Moving from Place to Place

The Brits say “up sticks and moved house.” I like the way it makes moving sound—active and positive. For several months now that’s what I’ve been doing and trying to stay active and positive.

I am moving away from Pine Mountain Club after 17 years, a village in the central California mountains, where I’ve been very happy. But the mountains—probably the mountains anywhere—are cold and the arthritis is getting me down.  It’s hard to type with cold, crabbed, blue fingers.

I know I could be happy somewhere else, preferably somewhere warmer. Many places beckon, Ecuador, Florida, Ontario, San Diego. I know I can’t go back to Santa Monica where I was happy for a generation and was the inspiration of my Dave Mason mysteries. For one thing, Santa Monica has priced me out. And there’s no there there any longer for me.

So Ventura beckons.  It’s commuting distance from Pine Mountain Club, coastal California, and warm enough in the winter. I can keep a hand in with all the arty events that I love so much in Pine Mountain. Particularly Basecamp.

Many times lately I’ve had the image of picking up this big old house and decanting all my belongings neatly into cardboard boxes and supervising the loading up and driving off the mountains down the hill to Ventura on the coast. But anyone who has ever moved, and I’m sure that’s all of us, knows the reality is quite different.

The prep work starts with shelves high up in closets going through old boxes of papers and photographs, each of which contains an emotional bomb. Old play programs, ticket stubs, clippings?  Keep or throw out? Fondling a broken figurine given to me by someone whom I loved dearly? How could I throw that out? I made terrible decisions and reduced many boxes into a few.

Next was cleaning. Over my life I’ve devoted very little bandwidth to worshiping my Domestic Goddess. And it showed. The downstairs of this house is so chilly, and heating so expensive, I’ve spent little time downstairs. The upstairs where I live was a little better. A loft room is where the cats have their Big Sleep every day. However, people will clean for you, if you pay them? Great, huh?

I try to change a light bulb and the whole street blacks out. But you can hire fix it guys and I found a great one. Better even, his wife is a set designer, and loved the challenge of rearranging my house. I obviously have no taste and less imagination because what she created astonished me.

And Mel Weinstein, a photographer of renown, did a photo shoot that made every room appear lofty, cavernous, and vast. Well, it is a big house, but it is not Versailles.

I knew my real estate agent would be my friends Stacy Havener and Carole Swanston of All Seasons Realty.

The rest is up to me. I have to keep this house uncluttered and clean, which is not my natural bent. Buyers can visit any time, any day. The cat boxes must be attended, my old dog’s pee pads disposed of instantly. I must nourish and maintain the flowers I’ve planted.

Perhaps most difficult of all is yanking out the tap root I put down when I moved to Pine Mountain. I know that Free Speech Theater will go on without me, Open Mic nights, the Clothing Exchange, the Dog Park, and Let’s Live Local.

But friends are not like Leggos. Please tell me how I can plug new people into old friendships that took years to build.


The Magic of Storytelling

I live in a village of maybe 2000 people in the mountains of central California, seventy miles beyond the Los Angeles sprawl in the Los Padres National Forest. There’s a few restaurants, no movie theater, no mall, or much organized entertainment. It’s called Pine Mountain Club.

In a village, after a while, you know who makes up your “peeps,” your “tribe.” You share interests and see them place you go and the events you show up for: the Artworks gallery openings, the Town Hall forums, Free Speech Theater, plays in the gazebo, the library talks, and so on. Much of our social interaction takes place at Basecamp Café and Info lounge smack in the center of downtown Pine Mountain Club.

Those of us in the artsy community entertain ourselves and each other. Bobbie Ladin, the café’s manager, greets you with high spirits and offers up good food and coffee. There’s usually somebody already there to share a table and spirited conversation. The café space is small, offering dining space to only 22 people when we set it up for theater performances. Basecamp Café is half the space of the downstairs of Pine Mountain Club’s wooden buildings that ring the center of town.  The other half of Basecamp is All Seasons Realty.

Friday night Basecamp began a new tradition to add to Free Speech Theater, the camera club, the Word Art Group, open mic, and movie night: Storytelling.

