A Painted House

It always amazes me when something occurs that reminds me of a story I read or wrote or of a character in a work of literature.  This happened just recently when I had my house re-painted: the picture above is the end result (included is a view of my California drought ravaged lawn).

Anyone who knows me, knows that John Grisham is my favorite author.  They also know that I have all of his books in hardback and most of them are first editions.  Without a doubt, my second favorite Grisham book is A Painted House (I will reveal my favorite book in the next post and tell you why I love it).  This book is far from his usual legal thriller genre in that there is not a lawyer or a courtroom in the story.

This book is a far ranging story of people who are so dirt poor that having a next meal is not a given thing.  Yet all through it, the young protagonist wanted just one thing, a painted house.  His family’s house is a typical shot gun type abode sporting plain wooden exteriors and a tin roof, the type that share croppers often occupied.  To have such a house painted was a crowning achievement for any family.

So when I finally had the funds to get my house a badly needed paint job, I remembered several things.  I remembered how pitifully poor the characters in Grisham’s book are, so poor that you want to go help them in any way you can, but you can’t because they are fictional.  Yet the seem so real.  It also reminded me of how poor I was when I was young.

As the third child in a home of a single, uneducated, but hard-working Irish mother, I often went without as did we all.  I remember having one pair of shoes and they were so worn and torn that you could see my hole filled socks through them.  I remember dropping out of high school because my mother could not afford my school books.  I remember taking a job in a car wash at 14 years old while earning one dollar per hour which made me feel rich at the end of each week.  So having my house painted now, a house that I more or less own in a California seaside town, is a big thing.  A real big thing mainly because of the memories that were stirred up as I read Grisham’s book.  So far I have only read the book three times but after this week, it is on my agenda to be read again.

This is the power of the written word, it is the power that all authors seek to attain whether they admit it or not.  They want their words to stir memories as well as make them.  I can only hope that somewhere someone is moved to memories because of something I created.

To that end, I will keep writing.

Well, there could have been a monster in there…

As much as I hate to say it, for the majority of authors, their writing is their avocation rather than their vocation and I am no exception to that rule.  I write because I enjoy it and because someday I would like to do it for a living.  In the meantime, I have to work for a living like all the rest of you.

It is not that I don’t think writing is work, it is and sometimes it is very hard work, its just that I think of writing as a pleasurable experience, something I can do without anyone telling me what to do and this is not always the case in the “real world” business environment.  So, I get up each day and (hi ho, hi ho) it is off to work I go.

For the past two and half years, the place I trudge to is biotech whose main business is making breast implants.  I’d write a sitcom about the place but no one would believe it.  Anyway, for several months of this time, I worked in one large building that was virtually empty.  I know for sure that I was the only person working on the second floor.  Most of this time, I worked in a secured file room and though I am not one who frightens easily, if at all, there were times when I heard noises that I did not think I should be hearing. I can’t say for sure if these noises were just in my mind or if they were produced by workers outside of the building but one day, when I started to go into the men’s room, I could have sworn I heard a noise come from inside it.

That was bad enough but when I opened the door, the self lighting unit did not activate right away so I was left standing in dim light for a few seconds.  When the lighting did come up, staring back at me were three empty stalls and two urinals–which all seemed to be laughing at my unease.

It was during those few seconds between darkness and light that a story came to me.  I call it There is a Monster in the Bathroom and it is available in my collection of stories in Angel and the Bear.

When I wrote the story, I wrote it just as it happened, right down to the layout of the floor I was on, the only exception being that there was no monster in there making those noises.  As I usually do, I let some of my friends read the story before I published it and several of those friends are people I work with.  Everyone of them guessed correctly that I set the story in the other building outside of the bathrooms located there, so I guess I got the details right.

