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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Five Reviewers' Meat, One Reviewer's Poison

We're into the countdown now, with official release of A PERILOUS CONCEPTION scheduled for next Tuesday, December 6. The debut signing will be 11 days later, at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Saturday, December 17, 12N-1pm. Y'all come.

And if you can't make it in person, please consider calling the good people at SMB: (206) 587-5737, or, and reserve your signed, dated debut copy, which they will ship to you.

Or if you live around Scottsdale, Arizona, you can get your signed copy at The Poisoned Pen, 4014 N Goldwater Blvd, No. 101, (480)947-2974. (I'll be there myself on January 10, 7pm).

In these rough times, these outstanding independent mystery bookshops, both with national reputations, will really appreciate your support.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that my web site is under reconstruction/relocation, and it will still be a little while before it's up and running. I hope you'll soon be able to visit, and read about the new book, as well as new developments regarding earlier releases.

In the meanwhile, here are some comments from early reviewers on A PERILOUS CONCEPTION.

In the New York Journal of Books, Sam Millar wrote: "Interestingly, this fast-paced story is told from the viewpoint of both protagonist and antagonist. In lesser hands, it would be muddled and disconcerting, but thankfully, Larry Karp has mastered the technique fluently with not a bump in sight. Detective Bernie Baumgartner is a fascinating and compelling character, and no doubt we will be seeing more of him in future books. If you’re looking for a crime thriller to keep you on the edge of your seat right to the very last page, look no further. A Perilous Conception is just what the doctor ordered."

Publishers' Weekly reviewer Cevin Bryerman said: "Karp...tempers his well-constructed whodunit with dashes of science and a hint of poignancy."

Barbara Bibel concluded her Booklist review with: "Karp lays out a very entertaining puzzle for medical-mystery fans."

Tchris, on Tzer Island, was less enthusiastic. He found Dr. Colin Sanford and Detective Bernie Baumgartner to be "insufferable jerks," and the story to be "slow moving." But he allowed that "the writing style is capable," and that "This isn't by any means an awful novel. It has its moments."

Harriet Klausner enjoyed the book: "This is a super twisting medical murder and historical thriller that brings to life the competition to be first to successfully use in vitro fertilization. Fast-paced with a cat and mouse chess game between two intelligent stubborn men, fans will appreciate Larry Karp's interesting suspense.

Finally (for now), in Fresh Fiction, after asking, "Just how far will some doctors go to be the first to produce a baby by in vitro fertilization?" Tanzey Cutter wrote, "The evolution of this plotline, even knowing some of the underlying facts, still makes for a tension-filled, exciting read. It's a fast-paced mystery with a more than satisfactory resolution."

Five out of six ain't too shabby. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Wakeup Call

I spent this past weekend at the West Coast Ragtime Festival in Sacramento. Three days of ragtime and early jazz, from 9am (no, I didn't come in quite that early) till 11 at night (yes, I did stay that late), with informational seminars, and the opportunity to sit down with friends I see face-to-face only once or twice a year. That Festival has always been a major refresher, a transfusion of energy. Everything upbeat.

But this year was different.

I hadn't been there ten minutes when I ran into a dear friend, and learned that her long-dormant cancer had reawakened. Then, not five minutes after chatting with her, I greeted another very good friend, only to learn she'd recently had the worst kind of diagnosis, and this was going to be her last Festival.

Bummer. All day Friday and well into Saturday, I listened to the music, but I wasn't really tuned in. I started to wonder whether I'd gotten a wakeup call.

A couple of weeks ago, I debated myself in my blog post as to whether I should go ahead with my next mystery novel, or organize, edit, and write up the historical papers I'd acquired from the estate of Brun Campbell, the original Ragtime Kid. Brun desperately wanted to get his history of ragtime published, but he never did. Surrounded by ragtime at the Festival, I asked myself what difference one mystery novel more or less would make, when I could be Brun's second chance.

Brun and I had developed a nice relationship during the five years I'd employed him as protagonist of THE RAGTIME KID and THE RAGTIME FOOL, and given that the old piano man was quite the storyteller himself, I thought I was well-qualified to spruce up his notes and tell his story. Be tough to let an old friend down, especially one as engaging and insistent as Brun.

A passage from COMING INTO THE END ZONE, a memoir by the novelist Doris Grumbach, came into my mind. Ms. Grumbach wrote the book during the year she turned seventy, and it was in large part a compendium of indignation at the nasty stuff old age dumps on people, including the realization of how close one's personal horizon has drawn. The author remembered a friend who said she "thinks we die only when our work is done. I would like to think that is true. I have work still to do." When I googled Doris Grumbach, I was gratified - and amused - to find she is still alive, twenty-three years later and counting, and has written several more books.

Ms. Grumbach's friend could be right, but I suspect she's got it backward. More likely, when we die, our work is done. But either way, the bottom line is the same: Focus on what's at hand, and let the horizon lie where it will. It just might be twenty-three years out there. And if it's twenty-three hours, what are you going to do about it?

By late Saturday I found myself tuning into the music much better, though admittedly not quite as well as at past Festivals. Maybe next year I'll be back to form. And I'll be interested to see what I'm working on then...Lord willin' and the creek don't rise.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Which Of Your Books Is Your Favorite

I'm in the process of relocating my web site, which is going to take a little while. In the meantime, I'll put any announcements regarding my new book, A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, into these weekly blog posts.

My author copies for APC arrived this past week, and as always, I smiled as I looked at the lovely dust jacket the Poisoned Pen folks designed for the book. Some things never get old.

* * *

People often ask me which of my books is my favorite, then add, "I bet it's like asking which of your kids is your favorite."

Well, sort of. I like at least some things in all my books, and I don't dislike any of them. But no way can I select a favorite.

THE MUSIC BOX MURDERS, as my first mystery novel, will always be special on that basis alone. And its successor, SCAMMING THE BIRDMAN, a caper, not only was great fun to write, but Dick Lochte's comment in the LA Times - "Donald Westlake is the reigning master of this type of fiction. Karp isn't quite in his league, but his ending is one that's worthy of Westlake and then some." - was damn sweet icing on the cake. The third in the Music Box Series, THE MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, was satisfying, in that I felt I took a good step forward in exploring the disabilities and anxieties a person inevitably encounters in the process of growing old.

My medical-ethics standalone, FIRST, DO NO HARM, got the best reviews and sold more copies than any of my books. Hard not to love a success like that. But even more pleasing was the fact that I'd finally written a story I'd been incubating since I was a young boy, and had been working on for some twenty years.

The books in my ragtime historical trilogy were thoroughly enjoyable to research and write, allowing me as they did to enter a subculture new to me, and to play with the ideas of birth, aging, death, and renaissance, both literally and metaphorically. As a group and individually, I'm very happy with the way they turned out.

And now we come to the one book I can exclude, where the analogy of books to children breaks down entirely. Who ever turns thumbs-down or even thumbs-neutral on their newborn baby? But a current release is never a contender for favorite. It always seems full of sharp, jagged edges that could make me bleed if I were to expose myself to them. I've learned, though, to give a new book a little time. With distance, and the intervention of a newer story, the nasty points in a book smooth out, and I come to think, well, maybe it's not so bad after all. Let a year or two pass, then ask me how I like A PERILOUS CONCEPTION. But for now, I'll leave the covers closed and just admire the lovely dust jacket.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Writer's Quandary

With A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, due out next month, I'm currently in that stretch of time called Promotions, when a writer sets aside writing stories in favor of blog posts, interviews, and inquiries to bookshops, all calculated to get people interested in reading the upcoming masterwork.

Whenever I've been in this space before, I've known what my next book would be, and used the back of my mind (and copious numbers of sticky notes and hotel scratch pads) to jot down ideas, so that once I'd completed my promo efforts, I could sail full tilt into my upcoming story.

This time, though, it's different.

While I was writing my ragtime trilogy, a friend who was helping with genealogical research got to fooling around online one day, and found census records which indicated that my mother, who always claimed she'd been an only child, did in fact have two younger sisters. There they were in the 1920 census - but in 1930, their lines in the census report had been crossed out. My mother was a serious narcissist who had been very strongly attached to her father, and on learning the news, my sister and I had word-for-word reactions: "I'll bet she killed them so she could have her darling father all to herself." Nice start for a mystery novel.

Then, during my early medical training, I participated in a botched surgery that was so horrific, I still dream about it. For years now, it's been crying for fictional treatment.

I thought I might be able to combine the two, but probably not. They work together about as well as two other ideas of mine that started life as conjoined twins, but finally evolved into separate existences as THE RAGTIME KID and THE KING OF RAGTIME.

