Saturday, February 23, 2013

In Praise of Real Books and Real Bookstores

I’m currently reading a book called My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. Published by Black Dog & Leventhal, edited by Richard Rice, and with an Introduction by Richard Russo, this fine book is a collection of essays by successful authors, all giving thanks to their favorite bookstores, while they celebrate real books (as opposed to ebooks), real bookstores (brick-and-mortar stores, not online bookstores; independent stores, not chains or superstores), owned and staffed by friendly, book-knowledgeable people. I recommend this book highly to anybody who can’t pass up any bookstore, and who loves the look, the feel, and the smell of books.

On the downside, I can’t help noticing that a fair percentage of the contributing writers are mainly concerned with bragging about their own careers. But authors tend to do that. But writers also tend to be original and entertaining, and there’s plenty of original entertainment in this collection, and plenty of story. Barry Moser gives us a love story. Les Standiford offers a noir detective spoof. Lisa See reveals fascinating history in the background of her Chinese immigrant ancestors. Tom Robbins is as goofy and funny as ever. Matt Weiland has contributed a long poem full of name-dropping rhymed couplets. Two bookstore owners, the wonderful Louise Erdrich and the wonderful Ann Patchett, generously brag up bookstores that are not their own. And so on. All these writers and dozens more show how much they love books and bookstores.

As do I. As do you too, I bet.

Between 1961 and 1983, I worked in eight different independent bookstores. My longest gig was from 1970 to 1977, while I worked as a clerk and for a while as buyer for Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California. I’ve blogged about that experience before:;postID=4197990702757511295

Kepler’s Books is back in my mind now, because it was the model for my fictional bookstore, Maxwell’s Books, the scene of my forthcoming novel Hooperman. Yes, I’m being a self-promoting author now. Following the cover illustration below, I’ve pasted the first couple of pages of Hooperman. I hope they whet your interest.…

Hooperman Johnson, a tall, skinny, bushy-bearded man of few words, lived that spring and summer of 1972 in a rented room with a bed, a chair, a table, and no phone over the ’At’s Amore Pizza Palace on University Avenue in Palo Alto, California. It was convenient. Hoop worked downstairs as a pizza cook, earning minimum wage and all the pizza he could eat, which got to be less and less as time went by.
So on Monday, July 10, three months into the job, he wrote a letter of resignation on an ’At’s Amore napkin, put it in his pocket, and walked across the street to Maxwell’s Books. He’d been eyeing the sign in the window for two days: HELP WANTED. They knew him at Maxwell’s. He was there every afternoon, usually straightening and reading his way through the poetry section. He even bought the occasional book.

“Hey, it’s Hooperman!” Lucinda said from the bull pen, a corral of counters where the staff could handle the register, greet customers, talk on the phone, and gossip with each other. Lucinda Baylor was a substantial brown woman with a generous smile and a topiary black hairdo. Like Hoop, she was about thirty years old. She was as tall as Hoop if you counted her Afro, and unlike Hoop, she was hefty. Not fat, zaftig. Tall and pillowy. “Haven’t seen you here since yesterday,” she said.
“The deh,deh,day’s young yet,” Hoop said. “How you dud, how you dud, how you duh,duh,dud…oing, Luce?”
“Day’s young yet. So far so good. You?”
“That sign in the window. You guh,guh,guh,guys guh,got a juh,dge…ob for sale?”
Lucinda shook her head. “Yes, but you wouldn’t want it.”
“Are you ki,ki,ki,kidding?”
“Not this job.”
“Who do I tuh,tuh,tut…alk—”
“Elmer,” she said. “He’s in his office. But really, Hoop, you’re not the type.”
“What does it teh,teh,teh,take to sell bub…bub…bub…b—”
Lucinda rolled her eyes heavenward. “Elmer doesn’t want a clerk, Hoop. Elmer wants to hire a cop. A pig.”
Hooperman grinned and said, on the first try, “Oink.”


Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Family at Work in the Fields of the Word

Last weekend Susan and I had a visitor, my cousin (to be precise, my first cousin once removed) Donna Waterman, whom I hadn’t seen in thirteen years, and before that I hadn’t seen her for about twenty years. Donna is a delightful and entertaining person, and as long-lost cousins usually do, we spent a lot of time trading gossip about our relatives.

At some point she asked me, “Did you know that my grandmother had five children, one of whom died in infancy?” Donna was referring to my aunt, Mary Waterman, my mother’s sister. Mary was born in 1893. She was the oldest of eight siblings, and she was considered the writer of the family.

