Home as a Holiday Camp

I was inspired by Lea Waite’s post extolling the beauty of Maine to consider how being a notable tourist destination may alter the way “natives” think about their home place.  I’ve lived in Vancouver WA for half a century now, so I may be considered at home here, yet every once in a while I’m reminded that I’m not a local product, that my appreciation of the area is shaped by ideas about it that are not based on personal experience.

Vancouver lies north, across the Columbia River, from Portland OR and serves it as a bedroom.  When I first started teaching here and asked my students to go to Portland State University to use the library there, some of them balked.  They had lived eighteen whole years in Vancouver and never gone to Portland though they’d driven through it on Interstate Five.  They were afraid they’d be mugged if they went into the big city five minutes away from home.  I was pitiless.  I told them I thought they’d survive.  Some of them dropped the class.

Their concept of Portland was a gross simplification drawn from television news, the prejudices of their friends and relatives, and a handful of negative events.  Suppose they had drawn their view of Portland from the image projected by the Chamber of Commerce, Triple A Guidebooks, and television coverage of the annual Rose Festival parade.  That image would have been appealing, even seductive, but it would have been at least as much a simplification as their Wicked City nightmare.

Neither Portland nor Vancouver is a tourist destination in the sense that Maine and, say, Hawaii are.  It’s unlikely that a honeymoon couple would sue their travel agency if it rained here–as apparently happened after a less than idyllic honeymoon in Hawaii.  Darned good thing too.  We do get rained on.

If a fiction writer sets a novel in a place like Hawaii, how should the writer deal with the readers’ probable preconceptions about the place?  My current mystery series (Latouche County) is set in a National Scenic Area between two national forests, within viewing distance of three Fujiyama-class volcanic peaks, and, of course, on the banks of a river that makes the Tiber look like a trickle.  When I first began to research the Columbia Gorge as a setting for my mysteries, I wondered how people who lived there full-time could get any work done with natural beauty intruding every time they went outdoors.

I don’t know that I solved the problem, but I did try.  I used the viewpoint of a newcomer to the area in the first book (Buffalo Bill’s Defunct) so that moments of scenic rapture would be plausible.  In the second (An Old Chaos) I mucked up the weather beyond the tolerance of skiers let alone tourists.  The third mystery (Beyond Confusion) has guide-bookly moments but focuses on the Latouche Regional Library.  In fact, I put emphasis on work and the grotesqueries of daily life in all the books.  My characters, like the people who live and work in the Gorge, have their minds on things other than the catalog of Chamber of Commerce delights.  And my characters are braver than my students.

Summer Reads

I seem to blog a lot about what I’m reading.  Sorry.  Can’t help it.

It used to annoy me when someone published a list of books to read on summer vacation, books either more relaxing or more mindless than the average tome.  Since I retired and no longer have to have a summer vacation (it’s all vacation, right?), I have noticed that summer does shunt me off onto a different reading track than other seasons.  I have no idea why, but I seem to read more non-fiction in summer.  It’s not usually self-help stuff but history or pre-history or popular science.  I read a lot of fiction too, but that is beginning to feel like a work assignment–here are the latest mysteries, read them.  So let it go without illustration, I’m reading mysteries.  Here are two non-mysteries I found suitable for summer.

Joanna Trollope writes good, leisurely studies of relationships–fiction in the grand style of her family.  The Soldier’s Wife is a lively portrait of a modern woman caught in the archaic role of British officer’s wife, not to mention the more usual soccer mum role.  Trollope even brings off a fairly happy (and fairly fair) ending, all without murdering anybody.

K.J. Parker does heavy fantasy–pre-steam steampunk.  I just finished The Folding Knife, a good study of a very anti hero.  It begins with a murder about which there is no mystery, and it ends down, down, down, but the detail of life in the “Vesani Republic” (a riff on the Venetian Republic) is rich and evocative.  It is refreshing to find fantasy that doesn’t wallow in patterns of bucolic life from the English Middle Ages.

