Saturday, March 21, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 12 AKA Control the Controllables

Scott D. Parker

I’ll admit something: I often write these posts with little reference to real world. I’ve always thought folks who read the posts here at DoSomeDamage get enough of the real world, so why inject it here?

Not today. I do have writing comments, but I’ll get to them later. Let’s talk about what’s happening.

Coronavirus Is Changing the World

I’m a historian and I always look at things in the long span of history. It’s why many things that irritate me don’t surprise me because we’ve likely seen it before. Back when this virus started, my wife asked if it would get over here. I said of course it would. If the 1918 Spanish Flu could reach American shores with only boats and trains, the 2020 Coronavirus would have a much easier time with planes thrown in the mix.

Now, we’re all hunkered down in our homes and apartments. Many of us are losing our jobs. When this whole thing started for us Americans, I likened the Wuhan portion to the start of a war, the invasion of Poland, for example that initiated World War II. This week, however, I’ve taken on a more nuanced viewpoint: this is like the Battle of Britain in 1940.

For months, England was bombed by the Nazis. Nightly, the population spent time in bomb shelters, praying the bombs wouldn’t fall right where they were. They carried on their lives, but it was different, challenging, and seemingly forever. What ironic timing I started listening to Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and the Vile, about that very event.

Eventually, however, the bombs stopped falling. There was an end. The Allies persevered, but things had changed.

Things will change in 2020 as well. As much as we want this hunkering down to end, what we really want is to know what happens next in the story of human history. Ain’t that the truth. I opined to the family that the ‘words of the year’ might be ‘flatten the curve.’

But that got me to thinking about New Year’s Eve 2020. Nine months away. What’s it going to be like then? Will this be over, or will Phase 2 be in full swing? Boy, do we want the answers to that, huh?

Controlling the Controllables

On the writing front, I’ve posted here about controlling the controllables. That is, we can write, edit, format, and design a book all we want right up until it’s published. After that, a book belongs to the world, and readers will make up their own minds about the book.

The same thing applies here with our current crisis. The sheer enormity of the situation can almost paralyze us into non-action or, worse, destructive action. I can’t fathom what doctors have to do on a daily basis in Italy. I can’t imagine needing medical supplies but having none. I can’t comprehend some of the numbers and data I see on the news.

If I were to let it get to me, I’d probably cry every day. I did, once, mainly because my son is a high school senior and his memories will be of staying home and away from his friends, likely no prom. Graduation is iffy. It freaking sucks.

But I had a moment of clarity one morning as I said my daily prayers. I think it was Tuesday, the first full day I worked from home. I am not a doctor or a medical professional. I’m not a decision maker, a restauranteur, or a guy stocking shelves in the grocery store. I’m just one guy—a son, a husband, a father, a friend, a co-worker—who is in the same boat as everyone else. The best thing, the absolute best thing I can do for me, my family, and my community is to do my part.

To control what I can control, and that means staying put.

I listen to the mayor and the police chief as they talk about local directives. I listen to the state and national leaders. I monitor the news, but do not obsess over it. Nor do I check it frequently. One reason is that it can be so depressing. Another is I have a day job at an oil and gas company. Talk about double anxiety.

That moment of clarity I was talking about? Well, here it is: my whole life has prepared me for what’s to come. I am who I am today as a result of every single decision I made from the time I could make them until today. Did I ever think I could work from home? Not really, until I discovered I could in 2011 and learned how to be even more productive. Did I ever think I could stay optimistic in times like these? Yes, because I had family members who showed me how. Did I ever think I could write a book? No, until I did, and I did it word by word, chapter by chapter, day by day, until the words ended up as a book.

Day by day is the only way we have to deal with our situation. You are stronger than you can possibly imagine. If you can simply get through a new day, count your blessings and do it all again the next day. It ain’t easy. In fact, it can be damn hard. But it’s not impossible. A thing is only impossible when you haven’t done it yet. After that, it gets so much easier. Well, how about more straightforward. Life isn’t exactly easy nowadays.

Control the controllables. Works for writing books. It’ll work for the year 2020.

The Secret Weapon for Creatives: Keep Creating

I promised something writing related, so here it is.

I’m writing a story for an upcoming project. It’s one of my Calvin Carter, Railroad Detective, stories set in the 1880s. I’ll admit all this real-world news killed the imagination for the first part of the month.

But this week, something changed. Maybe it was the work-from-home environment where I don’t have to commute and, thus, have more time prior to work time, but I found myself getting through this story in chunks.

And man oh man, did it feel good to write those words! For a little bit each day, I got to escape to the 1880s and stand next to my characters as they figure out how to stop a hijacked train.

So, you writers or creatives out there: keep creating. Keep writing. If nothing else, you’ll escape.

Stay safe. Stay calm. Stay focused on what you can do to help.

That’s my message to you this week.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Beau and the Blues (Dead Clown Style)

Today, Beau Johnson takes a look at DEAD CLOWN BLUES from R. Daniel Lester.