We went on with our swap of family lore, and I took the opportunity to boast about my two sons, both of whom are highly talented writers. Morgan Daniel, the older son, is a songwriter whose lyrics are sometimes witty, sometimes impassioned, always wise and meaningful—and they match beautifully his sophisticated yet singable melodies.

Ben, my younger son, is a Presbyterian minister who writes for Huffington Post, and whose two published books are friendly and persuasive calls for tolerance: Neighbor: Christian Encounters with “Illegal” Immigration, and The Search for Truth About Islam: A Christian Pastor Separates Fact from Fiction. The latter just received a handsome review in Publishers Weekly:

While I’m at it, let me brag about my brothers, also both talented writers. My late brother Neil Daniel was an English professor, so most of his publications were scholarly papers, but he was also the author of a book about writing, called A Guide to Style and Mechanics, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

My other brother, Thomas Daniel, is a retired pulmonologist and professor of medicine, and he has written a number of published books on the history of medicine in general, and tuberculosis in particular. I’m pleased to say that, after having been published often by prestigious university presses, he has brought his new book to my publishing company. Called Times and Tides of Tuberculosis, it is a study of how TB has been dealt with in literature, from John Keats to Susan Sontag. The book will be published in October.

I want also to mention my cousin (and Donna’s uncle), the late Guy Waterman, who, with his wife Laura, published a number of important and respected books about mountain climbing and wilderness ethics.

This leads me back to my Aunt Mary, mentioned early in this essay. My mother’s sister, Guy Waterman’s mother, Donna Waterman’s grandmother. She was a writer who as far as I know never published, but whose stories, memoirs, and essays are passed around among her survivors and treasured by us all.

Yes, Donna told me. Mary gave birth to a fifth child, who died in infancy. She wrote a poem to her lost baby. Donna sent me the poem after she returned home. In my opinion, this poem makes Aunt Mary the literary star of our family. Here it is:

Can we lose that we never had
Or wish for what was never here?
Oh little, little, little one,
There's none more dear.

Oh little, wished-for darling child,
Tiny, tiny, and so sweet,
How could we know our hopes were wild,
Our victory, defeat?

The other children true and brave
Must each one go his gallant way.
But little, little, darling one,
You shall stay.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Meet Lesley Diehl

This week I’m pleased and honored to host mystery author Lesley Diehl. Lesley retired from her life as a professor of psychology and reclaimed her country roots by moving to a small cottage in the Butternut River Valley in upstate New York.  In the winter she migrates to old Florida—cowboys, scrub palmetto, and open fields of grazing cattle, a place where spurs still jingle in the post office, and gators make golf a contact sport.  Back north, the shy ghost inhabiting the cottage serves as her literary muse.  When not writing, she gardens, cooks and renovates the 1874 cottage with the help of her husband, two cats, and, of course, Fred the ghost, who gives artistic direction to their work. 

Lesley is author of several short stories and several mystery series: the microbrewing mystery series set in the Butternut Valley (A Deadly Draught and Poisoned Pairings) and a rural Florida series, Dumpster Dying and Grilled, Killed and Chilled (just released by Oak Tree Press).  She recently signed a three-book deal with Camel Press for The Consignment Shop Murders including A Secondhand Murder.  For something more heavenly, try her mystery Angel Sleuth.  Several of her short stories have been published by Untreedreads including one (Murder with All the Trimmings) in the original Thanksgiving anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry and another (Mashed in the Potatoes) in the second anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping.  She invites readers to visit her on her blog and website.

I asked Lesley to write an article on what “the joy of story” means to her. She came up with a winner, and in the process introduced us to her new mystery novel, Grilled, Killed and Chilled. Here’s what she has to say:

Creating a New Character in a Series
A Joy for the Reader and the Writer

I fall in love with the characters I create in my writing.  That goes for my protagonist, her friends, family and those who help her, like Detective Lewis the police authority who sometimes tries to rescue my protagonist Emily Rhodes.  As fond as I am of people who appear in my first book in the Big Lake murder mystery series, Dumpster Dying, I like to add characters because I think readers want to meet new people, and I think this keeps the story vibrant and fresh.  I also believe creating another person in my protagonist’s life is fun for me as a writer.  It stretches my creative abilities.  When it’s a character who makes several appearances in the story and adds to the list of suspects, brings the tension of a competing love interest or broadens the protagonist’s social sphere, the story takes on a psychological layering beyond that of the first book.  It helps my protagonist grow, change, develop as a person.  Not only can the reader find joy in the story, but so too can the writer challenged by the development of another character to add to plot twists and turns.

