Sunday, March 29, 2015

Another Use For My Sherlock Holmes Cap!

Several months ago, I was invited to speak to kids at the Lenz Elementary School in Reno for their reading week in March. Last week, I drove down the mountain and gave two talks in their library, 30 minutes each, to something around 100-plus 4th, 5th, and 6th graders.

What fun!

The focus of my talk was to explain what it's like to write books, as well as what the life of an author is like. (If you want to pique their curiosity, just tell them that authors get to stay up as late as they want and sleep in as late as they want!)

Talk about engaged kids. After I explained how I dreamed up a fictional detective (Owen McKenna) and his sidekick (Spot, the 170-pound Harlequin Great Dane), I asked if they had any questions.

Whoa. Every hand in the library went up. Their questions were really smart.

Do you use real events, or do you make up everything about a story?
Are the places in your book real?
What's the most fun part of writing?
How long does it take to write a book?
Do you write a certain amount every day?
Have you ever met famous authors?
What's the best thing about being an author?

I've spoken to all ages and every kind of group. But speaking to kids is the most fun. My thanks to Lenz School for inviting me!

P.S. The kids knew all about Sherlock Holmes, and they loved my double-billed Sherlock cap!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Authors on the Move 2015

One of the great things about being an author is being invited to participate in events that help libraries, which, as you can imagine, are sacred to those of us writing books. 

Last week, I was one of 40-plus authors who joined Authors on the Move 2015, the premier fundraising event for the Sacramento Public Library Foundation. This was my fourth time at Authors on the Move, a dinner and auction where something like 350 people pay $225 each to hang with - you guessed it! - authors. Who woulda thunk people would pay that kind of money to get together with people whose job - if you can call it that - is to arrange words on paper?!

It's a fun, well-run affair that I recommend for anyone who wants to support libraries and meet a wide range of authors while they're at it.

For me, an extra bonus was the auction. One of the items auctioned off was a "Tahoe Mystery" week. The prize was a week's stay for five people at a South Lake Tahoe cabin donated by Doris Thorsen. The week includes a visit by me, during which I'll chat about Owen McKenna, Spot, and the rest of the gang, answer questions about Tahoe mysteries and whatever else people want to know about Tahoe. (How did Spot get his diamond ear stud? What is the truth about what is down at the bottom of Lake Tahoe? Does the Sierra Nevada Brewing company really pay me to have Owen McKenna drink Sierra Nevada Pale Ale?)

I'm very proud to report that a small bidding war took place, driving the bids for the week from $500 up to $1700. Then, it was revealed that two weeks were available, and both of the primary bidders got their own weeks. So the Tahoe Mystery produced about $3400 dollars for the Sacramento Library Foundation!

I salute those who support libraries! And I look forward to the coming Tahoe Mystery weeks!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mountain Trivia You Won't Believe

Here's a question, the answer to which will amaze, win bets, and generally provoke serious disbelief.

The question revolves around cities with big mountains close by. I wanted to know where you get the biggest vertical going from a city to a close mountain. So I asked the following question:

Of all the significant cities in the U.S., which one has the highest vertical rise from the city to a mountain within, say, 15 miles?

I imagine that most people will think like I did, first considering those iconic mountains associated with iconic cities. Seattle and Mt. Rainier, for instance. There is a huge vertical rise of 14,226 feet from Seattle to Mt. Rainier. But of course Rainier is, at 60 miles away from Seattle, much farther than my arbitrary distance in the question.

Tacoma is much closer to Rainier, but still 40 miles away.

What about Redding, California and Mt. Shasta? They have nearly as much vertical difference of 13,685 feet of rise. But again, Shasta is about 60 miles from Redding.

Okay, let's look at Portland Oregon. Mt. Hood stands a very tall 11,200 feet higher than Portland. And it is closer than the above examples, but still about 50 miles away.

Mt. Baker rises high above Everett, Washington, but it too is more than 50 miles away.

And so it goes for the mountains near Denver, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Salt Lake City, Utah. All have high mountains nearby, but those three cities themselves sit thousands of feet in the air, reducing the vertical rise.

