I participated in the Book Bazaar at the Mechanics' Institute Library. I must say it felt good to see the four Nicole Tang Noonan Mysteries all together on the table. I sold a couple of books and learned a lot from readers. One frequent question: Where are they set?
"Mechanics" has become my literary community. For four years I've participated in writers' critique groups that meet there, attended talks by authors, and hung out at events like this. I've done most of the research for my mysteries at this library. I also enjoy readers' groups for mysteries and short stories.
As many have said, writing is a solitary activity, and I treasure that time by myself, but I need to come up for air a few times a month. There's nothing like getting to know other writers who are at the same stage I'm at and comparing notes on what's working and what's not.
The Mechanics' Institute Library has been around since the Gold Rush days, when its name was accurate. It was founded to teach people skilled trades. After about 20 years, it became a general interest library. This was before San Francisco had free public libraries.
It has always been a subscription library, and remains so today. For about the price of a years' subscription to a newspaper, all this is yours. And, yes, when I go there, everybody knows my name.
Everyone found out who Bernie Madoff is in 2008 when he was arrested by the FBI and charged with securities fraud. It is estimated he stole $18 billion through a Ponzi scheme he operated for at least twenty years.
He certainly wasn't the first infamous confidence man. In 2002, Steven Spielberg released Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, who stole millions while pretending to be an airline pilot, a doctor, and ironically a prosecutor.
There have been other high profile cons, but, as Maria Konnikova writes, most scams "are never because prosecuted because they are never detected." Apparently the true con artist not only creates a story to separate the victim from his money, but also creates a story to leave him thinking it was all bad luck.
Her book contains plenty of documented examples, but her analysis of who commits these crimes, how they do it, and why is most fascinating. It seems the typical scam artist is psychopathic (lacking empathy), narcissistic (entitled), and Machiavellian (scheming). Add to this genetic predisposition circumstances in life that provide motive and opportunity, and you have a confidence man.
The portrait of evil is compelling and seems to apply to other types of criminals as well.
I volunteered to staff the table for the Mechanics' Institute Library at The San Francisco Writers' Conference this weekend. It was fun. Along with telling conference-goers about the library, I got to chat with them about their writing and mine.
Being there had an extra resonance for me. The SFWC was the first writers' conference I attended after retiring from academic life and starting to write mysteries.
It is a supermarket-style conference, covering everything from poetry to genre fiction, with journalism, and literary fiction along the way. It offers everything from how-to-write sessions to how-to-promote consultations. I got a good sense of what was going in the world of writers.
At SFWC, I met and talked with a fellow writer about my wish to join a writers' group. That writer told me the Mechanics Institute Library hosts groups for writers.
Four years later the Mechanics' has become my literary home. I've been in a mystery writers' group for three-and-a-half years, and have participated in many other writerly activities, including Writers' Lunch, every third Friday.
Representing the Mechanics' at SFWC reminded me of something I heard recently from fellow writer Ethel Rohan. Writers must be in community with other writers. One must be a good literary citizen. Hear, hear!
As I prepare the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery for publication, I am thinking about how the series will sell on Amazon. For one thing, the books must look good when shoppers use the "Look Inside" feature.
That means the potential reader must see Nicole discover the murder at the end of about twenty pages. With this in mind, I checked my new book and saw the murder was discovered on page thirty-one.
So I picked up my pen and marked everything that could possibly be removed from those pages or postponed until later in the story. I found that by doing so I could make the murder visible in "Look Inside."
I don't mind rewriting for the sake of marketing. Writers have always had to do so, especially writers of genre fiction.
By the way, traditionally there is no hard and fast rule about when the murder must be discovered. Agatha Christie puts the murder on page forty of The Murder at the Vicarage. Of course, she wasn't publishing on Amazon.
At my library the other day, I was working on publication of the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery (more on that later this month). I needed to be sure about the physical dimensions of the book, but I hadn't brought a copy with me.
Then I remembered the library has a copy in its collection, so I went downstairs to the second floor where fiction is shelved alphabetically by author. After scanning past "Hoffman" and "Holmes," I came to where "Homan" should be and found . . . "Hopper."
After wondering why my book wasn't on the shelf, I ran to the catalogue, looked up "Dark Mural," and discovered it is "Due 01-18-19." It's checked out. Someone is reading it. The first Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, published last September and placed in the collection shortly after, continues to attract readers.
I know this is what we expect books in libraries to do, but this was the first time I became aware of my book doing it.
Last fall I was thrilled every time someone emailed a photo of paperback copies of Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, along with the padded envelope they arrived in.
I've been thrilled every time someone tells me they got the ebooks.
I've been over the moon when someone says they stayed up late to finish one of the books so they could find out who done it.
Compliments and favorable reviews on Amazon are great, and it's nice to sell copies. But the real thrill is just knowing that people are reading them.
"Where Bush Street roofed Stockton before slipping downhill into Chinatown, Spade paid his fare and left the taxicab." This is Dashiell Hammett's description of Sam Spade arriving at the scene where the body of his partner, Miles Archer, has been found in The Maltese Falcon.
