Thursday, October 29, 2015

More Art - Landscape and Inverse Lanscape

Still playing with the same technique I used on the trees, but this time playing with abstracted backgrounds.  I say "Landscape" but really, it is pure abstract that just suggests landscapes: layers that lay horizontally across the page.  It's a great concept for covers because it leaves nice spaces for text.

In this case, I planned to create a dark hill and a dark sky, with a lightening strike, however, because this technique is not very editable -- each brush stroke interacts with previous ones, and you kinda get what you get -- I don't know that there is room for a small building or object and the lightening.  But we'll see later on.

You see that experiment on the left. 

On the right, you see an inverted version of the image.  The colors are a "negative" of the first image, and then I flipped it around. This one also suggests a landscape, but with a different feel.

I actually like that second one better, even though it has a very mainstream/literary look (or nonfiction).  So I played with adding text.  That sky looks snowy, even if the foreground areas are brownish gold.  Like cold mountains.

So I put in a faux title ("The Pass") and made up a random author name.  Originally "Greenwin Valdez," which I like a lot, but I've decided that I want to use something like it for a pen name someday, and I don't like masquerading as another ethnic group, or using letters late in the alphabet for a last name.

I might use it myself, if I decide to write some book of Zen koans or something.  Or it might be adaptable to an ocean scape -- might work for a sea chase.

It's likely to end up in my "premade" stock for sale.

I've also done some figurative work on this (i.e. with people) but I haven't got control of the technique well enough for that yet.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Art - Spooky Trees for Halloween

Practicing some watercolor brushes in Painter.  This wasn't actually what I planned to do tonight. I was playing with abstracts for backgrounds -- fiddling with blue-on-blue, actually -- and I started following what the brush gave me, and ended up with these decidedly not background trees.

I didn't work the tree on the left as long as on the right. The right one has more layers and more subtlety, especially in the middle/lower trunk.

Not sure what I'm going to do with it, but it's definitely another technique and "look" I want to work with.  I'm wondering if some of the subtler bits of this could be used for text?  There was an interesting period of irregular, hand drawn title text in mid-century pulp covers that this might work for.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Not Doing Nano - Doing History

I have decided not to do Nano. 

This is partly because I realized something about Nano -- it promises a fun and fulfilling time - the joy of Just Writing, and the Fulfillment of Finishing... but the rules take all the fun out of both things by mashing them together.  The joy of finishing has to do with pulling a great and satisfying plan together - to see it come to fruition.  Requiring that the novel be started and finished in the same time frame undercuts that satisfaction completely. (Even with a novel that happens to write itself in a couple weeks.)  In the meantime, they also ruin the zen joy of just writing without thought to that ending.

So I have come to the realization that I will likely never do Nano.  It's the wrong time of year, and it hinders more than helps and for all that it sounds like fun, it really isn't.

In the meantime, I really am too wrapped up in this nonfiction project.  I just needed a couple of weeks of break from it.

Genealogy is so often a recitation of facts.  So-and-so begat So-and-so.  Or So-and-so was born on a certain date in a certain place.   Maybe he was in the army or she attended a certain school.

Sometimes you can make a story out of it by learning about the time and the place, but it still seems pretty dry....

Unless you can get _enough_ of those dry facts.  When you do get enough of them, a story emerges.  Often a fascinating or heart-breaking or exciting story.  If you are lucky enough to be able to connect those dry facts with bits of oral history, or newspaper accounts, the story really takes off.  Every new little fact adds to the picture.

And it's hard to stop digging, once you hit that point.

It's a puzzle, really, and I love puzzles.

I first found my great great grandmother, Nancy Ann York, in the 1870 census for Richland Township, Michigan. She was living with an unidentified pair of relatives, not her parents, and her older brother Luther was living around the corner with an unrelated family, the Raymonds.  Two years later she would be married to Frank Vinson, a Canadian, who in 1870, was 100 and some miles away, working in a lumber camp in an even less settled area.

How did she get where she was? How did she get together with Frank?

Well, her father died in the Civil War, and her mother remarried a few years later, so that's why she was living with relatives, right?

That's what you assume when you have the simple genealogical facts, but when I dug further, and further -- going into the other relatives, into the neighbors and their history -- I discovered another story.  Nancy was living with her Uncle Elias York, who had invalided out of the army in the Civil War soon after joining with a bad heart. (And maybe he had a figurative bad heart, too, because he had at least five wives in his lifetime, and only one child I can find. Both of whom might have died or might have left him and changed their names back to maiden name.)

But one of these wives was a cousin, Irene Brown -- who had family who moved to Michigan early on.  The Brown family and the Raymond family had a bit of a child exchange going in earlier generations, so it was perfectly natural for them to take in Irene's step-nephew Luther in this new settlement in Michigan.

But here is the kicker: By 1863, Elias and his new wife and in-laws had moved to the wilds of Michigan, and Nancy had disappeared from the family of her mother and siblings in the New York census of 1865.  So...

Nancy moved when was only seven or eight years old, not the budding teen she would be in 1870.

And she and her brother left home before their father died, and long before her mother remarried.  They were already living with their uncle and cousins and neighbors to the wilds of Saginaw County.

So she didn't move because her father died and her family broke up.

And when you look deeper at the community and the generations that preceded her, it appears she was sent along because that was standard operating procedure in a multi-generational "frontier or bust" sort of family.  A seven-year-old is old enough to apprentice out, and is old enough to go along in the first wave of migration to a new wilderness.

Hey, Nancy's oldest daughter (my great grandmother "Great") was washing dishes in a lumber camp at 3 years old. You start life as soon as you can grasp it.

