Where Research Leads Me

I write fiction – to date eleven novels in the Jeri Howard series, two in the California Zephyr series, and one standalone. I have two works-in-progress.

I make this stuff up. But when it comes to details, I like to sound as though I know what I’m talking about. So I research a variety of subjects, depending on the plot, setting and characters that feature in my books. Sometimes this involves a lot of reading but other times it involves getting out of my office. The research takes me down twisty paths and I find out things I didn’t know, information that makes its way into my writing.

As a longtime fan of Dick Francis, I always wanted to write a horseracing novel, but when I started A Killing at the Track, the ninth Jeri Howard novel, it quickly became clear how much I didn’t know about the Sport of Kings. Watching the Kentucky Derby on TV is one thing. So is watching live racing from the grandstand. Writing about the day-to-day life on the backside of a racetrack is another.

How to solve my research dilemma? A friend of a friend knew someone who trained racehorses. Which is how I found myself at Bay Meadows racetrack in the early hours one morning, for a day of following a trainer around the backside. I met jockeys, a vet, a jockey’s agent, and the Clerk of the Scales, who gave me a tour of the jockeys’ locker room. The last was unexpected, and it made its way into the book.

When I was researching Death Rides the Zephyr, the first book in the California Zephyr series, I took a special excursion train up the Feather River Canyon, the route of the old California Zephyr, not the Amtrak version. That gave me the experience of traveling on a Pullman car. I also rode Amtrak’s Zephyr several times back and forth to Colorado, during the winter, seeing the frozen and isolated landscape of the Colorado Rockies, and getting a sense for what my characters would see out the window of the train, because that’s where much of the action takes place.

I visited the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, where I drove a locomotive under the watchful and patient tutelage of one of the museum volunteers. My main character in the Zephyr books is a train employee called a Zephyrette. I was fortunate to interview two women who had worked as Zephyrettes and the information they gave me was invaluable in writing the books.

Right now I’m working on the twelfth installment of Jeri Howard’s adventures, a book titled Water Signs. Jeri’s back on her familiar Oakland, California turf and the research involves looking at the city’s waterfront and the development that’s going on now. Who knows where it will lead me? Maybe out on the estuary, in a boat!

Jumping Ahead

When the question is asked – pantser or outliner – I usually describe myself as a pantser.

A pantser is a writer who writes by the seat of her pants.

Or, to paraphrase Tony Hillerman, I write myself into a corner and then write myself out.

But that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I’m an outliner. But I don’t call it that. I associate outlines with something I had to do in school. I suppose that’s why I avoid the term.

When I’m starting a book, I sit at the computer and write whatever comes into my head – character sketches, background information, bits of dialog and plot. I explore, I digress, I run around in circles and meander off in search of box canyons and red herrings. By this time I have a have a good idea of where the book starts and ends, but not what happens in the middle.

Ah, those pesky middles.

So I start a timeline. I write down what happens before the book opens – that’s the backstory. My timeline gives me an idea of what needs to happen in order for my protagonist to get to the conclusion and solve the mystery. But at this stage my timeline may only get a few chapters into the plot. Sometimes I write in a linear, chronological fashion, and sometimes I figure out the order of events while I’m writing the book. I discover that order by writing scenes out of order. I call this jumping ahead.

I did it in my Jeri Howard novel Witness to Evil. I managed to get Jeri down to Bakersfield to look for a missing person. Then Jeri learned about a murder. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I only knew that Jeri had to go to Los Angeles to follow a lead. So I jumped ahead. Jeri left Bakersfield and headed over the Grapevine to the LA Basin. I pounded out seven chapters in a short time and when I got Jeri back to Bakersfield I knew more about my timeline. I went back to earlier chapters I’d written and inserted crucial action.

Right now I’m working on my twelfth Jeri Howard book, titled Water Signs. I have a good beginning and a good sense of where Jeri and I are heading. But again, I’m at the point where I’m not sure about what goes where.

So I’ve jumped ahead. I’ve written a number of scenes over the past few days and I’m learning more about my book as Jeri talks to people, ferrets out information and visits the scene of the crime.

The technique is working. I’m making progress by jumping ahead.

Why Should You Write Every Day?