In this photo, we are looking north on Stockton Street, through the tunnel. Bush Street runs across what looks like a bridge. Thus "Bush Street roofed Stockton."
Before the tunnel was opened in 1914, Stockton street rose steeply up one side of Nob Hill and ran down the other side. The part of Stockton the crests the hill can still be seen at the top of the photo. The original purpose of the tunnel was to create a level roadway for street cars.
The scene continues: "Spade crossed the sidewalk . . . went to the parapet, and resting his hands on the damp coping, looked down into Stockton Street." Sam Spade would have been standing at what looks like a stone fence on the bridge, facing in our direction, looking down.
"An automobile popped out of the tunnel beneath him, with a roaring swish, as if it had been blown out, and ran away." The white van in the photo did what Hammett is describing seconds before I snapped the shutter.
The scene changes as, "Spade turned from the parapet and walked up Bush Street to the alley where men were grouped.." That is, he walked to the left, as we view the scene. Today, at the mouth of that alley there is a brass plaque marking it as the place where, "______ shot Miles Archer." The plaque actually names the murderer. I refuse to do so.
The pages describing Spade's actions at the murder scene give much more detail about stairways, railings, buildings, and other details of this intersection. Obviously, Dashiell Hammett, who lived in San Francisco when he wrote The Maltese Falcon, walked this intersection and took detailed notes for this scene.
Somewhere I read that Elmore Leonard said, "I write about Detroit because I live in Detroit. If I lived in Buffalo, I'd write about Buffalo." Lessons from the masters.
When James M. Cain published The Butterfly in 1946, he added a preface. Perhaps he did so because it was a novella, about half the length of a novel, and he needed to bulk up the book.
Whatever the reason, this preface gives us glimpses into his life as a writer.
He talks about his travels in Harlan County, Kentucky and how meeting people and working alongside them in the mines and elsewhere gave him the desire to write a story about them. This sounds more like immersion than research.
He says writing for newspapers prepared him to approach a subject this way, and he praises other forms of writing as useful to becoming a novelist.
He disagrees with critics who compared him to Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, and goes on at some length to distinguish his writing from theirs.
Most surprisingly, he distances himself from "the picture business," denying accusations that he writes with adaptation for movies in mind. Coming from the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, this is surprising, especially since several other works were adapted and he worked for a time as a screenwriter.
I've blogged about books by novelists that mix practical writing advice with memoir: Patricia Highsmith, Lawrence Block, Stephen King. I enjoy these because they teach me not only how they wrote, but what it was like to live through it. This preface by Cain is a miniature version of those books.
I grew up going to a library and taking notes for my school reports. I thought I was doing this simply to gather information, but there was something else going on.
Coin-operated photocopy machines showed up when I was in college. Instead of taking notes, I made copies and highlighted them. I thought this was more efficient.
The World-Wide Web came along, and I started cutting-and-pasting and downloading. Later I started bookmarking web pages. This seemed like a super-efficient way to gather information.
As my browser's list of bookmarks got longer, I had lots of information at my fingertips, but I found it harder and harder to use it.
Recently I decided to slow down the information-gathering and take notes . . . longhand . . . in a notebook.
I'm finding this very satisfying. It takes time and effort to read a blog post, for instance, and decide which parts to write down verbatim, which parts to summarize, and which to ignore. I become very selective because It takes even more time and effort to write the note or quotation in my notebook.
When I take notes, I not only gather information, I also think about it. I move some of it from short-term memory into long-term memory, and somewhere in my brain I must be connecting the new information with things I already know. Now I'm ready to use it when I want to write something new.
I see now that all that photocopying, highlighting, cutting-and-pasting, downloading, and bookmarking was only postponing this process. Some things you just can't automate.
Last weekend we went to our favorite place for breakfast. When I was done eating, I looked across the street and noticed the morning light was beautiful on the buildings and the tree.
I started snapping, noticed people were walking by, and managed to catch the woman in the baseball cap in front of the red doorway.
When I got this picture up on my computer screen, I noticed there was a second woman just stepping out of the shadows on the right. She wears a headscarf and carries a yoga mat.
Baseball Cap is wearing yoga pants, so maybe she is walking to a class at the place Headscarf has just left. But Baseball Cap doesn't have a yoga mat. Maybe she's going to another kind of exercise class.
Of course, Headscarf could be carrying that yoga mat as a distraction. She might have been hiding in that dark doorway, waiting for Baseball Cap to walk by, intent on attacking her.
If so, she has a problem. Again, when I got the photo up on my computer, I noticed Baseball Cap is not alone. Look just behind her front foot and you'll see another foot. Someone is walking next to her.
Did Baseball Cap get word that headscarf was laying for her and bring backup?
As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
I saw this stairway and liked it so much I had to take its picture.
It's in the Metreon, a building in downtown San Francisco where Ann and I had gone to see a movie. The wall of green outside the windows is the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, a lovely place to linger if you're ever in town.
It reminds me of the one in the Museum of the African Diaspora, which (come to think of it) is only one block away.
Stairways like this are not hard to like especially for a guy who prefers to take the stairs and counts himself lucky in being able to do so.