Sure, there may have been more drama going on in the family, that caused her to be sent or to want to go.  Things that didn't make it into the record. (For a while, due to errors in the transcription of the faded, handwritten census, it seemed like there must have been a lot of drama in that family... but most of it was just a mistake. Someday I'll write up the story that didn't really happen.)   There are maybe some hints of it in the very small amount of oral tradition that I heard from Gramma, but not enough to draw conclusions.

And interesting as Nancy's life is, the generations before her are even more so. And you can't tell her story without knowing theirs.

So I'm off to nail down a little more information on her grandmother, and also see if I can get a handle on Elias' mysterious second wife, who is said to have come from the Cheezman family. (What an interesting name!)

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Some Art - Loretta Young and a Cover

So I did do some of my artwork.  The Loretta Young picture came out splendid, but I should tell you that this is a photo replication: that is, I pin down certain key features with an overlay before I begin my drawing.  (On paper, I'd use a grid.) I don't do this well completely free hand.  (On the other hand, this is also how Vermeer worked, so I don't feel bad about it.)

When I do try to do a portrait completely freehand, it comes out not looking like the person at all.  Which is frustrating when I'm trying to draw a picture for a blog post about someone specific. 

But here's the thing:

If I don't try to make it look like the person -- and more importantly, if I don't rush it -- it can come out looking like a good picture of someone else.

Which is a good way to do character illustrations.

Furthermore, I have this theory that if I were to NOT give up and either draw someone else, or go for the photo replication, I might actually bring the picture back to resembling the original person.  That is, I might be able to do one of those oddly detailed caricatures that I so admire.

I might play more with Loretta Young on that, but first I think I might give it a try with the current actor, Nick Blood, who plays Hunter on Agents of SHIELD.  He has interesting bone structure.  I think my failed attempts to draw him will lead to images that are still interesting.

In the meantime I did a different background for the possible book cover.  So far the story doesn't actually involve stairs, but it involves a woman laid up after an accident in her spooky old house, and she can't climb stairs -- so stairs probably should play a part.  Not sure if that figure at the top of the stairs is going to be her looking down, or if it's a menacing shadow upstairs.

I haven't found the title, or the fonts I want yet. (The title here was chosen because it fits.)  And I still would like a more flat, abstracted background, a la 1950s pulp and thrillers, however I haven't found the textures I want, and, okay, I have WAY too much fun playing with smeary tools.

And no, I didn't really do any plotting today. 

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thinking of Doing NaNo This Year

Usually I find it impossible to do NaNoWriMo. The restrictive rules and timing make it impossible to integrate into an existing writing plan -- you have to start something "new," you can't start ahead of time, etc.

However, this year some things have happened that have completely knocked me out of writing (and pretty much every other project) for a while.  So most of my creative work is on the shelf. I have been concentrating lately on nonfiction -- writing a history of my great great grandmother and her family -- but this requires long, slow, meticulous research and I could use a break from that.

In the meantime -- just as something to break up the long sessions of combing through page after page of census forms -- I rolled a "game story" and had an interesting result.

Actually, it was interesting because it was supremely uninteresting. That is, I rolled elements that, when put together, they were an old cliché.  First I groaned and considered re-rolling.... but as I sat there looking at what came up, I thought;

This looks like an old, lesser-known (and deservedly so) Loretta Young movie.

But to be honest, I kinda like old lesser-known Loretta Young movies, and often wish I could revise the stupid-factor on some of them.

I'm not really writing a Space Thriller.
So, I have decided that I will write this.  I'm just not sure if I'll do it now.In October, I'm doing two things, well, three.  (Okay four, if you count the continued reading through of the Census rolls for Steuben County New York from 1840-1865.)

1.) A cover for proposed book. I have a concept, shown here. It is actually likely to be significantly different.  The title, whether the broken stair fits the story, and I was just noodling with the background there - I'd like something more angular and Mid-Century Modern-ish. (And less Space Opera-ish.)

2.) A drawing of Loretta Young and maybe some others. This is to get my drawing skills back in gear, and to get my mind thinking on the kind of story I'm writing, but also because I want to start drawing "character cards" for another game.  Which means I'll probably do more than one -- a "realistic" one and then some more stylized and caricature things.

3.) An Xtreme Outline for this story.

When the time comes to put up or shut up, I'll decide if I want to do NaNo, or if I have diverted myself enough and I want to get back to the biography of Nancy Ann Vinson, née York, and the Steuben County (and various Michigan) censuses.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Town Research Revisited: A Marshal in Tiny Beulah

In the last post, when I told you about researching small towns to figure out what kind of police force you might use in your small town cozy mystery novels, I mentioned the little town of Beulah Michigan, which is too small for its own police force, but gets to cheat because it's the county seat.

Well, guess, what? In my research, I stumbled across a little article in that area newspaper, the Benzie Banner.  Back in June of 1932, they DID have their own police force.  Sort of...

New Village Marshal on Duty in Beulah

Those who have a tendency to be naughty are warned to watch their step hereafter while within the confines of Beulah. The newly appointed and commissioned village marshal, Ed Reddick, began his duties yesterday, June 15, and will continue actively thereat for the next three months. That should be sufficient notice to any and all who have been getting a bit careless with local ordinances lately.

A committee is being organized to locate a liberal quantity rustproof and highly resplendent metal from which to manufacture a suitable badge for the new official, and another carefully selected group of citizens has agreed to scour the woods for a husky white ash or ironwood log from which to fashion an adequate club. Prices are also being sought on a conventional streamlined derby and a choice assortment of brass buttons. Meanwhile, the police force began his new duties by painting the park benches a handsome Irish green.

You'll notice that local papers in those days could be very tongue-in-cheek.  Although there was almost never a byline, every story had a clear "voice" and very often different voices for different beats.  Even the hard news stories often felt a little gossipy, as though hearing the news from your neighbor over the back fence.

