Today: Completed two more months of sheltering in place. The chief difference from March and April is that we really have the routine down. Dorothy goes to her P.T. once a week. Our housemate (Willie) stays home. I do a once-a-week shopping trip to Hadley supermarkets, usually around 8 am when there are almost no other customers. Once the groceries are checked out, I return them to the grocery cart and bag them in our own bags at my car or truck. We then disinfect them at home. Willie and I have become very efficient at this. We spend most of the rest of the week on our own two-acre property, although if we become really stir-crazy, we get in Dorothy's car and drive around. We're very fortunate to live in a state (MA) where daily new infections and deaths have diminished significantly and in a rural county that's been relatively free of the virus (only one or two or even no new infections daily). Our home routines keep us pretty busy: housekeeping chores, dealing with deferred maintenance, and gardening. The garden has been glorious! Loads of flowers--daisies, narcissus, peonies, poppies, iris, and more. And we've gone through a sequence of edibles: asparagus, lettuce, spinach, and (yesterday!) peas. I'm doing a lot of reading. I've completed seventy-four books toward my Goodreads 2020 Challenge goal of 77, everything from short (but intense) reads like Sophocles' Antigone to longer volumes like Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady. We had one scare when Willie came down with a temperature, aches, and general body fatigue, so we went to a local MedicalExpress site and got tested, with three "negative" results reported the next day. If this sounds jolly and relaxed, I need to say that lots of anxiety comes along with living in a time when a pandemic is still raging.
Sheltering in Place, Part 2: May-June
Yes, I'm staying home nearly all the time, with one or at most two quick trips out each week to shop. We're lucky that we live in a rural town with many supermarkets nearby. If a given store doesn't have what we need, one of the other supermarkets or smaller stores has it. You might think that this is the perfect time to get a lot of writing done. Not so; we're totally focussed on domestic life, including the early stages of my beloved vegetable garden. However, I've had ample time to read and have completed fifty-five books already this year. There's a certain joy in going back to old favorites or reading highly recommended new books. I'm very much enjoying the slow pace and peace and quiet on the home front. The social and political environment regionally [Boston and even Springfield are COVID-19 hot spots] and nationally is dreadful, however.
Yes, it's six months since my May blog entry. I haven't written anything substantial--fiction or nonfiction--since my detective novel "T.T. Mann, Ace Detective" was published last year. No, I've not been suffering from wirter's block. My wife has been very ill, at home, and needing constant care. That didn't leave me with time or energy for writing stories. My wife is much better now, and I'm beginning to a plan a novella tentatively titled "The Man to Whom Nothing Ever Happened." I admit that if nothing ever happens to the main protagonist, a postal clerk named Roger, it's difficult to imagine what will keep readers interested. Things do happen to his friends, however, to Peter who owns a video rental store and Karen who teaches English at a local community college. But another challenge is whether I can give Roger, Peter, and Karen distinctive voices. Too much of the time in past novels almost all of my characters have sounded like me. I'm just getting started, and I'll report now and then whether I'm succeeding at either of these challenges--keeping things interesting, and giving the lead characters distinctive voices.
Yes, our local bear is back--a sure sign of spring, along with a magnolia tree in full bloom, the lilac bushes budding out, and the lawn needing to be mowed. [Round 1 today!] But the focus of this entry is a story about the narcissus bulbs that are featured in the first paragraph of my best-known book, A Scattered People, where the text reads: "Every May when spring at last comes to western Massachusetts, a small patch of phantom lilies blooms in my garden near the swamp. The annual reappearance of these modest flowers gently calls to mind the lives of certain nineteenth-century Americans who preserved bulbs of this particular stock," at least one member in each of four generations taking bulbs along as they gradually made their way west from New England to California. You'll note I've call them "phantom lilies," the name my ancestors used for them. Indeed, I didn't realize they were a white variety of narcissus until a neighbor here in Massachusetts pointed that out to me. I feel a special affection for them because their final resting place, quite literally the end of the line for them, could have been a shady spot in my mother's front lawn in San Leandro, California. But when my mother died in 1982, I dug up the half dozen or so remaining bulbs. They were barely surviving, so scrawny that I feared they would simply fade away. But they have prospered here in Massachusetts, proliferating into a large patch of flowers, some with yellow blooms, others the white kind I remember from my youth.