Close to Tahoe, we can measure from Reno at 4400 feet up to Mt. Rose at 10785. The vertical gain is less than 6400 feet and the distance is 20 miles away, still beyond the parameter of my question.

What about Las Vegas, which has Charleston Peak? At respective elevations of 2030 for Vegas and 11,916 for Charleston Peak, the vertical rise is an impressive 9886. Yet Charleston peak, while close, is also about 20 miles away.

So what is the winner? The cities of California's Inland Empire, a large exurbia that lies just east of Los Angeles. Ontario and Pomona are two of the main ones, both with populations over 150,000. And just 15 miles away is Mount San Antonio, otherwise known as Mt. Baldy. The two cities sit at 1000 feet of elevation and Baldy is 10,068 feet. So there is 9000 feet of vertical rise.

Los Angeles is thought of for its movie industry and its beaches and its freeway traffic.
But with mountains looming 10,000 feet above, it has some of the most amazing mountain views anywhere.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Wait, we're not done, yet. Especially, if you think about cities just a bit smaller.

For example, consider Palm Springs, CA. Its population is 46,000. That's not a major city by most standards. However, if you add in Palm Desert, the city next door, which has 50,500 people, you've got a sizable number of people. Does Palm Springs have a mountain? Yes, right up against it, in fact. San Jacinto Peak is only 10 miles away and its summit is 10,834 feet, almost exactly the same as Tahoe's highest mountain, Freel Peak. But the elevation of Palm Springs is only 479 feet. So San Jacinto Peak towers 10,355 feet above the city. At just 10 miles away, that is the most dramatic mountain/city relationship that I know of in the country.

San Jacinto Peak towers 10,355 feet above Palm Springs and Palm Desert, the
most dramatic mountain/city relationship in the country. Not only that, but Jacinto's
north face is one of the tallest faces of any mountain in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
So the next time you think about big mountains near cities, remember that there is no place in the Cascades or the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada that puts big mountains near cities like in Southern California. We usually think of SoCal as beaches and Hollywood and crowded freeways. But SoCal is also mountain paradise.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Upside Of A Drought!

Is there an upside to a drought?

Heck, yes! The winter hiking is fabulous. We get to look up at snow on the mountains, but we can go on lake-level hikes without any snow gear. The sun shines, the temperature is perfect, and everywhere you look is a postcard.

Do I feel guilty enjoying such weather when we really need the moisture? Yes. (But not too much!)

The trail down to Skunk Harbor makes a perfect winter hike to a beautiful picnic spot.
And the view ain't too shabby. That's Alpine Meadows on the left and Squaw Valley on the right.

The rocks at Skunk Harbor Bay are gorgeous. And the water is clear as air.
At my feet is the most wonderful beach, a luscious curve of soft sand.
If the water were warmer than forty degrees, it would be great swimming!

A few days later, just as we were getting used to this balmy winter,
 we got 18 inches of fluffy white stuff at our house.
So we strapped on our snow shoes and headed out into the forest.

Click here a full blog post on hiking Skunk Harbor. Definitely one of the most beautiful hikes in Tahoe

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What Happens If You Lie To Your Dog?

She won't believe you the next time you tell her something.

Yeah, it's true. Yet another study demonstrates the amazing abilities of dogs to understand human behavior. 

This study used a simple yet clever approach, and they tested it on 34 dogs. The results were clear. If you show a dog where to find a hidden treat, the dog will appreciate it and check out the next hiding place you point to. But if you "lie" and show them the wrong place, they will realize that you can't be trusted, and they will ignore your subsequent advice.

Lesson to learn? Play fair with your dogs. They're as smart as young kids, and, like kids, they will respond to you in accordance with how reliable and trustworthy you are.

Read about it at Huffington Post

Sunday, February 22, 2015

How Smart Is Your Dog?

I've written before about how, when it comes to understanding what humans want, dogs likely have the greatest emotional intelligence of all animals.

