Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Clarinet by Any Other Name

October 25th 1805 caricature by James Gillray
"Harmony before Matrimony"

So there I was, minding my own business, writing a scene in my second book, when the fiendish captain picks up a clarinet and begins to play. What? Where in the world did that come from? I know nothing about instruments in 1805. Am I not already plagued by research? Did my characters conspire to force me into spending more time at the library? What manner of madness is this?

I've started looking into it and found a guy, online, who not only plays the clarinet, but has played the very piece my character is playing. I emailed him and asked him how he felt while he played it. Did it transport him to another place, another world? Did the perfection of the music (Mozart) make him want to cry, as it does me just to listen? Well? Fess up, man, tell me about your feelings!

What will this poor gentleman's reaction be to such ridiculous questions? I want to crawl inside the artist and feel what he feels, so I can write it. Is that so wrong? Is it? Will he even answer me?

(And if I didn't know better, I'd think the two cats in the above art were my own two precious rascals, who are obviously not impressed with the music.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jingle, Jingle, Thwack

Pets are amusing. Except sometimes.

Last night, before I went to bed, I thought I’d play with the cats. I picked up one of Schooner’s toys and tossed it. Normally he plays an energetic game of fetch, but last night he just sauntered over to the toy and tapped it.

"Fine,” I said. “I was saving this for Christmas, but here is a new toy.” I dropped a new plastic ball with an obnoxious bell inside, and Schooner went crazy, batting it all over the house before running out of steam. He clamped his jaws around it and trotted to my feet, dropping the ball and glancing up. I scooped it up and hurled it into the kitchen, Schooner close behind. He batted it around for another two minutes before bringing it back. We did this several times before he dropped it too far for my reach. This seems to be the difference between a dog’s fetch game and a cat’s fetch game. The cat will call a halt when he’s had enough.

“That’s it.” I stood up, stretched, and shuffled down the long hall to my room. “Good night Hobiecat and Schooner.” They watched as I closed the door. The cats are not invited into my room because they use my bed as a drag strip at 5AM, which I do not find amusing. But I knew they'd go snuggle up in their beds and be warm and safe.

In the dark, the distant tinkle of a bell woke me. It got louder and louder and I knew. Schooner was batting the ball down the hall toward my door. I glanced at the red numbers on the digital clock: 4:10 AM.

The bell stopped for an instant, then began again; jingle, jingle, thwack; jingle, jingle, thwack; jingle jingle, thwack. He bounced the ball against my door repeatedly for about five minutes until he finally gave up the hope I’d come out and play.

Merry Christmas.

Maybe that pet rock thing was a good idea.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Guest Post--Self-torture Techniques for Writers

Yes, it is Christmas time and I've been busy, so once again, I've talked Carolyn J. Rose into doing a guest blog. In the interest of the season, she has decided to do her blog on self-torture. We've all been there, right? She has also been kind enough to offer a book for a contest. More about that later. Without further ado, heeeeere's Carolyn.

* * * * *

We humans are comfort-seeking creatures. Being a Virgo, there’s nothing I find more comforting than a routine—unless it’s the thrill of checking items off a list. My writing days are marked off by coffee in my favorite mug, peanut butter on homemade bread, reading the comics in a specific order, walks in a counter-clockwise pattern, water aerobics, cheese crackers, and a set number of pages written by nightfall.

The rut of routine is a comfortable place, but the deeper I slide into it, the easier it is to spin my wheels and write the same kind of book over and over. In that comfortable rut, there’s no incentive to change, no challenge to learn and grow. The other danger is that I might eventually get so mired down that I decide to turn off the engine and stop writing entirely. So I’ve got to get out of the rut and go where I haven’t been before. But how do I do that when the pull of routine is so powerful?

Well, I know that comfort doesn’t lead to change, but pain and pressure do. So I’ve learned to torture myself in many ways for many reasons. Here are some of the techniques I’ve used. Some involve mental or emotional pain and a few involve a degree of physical discomfort. If you’re faint of heart or your writing is where you want it to be, stop reading now, otherwise, repeat “no pain, no gain” and read on.

• Write in new and unfamiliar places. Leave that cushy chair, the coffee shop, the air-conditioned office. Drive to the airport and write in the lounge, cram yourself into a bathtub, pick out a park bench, writing standing up beside the washer. (Legend has it that Thomas Wolfe wrote in longhand, using the top of a refrigerator as a desk. Granted, refrigerators were shorter then, but he was 6’ 6” tall. I’m 5’ 2”. That’s why I suggested a washer.)

• Write with new materials. Shut down the computer and grab a legal pad. Toss aside the legal pad and pen and write on a paper bag with a nub of a pencil. Try finger-painting your next novel or grab a stylus and a clay tablet or a chisel and a block of stone.

• Write hungry. Skip breakfast and forego that cup of coffee.

• Treat food as a reward for meeting your writing goal, not an entitlement.

(But set small goals. Try to knock out 100 pages before breakfast and your blood sugar will be lower than the winter temperature in Nome.)

• Start a conversation with a stranger. Make it even tougher—pick out someone with a scowl, someone who appears unapproachable. (I suggest a well-lit public area for this one. Approaching the wrong person on a dark street could result in more pain than you bargained for.)