Moving on to non-fiction, a dose of American history.  My history degree was definitely European.  I don’t believe I ever took an American history course at the college level, so my understanding of U.S. history is patchy.  Filling in blanks can be a real pleasure.

Doris Kearns Goodwin has a deft touch with massive arrays of fact that might turn to sludge in a lesser writer’s hands.  I finally got around to reading her 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, No Ordinary Time.  It deals with the last four years of Franklin Roosevelt’s life–they happen to be the first four years of my life–and Goodwin gives sympathetic portraits of both Eleanor and the President without air-brushing their faults.  My parents and grandparents worshiped Eleanor Roosevelt.  In No Ordinary Time I found out why.  Eleanor’s achievements make the First Ladies who succeeded her fade to nothing, with the possible exception of Bess Truman for very different reasons.

Among Eleanor’s projects was day-care for the children of women working in the factories that were building tanks, ships, and airplanes.  No Ordinary Time describes the superb day-care center the Kaiser shipyard was induced to build in Portland OR (and another in Vancouver WA where I now live).  My father was a naval officer during the war.  His ship, a baby aircraft carrier, was built here on the banks of the Columbia, in part by women whose children spent the day–and in some cases the night–at the Kaiser day-care center.  Hooray for Eleanor.

The other U.S. history work I rambled through was Stephen E. Ambrose’s account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Undaunted Courage (1996).  I live on the Columbia River now, but I was born in Montana near the great falls of the Missouri.  When I was growing up in eastern Oregon, we could still see ruts carved by the wheels of wagons on the Oregon trail.  Needless to say, I’ll read anything about Lewis and Clark.

Ambrose keeps his focus on the tragic figure of Meriwether Lewis.  I have no quarrel with that.  The biographical slant gives ominous urgency to the narrative, and Ambrose makes a convincing case for Lewis’s death as the straightforward suicide of a man whose family had a bipolar history.  Lewis was under a lot of pressure to finish editing his journals.  Right now I’m 90% through writing a mystery and whamming my head against the wall trying to force myself to finish it.  I think poor old Meriwether’s suicide is perfectly understandable.

So–what are the rest of you reading out there on your beach blankets?

Read Out

Writers should probably not read while they’re writing–at least they shouldn’t read the kind of work they’re in the process of making.  It’s too easy to let a phrase–or an idea or a wee plot line–slide from one work to another, not to mention the time squandered reading another author’s fiction.  Most writers are compulsive readers, however, and it would be agony to live through the time needed to write a 75,000 word novel without reading something other than the back of the cereal box (or the daily blog).  I am an even more compulsive reader than most writers, so the question of writer-safe reading material raises its head often.

I’m not talking about the reading associated with researching a novel, though plowing through all that can be a happy distraction from the pain of writing.  The advent of the Internet has cost Powell’s Books a healthy sum.  When I start research on a mystery these days, I no longer feel obliged to buy volumes dealing with plant poisons or exotic daggers or primogeniture.  Mind you, it’s not that I object to buying books, no, indeed, it’s just that the plant poison tome and its auxiliaries are not the sort of books I want to keep for future generations.  Hoorah for Wikipedia.

Writer-safe recreational reading:  cookbooks? poetry? guides to plants or geology or waterfalls?  Those are close to safe reading.  All of us have on-going interests.  In my case, pre-history pulls me in, especially anything to do with stone and bronze age art.  I also have a vague, unfocused interest in wild edible plants.  And music through the ages–the singing Neanderthals.  Subjects like that can be almost absorbing enough to still the urge to read three-volume historical sagas or the latest roman a clef.  Almost.

The hunger for  narrative can be satisfied with history and biography.  The unkind may assert that both are forms of fiction.  Autobiography, which offers the author the choice of lying about events and lying about self, is most satisfying, with some self-portraits of actors and politicians reaching the heights of fantasy.  Travel-writing is a special autobiographical treat.  Look at Dickens’s account of his travels in American and Mark Twain’s version of Europe.  Consider what they say about America and Europe–and what they say about Twain and Dickens.

