Sunday, October 27, 2013

Animals That Understand Pointing

When our first Great Dane was young, she loved to chase squirrels up trees. She never caught a squirrel - Great Danes aren't that quick. But she loved the chase.
One day when we were walking in the woods, we saw a squirrel in the distance, a squirrel our dog hadn't noticed. One of us put our hands on either side of our dog's head and pointed her head in the direction of the squirrel. She immediately saw it, ran after it and sent yet another furry creature into the high branches.
From that moment on, we could turn her head toward anything and she understood that there was something interesting to see. Beyond simply holding her head, we could bend down so that our arm was next to her head and point. She understood that looking down our arm was the same as when we physically turned her head.
She would hold still, looking with great focus, until she figured out whatever it was we wanted to show her. Birds and airplanes became as interesting as squirrels, all because she understood that we wanted her to notice them.
It turns out that this is a big deal in the world of people who study animal cognition. The reason is that a simple pointing gesture, understood by people from the time they are babies, and understood by dogs who've been trained to understand pointing, is not understood by most animals. Even Chimpanzees don't get pointing. It seems so basic, yet our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are oblivious to pointing.
Enter the elephants!

We've known for a long time that elephants are really smart, surpassing dogs in self-awareness (they recognize themselves in mirrors, whereas dogs think they are seeing another dog). Now it turns out that elephants understand pointing.
A recent study showed that elephants, even young elephants get pointing.
The study had lots of details, but suffice to say that if you give an elephant a treat, then point at a bucket that contains another treat - a bucket sitting among other empty buckets - the elephant will follow your point and go to the bucket with the treat. No training required. Here's the story from NPR.
The scientists are now wondering if elephants point, using their trunks, perhaps, to point out important things like food or water or a group of lions. Maybe we've simply never noticed.
We train dozens of different kinds of animals to do complicated tasks, from seeing-eye service dogs to dolphins that find underwater mines. Maybe elephants are even smarter.
Those of you who read my books know that Jennifer Salazar, McKenna's wealthy young patron, is studying elephants and looking for ways to help them survive in a world full of poachers. Maybe a future book will have something about elephants and their amazing intelligence!
Hmmm, I wonder how Spot would react to an elephant. Probably, an elephant would be like a giant horse, an intriguing source of new scents, a curiosity, a creature that is non-threatening yet something to be careful around. Could be a fun scene to write...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

When Is The Weather Perfect In Tahoe?

In many places, fall is the best weather of the year. Tahoe is no exception.

The air is cool, the sun is hot, the views are spectacular, and the crowds have vanished, waiting until the ski resorts open before they reappear to dance on the slopes. (It won't be long. Some of the resorts are already making snow, and we've had snow at higher elevations.)
Unlike the mountains of New England, Tahoe doesn't have many maples and other deciduous trees that put on a spectacular color display. Why? Because Tahoe gets too much snow, which breaks the limbs of most such trees. Our pines and firs are designed to handle crushing snow loads.
Some people plant ornamental maples in areas where less snow falls, but they aren't common.
Nevertheless, Tahoe does have fall color in those places that don't get too much snow and also have higher-than-normal ground moisture. Such a combination results in groves of Aspen. Going for a fall walk under the Aspen is like immersing yourself in a golden glow. Here are some pics from a few days ago.

Often, the first sign of fall in Tahoe is when Tahoe's highest mountain,
Freel Peak, gets a dusting of white.

The Aspen groves begin to glow.

Their leaves make a startling contrast to the pine and fir and sky.

Walking underneath is like going into a stage set  with all the amber lights turned on.

The same conditions that support the Aspen (ground moisture)
also support lush meadow grass.

Hot sun streams through. A guy could take a nap in the grass
and dream the dreams of John Muir  150 years ago.

When the weather in the Gulf of Alaska shifts and sends the first major
storm down the coast, this landscape will be buried in several feel of snow.
Sometimes, it doesn't happen until the holidays. But it could happen by the end of October.
Tahoe locals know that we should enjoy the fall whenever we get the chance!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Kokanee Are Running!

