Zen, Archery, Fly-fishing, Motorcycles and Writing

One of my sons was talking about archery the other day and described shooting his new longbow in terms suggestive of a Zen experience. He is an instinctive shooter, as am I, which means that the aim and release is a subconscious process rather than mechanical alignment and control of machinery. Struggling for adequate descriptive terminology starts to sound a bit flaky, but the archer experiences the event instead of deliberately committing the act. It’s far different from lining up the sights and target using a compound bow constructed with wheels, pulleys, and cams. The reward is that it provides the archer a Zen-like aesthetic experience.

While I’m only a beginner, I think fly fishing offers similar relief from the cacophony of everyday life in modern society. There is something meditatively rewarding and peaceful in presenting a fly at a desired spot on a burbling trout stream. You can escape the high powered motors of a fishing boat throttled-up to cover the next twenty five or fifty miles to an intended fishing area as quickly as possible. You can simply enter a stream in a pair of waders then carefully move toward a likely spot without alerting or disturbing any trout lurking ahead,. When you do you feel more in touch with fishing as it has occurred over millennia and less deluded with a sense of having power over nature. The fishing becomes a Zen-like experience.

Things I’ve read about Zen often seem paradoxical. You have to abandon yourself and give up trying to be in control of your bit of the world in order to find yourself and the truth of what is. But then, much of what I’ve encountered in life has been paradoxical—good/bad—win/lose—right/wrong. In literature, I think interesting fictional characters are complex, and such complexity reflects the paradoxical and dual nature of our universe. They are not all one thing. Heroes are good, but not entirely good. Villains are bad, but not completely bad.

But, you can’t simply toss a contradictory set of behaviors into a story and end up with a more interesting character. The complexity must emerge from some underlying truth about the character. I suspect that emergent truth is often discovered by the writer as well as the reader rather than planned at the outset. In a sense, the writer must discover and experience the story as well as write it. More paradox.

Of course, a writer must dutifully sit at the keyboard and write, but you cannot wring a good story from a mind crammed with rules and literary prescriptions by sheer force. You have to lose yourself in the story to write a good one. The Zen of writing? Perhaps so. When it happens, it feels real and truthful, and that is a very precious experience to have these days.

I remember leaving the fast-multi-lane freeways and putting the tires of my motorcycle on the narrow, undulating pavement of old Route 66 on a book promotion tour for my first novel, Murder on Route 66. I felt an instant sense of being in touch with the fields and ranches alongside the roadway, more in tune with the skies overhead, the smells of the fields I passed, and the cool shade thrown onto the road by trees growing close alongside. I had let go of my schedule and purpose and became more in touch with both it and myself. I remember taking a deep breath of air, smiling at how good I suddenly felt, and how fortunate I was to be on that ride. I knew my series protagonist Bobby Navarro had that side to him as well. I knew it was something I wanted to be able to communicate in the stories I would write about his adventures on the road. Riding Route 66 wasn’t about overcoming the traffic ahead or powering past a row of eighteen wheelers blocking my lane. There was no traffic. There was no hurry either. By slowing down, I captured some of the magic and allure of that old, iconic highway I had pushed hard to reach.

Writing a story is a tremendous amount of work, but it is also rewarding when the words set down on the pages reveal the story you have been struggling to bring to life. Paradoxically, it is sometimes when you let go of your attempted control and let the story emerge that the tale you’re trying to write appears. The Zen of writing? What are your thoughts?


Upstate Trout Stream

The Waiting Game

This week included a day when my wife and I had several appointments that involved a lot of waiting. It made me think about how much time we spend waiting and the many situations requiring that we wait. Those of us who have commuted to work in a large city are all too familiar with waiting in traffic or waiting for a bus, train or airplane. Anyone who shops in a supermarket knows about waiting in a checkout line. Most of us probably try to shorten the wait time by seeking the shortest line. If you’re like me, the shortest line gets held up by some glitch just after we join it.

And, how about waiting in a telephone queue? I’ve spent hours in this situation. Sometimes it seems like anytime I call a customer service number I’d better be ready to wait an interminable amount of time while the automated system runs through all the announcements and options available before I’m given a chance to seek whatever service I’m after. Then I must wait forever in a queue while some recorded messages assure me my call is important. Our ancestors had to wait for rain, or for the crops to ripen. That took months, but at least it made a lot more sense than the waiting we are put through today.

