Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Rope Tricks: Will Rogers vs. Eleanor Powell

I never learned how to rope, but here are two experts from yesteryear that really knew how to make a length of hemp do magic.

A present day roper.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Interview with Author’s Academy

The Author’s Academy is a subscription website dedicated to teaching “authors how to write, produce, and market their books successfully.” On Wednesday, Grael Norton interviewed me in a teleconference titled "How to Sell 1,000Books this Holiday Season." The title of the talk comes from a few seasons ago when I sold over 1,000 print copies in December. Today, this is not a large number for me, but my holiday sales are now heavily weighted toward e-books.

You can also read a summary of the interview at Writ3r Addiction.

Despite the popularity of e-books, print books still make outstanding gifts. You can choose a fiction or nonfiction book that precisely targets the interests of the recipient. A book in their favorite genre or about their hobby can make them happy, plus it shows you cared enough to pick a gift just for them. For a reasonable price, a book gives hours upon hours of enjoyment and can even be revisited in years to come, and unlike a Christmas card that gets discarded or thrown in a box, a personal inscription on the flyleaf of your gift book lasts forever.

This holiday season, give a book to someone you love … preferably one of these, of course.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Was Annie Oakley the Real Katniss Everdeen?

Doing research for Jenny's Revenge, A Steve Dancy Tale, I had reason to read up on Annie Oakley. It struck me that she had a strong resemblance to the fictional Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games.

Katniss is an exceptional marksman with bow and arrow who honed her skill by hunting to feed her fatherless family. In fact, she was so good at hunting, she traded her excess kills for other essentials needed by her family to survive. At 16 years old, Katniss becomes a celebrated hero due her unprecedented display of skill in a national show. To add spice to the story, she has romantic relationships with another contestant and her hunting partner.

At age 8, Annie Oakley started shooting game to feed her fatherless family. She sold her excess kills to a grocery store, and her hunting was so prolific that by 15 years of age, she paid off the family mortgage. Oakley became the first female superstar, famed all over the world for her shooting exhibitions in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. At age 16, she married a fellow contestant in a shooting contest, and her husband performed with Oakley throughout her career.

In 1875 on Thanksgiving Day, Frank E. Butler placed a $100 bet that he could beat any local sharp shooter. Annie Oakley beat Butler on the twenty-fifth shot. Some trick shootists might have resented losing to a five foot tall, fifteen year old girl, but Butler invited Oakley to join his act and they were married a year later. (There is some doubt about the actual year, but I’m going with the famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”)

Oakley shot almost every gun known to nineteenth century man ... or woman. At ninety feet, she could hit a playing card set on edge, and then hit it repeatedly before it touched the ground. She hit dimes tossed in the air. She regularly shot the tip off a cigarette held between her husband’s lips. I’ve heard of never going to bed angry, but I bet this couple had a different motto.

I have never read that Suzanne Collins said Annie Oakley inspired Katniss, but as Mark Twain opined, truth is stranger than fiction.

western fiction
Coming soon: Jenny's Revenge

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Home on the Range in Nebraska

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
There seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the sky is not cloudy all day.

I woke up this morning in my new home to discover the silent night had painted the landscape white. That’s the thing about snow, it’s sneaky.

I grew up on the beach in Southern California when the state deserved to be called golden. I thought snow was something you drove to so you could slide down a hill on a sled, skis, a piece of cardboard. For a couple years in the distant past, I lived in Ohio. This was my introduction to weather that forgets to announce its arrival. When I threw up the garage door to find my driveway covered in snow, an expletive escaped my lips. It meant I had to shovel the driveway and sidewalk before I could leave for work. Bummer.

Thunder storm
Heavy rain gives you fair warning
Quest Center, Omaha, Nebraska

Nowadays, I’m retired except for writing, so I enjoy snow. I’m also enjoying Nebraska far more than I expected. I knew I’d like seeing the grandchildren nearly every day, but the state itself has been pleasantly surprising. There are great people in Nebraska and far more geographic diversity than I80 would lead you to believe. Coming from Arizona with its deserts, mountains, and everything in between including a canyon of grand proportionsI expected dull flatness. Not so. Omaha, my new home, rambles gently through pleasant rolling hills.  In fact, my home looks out over knolls that show off fresh snow like a dandy might flaunt a newly purchased wardrobe.

But you don’t have to believe me. Monty McCord posted this video about Nebraska on Facebook. Stunning images. My only question is: where is all that white stuff?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Jenny's Revenge at The Fictional Cafe

Western fiction

The Fictional Café has previewed the first chapter of Jenny’s Revenge, the fifth novel in the Steve Dancy series

If you enjoy fiction, bounce around the Fictional café. You’ll find author interviews, sample writings, book reviews, and pod casts. Membership is free.

