Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Good Thought To Carry Forward

The poet-physician William Carlos Williams lived in Rutherford, NJ, near my home town of Paterson. Williams worked all his adult life as a pediatrician and a practicing poet. His modus operandi was to multitask - he called it "stealing." When family or friends talked to him, part of his mind would follow the conversation, while another part would be working over a difficult pattern of words. He'd knock out a few lines on a typewriter in his office, between patients. That approach didn't work for me - in the end, I had to satisfy my one-track mind through serial careers, first in medicine, then in novel-writing.
My favorite Williams quote comes from the second volume of his five-part epic, "Paterson." I keep it on the wall above my desk, so I can't miss seeing it when frustrations start piling up:

"No defeat is ever made up entirely of defeat - since the world it opens is always a place formerly unsuspected. A world lost, a world unsuspected beckons to new places"

Good thought to carry forward into the new year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fictional vs. Nonfictional Voice

My good friend, Bob Resta, recently commented to me as follows:

"Your non-fiction is more relaxed than your fiction. Your fiction is highly thought out, carefully constructed, and meticulously chiseled out of a big hunk of rock. Your non-fiction is more like your feet are up at the end of the day, you're sipping a beer, and saying to the reader 'Hey - isn't this an interesting observation.' One is not necessarily better than the other, just different."

Bob was right. For nonfiction, I set up an outline, write a draft, revise it once, maybe twice, and there it is. Easy. For fiction, my characters pay no attention to any outline I give them, and I end up doing just what Bob said, chiseling away at that rock, first on a macro scale, then in finer and finer detail.

At first thought, that seems opposite to what I'd expect. Shouldn't a relaxed voice be well-suited to telling a story, and a more thoughtful voice be more appropriate to organizing a bunch of facts, theories, or legends for a reader? Not necessarily. In nonfiction, no one's there to mess around with your outline. Even a nonfictional person in the narrative is going to have trouble rebelling against a fact-based outline.

Fiction writers come in two basic groups: Outliners and Seat-of-The-Pantsers. Grabbing a beer, kicking back, and seeing what happens might work for those novelists who outline their stories, then watch, smiling, as their characters march nicely from Point A to The End. But "Seat-of-the-Pantsers" like me are probably condemned to a lifetime of hacking layer after layer off that godawful rock called a first draft that their characters drop on them.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Christmas Mystery of the Silent Snuff Box

      We had a Thanksgiving Day guest this year to whom I showed a little musical snuff box, c1840s, with a lovely 2-tune Swiss musical movement below the snuff compartment. The man asked whether I'd consider selling it to him, so he could give it for Christmas to his wife, who is ill and housebound. He thought it would brighten her life.
      I'd had no desire to sell the piece, which I'd bought 25 years before in England, but I decided, under the circumstances, to let it go. I thought I'd get more pleasure from imagining my guest's wife enjoying the music than I would, listening to it myself.
      For the past couple of years, I'd been working intermittently to coax another, more-elegant, snuff box back to playing its music, but nothing I tried had had any effect. After my guest left with the snuff box for his wife, I decided to fill the space on the shelf with the recalcitrant, silent box. At least, I could look at it.
      But as I put the box into place, I pushed the start button...and music played. When it stopped, I pushed the button again, and again, music played. I can't begin to tell you why.
      As a confirmed skeptic, I'm comfortable saying that mysterious things do sometimes happen, and letting it go at that. Coincidence, coincidence. But what a great little Christmas story.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Peculiar Case Of Immortality

     The first human cancer cells to be successfully cultivated in a laboratory were called HeLa, an acronym consisting of the first two letters of the name of the patient from whom they were isolated. It was widely assumed, both in professional and lay circles, that the patient's name was Helen Lane. Lectures were given and articles were written, telling of the ironic way Helen Lane had achieved immortality.
       But if irony's your dish, try this: an article in the December 1971 issue of the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology included a photo of the woman, along with the information that her name actually was Henrietta Lacks. The paradox of an immortal person being known by the wrong name impressed me to the point that I wrote an article about Ms. Lacks and her cancer cells for Smithsonian Magazine (March 1976).
       Imagine my interest, then, when earlier this year, I read a review of a book titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. The author had spent ten years talking to Lacks' descendants, and researching the incredible tangle of legal fallout and medical progress and problems which trace directly to HeLa. The full story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, and her malignant cells is beyond imagination. Get a copy of this book, and be prepared to go without sleep until you turn the last page. If you'll be able to sleep even then.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Two Great Performers At The West Coast Ragtime Festival

       Hard to pick favorites among the performers at the recent West Coast Ragtime Festival, but here are a couple with whom I've become friends, and whose performances I especially enjoyed.
      Jack Rummel lives in Niwot, CO, where he hosts the Ragtime America show on KGNU, Thursday evenings, 8-9 Mountain Time, He also writes the popular monthly Ragtime Music Reviews, Jack writes and plays midwestern-style rags, and at the Festival, he presented two hour-long sets of his own compositions, displaying to full effect this complex ragtime form, which is simultaneously rollicking and nostalgic, even wistful.
      Washboard Kitty Wilson is the percussionist in the Raspberry Jam Band,  (whose pianist is the amazing Tom Brier, the man with two hands on each arm and twenty fingers on each hand).   Here they are at the Festival, playing one of my favorite pieces, Scott Joplin's, "Cleopha."  Historian/pianist Rosemary Hallum interviewed Kitty at the Festival, and it was very interesting to hear what she said and demonstrated to explain the way percussionists need to remember that their role is to enhance the performance of the pianist or the band, not drown them out. A lesson there for us all.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Business Can Be A Pleasure

       Nice every now and again to combine business and pleasure. This past weekend, November 19-21, I was at the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento, a thoroughly enjoyable three days. I hadn't been in the building ten minutes when my friend Darwyn approached me with a chocolate bar in hand. When an event starts out like that, you know it's gonna be good.
       To dispose of the business first, the Ragtime Store sold a good number of signed copies of my three ragtime-based mysteries, some people buying all three of the trilogy. Nice.
      As to the music - I can say with truth that I've never attended a festival with better ragtime, as rendered by pianists, orchestras and small groups, string virtuosos, rhythm accompanists, and singers. To list all the terrific performers would take a whole page, but just to mention a few: the Ivory and Gold trio (pianist Jeff Barnhart, flutist Anne Barnhart, and drummer Danny Coots) were back for the first time in ten years, and infused the entire festival with their superb musicianship and great good humor. And pianist Larisa Migachyov's performance of Joseph Lamb's "Bohemia" rag was breathtakingly beautiful.
      The weather was wonderful, temperatures in the seventies and eighties, but of course there's always payback. I flew home in the midst of the big Seattle snowstorm; fortunately, son-in-law Peter Greyy, a Wisconsin native, was able to pick me up and get me home. Always better lucky than good.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

There's A Message Here

When I left medical work nearly 16 years ago, I swore that none of my novels would have a medical background. Never. I had walked out a door and locked it behind me.
For three books set in the antiques subculture, I held to that resolve, but then I realized that a mainstream novel I'd written, but never gotten published, many years earlier would work very nicely as a mystery - but only if it had a medical background. By that time, I'd learned that what a story wants, a wise author gives it, so I went ahead and wrote FIRST, DO NO HARM, which to date has received the best reviews (including a starred review in Booklist) of any of my novels.
Never mind. I went on to write three books with ragtime backgrounds, then came up against the realization that my idea for the next book needed a medical background. So I'm just now finishing UNFINISHED BUSINESS (take that as you will). And just this afternoon, it hit me that my thoughts for the next couple of books demand...that's right. A medical background.
Write what you know, know what you write, write what you love, love what you write. Nah. Just write what comes, and don't think too hard about it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Typos and Copy-Edit Errors: One Never Knows...

     There's been a good deal of chatter lately about typos and copy-editing errors in books, and the headaches they trigger in authors. Here's my contribution.

     Toward the end of my medical-historical, FIRST, DO NO HARM, artist Leo Firestone poses a tough question to Martin, his medical-student son. Martin tries to wiggle away with a wisecrack. He recalls a quote from Oscar Wilde - "The coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword," then tells the reader:  Quick-step from Wilde to Waller, cue from Fats. I think I smiled. "One never knows, Dad, do one?"

      That's how it read, from the first draft, through five rewrites, through two sets of galleys. But when my author copies arrived and I opened one, I saw, "One never knows, Dad, does one?" I never did find the perp.