I’ve been introducing readers to new characters in my recently released book Grilled, Chilled and Killed, the second book in the series featuring Emily Rhodes, retired preschool teacher turned bartender.

In the first book, Emily hired her best friend’s father as her lawyer not knowing that Lawyer Hap worked out of his room in the Blue Heron Retirement Home where his exercise regimen included chasing the nurses and female residents around the place in a wheel chair.  Hap has a head of hair that looks like Albert Einstein’s, prefers to wear a white suit and panama hat, both smelling as if they were recently packed in mothballs (they were) and exudes plenty of charm for the ladies.

Emily seems to be cursed with a penchant for finding dead bodies.  This time the body is in a beer cooler truck at a barbeque festival.  Of course, the question we all have is whether she can keep her sleuthing nose out of this case and let Detective Lewis do his job.  We already know the answer is no, meaning Emily will get herself into trouble once again and may need Hap’s lawyerly skills to save her.

In Grilled, Chilled and Killed Hap has a new lady love, Lorelei Pratt who just happens to be the sister-in-law of the man Emily discovers dead in the beer cooler truck.  Lorelei is a strong contender for the killer.  Years back Lorelei’s husband was also found dead, and the authorities suspected she might have had a hand in his poisoning, but nothing was proved.  While she had no motive for killing her husband, she has one for killing her brother-in-law.  She hated him, especially hated the way he treated his wife Melanie.

Could Lorelei have done the deed?  Here are some clues for why Emily thinks it’s possible.

First at a dinner with others:

Emily decided it was time to get off her Yankee origins and get back to the murder. “Never mind. You were talking about Everett. How are you related to him?”
         “Melanie and I married the Pratt brothers. One was a drunk and a womanizer, the other, my dear departed Charles, the best man in the county. A good provider, loving husband and father, a good Christian man. Not much to brag about in the sack. Not like you, huh, Hap?”
         Hap raised his glass in a salute. Lorelei smiled at him, then slid her eyes in Donald’s direction.
         That’s more than I needed to know, thought Emily, and less than I need to solve this murder.
         “Everett took after his scallywag of a father and Charles after his mother, a real gentle soul. Everett was the youngest in the family, the baby and spoiled rotten.”
         “Did you know he was such a great cook?” asked Emily.
         “The man couldn’t cook his way out of a tunnel with an exit sign pointing toward the door.”
         “He won a lot of contests to be so bad at it.” Donald signaled the waiter for another round of drinks, but the waiter dashed by the table without a momentary sideways glance.
         “I’ll tell you who the cook was. It was Melanie. And I’ll bet the recipe was her daddy’s. Everett was probably a thief as well as philanderer.” Lorelei slammed her empty Cosmo glass on the table. “Where’s a darn waiter when you need one?”
         Oh, oh. This wasn’t going to be as easy as she thought. She wanted to talk to Melanie without Lorelei suspecting Emily had her at the top of the list as a murder suspect. Maybe she’d go at it another way, the way a Yankee with no manners would.
         “Here’s my theory about the murder. I think one of his uh, women, did him in, probably got tired of waiting for him to get rid of Melanie or got jealous of one of his other women. Doesn’t that seem possible?  I’d sure like to know what Melanie thinks about this whole thing, but Detective Lewis wants to see the motive as related to barbeque competition.” Emily sat back in her chair and watched the reaction on Lorelei’s face.
         “Why wouldn’t you think of the wife first?  Isn’t that what all the television shows say?  You wouldn’t be wanting to back poor Melanie into a corner and pin this murder on her, would you?” Lorelei’s hazel eyes took on the color of storm clouds.
         That’s a possibility, thought Emily, but she shook her head and tried to look shocked at such an idea.
          “I met Melanie the night of the murder. She sure didn’t seem like a woman who had just killed her husband. She appeared to be in shock to me.”
         Lorelei nodded in agreement. “Just so.”

