Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tucson Festival Of Books

I was one of the authors exhibiting at The Tucson Festival of Books, held on the University of Arizona campus. 

It was a great time, and I met a lot of mystery readers. And who wouldn't want to visit warm, sunny Tucson in March? Saturday was cloudy and rainy and windy, but hey, the temperature got all the way up to 47 degrees. Locals called it "a severe weather event." But the sun came out on Sunday, and the thermometer practically broke as it punched through to 56.

At night in the hotel, I was able to get some writing time in on my laptop.

My artist wife got some drawing in as well. Here is her sketch of me working on my laptop as I ruminate on the next adventures of Owen and Spot.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Wait, How Big Is Tahoe? 29 Years!

You've all heard the statistics about Lake Tahoe. They're on the back of restaurant menus, on calendars, in the wikipedia articles, on the travel websites. Length (22 miles), width (12 miles), depth (1635 feet), total water volume (150 cubic kilometers).
Tahoe From Space

Okay, it's a big lake. But how big is it in terms that we can understand?
Here's a statistic you've never heard.
I decided to run a few numbers. I wanted to know this: If every person on earth drank eight glasses of water a day and they dipped it out of Lake Tahoe, how long would the lake provide everyone on the planet with drinking water? A day? Several days? A few weeks?
We've got a bit over 7 billion people on this planet. That's a number too big to really grasp. Line up 7 billion 5-foot, 6-inch people and they'd stretch around the earth 291 times. Put all of us head to toe and we'd go to the moon 30 times. That's a lot of people. So if we're all drinking our recommended intake from the lake, how long would it last us?
Over 29 years.*
That's a lot of water from one mountain lake.
So the next time you drink a glass of water, invite everyone else on the planet to join you. Let's everybody do it eight times a day for 29 years.
Live large. It's Lake Tahoe.

*For those of you who want to do the math, there are a bit more than 4 eight-ounce glasses in a liter, a thousand liters in a cubic meter, a billion cubic meters in a cubic kilometer, and 150 cubic kilometers in Lake Tahoe. Divide by 7 billion people, then divide by 8 glasses a day, then divide by 365 days in a year, and you get 29 years. That's a lot of water.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Joys Of A Fictional Dog

Spot, as many of you readers know, is a 170-pound Harlequin Great Dane. He's also fictional.
Dog Breed Info

He seems real, as I've learned from the number of emails I get telling me to say hi to Spot and give him a pet.
I based his personality on a combination of the three Great Danes we've owned. Same enthusiasm, same goofiness, same levity – life's a game!
Of course, real Danes have some pretty amazing traits that Spot can only do in our imaginations. What's my favorite? Well, it's hard to beat the way a real Great Dane, when you're sitting in a chair or on the couch, will walk around behind you and drape his giant head down over your shoulder and lay it on your chest, his ear right next to your mouth. When you whisper into the ear of a Dane who's doing this, you can sense the slightest movement in his head as he wags his tail. He won't lift his head up off your chest unless you push him away. He just wants to be as close to you as possible.
Of course, there are some advantages to fictional Danes. They're a bit easier to train. It's less work to pick up after them. And if you have to suddenly leave town, there's no scramble lining up a dog-sitter.
But there's no substitute for the real, living, breathing, wagging thing.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Most Important Thing About Research

At nearly every talk I give, I get a question about how I do my research. I always explain that I usually spend some time Googling my questions about a topic. (Sometimes I just type in a few disjointed words. Sometimes I type in an actual question.) The results that pop up range from fascinating to dead ends. At each step, I think of other questions. I end up clicking through a wide range of links, and usually I get so interested in the topic or related topics that I learn much more than I need for a particular part in a book.

Sometimes, after I've learned the basics, I'll call an expert. The reason is that while you can read enough about some subjects to become quite knowledgeable, you may find that your writing about it, while technically correct, doesn't have the right flavor. Talking to an actual person can make a huge difference.
This is one of the most fun things about writing. I track down an expert, call them up, tell them I'm working on a new book that has a story thread about (insert subject here: forest fires, avalanche control, autism, long-lost Mark Twain manuscripts, weapons, art forgery, gold mining, search and rescue, genetic engineering). You get the idea.
I've never been turned down. I assume that's because people like to be helpful, and they probably also welcome a break from their routine. Going out to have coffee with a writer who wants to pick their brain is more fun than a typical meeting at the office.
Another kind of research is exploring the arena in which you are writing. For me, this can range from hiking and skiing and biking and sailing around Tahoe to traveling to other cities and visiting places that might turn up in my books. I may even explore museums that house the kind of stuff I'm writing about. Sometimes, I poke around libraries or businesses that intersect with my subject matter.
In sum, research is fun and enormously interesting.
Which brings me to the most important part of research.
You have to know when to quit.
When you've learned enough for your purposes, it's time to stop researching and write your book.
Thorough research is critical to getting most stories to work well. But research has caused more writers more procrastination than anything other than email and other internet distractions.
Learn what you need, then turn it off. It's time to write.
The Thinking Center

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tahoe's Clarity Is Improving!

 The UC Davis scientists who study this stuff dangle the Secchi disk (basically a white dinner plate or a black-and-white plate) down off the shady side of a boat at mid-day. They lower it until they can no longer see it, at which point they note the depth. After they start pulling it back up, they again note the depth when the plate reappears. Often the two figures vary a bit, so they average them. And just to make sure that they are getting reliable data, they do this measurement many times during the course of a year.
The average for 2012 was 75 feet. The lake hasn't been that clear since 2002.
UC Davis's John Le Conte research vessel
Before we get too excited and smug, it is good to remember that when they started taking these measurements in 1968, that little Secchi disk could be seen 102 feet down!
While this improving trend is great, the reasons why it is happening are less clear. At this point, the best guess is that the main mitigation has come from all of the infiltration ponds that have been built to catch and filter runoff water from streets as well as rebuilding creeks that once had meandering paths and flood zones but were dredged and straightened by developers in years past.
There is lots more to do. There is still a scary number of drainage pipes that dump dirty storm runoff water directly into the lake. These have been documented by the Tahoe Pipe Club.

There are infestations of non-native mussels and fish that lead to algae blooms. There are massive ongoing erosion areas from old road cuts such as Meyer's Grade.
And there are other problems that might be even harder to tackle, such as the nutrient load from dust and dirt that blows in from the Central Valley, especially when the farmers are plowing or burning slash. Scientists have even identified silt that has blown into the lake from China's and Mongolia's Gobi Desert after a dust storm half a world away.
But for now, we are glad that the lake is improving, and we salute those individuals and groups that made it possible!