      But one can always make lemonade. At my signings, I told the story of the last-second malfeasance, held up the album you see at the head of this post, and told the audience that in addition to signing copies, I'd be glad to correct the error and initial it. Over time, several people have told me they'd been uncertain whether to buy a book, but couldn't resist that last little incentive.  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Post-Election Day Story

       Back during the 1950s, I read a short memoir by an elderly woman, a reminiscence of a striking childhood event in her life. I can't begin to recall her name, and I can't vouch for the truth of the account. But it's still a good story, and appropriate for today. My version is, of course, a paraphrase.
      The old woman remembered a day when she was quite young, I think seven or eight. She'd become angry with her parents, and determined to run away from home. Not long after she started her journey down a dusty country road, a large man in a horse-drawn carriage pulled up, and asked where she was off to. She explained that she was running away from home.
      "Well," said the large man. "That sounds like a long trip. Would you care for a ride?"
      The girl decided that sounded good, and hopped up beside the man. He questioned her about her situation, and she told him why she felt she had no choice but to do what she was doing.                 "That's a very big decision," the man said. "Don't you think you should perhaps reconsider?"
      "Oh, no," said the girl. "There's no more chance of me changing my mind than there is of Cleveland running again."  
      The man seemed surprised, and asked her to explain.
      "That's what my father always says when he thinks something can't possibly happen. Mr. Cleveland was the last president, but he lost the next election. Some people say he might run again, but my father says there's absolutely no chance of that."
      The man and the girl rode on a good way. The day was warm, the girl became sleepy, and she finally fell asleep, her head resting against the large man. When she awoke, the carriage was in front of her house. "You'd best go inside and talk that matter over with your parents," the large man said. "I'm sure they'll be glad to see you. And it's always well to resolve a dispute with honest talk."
       The girl felt sheepish, and not a little tired. It had been a long day. She thanked the man for his kindness, and for the ride. He smiled. "And by the way, you may tell your father that he's wrong at least about one thing. Mr. Cleveland will indeed run again."

Of course, the large man was Grover Cleveland, a neighbor of the girl's family, and our 24th president, who served from 1885 to 1889. After losing the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland did run again in 1892, and won a second, non-consecutive term. To date, he's the only president to have done that.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Computers Down: Sometimes You Do Get It Right

This past weekend, my desktop computer became unresponsive. Well, I figured, OK. While I get it straightened out, I've got my laptop, with all the data on the desktop backed up to it. I could use that.
Except I couldn't. The laptop became unresponsive.
Bottom line: It was the desktop's motherboard and the laptop's hard drive. Both are at the computer hospital.
The good news: I've been writing my articles and books on computers since 1988, and when the Internet came along, I insisted on having a dedicated computer in my detached writing room, permanently off-line, its only purpose to be for writing. So while my promotional work and correspondence languish, I've been able to keep making progress on my current book.
And oh, yes. Besides the 2 non compos computers, I've regularly backed up my projects on a flash drive, an external hard drive, and an off-site storage facility. This week, I've added a second flash drive. One can't be too careful.
How am I posting this? Via my wife's computer, which also permits me to kinda keep up with email. Of course, the same day my 2 computers fell dead, I could not access the Internet on my wife's machine. Fortunately, that turned out to be the router, and was promptly set right.
Would I like to go back to manual, or even electric typewriters? Perish the thought. I've got vivid memories of when cutting and pasting was literal, and when it took me three months to type a perfect 200-page manuscript. Bad behavior and all, I'll stick with the computers. But with all due precautions.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Ragtime Historical-Mystery Trilogy Is Honored

      As am I.
      The Friends of the Crowell Library in San Marino, CA host a yearly One Book/One City Festival, where a particular book is selected, every reader in the city is encouraged to read it, events are planned around the major theme(s) of the book, and the author visits the city and gives a talk. This year's honoree was T. Jefferson Parker, for IRON RIVER.
      Next year, the committee has renamed the Festival OB/OCx3, to select the three books (THE RAGTIME KID, THE KING OF RAGTIME, and THE RAGTIME FOOL) of my trilogy for their community read. During March and April 2011, the library will sponsor programs on music (especially ragtime) and concerts, and I'll talk to the readers on April 28, at 7pm, then sign books. Pretty cool.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Speaking Of E-Book Readers

      My last-week's blog post got me thinking. I've heard all kinds of arguments pro and con the various e-book readers, but one I've not heard seems important. How does reading comprehension from an electronic device compare with that from hard copy?
      I wonder about this because I've gotten the same answer from every writer to whom I've posed the question, "Can you do revisions/rewrites off your computer screen?" The answer is invariably, "Not only no, but hell, no." Everyone - myself included - says they can work over a manuscript endlessly on a computer screen, but then when they print out a copy, it's filled with horrible word choices, dreadfully-structured sentences, grammatical errors, inconsistencies of plot and character, and typos.
      To be specific: last Friday, I did a careful on-screen rewrite of the first two chapters of my current book-in-progress; then, this morning, I printed out the chapters and went to work on them. Three hours later, the pages were dense with squiggly cross-outs, replacements, and insertion arrows.
      Admittedly, writers may read more critically than non-writers. (My daughter tells me I don't read for pleasure, and I can't quite get her to understand that I am, in fact, reading for pleasure, just a little differently from the way she goes about it). But wouldn't it be interesting to do an experiment? Take a bunch of readers, some of whom are also writers, select a pair of books by the same author, and have the readers read one of the books on an E-reader, the other on hard copy. After each book, calculate the reading time per page, and subject the readers to a test of comprehension regarding plot, characters, and setting. I'd bet just a little money that they'll remember more of the books they'd read from hard copy.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What's In A Name, Indeed?

     Who comes up with these names for Barnes and Noble? B&N has just made available a self-publishing platform called Pubit. Considering what they call their electronic reading device, they've got a ready-made slogan: "Get it up on Pubit, and watch millions of readers get it off on their  Nook-E readers."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bad News, Good News

      The bad news is that it's past 10 o'clock on a Wednesday night, and I just realized I haven't written my weekly blog.
      The good news is that it happened because I got so wrapped up in my book-in-progress, I forgot about everything else.  
      For the better part of a year, now, Colin Sanford, a brilliant doctor, determined to produce the world's first in-vitro-fertilization baby, and Police Detective Bernie Baumgartner (Bernie the Bulldog), determined to sort out why people in Sanford's operation have ended up dead or missing, have been going back and forth on my computer in a cerebral life-and-death chess game. But this morning, all of a sudden, one of them spoke just the right words, and there they were, in Sanford's office, slugging away at each other like a couple of kids in a street fight. And when the fight was over, it all came to me. I saw who really were the good guys, and who were the bad, and how it was going to sort out. My working title for the book has been "Unfinished Business." Today, I saw why. I spent the rest of the day joyously scribbling notes that would take me to The End.
      And just now realized I hadn't written my blog. Well, there it is.  

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Alan Chandler, C'est Moi?

      People ask me all the time whether one or another character in one of my books is "you." More disconcerting, sometimes they don't ask; they insist a particular character is me. I usually reply to the effect that I never use real people, myself included, as models for fictional characters, that knowledge of a real person's M. O. would limit his or her freedoms of expression and action as a character in a work of fiction.
      But I may have to think this through. My sister told me that Alan Chandler, the 17-year-old ragtime pianist in THE RAGTIME FOOL, is "me." I told her Alan is nothing like I was at his age. I couldn't play a note of music. I would never have run off to Missouri to meet an old man from California, to give him an important book I'd bought for a large sum of money from an old woman in Harlem. I'd never have dared to speak to my parents the way Alan spoke to his. And I was amused at Alan's naivete about racial relations in Missouri in 1951. He was unaware that segregation existed outside the deep South. Just clueless.
      But a little while ago, Tim Reed, a friend and fellow music box collector, sent me a link, , he thought might interest me, given that I grew up in New Jersey. The video was from NJN, New Jersey Public Television and Radio, and presented the history of Asbury Park, the resort where my family and I spent two weeks every summer throughout the 1950s.
      Did I know that the town was founded by a pious Methodist, who wanted to set up a proper resort for proper, well-to-do Christians? Yeah, kind of.
      Did I know this target population had "help," who needed to live somewhere, so a Black section of the city was established literally on the other side of the railroad tracks? No.
      Did I know that this Black ghetto was a hotbed of popular music, a major venue for the most popular ragtime, blues, and jazz musicians of the day? Nope.
      Did I know that even into the 1960s, Asbury Park remained segregated, that Blacks had their own separate (but not equal) beach; the Black beach was adjacent to the sewer outlet? No.  
      Did I ever notice that I never saw a Black face on the Asbury Park City Beach during the 1950s? No.  
      Did that ever strike me as odd? No.

