In the Beginning

WendyHornsby

Where should a story begin? In media res, of course, but at which point in the middle of things? For me, deciding where to begin a new book is the most difficult part of the entire writing process.   

When I was still teaching I would warn my students that if asked on an exam to explain why World War I occurred and they answered that it was because a tubercular teenager, after eating a sandwich, shot the unsatisfactory heir-apparent to a no-longer powerful nation at high noon in a city most Europeans and Americans could not point out on a map, then they hadn’t answered the question.  So, where does that story begin? 

A book might open with a kid walking out of a sandwich shop and shooting the fat guy sitting in the backseat of the car that by happenstance is stalled in the street in front of him.  Good action scene, but it isn’t the story.  Who was Gavrilo Princeps and why did he want to kill Franz-Ferdinand? And why did Europe explode because he was successful? It is a huge story; where to begin explaining it?

 Because my current book in progress has a large back story and a large cast of characters, I struggled over where to begin. I wrote six complete first chapters before I had the right opening. That’s about four more than usual for me and there is no guarantee that when the book is finished that chapter will still be the opening.  For example, my original first chapter for The Hanging ended up about a third of the way through the book. However, the opening of The Color of Light remained very little changed from proposal to finished book.

 As I struggled over the opening, there were times when I had to turn my chair around and look at the row of books with my name on the spine as reminder that I have managed to do this before, and can do it again. And, by jinggies, it got done, again. I am happy to say that the book now progresses apace. Occasional hiccups, of course, but progressing.

Why I Love E Books

They’re the same books they always were. Some of them have been around for a very long time. There were people who liked them, people who didn’t, and a huge number who didn’t know they existed.

When I got an opportunity to put them out there again and give them a second chance, I grabbed it. E books. First, a publisher who put all the work and all the blame on the authors. We didn’t sell because we didn’t do enough to publicize our work. That gets old.

When a writer friend started an e book company and asked if she could have my books—and said she actually put some money into publicity—I hopped aboard. With all the Jake Samsons and what was then titled Blackjack.

Blackjack was first up. She loved it enough to suggest some edits. She was right. I was happy.

The covers are all great.

I had always avoided looking at the Amazon rankings because they were depressing. A Two millionth? Might as well have dug a hole in the yard and buried them. So I wasn’t in the habit of checking on my books. But my publisher kept an eye on everything she published.

Publicity? Editing? Paying attention?

She emailed me to tell me the great news. My books were up there. In the top 100 of several categories. Torch Song (nee Blackjack) was #1 in a category I can’t remember. Overall, all the books, under a hundred thousandth, often much lower, often a figure more like 5, 6, 7 thousandth. One of the Jakes recently hit 1200th.

Now I look at the rankings every day, which is probably not a good idea. A watched ranking can stop boiling. Isn’t that the old saying? But so far, so good. I love e books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Did I End Up Here?

When did I become a mystery author? Or rather when did I become aware that I wanted to be, not just a mystery author, but an historical mystery writer. I’ve wondered about that a lot lately, for some reason.
I may have noticed it while browsing paperbacks at my local bookstore. I might have picked it up in the school library. I remember that it had something to do with Ellery Queen’s famous challenge (paraphrased here) – “Dear Reader, you are now in possession of all the clues and should be able to solve the mystery.” But I remember reacting strongly to the challenge. I remember thinking, “well, if he can think it up, I can figure it out.” Of course I couldn’t. In fact, I’m not sure that I ever conquered the Queen challenge. But I never gave up trying. And I read them all, every single one.

Though I read some Agatha Christie, I was never taken with Christie’s novels as I was Queen’s. But, as I grew, my reading habits changed a little. Ellery Queen novels mixed with the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts, Esther Forbes and Irene Hunt. Then enter the novels of Fletcher Knebel – The Zinzin Road, Night of Camp David, Dark Horse. I was addicted to political thrillers. Fletcher Knebel became Frederick Forsyth became Robert Ludlum became David Ignatius. But I also discovered George MacDonald Fraser and the Flashman series and John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR mysteries. And with that I was hooked on historical mysteries.

