Either Or

Let this blog, short as it is, be a warning to you: It’s April 1. Beware the pranksters.

As far as I can tell, no one knows the origin of April Fool’s Day, and the only advice I’ve been able to find is: if you’re going to play a prank, 1) play it early in the morning before people are awake enough to figure out what day it is; and 2) don’t play one on your boss.

One year in the last century, a group I worked with challenged each other to show up in the lab sporting a different persona. Not exactly a prank, but a springboard for conversation. Here’s a photo of my anti-persona.

Yes, I showed up as a camper.

I’d asked a friend if I could borrow a backpack for the day. I pictured something slightly larger than a purse, perhaps in a soft blue fabric. As you see, she gave me the most serious pack I’d ever seen. HEAVY and AWKWARD don’t begin to describe it.

“Why didn’t you remind me to use the restroom before I suited up?” I asked her.

“April Fool,” she said.

What if that’s the answer to life? What if Kierkegaard was right, in “Either Or:”

A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it. The acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will end, to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.

I can hear them now, shouting, “April Fool!” But what if I really am a camper?

Farewell, Book ‘em

by Wendy Hornsby

            Just as I head out to launch my new book, The Color of Light, word comes about the loss of another old friend. Book ‘em Mysteries in South Pasadena is closing its doors. My signing event there, with Naomi Hirahara and Sue Ann Jaffarian, at 2:00 on April 6 will be their last.

Book ‘em opened during the early 1990s, during the glory days for mysteries and specialty bookstores, and they immediately became the hub for a large community of mystery readers. Those were heady times not only for independent bookstores but also for many newly published writers, especially women; they certainly were exciting times for me at the beginning of my life as a published writer.

Somehow, with a day job and kids to raise, during that period I managed to write a book a year; the boundless energy of youth, I suppose. Generally in the fall, my publisher would bring out my new book in hardcover, and at the same time issue the mass market paperback edition of the previous year’s book. As soon as the new book was announced, invitations would come from bookstores for signings or, better yet, readings. Every invitation was like an invitation to a debutante ball, a coming out party for the new book: new readers to meet, new places to go.

In the days before Facebook and Twitter and blogs and their ilk—before the juggernauts of Barnes and Noble and Amazon—authors depended on bookstores to get out the word about worthy books. Without the enthusiastic support of independent bookstore owners and their staff, I know that, by my own efforts, I would not have generated the sales numbers necessary to have been offered the next book contract, and the next. That is, I doubt I would have had a writing career, whatever that is or was, as Laura Crum pondered here last week.  But, one after another, those wonderful bookstores have closed their doors, until there are very few left.

 The closing of Book ‘em feels like the end of an era. The owners, Mary and Barry Martin, who opened the store after Barry retired from working in television, announced that, this time, they are retiring, period. I wish them all the best, but at the same time, I feel sorry for the loss of another wonderful independent bookstore, and a lovely old friend. Mary and Barry, and later with Jean Utley aboard, were always gracious, enthusiastic hosts and cheerleaders. They will be missed. Mazel tov.

Looking to the Past for Plots and Originality

A few years ago I was on a panel to talk about creativity and originality, and we were asked to describe the great, original works of our mystery genre. I thought at once of Oedipus the King, who with hubris and anger, strides forth to disprove the prophesy that he’ d kill his father and bed his mother–only to discover that he himself is the murderer. Of course he gets his comeuppance. After his wife Jocasta hangs herself by her hair, he blinds himself with her gold brooches and is led off to a hell of darkness and torment.

I love the chorus of old men who comment on the tragic situation, offering warnings and advice. There is also a lot of plain old detective-like questioning and interviewing: “Is there anyone to whom I should sooner speak?” Until the inexorable ending when Oedipus has to self-convict!

I borrowed this plot myself in a short story when someone digs up the ashes of a 4000-year-old mummy. The cemetery sexton, whose child was buried in a Haitian mudslide, interviews a group of suspects, then discovers that she stole them in her sleep-walk. But the greatest and most original use of the plot was by the Russian writer Dostoevsky in his psychological novel Crime and Punishment. We know from the start that Raskolnikov is the murderer–and then discover that he was, as well, his own detective. His urge to kill was overwhelming, but so was his need to confess, and thereby punish himself.

