Tip For a Curmudgeon

 I don’t hate tipping, I hate the institution of tipping. It seems too reminiscent of a class structure that treated workers and alms beggars in similar manner. I think workers, minimum wage workers, should be paid enough to live above the poverty level. But, we all know that isn’t the case. Many of us also know that service workers are sometimes paid below minimum wage on the expectation that they will make up for the deficiency in tips. That means a tip, or gratuity if you prefer, does not amount to rewarding good work; it means the business isn’t even paying its employees the minimum wage normally required by law. Doesn’t seem fair.

I had lunch in town, not our village, recently at a popular sandwich and salad place. The food is good, and there isn’t generally a long wait. Of course, you pick up your food order yourself, and bus you table when you finish your meal.  So, while the staff is usually friendly and processes your order quickly, no one waits on you at your table. That’s fine. What bothers me, is this particular place has become pretty aggressive in trying to get customers to tip as well. Tip for what? You serve yourself. Tip because the staff is underpaid? There are tip jars at each cash register where you stand to place your order. In addition, if you use a credit card there is a screen on the card reader that requires you say “yes” you want to leave a tip, or “no” you do not want to leave a tip before your transaction is complete. At that point, you haven’t even picked up your order. It just seems pretty pushy to me. Maybe I’m a curmudgeon. I’ve nothing against the staff. I just hate the idea of tipping, let alone tipping under coercion.

When I tip, I think I’m fairly generous. I had a friend once who didn’t like to leave much of a tip. In fact, you had to kind of watch him because he would wait for everyone else at the table to contribute their share and then cover the bill with his credit card, pocketing the cash. What you had to watch out for, was whether he left an adequate tip for the wait staff or lessened the total due as a result of the generosity of others. I’ve also been in too many situations where a group of coworkers ate together and someone didn’t even leave their fair share, let alone a tip. These are cases of people simply being cheap. Dishonest might be a better word.

I think my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, always leaves a decent tip when tipping is expected. He’s a down-to-earth, generous guy. He would never stiff a waitress, or a coworker. That just would not be in keeping with his character. I like that about Bobby. I just hate the business of tipping though. How about you? Have you ever read of a private detective or amateur sleuth who didn’t tip well? What’s your take on the whole thing?

By the way, in case you were wondering, I just think it’s good to gripe about something other than politics once in a while. Not that minimum wage isn’t a political issue. Maybe I should be more like Bobby Navarro, just tip well and never mind the rest. But then, like I said, he’s a generous guy, and not at all a curmudgeon.

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.

The Soul of the Writer

Last weekend I visited an area I had lived in for many years. As always, the roads and highways were the same but somehow looked unfamiliar as I passed through towns and villages along the way. New houses and businesses, new shopping strips and renovated or expanded commercial areas, gave the waysides a very new look. Fortunately, the beautiful character of the area was retained. This was Connecticut, and I remember the state as being very attractive. It still is. And, I enjoyed driving while also listening to some great blues music on the car radio. Of course, this produced a sweet-sad emotional reaction to seeing former stomping grounds.

As I thought about my experience, I first chalked up the emotional bit as simply being nostalgia. However, the guest on the program I was listening to, Guy Davis, happened to be talking about playing music associated with another artist. He said that you don’t want to simply play the same notes, or even attempt to capture the style of another artist. Instead, you need to capture how that artist affects you. And when you do this, it lets the audience see into your own soul a little bit as well, and this should be a goal of the musician. I found his comment very thought-provoking. And, it occurred to me that Guy’s take on music might relate both to my nostalgic experience and to writing as well.

As to the nostalgia bit, revisiting places that brought back memories was like viewing a moving tableau of my own past. The roads were essentially the same, and some of the scenes familiar and even pretty mundane, but they offered me a connection both to past experiences and my emotional reactions to them at the time. It gave me a little glimpse into my own emotional life, or putting it another way, a glimpse into my own soul.

