Friday, November 21, 2008

Paying For Research

Or the lack thereof.

Back in the Spring, I sold an old rototiller to a neighbor. This being the 'Year of the Rototiller', everyone putting in gardens.

She used it, until it spit it's drive pulley, came off while churning the dirt. Then she borrowed her daughter's rototiller, dragged it down from Nashville. Rototilled the rest of the garden, then decided to do another patch.

While starting it, the engine pull rope didn't retract and got snatched up by the rototiller tines. This snapped the starting rope. Now she had two rototillers, neither one of which worked. She called me.

Did I want to trade work, fix the daughter's rototiller and get my old one back?

No, I don't need any more rototillers, that's why I sold two of them this year. Didn't do any good, my father bought more at an auction. We won't go there.

Would I fix the daughter's rototiller? She wanted to take it back to Nashville. I agreed to this on one condition. The rototillers were not coming to the shop. I would fix them at her farm. Last thing I need is more immovable machinery in the shop.

I went out to her farm one morning, took the daughter's rototiller apart, rewound the spring, attached the rope and put it back together. Then the rototiller wouldn't start. Pulled the spark plug, it was fouled. Cleaned it, started the rototiller. We went over to the one she bought from me.

It was too easy. The drive pulley had come off because a small metal 'key' had come out of the drive shaft. The key rides in grooves in the driveshaft and the pulley, which locks them together. I glance at the driveshaft, pick up the pulley and inspect it. No damage to either one. I think I know what I'm looking at.

I figure that I have a 'woodruff key' for the pulley back at the shop and leave. The only ones at the shop are too big. I'm going to town the next day, so I stop at the hardware store and get two woodruff keys. They are half-moon shaped and come in different lengths, but are the same thickness. I check them in the pulley.

That evening, I'm back at her farm, ready to fix the rototiller. When I spin the driveshaft over, so I can put the key in from the top, I realize my mistake. It's got a straight-cut key, not a woodruff key. I needed a 3/16th square piece of steel key stock, not a half-moon key.

I didn't do my research, so I got to pay for it.

It gets better.

I thought I had the right bar stock at the shop. Close, no cigar. I had a piece of 5/32th stock. So, I call the rototiller lady, ask her if she will stop at the hardware store to get the right material. Sure, no problem she tells me. She goes into town almost every day. I've already called the hardware store, to be sure they have the right key stock. They do and everything should be fine.

The next evening I'm back at the rototiller lady's farm, ready to fix this thing after three attempts. She proudly hands me the foot-long bar of metal key stock, little white ID flag flying.

It looks small. I put it in the rototiller pulley. It's way too small. Then I look at the little ID tag. It's 1/8th stock.

She didn't look at the tag when the hardware store lady handed her the key stock.

Which goes back to my previous post about research. If you do it, cross-check it. If you let someone else do it, you still have to check it. Otherwise you both pay for it.

I handed the rototiller lady her pulley, so she can match the key stock with the groove.

At this time, the rototiller still isn't fixed.

You have to have the right key.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Breakfast, Then and Now

What’s your way to start the day?

Years ago, I would gulp a can of cola, grab a donut or four and head out the door. If I had time, stop by the drive-thru grease pit and get a carbo-load of pancakes and fake maple syrup, throw some slabs of fried pig on the side and voila, fatfest.

Great in the old days of 12-16 hour slogs in the shop. Burn those calories like a raging forest fire. The body changes as does the routine.

When I settled into the more sedentary life of writing, burning brain-cells didn’t seem to overcome too many calories. I began to accumulate insulation, slowly layering it up, under my skin. This slowed me down and allowed it to build up faster.

Life in Europe didn’t help the situation. All that fresh bread, scones, crumpets, Dutch pastries…chocolate in everything else, except the beer. I was on my way to becoming a rotund one.

My return to America on the good ship Queen Elizabeth 2 was the crowning touch. I gained about twelve pounds in ten days. Huge breakfast, walk the decks, read, write, lunch, write, nap, tea-time, walk the deck or read, dinner, movie or catch a couple of the Blues groups (it was a "Blues Cruise", 10 days, 18 acts), evening stroll around the deck, then a midnight snack. You get the picture; I was burning about 137 calories and taking in 9,000.

