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Book Diary 2017

book diary


While I have seldom been able to sustain writing a diary for any considerable length of time, in 2017 I successfully kept my resolution of logging the books I read.

I didn’t invest in a fancy, leather-bound tome, but just picked up a nice small spiral notebook and put in notations of date completed, title and author, any comments I chose to make such as “bland & boring,” or “amazing plot twists,” or a lengthy observation of writing technique, and a one-to-five-star rating. Some titles received a page-long commentary, and several scored nothing more than date and title. I discovered gems. I reread old favorites. And I suffered through a few blah books that made me wish I had my money back.

Still, I kept with it from start to finish. Last night, I counted my entries and the total came to 73 books. Most of them are fiction, with maybe less than a half-dozen tomes falling into the nonfiction camp.

My goal was 100, but as in 2016, I fell short of that objective. Over the summer teaching hiatus, I did not achieve many lazy days where I could just recline on the sofa, sip cold lemonade, and read. That would have boosted my number, of course. And there were the few books that were dull or over-plotted or banal or less interesting than their cover blurb had promised. Those took sometimes as long as a week to drag through, longer than my average zip through a novel every two or three days. And there were a few books started but left unfinished, which I did not record at all.

I try always to find new authors, to sample books in genres I don’t normally read. Such discoveries keep reading fun and lead sometimes to serendipitous new favorites. However, such exploration happened less frequently than I’d hoped for. Given the death of all brick-and-mortar bookstores in my college town except Barnes & Noble, I loiter and browse less these days. I used to find many wonderful discoveries in the Hastings store. Likewise, at Sam’s Club the choice used to be small but excellent. (Lately, not so much.) In 2017, there seemed to be too many days when all I could do was fall into the battered old leather armchair after the dinner hour and reread a familiar author simply for the same sense of comfort as dunking a gooey grilled-cheese sandwich in a mug of hot cream-of-tomato soup.

Still, I found other ways to explore online. For example, I burrowed into a couple of books by Frances Gray Patton, most notably her novel, Good Morning Miss Dove, simply because I like the movie based on that work. During my childhood, I learned to watch a movie’s credits for the title of the book that inspired it. I would race to the public library and hunt in the card catalogue for it. In the days before DVDs or VCRs, and without cable, I found that reading such a book was a way to spend a bit longer with the characters, setting, or story I’d experienced with the film. Sometimes the book wasn’t in the library’s collection, but often it was. I discovered that some books were better than the films made from them, and some movies were a huge improvement over the book. I haven’t chased books this way in a long time, but watching Patton’s Good Morning Miss Dove brought back that desire. Finding a copy online was easy; however, the movie mirrors the book almost exactly word for word. To my disappointment, the novel offered me no additional depth or nuance. Still, I read some of Patton’s other novellas and short stories as well, just to give her a fair chance. Although I found her style to be clear and elegant, her stories carry a dated flavor, her wit is a bit too mid-century, and her topics tend to be too mundane for my taste. Miss Dove is by far her most outstanding character–so brilliantly depicted that I–no doubt along with many other readers over the years–find myself wishing I had had such a teacher in elementary school.

And of course, 2017 brought the obligatory annual books from authors I collect:  Ann B. Ross, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, Charles Todd, and John Sandford … to name a few. I decided to stop following Felix Francis, and so did not purchase his 2017 title. Ross’s Miss Julia series has had some stumbles and weak offerings in recent years, but 2017 brought a comeback in a stronger plot that made me glad I’ve stuck with her. I have long enjoyed Smith’s stories set in Botswana, but their thin story lines seem to become progressively wispier as the story action is increasingly overshadowed by his philosophical musings, and I am wondering how much longer I’ll race to pick up the next novel about Precious Ramotswe. Sue Grafton, alas, has recently passed away, and her children have decided not to attempt to complete the final book in her mystery series. Although she’d begun “Z,” work on the manuscript was interrupted too much by Grafton’s illness to have progressed far, and I applaud her heirs for not putting out an incomplete manuscript or clumsily patching one together that would be beneath Grafton’s usual standard. Charles Todd remains excellent. John Sandford continues to deliver exciting action and amazing plot twists, and his 2017 thriller was well worth the money.