As for Marshal Reddick, his three month term implies to me that he's there to help deal with the summer people.  While some aspect of the resort business had been important to that part of Michigan for some time, it was around the 1920s that it seemed to pick up for Beulah.

I was curious to see if Ed Reddick was hired from in the community or outside it, so I looked him up in the 1930 census.  Beulah, at that time, was too small to have it's own designation in the census, so those residents were listed in the larger township, Benzonia.

And yes, Ed Reddick did appear, two years before his appointment to the job, along with his wife Rose and son, Ed jr.  However, they were crossed out.  I suspect this was because they themselves were summer residents.  The census taker started to take their information, and then found out that they didn't actually live there.  (There were other Reddicks in the area, perhaps relatives to visit.)

This, of course, would be another fun detail to use in a cozy mystery: the town marshal being a tourist hired to deal with the other tourists, and expected to leave the townfolk alone.

Well, back to my research... see you in the funny papers!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Writing Cozy Mysteries: Researching Your Town

Over on Elizabeth Spann Craig's Writing the Cozy Mystery this week, she's writing about developing a mystery series, and things to think about when developing your sleuth.  Someone in the comments asked a question: can a small town have a police chief?

Short answer: yes, any size town can have a police chief.  IF they have a budget for a police force.

However, there are a whole lot of variations on how small towns are policed (including "not at all"). And it varies even more by region.  (An American "constable" in one state has a whole different meaning than in another, for instance.  And it's all very different than a British constable.)  And even though cozy mysteries are not "realistic" and your fictional small town may be a fantasy, it's still important that the town have an authentic flavor.

I mean, as readers, we want it to feel like a real, if very comfortable, place.

And since I am currently up to my ears in regional/historical research, I figure it's time to talk to you about doing some easy online research into towns and police forces.

Your tools will be Google Maps, Wikipedia, and then Google Search. And, of course, a healthy dose of amateur-sleuth curiosity.  There are a whole lot of more advanced tools that you may enjoy, but you won't need them unless you start sliding from "cozy" into one of the more traditional mystery areas (such as historical or regional mystery).

What Kind of Town?

This will go a lot quicker if you already have a town or region in mind.  And you may already have that: a town where you grew up, or visited or even live right now.  If so, great; you can skip to the step with Wikipedia.  However, if you haven't been to this town in a while (or just never get out), you may want to play around with this step, because it can be fun.  Also if you want to disguise your town -- fictionalize it -- you may want to research some similar towns to give you some variety of details to change.

The other thing to think about is what kind of stage this town will set for your story.  Do you want your sleuth to be able to walk around the town to talk to people? Do you want there to be a Main Street? And what about side streets?  Should there be more than one diner or restaurant in town?  How far from a mall or movie house?  Should there be a back street or dark alley where you can set some skullduggery? Maybe even a suspense scene, as your sleuth pursues or is pursued by a mysterious dark figure.

Or is it more the sort of place where there are four or five buildings at a cross roads, and your sleuth has to drive her truck from farm to farm to talk to witnesses and suspects?

When you have an idea of the kind of activity you'll have in your story, you'll know what your town "looks" like in terms of a streets and such.

So we know the region, and what the town will look like... but is it a town that will support a police force? Will the town have a mayor, or just a city council?  How big of a town do you need for what you want?

Google Maps, a Writer's Best Friend

We'll start our research by looking for real towns in the region we want, which look about right in terms of the street maps.

First of all, if you are not very familiar with it, you can start by clicking on this Google Maps Link, and more than likely it will take you to whatever town you happen to be in now. (If it can't tell what town you're in, it will probably show you a map of the U.S.)  If the region you are looking for is nearby, then click on the minus button in the lower right corner to zoom out. (The plus is for zooming in.)  And you scroll around the screen by clicking on the map and dragging it.

If your town is in a different region, you may want to type in a place name in the search box upper left, and let Google zoom you to that location.  (Or just do as I do and zoom way out, drag the map to center on where I want to go, and zoom back in again.)

So you get to your region -- stay a little zoomed out, so that you can scroll around and browse for towns.  When you see a likely town, zoom in on it.  Do you like the look of the street map? Can you work with that as a dramatic stage for your series?

Check it out with "Street View."  If you've never used Street View, it's lots of fun, though limited for small towns.  There is a little yellow man icon in the lower right corner, if you pick him up with your cursor, you can move him to a spot on the map -- but only if that spot has been photographed by the StreetView Mobile.  You can tell those roads because when you hover over them with the little yellow guy, a blue line appears on the street.  Drop the little guy on one of those streets, and suddenly you are in a 3-D view of the town.  To get back to the regular map, there's a "back to map" link in the lower left corner.

With small towns, you usually only get the main street or maybe two main cross-roads streets.  But that can be enough to give you a look at the character of the place.

So you can pick a town and just research that, but my suggestion is that you pick three towns -- the one that seems the ideal size, and then the biggest that will still serve your needs, and the smallest.

Just as an exercise, I'm going to suggest you look at a town called Westphalia, Michigan, which looks like a quintessential cozy small town.  There's a smaller town near by called Pewamo (to the north west) and the large town of St. Johns a longer ways to the East.

From this point we catch up with the people who already had a town in mind.

Wiki Your Town

Whether you found them on the map, or are going with a town you already know, look your towns up on Wikipedia.  You may find only dry facts, but these are important if you are to track down things like how the town is policed.  So let's look up Westphalia:

We learn that there were 923 people living in Westphalia in 2010, and that it is located within Westphalia Township, which is in Clinton County.  You can click on the links to learn more about the township and county, but for now, we just want to know their names, because this town might be policed by a force from the village, township, OR county.

