Thursday, February 27, 2020

Secret Forts and a Dead Man


I’m pretty sure there’s a verse in the bible that refers to me and my brothers, Michael and Joel, and our Nenana friends. It reads: “You will know them by their forts,” and to that I would add, secret forts, because secret is always the better part of it. Maybe the best part.

Not long ago, I got reacquainted with one of those old friends, George Albert, from the 1950s. He wasn’t a kid I played with a lot; I think he was younger. But he got me right away with this opener: “remember when we built the fort behind the church?”

You darn betcha. I remember every fort I ever built.

We built one that was three or four stories up three trees. It was a masterpiece. I think that’s the one George remembers. But we built another one out of logs at the back of that same lot. The second one stood only about four feet tall made of horizontal logs — okay, poles. And it turned out to be even better than the tall one.

We put a lot of thought into the secret part of it. We built it near the road but slightly back in the brush. We covered the scrap-board roof with whatever, and then over that a layer of leaves and sticks for cammo. We hadn’t mastered doors and windows in a ‘log’ structure, which didn’t matter. The gaps between the poles were big enough to throw a cat through. So, we dug a low spot, what we called a tunnel, to slide in and out on our bellies

It was the most secret fort you’ve ever seen, or not seen.

One morning, the fort is finished and we’re in there, not being seen by anybody. Which by itself is pretty boring. The adventure begins when a pickup truck stops about forty feet away. We’re all over this: the chance to spy!

There had been four people crowded into the cab, and two men and a woman come tumbling out. They are drunk. I now know they were too insanely drunk to be out driving around. I didn’t think about that then. Instead I thought about what they thought about, which was that one of them might be dead.

Our gang went from secret spying to active participants in seconds, crowding around for a better look. I got to give it to the guy in the cab, he looked sincerely dead. If he were in Hollywood, trying out for the part of ‘the dead guy,’ I have no doubts he’d have it.

Somehow, his three drunk friends, have learned that they can determine life or death for certain, with a mirror.

I am all over this, Jonny-to-the-rescue, instantly off running across the block at top speed because I know where there’s a mirror. I take the short cut through the woods, leaping downed logs, muddy pits, constantly alert for dangers — just in case there are any. In less than sixty seconds, I’m rifling my mother’s purse for her compact.

“What are you doing in my purse?” Comes her voice, from the kitchen.

“I’m borrowing your mirror.”

“What do you need my mirror for?”

“Got to figure out if a guy is dead.”

“Oh,” she says. “Okay,” and I heard her put something in the oven.

Then I’m back across the block, dodging and hurtling things. In my mind I’m Red Grange, The Galloping Ghost, scattering defenders down the backfield. I’m Brit runner, Roger Bannister, breaking the four. I’m Tonto or Cochise streaking across country too rough for U.S. Cavalry horses to follow. And in under two minutes, I’m back with the holy mirror.

These three, staggering and muttering, receive the mirror gravely. They look at each other, nodding. This is serious stuff and they know it. My brothers and I, along with our friends crowd closer. Mostly because, if they drop that mirror, which seems likely, one of us must catch it if we’re ever gonna know if this guy is dead.

The moment is at hand. One of them, the leader I suppose, takes the mirror, huffs on it, his breath nearly blacking me out. I’m surprised the alcohol fumes didn’t melt the plastic — and he buffs the glass on his sleeve. Then, we all hold our breath as he positions the mirror above the guy’s wrist.

“Yep,” he said, “dead.”

As it turned out, the guy was dead. Not that they could tell. I’ve never forgotten the adventure of that secret fort. And it makes me sincerely happy to get reacquainted with George Albert after more than fifty years, and to know that he agrees. “Remember when we built that fort behind the church?” You darn betcha. I remember.

The Bible says it and it’s good enough for me: “You will know them by their forts.”

Thursday, January 16, 2020

There's no wormhole for writers


I have this sneaking suspicion. 

On the surface, the world invites and encourages people to be writers. "You can do this." We all say it to people, in person or in articles meant to be helpful. And yes, I think it's mostly true.

There are lots of things you can buy to help you. From proofreaders or proofreading programs, on through to the absolute best SEO search terms and people to manage PR. 

We all imagine that we are good enough, our material is interesting and desirable and the world is waiting. 

It isn't. 

We think there's a wormhole. 