Too many writers worry about how many words they write per day. Some get manic about it and some even post their tally on Facebook as if it’s a global competition.

 

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And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable. Why aren’t they working harder? Why are they stuck? What’s wrong with them?  How come everyone else is racking up the pages?

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If that kind of system works for you, fine. But I think too many writers are somehow caught in the assumption that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent. Especially when they read about other people’s word counts on line.

Many well-known authors like Ann Lamott advise beginners to hold to a daily minimum, but some days it’s simply not possible. Hell, for some writers it’s never possible. Why should it be?

Other writers say that you if you’re feeling “stuck” you should re-type what you wrote the previous day. Well, even if I weren’t a slow typist, that’s never had any appeal for me or made much sense.   I’d rather switch careers then do something so mind-numbing.  I’d feel imprisoned.

I don’t advise my creative writing students to write every day; I advise them to try to find the system that works for them. I’ve also never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

 

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But aside from that, every book, every project has its own unique rhythm. While recently finishing a suspense novel, my 25th book, I found the last chapter blossoming in my head one morning while on the treadmill at the gym. Though I sketched its scenes out when I got home, I spent weeks actually writing it.

Some people would call that obsessing. They’d be wrong. What I did was musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic as it were, making sure everything fit right before I went ahead, because this was a crucial chapter. I was also doing some crucial fact-checking, because guns are involved and I had to consult experts as well as spend some time at a gun range. It took days before I even had a rough draft of ten pages, yet there were times when I had written ten pages in a day on this same book.

 

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The chapter was the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it had to be as close to perfect as I could make it. So when I re-worked a few lines that had been giving me trouble and found they finally flowed right, that make me very happy.

I never panicked, because the book was always writing itself, whether I met some magical daily quota or not.

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a Midwest Book Award Finalist, and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.

Is Hemingway’s Writing Advice Legit?

You often hear the advice that writing is basically just sitting down and doing it.  The classy version is “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Someone on Twitter asked me if I thought Hemingway had said it more tersely: “apply seat of pants to chair.” Well, that sounds as if it might be Hemingway. It’s matter-of-fact enough–but I was dubious.  I’ve read a good deal of Hemingway over the years and many Hemingway biographies and never encountered that line or anything like it.

 

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As usual, the Internet isn’t much help. Even though it shows up as my Twitter contact says in a book about Hemingway, it’s also attributed on the Internet to Kingsley Amis, Mark Twain (isn’t everything?), and more frequently to someone I’d never heard of, Mary Heaton Vorse.

According to Wikipedia, Vorse was the author of apparently a dozen books of fiction, and an activist dedicated to “peace and social justice causes, such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, pacifism (specifically including opposition to World War I), socialism, child labor, infant mortality, labor disputes, and affordable housing.”

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But there’s that quote…. Did she actually say it? When you check an authoritative page of Vorse quotes, all of which have attribution details, it doesn’t show up. All the quotations listed there are focused on larger issues; here’s a typical one:

This philosophy of hate, of religious and racial intolerance, with its passionate urge toward war, is loose in the world. It is the enemy of democracy; it is the enemy of all the fruitful and spiritual sides of life. It is our responsibility, as individuals and organizations, to resist this.

Of course, Vorse is listed on Goodreads as the author of those words about the pants and the chair. Good old Goodreads, you can always depend on that site for a bogus attribution when you need one.

So is it Twain, Hemingway, Kingsley Amis, or Honoré Fauteuil, inventor of the chair of that name? (I made him up, actually).

Well, the source is more likely the been famed, caustic humorist Dorothy Parker.  The version she gets credit for is snappy: “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”

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Whoever said it, though, is ass-application really good advice for writers? Plenty of us writers have spent idle hours with butts stuck to our chairs not getting anything more than sweaty and frustrated.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police forces.  His web site is levraphael.com.

Home Again, With Takeaways

To paraphrase my father, it’s fun to get away for a while. But it’s great to get home and sleep in my own bed, surrounded by my cats.

When I am planning a trip, it all sounds wonderful. However, the closer I get to the actual event, I wonder why I’m leaving my comfortable home to travel.

So many things to do – arrange cat care and someone to take in the mail and look after the garden, pack, a ride to the train station or airport.

