June Reads

Saturday, June 29, 2019

A couple of mysteries and a look back into the pulp fiction age.

Maids of Misfortune - M. Louisa Locke

An amateur sleuth mystery set in Victorian San Francisco.
Annie Fuller is a widow who owns a boarding house and makes extra money as Sibyl, a fortuneteller. She uses her expertise in things financial (learned from her deceased father) to counsel Sibyl’s clients.
Matthew Voss is a client who has profited handsomely from Sibyl’s advice. When Matthew doesn’t arrive for an appointment, Annie learns that he’s dead, an apparent suicide. Surprisingly, Nate Dawson, the Voss family lawyer, informs Annie that she was left a substantial amount of money in Matthew’s will. There’s only one problem: all of Matthew’s assets have disappeared.
At the same time, she learns that her father left an unpaid debt behind. As his heir, one of his creditors is now seeking restitution in an amount that will cause her to lose the boarding house.
Annie can’t believe Matthew would have killed himself and left his family destitute. She takes a job as a maid in the household to attempt to discover who poisoned him.
A good mystery, although the middle has a bit too much of Annie’s work as a maid for my taste. I’m not sure I care how much she smells of blueing from doing the laundry or how spotted her clothes are when she meets up with Nate, the romantic interest.
I was disappointed in how the crime was solved. A convenient accidental event, which should have occurred several times earlier in the story, provides the clue that solves the mystery. Fortuitously, she’s holding a key object a while later when she needs to solve a problem. I don’t want to say any more for fear of giving away the ending.
The penultimate scene has a ridiculous fight between three women, including Annie, and the killer. He has a knife with which he cuts Annie several times, but he can’t seem to make up his mind whether he wants to rape her or kill her. I didn’t buy it.
I wish the reveal would have been done more adeptly, but that’s always the hardest part of writing a murder mystery. You have to solve the crime in a realistic manner with clues that are already known to the reader, but only put them together in the climactic scene. Still, I enjoyed this book enough to consider reading the next in the series.

The Fiction Factory - William Wallace Cook

A phenomenal book showing how pulp writers made a living. This memoir is about John Milton Edwards, a pulp writer in the golden age of pulps, who created serials, short stories, novels, and sketches in prodigious amounts.
I see a lot of whining about writers who “write too fast” on Facebook. There’s an element that claims it has to take time to write a good book, something like a year or more. They cite George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” and other series made up of large books as examples. Obviously, those authors (mostly indie) publishing a new book every month must be hacks, and their writing must be awful.
But there was a time when other writers were publishing much more fiction than today’s authors are. America had a voracious appetite for tales filled with plenty of action. John Milton Edwards (who was also William Wallace Cook) in 1908 produced 45 Nickel Novels (that’s what they sold for) and seven longer novels. The Nickel Novels were his bread and butter, but he also wrote short stories and serials for $25 - $40 a piece.
He didn’t agonize over writer’s block or need to rest after completing a piece. He immediately started the next story.
And, lest you think his work was poor, he was praised for the accuracy in his books. He spent lots of time researching settings and reading books for background for his stories. He also learned to write clean copy, at most retyping a story once after the first draft.
I found most of this book very inspiring. The narration of how one writer went to work each day determined to make a living from his writing showed the dedication the old pulp writers had. Unfortunately, economics put most of the pulp fiction magazines out of business. It just cost too much to produce print magazines for mass consumption.
Ebooks have brought back a resurgence in short, fun reads. Apparently, the readers of these tales didn’t go away just because the magazines did. And a lot of authors are filling that need and, incidentally, making a quite nice living doing it.

The Case of the Amorous Aunt - Erle Stanley Gardner

Taking a cue from The Fiction Factory, I decided to read one of the better known pulp writers. I think everyone knows Perry Mason from the old television show. Fewer people have read the eighty books written about this iconic character, myself included.
What great fun this book is!
A young woman comes to see Perry Mason because her elderly aunt has fallen for a grifter, a man who is only after her money. She’s afraid he’s going to kill her. This sets in motion a chase to track down the couple, with Perry Mason chartering planes to fly from California to Arizona, detectives Paul Drake and colleagues following various people all over the state, and revelations about other women who have been duped by this man.
Never mind that the original client doesn’t have a whole lot of money, only enough to pay for Mason’s services for two days. No, Perry is off on the adventure, apparently at his own expense, bringing Paul Drake and Della Street along with him.
There are some things that make this novel dated, but they really don’t interfere with the story. For instance, Perry never seems to dial a phone himself. He asks Della to place calls for him. Oftentimes, Della asks Gertie, the never-seen receptionist and switchboard operator, to make the connection first. But despite that, the story is still a good yarn.

