Sunday, December 9, 2012

Literary Agents: Call Me, Maybe?

In your path is a solid cement wall, eight feet high and two feet across. If you can get over it, you are faced with an iron fence whose top is festooned with barbed wire. Beyond that is a swamp with quicksand and alligators. If you make it through the swamp you will face a mine field. [I thought about adding dragons but it might take you out of the reading moment.] Then, if you manage to get over, around, or through these obstacles, you come upon a huge and impressive portal. You ring the doorbell, but unbeknownst to you, the bell is not working. 

Sound like a video game? Actually, it is a pretty accurate analogy of how easy it is to get a contract from a traditional book publisher for your first novel.

In the publishing field the "traditional publishers" are known as The Big Six. They consist of Penguin Group, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Random House, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster. Each of these may have smaller presses called imprints. For example, Penguin has fifty imprints, including Riverhead Books, Dutton, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and 47 others. 

The "over the transom," sensational, writer's first manuscript--a publisher's dream found on the floor the next morning  is--a myth. Before a writer can even talk to a publisher she has to have a literary agent. Three exceptions to this rule exist: (1) no matter your ability to write standard English, if you are a celebrity with 3.2 million Twitter followers or (2) if you have a friend who owns a publishing company or (3) if you know an author who is published and will recommend you to her agent. 

Back to the cement wall.

A similar analogy about how easy it is to get published might be the biblical verse about how easy it is for the rich man to enter heaven. Camel? Eye of a needle? Sound familiar?

Here are some statistics gathered by Dan Poynter, a publisher, author and book consultant. 132 million manuscripts are submitted yearly. Of those, 1% will get published. For manuscripts that manage to get through the initial publisher's slush pile, 90% will be rejected after the first page is read. 98% will be rejected after the first chapter is read. 30-50 will get through the reading to become manuscripts that are seriously considered for publishing. 3,000 manuscripts are published daily by various means. Of those published, only 2% will sell more than 5,000 copies. 

A more concrete example would be the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. More magazine published an article about her rejections. You can read the amazing story here. She wrote the novel over five years, was rejected 60 times over the next 3.5 years, and finally found a literary agent willing to go to bat for her. The rest, as they say, is history. Doesn't it make you wonder how many wonderful books go unpublished?

Just like those political ads prior to the elections, doesn't it seem like we might find a better way to do this, both in elections and publishing decisions?

If a writer wants a traditional publisher, she must first find an agent who will make pitches about her book to the traditional publishers. How does she get an agent? She does lots and lots of research. Most literary agencies have online websites and their websites make clear the various genres their agents are seeking. They also explain what the writer should submit if her book matches their interests. Each agent wants different emailed pieces of writing and some want only snail mail. The writer will send a query letter that is written in a specific format explaining her title, number of words, genre, VERY basic plot, publishing experience, and contact information. All of this should take up one page.

In addition, some agents want a one-page synopsis of the plot. Others want a 500-word synopsis. Still others want 3-5 pages, double-spaced. Some want attachments and others want copy and paste into the email. One chapter, three chapters, 30 pages, or 50 pages--each wants something a little different.

Most of their websites state very clearly that no matter how wonderful your manuscript may be, and no matter how many hours, months, or years of your life have gone into your baby, if you do not follow their instructions to the letter your baby will be deleted on sight. Some agents give you a window when you might expect a reply--anywhere from two weeks to six months--and others say you will only hear from them if they are interested. Do not call them. They might call you. Call me, maybe? [refer to statistics above for the answer to that one.]

People know that I've finished my first novel, had it edited, rewritten parts of it, re-edited, and it's ready to go. They have asked when they will be able to read it. I hope this post explains the answer to that question. Currently, I'm sending queries to agents. GPS would probably put me a few feet up the cement wall.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thoughts Upon Writing a Book

It has been two years since I finished writing and subsequently published The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks.) At the time it seemed like a gargantuan effort, especially since I began it in 2004.  But little by little, word by word, sentence by sentence, it trickled out of my head and onto the page.

Since that day wonderful things have happened because of the publication of my memoir. I have spoken at the national convention of the National Council of Teachers of English and the 2012 fall conference of the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. I've also presented at a number of colleges and universities to groups of students who are thinking about teaching. I envy them at the very beginning of their careers.

