Thinking About Thanksgiving

Like many of us, I have many memories of Thanksgiving celebrations, some pleasant, others not. I recall feasting until I could hold no more. And, I can almost taste the turkey and pumpkin pie. I remember our house filled with relatives and vibrant with a festive air. Somewhere along the way, I was made personally aware of the mountain of dirty dishes and pots and pans that accompanied holiday get-together. It gave me some perspective. I came to better realize how much work my mother put into those events.

Of course, there were the usual conflicts and competitions between this and that relative, whose kids were doing best in school, or were getting married, or was prettier. Who had a good year financially, who was drinking too heavily. But, I was young, and it was just fun to see the cousins and enjoy the get-together.

Not all my holidays came with a houseful of people. Not all celebrations reflected a sense of affluence. Some were poignant in their absence of a bountiful year to celebrate. I learned a different basis for thanksgiving in those years. It wasn’t just a huge feast that made the day. A chance for camaraderie and sharing of what was available became important.

When I was in the Navy, the cooks on our ship did a great job of putting out a wonderful meal for the holiday, in port but away from home. One time, I heard the cook express his hurt and frustration when much of the crew chose to eat ashore at a favorite bar instead of eating on board with their “Navy family”. I felt badly for him. He had turned out a great, traditional holiday feast. I learned a holiday like Thanksgiving depends on what participants bring to the table, as well as what food is there to eat.

One of my most memorable Thanksgiving celebrations was with a houseful of people I had not met before. We were in the Los Angeles area, and we were all apart from family that year, so someone sent out invitations to bring people together for a celebration anyway. I loved it. People were interesting and their company enjoyable. Everyone appreciated the opportunity to get together, and did what they could to make the occasion fun and successful. It worked extremely well. These days, many of us find ourselves in some sort of isolation—personally, politically, socially, financially. Maybe that’s why we talk about Turkey Day, rather than Thanksgiving, and Black Friday savings opportunities are more exciting than a gathering for appreciation and togetherness.

I can’t help but think about Bobby Navarro at holiday time, and think I’d like to write a Bobby Navarro novel that includes a holiday setting. I’d like to follow his thoughts and feelings. Would he miss being on the road? Would he feel an increased longing for home? Or, would he just enjoy the day?

What are your most memorable Thanksgiving experiences? Love to hear your thoughts and share your memories.

 

A High and Distant Ridge

 

When I sit on our front porch and look out, I love seeing the ridge on the other side of the highway leading out of town. We’re heading south for the winter. I’ll miss it. The evergreens at the summit have thinned out, and I can see patches of sky through them. The hardwood trees lower down have shed their leaves and bare limbs reveal things hidden away behind a green canopy all summer. At times, cloud masses have blanketed the ridge entirely. In other moments, cloud and fog have floated up the hillside like smoke escaping into the sky. Sometimes, dark thunderclouds have carried a threat of rain.

When I was growing up in California, looking out across the ridges of hills toward the west provoked a sense of longing. Often, that longing was for the adventures I felt awaited, perhaps in far corners of the world. Sometimes as a teenager, the longing had to do with more immediate associations. It was in the valley, where I got together with my high school associates, went to football games and after-game dances. New delights at the time, like an A&W Root Beer drive-in and a Foster’s Freeze soft ice cream stand offered oases of pleasure to any kid with a car. Delights waiting in the valley.

I’ve seen many distant ridges, and crossed them to their other sides. The Blue Ridge Mountains, the steep hills coming out of Virginia into North Carolina and highway 40 west. The land settles into rolling hills once past Tennessee and into Arkansas and Oklahoma. Then it flattens into a great open expanse punctuated by distant mesas as you go through New Mexico and Arizona.

I’ve never tired of the beauty of a distant ridge, never failed to feel its lure. A distant ridge makes me want to put my fate into a new cross-country run, even down an old highway.

Driving through New YorkI don’t know that everyone feels this way when they see a high ridge in the distance. I suspect many don’t. For me, it’s a feeling that something almost magical lies just over the hills. It’s a sense of new discovery being within my grasp. An editor I was talking with some years ago heard me remark that looking for home was what kept my protagonist on the road. She insisted I stop and write that down immediately. I did. It captures an essential aspect of Bobby Navarro, along with his insistence that there be some morality and justice in the world. I’d love to hear what sights tug at the emotions of other people, and in the case of other writers, what compels their characters to step into another adventure or solve another murder.