Western action adventure fiction
Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters

Monday, November 3, 2014

Expert Advice, Anyone?

In a Barnes & Noble Book Blog, Stephen King presents 20 writing tips. Most famous writers offer ten or perhaps a dozen tips, but as you may have noticed, King is prolific. I like Stephen King, and he’s a great storyteller. His memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft contains a wealth of wisdom about writing. This list is much shorter, but all writers can benefit from following his guidelines. 

That said, I would quibble with a couple of his points. First, #10 is too strict. King can write a first draft in less than three months, but mortals need more timeespecially those who have to pay the mortgage, put food on the table, and run a couple errands each day. Don’t hurry yourself … but never stop for an extended period. It’s too easy to put off writing one more day when you've been on a long hiatus.

Until you make a living by writing, I disagree with #13. Few of us have the luxury of erecting a force field around us when we write. Learn to write with distractions … otherwise you may never complete an entire novel. Looking for the perfect writing environment is a sure route to writers-block.

Last, #19 is balderdash. Just because you have driven a car for your entire life doesn't mean you can join the NASCAR circuit and race at near 200 MPH in bumper to bumper traffic. Maybe some can learn writing from reading fiction, but I needed help. I read dozens of books on writing, participated in workshops, and used a writing coach early on. I still read at least one book a year on the craft of writing. On Writing by Stephen King is a good place to start.

Here are King’s tip headlines. You can read his explanations for each one at the Barnes & Noble Book Blog.

10th Anniversary Edition
1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience.
2. Don’t use passive voice.
3. Avoid adverbs.
4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”
5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar.
6. The magic is in you.
7. Read, read, read.
8. Don’t worry about making other people happy.
9. Turn off the TV.
10. You have three months.
11. There are two secrets to success.
12. Write one word at a time.
13. Eliminate distraction.
14. Stick to your own style.
15. Dig.
16. Take a break.
17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings.
18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story.
19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing.
20. Writing is about getting happy.

Good advice. I especially like his comment in this interview that a writer’s goal is “to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.”

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mobridge, South Dakota … Sitting Bull, Fry Bread Tacos, and Pheasants

Mobridge, South Dakota

Mobridge, South Dakota takes it name from the first railroad bridge to cross the Missouri. The town draws tourists in October like Times Square draws merrymakers on New Year’s Eve. Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but there were a lot of people in Mobridge this past week dressed in see-me-now-orange. I was one of those revelers. I drove up from Nebraska to visit friends, hunt pheasants, and eat fry bread tacos.

Hunting pheasants in South Dakota is a team sport. A couple of blockers sit at one end of a field as an orange-clad army chases the birds toward them. When one or more of the birds take flight, everybody becomes sex obsessed. A license allows you to hunt roosters, so the first order of business is to determine the sex of a bird flying as fast as its wings will carry it. This is why everybody upon seeing a bird shouts out the gender. The more nebulous cry of “Bird up,” puts the onus on the shooter. If this isn’t difficult enough, sometimes a rooster takes flight with his entire harem. You could call him cowardly for hiding behind hens, but it’s not exactly a bird-brained tactic.

Fry Bread Taco

The scent of fry bread tacos makes your mouth water as soon as you enter Mobridge. These gigacalorie indulgences possess every unhealthy food group known to man. Woof them down with a sugary soda and you taste heaven … except I’m told that in heaven, fry bread tacos are not sinful.

Our hunting party took up six cabins along the bank of the Missouri. All good friends and relatives. Each cabin included a tiny cooking space generously called a kitchen in the glossy brochure. The stove top tilted, the refrigerator squealed all night long, and microwave had enough power to boil a cup of water in under ten minutes. We crammed twenty people into an already overheated cabin to eat homemade meals on mismatched dishes. I’ve never had so much fun.

I also found time to visit Sitting Bull’s gravesite … or perhaps not. In 1953, a bunch of drunks crept up to Fort Yates, North Dakota, and mistakenly liberated the wrong bones, or an upright historical organization brought the right remains to Mobridge to rest near Sitting Bull’s birthplace. I guess it doesn’t matter. Today, a stately bust honoring Sitting Bull gazes out over the Missouri River. Since I’ve written about Sitting Bull’s tragic death, I found the memorial interesting. So did others. We ran into a father and son from Munich visiting the supposed grave site. You could say the stealthy grave robbers achieved their purpose by creating a tourist attraction, except over the course of a week, we never saw anyone else at the memorial.

