Saturday, July 17, 2021

Writing takes a Back Seat to Family

My blog has been erratic this month. For that, I am truly sorry. Please hang in there. My life should get back to better order soon. This month was, is, and is going to continue to be crazy. Sarah and I have been busy touring memory care facilities because her mother has reached the point where home care isn't enough.

What she wants is to stay in her home. That is simply no longer possible. She often doesn't recognize it as her home, and sometimes forgets she is in Florida. I frequently have to tell her that I can't take her home because she is home, that she no longer lives in Kentucky, and that Sarah and I do not live in Kentucky anymore. 

Then there are the expenses. The amount of home care she needs, and the costs of maintaining a house that is over 100 years old, is more than she can afford. The care alone is more than ten thousand a month. Sarah's brother arrives next week and together we will make the choice that we think is best for Sarah's mom. We will wade through the paperwork and get her the best possible place we can find.

In times like these, writing takes a back seat to family. Sarah and I are going to be stretched pretty thin until we find a place that can provide her mom the care she needs, get the work done to move her in, and make sure she settles into her new home. It is not going to be easy. She will hate giving up her home, probably hate us for forcing the issue, and hate any memory care home we choose. 

Dementia has taken away our other options. Nothing about caring for a loved one with dementia is easy. I am sure any caregiver will confirm that. For us, the hardest part is reversing the mother-child relationship. We must do what is best for her no matter how much she resists.

Friday, July 09, 2021

Becoming a Micro-Publisher

Tomorrow, Sarah and I are going to be talking to the Derby Rotten Scoundrels Chapter of Sisters in Crime about our publishing journey. Preparing for this talk has made me do a lot of thinking about our micro-press and all the work that has gone into learning to create books. It required learning about formatting, new software, what fonts worked well together, what kind of covers were needed, how to get covers, and what budget they needed. Timetables had to be set up for what needed to be done to take a book from manuscript to published. We had to learn about everything from hypertext and metadata to ISBNs and Library of Congress numbers. 

The strangest part of this journey is that neither of us started out with a plan to go into publishing. Frankly, we were and are still writers first, which is why the press will never grow beyond being a micro-press. It is not possible to write and publish a large number of books at the same time. Each is a full-time job. Now that I have retired there is more time I can devote to other projects, but not that much more. I didn't gain those eight to ten hours a day that used to be taken up with my job. Instead, there were new responsibilities that ended up on my plate. 

Publishing is challenging. There are so many other books on the market that it is very difficult to get one book to stand out from the pack. The pack for us isn't the big publishers. It is the other small independent presses and the self-published authors that we vie for shelf space with. Standing out is about finding the right keywords on Amazon, the right blurb for the back cover, the right places to get reviews, and the right price points to get sales. It is all still a work in progress. 

I am grateful for the people who have helped us along the way and awed that I have reached a point where others consult me with their questions. It is quite a journey from writer to publisher, one that I could not have made without Sarah and her editing skills. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Thinking Inside the Box


I was listening to a well-respected mystery writer talking about how writers needed to think outside the box. The term makes me cringe. The first time I heard it was in the 80s. Businesses were making a huge effort to convince all of us that we need to think outside the box when most of them hadn't bothered finding out what was in the box, to begin with. 

While it started with businesses trying to approach problems in new and creative ways. Now it has been applied to every aspect of our lives. Even elementary school children are being badgered to think outside the box before they have even learned what the box holds.

I don't object to the idea of brainstorming ways to solve a problem. I find objectionable the colossal waste of time this practice is when we haven't exhausted the possibilities inside the box. Doctors refer to this as looking for zebras. They teach medical students to look for the obvious first. Once you have ruled out all the common ailments, then start looking for the more unusual ones.

You might wonder why I'm talking about inside-the-box thinking for writers. After all, we are supposed to be creative. Our plots take all kinds of twists and turns. This is why readers pick up our books. 

But here's the thing, the story needs to make sense. The writing doesn't need funky punctuation, new and different spellings of names, experimental structure. Tell the story. Tell it well. Take your readers into your world with the words you use. The journey can be as wild and imaginative as you wish, filled with layers of secrets and deception. Keep your readers guessing until the very end. 