      All right, then. Isn't it so that people in our dreams are not "somebody else?" Aren't they completely our own creations, put up by our subconscious minds to populate the stories we call dreams?
     - Sounds reasonable.
      Wouldn't I have loved to talk to my parents the way Alan talked to his?  
      - Damn right I would've. 
      Wouldn't I have loved to hop a train to Missouri with the key to a special ragtime event in my book bag?  
      - Well, yeah. I guess I really would've.
      What would I have given to be able to play piano like Alan?
      - Chalk one up for the sister.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When Characters Act Out Of Character

       When a character in a story I'm reading says or does something inconsistent with his or her established beliefs or behavior, I place a bookmark, then watch for the why of that odd statement or action. If it never shows up, I put a big black mark next to the author's name.
       In the course of my own work, when a character speaks or acts inconsistently, I also put in a bookmark, to remind myself I need to sort out the oddity. Sometimes, it turns out the character is trying to fool another character. Sometimes, the character's trying to fool him/herself. Sometimes, especially in early drafts, I think I've heard one character speak, when in fact the words came from someone else. Sometimes, I've misunderstood the character. All these possibilities are fine, so long as the variant information is resolved. If a raging white racial bigot takes a little black boy into a confectionary, buys him an ice-cream cone, then sends him on his way with an avuncular pat on the back, it's my job to dig out the reason, and make sure the reader is similarly enlightened before The End.
      This necessity also translates out to real-life situations. Taking into account that people do not act out of character without reason may prevent painful misunderstandings.  
       Many years ago, my friend, Graham Webb, a dealer in antique music boxes in England, called to offer me a very impressive Swiss cylinder box. I told Graham I was very much interested, but would need to sell some of my other music boxes to pay for this one. There was a major swap meet coming up in a week: could he put the box on hold for me until that time? He said he'd be happy to.
      The swap meet was successful, and immediately afterward, I called Graham, identified myself, and told him I would in fact like to buy the Nicole Grand Format Overture Box. To my surprise and dismay, he said, in a very cold tone, "I'm sorry. That box is sold."
      Understand a hard-core collector's reaction. I was just this far from giving Graham two earsful of anger and indignation when a voice in my mind reminded me how long I'd known him, and how out of character his comment was. There had to be a reason. So I took a deep breath, and said, "Graham, I thought you told me you'd be holding that box for me."  
      There was a moment of silence, then, "I'm sorry...who did you say this is?"
      "Larry," I said. "Larry Karp."
      That brought a burst of laughter. "Oh, Larry, hello. I thought you said 'Barry Clark.' These transcontinental phone lines, you know. Just terrible."
       From that time forward, I was always 'Barry" to Graham, and we never stopped chuckling over the Great Big Transcontinental Misunderstanding.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Scott Joplin Leads The Way In Any Language

A couple of weeks ago, pianist Karen Pate and I presented a program, Ragtime in Music and Words, at the King County Library in Federal Way, WA. Karen played selections from ragtime composed during the past century, and I talked about the history of ragtime, focusing primarily on Scott Joplin and his efforts to transform folk ragtime into a form of classical music, respected and honored as fine art. Joplin succeeded, but acknowledgement of his success only came years after the composer's death.

After the event, a woman in the audience came up to thank Karen and  me, and presented us each with a message in kanji on a small wooden block. She'd written them during the concert. The gift to Karen complimented her musical performance, while mine, the artist said, was  her own take on Scott Joplin's lifelong ambition to create a new American musical genre, and translated out to 'beautiful dream,' or 'beautiful vision.' Right on.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Wednesday Doubleheader - Yankees Suck, Mariners Rock & A Ragtime Urban Legend

      To follow up on last week's post, I got a nice phone call Saturday from Randy Adamack, the Seattle Mariners' Vice-President of Communications. Mr. Adamack told me that ever since the original brouhaha over the Yankees Suck T-shirts in 2002, the official club policy has been that fans may wear a 'Yankees Suck' T-shirt (or any T-shirt they'd like) to Safeco Field, and specifically, the alcohol enforcement officer should not have ordered me to remove my shirt and turn it inside out. As part of the apology, Mr. Adamack invited my wife and me to a game of our choice this month, on the Mariners, something not requested, but gratefully accepted. 
      There always have been and always will be people who set themselves up as guardians of public morality. They need to be opposed vigorously. I'm gratified that the Mariners have taken a clear stance against censorship.

      I keep coming across a word-for-word story about Scott Joplin, my latest encounter being at this site. The account holds that Scott Joplin was the "first music teacher" of Rollin Rodgers, a young white boy in a "small town" in Texas. Years later, Rodgers was offered the opportunity to sing at the Met, but insisted on bringing his old teacher to hear him. The Met refused to allow a black man in, so Rodgers went back to Texas and never did become a star opera singer. Joplin, so touched by Rodgers' sacrifice, decided to take up the composing he'd abandoned because of "money problems, health problems, and a messy divorce." So, Rodgers allegedly was in large part responsible for our having Joplin's ragtime to hear today.
      What really happened: in about 1880, in Texarkana, young Scott Joplin, recognized through the town as a prodigy, came to the attention of one Julius Weiss, a German immigrant employed as a tutor for the children of the wealthy Rodgers lumber family. One of the Rodgers children was Rollin, so he and Joplin were contemporaries. Weiss arranged to give young Joplin free lessons in piano, sight-reading, and harmony, and may also have tutored the boy in academic subjects (which might account for the fact that Joplin, as an adult, was so well-spoken, and moved comfortably in white society). And since Weiss' music lessons focused on European music, Joplin got a healthy exposure to that, and came to know classical and operatic music well.
      Joplin studied with Weiss until 1884, when Mr. Rodgers died, the family cut expenses, and Weiss had to leave town. Joplin, then 16, left Texarkana as well, and became an itinerant pianist in the midwest, finally settling in Sedalia MO in the mid-1890s, where he became a central figure in the city's music communities, and began to write the ragtime music that would make his reputation. He (and his publisher, John Stark) called his music "classic" or "classical" ragtime, since Joplin wanted to make over the rough, raucous folk ragtime of the day into a respected and respectable form of classical music.
      I can find no evidence of any operatic performances by Rollin Rodgers, only that he played the violin, and had a "lifelong interest in opera." Joplin's not-very-messy divorce was in 1903, before he ever went to New York, determined above all else to compose a ragtime opera. During his subsequent health and money problems, he never stopped composing; by all accounts, he was a tune-writing machine. 
      And just for the record, Weiss' appearance in my book, THE RAGTIME KID, is pure fiction. Once he left Texarkana, there is only sketchy information of his whereabouts and activities; he may have been in Houston for a while.

The most comprehensive reference on Julius Weiss is: Julius Weiss, Scott Joplin's First Piano Teacher, by Theodore Albrecht, College Music Symposium 19 (2), Fall 1979, pp. 89-105.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Censorship Sucks

      Several years ago, vendors outside Safeco Field in Seattle sold "Yankees Suck" T-shirts, which caused a stir inside the stadium. Management of the Mariners baseball team decided that message ran counter to its Family-Friendly Policy, and under threat of expulsion, forced people wearing the shirts to remove them. Some of those people objected, the ACLU entered the fray, and the Mariners finally decided they would "not ask ticket-holders to remove or cover up any T-shirt."

      I'm a Yankee hater from way back in 1949. It fried me, the way the Yankees always stripped the one good player from the Washington Senators or the St. Louis Browns every August, then snatched the pennant, and in the World Series, ran over my Giants or the otherwise-detested Brooklyn Dodgers. As time passed, I gnashed my teeth at George Steinbrenner, who seemed to think that a World Series title was a Yankee birthright, and failure to claim it constituted grounds to sacrifice a manager or a fat toad of a player. And when A-Rod, Seattle's most-despised ex-player, decided that his interests would best be served by pinstripes, I rejoiced. Now, I could hate the Yankees with previously-unimagined passion.

