Thursday, November 20, 2014

My new favorite sleuth

When I was a kid, Nancy Drew was my favorite sleuth, if not my hero. I’m not unique in that. Scratch many female mystery readers and writers, and you’re likely to find it was Nancy who led them into their lives of crime.

I know Nancy Drew inspired a lot of us. But she was more than inspirational for me. I wasn’t being raised in a household that believed in independent women. Though others were caught up in the women’s movement, in my family, we were enshrining the beliefs of an earlier century. I was always told that women were supposed to be submissive to men, that we should hide our intelligence and capabilities or it would threaten them. Even then I wondered why we should want men who folded that easily, but as a little girl I feared I might be alone in that belief.

If my parents had read the books they were buying, they would have banned her from our house as a subversive. Because they didn’t, I was able to cling to another view of life. For me Nancy’s self-confidence and deductive savvy weren’t merely inspiring, they were like water in the desert to someone dying of intellectual thirst.

I’ve been grateful to her shining example all these years because she helped me to become the woman I am today.

Lately I’ve added another hero to the female sleuths who so effectively kick ass. I’ve started watching Veronica Mars.

Yeah, yeah, I know this was a show from, not merely years, by nearly a decade ago. What can I say? I don’t have much time for TV, and I’ve missed loads of good shows. In the spirit of full honesty, though, I must confess that I did know about Veronica Mars when it was on. Most mystery folks watched it then, and many of them raved about it.

I gave it a try once, but its teenaged protagonist meant it contained two elements that tend to drive me away from movies and TV: I hate it when what we’re supposed to accept as smart aleck teens characters who are actually played by actors zeroing in on thirty — I always believe that makes they unbelievably savvy about life, and I often find I can’t sustain that much disbelief, and, teen shows invariably mean we have to watch commercials for zit products.

But recently, on a stormy Sunday when there was nothing else to watch, I gave it another try, this time catching the pilot. Boy, was I wrong! Oh, sure, the actors are too old to their parts to my mind, but it has so much else going for it, I’ve found I can overlook that.

I didn’t know that Veronica believed herself to be raped in the first episode. What a bold story choice. And since Veronica keeps her ugly secret close, and moves forward so courageously, that makes me admire her even more. She’s as confident and smart as Nancy Drew, only she’s working in a tougher world. I also didn’t know that it makes such a statement on the haves versus the have-nots, which is even truer today than when the show was made.

I love discovering what you most of you must have known years ago, but I’m finding it as fresh and engaging now as when it was created.

I’m not sorry I didn’t see all these episodes before, however. Because now, thanks to Pivot TV running all the episodes, I can create my own Veronica Mars marathons. And thanks to my DVR, I can skip the zit commercials.

Feeding pets

Do you feed your pets the same food that you eat, “from the table,” as the saying goes? We give our pets so much of our food, it’s a wonder we don’t eat off the floor as they do.

Once, a long time ago, I went to the home of an anthology editor for an editorial meeting. For some reason she decided to give her dog his dinner while I was there, although it was only mid-afternoon. She took great pride in showing me what an exceptional dog trainer she was. She put the bowl of food on the floor, and then completely ignored the dog. He sat and waited some considerable time until she finally gave him permission to eat. She seemed quite proud of her achievement, while I couldn’t help but be humiliated for the poor dog, who was being treated like an animal, instead of a person who just happened to wear fur.

Clearly, you can tell where I’m coming from with that perspective.

Trainers say that, among pets, dogs especially see themselves and us as members of a dog pack, and that it’s up to us, the humans, to establish ourselves as the alpha members of the pack. The pack in our home seems considerably more egalitarian that that. We’re all kind of alpha-ish

It’s usually not much of an issue with cats, since most of them will turn their noses up at people food. Unless they can steal it from a counter, that is. I’ve had cats that would actually eat anything stolen, when they would never touch that same food if we offered it to them. My cat Philly doesn’t eat any people food, apart from American cheese slices broken into tiny pieces. I can’t remember how we happened to have offered it to him, but now it’s built into an obsession. We have a dairy drawer in our refrigerator, and he keys off the sound of that. If we take other cheeses out and offer him pieces of better cheese, he rejects them with disgust, looking at us as if to say, “That’s not cheese!”

