Spring Cleaning, Ear Worms, and Other Matters

Everyone has an ear worm from time to time–a song playing in the head that will not go away.  As an annoyance, ear worms rank right up there with watery eyes and hiccups.  My husband, who is musical, hears only the melody, whereas my affliction can be triggered either by the tune or by the words of a song.  I remember both.  The most obnoxious example I can think of is “It’s a Small World After All.”  I first heard it at Disneyland when my son was six.  He’s now fifty, so it’s been at the top of the charts for a long time.

I’ve been reading articles on memory, others on language, and a book (The Singing Neanderthals) on music, memory, and language.  When I was in elementary school, it was still common to have to memorize poems and speeches, and of course all children had to memorize the multiplication tables as far as ten.  But that had gone by the wayside by the time I reached high school.  After fifty years of rejection, the idea of training the memory seems to be reviving faintly.  The theory was that, with calculators and computers to serve as artificial memory, teachers should focus on other kinds of learning.  Too many students had serious trouble in the memory sweepstakes.

I didn’t.  I started memorizing poetry when I was two or three.  My mother read to my brother and me, and what she read was poetry.  (Hello, John.  Happy birthday.)  She read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses mostly, but also narrative poetry, some of it comic, from an anthology called Poems for Enjoyment.  I relied heavily on memory all the way through school and college.  My mother died in 2011 at 93.  I’m glad I thanked her for training my memory, though my training does make me super-vulnerable to ear worms.

What my brain has chosen to remember is odd.  German grammar, for instance.  I had four years of German in college, but I’ve only visited Germany once and then for less than a week.  I also studied Spanish and much later French, so why don’t those languages stick in my head the way German does?  Ich weiss nicht.  I also recall the process of extrapolation from trigonometry, though I’ve had even less use for trig than for Deutsch.  And most of all (or maybe worse of all) my head is full of poetry–other people’s.  Not just Shakespeare and John Donne but totally crappy country and western song lyrics and commercial jingles.

Since I’m at the age when people worry about dementia, I’ve thought about the advantage of having a head stocked with ready-made language.  Is it a good thing or a bad thing?  I don’t know, but sometimes I’d like to spring clean my head and erase a bunch of it.  Maybe then I could get rid of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “If I were a Rich Man” and all the other ear worms, especially “It’s a Small World.”  After all.


Conventional Behavior

I attended Left Coast Crime March 12-15 in Portland OR, across the river from where I live.  Carola Dunn and I were co-hosting a table at the banquet Saturday night, and I decided to stay that night at the hotel so I could have a convivial glass or two of wine at dinner.  My e-book editor, Judith B. Glad (Uncial Press) agreed to share a room, but the hotel was already full.  We booked room at a smaller hotel nearby.

Saturday, after five hours of panels, Jude and I checked into our small hotel, I parked the car in the garage beneath the structure, and we opened the trunk.  I’d forgotten to bring my suitcase.

Did I mention it was raining stair rods?  We schlepped Jude’s suitcase to the elevator and went up to our room.  I had several hours to drive home, fetch the bag, return, and dash to the convention hotel bearing sacks of party favors for the table Carola and I were sponsoring.

I abandoned Jude to a nap and drove home.  It was 3:30. Traffic was as coagulant as week end traffic gets, thanks to the downpour, but I contrived not to smash anyone.  My husband smirked and pointed me to the bedroom where my suitcase awaited me.  I drove back as smoothly as I’d driven over, parked outside instead of using the underground garage, thought about climbing the stairs but walked down to the elevator and pressed two.  My key did not work in the room door nor did Judith answer my knock.

I refused to panic.  With lordly calm I snagged a sweet-faced housekeeper.  I persuaded her that my roommate was in there, just asleep and, uh, a bit deaf.  Presto, the room was mine.  Judith was not there.  I thanked the maid profusely and used the loo.  Perhaps Jude had gone out for a stroll, just singin’ in the rain.  It was almost five.  I had about an hour but heck I could lie down and take a snooze while I waited for Jude to return.

I slept for half an hour and woke to the conviction that I was IN THE WRONG ROOM, that I was up a floor from where I ought to be.  An unpleasant substance was about to hit the fan.  I changed into party clothes, grabbed my handbag and the balky room key, and clattered down a flight of stairs.  The key didn’t work in the room directly below the one I had appropriated, but Jude answered my knock at once and opened the door.

“Oh, thank heavens, you’re safe!”  She clasped her hands.  “There’s a horrible wreck on I5.  I thought you were trapped in traffic.”