      My daughter bought me a Yankees Suck shirt back in the day, and I've worn it ever since to Mariners-Yankees games. I had it on this past July 8, when an alcohol enforcement officer stopped me on the concourse behind Section 333, and demanded I remove my shirt, then and there. She told me that in accordance with the Mariners' Family-Friendly Policy, I should have been stopped at the gate and refused admittance, and that I would not be allowed to stay in the stadium with the shirt on. Since it was a hot night and I wore nothing under the shirt, she settled to have me strip to the waist and turn the shirt inside-out. Because I did not want to create a public disturbance, I complied, never mind the distress that the sight of my paltry corpus must have caused passers-by.

      During the game, I'd been sitting among groups of Yankee fans. None were offended by the shirt; in fact, they thought it was funny. It served as an icebreaker, and we were all enjoying the game together. When I returned to my seat with my shirt reversed, one of the fans – a man with two small children – asked whether I'd been compelled to turn my shirt inside out. When I said I had, his comment was, “That's ridiculous. He didn't seem to think his kids had been traumatized.

     This is not an earthshaking issue. I know that. Around the world, people are starving, drowning in floods, dying of preventable diseases, being slaughtered individually and wholesale. But as a professional writer, I need to complain about censorship. The actions of the alcohol enforcement officer are insupportable. I'm pretty sure the sentiment expressed on my shirt would get by all three prongs of the Miller Test for Obscenity, but the point seems moot. The expression has long since lost any sexual implication. I see it repeatedly in The Seattle Times and other mainstream publications; I hear it on the radio. If that word, used in that context, can get by the FCC, how can it stick in the throat of Mariners' management?    

     When I told a friend, a much-published writer of books for children, and a winner of many state librarian awards, what had happened to me at Safeco Field, her reaction was, "Unbelievable.   Walk into any elementary school in the country, and you'll hear kids saying that something sucks."      

      I sent a letter to the Mariners' Director of Community Relations, asking that she clarify whether the alcohol-enforcement officer acted on her own initiative, or whether she was in fact following stated company policy. As a long-time 16-game planholder, I thought I was owed that much in courtesy, But more than five weeks later, now, I've heard nothing.

      Local sportswriters have complained in print about the Mariners' overzealous Family Friendly Policy, and I couldn't agree more. One thing to be hassled by drunk and aggressive fans, another to be forced to disrobe so as not to possibly offend someone with an antediluvian acquaintance with American slang. Sorry, Mariners, but censorship sucks.    

      Unfortunately, on the field, unlike another team I could name, the Yankees don't suck. Still, win or lose, the Ms have been my team since 1977, and I'll continue to go regularly to their games, and cheer for them, even during massacres that would've turned ancient Romans pale. I admire Jack Z as a person and as a G.M., and think he's building a team that one day will make it realistic for me to wear a T-shirt saying, "Send 'em back to New York with their pinstriped tails between their legs." I just hope the Safeco Booze Bouncers won't tell me that reference to what's between legs is not Family-Friendly, and pitch me out onto Edgar Martinez Way. 

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Break in the Action

That mystery guy from Seattle
Took a break from his fictional battle.
All that cop-and-crook strife
Said his spouse, "Get a life."
He'll be back in a week, all a-prattle.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Get That Worm Out Of My Ear

      An earworm is a tune that goes round and round in your mind until you manage to drive it out with another one. It's a translation of a German word, ohrwurm, which means "earworm," and it has the same sense in Berlin as it does in Seattle. People with characteristics of O.C.D. are more likely to have frequent and severe earworm infestations, and yes, I've harbored the little critters all my life. Guilty as charged. The shoe fits.
      What may be odd about my earworms is that many of them are induced by dreams, then rage between my ears for hours after I wake up. Some of them are (as best I can tell) original compositions; some are ragtime melodies; some, themes from pieces of classical music. Some are operatic. Wagner seems to over-represented. I wonder if the Master of Beyreuth suffered from ohrwurmen.
      Yesterday morning, I woke up with what might have been my most unusual earworm ever. I'd been dreaming I was watching a Seattle Mariners baseball game, and the players in the dugout were singing a chorus about Ichiro's skills. The only line I remember was, "He's a; he's the King-of...the Bat." And then, Ichiro sang the verse, but I can't tell you how it went, because he sang in Japanese. How do I know it was Japanese, and not just some gibberish my subconscious cooked up? Because I knew. The subconscious is often wrong, but never in doubt. Whether Japanese, Japlish, or junk, the tune stuck in my mind in Ichiro's voice nearly the entire day. I could actually hum it aloud.  
      I guess it could've been worse. I could've been stuck all day in a stadium-full of old-time Yankee fans chanting, "Joe, Joe, DiMaggio, we want you on our team," while their Red Sox counterpoints bellowed, "He's better than his brother Joe, Dominic DiMaggio." Or Teresa Brewer, singly coyly, "I love Mickey. Mickey Who? Mickey Mantle." There was also a song about Willie Mays from those years, but I think I'm safe from that one: all I can remember of it is Willie's boyish countertenor breaking in every now and again with a loud, "Say Hey!"
      I once woke my wife by sitting bolt-upright in bed at three AM, and shouting, "Null and void!" at the top of my lungs. She wanted to know what I'd been dreaming, but I had no idea. Maybe I'd stumbled on an auditory vermicide. If so, it's probably suitable for use only by solitary sleepers.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Do It Now or Kick Yourself Forever

      Some real-life events just couldn't make it as fiction.
      For more than thirty years, I've made it a point to reserve the three days of Memorial Day Weekend for Seattle's Folklife Festival, an extravaganza of ethnic music, dance, and food, a glorious welcome to summer.
      One of my favorite Festival performers, year after year, was Jim Hinde, a regular busker at the Pike Place Market. With his guitar for accompaniment, Jim projected his music through a warm, resonant baritone, rich with energy and emotion. Many of Jim's compositions were protest songs, taking their origin from the composer's experiences in Viet Nam, and the PTSC that followed that stint.  
      Sometimes, a tall, thin, white-haired man named Bob Crosby sang along with Jim, and the combination of Bob's counter-tenor and Jim's baritone never failed to raise every hair on my neck and arms to attention. If there's ever been a more gorgeous-sounding male duet, I've yet to hear it. At the 2008 Festival, when Jim's set was finished, I nudged my wife. "Crosby sings one song on one of Jim's CDs, but that's it. If they'd like to consider making a joint recording, what would you think of looking into bankrolling it?"
      Myra said she thought that was one of my better off-the-cuff, off-the-wall ideas. So I walked over to the singers, and briefly pitched my idea. They said yes, it did sound interesting. I told them my wife and I were going out to the midwest the following Monday, to attend the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival and do some book promoting, and I'd check in with them when we got back.
      The day before our return, we were visiting with friends in Milwaukee, and I told them about my plan. "I'm going to get right on it," I said. "Bob's pretty well along, and this is something people ought to be able to hear. I'd hate to have regrets."
      We returned to Seattle June 17, and as is her habit, Myra promptly set to work putting the past two-weeks worth of the Seattle Times into order, to read over the next few days. All of a sudden, she stopped shuffling pages, and looked stricken. "You're not going to believe this," she said. "There's not going to be any CD."
      It took me a moment to catch on. "No, you're kidding. Bob Crosby died?"
      She held out the article to me. Six days before, Jim Hinde, to all outward appearances the picture of hearty, enthusiastic health, had had a heart attack in his sleep. He was 56.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hasn't EVERYONE Heard of Scott Joplin and Maple Leaf Rag?

      Apparently not.
      Early on in my search for background material for my historical mystery, THE RAGTIME KID, I called a local video shop to reserve a copy of SCOTT JOPLIN, the 1977 movie, starring Billy Dee Williams and Art Carney. I told them I'd come in the next day to pick it up.
      First thing next morning, I walked into the store and up to the counter, and interrupted a clerk's daydream by telling him I wanted to pick up the movie they were holding for me. He showed his displeasure by muttering, "Whatsa name?"
      "Scott Joplin."
      If looks really could wither, I'd have been a cornstalk in October. The clerk looked me up, down, and sideways, then growled, "No, man! I don't mean your name. Whatsa name of the movie?"