We think there's a way around the huddled mass of other writers. A shortcut. It may be the myth of getting an agent or locking on with one of the big five publishers. And it does happen. My talented and hard-working facebook friend Anna Quinn slam-dunked all those things a couple of years ago with her very well-reviewed book, "The Night Child." Check it out. 

Mostly it doesn't. 

There isn't a short cut. Things that claim to be shortcuts turn out to be entire other journeys that a writer never wanted to take. The Facebook journey, the Instagram or Twitter journey, the blog journey. Give your life over to mastery of these other things in a desperate attempt to succeed at what you originally wanted to do, write the damn book. 

The Encouragement part

Here's the deal. Writers need to write. They need to be their best, do their best. And they also need, patiently and systematically, to push their books in front of potential readers and reviews. Amazon currently lists 32.8 million books. It's a lottery that, like most lotteries, most of us will never jackpot.

But there are smaller prizes along the way, and these are where we need to focus. The letter that says, "I couldn't go bed without finishing your book." That's one of my favorites. Or from the reading teacher who says her reluctant readers  sneaked to read ahead. Or when one of my readers raves to a friend or librarian about my book. That's the greatest! 

But this is about more than (just) feeling good. I want to make some money, dammit, even if it's not a lot. I recognize money. It has meaning in my life. I get it!

So, on the more material plane, the fact that I can turn selling two or five or even ten books a month into selling twenty, twenty five or even thirty. And forty is out there!

It's developing your own tricks to get ahead, and then having them work. For example, I go to lists of books in my category, that I should be on but am not, and I write to them and say, "Hey, consider me for your list." If they do, and I get on, then every one of their readers becomes my potential reader. How great is that? And it's free.

What's the lesson for writers? It's something like Garrison Keillor's famous sign off, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." 

To that I would add "All ahead, full—faithfully, patiently... maybe occasionally joyfully." 




Thursday, October 10, 2019

Going back to the place you can't go back to.



I get a visceral tug from this photo. Always.

It was taken in Nenana Alaska in the late 1950s or early 1960s, on a winter day with the sun already sinking, probably about three-thirty or four in the afternoon.

There's something about it that always sort of punches me.

Obviously, today I'm an adult, author of 12+ books living in western Oregon. But on that day, I was probably in grade six or seven, and most likely in that house behind the church when the picture was taken.

I can see myself there, feel myself in those rooms. They smell like supper coming on, probably coffee perking, my dad's cigarette. They sound like Dad's typewriter clatter, my brothers grexing, my sister making baby noises, my mom with the radio on or listening to Broadway music on the tweedy Webcore phonograph.

Who took it? I don't know. I found it on the Alaska Digital Archives site, which I highly recommend.

I've written eight books that take place in or near Nenana and I spend a lot of mental time back there. Homesickness? I don't think so. More like this song snippet from Cheryl Wheeler.

Simply, I know this town.

  • Well, I know these streets and these backyards
  • This barn that's fallin' down
  • We come to where they're building now
  • And ride our bikes around.
  •  
  • You think I'm just a little kid
  • Some trouble on the way
  • Well I knew that place before you did
  • Is all I've got to say.
  •  
  • (Chorus)
  • I'm only walkin' through these streets and all around
  • I'm only walkin' I know this town

Cheryl Wheeler

Thursday, September 12, 2019

I grew up in Nenana Alaska



I grew up in Nenana Alaska. Scenes like this one, of the namesake river steamer "Nenana," live on in my mind. 

I write two novel series, The Father Hardy Alaska Mystery series (adults) and the Cheechako series (middle-grades and up) that take place in versions of this town, and—in my mind at least—among these people.

Nenana in the 1950s was like other towns in the US in the 1920s or '30s. There was no police force, no firefighters. My father, all his life had a scar on his shin where he turned out to fight a Nenana fire and a hose broke loose, drenching him at twenty below, and ripping open his leg. He stumbled to the nearest house, freezing, and of course they took him in.

Why write so much about Nenana? It was rough and raw in its way, but absolutely real. And everybody I still know who lived there, quite a few of them reading this, knows they have that old and genuine Alaska spirit in them. They read the books and tell me, "I'd forgotten that," or "you nailed it," or ... "Yeah, it really was that cold."

I love to go back to those dusty streets in my memory, and the river, to recreate the mood and the tone of a place that is vastly changed, and take readers along for the ride.

Thanks to you all for coming along and telling me how much you enjoy the ride.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO WRITE A BOOK?

I'm between books now.

Frankly, it feels weird. This is the first time in about six years I haven't been getting up early, five or six days a week, to "get in my pages." 

No, I haven't run out of ideas. On the contrary, even when I stop writing, the episodes keep playing in my mind. I know there are writers who anguish over their pages and the occasional dry spell. I guess I fall into the storyteller category, if there is such a thing. My characters talk to me and to each other whether I'm writing or not. I know enough to pay attention. 

The big question, when I do get back on the path, is what to write? I have no shortage of
possibilities.

Probably the top contender for next book is a fourth Cheeckako book... yes, I do read my mail. I realize I'm overdo with that one as readers and teachers have pointed our. Here's what I know about it. It will be back in Southeast Alaska, near Sitka, with the cast of characters that we last saw in "Float Monkeys." So plenty of boat and airplane action... and a treasure ship!

Due out... soon!


I am just about to publish... yes, quite a bit delayed, the fifth book in the Father Hardy Alaska Mystery Series. It's called "Without a Prayer." 

Billie, my editor, says the next book out will be a standalone book for middle-grades (like my Cheechako series) that takes place in the Pacific Northwest, instead of Alaska. It's called "Raft." Below is a rough comp of the cover. 




"Raft" is about a boy who can't read, but manages to fake his way through school with the help of his good friend Ozzie ... who dies suddenly. So in one stroke he's lost his best friend and his only way of coping with the world. What to do? Well, that's what the book is about. 







I'm already blocking out Hardy six. No firm title. Episodes are already playing in my brain. Will they finally get married in this one? Maybe. I know but I'm not telling.

Pick up books for summer reading!

Whether for yourself or for kids and grandkids, there's nothing like a book while you're waiting for the ferry, or the airplane, or just sitting in the sun or sand and want to escape. I would be delighted if you'd take one of my mysteries or adventure stories along, and even more delighted to receive a review/rating on the Amazon site when you finish. If you like it, I'd love to hear. If you didn't like it, I want to hear that, too. 

In the meantime, thanks for buying and reading my books, those of you that write to me, I love hearing from you. Keep it up. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

Make sure gift-giving for young children includes a book!

Granddaughter, Ava, reading with DIL, Rachel. 

A child is never too young to benefit from books and being read to. They love the exclusive time to sit with you, to have all of your attention. And even beyond the story or rhyme you're reading, they love other things you make up, like counting objects on the page, or "finding the bunny." 

"... reading with your children gives them critical skills for when they start to read themselves."

1. It is important that children learn to follow words across the page from left to right.
2.  Learn to  turn pages, which are pre-reading skills that benefit children and help them to become better readers later on. 
3. Children who enjoy reading not only do better in language and literacy subjects, but in all of the different subjects as well.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

I wanted to write a Southeast Alaska Christmas story.

More than gifts and glitter


I wanted to write a Christmas story that had little or nothing to do with Christmas trees and glitter. And I was hoping to write a story that the reader could follow along, with eyes open, and be surprised. And as long as I was hoping, yes, I wanted it to be just a bit spooky. 

Was I successful? See for yourself. It's a one-sitting read, truly a short story. So you don't have to be a dedicated reader to make it to the other side.

I did some of my growing up near Sitka, in Southeast Alaska. It's not cold there, or snowy, as in more northern Alaska. There are no dogsleds. It's a maritime climate, salt water and rain, and lots of little islands that feel pretty desolate in winter. So yes, that's where I set my story.

Mom didn't care for the sex stuff


I love reviews. It makes a dialogue of what I do, rather than a monologue... just me talking. A writer takes chances with stories, and doesn't really know if those chances work, if they pay off, until the reviews start. 

I already know my stories are "Nice." My mom is a reader. Except for the 4th Father Hardy. Mom liked all of it but the "sex stuff." Oh well. 

You're safe from "sex stuff" in "The Christmas Skiff." Yes, Mom, I resisted. And I'd love to hear anything you thought about the tale. Complaints welcome.

Check this recent review... 


"I bought "The Christmas Skiff" about 9 months ago, after Christmas. I remembered how much joy it had given me when I first read it, and so I decided to read it again, and I wasn't disappointed at all. It's a sort-of coming of age story, with Gabrielle learning that things are not always as they seem, and that life is about love, hope, and even magic, at times.

Jonathan has a way of writing that makes you feel as if you're a part of the story - not just reading about it. This should be on the Christmas gift list for all young people."


And thank you, Karen D.


"The Christmas Skiff" on Amazon