As to how Guy’s comments relate to writing, a compelling story is not simply a bunch of scenes cobbled together with technical skill, it is a glimpse into the characters being written about. It is also a bit of a glimpse into the soul of the writer. Just as a piece of music may be interpreted in many ways, the scenes of a story are created and told with words and a rhythm that is uniquely expressive of the writer herself, or himself. I find this difficult to explain when asked how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. The ideas are relatively easy. However, creating the glimpse into Bobby Navarro, the hero of my mystery series, is more difficult, and more important than coming up with a story idea or coming up with a clever plot twist. But ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. When Bobby is caught-up in solving a mystery or points his Harley down an open highway, I’m telling another, and hopefully more poignant, story than “who dun it”. I’m sharing a bit of Bobby’s soul with my readers along the way, and maybe even a little of mine.

Driving through New York

 

Springtime in Upstate New York

We’ve been hearing Canada geese flying overhead, mostly in the mornings and evenings. They come in low, in two’s and three’s, circling toward the pond nearby. I don’t know if they are early arrivals, but they don’t seem to be part of the larger flocks we saw in the fall heading south. In any case, their sounds are welcome. I’ve missed their music over the winter. One large goose was in the creek, taking a bath the other day, apparently enjoying a clean-up after a long flight. Robins are back in healthy numbers hunting worms in the yard and crows are out and about. I assume the crows have been here all year. A couple of days ago I saw about a dozen large birds circling over the village. I think it was a kettle of migrating hawks, vultures, or both, circling to gain altitude and then moving on.

We’ve been here two weeks now, and it’s a joy to see the birds coming back, as well as all the plants coming to life. I’ve already mowed the yard twice, and it needs it again. That will have to wait, though. It’s promising to rain for the next several days, and threatening snow sometime during the next two. Springtime in upstate New York. Time for boots, sweaters and waterproof jackets, putting away the shorts and summer clothes we started off with when we left Florida. I’ve been busy setting things straight, like cleaning the back room where we store a lot of things we need to move inside when we leave in the fall. Then, there was the light switch I had to replace on the stairs, aka puttering about. There’s always work to be done after a move, even a seasonal one. I need to get back to my writing.

Speaking of writing, from time to time I’ve asked myself why I had my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, living in New York even though his debut book was set in the Southwest. So far, no one has asked that at a program or signing. Hopefully I can make it understandable when I get to the next story, set in the Adirondacks. There are times when the forests of Upstate impart a feeling that Bobby could readily capture in the open, lonely stretches of highway in the Southwest.

If you can put up with or avoid the blackflies, Upstate is an area rich in woods, rural farm scenery, ponds, lakes and streams. Lesley thinks my enjoyment of the cold and rainy weather can be attributed to having too much of the North Sea in my DNA. I even like the bleak scenes from Wallander  or Shetland. I think they offer a mood rich in possibilities for murder mysteries. But, that’s another story. Anybody else like spring rains and gloomy days? Assuming, of course, there aren’t too many of them in a row.

The Mockingbirds’ Nest

This is our last weekend in Okeechobee for the season. This coming week we will join the many others trekking north in the semiannual shift of location. That means we are in the throes of packing things away, loading the pickup, checking out the trailer for the bike, and attending to the many little things that must be done before departure. One of the jobs I took on this week was to prune one of the bushes next to our house. If I don’t, it goes wild and starts to overtake the house. Unfortunately, I discovered a mockingbird’s nest in one of the larger branches I cut off. When I looked, it had three eggs in it. With the damage done and not being sure what to do next, I propped the branch against the house and finished the pruning job. As I did, I became aware of a pair of upset mockingbirds sounding an alarm over what was happening to their happy home. Now what?

The best I could think of under the circumstances was to tie the branch with the nest still in it to the standing bush and secure it enough to hold the nest in place in its modified location. To our amazement the mother came to the nest as soon as I walked away, and started tending her eggs. Mockingbirds are feisty creatures, and the ones around here are used to having people all around. While she flies off if someone comes too close, she isn’t overly frightened and quickly comes back.

Of course, the newly relocated nest was considerably more exposed than in its old spot, both to the sun and to predators. I had to do more. The solution was to cut a couple of palm-like fronds from a nearby tree and tie them in position over the nest to provide a little shade and some protection against predators. Again, she came right back to tend her renovated nest once I was finished. What a role model for hope and endurance.