      Shortly after THE RAGTIME KID came out, I went on tour through California. At a big-chain bookstore north of Los Angeles, the assistant events manager asked me to tell him "a little" about my book, so he could make an announcement over the store's P.A. system. "Well," I said, "It's a historical mystery, set in Sedalia, Missouri in 1899, when Scott Joplin signed the contract to publish Maple Leaf Rag, the tune that started the ragtime craze in America."
      I was going to say more, but the A.E.M. was ready to roll. "Great. I'll go make the announcement."
      A couple of minutes later, I heard, "Please stop by the table near the checkout counter, and meet Larry Karp, author of THE RAGTIME KID, which tells all about Scott Joplin and his knockout hit, the Make Believe Rag." 
      There's a punch line...two, in fact. In June, 1979, ragtime performer, composer, and historian David Jasen actually did publish a tune he called Make Believe Rag.
      And I could send you to youtube to hear Make Believe Rag, as transcribed for guitar by Tony Ackerman. That's what the caption says. But the tune Ackerman will play for you is Maple Leaf Rag.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Writing Characters From Real Life: Better To Know More Or Less?

      I just finished reading Nothing To Be Frightened Of, an intelligent, witty musing on death and dying, by the British novelist Julian Barnes. To quote noted children's author Peg Kehret, "He is funny and thought-provoking at the same time, and he does it all with such glorious language." The book is also a memoir, featuring stories about the author's family and friends which influenced and inspired his thanatopsis. And especially in the final pages, Barnes brings to the fore some thoughts about the ways and means of fiction writers.
      One of these thoughts is that in basing fictional characters upon real people, an author is wise to not know too much about the source. Barnes tells about a writer-friend who eavesdrops on conversations, but is careful to walk away from the speakers before he's been overexposed, and therefore limited in developing his characters.
      At first, I agreed with Barnes. I've been unable to use people I know as characters in my books, because as a seat-of-the-pants writer whose characters and plots develop during the course of the first draft and beyond, knowing all I do about my friends and acquaintances seriously restricts their fictional development. There are things these people simply will not say or do on a computer screen.  
      For this reason, when I set out to write my history-based ragtime mystery trilogy, I was leery of over-researching people like Scott Joplin; his publisher, John Stark; and Brun Campbell, the Ragtime Kid. But as I went along, I found the more I learned about a particular person in history, the more possibilities opened for characterization and plot. Without having a first-hand take on someone whose life I knew was over, all the information I gleaned from historical documents set itself up as a supporting structure, and the more extended that structure became, the more compatible fiction the character could build upon it as my story developed.
      One post-facto example: Nan Bostick, a ragtime pianist/historian/composer from the San Francisco Bay Area, is the great-niece of Charles N. Daniels, a prolific composer and publisher from the Ragtime Era and beyond. After Nan had read The Ragtime Kid, she told me she'd enjoyed the book, and had loved seeing Uncle Charlie as a character. But I wish you'd talked to me about him, she said. At one point, your Uncle Charlie said, 'Goddamn,' but my Uncle Charlie never, ever, used profanity or blasphemy. And during a heat wave in Sedalia, your Uncle Charlie loosened his tie and opened his shirt collar. My Uncle Charlie wouldn't have done that. He used to drive his wife crazy by going fishing in a properly-set up white shirt and tie, and his best wool suit. 
      Not that I thought my knowledge deficit had done my book mortal harm, but had I known about those quirks, my picture of Uncle Charlie might have been that much more arresting. And beyond that, Uncle Charlie's real-life peculiarities might have made the plot an even richer stew. I have to think, in historical fiction, more background information, used judiciously, is never going to be less.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Twisting History

       Discussion can get pretty heated when writers of historical fiction talk about whether it's all right to change historical facts in the interest of a story. I tend to go with the naysayers. Tell it like it was. Whenever I hear a sportscaster these days say, "Spahn and Sain, and two days of rain," I think no, wait. That's not how it went.
       I first became a baseball fan in 1948, listening to games on a big floor-model Philco radio in our dining room. That year, the Boston Braves won the National League pennant, though their starting-pitcher staff was supposed to be pretty thin. "Spahn, Bickford, Sain, then pray for rain," the broadcasters said.
       But Boston pitcher Vern Bickford, a rookie, managed an excellent 11-5 won-lost record and a fine 3.27 earned run average. Nor was he a one-year wonder. Before an arm injury ended his career, he pitched seven seasons of major league ball, made the National League All-Star team, threw a no-hitter against the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers, and one year led the National League in complete games and innings pitched. Somebody somewhere really must not have liked him; he lived to only 39, dying in 1960 of stomach cancer. 
       And when you come down to facts, the story told by the 1948 broadcasters was hardly spot-on to history. A fourth starting pitcher on that Braves team, Bill Voiselle, also an All-Star one year, pitched more than 200 innings, won 13 games (only two less than Spahn),and had an ERA of 3.63, lower than Spahn's.  
      Include Bickford and Voiselle, and you're telling an entirely different story, a truer one. "Spahn, Bickford, Voiselle, Sain. We don't care if we get no rain." I wouldn't mind seeing that quartet in Seattle Mariners uniforms this year.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Power of Privilege

       Doctors who use their honorific to secure good tables in restaurants irritate me. But I guess we all have our price. 
      There's a great neighborhood theater here in Seattle, Kenyon Hall, and one of the performers who appears there is Peter Mintun, a marvelous cafĂ© pianist from New York by way of San Francisco. Peter came to Seattle this past weekend, and a few days before his performance, Lou Magor, Kenyon Hall's major domo, brought him around to our house to see and hear our music boxes. Peter's major musical interest, early 20th-century American music, is well-represented on disc-playing music boxes, so we had a spirited audition of several instruments. And when it came time for Lou and Peter to leave, I hesitated only briefly before I asked Lou whether it might be possible to seat us up front for the concert. He said he thought he could oblige.
      As befits his customary venues, Peter's style is intimate, and for an hour and a half, we sat, Myra and I, six feet from the side of the piano, nothing separating us from the pianist as he played and sang from his repertoire of American show and movie music from the 'teens, 'twenties, and 'thirties - tunes I'd first heard in New York hotel lounges more than a half-century before, songs that had promised an enchanting, beguiling forever to a teenaged boy, nursing his grossly-overpriced glass of coke or ginger ale. At the end of Peter's concert, it took an effort to blink myself back to Seattle and 2010.
      While I was listening to the music, had I felt guilty for having sidestepped into those front-row seats? Not in the least. Could I summon up the slightest regret for my reprehensible behavior? I have to confess, I couldn't. O tempora! O mores!

Go to youtube, search Peter Mintun, and see and hear for yourself what I've been talking about. Be prepared for a long stay. Peter's put up a tune a day for the past 140 days.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Word Bloat

      I was about to open a box of breakfast cereal yesterday when I noticed this message on the box: "We are passionate and committed..." That brought up quite a mental image of what life must be like in that perfervid cereal factory.
      Nothing new, just more and more so. I remember a day, close to twenty years ago, when CD players were just beginning to appear in cars. I needed to fly from Seattle to Minneapolis, then was going to drive to Chicago, and I wanted to listen to music on the way. So I made certain to reserve a car with a player, but when I arrived, the clerk told me she had no CD-playing cars available, and I'd have to take a radio-only model. I pointed to the large sign on the wall behind her, the company's pompously-worded mission statement, which ended with "We are completely committed to your total satisfaction." I told the clerk I supposed I was partially satisfied - after all, I did have a car at my disposal - but to be totally satisfied, I'd need a car with a CD player, and unless she provided me with one, she would clearly not be committed to my satisfaction, let alone not completely committed. The episode ended with my getting a bit knocked off the rental price, but leaving me still short of total satisfaction.
      Now, cereal makers are passionate, mortgage brokers are one-hundred-percent committed to my financial well-being, every latest movie is the ultimate, any mundane accomplishment is awesome, and radio personalities urge me to see not just their friends, but their good friends, down at the local used car lot. 
     Up your ante, Buster. Talk about collapsing money markets. What's going to happen when the language bubble bursts, and our over-inflated verbiage collapses under the weight of its bloat? Words will have no meaning whatever, and we'll be left mumbling meaningless incoherences to each other. Or are we already there?  

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Musical Dialogue

I can sit through a musical performance and not notice sour notes that bring groans from my wife. On the other hand, cliched, stilted, or inappropriate dialogue in plays or books go right past my spouse, while I grind my teeth and mutter. I figure I'm doubly-blessed: I can enjoy music that she can't sit through, and I have a leg up in writing dialogue.