Ultimately, though, I thirst for unabashed fiction.  Anybody’s.  Well, maybe not Dan Brown.  One advantage of advancing age is loss of memory.  I can now reread my old favorites without falling asleep, and, increasingly, those are the books I read while I’m writing fiction.  Are they safe?  I don’t know.  They remind me that fiction is a mental experiment, a way of finding out how people behave, and they remind me to tell the truth about my imaginary constructs.  For some people, fiction is a way of living.

Animal Crackers

I’m a longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy involving alien species–some species spooky, others lovable–and I occasionally read mysteries with clever cats, corpse sniffing dogs, or artificial intelligences that help the human protagonist solve crimes.  By and large, though, I prefer my detectives human.  I especially prefer to stay out of the heads of cats, dogs, and robots.  Fine, have a Dachshund investigator, but give him a human Watson to interpret.  All the same, there should be animals in fiction.

As a reader, I want major characters to be human, but contemporary mysteries reflect contemporary society, and we are pet-oriented people, no doubt about it.  At one point when my son was in grade school our family had six cats–each acquired separately, not as a litter–and a goldfish named Oshunoggafur.  (My son’s spelling improved when he got to junior college.)  He and his wife now cosset half a dozen Ibizan hounds at their house in the country.  My mother raised six kids then raised Pomeranians followed by orange tabbies.  The existence of these animals was part of daily life.

When I write a novel, I try to mirror the society.  If I’m going to do that well, my books ought to include non-human species.  When I look at my novels, however, only one contains an animal with sufficient presence to require a name.  Towser, the Rhodesian ridgeback in Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, sneaked into the book because I was obsessing about realism.  I took Meg, my heroine, for a walk around her new neighborhood.  Meeting an unleashed dog is one of those adventures people have when they go walkies.  Towser bounced onstage.

Ridgebacks bounce.  They are sight hounds–lion hunters–and they bounce to get above tall-growing grass for a view of the landscape.  Towser bounced at Meg, put his paws on her shoulders, knocked her down, and licked her all over her face.  Very affectionate dog.  Then he took over the plot.  Or tried to.  Fortunately, I had the wit to stay out of his viewpoint.  He stayed in the book right to the end, but at least he let the humans do the detecting.

I didn’t trust him, though.  I mentioned him in the next book but kept him strictly offstage.  If I hadn’t, I would have been in danger of writing a dog-series, and I really, really did not want to do that.  The third and fourth books don’t mention him, and that is sadly realistic because the dog life-span is not long by human standards.  Since then, I’ve been reluctant to introduce a strong-minded animal into any of my fictions, not even the regency I wrote last year.

So I wonder about alien species.  Mystery writers have some difficulty including a variety of people in a novel.  Take a look at character surnames.  Fairly often they’re all British names, or British with a seasoning of German or Scandinavian.  I don’t think writers should be forced to include viewpoints that are alien to their experience–that would be asking for bad characterization–but I do think a passing admission that non-Anglos exist would make their novels more believable.  Human diversity and species diversity are not the same problem for fiction writers.  Species diversity requires straddling the gap between genres.  I admire any writer who can, and admit that I don’t want to–not again.

On the road again again

Last year about this time my husband and I drove from out home in
Vancouver WA to Colorado so I could attend Left Coast Crime and promote my current mystery, Beyond Confusion.  We brought a massive snowstorm in our wake and didn’t get a chance to see much other than the incidental scenery along the freeway, coming and going.  So we decided to drive to Texas this year for bluebonnet season and dawdle along the way.  We are not good at dawdling.  Both of us grew up with fathers who drove relentlessly.

Well, here we are on Lake Buchanan (near Burnet TX), a week and a day into a trip we think will take three weeks.  The idea that we can stop is starting to percolate through, though we haven’t thrown over the traces completely.  Our virtuous deviations from the freeway have been brief and infrequent, but we seem to be enjoying ourselves more because we can stop.

