Sunday, December 9, 2018

Research Ain’t What it Used to Be

I wrote my first complete novel sometime around 1982 or 1983 and saw my first one published by Avalon Books (since swallowed up by Amazon) in 1990. A lot has changed in the publishing industry since then, some things for the better, some not so much.

One thing that has changed a lot and mostly for the better is doing research.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s when I had to check out information for a book, I started by consulting my own carefully accumulated research library, which included encyclopedias, dictionaries, histories, and a wide variety of other reference materials. Sometimes visitors to my home would look at my books, especially the books about poisons and crime, the firearms manuals, the abnormal psychology tomes, and I’d see them give me a sideways look and back slowly away.

I used those books, but they didn’t always give me all the answers I needed. Usually that meant a trip to the library to look up things I didn’t know. The reference librarians at the time knew me well and were good at finding answers for me. Sometimes, I had to pick up the phone and try to find an expert in a certain area to help me out.  It was often fun, but it also took up a lot of time.

Earlier this year I signed a contract for a new romance novel that is part of a series set in New York City, specifically Manhattan. I start with some advantage in this because I grew up in a suburb of New York City and made enough trips into Manhattan to be familiar with the streets, the people, and the atmosphere. My disadvantage is that, although I've visited occasionally, I haven’t actually lived there in more than 40 years.

I considered making a quick scouting trip to the city, but time, budget, and circumstances precluded it. I’ve done this in the past, visiting cities that would form the settings for my books. I want the big picture layout, but I also always try to find the telling details, the small bits of scenery, characters, objects, landmarks, etc. that convey the atmosphere or feel of a place.

I had some of that for New York after growing up there, but a lot changes in even ten years, and I hadn’t lived there for much longer than that. I turned to the Internet for help and it’s amazing what you can get.

I knew, more or less, where I want both my heroine and hero to live, and I didn’t want to be very specific about it, but I needed to be sure the general locations were feasible, so I turned to Google. I started with the maps but then did the satellite thing and zoomed in to get a better look. Finally I got right down to the street level to check out buildings. I picked out addresses for my characters though I don’t give actual numbers in the story.

Then there were the places they visited in the course of the story. They took a bike trip along the Shore Park Bike trail in Brooklyn. I’ve never been on it but it was an important event in the story so I wanted to get the details right. Googling brought up maps, pictures, and even a couple of YouTube videos. One video, done by a rider with a GoPro camera through a long section of the parkway, gave me a good idea of the pavement, the surroundings, the crowds, the sounds, the obstacles and who was using the path. Similarly when my characters took a walk on the High Line, a park that didn’t even exist when I lived there, I found an abundance of pictures and videos of people walking the park.

When my characters visited the Metropolitan Museum, I went online and got a map of the museum, pictures of various exhibits, information about hours and so on.

There are tons of other details I looked up to check my memories or just to try to get something right. I rarely take any one article or video at face value and usually attempt to find at least one and hopefully many others to support.

I sometimes miss the interaction with the reference librarians who were always so helpful, but the time I’m not spending driving back and forth to the library can be time spent writing.

By the way, the book I’ve been researching is called No Time for Surprises. It’s part of the No Brides Club series from Sweet Promise Press. My books is the last in the series and due to release February 8th. The entire set is available for pre-order now.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Books and Festivals


by Fran McNabb

From Labor Day through the Christmas holidays, festivals of all sorts dot the landscape of small towns and large cities as well. They range from art walks, fall festivals, auto events, Christmas events, and any other occasion that can draw a crowd. I have found that no matter what the reason for the event, there is always an audience of readers. They may not be at the event to search out authors and to buy books, but when they realize an author is among the booths, some will stop and talk. Some will buy a book, and some will take a card and promise to look the author up on the internet.

With the e-book rage starting ten or so years ago, I am always amazed and thankful to find readers who still want to have hand-held print copies. I love talking to these readers who will pick up your books, read the blurb, flip through the pages, and sometimes simply rub their hands across the cover or even take a sniff of the pages. These are people who love books, and as an author I can relate.

I have small pieces of acrylic art to go along with my nine novels. My painted pieces sometimes are the reason festival goers stop and look over my merchandise, and selling my art always helps the bottom line at the end of the day. But, selling books is my first love.

