Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Silent Night, Joyful Day

Seventeen years ago this Friday, I walked away from medical work to sit in my writing room every day. It's been a good stretch, nine books and counting, and the job has a bunch of nice little bennies - like the phone never rings after I've gone to bed for the night, or before I get up in the morning.

Then there's the matter of Christmas. I was the senior partner in my hospital-based practice, the only one with adult or near-adult kids, and the only non-Christian. So I routinely drew duty on December 24 and 25. Fair enough.

My wife and I developed our own tradition, though you might also call it a superstition. For three years running, Christmas Eve brought me a night-long progression of pregnant women with problems, especially tough because that was not at all what those poor people had been counting on for their holiday activities.

So on the fourth Christmas Eve, I put the Silent Night disc onto a music box, called in my wife, and we sang along with the music. And, mirabile dictu, the phone could've been under anesthesia. Every year after that, we repeated the ceremony, and it worked...most of the time.

Our family had always practiced Christmas according to St. Dickens, so we cast about for reasonable workarounds. It became clear early on that trying to bull straight ahead was not the way to go. If the phone didn't ring just as the first present was being opened, it went off at the moment my butt touched my chair at the dinner table. So over the years, we had Christmas on December 26, on New Year's Eve, and on New Year's Day. Not quite the same, but it worked.

After my career change, I passed several December 23s thinking I'd better get a good chunk of sleep that night. But over the years, I gradually relaxed into my new routine, sleeping late, enjoying a hearty, unhealthful breakfast, then still in my pajamas, opening presents with my family, and not looking sideways at the phone as we downed a sumptuous late-afternoon feast with dear longterm friends.

It gets better and better. This year was the first time my two-year-old grandson had a clue of what Christmas was about. That was one happy little boy. Santa brought him the blue football and blue bus he wanted (go figure), and he had a blast ripping paper off packages, and wishing the guests a Merry Christmas as they came in. All-adult Christmases were nice, but a Christmas with someone who really did believe in Santa Claus was even nicer.

Writing's a great job. I don't think I'll go back to medicine.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's All Uphill From Here

December 21, my favorite day of the year. Not because it's cold, gray, rainy and gloomy. It's my favorite because after December 21, the days start getting longer now. Roughly three minutes more of light each day, glory hallelujah.

Back when I was in high school, SAD Syndrome hadn't been invented, but I didn't need a name for the way I felt in the fall. As daylight inexorably, diminished, so did my stores of cheer and energy, and by the first day of winter, I felt as if I were sitting in a dark cave, and that the sun might soon vanish altogether. Of course I knew it wouldn't. But I felt as if it would. Just get to December 21, I told myself. Then the world would start getting better.

Do you know Seattle is closer to Santa's workshop than Maine? This time of year, the sun sets before a quarter to five, but what with our classic ultra-bleak Pacific Northwest weather, it's dark most days by four o'clock. To get around the winter blahs, someone advised me to set up lights in my bedroom which would go on about the time the sun rises in the summer. But all that did was wake me up at 5:30am, leaving me even crankier. Even worse, they woke my wife at 5:30am, making get the picture. Cure worse than disease.

But what grabs you in real life is grist for the fictional mill. Here's a passage from The Music Box Murders, my first mystery novel. The speaker is Dr. Thomas Purdue, neurologist, music box enthusiast, amateur detective, New Yorker:

Late December, the sun extinguished by half past four in the afternoon, purple darkness deepening by the moment. I felt as if the whole world were dying an unreasonable and premature death...

It was five o'clock and pitch black...Off to my left I heard music...There was Rockefeller Center, down at the far end of that Art Deco channel of shops. In front of the building, the gigantic decorated Christmas tree swayed in the wind. I shoved my hands into my coat pockets, crossed the street, and made my way down the corridor, shops to my right, row of white-wire herald angels with golden trumpets directed skyward on my left. Directly past a little espresso stand, I came to the observation platform above the ice-skating rink...