The book has brought former students and colleagues into my life again, some in person and other by email, mail, and phone. Not only did I speak with many of them as I wrote the book, but I also was contacted by others who heard about it and decided they wanted to read it.

Rarely are we offered a glimpse of what our lives have meant--unless we are Jimmy Stewart--but sometimes we do get to see through a tiny crack in the door back to the past. I am humbled and grateful for the many comments by those readers and also their reflective, interesting, funny stories that I didn't know.

To be able to recreate a time and place with people who shared them is a special blessing.

Two of my favorite authors, Emerson and Thoreau, often wrote that winter is a time of reflection, a time to let the smoke go up the chimney and sit down with a good book or even one's own thoughts.  So as I head into this winter season I will take their advice and count my blessings, good friends, and the many times my life has been ordered and enriched with special people whom I called "students," and whose current friendship and trust I respect and cherish.

Blessings to all my blog and book readers during this special season.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Do We Love Mysteries?

          One of my former students, who is an intelligent and voracious reader, asked me this question when I announced on Facebook that I'd like to hear questions about writing.

          I have a couple of theories. My first would be that we love to figure out and solve problems. Often I read and read to get to the end of a mystery because I haven't figured it out and I'm dying to know how it ends. An effective writer can hide those clues so they are in plain sight, but we don't catch them because of the writer's craft. Actually it is important that the writer leave clues in plain sight because readers become very unhappy when the clues are left until the last ten pages of the book. It doesn't give them a fair chance.

          I just finished an amazing book by Thomas H. Cook called The Chatham School Affair. His writing style is gorgeous and lyrical. His story is told first person by an elderly lawyer who, earlier in life, was the son of the school's head master and a student at the school. The tale is dark. It is about a terrible event at this private school, an event beyond imagining.

          But Cook is clever in giving the reader pieces of the jigsaw puzzle here and there. He flawlessly combines past, present, and future in his narrative and he does it so seamlessly that the reader is constantly left guessing the details of this terrible event. Suspense is everywhere--the reader knows something terrible happened from the first pages, but she doesn't know what it was. Only when the reader comes to the end does she see how it all fits together. It is a perfect example of why we can't put mysteries down.

          I believe a second reason we love mysteries is because they show us a darker side of human nature, a side that many believe we all have but keep in check--unless, perhaps, we are serial killers or sociopaths. The idea of a "good person" coming in contact with someone who has unleashed that darker side is an intriguing combination.
    I was reading another blog today--"At First Glance" by Sandra Parshall at the blog, Poe's Deadly Daughters. It referred to a recent article in Psychology Today called "What's In a Face?" that discusses whether our first impressions of people are accurate. Can we spot criminals when we first see them? I believe our curiosity about these people and situations is one of the reasons we read mysteries. We could have brushed past a killer on the street and not have known it. But we can read about these killers in mysteries and we can do so in the safety of our arm chairs. Whew! That's a relief.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Author in Search of a Title

You may have noticed that recently I've been absent from this blog. The answer is easy to explain: I've had a lot of deadlines as well as editing for my work in progress (WIP).  Those problems have taken up every nook and cranny of my brain. Seriously.
          For the last three weeks I have been thinking about titles. I am terrible at figuring out titles. An author needs to have a title she can live with...forever. She also needs a title that could be the beginning of a series so it must have continuing possibilities.
          This has been a terrible question in my mind, disturbing my sleep and interfering with my brain during every minute of my waking hours...and sleeping hours...for weeks.
          I played bridge and thought of titles (I think it improved my bridge.) I paced the kitchen floor and thought about titles. I watched the presidential returns--and thought about titles. I talked to my children across the country and thought about titles. Nada.
          I played word games and wrote down dozens of words that might remind me of possible phrases for titles. Nothing.

          You get the picture.

          When Daylight Savings Time occurred I couldn't quite adjust for the first time ever. At first I thought it was because I'm now officially a senior citizen. Now I wonder if it was simply my fixation on titles, even in my dreams.


