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.


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.  



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.


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.


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.


by Nancy Means Wright

I’ve never been good at endings. My 1990 divorce after decades of marriage cost me an expensive session with a shrink. Divorce seemed the right ending for me, but was it right for our offspring? Well, I did it, and years later we all hang out together at birthdays and holidays–and our seven grandchildren take their hyphenated names in stride. My former husband and I have grown wiser and happier in our separate ways. It was the right ending.

But what about ending a book? I’ve always told writing students to make the ending resonate in the beginning. You start with the dramatic questions (who had means and motive to kill this person?) And in the end you provide most of the answers. The reader has that thrill of surprise, yet looking back, feels that “oh yes,” this is the “right” ending. You’ve resolved the major conflicts, made your ending as unpredictable as possible, yet left room for imagination and interpretation. You’ve understated rather than overwritten. No hint of  a deus ex machina where the armed police just happen to break into your house and round up the bad guys.

All the same, endings have been a struggle. In Harvest of Bones I spread the guilt among four suspects. And in Stolen Honey, I discovered that my prime suspect was too good/moral a fellow to have killed, so 3/4 through the book I had to choose a new villain and a new ending. Egad!

I recently picked up a 2012 edition of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms which includes the author’s early drafts, and most fascinating of all, his myriad endings. In the novel, Lt Frederic Henry, like the author himself, is a WWI American driver in the Italian Ambulance Corps. He is seriously wounded, falls in love with a beautiful nurse, gets her pregnant, deserts the army, and the lovers escape to Switzerland. Never was Hemingway happier, he claimed, than when he was “living in the book and making up what happened in it every day.”

But he had a hard time with the ending, in which his Catherine has a Caesarian section. He made 47 different attempts, which his grandson, Sean Hemingway has grouped under nine headings. There is the existential Nada Ending in which woman and baby son both die: “Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”  He wrote a Live Baby Ending in which Catherine dies but the baby lives–then decided “But he does not belong in this story.”

There is the Funeral Ending: “When people die you have to bury them but you do not have to write about them…in writing you have a certain choice that you do not have in life.”  And then the Morning After Ending in which the bereaved Frederic smells the spring morning after a rain and has a moment “before I realize what it was that had happened…that it was all gone and would not be that way anymore.”

He wrote numerous ending fragments before  he found his “right” ending, using his famous ‘iceberg principle,’ in which 7/8ths of the story is under the surface. Many of us, I’m sure, use this principle, particularly those of us writing historical novels–taking care that our research isn’t obvious. The final ending of A Farewell to Arms illustrates this principle when Catherine begins to hemorrhage, and dies. The novel ends with two nurses refusing him entry, though he pushes past them. “But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light, it wasn’t any good. It was like saying goodbye to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” And we can feel Frederic’s pain and total despair.

“Less is more” is the advice I learned from reading Hemingway, and for the most part, have tried to emulate in my fictional endings. My new historical novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, ends with a shipload of returning WWII soldiers. One of the men has a two-year-old daughter by a woman who is crazy in love with him. But she hasn’t yet told him about the child she has brought with her to the ship. I ended the book with  the young man simply “moving slowly towards us as though borne on an incoming wave.”

Should I have described their meeting? I don’t know. But as Hemingway said in one of his endings (above): “Maybe that baby does not belong in this story.”

the secret of life

It’s taking me way too long to figure out how life works. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a little slow or because I’ve leaned toward cliff-jumping: when in doubt, take a gamble.

The understanding that other people seem to have been born with evades me. For instance, am I really so busy or just incapable of keeping up with everything I stuff my life with? What about those years in my thirties when I did practically nothing? Was it really the blank it seems to be? Does it seem to have been idle only in comparison with now? Was I revving up for one crazy run up the ramp of the rest of my life? Or, most likely, was I recovering from a cliff-jump, hunting for my life, and finally, finding a job, buying a house, and starting to write books. Now that I think about it, not exactly nothing.