I also dived into a few books from authors popular in past decades whose names have faded now: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Emilie Loring, Victoria Holt, Alistair Maclean, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Phyllis Whitney. It is interesting to occasionally wander among these former bestselling writers and see who I still find engrossing, who I’ve outgrown, and who is too dated now to enjoy.

During the recent holidays, I decided that I’m no longer going to care if I read a mysteries series out of order. Never mind all the series that I’ve enjoyed and tried to keep up with, only to fall behind. Just seeing a stack of unread books by the same author growing here and there has begun to feel oppressive, a silent rebuke to me for not keeping up. So I decided to throw off oppression and rebel. No longer am I going to put off such books for the day when I have the leisure–or determination–to read them in strict order. If a volume can’t stand alone without its predecessors to prop it up and force the plot to make sense, then too bad. I am going to just read them as and where I happen to pick them up.

Accordingly, I chose a book from Anne Perry’s William Monk series, one that surfaced while I was rearranging the living room to put up my Christmas tree. Although I stopped reading the series some years ago, back before Hester had married Monk, I caught up easily and found that despite Hester and Monk now being a married couple, it made little difference. Thanks to Perry’s deft descriptions or occasional lines of explanation, I was neither lost nor left floundering for understanding. With Jennie Bentley’s charming home-renovation mysteries, I’ve found reading them out of order only means that sometimes the characters are married and sometimes the protagonist is still planning the wedding. Not a problem. And with Carolyn Hart’s ghost, Bailey Ruth, I met that character for the first time in Merrily, Merrily Ghost, and didn’t mind not having begun with whatever story comes before. What a relief to get past such a silly little stumbling block.

As for what 2018 holds, I’ve already scribbled several entries in my book diary, and I plan to continue this habit of recording my reading. I have read two authors never tried before–Mickey Spillane and Susan Gloss–and enjoyed both enough to seek more titles. And I came across an early John D. MacDonald I hadn’t read. Hurray!

I hope you all are making resolutions to read more. And if not, why not? Even the pleasures of Instagram and Pinterest should not supersede books!

journal and deskbest journals

comp books


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From My Bookshelf: Lorna Barrett

Cozy mysteries, anyone? Sometimes it’s good to sit down with a book that’s not moving at a blistering pace with graphic violence and brutal shocks. Sometimes, for me at least, a welcome alternative is a book that can tease my brain without making me feel I’ve walked in the shoes of a sadistic psychopath.

If you haven’t already encountered her, meet Lorna Barrett, aka L. L. Bartlett, aka Lorraine Bartlett, the prolific author of numerous snuggle-in-your-armchair-with-a-good-read novels.

A stroll past the mystery shelves at your local bookstore will yield up a plethora of subgenres: forensic mysteries, classic mysteries, traditional mysteries, historical mysteries, and the cozies. The latter stand out because they’re primarily published by Berkley, with a distinctive cover style and also because they have groaner-pun titles, such as Barrett’s Chapter and Hearse.

Within the cozy subgenre you will find food cozies, antiquing cozies, quilting cozies, thrift shop cozies, knitting cozies, decorating cozies, chocolate cozies, paranormal cozies, home renovation cozies, etc. If a reader has a hobby, there’s a cozy out there that panders to it.

These days, if you want to write a cozy mystery–meaning a small community, numerous quirky characters, and little if any blood–then you need to think series. You also need to create a lively setting as a reappearing character.

Barrett’s pretty good at coming up with interesting settings that hold up across more than one book. Her  cast of characters remain viable from book to book, and sometimes a repeated secondary character becomes the next victim just to put you on your toes. Her story people are distinctive without being so gol-darned quirky they’re too weird for words.

She’s had wonderful, bestselling success with her Booktown series. The tiny community revolves around downtown shops that are nearly all specialty used bookstores. The protagonist Tricia owns a mystery shop–which allows Barrett to throw in mention of current and classic mystery authors in the Carolyn Hart tradition.