I went, not really expecting much, and because I had nothing else to do on Friday and needed some company. So expectations were pretty low. Every one of the mismatched chairs and stools were full. I felt the buzz immediately. My peeps were there and we were all looking for a good time.

Joe Ladin started the story telling off, as was fitting, because Joe and Bobbie Ladin had the idea of storytelling at Basecamp for a long time. Over the space of the next hour or two we visited the childhood of Mike Dullea and Mel Weinstein. Anna Bradley, of course, was rollicking funny. Candy Posson told a story about her nephews. We heard a story about a dark night in Japan, being shot by a BB gun.  Judith Cassis recounted how she landed up in Pine Mountain Club. I told a story about the most frightening night of my life on a mesa above Albuquerque. Some people came just to listen.

It was fun. We laughed a lot. It seemed to me that all the stories were great. But that can’t possibly be.

Hearing a story about the life of someone you thought you know, or someone from a different culture, helps us feel connected in a way that stimulates compassion, tolerance, respect and even responsibility. What was so interesting and exciting was each of the stories opened a window into the lives of many people I know well. Those glimpses connect us as a “tribe” and a community. A listener can feel with the storyteller fear and heroism, love and hate, compassion, sorrow, grief and joy —the range of human emotions–in a controlled and safe environment. And be entertained at the same time.

We live in an overstimulated society. I caught myself one day looking something up on my phone, the radio playing, the TV on some Sirius channel, the computer doing a search, and my IPod charging. And I’m not even the “connected” Millennial generation.

But we don’t listen to each other. We’re too impatient to talk. We interrupt. We ride over others who want to tell a long story, just bubbling inside to tell our own story that will top that. Storytelling at Basecamp changes that up wonderfully.

Won’t you join us April 22, 2015 at 7 pm for the next evening of storytelling at Basecamp in sunny downtown Pine Mountain Club. For more info call 661-242-2709.

Perhaps you have a story? I’d like to hear it. We all would.



The Books I Need

After what’s felt like a long, cold winter, I’m packing up my house, getting ready to move. I can’t bear the cold in my Central California mountain village. Since I grew up in northern Ontario, I know this is baby cold. I must have thin, runny blood since moving to California.

Moving means taking a look at the books I need in my life. I’m a fast reader and go through books way too fast. I’m always scrounging for something to read. Some of my books I want to keep, but which ones?

I mostly read fiction when I read actual books. I read nonfiction online, not that that makes a lot of sense. Since I write crime fiction, the fiction I read is—no surprise—crime fiction. But I’ve collected paperback and hard-bound reference books on police procedure, police science, and forensics. Those I keep.

I keep all the hardbound Margaret Atwood novels and the John Updike’s and the John Sanfords.

Most crime fiction novels I read once. Some of them I read all the way through and enjoy. Those I pass on to my mystery reader pals at Sisters in Crime Bakersfield meetings. They pass on books to me and these have collected in the six book shelves I have throughout my house. I go to writers conferences and there are always books available and books for sale.

I’m looking at those six book shelves now. The real estate person gave me that look that suggested I just might have hoarding tendencies. She says most of the books have to go.

This hurts. Naturally I’m not going to throw out the dictionary my parents bought me when I went away to university, or the Norton Anthology I used in my first English classes. This is where sentiment and nostalgia creeps in and I must suppress it ruthlessly. I don’t dare to go through the boxes of photos because of the avalanche of emotion.

When I was young and foolish I thought that having books on my shelves said that I was smart. I don’t care anymore whether people think I’m smart and that’s a freedom to put books in other people’s hands who will appreciate them now.

Some are going to the English teacher at the nearby correctional institute. Lots of inmates can’t read and using these books as teaching material makes me feel good about giving them away. Our nearest library is 18 miles away. Some will go to the Friends of the Library Sale.

I’m finally giving up my Guide to Literary Agents 2005. Some books don’t have any value to anyone.


Check out my newest eBook on Finishing Your First Mystery for tips to anyone having trouble completing your fiction manuscript.


