Friday, February 25, 2011

What makes a great town?

Spent most of the week in Gonzales, Louisiana. This is a town that most of us would pass by on our way from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Flat country, not much to look at, but none the less, Gonzales is a great little town.

Went to lunch on Tuesday with some business acquaintances to a place called Brew Bacher's. Had a fried shrimp po' boy that was out of this world. Mike's daughter plays on the local high school softball team and most of the team was there. Beautiful girls, and they all stopped by to say hi. That's the memory that lingers. Everybody knew everybody and how they all came by our table for introductions. In no time flat I was an accepted member of the community. I can't remember anyone's name, but loved that they stopped by.

The two guys I worked with were Gonzales natives. Their office is next door to the high school where they both graduated some twenty plus years ago. They went off to college, of course, but came back.

Bought a King Cake at a local bakery to share with the guys.

Went to another place on Thursday called Sno's and had their Shrimp Helen. Lightly breaded and fried shrimp smothered in etouffe sauce, sprinkled with lump crab. Wow. I'd go back in a heartbeat. And they claim Sno's is "all right". More than "all right" by me.

So I ate well this week, but that's not what this post is about. I live in a mid-sized community in Florida where no one knows his neighbor, and all the high school graduates can barely wait to get out of town. We don't have a bakery, and our best restaurants are national chains. We're all transients, on our way from birth to death with a short, or maybe not so short, stopover in Florida along the way.

That's why we don't know our neighbors. The folks who lived across the street when we moved in here have all moved away. There are a couple of new people in the area, but they keep to themselves. So do we. The few people we know in the community are through my wife's work, since my job is more of a national scope rather than local.

I didn't realize how much I missed being a part of this type of community until I happened upon Gonzales, Louisiana. This town is a treasure. Not for its museums, not for its scenic beauty, not even for its restaurants. It has something far more important going for it. At the heart of Gonzales are some truly terrific people, people who were born there, grew up there, and came back to help their town get along.

To them, Gonzales is more than a place to make a living, it's a place to live.

So if you happen to find yourself traveling along I-10 westbound out of New Orleans, or eastbound out of Baton Rouge, stop by Gonzales and say hi. If you're feeling peckish, search out Brew Bacher's or Sno's for a bite. And when you do, watch the people around you. I'll be mighty surprised if you don't see people stopping by the tables to engage in some friendly small talk. It's common there, and that's what makes Gonzales special.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Daytona 500

Wow, what an event. Thirty cars rushing around a two and a half mile track reaching speeds over two hundred miles per. Bumper to bumper, fender to fender, tires screaming and a half million spectators watching them roar around the track on a brilliant blue afternoon.

First impression was the rush of people. Five hundred thousand extremely well behaved fans converged on this small patch of Florida real estate. People lined up everywhere; for shuttle buses, for souvenirs, for snacks, for the restrooms… But everyone that I saw was polite, mindful of others, and had respect for the event. Not something you see every day. I know, I’ve been to Disney World.

At the hot dog stand, a kid leaned toward me and asked, “Who would like to win?” “Dale Earnhardt, Jr.” I replied, “he’s had his share of bad luck, and he’s due for a change.”

“Not a bad choice,” he said, “not bad.” That day was the tenth anniversary of the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

We had terrific seats, right at the end of pit row and in front across from a big screen where we could watch the dueling on the back side of the track.

The air itself blew in fresh from the south. Born far in the north, even a visit to the tropics could only take a little of the glacial sting out of the air. As the breeze climbed up the stands, it carried the scents of the race. Scorched brakes registered the low notes, blue tire smoke came in with an acrid sharpness, and exhaust fumes smelling like lighter fluid swirled among the spectators. The faint aroma of charcoal fires, carried from the infield where the travel trailers were parked, sizzled with burgers and steaks.

When the pace car left the field, everyone stood to watch the race begin. All across the stands, fans raised their fists with three fingers extended in tribute to DE, Sr. The car he drove, the car he died in, wore the number 3. And the fans did not forget.