But I never quite lost my love of Ellery Queen and his version of Dupin’s ratiocination, and when my love of reading mysteries turned to a passion for writing them, I couldn’t help but be influenced by Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee’s creation. In my first two mysteries, I tried out both William Shakespeare as Sherlock Holmes and Ernest Hemingway as Dr. John Watson, so to speak. And though I was not dissatisfied with the results, I still hadn’t found what I was looking for.

Years passed, and I spent some years traveling the world, wondering if perhaps I was destined for something other than mystery writing. But on a layover at Gatwick Airport one night, I happened on the idea that became my Arthurian mystery series, and, suddenly, I was back in the historical mystery world. Now, I’ve returned to Shakespeare for Perseverance Press and am having a ball.

I am happy as a mystery author now. I consider it a proud and honorable distinction, and, for me, a natural evolution from mystery fan.

After all, everybody loves a mystery. Right?

Shadows on a Maine Christmas

 

Lea Wait, here, delighted to announce that Shadows on a Maine Christmas, the 7th in my Shadows Antique Print Mystery series is now available … in bookstores (if they don’t have a copy, ask them to order one,) at on-line booksellers, and in e-book editions.   Thank you to Perseverance Press for continuing to believe in Maggie and her adventures … and to my readers. Without my readers, Maggie would have stopped solving crimes several books ago. Never underestimate the power of a book sale, whether to an individual or to a library.!cid_487CF410-53E3-4F9A-B4E9-3E3180900689

So, what’s happening this time around?  We left Maggie and Will (her beau of two years) barely speaking to each other at the end of Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding. After all this time, the future of their relationship is still in question. Maggie teaches at a New Jersey college. Will is now taking care of his aging Aunt Nettie in Maine. Maggie wants to adopt one or more  children. Will doesn’t want to be a father. He also complains Maggie spends too much time solving crimes, and not enough quality time with him. (Can she help being the heroine of a traditional mystery series?)

So they’ve decided to spend the Christmas holidays together and talk. But between seeing each other on Cape Cod in October, and the end of December, they’ve each made some decisions they haven’t yet shared with each other. Important decisions.  Decisions that could complicate their lives, and relationship,  further.

So … that’s the background. Of course … other issues interfere with their romantic holiday.  The usual relationship complications: blackmail and murder.

Bored in a wintry Maine? In Shadows on a Maine Christmas, not a chance.

Reviews have been generous. Publisher’s Weekly: “loving descriptions of the Maine winter and the area’s strong sense of community.”

Mysterious Women: “Surprise ending … beautifully written.”

Kingdom Books: “one of the best and most intriguing plot twists … quick-paced and charming.”

Now it’s all up to readers. The author/parent creates the story, but then must send it out into the world to fend for itself.

I have my fingers and toes crossed for Shadows on a Maine Christmas. And I’m writing the synopsis of the 8th in the Shadows series.

Because that’s what writers do.

TAKING CHANCES IN LAS VEGAS

This article was first published in Black Lamb.

I’ve been passing through Las Vegas since 1960, when you could pay for a full tank of gas with a five-dollar bill and get two silver dollars in change. I ate 99¢ dinners at the Silver Slipper before I was old enough to gamble. I spent a weekend in the Vegas Greyhound station when I was twenty-one, but because I was almost broke at the time I only gambled on penny slots.

The fact is, I’ve never been much of a gambler. But when Susan and I went to Las Vegas in 1990, we made the biggest gamble of our life together. No, we didn’t get married; we had already been married for three years, and that decision had been no gamble. It was a lock, a guaranteed jackpot.

We had also been in business together as publishers for five years. Using the name John Daniel, Publisher, a sole proprietorship I’d established in the 1970s, she and I had combined our skills, our contacts, and our financial assets to build a publishing house that was tiny but distinguished. We had published such treasures as Janet Lewis, Hildegarde Flanner, Nancy Packer, Mary Jane Moffat, E. S. Goldman, Carolyn See, John Espey, and, most recently Jess Mowry, plus others you may not have heard of but who had dedicated, devoted, book-collecting fans.

It was a bit embarrassing that the American Booksellers’ Association would chose Las Vegas, the epitome of nonliterary pastime, for their annual convention. But they did, and they did it to the hilt. One publisher got to have it both ways by hosting a “bad taste party” at Caesar’s Palace. Susan and I didn’t go to that one, but we went to one just as weird, a party thrown by Random House at the former Las Vegas residence of Elvis Presley, promoting a new piece of fiction by Jackie Collins. Talk about class.