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Inspiration from Unlikely Places

Inspiration comes from unlikely places in the form of ears going ping, ping, ping and your fingers tingling as you reach for a pen or keyboard.

Cherry Mattias, DVM, and I attended the Writers of KernSpring conference yesterday. Writers of Kern (WOK) is a branch of the California Writers Club serving Bakersfield and its surrounding communities. WOK provides a forum for published and aspiring writers to share ideas, hone their craft and encourage one another.

The yearly conference held in Bakersfield, California brought together poet Matthew Woodman, mystery icon Anne Perry and Victoria Zackheim, and Bakersfield Californian columnist Lois Henry.

All of the presenters, who are what you’d call professional writers, have thought deeply about the subject of voice or persona. With the exception of Lois Henry they speak of their love of their craft.

What unified the three disparate speakers was an insistence on writing honestly and from the heart. Victoria Zackheim, a playwright, novelist, and writing teacher pushes her students in the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program to go deeper and deeper in writing the personal essay to heal the raw patches in one’s own soul. Anne Perry, author of 80 novels with 27 million copies sold, stated readers instantly spot insincerity. Zackheim and Perry are fast friends and speak daily, brainstorming plot ideas and spurring each other on.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing I could be part of these conversations.

Matthew Woodman, who teaches writing at California State University Bakersfield, skillfully presented a session on how to adopt a voice particular to a poem, drawing on the work of Carl Jung’s archetypes and the contemporary adaption of Jung’s ideas in the work of Carol Pearson. Voice and persona are airy ideas that sometimes feel ethereal. I was impressed and pleased at Woodman’s skillful explanation, illustrating the concepts with poems, one of them his own.

I read a lot of fiction, a lot of crime fiction as well, and I sometimes forget how much I enjoy poetry’s concise evocation of feeling. I seem to need 300-350 pages to tell a story and here was Woodman’s poem in sonnet form updating the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in Los Angeles.

Lois Henry, who reports and writes and twice-weekly column for the local newspaper, claims to hate writing. Winner of major awards for journalism, she’s pressed often to collect her columns into a book. She can’t imagine anything worse than writing all day then going home to write in the evening, to paraphrase her remarks. A breezy and fresh voice in the afternoon of the conference, she focused on the nature of her craft which is to entertain and inform her readers with crisp, accurate, and economical prose.

Cherry Mattias, DVM, my co-founder of the Bakersfield Sisters in Crime chapter, is a beginning mystery writer. We were there to not only learn from the presenters but also to drum up support for our fledgling mystery writers’ group. The group of about 75 eager attendees represented the range of the writing craft: creative non-fiction (memoir writing), romance, science fiction, local history, poetry—from beginners to seasoned professionals.

Sadly there were few mystery writers.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting and worthwhile day spent with engaging presenters which made me rush home to my computer to start writing my sixth Dave Mason mystery.

Check out my new eBook on Finishing Your First Mystery . Don’t fall prey to self-doubt and the Why Bother syndrome.

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Left Coast Crime Conference

I’m off to the Left Coast Crime Conference 2016 in Phoenix this weekend, three days with my fellow fictional crime aficionados. During the excitement of registering on Thursday morning, meeting and greeting old friends, I will be given a conference tote bag that probably weighs 20 or 30 pounds. It’s like Christmas morning unpacking that tote bag.

I’ll find a thick conference program that outlines each day’s events and panels. The panels are your chance to see and hear an author you admire interact with three other panelists and a moderator, fielding questions about their craft, their process, or their plot and characters. Authors on panels are expected to be informative and entertaining and open a window into the life of a working crime writer.

For example one hour-long panel: 5 Shades of Violence: How much should you have in a mystery? David B. Schlosser (Moderator) with Lisa Alber, Brett Battles, Glen Erik Hamilton, and Lori Rader-Day.  They span the gamut from a little violence to a lot. Here’s the panel I’m on: Murder is My Business: The pros, cops as protagonists. Robin Burcell (Moderator) Matthew Iden, Janey Mack, Lisa Preston, and myself.   We all write what is known as police procedurals, that is fiction where the story is told through the point of view law enforcement of one kind or another.

