01 October 2014

Death in Palm Springs, A

I recently returned from a couple days in Palm Springs, California -- the land of movie stars, golf courses, desert landscaping and storage units. I was not involved with any of the former, but lots and lots of the latter.

The reason for my trip was the untimely death, a couple years ago, of a friend of mine. We had known each other more than fifteen years and shared a common passion for vintage melamine. It was something I’d been interested in for about fifteen years; but he had me beat: he’d been collecting and researching it since the mid-1970s.
His intent all these years was to write the comprehensive encyclopaedia of melamine to be exhaustively researched, documented and compiled with the help of several other researchers, including me. We exchanged notes for more than a decade. I, and the others, kept encouraging him to get going on the encyclopaedia. Despite the fact that he had thousands of pieces of vintage melamine stored in two huge storage units, he didn’t yet have enough. He kept buying and assembling, hoping to have everything in place before he started writing.

Then, one day, he cut his leg at work. It wouldn’t heal so he went to the doctor. They said he had an infection and gave him some medicine. When it still wouldn’t heal, they said it was a different infection and gave him a different medicine. Long story short, turns out he had stage-four pancreatic cancer. He underwent treatments, including proton beam therapy, and came out all cured. Six months later he was dead. Apparently, he hadn’t been as cured as the doctors thought.

Despite the fact he insisted he had a will (years before all this happened), he died without one. His family wanted to sell the contents of the storage units, but no one who had the money was interested in the contents, and no one with interest in the contents had the money. Frustrated after two years of no sale, they told me they were going to abandon the units and I had a week to go there and take whatever I wanted. Living a few hours drive from Palm Springs I leapt at the chance. My spouse and I went over, spent two days going through many hundreds of boxes, found lots of stuff and came home.

From this exhausting exercise, I learned a great many things: have a will (I do), do not have a storage unit (I don’t), if you have to store and organize research materials do not combine many subjects into a single box (each subject gets its own box) and make sure to give people what you want them to have when you’re still alive and not after you’re dead -- that’s the only way to guarantee they’ll get it, will or no will.

But, most important I learned that, if you’re researching something in which you have a passion, don’t wait to publish until you have every last speck of information on the subject. Publish now, either online or otherwise, and change it as new information comes along. No sense spending thirty years researching something only to die before you’ve printed a single word.

You can find my research into mid-twentieth-century plastics here.

22 July 2014

Art Imitates Life or How I Created one of the Main Characters in “Murder at Eastern Columbia”

I had already written six books when I began organizing the mystery novel Murder at Eastern Columbia. I had not yet come up with the “novel within a novel” feature, but I did know my main character would be a writer who would have a fictional alter ego. Through much thinking and planning, this alter ego turned into the unnamed detective who has now co-starred in three of the James Murray Mystery novels.

The main character of the novels, writer James Murray, is a huge fan of the mystery novels of Dashiell Hammett. That mirrors my fascination with the detectives that appeared in film, books and especially radio in the mid-twentieth century: Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Barrie Craig, Johnny Dollar, The Falcon, the Thin Man and countless others. That fascination was channeled into James’s alter ego -- but with one big difference: he’s not a detective and he’s not a police officer. He’s just a guy who wants to help.

And help he does.

He follows James’s lead (literally) in three adventures (so far) starting with the murder of James’s co-worker that sends James and the unnamed detective on a whirlwind tour of 1930s downtown Los Angeles as they each try to solve the murder of the girl with sorrel-colored hair. In the second book, Sabotage at RKO Studio, he goes to work at a movie studio when James gets hired as a junior script writer. They both try to find out who’s sabotaging films being made on the lot -- including the big blockbuster King Kong. In the third book, Abduction at Griffith Observatory, James’s life continues on an upswing, but he’s soon drawn into trying to find the person who was kidnapped from the grounds of the new observatory.

I love writing this unnamed detective because he’s all the things that James and I are not. He’s tough, he’s a chick magnet, he’s good with his fists when he needs to be. But, like James and I, he’s also intuitive, smart, and has a good heart.

My detective also bleeds when he’s wounded -- literally and figuratively. He’s had a tough life, but he’s trying to make it better, to rise above the hand dealt him. He survived an abusive mother and an uncaring father to mature in college. He then struck out on his own and accidentally got into the detecting business trying to help a wealthy society dame find her kidnapped pooch. One investigative job led to another, then another -- and now he’s known around Los Angeles as a man who can get the job done.

What adventures await the unnamed detective? That all depends on what happens to James in his life because, as we all know, writers take the adventures of their lives and turn them into their fiction.

There are some pretty exciting adventures in store for James, and he’ll have his ups and downs -- but so will the unnamed detective. So, is it a case of life imitating art? For the unnamed detective, it’s a case of art imitating life.

Books I’m Reading

Am reading this.

Just finished reading this.

01 July 2014

The James Murray Mysteries: Now a Trilogy!