Complicating the situation, last spring I acquired a collection of manuscripts, musical compositions, correspondence, business records, and personal effects of Brun Campbell, the real-life Ragtime Kid, who died in 1952. Much of it is material Brun once hoped to publish, but never did, and it needs to be carefully preserved, then organized into a nonfiction book, probably with an accompanying CD.

So for once, I'm looking forward to finishing my promotional work on a book with as much apprehension as eagerness. Imagine having made marriage overtures to three lovely women, then facing a deadline to choose among them, and wondering whether you might be able to carry off being a bigamist, or even...what would it be, a trigamist? A pigamist?

Well, I guess I'll just have to see how it works out. In the meanwhile, I feel like Carmen Cohen, the little girl with a Latino mother and a Jewish father. Her father's family called her Cohen; her mother's relatives called her Carmen, so the poor kid didn't know whether she was Carmen or Cohen.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Characters At The Antiques Show

I spent this past weekend at the triannual Palmer-Wirfs Antiques and Collectables Show at the Portland Expo Center. Years ago, my wife and I rented a booth at Expo as a way to get my mind out of medicine for a couple of days. But now I'm a gimpy-backed writer, and my wife and I are on the other side of the counter, walking slowly from booth to booth, visiting with our old dealer-friends, and making the occasional purchase. And while we go along, I keep my eyes and ears open for more than stuff to buy.

Antiques shows are great for generating characters for works of fiction. Not that I try to lift anyone whole from real life; rather, I keep alert for a specific gesture, a bit of body language, or a spoken line that might launch the actor into a story-in-progress, or set off a string of ideas that generates its own plot. Writing teachers like to toss out material of just this sort, and ask their students to construct stories around them. Want to try a few from my weekend's eavesdropping?

1. A couple approach a display case which contains a small Royal Doulton Toby Jug, clearly of Winston Churchill. "Look," says the man. "W. C. Fields." His wife shakes her head. "No, dear, that's not W. C. Fields. It looks just exactly like Alfred Hitchcock." The husband scowls, then points. "Lookit that cee-gar he's holdin'. Hitchcock didn't smoke cee-gars. It's W. C. Fields."

2. A customer walks up to a dealer whose booth is chockablock with antique hardware, and holds out a hand full of small brass parts. "Would you take 52 dollars for these?" In rapid succession, confusion, amazement, then amusement sweep over the dealer's face. "Well, yes, yes I would," he says. "Actually, I'd be real glad to. 'Cause those pieces only add up to thirty-one dollars."

3. Customer: "What's the best you can do on this teapot?"
Dealer: "Well, let's see...I've got it marked 75. 65's the very best I can do." Customer: "Would you take 50?"

You fill in the dealer's reply, and go from there. Who just might end up dead?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Company You Keep

I got an email the other day from my friend, children's-author Peg Kehret, who had just come back from a weekend visit to Whitman College, where her granddaughter is a student. Peg's enthusiasm over her visit was palpable: "Being on campus is invigorating."

I knew exactly what she meant. There's something about being in the company of younger people.

For the past two-plus years, I've been going regularly to Club Zum, a facility in downtown Seattle, where they take care to explain they are not "a gym," but rather, a club, where people go as part of a program to live well and feel good, rather than to pursue a particular physical goal, such as losing weight or getting ripped. If I'm not the oldest person at this facility, I'm damn close, but it doesn't matter. The twenty- and thirty-somethings among the trainers and clients relate to me just as they do to each other. No condescension or fake jollies for the old guy.

The vivacity at Zum is infectious. The sight and sound of all those beautiful young people - men and women - smiling, greeting, and encouraging each other as they pour enthusiasm into their workouts, instantly resets any downbeat mood.

I schedule my sessions for mid-afternoon. After several hours at the computer, I'm usually feeling pretty logy as I go in. Then, for an hour or more, Derek, my trainer, challenges me, paying attention to what he sees as my particular needs and capabilities, all the while tweaking my interest by explaining the reasons for what he's having me do. Yep, some of my muscles may feel a little sore when I'm leaving the facility, but I actually do feel good! Invigorated. My head's clear - ready to take on that character who won't get off his duff and move his plot along.

Don't bother asking when I'm going to move into one of those 55-and-over communities. Keeping up a house can be a pain, but no point taking an analgesic with side effects worse than the disease.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Call Me Sweetie

The other day, I stopped to fill my car's gas tank at a convenience store station, went inside, and got on the line to pay. As the customer in front of me took the receipt for her carton of cigarettes, the gray-thatched woman behind the counter said, "Thanks, Sweetie. Have a wonderful day."

The customer slammed her cigarettes onto the counter, shot the clerk a look that could've corroded Big Ben's gears, then snarled, "I'm not your sweetie. Don't you call me Sweetie! Or Honey. Or Dearie." Then she snatched up her box of cancer sticks and goose-stepped away, slammed the door open, and disappeared in a cloud of dander.

The clerk blinked a few times, forced an anemic smile. "I was just trying to be nice," she murmured, then added, in a tone like the vox humana of an organ, "It's my first day on the job."

A passage from THE ASSISTANT, by Bernard Malamud, popped into my head: "Our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the best, not only for you or me. We ain't animals."

"You can't win 'em all, Sweetie," I said. "I wouldn't worry about it."

She started to giggle. "I'd like to give you a big hug."

I told her to be my guest.

I know a lot of people are put off by what they consider undue familiarities from strangers, but I figure that if having 6,587 friends, more than 99% of whom you've never set eyes upon, is something to brag about, and when the latest and greatest of anything is always referred to as the ultimate, why should I put someone down for addressing me with a mild form of endearment, and telling me they hope I have the best day ever?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

La Belle Josephine: The Spy

First thing tomorrow, be sure to go to the Poisoned Pen Press Blog ( and read Jeanne Matthews' informative and entertaining report on the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Jeanne ended the piece with a particular hook for me, the mention of an exhibit having to do with Josephine Baker. "What?" you ask. "An entertainer from the Roaring Twenties, represented in a spy museum?"

You bet.

Josephine was born in St. Louis in 1906, went to Paris in 1925, and took the city by storm with her sensuous singing and dance routines. She continued as a show business superstar for the next fifty years. Racial prejudice prevented her from ever achieving success in her home country, but the French adored her throughout her life - for good reason. Not only was she a singular entertainer, she engaged in dangerous spy work for the French underground during World War II (for which she received the Medaille de las Resistance). Post-war, she adopted twelve orphans of different ethnic origins, to put into practice her belief that children brought up to respect and honor human differences would not engage in xenophobic behavior as adults. She referred to her children as her Rainbow Tribe. When she died in 1975, Paris gave her a military funeral, 21-gun salute and all. Twenty thousand Parisians came to stand outside the church.

It's not surprising that there exists a wonderful Josephine Baker musical automaton, probably manufactured at the time of Josephine's heyday. It's 21-1/2 inches tall, and bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Josephine in facial appearance, hair style, and costume, as seen in the cover photo of the book, Josephine, by Josephine Baker and her then-husband, Jo Bouillon.

Want to know more about Josephine Baker? Aside from the Baker-Bouillon reference, you can read Naked at the Feast, by Lynn Haney; Jazz Cleopatra, by Phyllis Rose; The Josephine Baker Story, by Ean Wood; and Josephine, The Hungry Heart, by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase. Jean-Claude, the proprietor of New York City's Chez Josephine Restaurant, was a young teenager, working as a bellboy at a French hotel, when Josephine took him into her home and heart many years ago. Any time you're in New York, consider stopping at Chez Josephine for dinner. Jean-Claude is a marvelous host, the food is outstanding, the live music just right, and the walls are covered with Josephine Baker photos and other memorabilia.

Oh...and why not make a habit of tuning in daily to the Poisoned Pen Blog? Start your days with short wake-up pieces on all manner of topics, by one or another of the Poisoned Pen Posse of authors. You'll see why the Press' slogan is "Publishing Excellence In Mystery."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Power of Music

Music can unlock some strange and marvelous doors.

The other night, my wife and I went to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company's all-Wheeldon program. The first number was Carousel, a gorgeous adaptation of music from the Rodgers and Hammerstein play. The piece began with the "Carousel Waltz," as dancers, portraying merry-go-round horses, kept the young lovers, Billy and Julie, off-balance and apart. But then, the musicians swung into "If I Loved You," and another stage sprang up in my mind, no less HD and 3D than the one before my eyes. Asbury Park, NJ, summer, 1945.

