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

Good-bye to an Old Friend

Thirty five years ago I bought a research tool that has helped me write for decades.  At the time I was still a year or so away from owning my first PC (a Commodore VIC20 that William Shatner –aka Captain Kirk–hawked on TV) and the Internet was just a communication device for the military industrial complex.  You actually had to get up off your butt and go to the library to do any in depth research.  One other thing you could use was the tool that I bought so long ago.

It was the 1980 edition of The New Webster Encyclopedia Dictionary of the English Language: Including a Dictionary of Synonyms and Twelve Supplementary Reference Sections.  A copy of the title page is featured above.

The dictionary started out with a very interesting forward entitled On the Origin of Words which, essentially, explained how the English language came to be.  Nine hundred and seventy two pages of word definitions followed until you came to the 12 supplements mentioned in the title.

The supplements were as follows:

  1. Synonyms and Antonyms
  2. Popular Quotations
  3. Classical Mythology
  4. Foreign Words and Phrases
  5. Student’s and Authors Manual
  6. Secretaries Guide
  7. Business Law for Laymen
  8. Business and Finance
  9. Names and Their Meanings
  10. The Story of America in Pictures
  11. Flags of the World (in color)
  12. Presidents of the United States (in color)

The last president listed in section 12 is Ronald Reagan.  I found out in section 9 that my first name means “The Lord is gracious, merciful” and in section 5 I found out how to edit a document using Proofreading Marks.  There are too many great quotations to list here but my favorite from the Writing list in section 2 is “Look, then, into thine heart, and write!” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

At this time, I have to paraphrase another well known quote, “Time waits for no man nor great tome of knowledge”.  Over the course of the decades, this book was referenced more times than I can remember especially after my son was born in 1984.  It was at his side countless times while doing homework and at mine as I did my writing.  Now, however, it is showing the effects of its great use and great age.  The pages are torn and falling out as they fade from yellow to brown and the binding is all but gone.  So I have decided to give it a new life; I have made the gut wrenching decision to recycle my old companion in hopes that its next life will be as useful as its first one was.

So good-bye my old friend, good-bye.

NOTE: I used this book one last time to look up the proper way to spell-and hyphenate-the term “good-bye” since there are many variations of it and discovered that the phrase is a shortened version “God be with you”.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary on line is located here.  It even has a section for Scrabble: http://www.merriam-webster.com/

Captain Kirk selling computers (as William Shatner): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UK9VU1aJvTI

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=

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.

It was almost a song…

In my previous blog When a friend drives a story, but is not the story, I told how a friend of mine, who is a singer, inspired me to write the story Welcome to Jupiter, which is the second story in my book, On Borrowed Time.  Well she is a terrific entertainer with a big, haunting voice that leaves the audience mesmerized.  One day when we discussing her shows I suggested that she sing the song If I Could Reach You which is performed by The 5th Dimension.  I was not surprised to learn that she had not heard of it even though I think it is their best work and I also think it is the best torch song of all time.  Marilyn McCoo puts so much emotion into the words that no matter how many times I listen to it I feel the sadness in the voice of the woman enacted in the song.

She laughed at the idea that she could sing as well as Ms. McCoo but I assured her that she can and encouraged her to listen to the song with an eye to performing it.  Then she suggest that I write a song for her.  Songwriting is something that I have always thought of doing because my son, James, is also a great singer who performs regularly on stages in Ventura County but I never actually tried my hand at it until she put the idea in my head.  So I wrote my one and only song entitled My Only One, which is copyrighted, but has never been put to music.  My friend liked the words, but she didn’t see herself performing it and it is really not a song for a man to sing which leaves James out of the picture.

So where is my song now?  Sitting in a drawer with all my other past, failed, efforts waiting for a time when it might be revived as has happened to many of my other works.

For now, listen to If I Could Reach You and see if you agree with my assessment of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfdsrDzF6Iw&list=LL8D6fDrefo1tkOCpCBchqYQ&index=3

To here my son sing, check out his web site here: http://www.jamesdarling.net/

 

These “sayings” drive me CRAZY…

Saying things like this is a sure way to get me in your face and if you use these terms in a story, without making the character a total caricature, it will get you a terrible review, which is what you would deserve for taking short cuts with the English language. You are a writer, so write, say it in a way that doesn’t only appeal to Valley Girls and Stoners.  Write for the world and avoid these phrases at ALL cost:

  1. “I am going to REACH OUT to that person” – If you are not within arms distance of a person, you cannot “reach out” to them.  You can call them, email them, make an appointment to see them somewhere, or even snail mail them  If you ever get within arms length of them, then you can truly “reach out” to them; just make sure they want your advances.
  2. “I can’t wrap my head around that” – Perhaps if you wrapped your head around a brain you would not have this problem.
  3. “Back in the day…” – What day?  Last Tuesday?  A month ago?  1899?  Get specific, tell me WHAT day you are back in.  I have posed these questions to idiots who have used this phrase when talking to me and all I got in response was stuttering inanities.  Which is why I figured they used this phrase in the first place.
  4. “Don’t go there” – Ummmm, where is it you don’t want me to go?  We were having a discussion and not traveling anywhere.  Do you want me to go to a specific place?  Should I leave the room?  The building?  The planet?
  5. “It’s not rocket science” – That’s good since we were NOT talking about ROCKETS or SCIENCE or anything remotely related to these professions.  We were talking about what to have for dinner tonight.
  6. “Push the envelope” – Well gee, I can push an envelope.  Heck, I can push thousands of them all at once.  Does that make me special?   Do you have any idea what it is you mean to say?
  7. “Think outside the box” – Sorry, does it look like I have a box on my head?  Maybe you should talk to my barber.  What box is it that you speak of?  Do you have any idea?  If not get your head out of your as…
  8. “Chill out” – Are you referring to my Martini?  I mean it is already cold.  I drink them in toast the the English language that is being slowly killed off by catch phrases.
  9. “Don’t throw (someone) under the bus” – This punishment should be reserved for people dumb enough to use this irritating phrase.
  10. “It is what it is” – But what is it?  Can you tell me or are you just using this idiotic throwaway phrase to tell me you are too ignorant to express yourself in words?