Driving through New York

Editing on the Right Side of the Brain

As I edit my latest manuscript of the Bobby Navarro series, I’ve been struck with how different the editing process is from first creating the draft. I once read a very interesting book on drawing. It talked about our brain functions differing from one side the brain to the other. If the left side dominates, we tend to be very practical and businesslike. When the right side dominates, we become more expressive, creative. When it comes to writing, both aspects are important, but I think the right side often dominates when the major writing takes place. That’s how we achieve flowing prose, memorable descriptions of landscapes, objects and people, and scenes that bring out the emotions. Then there’s the editing process. . .

Those wonderful paragraphs we putdown as the best prose we ever wrote probably need severe editing. I’ve listened to prose so filled with expression and feeling that I had to question whether the writing should only have been read in private, and not aloud. It seemed so metaphorically enriched that it had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the writer’s personal needs and wants. At best, it reflected the writer’s love affair with words and not the tempo and purpose of the story. At the worst, it expressed the writer’s sexual frustration. Time for the left side of the brain to stand up and insist on those decisions to shorten, change or cut unneeded or irrelevant verbiage.

I’ve also read prose that had been carefully crafted to adhere to every rule taught in an undergraduate English class, as well as reflect all the ‘advice’ from myriad sources talking about what you can and cannot do when writing. This sort of writing chokes off any creativity the writer might have remaining, hidden in shame in the background of his or her mind. For those writers, there needs to be some inner permission to express feelings, emotions, thoughts, fears, and so forth. The right side of the brain needs to stand up to the tyranny of the left for a while.

Editing calls for both sides of the brain to get an intensive workout, almost simultaneously, and pretty much consciously. When first writing a manuscript, you can let your creative side run free of excess thought or control. Right brain dominance. But when editing, you need to pick up the grammatical errors, instances of poor wording, and fix problems of plot holes or errors. You also need to come up with creative writing solutions and wording improvement as you go. Perhaps this is why it is so easy to miss something in the first place. If we are thinking about the scene we are working on or trying to achieve better wording, it is easy to overlook a misspelling or erroneous detail.

Writers talk about tricks they use in the editing process. For example, it’s good to read your work aloud. Hearing the prose read aloud makes it easier to know something doesn’t work well. If you stumble over your own words while reading aloud, your reader will probably have difficulty too. Then, there is something I call the sleep factor. If you find yourself skipping over sentences or sections of your manuscript, or mentally drifting off to sleep, it needs reworking. I think you need both sides of your brain fired up to hear a story falter. No wonder editing is difficult work. Any thoughts?

 

 

A Different Fall

Such a strange year, both in terms of weather and otherwise. We had a lot of rain and little summer. Then fall came, and the weather warmed up and dried out. The fall foliage has been less vivid this season, and came out later than last. The one constant of the season has been the geese. As in previous years, the Canada geese could be heard honking to each other recently as they flew high overhead in twos and fours, or small flocks of a half dozen or so. Their musical calls are a welcome announcement of my favorite season.

With the weather so favorable, Lesley and I have been able to enjoy picnic hiking more than in past seasons. We take a small pack with sandwiches, chips, maybe a salad, and thermoses of tea, and head to one of a number of small state parks in the area. On our last outing, we were walking through the woods when we heard a noise sounding something like a cross between a dog, or coyote, and a loon. Or a cross between a werewolf and vampire. Later, we did some research and discovered the creature to have been a barred owl. Delightful. Never heard one before. Nice, eerie sound to spice up a walk through the woods. Never saw the bird, but would love to.

Meanwhile, the geese have added to their numbers and have been reconnecting with old fly-mates, or making new flock friends. The flocks grow larger as they visit nearby harvested cornfields and return in the evening to a large pond on the other side of our village cemetery. Dozens have grown to hundreds. Flights have dropped to lower altitudes, skimming the treetops enroute to the pond. And, their music seems more restless, eager, insistent. Very soon I expect they will start heading south, as we will ourselves.

