Going Home

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I spent the past weekend in New Jersey with former classmates, celebrating the 50th (yes — unbelievably – 50th) anniversary of our graduating from Glen Ridge High School. One of the highlights of my weekend — and there were many — was speaking at the library which had been my refuge and inspiration during the years I was growing up.

I first discovered the library when I was about ten, and saw their collection of Walter Farley books (yes, I was one of those girls who loved horses) and marveled at their shelf and a half of Doctor Doolittle books — I’d thought there was only one. After that I cajoled my mother or grandmother to take me to the library often, since although it was only about seven blocks from our home, those blocks included a major intersection. My grandfather, who loved mysteries and always had a stack on the table behind his pipe and next to the Morris chair where he spent hours each day, was often included in the expedition.

When I was in sixth grade I was thrilled when my mother and the mothers of two of my friends decided together that the three of us were — yes! finally! — old enough to make the library trip on our own. We walked there every Saturday morning, taking out as many books as we could carry. By then I was reading Betty Cavanna and Lois Duncan and other “books for teenage girls.” (I’m thrilled that Lois Duncan is now one of my Facebook friends ….)

In seventh grade we began attending the school across the street from the library, and I began finding excuses to go to the library after school. There was always a subject to be researched in the encyclopedia collection there, or checked in magazines in the stacks. I discovered the Dewey Decimal system, and read every book on writing … since some day that’s what I would do. Secretly, I dreamed of someday seeing a book I’d written on one of the shelves. I discovered The Writer Magazine. I knew when it arrived at the library each month (it couldn’t be checked out,) and would curl up in a special window seat and read it, cover to cover. I learned about manuscript submission guidelines and agents and rejection slips and how to write dialogue. I studied the market place information, pretending I was going to submit something I’d written. I even got brave enough to send a few poems to magazines, and was proud of the rejection slips that resulted. They made me feel like a real writer. I planned to save enough slips to cover a wastebasket with them, but never did.

When I was a sophomore in high school I started working at the library as a page. I shelved books after school and weekend for fifty cents an hour. After I’d shelved the day’s books I started working my way around the shelves, checking that all the books were shelved correctly. (A lot weren’t, but the librarians never had time to do what I was doing.) It took me most of the school year to check the children’s room, where I also discovered other wonderful authors that were, theoretically, too young for me — but whom I loved.

In my junior year I was moved to the adult department, where I repeated my verification of book locations.

In the summers, in Maine, I became a frequent patron of the Wiscasset Library (where I now do a lot of research for the books I write.)

But the Glen Ridge Public Library wasn’t finished helping me, When I was working on my masters thesis at New York University I lived in New York City, where my libraries of choice were the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village near my home, and the Donnell Library on 53rd Street, which was their version of a children’s room. Librarians in New York were able to find many of the books written for teenagers in the 1950s and 60s that I based my thesis on, but New Yorkers are tough on books. I bothered my mother to represent me back in Glen Ridge, and the library there put in inter-library loans, searching New Jersey libraries for many of the books I was looking for. And finding them,

I hadn’t been back to the Glen Ridge Public Library in decades. But I was thrilled when several of my classmates asked if I’d do a book signing during our reunion, and the library I’d loved invited me to speak there. I felt the way I had when my undergraduate college asked me to come back to speak and gave me a lifetime achievement award. I felt as though I was truly going home.

The Glen Ridge Library today is, I am pleased to report, still wonderful, and, despite the major budget cuts that have affected so many of our nation’s libraries, it has expanded. Its addition has added a special room just for YA books, handicapped accessibility, and more space for books, computers, and research of all kinds .. including a meeting room, where I spoke Saturday. I was also thrilled to see that the parents of one of those two girls who walked to the library with me every Saturday were among the major donors who’d helped the library expand.

Today visitors to my home often joke that it’s like a library. Floor to ceiling bookcases are in every room and most hallways. To me, home and walls of books are synonymous. They are comfort and company and escape; they have stayed the course during the ups and downs of my life.

Books represent home. And last week’s visit to the Glen Ridge Library was, in many ways, even more a homecoming for me than seeing my former classmates. That library was where I grew up.

Hank Phillippi Ryan & Lev Raphael Rap about Writing

We all know that writing is a solitary affair–even when you talk to yourself and your spouse or your dog comes in and stares at you.

That’s why it’s so much fun for us authors to go to conferences.  It’s not just about meeting fans, though that’s always a treat.  It’s about communing with our peers.  It’s about piercing the bubble of loneliness.  But there’s something even better than being on a panel  or hanging out at a bar afterwards or going out to dinner: appearing with a fellow author at a bookstore event.  Because that allows for a special kind of intimacy.

Last week I did an event in Ann Arbor with the supremely charming Hank Phillippi Ryan, celebrated TV reporter and thriller writer, at the mystery book store Aunt Agatha’s.  Hank had suggested we interview each other, and as a former radio talk show host, I grabbed the first question.  I couldn’t resist asking something lighthearted: who should play her in the movie version of her life story?  She opted for Katherine Hepburn, a natural choice for someone so classy.  I wanted Michael Fassbender for his long lean looks (among other attributes).

We moved on to more serious topics, talking about childhood library-going, our love of books, how our families encouraged our appreciation of art and literature, even though she grew up in rural Indiana and I grew up in the heart of New York City.  Our conversation ranged widely, covering her new book Truth Be Told and my new book Assault With a Deadly Lie, our favorite authors, our inspiration, her work as a reporter, my current work as guest professor at Michigan State University.

We flowed in and out of each other’s sentences and stories, riffing freely and companionably.  If you didn’t know us, you might have thought we were already friends, though we’d never met.  Or that we’d had a glass or two of wine beforehand–that’s how animated and relaxed we were.