• Read challenging material. Pick up something by Henry James, James Joyce, or Stephen Hawking. Get a copy of the health care bill and take Cornell notes.

• Create artificial deadlines. Set an oven timer. Tell yourself you work for a newspaper, you’re on deadline, and the editor is breathing down your neck and checking his watch. (Use a hairdryer aimed at the back of your head to simulate that breath. Use the scent of your choice to further enhance the effect. Back in the day, many of my editors carried the scent of cigarettes or adult beverages.)

• Change critique groups. Group members can become too supportive or too snarky. Find a group where you’ll be “the new kid” and see what a fresh audience has to say.

• Invite a reader to beat you up. Ask for criticism from someone who will mangle your manuscript—an ex-lover, the neighbor who complained when your dog pooped on his lawn, a politician you heckled.

• Try a different style or voice. Write in the style of William Faulkner or Jonathan Lethem. Write in the voice of Huckleberry Finn or Stephanie Plum.

• Try a different genre. If you write science fiction, try romance. If you write romance, try your hand at a western, if you’re all about mystery, try out fantasy.

When you challenge yourself, you’ll challenge your characters. When you ratchet up the tension, they could surprise you by how creative they become. And, after a few weeks of pain, you’ll look in the rearview mirror and see that the rut is far behind you.

Bio: Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She teaches novel-writing in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

She is the author of eight mysteries, Hemlock Lake, Consulted to Death, Driven to Death, and Dated to Death, and the co-author of Sometimes a Great Commotion, The Big Grabowski, The Hard Karma Shuffle, and The Crushed Velvet Miasma.

Following her own advice, she and her husband co-authored a young-adult fantasy, The Hermit of Humbug Mountain. In this epic battle between good and evil, the fate of the world depends on a teenage boy with a flair for drumming and his precocious sister.

Visit her virtual home at www.deadlyduomysteries.com

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What do you want?

I keep getting asked what I want for Christmas. Usually my eyes get glassy and little bubbles appear at the corners of my mouth while I babble, "Um...well...I don't know."

Later I may think of something boring, like a Starbucks card, (okay it really isn't boring to me, since that is where I lose myself in the early 1800's and there is nothing boring about that), or socks, or a new pillow case; things no one really wants to buy as a gift. How can I tell my mother that what I really want is a cutlass?

When I sit in Starbucks, I can hear the song of the steel leaving the scabbard, see the glint of the candle reflected on the blade, feel the weight of it. Perhaps the Starbucks card is enough.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I Hear the Train a-Comin'

Vancouver, Washington Train Station, looking south
toward Portland Oregon

Saturday, in Vancouver (not BC), I had a few minutes to kill before heading over to the Angst Gallery for the Writers Mixer. I hardly ever get downtown during daylight hours and decided to drop by the Vancouver train station where I'd been involved in several emotional dramas (which you can see here). As good fortune would have it, a freight train was ambling south in front of the station. I screeched into a parking space and hopped out of the car, ripping my camera out of its case as I sprinted over some shrubs onto the platform.

I mean, a picture of a train station has to be more fun with a train in the picture, right? With my toes on the edge of the yellow, bumpy strip and the camera balanced in front of my eyes (it doesn't have a view finder but old habits die hard), I pointed it south and snapped a picture. But, wait, I thought, a picture of a caboose in front of the station would be awesome. I aimed the camera north and waited to see if the train had one. I waited and waited as the cars slunk by.
Vancouver Train Station looking north

I don't know what made me turn the camera south again, but a Burlington Northern bore down on me like a...ah...like a freight train (I need to work on my similes-that is just too cliché). I jumped back just in time. And no, I didn't hear it. Well, maybe I heard it, but I thought it was the other train.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe

Scared the beejeebers out of me. Train stations are dangerous. I think I should go back to hanging out at Starbucks.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Crushing Dreams

Self-Portrait, Rolinda Sharples c 1820

My protagonist wants to go to college. What in the world is she thinking? Women did not go to college in 1805/1806. Does anyone have any ideas what a gently-raised woman would do who wanted to earn her own living? Is it possible to go back and change history?

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia accepted women in 1805, but is my protagonist artistic? Still, she can’t cook without setting something on fire and she isn’t very good at taking care of children. She must have some skills which could translate into money. Is it art? Does she have talent in that direction? Shouldn’t I have known about this earlier? I mean, really, I’ve taken her through an entire book already and it wasn’t mentioned. I’m a little miffed.

It is unfortunate, but I’ll just have to dash all her hopes and plans, not because I want to, you understand, but because historically, society would have done so. Somehow, this pleases me. Mwahahaha. I feel better already. Writing is fun. In what other occupation can one take pleasure from making someone absolutely and completely miserable and still be accepted at cocktail parties?

Perhaps I'll toss in a couple of fabulous things she never expected, just to be nice. I am a nice person at heart, even though I'll be as mean as possible to her. Honest.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Goose Me

I love the Northwest. There are so many things to thrill the heart. This morning I drove to work in 20 degree (Fahrenheit) weather and saw a lone crane shivering in a frosty field. A red-tailed hawk perched atop a light standard, gazing down at a small wetland pond. A gaggle of Canada geese--maybe one hundred of them--honked their way west, turned, flew east, circled in bustling chaos until they settled in for a rest.