There are no Porches at Daytona. No Ferraris, no McLarens, no Renaults. This is all about American muscle. Oh, a handful of Toyotas made valiant efforts, but none managed higher than fourth. The top three spots went to Fords. The Fords, the Dodges, and the Chevys owned the track.

As the engines started, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the noise. Louder than a jet roaring down a runway, the combined decibels from thirty unmuffled super engines married to the whine of thirty straining turbochargers was an experience in itself. I could feel the power of it vibrate within my chest as the main body of cars raced by.

The story of the day, though, belonged to young Trevor Bayne. A rookie who celebrated his twentieth birthday the day before the race, took first place in his first ever Daytona attempt. It was only his second NASCAR event. What a day for Trevor.

The only negative was the logistics in getting from the parking lot to the speedway and back again. It took over an hour to negotiate. And a big raspberry is blown to the Daytona police force, who forced traffic out of the city by way of indirect routes. They closed my path homeward, even though there was no logical reason to do so. Their decision caused an additional hour of wasted time trying to get home. Next year, I’ll work out a better way to get in and out of the city.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

So you just wrote a best seller

What makes a best seller? The short answer is, “Nobody knows.” Why do people buy one book and pass on another? Maybe the cover is attractive, maybe the first page is compelling, maybe, maybe, maybe. In actual fact, if anyone knew the formula for a best seller, J K Rowling wouldn’t have endured fourteen (some sources say twelve) rejections before finding a publisher to take on her Harry Potter series.

So what does that mean for writers? Whether you are self published, work with an indie, or a major house, you need to know the market for your book. When writing, keep in mind who you’re writing for. Oh, we can always fall back on that “I’m writing for myself. I don’t care if anyone else likes it or not.” Fine, in that case, why not just keep a diary and save yourself the struggle of landing a publishing contract?

If you want to get published, consider your audience. That’s still something of a black art as far as I can tell. Even the publishers aren’t completely sure of who will buy your book, and they are the experts, right?

I started with genre. Genre wise, I am a mystery/suspense writer with a style that falls somewhere between Randy Wayne White and John D. MacDonald, with a slight dose of Tim Dorsey thrown in for humor. While I’m not arrogant enough to consider myself at their level (yet), a lot of elements are similar enough for classification purposes.

Okay, I’ve got a handle on who I am as a writer. But who would buy my book once it’s out there? Sisters in Crime recently published a study on mystery reader demographics. According to their study, 70% of mystery buyers are women, and 70% of mystery buyers are over 45 years old.

Ouch! My book is a bit more male centric. Did I cut myself off of the largest market segment? Not necessarily, my beta readers were female, and they enjoyed the read. They also offered major suggestions, which I took to heart. I wanted the story to appeal to the ladies as well as the men.

How do I reach the mystery buying public? The Sisters in Crime study claims that 19% get their books at libraries. Maybe I should consider donating some books to libraries, maybe try to do a talk or two over there? 11% of mysteries are acquired through book clubs. This bears a little research as well. Maybe try to get a review and a recommendation from Mystery Guild or Mystery Readers?

SIC claims that 39% are store bought. How to get on the shelves at Barnes and Noble? Talk to some store managers, see if they allow signings, see if they have a shelf for local writers. Unless you are working with a big publishing house, I think that getting onto the shelves nationwide will be a tough battle. Except for the local stores, it may be better to save your energy for activities with a greater payback percentage.

Another interesting tidbit from the SIC study is that 35% are purchased in the South. Good for me, I live in the South. So I need to reach out to women over 45 who live in the South. I travel quite a bit, so dropping in on libraries, book clubs, book stores, and book fairs is a possibility. Locating them and finagling my way in will take some work, but may be worth the effort.

What this all boils down to is work. Stretch yourself. Do some research. Reach out to people in different areas and see if they are willing to work with you. Don’t take no too easily, but don’t push to the point of being obnoxious. Think of non-traditional ways to get the word out. In return, remember others who, like you, are struggling with the same issues, and lend them a helping hand along the way.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Literary Suspense

Is there such a thing? I just read two suspense novels by accomplished authors, and was less impressed by the storyline than by the prose. By nature, I am a mystery/thriller fan, and am wondering about this subset of the genre.