But for me, they are more than just pretty. They are somehow theatrical. When walking on them, I see people outside the building and they can see me. I feel exposed, but somehow aloof at the same time.
Such a stairway might serve well for an important scene in a story. A pursuer (sleuth or assassin) might spot the pursued. The pursued might feel safe from the pursuer, but only if he can get to a higher floor and hide.
Hmm . . .
Recently I discovered that reading my book in Kindle Direct Publishing's ebook previewer taught me some lessons I hadn't learned by reading and re-reading my book in a word processor and on paper. Specifically I learned to use paragraph breaks in a new way for e-publishing.
Preparing my book for publication as a paperback has yielded still more lessons. Perhaps because throughout my life I've done most of my reading on single-spaced, facing pages, I never had to think of how the eye and the mind work together to turn those ink-blots into images and thoughts.
I've been over Dark Mural so many times in the past two years, I have parts of it memorized. Yet, when I saw it in the familiar form of a printed book, it looked different and read different. I became aware how parts of a scene fit together and raised questions that would be answered on the following page. In a few instances, I saw how the scene could be better built, and I've made changes.
Of course, most writers say they always want to change things, even after a book is published. So perhaps this was just one more opportunity for me to see such things. But I really don't think I would have seen them without reading it in book form.
As previously reported here, I have seized the opportunity attend a trial in criminal court as research for a book about a guy who reports for jury duty. I figured if I was going to write about it, I needed to make notes on the nuts and bolts of the process of conducting a trial.
So far I have watched as the judge and attorneys question potential jurors regarding their fitness to serve in this particular case. The process is called voir dire, a French term meaning, "speak the truth."
This is an important part of any trial, and I am glad to be reminded of how it works, but I'm learning much more about how it feels to be one of those called for jury duty. For however long it takes, your life is not your own.
On the whole, the judge is considerate of jurors' comfort, never remaining in session more than an hour and fifteen minutes. Beyond that, anything can happen: a fifteen-minute break can last twenty-five minutes; the session no sooner begins than the judge and attorneys withdraw for five minutes (stand and stretch, but don't leave the room); an attorney can spend twenty minutes questioning one juror, five minutes questioning another, and excuse both. Or neither.
Having no choice but to comply with orders that are unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary is stressful. The only thing keeping me in the room was curiosity, and I still felt trapped.
Perhaps the title of this blog post should be, "Writer Gets More Than He Bargained For."
Several years ago, I was called for jury duty, selected, and served on a jury in a case of sexual assault. We deliberated and returned a verdict of guilty.
For the first few days, I tapped out a description of each day's courtroom proceedings, so I would have the research done if ever wanted to write a story about a juror. But I stopped because I didn't think I ever would.
Big mistake. Let all us writers resolve never to repeat it.
Recently I returned to my notes and I saw how I could turn it into a story, but I would need the nuts and bolts of the trial process for my hero to work with.
So I emailed a writer friend with some background in law, and asked how I could find out when a criminal case was going trial so I could be there at the beginning and take notes. My generous friend wrote me a long email about how that is public information, but difficult to track down . . . databases, incompatible systems, etc.
Then, just last Thursday, a neighbor said she had to report for jury duty today for a murder case.
And here I am, taking notes.
Yesterday, I attended a meeting sponsored by the Northern California Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Jim Guigli was on hand to educate us crime-fiction writers regarding firearms. Though there is very little gun play in my books, I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation.
Clearly Jim can geek out about guns with the best of them. Click on the "Guns" link on his website to read his "Firearms Bio." While you're on that page, download the pdf of his article, "Firearms and Writers." It's an entertaining description things we've all seen in books and movies that don't make sense if you know about guns.
But instead of wowing us all with his knowledge, Jim geared his presentation to what might be most useful to mystery and suspense writers. He suggested we ask two questions. Why does the character carry a gun? Therefore, how does she carry it?
His demonstration was mostly about holsters. As he showed ankle holsters, leg holsters, belt holsters, and many kinds of shoulder holsters, he explained the trade-offs between concealing the weapon and drawing it quickly.
He used plastic models of common revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. The assembled writers asked many questions about different weapons and ammunition, which Jim was happy to answer. But mostly he focused on who? why? and how?
Not only is Jim a firearms expert, he's a good teacher.
Having uploaded my manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), I used the preview feature to see how it will look as an ebook. I found a few spacing and formatting problems, and I learned there's more to it than that.
For instance, these two paragraphs look like normal bits of narration in my manuscript, but, on an ebook reader, they look like brick walls. The monotony of the page might make a reader think my story was tedious. These two paragraphs will become four.
This is not the way writers are trained to think. According to my ever-handy copy of The Elements of Style, "The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached."
However, in the world of independent publishing, the writer becomes a book designer and learns visual composition has a logic all its own. While consciously reading the words, the reader subconsciously follows the shape of the text.
Book designers have done this for centuries, making decisions about margins, line-spacing, indentation, typeface, and other things, all to make the appearance of the page support the intent of the prose.
New printing press . . . new rules.