Back in the 1940s, somebody - eager fishermen, perhaps- decided to take Sockeye Salmon from the Pacific Ocean and introduce them to Lake Tahoe. These days it is generally considered inappropriate to move species to areas where they haven't previously existed. (Remember the agricultural inspection stations - the "bug stations” - at all of the highways coming into California. The reason is that introduced species often wreak havoc in their new territory, displacing native species and eating crops.)
Whether it was a good or bad decision to bring in the Sockeye - there's evidence both ways - these introduced Sockeye Salmon took well to Lake Tahoe. As a saltwater fish that used to return to freshwater streams only to spawn, these Sockeye turned out to be fine living in fresh water all year long. As a now-land-locked freshwater fish, they've been renamed Kokanee, a Native American word for freshwater silver trout.
Like their saltwater forebears, Kokanee spawn by swimming up the creek or river where they were hatched.
Taylor Creek on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe flows from Fallen Leaf Lake to Lake Tahoe. Of all the 60+ streams that flow into Lake Tahoe, Taylor Creek is the main spawning area for Kokanee Salmon.
Each fall, a portion of Tahoe's Kokanee turn from silver blue to brilliant red as spawning approaches. Then they return to their birth site and swim up Taylor Creek to spawn and die, their bodies providing a feast for our bears and Bald Eagles among other carnivores. 
Kokanee live for several years before they spawn, so most of the population don't spawn in any given year. Because they die after their first and only spawn, Kokanee are known as semelparous fish, coined for Latin for "beget just once." The colloquial phrase is "Big Bang reproduction."
How do the fish know where to go for this one-time event? It is a mystery, this combination of chemistry and scent and mapping and navigation hard-wired into their DNA. Is there something else? Is there learning involved? Because Kokanee live for several years, do the younger fish learn by watching the older fish go to their spawning grounds and then die?
It used to be that people thought fish had little if any intelligence. But recently, studies have shown that fish can recognize their friends! We've underestimated the intelligence of nearly all animals. So what about fish? Do they observe their elders and figure out what to do next?
Either way, it is a spectacle to observe. When I checked out Taylor Creek a few days ago, there were thousands of fish.
Most years, the Kokanee run begins in early October.
To get there, drive from South Lake Tahoe north on 89 (Emerald Bay Road) about 3.5 miles. Taylor Creek is easy to spot as it is a good-sized creek, and there is a bike/walking path bridge just to the north of the vehicle bridge. You can't park right near Taylor Creek, but you can park at the side of the highway a bit farther from the creek. During the salmon run, you will see lots of parked vehicles, the occupants of which are all wandering the areas near the creek.

Look at the color of this guy flashing through the fast water just below a cataract.

Looking upstream toward Fallen Leaf Lake. Taylor Creek flows about 2 miles to Lake Tahoe.

People congregate on the bike path bridge to watch the salmon.

Looking down from the bridge, the Kokanee Salmon are coming upstream, toward  us.

Where the water is slow, the fish rest in a group of thousands.

The mountain water from Fallen Leaf Lake is crystal clear.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Notes For Authors - What's The Best Way To Make An Impression On Readers?

The Best Way To Make An Impression?

It's likely - but not certain - that the answer is to write a really good book. In fact, everything I say after this sentence is predicated on the assumption that you have written a really good book and that your book also has a really good professional cover and really good editing. Further, an additional assumption is that you are going to repeat the process multiple times, because few things make more of an impression on a reader than multiple books, especially those in a series.

But back to the main topic:

It's likely that the second best way to make an impression is to personally meet readers, talk to them about your book, and, if possible, get them to realize that you're a halfway decent and interesting person. You don't even have to be especially charming, although it's great if you are.
Many readers like to try books by authors they've met. They are naturally curious about writers. “She seemed really smart. I wonder what her book is like.”

Meeting Readers In Person

A person who reads a book by someone they've never met may - if they like the book - remember it and the name of the author who wrote it. But after a few months, their memory may falter. “There's this book I read that I liked, and it was by this author whose name escapes me, and I guess I can't really remember the book, either.”
But if the reader meets the author of that really good book, they will probably remember that author and her books for years and maybe even forever. Then, when the reader discovers that the author has come out with a new book, they may buy it. When they're trying to think of books to give for holiday presents, they will remember the author. And they will be pleased to tell the people on their gift list that they met the author.
Speaking for myself, of all the books I've read and liked, I've probably forgotten most of them along with the authors' names. Sorry! But I remember every single one of those books where I've met the author and also liked his or her book.