We also learn from Wikipedia about the demographics -- what race (and how diverse the town is -- which Westphalia is not particularly, but there appears to be at least one representative in town from each of the racial/ethnic categories measured by the census). You learn the median income, and how many young and old people.  And there is a little about the history too.

But Wikipedia doesn't a have any information about the police or fire or how the town governs itself.  (Local governments -- mayors, school boards, etc -- often play a big part in cozy mysteries.)  It also doesn't tell you the kind of businesses and services there might be locally.  Is there a vet for your sleuth's cat?  Is there an urgent care in town?  How many restaurants are downtown?

Remember: Every region will be different in terms of what size town will provide different things. Tiny suburban towns will depend more on larger nearby cities. Tiny rural towns need to be more self-sufficient. Tiny resort or vacation areas tend to need more resources in comparison to population, because they have visitors to serve.  The south will be different than the north, etc.

So We Move On To Google

So we know from Wikipedia that Westphalia is about 900+ population, Pewamo is half the size at 400+, and St. Johns is a veritable metropolis, at nearly 8000 in population.  (It is still however, thought of as a "small town" by most Americans.)

Now we can Google the town name for more info about just about anything: restaurants, vetrinarians, do they have medical marijuana (which would make for a different kind of laid back cozy mystery -- but it might be a necessity of some elderly sleuth with glaucoma...)

But I'm going to concentrate on police and town governance first:

When I Google "Westphalia, Michigan Police" the first thing Google gives me is info on the Portland, St. Johns and Grand Ledge Police Departments (with the information that the Grand Ledge cops are closed on Sunday).  If you scroll down the page, I find the "Village of Westphalia, Michigan" website.

Town websites can be a treasure trove of info for the researcher.  Some are amazingly full of information. (And some, sadly, are not.)  I'll often find things that surprise me, even though I've been researching small towns for a while.  And the first time you research small towns, you are likely to find a lot of things that surprise you.

For instance Westphalia doesn't have a mayor, it has a president.  Also, there is no police department -- for that you have to call the Clinton County Sheriff's office, which is run out of St. Johns (but is separate from the St. Johns Police Department).  And when those Grand Ledge cops are closed - as mentioned at the top of the Google page -- the sheriff's department will likely be the ones answering the call.

This is important to know when you are dealing with mysteries in small towns.  Also, these are the sort of thing that can make for great plot turns. You call the cops, expecting to get the local cop who knows something about what's going on, and instead you get a deputy from three towns away.

Another factor is the fire and emergency response.  Westphalia uses the township fire department -- so that service is not just for the town/village, but is responsible for the whole township, including all the farms and smaller unincorporated villages in the 36-square mile area that makes up Westphalia Township. (but given that the department is plunk in the middle of the township, nothing is more than 3-4 miles away - not like depending on the county.)

Looking at Pewamo, and their village website, I see a little more cultural information on their website.  (This is common - often the tinier the town, the more the website is a work of love for some member of the community.)  However we see NO mention of the police or fire departments. Not even references to the township or county.

So, I Google Pewamo Police Department, and, wow, Google actually gave me a result!  With a "street view" picture of the location and everything!

Except that the picture just shows us a brake shop on the corner in the center of town.  That would be cool if that were really the police department (a GREAT cozy mystery kinda quirk) but in fact, Google is just showing us the center of town.  There is no police force to find, but Google is trying to be helpful here by showing me the town.

Even after several different tries, I can't find any reference to how Pewamo is policed.  If I were doing factual research, I would have to call the township office, but since we're just looking for a model for our cozy mystery series, I'm not going to bother.  I'll just go with the Westphalia model, or go searching for another tiny town with more information.

Towns Vary

If I had gone on to research more towns, I might have found Bath Michigan.  If you zoom in on Bath Township in Google Maps, it looks like it might be on a par with Pewamo. Similar number of streets, maybe a little more spread out.

But Bath has its own police department.  And if you look it up on Wikipedia, the population is listed as over 2000.  Hmmmm.

Well, the reason is simple: Bath is not a village or town.  It's a township.  Normally a township is not so much a governmental body as a simple geographic location.  If  you're from the midwest or west, it's how they measured the land before settlement: Each township is six miles square, with 36 one mile sections.  They gave them names, but they didn't turn them into governmental bodies.  It's just a way of saying where something is.

And sometimes people in a township will charter a local government, and sometimes they don't.  So the actual downtown of Bath is a teeny tiny town, with a police department and police chief -- but the township covers a lot of rural territory.  Bath also has one other factor: it's right on the edge of a larger metropolitan area, so the population density in the rural areas is higher than usual. It has a whole lot of 5-10 acre farms, and 1-2 acre lots.

Another variation on the tiny town: Beulah, Michigan is smaller than Pewamo. It only has 300+ people.  It also doesn't have it's own police cheif or school system.  It is one of the towns I based Potewa on for my Man Who series.  (And I actually use the region all the time in many things I write.)

However, Beulah happens to be the county seat for the smallest county in Michigan, which is very convenient, because it means that the county sheriff is centered right there in town.  It's exactly as though Beulah has it's own police force, court system, jail and everything. But it's still a tiny town. ... sort of.

It's also a resort town.  The whole area is filled with summer cabins and little hotels and such. And so even though the permanent population is small, over summer ths population swells by four or five times. That gives the town resources to pay for that police force and all the amenities.

Which means, for the writer and the resident, that it's a small town with a lot of the advantages of a big one.

When I first researched the Benzie County Sheriff's department, they only had one detective, and his job, aside from following up on ordinary criminal reports, was mainly visiting schools for the drug education program.  Now they actually have a detective bureau, which has a Sergeant who does most of the investigating, and supervises a number of patrol deputies who have detective training, and can be called on when needed.