          The working title for my book is A Silent Place to Die. It is a phrase I used in the prologue to the book. It's perfect, I thought. However, my traditional mystery isn't quite as gruesome as this title. Even one of my former students questioned why my title was so gruesome. It didn't sound like the Me he knew. That, of course, made that Me start thinking. 
          Other writers have titles in a series that have a theme. For example, Julia Spencer-Fleming uses titles that are religious in nature like I Shall Not Want or In the Bleak Midwinter. Her main character, Clare, is an Episcopal priest. Makes sense. Wow, what a great thing she has going. Since many writers use Christian symbolism in their stories figuring their readers will "get it," Spencer-Fleming has a whole layer of reader understanding working for her. She also has endless possibilities for titles.
          So is there some kind of "teacher culture" that readers will know about that I could use since my Grace is a teacher?
          Sheila Connolly's Orchard series uses apples in every title. Her main character owns an apple orchard and all the stories revolve around the small town, her house, and the orchard. Julie Hyzy's manor house mysteries--with a main character named "Grace"--have "Grace" in every title. Grace Under Pressure or Grace Among Thieves. My main character is a Grace and it would be so easy to connect her name with various ideas for my titles. Too bad Hyzy got there first.

          So I looked through many, many pieces of literature by American writers. After all, "my" Grace taught American Literature for twenty-five years and her story does have literary allusions. The books in her library are by her old favs: Fitzgerald, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, and others.

          And then I remembered.

          Ben Franklin. He was an American original, discussed in many American Literature classes, and broadly taught across the country. Like Spencer-Fleming's layer of Christianity, Ben Franklin's aphorisms are part of American culture. Here, you finish his thoughts:

"A penny saved is..."
"God helps those..."
"Early to bed and early to rise..."

          See, I'm still giving quizzes.

          Of course people know these sayings. If I write the first part, readers can finish the second part.
          Ah ha! I may be on to something.

          How about one saying that's a little more obscure? 

          "Three May Keep a Secret..."?

Would you automatically finish that with "if two of them are dead?"
          If so, I think I have a title.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to Have Happy Readers

A few weeks ago I asked some of my Facebook friends to send me questions about writing novels. I thought I would also use some of the answers for blog posts about writing. 

One of the questions was about a novel's structure and its author's decisions about content.

I'm writing a mystery and it has a traditional structure. It begins with a "hook" that gets the reader to decide he likes the idea and wants to read on. Hooks consist of dialogue that makes the reader curious or an event (such as murder) that arouses the reader's interest. I do, however, have a hard time picturing readers as fish.

After the audience is "hooked," the first 25% of the book sets up the characters, setting, some complications, and ends with a major event that sends the main character off into disaster. That event might be a murder or a life-changing experience for the main character. No matter what it is, the major event propels that person down the path of brambles and pitfalls. By now the audience likes the main character (in a traditional mystery) and reads on to see how the author will torture her. The more the main character experiences and overcomes, the more the reader will be cheering her on.

The middle of the book--26% to 74%--extends subplots and adds suspense, hoping to trick the reader with events he didn't expect. (Personally I find this to be the most difficult part to write because I have to maintain suspense.) This is where I start asking "what ifs."  In this middle part of the novel, writers try to pull rabbits out of hats. Just when that reader thinks the main character is out in the clear of whatever entanglements she has encountered, the author hits her again with more debris.

Throughout the middle of the novel the author adds subplots and develops them. She hides clues among other innocent items and tries to make them clever enough that the reader won't spot them. She also hides some "red herrings," false clues that seem to be the answer to the riddle--but they aren't. The author may end many of the subplots prior to the climax. This makes for a much cleaner ending.

Toward the end of this middle part, another major event will occur. It could be a murder. Often the very person the reader suspects is the villain ends up getting killed. Then the reader is left scrambling to figure out a new choice for the villain.

After the second major event, the climax begins. Here is where time slows down and several chapters may happen in a single period of time. Everything is speeding toward the end of the plot. The loose ends and subplots must be tied up. A satisfying ending that will make the reader feel the world has been set aright once again makes for a happy reader that might decide to buy the author's next book. 