I usually do five or six festivals throughout the season. My favorites are the two-day or three-day indoor events because I can set up and forget about doing the physical work of putting up and taking down of my tent and carrying heavy tables. I can simply “nest” for several days and play, and I don't have to worry about the weather.

Are these festivals profitable for authors? I think they are, but there are a few things an author needs to think about before forking out big bucks for an event. The list below pulls together some of the things I have tried at events.

1. Choose events wisely. Most events will have readers attending, but some cater to them more than others. Art festivals draw crowds that seem to have quite a few readers, but I made a nice profit at an auto event this year. The author simply has to work harder to interact with crowd at non-arts events.

2. Is the event indoor or outdoor?  As I said earlier, I like indoor events for obvious reasons. Weather plays a big role in drawing event goers, but plays an even bigger role for the vendor when the merchandise such as books can be harmed by dampness or blown away by the wind.

3. Display is important. I have found that the less cluttered a display, the better. Event goers spend a
matter of seconds scanning booth displays. They must be able to distinguish what you are selling. Make the display attractive yet visible.

4. Make sure your tables are covered in solid colored cloths. You want your merchandise to stand out and not have to fight with patterned table covers and if possible stick to a theme. The picture on the side is my book display at a recent 3-day Christmas event.

5. Height is good. If you only have folding tables to use, add height by lining crates at the back of the table and covering them with a fabric that blends with your table cover.

6. Make buying easy. Make sure you carry enough small bills and change, but also offer a way to use credit cards. I have used the Square for years and have never had a problem. There are many companies on the market, but I love my Square.

7. Interaction is important. If possible, find a spot on the edge of your booth where you can talk to those who pass. I always ask people who catch my eye if they like to read. You’ll be surprised how many readers will stop after they are asked, but might not stop on their own.

I love doing festivals. If one is in your future, look on sites such as Pinterest to see how booths are set up and how merchandise is displayed. Most of all, have fun. I love talking about writing and books, and doing a festival gives me a great way to meet readers.

Note: Victoria Johnson should be ready to join the blog again on the first Thursday of January. Thank you, Victoria, for asking me to take your place. 

FRAN MCNABB lives along the Gulf Coast where there always seems to be a festival. She loves talking with anyone about her books which include nine clean-read romances. Her latest book is A SOLDIER’S HONOR. She'd love for you to drop by her website to check out her other books www.franmcnabb.com or contact her at mcnabbf@bellsouth.net

Monday, December 3, 2018

Weather or Not


by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson
A little over a year ago we had some terrible storms around here – tornadoes touched down all over the area, baseball sized hail, lots of destruction, and (worst of all) several people died. Fortunately my home and family were spared any real damage – a thorough drenching, small leak in the garage, some greenery down – but it was frightening for a while. Just listening to the area’s tornado sirens going consistently for over half an hour and hearing the trees slapping against the house was nerve-wracking enough. A couple of years ago we had a hailstorm - not unusual in itself, but almost singular in that it happened in June and poured so much golf-to-baseball sized hail down the ground was covered from two to six inches deep; it looked almost as if it had snowed. My husband's then-brand-new BMW was severely dented and my aged Buick was totaled. Yes, totaled. So was our roof, as was the roof of almost every house in our area. The roofing contractors simply moved in, going from house to house, and for six months it was almost like living in a popcorn popper.
Which brings me to my topic – weather. Do we ever really realize how much weather is a tool in our books? Yes, you can write a creepy mystery set in a nice suburban villa with brilliant sunshine, balmy breezes and the sound of children laughing in the yard next door. It’s been done, and done well, but to my mind it makes the story lose something. There are those who say the very normalcy of such a setting increases the tension, but I’m not one of them. My mind (no comments, now!) tends to discount danger inherent in bright, sunny days.
How much more disturbing is the low-hanging overcast sky, the shadowy house which no amount of light seems to illuminate completely, the wind scratching at the windows, a driving rain…
Perhaps less-than-perfect weather, night, darkness, shadows all ignite a feeling of unease in a primitive part of our brains. What we cannot see we cannot be prepared for. We are all hardwired to fear the unknown something that lurks in the dark. Did you have monsters under the bed in your childhood? I did. Did I ever see them? Nope, but I knew they were there just the same. Even now that I'm grown up sometimes if I’m working on a particularly intense book, or it’s a stormy night and I’m alone in the house, they might still be there. I’m not going to crawl under and look, either!
Hopefully the dust bunnies that live down there might choke them...
Sometimes having an active imagination can be a curse.
Conversely, it’s very difficult to have a lighthearted comedic story set in that same dank and drear house – or shadowy urban alleyway – under lowering, stormy skies.
There’s a cliché opening that Bulwer-Lytton used in the hyperverbal Victorian era – “It was a dark and stormy night…” Once I was beginning a new project (a Gothic mystery) and had the story pretty much pat, but could not get the beginning started until I really used “It was a dark and stormy night…” after which the story just rolled. When the book was finished I did go back and change it, not wanting to be an object of fun, but for my own personal uses it was invaluable. I do wish I could have used it, though…
Writers have a myriad of tools available to them, and the weather is one of the most effective. There’s nothing like it for setting mood and tone.
At least we can control the weather in our books. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could in real life.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