While I have plans for my Potewa force to grow a little, at the moment, I am using the more cozy model, where the detective is a guy who retired from a larger down-state force, to take a job up north where he could go fishing even if the pay wasn't good.  As employers in the Traverse City area say: "A view of the bay is half the pay."

And that brings me to the final bit about developing your town and police force:


The nature, power, size, relationships of your police department is going to be affected by the nature of the community.

The example above, about the detective who just wants to go fishing: that community is ideal for a cozy mystery.  The whole culture is oriented toward leisure and positive things.  Even back in the day of the first puritan settlers -- they came to the wilderness to establish a college which would accept people of all races, creeds, colors and both sexes.  And I don't know if it was the beauty of the place, or the stars in their eyes, but these dour congregationalists evolved quickly and easily from people who wanted to make the world better, to people who wanted to make the world happy.

And that affects the police department, especially in fiction, where details have extra meaning.  It effects the character's backstory: how the members of said department came to town, and how they interact with the town. In case of my series, the sheriff's family goes back for generations, so he naturally takes a host-like attitude to those around him.  And this is true for many of his deputies.  Others, like the detective, are very relaxed, because this, to them, is a place of vacation.  He may be just putting in time at work, but always with a smile because he's going to be fishing as soon as he clocks out.

And I think that also effects what the mission of policing is: in a resort community, policing has a lot in common with playground supervision and bar tending.  A lot of crowd management, dealing with customers who are having a bit too much fun.  And this leaves an opening for your amateur sleuth, because in a resort town, the police are busy.

On the other hand, I once lived in a small rural town where the job of the police was to make sure nobody ever presses charges.  Seriously, the town had no budget to prosecute, so even though it had a lot of ordinances, the police could only enforce them if one of the council members was the complainant.  And that wasn't because they were sucking up to the boss, but rather because the council members were the only ones who could release the funds to prosecute.

This also not a bad model for the cozy mystery writer, because it means that the police must be diplomats, talking to everyone, calming everyone down... but also maybe a little reluctant to press anything too far for fear they'll get into a situation they wont be allowed to deal with.  And that leaves an opening for the amateur sleuth to be hard-nosed and press on in investigating the case.

However, you do it, research doesn't just give you facts or accuracy, it also gives you hooks into interesting situations and details, so you can create a fascinating place for your readers to cozy into.

I've rambled on long enough. (Sorry that it IS a ramble -- don't have time to rewrite and edit.)  Got to get back to my family history research. I'm finding an awful lot of inspiration right now (not that I need any more).

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Real Innovation - What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?

We talked about "enhanced books" on #futurechat today.  Whenever that subject comes up among publishing professionals, I always end up chewing through a steel filing cabinet in frustration.

I mean, Friday's chat was actually a pretty interesting one. (Check it out here -- it's a twitter chat, so be prepared to click and scroll to try to find the various threads of the convo.)  Publishing people are not a dumb crowd.  It is always an interesting conversation.

But the thing that makes me chew steel and spit nails is that the whole conversation tends to be based on a false premise.

No, really, listen...

What is innovation?

Problem solving.

That's it. That's the critical foundation element of innovation.

If someone presents an innovation, the first thing you ask is: "What problem are you trying to solve?"

And, um, just a hint: when you are talking about being innovative with a product or service, you are talking about the CUSTOMER'S problems, not the producer's problems.

And whenever we talk about enhanced books, we never talk about that.  Publishing peopel keep talking about their own problems instead.  How do we keep from being marginalized?  How do we compete with games and movies and the internet for our customer's attention? 

And yes, the correct answer to those question is INNOVATE!  But then you have to actually BE innovative, and that means:

You have to focus on solving the customer's problems, not yours.

The customers do not have a problem that is solved by enhanced books.  They have all the shiny, push-button-y, video- and audio-enhanced everything in the world they can want.  They're not bitching and moaning about not having enough bells and whistles.  If they feel the need for that, they have PLENTY of products that fulfill the need.

(Although, if you have a project that calls for bells and whistles, sure, go ahead and create it to be the best it can be. Just don't call it innovative.)

So what is the customer's actual problem? What are they bitching about?

The answer is the thing that really makes me grind steel between my teeth: the biggest, most obvious problem of the customers in publishing is something that publishers have always considered core to their business:

Content and Curation

Seriously.  I know that those of us in the Indie Publishing Revolution have been screaming "Destroy the gatekeepers! Ça ira!"  And as readers we are SO glad to get rid of the old curation system where books would go out of print, and series we love would be cut, along with authors we loved.

But we hated that because, under the old system, curation limited our choices.  We don't want limits.  We don't like 'em.  An no, we aren't drowning in a sea of crap, thank you very much.  After 20 years of internet, we're all pretty good at filtering crap.

But we still have problems that relate to content and curation.  For instance....

The Naughty Regency Romance and the Old Hippie

I have been disgruntled about my choices in mystery for decades (see my screed on The Murder of the Mystery Genre), but I think an even better example of a customer with a problem is a friend of mine. 

At first glance, it seems a simple enough problem: She's been frustrated trying to find a Regency Romance that isn't full explicit sex.  And at this point, she'll settle for a "clean" romance -- but that's not actually what she's looking for either.

She's not a church lady.  She's not Christian.  She's an old hippie lesbian who swears like a sailor. So she's not looking for "clean" in the way that a church lady would.  She's not looking for conservative values or clean language or a whitewashed world.  She's just looking for light entertainment, and she's not that psyched about the physical aspects of boy meets girl.  (And even if it was girl meets girl, she's not reading the romance for that element.)

What she wants is the deep interpersonal part of the romance (sexual attraction can and should be a part of it, but please draw the curtain as she doesn't want to see it), intelligent banter, funny turns of plot, maybe a little intrigue, suspense and even magic, with good old fashioned justice that people of all political perspectives can enjoy, and a Happily Ever After ending.