Sixty and more years ago, my family went to Asbury Park for vacations. Loudspeakers at the beach blared non-stop music at the sunbathers. Carousel had opened on Broadway earlier that spring and was the hit of the season, so for two weeks that August, I must have heard John Raitt sing "If I Loved You" upward of a hundred times. And in the opera house a few nights ago, as the dancers moved across the stage, a cascade of sensory memories paraded through my mind. I saw the sandy beach filled with people under colorful striped beach umbrellas. Pieces of paper and discarded soft drink bottles littered the scene; I had to be careful not to cut my foot on broken glass. Gray-green, white-flecked breakers crashed against the slope of the shore. Bathers - the women all wearing white rubber bathing caps - walked gingerly into the water, holding the safety ropes that ran from the shore out to buoys. Gulls squawked, screaked, swooped down to snatch discarded pieces of hot dog roll. Ice-cream vendors toted little freezer compartments on their backs, their names painted on the freezers. One was named Vic, another Son of the Beach, which I thought was curious. Behind us, crowds shuffled along the boardwalk, past game arcades and frozen custard shops; some people rode in wicker pedal carriages. Grannies in cotton print dresses and grandpas in suits, white shirts, and ties sat on benches whose backs could be shifted to permit them to look out onto the beach or back across the boardwalk. Little kids laughed and hollered as they chased each other around in circles. I smelled the tar on the boardwalk, and felt my mother's fingers rubbing suntan oil into my back and shoulders so I'd "get a good healthy tan." Pink cotton candy from the little open-front shop just across the boards melted in my mouth. And as the ballet artists - remember them? - danced to the line, "Off you would go in the mist of day," I watched the big gray cargo ships offshore, slowly vanishing into the far-off haze of the horizon.

These music-generated images come unbidden, but vivid as they are, and representing the viewpoint of a particular person of a particular age, wouldn't it be something if writers could learn to call them up on demand to help set scenes? That would be a skill worth developing.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Our Strengths, Our Weaknesses

A Cylinder Music Box Made In Prague In The Late 1890s
With Larry's Music Box Mystery Series And His
Nonfiction Book, THE ENCHANTED EAR

This week, Myra and I are enjoying a visit from our friend Dave, a graphic artist, sculptor, and musician who earns his living as a professional restorer of antique music boxes. Dave is widely respected in the field as one of the best in the world at bringing back to life the finest...but hold on. First, a little background information.

Music boxes (self-playing instruments which make music via plucking of a tuned hard-steel comb, in the manner of the African kalimba or thumb piano) were first produced commercially in Switzerland about the time the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth. They were manufactured by watch and clockmakers, initially as luxurious embellishments for timepieces, but they quickly became popular and profitable, and before long, were being made as standalone items. Among the people who could afford these baubles, grand opera was the popular music of the day, so by the 1830s and 1840s, one could buy large, magnificent instruments which played stunning arrangements of music by Rossini, Mozart, Bellini, and Donizetti. Steel pins on a rotating cylinder plucked the comb teeth to produce the desired notes in the desired sequences. Each music box was an individually-produced work of art.

By the late nineteenth century, though, these cylinder music boxes had degenerated into smaller, mass-produced items which played humdrum arrangements of music-hall tunes of the time. And shortly thereafter, a different form of music box came along, one which used individual metal discs to pluck the comb teeth, such that the owner could buy any number of tunes, rather than being limited to the three, four, six, or eight melodies pinned to a particular cylinder.

Now back to Dave. Restoration of disc-playing music boxes and later cylinder boxes requires considerable technical skill, but the procedure is usually straightforward. The construction is standardized; the musical arrangements relatively uncomplicated. But not nearly all restorers possess the musical competence, patience and diligence required to bring back a one-of-a-kind early cylinder instrument to where it was when it left the manufacturer's shop. Every one of the thousands of cylinder pins must be set precisely, to pluck the right tooth at the right moment, with the right degree of strength. And that's where Dave shines. It's not uncommon, after hearing a box of mine that Dave had worked on, for a listener to smile and identify the restorer.

But our strengths are often also our weaknesses. Many times, I've watched Dave struggle for hours over a soft noise or a mistimed note, an error so slight that no one else had been aware of it until he pointed it out. Sometimes, as he persists in trying to make the problem disappear, another, worse, problem arises, and in the end, Dave needs to work his way back to where the diminishing returns originated, and then persuade himself to stop. Not that he's satisfied. When he visits us, he listens to boxes he restored years before, and hears things he'd like to try to work out, but knows he shouldn't.

Perfection just ain't a realistic goal. Our best efforts notwithstanding, it's as if we're constrained by an asymptotic barrier from doing more than approaching that ideal. The closer, the better, but still. I'll try to keep that in mind when I start tearing out handfuls of my hair as I go through the galleys of my next book.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Couple of weeks ago ("The Days Dwindle Down," Sept. 7), I decided it was high time for my grandson, Simon, to make his first trip to the beach, so Myra and I took him off to Golden Gardens in Seattle for a couple of hours of sand and surf. He loved the sand, and his new bucket and shovel. He loved watching kids and grownups play Frisbee and beach their kayaks and canoes. But the surf was another story. The sound and motion of the waves breaking on the shore put him on guard, and he was not about to entrust his body to that strange and unreadable environment.

But then he discovered a little stream running down from the stand of trees behind the beach. That was much less intimidating. Soon Simon was wading, picking up little stones, throwing them into the water, and gleefully shouting, "Splash!"

We can do better than that, I thought, and bent over a rock about eight inches in diameter. "Help me pick this one up," I said. "Then we'll throw it in."

Simon thought that was a great idea. We stood at water's edge, held the rock by opposite sides, and as we swung it back and forth, I counted, "One...two..." On "three!" we launched the missile. It flew up, then came down with a most satisfying noise, splashing water all over the two of us.

"Want to do another big one?" I asked.


We picked up a rock about the size of the first one, carried it to the water, started to swing and count, but this time, on two, Simon let go of his side, and ran several steps back up the beach. "Hey," I shouted. "I can't throw this big rock by myself. You've got to come back and help me."

He was chortling. "No."

"Come on," I said. "Help me make a big splash."

"No. Larry do it."

"I can't. Not by myself. I need you to help me."

Still grinning, head shaking side-to-side. "No."

I dropped the rock onto the sand. A double milestone, fair enough. He learned Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me. And I learned that an almost-two-year-old kid can be more devious than any adult.

PS: OK - so I like that picture of the two of us so much, I wrote a companion piece for it so I could put it up. Grandfathers are allowed to do stuff like that. And anyway, it's my blog. Back to business next week.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

More How Do You Get Your Ideas

Where do you get your ideas? That's the Number One Question I hear from beginning writers. So many people ask it, it must be a good question.

My wife and I went to visit a friend in Canada over the Labor Day Weekend, and there was no wait at all coming back across the border. Yes! We cruised into the USA in high spirits. But fifteen minutes down Interstate 5, the freeway suddenly morphed into a parking lot. Damn! There we sat, every now and then coasting a few feet forward.

An access road ran parallel to the freeway, and a short distance ahead of us, a spur connected the two roads. A large sign proclaimed in red letters to freeway drivers:


But all of a sudden, I saw a car zip through a momentary opening in the right lane of freeway traffic, and onto the spur. Wrong way! The driver turned onto the access road just in front of a car whose driver had to jam on the brakes to avoid a collision.

So, what happened next?
A - The driver of the car on the access road pulled a gun and shot the wrong-way driver.
B - The driver of the car on the access road flipped the wrong-way driver a finger; then the wrong-way driver shot him.
C - The driver of the car on the access road couldn't stop in time, and crashed into the wrong-way car. The two drivers leaped from their cars. One was a hunky guy, the other, a gorgeous gal. Both were mad as drenched cats.
D - The driver of the wrong-way car sped off down the access road. Another freeway driver liked the sight of that, and turned onto the spur himself. So did another driver. Within a few minutes, the spur was clogged with wrong-way drivers, blocked from exiting to the access road by the now-steady stream of cars which had taken the legal exit from the freeway a quarter-mile back.
E - None of the above.

The actual answer was D. Less dramatic than the others...or was it? Any of those first three possibilities (and many more) could be developed into a nice little crime story. I can even imagine C becoming a series with a bit of romance between a male and a female PI who tell people they first met by accidentally running into each other.

But my choice would be to consider the frustration of the impatient drivers who'd made the illegal move, and then found themselves out of the frying pan and in the fire. Easy to picture one of those idiots frantically maneuvering on the narrow shoulder to get back onto the freeway, irritating the living bejesus out of everyone around him. Tempers would flare, cars would crash, a riot would break out, an innocent person would be killed. And after the dust had settled and the blood had dried, the victim's spouse, parent, child, or friend would be obsessed with finding the culprit (who had vanished in the melee), and bringing him or her to justice. Which could work out in any number of ways, endless possibilities. From one event, enough story ideas for years of writing.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Days Grow Short

Labor Day has long been my least favorite holiday, signaling, as it does, the end of warm sunny days and the advent, as the days dwindle down, of long, cold nights. On the first Monday in September, I invariably hear Walter Huston singing the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson classic, "September Song. And then I think of Satchel Paige, who said, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."