I tightened my grip on the rail. Out there below the Christmas tree, my mind's eye saw a semicircle of half-erect, hairy men and women wearing rough-cut animal skins, gathered around a massive bonfire. The people raised their arms, following the sweep of the flames up toward the statue of Prometheus. They shouted, they screamed. They implored the sun not to go away forever and leave them in eternal icy darkness.

Well, it does seem to work, every year. I take heart from that. Besides, I guess if every day were a sunny day, what would a sunny day mean?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What A Character

Many mystery writers enjoy putting real-life people into their stories so they can torture and kill them. Ex-spouses are a favorite target, as are hateful former bosses. The authors who go after them tell their audiences gleefully how much zest that adds to the writing process, and how much more lively it makes their books.

 So, early on in my writing career, I decided to give it a try. Why not? I could think of two people I've known who seemed irremediably despicable, and I thought one of them might fit into the story I was then working on. He was lazy, mean-spirited, insincere, a bully and a liar. I figured he'd earned a little fictional what-for.

But then an odd thing happened. My story development ground to a halt, and - very unusual for me - I found myself trying to avoid writing. It was clearly on this character's account. He was sucking all the life out of my story, trying to push the plot in a direction favorable to him, never mind what the story wanted or needed. Very shortly, I decided this approach was not going to work for me. "Get out of my book, jerk," I barked. "You've pissed me off enough in the real world; I must have been crazy to let you into my book." So out he went, and the story promptly resumed its proper flow. My relationship with this guy had been close enough and sufficiently longstanding that his bad qualities had overwhelmed my capacity to see - or imagine - any other side of him.

It works better for me to start with people I don't know well, and about whom I have mixed feelings. That allows the characters to grow into rounded human beings, rather than stereotypes or comic-strip personas. Dr. Colin Sanford, in A Perilous Conception, is the result of such a process. His prototype was the most breathtaking example of a doctor who thought he was God I've ever encountered. Not an admirable trait, but over the years, since I wasn't close to him personally, I could watch him go through god-awful contortions to maintain his distorted self-image and overblown self-regard, and feel some sympathy for him. I was able to be an interested observer, trying to figure out just what did make Sammy run. And that gave Dr. Sanford plenty of space to develop into his own person. In the end, the only attributes that remained of his prototype were the monster ego and short stature.

Dr. Sanford's prototype has been dead a good while now, and you know what? I miss the crazy bastard. I'm not at all sure he's inspired his last character in one of my books.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Captain Hornblower Strikes Again

As of yesterday, A PERILOUS CONCEPTION is officially in print. A busy time.

We've made good progress in updating the web site. You can go to, and look around, or go directly to, where you can read the first chapter-plus of A PERILOUS CONCEPTION.

Here are excerpts from two more reviews:
      Karp brings a fresh topic to the medical thriller. Readers will be delighted with his new detective’s debut. Pages will fly by as his action-packed cat-and-mouse chase draws to an unexpected conclusion.
      Janice Welch, Library Journal
      This game that is played between the detective and the doctor, who both think that they are the best of the best plays out over these pages with a surprise in every chapter. Don't miss this one - it is a definite keeper. The author does a fantastic job with these two main characters. You love them one minute and hate them the next.
      Mary Lignor, Feathered Quill Reviews/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

 Over the past week, my comments have appeared on two guest blogs:
and in an online interview: Thanks to my hosts.

Seattle Mystery Bookshop's debut signing is on December 17. Then, right after the holidays, it's off to California and Arizona to visit indie bookstores. Check out my schedule at

Reminds me of a tour I made a few years ago through the midwest (Apologies to Stephen Foster and Susanna).
    I come from Mineap'lis, just a bat straight outa hell.
    To make it down to Omaha, where books do seem to sell.
    Then on to Kansas City, and then Lawrence and St. Loo.
    And don't forget Peoria, Champaign-Urbana too.
    Pro-mo touring! You fly, you drive, you run.
    You write a book, you think you're through, but no - you've just begun.

Well, before the crocuses are up, I trust I'll be back to my usual routine, locking myself in a room all day with a bunch of imaginary people. Crocuses come up early in Seattle.