I always feel our semiannual shifts leave me a week or month short of the time I’d like to have to be ready for each road trek. This year is no exception. The warmer weather gives me a false sense of having plenty of time left to complete remaining tasks I’d like to get done before going south. The geese are telling me I’d better step up the pace, get focused on what has to be done, and stop thinking about the next hike I’d like to take.

I’m trying to put more hours in on editing my work-in-progress. This manuscript has been slow, largely due to interrupted working schedules. I just committed to a presentation in Florida early next year though. That gives me a new deadline for getting this manuscript edited and publication accomplished. Time to let lazy summer days give way to fall haste and hurry, even if the weather has been pleasantly deceptive as to actual time of year. Time to let Bobby Navarro, my series protagonist, drive my work energies and not allow the news of the day to put a damper on my writing focus. Strange year that way. I wonder how many other writers have to struggle to push aside reports of disasters, natural and social, and not allow the steady cascade of tragedy and crisis impede creative work altogether. How has your year folded out?

Heroes We Can Live With

This week, we watched the Ken Burns’ special series on Vietnam. As a Vietnam vet, I was particularly interested in what he would have to say. He said a lot. The series was informative and compelling. It certainly took me back to the sixties, especially the early sixties when I served in the military after I graduated from Berkley. It took me back to a war that was said to have triggered a national loss of innocence. It was a war that had to be questioned, along with how and why it was fought in the first place.

As a student, and pretty much all my life, I have felt both a need and a right to question things. Ultimately, a lot of troops asked themselves questions about that war, our involvement in it, and what they personally were doing there. The ability to question and reason: part of what makes us human. Therefore, an inherent responsibility.

As writers, we seek to entertain, to share our thoughts and ideas, and perhaps to inform. I think we should do this responsibly. Being a writer does not give us tacit license to dump our opinions and values on others, but we do have a voice through our writing and should be conscious of what messages our stories impart. Especially those of us who write about murder.

I have long felt dislike for gratuitous violence. I have been uncomfortable with fictional characters who used torture and committed other unlawful things to get information they wanted, or to achieve a sense of payback against someone considered a villain. I grew up on westerns. In some westerns, the good guy only shot the gun out of the hand of the bad guy. Always found that hard to believe. In others, the lone hero rode into town and ended up killing the bad guys. He was a romantic hero, basically a good person attempting to overcome daunting odds and achieve justice. That was pretty cathartic. It was never a matter of two killers fighting each other with any resultant good only a coincidental benefit. It was a hero fighting a bad guy for the sake of what was right.

As an adult, I enjoyed things like the 007 series. James Bond seemed tough but principled.  He was understood to be fighting for queen and country and the good of all. Kind of like a modern-day cowboy hero. I didn’t mind that he exercised his license to kill against bad people out to hurt the world. But, I have gotten tired of the myriad near-nuclear explosions in scene after scene. Gratuitous violence. And, as in the sixties, I think we need to question whether political power and authority means something is right, or good or just.

As writers, we create our heroes and villains and their social settings. We own the narrative. We create the story that entertains, possibly informs, and may exemplify moral character. Or it may not. Does it matter? I think it does. What’s your opinion?

When I was developing my mystery series, and its protagonist Bobby Navarro, I liked the idea of him being a biker because it seemed romantic, reminiscent of a western hero, or the old television series, Route Sixty-six. I didn’t make him an outlaw, even though he lived on the fringes of society. I didn’t want him to be a tattooed hate-monger who would ride as part of a gang to enjoy a sense of power through intimidation. I wanted him to be a decent person others might relate to, think of him as someone they might like to know, or even be like.

I think contemporary fiction is producing interesting and complex characters, all the more believable because they are not overly simplistic. But I think the good guys should have and reflect moral value. I can’t say we always find that moral value in our real-life leaders. But, we’re writers. Now more than ever, we need to reinforce that which is good and decent and honorable. We need to create heroes our readers can love, but ones we can respect as well.