Here: The Emotional Intelligence Of Dogs

And here: Animal Intelligence Is Always Underestimated

Now comes yet another study that shows that the scientists are catching up with the rest of us. Basically, they've now demonstrated that dogs can look at your face and tell whether you're happy or angry.

Once again, this is something that most dog owners have always known. And, once again, this is something that dog owners have always been reluctant to tell their friends who don't know dogs for fear that their friends will think them ignorant, anthropomorphizing dullards.

Read and Smile: 

Dogs Can Tell Happy Or Angry Faces

Dogs Know When We're Angry Or Happy

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Most Important Invention For Readers And Writers Has Lasted 2000 Years

The next time you're at a gathering of literary types and you'd like some bit of information with which to amaze them, I have the answer.

Book lovers are utterly dependent on an invention that has lasted for 2000 years, an invention that transformed the world starting around the 1st century AD with the Romans. 

The invention is the codex.

'What is a codex?' I wondered when my wife and I went to our first Codex Book Fair last week at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond (just north of Berkeley).

Turns out the codex is simply our "modern" concept of a book, a device that consists of a pile of bound pages that one can flip back and forth. Prior to the codex, most writing was done on scrolls, and before that, on tablets, whether made of wood or stone or clay.

A 13th century codex from Bohemia, courtesy of Wikipedia

The problem with tablets was that they were bulky and heavy. Scrolls solved that problem, but they created a new problem. Scrolls were sequential. You couldn't get to the middle or end of a piece of writing without starting from the beginning and working your way through. 

The codex changed all that making it so that one could have easy access to any part of a work of writing. You can open a book - I mean, codex - to the middle or end without going through the whole work from the beginning. So simple, yet world changing and very cool.

As you can imagine, that revolutionized our information systems. Within a few hundred years, the codex totally blew scrolls out of the water. In the mid-15th century, Gutenberg came along with his handy printing press, and that was obviously a big deal, too. But what if he'd had to print on scrolls? 

Incidentally, smart as the Romans were, the Maya civilization in Central America also invented the codex, probably around the 5th century. And the Maya invented a much better kind of paper than the papyrus the Romans used. The Maya used their books to carefully record the history of their civilization for most of their thousand-year existence. 

From the Dresden Maya Codex, courtesy of Wikipedia

Unfortunately, when the Spanish Conquistadors arrived and kicked those poor Mayan butts, the Spanish priests saw that the Mayans had hundreds of books filled with writing and beautiful illustrations. They decided that because the Maya hadn't yet been exposed to Christianity, those books probably represented the devil, so they burned them all.

A few Spaniards made notes about the number of books and the nature of their content. They even noted that the Mayans flipped out to see the history of their civilization burned. Yeah, no kidding. 

So apparently, codex/book burning has a long and proud history going all the way back.

There are only three authenticated Maya codices that survived.

Here's the Wikipedia article on Maya Codices. Check out the amazing illustrations!

Fortunately, people today recognize the value of the codex, something that many of us take for granted. And there is a biennial Codex Book Fair that celebrates the original concept of the handmade book. 

At the Codex Book Fair, there were probably 100 exhibitors with gorgeous handmade books filled with poetry and photographs. I highly recommend it. Here's the link to the fair. Put it on your calendar for early 2017.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mark Bacon's Death In Nostalgia City Is A Real Treat

From the beginning of this assured debut mystery, it was obvious that Reno author Mark Bacon is a pro writer, and I settled in for what I knew would be a good ride. By the end, the book had surpassed my high expectations.

Lyle Deming, a retired cop from Phoenix, is a middle-aged cab driver at a late ’60s / early ’70s theme park in northern Arizona. He enjoys his job chatting up his Baby Boomer customers and telling jokes about the old days. But when the theme park suffers a series of accidents and people are injured, the theme park’s owner becomes very worried. He wants Lyle to investigate.

Lyle is an intriguing character. We gradually learn that his exit from his police career was messy. There are hints of mental health issues. Lyle also has a stepdaughter with medical problems, and Lyle’s recalcitrant dad has moved in with him. These revelations make Lyle a fully-formed person, struggling with a range of difficulties, and we care about him much more than we would a “regular” guy.