I suspect we’ve all borrowed bits of plot from 19th-century Edgar Allen Poe, particularly from his short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” again told in the POV of the villain himself. I’ve written on occasion from the killer’s viewpoint, but never a complete story! The wicked narrator even tells us why he is walling up his prey: because of the “thousand injuries” his friend Montresor inflicted on him–and the latest “insult.” Stone by stone, Fortunato walls Montresor up with friendly talk, and this time we don’t see the murder coming until it happens. A brilliant bit of suspense with no detective at all on the case! And unlike Oedipus and Raskolnikov, with no punishment.

Have your villains ever gone free? I think of Patricia Highsmith, whose amoral Tom Ripley escapes justice in at least five novels. Who can forget the terrifying Strangers on a Train? I’ve mostly stuck to the conventional retribution, but in Harvest of Bones, I had four people involved in a killing and let two of the more “accidental” offenders through the police net, yet still examining their consciences.

Undoubtedly Highsmith had read and, to a degree, emulated the fiction of Dostoevsky. Almost all his novels involve murder, and The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest, deals with parricide. The passionate Dmitri Karamazov threatens openly to kill his feckless father who has not only been abusive, but is trying to steal away his son’s true love. The father is indeed murdered, but someone (I won’t be a spoiler here) killed the man at a time when all the evidence would point to Dmitri.

I think most of us leave our novels with the villain’s downfall and just before a trial. At least I do–especially when the case seems clear-cut. But Dmitri’s trial is told, not only from his own viewpoint, but through long speeches by both prosecutor and defense attorney. The latter’s speech is insightful as he intuits the truth of Dmitri’s innocence, “proving” in his own way that there was no robbery (after all, no one saw it), and even no murder. Spectators and readers are convinced of Dmitri’s acquittal. But the jury, composed largely of peasants who hate their landowners, pronounce him guilty. And Dmitri is condemned to hard labor in Siberia.

How many of us allow an innocent protagonist to suffer in this way? Would our readers and editors repudiate us?

A multi-voiced novel, too, is harder to pull off, because one must give each character a distinctive voice and personality. In Dostoevsky we have layers of text echoing other voices (like a Greek chorus), all commenting on one another. Surely many writers have tried this, as I have. Such fun to get inside all those heads! The downside of course, is that some readers find this switch of viewpoints a challenge to read.

Many of us, like Dostoevsky, use our own life experience in our books. His father was allegedly murdered by his serfs, and his son felt guilty because of his absence at the time. Then in Siberia where he himself was sent because of an early brush with socialism, he met a convict who was falsely accused of killing his father. So real-life guilts, angers, and passions poured into his novels, as they inevitably must do in ours, as we look to our own pasts for our plots.



Daylight Stupid Time

So, here we are once again observing Daylight Saving Time. Or, as I prefer to call it, Daylight Stupid Time. Honestly, what does it save? Just about the time of year when the sun is coming up at a reasonable time and kids aren’t going to school in the dark, we switch the clocks so it will be dark until well after everybody is at school or work.

There’s nothing absolute about the way we reckon time. For most of human history, time-keeping has been imprecise. In ancient Greece and Rome the concept of time was so flexible that they just divided the day into twelve hours. During the summer those hours were longer; in the winter they were shorter. Monks invented clocks in the Middle Ages because they had to get up to say prayers. Even as late as the 18th century nobody kept precise time. The only fixed point was noon, when the sun was directly overhead at your particular location. It wasn’t until railroads began crossing Europe and the U. S. in the mid-19th century that time zones and timetables became significant.

Contrary to popular belief, Benjamin Franklin did not suggest DST. It was proposed in 1895 by a New Zealander, George Vernon Hudson, who liked to collect insects after he got off work. It wasn’t adopted until World War I, then used again in World War II. The rationale was that people wouldn’t use as much electricity or gas in the evening, saving those resources for the war effort. But, if we get up when it’s cold and dark, we’re going to turn on lights and turn up the furnace. There is an old joke about cutting a piece off the end of a blanket and sewing it on the other end to make the blanket longer. That’s what DST amounts to.