When I got to Tennessee the scale informed me that I was nearly 190 pounds. Which is way too much for my frame. The move to the farm brought that out in a hurry. Out of shape and overweight a doctor put me on a natural diet. It probably saved my life.

Breakfast now is composed of oatmeal and tea. Boring but healthy. OK, I add a few ingredients to the oatmeal. First in is sliced pears or apples. We have pear trees on the farm and I use them fresh when I can, preserved when out of season and frozen in between. Then I throw some peanut butter into the mix, top with dark chocolate chips and add pecans. There are pecan trees here and this year we had a good crop.

The green tea gets raw honey from the local apiary. I haven't used sugar except in an emergency while away from home. There isn't any in the house.

Sounds like I circumvented the doctor, but I’ve lost the weight that I gained and more. I’m now about ten pounds heavier than when I played football in high school.

In my opinion, half the battle is going back to natural foods and getting away from the processed debris sold as food in many fast-fried places.

It’s your body, fill it up any way you want.

Don’t call me when it breaks down.

I only fix cars.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Research, Love It or Pay For It

In my last post I mentioned that the ending for my novel came to me while taking a pecan break from house painting.

Why did it take a couple of weeks from the 'moment of enlightenment' to getting back to the novel?

I spent that time doing research, reading and cross-checking information. When writing a techno-thriller, all the elements should be feasible. Suspension of disbelief can only take place when you present a good argument. Too far out and it becomes fantasy or sci-fiction.

Research is something that I love to do. Finding out about places, things and people help me paint a better picture for my audience. Why pay someone to do it for you? First hand knowledge is the best.

If you don't know the subject, don't try to fake it! It's a sure bet that there will be someone out there who will catch you.

Your agent and publisher might not notice. They're counting on you to have done your homework. If it gets past them and into the hands of the public, it could be a different situation.

You don't want to pay that price.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

And Now, THE END as a Beginning

The "Project X" novel has been in the works now for more years than I want to mention. You don't want to get any elements wrong in a techno-thriller. The 'experts' will kill you.

Been gnawing over the ending for the past months, many of them.

A couple of weeks ago, while taking a pecan break during the great house painting escapade of 2008, it struck me. The ending, wrapping up all the elements of my novel, popped into my head as I masticated a pecan. I didn't do a little victory dance, just leaned back against the truck and went, "Whoa, that's it!"

Now I'm rewriting the book, cutting into the 257 pages, slicing the 130,000 plus words, paring it down. Excising fat, leaving meat and bone.

Gotta steal a line here;

"I love it when a plan comes together."*

*("The 'A' Team" TV show)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Your Role in this Movie, Book, Life, etc.

How do you talk about your life?

This blog is supposed to reflect the efforts I'm making as a writer. Less than two percent of those efforts make the blog. If I blog about everything, I wouldn't get any farm work done, much less work on my novel or other work.

From my vantage point, here in Cherry Bottom, people seem to reflect a character they admire. They buy and wear clothes like that of their favorite star, politician or sports hero. Even get their hair cut the same way. Until they take the risks and go out there and do the thing, it's all hero worship.

People get obsessed with a book, play, movie, games, you name it. TV and now the Internet gives even more examples of how you can lead or mislead your life.

That's the tough part.

Leading a life you can call your own.

An Honest Day's Work

For an honest day's wage.

I read other blogs, not as many as I would like, but I try to get an overview of the publishing world. Janet Reid's blog is one of the few that I follow.

She also posts over at "Hey, There's a Dead Guy in the Living Room".

Buying books is always an experience. I've been surprised at what I've found in old bookstores, usually something that I never would have thought of buying until I stumbled upon it.

That's been changed, with the advent of online book sales. I'm glad that there are ways for people to buy books over the Internet. I've bought and sold books that way myself. It's a new marketplace.

It made me realize that there are too many opportunities in this day and age for people to benefit from the work done by another, without compensation. There are plenty of examples of pirating in the film and music business. Books aren't immune.

When it comes to e-books and tracking their sales, how do you do inventory? Who knows the exact number of downloads?

I've been stonewalled when I ask these questions, either on the phone, letter or by email. The lone writer gets no respect from the company, big or small.

It's one of the reasons that I am looking for an agent for my work.