The tote bag will also contain free books from an author or a publisher promoting an author’s new work. The books range from cozies to hard-boiled and lots in between. Graphic violence, sex, and world view determine how these books are classified: with cozies the violence and sex take place off screen and the mood is light. With hard-boiled fiction the murders are bloody, the sex is steamy, and the characters can be amoral, and definitely the mood is dark and the world view jaded. We all like something different.

In a drift at the bottom of the tote bag are postcards and bookmarks. Editors and proofreaders advertise their services as well, as well as publishers. Bookmarks can be the traditional narrow strip. Authors with a number of titles choose a larger, wider format. Book marks can also be found in the hospitality room where people meet to take a breather and grab a cup of coffee between panels. It’s a great place to strike up a conversation with somebody you don’t know. Most everyone is there to network and meet someone new.

Not everyone who goes to writers conferences is an author. Readers and fans come as well for a chance to follow an author they like to the signing table to buy a book and have a moment’s conversation. Authors come to meet publishers and agents. One agent tells the story of being followed into a bathroom and having a manuscript slid under the stall door. This is not the way to get the attention of an agent.

Each conference I attend features an hour-long interview in a ballroom with a notable author. This year Tammy Kaeler (who writes about murder in the world of auto racing) will interview Ann Cleves, Gregg Hurwitz, Catriona McPherson, and Chantelle Aimee Osman.  If any of these names are unfamiliar to you, they are well known in this world and worth checking out.

The author/reader breakfast is fun. Each author pitches about their work for two-minutes moving from table to table around the ballroom filled with readers and other authors. It moves fast—just enough to intrigue a reader with the general nature of an author’s work. Perhaps a mention of a particular location or type of crime is enough to make you remember an author’s name and check it out when you get home.

These conferences are open to anyone. They move at a breathless pace and when you’re overwhelmed there’s the hospitality room or the hotel lobby to slow down and catch your breath. You often find other authors doing the same thing. Many authors are extroverted introverts like myself. There’s a crank we can turn in the middle of the back to turn on the glittering, outgoing personality for a time, but by nature we need the solitude and meditative silence to polish the crime stories we all love.

Think you’d like to attend? Ask me about the next one. Maybe we can go together.




Better Conversations

I was alerted to this TED Talk 10 Ways to Have A Better Conversation by a fellow who talks too much and thought, how ironic. How unaware we are of ourselves and our impact on people. Or is it only me who thinks he talks too much?

I’m fascinated with conversational styles because many times I feel pinned to the wall by one ear because I’m a good listener. I grew up in Canada, and most Canadians are “nice,” which means we don’t start wars, and we apologize a lot. It was also beat into me not to interrupt.

I’ve come away from “conversations” wondering why someone would consider the topic of their grandchildren, their health, buying a new smartphone, or the lives of people I don’t know and will never meet, issues of interest. Short of yawning in people’s faces or just walking away, how can I convince you I’m not utterly absorbed in your experiences with Windows 10?

I would never think of relating the entire plot of my current  mystery to someone in conversation. It’s probably boring to anyone other than me.

Celeste Headlee is a professional conversationalist, host of the Georgia Public Broadcasting program “On Second Thought.” She has previously been the co-host of the national morning news show The Takeaway, from Public Radio International and WNYC.
She knows how to talk to people and here are some of her rules of conversation. In a time when we are so politically polarized and reluctant to make a mis-step, I for one took these rules to heart.

The overall theme is to listen more, talk less. That’s hard sometimes as you go glassy-eyed and rigid with boredom. We’d all rather talk and be the center of attention.