To add to all of this plot talk, I should mention that each scene also has a structure of its own. The author wants to end some chapters with "cliffhangers" so readers will want to start a new chapter, thereby keeping them up until 3 a.m. so they will curse the author in the morning and swear they will never read another one of her books. But by now they like the main character so much that they will forget their decision by the time the author writes another book. (Isn't that the way it works?)

The other consideration in plot writing is the idea of fair play. The clues must be there, not just for the sleuth but also for the readers. If the author waits to add the most important clues until the last ten pages of the book, her readers will not be happy.  Unhappy readers make for lagging sales. Not a good idea. Give the reader a fair shot to solve the crime along the way.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Many Memories of Mugs

          It is early morning (5 a.m.), and I hope I never have to give up coffee as I age. I suppose coffee is like so many other sins I have had to relinquish because they affect my blood pressure, breathing, and weight. (I am still savoring the thought of the death-by-chocolate piece of cake I had at the IATE conference this past weekend, an indulgence that will cost me another fifteen minutes on the treadmill for at least a week.)
          As I considered which coffee mug to use this morning, I noticed that my possible choices reflected various periods and interests in my life. In fact, I realized that my life is laid out in coffee mugs. Check your cupboard and I'll bet you will find the same evidence.
          Take this mug. It simply breathes optimism. When each of my three children turned fifteen, we went out on harrowing expeditions to give them practice driving our car. Usually we went to the cemetery where we couldn't kill anyone...again. Then, when my freshman sons had 6 a.m. basketball practice in high school, I trained them to flip on the coffee, fill this mug, and have it--and the car keys--ready at the back door as my alarm went off. I threw on sweat pants and shirt to ferry them, coffee mug in hand and eyes half-opened, to the school. Do I miss those silent, 5:30 a.m. drives to the gym? Let me think about that one and get back to you.
          One of my favorite mugs, used over decades, is this one that reflects how I feel about the 44-year profession I chose. Though I recently retired, I still miss working with high school or college students, doing what I always wanted to do with great passion: teach. I have no idea how people get up in the morning, day after day, and go to a job they hate. Teaching didn't make my bank account rich, but it sure filled my life with treasure.
          A wonderful mug from Mary represents another wealth in my life: loyal friends. When I broke several bones in my wrist and elbow a year ago, my friends of many decades (and even acquaintances in our small town) came to my rescue with food and help until I could manage on my own again. This particular mug is very lightweight so I used it a great deal since my right wrist was broken. Every time I fill it with coffee today I count my blessings. Thanks, Mary, and everyone who helped. 
          These mugs represent a reminder to support independent book stores. The white one came from a book store in Champaign, Illinois, called "Pages for All Ages." A marvelous store, Pages was in the small town of Savoy and I spent many an hour reading on its premises and buying books, particularly when I was a grad student at the age of fifty. Alas, it has gone out of business like so many other small book stores. The other mug is from The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona, a mystery/thriller store I often visit to buy books and to listen to authors speak about writing. Supporting independent stores is so important in any economy. 
          I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Warren County Public Library [see previous blog post on 4.20.2012.] We are so fortunate to have one of the oldest libraries in the state of Illinois in our midst. Anything I need I can find at this library and--if I need something rare--the librarians can always find and request my item. I have done a great deal of research for my books at this institution and the librarians have allowed me to sell my first book through the library and speak about writing on several occasions to local audiences. My children grew up loving to read at this library and taking part in its summer reading programs. Now my grandchildren always make a stop here when they are back to visit from Arizona.
          And when I visit them, I always take a drive to the Queen Creek Olive Mill. It is also a favorite destination of visiting friends. The only olive grower in Arizona, it has expanded more than once to accommodate traffic. The mill also supports local businesses that produce products such as wine and baked goods. The story of its founding and expansion is an entrepreneur's dream. I may set a future murder mystery here. I could see some poor, unsuspecting victim dying in the olive press. But even so, it remains a pleasant place to go with tours of the facilities and explanations of how they grow and process olives and olive oil.
          Banned Books Week just ended for this year [see previous blog post], and I would be remiss if I didn't show this mug which reminds me that every day of our lives we must be vigilant to ensure the freedom to read. Reading is so powerful that it is one of the first freedoms taken away when dictatorial governments rise to power. Think Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I love this mug which lists only a small percentage of books that have been banned in various times and places. It is reassuring to know that people from all walks of life join librarians and teachers in defending this right.
          And finally, here are two of the latest mugs to grace my cabinet. I never would have guessed that I'd have nine grandchildren. My own mother didn't get to live to see her grandchildren, so these mugs represent a celebration of her memory and a reminder of the many hours she read to me and my brothers. Today I love to read Dr. Seuss to my little people. One of their favorites is The Lorax and one of mine is And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street. Next year I will once again make the trek to Arizona to spend time with the nine little munchkins. These mugs remind me of them throughout the rest of the year.
         There. Now go check your kitchen cabinet and see how much someone could learn about the history of the people in your house. It's an education in mugs.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Banned Books Week occurs this year from September 30 to October 6.  As a former English teacher of thirty-four years, I have often taught challenged or banned books in a public high school. Some of my favorite banned books are The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Native Son. If you are not sure you know the titles of banned books, check out this website. And this is only one list of classics that American public school grads often read. The list sometimes includes the Kurt Vonnegut book, Breakfast of Champions. I won't ever forget Vonnegut's novel because it allowed me to experience a parental book challenge.