This year, Labor Day promised to be the most depressing in history. Spring and summer were the coldest and cloudiest in Seattle history, and that's saying something. Even on days when we saw the sun, it didn't break through the cloud cover till mid- or late afternoon. As Labor Day loomed larger and larger on the horizon, my spirits sank lower and lower.

But the holiday weekend saw an amazing turnaround. First thing in the morning on Saturday, there was the sun, and there it stayed till sunset. Sunday, more of the same. Then, my wife and I had the nicest Labor Day in memory, sitting with a friend on the back porch, drinking lemonade, basking in 80 degrees of sunshine. And according to the weatherpersons, this pattern will continue till next week, what a gift.

Something is gaining on us, Satch, but it probably doesn't make a lot of sense to look back to see how fast it's gaining. Nor does it do much good to look too far ahead: one never knows, do one? I'd be smart, as the days dwindle, to spend a little energy to keep my place well-lighted as I focus on both my promotional work for A Perilous Conception, my December baby, and getting my next mystery novel and my nonfiction publication on Brun Campbell, The Ragtime Kid, off to good starts.

But right now, it's 82 degrees - imagine that - and my grandson has never been to the beach. He doesn't know what warm sand feels like between his toes, nor how to build a castle in sand. He doesn't know what a sand castle is. He's about to find out.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Evolution In Language

I grind my teeth at inappropriate apostrophe's, and have to work to keep my reaction off my mug when someone tells me how pleased they were that "the senator invited my wife and I to the ceremony." And hearing ragtime referred to as a musical genus was at least as painful to my ears as a badly-mangled piano chord in the middle of "Maple Leaf Rag." By gum, language is on its way to you-know-where in a you-know-what.

On the other hand, I've found erroneous apostrophes in well-regarded material from a hundred years ago, and I've read articles which claimed use of the nominative where you'd expect the accusative was commonplace in England two hundred years ago. And as for word choice, I could fill the rest of this page and several more with words in common parlance that used to mean something very different from what they mean today.

So last Thursday's newsletter from the Booked for Murder Mystery Indie in Madison, Wisconsin caught my eye. Sara Barnes, the owner, frequently includes sly and mischievous comments on language, and in this mailing, she presented some common texting terms to show that In the Beginning was The Word - but now it's The Abbreviation.

One of Sara's examples was lol, for "laugh out loud." The second time I ever came upon that particular linguistic abridgement was in pre-texting times, in an early email. When I asked the writer what it meant, she said, "'Lots of luck.' What did you think?"

I hadn't known what to think, because my first association with the abbreviation had been back in the 'sixties, as a medical intern at New York's Bellevue Hospital, where house staff talked about admissions having either the DOM or the LOL Syndrome - respectively, Dirty Old Man and Little Old Lady. (There was even a subcategory of the latter, the LOJL, where the J stood for Jewish. Check out Chapter 4, "The Chicken Soup For Lunch Bunch" in my book, The View From The Vue). And you can be sure, after a night's work, trying to keep a sick little old lady on this side of the River Styx, often in 90-degree temperature with humidity to match, laughing out loud was about the last thing an intern was inclined to do.

But there's evolution in language for you. Today, I'd be considered not with it if I thought lol stood for lots of luck, and thoroughly out of it if I thought the abbreviation had anything to do with little old ladies. So, go ahead. Do as you will to Mother Tongue. She's a tough old bird. She'll see us both into our graves. I could care less.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Let's Do Something Heroic

Hung up on the human condition, a novelist may spend years working up a story, picking away, trying to gain a bit of insight. But sometimes, even the best fiction can't compete with someone's narrative of his or her real-life story.

When one of my dear friends was only in her sixties, she began to show signs of dementia, and before too long, had become so badly impaired she needed to be placed in a care facility. For the next near-decade, this once-kindhearted, brilliant person became progressively more demented and hostile, often showering fits of rage upon family and friends who came to visit. Gradually, visitors stopped coming by.

But my friend's son David continued to go to the care facility every Saturday afternoon, and tried, without much success, to reach out to the person he used to know. Then one day, when he walked into his mother's room, she greeted him with a smile, and said, "Let's do something heroic!"

"What would you like to do?" David asked. "What would be heroic?"

She just shook her head. She didn't know. Didn't have a clue.

"All right," David said. "I've got an idea."

He took his mother out to the car, and drove her to a lovely heavily-wooded area not far from the care center. "I could actually see her relax," he said, "as if calmness were spreading through her body, all the tension melting away. We sat on a big rock and talked, and for a while, my mother was close to what she used to be. She really was still there. I'd thought if I could get around the fear and the anger, I could find her. Of course, it didn't last - I didn't expect it would - but giving her even a short respite seemed worthwhile."

Insightfulness, perseverance, ability to love, capacity for heroic deeds. Where does a novelist find a protagonist to match this one?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When Fiction Comes Up Against Reality

For the past few months, I've been doing work that would have to rank at the top of any list of interesting activities for a historical novelist. After writing two books (THE RAGTIME KID and THE RAGTIME FOOL), which featured Sanford Brunson Campbell, the "Original Ragtime Kid of the 1890s" as protagonist, I was lucky enough to obtain three big boxes of items that once belonged to the real-life Kid, who died in 1952.

Imagine my feelings, reading autobiographical manuscripts describing Brun's adventures as an itinerant ragtime pianist during the first decade of the twentieth century, and his efforts during the last decade of his life to revive ragtime music and the reputation of his hero, Scott Joplin. There were also musical compositions unknown to current ragtime enthusiasts, 78rpm recordings of Brun playing his and Joplin's music, personal effects (including his barber's razor strop), business and tax records, and extensive correspondence with prominent musicians, entertainment figures, and politicians.

Brun was known as someone who never let facts get in the way of a good story - no wonder he was such a compelling figure to an historical novelist - and so, some of his written material was contradicted by well-established information. I think what inspired Brun to tell many of his tall tales was the desire to bring Joplin the recognition Brun (rightly) thought his old piano teacher deserved. As my Brun put it in THE RAGTIME FOOL, "Well, the way I told it, that's what Mr. Joplin deserved...That's how it should've been."

Brun did tell some good stories, and told them well. He had a very engaging voice. After five years wandering through the midwest, playing bar-room piano, he decided to go home to Arkansas City, KS, to visit his high-school sweetheart. "While I had been away," Brun wrote, "the local gossips had told her all kinds of stories about me and my ragtime career, the places in which I had played and other poisonous gossip. Some of it was true..."

"I arrived dressed in a loud checkered suit; cloth-top, colored patent leather shoes with pearl buttons, a light-colored hat with a loud hatband around it, and that ever-loving loud silk shirt, together with the loud-patterned necktie, about made my ragtime dress complete. When the natives saw me in that getup, I created quite a sensation.

"I thought my girl would faint when she gave me the once-over, and my mother stood dead in her tracks when she saw my loud clothes. But I was her darling boy and my appearance was soon forgotten by her."

I was pleased and not a little surprised to see how well my fictional Brun fit with his historical profile. But now, what? Some sort of nonfiction book needs to come out of this material, probably with a CD of a ragtime pianist playing Brun's newly-discovered music, as well as transcriptions from Brun's recordings. It'll take some time, especially having to fit the work in as I write my next mystery, and probably the one after that. But it's got to be done. It tickles me that the story of the story-telling man who worked so hard on Scott Joplin's behalf now falls to another story-teller. Gonna be a challenge to sort out what's reality in Brun's accounts, and what's fiction.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Second Baseman's Wearing Nail Polish!

When my daughter Erin announced that she wanted to play Little League baseball, the registrar tried to get her to sign up for girls' softball instead. Erin turned her self-described icy glare onto the man, and snapped, "I don't want to play girl's softball. I want to play Little League, like my brother did."

I could see this wasn't going to go well, so I volunteered to coach a team which would include Erin. When it came time for the coaches to select players, two other girls, Stacy and Susan, had also signed up, and none of the other coaches would take them. "You can have all three," one of them said to me. "I don't want a bunch of kids on my team who throw like girls." The other coaches laughed. So I had three girls on my team who threw like girls.

There's all kinds of talk these days about neurological hard-wiring that may explain some of the differences between males and females. And it does seem that most boys hurl a ball from the shoulder, while the natural inclination of most girls is to flip from the elbow, a far less efficient operation.

Erin's brother, Casey, offered to help me coach the team. I wondered whether that had anything to do with the fact that Susan had a killer smile and blonde hair halfway down her back, but I wasn't inclined to be overly analytic. He and I took the three girls out on the field, and after about a half-hour of demonstrations and guided arm movements, all three girls were throwing from the shoulder, slinging fireballs across the infield.