Both authors are positioned on the mystery/thriller bookstore shelves. In the first, I found what is perhaps the most eloquent one line description of a character's action I've ever read. In the second, the emotions swirl in a prosaic kaleidoscope as the story progresses to its ultimate conclusion.

At some level, all stories have drama. But in most mystery/thriller stories, plot by far is the focus. In the "literary suspense" stories, the prose slows the pacing and allows the reader to live inside the character's heads.

Your thoughts on this are greatly appreciated. Start the discussion by leaving a comment.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Morning Visitors

Was enjoying my morning coffee, looking over the backyard. It's spring in Central Florida, the nectarine tree is blooming and the orange tree is in the early stages of budding new blossoms.

My backyard ends with a thick tangle of underbrush. I don't live in the country, but there is plenty of cover. Cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, quail, squirrels, rabbits, gopher turtles, and a host of other wildlife are frequent visitors to our back yard.

The small animals attract their share of predators. I've seen hawks, owls, fox, and even a bobcat makes an occasional visit.

But this morning, two coyotes passed through the back yard. They've been around before, but haven't been spotted for a couple of years.

Our two dogs went berserk when they saw the coyotes. When the barking started, the coyotes stopped and looked toward the house. After a moment, the lead animal continued into the wooded area and soon was out of sight. The second one waited a moment longer, and limped off. Interesting enough, he didn't limp into the yard, only on his way out.

The limp was on the right foreleg, plainly visible from the house. I wondered about the coyote's intentions. Many animals feign injury to draw a predator away from their nests, but this is the first time I saw an animal feign an injury in hopes of luring an animal into a trap.

The coyote obviously hoped our dogs would give chase. Our dogs are 20 pound bichons, no match for the coyotes. If they had been outside when the coyotes came, one or both of them would have been easy prey.

Looks like I'll have to keep a close eye on the dogs.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

O, to be an Author

Here's another poem. This one was written a few years ago, when my first novel was on sub, garnering rejection after rejection from agents.

I thought the sweaty palms were bad
Until the butterflies went mad
And raced their engines in the pit
Of my ample stomach, then they quit.

I hoped they weren’t gone for good
For I that moment, understood
The ups and downs, excitement, nerves,
This fast ride through slow endless curves
Were all a part of what it takes
To be an author, goodness sakes.

The letter held with aching hope
Was from an agent. The envelope
Contained the answer that I sought,
But alas, I found that it was not.

Your work is fine but not for me,
I suggest you find an agency
That can deliver what you seek
Just stay away from me, you freak.

I stood there in the setting sun,
And thought about my work undone.
More novels, poems, and stories rage
To be born upon a printed page.
Tomorrow brings the mail once more
With a better batch of news, I’m sure.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

So You Want to be an Author?

I've read a lot of posts about the writing process, but not much about the life of a writer. Actually, a writer's life is great fun, we sit around the computer, drink a lot of scotch - or wine if the writer's a female, and tell jokes to one another.

For relaxation, we hie ourselves to the French Riviera or the Swiss Alps and regale each other with tales of woe about how badly our publishers treat us while we reach for another bite of caviar.


Typically, there are times of writing frenzy. Our muse stands behind our chairs, whip in hand, goading us forward until the story is complete. During that period, our lives are solitary, alone with notes and thoughts. Our characters keep us company and we guide their antics along as best we can. Sometimes, they take off on tangents that have to be clipped later.

Then comes the editing. Grammar errors, spelling errors, structural errors, plot holes, character inconsistencies, time line problems, red herrings all have to be excised. For me, that's the hardest part.

Then the research begins. What do the settings really look like, smell like, feel like? I had one character stop to buy a new car, and before the story was done, that car line was taken out of business, so every reference to it had to change.

If it's a period piece, are the characters wearing the right clothes? In one scene set during WWII, I had Eva Peron dancing in a Dior gown, straight from Paris. Unh-uh. During the war, most fashion houses either closed or were moved to Berlin by the Germans. So the gown had to come from Berlin.