Carnegie Fitch, once-upon-a-time drifter and now half-assed private eye, has a sharp tongue, a cheap suit and dog-bite marks on his fedora. Yes, that’s just how he rolls through the downtown streets of Vancouver, BC, Canada, aka Terminal City, circa 1957, a land of neon signs, 24-hour diners and slumming socialites.
Fitch gets the case of a lifetime when he gets caught up in the death of a janitor with a checkered past as a circus performer and a stash of ill-gotten gains. And since nothing attracts the moths quite like the glow of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, he will cross paths with a series of lowlifes and nut jobs, including a gang of criminal clowns, a femme fatale with beaucoup daddy issues and an off-kilter circus elephant named Mary with a taste for human fear.
See, Fitch has always dreamed of the big score, the buried treasure, the duffel bag full of cash. Because that’s fat city, the place to be. Easy money. The good life, where the whisky flows like water and you never get a bill. But what if nothing is as it seems and chasing the dream means getting knocked silly not once but twice and ending up in a hospital bed, pissing blood after being repeatedly kidney punched by a psycho clown with no moral compass?
And what if that’s not the worst that will happen?
What if Fitch is forced to dig through his past to sort out who he is and why he is and just what the hell he wants out of this loopy thing called “life” anyway.
Well, then Fitch’d have a serious case of the Dead Clown Blues.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Two Plague Films

I have to admit it is rather difficult to resist the temptation, during the time of this pandemic, not to revisit favorite plague-related films: The Andromeda Strain, Twelve Monkeys, Contagion.  One not to be overlooked is Elia Kazan's tense Panic in the Streets (1950), which combines a plague story with film noir.  Set and shot in New Orleans, it stars Richard Widmark as an officer with the U.S. Public Health Service.  Along with a police captain, played by the always good Paul Douglas, the two discover that a homicide victim found on the city's waterfront is an index case, or patient zero (Gwyneth Paltrow's role in Contagion), a carrier of pneumonic plague. This leads to an investigation in which Widmark becomes convinced that everyone who came in contact with the body has to be inoculated. If this is not done within 48 hours and the pathogen that killed the man spreads widely, the city will have a disaster on its hands. Widmark's character has to talk to the petty criminals in the shadowy world the victim belonged to while dealing with city officials who don't believe his dire claims.  And, of course, there is a reporter who gets wind of the situation and who might print a story that could cause mass panic in the city.  It's fast-moving and suspenseful, and besides the people I mentioned, it also has Zero Mostel and Jack Palance.  Barbara Bel Geddes plays Widmark's wife.  It's not an obscure film by any means, but it's not a film that pops up among the most mentioned of plague-themed films. I saw it years ago and it took me by surprise. Quite good.

Less well known is a Mexican plague film scripted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez no less.  It's called El ano de la peste, from 1979, and it's an adaptation of Daniel Defoe's book, A Journal of the Plague Year.  Defoe's novel, written in 1722, is about the Great Plague of 1665 that struck London. Marquez takes the story and transposes it to a contemporary Mexican village.  As Marquez said, "I've always been interested in plagues, beginning with Oedipus RexA Journal of the Plague Year is one of my favorite books.  Plagues are like imponderable dangers that surprise people.  They seem to have a quality of destiny.  It's the phenomenon of death on a mass scale.  What I find curious is that the great plagues have always produced great excesses.  They make people want to live more. It's that almost metaphysical dimension that interests me."

El ano de la peste concerns a doctor who becomes aware of a terrible germ killing people in a Mexican town, but by the time the authorities he has warned take him seriously, the germ has spread and all of Mexico becomes threatened.  The government (never efficient or very helpful in these movies) tries to contain the situation and is less than truthful to the public in how they deal with it.  This film is a sci-fi-horror film-thriller hybrid and is directed by Felipe Cazals.  It's an intelligent film that gets into the political and economic fallout of an ecological and medical disaster - all things that, needless to say, remain relevant.  How the film winds up I won't give away, but it does conclude with a note of pungent irony that doesn't cast an admirable light on the government authorities.

You can watch this film on You Tube.  It's worth checking out.

Happy plague film viewing!

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Poetic Start with Susie Henry

I am very pleased to share a new poem and photo collection by southern artist, Susie Henry. Originally from Kentucky, Susie has made her home in hot and humid Florida for the past twenty years, where the tropical weather and stunning landscape always inspire her. Her work has appeared on several poetry sites, most recently Clockwise Cat. An active and avid supporter of women's rights issues, her passion is easily experienced through her work. Please enjoy.