It’s About Surprises

I’m noticing a lot of the mysteries I read or watch these days have an understory that appears to drive the protagonist’s behavior. It may be their drinking behavior, or their attraction to the wrong people in their personal life, or an unresolved issue from an earlier trauma.  I like that. It gives the story depth. And, since I enjoy mysteries but think they ought to be more than a simple whodunit, depth is important. But so is surprise. Life is full of surprises, and we usually like our mysteries to contain some elements of surprise. Of course, the surprises should also move and enrich the plot. They may provide an unexpected clue as to who the villain might be, or why the villain is a murderer. They may impede the ability of our protagonist to carry on the investigation into what happened. They may develop character.

Surprises don’t have to be whimsical events, though, like an airplane engine falling out of the sky and landing on the hero’s head. In fact, I think it’s better if they’re not. If the protagonist is suddenly injured, it works better if we have known all along the protagonist is prone to taking risks. Getting injured at some point is almost predictable then, and thus believable. The timing of the surprise mishap adds excitement to the story. Realizing at some level that the potential is there all along adds tension. The surprise event also adds an element of challenge for the hero to overcome, and overcoming obstacles is what it’s all about. Getting injured makes danger real. So, writing a good mystery should include some ‘predictable’ element of surprise that still catches us off-guard.

Surprises don’t have to be calamitous or even major events to add to the fun. Occasional little surprises are a part of everyday life, and can add reality and tension to our hero’s quest. Bumping into someone unexpectedly, discovering a surprising relationship between characters in the story, etc. can provide telling information about someone, or just create an awkward moment for the hero to deal with. Still adds to the fun for the reader.

As I’ve been working on my latest Bobby Navarro mystery, I’ve had a few surprises of my own as a writer. That happens, and I usually enjoy it when it does. In this work-in-progress, I dropped a character Bobby knows well onto the scene of his latest investigation—his mother. The thing I hadn’t anticipated was how much it would impact him and how it would shape his personal growth in this novel. He also has several other unexpected encounters in the story, which hopefully will add to the readers’ enjoyment when the work is finally done and the book comes out. So, I think surprises should affect the plot, be ‘predictable’ at least after the fact, and add tension to the story. What are your thoughts?

Hiking on the Lake

 

Write Up a Storm

I’ve loved storms since I was a kid growing up in the hills of northern California. They were so dramatic, especially at night. Massive clouds driven before the wind would nearly obliterate the sky. Wind-slanted rain lashed against the flesh on my face, and threatened to knock me off balance. In other storms, a brilliant moon would shine high above everything and you could look upward and catch glimpses of it through breaks in the bulky darkness. Lightning flashes outlined trees and hills and cloud shapes, and I could count the interval between flash and the boom of thunder to estimate how far away the lightning had been. I’d fantasize that it was what being on a ship at sea would be like. I wanted to sail across the ocean. Later, I did.

When I came East, thunderstorms provided dramatic interludes to summer heat and humidity. You can sometimes predict a storm when you see maple leaves turn upside down and shimmer in the wind. Clouds hang low and mass heavily in the sky overhead and a distant roll of thunder will announce the storm’s approach. We were at a block party recently, trying to guess whether the storm would pass a little to the north of our location and allow the party to continue unaffected or we needed to seek shelter. A Torrential downpour announced the winners and losers of that speculation. Fortunately for a time, the rain came down straight onto the tent-like roof of the shelter we sat under and the party went on. Had we been caught in the rain, we would have been drenched in seconds.

I’ve seen eastern rainstorms pound heavily for a few minutes then suddenly stop, leaving the streets and sidewalks steaming in the humid aftermath, the rain not having managed to dry the air out. Sometimes, the other side of the street will still be dry and everyday activity unaffected.

It’s always dramatic watching, even enjoying, a storm. Lighting strikes pose a real threat, though. A neighbor of mine was hit by lightning that jumped across the room from her furnace and struck her. She was lucky, and walked away uninjured. A lightning strike split a fireplace chimney a few feet from me in a house I had in Connecticut. It nearly knocked me off the couch I was sitting on. During a storm in Oklahoma, the sky filled with lightning as though a strange meteor shower had erupted overhead. I was on a motorcycle, and thankful it didn’t rain until I reached my destination.