But here are some:
 Don’t multi-task. Don’t play Solitaire while you’re on the phone, read email, or make out your grocery list. Be present.
 Conversation is not a promotional opportunity.
 Don’t repeat yourself.
 Don’t pontificate, even if you’re an expert in something.
 Set aside your personal opinion about Trump or Bernie Sanders and listen to an opposing view. You might learn something.
 Realize you don’t know everything. Even the most boring person knows something interesting that you don’t know. Be prepared to be amazed.
 Ask open-ended questions.
 Don’t compare your experience with theirs. Everyone’s experience is unique, especially dramatically awful experiences. You don’t exactly know how they feel.
 Details are boring. It doesn’t matter the exact date something happened.
 Be brief.
Please listen to this 10-minute video for the full conversation with Celeste Hadlee. It’s worth it.

By the way, I’m off to Left Coast Crime Conference in Phoenix next weekend. Can’t wait to meet up with old mystery writer pals.



The Freedom of Finishing Your Novel

I’ve just sent off my sixth novel to my editor and my two best and trusted writer friends. I am hoping to get insightful comments that help me better this mystery. It is the second in my series about a Kern County Sheriff’s Detective investigating a murder in the far from tranquil village where I live.

I’ve turned it over after two years work on it. After four unpublishable novels which served as an apprenticeship in learning how to write, then five modestly successful crime fiction novels, I thought I had the process down fairly well. This last one has almost defeated me.

Perhaps it was one I did really want to write but felt I had to. Four previous novels were set in Santa Monica and featured an SMPD detective. But my bestselling novel had been a standalone set in my mountain village. I thought it should be the debut of a series.

It’s advanced slowly through many fits and starts. I tried outlining which is against my nature. I changed the killer half way through. I gave the killer a sidekick. The only constant through this agonizing process was that the story took place in a cat sanctuary. I knew the animal rescue world and it unfailingly intrigues me.

In the meantime I wrote and published 3 eBooks on the topic of Writing Your First Mystery. The book, still untitled, just wouldn’t come and I had now put so much time into it, I couldn’t abandon it. Finally I summarized the process in a 4th eBook called Finishing Your First Mystery, now in the process of publication. I worked at the wretched novel almost every day for two years. Of course there were lapses, but not many.

Quoting one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman: Creative work is often a slog and the only way you’ll really get good at it is to finish what you start even when it’s not going well. You’ll end up learning more from that experience than if you quit.

Well, perhaps Gaiman is right. I feel some sense of satisfaction, it’s true, even if I can’t say yet it’s ready for publication. By now I know it will be finished and I will feel pride when I hold it in my hand.

More than anything I feel the freedom of finishing. My first waking thought is not dread at what lays ahead of me when I open the file for the day. I can play at writing. Blogs, do some long-needed promotion, write a catch up email to my friend in Australia, pick up the phone and have a long gossipy conversation with a friend, start a new novel.

I’ve learned again that writing a novel-length piece of crime fiction is a marathon endeavor. My good friend tells me I always say I will never do this again at the finish of a novel. I don’t remember that but I believe her.

A story is already bubbling in my mind, this one in Santa Monica.

Writing Your First Mystery is available free here on my website.

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Appreciating What Stage Managers Do

Dateline: Valentine’s weekend in Pine Mountain Club (PMC), California.

The Mountain Theater Alliance (MTA) is staging a production of Ken Ludwig’s Be My Baby. The romantic comedy captured Broadway audiences with its story of a crusty Scot and stuffy English woman going to San Francisco to pick up a baby.

There is a special genius in minimizing a show meant for a Broadway stage to a 22-seat dinner theater Pine Mountain Club Internet coffee shop. The sets include a Scottish estate, an airline terminal and a plane, a San Francisco hotel room, a church, a ship, and a walk in the park.

And when Valentine’s weekend arrives, you will believe that you are there.

Mike Cram of Artworks Community Gallery, a retired contractor, built the stage in a corner of the café and will create the ship’s railing, a Scottish garden—and more. Bill and Kat Fair of MTA, the show’s producers, will create the sound effects and lighting. Stacey Havener, our director, will mold and shape our performances and keep the show on track.

Until now I didn’t appreciate what stage managers do. Bobbie Ladin from the Basecamp Café and Lee Dunnavant from Artworks are the genial sprites who dart onto the stage between scenes to snatch the cushions and a throw off two chairs to change the setting from Scotland to San Francisco. Behind the curtain are the offices of All Seasons Realty. From now until the first performance, Carole Swanston has to sell houses amid all the props; the baby carriage, a stump, a wheelchair, and a pile of odds and ends that are critically necessary for the play.