A few months ago, I was talking to ragtime composer-pianist Tom Brier, from Sacramento, and was surprised to hear that he writes a musical piece very much the same way I write a story. He starts with a theme and, at most, a general idea where it's heading, then follows where it leads him, all the way to the end. After that, he revises, cleans it up, sharpens focus here and there, and sometimes shifts a musical phrase from one part of the composition to another. And occasionally, when he gets stuck on one part of the composition, he works on another for a while.

So, at the recent Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, MO, my ears pricked up during “Perfessor” Bill Edwards' seminar on the origins of ragtime. Many people believe ragtime originated as a combination of characteristic black and white rhythms, the linkage of a regular march-like duple beat in the left hand, and a syncopated (emphasis shifted off the regular beat) melody in the right hand. Supposedly, syncopation originated in African music, and was brought to the United States by slaves.

But recently, ethnomusicologists, studying the rhythms of African music, have noticed that syncopation is conspicuous by its absence. Following up on this, “Perfessor" Bill suggested that syncopation actually might have originated in regional, possibly racial, speech patterns.

Okay. Listen to this performance of the “Merry Widow Waltz”(, then plug in these words: Please cut me some roast beef, and then pass the salt.” Nice, steady rhythm, isn't it, all words falling directly on the beat.

Now, listen to legendary ragtime performer/composer/historian Max Morath, singing a hit tune from 1909, by Brymn, Smith, and Burris. ( It's got a long title, which is also the first line of the chorus: “Come after breakfast, bring 'long your lunch, and leave 'fore supper time.” The rhythm of this speech is strikingly different, with emphasis frequently falling off the beat. Syncopation.

So, here's another arrow for the writer's quiver. When a particular character's speech marches or waltzes sedately along, that person is going to come across as pretty formal, maybe even stuffy. But a character who speaks in syncopated rhythms will strike the reader as far more lively. Something to keep in mind, particularly during rewrites.

Read all about “Perfessor” Bill Edwards' ideas on this and other ragtime subjects at


Get acquainted with Tom Brier and his music via youtube. Watch his fingers during the concluding portions of Scott Joplin's "Cleopha."

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Third Music Festival

Two weekends ago, Seattle's Folklife Festival. The next weekend,
Sedalia's Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. And this past weekend, Union
Illinois' Annual Antique Music Show and Sale. Union is 45 miles west of
O'Hare Airport, and the site of the Donley Wild West Town Museum, where,
in 1976, a group of antique phonograph collectors held a swap meet, and
had so much fun, they repeated it the next year. Now, 35 years later,
it's the biggest Buy-Sell-Trade event of its kind in the world, with
attendees from around the globe, most of whom are long-term friends and
correspondents, but actually see each other only once a year - at
Union. Picture a large hall with six rows of tables holding
hundred-year-old talking machines with beautiful horns, music boxes from
Switzerland and Germany that play the hit tunes of the days of our
great-great grandparents, and other strange and rare old-time musical
contrivances. No wonder I was so entranced, I forgot to take a photo.

Now, I'm in Scottsdale, basking like a lizard in the three-digit heat,
and will have an appearance tonight for "The Ragtime Fool" at the
Poisoned Pen Bookstore. Tomorrow, it's Borders in North Scottsdale, and
Clues Unlimited in Tucson, then Thursday, the Velma Teague Library in
Glendale for an interview with Librarian Lesa Holstine. That'll wind up
my 17-day tour. It's been a blast, but it's time to get back to my
writing room on Puget Sound.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ragtime Is Dead? Hell, It Ain't Even Sick.

That remark by the late Bob Darch was much on my mind this past
week, at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, MO. 'Maple Leaf
Rag,' the tune that started the ragtime craze in America, was published
in Sedalia in 1899, and every year, during the first
Wednesday-through-Saturday in June, the city hosts a music festival to
honor composer Scott Joplin and his publisher, John Stark.
The future of ragtime looks bright, with many young players and
composers, some only in their teens, showing off their pianistic skills,
compositional knowhow, and knowledge of ragtime history. To name only a
few, there were Adam Swanson, Wesley Reznicek, Morgan Siever (who is all
of 13!), Luke Vandermyde, and Max Keenlyside.
In the photo we see Brett Youens and Larisa Migachyov, both past
teenage, but still very much in their salad days. Larisa is turning
pages for Brett, because he's playing his composition, 'Rag Doll Rag,'
which was inspired by listening to a number of Larisa's compositions.
You can listen to Brett, Larisa, and all the ragtime wonder-kids by
searching their names on youtube. And then you just might be inspired,
yourself, and decide to come to the 2011 Festival and hear them live.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Trio of Music Festivals

I'm in a stretch of a great three weeks, musically speaking. Every
Memorial Day weekend for the past 30+ years, I've spent a solid three
days at the Seattle Folklife Festival, and if the program has gotten
more into world music, there's still plenty of bluegrass, string bands,
jug bands, and hundred-year-old syncopated stuff, enough to let me prove
once again that my bad taste in music knows no bounds. This group of
banjo, trombone (mostly hidden), clarinet, sax, and bass was terrific.
And this year's multiethnic menu contained plenty of pleasant
surprises, such as a huge, complicated Irish pipes instrument, with keys
like any woodwind instrument and a bladder to be pumped by each arm.
Much more mellow than the usual bagpipes.
Speaking of menus, there was the customary dazzling array of food
vendors. One doesn't want to listen to music on an empty stomach, and
not many ones at Folklife do.
As always, the Seattle Folklife Festival was over far too soon,
with a long year ahead till the next one. But there are two more to go
in this year's trio. Tune in next week for the report on the Scott
Joplin Ragtime Festival.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is Writing a Mystery Novel Painful?

      I've heard and read a goodly number of comments by writers about how painful a process writing is. They say that each day, as they begin a session, they're sure they'll never get a single word onto paper or screen, and if they do, that word and any others they manage to squeeze out will be terrible, unsalvageable. Then, when they finish a manuscript, they dread going back to start the next book. Facing a blank page reduces them to fidgets.
      I don't get it. I wake up every morning and can't wait to get to my computer and see what's going to happen. Does something big explode into prose every day? Not close. Is every piece of prose deathless? Hey, I live in Seattle; is every day a sunny day? But eventually, the sun always does burst through, and after an extended spell of nasty weather, that glow often seems wondrously brilliant.  
      Maybe personal history plays a role. My previous line of work involved looking after people with serious medical problems - talk about performance anxiety. The idea of a bad day on the job then was unthinkable. So if my characters decide to take a day off here and there, no problem. They're just trying to get themselves together. They'll shape up tomorrow.
      Maybe it's just that a person has to be a little off-center to willingly spend all day locked in a room with a bunch of imaginary people. But that's the key word: 'willingly.' No one's forcing me to go down to that writing room five mornings a week. If it weren't enjoyable, why on earth would I ever do it? 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Little Mystery of the Trains of Littlefield

      There's been a longstanding conflict among the citizens of the town of Littlefield. Some of the residents are convinced their town was the setting for a miracle. Others insist the event can be understood through rational processes.
      It all began early on a foggy morning many years ago, when Olaf Nielssen climbed into the engine of his train in Calico, fifty miles west of Littlefield. His fireman looked concerned; the old Norwegian engineer had that set to his jaw that said he'd had another argument with his wife, and would be stubborn, pigheaded, and obnoxious all day.
      At the same time, Sam Gibbons stumbled into the engine of his train, in Sea Flats, fifty miles east of Littlefield. Sam's fireman shook his head. The engineer had been drinking again. It was going to be a long day.
      The trains set off at seven A.M., one eastbound, one westbound, and an hour and a half later, as they approached Littlefield, Harold Mallon, the stationmaster, walked out onto the platform, and to his horror, saw the trains speeding toward each other on the same track. The westbound train was supposed to slow, permitting the eastbound train to be shunted aside to another track. But both trains were going full speed ahead.  
      The reason why the westbound train didn't slow was that Sam Gibbons, drunk as a lord, had passed out atop the throttle. The fireman had tried to pull the engineer away from the controls, but slipped on some oil on the floor and knocked himself cold.  
      On the eastbound train, the fireman pleaded with Olaf Nielssen to hit the brake, but the engineer shook his head. By gum, he had the right of way. He was not about to yield.
      As the trains approached, hell-bent for leather, Harold Mallon buried his head in his hands, and waited to hear the horrible crash. But it never came. A moment later, the stationmaster peeled his fingers off his face, and to his astonishment, saw the two trains, still on the same track, vanishing eastbound and westbound.
      To this day, Littlefield remains divided. Half the citizens are certain divine intervention spared their town a disaster. The other half claim that the event is easily explained through straightforward logic and reason: Norse is Norse and Souse is Souse, and never the trains shall meet.