My Community on the Upper Westside of New York

I’ve lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn for about a third of my life and the rest in the suburbs of New York, except for college when I was in a Boston suburb.  I think it makes me uniquely qualified to see both sides of the spectrum—city folks and suburbanites and their impression each other. Sometimes it seems as if they are two separate worlds. But what they have in common – a sense of community that is most apparent in times of tragedy – came through this past week more intensely than usual.

I’ve lived for the last seven plus years in a sixteen floor pre-war building on the upper West Side, which, by Manhattan standards, means it’s old, charming and relatively small.  Although I don’t know most of my fellow tenants by name and have only made a few friends in the building, I recognize just about everyone. 

Our building is a real mix of ages and family situations.  We’ve got babies and teenagers, dogs of all varieties and single and married folks from twenty-something to a few close to one hundred. 

Last week, one of our doormen died suddenly. Larry passed away from a diabetic shock. The last time I saw him was the week before, when he was helping us load up our car, something he’d done hundreds of times.  Each time he’d wait with me while my husband went to get the car, chitchatting about plans for the weekend, the holidays or one of our vacations. Often while we were standing there, usually early in the morning, the other tenants would emerge from the building and before heading off to school or the office or an errand would stop and talk to Larry who would joke with them the same way he did with me, in a totally irreverent teasing manner, no matter who they were or how old they were. It was part of his charm.  

In the afternoons, when he was on duty he would take care of the new mothers, helping them carry their strollers onto the street all the while cooing and interacting with the toddler or baby.  If an older wheelchair or walker bound person needed assistance or simply a genuine interaction, Larry was there. 

We all loved him, though I’d say his biggest fan club were the kids.  Starting on the day he died, someone put a single white rose in a vase on the table in the lobby of the building.  Before long, a lit candle was added, and then condolence cards, along with a pen for all of us to sign our names and express our sympathy.  Most compelling were the handmade cards by the kids. I can only imagine what Larry’s family felt when they saw those.  But it also said something about city living and how one young man—he was only 35—touched so many people. 

City living is viewed by many as an anonymous existence where no one interacts or cares. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, as evidenced by the impact the death of an Upper West Side doorman had on our building. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thankful

This is my frequent opportunity to write about thankfulness close to Thanksgiving, but a first for being able to write about Thanksgiving to be published on the Day itself.

Today, I will be celebrating with my eldest sister and her entire family of children, children of children, and children of children of children! Can there be a better opportunity to be thankful?

I last saw my sister when she visited to help my brother after the death of his wife. I last saw her children, my nephews and niece, when we visited them one gorgeous summer in Maine, when my youngest was five years old and full of spice!

My niece now has her own children who also now have children. Meaning that I have great-grand-nieces and -nephews that I have never met.

Although Thanksgiving is one day in the year, we make some of the most lasting memories with our families and I am hoping that all those little new relations will be a part of my life from this day on.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all, wherever you are celebrating and with whom.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What Do You Call A Group of Writers?

Some entities have special names when they are in a group, i.e., a gaggle of geese, a herd of buffalo, a flock of sheep, a murder of crows, a ... well, you get the picture. Writers, being obsessed with words, should have a catchy, witty collective designation of their own. Is there such a name? If so, I don't know what it is, but I can tell you a few things I've observed about writers as a group:

1. Writers are social - in a group, that is. Individually, they tend to be loners. At least most of them are; there are notable exceptions. Ernest Hemingway comes to mind and I'm sure there are many others. However, I think it safe to say that even the more gregarious ones need their alone time to ponder the angels and demons circling in their heads, to figure out how to make vague notions into stories, how to craft voices into characters, daydreams into plots. So much for writers as individuals, let's get back to groups of writers. Put a writer into a gathering of his or her peers and you have an entirely different kind of a cat. If you've ever been to a writers' conference or attended a program featuring a panel of writers, you know they can't shut up. They'll go on and on (and on) speculating about things that never happened, but that might - and what a great story it would be if it did.