Actually, it’s the reverse. It’s the American slices that are something called “cheese food,” but we have to keep it on hand because our little man loves them so much.

Don’t misunderstand me. I know that animals have special dietary needs. My pets get good quality food designed for their species. It’s just that they also insist on sharing our food. And it never seems to occur to us not to start a pet begging for it. Once we used to have a pair of fairly wild dogs, one of whom was a wolf-hybrid. One night I walked into the kitchen and caught my husband spreading cheese on crackers for them. I looked at him in disbelief. He stared back at me, rejecting the embarrassment he had to know he should feel.

He said, “I’m trying to teach them how to behave at cocktail parties.”

We never spoke of it again.

I’ve put animals in my Tracy Eaton mysteries: Buddy, whose appearance was based on that of my old dog Jake. Buddy saves Tracy’s life in Dem Bones’ Revenge. Though Buddy shares Jake’s appearance, Jake was probably not together enough to be saving any lives. Still, though he’s been gone for years, the lovable goof will have my heart for the rest of my life.

I also put a cat in Dem Bones’ Revenge named Harriet Houdini, which I based on my cat Morgan. I actually gave Harriet some of Morgan’s most infuriating habits, such as her ability to hide in the most impossibly small places. I didn’t give that character-cat any of Morgan’s more endearing qualities. She was the only cat I ever had, or ever knew, who would sing to herself when she felt especially contented, in this weird little waa-waa, sing-song voice. It was and still is one of the happiest sounds I’ve ever heard.

I put lots of dog and cat business into that series, but the issue of whether they ate their own food or Tracy’s never came up. Obviously, a reality-omission on my part.

How about your pets? Do they eat your food? Are you your pack’s alpha, or do you share that responsibility with them?

What kind of holiday shopper are you?

What kind of holiday shopper are you? Before I started working in retail, I was only vaguely aware of the differences. Now, since I deal with all of them, the various types are crystal clear to me.

Pre-retail, I used to begin my shopping sometime during the first week of December, and I shot for finishing at least a half-week prior to Christmas. I never indulged in Black Friday shopping, and still don’t. I know others love starting that day, but I always thought there were better deals to be gotten in December, and I hate crowds. My plan usually worked pretty well for me. While I did sometime have to nip back into the stores for something I’d forgotten during those final chaotic days, it was always just in and out. Now I have to stay there. That means that while the rest of you are trying to capture the true meaning of whatever holiday you celebrate, I’m being tutored in the true meaning of chaos.

The shoppers I admire most are the ones who do it throughout the year. Grabbing something whenever they see the perfect gift for someone and hiding it away until the end of the year. I always used to think that would be so boring, that they must miss the fun of December shopping. Or I thought they must forget where they stashed those presents bought so early. But now, since my free time in December is so limited, I have started my shopping earlier than ever. While I’m not a world-class year-long shopper like some I’ve met, I do count on picking up a few things in summer and another few in the fall. It does reduce the December shopping pressure. But I am careful to hide them all in the same, obvious place — I do worry about forgetting where I hid them.

But since I can’t fully mobilize myself throughout the year, I’m still doing the bulk of my shopping in those middle weeks of December.

Thankfully, most of our customers do theirs then, too. That leaves us enough time for us to order what they want if we don’t have it, and allows for the extra shipping time required. Not only is shipping slow at that time, as you online shoppers know, but the packing up of books and gifts in wholesalers and publishing houses runs behind, too. And books that show up in databases as available at the time of our orders suddenly disappear, after committing those books to us, when those orders are packed. But our customers know we move the heavens to make their orders arrive on time. They appreciate all we do for them, and we appreciate it when they can give us that bit of extra time.

The customers I find the most challenging are the last minute shoppers. Oh, not all of them. Some are quite aware that by waiting until the last minute, the selection inevitably becomes limited. One of my favorite last minute shopper stops by mid-morning a couple of days before Christmas on his way home to California. He shops for an hour or so, doing the best he can with the selection we have left, leaving a variety of books and gifts for us to wrap, while he has lunch somewhere. He’s figured out how to make last minute shopping work for him.

Most last minute shoppers, strangely, have no idea how many things have been snatched off the shelves by others by the time we reach the final days or even hours. Even crazier, their requests are always hyper-specific, often looking for out-of-print books, or hardcover versions of titles that have been strictly in paperback for years, if not a decade. And they get nasty when what they want is not available, and they act as if their requests are completely reasonable.

I’m sure they have a good reason for waiting until the last minute to shop, and I admire that they want to find just the right gift for everyone, no matter how unusual it might be. But I sure wish they could be more realistic about the odds of finding anything that scarce.

I also wish I could make them understand how hard the person they’re dumping on is working and how much that person would like to help them find really good gifts, in not those perfect mythic treasures they imagine.

I’d especially like them to understand that person they’re shouting at probably hasn’t quite finished her own shopping. That she shares the last minute shopper’s frustration — even if she hasn’t resorted to the same level of vitriol — because she’s in the exact same boat.

This year I’m vowing to have my shopping complete by mid-December. Odds of pulling it off? Probably about the same as those unrealistic last minute customers of mine.

When is a house, not just a house?

When is a house, not just a house? When it becomes a character, of course. That's what happens in my Tracy Eaton mystery, Revenge for Old Times' Sake.

Tracy's nutty old house, a gift from her nutty old mother, movie star Martha Collins, reflects more architectural styles than a first-year architecture textbook. It first put in an appearance at the end of the second adventure in my madcap series, Dem Bones' Revenge. Though it's instrumental in the wrapping up of that mystery, it's only in Revenge for Old Times' Sake that the house truly blossoms into a full-blown character.

First we meet the “angels” room, which is decorated in a fairly conventional manner — if you can overlook the small angels painted across its walls. Only with closer scrutiny does it become apparent they all resemble Martha’s film contemporaries, the people who actually occupied that room when they visited. Even knowing they were real people, Tracy notes that she might have found the sight of those angels peaceful — if one celestial spirit, who looked suspiciously like a leading man with whom her mother reportedly carried on a torrid dalliance, hadn’t been flashing her.

And then there’s the “chalkboard” room, with its blackboard walls. Martha always gave that guest room to artists and provided them with pastel chalk, encouraging them to create their own surroundings. Now, Tracy uses it to house her fastidious mother-in-law Charlotte, knowing that with her penchant for neatness, Charlotte won't be able to tolerate anything as dusty as chalk. While Tracy savors the sight of Charlotte anxiously rubbing at invisible spots, she amuses herself with the fantasy that her prissy mother-in-law has the DTs.

Most of the book’s action centers around the home’s gaudy Art Deco pool, where only hours after Tracy’s sweetie Drew bops his boorish boss Ian Dragger in the nose — Ian is found floating face down in the Eaton’s pool, deader than disco. And when the bodies in the pool start stacking up like logs in a lumber camp, it’s only because of the unusual resources in that crazy house, they’re able to hide one of the murders until Tracy can do a little of her unconventional sleuthing. 

While writing Revenge for Old Times’ Sake, that house became so real to me, it was almost as if I could hear my own footsteps tapping against its Spanish tile floors, as if I were sitting at the dining table built to resemble Stonehenge, as if I could actually work the trick carpet staircase runner that, when flicked just right, hurls someone down the steps. No real designer would think to offer a feature like that, but the runner comes in handy in Revenge for Old Times’ Sake.

I always knew where I wanted to place the. Rimming the Northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles is a picturesque sandstone mountain range called the Simi Hills. Today that rocky area is mostly filled with suburban homes. But back in what would have been Martha and Alec’s heyday, it was all vast vistas and horse ranches, as well as a popular location setting for Western movies. Some of the Hollywood crowd even built country homes there. I felt sure that Martha would have built a doozy of a house in that locale.

I must confess that one of my secret fantasies has always been to inherit an old wreck of a house stuffed to the rafters with what others might describe as “junk,” but which I’d consider “treasures.” Not for the financial gain, but the fun of exploring the old mausoleum. Since nobody in my family ever owned such a place, the odds of one falling into my hands seem slim.

But like all writers, I can live out my fantasies through my characters. I think it's even better that way. Let's be honest — what are the odds that I could actually find a house this crazy in real life?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Characters like me

Readers often wonder how closely we writers resemble our characters. In my case, I have to say, “Not a bit!” After all, I write the madcap Tracy Eaton mysteries, Revenge of the Gypsy Queen, Dem Bones' Revenge, Revenge for Old Times' Sake, and the latest, Revenge on Route 66, a humorous romp along the Southwestern Route 66. Tracy is too much the offspring of her reality-challenged, zany parents, movie legends, Martha Collins and Alec Grainger, to be anything like me. 

The question I often hear from fans is, “Who are you parents? Anyone we'd know?” See, they assume my parents are also major motion picture stars, or how else could I write the hilarious scenes I create between Tracy and the banes of her existence? I'm flattered that readers regard Martha and Alec as so real, they can't imagine that I simply made them up. But that's what I did.

Tracy also brings the most eccentric approach to crime solving. I'm sure if I were an amateur sleuth, I'd never make my escape from captivity by shimming up a rope with my mother on my back, as Tracy and Martha did in Dem Bones' Revenge. Or when they eluded the bad guys by posing as hookers so the cops would arrest them for solicitation and whisk them away.

In Revenge for Old Times' Sake, free-spirit Tracy cheers when her stodgy husband, Drew, finally loosens up enough to rearrange the nose of his boorish boss, Ian Dragger. Too bad the next time anyone saw Dragger, he was floating face down in the Eaton pool, deader than disco.

I certainly didn't draw on my life for that. Not only isn't my hubby Joe at all stodgy, I don't even own a pool.

Still…I have to admit offbeat things always happen to me. Wherever I go, if there's a person who merely flirts with the periphery of sanity, he gloms onto me like I'm his long-lost twin. My husband always asks if I send out a homing signal that only wackos can hear. I don't know. Do I?

I also always find myself faced with problems that nobody else has to deal with. For instance, I went to a party recently in a gate-guarded community, The road that leads to it is a tough-to-navigate, narrow S-curve that takes a sharp dip where it crosses a creek, which is heavily studded with boulders.

When I stopped beside the gate speaker box, I realized I couldn't remember the code to open the gate. No problem. There were instructions for dialing the houses. Too bad that didn't work. Again and again. In six tries, I got mostly busy signals, although I also hit the voicemail a couple of times. I didn't feel too helpless babbling, “Uh, I'm here, but…”

Okay, Plan B. I decided to call my husband at home, since he wasn't coming. If he didn't know the code, he could call our friend and get it. Why do we have cell phones if not for emergencies? Oops! No network.

Hmmm. There was no way I could back out of there. I must have played hooky the day they taught reverse in Driver's Ed, since I've never learned it. I could barely navigate that entry going in. If I lived there, I'd just park the car in the water and get it over with. And the road was too narrow for a k-turn. Maybe a hundred tiny k-turns would do it, but I'm not too swift on those, either.

Since I arrived late, I wasn't sure when someone else would pass that way. I ended up staying there until a woman walked near the gate and shouted out the code. I was the only partygoer who didn't just breeze in.

Turns out the gate-phone connection stopped working sometime before I showed up, but after everyone else did. But that kind of thing always happens to me. I can't be the only one who's out-of-synch with virtually everybody else. There must be others marching to the un-syncopated beat of goofball drummers that nobody else can hear.

If I were writing that experience for a character, I'd make it read funny. Tracy's always wrecking her vehicles, so that would be perfect. I'd just send the car off the road, where it would float along, crashing into boulder-after-boulder, like Mother Nature's own bumper car ride.

Only in real life, I make payments on that car, and I pay for insurance. I'd be the idiot whose claim the folks working at the insurance agency would laugh themselves silly over — right before the company cancelled my coverage.

Okay, so maybe I am more like Tracy and her gang of daffy misfits than I'd like to admit. Maybe I really am living my wackiest characters' lives. I'm just not having as much fun with them as they are.