      OK, I've got that out of my system for a while. I'll be better behaved next week.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Death of a Dentist

       My dentist is a very nice man, but just seeing him come around the corner into the examining room breaks me into clammy sweats. I've taken in stride a number of uncomfortable medical procedures performed on unmentionable parts of my anatomy, but having a dental cavity filled leaves me feeling like a soaked dishrag.
       I know why I feel this way, and it still doesn't help. My first dentist was, believe it or not, my godfather, a long-time family friend. He was a large person, topping 300 pounds, bald, and usually with a cigar sticking out from one or the other corner of his mouth. Unfortunately, my baby teeth were persistent devils, wouldn't fall out to provide space for their successors, so they had to be pulled. This was always done under nitrous oxide, which induced terrible dreams and had me throwing up for hours after I awakened. Consequently, routine dental checkups came to be events which would keep me awake for several nights beforehand.
       When I was ten, an X-ray showed the need for another extraction. I jumped out of the chair, and told the dentist and my mother I wouldn't have it done unless I could "have the needle" I knew Mother got for her dental work. They both agreed, but when I sat back down, the dentist threw his hairy arm across my chest, slammed the nitrous mask over my face, and pushed. I started hitting, kicking, screaming, until finally I lost consciousness.  
       After I woke up, my mother scolded me for kicking "Uncle Doc" in the shin, and so hard. In between barfs, I told her I was sorry I hadn't kicked him higher, and that I'd never let the liar near me again. Nor, I added, was I terribly pleased with her. Several solemn promises later from both miscreants, I relented - what's a ten-year-old kid going to do? - and got my dental maintenance and repairs done under local. But the damage was done. There's no way I can anticipate a dentist-visit with anything short of terror.
       So, when I began to write murder mysteries, you know what was one of the first ideas to come into my head. But I've never written Death of a Dentist, and I doubt I ever will. Whenever I think about spending every day of a coming year and more in a dentist's office, I get the cold collywobbles.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Don't Jazz Me, Man. It's Ragtime

       I've been delighted at how many people have told me they've enjoyed my three ragtime-based historical mysteries. But churlish as it may be, my stomach tightens when I hear, "I really liked your jazz series."
       Let's clear up a couple of points.
       First, the books comprise a trilogy, not a series. In three parts, they cover the story of popular ragtime music in America, from its birth in 1899, to its death in 1916, to the early stages of its revival in 1951.
       More important, it's ragtime, not jazz. As conceived by Scott Joplin and his publisher, John Stark, popular ragtime, a blend of the syncopated melodies of early Black Americans and the classic regular double beat of the European march, was intended to be a form of classical music, no different from a Schubert song or a waltz by Brahms, and so, was to be played strictly according to the score.  
       Joplin and Stark's caution, "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast" became famous, but not everyone agreed. One (possibly apocryphal) story has Charles L. Johnson, a fine composer of midwestern folk ragtime, a more rollicking form, putting Allegro Vivace on a composition, then telling John Stark at a party, "You know what that means? It's Latin for 'Stick it in your ear.'"
       Nor did the hot piano players from the saloons, barrelhouses, and brothels take heed. They competed to see who could play ragtime fastest and with the most impressive embellishments, and gradually, the music evolved into an improvisational form which was first called jass.
       John Stark, no surprise, hated jazz. Not long before the publisher's death in 1927, Paul Whiteman, the self-titled King of Jazz, came to St. Louis with his orchestra to play a concert, and dropped by to issue Stark a personal invitation. But no amount of persuasion succeeded in convincing the old man to come.
       So let's give proper consideration to one of our very greatest American composers, and the publisher without whom we might well never have heard this lovely music. Nothing wrong with jazz, folks, but this is ragtime.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Marjorie May Campbell's Concluding Comments on her Ragtime Fool Husband

     I guess it worked out all right, me letting Mr. Karp write in my place the last two weeks. He finished up his California signing tour yesterday by getting put on a puddle-jumper airplane from San Francisco to Portland, and then on another one from Portland to Seattle. Me, I always swore I would never ride on one of those airplanes, and I never did. Even Brun wasn't such a fool, he'd do that. And then, last night, Mr. Karp got up at 3AM to drive his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson to the airport so they could go to Virginia for the son-in-law's brother's wedding. So, he's danged glad to have me filling in today. 
      Where I left off last time was when that Mr. Paul Affeldt came by with Mr. Spiller, they were going to make some acetate records of Brun playing ragtime. Brun was out in the garage, getting ready, so when Mr. Affeldt rang the bell, I told him he'd have to go back to the garage, 'cause that's where Brun's piano was. But then Mr. Affeldt started asking me questions about Brun, like when we were young, back in Oklahoma. I just told him I had nothing to say. I wasn't about to do ragtime or ragtime people any favors. They sure hadn't done any for me. 
        After that recording session, Brun was excited like I'd never seen him. He was sure this was going to be the big break he'd been waiting for. Him and Scott Joplin were going to be famous, and Brun and I were going to have all the money we could ever use. Fat chance, I told him, you get to be a bigger fool every day. And I was right. I don't know if Mr. Affeldt made anything off the records, but we never saw a nickel from them.  
      Back in November, 1952, when Brun was dying, he still wouldn't give up. Stubborn? Like no other man I've ever seen. He said that Scott Joplin used to tell people no one would appreciate his music for 25 years after he was dead, and Brun believed that was starting to happen. I didn't have the heart to tell him no matter how hard you a person might want some things to happen, that isn't going to make them happen. After Brun's funeral, I told our daughters, well, that's the end of that.
      Except it wasn't. I lived until 1988, and I saw and heard a lot of things. When nobody was around, I read that book, They All Played Ragtime, by Rudi Blesh, who you can read about in Mr. Karp's book. I'll sure tell you, it made me even gladder I didn't ever let those trashy ragtime people inside my house. But then one day, around 1970 or so, I heard some music on the radio that I thought was really beautiful. When the announcer said it was called "Maple Leaf Rag," by Scott Joplin, I almost had a conniption, but then the man said it was played by a person named Joshua Rifkin, who was a classical piano player, and he was playing it like a classical piece, which he said was what Joplin wanted. Now, I don't know if I believe that, but I figured Mr. Rifkin had to be pretty darn good if he could turn a piece of garbage into such beautiful music. And then, of course, I saw that movie, The Sting, in 1975, where it had Scott Joplin's ragtime music in the background. Which seemed right to me, because the movie was all about con artists and killers.
      These days, people can buy a CD record of Mr. Affeldt's acetate discs, with Brun playing piano and having an interview. There's other piano players who've made CDs of Brun's music, too, and some of them call themselves "Brun's Boys" (which I doubt they would do if they ever really were Brun's boys). I bet wherever Brun is now, he's laughing, and saying, "So, who's the fool?"
      I knew Brun was different from all my other beaux, but I thought maybe I could change him. So, I guess that does make me the biggest fool of all. I'm glad Mr. Karp wrote this book, The Ragtime Fool, and it's my hope that every young woman in the country will read it, and let what happened to me serve as an example to them not to be foolish like I was about choosing a husband. And I thank Mr. Karp for letting me write this down on his blog.