As a writer, I think using people and places you know well as models is important because since you know them so well, you can write in detail about them.  This is an instance where the location of the event was of primary importance because all of the characters in the story were pure fiction, including the muscular man who was working alone on the second floor…

Angel and the Bear: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KZ3QF8I

Sometimes You Have To Get Dirty…

…in a grooming sense of the word anyway…

I was in the process of getting very dirty when the inspiration for my story Go Ahead, Steal My Car came to me.  At the time I was under my car, which was sitting up on my Rhino Ramps, draining the old oil from it so I could replace it with my recently bought fresh oil.  As I watched the dwindling ebony ribbon of dark oil pour into the drain pan, I heard shuffling foot steps approaching in the alley behind my house.  When the sound of the footsteps got to my driveway, they stopped and I could see that they had been made by two brightly colored tennis shoes. Who was in the shoes, I don’t know, why they stopped behind my car, I don’t know, but from the direction they were pointing, I could tell that the owner of the shoes was looking at my car and into my open garage.  I don’t think this person could see me since I was mostly under my car.

What motivation the feet had for stopping and looking I don’t know, but I do know that if they had approached my garage, they would have jumped high enough to hit the roof of it when I popped out from underneath the car.  But they did not approach, after about 3 minutes, they continued on their way.  I replaced my car’s oil drain plug then got up and looked down the alley, but who ever owned the shoes was gone.

However, the mystery stayed behind.  Later I could not get the unanswered questions out of my mind so, being a writer, I sat down and started listing what possible reasons the person had for standing behind my car and one of those possibilities, however remote, was that they wanted to steal my car.  I wondered what I would have done if that had been the case; since my car was a 1998 Chevrolet Lumina that I had owned since it was nearly new, most likely I would not have fought the person over it, I would have just said, “Go ahead, steal my car.”  What came from these musings is a sometimes sad, sometimes poignant story of a man grieving the loss of two partners, one personal and one professional, while blaming himself for both.

This is the second story in my book Angel and the Bearhttp://www.amazon.com/Angel-Bear-Collection-American-Fiction-ebook/dp/B00KZ3QF8I/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Character Development

I tell everyone that I am not a novelist and to this day that is  true.  It may change some day but for now I am novel-less, so to speak.

The closest I have come to writing a novel is when I wrote On Borrowed Time, my book of mysteries that revolve around Detective Anderson and his private investigator agency.  In the book, many of the character have recurring roles.  Two of these characters are B.B., Anderson’s stunningly beautiful “Office Manager, full-charge bookkeeper, and all around do everything person” and Nate Kubrick, an up and coming young private investigator.  Around mid-way in the series, I wanted to develop these characters more because they were pretty interesting and because I had plans for them later in the series.  So, I decided to write a story called Into the Dark Desolate Night where they were the main characters.  In fact, Anderson and his partner Coombs are not in the story, though they play heavily in the background.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say that the story involves B.B. more or less blackmailing Kubrick into stealing Coombs’ new car, a candy apple red Cadillac El Dorado convertible.  Along the way we discover that B.B. is short for Beth-Ann Banks, her boyfriend’s name is Ray Ramundo aka Ray Ray, and that Kubrick has a juvenile criminal past that is unknown to Anderson and Coombs.

Why B.B. wants Kubrick–and only Kubrick–to steal the car is the crux of the story.  In the end, though, Kubrick finds a major league Miami crime boss deeply in his debt.  This is a situation that he does not relish, but he cannot get away from it.

For the record, the title of this story was the original title of the book and it fit well with the cover of the book, but after talking to a “book coach”, I figured it was too long so I renamed the book to another story.  I am not sure this was the best move but I have researched the question of long book titles and it does appear the shorter titles sell better.

So far I am not sure how accurate this assessment is.

On Borrowed Time: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005H7LNDO

Language Barrier (Barrera Del Idioma)

In my last post, I told how I had a title (Death and the Deep Blue Sea) stuck in my head and how a story grew from that small seed.  Well that was not the only time it happened.  Another time this title got stuck in there, The Treasure of Arroyo Seco and again a story grew from that seed.  Unlike the last story, though, I know exactly where this title came from, more or less anyway.