Tricia’s sister Angelica owns a cookbook store, along with a lunch eatery. The two sisters have had a rocky sibling relationship in the past, but they’ve patched up many of their differences. Now there’s just enough of the old rivalry to keep up the flavor of conflict as a subplot to Tricia’s investigations.

I like that Tricia does get out and gumshoe. She has no official authority, but she’s curious and suspicious and thoughtful and active. Unlike some of the cozies that feature discovery of a body and then the characters pretty much putter along their everyday lives and chat about the victim from time to time with varying degrees of pity and/or sympathy, Barrett’s protagonist makes a real effort to uncover the culprit.

While I personally prefer the Victoria Square series written under her pseudonym Lorraine Bartlett, that’s primarily because I like its setting better than Booktown. But all her books deliver gentle entertainment that will keep you curious as to whodunnit without giving you nightmares thereafter.


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Honoring the Old Lion

A few months ago, I was in a small antiques shop in Oklahoma City when I came across a faded, worn hardcover lying on a cluttered table. There was no dust jacket, no cover art whatsoever. The buckram had originally been blue; now it’s faded to a steely gray, and the spine is a brittle, sun-faded brown.

Because of my allergies, I forced myself years ago to give up used books. No collecting. No browsing through the musty aisle of tempting treasures. No rare or old editions. I live in the desert of no old books.

But now and then I pick up a volume to give it a look … as an individual crawling in the sand clutches a cup of water.

This ugly book had nothing attractive about it. However, centered on the cover were two words in white script: Professional Writing.

My breath caught. I pounced.

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It was indeed a text on writing from Walter S. Campbell, founder of the professional writing program at the University of Oklahoma. A man whom I consider to be my literary great-grandfather. Campbell wrote numerous books on old west history and biography under the pen name Stanley Vestal. He taught fiction writing in OU’s English department during the 1930s and ’40s. This was the heyday of the American short story market. Campbell’s students were so successful at selling their work that trouble began brewing with other English faculty whose students were not selling. Whether the problem was sour grapes or simple jealousy, the rift grew so serious that in the 1950s, Campbell and his students walked out.

Where were they going to go?

The journalism school on campus was just getting started. Its director needed students, even if they weren’t interested in working on the fledgling newspaper. The school changed its name to Journalism and Mass Communication, and Campbell and his class settled in. It became an odd alliance that has somehow worked down through the years, with PW still focused on teaching the craft and methodologies of writing that have worked since Aristotle. Students are still selling their work, provided they work hard and get their manuscripts in the hands of editors. Students have included various novelists such as Tony Hillerman, Louis L’Amour, Carolyn Hart, Curtiss Ann Matlock, and Jim Butcher, to name only a few.

When I was a student in the program, I took “Writing the Short Story” in a classroom dedicated to honoring Campbell. It had a brass plate on the door, designating it as the “Stanley Vestal Memorial Classroom.” Inside, students sat at long, blond-wood tables. Large glass display cases at the back of the room held copies of Cambell’s books. His portrait hung on the wall, and it was painted in such a way that his eyes followed you around the room. Until I took the class, I’d never heard of my major program’s founder. But I learned about him and what he stood for and believed in when it came to writing.

He was followed in the program by a fiesty writer named Foster-Harris. Google the name. You’ll find his books on plotting still available. Foster is my literary great-uncle. His breakdown of story climax is one of the best I’ve encountered. Then came a teacher called Dwight Swain. Dwight is my literary grandfather. He’d retired from the classroom by the time I enrolled, but I was assigned his text on writing, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, and I read it until the binding split. If you met Dwight at a party, he’d always ask what you were working on, and if you confessed you were stuck, he could put his finger on the problem instantly.

One of his ablest pupils was a hard-headed Yankee named Jack Bickham. It took Dwight many patient coaching sessions before he finally hammered the principles of story craft into Jack’s stubborn head, but once Jack “got it,” his career took off like a rocket.