We drove due south on Interstate Five as far as Bakersfield, stopping at Ashland OR and Santa Nella CA before heading east via Tehachapi and Needles.  This was the reverse direction to last year’s drive.  Springtime is kind to California, and this year it’s spectacular.  All those golden hills are forty shades of green.  This is after a sadly prolonged drought that brought into focus the clash over water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.  The orchardists and wine growers who own the land along the freeway are expressing their feelings with large vituperative signs repeated mile after mile.  You are driving through a dust bowl, the signs claim.  It was caused by the three wicked witches of the West, Pelosi, Feinstein, and Boxer.  I’m sure that a couple of weeks of uninterrupted California sunshine will turn the hillsides brown and make those signs convincing.  When we drove through, that old dust bowl was as green as County Clare.  I wonder whether anyone else noticed.

We weren’t moved to take any side trips on I5.  Arizona and New Mexico were more seductive.  I won’t claim we made a lot of deviations from the freeway, but we did see things our fathers would not have stopped for.  For example, about ten miles beyond Flagstaff AZ we turned off for the Walnut Canyon National Monument, a site I hadn’t heard of.  Walnut Canyon is a steep ravine studded with natural caves that were enlarged and used as dwellings for centuries.  Age and acrophobia barred us from a brisk 200 step hike to the bottom of the canyon and back, but we came away with heightened respect for the ingenuity and courage of the cliff-dwellers of the southwest.

For long stretches of Arizona and New Mexico the view from I40 was its own enchantment, magic enhanced by those useful Roadside Geology books that read the landscape and make even road cuts interesting.  There probably ought to be a similar series on Roadside Gastronomy with critical reference to Gas Station Food.,

We came into Texas at El Paso after a pleasant evening in Las Cruces NM and spent the afternoon in San Antonio, taking a look at the River Walk before retiring from the fray to a motel north of that cheerful city.  Our biggest deviation of the trip was a detour to Fredericksburg with its handsome German churches–and the Nimitz museum–smack in the middle of town.  German settlers established friendly relations with the Comanches, and Fredericksburg has flourished ever since.

We made it to Burnet in time for tea.  Good dawdling.  Maybe we’ll try it again.







This Day is Called the Feast of Crispian

Actually, it’s not.  It’s called the day after St. Patrick’s Day.  I suppose that would be like the day after the night before.  A holiday cliche.  My father was Irish to the core but abstemious to a fault.  In his latter years (he lived to be ninety), he would fling caution to the winds and celebrate happy occasions with a tablespoon of apricot brandy in a cup of hot water.  But hey, he was Irish, my sweet Dad, and I guess that means he had to be a drunk.  I really hate what our society does with holidays, and the pile  of cliches associated with St. P’s is a prime example, though it’s nowhere near as debased as the collection of junk inflicted on St. Nicholas and St. Valentine, two prominent bishops who were probably quite stern.  As was St. Patrick.  So did we all dye our beer green yesterday and grease our lips with corned beef and cabbage?

I suggest a new way with holidays.  Every year, let us reach back in history and find a single fact related to the day, something heretofore uncelebrated, and raise our glasses in honor of that.  Patrick is on record as a strong opponent of slavery, a fact worth remembering.  We need not cancel out the cliches, just not focus on them.  Nor do we need to confine our fact-finding missions to the lives of medieval saints.  Labor Day has dwindled to an occasion for the purchase of school supplies.  How about a chorus of good cheer for the Luddites and Wobblies?