I am a member of a group that helps preserve land in my town and now and then we also help clean up parks in the area.  One day we were working in Arroyo Verde park which is a large property full of hiking trails.  You can see the Pacific Ocean from most points of view since it sits up on a foothill.  It was hot and dry that day due to the Santa Ana winds being out in full force.  It was while I was chasing down a wild plastic bag that the phrase Arroyo Seco came to mind.  I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded good.  My mind wandered as I picked up the human debris left behind by careless picnickers and as it did it batted the phrase around and somehow the entire title came to me.  Now what to do with it?  It had a nice lilt to it and I know it was very similar to the great Bogart film The Treasure of Sierra Madre so I thought maybe it would make a nice story–of some sort.

At the time, Detective Anderson did not exist but I was writing a lot of romance stories so I thought that maybe I could do something with this title in that realm.  The idea of having the story set in the old west interested me since that would be a first for me.  I have read many volumes of Zane Grey’s work and as great as it all is, he never handled relationships between men and women very well.  So I thought that maybe I could one up the master in that area.

With that in mind, I set a lonely cowboy, who thought he was running from the law, on a wild ride south of the border to escape the perceived posses that were out to get him.  Along the way he stumbles upon a dying hombre and shares with him the last dregs of his water.  While the old man lay dying, he hands our hero a map and says something to him in Spanish which he did not understand.  When the man finally died, our hero buried him with dignity then set out to find water in a barren desert wasteland.

On the edge of death, he see a village in the distance, he thinks, so by laying on his trusty horse, he makes for it. Finally, he can go no longer and sliding from his saddle, he falls into a pit of darkness.  Of course, he wakes up, that part of the plot was a given, but what would he wake up to?  Would he find himself chasing a gold mine like Bogie did?  No, that would be plagiarism no matter how much I spun it.  So what would be the real treasure? Since this story was destined to be a romance, there could only be one true treasure and that would be love.

He wakes up to the stunningly beautiful face of Raquel Deseo which made him think he died and went to Heaven when he really was in a village called Arroyo Seco, which I later discovered meant “dry creek”.  So who is Raquel Deseo?  In the story, she is a peasant living in a town that is dying of thirst and she is the daughter of the man our hero tried to save.  In real life, she is my friend Raquel who is just as beautiful as she is described in the story.  Deseo is Spanish for “desire”.

I wanted to add some realistic touches to the story, so I thought I would start his awakening moments with a conversation between Raquel and her mother with the entire narrative being in Spanish.  My real life friend Raquel consented to translating my words and thus became the love interest of my lonesome cowboy.

In the end Raquel falls in love him him, they figure out what her father was trying to say about the map, and so they eventually save the town.

This story will soon be added to my collection of work, Angel and the Bear.

The Title Made Me Do It

I have mentioned that I live in Ventura, CA and before that I lived in Santa Barbara, CA.  Between the two cities, I have lived on the edge of the Pacific Ocean for 35 years.  However, since I can’t swim a stroke and I don’t fish much anymore, I don’t spend a lot of time at the beach.  My dog, Tinker, likes it, so we go for walks on the beach now and then, but I don’t spend enough quality time on it to be called a beach bum, however, I can see the ocean from most parts of Ventura and in my daily commute, I drive next to it for over 30 miles.

One day when I was trying to think up more trouble for my Detective Anderson character I may have been looking at the ocean when a title for a story popped into my head.  I cannot say for sure if the image of all this blue water was the reason for it but since Anderson seems to be around a lot of dead people, some by his own hand, and he lives in Miami, the deep blue of the sea made me think of this phrase:  Death and the Deep Blue Sea.  Maybe I was thinking of all of the mariners that have gone down to the sea in ships or maybe it came to me for some other reason.  I honestly don’t know, but it got me to thinking about how I could involve Anderson in a murder mystery at sea.