Then at the country club:

         “Where do you fit in this, Lorelei?”
         “I know Melanie didn’t poison him because she saw the hell I went through when I was accused of killing my husband. Not only is Melanie not a violent person, she’s seen firsthand what false accusations do to a family. She’d  never do that to her family. Not Melanie.”
         Emily gulped. “You were accused…”
         “My first husband died under suspicious circumstances. They never found the cause of death, but the authorities suspected me although they never brought charges. I finally moved away from Milledgeville. I’m sure your friend Daisy told you all this. She must have recognized me.”
         “Uh, no. She didn’t.” Emily kicked herself for not insisting Daisy tell her about Lorelei.
         “Anyway. Here.” Lorelei handed Emily a piece of paper with several names written on it. “You can get the jump on your detective friend. Between you and your detective friend, I like you better. I’m not fond of cops after what the authorities put me through with my husband’s death. Besides, women need to stick together.”
         Lorelei got up from the booth without another word and wandered back to the bar where she and Donald took up their conversation where they’d left off. Soon the two of them were laughing. He reached over several times and patted Lorelei’s shoulder.
         The woman certainly was full of surprises. She had to be twenty years older than Donald, yet she exuded a sexual attraction as alluring as a minnow for a fish. Emily dropped her glance to the paper in her hand. Five names. Emily raised her eyes to the twosome at the bar. She wondered if those were the only women Everett pursued.
Is Lorelei being too helpful, too sympathetic to Melanie’s plight, and too willing to provide a list of suspects for Emily to track down?  Perhaps so.  You know how I like to write about treacherous women.  
Suspicious?  Helpful?  Octogenarian sex pot?  You decide about Lorelei. 

Do you like stories in which new characters appear or do you prefer the cast to remain the same from book to book?  What adds to your joy in the story?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

MAGNETIC DOGS: Relationships in Fiction

February is here—the month we celebrate ground hogs, presidents, and lovers. This also happens to be the first Saturday of the month, which means this is the week I post 99-word stories sent to me by writers who read my blog, “The Joy of Story.” My rules for their submissions:

Stories must be exactly 99 words long.
They must be real stories, which means something has to happen to someone. Stories must contain conflict in order to be stories.
The stories must be inspired by the assignment.

This month’s assignment was: Make up a story about a relationship that changed someone’s definition of the word “Love.”

You’ll find next month’s assignment at the end of this blog. But first, I hope you’ll read “Magnetic Dogs,” my essay about relationships in fiction, which is appropriate to Valentine’s month.

Then read and enjoy the good stories sent to me by fellow writers. (Confession: I included a story of my own this time.)

Then read next month’s assignment, and write me a story!


How to Write Fiction about Relationships
The relationship between lovers is perhaps the most common theme of fiction. It also accounts for a good share of movies, plays, and operas, and almost all popular songs. As for fiction, I can think of no other theme or category more popular. Love, for fiction writers and readers, and for almost everybody else, for that matter, makes the world go ’round.
It makes sense. We all come from coupling, and we all seek coupling or enjoy being coupled. We may enter this world alone, and we will departed it alone, but most of the time in between we're interested in, concerned with, often even obsessed by, the process of relationship. The world "love," by the way, can name a wide range of emotions, including its own opposite, hate.
I'll steer clear of defining the ideal relationship. Bookstore shelves are full of books that will tell you about successful relationship. If I knew how to make love work perfectly every time, I'd write one of those books and retire. But I don't know how to make love work right every time, or what makes a perfect, successful relationship. To tell you the truth, I don't think a perfectly happy relationship really exists, since any couple is made up of two less-than-perfect parts.
Furthermore, if a perfectly happy relationship did exist, it wouldn't make good fiction. Plot requires conflict, and fiction about relationship focuses on the flaws in the relationship. Conflict in relationship fiction, as in real-life relationships, can come in an inexhaustible variety of forms.
All of us have had relationships, or at least have dreamed of having relationships. Furthermore, we've all read countless stories about relationship; our culture is soaking with relationship plots. So there's no excuse for not being inspired to write about relationship. We all have plenty of experience and ideas to work with.
The challenge is to do something original. And being original is especially important in this arena.
Avoid clich├ęs. Love is such a common experience, and fiction about love is so omnipresent in our culture, that we're tempted to rely on stereotypes and plot formulae. The lazy writer will use stale language ("heaving bosom," "pulsing manhood") or hackneyed situations ("My wife doesn't understand me." "You mean you're married?") or stock characters (boy next door, whore with a heart of gold), and count on the reader to fill in the blanks. If ever there were a place to remember to show rather than tell, it's in the well-explored realm of relationship fiction, where the challenge is to find something original to say or an original way to say it.
Here's an essential rule for being original: Respect your characters as individuals. They're not just symbols or stereotypes or caricatures; they're people. Your reader must meet and spend time with them, so make your characters different and memorable. This goes for the good guys and bad guys as well. If the woman is mean, make her mean in her own unique way; if she's kind, make it a special kindness we haven't seen before. And the more original they are, the realer they will be.
Among the ingredients of any good short story are the elements of choice and change. These requirements are especially important in the area of relationship fiction. The characters must make important choices, together and separately, and as a consequence of those choices, they will change as individuals and the relationship will change as well.
Since good fiction about relationship focuses on the problems in the relationship, the burning question is: can this marriage be saved? Will this couple make it? Will they fall apart and go separate ways? Will they be better off or worse off as a couple at the end of the story?
So the conflict in relationship fiction is not just between two lovers as adversaries, but between the couple and the circumstances.