Let them fight those battles,
earn their keep.
I've got an empty page to fill,
words to go,
before I sleep.

(I couldn't resist....)

Just In Time

Finally got the house painted, took longer, much longer than I expected due to the changing weather and my getting the flu. I wrapped that up yesterday, just in time. We're getting much needed rain.

Some people hate the rain, I don't mind it. It gives me the excuse to stay inside and work on my writing. Which is how I would rather make my living, rather than be in the shop or doing farm work. It's getting harder for the average person to make ends meet. The flea market is disastrous right now, the scrap metal market is even worse.

An example. Three months ago, automobile scrap metal was at $14 dollars per hundred pounds. Now it's at $1 dollar per hundred pounds. For those of you who only pay attention to Wall St. and the stock market, that's like the Dow Jones dropping from 14,000 to 1,000.

When I hear the big boys whine about how tough it is in the markets, I shake my head. They have no clue.

Everyone is talking about change.

That's the one thing that's constant in life.

It probably will be what you don't expect.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Last Minute Chores

There is always something that has to be done, usually at the last minute. You can't paint a house in the rain or if it gets cold.

I love to paint. Something about putting a new gloss on something old, bringing it back to life or giving it a different look.

When it comes to house painting, I could care less. I’ve been here for more than six years now and the office/living room still hasn’t been painted. It’s still got primer in places and the door frames are stripped to bare wood, all work done by a previous tenant. I’ve had other projects, so it can wait. When I moved in, it was a rush situation, so the painting was put off. On top of that, I don’t like to think about, much less move all the ‘office furniture’ to paint the room. All those books and magazines…

The house that I’m painting up the road, that’s another deal. A necessary evil. Money to pay the bills. Painting the exterior of a house isn’t any fun either, climbing up and down ladders, scraping peeled, dead paint until my hands are scuffed and raw. It has to be done before the weather changes and it’s too cold and wet.

What I like to do is custom paint work. Flame jobs, stripes, two or three tone colors. Something that knocks your eyes out when it rolls down the road. If it’s on top of custom bodywork, so much the better. Then you have an original piece of work. Rolling sculpture.

I’ve got a van and a truck, both in primer, ready to be final sanded, taped up and sprayed. That’s what I would rather be doing right now.

Putting a paint job on a vehicle has always be a time consuming process, but when done, it’s a shiny testimony to your skill.

It’s those chores of necessity that get in the way.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Parking Lot Treasure

You see a lot of strange things at the flea market. Some of them won’t be on the tables or trailers for sale.

I was talking to Camo-man, watching the strollers surge from table to table. When they get to his ammo, knives, targets and military surplus stuff, they either speed up or slow down to eyeball the goods.

Movement in the parking lot caught my eye and I turned from the table and looked over to see a family of four, one of the children down on his knees in the gravel parking lot. At first, I thought that he might have fallen and was hurt. Then I realized that he was scratching the dirt around a rock.

I walked over, the amateur geologist in me curious about his actions. People have told me that I have rocks in my head, but I really have them scattered around the house. Everything from crystals to volcanic slag, beach rocks and fossils. An amber pyramid, cut from petrified tree sap, sits on my desk, next to other rocks and minerals. I usually bring something back from every trip I’ve ever taken. It’s a lifelong affliction.

The father of the child looked up as I approached.
“Everything all right?” I asked.
“Yeah, he’s found something.”
The boy, about 11 or 12 was excited, “I just looked down and saw it! Right there in that rock.”

He’s pointing at a dark brown rock about five inches long and four wide. I stoop down and look closely at it. A dark, raised ridge runs diagonally across it, ending in a wider, flattened section. I run my fingers over the rock, shake my head in wonder.
“It’s a snake fossil! I don’t believe it! Probably been here for years, people driving and walking over the top of it. How did you notice it?”
The kid shrugged, “I just looked down and saw it.”
His father shakes his head, “Who knows how big that rock is.”

They had been digging around it with their fingers and house keys. My truck was parked about fifteen feet away, I turned and headed towards it.
“Let me see if I’ve got something.” I rummaged through the tie-down straps, rope and other farm necessities in the area behind the truck seat before I realized that I would have to unload the mess to get to my tire tool. Backing out of the truck, I went over to Camo-man.