I had lunch with the geese a few days ago. They get nervous if I get out of the car, but they allow me to join them if I sit quietly with my window open and Mozart drifting into the frigid air.

I must find a way to include them in a book.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beta Reader Time

I've finished rewriting my book, and I got the brilliant idea I'd print it off and get a couple of beta readers to go over it. I went to a talk given by Karen Azinger, who has recently sold a five-book deal, and she suggested beta readers be the friend of a friend. Someone who doesn't really know you and never has to face you again will be more honest. She has a check list she asks the beta reader to do at the end of each chapter and once they have finished the manuscript, she invites the reader out for coffee...and grills them. Grilling people sounds fun to me so I'm doing it.

I hauled the tiny flash-drive down to Kinkos and asked how much it would be to print two copies and spiral-bind them. Whoo hooo, it was a lot. So I asked if I could do two pages on one sheet. He said I could, if it was formatted that way, and then he pivoted and began helping someone else. Do I know how to format it so there are two of the same page on each page? No. I rolled my computer bag in and fired up the laptop, but after fifteen minutes I decided to just buy some ink and print it off myself.

Bad idea. An HP #94 print cartridge only prints about 200 pages. What is up with that? That is highway robbery. That is larceny. That is very expensive. I burned through two cartridges printing off the two copies, single spaced, with title page. Plus it took a very, very long time. The next day I bagged up the two piles and had them bound at Office Depot. I tucked the chapter-by-chapter check list inside, and handed them off to my friend who has lined up two of her friends to act as beta readers.

My babies are off and my heart is thumping. And just to be fair to Kinkos/Office Depot/Office Max, it would have been about the same price to have them do it and bind it, than printing it at home with the steal-the-grocery-money-out-of-the-pockets-of-the-user HP home printer.

As an aside, I have an uneducated character in my book who uses slang and double negatives, etc. Spell-check HATED him. It took so long to run the spell-check, and continually press "ignore rule," that next time I'm packing a lunch.

Okay, I think I'm finished venting now.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Historical Fiction/Historical Facts

She waved a pair of scissors. "Look what I forgot to give back to Mr. Applegate."

Uh oh. Dang it. When were scissors invented? Off I go to google scissors. Were they around in 1805? Yes. Whew. Back at the manuscript, I begin typing again, but my mind is not focused. What kind of scissors were around in 1805? Were they the spring scissors, like sheep sheers, or pivoted? Were they easily available? Would they be likely to be in Mr. Applegate's possession?

More research.

It is okay. He probably would/could have had a pair of scissors. Okay, back to the manuscript. ("Okay" was not used in 1805, by the way, and it is really difficult for me to avoid using "okay" when, really, it is one of my favorite words--just saying.)

So all this took about fifteen minutes. Just to write those two lines. As one writes historical fiction, one must investigate historical fact. In my book, I never say what type of scissors they are, but I'd better dang well know that they were readily available to someone in Mr. Applegate's position. It is the little, tiny, insignificant details that give historical fiction its flavor.

If they were around then, but not easily available, the next line could reflect that.

"He's probably frantic. You've got to get them back to him."*

If they were available, but very expensive:

"How much do you think we could get for them?"*

If they were likely to be unimportant until the next time they were needed, then maybe following with this would be fine:

"I guess you'll have to return them, but not until after we've used them."*

This is why I could never do Nanowrimo. Yes, yes, yes, I know you can just write a note to yourself to research later and go on with the writing, but my mind doesn't work that way. Before I spend a bunch of time writing something that could not have happened, I want to know that it could. Had scissors not been invented, I would have been tapping the backspace key.

Whatever possessed me to write historical fiction? I don't know. But I love the reality of the world I've created; from the creaking wood of the ship, the smell of the tarred lines, to the damp, rat-infested darkness of the hold. How would a sheltered, twenty-year-old woman deal with the hardship and terror of being aboard a Royal Navy ship during the Napoleonic wars, when all she had wanted was to visit her grandmother in South Carolina?

Back to editing.

*none of these are actually the following line

Monday, November 8, 2010


I've been worried all day. When the alarm blared this morning, I tossed off the covers and picked my way across the carpet, keeping my gaze away from the windows, lest I see an owl. My breathing came quick and shallow on the drive to work for fear I'd see a black cat or spin out into on-coming traffic. When the car rolled into a parking place, I raced through the front door, holding the banister as I climbed the stairs and slumped into my cubical, taking long, hardy breaths. Minutes later the back stairwell door banged open and footsteps clumped on the linoleum floor. The maintenance supervisor dragged a ladder through the maze of cubicals, all the way back to my desk.

My eyes widened. "What are you doing with that ladder?" I whispered in a shaky voice.

He cocked his head and stared. "You wanted your light bulb changed."

I never said anything about one of the overhead florescent lights being out. I pressed back into the chair, remaining completely still until he'd finished his task and hauled the ladder away.

It has been 24 hours. That seems like enough time, don't you think? Last night about this time I had some Chinese food. After the meal I broke open my fortune cookie and there was nothing there. Nothing. What does it mean when there is no fortune at all? Bad luck? Or that I won't last the day?
I'm home now and have buckled myself into my easy chair. I'm not moving until the stroke of midnight.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Marauding Renegade

Normally on a Saturday I go a-roguing at Starbucks, slapping down some coin for a small cup of java and pillaging their electricity for my computer. But I'm tired of coffee. (Did I just say that?) I've had me three cups o' Joe, more'n my daily allotment, and I didn't feel like running the trade at the coffee hut. I set a course for my local library, with all the big windows and comfy chairs and lonely tables in the corner.