Reading the Perry Mason book finally got me to sign up for a trial of Kindle Unlimited. These short mysteries sell for $5.99 in ebook form and most (not all) of them are in KU. I figure if I read only two of these a month, I’m saving money. I think I can probably read more than two with not a lot of effort. This also opens up a bunch of other books that I’d like to read, but haven’t because of the price, including the last two books in Craig Martelle’s “End Times Alaska” series.


Cowboys or Killers?

Friday, June 21, 2019

It’s been an amazing year so far.

I finished the first draft of my historical western romance novel at the end of May. This was a new genre for me, and I have to say it presented its challenges. Between learning what readers expect in a romance, researching what life was like in the 1870s, and getting new words written, I wondered whether I’d bit off more than I could chew.

But I did manage to finish it, and I liked a lot of what I’d written. I also knew there would be extensive revisions necessary before I could publish the book.

There’s also the fact that books sell better when they’re part of a series. Currently, you have to have three books in a series ready to release, with a fourth book in process, before you should publish the first one. That way, you can do what’s known as a “rapid release,” meaning you can publish each of the books no more than thirty days apart. That’s because Amazon’s computers favor new releases in the first thirty days of publication, giving them more exposure. If you can have a book in the series that qualifies for this special attention for a total of 90 days, you stand a good chance of selling a lot of books.

I’m pretty good at math. Since it took me five months to write the first book, I knew it was going to take at least two or three months to write each of the next books. (The first book generally takes longer, because you’re building a whole cast of characters, your setting, and developing the tone for the series.) So it would be the end of the year, assuming revisions go smoothly, before I’d be able to start publishing. That’s a big investment in time.

And I’m not even sure the first book is any good.

So I let my readers decide. I edited the first three chapters and made them available to people on my mailing list, since they’ve most likely bought at least one of my previous books. I set up a survey to ask them what they thought. Of those who responded, most overwhelmingly want me to finish that book. A few of my “superfans” even wrote emails asking me to please hurry and give them the rest of the story.

Hear that sound? That’s me breathing a sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t just twiddle my thumbs while waiting to hear what my readers thought, so I started researching and planning another series. This one is a mystery, but since I seem to be living in the Victorian Age lately, I decided to put this series in that timeframe as well. This time I chose the next decade, what’s called The Gilded Age, for my setting.

I also decided on a male protagonist.

That didn’t come out of the blue. Neither did other aspects of this mystery series. It’s pieces of a story I’ve mulled over for years. I even decided to use a wicked good character name that I’ve been saving ever since I heard it from a real person. It will also take place in a seaside village. I’m kind of tired of the dry desert and wanted to write about a place with water.

Planning for this series is going a lot faster. For one thing, I’m a mystery fan, so I don’t have to figure out how a mystery should work. I know the basic plot points, the mandatory scenes that make up a mystery. I’d already done a lot of the historical research on the time period, so there are only little facts I need to check (until I get to the actual writing). And, as I said, I’ve been noodling this series for quite a while.

I’ve made a map of this fictional town and created the core characters, the ones who will appear in almost every novel in the series. In doing this, this town and its people have really come alive for me. I’m very excited about the whole series, even though I only have sort of a plot for the first book.

My plan is to have the first draft of the first novel in this series done by the end of the summer. Then I’ll have to look at the two series and decide which one I’m going to develop first. It’s going to be a hard decision.

Regardless of which one I decide on, I’ve been having more fun than I’ve had since I came up with the idea for the African Violet Club mysteries. There’s nothing better than making stuff up.