She's re-reading old classics, because everything new she tries is too sexy or too Christian.

In the meantime, we know that those readers of clean Christian fiction have been complaining about having to be in the Inspirational Ghetto.  They can't always find what they want either.

And I can't find that exact mix of Hitchcockian suspense, madcap comedy, clue-based whodunnit, and with characters I love, and emphasis on their relationships (romance or not).  Preferably with a serious thematic undertone that doesn't interfere with the comedy.

Folks, this is an opportunity.  Not just for the writer to write what we're looking for, but for the curator to help us find it!
This is what you guys in publishing and bookselling do.  Right? Isn't it?

But it doesn't work to do it the way you used to.  You need to innovate.  To change how you do that curation thing, that content nurturing thing. You need to change how you think about your existing role.

Because there are other people working on it.  That's the way it is with actual pressing problems.

Amazon is doing it the automated way -- using algorithms to leverage customer behavior patterns -- and they would really like it if someone else were doing hte heavy lifting.  This is why they bought Goodreads and Shelfari, and why they have Affiliate Programs that support the bloggers who try to act as curators.

But their content curation is crowd-sourced, so it will always be weirdly averaged.  Different authors and publishers will use the same keywords on very different books -- because the line between, say, romance and erotica varies widely from person to person.

It works, but it still leaves us frustrated and looking for a solution.

A real innovator in the field is Netflix. They have a more reliable system because they actually use content experts to watch and tag movies with keywords based on things real customers are looking for.  Not just genre, but subtlties.  I'ts robust and deep, and best of all, consistent.  They may have different standards than I do, but because those standards are applied across the board, I know what they mean.

So, if you want to innovate?

Here is is, a burning problem that really matters to your customers. 

Your old solutions won't help, but your expertise will.  In a world where every kind of book is available to every kind of reader, help the unique customer find the unique book they want.  Not the book you want to sell them, not the book you think is good for them or deserves more attention, or the book that everybody else is buying -- the book that will fulfill their dreams.

You could do this in big ways (a unified repository of professionally key-worded and tagged books) or in small ways (nurturing micro-genres for niche audiences, or exhaustively cataloging such a small niche).

But if you want to innovate... solve MY problems, not yours.

See you in the funny papers.

Which Way Did She Go?

I didn't disappear. I've been right here.

I just discovered that if you're going to disengage for a while from the Writing Community, it is best not to announce that you're going to do it, or say when you expect to be back, or what you'll do while you're gone.

If you do that, you haven't actually disengaged.  You've just gone into Stealth Engagement Mode.  (I would explain that in a lengthy blog post, but that would put me back in Full Engagement Mode. So I won't.  You can figure it out for yourself.)

Also, I'm not going to give you a progress report or a list of plans, etc.  (Uber-Full-Engagment Mode!)

The Writing Community is a Time and Attention Sink-hole. A Vortex of Doom.

(You're being sucked in, Camille!  Disengage!  Disengage! .... Oh, what the hell....)

It's not actually the company of other writers that is the problem.  (This is why I have continued to engage with people on Twitter, and even take part on Twitter chats.)  There is, however, an element to the online writer community where I feel like I'm wearing my work clothes.  There are social obligations and professional codes lurking underneath.  It's like ... the Academic Community.

Okay, except in certain circles, it's not as bad as Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?  But there is a nagging careerism, a subtle imperative to make connections, build reputation.  If you don't end up actually posturing, you do at least find yourself striking a pose now and then.  You  begin to limit your own thinking, even.  Not consciously, but when everyone around you is marching in step, you have to make a conscious effort to break out of step -- and that is almost as limiting as just going along with the crowd.

Sometimes, you just have to put some earplugs in for a while, and restrain yourself from taking part.  And then you can start hearing the rhythm of your own heartbeat.

So I'm all Zen right now, and I intend to stay that way for a bit.

I'm not going to talk about writing for a while, though I may talk about publishing -- that is the big cultural issues, not the 'how to succeed in' part.

I've been taking a break lately by flinging myself with utter abandon into my family history and geneology.  I am currently locked in a battle to the death with my great-great-great grandmother and her mother-in-law (or, at least, one of her mothers-in-law) both of whom seem determined to make the tracing of the family impossible by marrying, remarrying, changing chlidren's names, farming out kids and taking in kids and changing their names....

And I thought my great-great-grandmother's husband, the drunken French Canadian lumberjack, was going to be the interesting/difficult one in the family tree!

Anyway, I started a blog about my journey into family history -- Clues to the Past.  I will update it fitfully, and probably mention things here too.

In the meantime, see you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


I suddenly got all artistic, and I wanted to share some images I created tonight.

First a little background: I've been thinking about a couple of different kinds of images, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to combine two very different styles.  Take the cool (or even cold) abstract style of mid-century modern designers like Saul Bass, and merge it with the emotionally overwrought style of some of the pulps.

I'll talk more about this when I have created some examples of what I want to do.  I'm going to just start with manikins in overwrought poses.  And also just playing with textures and contrasts of the "pure design" type cover.

This image was accidentally created in InDesign rather than Illusttrator. (I was wondering why it was SO HARD to do basic things like add and change points.  I wasn't working in a drawing program! D'oh.)  As a result, this manikin is not being as dramatic about trying to block that door as she should be.

I am, actually, pretty impressed at what InDesign let me do, and the tools it has.

However, because I couldn't export the image as anything but a pdf, I couldn't do anything to make it more sophisticated either.  I'll be playing with more in this series.

In the meantime, here is the cover I had the most fun with tonight. I was inspired by an old cover with a similar concept -- that is a sketchy, shadowy figure with binoculars where the glass is a highlight that really stands out.