Out in the parking harbor, I stole some lubber's wind, moored my car and hauled my rolling red computer bag into the cavernous edifice. Here, I don't have to spill my purse for no worm-infested grog, (although it would be jolly if some no-account would set a tankard of ale on the table--just saying). Last week I wrote out an enormous check for the cutthroat tax collector and, curse me for a canting mugger, I done earned the right to steal five hours of electricity.

Aaarrrr, back to editing.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Be Prepared--Carry a Chair

Photo by Scott Meltzer

Today was warm and sunny. I could see the sun outside, reflecting off the white walls of the building across the parking lot. Trucks looked hot at they backed into the loading docks. A seagull scanned the pavement for forgotten treats. Days like this in November are not all that common and when you live where it rains nine months out of the year, you really want to participate in the sunshine. That's why when I heard the monthly test of the "Emergency Broadcast System" on the radio, I evacuated the building and popped open my trunk where I keep a folding chair for just such occasions.

"What are you doing out here," one of my co-workers asked.

"It was the test of the Emergency Broadcast System," I said. "I'm waiting for the okay to go back inside." I settled back and watched the orange glow behind my eyelids, stretched my legs out, and listened to the compression brakes on the State Route 503 and the patter of forklift horns in the warehouse. It nearly lulled me to sleep. Such a shame that a co-worker gave me the "all clear" just a few minutes later.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Just the Wrong Word

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Philip A. McDaniel.

What are the chances of making a fool of oneself over poor word choices twice in one week? It shakes my belief in myself. More importantly, I can never get a flu shot again.

Today at work, we had a health-care worker come to give flu shots. It was my job to stand around and twiddle my thumbs, making sure everyone filled out the questionnaire and heckling co-workers (it is fabulous to be really good at something). One of the ladies, after finishing her paperwork, sidled up to the chair, slid up her sleeve and scrunched up her face.

"Oh, come on. The shot isn't that bad," I said. "You should be fine within a week."

She suffered through the needle and stood, pointing to her arms. "It is just that I have bad veins," she offered as an excuse for being afraid of needles. "When I was pregnant, they had to get blood several times and they would poke one arm three or four times, and poke the other one three or four times because they couldn't find any veins."

"Oh, that is bad," I said, remembering the ordeal my daughter went through years ago when they tried to get blood from her and gave her a huge bruise that lasted for weeks. I glanced down at my co-worker's smooth arms, showing no signs of purple veins. "Well, it is okay to ask for the most experienced lobotomist, you know."

The health-care worker's head jerked around and she stared at me, covering her mouth with her fist and going into a fit of coughing. "Oh, wow, that is just cute," she said when she recovered. "Lobotomist?"

Oh dear Lord.

"Phlebotomist," I corrected. "Right? Phlebotomist." My eyes rolled back and I buried my head in my hands. I can only assume a lobotomist is one who performs lobotomies. And if I were to ever find myself to be pregnant at my age, I'd definitely want a lobotomist as opposed to a phlebotomist.

But still...I'll never be able to face that health-care worker next flu season.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Just the Right Word

As a writer, it is important to supply just the right word at the right time to carry a paragraph, a page, a scene. There have been times I've studied a Thesaurus, called friends, debated with critique members, and rewritten a scene ten times before I realized it was one word, one lousy, detestable word snarling the scene.

I just got back from an extended weekend at the coast with my parents and my sister from Vermont. We went to a Mexican restaurant while in Rockaway Beach and I was wise enough to sit next to my mother. My father tends to elbow the person next to him continually, to gain their attention. My sister was suffering the blows while helping him understand the menu.

"Now, Dad, with this one you can get guacamole. Do you like guacamole? "

"What is that?" he asked.

She explained and so did my mother. He grunted. My sister went on, suggesting some other items she thought he might enjoy. We ordered and when the waitress brought the steaming meals, my mother looked across the table at my father's plate. "Where is his guacamole?"

My sister, little tufts of hair falling from her chignon, and her hand rubbing her arm closest to my father, said, "Oh, that was a different...a different...that was a different..."

Since I've sat next to my father for an entire five hour flight from Massachusetts to Portland, I recognized the signs of distress from the elbow treatment. Certain she was looking for words such as "menu item" or delicious entree" or "burrito supreme," I couldn't come up with anything. I finally asked, "Thing?"

"Thing. Yes, that was a different thing," she said. Her glance reached mine. "Thank you, Melanie, for supplying just the right word."

I curled my fingers over, blew on my fingernails and polished them on my shirt. With an arrogant tilt of my head, I said, "Yeah, I'm a writer."

Thing. Geeez.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cover to Cover Books

Cover to Cover Books

On a Friday in October of 2007 my mother called from back East and mentioned they'd had a fire in the basement. She and my father were fine, and the fire department had put the fire out before it got to the first floor. They were going to spend the night at a hotel, but everything was okay.

The next day, I called her and asked if she wanted me to fly back there. She said my sister was on her way from Vermont and that it was under control. The house looked pretty good.

The next day she called and said she needed help. It was way worse than it appeared.