Then the story is complete, right? Not yet. The story has to be examined for consistency, redundancy, and every scene has to have a purpose. Many lovely scenes have been deleted not because they were poorly written, but because they were not necessary. I have two great songs sitting on my hard drive that I had to cut from DOG ISLAND because they just didn't fit. During this phase you have to be your own worst critic. If you aren't, there are thousands sitting on the sidelines waiting to chop your work to bits.

Then comes the final phase, which I call "Taking it up a notch". Where can there be more conflict, drama, turmoil, problems? In the genre I write, there can never, well almost never, be enough problems to work through. Don't make it too easy for your MC to achieve his goal.

Now your manuscript is ready for submission, but that is a topic for a whole other post.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

An Ill Wind

This is a short story I wrote a few years ago.  It first appeared in WordSmith, the Tampa Writers Alliance annual publication, in 2007.  Enjoy!

An Ill Wind

Armand Lebleu had traveled up and down Bayou Chapelle at least a thousand times, but it had been many years since he had poled a pirogue. He was among the last of the few true Cajuns still living in the bayous of south Louisiana. Scratching a living from the swamps was a chancy business, and most of the people born and raised in Terrebonne Parish had left for jobs on the oil rigs that dotted the gulf or the refineries that blackened the skies of Baton Rouge. Armand Lebleu had stayed in Terrebonne; it was his home and he knew everything there was to know about it.

He knew how the grey-green Spanish moss that hung in heavy clumps from the water oaks that grew thick on the hammocks of high ground. A few pines grew among the oaks; if the moss grew on them, it was a sure sign they were goners. He knew how the little bit of snow that fell each year would only stick to the curled edges of the oak leaves that lie scattered on the ground. He knew where the redfish made their beds and the salt water flats where oysters could be forked out of the mud at low tide. He knew how snare a gator and how to rig a trot line for catfish. Armand knew how to turn corn and water into cash with the help of a copper still and some mason jars. He knew the ways of the swamp animals. The slow moving bayous were home to osprey and otter, raccoon and rabbit, cormorant and crane. And if the old stories were true, they had once been the home of pirates.

His father taught Armand the ways through these swamps by his father, who in turn had learned from his father. That’s the way it was on the bayou, lore and legend alike were passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, until there were no more sons and daughters to teach. Armand Lebleu, last of the true Cajuns, lived alone on Bayou Chappelle because no woman would tolerate life so far from stores and television and Armand could not tolerate life in town.

A hurricane had passed through a few days before, drenching the ground with a rain best measured in feet rather than inches. The land had been lashed by the strongest winds the parish had ever known. Armand weathered the storm well enough in the house his grandfather built on high ground about a mile from where Bayou Chappelle met up with Bayou Penchant. The wind did its work. The old timbers creaked and the floor joists groaned, but the house held together just the same. The old homestead had withstood the force of many hurricanes. Ladies like Audrey, Betsy and Camille had tried their best but went their way and left the home untouched, but Katrina was no lady. She was a bitch.

Katrina stole his john boat and his runabout, and battered the dock with waves until only a few boards were left as a reminder. At least she left the house alone. Now the storm was over, and the winds had scoured away the clouds. The morning sky was as blue as the turquoise stone that graced the silver clasp of the bolero tie Armand wore to the fais do-do that were held on Saturday nights.

But today was Wednesday, and there would be no dancing tonight. Armand had to check his crab traps and all he had left to travel in was an old pirogue his father had carved from a cedar trunk. So he loaded the pirogue and stood in the back like a Venetian gondolier, where he slowly poled his way toward the flats where the blue crab lived.

He hadn’t quite forgotten the beauty and mystery of the swampland, but Armand got closer to nature this trip than he had been since his childhood. Running the channel in a powerboat didn’t give much time to look around, but today, poling the old pirogue down the bayou, he had the chance to gaze a little deeper into his heritage.