      You're welcome, Mrs. Campbell. And thank you for being willing to appear in my book.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On the Road Again

   What with my being on the road to publicize The Ragtime Fool, and having to post this week's blog from my Sidekick device, Marjorie May Campbell agreed to wait one more week to finish telling us about her fool husband. Not that she was happy about it, but as she said, after all those years trying to deal with Brun, a person learns to make do.
   The first event on the trip was Monday evening at The Avid Reader in Sacramento, where ragtimers Tom Brier, and Bub and Petra Sullivan came by to hear how I came to write the ragtime trilogy. Then, last night at San Mateo's M is for Mystery, Camille Minichino, a physicist who, as Margaret Grace, writes mysteries set in the world of miniatures,and I had a lively discussion about how we write, why we write what we write, and doing and not doing research. The audience included ragtimers Washboard Kitty Wilson, and Phil and Darwyn (who commented that she'd read Mrs. Campbell's remarks on this blog, which prompted Marjorie May to say she was glad SOMEONE listens to her).
   Now I'm on the way to L.A. I'll go to Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego Thursday, and the L.A. Times Festival of Books Saturday, to sign in the LA Sisters in Crime Booth, the Mysterious Galaxy Booth, and the L.A. Mystery Bookstore Booth. And do a little research in between.  More on that later.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Help Keep the Seattle Mystery Bookshop Open

       Marjorie May Campbell has graciously agreed to postpone the rest of her story to allow a pressing matter to be posted a day early, in the hope it will help publicize a serious problem for a terrific local independent mystery bookshop.
      The Seattle Mystery Bookshop, on Cherry Street between First and Second Avenues, has long been the city's major resource for readers of crime literature, and the major support for crime-literature writers. Located just off Seattle's historic Pioneer Square, the shop depends heavily upon the tourist trade, and to this end, places a sandwich-board sign at the corner of First and Cherry, to direct tourists the half-block to the store. I've walked past that sign (and others like it, belonging to other area small businesses) for at least a decade, and have never had to swerve to avoid tripping over them.
      About a month ago, a city inspector cited an ordinance, and directed Seattle Mystery to remove the sign, under threat of fine. Shop owner J.B. Dickey reports that since this occurrence, sales have declined significantly. J.B. is concerned that, with tourist season just beginning in Seattle, poor sales through the summer might compel him to close the store. This would be a disaster for local mystery readers and writers.
      Seattle radio host and supporter of the arts, Dave Ross, will interview J.B. tomorrow, Wed. April 14, just after 11am PDT, on KIRO, 97.3FM. Seattle-area residents, please tune in if you can, and consider sending a request to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn,, asking him to rescind this ordinance which threatens to close a small-business Seattle arts landmark - which in the process, will deny the city a nice little chunk of sales tax.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Ragtime Fool is a Killer Book...and Introducing Mrs. Marjorie May Campbell

     Good news for the week: The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association selected The Ragtime Fool as one of its Killer Book recommendations for March.

     Now to the business at hand. Having read The Ragtime Fool, Mrs. Marjorie May Campbell, Brun's wife, has requested space to tell her side of the story of the Ragtime Fool. I'm glad to let her do that. The keyboard's yours, Mrs. Campbell.

     Well, hello. My name is Marjorie May Campbell. I was Brun Campbell's wife, and I'll say right off, if anybody was ever a Ragtime Fool, it was Brun.
     I want to thank Mr. Karp for letting me have my say on this blog of his. He promised not to change anything I write, and I intend to hold him to that. It's not that I think he wrote me up unfair, but there are always reasons why people do and say things, and if I come across a little bit prickly in his book, well, you  just try being married to Brun Campbell for upwards of 30 years.
     Brun and me got married in Oklahoma in 1918. I knew he had some bad habits, but don't all men? But he was very good looking then, and charming besides, and he promised sincerely, no more drinking, and no going to low places to play that ragtime music of his. He'd cut hair in his barber shop 6 days a week, and go to church on Sundays.
     Well, in the next seven years, we had three beautiful daughters. The youngest had asthma, and the doctors said we should move to Venice, California for her health. I was glad, even though I'd be leaving all my friends and family in Oklahoma, but I figured so would Brun, and it was them who kept getting him to drinking and playing ragtime, and I figured in California, we could start off new.  
     Not that it didn't work pretty good for a while. Every so often, Brun would fall off of the wagon, which did grieve me, but like my mother always told me, men are just plain going to do that, so I put up with it best I could. But then around 1940, these musicians in California, this Lu Watters and Turk Murphy, and I don't know who-all else began playing ragtime again, and people took note,. And that was all Brun needed to hear. I could put up with a drink here and there, but when he started playing ragtime on our piano, that was the last straw. I mean, that music is the devil's own, it leads young people into temptation, and the low places they go to hear it just pours gasoline on their fire. And it's not only the preachers who say it's bad - I've read lots of articles by medical doctors, brain specialists, and they all say the same thing. Ragtime can damage young peoples' brains. Well, I had to look out for my daughters, didn't I? I told Brun, no ragtime in the house, period, so he went and moved his piano into the garage out back. Sometimes he and his pals took it down to the barbershop a few blocks away. 
But that wasn't the end of it. He started spending all of his time writing articles for magazines about ragtime and that Scott Joplin person who invented it, who I figure he's burning in you know where on account of that. Then, Brun started to make records of it, and sent the money to Mrs. Joplin, who was still alive then in New York. Never mind what it cost us to make those records. I tried reminding Brun about his promises, but of course, he said he didn't remember making any such promises. Isn't that the living end? Well, you can believe who you want.
     Some man, his name was Paul Affeldt, came to interview Brun around 1948, and he brought along a Mr. Spiller, with some new music recording paraphernalia...hold on. Mr. Karp says I've got to stop here, else it's going to be too long for his blog. He says I can go on next week if I want, and I'll hold him to that.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


      Happy April Fool's Day, the official release date for The Ragtime Fool, the concluding book in my ragtime historical-mystery trilogy.

      Calculated publicity stunt? No. Until recently, Poisoned Pen Press released books near the end of the month. When I finished writing The Ragtime Fool last May, which projected to an April publication date, I assumed the book would come out in late April.

     Where'd that title come from? In 1951, Brun Campbell, the real-life Ragtime Kid, was old and sick, and questioning what he'd done with his life. His wife seems to have had no doubts; she thought her husband was a fool for having devoted his existence to Scott Joplin and ragtime, the Devil's music.  

      But late in writing the story, I wondered whether Joplin's Journal might be a better title, since my fictional Brun's hope for validation centered upon recovering a diary his mentor had written many years before. But my editor pointed out that as the final volume of a trilogy, coming after The Ragtime Kid and The King of Ragtime, The Ragtime Fool was right on, and should stay. Feeling just a little foolish, I agreed.

      I built my story around an event which I believe was the first public honoring of Scott Joplin and his music, a 1951 ceremony in Sedalia, MO, at the Hubbard (Black) High School. The racially-mixed audience listened to speeches and music, and applauded the presentation of a plaque proclaiming Joplin's accomplishments, which was to be hung on a wall in the school. To make the fictional antecedents fit a proper time line to the real-life ceremony, I had the story begin on April 2. But in the second draft, I realized I'd omitted a critical scene, and to remedy that, I needed to push Page One back to April 1. I resisted the change, because April 1, 1951 was a Sunday, and in 1951, in Missouri, Sunday was a day of rest, when nothing much happened. But I finally saw a way around that problem, and the plot of The Ragtime Fool began to unfold on April 1.

     For ragtime enthusiasts, April 1 is The Day the Music Died. On April 1, 1917, Scott Joplin, ravaged by syphilis, and exhausted by years of fruitless attempts to get his opera, Treemonisha, into performance, died on a psychiatric ward in Manhattan State Hospital. Old Brun Campbell refers to that sad day in Chapter 2 of The Ragtime Fool.

      In addition, some jazz authorities list April 1, 1917 as the date Victor Records released the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's “Livery Stable Blues,” the first recorded example of the music then called jass. Ragtime then stretched out beside its most illustrious composer, not to stir for a quarter-century, when music historians and musical performers began to breathe new life into the corpse.  

      Until about a month ago, these coincidences never caught my attention. But as I looked through Poisoned Pen Press's spring catalog, and noticed the date for The Ragtime Fool, a chain of associations cascaded through my mind: April 1...April Fool's Day...The Ragtime Fool...the day Scott Joplin and his music died...the day a bunch of damn-fool diehard Klansmen set a plot into motion to blow up Hubbard High School, with its integrated audience gathered to honor a great Black composer.

      I'm glad I didn't think along these lines sooner. If I had, I'd have tied myself in knots, trying to avoid having people think I was trying to pull off a cheesy publicity stunt.  

      Now, all I can do is eat a little crow with my cheese.

      While you're wondering whether to marvel at the way the stars have aligned for this book, or condemn me for over-the-top disingenuousness, click here:                                             , and enjoy “The April Fool Rag,” composed by Jean Schwartz, in 1911. I don't know the precise date of publication, but I could make a good guess.

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