When I arrived on the fourth day, the stench in the first and second floors of the house was overwhelming. In the basement, not only did wood burn, but plastic shelving, vinyl floorboard, and any number of other chemicals. The entire house reeked and had to be stripped down to the studs and rebuilt. Most of their belongings were a loss from smoke damage.

When a friend emailed last Friday, October 2010, with the news that Cover to Cover Books--where the Vancouver Writer's Mixer is held the first Saturday of every month, and where I had taken a writing class from best-selling author, Lilith Saintcrow--had suffered damage from a fire in the restaurant next door, memories of the dark, soot-filled rooms stinking of burnt chemicals and charred wood, assaulted me. I emailed the owner, but I knew the electricity was off. After work I rushed to downtown Vancouver and found her packing boxes of smelly, sooty books, to be hauled off by an after-the-fire
service company. Some of the books suffered water damage, with no hopes of saving them. All
the book shelves had to be dismantled and hauled away to the ozone chambers where they try to get out the smell of smoke and use chemicals to clean off the black.

Signs, posters, cork-board, displays are all a loss. Upholstered furniture is rarely able to be saved. Even the turkey vulture suffered from the odious smoke. Soot is everywhere. I tried cleaning off the desk top, but without chemicals, the black remains.

By Saturday afternoon, the store was empty except for a large pile of sodden rubble the owner must inventory while daylight filters through the grimy windows.

And now the real torture begins. The limbo. Being a helpless cog in a bogged-down, muck of bureaucracy. Although the fire was in the restaurant next door, it was all one building and the smoke and water damage in the bookstore is evident. Will the landlords rebuild? If they do, will it be three months? Six? A year? Will any of the books be saved? Will insurance cover the entire loss of inventory, hardware and furniture? Will it cover the months of closure?

The victim has no control over any of what happens next, and losing that control over one's life is the hardest of all to bear. I'm thankful the owner of the bookstore wasn't hurt. I'm thankful Smeadly the cat is unharmed, but I wonder if there is something we can do to help an independent bookstore owner through the next year of limbo. That is when my parents suffered the worst. It is the life-on-hold that lacerates the psyche.

If you have any ideas of how I (or we as a community) can help, please leave them here. We love our local bookstore owner. There are so few of them left.

Monday, October 11, 2010

We're the Mousecarteers, We Want to Say Hello

It turns out that harmless, little Legacy is a MouseCarTeer Hybrid. I drove the 40 miles down to see my parents in Oregon, at 70 mph mind you (just kidding all you state troopers, I was doing the exact speed limit, never faster), and as I careened into the lot of the senior living complex, a mouse compelled herself out of the engine compartment onto the windscreen by the windshield wipers. I screamed, slammed into a parking space and ripped open my phone.

"Mom, there's a mouse in front of me. On my car, right in front of my eyes." At that, the mouse scurried along the glass, scrambled onto the hood and checked out her new surroundings. I laid on the horn and prayed most of the residents were hard of hearing. The mouse scrambled back up the hood and dropped into the trough where the wipers hide. I threw down the phone, pressed back against my seat and flipped on the windshield wipers. The mouse simply stared at them before her gaze penetrated the window and met mine.

"Eeeeeeek," I said and honked again. The creature dove down between the windshield and the hood and disappeared into the engine compartment again.
Mouse Trail

I called Subaru today. "Yeah, I have to bring my car in for the first oil change, could I bring it in today. Right now?"

"No, you'd have to make an appointment."

"What kind of service will you be doing? Will you be changing the oil, and maybe glancing around
the engine compartment for anything out of the ordinary?"


"I mean, like, would they look for, say, things that don't really belong in the engine compartment?"

His voice sounded suspicious now. "What kind of things?"

When I told him, he said mice love cars of all makes and models (I think they just love whatever car I drive), but that I needed to evict it before it causes the car to overheat.

Evicting it with intimidating back-up sounded good to me, so I opened the door to the engineering department. "Gentlemen, are you ready?"

"For what?" several voices called out from the cubical labyrinth.

"Just grab a pair of gloves and come out front," I said.

It was just my luck that Nelson drives a Jeep and Kyle hadn't a clue what he had volunteered to do. No one knew how to open the hood. First I opened the trunk, then I pulled the fuse box cover off. After consulting the owner's manual, the hood finally popped open. Backing away from the car, I asked the two men to check for mice and mice condominiums. They backed away too.

I glared.

They moved back to the car and stared under the hood, looking for movement. Kyle found the nest and yanked it out, but there was no sign of Minnie. I figure she was off at the hospital having sextuplets. So now it is just a matter of time before she reappears, with relatives.

My gas mileage didn't seem as good on the drive home.
Mouse Nest

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Conspiracy Theory

It is raining here in the Northwest. Hard to believe, I know. In order to make it through the long, grey winters, we look forward to celebrating whatever happens to come our way. That is why, at work, concern surfaced on Friday. Angela's voice drifted over the cubical jungle. "Melanie, don't say anything, but look at October 16th."

I glanced at my calendar, flipped it to the right month and noted the "National Boss's Day" printed at the bottom of the 16th's square. "Saturday? It's on a Saturday?" I asked the world in general, since Angela sits four cubicles away.

"I know." Angela's voice took on a devious tone. "It is odd it would be on a Saturday. It is almost as if they don't want us to celebrate it."

