Monday, October 27, 2014


          It’s an unglamorous and vague word.  Yet it stands for profound and vital processes.   Physicians work their life-saving skills based on observations.  Sherlock (and a crowd of similar characters since) could only arrive at clever deductions after making astute observations.   We call our telescope sites observatories, where deep thinkers are opening our minds to the whole universe.

          Naomi and I spent a few days roaming the Great Smokies, joining the annual throng the hill folk call leaf peepers.  We caught the fall foliage at peak, made even more luminous under squint-bright skies.  We took pictures of course.

          We also gathered observations.  Each turning of the twisty roads brought new views of vivid yellows and reds amid the mountain evergreens.  Early one morning from the nearly 6,000-foot Waterrock Knob overlook, we saw mists rising out of the valleys in towering, shifting shapes to form fair-weather cumulus clouds that went sailing away eastward into the sunshine.  Near Clingman’s Dome on a vertiginous stretch of narrow road where you tend to sit up a little straighter and grip the wheel a little tighter, a cold wind from the west was herding ragged clouds to leap over the high peaks and plunge down the other sides in curling turbulent waves.  The stunted trees at that elevation had been stripped of their leaves, and the night fog had frozen onto every naked twig on the windward side of the mountaintops, creating a dazzling lacy fantasy.

          We made people observations, too.  Weathered hikers with staffs and backpacks and far-horizon gazes.  A few fit bicyclists in skin-tights laboring sinuously against the steep grades.  Leather-clad motorcyclists enjoying this high country where the road signs look like snakes.  Young couples sharing new love, holding hands at the overlooks.  Older couples savoring the color and the clean wind and the scenery and each other’s companionship, maybe realizing all this was never granted to them forever.

          And then there were a few people who made us question why they were even there.  Along the Blue Ridge Parkway there are no wires, no billboards, none of the glitz and hustle and litter and gaudy clamor of the cities and towns far below.  Speed limits are sedate, relaxing.  Views are spectacular.  Yet there were those who tailgated and zipped through the blind curves as though in a hurry to get somewhere better.  We wondered where that might bedrive-time frenzy on some Interstate overloaded with NASCAR wannabes?  We stopped for a fine lunch  in a Little Switzerland hotel.  The dining room was walled with glass, looking out on a vista of ranked hills undulating away into a far blue haze, scattered cloud shadows rippling over the slopes, muting the colors only momentarily.  A cheerful waitress seated a couple close by one of the large windows, and they smiled at the view for a few seconds.  Then they dug out their smartphones and began tapping and swiping, soon totally engrossed.  I was soaking in as much as possible of the ever-changing panorama without inadvertently chewing on my napkin or spilling my tea, but I stole glances at the couple.  Neither of them looked outside again.  Whatever was on the other ends of their phones was apparently far more interesting than one of the grandest displays nature can providefar more interesting even than each other.

          One evening we went to a scruffy little makeshift theater, the Maggie Valley Opry, owned by 75-year-old Cherokee Indian Raymond Fairchild, five-time world champion banjo picker and holder of two million-seller gold records.  He and three of his country cohorts on upright bass, acoustic guitar, and harmonica put on a lively two-hour show for the 20 people who showed up.  Pony-tailed, mustachioed, Stetsoned Fairchild told stories (his first banjo as a boy was a fretless instrument with a squirrel-hide head) and a few hillbilly jokes.  He pushed his CDs and clear homemade moonshine jelly and corn fresh-popped by his smiling wife Shirley.  We clapped and toe-tapped and sang along and loved it.

          Naomi and I came down out of the mountains tired but with satisfied souls.  And with a wealth of observations that will color our lives and my fiction.




Sunday, October 19, 2014

Good bad people    
             Elmore Leonard said there was always something about his villains he liked.