Not that their male teammates were uniformly impressed. Dean, a chunky little sparkplug with a blond pageboy haircut, looked Erin up and down, then tugged at my arm and hollered, "Hey, the second baseman's wearing nail polish!"

"You're right," I said. "She is. So what?"

Dean made a face. "Well, don't blame me if she gets beamed."

It didn't take long, though for the team to settle in. The first time Erin slapped a single past the shortstop to drive Dean in from second base, the little guy turned at home plate and continued on to first base, where he gave his teammate a whopping high-five. And after Susan whacked a triple down the right-field line, and Stacy, our first baseman, snagged a vicious liner and stepped on the bag to double off the runner, gender suddenly became a non-issue on the Magnolia Mets.

That was 33 years ago, before Little League became the first step to the majors for the best players. The idea then was to teach the kids some fundamentals, ground them in teamwork, and most of all, make sure everyone had a good time. But I'll admit, I felt some wicked satisfaction when, at the conclusion of the 15-game season, the Mets stood in first place and the young players received their championship trophies.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More On Endings To Novels

Writing last week about endings to novels got me thinking about John Cheever, a writer whose work I've admired for a long, long time. A prep-school dropout, Cheever earned a solid reputation as a short-story writer, but he felt neglected and slighted by critics who thought him incapable of pulling off a novel. Not so. THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE, published in 1957, and based heavily upon the author's own New England family, won the 1958 National Book Award. It's a story both wildly funny and indescribably sad, with characters who've refused to leave my mind over the thirty-odd years since I first read the book.

Religious faith was a linchpin of Cheever's life; though not a regular churchgoer, he was a committed Episcopalian. On the other hand, I have difficulty taking anything on faith, and the only reasonable reply I can imagine to questions on the existence or the nature of God is "I don't know. I can't know." So, how is it I find the last page of THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE so deeply satisfying that I can quote it here from memory?

"Fear tastes like a rusty knife, and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord."

That's the conclusion of a note titled "Advice to my Sons," written by Captain Leander Wapshot, the protagonist of Cheever's story, and found in the family Bible by Leander's younger son, Coverly, after the old man's death. When I read that passage, I smiled, closed the book - reluctantly - and said, "Yeah." Spot-on perfect exit lines for Leander, who struggled his life long with demons very much like those that afflicted his creator. Throughout the story, the Captain grappled for meaning, describing his troubled searches through quirky entries in a diary and letters to his sons.

My hat's off to Cheever. It takes formidable storytelling skills - especially character development - to get a serious doubter to rank a story which ends with "Trust in the Lord" among his all-time favorites. I've tried to learn from Cheever. I hope I've succeeded, at least to some extent.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Literary Sunsets

Readers tell me they think the single most important aspect of a book is the ending. A woman at a Left Coast Crime Convention said, "If the author doesn't get the ending just right, it doesn't matter how good the rest of the book was. It's still ruined for me."

So I work hard at my endings. No exaggeration to say I rewrite them fifty, seventy-five, a hundred times. I may change the whole thing, or just one word. I may reinstate an earlier version, then go back to a different earlier version. I move phrases and sentences around. Square One and I get to know each other very well.

The moral and ethical questions in my upcoming book, A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, are complex, and I struggled to bring the action to, to the proper close. I've never put more effort into the final chapter of a book. As I worked late one afternoon, adding, deleting, revising, I glanced out the window into the sunset. It had been a typical Seattle January day, cloudy, drizzly, damp. In a word, bleak. I was anticipating one of those typical January sunsets, where the sun, absent all day, would go down without notice, leaving us to the gathering darkness. Like the last page of a Patricia Highsmith novel.

But just as the sun approached the horizon, it broke through the clouds and lit the sky, forming a magnificent pattern of brilliant orange and lustrous salmon-pink over ever-shifting streaks of gray. That brief blaze seemed to redeem the whole dreary day. Much more impressive, even, than those sunsets in July, when the flaming sun suddenly drops out of a cloudless sky to vanish behind the Olympic Mountains. All's well that ends well. Like the final number of a stage musical.

A low-note Highsmith ending wouldn't do, I thought. Not for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, and probably not for any book I'd write. But neither would a stage-musical finale ring true for this story. My protagonist had done seriously wrong (if at least partially for good reasons), and he couldn't march, smiling, out of the novel. There would be sunshine at the end, but it would need to be filtered through carefully-laid out cloud cover, just so, such that when readers would close the back cover of the book, they'd smile, and say, "Yeah."

I think I finally got it right. I hope I did.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Confessions Of The Chocolate Fiend

I've noticed that mystery readers also have particular fondness for cats and chocolate. I like cats, myself, but chocolate? There's an obsession.

This goes back a long, long time, to when I was a teenager, sprouting the customary crop of acne, which unglued my mother no end. She forbade me to even sniff the brown skin poison, which made it necessary for me to stop at the corner confectionery on the way home, buy a chocolate ice-cream cone, a Hershey bar, or both, and make sure I consumed them before I darkened Mother's door.

Let no one tell you such behavior has no basis in heredity. From earliest childhood, my daughter Erin was also a chocolate fiend. She would sneak packages of chocolate pudding powder from the kitchen shelves, take them up to her room, open the box, wet her finger, dunk, and enjoy. When Myra, my wife, and I found empty boxes under her bed, Myra got upset. I suggested we ignore the matter, figuring that in those days (the early to mid-seventies), there were a lot worse substances Erin could've been sneaking.

One Saturday, when Erin was about twelve, she, her brother, and Myra went out, and I stayed home, writing. All of a sudden, I had an uncontrollable craving for chocolate. But the cupboard was bare. So - and I swear, this is just the way it happened - I walked into Erin's bedroom, opened the top left drawer of her eight-drawer dresser, reached beneath a pile of underwear, and closed my shaking fingers around a 3-inch-diameter lump of dark chocolate. Okay, I thought, I'll take just one bite.

After I'd reduced the heavenly block to about a half-inch square, I told myself I really ought to leave something for Erin for her own next emergency. So I returned the uneaten remnant to its resting place, and went back, sighing contently, to my typewriter.

Nothing further was said until many years later. I don't remember the trigger, but some chocolate-related remark prompted me to ask Erin, "Do you remember...?"

I thought she'd slug me. "Yes, I remember!" she barked. "You left me this tiny little piece of chocolate with tooth marks all over it. But you know what pissed me off the most? I couldn't say a word to you about it because I wasn't supposed to be hiding chocolate."

I told her there were worse substances I could've been sneaking in those days.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphobe or Triskaidekaphile

Am I a triskaidekaphobe or a triskaidekaphile? Seven-thirteen's an interesting combination, the lucky number up against the inauspicious one. I always pause on July thirteenth to remember a signal event in my own life. Forty-six years ago today, I reported for active duty in the U.S. Navy. Remember the draft? In 1965, every doctor served in the military.

Talk about culture shock. I'd spent my entire life in schools and medical academic institutions, where reason and logic ruled. No more. Authority was determined solely by the number of stripes on a shoulder, and that authority was absolute and often frightening. On my third day at work, the captain at the little Naval Air Station hospital told me we'd do a cesarean the next day on a woman whose condition not only did not indicate a section; it actually contraindicated that course. "Y'know why we're gonna do a section, Dr. Karp?" the captain asked me. When I couldn't give an answer, he shouted, "Because I'm the captain and I say so." Then, he blew out of the room. Consequently, I was up all night, surreptitiously inducing the woman's labor, and getting her delivered vaginally, an action that could have gotten me court-martialed. When the captain came in the next day and saw the patient had delivered (supposedly spontaneously), he said, "Well, guess we don't have to section her." After he left, the other drafted obstetrician, who'd already served his first year, whispered to me, "Whew. I didn't think he'd let a small thing like there was no more baby inside stop him."

I spent two years on the edge, never sure when the captain might decide to arrange to have me sent to, as he put it, "Veet Nam." At one point, he told all the doctors's wives that they would spend the upcoming weekend making curtains for the hospital, in anticipation of an inspection by D.C. bigwigs which he hoped would lead to his promotion to admiral. When my wife told him she was not in the Navy and subject to his commands, he replied, "That's true, you're not. But your husband is, so you have a choice. Make the curtains, or next week, your husband's in Veet Nam." She made the curtains. The captain did not make admiral, the only bit of proper justice I was witness to in my military life.

I wrote down every scary and weird episode: one day, I'd write a book. And I did. I called it, ARE YOU A REAL DOCTOR OR A NAVY DOCTOR? because of the frequent question from the wives of enlisted men, who believed that some of their doctors were drafted after medical training (real doctors), and the others were corpsmen who'd been promoted to officer status (Navy doctors). But when I was ready to send my book to editors and agents, a friend told me I ought to read another book about crazy military experiences. And when I finished CATCH-22, all I could do was sigh, stick away my manuscript in a desk drawer, and go on to the next project. The Navy got the last laugh.

