Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Being There

I've written about research. I'm a research nut, diving into libraries or browsing the net, trolling for unusual facts, sidelights on places, stories on crime.

However, a wonderful way to research is to go there. Just go.

I've been to the areas of Florida I write about. Walked down the streets of towns I've never been in, notebook out, taking notes: the birds I see, the street names, the architecture, the cars, just everything. Noted the temperature of the ocean at various seasons. Simmered at the traffic (a motif that shows up more than once!) and so on and on.

Nothing quite substitutes for being there. You pick up on so many things that way. Once I walked into a tiny little used-book store in a small Florida town. The owner, alone behind the counter, wailed, "You missed him! You just missed him!"

Jimmy Buffet had walked out of the store a minute before I walked in. I said too bad, I liked his music, would have liked to have seen him.

The store owner said, "No, you don't understand. I wanted somebody else here because now nobody's gonna believe me!"

Saving that moment for a book I'll write one day.

If you document your research, you can count a portion of your expenses off against income tax, by the way.

My friend the late Tom Deitz would do that. He wrote fantasies involving Ireland and went to Ireland several times. Still, I told him once, "You can't recoup the whole cost of a two-week trip to Ireland from a tax write-off."

He thought about that and shrugged. "That's true," he said. "But on the other hand, nobody can repossess a trip."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Read 'til Your Eyes Bleed....

....and you still won't catch all of the typos. It's a melancholy fact.

With an ebook, of course, you are free to edit indefinitely, so when you receive an email that says on page 25 Judy's eyes are green and the next time she appears on page 195 they are blue, you can go in and fix it up.

Writers tend to be blind to their own mistakes. They know what they meant to say, and mentally they supply the correct version as they proofread. A guy who habitually mistypes teh for the is likely to glide right over the misspelled word. A woman who keeps forgetting that periods at the end of dialogue go inside the quotation mark will probably not notice the thirty times in her manuscript that she does it the other way: She smiled at him. "I love you so much".

This is why it's great to get another set of eyes on your work - and if possible, more than one set. Reader A will catch things that Reader B misses, and vice-versa. You need readers who are sensitive to issues of grammar, spelling, and so on, but who also appreciate the kind of story you've written.

And you know what? You're still likely to get emails pointing out things everybody missed.

Once an editor at a New York house was talking to me about cover letters. She could take them or leave them, she said. Cover letters didn't influence her decision to buy or not buy a book.

Then she got thoughtful and added, "Except for this one time."

The aspiring writer had a brief cover letter, properly respectful and properly formatted.

Unfortunately, the writer had also boasted, "I've been through the manuscript at least six times, and I can assure you that you will find no type O's in it."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Scenic Cady's Island

Where is Cady's Island?

The home of Jim Dallas and Sam Lyons is firmly established in the state of my imagination. It's fictional. If it existed, it would be a few miles south of Jacksonville, roughly east of Davis Park.

It's not quite six miles long and not quite a mile and a half wide and is shaped rather like a paramecium. Driftwood Beach, at the northern tip, is cluttered with wood and other stuff cast up by the sea. South of the island's center is the old Cady's Island Lighthouse, decommissioned in the 1950s. From the lighthouse it's a bit more than a mile down to the extreme southern tip of the island.

There are only a few score year-round residents. In season--which basically means in the summer and then again in the winter--most of the houses are rented out to vacationers. The beach isn't the best, being coarse sand and shell fragments, but the water is clean.

To get to the island, you drive south from Jacksonville on 1A through Ponte Vedra and then Sawgrass. A very short spur turns off to the left and ends in the parking area for the ferry, operated by Liz Fretty ever since her husband died. There's a wharf and parking area for island residents that includes an inadequate roofed garage and lots of gravel-crushed-shell open space. Liz lives in the little house off to the right of that, down near the bay. Her flat-bottomed ferry can accommodate about a dozen people at once, but no cars. Cars aren't allowed on the island. Passage each way is two dollars, a dollar and a half for seniors, kids under twelve free.

When you get off at the island wharf, you'll see a boardwalk leading off across the dunes. Follow it. There's a break in it for Island Lane. Watch out for people on bikes. Then it takes up again and leads down to Beach Lane. The boardwalk comes out between a brick cottage and a fairly big aqua-painted beach house with a tin roof. The aqua place is Delight House, usually empty except in rental seasons. Farther down past the brick cottage is the lighthouse, and past that is the gray beach house that belongs to Sam Lyons.

The brick house belongs to Jim Dallas.

He's not receptive to visitors, so don't go up and knock.

Unless you're in trouble, that is.....

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Finding a Voice

In the course of doing an interview, I started to think about the question of a writer's voice.

You know how when your cell phone rings and you don't look at the caller ID, you usually recognize the caller within a few words? That's because you know your family's and friends' voices. They're familiar and easily distinguishable.

The written voice is the same: a familiar way a writer has of putting words together into sentences, of turning a phrase, of addressing a subject. It's made up of diction and syntax and ties in closely with style.

There's a world of difference between the tight, short, punchy prose of Ernest Hemingway, who never met an emotive adjective he liked, and the discursive, rambling, associative writing of Thomas Wolfe. You'd never mistake one for the other.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a stickler for exactness. If he spoke of a jewel or a tree or a street, he'd name it: a topaz, a cottonwood, the Rue Lamartine. John Steinbeck was more of an impressionist. He'd write of a jewel glittering on a necklace, a stand of trees, or dusty streets - without naming a one of them.

Tolkien achieved a sense of history by the way his sentences often built toward the verb at the end. Onward his mighty armies of Men and Elves rushed. Len Deighton turns expectations inside out, arousing laughter or at least smiles from pawky puns: "Charlotte Street runs north from Oxford Street and there are few who will blame it." Raymond Chandler delights in edgy similes: "He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."

Part of maturing as a writer is finding your own voice, your own individual way of saying things. You can do it - you're the only one who can, in fact, because no one else has your way of looking at the world.

The chore is discovering the voice. Most of us begin by imitating writers we admire. Robert Louis Stevenson said that we all begin as "sedulous apes," learning the tricks of the trade from our betters and applying them.

However, in time you grow your voice. You do that by writing, revising, and rewriting until the prose you produce sounds right. When it sounds right to you, then it's in your voice.

And you've grown a bit as a writer.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


The period just after finishing a book is an odd one. You want the just-published book to sell, to break records, to find a wide audience. At the same time, you begin to see ways you might have done better and will do better the next time. You're already planning out the next one.

Writers live this way, poised between just-done and to-do. Only when they get stuck do they teeter for a moment in the immediate present, imaginatively speaking.

A sad fact is that, no matter how close writers come to realizing their vision, most of us are our own sternest critics. It hurts to re-read a book and see only the flaws, the little cheats, the weak spots. We know we should have done better, that we could have done better, if only . . . .

But we can't get anchored to the past, so we go on to the next book (though we do clean up obvious mistakes and typos in existing ones - that's easy with ebooks), vowing to improve. One of these days we'll write the one we want to write, a book in clean shining honest prose, one that will movie and impress readers and that will speak to them directly and powerfully.

One of these days.

Like Fitzgerald's boats bravely beating against the current, we move on to probable disappointment, to likely failing once more to achieve all that we want to achieve. So the spell just between books often finds a writer a little bit depressed.

I think that's a good thing, though. It keeps us going. As Robert Browning said succinctly, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what's a heaven for?"

Monday, July 15, 2013


A fellow e-publisher just withdrew one of his books from consideration for an award. Briefly, he discovered that a lot of horse-trading - or vote-trading - was going on, skewing the results of the voting and making the value of the award questionable.

I applaud his decision. It's a principled stand, and it may draw attention to something that needs fixing. Years ago I became aware that a very prestigious award in another genre was badly tainted by shameless campaigning (one candidate even piteously claiming, falsely, that he/she had only a few months to live) and back-stage deals ("You vote for my short story, and I'll vote for your novel.").

That's a shame. A somewhat better plan is like the Edgars, which are not voted on by the group (Mystery Writers of America), but are juried. Even then sometimes jurors play favorites, voting for really not-quite-that-good stories from people they happen to like, but it's better than a sham vote.

And while I'm on that tangent: Did you know that bookstores promote certain books, giving them end-caps (those displays at the ends of shelves) and preferential shelf placement because the publishers pay for it?

Caveat emptor, folks. Buyer beware.

And don't automatically buy the validity of all those awards out there....

Friday, July 5, 2013

It's been awhile....

Deaths of friends and family members, a bad bout of bronchitis, and life in general gets in the way.

My work on Glades Heist slowed to a crawl. But if you keep crawling, you eventually pass the finish line. As of today, Glades Heist is online and available at Amazon.com!

I like this fourth adventure of Jim Dallas. If you don't like long buildups, give this one a try. The action begins on the first page.

What's it about? Well, it begins when Jim goes to Miami to turn down a woman who has been pestering him about finding her husband. Jim has learned that the man has a history of drunken binges, and he suspects it's a case of a wandering spouse.

However, before he can reject the lady, he is attacked, his beloved old truck is stolen, and before long Jim and his friend Sam Lyons are involved in investigating a decades-old robbery (more than a million bucks of loot are still missing). Jim meets a new lady, and things would be idyllic if only--

Well, if only Jim didn't run into ferocious alligators, have to trek into the Everglades, and face down a killer more careless of lives than any he's ever met before.

It all takes place in Florida, and it moves right along. Glades Heist was something of a pain to write (I went nearly two months over schedule), but I hope it's a treat to read.

Now on to Islamorada Jam!