Patriotic holidays like the Fourth of July and Veterans’ Day are in real need of rescue from the forces of rampant commercialism, not to mention the usual cliches.  July Fourth–big bangs and picnics.  Veterans’ Day–the truce at the end of World War I.  Instead of the Armistice, we might cheer the strong investment the country made in the education of veterans at the end of World War II.  Hurrah for the G.I. Bill!  Instead of firecrackers on the Fourth, why not invoke silence in honor of K9 veterans and all those good American dogs who serve the handicapped?  I’m sure the dogs–and their owners–would appreciate a quiet night.  And then there’s Presidents’ Day.  Lincoln and Washington are naturals for February, of course, but if the holiday is really devoted to presidents, why not Lincoln, Washington, and the two least distinguished presidents, just for contrast?  I nominate Andrew Johnson and Dubya, but Millard Fillmore had a lot of class.

So there you have it–the Simonson Holiday Reform.  Happy eighteenth of March.

Dead in the Water

“Sunset” is a metaphor, except for the twenty-five percent of Americans who believe the sun rotates around the earth.  Even then….  The sun sets and the sun also rises.  Think about it.  Fortunately, the metaphors are dead.  That is to say, they no longer operate as analogies, and the writer who cleverly causes the sun to cluck as it sets will be regarded with well-deserved scorn.

When I switched from writing poetry to writing fiction, I pared most of the visual analogies out of my language.  I was following George Orwell’s idea that the language of narrative ought to be as clear as a pane of window glass.  I had got down to one metaphor per chapter before I noticed Orwell was using an analogy to make his point.  Nevertheless, it’s a good point.  Action scenes should not be cluttered with extraneous verbiage.  It calls attention to itself (and to the author) when the focus ought to be on what’s happening.  And it should also be noted that too many metaphors reduce the effectiveness of each.

English  has a very large lexicon.  I’d be willing to bet that at least a third of the nouns originated as metaphors.  For example, “book” is cognate with “beech” in Germanic languages.  Somewhere somebody was writing on beech bark, but we don’t make the connection today.  “Barn” and “barley” have a common origin too, but neither calls the other to mind.  A “dandelion” is a French version of “tooth of a lion.”  These dead metaphors don’t create style glitches, but  half-dead metaphors can.  Lately I’ve been reading a lot of fiction with language that’s feebly figurative, on the verge of becoming neutral but not quite there yet.  The effect is cluttered and sometimes downright confusing.

The problem is easiest to spot in slang and idiomatic phrases.  How many time have  you seen the phrase “toe the line” spelled “tow the line?”  The idiom referred to foot-racing originally, though it came to mean “follow the rules” or “behave yourself.”  It had nothing whatsoever to do with dragging a rope.  The forward march of technical change leaves fossils embedded in language, to sport a metaphor.  Have you “dialed” a phone lately?  Probably not.  Same with “taping” a message.  How about “wiping the slate clean?”  When I was in Wales a couple of years ago, I visited a big slate mine.  I would hate to have to wipe all of that slate clean, though the slate referred to in the phrase was the kind children used in school when they were learning to write in the olden days.

We’re probably fairly sensitive to vocabulary changes resulting from developments in communications, but other “revolutions” have had a more serious impact on language.  I write Regency romances as well as mysteries, and I like playing with Regency language, but I don’t have the energy to master the vocabulary needed to talk about sailing, so my characters are landlocked.  Until the development of air travel, though, most people would have had some familiarity with nautical terms.  The situation is even worse with agriculture.

When I was in elementary school, half my classmates lived on farms.  Now life on a farm is a rare privilege for children.  That causes serious misunderstanding of texts that were accessbile fifty years ago.  Shakespeare, for instance, and the Bible.  If the preacher says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, children in the congregation will have visions of ballpark hotdogs and be mightily confused.  I would suggest a post-agricultural translation, but Scripture is so doggedly farming-minded that any such effort would lead to screams of outrage from literal believers.  To complicate matters even further, British and American agricultural terms are sometimes drastically different, so there might have to be two translations.  The lovely word “harvest,” the same in both dialects, is being destroyed by journalists and politicians.  Any day now, we may see some urban police force “harvesting” illegal immigrants.

Just thinking about this is traumatic, a term borrowed from German via Dr. Freud.  “Trauma” is cognate with “dream.”  Sounds like a nightmare to me.


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