We have an incredible toolbox of language, grammar, style, structure, and plot. There is no good reason to throw away what is in our toolbox and go looking for a new tool when most of us are still learning to write with the tools we have. 

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

History of Flogging in Tampa

Flogging holds a prominent place in Tampa history; in fact, from the turn of the 20th century into the 1930s, "professional flogger" was an acceptable, if not entirely respectable occupation. If you didn't like someone and didn't want to get your own hands dirty, you could hire a flogger to deliver a public whipping. There are reported cases of men, women, and children who died from injuries received in a flogging. It is a sad fact that flogging in Tampa and Hillsborough County was widespread and accepted deep into the 20th century. 

As with most other punishments, flogging took the worst toll on people of color. Instead of the leather strap, a whip or chain might be used. Other targets of the lash were Jews, Catholics, women of ill repute, and criminals. Prisoners were systematically abused. The use of the lash in law enforcement was a daily practice. It continued for decades and no prisoner was immune to the threat of flogging on the whim of city and county officials. Judges even beat children in the courtrooms of the city. 

Judge Whitaker of the Tampa municipal court is said to have set the legal precedent, "by personally applying the lash to two boy offenders convicted in his court." The judge believed a good whipping would be better for their character than jail time. Perhaps he was right, but by the time of Ybor City Blues, Hillsboro County had instituted a policy of flogging four prisoners a day even if there had been no infractions of the rules. 

Hillsborough County Chain Gang 1925

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to serve time in the county jail. First of all, jail usually meant the county work camp. Prisoners worked twelve-hour days building roads, cleaning ditches, and cutting brush using hand tools. They were shackled together to form a "chain gang." Then, every afternoon a flogger would walk down the row and pick out four random men to flog. If you were disliked, unlucky, or a shade or two darker than the next man in line, you could end up with daily floggings through your entire sentence.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The Magic Kingdom of Henry Plant

This past weekend, Sarah and I were in Tampa for the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime meeting, which was held in the media room of the Oxford Exchange. This was the first time since the pandemic began that we have been able to meet in person. As the members are spread out along the West Coast of Florida, we appreciate having the option of doing an in-person meeting while others join us via Zoom. 

Since we were right across the street from the University of Tampa, we took advantage of our location to take a little trip into Tampa's first Magic Kingdom, the Kingdom of Henry Plant. Plant's Kingdom was made up of railroads, steamships, lavish resorts, and tropical islands. It even had its own flag.

Plant Flag

There is no place the flag more proudly waved than over his castle, AKA The Tampa Hotel. As you can see from the picture below, the hotel was as close to a castle as Plant could make it. It was built at the center of a lavishly landscaped 100-acre park. It had an 18-hole golf course, its own stables for horseback riding, tennis courts, croquet and badminton courts, horseshoes, fishing, boating on Tampa Bay, and even hunting was available. There were shows and concerts by some of the world's best performers, a rail station, and a casino with a floor that opened to the swimming pool. 

He spared no expense on constructing and furnishing the castle. Moorish spires rose above the roofline, each adorned with a crescent moon. 

One wing of the Tampa Bay Hotel


There were life-sized statues decorating the lobby, art, and furnishings imported from Europe and the Orient. Phone service was available in every guest room (which was unheard of at the time). Every guest had access to a bath with hot and cold running water.

Typical Hotel Bathroom

The hotel was finished in February of 1891, at a cost of over three million dollars. When the Spanish-American War loomed on the horizon, Plant lobbied hard to make Tampa the main port of embarkation of the troops. His prized hotel was filled with officers, plus Clara Barton and her Red Cross nurses as they waited for orders to leave for Cuba. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders camped on the banks of the river and held drills on Plant's carefully landscaped lawns. 

After his death in 1899, the family lost interest in the hotel, which was sold to the city of Tampa in 1905 for 125 thousand dollars. It closed in 1932, and in 1933 part of the building reopened as a museum; the rest is used as offices for the University of Tampa.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Review: Catriona McPherson's Scot on the Rocks

Catriona McPherson’s latest Last Ditch mystery is hard to put down. If you haven't read one of her books about a Scottish ex-pat, Lexy Campbell, trying to make a go of life in California, this one is a great place to start. The prose sparkle and her humor shines through on every page. Don't let the laughter lull you into thinking this is a fluff read. There is depth to the quirky characters at the Last Ditch Motel and enough twists and turns in the plot to please the most avid mystery fan. 