Be The Author "Entertainment" At An Event

I do lots of events where I can meet readers. I speak at libraries, service clubs, book clubs, schools, and author events. I exhibit books at all of those plus many art & wine festivals, street fairs, and any other events where there will be a lot of people, such as at the state fair. I've spoken to retirees and little kids and every age in between. I've spoken to cops and firemen and professional women's groups and college students and writer's groups. And of course, I do bookstore talks and signings.
A quick count on the “Events” page of my website comes to about 250 events I've done since 2008. (And that doesn't count dozens of non-public events - private gatherings where I've spoken - that aren't on my "Events" page.) Many of the events I do are multiple-day events. Many are events with a thousand people walking by every hour, most of whom probably weren't even interested in books. But for the 5% who were, I ended up making hundreds or even thousands of impressions.
Ever since my books began selling well enough that I could quit my day job, I've been a full-time writer, which gives me advantages of time and flexibility. But like most writers, during the period I wrote my first four books I had to work the day job 6 days most weeks and constrain book events to my limited time off.
That can be hard. But for most people, there are still 52 weekends a year. That's a lot of time for events. And many people with day jobs can get vacation time off. I did, too, and I spent much of those vacations working on my books and book business.

Like most writers, in the beginning, I focused on bookstore signings. I soon learned that while a good bookstore can do wonders for your career, most do not. At many bookstore signings, I struggled to connect to anybody among the very few people that wandered the aisles.
I soon realized that if I gave talks, I would meet many more people. So I polished up three different talks and gave them for free to any group that would have me.
From there I segued into larger events. I spent multiple vacations exhibiting at the L.A. Times Book Festival where over 150,000 book lovers attend. Exhibiting at that festival is great! But the reality is that I shared that very large crowd with 650 other authors. Same for the Tucson Festival of Books as well as all other author events. (I really like the Sonoma County Book Festival in Santa Rosa.)  It's hard to make an impression when you are just one of hundreds of colleagues all selling books.
But those shows are still good to attend, as are any and all events where you personally meet readers.

Festivals Are Where The People Are

Eventually, I discovered that exhibiting at events and festivals where I am the only author, or one of only two or three authors, is hugely more rewarding. As I mentioned earlier, most people attending such festivals could care less about authors. In fact, it could be that many people at such festivals, like much of the general public, rarely read.
But for those people who are addicted readers, I stand out. “Oh, look, there's an author here! Oh, look, he writes mysteries! Oh, look, they're set in Tahoe!”
Next thing I know, I've sold a book or three. And if the person likes my books, they may remember me forever. By the end of the festival I may go home with significant receipts. (Of course, the money is the least valuable part. The biggest reward comes when those buyers read the book that I signed for them and they love it enough to order up all the rest of my books and then tell their friends about it. For a beginning author, making money is the least important. Getting books out there is more important. Finding life-long readers is most important.)

All Authors Need To Learn How To Sell Books

In the beginning of my writing career, I worked very hard to sell a few books. (At one bookstore signing, I sold just a single book. Ouch!)
The first hundred books an author sells are hard-won sales. But you need to buy 100 copies of your book and go out there committed to selling them. That is the only way you will learn the process. Know that it will be very hard. That way you won't be so discouraged.
The second hundred are only marginally easier because, while you have begun to learn what matters to readers, you still won't have built up any readership that one could call a following.
The first thousand books sold are a huge milestone because it proves to yourself that you've learned the basics of how to connect to readers. And it proves that many of those readers liked your book enough to recommend it to their friends. Further, it indicates that when you spend ten times the focus on your newly-refined efforts, you will sell ten times as many books.
Sometimes, an author will seem to be struck by a lightning bolt of success after their first book is published. Their story is splashed across the media. As a percentage of all authors, it's a very rare event.
Most authors build their career bit by bit. Success in most fields only comes after dogged persistence. If you do enough events and do them long enough, and if you write enough good books, you will succeed.

With Time And Effort, You Will Find A Good Audience

I credit much of my career to all those author appearances.
My most recent event was the Candy Dance Festival held in Genoa, Nevada last weekend. The place was a mob scene, and I met a lot of people and sold a lot of books. More importantly, as I've said, I found a lot of new readers.
At the end of the festival, I discovered that one of my author friends, Stan Paher of Reno, was also there exhibiting his books. When I asked how the show went for him, his grin was impressive.
So write some really good books, then get out there and meet people. Keep the faith, and be persistent. You might be surprised at the career you can build.
Gotta go now... I'm exhibiting my books at the Minden Library Author Day in two hours. And then I pack my car full of books to do a Bay Area show in Los Altos this weekend.

The Candy Dance festival in Genoa, Nevada each fall brings a huge crowd.
Having an author tent at this and other festivals is a great way to meet readers.