Jack shone best, however, in the classroom. His personality might be intimidating, but his teaching was phenomenal. His ability to explain the writing craft opened doors to me and explained mysteries that had kept me stymied as I attempted to write my first wobbly stories. Jack was my literary father.

But today’s blog is supposed to be more about Campbell than his successors. In the antiques shop, I picked up the battered old book and opened it. After hearing so much about his teaching, this was the first time I’d actually gotten my hands on his textbook.

It was dated 1937, and he’d autographed it to a student named Rosalie. Not only do I now have his book, mine to study and learn from, but I have his signature. In my imagination, I can conjure up a tall, distinguished man–a pipe in his teeth–scratching out a rapid little note with his fountain pen. How proud and excited Rosalie must have felt, standing there–perhaps after class–while her teacher signed her copy.


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Last year, I went to a local estate sale and was digging around the bits and pieces remaining in the last hour of the sale when I turned and saw a large, framed, black-and-white photograph. I recognized him immediately–that wide brow, the strong jaw and tidily clipped mustache, a kind mouth, and the intelligent, deep-set eyes that look right at you. The photo was obviously what Campbell’s oil portrait had been painted from. I had seen that calm, wise countenance almost daily for years–first as a student and later when I began to teach in the program. I bought the photo for six dollars and carried it home with a thrill that hasn’t faded. Today, Campbell’s likeness hangs in my office, directly behind where I sit when I write my novels, where I’m writing this blog now.


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It seems to remind me that good craftsmanship is always worth striving for, no matter how tired and discouraged I might sometimes become. It speaks to me of where I’ve come from, of the traditions that have shaped me, and of the training I’ve worked so hard to assimilate.

Yesterday, I found myself in that same small antiques shop I mentioned earlier. On the same table, I came across another battered hardcover book. Its blue buckram cover is a little fancier. There’s still no cover art, but the plain title has been outlined in gold. The cloth has been worn smooth from use and handling. The edges are worn white. There’s no author signature on the inside cover this time. The edition is 1946, almost ten years apart from my other copy. The pages are heavily underlined in pencil by its first, enthusiastic owner.

I see no other changes, no real differences from the 1937 edition. Why buy two copies of a musty old book, written by a man long gone?

Call me a fan. Call me grateful for his legacy.


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Making Pearls

In past posts, I’ve written about the dangers of distraction and how it can sabotage your story-in-progress. There are two primary types of distraction: those out of our control and those we create for ourselves.

The first camp includes such things as weather, nuclear attack, doorbells, phone calls, electricity cuts on a clear summer’s day, neighbors, and repairmen. (To name only a few.)

My patio since the roofers, guttering men, and fence repairers came. Nothing like a hail storm to help your book along.

Some of these are more out of our control than others. Can you go without a hot-water tank until your chapter is written? Yes! Can I go without air conditioning in this plus-100-degree weather? No!

Setting possible nuclear attack aside as the facetious nonsense it is, there are ways to mitigate the effect of most of these distractions that come at us from the blue.

Installing a battery backup for your computer gear helps with weather and electricity cuts. I’ve used such a system for years. It won’t handle everything, much less eliminate the distraction, but it helps you stay calmer than you would be otherwise. Last year, when I moved to my present abode, I tried to save money by purchasing a backup that’s too small to do its job properly. Sitting down for a writing session with the worry that at any moment an electrical spike could DESTROY ALL is certainly a distraction. A few days ago, I finally got a bigger system. Now to find time to connect it ….

This is not an endorsement for this product. It just happens to be what I bought. I've probably gone too large this time, but we'll see.

Phone calls can be handled via discipline. You don’t install a phone in your writing room or you let the voicemail pick up. Both solutions require iron-hard willpower–easier to discuss than to maintain. There are certainly moments in my writing time when I’d be thrilled to have the distraction of a phone call.  (Beware such impulses. If you can’t control them, remove the phone.)

As for distractions that we create for ourselves, I’ll include computer games, Internet and emails, lunch dates, overscheduling, hobbies, and rewards.