Of course, there are things I can do to make the waiting time more enjoyable or productive, such as taking a book along when I visit the doctor’s office. Of course, nowadays we have books available on our cellphones. That’s handy. But, waiting for highway delays to clear, or at traffic signs? That’s another story. Although, come to think of it, I’ve seen people reading while sitting behind the steering wheel of their car. I don’t recommend the practice. Unfortunately, people are all too likely to be texting on their cellphones while driving, walking, or even sitting at a table in a restaurant while presumably enjoying a meal with someone.

I hate it when the car in front of me fails to take advantage of a green light because the driver is on a cellphone. I hate it when someone sitting behind a desk or counter is texting on their cellphone instead of doing whatever their job calls for while I stand there waiting. I suppose I could just take out my own cellphone and busy myself while I wait. Maybe I could call the person on the other side of the desk or counter and let them know I’m waiting.

I used to look forward to reading magazines while waiting in a doctor’s office. They used to provide magazines. They might have been old issues, but they were still entertaining, and I might not have seen them. Now, I notice a lot of waiting rooms only have magazines offering information about available services. Sometimes there are no magazines, only a television with infomercials playing while you wait. I’d be happy to settle for an old issue of a magazine at this point.

With all my thoughts about having to wait, I suppose I should feel guilty about subjecting my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, to waiting. I do though, but not too often. I think he should have to wait in line at the supermarket occasionally just like we do. Years ago, I had nearly completed an all-day ride on my motorcycle when traffic came to a halt. Naturally, it started to rain. I got soaked. Needless to say, I’ve let Bobby get wet a time or two as well. It’s only fair.

What pet peeves do you have about waiting? Any favorite stories? And what do you do to handle the waiting game?


And Peace on Earth

The weather warmed up again here in sunny Florida where we are embarked on our winter stay. That means morning exercise walks are pleasant. Chilly sometimes, but usually not very. Other winter visitors are coming in daily to choruses of welcome back greetings, hugs and enquiries as to health and wellbeing. Holiday decorations are going up as well. That part always seems strange, even though we’ve spent so many years either in the desert or here in south Florida during the holiday season. When you’ve just put away your heavier clothes and donned shorts and short sleeved shirts to accommodate the weather, winter holidays seem unreal.

Even Thanksgiving seemed strange without a showing of fall foliage or bare limbs, dried cornstalks, and frosted pumpkins. But Hanukkah and Christmas? With the only snow on television or in news from friends and relatives up north, the only familiarity in the setting is the sudden explosion of ads trying to get us to buy gifts.

Then, people start putting up decorations, and we are induced to follow suite. Pretty soon, one remembers the annual boat parade, or golf cart parade, or other tradition. Here, people put up Candelaria, using plastic milk bottles with a little sand in the bottom and a votive candle. The streets will surely glow the night they are lit. It reminds me of the Candelaria in New Mexico, when we lived in Las Cruces. We have a friend who has made an annual tree ornament for over twenty years. Just got word that this year’s surprise creation is on its way. Bit by bit, it starts to feel more like the holidays, although I can’t help but think winter snow is needed to really set the atmosphere.

In this era of conflict and tension between so many people, groups and societies, I think it would be good if we had a tradition of winter celebration that did not have any particular religious base, just a celebration of life and a time of caring for each other. A time to bring peace on earth.

Enjoying Rural Florida

Up north, I’m sure Bobby Navarro has put away his Harley for the winter. I find that hard to picture as well. Someday I’m going to have to do the holidays with him in the story. Of course, that would have to mean murder somewhere as well, or would it? I wonder if I could write a good mystery that didn’t include a murder. In any case, hope you enjoy the season wherever you are, and whatever you celebrate. And, if you’re looking for a gift suggestion, don’t forget to put a good book on your list.

Values in Today’s Life

The other day I was talking with one of my sons, and he mentioned bingeing on 007 movies. His comments about them surprised me. He said it was incredible to see how women were depicted and regarded as mere objects. He had watched the same movies as a kid, but then saw the films as all about action, excitement and adventure. We agreed, the old James Bond movies had a lot of Playboy character to them. He commented they were so bad and blatant they were comical in a way. I hadn’t joined him in the binge, and haven’t seen a 007 movie in a long time, but could agree even from memory. He attributed his change in perspective to all the recent news revealing sexual harassment on the part of male celebrities and men in positions of power. I think that’s a good outcome of the attention these accusations have gained in recent news. We need to re-see the behaviors and values we grew up with, have lived with, and have taken for granted. Those old movies not only dramatized a sexist view of the world, they normalized sexist behavior. Seeing those old scenes as violating the rights and dignity of women is a great wake-up. I hope we men carry today’s condemnation of female harassment on the part of popular and powerful men into everyday life and relationships ourselves. I doubt any of us are completely guilt free. We have a lot of work to do in our society, and men and women must be onboard together to truly make progress. We are not going to get there by means of example from our public leaders; we must get there from a shift in our social values.

