Showing posts with label Port Townsend. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Port Townsend. Show all posts

18 July 2012

Respect Your Elders


by Robert Lopresti
 
My last blog was about writing in a laundromat in Port Townsend.  We go there every year for the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes.  (The festival is in the city, not in the laundromat.  Just in case you were wondering.)

The first time we attended, about a dozen years ago, the highlight for me was a guy named Bob McQuillen.  As I recall the story, his hobby for many years had been playing piano for contra dances (think New England square dances) in Maine.  After retiring he decided to try his hand at writing a fiddle tune suitable for dancing and by the time I heard him he had written hundreds.  (Note for non-folk music fans.  Trust me, we WILL get around to mystery fiction.)

I remember thinking it was great to get to see the old guy, because who knew how long he would be around? 

Jump ahead to the 2012 Festival and there he is, the iron man, age 84 anf still performing.  He now as fifteen volumes of Bob’s Notebooks, each of which contains 100 original fiddle tunes.  As near as I can tell the only concession he has made to his age is asking his collaborators what key they want to play the tunes in, and then writing them down so he gets it right.  



One day I saw him lifting tablecloths, peeking at the spaces where people had stored instrument cases, obviously hunting for something.  He noticed me watching and grinned.  “Lookin’ for my coffin!”  What a character.

But Bob was not the oldest teacher at the festival.  I think that honor went to 94-year-old fiddler Elmer Rich.  In this video you will see him, somewhat  younger, playing the mandolin.  He switched to fiddle when someone stepped on his mando long ago.



Now here’s the kicker, Elmer lives in West Virginia.  To come to Washington state for the festival he flew for the first time.  Well, why not?  I mean, if you don’t fly at ninety-four when will you fly?

Respecting our elders

And now to the point of the story.  Those of us who write fiction are lucky, like musicians, that in many cases we can keep going way past retirement age.  I decided to take a look at some of our elder statesmen.  I’m sure you can add some I missed.  Each of the numbers below indicates the author’s age (within a year) when the last novel was published. 

ED MCBAIN 79

GLADYS MITCHELL 83

AGATHA CHRISTIE 83

ERLE STANLEY GARDNER 84

NGAIO MARSH 87

REX STOUT 89  
 
DICK FRANCIS 90 (but his last few books are co-credited to his son Felix.)

Stout deserves special honors, I think, because his last novel was one of his best.  How often does that happen?)

 And ELMORE LEONARD is still going strong at 86.  Can anyone beat that?  . 

16 July 2012

Necessary Evils

by Robert Lopresti


Some people write in their offices, surrounded by shelves of fine old books.  Some go to special retreat homes set aside for the dedicated scribbler.  Others drag their laptops to the local Starbucks, inspired by the lattes and the bustle around them.
I am writing in a laundromat in Port Townsend, Washington.

Not my usual hangout, really, but I do seem to spend part of a morning here every summer.  We attend a weeklong music camp and since the classes are much more up my wife’s alley than mine, I volunteer to do the wash ‘n dry duties.  Long as I can plug the laptop in, I’m set.  The fact that there is no wireless is so much the better; fewer distractions.

When I packed for this vacation I brought the text of a book I have been working on, hoping to make some progress on it. But after a page or two I knew it wasn’t where my heart wanted to spend the week.

You see, I have a new idea for a novel  And when I say “idea” that’s almost all there is.  I have a one-page outline and calling it a page is generous.  But it was summoning me and with a big (for me) chunk of time to work, I decided to give it a shot.

All of which might be of mild interest to my dearest friends, but let’s see if I can make it more general by getting to my point.  It’s here somewhere, possibly next to the fabric softener.

Right!  At this point in my young manuscript Character A realizes he needs to get to a certain place.  He’s an executive type and it seemed reasonable to have him call an underling for a ride.  But the chapter was awfully short so I decided that the underling – call him B – would be busy.

“Okay,” says A.  “Send Ray Ray.” 

And who the hell is Ray Ray?

That’s what I wanted to know.  Until A mentioned him I had no idea the guy existed.  I did like the name, though.

Now, he could have passed by the reader like a ship in the night, showing up only long enough to transport our protagonist to his destination.  But in the early stages of a book you should take advantage of every possibility that offers itself.

So I thought about the little I knew about Ray: the childish name, the fact that he was a low-level person in the organization who could be expected to jump when summoned…

And bingo!  I suddenly realized that Ray Ray was a double-crosser, working for Characters Q and R who, as you can tell from their place in the alphabet, don’t come into the story for quite some time.  Even better, because of Ray Ray I now knew how they WOULD arrive in the book.

And, by the way, remember Character B, who was too busy to give his boss a ride?  It turns out he was busy with his wife, which gave me something more I hadn’t known about him, as well.

All of this progress on the novel happened because my protagonist was too cheap to call a taxi.   I’m very grateful to him.

Which brings us to the witches of Lancre…
I have blogged before about Terry Pratchett, the brilliant English fantasy writer who invented Discworld. In one of his books he created a witch named Granny Weatherwax: a grimly Puritanical old woman who was a good witch simply because she was too vain to be a wicked one.  (Being wicked is weakness.)

In another book Pratchett introduced another witch to interact with Granny but he realized he needed a third because “You needed three witches for a coven.  Two witches is just an argument.”

And so, simply to fill that temporary gap in his cast of characters he invented a jolly, twinkle-eyed, much-married, bawdy-song-singing, unrepentant old witch named Nanny Ogg.  After many books she remains one of his most popular creations,  the perfect foil for Granny Weatherwax.  Clearly these were the kind of life-long best friends who couldn’t go ten minutes without an argument.

God knows I am not trying to compare myself to the brilliant Sir Terry.  But it is clear that at many levels of the writing ladder an author can take good advantage of a character who seemed to be only designed to fill a space on the set.

Ray Ray and Nanny Ogg are necessary evils who turned out to be pretty useful  Sort of like a trip to the laundromat.

Speaking of which, you will have to excuse me.  The driers have stopped.