These can all be dealt with, provided we’re firm. Computer distractions can be controlled in a variety of ways–everything from turning off the little chime that announces you have a new email to writing on a computer that’s never online. I take the latter route. It seems extreme, I know, but let’s chalk it up to my artistic, dramatic temperament. Besides, once I attach myself to my favorite blog (myoldhistorichouse.blogspot.com) I can lose myself for an hour or more. But if I have to wait for the online computer to boot up (so s-l-o-w!) and switch chairs, I have time to feel guilty and make myself behave.

Now, the true reason I set up two computers in my writing office years ago was for security purposes. I keep my book and my income tax records on the writing computer that’s never online to protect it against viruses and hackers, to help it last longer, and to circumvent distractions like computer mah jongg. I don’t know how old the machine is–ten years? It boots in a flash because it’s not clogged to death with patches, updates, cookies, pop ups, and all the endless junk that assails my online computer. It’s never crashed and never had to go in for a tune up or repair. When I’m ready to write, I switch on the tower and the machine is ready in seconds. Less distraction.

Convenient? Not when I need to check emails or send off an attachment or research something. Which is better? No distractions or convenience? You know what I’ve chosen.

Lunch dates? A problem? Really?


Several years ago, when my career was young, I was lunching with the very successful mystery author Carolyn Hart. I suggested that we meet again in a few weeks, and she refused because she was about to start a new book. She said she didn’t go out to lunch when she was writing.

I didn’t understand at the time. Lunch is important. At least to me! I’m going to stop writing in order to eat. What’s distracting about that?

Eventually wisdom and understanding dawned on me. Set a lunch date or any appointment, and you have it in the back of your mind. It may be something pleasurable that you’re looking forward to rather than something you dread. Even so, it can be a distraction. It takes time. It removes your thoughts from the job at hand.

I haven’t given up all lunch dates, but I limit them to whatever day of the week I reserve for errands rather than writing.

Overscheduling can involve any number of things. You have a day job, family, friends, movies to see, events to attend, birthdays or celebrations, errands, etc. The list goes on and on to formidable lengths.

Schedule one additional activity to a writing day and see how many other appointments will attach themselves. I like to make out to-do lists to help myself stay organized. Usually the list will start with something “critical,” like Bank, Post Office, Haircut, Vet’s Office, and Writing. Why does writing always get listed at the bottom?

My writing teacher, Jack Bickham, recommended that any to-do list be flipped over, so that you began your day with Writing and later got to whatever else remained on the list.

Hobbies? Sure, I love them. I think writers need them to help spur creativity. But if they eat into writing time, or if you’re thinking about that train diorama you want to build or that quilt you want to stitch instead of the scene you’re about to write, then you’re allowing yourself to be distracted unnecessarily.

I bought these at the flea market. Now they need polishing.

Same thing goes for rewards. There have been books that I haven’t been very passionate about writing and projects that I contracted for solely to earn money. In those circumstances, I’ve often employed the carrot-and-stick method of discipline in order to meet my deadline. But even when I’m writing a book that I care intensely about, there are going to be sections where the passion fades. I may be thinking, If I meet my page quota by noon, I’ll have time to drive to the City and shop at the bookstore. A distraction? You betcha!

Are you thinking by now that I intend for you to be a robotic writer, a Vulcan robotic writer that never feels, never deviates from the plan, never sneaks a little game of Solitaire, never wastes two precious hours of writing time on eBay?

Not at all!

We are, after all, humans first and then writers. Just beware the distractions that don’t have to be in your life. Ask yourself why you’re letting them hinder you instead of getting on with the story at hand.

This morning, the fence guys arrived at 7:30 a.m. to continue powerwashing my fence before it’s stained. For hours I’ve listened to the throb of that machine outside my office wall. Have I written on my book? Not as yet today.

So small a machine, so loud a noise.

I could have. Instead, I’ve chosen to let the powerwasher “distract” me. Why? Because I really don’t want to write the next scene and I’ve chosen not to crack the whip of discipline.

I’ll pay for it later when I have to catch up on my page quota.

Where we are by noon. To quote the pope when Michaelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel: WHEN WILL IT BE FINISHED?

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