Monday, July 30, 2018

Why do my characters boss me around?


No Peace starts at del Monte Hotel in Monterey (photo circa 1880s)

In a previous post I wrote that I had started the next Steve Dancy Tale and the title of the seventh book in the series would be Coronado. I had a plot outline, a nifty cast of characters, and enough research on San Diego history to fill a nonfiction tome. Steve had other ideas. I started the story in Monterey, California, intending to travel down to San Diego by way of Redondo Beach and Pasadena. Don’t ask. I won’t tell you the storyline because I’ll probably use this material in the next book. Suffice it to say that Steve got himself into so much trouble in Monterey that he can’t go anywhere until he cleans up his mess.

Wait a minute, isn’t Steve Dancy a fictional character? Yeah, that’s what irks me. Who gave him the right to change my story? When I start a new work, I know the beginning and how it ends, but allow the characters to show me the way to get from one end to the other. Many times, I put the characters into a scene, give them a couple lines, and then transcribe the rest of their conversation. I know them so well that I trust them. But never has a character taken me off the rails and done his own thing. This is outrageous. Perhaps he’s miffed that I abandoned him for a spell to write Deluge. Hell, I thought Steve and Virginia wanted to be left alone on their honeymoon. Which brings to mind the first time I knew something was going haywire. The new book starts about two years after our newlyweds rode off into the sunset. I’m writing the first chapter and Steve and Virginia suddenly announce they have a one-year old son. I’m typing away, and suddenly Jeffery Joseph Dancy enters the story uninvited. Cute kid, though.

The bottom line is that I’ve changed the title for the book. It is now called No Peace, A Steve Dancy Tale, but who knows, it could change again. Now I have a true appreciation for what it means to have a character driven story.



One last thing; because of my recent focus on westerns, I was concerned that Deluge might not be accepted by my readers. It was contemporary, and although there were horrific gunfights, the main antagonist was a nasty storm. I’m pleased that the initial reception has been great. The ratings on Goodreads score it 4.4 and the initial Amazon reviews rank it 4.6. Thanks to all of my readers.

Gotta go. Steve's telling me to get back to work.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Is there life east of Pacific Coast Highway?



My wife and I are about to return to Omaha from San Diego. Darn, where did the time go? I’m going to miss friends and family, surfing, walks on the beach, and Mexican food.

When I was a teenager, we rarely ventured away from the beach. In fact, we didn’t believed there was life east of Pacific Coast Highway. We called the inhabitants of that vast wasteland inlanders … or worse. A few of my friends became involved with inland girls, but for the most part, we had plenty on our side of the divide. (I admit my wife came from east of PCH, but she grew up west of Hawthorne Boulevard, the next thoroughfare in our neck of the woods. That’s almost native. Besides, she put up with me for all these years, so I can't hold her paganism against her.)

In my youth, if someone had grabbed me on the beach and told me I would live in Omaha, I would have hushed them in fear that one of my friends might overhear. Omaha is in the exact center of the country. As far you can get from an ocean or large body of water. The surf stinks. And yet … I’m looking forward to going home. We have a nice home and I’m eager to see my daughter’s family and our Midwest friends. And focus more diligently on writing. When I get there I’ll play with the grandkids, eat at our favorite restaurants, bring home great pizza, watch the seasons blossom all over the place, enjoy watching the kids sports games, and shoot untold rounds of golf. Oh, wait, I don’t golf. Never mind, that was someone else. But I do look forward to eating at the clubhouse.

In truth, I discovered there’s abundant life in the heartland. I enjoy Omaha, and besides, if I need a fix, I can just jump on a plane and be back in San Diego in three hours.  Thank goodness for Boeing.

Omaha, Nebraska

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Cowboys are cool. Cows, not so much


“A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar.” Mark Twain

I recently saw a college friend for the first time in decades. He seemed surprised to learn I wrote novels. I guess I need to work on that world famous part. 

“What do you write?” he asked.

“Westerns.”

He immediately made a disparaging crack about cowboys and Indians.

I explained there were no cowboys in my novels.

He was incredulous. “Then what do you write about?”

“I write about people … people who happened to live on the American frontier. My characters live in cities, towns and camps, not on the range. They’re miners, businessmen, politicians, schoolmarms, shopkeepers, lumbermen, lawyers, doctors, newspapermen, and they come in all ages and in both sexes.”

“Bad guys?”

“Oh yeah, outlaws aplenty. Otherwise you don’t have a story.”

“And gunfights?”

“Of course. They’re part of the genre. But in six books, I’ve only had one duel where two men stood off against each other. My gunfights are more realistic to the history of the West.”

“But no cowboys?”

“Nary a one. Cows didn’t draw people west. Money laying in the dirt got people to get up and leave home. Mining drew far more people than ranching. The romantic cowboy has been written about since Owen Wister and The Virginian, and cowboys have become the stable of Western literature. When I started writing Westerns I wanted to do something different, so I wrote about mining, instead of ranching.”

mark twain
Virginia City
I continued, “Cowboys have become such a cliché that most people don’t know that Tombstone was a mining town, not a cow town. Denver started as a mining camp. Mark Twain’s encounters with the Wild West occurred in Virginia City, where $305 million was mined from the Comstock Lode.  (Still, the fictional Cartwright’s Ponderosa gets all the attention.) 240 million troy ounces of silver were extracted from Leadville. Almost all of our ghost towns were once thriving mining camps. Mining was an exciting industry that drew every kind of character to the West.  Wyatt Earp made a career of following the action, and he abandoned cows to chase after silver and gold.”

“So you don’t like cowboys?” He said this with an undue sense of satisfaction.

“I do. Cowboys are self-reliant, live by a code, and are skillful with horses, ropes, guns, and nature. I believe their individualism is a metaphor for an important American value. But others have already written about cowboys, cow towns, and the open range. I wanted to explode another facet of the Wild West, so I write about mining, which allows me to get into bustling cities and the technology revolution of railroads, telegraphs, and electricity. Instead of lamenting the demise of the Wild West, I examine the influences that eventually tamed the frontier.

 “Is there drama in mining?” he asked.

“Are you kidding? Money is power … and the power-crazed chase after wealth with a passion. Mining drew fortune seekers, politicians, shysters, engineers, shopkeepers, and people with every kind of scheme under the sun to separate miners from their money. Most rail lines after the transcontinental contest connected mines to markets. Everybody chased after the money: good men, bad men, and hard cases that enforced the will of the greedy.”

“Okay, okay, you convinced me,” he said. “I’ll try one of your books.”

As Hollywood says, this story has been inspired by true events. That means a conversation did occur somewhat along these lines, but I was much less articulate in real life.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Return to The Scene of My Crime


What happens when a relentless downpour, politics, and street gangs attack California?



I recently arrived back in California, a state that my latest book makes soggier than a wet biscuit. Deluge is my first disaster story. Usually I kill off a villain or two, but not an entire state. Without disclosing a spoiler, Deluge fits nicely in the disaster story genre, which means that the powers-that-be eventually listen to the smarty pants who keep proposing a wild scheme to save the day, or in this case, the state. Not having previously written in the genre, I had to do wide-ranging research. To my wife’s chagrin, I watched every disaster film produced in Tinsel Town.  Well, maybe not all of them, but the ones I watched ran the gamut from the still entertaining Twister, to the classic Andromeda Strain, to the recklessly realistic Sharknado. Needless to say, I had trouble sleeping for months.


Why a disaster story? Steve Dancy and his new wife insisted on being left alone for their honeymoon, so I needed to document other happenings. I always intended to do a follow-up to The Shut Mouth Society, but the sequel I have in mind requires my characters to age a bit, so they needed a transitional adventure. Now that I’ve given them one, they may not speak to me again. It should be okay. Since I’ve returned to Steve, Virginia, et al., they have time to get over being peeved.

I’m staying at my San Diego condo for three weeks. I going to do a little surfing and a lot of writing on the next Steve Dancy Tale. I plan to have the seventh in the series available by Christmas. So far, so good. I like the storyline and it has bad guys—and gals—aplenty. In the meantime, try Deluge. It’s the most adrenaline you’ll can experience while reclining in a Barcalounger.

Here’s a snippet:
Evarts did a quick reverse K-turn to get going in the opposite direction. As he accelerated down the slight incline, a rush of brown water came blowing across the road in front of him. It looked like a dozen fire hoses all sprayed in unison. If he tried to stop, he’d slide into the torrent, maybe sideways because of the slick pavement, so he pushed the gas pedal to the floorboard. Everyone except Evarts yelled as they hit the water. He gritted his teeth as he focused on timing a hard turn into the horizontal waterfall. When the water hit the truck, he had already turned into it as they blasted through the gush, emerging on the other side, the truck’s rear end swinging back and forth. Then he lost control. The truck spun around two full turns and righted itself, pointed down the road in the direction they had been heading. Lucky. He looked at his speedometer. He was rolling downhill at fifteen miles an hour. To hell with that. He punched it and they sped toward town.

The Shut Mouth Society
Deluge

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Is a Gift Card an Appropriate Gift?



My kids called to find out what I wanted for Father’s Day. When I asked for a gift card from Amazon, they said that would be impersonal. I didn’t argue, but it made me wonder why they asked.

Their response made me think about the appropriateness of gift cards. I think they’re great. If emailed, shipping costs are nil, they arrive at the speed of light, and I get to pick my own gift at the time of my choosing. What could be better?

Then I thought about it. What would be better is a present the giver enjoys giving. A gift is not one-way social exchange. Fathers used to be effusive when they received ugly ties. There was a reason. The giver was a loved one … perhaps a loved one with lousy taste, but a loved one nonetheless. You don’t make someone feel crummy because you didn’t like their gift.



That said; I’m getting an Amazon gift card for Father’s Day. How did I convince my kids? I told them I would email a thank you each time I bought a book for my Kindle. That promise overcame the biggest negative of gift cards; the giver never knows what the recipient does with it ... or if it's lying in a drawer somewhere.



Gift cards are becoming ever more popular and they are changing the ebb and flow of book sales. Print sales are best before the holiday and ebooks are better after the holiday. You can almost feel people using gift cards to load up their electronic devices.

By the way, if you expect a gift card for Father’s Day, download samples of my books now so you can decide where to spend your largess.

Honest stories filled with dishonest characters.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Excerpt from Deluge, A Disaster Novel





Greg Evarts and Patricia Baldwin are back and this time they only need to save the state of California. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter of Deluge.

Baldwin said into the phone, “Mr. Gleason, I understand. I’ll be in Sacramento first thing Tuesday morning.” After a pause, she added, “Of course, sir. Thank you.”
She tapped to end the call, turned off her phone, confirmed that it had gone dark, and then exclaimed, “Shit!”
“The lieutenant governor?” Evarts asked.
She lifted her eyeglasses slightly and let them fall back on her nose. “Yes, damn it. They’re in a panic over this damn rain. Rain, for Pete’s sake.”
“I take it they want you up there Tuesday?”
“I wish,” Baldwin answered. “The commission meets at 8:00 AM on Tuesday, meaning I leave noonish Monday, and they want me to bring a week’s worth of clothes. Damn it, I have classes, committee meetings, office hours, and a speech in Los Angeles on Thursday night.” She threw her phone onto the couch. “I wish I had never accepted the governor’s appointment.”
The governor of California had appointed Baldwin to the Seismic Safety Commission, and she had been on the advisory council for less than a year.
“I thought that commission dealt with earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.”
“Some idiot evidently believes a few days of rain can trigger one of those. I don’t need some volunteer work to destroy my career. This is stupid.”
“It may hamper your career, but it won’t ruin it. It’s Saturday. This storm will probably pass before you sit down for your meeting. You’ll be back in time to make your speech.”
Suddenly, she asked, “What are you eating?”
He held up the chop by the bone. “Last night’s leftovers. I need protein.” He ripped off a piece of meat with bared teeth like he was ravished, and she laughed at his antics.
“Don’t we make the couple,” she said. “You walk around chewing on a bone like a caveman, and I’ve been talking to the lieutenant governor in pajamas. I’m surprised they don’t deport us back to Oxnard with the riffraff.”
“We had fun there. Maybe I can buy back my old house.”
“No, I’m good. Just frustrated that this stupid commission can jump up and disrupt my life.”
“You’ll be back soon. You know bureaucrats, always making a big thing out of nothing.”
She walked over to a sofa table and picked up her coffee. She took a sip while staring out to sea.
“Perhaps not this time. I heard fear in Paul’s voice. They got seven inches of rain in the last week.”
“Seven inches? Our drizzles haven’t added up to squat.” He thought about the implications. “Did he say if any dams were in jeopardy?”
“Yes.” She didn’t turn away from the murky, cloud-enshrouded ocean. “All of them.”

Disaster, gangs and political inertia, but that isn’t the scary part.


Monday, June 4, 2018

Deluge—New Release Now Available

Natural disaster, street gangs and political inertia … but that isn’t the scary part.
Deluge is now available in print and Kindle. This book is a little bit of a departure from my normal fare and fun to write. A traditional disaster story, Deluge will get your adrenaline going while sitting in a barcalounger.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

New James D. Best Novel on June 4th!



In 1862, a sixty-five day downpour pummeled the western United States. California suffered the brunt of the storm. Almost a third of the state was under water, roads were impassible, telegraph lines down, rivers overflowed, hundreds of people died, and hundreds of thousands of animals drowned. Sacramento remained under water for six months, forcing the state government to move to San Francisco.
Geological evidence shows that a flood of this magnitude hits California every one to two hundred years.
What if it happens again?

I took a break from Steve and his friends to write a disaster story. This one's a corker. I didn't know I could imagine such mayhem.

For Steve Dancy fans, I have started Coronado, A Steve Dancy Tale and it should be available before the end of the year.

Back to Deluge. Greg Evarts and Patricia Baldwin are back from The Shut Mouth Society. The stories are unrelated, so Deluge is not a sequel. The novels just shares the same cast and locale. The characters have changed, of course. Greg is now chief of police in Santa Barbara. Patricia is still a history professor, but has transferred from UCLA to UCSB. When the sky falls on California, our two heroes must once again save the day. There's rain, inept and ept politicians, murading street gangs, cage fighters, spies, and collapsed dams that send mountains of rolling water toward everything we hold dear.

Deluge will be available in print and Kindle formats on June 4th. Happy reading.

Can a 150-year-old conspiracy be unraveled before it’s too late?


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

How many New York minutes can you cram into nine days?




We have three grandchildren in New York City and we try to visit them as often as we can muster up the energy and coin. Let’s see, we were there nine days. In that time, we saw a Yankee’s game, celebrated our son’s birthday, celebrated our granddaughter’s birthday, watched our two grandsons play collectively ten—count them, ten—lacrosse games, saw our youngest grandson play two baseball games, watched our granddaughter perform in a school production of Pirates of Penzance, attended our grandson’s First Communion, ate innumerable meals in restaurants, and rode in countless cabs, ubers, and car services. All this, while being entertained by a new bernedoodle puppy that made the energizer bunny look languid. We even snuck in some private time to tour Radio City Music Hall on tickets we bought two years ago.



I know I forgot tons. The entire week is a blur. We’re a couple of retirees who on most days lumber from room to room to get enough exercise to laze about some more. When my wife yells that we need to go to CVS tomorrow, I mutter that she ruined my entire day. If it’s CVS and the hardware store, I get out my iPhone and schedule the chockablock activities in my calendar app.


We love New York, and we really do love all the activity, especially when the weather doesn’t mug us. This was not one of those visits. My son never leaves a Yankee game early, but in the top of the eighth, the stadium turned into the biggest icebox on the planet. A near capacity crowd was thinned to a few guys hawking sodas before the Yankees came to bat. We left our hotel in fine weather to walk to Radio City Music Hall. Halfway there, it turned blustery, cold, and wet. Us, without an umbrella or decent coats. We even entered the restaurant after our grandson’s first communion drenched, with teeth chattering. Last Saturday, the weather for the lacrosse games was perfect. Perfect. It was a trick. On Sunday we were smart enough to wear layers, but twenty wouldn’t have been enough. It went down to forty with gusts of hurricane proportions that made me understand what chilled to the bone really meant. I’ve posted recently about the springtime snow in Omaha. New York likes to do the chill bit without the pretty white fluffy stuff.

In the end, it was all good. We hit the Big Apple at the perfect time to see all three grandchildren strut their stuff, and we got in on some nifty celebrations. But we were exhausted by our last day. 

As we drove back into the city from some farm that boasted plenty of lacrosse fields, my daughter called from Omaha. She wanted to know what time we flew in that night. What’s up, I asked. Our Omaha grandson wanted to know if we could make it back in time for his Sunday evening baseball game.


Friday, April 6, 2018

The weather outside is frightful: Part Deux

Yesterday, the gardener showed up for Spring Cleanup. This morning, I woke to this.



Burr!
Since the same person does my snow removal, I guess he show up today to clear my driveway.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Weather Outside is Frightful


WTH


Every year, I leave my home in Omaha after Christmas to spend the winter in San Diego. I return each Easter to spend the holiday with family. What’s an egg hunt without grandkids, nieces, and nephews? This schedule has worked out great in past years. I avoid the worst of winter in the Midwest, visit my west coast friends and relatives, bask in the sun, get a little surfing in at Pacific Beach, and return for glorious springtime on the plains. Only not this year. This year, they predict snow three times this week. There’s not a leaf in sight. The prominent color is brown. And polite Midwesterners are a bit grumpy.



I even built a fire the first night to ward off the chill. With the thermostats set at fifty in our absence, the couch cushions made us wrap in blankets. Yeah, “But the fire is so delightful.”

Deluge is still at the editors, but I expect it back soon, which will keep me busy. I also have three more essays to write for this year’s Constituting America’s 90-Day study. Lots of indoor work. Unfortunately, I have a couple problems that need attention in the garage, which is more like an icebox. Oh well, whenever I get lethargic writing, I can get my blood moving again by doing garage chores. 

Or … maybe I’ll check for discount airfares back to San Diego.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Mark Twain's 10 Writing Tips




Curiosity.com published a list of writing tips from Mark Twain. Now, Twain never actually published a list, but his letters provided plenty of tips that just needed to be gathered up in one place. 


1. "Write without pay until somebody offers to pay."
2. "Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream."
3. "Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar."
4. "The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction."
5. "If I had more time, it would have been shorter."
6. "The more you explain it, the less I understand it."
7. "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very.' Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
8. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."
9. "Use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences... don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in."
10. "As to the adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.”

Good advice, but I believe scrutinizing Twain’s castigation of James Fennimore Cooper provides even more guidence. Among other things, Twain wrote “Cooper's art has some defects. In one place in "Deerslayer," and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” 

If the criticisms of Cooper were rewritten as positive statements, they would make a great guide to great writing. Which I took the liberty of doing here. You may also want to check out my catalog of writing advice from the masters. 



Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Leadville Laurel comments on my book Leadville

"Author/Blogger James D. Best found me on the web and sent me his novel Leadville: A Steve Dancy Tale (2nd in a series) to review! I haven't yet posted my review on my website, but I can tell you that even if I weren't living in Leadville, I'd still love this Wild West mystery adventure! Best's writing style is a romp, and he nails the dialogue. Two thumbs up!"








Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018

Blade Runner vs. Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 1982
versus

Blade Runner 2049


IMDB users rate Blade Runner 2049 at 8.2 out of 10. Pretty heady rating for IMDB. I’m aware that anyone who preferred the original gets dissed as an ol’ fogey. I fall into the old category, but don’t admit to the fogey part. Nevertheless, I will go on record as preferring the original. (Both films scored 8.2)

My reasons are from a different perspective than most. Admittedly, film is an art form and presentation certainly plays into the craft. From a visual perspective, I might even give Blade Runner 2049 the edge. It paints a dystopia world with deft precision. Where it falls behind the original is the crux of good storytelling. Bad guys gotta be bad.

In the original movie, Rutger Hauer portrayed Roy Batty with relentless malevolence, yet managed, in the end, to elicit compassion for his character. Batty was a worthy rival, who transitions into a sympathetic victim. A fine piece of acting, that.

Luv vs. Roy

On the other hand, Sylvia Hoeks plays Luv like a high school mean girl, and the script resorts to clichés to portray her evilness. For example, when Luv stomps on K's mobile projector to kill Joi, it reminded me of a B-movie where the antagonist kicks a dog to convey dastardliness.

And then when Luv finally dies, we think, oh good, it’s over. When Batty dies, we weep.

I’m prejudice, of course. I believe the art in storytelling requires an antagonist that presents a heavy challenge to the protagonist. Heroes need villains to be heroic. We want the protagonist to win, but he or she keeps losing until just before the curtain falls. The tension comes from uncertainty. Even though we’ve seen story upon story, each time we are transported to another place and time where the villain might actually win. Sometimes, we get a reveal at the end that turns the protagonist’s victory poignant. A neat trick, when done right, and the original Blade Runner pulled this off with panache.

And that’s why I prefer the Blade Runner 1982.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Back from a vacation of surfing and writing

I took a break from social media for about four months. Fatigue, I guess. I wanted to write, enjoy my family, and surf.  The writing and family went great. The surfing so, so. I still get rides, and occasionally good rides, but embarrassments are less occasional.  I’m with Hobson in the movie Arthur. On his death bed, Arthur asks, “Do you want anything?” and Hobson replies, “I want to be younger.” My birthday is coming up, but asking for youth as a birthday gift seems contradictory.

Arthur
John Gielgud as Hobson in Arthur

The first draft of Deluge is complete at long last. Actually, the second draft, but who's counting? This is a disaster story and since I had never lived through a disaster, I had to do a lot of research. It was a fun book to write, and I'm confident you'll enjoy it. Unfortunately, it will be many months before it makes it through the remaining steps to publication. 

In the meantime, Crossing the Animas is now available from Center Point Publishing in a hard cover, large print edition. Libraries are the primary market for this format, but it would make a dandy gift for some of us older guys who like our print large and our stories larger.

Now in large print, library binding

The Steve Dancy Tales
Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters

I'll return sooner next time. Have a great 2018!