The first challenge, of course, was to get him on the water.  For this I used his partner, Detective Coombs.  Coombs loved to fish while Anderson detested it but Coombs kept inviting him to go on a party fishing boat with him and since Andy was tired of making up lame excuses not to go, he relented this one time.  Naturally, trouble followed when something awful turned up in the offal.  In a tip of my hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal movie, Lifeboat, all the actions take place on board the ship.  This had to be done because Anderson was afraid that if the ship made landfall before he deduced who the criminal was, said criminal would be able to make his escape.

Between the time he and Coombs boarded the ship and the time they set foot on dry land again, our two intrepid detectives discovered who was murdered, who did the deed, and what was the main dish in the galley…  The entire story evolved from what I thought was a catchy title.

This story, Death and the Deep Blue Sea, is included in my book, On Borrowed Time.

Incident in a small market…

This morning she was wearing a battered Levi Denim shirt–with silver buttons–just like the one in the Mary Chapin Carpenter song, This Shirt.  Her blonde hair fell on the turned up collar, her wrists protruding from the rolled up sleeves were unadorned, and on her hands she wore one small ring. She was looking at produce in the greens sections, seemingly trying to decide if the Kale was too wilted for her taste.  He tried not to stare, and failed, after all he had just seen her the night before.

She must have felt his eyes on her because she looked up, and smiled.  He smiled back then went about his business while wondering if she was who he thought she was.

The incident above is true, but it would not make much of a story.  I mean men look at pretty women all the time and nothing comes of it–unless you are a writer and you can make what you want of it just as I did as soon as I got home from the market.

Mistakenly, I thought the lady in the market was the same one I had seen just the night before playing the cello in a local orchestra. There were at least 50 other musicians on that same stage and though she was partially hidden by a violinist, there was no way you could not see the enthusiasm she put into her playing.  It was as if there were no other players, no conductor, not even an audience.  We were all irrelevant to the passion she put into each bow stroke.  She wore a simple black dress and one string of pearls; her attire showed that it was the music that mattered, not what she wore or how she looked.  I have always admired performers like this whether they were in Carnegie Hall or playing on the street corner for spare change.

This brief marketplace encounter turned into my story, The Right Note, which not only produced my biggest royalty check to date but was also published in one of the biggest literature markets in the world, New York City.

In the story, the lady is who the man thinks she is and he approaches her.  The first line in the story is this: “You play the Cello, don’t you?” and of course she does.  What plays out is a tender tale of two mature people from very different backgrounds finding love at a time when they least expect it.  When I finished the story, though formulaic,  I liked it a lot and so did everyone else who I let read it so I thought I would take a shot so I sent it to New Love Stories Magazine.  They bought it–on the condition that I make it longer!  That was a request I had not heard before.  Since I wanted to be in this NYC magazine, I looked at my story in an effort to add more words.  In this case it was surprisingly easy.

The original story had only two parts; the first section is where the two lovers meet in the market and the second section detailed how the man showed up at one of her concerts.  This lead to a budding romance.  So how do I add to that?  I had the beginning, I had the ending, people liked it, I liked it.  How do I make the editor like it?

I finally decided to add a third section in the middle of the story.  The female protagonist is fascinated by the good looking man who complimented her on her playing and since he gave her his name told her that he was a writer, and that he lived locally, she decided to try to find out more about him.  Taking to the Internet she discovers that he is much more than he seemed and after discovering this, she wanted to see him again more than ever.

This obviously was the solution the editor was looking for because he sent me a sizable check for the story.  Sadly, New Love Stories Magazine is now defunct but with its death, all the rights to the story have reverted back to me and you can read it in my collection, Angel and the Bear.

While doing so, you can listen to this song:

This Shirt – Mary Chapin Carpenter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbL1LptZ8Vc