But now seems busier. I’d like to believe it’s because I really have reached some sort of activity peak. But I don’t think that’s the reason. I’ve always been capable of slacking off and now I can excuse it with this or that little ache or pain, a marriage I love, the feeling that maybe I’ve worked too hard all these post-thirtyish years and deserve a break. That’s all well and good, but if I take a couple days off, it’s hard to catch up.  And then I wonder if I’m getting old and would have had no problem catching up 25 years ago. And then I catch myself and say, not mentally, don’t you dare age mentally. And then I catch myself again and say, but you forgot entirely to do thus and such.

The more I do the more I want to do and the more I want to do the more I think maybe I should take a nap.

What’s in a Name? A Lot

“If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.” Confucius

When we’re born our parents give us a name which may turn out to have nothing to do with who we are or how we think of ourselves. My first name means “noble” or “illustrious” in German. I don’t think I’m either, but I was given the name simply because it was my father’s name. He was given it because his father served with an Albert in WWI. (For the same reason, I have an uncle named Alvin York.)

When we create fictional characters, though, we have the opportunity—the obligation—to give them “correct” names, names that are in accordance with their truth. That, for me, is one of the most difficult aspects of writing fiction. If I don’t pick the correct name for a character, I can’t make that character believable for myself and, thus, for my readers. I can’t make him/her true.

I once read a cozy mystery by an author whose name I have forgotten. It wasn’t a bad book, but I had trouble getting into it because the main character’s last name was Pigeon. “You created this character out of whole cloth,” I wanted to say to the author. “Why stick her with a name like Pigeon?” Her son was named Tyler but his middle name was Clay. That’s right, Tyler Clay Pigeon.

At least poor Tyler’s a fictional character and doesn’t have to endure the teasing and name-calling that would surely arise from that awful moniker. But real parents do that much and worse to their children. In my lifetime I’ve known women named April Flowers and Crystal Ball. In my files I have a copy of a birth announcement from my local paper. The parents named their daughter Kamrie Georgia-May Dixie KizzieLynn JessieJaymez. That’s all the proof you need that naming a child and alcohol don’t mix. Another recent gem was from the obituary of a woman who named her three daughters Treaser, Faleter, and Rotunda.

I think children should be able to sue parents who inflict such misery on them from the day of their birth. It’s tantamount to child abuse.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive about names because of my last name. Kids can be merciless, so I got “ding-dong” all through elementary school. To make matters worse, I had a nickname, which to this day makes me cringe. When my family moved from South Carolina to Cincinnati when I was eleven, I told my parents I was done with the nickname. I seized the opportunity provided by moving to a place where nobody knew me and nobody had ever heard that damn nickname. If I could have changed my last name, I would have done that too.

The only time I’ve ever revealed the nickname–other than to my wife–was when I wrote a book about that stage of my childhood. You can buy a copy: Strangest thing, though. My high-school girl-friend married someone else in 1964. In 1992 I ran into her and her (second) husband. As we talked, she mentioned her children’s names. She called her younger son by the nickname that I had hated as a child and had dropped long before I ever met her.

When my wife and I adopted our first two children, we thought quite a bit about names. There could be no “B” or “L” sound, and we wanted ones that had two syllables, to counterbalance a monosyllabic surname. We settled on Stephen and then Matthew, who have, of course, been Steve and Matt since they were in elementary school.

When we adopted our girls from Korea, we tried to find English names that had some-thing of the sound of their Korean names and we kept their entire Korean names as their middle names. Our older daughter has long refused to use anything but her middle initial. She doesn’t like the way her Korean middle name makes her stand out on paper. The younger daughter recently married a nice fellow whose family is from Mexico, so she is now the Korean girl with the Hispanic name who lives in a little Dutch town, a one-woman testament to cultural diversity. She gave her son (from her first marriage) a Korean middle name.