She has a point. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Commuting in the Northwest

My cats are afraid of what goes on outside our windows. On Sunday, I held Hobiecat up to the window and we checked out the squirrels and birds in the small yard. It isn't far to the woods and the leaves are turning. As we watched, a leaf let go of the branch and hurled itself to the ground. Hobie dug his claws into me and then leaped for the safety of the kitchen.

Photo by Alan Vernon

It is such a nice time of year, autumn. Even if I leave work a little late, it is still light on my drive home, so I get to see my neighbors who are out preparing their homes for winter.

This evening I saw Rocky about 3/4 of a mile from my house. I don't mind them living 3/4 of a mile away. It is when they are on my back deck, demanding I feed them that I don't care for the vicious little beasts.

Last night I had to stomp on my brakes to allow Ben to cross the street about 1/2 mile from my house. I think he was checking his mailbox. Ben has also been on my back deck a couple of times, but I haven't invited him back. He wasn't very friendly.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Temporary Setbacks

I have been remiss about writing. The fault is that of my cats. They plague me. They harpoon me. They rule me. They issue orders and commands from the time the sun comes up until late into the night; like Ebenezer Scrooge, expecting long hours of work in the cold, dreary room, with just a pittance for a candle and the rest for cat toys. Even when they sleep, they demand my attention. All I want to do is write, but they have other ideas. Schooner drops toys at my feet and expects me to play. Hobie feels the need to sleep nearby and occasionally flip his tail into me.

So, in order to get anything done, I must sneak away. This is temporary.
(Okay, yeah, I'm simply taking a break from the blog for another week or two. But it is so much more dramatic to blame it on the cats.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Remembering September 11th

I was on my way to drop off my car to have a new convertible top installed. It took a while to figure out that what was happening in New York was not just a dreadful accident. I think when the second plane hit, the realization dawned that the events were the personification of evil beyond comprehension. By the time I reached the upholstery shop, tears made wet paths down my cheeks and left dark patches on my light blue shirt. I got out of the car and stumbled into the front office. The owner looked askance while I handed him my keys. I blubbered something about just having been listening to the radio, as if that explained the red eyes and snuffling sobs. He just stared like I was nuts, took the keys and told me the car would be ready at four.

To this day I'm sure he didn't yet know what was going on 3000 miles away. I didn't tell him. I couldn't. There were no words to explain. I don't know how the newscasters did it.

My heart goes out to all who were there; those trying to escape, those trying to help them escape, those left behind to deal with the aftermath, and to all the friends and families who suffered loss.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Caffeinated Revisions

I'm at Starbucks, working on further revisions, and just went up to get my free refill with my registered shareholder's card. One of the employees said, "This is my favorite card. All the employees are standing outside in their little aprons, looking so happy."

"Yeah, like that would happen," another said.

Another employee snatched the card and they all gathered around to see it. "Yup, they really look happy."

"Well, of course, they are Starbucks employees," I said. "What is not to be happy about that?"

The first young man smiled. "Sure, we could look just like that," he boasted.

It is lucky I usually have my camera with me.
Yup. They look pretty happy. Now, may I have my coffee?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Dream to Some, A Nightmare to Others!

Guest Blog

In this episode of "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?", we learn that story ideas do sometimes come from dreams. Alas, my own dreams have never found the essential narrative rigor. For that, I've had to turn to others.

When I wrote Lost Dog, I had no long range plan. It was my first mystery, after attempting science-fiction, literary (whatever that means), and fantasy. The first three books will never see the light of day, for good reason, but as practice they were invaluable. By Lost Dog, I was actually starting to develop some chops and so, with help from critiquing co-conspirators, it was my first manuscript to become a book.

Other writers may have that long range plan. They may have goals, an arc mapped out in advance—perhaps years in advance—of actually being published. Me? Uh.

As Lost Dog was going through the pre-publication process, editing and marketing, my agent asked, "What are you working on next? We need to keep this train moving." And my response was …

It was …

Yeah, see. No long range plan.

I wrote my first novel, the science-fiction one, because I read and loved science-fiction. I wrote the literary novel because, well, I was in a college creative writing program and that's what you did. I wrote the fantasy because I loved fantasy. And when I wrote Lost Dog, it was because I loved mystery too. But beyond that, there was no coherent forethought. I was telling stories I wanted to tell.

So, what would I work on next? A historical novel? Comic narrative non-fiction? (I love those too.) Haiku collection? Well, it turns out I needed another mystery novel because, well, I was a published mystery author. Okay. No problem. I love mystery.

Here's the thing. I am not a font of ideas. Those writers who have twelve ideas before breakfast? Yeah, I hate them. I had no ideas for a next mystery novel. What I did have was a character I liked, Detective Skin Kadash, an important but supporting player in Lost Dog. He had a great voice, a distinctive characteristic, and I knew I'd enjoy going forward with him.

But how?

Cue crickets.

Fortunately, one morning my wife said to me, "I dreamed a group of men—all cancers patients—were dying, and I had to investigate their deaths." There was more to the dream, but I can't tell you the rest because if I did it would be a big spoiler for what would become my second mystery, Chasing Smoke.