We were kindred spirits.  We loved what we did.  We loved being there together in a wonderful independent bookstore.  And we were having so much fun with each other and regaling our audience with stories about doing what we love that we could have gone on much longer.

The audience did not know that I had come there after a car accident.  A few days before, I’d skidded off a rainy highway into a median and suffered a concussion.  I was still feeling the effects and hadn’t been able to drive myself down to Ann Arbor (in fact, I felt mildly panicky just being on a highway so soon after the accident: PTSD).  But for the hour and half that I was in Hank Phillippi Ryan’s marvelous company, it was as if my fog and my fear had completely lifted.

That’s what the fellowship of a wonderful writer can do for you. I felt calm, happy and as glad to be a writer as I typically am.  Because whatever career slings and arrows may come my way (and sometimes I feel like St. Sebastian), I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in second grade.  And I am living my dream.

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Here we are in a rare quiet moment, Hank looking as if she’s summoning a spirit, and me looking as if I’m about to share what my spirit’s already communicated with me.  Who says two people are too few for a séance? :-)

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Life and 24 other books in genres from memoir to horror to mystery.  His books have been translated into 15 languages, most recently Romanian.

The Strange Tale of Fortune Snow

As a novelist and journalist, I’ve run across some bizarre stories, stories that did more than just test the limits of my credibility, stories of the man in the moon variety. Usually, with a little research, the story is easily disproven. But recently, I ran across a story that, at the very least, passes the first “sniff” test.
In doing some research into 19th century Tennessee, I ran across a newspaper story from 1875 about a former slave named Fortune Snow. The story, which ran in a handful of newspapers across the country, described how the author had encountered a 127 year old African-American in Gibson County, Tennessee. Living with his grandson-in-law, Fortune Snow told the reporter of his remarkable life. He was born into slavery in South Carolina prior to the American Revolution. His master, William Snow, became an officer under General Francis Marion, the famous Swamp Fox, and Fortune went along, acting as personal servant and cook.
After the Revolution, Fortune followed his master to the Mobile, Alabama area, where his daughter “jumped the broom” and married. Fortune stayed in south Alabama throughout the Civil War, but in the years after, he followed his grandchildren north, stopping finally near Trenton, Tennessee.
An interesting story, but hardly one to take seriously. Like I said, I’ve seen such stories before. And tall tales were just part of the journalistic landscape in the 1800s. But here’s where the story of Fortune takes an odd turn.
Part of that same research project had me looking through the 1870 census for Gibson County, Tennessee. Just out of curiosity, I glanced to see if there truly was a Fortune Snow.
Not only was there a Fortune Snow in Gibson County, Tennessee in 1870, five years before the newspaper stories ran, but he was listed as 122 years old. It was absolutely one of those head-scratching moments. I rushed to run down other elements of his story. Yes, there was a William Snow in South Carolina who served with Francis Marion, and yes, there was a William Snow in the Mobile area in later years. Outside of that, it was difficult to find other, corroborating evidence, at least on short notice.
I don’t know if Fortune Snow lived to be 127. What I do know is that his story cannot be easily dismissed. Probably, he was well into his 90s, perhaps even 100 when that reporter encountered him in 1875. But even so, he would have been born around the beginning of the Revolution, and very well could have been with his master in the army of Francis Marion as a young boy. And that, by itself, is a story worth telling.

Driven to Distraction

I have a sign above my computer monitor that says “Write First.”

Despite that straightforward reminder, writing first doesn’t always happen.

I have written other blogs on the way things get in the way of the creative process. When I addressed the subject in a blog last year, one of the big things that got in the way was my day job.

Well, I retired last fall, so the day job isn’t a problem anymore. However, I’ve discovered many other distractions. And I don’t just mean my cats Daisy and Clio who, at various times during the day, are sure to leap onto the computer table and plant themselves directly in front of the computer monitor, prompting my exasperated comment, “I can’t see through you!”

Clio at the Computer

Clio at the Computer

The distractions – oh, let me count them! Since I retired, I really notice the amount of noise that surrounds me. The garbage collectors outside my office window on Mondays. The landscapers who visit the condo complex on Fridays, leaf blowers making that obnoxious noise. In the evenings it’s kids and people coming home from work. On the weekends when the weather’s good, kids again, this time in the swimming pool not far from my front door. Neighbors who crank up the volume on their TVs or entertain on their patios.

And if the writing isn’t going well, it’s so tempting to stop and clean out that closet. Or go raid the refrigerator. Just as an aside, though, I’ve noticed that if the writing is going very well, I get the munchies. Go figure.

But the biggest distractions are right here on the computer.

Recently I read an article that said the most successful business people don’t read their email at the start of the day. I understand why. It’s easy to get seduced into answering that email. Next thing I know, half an hour has gone by and I haven’t started working on my book.

If the chapter I’m writing hits a snag, it’s also easy to tell myself I really need to check what’s on the New York Times website, or see what breaking news the San Francisco Chronicle has to offer.

Yet I do need to search the Internet from time to time. The book I’m working on now takes place in early April of 1953, aboard the California Zephyr as it travels westward through Colorado. It’s useful for me to look for historical weather information so I can determine whether there’s snow on the ground when the train arrives in Glenwood Springs.

Then there’s Facebook. Yes, indeed, there’s Facebook. We all know what a timewaster that can be.

So I have resolved to limit the distractions. I can’t do much about the noise that surrounds me, but I can tackle the distractions on the screen in front of me. Last week I didn’t check my email until I broke for lunch. Next week I’m moving that back even further, to the end of the writing day.

So if I don’t respond to your message right away, that’s why. I’m practicing a new mantra – “Write First!”

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?

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