After World War II, many parts of the U. S. stopped observing DST. There was a chaotic pattern of places that did observe it and those that didn’t. And it wasn’t a matter of states. Some towns observed it, while others didn’t. At one point St. Paul and Minneapolis, with only a river between them, had different times. Traveling from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Charleston, West Virginia, in 1956—a distance of less than 200 miles—a person would pass through 17 time changes. I remember, as a kid in South Carolina in the mid-1950s, being unable to understand why “Howdy Doody” came on at 9:00 instead of 10:00 on Saturday mornings in the summer. It was because New York went on DST, while SC didn’t. New York’s 10:00 was South Carolina’s 9:00, and “Howdy Doody” came on when NY said it did. Try explaining that to an 8-year-old.

In 1966 Congress forced the whole country to go on DST, unless state legislatures exempted themselves. A few did. Indiana was in a peculiar situation. The state is in the Eastern Time Zone, except for the northwest corner—a suburb of Chicago—and the southwest corner, around Evansville. Those areas are in the Central Time Zone. To stay with Chicago, the Central Time Zone part of the state went on DST, but the Eastern Time Zone part didn’t. So, for part of the year, the whole state was on the same time because Central Daylight Time = Eastern Standard Time. The farmers in Indiana—like farmers everywhere—hate DST, but the folks in Indianapolis have finally triumphed and the whole state now goes on DST. Today Hawaii and most of Arizona are the only parts of this country that don’t observe DST. It is not observed by most of the countries in the world outside of Europe and North America.

Over the years the time span for DST has been extended, usually at the behest of some manufacturing group which thinks its sales will increase during the extra evening daylight. At one time it was the potato farmers of Idaho, who thought people would eat more fries at fast food places if they had an extra hour of daylight in the evening. The last time, in 2007, it was the makers of barbecue grills who got behind the idea.

I know I am a voice crying in the wilderness when I try to protest DST. It does have a greater effect on people who live in certain parts of the country, particularly those of us who live in the northern tier of states and/or on the western edge of a time zone. I live in west Michigan, the very far west of Michigan. My town—most of my state—should be in the Central Time Zone. I realized this some years ago when I was out painting my house after supper one fine summer evening. I was listening to the Detroit Tigers play the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The announcer, the legendary Ernie Harwell, said, “It’s 7:30, folks. The sun is setting, and we’re ready to play ball.” I thought, wait, the sun won’t set for another hour. That’s why I’m out here painting. Then I realized, we’re a full hour behind Boston. We’re actually in the Central Time Zone. (It’s not as bad as China; that entire, huge country has only one time zone when it should have at least three.)

The farther north of the equator you are, the more you’re aware of the difference in daylight hours between winter and summer. Start with being in the wrong time zone, combine that with DST, and my town can’t start its fireworks display on July 4th until after 10:00. And it’s really difficult to get young children to go to bed during the summer because of all that extra sunlight (I raised four, so I know).

When school is in session, I can’t see any reason to encourage kids to be out after supper. And let’s stop kidding ourselves that the time change saves energy. No scientific study has ever shown conclusively that DST saves anything. In fact, several studies have shown that energy consumption goes up during DST. Encouraging people to be out means more use of gas. Sticking that extra hour into the warmest part of the day means more air conditioning.

I realize we’re always going to have Daylight Stupid Time, but I would raise a plaintive plea to at least limit it to the period from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when kids aren’t in school and people might actually have some reason to be out in the evenings.

The puffy sleeves of publishing

I would like to be a writer who writes.

I don’t have a personal fortune, a very rich spouse, or bestselling books. Life isn’t fair.

I love the teaching and consulting, and even if one of those three miracles were to occur, I’d probably do it anyway.

What wouldn’t I do? Promote. I wouldn’t try to publicize my books, or beg people to review them, or any of those other acts of misery. I know I was pretty dumb when I first started out, cheerfully assuming that if my books were good enough they’d rise like hot air balloons. I also assumed that good reviews would cut the ballast loose. Had no idea of what I needed to do to get attention.  So even when I did get attention, I didn’t capitalize on it. I just tootled along merrily waiting to succeed.

Yes, I live in a dream world sometimes, no question about it. Of course, that is part of being a writer, isn’t it? So why are we expected to cope endlessly with reality? Seems wrong.

Babble endlessly on social media. Push everyone you know to get those reviews up on Amazon. Do panels, appearances, bookstore signings, conferences. No matter how little the return.

I’ll stick with the spouse I have, thanks. So what I need is either a personal fortune or a bestselling book.

