Los Altos in the Fifties was a great place to grow up. As many of the authors in this blog series have done, I set my novel The Sheep Walker’s Daughter partly in my hometown. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in my grandmother’s dance studio on Lundy Lane listening to her stories about life during the Depression and World War II. She saw a past. I saw a future.
The story of Los Altos winds through the narrative:
It’s deceptive, this quiet Valley of the Heart’s Delight. The barons of industry who created this landscape imagined themselves to be gentlemen farmers, I suppose. It looks like they achieved a perfect balance of agriculture, education, and industry, but the agriculture is vanishing fast.
I don’t want only the pastures I can see to be my borders. California is big and bold, and its enterprising spirit is in my blood. Palo Alto and the sleepy towns around it percolate with new ideas that promise to cut new paths in every field. It will start at Stanford and Berkeley. I don’t know what is coming, but the energy palpable. Back home, when I walk through the neighborhoods and smell the sweet aroma of apricots and Italian plums mixed with the sharp scent of freshly planed wood stacked at new home sites, I see The Valley of the Heart’s Delight making room for all comers.
Just when I assure myself that my ten-year writing plan and slow-build marketing strategy will work well for my
purposes, I open an e-mail and read about a hard-working author fighting feelings of failure because her first book sold less than 16,000 copies. I know better than to compare my experience with hers; she’s playing in a six-figure world where the stakes are high. Shake it off.
I close the email and page through the Wall Street Journal Books section. My eyes go right to this headline: Family Guy Becomes Novelist Guy. Reviewer Alexandra Alter reports that Seth MacFarlane’s comic western “packed with raunchy, twisted jokes that push the boundary between spit-take humor and poor taste,” will be a film three months after it hits the bookshelves. Well good for him. There is obviously a huge audience for “prose peppered with infanticide, child brides, bestiality…” etcetera, etcetera. Shake it off.
My eyes travel down the page to a review of six-figure-deal Sally Green’s debut novel “Half Bad,” about battling covens of witches. Her publishers believe the young-adult trilogy will attract older readers as well because of its dark themes. The combative anti-hero smokes, swears, is barely literate, hates technology and sleeps outside. (I think this would qualify him for several spots on any number of spectrums described in the DSM-5.) Green has absolutely nailed the formula for success.
Negotiating the narrow path
At this point I remind myself that the path I have chosen is a narrow one. Not many readers go to the New Fiction shelves at their local book stores looking to be challenged on themes of spiritual growth. (The very words conjure boring hours in Sunday school looking at badly dressed flannel board figures.)
My challenge is to draw readers into stories that change hearts: hold up the mirror that reflects the good and evil in our souls; deepen our compassion for the difficult people in our lives; examine a full range of emotions—from self-loathing we secret to wonder we experience when we encounter the mystery of liberating faith.
Walking a narrow path is like tunneling under the broader way, wondering what the terrain will look like when you surface. Billboards posted on the broad way tell you what to expect. There are formulas for success. On the narrow path, when you aren’t digging for hidden treasure you struggle to keep the trail under your feet so you don’t stray into areas that lead nowhere. It’s a different journey.
So here’s my question. Is there a narrow path on the broad way, or do the roads diverge, as Robert Frost suggests?
This little guy arrived special delivery, mail dropped from Barbara Haiges to Stan and Mary Bruederle. They brought him to me from California along with my Writer’s Magazine and my Chico’s catalog. Chimpie comes courtesy of MailChimp, my email list management and delivery service who does such an awesome job for free on my enewsletter. Now that’s a lot of e’s, and probably more than you want to know, but he’s so cute I wanted to introduce him.Read More»
James L’Etoile is a crime fiction writer with a cause; his upcoming release, Hollow Man, is set in the Sacramento Delta because Northern California has found itself center map for human trafficking. (I did not know that!)
The story involves a police detective trailing an organ harvesting serial killer who faces a choice–capture the killer, or make a deal for a kidney the detective’s son needs to stay alive. (He set his first human trafficking novel, Little River, in Jamaica because the setting needed to be somewhere remote, exotic and foreign to the protagonists.) Hollow Man uses the extensive river networks, aqueducts and reservoirs in the Sacramento Delta as a backdrop.
Water, rivers in particular, tend to be used as a metaphor for life and renewal. I wanted to turn that tradition on its ear. In Hollow Man nothing good happens near water. Deaths occur on the river, bodies are found, and the river washes away the killer’s trail.
L’Etoile believes that each place has a feeling and culture that makes it unique. It is helpful to walk where the characters walk, see what they would see and soak up the smells and nuance of the setting.