2. Writers are curious. They need to know what if and how and why - the common elements of all books. Writers of mystery and suspense deal with these questions in a more overt manner than most, but all writers, regardless of genre, strive to answer these questions, even those who write non-fiction. We write our books to make sense of a puzzling world or sometimes to show an alternative to the world as it is and to create an example of what it might be. Non-fiction writers, in particular, choose situations and characters that show how taking a slightly different path created a different world, either for good or ill. Poets distill experience and emotion into a few well-chosen words. But even they are attempting to provide an insight into what if and how and why.

3. Writers care. When people meet a writer, nine times out of ten they ask: What are you writing now? Maybe they ask out of politeness, as a way to start a conversation; maybe they actually want to know. Writers really do want to know. Always! They want to know what's next and, of course, they want to tell what they're up to.

4. Writers are generous. Contrary to many professions, writers want other writers to succeed. As I said before, when a writer asks What are you writing?, they genuinely want to know and if the answer is Well, I'm kind of stuck right now or Actually, I'm thinking of giving up, they are quick to say NO!, to assure you that are a talented, valuable voice, and that the world would be a lesser place if you didn't write.They'll probably ask you why you feel this way and offer advice on how to get out of the pit. If a writer gets stuck on a plot point or doesn't know where to go for the research needed to fill in a hole, there's no better remedy than the sympathetic ear of a fellow scribe. I don't know a single writer who doesn't depend on other writers as a source of inspiration.

5. Writers love books - sometimes to the point of obsession. Some might accuse us of being hoarders. Maybe we are. I, for one, don't consider it a failing. Most writers consider fictional characters their friends, someone with whom they can discuss their most intimate thoughts. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: "In a library we are surrounded by many hundreds of dear friends imprisoned by an enchanter in paper and leathern boxes." I think that's how all writers (as well as many non-writers) feel about books.

I've strayed far afield from my original question: What do you call a group of writers? Maybe there is a name and I don't know it. If so, I hope someone will tell me what it is. If not, maybe someone will come up with one.

These musings were inspired by the very entity I'm trying to name: a group of writers. Last weekend our local library hosted an Author Expo. I'm happy to say I live in an area that is kind to writers. There were 56 of us! It was an inspiring afternoon for me. I met some new writers and re-connected with some old friends I hadn't seen for a while. Here's a picture of a couple of local poets with some very sociable peers in the background.. On second thought, maybe there's no one name to describe a group of writers. Such a diverse group defies classification.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

An October to Remember

By Karen McCullough

If you follow this blog closely you might have noticed that I missed posting last month. (I don’t fool myself. You probably didn’t notice. But anyway…) I have an excuse and that’s what this post is all about.

I live in central North Carolina. Early fall is hurricane season here and this one was a doozy.

In September Florence was the headliner for weeks as its course, even while a long way out, showed it making landfall on the coast and then heading northwest to pass right over us. We got ready. We laid in candles, batteries for the lanterns and flashlights, and foods that didn’t need extensive cooking. Stuffed ice in the freezer. Laid in extra canned goods. Put away the patio furniture and planters.

The first part of the forecast for Florence was right. The eye did come ashore over the city of Wilmington on the N.C. coast. But then it stayed there for a couple of catastrophic days, pouring torrents of rain on the eastern part of the state and creating historic floods in many places before it jogged south and lost oomph quickly over South Carolina.

Here in the center of North Carolina, we had rain (lots of rain) and some light wind, but nothing drastic. Many people here welcomed family and friends from down east who had to evacuate flooded homes and towns. After a few days we put away the candles and batteries and ate the extra food.

Then Hurricane Michael zoomed up across the Gulf of Mexico in early October and crashed into Florida. Forecasters told us it would pass well to the east of us bringing us rain and light wind, but nothing to worry about. No one in this area got very concerned about it.