I don’t know if the attempt to set things right will work well enough to result in the hatching of a healthy brood , but now it’s down to waiting. In the meantime, we peer out the window frequently to see whether she is still tending the nest. So far, so good. Now we can finish packing and loading things up for our own relocation. Looking forward to spending more time on editing my latest Bobby Navarro manuscript. Hope the work awaiting me up north is not so extensive as to slow my writing down too much. It’s easy to lose the feel for a story if you are away from it too long. That worries me. Anyone else have this problem?

The Mockingbird’s Nest

A Taxing Time

They say nothing is certain except death and taxes. Of course, progress is being made on the mortality thing. This year I am using a tax accountant to do my taxes. That means I had to send in my materials, which I did yesterday, which is much earlier than usual. I believe in procrastination, after all. The good thing is, it’s done and in the mail. The bad thing is, I just discovered a number of additional deductions  I could have claimed, but missed. You see, if I had just waited…

Last night I tried to picture various fiction heroes facing tax time. I came up with Mickey Spillane pulling a forty-five and emptying a magazine into his scribbled-up tax forms. And, how about Jessy Stone? Trying to keep control over one’s drinking and tax time are two incompatible forces. From my own experience this past week, I know which force wins for me. And my own hero, Bobby Navarro? What better reason to take off on one’s Harley than a bunch of tax form instructions telling you to add this and subtract that from the who-knows-what-that-means reported figure from the previous year? Fortunately, I’m an ex-sailor, and have the appropriate vocabulary needed to curse my way through tax season.

Now, if I were just wealthy enough, I could have all my assets off-shore and not have to pay any taxes. Not that I would be figuring them myself if I did. I’d have my accountant handle all that.

“It’s tax time, sir.”
“Don’t bother me with that nonsense. Take care of it.”
Would that approach work for death as well taxes? I could designate an off-shore undertaker to handle everything.
“I have some bad news for you, sir, I’m afraid you’re dying.”
“Don’t bother me with stuff like that, take it up with my off-shore undertaker.”
No, I don’t think that would work.
As a sociology professor, I taught a wide range of students, including prison guards, prisoners, some former prisoners, police officers, probation officers, an internal affairs police officer, a private investigator, and an IRS auditor. Guess which one I thought was the most terrifying? I was so relieved when the IRS auditor earned a high grade. I never saw him smile. Not once. But, at least he didn’t leave my course with any threats of future contact to be expected in the mail.
I think I should write a new series. I’m not sure whether to call it a horror series, suspense, or mystery. My protagonist would be a tall, dark tax person, dressed in an impeccable black suit. He could be known as 00-1040.
Or, maybe she could be a female protagonist wearing leathers and carrying a whip. “Hello, I’m-Audrey-the-Auditor. Want to feel some pain?”
Well, fortunately, I’ve survived quite a few years of tax preparation, and hopefully will continue to do so. But, I do have to consider whether I should inflict the tax thing on my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro. After all, I make him confront death and violence in other forms, why not taxes? He does have his own business as a blaster. Hmm, would he use dynamite to get through those troublesome tax forms? I wonder.

A Time to Cheer

I had hoped to finish the rough draft of my current novel by Christmas, but I told myself and others my goal was to finish by New Years, because you never know what might pop up to get in the way. Happily, I have finished the rough draft. It’s a great feeling. Of course, last time I finished the rough draft of a manuscript, I ended up completely rewriting the whole thing. I had lost my voice. I had been reading Robert Parker, one of my favorites, and started sounding like a cross between Parker and me. I don’t think that will be a problem this time, but it’s always nerve-wracking to await someone’s response to what you have written. Of course, until then, I have a lot of work to do editing and tuning the present manuscript. Nevertheless, I’m excited to be on track for getting this Bobby Navarro sequel out this coming spring/summer. And, for a few days, it’s time to celebrate.

Of course, when the draft was finished the other day, I enjoyed glass of scotch. That was the official celebration. One of the things I’m aware of when I come to the end of a manuscript is that I feel eager to finish it, but reluctant to let go of the characters and the story. Afterwards, there is a mixture of feeling relief, accomplishment, and loss. The nice thing about writing a series, is that I will be able to work with the main character again. Last night, I had ideas running through my head about another Bobby Navarro story when I was supposed to be getting to sleep, but that’s not what I meant about looking forward to working with my protagonist again.

I remember a Kathy Bates movie, Misery, when a writer celebrated the end of his manuscript with a single cigarette and a glass of wine. Of course, if you saw the movie, you know what came next. I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes.

Now, I am taking a little time to let the manuscript cool off before beginning the editing process. In the meantime, I have the chance to ride my own motorcycle, play a round of golf, and maybe do some hiking. That’s the advantage of finishing a draft while in Florida. Yesterday, I took a ride down an unfamiliar road that turned out to have a wildlife management area, Du Puis Management Area along one side of the roadway. The area offers hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, and even camping. It’s not far away from where we are located, so I’m looking forward to visiting there again.

Over the past months, I have enjoyed hearing from some of you who have visited my blog, and I look forward to bringing more news of Bobby’s travels and adventures in the coming year. Thank you for your support.

 I wish you all happy holidays, and a great year ahead.

Glenn Nilson

At Home

Feeling at-home can apply in a lot of situations. I used to feel that way in airports a long time ago when I traveled on business. A familiar airport offered a feeling of sanctuary. I could relax until my flight was ready for boarding. I could read, or do some work on my laptop. There were no external demands or likely interruptions. I once enjoyed something of the same feeling when I commuted to and from downtown Los Angeles. Admittedly, that was prior to cellphones.

Where I grew up, people used the expression, “Please make yourself at-home”, meaning they wanted you to feel comfortable with them and in their house. As snowbirds, my wife Lesley and I look forward to seeing people we haven’t seen in months each time we perform our biannual trek north or south. As we were indulging in our morning walk recently here in rural Florida, some friends we encountered said, “Welcome home”. Our southern friends more often say, “Welcome back”, the assumption being that home is somewhere in the North. These friends live here year-around, so this has become home to them, and I took their comment as a warm gesture back into the fold, a recognition of our belonging.

We live on a canal, and treasure viewing the wildlife parading back and forth. Tall egrets stand on the shore, looking to spear a meal in the opaque waters reflecting palm trees standing tall in the background. A green heron wading in the shallows darts its head out to feed on insects along the water’s surface. Two limpkins strut nearby, loudly proclaiming ownership of the canal, and an anhinga flaps its outstretched wings to dry off in a patch of fading sunlight, ignoring the limpkins. In the distance, a flock of white birds explodes into the evening sky, swooping, and wheeling several times before settling into the branches of tall oaks for the coming nightfall. A train sounds its horn as it approaches the crossings it must pass on its northerly run. I inhale deeply, to drink it all in, and suddenly I’m at home again in our southern location. Happens every time. Things are friendly and pleasant, but I get the sense of being at home here when I’m outside, enjoying the wildlife.

My series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, feels at-home when the highway vibrates up through the fast-rolling tires of his Harley and exhaust pipes sound a familiar melody. He’ll also feel at-home when night falls and he locates an inviting motel, or sets-up in a campground, builds a fire and suddenly there’s the fragrant scent of cedar smoke or crackling birch wood in the evening air.

I think Bobby feels more at home when he’s on the road than when an adventure is over, and he’s back in his rental. I suspect he’s not alone in that regard. How about you, or your protagonist? What provides a sense of home, or home-away-from-home, for you or your favorite character?

 

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Limpkin at Dusk

 

Change of Season

I think the geese are moving south. They have been forming into flocks and flying around the area lately, but less so than they were a week ago. A good many of the trees that peeked with fall foliage a week ago have lost their leaves to the wind and the cold temperatures that have taken over this part of upstate New York. My wife thinks it’s depressing. I’ve been sort of cooped-up inside the house the past several days due to a pulled muscle (getting better) in my back, so I’ve been looking out the windows and thinking how much I’d like to go for a hike—to better enjoy this weather. Not that I feel motivated to get outside and work on the things remaining to be done before we head south—I’d just like to take time to hike.  I like the way the woods change this time of year. Without the heavy canopy of leaves, I’m able to see the spectacular tree limbs and trunks. I can see farther through the woods, as well. Deer and other animals, even though more wary now that they are exposed, have become more visible. Instead of just hearing a squirrel chirping somewhere off in the trees, I can see it sitting at the base of an exposed branch.

Even driving is different now. The yellows and purples of autumn fields have given way to browner vistas, and weed stalks topped with frosted, dried flower heads make me think of rattles shaking in the chill winds. Sometimes I get a glimpse of an abandoned structure—an empty house, or collapsed barn—through the bare trees, and I like to think about who the occupants were and what their lives were like when winter used to come to this land decades ago.

I agree, this late fall season is moody, but I love it. It makes me start thinking about things like a pot of baked beans, maybe with some cornbread. I get eager to dig out that winter ski jacket, and boots are suddenly more inviting than the shoes I’ve been wearing most of the time until now. But it’s not just wood stoves and comfort food. There is something about the coming cold that almost resonates poetically, or philosophically, with that part of me I joke about as my “Walander” side, (from the television scenes set in a bleak Swedish landscape). I love this time of year, and this weather. At least, for now.

There’s another reason for this focus as well. You see, I’ve been working on my latest Bobby Navarro manuscript, set in south Florida, where Bobby is camping in Key Largo—in the winter. I wouldn’t take him there in the summer. So, think about it. . .  Bobby is not the sort of guy who hauls his motorcycle on a trailer so he can ride around once he gets somewhere. No, he had to drive down to the Keys on his Harley. It suddenly occurred to me, that Bobby wouldn’t want to ride back north in the middle of winter, with ice and snow on the road. That’s not how you treat your motorcycle. Those aren’t good riding conditions, either. I know. Well, I’ve figured out a couple possible solutions to the situation, but there are probably others as well, and my solution isn’t revealed until about thirty-five thousand words from where I am at the moment—about half way to the finish line. Any ideas?                                           

 

Life on Schedule

In one way or another, it seems we all live by them—schedules I mean. For many of us, an ideal vacation has meant getting rid of the daily schedules of work and everything else. Stay up late, because you don’t have to get up at any particular time in the morning. That sort of thing. And, of course, retirement is something we think about as a period in our lives when we can live according to our whims, not on a schedule. In the same vein, I’ve never liked waking to an alarm, another form of scheduled activity. More often than not, I have trouble getting to sleep when I use an alarm because I know it’s set to go off early and I’m not going to get much sleep.

We have reached that time of year when our scheduled transition to rural Florida is fast approaching. Work that still remains has to be rescheduled due to the closing window of opportunity I have been working against all summer. Vehicle inspections and maintenance have to be accomplished before the semiannual trek south. Florida medical appointments have to be set up before all of the arriving winter visitors push availabilities way off. I also have to push work on my manuscript-in-progress forward, which means fitting more writing into my schedule.

It was my intent to achieve a more balanced lifestyle this season here in the North. I was going to give myself more time for things other than house projects, too. Well, so much for good intentions. Now, I have to consider extreme measures to achieve my goals. Getting more efficient is obviously in order. The answer to greater efficiency? Scheduling my time. That includes my writing time, which has to consist of both the creative bit—writing—and the business side of it, which includes book promotions and the sort. If I don’t set up some workable schedule, the most pressing task will take over my time and life will continue as before—behind schedule. Of course, if I’m going to set up a meaningful daily work schedule, I should make sure I get up at a reasonable hour to get everything on the schedule done. That means setting an alarm. And, I’ll have to put reminders on my computer to change task

at scheduled times, and schedule a break for a few minutes so I don’t sit at the computer too long. Next, I’ll have to punch a time clock to keep track of how I’m doing on my schedule.

My series protagonist, Bobby Navarro is luckier. He doesn’t need an alarm clock, or to be living by any particular schedule. He rides his motorcycle, goes camping, meets people and solves murders. It doesn’t seem fair that I should have to schedule my life more rigorously in order to write about him not living on one. Oh well. . .

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