So, where was the luck? What about the seven in July thirteenth? My military service had interrupted my residency, and the other obstetrician who served with me referred me to a superlative program, where I finished that aspect of my training. In the process, I became aware of professional opportunities I probably would never have thought of in other programs, the upshot being that I landed in Seattle, spent my medical career in a most interesting line of medical work until the scribbling bug became irresistible, and then I was able to do a quick sidestep into full-time mystery-novel writing. Now, seven books later, with the eighth (A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, due out from Poisoned Pen Press in December), I have no cause for regret.

True, I don't know how I might have ended up had the Navy never snagged me, but given the course I was on at the time, I've got to think I did well to have been sidetracked. Bottom line, you play the hand you're dealt as well as you can, and hope the sevens outrank the thirteens.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Say It (correctly) With Music

I got more than a terrific musical performance this past Sunday. During their concert at Reutlinger's Victorian Palace in San Francisco, violinist David Reffkin, leader of the American Ragtime Ensemble, and St. Louis ragtime pianist Dr. Dave Majzchrak, did a real number on a bit of common verbal misconduct.

"Maple Leaf Rag, by Scott Joplin, is such a well-known composition," said Reffkin, "that pianists often say they know it forward and backward. But when was the last time you heard someone actually play Maple Leaf Rag backward? "

Whereupon, the two musicians proceeded to do exactly that. Very odd experience. Reffkin said it might have been the toughest musical transcription he'd ever done. I believe that.

Reffkin could have taken the fun even further. Does it literally blow you away to hear people say "literally" when they mean "figuratively?" But when the pianist and the violinist said they knew Maple Leaf Rag backward, that's just what they meant, folks. Literally.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Playing The Name Game

Naming characters is not always easy. You never can be sure you've got it right.

In one of my earlier books, I'd slapped the moniker Dennis onto a character, and the howl out of my editor could have been heard in Zanzibar. "That's a very strong character," she snapped. "A Dennis would be a wimp." I'd never imagined Dennises as being at all wimpish, so I ran the matter past my wife. She shook her head. "I'd think of someone wishy-washy if I read 'Dennis,'" she said. I shrugged, and Dennis became Will, which satisfied both editor and wife.

The biggest snafu I ever got into over a character name came out of SCAMMING THE BIRDMAN, my second mystery novel, a caper. I'd seen a faded painted ad, probably from the '30s, on a brick building beside the Alaskan Way Viaduct here in Seattle. It advertised a meat company named LoPriore brothers. The villain in STB was definitely arch, the nastiest person I've ever invented. Right off, Vincent LoPriore struck me as the perfect name for him. It seemed to ooze menace.

So imagine my surprise one day, after the book came out, when I opened my email and in my inbox saw I had a message from Vincent LoPriore. I could not bring myself to open it until I'd finished dealing with all the other messages, and when I opened the scary email, I found it was from a man named, yes, Vincent LoPriore, who lived in Pennsylvania. Someone had seen a synopsis of my book on the web, and called it to his attention. He asked where I'd gotten the name from, so I told him, said I hoped he wouldn't be upset, and that I hadn't imagined there was any real person anywhere named Vincent LoPriore. Fortunately, he thought the whole thing was very funny, and said he liked being cast as the bad guy in a murder mystery. So I sent him a signed book, and that settled the matter.

Just in case you think you ever have all bases covered in this game.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Watch Your Butt, Tiger Mom

What to think of the famous/infamous Tiger Mom (BATTLE HYMN OF THE TIGER MOTHER, by Amy Chua, Penguin Press)?

My own parents were tigerish, delivering frequent lengthy, impassioned, high-decibeled lectures whenever a grade short of A appeared on my report card. I'd never get into an Ivy League college, they warned me. Point of fact, they were were right - I was turned down by every Ivy League school I applied to. But Rutgers did well for me. I don't feel as if I've been a failure in life.

I think I was easier on my own kids. I hope so. Anything did not go, but a B or the occasional C was not a trigger for tearing of hair or rending of garments. My son majored in Ethnomusicology in college, my daughter in International Affairs, and both took several years to find their way to careers that engaged them. But at all times, they took responsibility for their lives, supporting themselves and seeming to enjoy themselves as they wandered toward goals they couldn't yet get a fix on. Not all those who wander are lost, right. Today, both kids are doing work they enjoy, and earning decent livings.

More important, they both are in successful marriages, and my wife and I maintain close relationships as friends with all four kids. A far cry indeed from my relationship with my own parents, which finally had to be terminated because of their incessant derogations, criticisms, and demands on both my wife and me. Reason can hold emotion at arm's length for only so long, then the walls come tumblin' down. My guess, prejudiced though it may be, is that somewhere down the road, the Tiger Mom's behavior is going to deliver a bite to her butt that she'll never get over.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Back in Seattle Again

Round Three of my annual Music Trifecta, the Antique Music Box/Phonograph Show at Donley's Wild West Museum in Union IL, was its customary three-day revival meeting of the faithful, an opportunity to catch up with long-time friends I get to see only once or twice a year, while we all try to sell at least as many machines as we buy. This year, I actually succeeded. Aside from four excellent ragtime discs for my big Regina music box, my only purchase was an odd little Trumpetone gramophone with all original parts, but in need of considerable cleaning and restoring. Which is nice. It's more enjoyable to get one of these musical antiques back into proper condition before displaying it, rather than buying it fully restored and putting it on a shelf. Besides, machines in bad shape command lower prices.

In the picture, you see me last year (the photographer gave me the picture this year) promoting my books at Union. It's been gratifying to develop readerships among both ragtime and automatic music aficionados, and it was especially nice to have so many of them ask when my next book will be out. Not one looked disappointed when I said A PERILOUS CONCEPTION will have a medical, not a musical, background. That's all right, they told me, they'll still want to read it, and I should let them know when it's available. Who says you can't mix business and pleasure?

One cloud on the horizon: for the first time in my experience, next year's Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival and the Antique Music Show will take place over the same weekend. That's going to be one tough decision, and any way I cut it, I'm looking at a mere Music Bifecta in 2012. But I'll deal with that decision later. For now, the first piece of business is to figure out what my next mystery will be, and start getting it underway.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On The Music Trifecta Trail

Following on the Seattle Folklife Festival, the 2011 Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia MO is history. And speaking of history - the only thing hotter than the music was the weather, the thermometer hitting the century mark, with humidity not far behind. As I wrote in Chapter 5 of THE RAGTIME KID, they say the devil once spent a week in Missouri in June, then went home and set up hell to specifications. At least we had air conditioning for the indoor concerts. They didn't have that in 1899, and considering all the clothing both men and women wore in those days, there must have been an epidemic of heat stroke and fainting in Sedalia around the time Scott Joplin and John Stark signed the contract to publish "Maple Leaf Rag."
At a concert at the beautiful restored Katy Depot, fiddler Mike Myer played a set with Rich Egan, a terrific pianist from St. Louis who specializes in midwestern folk rags, the kind composed by Brun Campbell, the self-proclaimed "Original Ragtime Kid of the 1890s." The duo played Brun's "Frankie And Johnny Rag," and Rich dedicated the tune to me for my portrayal of Brun in THE RAGTIME KID, and for my research into his history. Never thought anything like that would ever come my way. And just for good measure, my books were piled front and center in the Depot Store, one of those nice times when books get promoted with absolutely no effort on the author's part.
In fact, that was Number Two in recent musical honors for this musical illiterate. A couple of months ago, Randy Myers, a friend I've made through music boxes, read my first mystery novel, THE MUSIC BOX MURDERS, then wrote a tune for me, "The Death By Music Box Rag." How about that. Just writing my books has been ample reward in itself, but Randy and Rich have put a delicious icing on my cake. Thank you, both.
On to the antique phonograph/music box show in Union IL tomorrow, which will wrap up this year's spring extravaganza of music. I'm already looking forward to 2012.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Annual Music Trifecta

Don't ring my doorbell between Memorial Day Weekend and June 15. Don't call my phone. Don't give me any work to do. I'm otherwise occupied. First, there's the Seattle Folklife Festival, then the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia MO, and finally the Antique Music Box/Phonograph Show in Union IL.

Folklife was this past weekend, 200,000 energized people crammed into Seattle Center to listen to every musical genre from bluegrass to Bulgarian, and pig out on cuisine from around the world. All performances were free, though relentless promotion for CDs, as many as six or seven pitches during a half-hour set, had eyeballs rolling all over the Center grounds. Take a lesson, authors.