With quavering voice, I confessed my incredible blunder.  We raced upstairs.  I had closed the door behind me, leaving my suitcase, membership badge, and nightly medications in the second floor room.  I could not get in.  The obliging maid had disappeared.

We dashed down and out into the deluge.  The handsome young man at the desk dealt deftly with two customers, then turned to me.  “How may I help you, ladies?”

I explained.  Several times.

He was wonderfully sympathetic.  I thanked him but pointed out that I had about fifteen minutes to get my bags from “my” room, transfer them to “our” room, and drive Jude and the all-important party favors to the other hotel.  His massive calm did not waver.  So sad, he said, but he could not allow me into the room to retrieve my belongings.  It was against company policy and quite possibly against the law.  Until he contacted the man who had rented the room and got permission, he could not use his master key to enter it.

When did he think that would happen?

He didn’t know.  It was Saturday night and all kinds of things were going on, including a mystery convention (“I know!” I wailed) and a very nice Christian music concert plus all the local pubs and restaurants operating at full blast and something taking place at the Coliseum.  He was going off-duty at ten-thirty himself.  OMG

Jude and I dashed to the car; I drove to the convention hotel and abandoned her with the party favors at the conference entrance.  I drove back and engaged in heavy-duty pacing in the hotel lobby.  Rain sheeted down.  The young man at the hotel desk tried a couple of phone calls to a cell phone number given by the patron whose territory I had violated.  No dice.

Finally I gave up, told him I’d return around ten, and thanked him for his efforts.  I darted out into the deluge and stood at my car, fumbling in my purse for the car keys.  Also no dice.  Back in the hotel lobby, I groped the chair I’d been sitting in, found the keys, dashed out again, opened the door, slid in, started the engine, and checked my wallet to see if I still had the ticket that would allow me to park at the convention hotel.  I did, but my driver’s license had disappeared.  I emptied my handbag.

Back to the lobby.  Half a dozen curious Japanese teenagers (just checked in) watched me sympathetically as the hero at the desk produced my license.  Someone had spotted it in a puddle in the parking lot.

Despite Gar Anthony Heywood’s best, which is very good indeed, the banquet went by in a blur.  The food was good.  Awards were handed out amid cheering.  Carola was charming.  Our party favors went over nicely, and why not with a free book from Carola and a stuffed rat from me in each little “evidence bag.”  Seven nice women including a delightful librarian and Jude, wearing her editor hat, and a cheerful man from Friends of Mystery kept things buzzing at our table.  It was no use.  I felt like those baffled detectives who cannot solve the whodunit puzzle.  I HAD to know what had happened to my belongings.

We got back to our ill-fated hotel at ten.  The desk clerk wasn’t optimistic.  He promised to keep calling the cell phone number.

Jude and I went to our room.  I borrowed a tee-shirt to sleep in and lay down, exhausted, while poor Jude read.  About eleven I woke with a start.  Jude was standing over me, beaming and holding my little carry-on.  The nice clerk had retrieved it.  Ahhhh.

I could moralize.  Stop me, somebody.

This strikes me now and struck me at the time as one of those true situations that are more bizarre than anything I could imagine.  I can guess at negative consequences for the maid who helped me, though I hope she wasn’t fired.  I thanked everyone at the hotel profusely and explained that it was all my stupid fault.  But what of my victim, the man whose room I usurped, the nice Christian gentleman who just wanted to attend a concert and returned to discover that an elderly and elusive lady of the night had invaded his space?

The Autoblogger, a Labor-Saving Device

Every once in a while I come up with a science fictional idea, a wrinkle on reality that reflects a possible future.  As I was brooding about topics for this week’s blog, it occurred to me that someone ought to come up with an app to take over the process of blogging–all the way from generating topics to editing and polishing, including writing the blog itself.  A roblogger.  A drone blogger.  An autoblogger.  The part that composed the actual blog would be a bit like the thousands of monkeys chained to typewriters until they composed Hamlet, or Arthur C. Clarke’s antique computers that recited the nine billion names of god so the universe could come to an end.  That part would require a lot of memory.  The rest, though, would be duck soup–a genisap, an editap, and a copap.  And, of course, a pubap.  Truly, a labor-saving device.

The golden age of science fiction was much taken up with labor-saving devices because that was what engineers and other technicians brooded about in the mundane world outside science fiction.  I don’t remember ever reading an article in the news magazines of that era that presented a negative view of labor-saving, but I do remember wondering what all that displaced labor would do for a living when the devices that eliminated labor were in place.  When I got around to studying British history, I came across a name for people who voiced that concern–Luddites.  Maybe I was an incipient Luddite.  Horrors.