My business card identifies me as "Historian and Novelist." I've published four nonfiction books in my field of U.S. history and four novels, three set in 18th-century New Mexico and the fourth (and most recent) set in San Francisco in the 1950s. Now I'm at a crossroads. Do I return to nonfiction or try to write another novel? My nonfiction books have had much larger sales and seem to have a lot of staying power. I still hear now and then from people who've just read A Scattered People, a book published in 1985. But the novels have been fun to write, and I'm much more likely to be surprised by phrases, scenes, and plots that come to mind as I write them. At age eighty I question whether I have the time and energy to do the eight or more years of intensive research required for a book-length historical study. The thing that keeps me from fussing too much about that fact is that each of my novels has had a strong historical setting for which I've enjoyed bringing my skills in historical research to bear. So, it sounds as though I'm strongly drawn to writing another novel. Now all I need is a time, place, and plot and a first line to set the whole thing in motion.
San Francisco in the mid-1950s, the setting for T.T. Mann, Ace Detective, will be immediately recognizable to anyone who lived in or visited the Bay Area in those years: the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, the classy stores around Union Square, the splendid restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf, the twists and turns of Lombard Street, the intellectual vitality of Ferlingetti's City Lights Bookstore, and much more. The novel, one reader remarked, offers a lively tour of San Francisco as it was seventy years ago.
But criminals are active in this urban paradise. One particularly dangerous example involves a list of city officials and police who are secretly on the payroll of the city's top crime boss, Biggie Fingers. In another example, thieves have absconded with fourteen rare paintings from the home of a gorgeous heiress, Monica Van Dusen.
It falls to T.T. Mann, the ace detective of the book's title, to deal with these challenging cases. T.T. looks frail--he's six feet tall but weighs only twenty-two pounds--and he's new to the gumshoe business, but he has a stalwart spirit and never gives up on a case. His pursuit of the bad guys leads to many amusing episodes in a book aptly described as a light-hearted take on classic noir detective fiction.
Preface. I've published eight books--4 nonfiction (U.S. history) and 4 novels. Here's what I've learned about the book market since I published my first book in 1975.
Reviews. Getting reviews for nonfiction books and novels is very different. My U.S. history books were widely reviewed in historical journals without much effort on my part. All it took was for my publishers or me to send review copies to the relevant journals in the field. By contrast, reviews are tough to come by for fiction. There's just too much competition: 200,000+ novels published in 2016 alone. I managed to coax a few local papers into reviewing my novels, but that was it.
Sales. All four of my books in U.S. history sold at least 1,000 copies and several sold substantially more. But having read in advance about the market for fiction, I was prepared for the fact that most of those 200,000+ novels published annually sell less than 200 copies. That's about what the three volumes in my Buenaventura Trilogy sold. I don't have the early returns yet for T.T. Mann, Ace Detective (August 2018), but I'll be pleasantly surprised if it sells more than 200 copies.
Publicity. This wasn't a problem for my nonfiction books. My publishers helped me get reviews and they put the books on display at historical conventions attended by thousands of history professors. With novels, at least with those published as mine were by independent presses, the author has to do most of the publicity in competition with an overwhelming number of novels coming into print. Result: Mostly lost in the crowd.
Social Media. Social media is supposed to be the contemporary way to get noticed. Fair enough. I paid a company to send out tens of thousands of tweets and emails over a four-month period. I tracked these e-blitzes and got some fun responses, but few sales. My impression is that Twitter, for example, is a site for sellers (novelists trying to sell their books) not buyers (folks looking to buy someone else's book), or at least that sellers vastly outnumber buyers.