Yes, Chasing Smoke is based on my wife's dream. Of course, I switched her with Skin. I also introduced a number of my own touches and jiggered the narrative to the point she actually said, "You got it wrong." But the essential story foundation grew out of her dream, and a series was born.

In my defense, I would like to say that the idea for my follow-up, Day One, was actually my own idea. But I can't say Chasing Smoke is the first time I raided someone else's dreams for story fodder.

In 1981, I was a freshman at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio (NOT Florida), and one morning at breakfast one of my dorm buddies—fellow named Joe Miller—described a dream. His mother ruled like a tyrant from the top floor of a huge house, issuing orders from above by intercom. Joe offered lots of rich details, and I hung on every word. At last I said, "Can I steal your dream for a story?" Joe graciously granted permission.

Over the next 25 or so years, "A Tall House" would go through many incarnations. I turned in a version in a creative writing class in 1982. I re-worked it again in 1983-85. In 1990, I moved from Ohio to Portland and in the process lost the original manuscript, as well as the floppy disk the working copy resided on. Alas.

All was not lost, however. Joe's dream was always there, and the story remained one I wanted to somehow tell. Off and on in the 90s I tinkered with a new version. But it never quite came together. It was Joe's dream, after all, and unlike Chasing Smoke and Skin Kadash, I had no hook of my own to hang it on.

Then in 2006, shortly after I signed the contract for Lost Dog, I met the editor of Spinetingler magazine, fellow mystery writer Sandra Ruttan, who suggested I enter the "Spinetingler Cozy Noir Contest." The requirement of the contest was that stories entered merge the essence of the cozy mystery—oft defined as a mystery where someone dies but no one gets hurt—with noir—dark and cynical and gritty.

Suddenly I had the hook I needed for "A Tall House," floundering all those years. I rewrote Joe's dream again, and for the first time the story stopped being entirely his and at last become more mine. I entered the story and had the great pleasure of winning. You can read the dream-to-story, a quarter century in the making, at Spinetingler here.

What does all this mean? It means ideas can come from anywhere. The old standard, "Where do you get your ideas?" has as many answers as there are people, and then some. Lost Dog grew out of an exercise in a writing class. Chasing Smoke and "A Tall House" came from someone else's dream. I knitted Day One together out of my own thoughts, a few news stories, and characters I'd been developing for a decade. My next book, County Line (due out summer 2011) grew out of a comment a reviewer made about Lost Dog.

All valid starting points, just a few out of many possible sources. Wherever your ideas come from, through the alchemical mix of imagination and writing, you can make them your own.


Bill Cameron is the author of the dark, Portland-based mysteries Day One, Chasing Smoke, and Lost Dog. His next Skin Kadash mystery, County Line, will be released in June 2011. His stories have appeared in Killer Year, Portland Noir, and the 2010 ITW anthology First Thrills. Lost Dog and Chasing Smoke were both finalists for the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery. Cameron lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is currently working on his fifth mystery.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Embarrassing Admissions

I haven't any idea why there is this need to admit my own shortcomings. A wise woman would keep her mouth shut, but today there is an urge to humiliate myself.

Before that can be done, however, it is important you know I finally decided on a new vehicle. I lumbered into the Subaru dealership in my 14 year oldVW Cabrio, and zoomed off in this four-door sedan. It wasn't my fault. The salesman had a British accent. I'm a sucker for a British accent.

That is not the embarrassing part.

When I was in the dealership, there was only one thing I wanted from the Brit. Yeah, I didn't care about the airbags, the engine, the windshield defogger or the parking brake. I just wanted to know how to set the radio stations.

That is not the embarrassing part.

When I drove out of the dealership, the radio was on a classical station. I turned it up and the music filled the car as if an orchestra crammed into the back seat with me. It was spellbinding. Now here is the embarrassing part. In my other car I didn't listen to a lot of classical. I tell myself it was because old convertibles are so noisy. I sang along to enriching songs like "Come Fly with Me," "Hot Hot Hot" and "Smooth." But after a few trips in the new car, I can't get enough classical music. I searched at home, hauled out a Bach, a Chopin and a Mozart CD and blew the dust off.

I always knew I liked Mozart, but I didn't know what utter perfection his music was until I heard the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, second movement, Adagio.

I'm in love with it. Seriously. There is enough time on the way to work to play it twice. I'm hoping this is just a phase. That isn't the embarrassing thing, though. I mean, a lot of people listen to the same song twice, right? Right?

Here is the next embarrassing thing. I have, on occasion, pictured my novel as a movie. I mean, really, it is so vivid in my mind that I got seasick writing some of the scenes. You are going to have to trust me on this. I wrote long into the night finishing "The Storm" scene, and when I went to bed, I was still riding the waves and I'm positive my skin was a little green. I'm hoping this is normal--not the getting seasick, but the picturing your novel as a movie.

When I picture it, I always try to imagine the background music. Sometimes when I hear music at Starbucks something will come on and make me think, that would be great for the "Uh oh, maybe I shouldn't have done that" scene.

I know exactly what scene the Clarinet Concerto, should be played. It is only a brief scene in the book, but in my mind I see the camera pan back with the ship on the vast expanse of ocean, while the orchestra answers the clarinet solo.