In my lifetime, as a consequence of labor-saving devices, our society shifted from being an agricultural labor-market to resting on the uncertain foundations of manufacturing.  Now it teeters between manufacturing and “service.”  When I taught introductory history at a community college, we used to list what was necessary for cookery, basic household work.  A sharp stick and a fire.  A pot, the students would say.  I pointed out that you could dig a pit, fill it with water, and toss red-hot stones into it.  You didn’t need a pot.

Nowadays the kitchen is full of labor-saving devices that eliminate, what, the cook?  Not exactly.  The cook’s close attention?  The stove (four burners and an oven) eliminates the need for an open fire of buffalo chips (or wood or coal or peat).  If the stove fails, an electric skillet, a micro-wave, and a slow-cooker provide backup.  The sharpened stick gives way to a broiler, roasting pans, a deep-fat fryer, cookie sheets, pie and cake pans, a Dutch oven, and a raft of electrically specialized tools like toasters, waffle and coffee makers, rice cookers, and sandwich grills.  Replacing the pit and hot stones, the stove burners heat pots and pans with and without lids.  And those are just some of the cooking clutter.  I have not yet mentioned the pitchers and cups for liquids and the crockery on and in which the food is served (replacing a large leaf or a bread trencher) and the tools (chop sticks or cutlery) that replace bare fingers.  Ah, I forgot–knives (I need six for cutting, paring, and slicing) and serving spoons, slotted and unslotted, strainers, graters, spatulas, egg slicers, apple corers, garlic presses, cherry stoners, and nut crackers.  Mandolines.

How generous of the manufacturers to supply me with all these objects in exchange for quite reasonable amounts of cash.  Do they save me labor?  I don’t know.  I do know that I don’t have a cook, and I don’t know anyone who does.  In the nineteenth century, most houses the size of the one I live in would have had, at the very least, a resident cook and a housemaid, so that must be the labor all those devices saved.  Indeed, this house has a bedroom for the cook right off the kitchen.  Consider this–the plots of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey don’t make sense for a series set later than World War II.  Except for nannies, people no longer consider a career in service, nor does “service” mean what it used to mean.

The automatic blogging app I theorized in the first paragraph would not be replacing labor in the sense that cookery is labor.  Nevertheless, blogging is a complex, time-absorbing activity, thoroughly exhausting, especially for someone who has other writing waiting to be done.  Clearly an autoblogger is a desirable labor-saver and ought to be created as soon as possible.  I can’t do it but somebody out there surely can.  Maybe somebody has.

While I was plugging away at this, my spouse googled “autoblogger.”  There is one.  We held our breath as it loaded.  What if …

Unfortunately, the extant autoblogger is closer to Car Talk than to the text generator I envisaged.  Clearly my kind of autoblogger will have to have another name.  Verblogisty?  Blogosity?  You name it, I’ll buy it.

I Go Virally (to the tune of “Aura Lee”

Whether there is such a thing as a written dialect in the strict sense of the term has to interest writers of fiction, because language differences set people apart more than anything–politics or religion or geographic distance.  Language as a tool of characterization weighs even heavier in novels and short stories than it does in drama.

I suppose headline-talk may be taken as a variety of written dialect, its own very peculiar language.  It connects to the general topic of fiction writing only because headline cliches seep into speech and using them in fiction is a good way to establish the era in which the story takes place.  When I was trolling Yahoo news headline the other day, looking for newspeak, I discovered that we are in the “adorable” era, at least in the world of Yahoo.  Babies and small animals are always adorable as are female celebrities sporting “baby bumps,” an expression that makes me grateful to be past the age of bumping babies out.  “Iconic” and “going viral” could be erased from the language with no loss, but they too are signals of the times.

Wars are now conducted by means of stale cliches (as opposed to fresh ones like going viral).  I noticed, for instance, that someone or something was “on the front lines” of the war against ISIS.  It used to be that each war generated its own jargon, but Yahoo seems stuck in World War I.  The great German novel of that war had a title that could have been translated as “Nothing New in the West,” but that would have lacked the punch of “All Quiet on the Western Front.”  The idea of front lines made sense in the western theater of WWI, but was already nonsense by 1940 and is certainly so today.  A military term that has been cut loose and wanders pitifully in newspeech is “to take by storm.”  A successful ad campaign can take a whole country by storm these days.

Not all newspeak cliches derive from military usage.  My favorite is “event.”  Our neighborhood grocery store had not just a sale of wine but a “wine event” last week.  And President Obama and the Dalai Lama are apparently scheduled for a “prayer event,” meaning a prayer breakfast, which is an odd enough idea in itself.  I was raised to think in terms of prayer and fasting, but we now have prayer and sausage.