In Scot on the Rocks, one of Cuento's beloved statues, Mama Cuento is stolen. All that's left is a bronze toe and a sinister note.  Lexy and her crew decide to "help" the police find the missing statue. They are pulled into finding Bran, Lexy's ex-husband's missing wife, Brandee. When Bran shows Lexy and crew a similar kidnapping note he received with an acrylic nail enclosed, it’s anybody’s guess as to what is going on, what’s connected, and what’s not. 

This is the third book of the series. Lexy is a relationship counselor in Cuento, California. Todd, the anesthetist who lives at the motel with his pediatrician husband Roger, and germophobic Kathi, who is married to the motel’s live-in manager Noleen, have inserted themselves into Lexy’s counseling business, creating Trinity Services. 

In fact, her pals have inserted themselves into any business that comes Lexy’s way. Her friends have twin passions, finding Lexy the perfect man, and solving mysteries. She wishes they would give up on the perfect manhunt, but that is another story. 

The Last Ditch Motel is a large diverse family. It doesn't take long for the entire family to get involved in this wild and wooly chase for answers, although the standing members of Trinity Services, Lexy and Todd and Kathi take the most dangerous risks and find themselves on a road trip to Patriarchyville. There are lots of surprises in this tale of who or what went where and why. 

Catriona McPherson knows how to tell a great story, and in this series, readers also can depend on McPherson to make them laugh. She is also a master of creating a magnificent cast of characters. Readers will be entertained and surprised at every turn of the road.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Mary Roberts Rinehart America's Queen of Mystery

Mary Roberts Rinehart in Shadowlands

Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876 – September 22, 1958) was an American writer best known for her mysteries. She published her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, in 1908, which introduced the "had I but known" narrative style. Rinehart is also considered the source of "the butler did it" plot device in her novel The Door (1930), although the exact phrase does not appear in her work. 

Her books were wildly popular.  All through the 1920s, Mary Roberts Rinehart's books made the bestseller list. The prolific writer is often compared to Agatha Christie in terms of her career. While it is true that both women wrote books, short stories, an autobiography, essays, and long-running plays (Agatha Christie's The Mouse Trap and Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat), I don't really like to do that sort of comparison between writers who were so very different in their approach to the art of storytelling. 

Before going further with this post, I must make the following confession: I am not an unbiased judge of why Christie's books have remained in print and Mary Roberts Rinehart's have not. I am a huge Agatha Christie fangirl. I was once barred from an Agatha Christie trivia contest because I had answered too many of the questions. 

I first discovered Rinehart's books when I ran across The Circular Staircase in an old house I was helping my brother demolish. The book was a bit musty, but you take your books where you can find them in a town with no bookstores or libraries. I took it home and read it that night. I enjoyed the story, but didn't run across another of her books for many years. One book does not a fandom make. I passed the book on to a fellow bookworm in town and didn't think about it again until years later, I discovered another among a stack of other Rinehart first editions. 

It was then that I began to read her work and learn more about this remarkable woman. Rinehart knew what it was like to grow up poor. She worked hard to put herself through nursing school. During WWI, she was a war correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. She and her husband lost everything in the stock market crash, but her writing success enabled them to recover and prosper. 

Hardship was not entirely behind her, though. In 1946 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which led to a radical mastectomy. She eventually went public with her story, at a time when such matters were not openly discussed. The interview "I Had Cancer" was published in a 1947 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal; in it, Rinehart encouraged women to have breast examinations. 

Her work reflects a life lived to the fullest. I can understand why the "had I but known" style of writing fell out of fashion, but much of Christie's work is also stilted. If there is a real comparison to be made as to why Agatha Christie still remains popular and Rinehart is less so, it is the detectives they wrote, or rather in Rinehart's case, the lack of a recurring detective in her books. Neither of her recurring characters Hilda Adams or Tish Carberry appear often enough in her books to be considered series characters.