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Sheltering in Place.4: Groundhog Months!

A Quest for Peace and Wisdom

What started as groundhog days has become groundhog months. Still sheltering in place (since March) we have to ask each other "what day of the week is it?" They're all similar. But October brought many chores to do to get ready for cold weather. Time to take down the ACs and put up the storm windows; harvest the last tomato and a few remaining green beans; get the septic tank pumped, and have our carpenter do a few last-minute exterior repairs. Everything else is more of the same-old, same-old: read books (Gerry just finished his 100th book for the Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge) and sleep, eat, take our pills, and sleep again. At least it's been possible to sit on the front porch to eat, read, and talk, although today the temperature (in the 50s) made that less attractive. We still haven't managed to catch our long-haired feral cat, who badly needs a trim, so I guess you could say we still have unfinished business. Within our small sphere (a two-acre lot on a country road) things are good, but anxieties creep into our fortress of calm from the world at large as we follow the news about COVID-19 (on the upswing again, though fortunately not in our rural county), developments in the presidential election that suggest November 3rd will likely produce grave civic disruptions, and wildfires in our beloved California. We meditate daily, praying for the health and happiness of all beings.

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Sheltering in Place.3: July-August 2020

        Dangerous storms surround us.

 

We are now beginning the sixth month of sheltering in place. We've gotten into a routine that brings to mind the movie Groundhog Day. Every day closely resembles all the previous days. Wake up; meditate; Dorothy has her espresso while I make her breakfast (always the same: hot cereal with banana and honey); do some yoga or light exercise; read the mail; do chores; have lunch; more chores and more reading; eat dinner; play Scrabble; go to bed. Admittedly, every day is not exactly the same. Once a week Gerry does grocery shopping at the local supermarkets, and Dorothy has an appointment with her P.T. on most Wednesdays. Book titles change too. Gerry has already completed his Goodreads 2020 Challenge of seventy-seven books; Dorothy always has two or more books in progress at any given time. We both read some old Dorothy Sayers mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and found her Busman's Honeymoon outstanding in that Peter and his bride (Harriet Vane) explore the newness of their relationship in deeply moving passages. We are fortunate that we live in a town and a county where Covid-19 cases are rare, but the menace the virus poses to our health and well-being is an ominous presence. The nation is in political turmoil with an election now less than 100 days away and its results unlikely to be known for a month or more after November 3, and doubtless disputed even then. Our little town won't be a problem because we always vote by paper ballot. But the underlying feeling is anxiety about how the virus and the election will work out. Our home is an island of calm that like the eye of a hurricane is peaceful, but we are surrounded by turmoil on all sides.

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Sheltering in Place.2: May-June 2020

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.

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How I'm sheltering in place.

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.

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Writer's block? Not!

My most recent book's cover. 
 

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.

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The Bear is Back!

                   Our Backyard Bear. 

 

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.

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What next? More history or another novel?

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.

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The Heart of My Novel

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.

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The Book Market & Me: Lessons from 2018

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. 

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2018 Wrap-up

Dick and Jerry McFarland about the time their dad told them the story on which "T.T. Mann, Ace Detective" was based.
 
 

           ====================================

     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.

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