It's been a beautiful spring here in Western Massachusetts. Cool weather slowed things down so we had lots of time to enjoy bulbs and trees in bloom. But let me tell the story back of this magnolia, which as you can see is large and flourishing. In 1985, when we put an addition on the house, this tree--then barely three feet tall--was living in what would become the basement of the addition. So we asked the guys who were excavating the new foundation to move the tree. We didn't really expect it to live. The funny thing that happened later that day was that our cat, Francis, went out to the place where the tree had been and climbed over a pile of dirt left by the excavation. When he saw the tree in its new location, he stopped in his tracks and stared at the relocated tree. Then he turned and looked back to where it had been. Who knew that trees can move, he seemed to be thinking.
Sunstone Press, which published The Brujo's Way, wrote in March to ask me to prepare a movie-TV promotional piece on the novel. In the course of doing so I reread the novel cover to cover, something I hadn't done for nearly five years. I'm pleased to report that it reads very well, even better than I remembered. Not only does the main protagonist, Don Carlos Buenaventura, encounter many dangerous situations, but he enjoys his love affairs with beautiful women and pursues his atonishing paranormal abilities in ways that add a mysterious element to the story of his life. The book's setting in the high desert country of New Mexico provides a dramatic backdrop to Don Carlos's adventures. The full text of my movie-TV promotional treatment will soon be posted along with Sunstone's catalog entry on The Brujo's Way.
Ground Hog Day, v.5: Yes, I'm still sheltering in place. However, this month Covid 19 vaccines became available locally. My wife and I both got appointments and were vaccinated, not that having done so will change our daily routines in a major way. We'll still shelter in place. The impact of a year's worth of Ground Hog Days on my writing has been that I've not felt motivated to undertake big projects. Thus, my only production has been a few online book reviews. But I've done a lot of reading: 130+ books in 2020!
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.
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.
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.
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.