In the West, I’ve watched storms approach from miles across the open desert, hurtling lightning bolts earthward and wetting the parched land with rain from the moving column of moisture. It’s beautiful. It’s awesome, and humbling. I once raced an approaching storm on my motorcycle out west in an attempt to slip through a pass in the hills ahead of it. As I cleared the pass, another front struck violently from the other side of the hills. There was a motel just through the pass, so I bailed out, happy to have the opportunity to do so. Storms are dramatic, and I often love them, but not on a motorcycle. Of course, I have put my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, at peril in storms on several occasions, and he gets hurt in one.

When you think about it, a storm is a lot like a good mystery. Signs foretell a storm’s approach. The threat builds. Wind picks up, letting you know the storm is getting closer. Then thunder explodes and lightning flashes to announce the storm’s arrival. Wind and rain punish anyone out in the open. Humankind, thrown to the mercy of malevolent violence. It’s how we try to write mysteries. It’s how we should write mysteries. And, if we’re good at it, there will be something dramatic and memorable in the telling. I think that’s a worthwhile goal—to write up a storm.

Approaching Storm

Fair Time

 

Leaving Einstein’s theories aside, time seems a very relative thing. Like the cognitive maps people have of their communities that emphasize familiar and preferred places over others, the year is portioned out in terms of major events or experiences. For me, here in upstate New York spring is the sudden, lush greening of the landscape. It is also the time of weeding the garden and getting vegetable beds cultivated and planted. That said, this year spring was late. I know because we had to cover bushes against freezing temperatures and put off planting vegetables until the weather warmed up a bit. Not much springtime.

Summer is a season of mowing the yard and taking on outdoor projects. It’s also a time to string up my hammock and enjoy lying out under a canopy of willow leaves, or raise the umbrella on the deck and enjoy meals outside. Well, I have managed to spend a few sessions in the hammock, and we’ve had a meal or two on the deck, but we haven’t bothered using the barbecue grill as most afternoons have been wet or cloudy. Am I complaining? A little. I enjoy some rain. A rainy day is a great opportunity to kick back and read a good book and then take a break with a good cup of tea. But summer is supposed to have a lot more sun than this year has produced. Events like golf, hikes through the woods and long rides on the motorcycle have become distant memories. Summertime was waiting for it to happen, then realizing it probably wouldn’t.

My favorite season is fall. Harvest time. A growing chill in the air. A drop in humidity. And, I associate the end of summer and beginning of fall with the annual county fair, going on now. Fortunately, opening day did not produce the expected thunderstorms, but it did get blanketed with heat and high humidity. We walked around and enjoyed the exhibits anyway. It’s how we grew up, and I still love it. The fair gave me a break from the grind of manuscript editing and also provided a good excuse to ignore the diet and eat some fair food. Life can’t be all work. Late summer is fair time. Love it.

When I wrote my second Bobby Navarro novel, I had him enjoy walking around a mountain man rendezvous in Arizona. It’s not a county fair, but it has some similar elements—booths offering things to buy like barbecue, and fun-seeking crowds. Bobby enjoyed the rendezvous, and I’m sure he would take in a county fair if one were available. I see fairs as a celebration of roots for many of us, including some people who grew up in cities but can still relate to the village and agrarian foundations of our country. Of course, I know not everyone enjoys walking around to see the animals and other fair exhibits. And not everyone can walk through the livestock barns and come out with clean shoes, which may be a deterrent for them. Last night, there was a demolition derby. I don’t yet know how Bobby would react to that, but a lot of people love them

. How about you? Are you a fair goer?

Finger Lakes and Freedom

We recently paid a visit to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. You often hear it talked about as wine country, and the vineyards and wineries provide a good reason for visiting. Small distilleries have grown up in the region as well, the same way they’re popping up in other places with a healthy micro-brewery industry. The area has a lot to offer beyond scenic enjoyment and a glass of wine and good, local cheese though. This time, we visited the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Senaca Falls, where the Suffragist Movement began. 

What struck me about the display, which was thought provoking and moving, was the way the suffragist cause was linked to other causes such as anti-slavery in America and the plight of people seeking asylum from war and oppression around the world. Part of the exhibit consisted of a cluster of bronze statues of people associated with the suffragists’ movement. I had my picture taken next to Frederic Douglass. While some people in the larger society opposed the Suffragist Movement as a violation of an order they took to be natural and sacred, and others sympathized but didn’t want to anger the men in their lives, Frederick Douglass responded by recognizing the oppression of women by men. White men. The same men who defended  the slavery of blacks.