The sun glints off of a building at a certain time, casting a specific glow. Google Maps can’t show you that. I talk to people who might interact with my fictional characters. That helps me get a feeling for how people behave in that setting. I think readers will allow a fictional character to do almost anything, sprout wings, cast spells or fend off zombie attacks, but portray a setting incorrectly, refer to the blue steel of the Golden Gate Bridge, or Giant Sequoia Redwood trees in the Central Valley, and the reader gets jarred back into reality and is less likely to get back into the story.
A perfect setting for crime
Crime occurs everywhere, he says, but the Golden State delivers a certain flavor that translates to the page. The list of crime-inducing ingredients is long:
- The largest prison system in the country
- A powerful correctional officers union
- A history that comprises Rodney King, Watts Riots, The Hillside Strangler, the Manson family, the Bloods and Crips, all California creations
- A legacy of TV shows that embraced West coast crime: Adam-12, Dragnet, Ironsides, SWAT, Starsky and Hutch, Numbers, Women’s Murder Club, and The Mentalist
- A reading list of crime fiction stories with strong California settings such as Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight, The Lincoln Lawyer and The Concrete Blonde; Sheldon Siegel’s Special Circumstances; John Lescroart’s The Second Chair, anything by Robert Crais
- Enough conflict and contradiction for lively plotting: North, South, beaches, barren deserts and Sierra extremes in our terrain and population Nevada Mountains. Asian, Hispanic and numerous immigrant populations
Many writers find themselves doing book reviews. I’m picky. I will only review books on my blog that advance themes that interest me. What is gained and lost in a prison economy, in both the political and spiritual sense, interests me.
I love fables. Pillows for your Prison Cell by Mark D. Bullard is a fable. In this age of confusion over what to do about a megalomaniac who has killed the soul of his people, how to deal with the sticky tangle of behaviors that threaten communities and destroy families, and who to turn to for answers, reading a fable can hit a refresh button in our brains.
A fable is a short cautionary tale with a moral. Traditionally animals are the main characters. Sadly, with so much animal behavior in our world cultures it’s not a stretch these days for fables to feature human stand-ins. (To be fair to the critters, some human behavior is beyond the pale even for the animal kingdom. I don’t think they commit genocide.)
Bullard uses two boys in an unspecified time and place to deal with a big question: I’ve gotten myself into a mess; how do I get myself out?
The brilliance in this book is in how Bullard presents the redemptive pattern. There is not a book I have written or ever will write that does not in some way reflect the cycles of behavior Bullard identifies that lead to trouble and the choices he presents that are available to us.
One implication in the moral of the story (resist present rewards for future gain) caused me to stumble, though it does not make the moral less true. In my situation as debut author I must keep my focus on the joys of the moment (I’m published!) instead of the hope of future gain (number of books sold; amount of royalties paid; increase in Facebook and Twitter followers). But then I have already broken out of prison. I know that the excitement of a spike in those numbers only feeds the desire for more. Touching one heart with a word of freeing truth is the eternal reward.
Pillows for your Prison Cell is a book to ruminate upon and to share.
Pirate Tales takes place on a houseboat in the busy recreational harbor of Marina del Rey. The book is one in a series that keeps author Rick Stephens Murphy busy. Perhaps that’s why he let a tart-tongued, “it’s all about me” cat named Salty Tail narrate his bi-coastal tale of love and intrigue.
Salty lives with his human, marine surveyor and sailing instructor Stormy McGuire. Readers are transported to Ventura Harbor, Catalina Island, and sunny Santa Monica Bay, with a brief trip to the San Fernando Valley where the author grew up.
While sailing novels often take place in the era of tall ships, great navel battles, and buccaneers, Pirate Tales is a modern day romantic mystery. The author worked as a sailing instructor in Marina del Rey and sailed out of that harbor for most of his life.
Stolen boats, a watery grave and a wounded heart
While Salty and Stormy are investigating a string of stolen boats, a friend is found dead in the water. It’s up to Stormy and Salty to find the connection. As if Stormy hasn’t enough to deal with, he finds himself the target of two women. One he thinks he’s in love with, the second claims only to be a friend. Can Stormy’s wounded heart survive?
With the crew and boat prepared for battle, Stormy headed us out to sea. As we cleared the north end of the rocky breakwater, leaving the protection of the marina behind, the Santa Monica Bay opened into a sparkling panorama of contrast. Off to our starboard or right of the boat lay the sandy white beach of Venice, and Santa Monica beyond. The smoggy grey skyline of Los Angeles created a drab backdrop to the famous coastline. To our port stretched the sparkling blue waters of the Pacific Ocean topped by a cloudless powder blue sky. The combination created an expansive blue on blue monochromatic horizon.
Nothing like a view of the Bay from the stern. I think I’d like to stowaway with this pair!
Author Richard Stephens grew up in sunny southern California with two younger brothers, three dogs, and a revolving collection of cats, hamsters, lizards, snakes, frogs, fish, and any other small animal he could talk his ever-patient mother into letting him keep. Combine this zoo-like atmosphere with a love of the water, an overactive imagination and a tendency to daydream and you’ve now entered his extraordinary imagination.