This month’s guest writers, and their 99-word stories!

by June Kosier

I waited until 6 a.m. to call the intern. Interns need sleep but my dehydrated, elderly patient needed fluid.
He came and kindly spoke to the old vet as he competently reinserted the needle. When he was done, he held the man’s hand for a few minutes.
I fell in love with that intern at that instant. It didn’t hurt that he was good looking too. Then I noticed the gold wedding band. 
I got to know him better during the next year but then I let him go because I loved him and myself too much.


by Joseph M. Bonelli

In a Boston Office they first said, "Hello."
Crista worked on the ninth floor, Jack toiled one below.
They talked through business and laughed at lunch.
He was struck by her wit, charm, and beauty a bunch.
Jack wasn't available to do much more.
His longing for Crista he'd have to endure.
Her happy Valentine he could never be,
and soon she retired to Italy.
An ocean apart, he felt some relief;
then heard she married to his disbelief.
No Cupid's arrow took flight; Crista's far away in Rome.
Jack thinks of her each night, and forever dreams alone.


by Jerry Giammatteo

It was love at first sight. Sleek, beautiful and yet powerful at the same time. She was all that I could think of the entire year during fifth grade. I simply had to have her, but knew no means of doing so.
Time passed; days, months and years. I began to despair in my quest at winning her. In truth, I had about given up.
Now in seventh grade, I came home from baseball practice. “Look in the garage,” said Mom. I did, and there she finally stood. A gray, Schwinn ten-speed racing bike!
At last, she was mine.

by John M. Daniel

He cried again. My wife groaned, “My turn.”
“I’ll go. I’ve been awake since last time.”
I grumped to the night-lighted nursery and leaned over the crib to change the amonia-perfumed diaper, then held his sobbing body to my chest, resting in a rocker. I promised to protect him from the cold attacking his body, and from all life’s slings and arrows, if only he’d let me sleep.
Peace filled the room, the strongest feeling I’d ever known.
We both slept in the rocker that night. Next morning, I was the one with the cold, and no regrets.


by Toni Hallock-Betts

Jim and I played together as children. We grew up, fell romantically in love, married, and had one daughter, Sarah.
After eighteen years, his gruff manner and my ensuing depression led to a divorce.
We went our separate ways, until a new grandson brought us together.
Jim's angry manner still annoys me, yet his poor health worries me.
 It is because of a very different love called nostalgic affection; affection for that little boy I played with; for the man who shares precious memories of our extended families; and, of course, for the father of my favorite girl.

by Donna Weinheim

I passed a window of fat puppies bouncing and rolling over each other, unsteady on their feet.
Wouldn’t a puppy be the antidote to heart break?
I carried one little terrier home.
She went everywhere I did, listened to my fears, and loved me whether I gained a few pounds or dominated the remote. I was perfect in her brown velvet eyes.
One day she was just facing the wall, staring. She bumped into furniture. Then she was gone.
I cried. I never replaced her.
Inseparable for twenty years, I still miss Woody.
I don’t even remember his name.


Now for next month’s assignment.

In honor of the stormy month of March, the theme of next month’s stories is “Storm Warning.” Write a story with that theme, inspired by the illustration below.

Hint: your story doesn’t have to be about a tornado. It doesn’t even have to be about weather. A storm can be symbolic, or psychological. Have fun!

Again the rules:

1. Stories must be 99 words long.
2. Stories must be about the assigned theme.
3. Stories must be real stories, which means something happens to somebody, somebody changes; and stories need conflict.
4. One story per writer per month.
5. This month’s deadline: March 1.

Okay, here’s the picture:

Now, finally, a word from our sponsor:
This Blog, “The Joy of Story, is brought to you by
John M. Daniel Literary Services.