Our mistake. Michael wiped out parts of the Florida panhandle, then raced north and east, losing strength as it went. But it moved fast. And it veered a bit off the center of the projected path. For a day we had heavy rain and light breezes as it approached. But Michael, still a tropical storm, stayed on the west side of the cone rather than in the center, and in the early afternoon, it hit us full on.

It wasn’t as horrible as many in Florida experienced. But it was bad. Frightening For several hours we hid from fifty to sixty mile per hour winds with some higher gusts. Some of the heaviest rain I’ve ever seen accompanied it, blown sideways at times. The noise was incredible – wind howled and screeched, the trees rattled, rain smacked, smaller branches ratt-a-tatted on the roof constantly, and larger ones hit with the occasional thud. Everything not fastened down blew around and often hit other things.

Our city has a lot of huge old oak and fir trees and many of them went down during the storm. Thousands of trees.  Several hundred houses were damaged. We were lucky ourselves. Though our trees lost a few limbs, they all remained standing and we had no real damage to the house. Probably thousands of cars were smashed.

The next day I went out for a walk with my husband. We counted more than two dozen trees down in just the six-block area we covered. Many of them were across roads and some had entangled power lines in their limbs. The pictures that accompany this were tall taken on the walk and are only a few of the downed trees we saw.

Our power was out for five days. It took almost a week and a half to get cable and internet service back.

Most of the city was without power for a few days. On the second day of the power outage we went for a hot dinner to the home of friends whose power had already been restored. Of the twenty or so traffic-light-controlled intersections we had to pass through to get there, only one had working lights. Some had police officers directing traffic, but they didn’t have enough personnel to cover all the dark intersections.

Our daughter lives in an area of underground power lines and hers was on, so after three days we packed all the meats and other things we wanted to save from the freezer and took them to her, where she made room in her freezer. While there we had the first hot showers in several days and got some time on the internet.

Nonetheless we were counting our blessings even as we sat in the dark in the evenings. My husband and I were both safe. Our house was secure and suffered no real damage. The weather was mild so the loss of heat and air conditioning meant only minor discomfort. We have city water and they have backup generators to make sure the pumping stations keep running. We ate what was in the refrigerator for as long as it remained cool and we had plenty of non-perishable food as well. We have an old-fashioned crock pot that uses sterno (and we keep a supply of sterno around) for heating water for coffee and tea and soups for lunch. We even blessed our backlit Kindles that made reading much easier than trying to do it by the light of battery-run lanterns.

A couple of points I’d like to make to finish up. Even a tropical storm is a terrifying experience. If you’re in a hurricane zone and the authorities suggest you evacuate, do it! Even if the storm goes somewhere else this time, it may not the next. Don’t be complacent.

Not a great picture. It's hard to see that there are actually two
trees down across the road. The second one is about 20 feet 
behind the first.
Second, be prepared. Before each storm, we took in all the patio furniture, filled the car’s gas tank, and charged all our devices, including making sure that the backup batteries for recharging phones and Kindles were completely juiced up. We took the ice the ice maker had already made, bagged it, and stuffed it into open areas of the freezer. When it made another batch, we bagged more until the freezer was just about full. We got out flashlights and lanterns, put batteries in them, and checked all were working. We made sure they were all in a handy place where we wouldn’t have to fumble around in the dark to find them.

Supplies I like to keep on hand for emergencies include spare replaceable batteries for everything, which have to be checked and rotated periodically, and a good variety of non-perishable foods. We always keep extra cans of tuna, beans, chicken, fruit, vegetables and other tins with a long shelf life. As with the batteries, we rotate the stock periodically. We try to keep a five-day supply of sterno in storage. We have enough wood to keep the fireplace going for several days. (In truth, though, if the weather was really cold or really hot, we’d probably go somewhere else after a day or two.) We have a battery-operated radio, but we found we relied more on our smartphones for news and connection with others. They were slow at times because not all the cell towers were working, but enough were that we were usually able to connect. I have two portable battery chargers for the phones, a small one for my purse that will charge my phone twice and a bigger one that will provide up to five charges. We recharged the bigger one every chance we got and it kept our phones going throughout.

One other thing people don’t always think about is money. My sister the banker recommends keeping up to $1000 cash in small bills (nothing larger than $20) in a safe but accessible place. We found out why this time. Our local grocery store was open, running on a generator, but like everyone else in the city, they had no internet connection. They couldn’t process credit or debit cards. Transactions were cash only.