For me, the highlight was an hour-long concert by Seattle legends Reilly and Maloney, who have an uncanny gift for crystallizing emotions into the loveliest displays of words and music you'll ever hear. If you're over 65, and the song, "One Day More" doesn't put a wistful little smile on your kisser, you're hopeless. If you're under 65, you just might not get it, but you can buy David Maloney's CD of the same title, and put it away in a safe place for a while. In time, you'll come to appreciate it.

On to Sedalia, and the Jet Lag Rag. River (and windstorm), stay away from my door.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Disqualifying Qualifiers

Writing teachers tell us to use adverbs sparingly, if at all, and I think they've got something there. The current popular tic where speakers place adverbs strategically to avoid expressing unqualified emotions or reactions waters down the effectiveness of speech no end. The effect on a piece of writing would be even worse.

A morning talk-show host here in Seattle seems incapable of direct expression of feelings. In one breath, he can be kinda shocked, a bit mad, a little mystified, and sorta blown away. He also finds events and occurrences to be pretty unique. Another local personality, in one short interview, admitted to having felt "a little bit surreal," and said that some correspondence he'd received had been "pretty moving" and "pretty powerful." Which, he added, had been "kind of the most surprising thing to me."

My most impressive example of this emotion-dilutive communication style came from a woman I overheard in animated conversation with a friend on a Seattle sidewalk. "Yeah, yeah," the woman shouted. "I was like, y'know, pretty much just BLEAAAAAAH!" Say wha'?

Could this disinclination to convey unqualified feelings relate to the sense that incivility is rampant in our culture, and maybe we ought to hit the soft pedal when we can? Or is it considered bad form to appear overly controlled by one's emotions? Whatever, listening to the way people talk puts the screws to me to pick up my blue pencil and - aside from their appearance in dialogue, as I might employ dialect or regionalisms to identify speakers - commit unqualified mayhem on those weak, flabby qualifying adverbs in my writing. When my characters are blown away, there's gonna be nothing sorta about it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Word Thief

My wife is forever warning people to watch what they say in my presence, lest their words end up in one of my books. Fiction writers can be - and are - shameless about stealing comments, gestures, appearances, tics, anything that will help move a story along. But until today, I'd never realized how deeply this trait is ingrained.

After last week's blog about Building Brands, I decided to provide my own antidote by writing about my literary hero, the late John Jerome. In the September 29, 2002 New York Times Book Review, Bruce McCall labeled him "hands down...the most successful writer I've ever known." Jerome wrote eleven books, none of which came close to being a best seller. For Jerome, the writing was its own reward, preferable to money or fame. He "inquired into the uncommonness of common things," McCall wrote. "He believed he was mining worthy insights." After having read Jerome's book, ON TURNING SIXTY-FIVE, I'll testify to the worthiness of his insights. I recommend the work to anyone of any age.

According to McCall, Jerome "was up and at the keyboard before sunrise every morning, as close to 365 days a year as he could manage, fashioning his daily thousand or more words of meticulous prose, writing away the years as if he were being paid a thousand dollars an hour." McCall also noted, "He would have made a lousy celebrity in any event. He never met a cocktail party he couldn't bolt in a minute, hated public speaking, cultivated no connections." Not that he was anti-social - he had many friends, and was active daily outside his writing room. But as McCall put it, he "was in the best sense, an old-fashioned kind of writer, inspired by solitude, soothed by privacy, a respecter of craft who couldn't cut a corner or miss a deadline or tolerate a typo." My kind of guy.

But as I read through the article to refresh my memory, I stopped cold as I came across Jerome's maxim: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." All I could do was laugh. That quote appeared word-for-word in my own book, THE KING OF RAGTIME, in the mouth of Eleanor Stark, to describe her father, John Stark, Scott Joplin's publisher, to a T. I wrote that book in 2007-2008, five-plus years after the publication of Bruce McCall's article, and when Eleanor Stark's comment popped up on my computer screen, I had no idea where she'd gotten it from. Guilty as charged! Watch what you say around me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Buy This Book!

Today, I finished reading galleys for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, my December release from Poisoned Pen Press. That's the last step in writing the book.

And now comes the promotional work, nothing new and different. Read "Building the Brand," by Tony Perrottet, in the May 1 edition of the New York Times Book Review.

I'm not a salesman by nature. For a while, my wife, daughter and I ran a sideline business in antiques, and I had real trouble when it came time to convince a potential buyer he or she couldn't live without a particular item on our shelves. It was near-routine for one of my associates to tell me to please go take a nice walk around the show, and stay out of their way.

Maybe if I work at it, though, I could become one of those awful shills on the radio. Say, the hard-sell guy: "How much longer are you going to put up with those mystery novels that sink you into a coma after fifty pages? Are you masochistic or something? You owe it to yourself to buy A PERILOUS CONCEPTION. I challenge you! Act in the next sixty seconds, and you can pre-order it from amazon for $16.47, a saving of a full third over the suggested retail price of $24.95."

Or, how about the bird who preys on the need to keep up with the Joneses? "You're having a wonderful day – everything's gone right for you...until you pull up a chair at Happy Hour, and your girlfriend says, 'What do you think of A PERILOUS CONCEPTION? Is that Pulitzer material, or what?' Can you picture her face - never mind the suddenly-empty chair beside you - when you have to admit you haven't read it?"

Then, there's the slime-throated creep who wants us all to go down and talk to his, his good friend, who you can trust, at the car dealership, the mattress store, or the wellness emporium. "You need to go down and see my friends, the good folks at Seattle Mystery Bookshop. You can trust them to fix you up right with a copy of the very book you simply have to read. I'm talking about A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, the ultimate Seattle-based mystery." Hmm. The staff at SMB really are my friends, and you really can trust them to fix you up with just the right book for your reading taste. (Ignore the final sentence in that palaver, and we've got a first in radio advertising).

Best of all, I think, is the testimonial. "I'm here with Ophelia Waye, prominent reader of mystery novels. Ophelia, tell me, how has reading A PERILOUS CONCEPTION changed your life?" "Well, it's a revelation, Larry, nothing less. For more than ten years now, I've been reading two, sometimes three, mystery novels a day, and never felt satisfied. I just had to read more and more of those darned books. But A PERILOUS CONCEPTION cured my compulsion. I'll never read another mystery. Now, I spend fourteen hours a day watching television. My husband noticed the difference immediately, and I couldn't be happier."

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Work As Play - Promotion in San Marino and L.A.

What a trip, in every sense. Six days of sunshine and seventies is as close to heaven as a Seattleite is likely to get, especially this spring.

San Marino was a blast. Muffy Hunt, the chairwoman of the One Book/One City Committee gave me a eye-popper tour of the Huntington Library and Museum, and then I enjoyed a nice, relaxed lasagna dinner with the Friends of the Crowell Public Library, the librarians, and Phil Cannon, a ragtime guitarist who'd provided the entertainment for a concert the week before. Here I am in the picture to the left, with Ann Dallavalle, the Crowell Librarian(far right), Muffy (next to Ann), and other members of the OB/OC Committee.

Then it was time for my presentation on Brun Campbell, the real and fictional Ragtime Kid. Ann had my talk up and ready on the library's computer, no fuss, no muss, no glitches. Nobody booed, so I figure I was ahead in the game. I signed a bunch of books, courtesy of Book'Em, the excellent independent mystery bookshop in South Pasadena.

Next came the LA Times Festival of Books, where I signed copies of my ragtime trilogy in the Mystery Ink and Sisters in Crime-LA booths. At the SinC-LA booth, I happened to be sitting next to Barbara Reed, a novelist-pianist who writes mysteries set in the world of music publishing, so we had a lot to talk about when we weren't scribbling our names onto title pages of books. Here's a picture of me, telling Sister Jane DiLucchio about my trilogy.

Now, as Gene Autry used to say, I'm back in Seattle again. Back to work. My galleys for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION are waiting. Once I've gone through them, it'll be time to get serious about starting the next book.

And meanwhile, there's unfinished business with Brun Campbell, a Venetian with a colorful history. Venice, a city with a colorful history (and present) ought to pay this guy some attention. How about an exhibit in the Venice Historical Society? Ragtime concerts? A Brun Campbell Ragtime Festival? Wouldn't it be something to walk up to 711 Venice Boulevard, where Brun barbered for some 25 years, and see a statue of a young white boy and his black piano teacher, sitting side-by-side at a keyboard?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ragtime Mojo

So yesterday I flew down to L.A. to give my talk on The Ragtime Kid
tomorrow night in San Marino. The flight arrived a half-hour early.
Since yesterday was my birthday, my sister Kate, one of Long Beach's
literary lionesses, was going to take me to dinner at The Sky Room, a
gorgeous thirties-ambience spot with 180-degree views of the Long Beach
harbor. I drove from LAX to Long Beach at 5 in the afternoon, straight
through, no traffic. At The Sky Room, the incomparable Marty served us
an out-of-this-world dinner, capped off by the fabulous chocolate
dessert and message - in chocolate! - you see in the photo above.