So now you know. I'm a dweeb. I've only just discovered the magic.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Quoting a Writer

Benjamin Franklin, 1767, by David Martin

The hardest thing about writing fiction is coming up with a witty quote for which you'll later become famous.--Melanie Sherman

Okay, so I admit that might not make me famous. I've been worried about this for about a month. Were I to obtain a spectacular agent (and, of course, any agent who offered representation would be spectacular--just saying) and the agent were to sell the book to a brilliant publishing house, naturally there'd be calls from Oprah and The Today Show, the local 5 PM news, and my parents. They would all want an interview and they would all expect a quote. Authors always seem to have them.

Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't.--Mark Twain

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.--Ben Franklin

All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Is that a bulletproof vest? See, now that's so insulting. That's like saying I'm not smart enough to shoot you in the head." --Janet Evanovich (Seven Up)

At first I thought writing the book would be difficult. That wasn't nearly as hard as rewriting it. Six times. But even that wasn't as bad as the query letter. I thought that was the worst of all, but I was wrong. Coming up with an amusing, charismatic quote is like a senior citizen expecting to still have a full head of hair after pulling out the gray ones.

You don't suppose I'm merely procrastinating on my revisions, do you?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pretending to be Dear

They are at it again. Stalking me. Plaguing me. Planning their next rampage. They have "look-outs" posted along my route home, ready to radio my approach to their comrades. They are evil. Ever since they ate all the plants in my garden (before I came to hate gardening) they have had it in for me because I refused to continue to plant more for them to clip to the ground.

Well, that and the fact that I scared one of them into charging me...twice.

Driving home yesterday, I passed by a neighbor's five acre parcel at 50mph. What I saw had me slamming my foot down on the brake pedal of my new car. It doesn't stop as sharply as I would like. I overshot the sight and had to motor a quarter of a mile before I could safely turn around. Not sure if I had seen correctly, and not even sure which property I'd seen it, I poked back the way I'd come, searching behind white rail fences with innocent horses grazing, and stands of arbor vitae. Finally, past some young Douglas firs, I spotted what I'd glimpsed.

The house is up a long driveway about two tenths of a mile from the road, but halfway between the house and the road is an outbuilding which provides a lovely piece of shade in the late afternoon. The shade cannot be seen from their house. I doubt the property owners know they have squatters. It can barely be seen from the road, either because of trees and plants, but I continually search for such signs because of my precarious relationship with neighboring wildlife.

There they were, in all their heinous splendor, taking a little breather before continuing their assault on what is left of my garden. I actually had to pull into the people's driveway and use the pitiful telephoto lens on my cheap little camera, but I caught the pernicious little beasts in the act.

I'm going to see if the post office will put this picture up in the "Most Wanted" display.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Garden Party

I was busy in my plush, windowed cubical today, tapping on my keyboard and humming some nameless tune by Mozart when Ryan ambled up. His hair stood out straight on one side like he'd run his fingers through it. He huffed out a long sigh and slapped down a material discrepancy report.

"Here is the paperwork for what we just shipped out."

I glanced at it and back to my computer screen. "Thanks."

Peck, peck, peck.

Now, most people would take that as a hint that I was either very busy or very rude. Either way it would normally discourage further chatter, but not with Ryan. "Um...I think I might not have told you. I'm having a house warming party on the eleventh."

I stopped typing, jumped up and grinned. "Really? On the eleventh of next month?"

"Yeah." He folded his arms across his chest.

"Swell." I snatched a pen off my desk and leaned over to the wall calendar, flipping it up a month. "Ryan's House Warming" I wrote in big letters across the proper square.

My pen dropped back into the rubble on the desk and I resumed tapping on the keyboard.

"Oh, that is just so cute," came Ryan's amused voice.

My fingers hovered over the keys and I raised my gaze to his. "Cute?"

"You thought I was inviting you?"

I glared at him and he laughed. "Ha. I'm just imitating you. You'd do that sort of thing," he said.

"Would I?" I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. "No wonder people hardly ever come back here and talk to me."

He chuckled and sauntered back out into the mainstream of the cubical maze.

He's never forgiven me for that time I invited him to my garden party. When he asked if he could bring a friend, I nodded. "Yes, please do." He got out his little notepad and wrote down the date and time and, being the sweet, polite man that he is, he asked if he could bring anything.

"Yes," I said. "Bring any gardening tools you have and some gardening gloves."

I really do hate gardening.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Revisions and Riesling

When I was researching The Pirates' Reckoning, a lot of time was spent at the library and book stores. When I began writing it, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks. It is such a great place to zone out and write. But what do you do when you reach a roadblock?Writer's block.

A rush trip to Lincoln City on the Oregon coast. There is something so soothing about the pounding surf and the squawking gulls and the foggy mist setting in at night. Salt settles on the paint of the car and slimy bird droppings dribble down the windshield. A bowl of clam chowder at Mo's and a glass of Riesling on the deck lend that extra push to kick-start the sluggish mind.

On Sunday morning I had breakfast at a restaurant with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the ocean. It was in that restaurant I first saw the kaleidoscope of rainbow color as the morning sun lit the spindrift floating over windblown waves. Yesterday, while sipping my mimosa, I saw a whale spout, breach and plunge back in, flipping his tail like a lover waves to a departing train.

I got a lot of rewrite done over an extended weekend. But then I took a drive to Newport. There is a lot happening in Newport, but something made me want to write about ghost ships, and zombies.
Next book.