This challenge lasted six weeks and the flames were fueled by the local media. The parents of a high school junior in my American Literature class wanted the book taken out of the library because it was "pornography and trash" and not suitable for children. They also wanted to form a committee of parents to go into all the district libraries and throw out books they deemed "trash." 

Without ever talking to me, the parents launched a media blitz giving newspapers information about the situation and even arranging an on-air interview at a television station an hour north of us. They contacted the principal, superintendent, and the school board, but not me. Their viewpoint was that they were taxpaying citizens who should be able to decide what books were healthy for their own child as well as everyone else's children. 

Fortunately, our school library had a policy for selecting books and our district had a policy of steps for those wanting to challenge materials. These steps included the school librarian checking with numerous book review sources, as well as the ALA, to see if this book was considered suitable reading for high school students. She decided it was. The National Council of Teachers of English chimed in as well as the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. All viewed the Vonnegut book as suitable.

Halfway through the storm one of the college students who worked at the local newspaper decided to call Kurt Vonnegut, author of Breakfast of Champions, and get his view on the issue. Needless to say, the conversation was hilarious and Vonnegut was shocked they were not going after Slaughterhouse-5. This emboldened me to write a letter to the author and I added some of the more inflammatory newspaper clippings.

The end of the challenge came when the school board voted neither to ban the book from the library nor to allow parents to go into the school libraries and take out books. 

A week later I received a wonderful gift. Kurt Vonnegut had received my letter and clippings and wrote me the funniest letter in return, commenting on his view of book censorship.

The entire story of the book challenge, including excerpts from the media, Vonnegut's letter, and details about the whole book incident, can be found in the longest chapter of my book, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks), available from Amazon or In addition, on October 31, 2012, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, will become available. Vonnegut's correspondence includes numerous letters--many of them humorous--regarding his feelings about censorship.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thoughts on Gratitude and Regret

"Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some." Charles Dickens

I was thinking about the topics of regret and gratitude this week as I worked on the first draft of my small town mystery and plumbed the depths of a character that has deep regrets about earlier events in her life. In my own life I have known people who have been paralyzed by their past, unable to get beyond some deep regret or mistake they made that cost them dearly. Some become bitter, others simply live with unhappiness.

On another end of that scale, I have known people who made mistakes, acknowledged them, carried on, and counted their blessings.

I find gratitude is a much better road. I'm coming up on yet another birthday--for which I am grateful--and perhaps that is another reason I've taken some moments to consider the topic of regrets and blessings.

Teaching American Literature in high school over several decades, I was always fascinated by Benjamin Franklin. I taught several sections of his Autobiography which I'd read several times in college. He began the book at age sixty-five, smiling a bit at his youthful naivete. He wished to live a life of moral perfection, never making an error. Even today I smile at his belief that mankind can be perfect. And yet years earlier, in 1728, when he was only twenty-two, he wrote "A Printer's Epitaph" in which he acknowledged his imperfections and believed that, after death, they would be "Corrected and amended By the Author."

Trying to reconcile these two very different outlooks, I would postulate that the older Franklin was his own best PR agency in later years.

Even so, I find it difficult to live a life of regret over past mistakes. Better to acknowledge the past or apologize, go on, and try to do better.

A blessings bracelet
This week I was playing cards in a bridge club and noticed my partner's bracelet. She said it was a "blessings bracelet" she had received as a gift. The idea is to count the pearls on the bracelet each time you put it on and acknowledge as many blessings as pearls.

Blessings can be children, grandchildren, pets, spouses, friends, events, health, or any other person or item that you count in gratitude. Psychologists will tell you that gratitude is part of a spiritual life, a full life, and a balanced life.

I went on the internet and typed in "blessings bracelet." Up came several sites where I could buy such a bracelet. And I did. I have noticed, since wearing this bracelet and counting my own blessings, that a certain calmness and happiness result.

Of course I am not advocating that life is wonderful and everyone should be drowning in happiness. But I do find that expressing thanks and gratitude is essential even in the most difficult events of life.

This is what some noted people have said about gratitude:

"He is a wise man who does not grieve for things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." Epictetus

"The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving." H.U. Westermayer

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." Albert Schweitzer. 

"For each new morning with its light, For rest and shelter of the night, For health and food, For love and friends, For everything Thy goodness sends." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"A proud man is seldom a grateful man, for he never thinks he gets as much as he deserves." Henry Ward Beecher 

Gratitude is a healthy habit to cultivate; even in the darkest of times we can find something for which to be grateful.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Creating an Imaginary Town

        One of the questions I'm often asked is, "How do you come up with the names of places in your writing?" So I thought I'd tackle that question today.

        Let's examine some of the place names in the book I'm working on: A Silent Place to Die.

        My first name is that of the small town where my  mystery takes place. This town's name is extremely important because it occurs throughout the book and reflects some of the characters' attitudes. I chose Endurance, Illinois. Because I've lived in the Midwest most of my life, I wanted to write about a place with which I'm familiar. I realize people on the coasts feel like nothing exists in the middle of the country, but I find a great deal of pleasure living in this part of America.

        I chose the name "Endurance" because I wanted to acknowledge both the past and present of my little town. Hardy Presbyterian stock settled this small town by traveling through all kinds of hazards and difficult terrain. Despite the tiny and precarious beginnings of the town, more and more settlers arrived and endured harsh winters and the usual difficulties in starting new lives.

        "Endurance" also describes the strong heroine of my novel. Grace Kimball has survived some terrible life experiences that have left her with scars but also with strength. A fire in college killed her roommates and left a scar on her hand but she survived. Her husband died in his thirties of an unexpected heart attack, leaving her to raise three children alone. But she survived and endured. Now, in my novel, she will face another daunting experience: a killer is on the loose in her town, and even her own life may be threatened before all is said and done.

The town has institutions that--typical of the Midwest--arise from its name. We see the Endurance Historical Society, Endurance High School, the Endurance Public Library, Endurance College, the First National Bank of Endurance, and the town's newspaper, the Endurance Register.

        Now it's important to have some street names in my town. I chose many of them because of their sounds. Grace and Roger's home is on Sweetbriar Court. Sounds like a pleasant place to bring your bride. Another street name I liked that I heard on the local news is Tanglefoot Road. That is on my "must" list, along with Main Street. Most small towns have a "Main Street."

        I also imagined various names for businesses in Endurance. Many of the scenes take place at a busy local sports bar where the townspeople tend to gather. I called it "Tully's" after the owner, Bill Tully. His character and back story explain his decision to name the place after himself. Other names I chose because of their sounds. This would include Patsy's Pub and Dirty Dave's (bars in town). Downtown you will visit the Cafe on the Square, Little People Day Care Center, Gimble's Paint and Wallpaper Store, and Harlow's book store. The last two are named for their owners.

        I did have a bit of fun with the last stop for most townspeople: The Homestretch Funeral Home.

        The cemetery outside of town where many of the early founders are buried is called the Shady Meadows Cemetery. It needs to have a welcoming and restful sound.