However obnoxious, these examples of news dialect will serve to set a story firmly in our time, as authors writing historical novels collect terms that first popped up in the middle ages or Shakespeare’s day or the Regency for their works.

Re-reading Patrick O’Brian over the past month has led me to marvel at his use of dialects and especially the peculiar dialect called a jargon–in his case nautical speech.  Belay the mizzen there, lubber.  I’m bound to say I think he overdoes it, especially in Master and Commander, but he has the huge task of transporting readers from their recliners to the deck of a three-masted vessel full of English sailors in mid-ocean, as like as not in a storm.  I feel a bit seasick at the beginning of each lump of nautical jargon but nothing less would take me there so virally.

Newspeak ransacks jargons in its search for headline lingo.  The obvious one is medicalese with business/economics a close second.  Film-making contributes a surprising number of technical terms like “segue,” but let us “cut to the chase.”  Most fiction writers consider regional speech usage when drawing characters.  Mystery writers like Margaret Maron are masters of regional dialect, suggesting it without sinking into it too far for the general reader to follow.  Most mystery writers also master the basic jargon of policework.  Jargons and timely phrases can help set character as well as place and time–excuse enough to collect them.



In the Beginning . . .

Happy New Year, if January 1 is not totally arbitrary.  I thought a small discussion of openings might be a suitable topic for the day and the season.

Every writer knows the most frequently asked question (“where do you get your ideas”) is followed by half a dozen others, among them “how do you know when to start the story?”  The first answer (at the beginning”) provokes a justified wail, “but how do you know when it all began?”  Uh.  The second real answer is “in medias res,” in the middle of things.  In other words, you plunge into the ongoing story at what seems like a good spot.  For me, that spot doesn’t occur until the characters have begun to talk to each other and I can hear distinct voices.  For that reason, my stories often begin with a dialog between two characters, one of whom is a viewpoint character and the other of whom has some importance in the plot.

With murder mysteries, the cliche opening is discovery of the corpse.  There are variations–discovery of the corpse by the amateur detective in the amateur detective’s quaint home town, discovery of the corpse by a cop who goes directly to the amateur detective to consult (or arrest) him or her, discovery of the ambulant victim, a viewpoint character, by the killer who pulls a gun or other weapon and everything goes black, presumably in mid-sentence.

I don’t like to use the discovery of corpse opening, though I grant it does get things going fast.  The obvious trouble is that the murder on page three doesn’t stir the reader’s feelings.  There has been no opportunity to get to know either the victim or the killer.  Few readers enjoy goggling a dead body all that much.  Mysteries are puzzle stories.  Only when the puzzle to be solved has to do with the nature of the killing does opening with the corpse make sense.  If the real puzzle involves why that person was killed, the writer is better off dramatize dramatizing the conflicts that will lead to murder, then laying the corpse down in chapter four or five.

The corpse-in-chapter-one opening is now so common that the devoted mystery reader expects it.  If you don’t giver your readers a dead body, you will be creating a little hum of suspense under the surface of the action you do dramatize.  Delay satisfying the expectation a couple of chapters.  Then when you do deliver the body, you’ll make a big bang.

Well, what else?  I could go on about the imagery of openings.  You can open with a figure of speech that helps define the central question.  Yeats’s “The Second Coming” opens with a falcon circling in spirals that widen until it can no long hear the call of the hunter.  Once we see the falcon, the poet slams us with it’s real meaning.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .”  The falcon image is so strong, I’m sure there are thousands of readers who believe the poem is about hunting.  If you’re writing prose, I think you need to keep your figures of speech infrequent.  One strong one per chapter will have more impact that half a dozen on a single page.

What about sound effects?  Writers of prose fiction are apt to ignore the fact that language is primarily oral and that the sounds the writer makes set the mood of the story subliminally.  Written language hums its own tune.  In English, alliteration is the oldest of the poetic sound effects.  In can be annoying or unintentionally funny, as in A Midsummernight’s Dream:  “. . . with bloody blameful blade, /He bravely broached his boiling, bloody breast.”  But the Anglo Saxons would use only two sound repetitions out of three stressed syllable in the half-line.  They knew when to quit.  So do I, so I’ll just say, listen to your language, especially the opening.


It’s almost the time of year for resolutions of the kind no one keeps or remembers.  I can’t say making resolutions was ever one of my rituals, though beginning a new year is reason enough to reflect on the successes and failures of the previous year;  2014 was not my most productive writing period, so I feel a resolution or two coming on.