I am a white man, and while I’ve sometimes been treated badly as a member of some category or other, being a white male has had its advantages. The exhibits made me take some time to think about that. It didn’t put me on a guilt trip. It just made me take some time to be more aware of the negative effects of forcing people into categories and excluding them from basic rights we tout as inalienable.

The inclusion of materials from the WWII Japanese American internment camps  was a reminder of the tenuousness of ‘secure’ social position. Economic vulnerability leaves many people in contemporary society without effective social rights as well.   Without any blatant harangue, the exhibits left a clear message: we all lose something when a group is denied basic rights and liberties, and none of us are safe when some of us are denied.

I don’t intend to turn my series protagonist into a traveling civil rights crusader, although I am glad he cares about others he meets on the road, even to the point of risking his own wellbeing to address the rights and needs of a murder victim or victim’s family. Well, I guess that does make him something of a crusader, doesn’t it? To Bobby, it’s just trying to do what he thinks is right.

It was a fun trip in a picturesque region of upstate New York. I enjoyed it. We all need a break once in awhile. Any comments to share?  

Boat Houses on Seneca Lake

A Moment With Frederick Douglass

A Variation on Writing with an Outline

 

Still doing a lot of yard work and finding days-off to be too rainy for the motorcycle or golf. No problem, I have been working on editing my latest Bobby Navarro manuscript. Some of the things I wanted to address required remembering exactly where a series of events took place, and I needed to do that after moving some of the chapters around. Not easy. I settled on a device I hate to recreate once the story is completed—a chapter outline. This always seems a tedious process, and I tried to avoid doing it but ultimately gave in. Several surprises followed.

To make the outline, I took a copy of the manuscript (renaming it as an outline so as not to do away with my hard work once I had the outline done). Then I went chapter by chapter, skimming each chapter and noting the salient points at the beginning, then deleting the rest. It went more quickly and easily than I had expected, and the review let me know what each chapter actually held. In other words, I discovered some things I had forgotten, and in some cases, had repeated. So, first surprise was that this process worked quickly and well. No jumping back and forth between texts, etc. It was just a simple once-through and I had my fresh outline, admittedly different from a couple of others I had constructed mush earlier before finishing the completed draft.

Secondly, I noticed things along the way I needed to attend to, and not forget. In Word, I inserted marginal comments along the way, and was amazed at how many I had generated by the time I finished. The thing was, I was able to operate with the whole manuscript more or less fresh in my mind. The comments provided a roadmap for the adjustments to the story I knew I wanted to make. The outline told me where things were, and once again, the process was quick and easy.

Initially I had wished I could diagram the whole manuscript on a long sheet of paper and post it on a wall so I could see where everything was and where I needed work. I even tried writing something of an outline on a long sheet of packaging paper, but soon decided my hands and patience wouldn’t hold up. I probably wouldn’t have been able to read my writing if I saw it through anyway. The computer approach yielded printed sheets that could be taped end-to-end if I wanted to. Turned out not to be necessary but available just in case. A nice bonus, because I have wanted to flowchart my work from time to time, but always found the print too small or the word limitations for readable print to be too confining. This approach worked much better. Six or eight lines of print per chapter description plus the marginal comments. Really worked for me.

I have always used a combination of an outline of the story, plus writing from the seat of my pants. I have no problem when creativity pulls my completed chapters away from the original outline, I just revise the outline to match the story. Trouble is, the revisions are time-consuming and not much fun. Remember, I hate redoing these things. With my skim-review-noting-salient-points-at-the-beginning-of-each-chapter-and-deleting-the-rest approach, I think I will be able to get more out of my outlining in the future. After all, I’d hate to be stuck working on a revised outline when the weather suggests riding, golfing, or fishing. Oh, I should have mentioned, I’m learning to fly fish this summer. Maybe more on that later.

I know there is an ongoing discussion about pantsers versus outliners, so I’d love to hear what others think.

Trout Stream