        At one point in A Silent Place to Die I needed to come up with some place names for Indianapolis, Indiana. Grace Kimball grew up there and went to college in her home town. I needed a name for the college and the street where Grace lived. So I researched the history of Indianapolis and discovered that Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, came from Indiana and was elected president in 1889. Grace's alma mater became Benjamin Harrison College (BHC). During Indiana's territorial days, General Anthony Wayne was an Indian fighter. I named Grace's street Wayne Avenue. I also found the name of a small town in Indiana and one in Illinois to become the home towns of Grace's roommates. I envisioned these two women coming from small towns.

Endurance is a small town (population 15,000), and I created other towns in the surrounding area because Endurance had to have a context. The largest town nearby is Woodbury and many of Endurance's inhabitants go there for additional shopping and services they can't find in Endurance. Other small towns in the area include Charlotte and Lexington, towns with fire departments who have reciprocal agreements with Endurance.

All of these places exist only in my imagination and are important factors in the lives of my characters and plot. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Growing Up at the Drive-In With Jimmy Stewart and Friends

I grew up at a drive-in theater, literally. A few years after my dad returned from WWII, my great uncle decided to buy land and build a drive-in movie theater outside our home town of Galesburg, Illinois. It was 1948 and this new outside movie idea was really catching on.

          It was a simpler time and people enjoyed simpler entertainment, but it left me with wonderful memories and a half-cocked belief that anything could happen if you dreamed big enough and were part of a movie. I'm sure many of my ideas about love, honor, values, heroism, courage, character, dreams, and even death came from those early movies.

          I was probably six by the time I was old enough to remember much about this drive-in theater my father managed. It was 1952 and the drive-in was a huge draw, particularly on weekend nights.

          As manager, my father booked the shows, trained the high school boys that worked in the concession stand, maintained the grounds, checked on the films to make sure they had been sent in or out, ordered the supplies for the concession stand, kept an eye on the ticket booth, and--along with a few other ushers--walked the perimeters checking for "problems," like alcohol (which was illegal on the grounds), or the possibility that children were being conceived. It was a family-centered place, you know!

          During those years when our family owned the theater, it was extremely clean and well maintained. Picnic tables and a playground were added near the screen so kids would have something to do before the show. The policy was to charge for adult tickets but kids got in free. This did cause an occasional problem with movie companies who produced children's movies and who did not believe in free tickets for children.

          I'm sure I was oblivious to all of my father's headaches and responsibilities because I simply saw this as a marvelous playground. At night my mom would put my brother and me in pajamas and we'd go to the show, often falling asleep in the back seat before it was over.

          Even now, sixty years later, I can hear the sound of the car tires as we turned off Losey Street and onto the whirring brick sound of Kellogg Street, waking me up because, even in sleep, I knew we were almost home. It's a distinctive sound that stays in my memory forever.

I remember watching The Greatest Show on Earth seven times in a row, and going back home each day to have my own circus parade with my friends, around and around the block. I grew up with Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Sophia Loren, Humphrey Bogart, Debbie Reynolds, Grace Kelly, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, and so many others. I still can remember the sad ending of The Benny Goodman Story or the courage of Jimmy Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis. I rode around the arena with Ben-Hur, was terrified with Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and Vertigo, laughed with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, and was entranced by John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man.

          I can still see in my mind, on the walls of my father's office within the screen building, wonderful movie posters, probably considered collectibles these days. To me they were part of the enchanting place that was "the movies."

          We--my brother and I--shared other memories too.  Some nights after my dad had to close the place at one or one-thirty a.m., we'd drive to the bank with the night's receipts, a policeman following behind us. Then all of us would go to a restaurant and have breakfast. I'm sure if a parent were to do this today with his six-year-old, people would be calling DCFS. A child out in a restaurant at 2 a.m.? But I still remember fondly those summer breakfasts at the Huddle Restaurant. Even the policeman, Bill Allison, would often join us.

          The sound of the car tires, the gray metal speaker sitting on the front car window, the fireflies dancing around just after dusk, the shadows as people moved back and forth past our car to the concession stand, the smell of popcorn, and the triangle of light as the projector sent the film onto the huge screen: these are my precious memories of growing up in a small town in the 1950s.