While we were in Las Vegas for this business convention, Susan and I didn’t do all business, and in fact we actually indulged in the goofy game of video poker, a relatively new high-tech version of old-fashioned slot machines. Video poker did not require the gambler to use any right-arm elbow grease, and this new-fangled no-arm bandit fostered the fantasy that thought and talent might improve the gambler’s chances. (By the way, it was still “gambling” in 1990, not the euphemistic “gaming” it has since become.) So we spent twenty dollars a night—a ten-dollar roll of quarters for each of us—and played at adjacent stations, amiably competing for who could run out of coins last.

But that wasn’t our big Las Vegas gamble.

Amidst all this Hype, Glitz, Hokum & Schlock (Is that the name of a law firm, or what?), we decided on the floor of the convention hall to take our business seriously and make it grow.

To grow we needed big-time book distribution. We had, only weeks prior to the ABA, been dumped by our small press distribution company, Texas Monthly Press, leaving us without a venue to show off our wares at the Vegas ABA. As it happened, Texas Monthly Press had been bought by Gulf Publishing, which had bought the booth at ABA but decided not to use it. Since TMP was breaking their contract with us, we had the chance to forgive them in exchange for their entire booth—free. No hard feelings. So long, Dearie.

Then, free of TMP, we had quickly made arrangements to be distributed by National Book Network, a strong and rapidly growing distributor of mid-sized publishers. It was an expensive contract, but the best offer we had. So, even before we got to Las Vegas, we had made the first steps in our scramble up the slippery mountainside. We now had a prominent distributor, and we had a booth all to ourselves in the choice part of the convention hall, which happened to be back-to-back with NBN, our new distributor, on the aisle behind us.

So part of the Big Gamble was already under way when we rented a Ford Taurus station wagon; filled it with books, posters, and convention supplies; and drove over the Halloran Grade on Interstate 15. As we descended into Las Vegas, we passed, way out on the outskirts of town where the sidewalk ended in the desert, a new casino under construction named Excalibur, which looked like Camelot on steroids.

We got to the convention center on a Thursday afternoon, and the big affair lasted until Tuesday morning. It was grueling. It was thrilling. It was a roller-coaster of adrenalin and exhaustion. We worked the floor hard, shaking hands with friends old and brand new. We cruised the aisles for handouts, ideas, and contacts. We worked just as hard at the parties as we did on the convention floor, laughing, swapping business cards, and listening for more ideas.

With every day that passed—and those few days felt like two weeks—our resolve to grow grew stronger. We had gambling fever. We said to each other, over and over, “Maybe we should…” and “What if we tried…?”

Tuesday noon arrived, the convention was over, and it was time to dismantle the Emerald City. As we knocked down our display and schlepped our wares to the Taurus, we were exhausted physically but still high on the changes we were going through, knowing we were on the verge of a growth spurt. So instead of driving all the way back to Santa Barbara and our one-room office on lower State Street, we decided stay the night in Nipton, a two-building dot on the map of the Mojave Desert, ten miles off the Interstate on the California side of the state line. One building was a four-room hotel; the other building was the store where Nevadans came to gamble. It was the closest place to Las Vegas where a hard-core fool could lose money to the California lottery.

We stayed in the Clara Bow room of the Nipton Hotel, named after the sexy silent star who had once owned the entire town. Freight trains roared through about once an hour, sounding like banshees on roller blades. The late-afternoon light on the New York Mountains was crevassed with purple shadows. The stars at night were ablaze. Morning was still and silent, except for those wonderful fast freights rattling by. Noon was hot and alive with the buzz of desert life, if only you listened hard enough to hear the lizards crawl.

We decided to stay another night.

We made lists. We went over our notes, over and over. We made phone calls from the pay phone outside the store. We flexed the muscles of our imagination. The gamble was only half placed, so it was time to bet all the chips we had on the future of our business.

We decided to incorporate, to become Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, Inc. Health plan, the works.

We decided to do everything our new distributor, NBN, suggested that we do, which meant a lot more work for us. And more expense.