What do you do once you’ve written three novels in a series? Why, publish them as a trilogy, of course. That’s just what I’ve done with the first three James Murray Mystery novels: Murder at Eastern Columbia, Sabotage at RKO Studio and Abduction at Griffith Observatory.

Follow young James Murray as he makes his way as a writer in 1930s Los Angeles. First, as a clerk at a swank department store investigating the murder of a friend, then as a junior writer at a Hollywood movie studio investigating some sinister happenings on movie sets, and later as a moderately successful writer investigating a kidnapping at the newly opened Griffith Observatory.

You get all three novels for one great price! (See link in the "My Books" section to your right.)

03 June 2014

Abduction at Griffith Observatory

Yes, it's true: the third James Murray Mystery is now available! (See link in the "My Books" section to your right.)

James Murray is a young man with a dream -- he wants to be a writer just like his idol, Dashiell Hammett. He pens his first novel while working as a clerk at a swank downtown department store. He writes his second while working at a famous movie studio turning his first novel into a screenplay. Now, moderately successful, James is hard at work creating his newest adventure.

And his life is perfect -- or nearly so: he’s living with the girl he loves, planning to get married, and enjoying a life he once could only dream about. But an innocent outing to Los Angeles’s new Griffith Observatory changes all that when a commotion during a presentation leads to a kidnapping. James, witness to the abduction, feels compelled to find out the truth behind it. Why was this person kidnapped? Who was behind it? Why were the abductors speaking in German? And what does Gina Corvi have to do with it?

Abduction at Griffith Observatory -- like its predecessors Sabotage at RKO Studio and  Murder at Eastern Columbia -- is unlike any other book you've read: Not a single novel, it's two parallel novels, featuring two heroes, working two mysteries in two different versions of 1930s Los Angeles. Join James and his alter ego as they each try to find the missing person. His hard-boiled alter ego -- neither a private detective nor a police officer: just someone "who wants to help" -- needs to find out why his life is being threatened because of a piece of paper with some numbers on it. Two men in two stories work their way through 1930s Los Angeles following clews, interviewing people who might know something, going from location to location, with one goal in mind: find the person who was kidnapped.

Along the way, they encounter a rich cast of characters including a hate-filled landlady who doesn’t like anyone different than she, the nervous director of the observatory, the mysterious black woman who was exiled from the country of her birth, the young page working at the observatory, a gentle cleaning woman who has suffered since the death of her husband, the scientist with a deadly secret, and the girl in the blue pumps who tries to hide the scar on her face like she tries to hide so many other things about herself.

Abduction at Griffith Observatory is filled with twists, turns and a final showdown aboard a rusty old freighter moored to a dock at San Pedro harbor.

Come along for the ride in this, the third James Murray mystery: the story of a young man who dreams of something better.

27 May 2014

Rachel Carson

Happy birthday to Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964), arguably the most important person in the ongoing fight to protect the environment.

Remember, we only have one planet.

15 May 2014

Writing vs Wages

I’ve been writing regularly since high school: newspapers, magazines, radio news and documentaries, and a little bit of television. For a vast majority of those years, I earned enough money to do it full-time; for a smaller percentage of those years, I had to write while working an official job. (And, during all those years, no matter how successful I was at writing and earning a good living and winning awards, my mother would ask me: “When are you going to get a real job?”)

In the mid 1990s, I lost my regular newspaper gig. I ended up with a good job at a large corporation. Although not part of my official duties, they let me write for and occasionally edit the in-house publication and other communication materials. I continued doing freelance newspaper writing part-time. Before I knew it, I had been at the company fifteen years, earning a great salary and magnificent benefits.

Then, friends of mine, nearly my age, started to die -- suddenly. I was never one to question my own mortality; but I did start to think: if I died today, would I be happy with my legacy?

Despite decades of writing, the answer was a sound “no.” Even with all my professional writing, the works for which I had the most passion -- my novels -- were languishing. Who can work full time and still write novels? I tried and couldn’t make it work. So, I talked it over with my spouse and quit my secure, well-paying corporate job so that I could create the novels I needed to be happy.

My intent was to get a part-time job (twenty hours a week) and write the other twenty hours. That sounded fair and was financially doable. Of course, it took me more than a year to find a job I was interested in doing that would only require twenty hours a week. But before I found that job, I wrote like a fiend. I polished off two manuscripts and published them; I polished and published a handful of short stories; I turned a screenplay of mine into my third novel; and then embarked on my first “new” novel. That was followed by the first novel in a planned five-book series about a boy detective in 1930s Los Angeles. [You can see them all listed on the right hand side of this page.]

Now, I work three days a week and write two; that makes it pretty easy to shift gears between my (non-writing) part-time gig and my personal writing. I have a boss who not only supports my writing, but has also bought, read and enjoyed (she says) nearly all my novels. Sure, my salary is significantly lower than it was, and I get no benefits; but, I’m doing what I’ve always loved (writing), focusing on what’s really important to me now and actually creating a legacy that I would not be embarrassed to have represent me after I’m long gone.