For a contemporary mystery which I wrote several years ago, Death Goes Dutch, I wanted to make the main character a Korean adoptee living in the Dutch environs of west Michigan. DeGraaf is a common name here, not quite Smith or Jones but common. I’ve always liked Sarah and Rachel as women’s names, but Sarah Bell and Rachel Bell don’t work. They remind me of Clarabell and Pachelbel. But I had a chance to use one of those names in the novel, so Sarah DeGraaf was born. I decided to name characters in the book after members of my extended family—aunts, cousins, and their children. The villain, of course, was not named after a relative. You can find the book here:

Whatever name an author chooses for a character, there is bound to be at least one person somewhere with that name. You’ve seen, I’m sure, the Taco Bell commercial featuring four men named Ronald McDonald. A librarian told me she knew at least four women named Sarah DeGraaf. I thought that might mean at least four sales. Some fictional names become iconic—Harry Potter perhaps being the most obvious. In my files I have a class list from some years ago containing the name “Potter, Harry.” Yes, I was one of Harry Potter’s teachers. I ran into him in an airport a few years ago. He is now a Catholic priest. I wonder how people who don’t know him respond when they find a voice mail that begins, “Hi, this is Harry Potter.”

Writing Roman mysteries using some historical characters relieves me of part of the onus of choosing names. Pliny’s name, after his adoption by his uncle, was Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. (Caecilius was his father’s name.) There’s nothing I can do about that. Tacitus was Cornelius Tacitus, although we don’t know his first name; it might have been Publius. A typical Roman man’s name had three parts, but over time extra names (cognomina—nicknames) came to be added. One minor character in Death in the Ashes was Lucius Aelius Plautius Lamia Aelianus (try putting that on a name tag at the class reunion). Pliny’s mother was named Plinia (sister of Pliny the Elder) and Tacitus’ wife was Julia (daughter of Gaius Julius Agricola). Women of the citizen class in Rome were always given the feminine form of their father’s family name and sometimes had a second name taken from another male relative, perhaps a grandfather.

Pliny writes several letters to his mother-in-law, whose name was Pompeia Celerina. He mentions her more times than he does his own mother, whom he never names. Pompeia’s father and any brothers would be named Pompeius. But Pliny never mentions his wife’s name or the name of Pompeia’s husband, presumably dead by the time Pliny was writing. So I had to (got to?) pick a name for this otherwise anonymous wife. The commentaries on Pliny’s letters were no help in identifying his wife’s father, so I felt free to settle on “Livia” as her name. To me it has a somewhat imperious, arrogant ring to it, probably because the emperor Augustus’ wife was named Livia, and she was a piece of work. The name is in accordance with the truth of my character.

Where I have the greatest problem is in naming minor characters, especially servants, inn-keepers, merchants. Many of those people were non-Roman. Servants were often named/renamed after mythological characters whom they were thought to resemble. One of my characters is a Jewish slave named Jacob whom his master renames Nestor, after the wise old counselor in Homer’s Iliad. I have been known to change the names of such characters two or three times as I rewrite, much to the consternation of my writers’ group. The lists of characters that appear in my Pliny novels are helpful to me because they let me quickly determine if I have used a certain name before. (Of course, if I kept extensive lists and notes as I went along, I wouldn’t have that problem, but I don’t.)

My favorite character’s name is Aurora. She has snuck up on me, appearing briefly in the second Pliny book and taking a larger role in each succeeding book, until now she’s taken over the title of the newest book, The Eyes of Aurora, due out on September 9:
Writers’ magazines suggest several ways to pick names for characters and issue cautions about how naming can go wrong. The advice can be applied to naming children as well. One list summed it up this way: “Think it through.” Say it out loud, consider how it could be misconstrued (don’t name a character Stan Dupp or Clay Pigeon or Crystal Ball), and think about the image it creates in your own mind. Is that the image you want in your reader’s mind? Do you want your reader to chuckle every time the character’s name comes up? To go back to Confucius, is your character’s name in accordance with the truth of things, the truth of who your character is?