2018 has been a banner year. After a year-and-a-half in the making, "T.T. Mann, Ace Detective" was published by Levellers Press of Amherst and Florence, Massachusetts. Great job by Matt and Faith of Levellers!
I've already explained that T.T. Mann's bizarre physique--6' tall and weighing only 22 lbs.--came directly from the way our father told the story to my brother Dick and me. We were young and never questioned our father's description of the lead character.
But in the course of building a story around T.T. Mann's exploits, I tried to place T.T. in a realistic setting: San Francisco in the 1950s. I was aided by my wife Dorothy who, like me, was a high school and college student living in the Bay Area in that decade.
Throughout 2018 I experimented with using social media, mainly Twitter, to publicize my book. Did it pay off? I won't know for certain until I get a complete sales summary early next year. No matter what, I had fun venturing into a media environment that was new to me.
Much earlier (the October 10th posting) I promised to point out a similarity between the way Dona Leon often concludes Guido Brunetti's cases and the way I chose to wrap-up the three cases T.T. pursued in this book. The similarity is this: All three of T.T.'s cases end without the villains being jailed. For example, in "Blondes Are Trouble," crime boss Biggie Fingers gets back the list of city officials he bribes without any of the bad guys being fined, fired, or sent to jail. The targets of Brunetti's investigations also usually get away despite their misdeeds. No easy resolutions! No simple conclusions in which crime does not pay.
Nothing gladdens an author's heart more than good reviews and positive feedback. I've been getting a lot of both. Here's an excerpt from a five-star review by Kris Moger in Reader's Favorite Book Reviews (September 17, 2018). "T.T. Mann, Ace Detective by Gerald W. McFarland is a fun throwback to the days of film noir, with private eyes, gangsters and femmes fatales. The main character, Thin Mann, along with his brother, Flat Mann, brings a touch of fantasy to these cozy mysteries as one is as thin as a garden hose and the other is as flat as electrical tape. Through each story, Thin faces thugs, dastardly husbands, and nosy relatives with the help of Flat and his secretary, Rosie, the love of Thin's life.... McFarland does a great job mixing these detective tales with enough twists and noir charm to build lighthearted mysteries that make for a pleasurable read on a Sunday afternoon. I would recommend T.T. Mann, Ace Detective to anyone looking for something entertaining but not too heavy, much in line with the early Agatha Christie stories or Father Brown Mysteries."
T.T. Mann, Ace Detective combines a large element of fantasy (T.T., after all, is 6' tall but weighs only 22 lbs) with a historically accurate portrait of San Francisco in 1955. One reader told me that I had provided him with a prose map to the city in the mid-fifties, a comment that pleased me immensely because I had worked hard to make the geographical and social background features of the book as true to the era as possible. The "inside story" of why that goal was particularly important to me is that the Bay Area in the 1950s was the land of my youth, my high-school and college years. The text of T.T. Mann takes its readers on a tour of many San Francisco neighborhoods ranging from elite districts such as St. Francis Wood to the slums of the Tenderloin. Of other districts that are mentioned, I remember with particular fondness North Beach, famous for its bohemian ambiance. It was while on an expedition with high-school friends to a North Beach Italian restaurant in 1955 that I first became aware of the mind-expanding possibilities offered by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore. Lombard Street on Russian Hill, a winding one-block-long street with eight sharp turns, is a tourist site, but its crooked contours seemed to me the perfect setting for the residence of Biggie Fingers, the city's top crime boss. Then there are the restaurants that come up here and there. Tarantino's on Fisherman's Wharf was a favorite of my mother's, while my father, who worked in the city and made the round-trip commute every weekday from our East Bay home to San Francisco and back, particularly liked Bernstein's Fish Grotto on Powell Street, which has long since gone out of business; but my brother and I both had vivid memories of outings there with Dad. The fine stores around Union Square, more elegant then than now, were favored destinations for window shopping that my wife and editor, Dorothy, visited with her high-school girlfriends. These are only a few examples of the territory lovingly reconstructed in the novel. So please get your hands on the book and let me take you on a tour of the city.