             Some of the most memorable bad characters in fiction have admirable qualities.  Arthur Conan Doyle concocted Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty as a brilliant, albeit twisted, mind.  In Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson created the peg-legged Long John Silver to be a brave leader and a likeable rogue despite possessing a piratical heart, and we’re happy to see him get away in the end.  Stevenson’s ultimate good/bad guy, of course, is Dr. Jekyll, who is powerless to prevent his occasional forays into the shadows as Mr. Hyde.  Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (great title, that) is a scholar and a fine organist.  Thomas Harris endowed Hannibal Lecter with sophistication and an appreciation for opera, his only unfortunate bad habit being his penchant for dining on people.  And even Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty Count Dracula was a non-smoker, at least. 

          Which one is the greater transgressor in Moby-Dick, though?  The apparent villain, a monstrous mysterious white whale, is really only trying to save his own hide from the vengeful Ahab, who allows himself to be driven mad by his own dark obsession. 

          Conversely, many a fascinating fictional protagonist (one of the few genderless designators we writers can safely use in this era of political correctness) is flawed to some degree.  James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic.  Superman better read all the Supermarket labels carefully to avoid kryptonite in his diet.  Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a bit of a klutz and has an aversion to firearms, even for self defense, despite having to deal with a variety of tough guys.  Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple prevails despite all the indignities of advanced age, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe has limited mobility because of obesity.  Lawrence Block’s lonely philatelist Keller is a hit man by profession, yet he’s still an engaging character.

          I think the reason such bad/good and good/bad characters come alive on our pages and screens is because nobody can really be a perfectly pure protagonist or an utterly evil villain, and we know it.  Like it or not, beneath our civilized veneers we are all complex characters ourselves, so we recognize and empathize with both the noble and ignoble in fictional folks.  We all have much in common.  We’re vulnerable to a host of things that can kill us, from raging weather to the laws of physics to microscopic viruses to fellow creatures.  We’re nurturers of our progeny, friends to the like-minded, stewards and consumers of earth’s flora and fauna and resources.  We’re relentless seekers.  Clever builders.  Astute observers.  Intelligent reasoners.  We’re also by far the most skilled and dangerous predators currently borrowing the planet.  (There’s a reason we name our sports teams for other successful killers like eagles and gators and wolves.)

          And, good or bad, who we are arises from what we are.


Monday, October 13, 2014

The Oxford comma

Also called the Harvard comma or the serial comma, using it has been mandated by the Oxford University Press for over a century.  Not without good reason.  That second comma can make a critical difference.

Here’s an example I made up:
I owe all I’ve become to my wife, my drill instructor and the president of my fan club.
Of course it ought to be:
I owe all I’ve become to my wife, my drill instructor, and the president of my fan club.

The classic example for pro-serial-comma folk is:
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Which of course ought to be  . . . my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Another one I made up without any commas: I have experience with cooking dogs and lawyers.
(At times in my life I’ve thought about doing just that to certain members of both species.)

Proponents of the venerable serial comma are adamant about always using it.  But there’s a small army of anti-serial-comma folk out there who argue with equal heat that over-using that second tiny paisley-like punctuator can also cause confusion and slow down the reader.

Book and magazine publishers generally prefer using it.  Newspaper people generally don’t.

Nobody argues about some traditional uses, such as enclosing parenthetic expressions in commas.  But there are many other instances of comma use that can be doubtful.

Over the years I’ve evolved my own solution to comma conundrums.

If a comma will help crystalize clarity I use one.
If it doesn’t I don’t.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Signing psychology

          From quite a few book signings, I’ve distilled some observations.

          I learned early that if I just sat there behind the table with a frozen smile pasted onto a hopeful expression, I wouldn’t be able to sell ten dollar bills for five dollars each.  So I stood up and engaged every passerby I could, gradually evolving a brief friendly spiel.  (I’ve watched other authors delivering an exhaustive plot synopsis to each hapless squirming victim.) 
          I now ask each person who shows the slightest interest, “Do you like to read suspense?”
          It’s either yes or no.  If it’s yes, I launch into my short spiel, starting with, “Well, I may have one here you’ll like.”  Then I say a quick few facts about the book while offering them a copy to look at, which is a trick similar to a car salesman inviting you to take it for a spin, knowing you’ll begin to imagine yourself as the owner, at least subconsciously.  When my prospect begins reading the back blurb or leafing through pages I shut up.  About a quarter of the time the person will decide to buy.
          If that initial answer is no on suspense, I ask them what they do like.  If they say nonfiction, I don’t push it, because people either seem to read mostly fiction or mostly non, and I’m not about to win over a non, so I just chat amiably for a bit and tell them thanks for stopping by.  If they name another genre, I may attempt to make a convert.  Sometimes I do.
          I had one gentleman tell me he can’t stand reading violence.   He said, “I only read the Bible.”  (I didn’t tell him that’s the most gruesomely violent book I’ve ever read, because it describes the past and impending torturing and horrible deaths of thousands and millions of innocents, including women, the elderly, infants, and animals.)
          If two or three people stop at the table and one picks up a book, peruses it, and puts it back, the other two will invariably pass as well, but if that first one buys, the other two often will too.
          If somebody says they don’t read suspense but their spouse does, I suggest a book as a gift.
          At one high-toned store, the manager lined up four of us side-by-side.  I had gotten there early and did a brisk business until the other three showed up.  Thereafter, although there were plenty of passing customers, almost none of them bought, I think because four of us were intimidating, and nobody wanted to buy from just one of us and risk hurting the other three’s feelings.  One of the authors, though, a fine artist and a boyhood escapee from the Hungarian revolution, remains a friend.
          I once drove two hundred miles only to discover the store was tiny and buried in a large strip mall.  It was severely cramped inside.  They only had room for me and a table not much larger than a dinner plate.  But the staff of three had actually read the book and liked it.  They touted it all afternoon.  We sold 78 copies, which stands as my record.  It felt like a party.  We could have sold more but ran out of stock, both theirs and my emergency supply, which I always carry in case the store hasn’t ordered enough.  I went back there several months later with similar results.
          Most store staffers don’t expect a non-famous author to push more than a dozen books at a typical Saturday afternoon signing, which is usually the best high-traffic time.  So selling more than two dozen impresses them, and I get invited back.
          I make my own displays.  For GUNS, which has on the cover a handgun pointed at the viewer, I had an enlargement mounted on an enclosed black stand-up foam-core wedge, with a strobe light inside firing flashes through the cut-out muzzle.  For Diamondback I had a museum-quality realistic snake coiled in a bed of leaves, with book copies inserted in the coils.  That one was a stopper.  I admit some people cringed away in fright, but I’ll bet they didn’t forget me soon, at least.
          Because Lee Child kindly endorsed GUNS, I always had a copy of his latest hardback on my signing table, in part so I could tout his work to those who had not read him as a way to pay him back in small measure.  One day in a large busy mall, as I stood on sore feet near the store entrance behind my table wearing my black western hat and blazer, two rapidly chatting women were bustling past when one of them spotted Lee’s book and skidded to a halt, saying, “Omigod, is he here?”  Then she looked at me, said to her friend, “Uh.  Never mind.”  And they disappeared into the throng.  It was humbling.
          There’s always at least one talker who has no intention of buying.  I politely indulge them for a while.  I think they’re mostly just lonely.
          A few sensitive souls are uncomfortable about walking away without buying, so will say, “Are you going to be here all afternoon?”  Or, “Are your books available online?”  Or, “Do you have a card?”  With a smile, I gently remove them from the hook and slip them back into the people stream.
          Oddly, several times when I’ve been winding up for the day, putting away my display and books and folding my tablecloth, folks have stopped and I’ve had a flurry of sales.  I don’t quite understand what the psychology is behind that.
          The best part about signings is the wonderful variety of fine and fascinating people I meet.  From just watching the news, you might begin to think this is a sad and sorry world, but almost all the many, many  people I’ve met are absolutely great, with their own intriguing stories of courage and love and adventure to tell. 
          And their stories are real.