Now, I'm back in Omaha, unpacked, and ready to write. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Damn Research Anyway

I write historical novels. Most of my books are Westerns, and I strive to properly reflect the lifestyle, technology, and politics of the era. Tempest at Dawn, my big historic novel, is a dramatization of the Constitutional Convention. Even The Shut Mouth Society, my contemporary chase-thriller has strong historical content centered on Abraham Lincoln.

Joseph Finder

When I’m busy and I discover an interesting web article, I bookmark it to read later. This morning, I read Joseph Finder’s article Research: A Writers Best Friend and a Writer’s Worst Enemy.

I think Finder has it just about right. He alludes to my worst habit: using research to procrastinate, but couches it far too narrowly. When I’m on a roll, I never let research get in the way of getting the story down in black and white. On the other hand, when I don’t really want to write, I bounce around the web and tell myself I’m making progress through research. Somehow, I convince myself of this even when I’m watching the GoPro video of the week.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on the hazards of web-based research. I even put together a Powerpoint presentation for a writer’s group. Today, I use the web more frequently for research. One reason is the proliferation of primary source documents. The second reason is that reputable institutions have digitized their content. The web has grown up. Except for odds and ends, I rarely use Wikipedia. There are many more authoritative sources if you know how to find them.

Research can also be in the real  world. For instance, I need to walk the ground of my novels. I’m not a visual person, so I take gigabytes of pictures to look at as a write descriptive prose. Walking the ground has another purpose. Every locale has a distinct feel to it. When I deplane in Phoenix or Honolulu, I know where I’m at as soon as I feel and smell the air. Some writers are geniuses when it comes to descriptive prose, but to describe ambiance, I need to experience it. Besides, this is the fun part of research. Wandering around Virginia City or Old Denver sure beats trying to verify the exact time Virgil Earp lived in Prescott, Arizona.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sojourn in New York City

My wife and I just returned home from seeing our son’s family in New York City. He and his wife have three young kids and because they grow so fast we try to visit at least once every three months. This was a great trip. We like Manhattan and we love my son and his family. What could be better than that? Here are some random thoughts on our trip.

  • It’s difficult to write in airports, especially LaGuardia. Before retirement, I wrote all the time in airports, but nowadays it seems much more crowded. It’s even difficult to find an unoccupied seat at LaGuardia. Maybe it’s me. I’m getting older and perhaps I’m finding it more difficult to focus. Naw … it’s everybody else’s fault. 

Ellen DeGeneres

  • It’s impossible to write on airplanes. I used to whip out my laptop all the time, but now I find it difficult to find room for myself, no less a supposed portable device that must have been designed to watch movies from twelve feet away. When I fly, I read my trusty Kindle. 
  • Why do electronic components keep getting tinier and tinier, but electronic devices keep getting bigger and bigger? I took my grandson to the Apple store to shop for his birthday present. This was my first encounter with the iPhone 6. The big model will hardly fit in a teenage girl’s hip pocket. My new laptop has a 16’ inch screen with Dolby sound and myriad other bells and whistles. I wanted one like my old 14’ model, but my preferred manufacturer no longer made this petite version. I’m a writer. I don’t need all this fancy stuff. Give me light weight, reasonable size, and MS Word. They can even make it black and white and I’ll be happy. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I lament the demise of the Motorola Razr. Now that was a mobile phone. It was so light and thin you never knew you carried it until it buzzed with an incoming call.

action adventure fiction
Hurricane Sandy about to get unruly

  • Although I had floated around it many times, I had never been to Statue of Liberty Island. We took our granddaughter and her friend. We discovered Disney World lines managed with government efficiency. Next time, if there is one, I’ll pick inclement weather. At least, that’s what I thought until I found this picture of the island with Hurricane Sandy looming on the horizon. Still lots of people. Maybe next time I’ll just float around it again. 
  • I was walking the dog with my son when he pointed out a townhouse with narrow, one-car garage. He thought it would be wonderful to have a private garage in the city. I told him I owned three of them in Omaha. He asked if they were in front or behind the chicken coop. 
  • All bookstore have small Western sections, but NYC stores have relegated Westerns to a single shelf in the most obscure corner of the stacks. Since New York is my third largest sales region, I think they are missing a bet.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Real Wild West

Previously, I wrote that Mark Twain is my favorite Western writer. Twain actually experienced the West at its rowdiest and Roughing It describes his experiences with humor and a touch of the storyteller’s art. Owen Wister is another author who experienced the real Wild West, which gave The Virginian its authentic feel. Wells Drury’s An Editor on the Comstock Lode is yet another great source for Western lore. In fact, its organization and humorous writing makes it an indispensable reference source for Western writers. Drury’s time as a newspaper editor in Virginia City gave him a front row seat to the goings on in that raucous town. His book covers:
  • Everyday life in the West, including entertainment, food, and city services
  • Practical jokes galore and lots of Yarns
  • Saloon life and etiquette
  • Gambling
  • Bad-men and bandits, gunfights, and stage robberies
  • Mining
  • Financial history and shenanigans
  • Journalism, including Mark Twain
  • Politics
  • Western Terminology
  • And sketches of the prominent people of the Comstock Lode and Nevada politics.
My favorite, of course, is the chapter he dedicates to Candelaria and its suburb of Pickhandle Gulch. This mining camp figures prominently in my Steve Dancy Tales, but I chose to call the main town Pickhandle Gulch because I liked the name. Fiction writers get to bend history to suit their story. It’s one of the fun parts about being a novelist. I suspect Twain, Wister, and Drury did a bit of bending themselves.

cowboys lore of the old west
Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why print books are different

publishing, publishers
Mike Shatzkin

Mike Shatzkin has posted a discerning article about how print books are different than digital books. It’s common to assume that books will proceed along the same path as the digitization of music and film. Shatzkin disagrees. He claims books are very different from their digital cousins and make a number of good observations.

  • Readers routinely switch between print and digital
  • Whether digital or analog, music and film require power and a device to be consumed. Books require neither.
  • Compared to the digital variety, Shatzkin contends print books are easier to navigate, and that navigation is not a critical function for music or film which for the most part are consumed serially.
  • Print presentation can be more aesthetic. Digital book devices inhibit interior design. For music and film, there is no difference “between the streamed and hard-goods version.”
  • Motivation is different for book buyers. Music and film are consumed mostly for entertainment.  Books are frequently bought for educational purposes, making the ability to browse more important. This gives bookstores an advantage over online retailers.
  • Digital music and film is superior to analog which drives digitization. This driver does not exist for books.

Shatzkin argues that there are innate differences between books, film, and music which will alter each media’s adaption to the digital world. One of the most significant being that ebook readers still buy and consume print. Music and film buffs seldom go back to the prior generation technology.

Although I tend to agree with Shatzkin, he did miss a few advantages of e-books. First, they’re lighter. I’m reading a big, heavy print book at the moment and I don’t take it to bed with me because my hands get tired holding it up. Currently, I fall asleep with Tom Wolfe on a kindle. A second advantage of e-readers is the ability to read them one-handed. My wife makes fun of me, but when one of my hands is busy shoveling breakfast into my mouth, I turn the page on my Kindle by bouncing it against my nose. Try that with a print book.

reading readers books

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Word of Mouth Revisited

I’ve contended that word of mouth is the greatest marketing tool available to authors. Word of mouth includes book clubs, online recommendations at sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing, reader reviews, and good ol’ fashioned face-to-face conversation. Word of mouth does not include anything the author says, including social media leavings that come from gallivanting around cyberspace. Potent word of mouth comes unexpectedly from a trusted source. Every author’s marketing strategy must focus on generating positive word of mouth.

Recently, I had confirmation of this axiom. In the first of August, I ran a discount promotion for a couple of days for the e-book version of The Shopkeeper. I don’t believe in offering free e-books because there is no lasting effect beyond a couple days. Many people gather up free books and never bother to read them. I’ve discovered that there is an entirely different dynamic for 99¢ e-books. Evidently this tiny fee motivates people to read the book.

 I decided to use a brief 99¢ price for the first novel in the Steve Dancy Tales to give a boost to the entire series. It worked far better than I expected. Not only did The Shopkeeper sell almost two thousand copies, all the other books in the series showed accelerated sales. Actually, it has been over a month since the promotion and all four books in the series still sell at more than double the pace of sales prior to the promotion. Free e-books have no legs, but 99¢ e-books seem to have a long tail.

None of this was news to me. But I did make an observation about this promotion that had previously eluded me. If a promotion goes well and readers like the book, then word of mouth accelerates sales in other formats and for other books by the same author. I never track audio sales because they’re small compared to other formats. I kept an eye on them this time, and I noticed a major surge in sales about a week or so after the promotion. Print sales also surprisingly increased, and sales of my other books grew significantly. The additional sales could only come from word of mouth because none of these other books or formats were discounted or promoted beyond my normal feeble efforts. People who liked The Shopkeeper told other people about my books. Some marketing gurus tell you to make fans out of your readers. Good advice, but if you really want to sell lots of books, turn your readers into your own personal sales force.

How? Write an engaging story that never jerks your reader out of the story. This means you need to keep the story moving forward, avoid unnecessary plot detours, and have it all professionally packaged. If you enthrall your readers, they’ll tell their friends, family, and neighbors about this great new author they found. After you have a large and growing sales force, you can concentrate on what you really love to do—write.