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.

Historical Mysteries – Double Trouble

Writing mysteries is difficult. They are both plot and character driven. Writing historical mysteries, especially when you include real historical persons, is twice or three times as hard (in my humble opinion). Why? Because you still have to have a well-plotted mystery, but you have the added burden of portraying real people about whom your reader may already have formed an opinion. And that’s not to mention creating a world true to its history, that also fits your story. None of that is easy.

Let’s look at a well known figure, a mythic figure. Take Abraham Lincoln. You want to write a mystery, say about a Confederate spy, set in the Civil War White House (Executive Mansion) where Lincoln uses the Taft children, who play with Willie and Tad, as his Baker Street Irregulars to ferret out the mole. There have been, literally, millions of words written about our 16th president, and, as a result, your research has to be spot on. You’ll find yourself studying Civil War photographs of the White House and Washington. You’ll pore over his correspondence, just to get his speech patterns down for the dialogue. My second published mystery was set in 1922 Paris, among the American expatriate community. I studied the letters that Hemingway wrote during those years specifically so that I would know how he talked, what words he used. A book on Lincoln would need the same amount of care. Oh, and don’t get the mole on his face on the wrong side. Somebody will call you out on it.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, someone like Lincoln is so well-documented that there are few questions left about how he looked and sounded, his moods and manners. But even when you have Lincoln right, you then have to get the White House and environs correct. And you have to get the plot nailed down tight. When you look at it in total, it seems like an impossible task. Wouldn’t it be fun though?

Fans of historical novels of any type read for two reasons. One, they want to be entertained. Second, they want to learn something about another time and place. But that just makes it more likely that they will already know something of that era. And the slightest mistake can, potentially, cost you readers. And it can happen in more modern settings as well. Not long ago, I read a contemporary thriller by a bestselling author. He has his hero jet into Kuwait, hop over to the Holiday Inn, and immediately order a vodka martini in one of the restaurants. Anyone with even a remote understanding of Kuwait knows that you haven’t been able to order alcohol in a restaurant there since the 1970s. The author didn’t do the necessary research. The general editor didn’t catch it. The copy editor didn’t catch it. But I know of at least one reader that very nearly stopped reading and put the book down over that one incident – me. I saw another such novel just a few months ago that had the CIA station chief and the regional security officer at the US Embassy in Qatar sharing office space and acting as partners. The author obviously knew nothing about how these things work. Such a situation would never happen.

You can move things around a bit; sometimes you have to for the sake of your story. In one famous example, Gore Vidal, in his book Burr, kept one historical figure alive for a year after his actual date of death. But Vidal did what all writers of historical novels must do. He explained why he had done that in an “Author’s Note” at the end. Readers are willing to allow you the occasional inaccuracy as long as you tell them why it was necessary. That way, they know that it wasn’t poor research that caused it. And, most of the time, they will accept it.

Along that same line, your characters’ thoughts and actions must fit your setting. Anachronisms, like the clock tolling midnight in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, will cause readers to take you to task. I hear a great deal these days about characters in mysteries set, say, during the Victorian period and elsewhere having very 21st century attitudes and beliefs. This will, without question, cause an author problems with a segment of the reading public. Of course, there is another block that doesn’t mind.

With historical mysteries, it isn’t just about getting the general time and place correct. You have to know how murders were handled. If it is in the Dark Ages, then you may have to create a plausible excuse for why your amateur sleuth is an amateur sleuth. In some places, like Britain, there was nothing even remotely like a police force. If it is after a formal police presence came into existence, you have to know how such things were handled by the police in that particular time and place. Which means that your book has become not only an historical mystery but a kind of procedural as well.

Historical mysteries are double, maybe even triple trouble. But when you get it right, it’s all the more satisfying.


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