We decided to hire a staff, starting with a production manager/designer and a marketing director. Payroll taxes.

We decided to rent a bigger office in the center of Santa Barbara.

More warehouse space.

Two more computers.

A company vehicle, big enough for hauling forty-pound boxes of books.

We made more phone calls, loaded the station wagon, and zoomed out of the desert, back to Santa Barbara, and into the big time.

Les jeux sont fait! The chips were down, the dice were tossed, and here goes nothin’. What were we doing? Would we go broke? If so, what would we do? Go back to clerking in bookstores?

Or would we win big? Would we publish best-sellers? Would our brilliantly reviewed novels be bought by Spielberg? Would our authors get on Johnny Carson? Would Daniel & Daniel become a household name among publishing houses? Would some big publisher (hello, Random House?) buy us out and put us out to green pastures?

So. How did we do? Bars? Cherries? Lemons?

A bit of all of the above. Yes, we did grow measurably. We moved into a two-room office, and later into a four-room office, and eventually into a giant cavern of space in an arty building on Lower State, which was hard to heat in the winter, impossible to cool down in the summer, but huge enough to handle the growing accumulation of equipment and staff.

We hired a staff, starting with a production manager/designer/typesetter. Then we added a receptionist who also worked as Susan’s assistant in the marketing department. Next we split that job into two, so we had a receptionist and a marketing director. Then our production manager started using one or two interns. The place was buzzing.

We went from publishing ten books a year to publishing about thirty-five. A good number of these books were published under a separate imprint, Fithian Press, which was reserved for author-subsidized projects, which was how we earned enough income to keep this whole boat floating.

We made more and more money.

We spent even more and more money.

It more and more resembled gambling addiction. We had to keep covering our bets, and the bets kept getting bigger. Businesses have growing pains, just like teenagers, and this one was outgrowing its britches with every passing season. We had to publish more and more Fithian Press books to be able to afford the expensive losses we incurred by having our literary A-list distributed by NBN. We were working our butts off just so we could stay in business and work our butts off harder. We were riding on a wild horse. And, as long as we’re tossing metaphors in the air, we were swimming in deeper and deeper water.

We did incorporate, and we did buy a company vehicle. Those bets paid off. We established a payroll, with benefits for us and our staff, and that was good, and given our size it was necessary, but it was costly. More quarters into the slot machine than quarters coming out. Being distributed by NBN was a disaster. They oversold our books, earning huge commissions, then charged us for the returns when the sold books came back. NBN might have been a good distributor for other publishers, but for us it was an unwise bet. One of those bets when you know you have to quit while you’re behind, and there was an extra charge for quitting.

None of our authors got on Carson or any of Carson’s successors. We had no best-sellers, which was fortunate because we would have had to go into debt to finance the reprints. No big company came knocking on our door to buy us out.

By 2002, twelve years after the Las Vegas ABA where we had placed our big bet, we decided to cash in our remaining chips and face the fact that when you gamble in Las Vegas, the house always wins. It was time to downsize.

We got rid of the payroll, we moved into a tiny office and then into home offices for just Susan and me. We’re back to publishing about eight books a year. We now call ourselves semi-retired, which means we only have to work half-days, and we get to decide which twelve hours a day to work.

Yes, we still work as hard, but we worry less. We’re done taking chances. Getting to this point was a roller-coaster of a twelve-step program. From now on, if being in business means taking big gambles, in the words of Samuel Goldwyn, “Include me out.”

But I’ll say this much about that 1990 ABA in Vegas. It gave me all I needed for the most successful novel of my writing career, The Poet’s Funeral. Set in Las Vegas at the very same convention, it’s a send-up of every aspect of the publishing business: the authors, the agents, the editors, the publishers, the publicists, the critics, the distributors, the booksellers, the readers and collectors.

That book was my love song to the gambling industry that defined my working life.

 

Setting and Reaching My Goals – Or Not

Earlier this summer I set a goal for myself – to write a thousand words a day on my work-in-progress, Death Deals a Hand.

So far it’s working.

Each writing day I note the word count when I start, and then again when I stop for the day. As the word counter in the corner of my computer monitor increases, I resolve to keep at it until I see the magic number. Sometimes I keep going until I’ve produced even more words – got to two thousand words one day.