Lyle has a colleague in Kate, a woman with relationship issues of her own. She’s been hired by the theme park’s owner to produce good publicity to counter the bad press generated by the park’s accidents.

The action ranges from the theme park in Arizona to the Boston area. There is some fun subterfuge involving illegal phone tapping and other corporate intrigue, sneaking through corporate offices, searching computer files, and evading suspicious executives at the big Boston insurance company that invested in the theme park. Lyle suspects the company of sabotaging the theme park by arranging accidents to crash its reputation so that the insurance company can take over ownership of the park.

Just as we start to think that the story is mostly an intriguing puzzle about shady business dealings, the body count starts to ratchet up and the action gets intense. Lyle and Kate are being hunted. They are on the run across the country, and they don’t know who to trust. The story builds to a dramatic climax set in a striking place unlike that in any book I have read. I was turning pages fast to find out how Lyle and Kate would survive.

Bacon handles a complicated story well, giving us realistic characters in bad trouble. By the end of the book, Bacon ties it all up in a satisfying conclusion. Death In Nostalgia City has good characters, a fast-moving story, complicated twists, and a great climax. I hope Bacon is planning to expand this into a series.

Death In Nostalgia City is available in both hard copy and Kindle formats.

Here's the link to the book: Death In Nostalgia City

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Perfect Place To Write...

Most writers I know have fantasized about the perfect place to write. Sometimes it comes from a misguided notion that if we had a dream writing place, we would produce great writing. Other times, the fantasy is generated by learning about some other writer’s amazing workplace, whether it be a high-rise writing loft with a view of the Empire State Building, or a sunroom overlooking the ocean. Recently, I heard about George Bernard Shaw’s writing shed, which rotated on a turntable so that he could change his view whenever he wanted!

I’m very lucky because, while my home is just a humble cabin in the Tahoe forest, what I see out the window directly in front of my desk is a king’s view of trees and sky and mountains. And directly above my desk are skylights letting in the sun, the moon, and the stars. The other day, a Red Tailed Hawk landed on a branch outside my window. He groomed himself for an hour while the Stellers Jays screamed and dive-bombed him. A wonderful dose of nature is invigorating. But is it also a distraction?

Stephen King says that writers shouldn’t have a grand desk and beautiful view because they just distract from the job. A small desk under a stairwell is more suited to staying focused. Last week, I had an opportunity to test his concept.
I needed some auto work done, and there was no shop in the Tahoe Basin that could do the job. It would take two days in another city. I figured I could drive down out of the mountains, check into a hotel the night before, and drop off the vehicle in the morning. I would bring my bike with me so I could ride back to the hotel. At the end of the following day, I could ride back to pick up the vehicle. I would come back up the mountain the following morning. Three nights, two full days in between (minus the bike rides), and partial days on either end.

What would I do with my time? My options were to go for walks or explore the city’s parks or channel surf at the hotel, always an unusual experience for a guy who hasn’t had a TV for 35 years. (Don’t worry, I do watch movies from Netflix and the occasional Youtube video, so I’m not completely disconnected from reality. Just mostly.)

After considering my options to spend three days away, I decided it was the perfect time to get some writing done while waiting for the shop to do their thing.

So I went to Priceline and found one of those cheap extended stay places.

Why was it cheap? Because it had no restaurant, nor was there one close across the street. The hotel had no swimming pool, no view, no exercise room, no business center where you could print documents, no in-room coffee maker, no daily maid service. In short, this place had nothing to recommend it except that it was clean, quiet, had a microwave and fridge, a work table, a nice shower, and a firm bed. For a writer in sequester finishing up my next book, it was perfect.

I brought my laptop and a cooler with food. I ignored the hotel Wi-Fi, planning to do nothing but write. My bike rides from and to the auto shop would be enough exercise (9 miles each way), so I needed no walks.

