Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Careening Toward The End

Within a day or two, I’ll be writing The End. Of course as any writer knows, that really means The Beginning. Yes, I’ve got 75,000 plus or minus words on paper, but do I have a book? I know I have a book-like product, but it’s a long way from finished.

I’m actually surprised to be this far along. I had only a few pages written when I started working in earnest in February. My goal was to pound out 60,00 words before a two-week vacation mid-to-late March. Happily, I met the goal, but to my surprise I kept finding ways to sneak more words onto the page while I was gone. I know there are people for whom a vacation is a glorious opportunity not to think about “work” at all. And that’s where the difference lies. Writing is work, but it’s also a passion.

Here’s what passion means:  I was on a tour of Baja (see above photo of the strange boojum tree),  that included two up-close-and-personal whale-watching events. Gray whales in the bay where we were located eagerly approach boats to be touched. The first day we went out, the waves were rough and although the whales tried to get close, they hung back because the boats were bashing around so much. Two days later we had another opportunity to go out. I decided to stay behind and work. Yep, forgoing a chance to touch a whale so that I could satisfy my yearning to go forward on my book. Partly, I needed some alone time because as much as I enjoyed the company of the small tour group, I’m used to time alone.

The result of the day was that most everyone got to “pat” the whales. I missed it. But in fact, I was deeply satisfied in my own way. I wrote and wrote, and felt really good about it. If I had it to do over, I would make the same choice. I understand that for some on the trip, they were passionate about a special encounter with another species. I had my own passion to satisfy.

I didn’t have to make so stark a choice on other days, but I slipped off to write 500 words here, 1,000 words there, and came home with a 71,000-word manuscript. So now I’m almost done, and the real work begins—shaping that big stew of words into the book I envision. More next week on the editing process. But as soon as I write The End, I’ll let it steep for a few days.

Book Recommendation: Yes, I know I’ve raved about Adrian McKinty before, but here I go again. He writes about Belfast during “the troubles” in the early 1980s. His protagonist, Sean Duffy, is a Catholic cop in a Protestant world. He’s as real a protagonist as I’ve ever read. The series was to be a trilogy, but he extended it, so I’m reading that strange duck, the fourth in a trilogy. This one is called Gun Street Girl. I don’t just recommend it; I insist you read the whole series.

Sunset on our last day sailing: 


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

My Odd Relationship with Vacations

Friday I’m leaving for Baja California for two weeks. The first week is an educational trip along the west coast; the second will be on our boat along the tip of Baja near La Paz. I love the desert and I’m sure it will be a wonderful trip.

I always say I’m excited about traveling, but part of me usually dreads it. It isn’t the packing and the wearisome job of making all the connections, or the fear that I’ll find I’ve forgotten something essential—passport? toothbrush? medicines? No, it’s the actual going away from home that I mind. Partly I mind the guilt I feel about leaving my two terriers, who seem traumatized if I go the grocery store. But that’s only a small part of the dread. What I really dread is missing the everyday wonders of my surroundings. I’ll miss the height of the wisteria bloom season or the short burst of tulips. I won’t be there for a particular weekend festival I like, or for someone’s wedding. I’ll miss my daily routines. Especially writing. Yes, I know I should be glad for a break. But…

In the first couple of days of a vacation I think to myself, “Okay, you only have twelve days to go. Only eleven more days. Only ten days.” But then at some point I begin to feel enchanted with my new “home.” I settle in to hearing a language that I don’t understand, start to feel an affinity with the landscape, start to adopt new rhythms. And by the time I have to leave, I get dread again—this time gathering myself to go home.

Some people would say I have trouble with transitions. But that isn’t really the case. I’m adaptable. Actually the problem is that I fall in love with wherever I am. Some people say they could never live in a big city, or a small town, or the country, or the mountains, or the seaside. I know that I could live almost anywhere. Once we lived in Italy for 1 ½ years, and by the time we left it was like I was leaving a place I had lived all my life. Another time we stayed for a month on a particular island in the Bahamas. I still mourn losing my stroll to the local coffee shop where there was always a jigsaw puzzle being worked on and where I easily fell into the enjoyment of listening to the daily gossip.

I sometimes get interview questions that say, “If you could live anywhere, where would it be?” The answer is, “anywhere.” Give me a couple of days and I start putting down roots. So as much as I dread leaving Friday, I know that I’ll put down some fresh roots—even if it’s only for a week. And I won’t want to leave.

In the end, what vacation does is feed my imagination so that I go home to my writing refreshed. I have to remember that.


Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Left Coast Crime

Left Coast Crime

As I wrote last week, Left Coast Crime is my favorite conference. I always love seeing writing buddies and having a chance to talk shop. Some people say they sneak off to their room to write during the conference, but I’m usually too keyed up to do that. It actually feels like a mini-vacation—at high speed.

This year some of the memorable moments were a bit of a surprise. I attended a panel of people who write ancient mysteries. The panelists were Priscilla Royal, Sharon Newman, Judith Starkson, and John Maddox Roberts, moderated by Susan McDuffie. It was so stimulating that at one point I got excited about writing something like that myself, until I thought, “What are you, nuts?”  It has obvious that each of those writers had tken years to learn all they needed to write about these periods. What I took away is that no matter what you write, you have to ground your work in a strong sense of time and place and the characters that inhabit that time and place.

Another panel I liked was Writing Other Cultures, with Tim Hallinan, Jeffrey Stiger, Shannon Baker, and William Kent Krueger, moderated beautifully by Paty Jager. One of the most interesting moments was when Shannon admitted that she was sorry she had chosen to write about the Hopi, because they are such a closed tribe. Which illuminated what the others had to say about being steeped in cultures that were foreign to them but which they managed to immerse themselves in. In the end the takeaway was the same as the panel I mentioned earlier. It isn’t exactly “Write what you know,” It was more like “Know what you write.”

It isn’t just panels where you learn things, though. I had a wonderful conversation with Matt Coyle about writing. His work is very different from mine, but we both take our work seriously and found out we had something to offer each other. I also had a chance to talk with Barry Lancet and Tim Hallinan, learning about their processes and the things that stimulated their writing. Each of them has spent many years living in other countries and were still learning about their adopted cultures.

Another thing that you get at conferences is a chance to interact with fans. I never much thought about having “fans,” and still get a tremendous thrill when someone approaches me to tell me how much they enjoy my books. And I get to be a fan as well, mingling with writers I admire.

One last crazy moment occurred when I finally met Lou Berney. I took one look at him and realized that I had met him years ago—when he was my seminar leader at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference. I admired him then and had even more to admire now that I have read his wonderful book The Long and Faraway Gone. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor. It’s my book recommendation for the week.

Now I have to hunker down and start reading the books I brought home. After promising myself to resist, I felt like a thief sneaking in to buy “just one more book.”