Why, I ask myself, did I think it was a good idea to go to all this kerfluffle and expense to leave home?

I recently attended the Left Coast Crime convention, held in Portland, Oregon, I had a good time but was glad to get home. LCC is a smaller convention and that’s what I like about it. Plus Left Coast is in my part of the country, the Western United States. It usually doesn’t cost as much to get there, exceptions being the former and upcoming LCCs held in Hawaii. But I did go to the convention that was held on the Big Island’s Kona Coast, because I’d never been there before. And I am going to the 2017 Honolulu LCC, planning a few days of playing tourist before the convention starts.

So that’s part of the appeal of LCC, or any convention, such as Bouchercon 2016 in New Orleans. I’m signed up for that one because it’s an excellent reason to visit the Big Easy.

Travel isn’t the only reason I go to conventions, though. I enjoy the opportunity to see readers and fellow writers. I did have to laugh when I ran into writer Steven Saylor. At almost the same time we said, “It’s been ages!” And it had, despite the fact that he lives in Berkeley and I live in Alameda, a distance of some ten miles. Ironic, to go all the way to Portland to see people who live nearby.

But that’s not surprising. When we writers are at home, we’re in front of our keyboards. I even brought my keyboard with me, since I was nearing the deadline on the latest California Zephyr mystery, Death Deals a Hand. I wrote on the train going to and coming home, and even managed a few hours of writing time at the hotel.

The biggest takeaway from Left Coast Crime, and last fall’s Bouchercon, was that I came home energized and eager to write. The panels I attended were interesting and informative. The discussion on novellas and short stories left me eager to try my hand at a novella, since with the advent of electronic publishing there is new life in this shorter form. I also found good information in several of the publishing panels that looked at traditional, independent and hybrid authors.

Once I write that novella I may publish it myself, just to dip a toe into those waters. And since I have finished my latest book, the time to explore that novella is now.

Not today, though. I am going out of town for a few days and I have to pack.

And why did I think it was a good idea to schedule another trip so soon after LCC?

 

Is the U.S. Becoming a Police State?

The books in my Nick Hoffman series have all been born in various ways.  Sometimes a book started with the idea of a new character entering the academic world Nick inhabits.  Sometimes while I was on a book tour, I heard some juicy gossip at a university I embroidered into my own plot.  Sometimes I’d be in a cafe or other public place and would overhear part of an intriguing conversation; I’d start filling in the blanks and my mind would set off like the TGV, the high speed French train.

But my 25th book’s origins were unique because they came from multiple sources and they seemed to come insistently.  They came from the news.  They came from newspapers and news web sites around the country.  The came from web broadcasts.  They came from reports on all kinds of political blogs.

It all started around four years ago when I started seeing stories about little towns like Neenah, Wisconsin. It’s home to only 25,000 people and in the past seven years has had only two murders, but today it’s the proud owner of a thirty-ton armored combat vehicle which can protect anyone inside against mines.

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That’s right, landmines.  They’ve never been a problem in Neenah or anywhere else in the United States, but that’s besides the point. The Pentagon has been like Santa Claus for police departments across the country, showering them with armored vehicles, aircraft, machine guns, grenade launchers and more — as if war were about to break out at any minute.  As if every single police captain in the country were Carrie on Homeland ravenous for drones, ravenous to take out terrorists now.

What’s the difference now between police officers and soldiers when they’re almost armed the same and trained the same?

As the New York Times reported recently, “Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade and creeping through a field in camouflage.”

If you argue that our police forces have to be safe at all costs, it’s hard to disagree. But groups on both sides of the political spectrum maintain that the militarization of American police forces has gone way too far. When the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation speak with one voice, you know we’re facing a real crisis.

That dangerous militarization is one of the subjects of Assault With a Deadly Lie, the first book I ever felt  urged to write because of current events that seemed to be spiraling dangerously out of control.  The idea came to me way before the events in Ferguson opened a national conversation about the possibility that we might be headed toward living in a police state.  And this book has already opened the door for my next novel of suspense where the stakes will be even higher than they are here.  I’ve got my title, my opening scene, and a fiendish villain worse than anyone who’s stalked the pages of my series before.

Assault With a Deadly Lie is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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!”