So I sat at the little hotel table and wrote. Periodically, I stood up to stretch and pace the floor while working out a plot point. I ate my breakfast, lunch, and dinner while I worked on my laptop. Except for the bike rides, I worked from when I woke up until I went to bed. In the middle of the first two nights, I couldn’t sleep, too many thoughts of my novel circling in my head. So I got up and wrote from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., then went back to bed.

Other than phone calls and emails to my wife, I communicated with no one.

My room was on the first floor, with a sidewalk out my window. I didn’t want the passersby to watch me (and distract me) as I typed at my little table. That would feel a bit like one of those performance art pieces with a writer typing away in a department store display window. So I kept the drapes shut. I had no daylight except when I was on my bike.

Would this suit other writers? Maybe not. Working in a darkish hotel room for two full days and part of two more with no light other than the spiral tube fluorescent bulbs and the laptop screen might seem like being sent to a prison that was built inside a cave.

But that’s not the way it seemed to me. In fact, it was perfect. I wasn’t in a hotel cave at all. I was up on Tahoe’s mountains navigating a snowstorm, then I was in a boat out on the lake, then I was chasing a psychopath through the night, then I was having a gourmet dinner with witty repartee out on a deck above the lake. I got to travel, send Spot on a body search, drink wine with Street, solve a philosophical conundrum with Sergeant Diamond Martinez.

During my hotel confinement, I wrote maybe 30 pages and spent the entire time imagining and experiencing the fictional life of Detective Owen McKenna, which, frankly, is a hundred times more exciting than my real life.

Lots of people think writing is hard.

I - and many writers like me - know the truth. Writing can transport you out of any circumstances into the time and place and company of your choice.

Stephen King was right. You don’t need a great writing place. A dark hotel room will do the job. Writers are fortunate that, unlike nearly any other job, they can write even when they’re stuck in another city waiting for vehicle work. The perfect writing space in is your head, wherever you may be.

In fact, writing is such a sweet job, it shouldn’t even be called a job. I’m a lucky guy, and I know it.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Note To Writers - Beware Of Plot Phobia

In previous posts, I've mentioned how literary writing has as its focus writing as art. Whether or not it entertains or sells is a lower priority.
The pursuit of literary writing in the last half century or so has de-emphasized plot to the extent that some literary writers disparage plot and treat it like unwanted frivolity.
Common mainstream literary novels often seem to have realistic, sometimes bleak scenarios, i.e., similar to real life, and little in the way of story. Such novels are often categorized as character-based fiction.
Nothing wrong with that. And if you want to write those, great.
Beware, though, that novels with weak plots don’t generally sell well, regardless of how strong the characters are. The bestseller lists don’t feature many literary novels.
But there are some literary novels that do make it onto the lists. They generally have strong plots.
Turns out you can have it both ways.
Many, if not most, of the novels that are considered the greatest novels of all time are literary novels, and it's true that a fair number of them don’t have much in the way of a plot. And to this day, most of them still don't sell well in spite of their greatness.
But some of those great books have huge plots. In fact, many of the stories - books and plays - considered to be the greatest literary achievements ever have over-the-top, killer plots.
From Sophocles and Euripides, to Marlowe and Shakespeare (any one of Shakespeare’s tragedies has more plot than any six modern novels), to countless modern novelists, a big story is the central feature of their work. 
I Googled “Greatest novels of all time,” and “100 greatest novels,” and other similar search terms. There were tons of lists, but the same books appeared over and over. Of the lists proclaiming the greatest novels, I certainly did find some great character studies that are real yawners when it comes to plot. (Novels where one is tempted to ask, “Did anything happen in that book? Maybe, but I can’t remember.”) But there were others with serious plots.
Here’s a few that jump out:

Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
Huxley’s Brave New World
Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath
Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind
Golding’s Lord of the Flies
Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice
Melville’s Moby Dick
Atwood's The Blind Assassin
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five
Dickey’s Deliverance
Hammett's The Maltese Falcon
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange
Fowles’s The Magus
McCullers's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
London’s The Call of the Wild
Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
Orwell’s 1984
Chandler’s The Big Sleep
le CarrĂ©’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Amis’s Lucky Jim
Dumas’s The Three Musketeers
Eco’s Name of the Rose
Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles
Morrison's Beloved

You get the idea. Don’t have plot phobia. And don’t let writers who look down on plot get to you. You can have great characters and a great plot.