Frank Tavares learned to love the culture, climate, and creativity of the San Joaquin Valley when he used to drive the stretch of road between L.A. and San Francisco on Highway 101, a personal therapy he misses since relocating to New England. Author of a short story collection, The Man Who Built Boxes (Bacon Press Books 2013) his characters deal with limitations–self-imposed or self-inflicted.
Frank says, “…until I saw all of the stories together, I didn’t realize how much the places I have lived have influenced where I set particular narratives. When I lived in Fresno, I was teaching at Cal State and visiting advertising clients in the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles. Although not specifically identified, the story Accident With a View unfolds in the hills of Los Angeles, and the main character reveals a former life in Fresno, which shaped who he has become.
Frank is most comfortable placing stories in the unspecified present. ” There’s something nice about writing a scene that resonates with the reader’s present day frame of reference, without actually dating it,” he says. “Even though I know exactly where many of the settings are, often in a story I’ll leave the actual location vague. Clues might bring you to a specific region, but I won’t necessarily name the town. ”Read More»
With the demise of so many local bookstores and coffee houses, hangout places to meet and talk are becoming scarce. Places like Dori’s Tea Cottage and Mountain Sage in Groveland and Schnoogs in Sonora, where locals relax and stay awhile are dear to my heart.
I’ve been working on a short story collection where a place is a character. The place is the Beanpunk Café where the hammered copper double doors at the front swing open and shut all day, letting in heavy hot air to do battle with the hard working desert cooler.
Exotic coffees, like pewter mugs of m.u.d.–a coffee blend of Mbeya, Urubamba and Djimah beans–and artful layers of espresso and whiskey served in depression era glass demitasse cups are on the menu, along with sweet b’nilla freeze for the tykes.
At the Beanpunk Café, Pastor Jerry keeps regular hours at a corner table; shy barista Solomon moons over Perfect Match Dating Service dropout Jaye; acerbic Kaye gives advice to all comers; down-and-outer Elle manages her way out of a tough situation; and out-of-work Em checks in daily to drop a filched teabag into a free cup of hot water and scan The Press want ads.
The story that started it all resurfaced in this month’s TWJ Magazine. It’s a quick read: Pastor Jerry and Jesus at the Beanpunk Café
You have to love Pasadena to appreciate the special burn of sun, brand of smog and desire to be part of something beautiful it offers–and Caitlin Hicks does. Caitlin set her story, A Theory of Expanded Love, in the Sixties in the Southern California town she lived in during her formative years.
In Caitlin’s words
We attended St. Andrew’s Catholic school with the big red bell tower, right on the edge of a sketchy inner-city section of town. I remember the warm, sometimes smoggy nights, the quality of the early morning light in Southern California. The smell of eucalyptus, the dry, crackly oak leaves that covered the ground in summer.
Family excursions to Santa Monica Beach under brilliant, bright sunlight were always preceded by a long ride in the back of the VW bus on the sinuous freeways of Pasadena and Santa Monica. The white sand on the beach was so hot you had to run to the water so as not to burn your feet. The waves crashed into the shore and there was a lot of screaming and squealing with delight as we learned to body surf. Of course the sun was unforgiving: by the end of the day I could feel the tightness in my skin across my back and slept on my stomach to keep from touching my red hot sunburned skin. We called it ‘baking’.
More than anything, the memory of the softness of the air and the warmth resonate with me – we were always outside concocting adventures; playing football on our brownish lawn, or Swamp Fox at the vacant lot during endless, hot smoggy days. There was a place called Camel’s Hump, a hill with caves we climbed up and scampered through. Even the smog had a personality – it filled our lungs after an afternoon of swimming at the Pasadena Athletic Club.Read More»
Midwesterner Brian Lutterman‘s corporate mystery Downfall practically begged to be set in California, with its larger-than-life characters, fortunes made and lost overnight, and oversized schemes and speculations.
Brian on why he sent his main character Pen to LA
In crime, as in so much else, the Golden State is very much on the cutting edge, a natural setting for a sophisticated corporate sabotage scheme. Pen Wilkinson, a paraplegic young attorney who is a putting her life together after a tragic accident, follows a long line of characters who arrive in LA looking for answers, looking for themselves, and making their way through a world of ambiguity and possibility. It is sometimes a lonely world, linked by freeways and technology, without the rootedness, tradition and comfort of the heartland.
The sheer scale and novelty of California threatens to overwhelm Pen, particularly in tracking down a killer who uses the state’s freewheeling economic environment to develop a corporate sabotage scheme of unprecedented scope and sophistication. Equally troubling, he uses California’s opportunities for reinvention to change his location, methods, and his very identity.Read More»