There are more but if I keep writing this, I will blow a gasket….

How a near death experience inspired a story…or two…

As I mentioned in an earlier post, a near death experience, and the drug induced hallucinations I experienced as I recovered from it, inspired me to write the story, Images, the third work in my Detective Anderson series that comprises my book, On Borrowed Time, but that was actually the second story idea that I came up with while I was in the hospital.  However, Images, was the first one I wrote even though I had the second story pretty much worked out in my mind.

The other story I came up with is called Eye of the Storm, and it follows Images in my book.  It does so because I wanted to add more characters to Detective Anderson’s world and I wanted to introduce his new private detective agency which I did in Images.  I also brought in his new partner in the story who was a character in the previous story, Welcome to Jupiter.

Now, how did I dream up Eye of the Storm?  More hallucinations?  No.  This idea came to me before the morphine drip really kicked in.  Since I was very sick, I was placed in a unit that was just one step down from the Intensive Care Unit.  This unit is on the top floor of the hospital I was in and if I peered out my window and between two buildings, I could see the Pacific Ocean.  On the second day I was on the unit, though, our annual “June Gloom” arrived and muted that view.  “June Gloom” as we call it here (no matter what month it comes in) is a heavy marine layer (a high fog) that can blot out the sun for days at a time.  If you have never experienced it, you might think that the fog is a thick layer of clouds.  From that I imagined two Floridians standing on the Ventura Beach and thinking that a hurricane was heading our way.  In my imagination, I visualized one of them looking at the other and saying, “It’s coming.”

From those two words emerged a 6394 word story involving mistaken identity, a murderous clan, helicopter chases, the near death of Anderson, and much more!

Here are the first few lines of the story:

“It’s coming.”

 “Yes.”

 “Should we stay, ride it out?”

 “No.  It will make landfall here, we would not survive it.”

 “Then let’s finish and go.”

 “Agreed.”

So would I go through my sickness again if it meant coming up with two more stories?  No.  I would have to take a pass on that even if I never wrote another word.

How a near death experience inspired a story…

I am positive that near death experiences have inspired countless works of fiction and non-fiction.  I just never thought this would happen to me.

In my case it started out innocently enough; I woke up one morning with pain in my abdomen, severe pain, but even at that I didn’t think too much of it because until then I had been fine.  I tried to go about my business as usual but the pain prevented me from doing this so, reluctantly, I went to the emergency room.  The doctors there were very concerned and immediately began a series of test.  It turned out that I had a severe case of pancreaticitis caused by a dysfunctional gall bladder.  They told me that if I had waited a few days, my pancreas would have ruptured and I would have died.  A sudden shock to my pancreas would have sufficed as well.

After being admitted to the hospital, I was told that I could not eat or drink anything until my pancreas was cleared of all the poison in it; to reduce my pain and allow me to get by without food or drink, they started me on a saline IV and Morphine drip.  Essentially I went on a 4 day stoner because that is how long it took my pancreas to become stable enough to let the doctor go in in remove my offending gall bladder.

During this time, I was in and out of dream states almost to the point of hallucinating.  It was during one of these sessions that the oddest thing happened; a vision of a car that I owned years ago came into my mind.  It was a car that I had totally forgotten about, or so I thought.  What is more, the car was parked outside my then residence like it was always parked and to make things even stranger, a series of memories of this car continued with different views of the car parked in that spot. Some views were from the side, some from the back and so on.  After I returned to full consciousness, I remember this event and began to wonder why I still remembered this car and where these images were stored in my brain.

It took me several weeks to fully recover from this illness and during that time I was haunted by this question.  My mind mulled over a lot of possibilities but not being a doctor, I had no clear explanation and maybe a doctor would not have one either.  Then several ideas struck me: What if the brain really was like a computer and what if the brain could get clogged up with “files” like these memories of my old car?  What if this overload lead to debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease?  What if we could go in and clean out these files like you do on your computer?  Would that make your brain function better like deleting files on your computer makes it run faster?

At that point I had written my first two Detective Anderson mysteries (outlined in my blog posts I’m sorry, what did you say? and When a friend drives a story, but is not the story), now I wondered how all of these questions could involved Anderson and his team?

Well, throw in a “mad” scientist scorned by the local academia who is killed in a mysterious car wreck and then toss in the sexy owner of the Miami Dolphins (circa 1970) who pays Anderson a fortune to find out what really happened to him, then you have a wild rambling mystery that borders on science fiction. The story also introduces the hugely successful Anderson Detective Agency and a partner for Anderson.

And though the title of the story is one word, Images, at 19,324 words, it is the longest story that I have written to date.

Here is the On Borrowed Time book trailer that hints at this mystery: