Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Visit with Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton published ‘A’ is for Alibi in 1982, following 15 years in Hollywood as a television script writer. The Louisville, Kentucky, native is currently on tour to publicize her 22nd novel in the series, ‘V’ is for Vengeance, released on November 14. She has been published in 28 countries in 26 languages, her books selling in the millions.

Sue is featured in my soon to be released book, The Mystery Writers, with Lawrence Block, J.A. Jance and other mystery writers.

Sue, does ’V’ is for Vengeance differ significantly from your previous novels?

It does, indeed, differ from the other novels in the series. In writing these books over a span of some twenty-eight years, I’ve kept detailed charts, which denote the gender of every killer I write about, the gender of the victim, the motive for the crime, and the nature of the climax. I also keep a set of log lines for each novel, describing the set-up for each book.
In ‘A’ . . . Kinsey’s hired to prove the innocence of a woman just out of prison after serving seven years for the murder of her husband.

In ‘B’ . . . Kinsey’s hired to find a woman whose signature is required on a minor document.

In ‘C’ . . . Kinsey’s hired by a kid to find out who’s been trying to murder him.
And so on. This way, I can be certain I’m not inadvertently repeating myself. In ‘V,’ Kinsey witnesses a shoplifting incident and alerts a sales clerk who notifies store security. The shoplifter is arrested and two days after her fiancĂ© makes bail, she dies from a leap off a 400 foot high bridge. While it appears to be a suicide, the woman’s fiancĂ© is convinced she was murdered and hires Kinsey to look into her death. Kinsey’s investigation uncovers an organized retail theft ring with which the shoplifter has been working. There are two other subplots woven into the overall storyline and all connect at the end.

How do you and Kinsey Millhone differ and which characteristics do you share?
As for Kinsey, I think of her as my alter-ego . . . the person I might have been had I not married young and had children. We’re like one soul in two bodies and she got the good one. The ’68 VW she drove (until ‘G’ is For Gumshoe) was a car I owned some years ago. In ‘H’ is for Homicide, she acquires the 1974 VW that was sitting out behind my house until I donated it to a local charity that raffled it off. That car was pale blue with only one minor ding in the left rear fender

I own both handguns she talks about and in fact, I learned to shoot so that I would know what it felt like. I also own the all-purpose back dress she wears. Like Kinsey, I’ve been married and divorced twice, though I’m now married to husband number three and intend to remain so for life. I’m much more domestic than she is and I cuss just as much, if not more.

What’s going to happen to Kinsey when you‘ve finished ‘Z’ is for Zero?

It’s going to take me another eight to ten years to complete the series at the pace I’ve settled on so I have close to a decade to decide what I’ll do after ‘Z’ is for Zero. I may well continue to chronicle her adventures, but I’ll do so as stand-alone novels. No more linking titles!

What’s your work schedule like?
I usually arrive at my desk at 9:00 am, check e-mails and Facebook, and then log into the current working journal for the novel I’m in the process of writing. I use these journals to talk to myself about the story, the characters, the pacing, problems I foresee, and any scene that worries me. Any research I do is recorded in the journal as well. I break briefly for lunch and then return to my desk and work until mid-afternoon when I stop and do a walk of three to five miles. My guess is that on a good day, I work productively for two hours. The rest is writer’s block and Free Cell. I’ve been known to work by page count and on that theory, I consider two pages a day a good run. In fact, I consider page count a better way to operate. It’s way too easy to claim you’ve worked for six hours when in reality you’ve talked on the phone, cleaned your desk drawers, and dawdled the time away.

What do you want your readers to experience from your novels?

I’d like for my readers to experience an entire range of emotions, from laughter to fear, to suspense to anxiety to tears depending on where they are in any given book. I want them to feel connected to Kinsey Millhone, to see the world as she sees it, and to come away from a story understanding how it’s affected her. These are the same emotions I look for in any book I read. I want to be touched and moved and I want to come away from a writer’s work feeling renewed and refreshed.
Thank you, Sue.

You can communicate with Sue Grafton at Facebook.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Remembering Louis L'Amour


Louis Dearborn L'Amour was not only the West's best-selling storyteller, he was the consummate Western man, a pattern for the white-hatted heroes he wrote about. Hardworking and soft-spoken, he was proud of his accomplishments, yet despite rumors to the contrary, he was often shy in his remembrances. L'Amour literally elevated himself by his proverbial boot straps, and in the process, left footprints in the marketing landscape that few writers will be able to fill.

Luck had nothing to do with his success, he said not long before his death in 1988. "Nor have I had any connections or breaks that I did not create for myself. I just tried to write the best I could about things I knew."

There are realities that writers must consider, he was quick to add. "No publisher is going to do anything for you that you don't earn. They simply can't afford to. Once a writer proves he can make money, they will often extend themselves. There's no magic, just hard work."

The work ethic was instilled in L'Amour as a child by his parents in Jamestown, North Dakota. His father, a veterinarian and farm machinery salesman, was involved in local politics. He served as alderman of Jamestown's largest ward for many years as well as deputy sheriff, but he lost his mayoral race. "People in small towns doubled in brass, you might say."

Young Louie enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians, and roughhoused in the family barn, which doubled as his father's veterinary hospital. He did more than his share of reading, particularly G. A. Henty, an Englishman who wrote of wars through the nineteenth century. L'Amour said, "It enabled me to go into school with a great deal of knowledge that even my teachers didn't have about wars and politics."

The L'Amour family library encompassed some five hundred books, among them the works of Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow, and Poe, as well as popular American and English writers. The youngest of the L'Amour children, Louie remembered reading a five-volume Collier's History of the World while he was small enough to sit in his father's lap.

"I think all things you read influence your writing to some degree. And if you don't learn anything else, you learn something about living and the use of words."

His serious reading began at twelve with a collection of biographies titled The Genius of Solitude. "The only one I remember is Socrates, the first chapter, but I remember it well." A book of natural history followed, which he tried unsuccessfully to locate years later for his children. During adolescence, L'Amour immersed himself in books of chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and the history of aircraft.

His concentrated self-education resulted in boredom with school. "I was just spinning my wheels," he said, "so it was no real hardship for me to leave. I had to go to work to find myself a change." L'Amour left school and Jamestown at fifteen, after completing the tenth grade. Since crop failures were common in North Dakota, and his father's livelihood was linked to the farming community, he decided to find his niche elsewhere. By hitchhiking and riding the rails, he arrived in Oklahoma City to visit an older brother, who was the governor's secretary, but he soon moved on.

"By then I was broke and I got a job in West Texas skinning dead cattle that died from a prolonged drought. They had been dead a while. Some fellow was trying to save the hides and it was the most miserable job, but I learned a lot." The young man's boss was a seventy-nine-year-old wrangler raised by Apaches, who had ridden on war parties with Nana and Geronimo. "He was a very, very, hard old boy but I got along with him fine. He was the first to teach me about tracking and using herbs."

L'Amour left his odorous job, after three months sleeping on the ground and staying downwind from passersby. He had helped skin 965 head of cattle by staking their skulls and tying their hides to the bumper of an early model pickup truck.

His next job was baling hay in New Mexico's Pecos Valley, across the road from Billy the Kid's grave. He visited the Maxwell home where Billy had been killed, and talked to the woman who offered the outlaw his last meal. L'Amour remembered her as "a pretty sharp old lady who still had all her buttons." He then talked to Judge Cole in Ruidoso, and got to know some thirty former gunfighters, rangers, and outlaws in the area. He regretted not knowing about a number of others.

While wandering about the West, he joined a circus in Phoenix, leaving three weeks later in El Paso. He then hoboed his way to Galveston, Texas, where he hired on as a merchant seaman. His first cruise was to the West Indies, his second to the British Isles. He tried his hand at writing during his travels, but his scribblings didn't include events as familiar as his Western heritage.

L'Amour's family history is rich in frontier adventure. His maternal great-grandfather was scalped by the Sioux while a member of the Sibley Expedition, following the Little Crow Massacre in Minnesota. Both his grandfathers served in the Union army during the Civil War, and his maternal grandfather taught him military tactics by drawing battle plans on a blackboard.

The novelist was especially proud of his mother's ancestry, beginning with Godfrey Dearborn, who arrived in this country in 1638, an antecedent of General Henry Dearborn, who marched with Arnold to Quebec. He also took part in the second Battle of Saratoga, Monmouth, Sullivan's raid on the Iroquois villages, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and the surrender of Cornwallis, among others. Some of the general's diaries were published, and he and his wife corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, exchanging garden seeds.

General Dearborn's son, of the same name and rank, published half a dozen books, but L'Amour was only able to locate one of them, a biography of William Bainbridge, commander of "Old Ironsides." The book was published posthumously by Princeton University Press.

L'Amour stressed the fact he had never taken a creative writing course, and that his post tenth-grade education had been earned from voluminous reading. While in Oklahoma City, L'Amour assisted Foster Harris and Walter Campbell in their creative writing courses after he began to publish. He later lectured at more than forty institutions of higher learning, principally the University of Oklahoma. He was also a featured speaker for the National Convention of Genealogists in San Francisco.

"I get many questions about people mentioned in my stories—people looking for relatives or family histories—or about conditions at the time, or to clarify some point on which they lack understanding. Few people realize how much language and word usage have changed. Half the nonsense written about Shakespeare would not have happened if people knew more about the language and customs of the time. For example, they write of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which in those days meant bawdy men."

L'Amour's constant research turned up the little known fact that Wild Bill Hickok's ancestors were tenant farmers on the property owned by Shakespeare. He insisted that credit for the factual unearthing go to English writer, Joseph Rosa.

The novelist's first published story sold to True Gang Life, and a few of his poems were featured in The Farmer's Stockman, an Oklahoma-based magazine. He also wrote boxing articles for a newspaper, sans payment, after meeting two pretty young news reporters in Oregon, who gave him a byline. He was fighting professionally at the time, and knocked out thirty-four of fifty-one opponents during his light heavyweight career. He first stepped between the ropes at age sixteen, and fought more heavyweights than those in his own weight division.

His first short story sales concerned the West Indies, football, rodeo, "detective yarns," and a few Westerns. "I'd grown up in the West and absorbed live background, but I was too close to it. I wanted to write about something far away, you see." He spent ten months in China, and bicycled across India during his twenty years in the merchant marines.

L'Amour's first big sale was Hondo, originally published in short story form by Collier's Magazine. "Dick Carroll of Fawcett Books asked me to come in, and he said, 'There's a novel here, and I'll buy it.' So I wrote it, and he bought it. Then John Wayne made a movie of it, and suddenly, everyone wanted Westerns."

The writer had an important decision to make. "Westerns have always been regarded in this country as second rate literature. I didn't agree with that. I never have. The paperback book was regarded as third or fourth rate, and I didn't agree with that either. So I sat down and had a very serious talk with myself. "Do I take the ball and run with it, or do I stay the same course I'm on?

"I decided to hell with it, that I was going to write damn good Westerns and I would make them accurate. I would show them that Westerns could be history, that they were important. Because to me, this was the most important phase of American history. The Western period, the pioneer period, did more to form American character than anything else done in this country. It should be taken seriously, and more attention should be given to it." The main difficulty he encountered was Eastern prejudice—those in the publishing business raised in the East, with little understanding of life west of the Mississippi River.

L'Amour did not come into his own as a writer until mid-life, much like English novelist Joseph Conrad, who also spent years at sea before settling down to write. While L'Amour lived in Oklahoma City, he realized "there was something drastically wrong" with his writing. "The short stories I sent out came back like homing pigeons. So I got a bunch of short stories and studied them to see how they were written. I found what I had been doing wrong and that's when I began to sell."

L'Amour's long-term association with Bantam Books began after his disillusionment with Fawcett, his first publisher, which only produced one of his novels a year. He said, "I have had, all the way along, to lead my publishers, sometimes by the nose. It hasn't been easy."

Saul David, a Bantam Books editor, told L'Amour he could write three books a year, but it took some persuasion on the writer's part, who liked "to write fast." He admired David's courage and his ability to "swim against the tide. If you told him something could not be done, he'd do it."

L'Amour maintained the schedule he had worked for years until just before his death, at 81. "I'm not rigid about it," he said. "I work every day, seven days a week, and that's not a problem. However, if something comes up and I want to take a little trip, I do it. I come back and go to work again."

Rising at 5:30 or 6:00, he'd read two Los Angeles newspapers and The Wall Street Journal before breakfast. His work day then began. At noon he sometimes stopped for lunch, often meeting friends at a restaurant. He said he occasionally went alone at an off-hour to make notes for a forthcoming novel, although he was rarely known to use them. "But, I can discuss it with myself, and the direction the book will follow."

He usually returned to his IBM Wheelwriter after lunch for an hour, or he used that time to read. He would also file mounds of research material crowding his large office. Three-foot stacks of paper neatly flanked three sides of his desk. He had no secretary and didn't want one, because "it would keep me busy finding work for her to do." Only he knew where to file research material so that he could find it. He also answered his own mail, but only a small percentage of some 5,000 letters that arrived annually.

His personal library contained more than 10,000 books, with hinged bookcases revealing floor-to-ceiling shelves behind the visible ones. He also left behind map drawers, much like those on ships, with geographical charts of every country on earth. The world was literally at his fingertips.

Little physical research was done during his latter years because he had already been there. "Usually I write about places I've been," he said. "I knocked around the world for twenty years, and one of the things I did was file a claim on a mining camp where I had to do a hundred hours work a year to hold it. Sometimes I hired somebody to do it, or miss out on a good job."

Although he only two-finger typed one draft, he admitted to rewriting on occasion. "Usually if I find something wrong, I rewrite the whole page. Occasionally I reread the previous day's work, and that's only when there's been a break in continuity. My feeling is that if one plans to rewrite, one is careless, figuring to pick it up the next time around. I wrote for the pulps and to make any money, one had to produce a lot. I drilled myself in getting it right the first time."

His wife Kathy proofread his work, checking for typos and redundancies. She rarely found misspelled words and no one changed his work, "not even editors. They never have, not since that first sale when the editor sent my story back and said to cut 1,500 words. I thought, 'Ah baloney, I just don't know how I could possibly do that. I hate it." Chuckling, he added: "Now when I look at it, I wonder where all the words went."

During the mid-1980s, his novels crowded book store racks along with adult Westerns that he hated. "Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the Brontes, Checkov, Thackeray, and many others, who used sex, did it with wit and charm," he said. "Sex in current books is clumsily done, indicating that most writers really know very little about it. They write like a bunch of small boys out behind a barn. They are crudely lewd. There's no fun in their sex and nobody appears to be having a good time."

L'Amour advised fledglings to read and write "everything you can. Keep writing, putting words on paper and learn to express yourself. One difficulty I find of people who write is that they don't read enough. And our schools aren't giving enough background in American literature. I think you should have a pretty good idea what's been done before you try to do it. And you can learn some valuable things by writing. I really learned how to write from Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, and de Maupassant."

A sentimentalist, L'Amour adopted a white dove before his first novel sold. The dove had taken up residence in the novelist's garage and was brought into the house and named Rama-Cita after two deities of East Indian mythology. The name was later shortened to Rama when the bird was found to be male. The dove could be heard throughout the L'Amour's large Spanish-style home as though in an echo chamber, and outlived most of its species as the writer's "good luck mascot."

Louis L'Amour was visibly proud of his children. His son Beau, at the time of the interview, was a film producer's creative consultant, who wrote in his famous father's wake. His pretty younger sister Angelique also writes. Both L'Amour offspring planned at the time to produce biographies of their father, in addition to the one he was writing at the time of his death. L'Amour wanted to be remembered as a storyteller—a man who told the American story, or one version of it."

Among his legion of books, Walking Drum, a twelfth century adventure, was the most fun to write. When asked which had been his favorite, he said, "I like them all. There's bits and pieces of books that I think are good. I never rework a book. I'd rather use what I've learned on the next one, you see, and make it a little bit better.

"The worst of it is that I'm no longer a kid and I'm just now getting to be a good writer. Just now."

(Excerpted from Maverick Writers and Weserners: Candid & Historic Interviews)

© 2013 Jean Henry-Mead

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The True Story of Ella "Cattle Kate" Watson-Averell and her husband, James

No Escape: The Sweetwater Tragedy, a Wyoming historical mystery/suspense novel, is the story of a young couple murdered by greedy cattlemen who want  their homestead land. It's also the story of a young single woman from Missouri who travels to Wyoming Territory, a year before it becomes a state, to file on homesteader land of her own.

Tired of being told what to do by the men in her life, Susan seeks the freedom offered in Wyoming Territory in 1889, including the right to vote, hold political office and serve on juries. When she meets Michael O'Brien, a young veterinarian, when she disembarks from the train in Casper, she decides to accept his offer  to accompany her to Rawlins to file for homestead land.

Surviving a tornado in their wagon, she later meets Ellen Watson-Averell and her husband James, fellow homesteaders who operate a road ranch and cafe in Sweetwater Valley along the Oregon-Mormon Trail. The Averells are later hanged by greedy cattlemen who want their homestead land, and the couple is accused of running a rural bawdy house. Ellen "Ella" receives the name "Cattle Kate" following her death and is said to have accepted rustled cattle in exchange for her "favors," lies spread by the lynchers to rationalize their actions.

Witnesses to the murders disappear or turn up dead and the mystery and suspense continue as Susan and Michael flee for their lives . . .

The novel is based on more than 20 years of research and is available on Kindle at (print edition out later this month).