I abstracted it a little more, and played with textures -- and also with different modes for the layers -- each layer is either transparent, or is in "Overlay" mode that draws on the colors beneath it.

This is obviously, a very creepy "thriller" cover, but I think it could work for mystery suspense, especially in the right series.  (The colors I ended up with was partly dictated by the effects.  They are so interlinked, that I can't effectively change them on this one -- but if I planned better, I could do this with different color palettes to get a different mood.)

Anyway that's what I've been doing on my summer vacation.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Update - Breaking for June

I thought I wrote an update post, but it is nowhere to be found.  It will undoubtedly show up after I rewrite it from scratch....

Pretty Little May

May turned into another month from hell.  And I am currently not feeling well.  I am late on the next podcast. (It's recorded, not fully edited, and I need to write and record the intro.  Simple stuff, except not.  Especially with a sore throat.)

This month did allow me to validate another part of the Xtreme Outlining experiment.

I mentioned, back when I started this that one of my secondary goals was to see if Xtreme Outlining would help deal with those times when life (voluntarily or involuntarily) derailed your attempts at writing.  That is, by using this method, could I more easily drop and pick up a story, seamlessly and quickly?

I can say that, for at least the shorter interruptions (say, a full week) it works like gangbusters.

It's really easy to get back into the story.  I had interruptions that were long enough to forget about the direction, the emotions, where the protag's mind was, etc.  A quick review of the outline, and maybe a pause to revise some work already done (which gets my mind back into the voice of the story) is all I need.

So, score one there.  This was my original purpose of the experiment.  All by itself, that's a win.

June, June, June

I have no particular goals for June. June will be jam packed with activity -- so I'm taking a vacation from the blog, and from most internet activity.  I'll keep on top of comments, and Twitter. 

I'm not taking a vacation from writing.  And while the podcast will go on a short break after the next episode, I will definitely be recording.  Art is going to be priority three, so I don't know if I will get to it, though I have visions of design in my head.

(EDITED TO ADD: one of the things I might record is a bit from the current story.  This is what I wanted to blog about -- how looking forward toward reading it aloud is a galvanizing part of the process now.)

So off I go.  I'll be back in July.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Pen Names - Should I or Shouldn't I?

When I first started self-publishing, I considered using a pen name for the first couple of books I published.  I didn't because I write too many different kinds of fiction, and if any had a different name, they probably all should have one.

Every now and then, I do regret that I didn't use a separate pen name for my children's fiction... except I really couldn't. For two reasons: one is that most of the children's fiction I wanted to self-publish has already been published under my own name.  Same with my fantasy and mystery short fiction.

The other is that my "children's" fiction tended to be all for different ages, and most of it was actually written for adults. I couldn't find a clean line to draw between my different stories.

So I ended up just using my own name because it was easier, and because in the end, my work is unified by my own style, and genre has little to do with it.

Enter the Story Game

When I started playing with the Story Game a couple of years ago, even before I thought of writing stories from it "for reals," I planned to write these books under a pen name. 

I had three reasons for this:

1.) The books might suck, er, I mean be kinda cheezy* (in a cool, pulpy sort of way).

I enjoy pulp and old movies.  When I read, I can forgive a certain amount of extra cheeze or illogic or datedness in a story if it has something to compensate for that.  Usually, with a pulp story, there is a certain zest to it that comes of being written fast, cheap and sure.

And I would like to have the freedom to write something cheezy or stupid.  Even if others know I wrote it, using a pen name feels like saying "Hey, I warned you."  Or maybe "I meant to do that, honest."  It's like... giving myself permission.


Let's be honest here: I tend to give myself permission to write whatever I want anyway.  And these books aren't coming out any cheezier or dopier than anything else I write.

And ... if I ever do come up with something truly cheezy and dopey later, then I'll want to use yet another pen name to separate them from these books.

*(NOTE: "cheeze" is not the same as "cheese" though both can be stinky or tasty, depending on circumstances.)

2.) A pen name puts another layer of separation between one kind of story and another.

Most of my work is very hard hard to divide one genre from another.  But I plan for this series to be very consistent and up to code in terms of their genre, even if they are a series of stand-alone books, and even if the genre in question is a little dated.

So if these books have genre consistency... that means they'll have a chance to appeal to people who like to know what they are getting. The sort of people who don't like my regular work.

Furthermore, these books were planned to be different in style, not just genre.  So even people who like cross-genre fiction might not like my regular style.  Using a pen name, then, would give them a fence line.  "End of Safety Zone.  Here There Be Quirks!"


As far as I can tell, the style and appeal of these stories are turning out to have pretty much the same quirks as my regular fiction.

So the fence is kinda pointless.  (Here there be quirks, and also there there be quirks.)

3.) Typography.

Typographically speaking, my name has only one good thing going for it: the first and last name are about the same length.  Which means you can stack the first name on top of the last and they'll look nice and square. But that's about it.   No interesting opportunities for nesting or interactions between letters, or to play with different size and stacking.

If I use a pen name, though, I can choose it based on typographical possibilities!  I can choose the initial letters, and all the rest of the letters and make each name any length I freaking well please.  I can have interlocking As and Vs, or nest a short first name between the risers at the beginning and end of the last name. Or do that thing with the large block sanserif type where a long first name is stacked, in small type, on top of a gigantic but short last name.

I can change an N to an M just to make the text line up the way I want. I can add or subtract a vowel.


As I look over various pulp covers for the right "look" for the series, I find that the one that works best is one that depends on the type being really plain and boring.  No stacking, no interlocking.  Who cares whether it's an N or an M?