The personal fortune never has appeared—no rich dead relatives, no buried treasure anywhere. It’s begun to seem like that particular pipe dream is leftover smoke from the 70s. That leaves the bestselling book, which, I’m told, is not possible unless I do all those things I’d rather not do.

Thing is, even when I’ve had a little extra cash from time to time, I had doubts about hiring a publicist. What if I chose someone who couldn’t do the job? Talked a good story and delivered nothing? Took my money and fled to Brazil?

I finally have a publisher who is willing to do some of the promotion, and that’s great. But there’s stuff, still, that I have to do.

And don’t want to.  Reading this, now, I see that I sound like a little kid being told to put on a dress she hates. I don’ wannoo!

So I’ll put the puffy-sleeved poochy-skirted thing on and do it.



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.

My Career?

                                               by Laura Crum


            Someone asked me the other day if I was happy with my writing career. I have to admit that I was so taken aback that I didn’t know what to say. I ended up babbling something inane, like, “Well, sure. Sort of. There are worse things.” And then I spent some time thinking about it. So now I am going to answer the question.

            It’s true that I have had a good long run as a published author. My first novel, Cutter, was released by St Martin’s Press in 1994. Since then, I’ve had eleven other books published. I was paid (perhaps not a vast amount of money, but I got a check) for all of them. In these past twenty yeas, writing novels has been my “job.” So I guess you could call it a career. The thing is, I never really thought about it that way.

            I certainly have not become a “best-selling” author. My books have brought in the grocery money, maybe. I am very lucky that my husband has a job that keeps us solvent. My career as a mid-list author would certainly not have supported me. Does this make me a failure?

            I think it depends on how you look at it. Best-selling authors who make good money would probably say I was a failure. People who have always wanted to have a book published by a “real” publisher, but failed to attain that goal would probably say I was a success (twelve published novels and a good many readers over the years looks like success to the unpublished or self-published, I find). From my own point of view, I am content with the way the author gig worked out for me. I wouldn’t mind a few more readers and a few more book sales. I do believe there are horse people out there who haven’t yet read my books who would enjoy my novels, and I’d like to reach those people. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if my books paid for the groceries AND the whisky.

            The main thing in my mind is that I enjoyed writing those novels. I wove a lot of my own life into them and I was really happy to have a career that allowed me to stay home with my beloved animals and garden, and later, with my son. I was fortunate in that I didn’t need to make a lot of money, so the fact that I never did make a lot of money didn’t trouble me. I was just tickled to be paid for doing something that I genuinely enjoyed doing.

            And yes, there is the ego gratification factor. When I first started writing mystery novels (before I was published) I used to think that my life would be complete if I walked into a book store and saw my name on the spine of a book for sale on the shelves (this was before Amazon, too). And you know, it happened. Twenty years ago I walked into my local bookstore and there was a book with my name on it. Yes, it was very gratifying. But in the end, I realized that nothing had really changed. I was still the same person, with the same problems and the same strengths.

            Before I was published I would go to talks given by authors and think that if I were the one giving the talk, if the people were there to see me, my life would somehow be a different life. And now that I have many times been the one giving the talk, I can tell you that my life is not vastly different. Yes, I can say that I am a published author and that does impress people (at least a little), but nothing of real importance in my life has changed. I have good days and bad days, happy times and sad times, just as I did before I was published.
            The lesson here for me is that “fame” (and in my case it was a VERY small amount of fame) doesn’t do the things for you that you might imagine that it will. The admiration of strangers just isn’t as fulfilling as you somehow believe that it will be. That’s been my experience, anyway.

            In the end, writing the novels and having people read them and (sometimes) enjoy them and tell me so has been a very happy experience for me. Being paid (even a small amount) for doing this has been rewarding. It has been satisfying to express my insights about the world and describe the things that I’ve loved in words—words that are read by others. Being able to stay home with my family and critters and garden has been vastly rewarding. So I would have to say that I am happy with my “career.”

            I probably could have made almost as much money working an eight hour day five days a week for minimum wage for the last twenty years, just to be realistic. But you know, I do believe I’ll take being an author. Even a lowly, mid-list author. It suits me.

(Oh and Happy St Patrick’s Day–just realized it was today. This is how it is when you are a hermit who spends her time with garden and critters.)


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