Today, I slept nice and late, then checked my email and found a message
that the galleys for A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, my next book, will be
waiting for me when I get home Sunday. How can I collect this mojo in a
bottle? Hope it holds out through (and yeah, why not, beyond) tomorrow
night in San Marino.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Ragtime Kid Comes To San Marino

S. Brun Campbell

Down in St. Louis, on Chestnut and Market Streets,
That was the home of that old two-four beat.
It was there Tom Turpin wrote "Harlem Rag,"
While over at Sedalia, Mo., Scott Joplin wrote "The Original Rags."
But when he wrote "The Maple Leaf Rag,"
He put the two-four beat right in the bag.
Louis Chauvin played piano on Chestnut Street
And was the best of them all on the two-four beat.
That beat spread to Memphis down to old Beale Street,
And then down to New Orleans, to Rampart, Franklin and Basin Streets.
When Buddy Bolden heard it he blew out a loud jazz call
That rocked Lulu White's "Mahogany Hall."
It put New Orleans jazz right on the ball,
And made it the music of the Mardi Gras.
Then up at Memphis Handy blew a fuse -
For in 1912 he wrote the "Memphis Blues."
That was good, so he wrote another, the "St. Louis Blues."
Now Zez Confrey, just to be a tease,
Set a new jazz pattern and wrote "Kitten on the Keys."
Then George Gershwin got into a musical stew
And sat right down and wrote "Rhapsody in Blue."
So from Bolden to Gershwin it's been a musical treat,
But it all goes back to the two-four beat.

Sanford Brunson Campbell, age 15, rode a freight train from his Oklahoma home to Sedalia, MO in 1899, to take ragtime piano lessons from Scott Joplin. The composer nicknamed his student "The Ragtime Kid," and he went on to have a most interesting and colorful ragtime life - so interesting and colorful, he served as a principal character in two of the stories in my historical-mystery trilogy.

One of those books, THE RAGTIME KID, is the focus of this year's One Book/One City Festival in San Marino, CA. I'll be down there next Thursday with a presentation, "The Ragtime Kid - Separating Fiction From Reality." Not an easy undertaking, since Brun could rarely resist the temptation to embellish a story, and he rarely told the same tale the same way. Emerson could have been thinking of Brun when he made his point about consistency, hobgoblins, and little minds. But that was a great part of what made The Kid such an interesting character, in both senses of the word.

The lines of THE TWO-FOUR BEAT don't scan awfully well, but all right. Brun gets his point across, and more charitably than he usually did. Brun hated jazz; for him, it all began and ended with ragtime, and most of the time he was far from shy about making that clear.

My talk will be at the Crowell Public Library, 1890 Huntington Drive, San Marino, CA 91108, April 28, 7pm. Please come by, if you're in the neighborhood. There'll be food for mind and body.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

You Gotta Have Heart

Our Seattle Mariners started their baseball season with two wins, then lost seven games in a row, and fell behind 7-0 in their next game. Fans and sportswriters agreed - might as well call off the season. This team is going nowhere, certainly not to the playoffs. We're looking at a summer of pain and frustration.

But I remember the best baseball season ever, 1951. My New York Giants lost eleven games in a row out of the gate, and started the year 2-12. Things looked so bad, they called up a young outfielder named Willie Mays. After 20 at-bats, Willie had one hit, a batting average of .050. On August 11, the Giants were thirteen games behind the hated Brooklyn Dodgers, and Chuck Dressen, the Dodgers' manager told reporters, "The Giants is dead."

Not quite. The Jints ran off a sixteen-game win streak, caught the Dodgers during the last weekend of the regular season, then won the pennant in a playoff, when Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in the history of the game. That team had heart. Miles and miles and miles of heart.

What's that got to do with writing? Writers gotta have heart, too. So many ink-slingers become instant successes only following years of frustration, having doggedly refused to give up even when everything and everyone seemed to be telling them that would be the reasonable move.

After some thirty years of trying and failing to write a novel and get it published, I left my day job to go at book-writing full time. Three years of scribbling produced a novel and twenty-odd rejection slips. Then, a writer-friend volunteered to give my book a once-over. He told me my voice was great - for nonfiction - and suggested I rewrite the book "as if you're telling someone a story, for crying out loud." I listened to my batting coach, spent a half-year adjusting my stance, then hit it out of the park. The first publisher who saw the reworked book bought it, and it became THE MUSIC BOX MURDERS, my first published mystery novel. My eighth, A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, will come out this December. That's twelve years in the majors for me, and if I've never made an All-Star team, it's OK. I just love to play the game.

And oh yeah. The Mariners scored one run in the seventh inning, five in the eighth, and two more in the ninth to win that game. No, they probably won't make it to the postseason, but all right. I'll cheer them on through the summer anyway. They've got heart.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sedalia, My New Home Town

Writers know they've done well when they can't walk away from a finished book. A good story leaves something of itself in its author's mind forever.

When I started work on THE RAGTIME KID, the first book in my historical-mystery trilogy, I could have dropped what I knew about life in a bustling 1899 Missouri town into a watch case, and it would have rattled around. So aside from educating myself on the history of ragtime music and its pioneers, I read everything I could get my hands on about social, political and historical aspects of Sedalia a hundred years ago. I studied Sanborn insurance maps for 1899 Sedalia; these gave specifics for every building in the city, every street, every alleyway. At that point, I could have written a decent nonfiction account of the amazing collaboration between Scott Joplin and John Stark, but a novel? No way. Something important was missing, and I knew that to get it, I needed to go to the place where it all happened.

I pulled into Sedalia for the first time on a Sunday morning in June, 2003, immediately after the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. It was 94 degrees, with humidity to match. This meteorology developed into the opening sentences of Chapter 4 in THE RAGTIME KID: "They say the devil once spent a week in Missouri in July, then went back and set up hell to specifications. Only ten in the morning, but the air was already a sopping blanket..." Ohio Street, the town's major thoroughfare, was deserted, the only sound that of church bells. As I followed the self-guided tour in a C of C brochure, I saw that many of the buildings had stood since 1899 or earlier. In my mind's eye, Ohio Street filled with men in three-piece suits, women wearing long dresses and big floppy hats, scampering children, peddlers, horse-drawn wagons. I walked to Liberty Park, sat on the grass, and could feel myself among picnickers and strollers from a century before, listening to the band on the bandstand.

My story began to come to life. But I knew I needed more, so I planned to come back the next June - but a little earlier, in time for the Joplin Festival.

Which I did. I'm not a musician, and had been wondering how to portray Brun Campbell's piano lessons with his hero, Joplin. My reading had given me a pretty good sense of what Joplin generally would have expected from a student, but as to specific instructions, I was at Square One. So I sat in on some master classes, where prominent ragtime pianists showed their young counterparts how to play the music. I strolled through town, among crowds of people, many of them dressed in period apparel, and it became easier and easier to imagine myself on those streets 104 years earlier. I spent hours at the beautiful Carnegie Library, looking through microfilmed copies of the Sedalia newspapers from the summer of 1899 - what were people concerned about, what were they saying, how did they speak? I pawed through a profusion of photos and documents from the local ragtime era. The librarians opened locked cabinets to allow me to look through histories of Sedalia and Pettis County, written and independently-published through the years by local residents.

My greatest stroke of luck came while I was at the microfilm machine. The woman at the machine next to mine introduced herself as Betty Singer, said she was researching a book about local rural cemeteries, and allowed that my project sounded interesting. She loved to do research, she told me, and if she could help me with material I found I needed once I got home, she'd be only too glad to do so. That she did, over the next two years, providing me with information I only realized I required as the book developed. Without Betty's help, important characters for my story, such as Dr. Walter Overstreet and P. D. Hastain would never have developed.

All the while I wrote THE RAGTIME KID, I felt as though I was making a personal connection with Scott Joplin, John Stark, Brun Campbell, and many of the other real people who became characters in my book. But I also came to feel connected to Sedalia. Images still drift into my mind: the gorgeous century-old mansions along Broadway; lovely Liberty Park with its lake and bandstand; the central downtown district, fighting to survive the onslaught of the ubiquitous highway shopping malls; fields of tall grasses blowing in the warm summer wind north of Lincolnville, the original Black residential quarter of town. Now, I find myself counting time to the first week in June, when Sedalia will host the next Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, and I'll hop a flight to Kansas City, then drive east on Route 50, through Lone Jack and Knob Noster, for my annual homecoming.