It should be no surprise that I enjoy reading mysteries; after all, I write them. Similar to cozies, I prefer mysteries that stay away from gratuitous sex and violence. I don’t care for drama that relies on piquing a reader’s interest through brutality, gore and raw abuse of others. Those things exist in life, but they don’t have to be accepted and we don’t have to normalize them in our literature. A good mystery has conflict. Murder is always violence against another person, but we don’t have to make that aspect the object of the story.  We have values opposing the abuse of others. That’s why people want to solve the mystery and bring the culprit to justice and restore the community to safety.

When I write my Bobby Navarro mysteries, I like to think my fascination with community comes through in my writing along with my love of the open road and wild, natural places. Those things should predominate. Bobby Navarro solves murders. That means people have suffered horrible abuse and their community has suffered the trauma of trampled values because the murders took place. In the end, however, decent values win. The victory of human decency doesn’t make the stories fiction. After all, good fiction reflects facts. Human decency is not a fiction, but it must be fought for and insisted on to make it dominate in our lives. But, that seems a reasonable societal goal and a good reason for writing.



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

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?

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?

Paint Like a Writer–Write Like a Painter

I used to enjoy painting landscapes with watercolors. I find the creative process of painting is very similar to that of writing. A good painting does not come from a recipe, formula, or set of instructions. A good painting does not spring from prescribed colors laid down on a pre-constructed, numbered pattern. It comes from the successful transference of thought to canvas.

A painting likely starts with a few light pencil strokes to make a rough outline of the major objects intended. However, in a form of Japanese ink painting called Sumi-e, the artist is encouraged to sit before the intended subject and meditate before making any brush strokes in order that each one then fully captures the essence of the subject. No pencil outline is needed.

Writers vary as to whether they use an outline, or write from the seat of their pants. In either case, I think most writers have at least a mental outline of where the story is headed, and I think major story ideas have been tried out in the writer’s mind. I like to think story outlines are tentative suggestions to help the writer get started. The creative work comes later.

 If the painter is satisfied with the rough outline on canvas, the painting begins. Heavier, bolder strokes begin to express the intended subject. Suddenly, there is a spark of life to the work. There is form, shape, even the suggestion of movement, if needed. Each stroke is critical for they express the concept the artist is attempting to communicate. They cannot be blotched, too heavy, too tentative, or shaky rather than confident and knowing. They must be just right.

Once the subject has been determined by these initial strokes, the background, shading, and form can be layered-in. Shapes are completed, objects are given greater depth, details are added to give the work authenticity. This is like the middle work of a story, the details that support the plot events and character-defining statements of the story are layered in to support the main plot and character points. The desired object is fleshed out and the work approaches closer to completion.

With details in place and the desired form and shading accomplished, there is still more work to be done. This is a particularly delicate stage because a single stroke too many can ruin the intended effect. An accent stroke left out can leave the final work lacking. A bit of hesitance, a sloppy addition and the work is ruined. But, amazingly, these few, final brush strokes bring the work to the point of perfection. It is finished, and nothing more can be done to improve it. Similarly, in a written story, a small wording change can bring a desired thought or action into bolder view. A single line of dialogue can better capture the intent of the conversation from the writer’s point of view. A stubborn sentence can be reworked to get rid of an awkward expression or fix a tempo-robbing pace. Beyond that, nothing can be improved. Of course for many of us writers, the written work is never completed to perfection. We are always tempted to try another minor word change. And that says nothing of the myriad changes an editor is likely to suggest, but the ideal remains.

So, the story must spring to life with the major plot elements. Our hero’s character must be developed and nuanced with meaningful dialogue and thought description. The plot must unfold as a live experience. It cannot be accomplished by forced and clumsy assertions and explanations. When you view a finished painting, every element is simply there, awaiting the viewer’s emotional reaction. A good story is simply felt. It is not necessary for the reader to first dissect the work to understand and experience the writer’s intent.

I think one can paint like a writer, and write like a painter, but how about living like a work of art. Is that even possible? I think some people do it. I ask myself whether my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro’s life would be like that. What are your thoughts? Now, I’d better get back to work in the garden while the sunshine lasts.