Go for it.

P.S. Why aren't there more female authors on these lists? I don't know, but the usual suspects probably apply. For decades, even centuries, women weren't encouraged to write or rewarded for doing so the way men were. And perhaps there is some unconscious bias on the part of the people making the lists. But I'm confident that these perceptions are changing. Also, there are some female writers - Virginia Woolf, A. S. Byatt, Zora Neale Hurston, Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Zadie Smith - that are on the "greatest novels" lists but not on my sample above because their books aren't noted for their racing plots, and of course you may disagree with me on that!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Book Publisher In Tahoe? Yeah, A Great One

In the community of Meyers on Tahoe's South Shore is Bona Fide Books, a fast-growing publisher of fiction, poetry, essays, nature writing, and nonfiction on subjects like farming. They've even started a series of comic books on Tahoe's history called, simply, Tahoe History Comix. 

Bona Fide Books is run by a creative force of nature named Kim Wyatt, a writer herself, who has transformed Tahoe's writing scene with her support and enthusiasm. In addition to publishing several volumes a year, she hosts a wide range of writing-related events at her company's offices in Meyers as well as at other venues such as the South Lake Tahoe Library. 

Bona Fide Books also has another imprint called Cherry Bomb Books, the first publication of which is a collection of essays on women's rights and reproductive health.

Bona Fide Books has a national reach. Each year, Bona Fide hosts the annual Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize. The winner gets publication of a collection of his or her poetry, and Kim brings that writer to Tahoe for the book launch. 

Bona Fide Books reaches out and provides space to other community groups. For example, our local writer's group Tahoe Writers Works meets each month at Bona Fide's offices.
Tahoe Writers Works is a separate group that holds meetings at Bona Fide Books.
Unlike many publishers who operate in private behind locked doors, Bona Fide Books has an open-door policy. They're at 1069 Magua Street in Meyers, just four miles south of the "Y" intersection in South Lake Tahoe. Feel free to stop by and check them out. Their number is 530-573-1513 if you want to check their hours.

My wife and I have several of Bona Fide's titles. We've enjoyed them a lot. They also make great gifts. You can order Bona Fide Books titles here. And of course you can also get them at Amazon.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wow, The Power Of Molly Greene's Blog!

Last November, a writer named Molly Greene wrote me. In addition to having written several novels, she said she wrote a blog about writing and, sometimes, about other working writers who are earning a living from their work. She wondered if she could do a blog about me.

Okay, let’s parse my feelings about people focusing on my work. I’m a writer. Anyone willing to engage in the questionable activity of spending ten or twenty years learning a strange craft like novel writing and who then spends another year per book to produce some titles either wants an audience for those books or is a candidate for serious medicinal intervention.

I’ve tried medicinal intervention - Sierra Nevada Pale Ale - which works great for a wide range of maladies. But it doesn’t mitigate a writer’s DNA-driven desire to find readers who enjoy what comes out of the writer’s twisted imagination.

So when Molly contacted me, I looked her up, read a range of her work, and was impressed. I could tell that she was a pro. Naturally, I was happy to have her feature me.

What I didn’t know about Molly was that she was a big deal.

Molly gave me some smart questions and some thoughts about what she was after. I wrote some stuff about my writing experience and she edited it to fit her concept.

Her blog came out last Monday. That morning, I got up, poured my first cup of coffee, and looked at the computer to see how her blog turned out.

I was amazed. Not just because she did a great job but also because people from across the country - and from other countries as well! - were posting comments, asking questions, wanting to know more about my books and how I produce them and promote them. A day later, another big blog, The Passive Voice, re-posted it, and then a couple of smaller blogs re-posted it.

Molly’s blog about my books has now had thousands of page views.

The power of a blog and how its reach spreads through cyberspace is impressive.

So thanks, Molly! My hat’s off to you!

If you’d like to read it, here’s the link: