Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Making of a Mystery Writer

P.D. James once told the Paris Review, "I had an interest in death from an early age. It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, "Did he fall, or was he pushed?"

The death of this superb British crime writer (on November 27, 2014) can't be called a shock--she was ninety four.  It can be termed a loss for anyone who wonders not just who killed a character, but why.  Her Adam Dalgliesh was possibly the most cerebral of all investigators.  It would take time to learn the who in one of her books, but when you finished reading there was no doubt as to the why.

Children of Men, not a detective story, was my favorite book. The human race is about to end because no children have been born for decades. A reader might see a book blurb about that and expect a medical thriller in which a scientist close to discovering a cure has to dodge the charlatans who sell fertility amulets. What they would get is a thoughtful look at what drives desperate people and how they treat one another in difficult times. And P.D. James' version of a dramatic chase scene at the end. (Don't bother with the movie. I didn't recognize her book in it.)

To P.D. James, cheers for those early macabre thoughts, and thanks for sharing them with us through your books.

To aspiring mystery writers, study those nursery rhymes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sharing is the Best Sales Tool

As the daughter of parents who led Brownie and Boy Scout troops and coached softball teams, I believe in neighbors helping neighbors. The concept carries through to promoting myself and my books.

Rita & Miles Orr with Elaine.
When I finally figured out how to post electronic books on the various platforms (Amazon, Nook, itunes, etc.), it seemed a good idea to share what I'd learned. Not because I was especially well informed, but because after countless hours of learning and butting my head against the desk, it turned out only about three percent of what the style guides presented was essential.

So how does a newbie to self publishing figure out which three percent? From other authors. I developed a one-hour seminar to give, for free, in libraries or service club meetings. I did it to share, but far more has come back to me. I learn through other authors' questions or comments and, lo and behold, I sell some books. Sharing also means talking to people, and writing is a lonely business.

Buoyed by how much fun it was to do the seminars, I began writing blog posts on marketing and publishing as well as the usual musings about books and writing. After a couple of emails from people who had seen a post but couldn't find it (because it was older), I did an index to posts on this blog. And then, gee, why not tweet about some of the articles? Traffic on my blog soared.

Authors assist others without developing seminars.We answer emails from newbies who are not sure where to start and share marketing ideas with other writers. If you look for opportunities to contribute, you always learn more, too.

A lot of good things happened because my parents taught their kids to share. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Recharging Book Settings

Since I don't live at the Jersey shore, I like to see the ocean from time to time to recharge my mental images. Luckily, I just spent several days near Jacksonville Beach, Florida with longtime friends. True, there are no palm trees or Spanish moss in New Jersey, but the surf and atmosphere are similar. 

The environment in a book is as important as the plot. I create a lot sitting at a table in Starbucks, but the setting is easier to imagine when I've recently seen sand dunes (as in the photo with the sawgrass) and surf. I certainly know what they look like. Maybe it's the smells I miss.

Fresh images can also move an idea forward. There was a building on pilings near the dunes that looked like a great place for a murder -- or at least a mugging. It sat along the walk that led to the beach. The walkway was elevated, as a New Jersey boardwalk would be. 

Then there was the lonely lifeguard chair sitting on a nearly vacant beach. To a  Midwesterner, it was a warm day (in the sixties), and I expected to see people on the beach. My friend reminded me that Floridians consider a temperature in the sixties to be chilly weather that requires a jacket. 
It was good to see an uncrowded beach. I deliberately set most of the Jolie Gentil series in the off-season--spring, fall or winter. It's easier for the characters to have normal lives when there aren't thousands of tourists to trip over. It's also possible for the bad guys to move around more easily. Fewer people to catch them in the act.

So, now I can finish the eighth book in the series with fresh visions of the ocean and a town geared to visitors--just like my Ocean Alley.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

You Know it Was a Good Book When...

Years later you still envision a setting or scene. There does not have to be an elaborate description, it's more what the author packs into a scene. There can be little action.

In War Day, by Strieber and Kutetka, two writers travel across America several years after a limited nuclear war. Some people think it's a book about the aftermath of war, but I mostly think of it as a book about how people treat one another in difficult times. That said, the scene that I most remember is a flight over a part of Texas that sustained a direct hit.

What remains closest to the impact location is simply black, the result of everything melting. As they (traveling by air, of course) move away, bent metal of skyscrapers appears. It's a long way before you get to the kind of damage you'd see after a World War II bombing. It's just all gone. Juxtaposed with the sterile environment is the character's memory of playing in sprinklers as a child.

Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott books wax descriptive, even more in later books. However, the sparser portrayal of the Knott 'home place' (her father's longtime tobacco farm and ponds, as noted in Bootlegger's Daughter) stick with me even more than longer accounts of the small house Deborah built years later.

Of course, Boo Radley's front porch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is indelibly inscribed in brain. Maybe it's because the kids were so afraid of it that their fear stays with me as Jeb creeps up to it

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows paints vivid pictures of the Isle of Guernsey during World War II. It's British territory, but so far from England that it can't be protected. Occupying Germans take much of the food stores, and of course there's no petrol to speak of long before the end of the war. Perhaps it's because everyone walked everywhere near the end that I see gardens and dirt roads so clearly. It's the overall struggles, even sending the children away, that probably make this book so memorable. I just reread it.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet brings World War II Seattle to life as Jamie Ford portrays two friends, a Japanese girl and Chinese boy, struggling with family relationships and the bigotry of the era. I can still see Seattle's Chinatown and the inside of young Henry Lee's family's apartment, as well as his friend Keiko's precise actions and artwork. And the contents of the Panama Hotel's basement in 1986, when the stored belongings of Japanese families are revealed so many decades later.

I decided to write this without developing a list of books or even studying my bookshelves. If the scenes come to mind so clearly, these really are the books I most remember.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Using Book Themes for Publicity

In the Jole Gentil cozy mystery series, most of the books include a fundraiser for the Harvest for All Food Pantry, which Jolie volunteers with. These events are essentially an opportunity for some comedic moments--with a bit of awareness of the needs of hungry people thrown in. Not too much of the latter, since people read fiction for fun.

Any Port in a Storm has Jolie, Scoobie, and friends preparing for a fundraiser based on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which is September 19th every year.

Say what? Yes, there is such a day, and 2014 marks its eleventh anniversary. Do an online search and you'll see there are events around the U.S. and a few elsewhere.  I stumbled on it a few years ago when I did a search for "silly ideas for a fundraiser."

In Jolie's world, a storm is brewing off the New Jersey coast, a not-uncommon occurrence from late August through October. Finding a body under the pirate ship was not part of the plan.

In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, Any Port in a Storm will be free from September 18-20th this year. Don't believe me? Well, shiver me timbers. Grab your sword and pirate hat and dive into the book.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reflecting After Thirteen Years

Thirteen years ago, I was working in a cubby-hole office at a DC firm when a colleague came in and said, "Something's happened in New York."

As memories of that day go, mine do not merit a sub footnote. But they are mine.

We could look out one window and see smoke from the Pentagon crash site, though that lasted only briefly. Since we were about four blocks from the White House, many of us wondered if more planes were coming and whether they would strike near us. That fear was allayed relatively soon, as all flights were required to land at their nearest airport.

Was it safer to stay at work or leave? My sister insisted I not take the Metro, so my choice was made for the time being.  My car was about eight miles away in a suburban Metro parking lot. A car would have been useless for the first couple of hours, as streets visible from our eighth-floor office window were their own parking lots.

About fifteen of us watched the office television. I was the only one who cried as the towers came down. I never understood that.

It was impossible to get on the Internet, so there was no way to view news there and we could not send or receive emails from family. I volunteered to staff the phones so the support staff could leave, but I didn't know how to transfer calls. When a call came in for someone still in the suite, I used the PA to tell them. That was eerie. The grandmother of one staffer kept calling, and I kept repeating that her granddaughter left safely ages ago.

The rumors stick with me. There was a bomb in a car on Capitol Hill and another at the State Department. The latter was 'verified' information. When I looked in the paper the next day, there was a one-sentence reference to the State Department one having been untrue. No others were mentioned specifically. I suppose that was the one most-often stated as true.

The mental picture I retain most vividly is that of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld helping carry wounded at the Pentagon. Perhaps it's because I was close, perhaps because he will (hopefully) be the only Defense Department secretary to have to do that. I see the expression on his face as clearly as if he were standing in front of me.

I did eventually get to my sister's house in Kensington. A colleague who lived a few miles from her took me there. My sister had earlier rushed to her daughter's middle school. It was a short distance from the Navy Medical Center, a tall building amid short ones that she thought could be an easy target for another plane.

My sister drove me to my car, and I went to visit my two brothers and their families that evening. Our third brother was in New Jersey. He was stuck in traffic on a parkway not far from the Twin Towers, and saw the smoke for much of the day.

On September twelfth I went to the scheduled meeting of a Social Equity Panel. We briefly discussed canceling it, but decided it would be letting the terrorists win, somehow.

It was Saturday before I drove to an area near the Pentagon. I took a single carnation and drove along the perimeter at the back of of Arlington National Cemetery. Eventually I reached a patch of lawn where people had left flowers and other items.

The photo is of a sign on the cemetery fence. It reads, "Dear, Police, Firefighters, and the Red Cross. Thank you for helping the people at the Pentagon. You are great people for saving others. We know that your job is hard and dangerous. Thank you for protecting us." The poster is signed by 2nd graders at Drew Model School in Arlington.

I left my carnation beneath it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Simon Brothers Baseball Team

As it gets closer to baseball playoffs in the U.S., it's time to remember the most unique team  in history -- the Simon Brothers Baseball Team.

Simon Brothers with uniforms donated by Senator Capper.
When John M. Simon and his wife Minnie (Hagerty) Simon had their first son in 1893, they had no idea that their farm in Olsburg, Kansas would one day host a baseball diamond or that the team that played there would be comprised of their ten sons. Oldest son John A. Simon (born in 1893) had clear memories of his father's dream and how the older boys would work with the younger ones to teach them how to play the game.

In the 1920s, baseball became synonymous with Babe Ruth and towns throughout the country formed teams that played teams from neighboring towns.  Though many took the sport seriously, these were largely groups of amateurs who played on weekends and the games were a town event. Cars were still a luxury for most families, so local teams rarely traveled far.

By the mid-1920s the Simon Brothers Baseball Team played in several towns in Pottawatomie County, Kansas in Northeast Kansas. The teams they played would often be from Manhattan or Westmoreland, the county seat. Though the brothers enjoyed playing, it was hard work.  The older ones farmed or had other jobs, and practice was in the evenings with most games on Sundays.

In the late 1920s the family team was "discovered" by Kansas Senator Arthur Capper, who was well known as the founder of Capper's Weekly, a popular weekly tabloid that published from 1913-86.  He bought the brothers their first set of professional uniforms and paved the way for the team to play an exhibition game at the 1930 World's Fair in New York.  Twenty years later John (Jack) Simon was still describing the awe the brothers felt after traveling from the Kansas prairie to the big city.

The brothers were:
John Alma (Jack) Simon (1893-1954)
Jacob (Jake) William Simon (1895-1964)
Floyd Walter Simon (1898-1982)
Glenn E. Simon (1901-1974)
Roy Raymond Simon (1903-1983)
Clyde E. Simon (1906-1978)
Bert Simon (1907-1993)
Nile (Cricket) Simon (1909-1982)
Herman (Ted) Simon (1909-1987)
Ernest Edward (Ed) Simon (1913-2010)

Jack Simon is on L. Order of others unknown.
While some brothers left the state for military service, they generally stayed in Kansas.  Only Floyd died outside the state, in California.  John (Jack) and Jake were barbers. Floyd and Glenn farmed in Pottawatomie County in 1930.  Ed was living on the family's farm when he became the last surviving brother in 1993.  He lived to be 97. 
Rosa McBride Simon & husband Jack Simon
Jack Simon and prized dogs
Oldest brother Jack Simon married Rosa McBride of Seneca and Topeka, Kansas. They lived in Topeka, where she had her beauty salon and he worked as a barber. Jack had prize hunting dogs. They were a handsome couple.
                                                   *       *       *
Article by Elaine L. Orr.  Rosa McBride was first cousin to my mother, H. Rita Rooney. Their moms were, respectively, Annie and Nellie Teehan of Lillis, Kansas. Rosa's husband, Jack Simon, died when I was three, but the stories about him did not. A version of this article (for which I maintained ownership) was on Yahoo Voices for a time.