She drinks whiskey
in the dark
and lays down her hand

Two pair and a Queen
with a song about grace

She closes her eyes
pulls the ace
from her sleeve

     One more
          One more
               Just one more

Numb constellations bloom
in her gut
    her hands
    her legs

Two pair and a Queen
with a song about grace

She sleeps in a cloud
and brawls with the sea
Blood under her nails

     One more
          One more
               Just one more drop.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Convention That Wasn't

The coronavirus caught up with me in San Diego. I—and several hundred others—hoped to outrun it, at least for the weekend. But it wasn’t to be.
Left Coast Crime is a four-day convention for crime fiction fans that’s held every spring at different locations throughout the West. This year, it was in San Diego. And it lasted eight hours.
The county health department shut us down Thursday evening, like we were a restaurant with food violations. No grace period. No opportunity to squeeze in another day of panels. We were just done.
And everyone was okay with it. Disappointed, sure. But the prevailing feeling seemed to be a sort of calm resignation mixed with a dose of last hurrah.
* * *
Let me go back to the beginning. My flight from Sacramento to San Diego on Wednesday was more than 80 percent full, much more than I’d expected. No one was wearing face masks, but the smell of hand sanitizer was definitely in the air. And the Southwest flight attendants had started a new sweep, collecting used disinfectant wipes before takeoff—after passengers had scrubbed their seat arms and tray tables.
Once in San Diego, I honed my social distancing skills. It was tough, because this is a community that hugs. A lot. Whether reader or writer, we only see each other a few times a year and dammit, we hug. So this week there was a lot of awkward freezing with arms extended as people stopped themselves from the banned gesture and switched to an approved greeting. The elbow bump was the most popular. Also used were the hip bump, the disco dance move, and jazz hands. Feel free to incorporate any of these into your own social distance repertoire. It might liven things up when we all need it most.
I lucked into a wonderful dinner Wednesday night with several Sacramento friends and Jane Ubell-Meyer, who found us a fabulous little Italian restaurant. I went to my room early because my Thursday was full of activities. I didn’t know then how fortunate that would turn out to be.
Author Speed Dating with partner Jennifer Kincheloe, who writes the historical Anna Blanc mysteries. I highly recommend them. (Thanks to Cynthia Kuhn for the photo.)
Thursday started at the civilized hour of 9 a.m. with Author Speed Dating. This is the best thing going if you’re a writer. You partner with another author and each get two minutes to talk about your books to a table of 10 readers. Then you hop up and move to the next table. We did it 18 times. The room was mostly full, and let me tell you, these are serious readers. They carefully collect author giveaway bookmarks, they take notes, and they’re wonderfully encouraging. I always leave this event with a hoarse voice and a buoyed spirit.
Merrilee Robson, Naomi Hirahara, Elena Taylor, John McMahon, yours truly.
A good portion of the people who planned to attend had to cancel, for health or family reasons, which was completely understandable. It did take the panel scheduling to a whole new level of difficulty; some people were suddenly the lone panelist and switched to other topics with little prep time. But no one minded at all. People chatted while they looked for the new locations and enthusiastically participated in the Q&A sessions.
My panel assignment—Murder in a Small Town: Adding Small Community Flavor to Crime Fiction—was Thursday afternoon. And thanks to moderator Elena Taylor, it was fantastic. A moderator can make or break a panel discussion, and Elena took ours to new heights. She was funny and charming and asked questions that sparked a great conversation.
Afterward, we all headed to the room where books are sold and tables are set up for authors to sign. And we found this:
Mysterious Galaxy, the San Diego independent bookstore that was the sole vendor for most authors’ books, had left their stock and fled. Nobody could buy anything, and the mechanism the bookstore set up to sell to attendees left out the most important part. A book shipped later through media mail isn’t signed. That’s one of the major points of a convention like this. Readers get to interact with authors and get their books signed. Both groups in that last sentence braved the virus situation to be there. Having one person from the store do the same would have been nice.  
It was especially heartbreaking to peek under the blankets and see stacks of books from the conference’s guests of honor—Rachel Howzell Hall, T. Jefferson Parker and Matt Coyle. In a normal year, the GOHs each get a special interview session in front of an audience and make a speech during the awards dinner. It’s a big deal, especially this year for Left Coast Crime’s 30th anniversary. Only Matt’s interview made it before the shutdown; no one else got anything. To not even be able to sell some books before the whole thing ended was horrible.*
As Thursday progressed, I noticed that the feeling of the convention became more and more tense. No one was edgy with one another; it was more like everyone was just waiting for the hammer to come down. And when it did, everything relaxed. It’s canceled, there’s nothing anyone can do about it, we might as well end it with the maximum amount of enjoyment.
From front: Holly West, James L'Etoile, Risa Rispoli, Laurie R. King, me, Eileen Rendahl, Bruce Robert Coffin, Colin Conway, Frank Zafiro. (Another Cynthia Kuhn photo.)
So naturally, we headed for the bar. 
* * *
I was able to change my flight to Friday and was home by that evening. And I’m still glad I went. I got to see friends, meet readers, and watch humanity confront a pandemic with grace and kindness. It wasn’t a bad way to spend two days.
Be well, everyone. 

*A side note: two other bookstores, Cross Genre Books and LaPlaya Books both stuck around. These mostly used bookstores had huge costs to be there but didn’t end up with much business in the eight hours the convention was open. Please consider buying online from these bookstores. They supported crime fiction; let’s support them.
**A huge thank you to the organizers of this year's LCC, who worked even harder than most years to put on this convention. Here are just a few of them: Lisa Brackmann and Kim Keeline, Tammy Kaehler, Kathy Krevat, Christine Van Such, Janet Rudolph, and as always, Lucinda Surber and Stan Ulrich.