The stage managers not only prompt the players, but along with the director, they choreograph the actors. They decide entrances and exits in a tiny, tiny space filled with large nervous people. They find the exact place to put the baby so that it is available in the millisecond between scenes. They know where each actor must stand so that they physical comedy works. They also prompt us when we forget our lines.

It’s all coming together now at our almost nightly rehearsals. Did I mention the fun of community theater? The play itself is funny: some great lines. But we laugh a lot with each other and the goofing around is just as much fun as the play.

Join us Valentine’s weekend. Call for reservations or stop by Basecamp.


Way, Way out of My Comfort Zone

I live alone and the evenings are sometimes long here in the village where everything closes at 8 p.m. Almost for a goof, I tried out for a role in the play that Mountain Theater Alliance was mounting for Valentine’s Day weekend. I’d heard the romantic comedy titled Bye Bye Baby by Ken Ludwig had small parts for female actors and thought I might be considered.

My acting experience consists of playing a role in the high school production of The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. High school was many decades ago. Our village hosts 3 theater companies and I’d also done a small part in a sketch, so I knew the producers and the director.

To my surprise—and horror—I landed a major female role, that of a stuffy English woman. Truth be told, I don’t think there was anyone else in the running. It’s not as if I blew everyone off the stage with my audition.

I flip through the play and start highlighting my lines. Whew. There’s a million of them to memorize.

When was the last time you had to memorize anything? The lines don’t cement themselves in my head easily.  More than that, the lines need to be said in an English accent, which can be learned, by the way, on YouTube videos. I practice my lines and my accent with the dog. She rolls her eyes watching me prance about.

I hadn’t known that we would be rehearsing almost every night, six weeks of every night. I hadn’t appreciated that not only did I have to memorize my lines and say them in an English accent, I had to memorize where to stand when I’m saying them, and not go blank  when others are speaking. I have to learn what to do with my face and my body on stage. I have to be taught not to turn my back on the audience, where upstage is and downstage. I’m way, way out of my comfort zone. But I see the play coming alive around me with a lot of good laughs. I’m not the only one on stage. This cast is really funny.

Looking for a fun way to spend Valentine’s Day. See Bye Bye Baby, dinner theater at Basecamp in Pine Mountain Club.


Selling Yourself to Strangers: I’m not weird

I haven’t had to sell myself to strangers in a long time.  Sure, you have to sell yourself to readers but that’s a different ball game entirely.

What do I say about myself? I’m not weird? But dark scenarios of decapitation, GSWs, blood spatter and poisons fill my mind and make me feel all jolly. To anyone but fellow mystery writers, this is weird.

I live in the mountains in central California and the cold here in winter is becoming unbearable. But then spring and summer come and I’m in love with my house and my friends and my life here. So this year, instead of making a vow I would sell my house and move before winter came again, I thought of an interim plan.

When the Central Coast chapter of Sisters in Crime invited me to speak about my latest novel, I looked around and thought what a wonderful place the coast would be to spend the winter.

Sue McGinty, a fellow mystery writer who lives in Los Osos, asked me to house sit over the holidays. She writes good books about the central coast around Morro Bay. I breezed around San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach looking for a place.

Craiglist turned up a great opportunity and the dance between me and a potential landlord has begun.

They are a young couple with a room to rent in their home and I want to live there too. I write to them: “No Drama. No boyfriend. No girlfriend. No aging parents, no children. One arthritic, ancient dog. The rent will be paid. I’m neat.  I will respect your property because I am a homeowner too.”

And I wait. I write again. They called finally and invited me to meet them next weekend. This week we are promised blizzards, cold, rain, and snow. Sigh. I will get through it hoping it’s my last bout of real winter.

I want so much to make this happen. When I meet them I will be all smiles, certified check in hand, and not one single mention of decomposition. On my best behavior.

Wish me luck.