Cypress trees, knee deep in the shallows, allowed just enough sunlight through to cast rippling shadows. Armand would catch the small movements in the corner of his eye, and he was glad he was not a superstitious man. An invisible woodpecker drummed in the distance, beating his beak against the hollow of a mossy pine. Blue herons, their fishing disturbed, took wing as he approached. Watching them fly, he understood why the scientists at LSU claimed the birds were descended from dinosaurs. A distant bullfrog gave throaty thanks to God for sparing him from the wrath of the storm. A turtle, startled by the passing canoe, dropped from a log into the safety of the water. A pair of wide set yellow eyes examined Armand as he passed. The alligator decided there would be easier ways to find breakfast and slipped out of sight into the depths of the swamp.

There was a tricky oxbow bend in Bayou Chappelle. It was almost a loop and was only tricky if you tried to run it full throttle in a powerboat, like Armand did one night when he was seventeen. He was on his way home from a fais do-do with visions of a yellow haired girl from town in his mind and too much white lightning in his belly. He ended up missing the turn and probably would have jumped the narrow peninsula into the channel beyond if a giant white cypress hadn’t leaped out in front of him. Today in the pirogue, the bend was just another easy curve, and Armand was able to drink in the sights and smells of the bayou as never before. As he readied to round the bend, Armand’s gaze was arrested by something new.

The cypress that had nearly claimed Armand’s young life commanded the narrow neck of land and forced the bayou to curve around it. For all he knew, that cypress had been there since God formed the Garden of Eden. But today, the cypress lay flat on the ground, courtesy of Katrina. All that was left was a tangled mass of roots that couldn’t keep their grip in the soft mud as Katrina’s fierce winds clutched at trunk and limbs.

That in itself was a shock, but it wasn’t the uprooted tree that caught Armand’s eye. It was an ancient and rusted sword, stuck point down into the earth with its hilt toward the sky that grabbed his attention. It reminded Armand of the old King Arthur story, the one where he pulled the sword out of the rock and won himself a kingdom. It looked a bit like the cross that was carved into the front door of St. Vincent’s Church in Assumption, the church that Armand seldom bothered to attend.

He silently poled the pirogue to the shore and tied it to the shredded end of a limb on the downed cypress. “What have you been guarding all these years, old friend?” he asked the tree as he studied the sword.

It was old, that was plain as the claws on a crawfish. It didn’t have a hand guard like the French and Spanish preferred, the blade was separated from the handle by a flat bar. To Armand, it looked more like the heavy blades favored by the Scots. “It could be Scots,” Armand mused, “they were good Catholics and hated the English as much as the French did. Grandpere always claimed the pirates always left markers to show where they hid their treasure.” He went back to the pirogue to fetch his shovel.

He always took a short handled, flat bladed sand shovel with him on the bayou. One could never tell when a sandbar would shift; causing even a shallow draft boat to run aground in a channel that once was a safe passage. Reverently, he removed the sword and carefully leaned it against the fallen cypress trunk and gently began removing the mud.

He couldn’t sink the shovel’s flat blade very far into the heavy soil, so he went slowly, scraping a little and shoveling a little. Bit by bit, a shallow hole was dug into the soft mud.

The shovel hit something solid, and Armand dropped to his knees to claw at the wet dirt with his bare hands. He jumped back as his grasping fingers pulled a human skull from the earth.

“Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, what have we here?” he whispered. “Dead men tell no tales, do they?” He had heard the old stories of how the treasure was buried. Lafitte would kill one of the men who helped him bury it and leave the corpse behind to guard the hoard until Lafitte himself came back to claim what was his.

Now Armand was excited as he grabbed the shovel and went to work. Rib bones, leg bones, and rotted scraps of cloth joined the mud to make a heap alongside the hole that Armand dug. Heedless of the grave’s desecration, mud flew in all directions as Armand scrabbled at the dirt, greedy to find the treasure the skeleton was guarding.

Finally his work was rewarded as the shovel hit something solid. Sweat dripped from his forehead as he removed the final chunks of mud to reveal the object below.

Armand laughed like a drunken pirate and the sound of it echoed through the trees as an oak chest, bound with bands of iron, was visible in the clinging mud. He tried to lift it, but the strongbox was too heavy for him. “Ropes,” he muttered, “I need a couple of ropes.”