“You got a shovel or something I could…?” his look of disbelief stopped me short.
“Just what is it that you’re doing?” His look wasn’t encouraging, as the thought flashed through my mind that I was digging up someone’s parking lot. I shook my head.

“Nothing, the kid’s found a fossil, I need a pry bar or something.” I turned to the young couple next to Camo-man. They’ve been trying to sell t-shirts for the past month. “Hey, you wouldn’t have a shovel or a pry bar would you?”

I get the ‘are you crazy’ look from the blonde in the pink hot pants, while her boyfriend looks blank for a minute, then dives into his truck and comes out with a small nail-puller pry bar. “Will this work?”

I grab it, it’s brand new, look over at him, “Yeah, if you don’t mind me digging up a rock with it.”
“Go ahead, you can’t hurt it.”

The family is staring across the parking lot at me. Waving the pry bar, I dodge back from a car creeping through the lot. The driver and passengers surprised to see a scruffy man waving a pry bar around, like he’s about to put it through their windshield. The car accelerates past me. I cross over to the fossil family.

“This will do the trick.” I turn the sharp, flat chisel-edge down, lean on the curved prying section and lever into the dirt around the rock. It embedded, years of rain, cars and people stepping on it have sunk it into the parking lot.

Scribing around the edge, dirt flakes away, smaller pebbles break loose and roll off. I work the pry bar down into the gravel, finally getting under a section of the rock. It comes up out of the ground with smaller rocks still clinging to it.

I peer closely at it, turn it over, looking for other fossils in it. There isn’t any visible, but the rock needs to be washed off to really know. The kid hovers next to me, as if I’m going to steal his treasure.

I hand it to him, “Great eye! That’s a real find, a complete snake, except for his head.” I point out the indentation where the head should be, the only part that’s been broken out of the fossil.
The kid’s ecstatic, he’s about to jump out of his skin. Show it to his folks. His mother and father are beaming. I turn back to the kid.

“Hey, do me a favor. Take it over and show those guys.” I point towards the young couple and Camo-man. “They let me use the pry bar, so you should at least show them what you found.”

The kid nods, eager to show off his prize. We stroll over to the tables and everyone looks at the snake fossil.

People shake their heads in wonder, disbelief, and some, with a touch of contempt.

After all, it’s just an old snake, stuck in a rock for the past 50,000 years or so. Who cares?

I guess you had to be there.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Day on the Farm, Work and Writing

You don't want to do the work I do, it's difficult and dangerous. It's not as dangerous as coal mining or firefighting, but it's got it's challenges.

Life on the farm is unlike anywhere else. Sure, things are pretty much set to a natural cycle, but events and routines are changed more often than in any other work situation.

I get up around 5-6AM and sometimes don't go to bed until after midnight. In between, I'll work on equipment, take care of the animals (not many, as we're not running livestock), deal with unexpected events (neighbor's animals getting loose, etc.), maintain the property...just plain hard work.

Then, if I'm not too tired, work on my writing.

That's been the summer schedule.

With winter approaching, I try to write in the early morning, then do farm work until dark, which is now around 5PM here.

I usually write out a blog post, then review it. Still make mistakes, but that's part of getting it done.

Looked over my "Project X" calendar, found that I hadn't done any writing/rewriting on it for a couple of months. Which doesn't mean that I stopped doing research on it. Trying to 'forget' it, so I have a fresh perspective when I come back to it. I won't snooze on this one any longer. Events in the world are catching up to it's premise and I have to get it out to an agent or publisher.

It's the query emails that eat up time and really frustrate me. Haven't done any in a long time and they are the necessary evil of the literary world.

Like any writer, I hate getting the rejections.

One day though, I'll get the reply I want to see, maybe more than one.

That will be the validation of my efforts.

Someone else understands my work.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Quantity and Quality Control

I don't like making mistakes, few people will admit to them and even more ignore them.

Past couple of blog posts I've hammered out, trying to get back on a daily schedule. When I reviewed what I had written, couldn't believe the number of errors, misspellings, we won't go into the the grammatical structure. I have an excuse for my twisted writing style.

Since I've been educated in various places, North, South, Europe and America, I have been exposed to different languages structures. German isn't written like English and French has it's own way of construction. Nederlands (Dutch) sounds like German, but 'vrouw' and 'frau' both mean 'wife' yet they aren't spelled the same but sound similar to a foreign ear. Throw in regional dialects and their special connotations, you can come up with a strange brew of languages.