I can't find any examples just now, but it was a post-pulp paperback style, oddly self-conscious, while pretending it isn't.  Kind of a "hipster meets grunge" thing: where there would be this incredible mid-century modern art, but the typography and design elements were so plain they seemed to say "Hey, this is just a cover on a cheap pulp paperback - it's what's inside that matters."  Kind of pretentious and anti-pretentious at the same time.

Which is something you can say for a lot of visual arts of the period.

And for that particular style, it doesn't matter what your name is. It's like typing it on a typewriter.  If it comes out ugly, that's just how it is.

(Maybe, someday, when I track down the examples of what to do, I'll explain why I think this would be a good style to use.)

So anyway... much as I like the idea of using a pen name for these books, I am beginning to lean away from the idea. 

It will, of course, ultimately depend on how these books come out, and how the art comes out.  It's just looking more and more like it's all a part of my existing brand.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

DNP Ep 2 - Zen Mountains and Regaining the Joy of Reading

I've been hearing again from writers who bemoan the fact that they can't enjoy reading like they once did.  That, and an interaction about the folk/rock singer Donovan on Twitter, inspired me to write a blog post about how you will get it back.

You can listen to the audio version here, or read the text below.

Download link: Daring Novelist Podcast - Episode 2 4:00 min

Here's a famous quote from a zen master that really applies to writing:

"Before a man studies Zen, to him mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen, through the instruction of a good master, mountains to him are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this, when he really attains to the abode of rest, mountains are once more mountains and waters are waters." - Chingyuan Weixin

What's that quote about?  Well, I think it's about something we all experience in learning our craft.  Everybody who learns a new skill, especially creative skills, has a moment when they cease to enjoy the thing they are learning about.

So when you are a reader, you love reading, and you experience the story as a story.  It's not complicated, the story just is what it is, the way a mountain just is what it is.

Then you start learning how to write, and how to make your story work as well as those other stories you love, and suddenly you find that you can't read for pleasure any more.

Suddenly you don't see the story any more -- you see elements. You see how it works but not what it does.  Or if you see what it does, you no longer feel it in yourself.  You are too aware of the mechanics and parts.

Many writers fear reaching this point.  Some give up in despair, because they think the magic is gone. Others shut their eyes tight and back away, determined to recapture their "innocent" state, and stop learning. 

Yet others sigh, and continue on, mourning the loss of the magic of the story, but happy to have achieved a different happiness through creation.

Now and then you'll hear someone quote a poet about how if you analyze poetry it's like dissecting a frog -- you might learn something but you kill the frog in the process.

But that's utterly wrong.  That's not really how literature works.  Because you can't kill a story by understanding it -- not any more than you can kill a mountain or water.  It's just that while you study, you become blind to the life or soul of it for a while.

Once you've mastered those distracting elements of story, the story becomes available to you again.  They will no longer distract you.

However, before you can actually see the story again, you have to do one more thing:

You have to let go.

That's the thing that will bring the magic back.

The only reason you can't see the story is that you trained yourself to be compulsive and see every error, every device, every trick.

So the last lesson, is to master yourself, and your need to correct everything.  You need to train yourself to see the story in spite of the errors.  You have to let go of your acquired need to correct those errors. 

When you have mastered yourself to the point where you can mark an error or not as you choose, then you will be able to see the mountain again.

See you in the funny papers.

Challenge Update - Progress If You Squint

The past week made me feel like a failure, because Life got in my way.

Until I realized that, even if I can't do 5000 words a day unless I actually have the day to myself, I have been doing 2000 words a day, even with Life dancing a rumba on my head. (No, wait, that was the cat dancing on my head.  Life was trying to dance with me, and kept going for the dip when I wasn't prepared...)

The Xtreme Outlning experiment has indeed made that 2k level of writing an easy, low-key task -- something it has never been before.  Two thousand words used to be something I had to work at.  Now it isn't.

It's actually easy enough that I mainly have to worry about forgetting, because it leaves time and energy for other things.  And you know how I am about Other Things. 

I don't think, however, that I'm going to get the book quite done this month. All the same, it seems like a really fruitful experiment. I'll sum up more of what I learned end of next week.

Audio Blog Post Coming Up!

A part of my problem with the current project -- doing the romantic suspense stories under a pen name -- is that it is no longer shiny.  I am still highly motivated on this book, but I don't know if the motivation will last for three books in one go.  Audio is calling to me again.  Other series are also calling.  (Also, the covers for the romantic suspense books are calling, even if I don't feel like writing them all right now.)

Since I've been seriously neglecting my second podcast -- the one associated with this blog -- and I had a short, interesting post waiting to be published, so I decided to record it. this morning.  It went swimmingly, editing and all.  (Well, it was only 3-4 minutes.)  The sound quality is much improved over the previous episodes, so I had to redo the opening and closing as well.

(Have I mentioned that I love my Shure SM58 microphone?  I recorded this while the computer was running and the cat was snoring withing 3 feet of where I was working.)

I'll be posting that later tonight (as a text post, as well as audio).

As a teaser I will post a little music video of a song that refers to the same Zen principle that my post will refer to.  Only my post should be more clear as to what I'm talking about.  (Which is readers just read a story, then when you learn to write, you lose your ability to enjoy reading... then when you master your skills, you enjoy reading again. i.e. First there is a story, then there is no story, then there is....)

This is a song by Donovan, a very hippy sort of singer from the sixties, who I grew up with.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Spine Poetry - DVD Edition

There's a meme going around called "Book Spine Poetry" -- you stack books so that their titles create a poem.

I started to go hunting among my books, but I spotted a couple of titles among my DVDs that seemed ripe, so I went after that instead:

I Wanna Hold Your Hand,
Queen Margot.
Shall We Dance
In The Heat of the Night?

This is fun. I might make this a regular feature....

See you in the funny papers.