He ran, stumbling on the upturned cypress roots, back to the pirogue. He rummaged through his gear and found two lengths of rope. These he tied around the chest, one at each end. Using the cypress trunk for leverage, he strained to raise one end. As he gained an inch or two, he tied the rope to a limb and worked the other end. Inch by tedious inch, he raised the massive chest from its shallow grave. He did not notice the shadows that formed an ever tightening circle around him as he worked.

Though he remained fit by years of wresting his living from the swamp’s larder, Armand’s lungs heaved with exertion as he dragged the heavy chest to his boat. “Better to open this at home where no one can see,” he thought as he levered his booty aboard. The pirogue nearly sunk under the weight, but the bayou’s waters were calm and Armand decided to take the chance. The shadows of the swamp played at the edge of his vision as he poled his way homeward, yet he managed to make his destination with the cargo intact.

As he hauled the trunk out of the pirogue, the bottom of the chest gave way and a heap of gold coins spilled out onto the ground. Hastily grabbing them up, Armand loaded them into his tool chest as he nervously looked around to see if anyone had happened by as he dragged the hoard into the house.

All told, there was more gold than Armand had ever dreamed, even as a boy when his grandfather first told him the tales of Jean Lafitte and the treasure the old pirate had hidden somewhere in the bayou swamps. Gold coins made a heap on the floor, and a rotted sack split open. Emeralds and rubies rolled like marbles across the kitchen linoleum. Armand’s eyes glittered brighter than the jewels as he surveyed his loot.

As he sifted through the coins, a large brooch rolled out of the pile. It was a scarab made of solid gold, with eyes fashioned from the deepest green emeralds Armand had ever seen. His hand stretched to take it.

The moment his fingers touched the brooch, all the windows in his house simultaneously shattered, as if dynamite had exploded inside. Armand had been knocked backwards and was momentarily stunned. As he regained his senses, he sat up and muttered, “Son of a bitch, what on earth was that?”

Armand’s eyes rose to the devastated windows. It wasn’t the jagged shards of glass that caused the hairs on the back of his neck to rise, it was a pair of eyes, glowing red in the gathering gloom, that made him feel as though he was standing at the very gates of hell.

A howling sounded in the depths of the swamp. It started as a faint wail, but it grew louder until the wicked keening rushed over the rooftop like the cry of a wounded wolf. Wind whistled across the chimney top and circles of leaves danced in the front yard. Armand’s blood ran cold and he knew that something evil was loose in the swamp.

He gathered the treasure into an old flour sack, but the sack ruptured and the coins spilled across the floor. In the shed, he found an old wooden box and dumped its contents onto the concrete, but it was too small to hold all the treasure. Then he remembered the old cedar chest his mother had stored in the attic, her “hope chest” she called it. Armand hoped it would hold the gold.

Scooping up the treasure, he carefully filled the chest. Black clouds roiled and flashes of lightning streaked through the darkening sky as he dragged the chest back to the pirogue. Red eyes peered from behind the trunks of trees and through the dense foliage, giving speed to Armand’s labor. Pushing like a madman, the pirogue made a small wake as he poled toward the fallen cypress.

The sword was where he left it, leaning against the tree. Using the ropes, Armand carefully lowered the cedar chest back into the ground until it hit bottom with a thud. With all his strength, he thrust the sword into the chest’s lid. The point stuck into the soft wood, leaving the sword standing much as it had before. Carefully sifting through the mud, he gathered the skeleton’s bones and arranged them as best he could on top of the chest. He scraped the heap of mud back into the hole. When all this was done, very little remained to tell the tomb had ever been disturbed. Armand felt compelled to say a few words, but prayer did not come easy so he removed his hat and voiced, “When old Lafitte ordered you to guard his treasure, you took him at his word. Rest easy, old pirate, I meant you no harm.”

The sky was clearing as Armand poled his pirogue toward home. He wondered what people would say when he told this story. “No one would believe me,” he thought, “it would be better just to keep this to myself. I never want to see those red eyes again.”

He walked into his house and surveyed the damage. The setting sun cast golden rays through the shattered western window, letting in just enough light to illuminate the corner where an overlooked doubloon lay hidden.