.
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"The Day I Almost Became a Great Writer," my funniest story.
"White Hats and Happy Trails," about the day I spent with Roy Rogers.
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Is it autumn yet? Here in Oregon, no sign of mists at present. We're having a heatwave, in fact. But where mellow fruitfulness is concerned...
Somehow, in spite of our cold wet spring, chilly wet July, and two weeks of summer in August before it went away again, this:
...has been transformed into this:
Plums are turning purple; blackberries are in full flood; half my neighbours are giving away tomatoes and begging people to take the zucchini! Squirrels are gorging on hazelnuts and burying them in my lawn for the future. Later on, they'll come and dig holes all over the place looking for them. Only once in nearly twenty years here in Eugene have they left any for me to harvest. They think my job is pulling up seedlings growing from the nuts they didn't find.
My grapes are just beginning to ripen. The vine is incredible--Planted about 12 feet from the house, it stretches along a fence, over a gate, and then divides at the corner of the house to hang from the gutters 20 feet in one direction and more like 30 the other way. If I didn't cut it back constantly throughout the summer, it would have buried the house by now. Soon I'll be able to step out of my back door and pick grapes for breakfast.
Spring is my favourite season, but with autumn bringing such rich rewards, I'm happy to see it arriving, even when it brings those mists with it.
Monday, September 5, 2011
After a brutally hot summer where here in the Midwest we reached the one hundred degree mark as recently as this past weekend, I’m excited to see Labor Day on the calendar. I’m ready for cooler weather; baseball to give way to college football, soccer, and later basketball; the smell of bonfires and cinnamon coffee; Halloween; kettle corn; old jeans and tattered sweatshirts; the rich, comforting tones of autumn leaves; hayrides and pumpkin patches; s‘mores and caramel apples; familiar blankets; brown ales; and the anticipation of snow, bigger holidays, and a new year. I’m ready for it all.
Symbolically, Labor Day represents the end of summer. I prefer to think of it as the beginning of fall.
Sunday, September 4, 2011
Good morning from the gray skies of Cape Cod MA. Not that I'm complaining. Especially since Irene was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm by the time it reached our shores. Still managed to cause major power outages and floods, but compared to other parts of the country, we were very lucky.
I think I've mentioned before that our daily paper, the Cape Cod Times, has a full page in the Sunday edition devoted to books. Today's story was a wrap-up of summer reading choices, according to local booksellers. The headline was, "Summer Reading Is In The Bag. Local booksellers list their favorites and buyers'." It was no surprise that the top choices were "Caleb's Crossing" by Geraldine Brooks, "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett, "The Harry Potter" series, "The Greater Journey" by David McCullough, and "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. Of "The Greater Journey," one bookseller was quoted as saying, "It's been absurdly popular."
Another local bookseller was quoted as saying that he thinks good verdicts from newspapers and magazines still play a part in sales.
But the truth of the matter is that, with the e-book phenomenon, anyone can post a book review these days. No credentials required. Amazon Kindle encourages readers to write reviews. Goodreads is another popular site. And let's not forget all the reader (ahem) blogs popping up all over the Internet.
I review cozy mysteries every month for Suspense Magazine, which is a highly respected publication. Not all the books I'm given to read are, in my opinion, fabulous. But the author put so much time and effort into writing that they deserve a respectful review. As my mother always told me, you can always find something good to say if you look hard enough.
While I can certainly see the benefits of open reviews, there's a flip side to this as well. Bad reviews often beget more bad reviews, and a perfectly good book can be trashed before it has a chance to build an audience.
My two cents. Others welcome to chime in.