Responding to an Active Shooter

Friday, June 14, 2019
Last month my church hosted a workshop presented by the Arizona Church Security Network. It’s a sad comment on our society that such an organization has to exist, but I’m grateful it does. Too often, churches and synagogues are the target of disturbed individuals who decide the only way to handle their problems is to attack what are often seen as soft targets. I should note that it’s not just shooters, but killers using other types of weapons, such as IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and, in the UK where gun control is stricter than in the U.S., knife attacks. (If you don’t follow world news, Google it. It’s a lot more common than you would think.)

The AZCSN is an all-volunteer organization staffed by current and former law enforcement and emergency response personnel. Workshops are usually held in a five-hour session on Saturdays. Yes, lunch is served.

Some of the things they taught would seem obvious, but they’re not always. The first concept was situational awareness. Most people who attend church always come in and leave by one door at the back of the church. If a shooter comes in that way and start shooting, it probably isn’t the safest way out. Situational awareness includes taking note of all the exits from a room when you first arrive, and particularly noting the nearest exit.

Situational awareness also includes being familiar with what behavior is normal in the situation you’re in. Most people enter a church and find a seat. Sometimes they’ll stop and talk with a friend. But they won’t be pacing up and down an aisle looking anxious. That should be a warning sign and should be pointed out to whoever is a designated safety person. You say your organization doesn’t have one? They should. If you don’t know who it is at the time, mentioning the behavior and pointing out the person to an usher is probably a good idea.

There are YouTube videos on situational awareness to train yourself in what you should look for.

Chris Taylor, the trainer, pointed out that our brains try to bring us to normalcy. A lot of denial goes on when we’re presented with a potentially dangerous situation. Many times, gunfire is presumed to be a car backfiring. When was the last time you heard a car backfire? I know, for me, I wasn’t out of my teens yet. It’s not common today at all. But still, rather than believe someone in our vicinity is firing a gun, our brains go for the non-threatening explanation.

If you’ve seen stories on school shootings, you’ve probably heard of run-hide-fight. This strategy (run if you can, hide if you can’t run, fight if it’s all you can do) makes sense for children, who probably don’t have the size to oppose an adult shooter.

The AZCSN teaches the ALICE system. The acronym stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. These tactics are not sequential. Rather than reacting as a victim, the ALICE system teaches you to use a survival mindset.

I’m not going to die.

The trainer focused on three methods: Lockdown, which includes locking and barricading the door; Counter by throwing things at the shooter which will generally distract him and mess up his aim; and Evacuate, which is self-explanatory. He not only taught us about them, but we did multiple exercises using Nerf balls to throw and being shot at with Nerf guns.

Anything you can push against a door can create a barricade. Furniture works well. Extension cords and belts can be used to tie chairs together and make them harder to move than individual chairs.
If you decide to counter, you have to be all in. People (I’d imagine especially church people) are more likely to pull back, to not punch as hard as they can, than to intentionally hurt the person who’s attacking them. The counter technique works better if there are several people swarming the shooter at once. For an illustration of the effectiveness of the swarm technique, the way the Secret Service and law enforcement reacted when President Reagan was shot is good. (Warning: This is live footage of the incident and may not be appropriate for everyone.)

Evacuate means what it says. If there’s a way out of the room or building that won’t put you in the path of the shooter, you can run for it. You should arrange for a rally point with your family and/or friends, a location where you will meet so you will know all of you are safe. Again, you need to be all in on this. You can’t saunter away from the scene of the crime. You have to run as if your life depended on it, because it probably does.

You have to always remember the survival mindset. Even if you’re shot, keep going. It’s important you remember to tell yourself:

I’m shot. I’m not going to die.

There was a lot more to the class and we had a chance to see how our reactions played out. The first exercises had us practice one of the techniques. The last few left it up to us as to which tactic we would use. I’ll admit, I left it to the big guys to stack the couches against the door. I threw things at the shooter—even if it was only his arm sticking through the opening—then ran.

I highly recommend attending one of these training sessions if you get the chance. As far as I know, you don’t have to be a member of the church hosting the training in order to attend. Check the website for information on upcoming classes.
But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night - Nehemiah 4:9
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Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

A Clash of Kings
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tagged: currently-reading