As a result, I’m making a lot of progress on this second novel in the California Zephyr series. And that’s a good thing.

I’ve set another goal, to exercise each day. Most days that involves riding my spiffy blue bicycle. Walking, check. Trying out that tai chi class, check. I certainly feel better when I exercise.

I wish I could say that goal-setting works in other aspects of my life. Cleaning out closets, not so good. Shedding that ten pounds I’d like to lose, also not so good.

I have a walk-in closet off my living room that is the de facto catch-all space. If I want to hide something and don’t know where else to put it, the object, or objects, get shoved into that closet. No wonder I can’t find anything! It’s hidden behind all that stuff.

And the closet in my office? Forget it. When I open it, I’m afraid something is going to fall on my head.

Beyond the obvious problem of too little storage space in my small condo, there are reasons, I suppose for the failure of goal-setting to solve the problem of closet clutter.

I enjoy writing, so the time spent in producing those thousand words is pleasurable. Once I get into my plot and my characters’ heads, the time goes by quickly.

I also enjoy riding my bike and walking, so that helps in reaching my exercise goal.

But cleaning out closets? Who likes cleaning out closets? It’s not enjoyable. It’s not fun. Although there is that bonus of finding a wearable piece of clothing I forgot I had.

Ah, well. At least I’m meeting two of my goals.

All Four Seasons

Wendy Hornsby

While I admire Henry David Thoreau’s commitment to become one with nature by camping out alongside Walden Pond for a couple of years, I have chosen to experience the changing seasons from a more comfortable vantage point than he in his little hut.

 Until last fall, I had lived nearly all of my life under the temperate weather bubble of coastal Southern California, the last part of it with a white sand beach just beyond my back fence. Though there are seasonal changes in that narrow zone, they are subtle. Days lengthen or grow shorter, the quality of the light changes, birds from other longitudes fly overhead going north or south, the crowds on the beaches come and then go away again, following the rhythms of the school calendar and work schedules more than changes in the weather. The weather stays fairly constant all year.

I have certainly experienced firsthand the worst that seasonal weather can deliver, but always as a tourist. This year, for the first time, I experienced all four seasons, not as a tourist, but as a full-time resident in a place where there is actual weather.

 Just about a year ago I retired from teaching, we sold our house, said goodbye to the beach, friends and the freeways, and moved 500 miles north and east into the foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada.

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It was fall when we arrived, the landscape ablaze with color. Wild deer and turkeys grazed on the crop of acorns fallen from the native oaks in our new yard. We camped in, as Paul said, for a couple of weeks in a nearly empty house while painters and handymen did some work. Finally, on a cold, rainy day, the moving van showed up. I made a pot of stew and we began unloading boxes.  As the mountain of empty boxes grew, the bare space we moved into became our home.  

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We took breaks to explore the area, driving the black highways and the blue, making wonderful discoveries during every outing. This is Gold Rush country, a veritable amusement park for a historian, i.e. me.  And, of course, there are the beautiful Sierra to explore.

 We’re in a drought, and it looked as if the rain and snow season might never happen. But in December the temperature dropped below freezing and we had our first snow.  It wasn’t very much, and it only stayed on the ground for about a week, but it was still magic while it lasted.

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This winter was unusually warm, and spring came early. First there was a hint of green in the grass, and then almost overnight there were fields of flowers everywhere we looked. Roadsides carpeted with orange California poppies, blue lupine, and yellow daffodils. Our flower beds were barren when we moved in, and suddenly they were full of color; every week something new emerged. We planted a vegetable garden.

When The Color of Light came out in April, we made our first visit back to Southern California for the book launch. It was wonderful to see old friends, but the traffic was grim, the landscape looked dingy and brown—there is a terrible drought—and we were happy to get home again, to our new home.

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At the moment, we are clinging to the end of a beautiful summer. We’ve had several little summer rains—too little—and some very hot days, and we have tanned browner than we should have. But what fun we’re having. Morning laps in the community pool. home to write, evening boat outings on the lake with new friends, visits from old friends.  And more vegetables from our garden than the two of us can eat.

The light has changed, and our second fall is coming.  I’m looking forward to the surprises to come.

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