I’d like to get rid of some of the obstacles to writing I indulge in.  There are obvious ones, starting in my office with the games on the computer.  Bookshelves in every room on this floor hold another obvious distraction.  I resolve to play no game that involves words (farewell, crosswords and Scrabble) and to stop rereading my favorite writers (no more Jane Austen, goodbye Anthony Trollope).  I also resolve not to watch anything on television other than the news (easy).

Well, that liberates a lot of time, at least in theory.  In fact, what would happen would be a sudden access of housekeeping.  I’m not one of nature’s housewives.  However, a good spell of writer’s bloc will find me polishing kitchen cabinets or vacuuming spider webs from the basement ceiling at two in the morning.  Massive writer’s bloc might conceivably drive me to gardening or canning tomatoes.  So.  I resolve not to clean closets.

All of the above are essentially negative alternatives to writing. Positive alternatives are more powerful and frightening.  Volunteering public service, for example, can blot up weeks, even months.  It takes you out of the house, away from the nagging computer.  You meet interesting and admirable people.  You are praised and patted and told how wonderful you are, and all the time you are HIDING FROM WRITING.

The most dangerous alternative is learning another art form.  In my worst dry spell I took up water color painting.  I accumulated brushes and paints, handbooks, blocks of heavy paper.  I took lessons with a friend.  I met talented and likeable artists and produced a handsome portrait of my cat, Ethel.  The worst thing was I enjoyed painting.  Never mind that I wasn’t very good at it and never would be.  Never mind that I was HIDING FROM WRITING.

I resolve not to sit down at the piano.

Happy new year.

Conventional Wisdom

Sooner or later, authors seeking ways to promote their books consider the prospect of attending conventions.  I have mixed feelings on the subject, probably because I’ve had mixed results.  When I say ‘convention’ I mean a gathering of fans and creators of literary genres like science fiction, romances, and mysteries, not conventions of the American Legion or the Modern Language Association, though I can imagine circumstances that would make that kind of convention a profitable venue for a writer too.  My father, for example, self-published his WWII memoirs, attended a convention of Navy veterans, and sold a healthy number of copies to them.  A friend wrote a mystery involving needlework and sold dozens of copies at a quilting convention.

I started attending science fiction conventions in the 1960s, here and in Canada and Britain, and I enjoyed them only partly because I like to read s.f. and fantasy.  My first convention was a Worldcon (the big international s.f. convention) held in Los Angeles at a hotel near the airport.  The hotel clearly catered to businessmen most of the time.  As my husband and I went to the desk to register, we saw several wide-eyed men in suits and ties in the check-in line overlooked by a massive Viking dressed in a brown bathmat and wearing a horned helmet.  He was carrying a (bonded) battle axe.  Nobody gave him any lip.  On our way up to our room we got stuck in an elevator with Ray Bradbury.  Bliss.  Since I was not a published author at the time, I could relax, attend panel discussions, and enjoy listening to my favorite s.f. writers arguing with each other over what was hard science fiction and what mere fantasy.  In that era, most of the non-writers at such a convention were compulsive readers of s.f. and fantasy.  These days, many of the attendees are game players and media fans–in other words, they are less likely to buy books than in the olden days.

Fan conventions multiplied in the decades since that LA Con.  Dozens of regional conventions are held every year as well as specialized conventions for fans of comics or games or Harry Potter.  The s.f. conventions, since they did involve compulsive readers, also spun off mystery and romance conventions.  The romance conventions seem to be aimed primarily at writers rather than readers, though attendees share the s.f. fondness for costuming.  Mystery conventions do focus on readers, and they seem more serious to me than either romance or s.f. conventions.  You will occasionally see a mystery fan dressed as Sherlock Holmes, but mostly not.

All of these conventions feature panels of authors, editors, and agents, or authors and fans.  The discussions are almost always interesting and sometimes quite heated.  Many writers spend their convention hours schmoozing in the bar, which is not a bad idea, but it would be a shame to miss all the panels.  Even if the discussion is not world-shaking, it will give readers insight into the favorite writers’ personalities, and the panels are very helpful to beginning writers.

I think conventions, particularly the smaller ones like Left Coast Crime, can provide writers with a good promotional venue, but they are not for the faint-hearted.  Above all, they aren’t for late-comers.  If you intend to go, sign up early and be sure to ask to be put on panels.  You will also be invited to sign books, usually at a specified time and place where your fans can find you.  I also suggest that shy writers take a friend with them because a convention, especially a large one like Bouchercon, can be very isolating.


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