Sure, it's a cheesy excuse, but it's mine.

Language laws are made to be broken.

I do it all the time.

As long as you get the idea out there.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Unknown Dead

It was one of those middle of the night phone calls. Lying in the dark, phone ringing, not quite asleep.

I look at the phone, a name I don’t know. Is it some local meth-head, trying to score? Another drunken wrong number, looking for their love? A phone call I don’t want to answer, with a person telling me that someone I know is hurt or dying and I need to rush to a hospital?

Thoughts that pour through my mind, a jumbled cascade as I stare at the unknown name on my phone with the strange number. The answering machine kicks in, they don’t drop off, but start to leave a message.

“Hello, Mr. Thomas, I know it not a good time of night to call and get up with you….”

I pick up the phone. He’s apologizing for the late hour, couldn’t sleep, had to call me. I ask what I can do for him. It’s an old carny, who goes by the name of ‘Tom’. His real name is Gordon, but he’s called Tom. Something about shirts he wore when he first joined the carnival. Which leads to the first of more than a couple of stories that I’ll hear over the next hour.

When I met Gordon, three weeks ago, he was at the local flea market. I was running a table, trying to sell some of my accumulated goods, a polite way of saying I was trying to get rid of some of my junk. It also gives me an excuse to get off the farm, check out what the local folks are doing and maybe, if I’m lucky, make a couple of dollars.

You never know who is going to show up. My neighbors have wandered up, surprised to see me sitting there, clothes, exercise equipment, copies of my self-published book arrayed across the weathered wooden table.

An author I know from the defunct local writer’s group, shocked that I was mixed in among the rabble. People who pick over things, some just to see what you have, others are truly interested. Snooping and sniffing for a bargain.

A man stops, looks at some of the blue jeans for sale. He’s wearing a shirt with a fiberglass company logo, so I ask if he works for them. “Nope, just have the shirt. I’ve done fiberglass work for years, built those waterpark slides all over the country. Do roofing now.”

I nod, “Yeah, I done a bit of ‘glass work myself, mainly cars, a few boats.”

We talk fiberglass for a few minutes. He picks up a copy of my book, looks over at me.

“Wrote that just after I got back from Europe. People don’t really know the difference between working here and over there. Too many think that it’s all socialism over there. They have more rights than we do and don’t lose their benefits if the company fires them or gets bought up by another company. We bail out the companies and mistreat the people who do all the work.”

He nods and says, “Yeah, you have to work for yourself. Then you can set the price.”

We talk about work, life in general and that topic of disgust, how the economy went to hell. He looks my book over, reads the back cover, “I’ve got someone you should meet. You got a minute?”

“How’s that? I mean, there’s no one here to watch this…” My hand sweeps across the table, turning my dross into gold.

“There’s a guy here, wants someone to write a book about his life. He needs a writer. I was just talking to him about it. He’s right up the way here.”

I’m taken aback. There’s not too many people who you would expect to want a book written about them working at a flea market. Most people here would like to forget about their lives and just make the rent, buy some food and keep the electric on in the old homestead. I look over at Camo-Man, who’s daughter is here helping him.

“Hey, can she watch my table for a couple minutes? I’ll be right back.”

Camo-Man nods and his daughter comes over. She watched me set up and I’ve got prices posted on everything.

“I’ll split the profit with you on anything that you sell. OK?”


“Good, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

We take off through the throng and dodge our way towards the center of the flea market. Along the way, he’s nodding, waving, saying “Hello” to people. He stops one portly man, makes a snide comment to him, most of which I miss, then moves on through the crowd. He turns to me, “That’s the sheriff, always good to know the sheriff.”

I nod in agreement, “Just as long as he’s not serving a warrant.” We trudge on and suddenly he stops in front of a pork skin stand.

Pork skins are a country delicacy which are self-descriptive, yet indescribable. The first time I threw the pellets into a vat of boiling oil, I knew I could never eat them. Later that day, after finishing off the first bag, I got two more bags to take home with me. They were like eating bacon-lite, not quite as greasy, great with beer. I ate them constantly for about seven months and haven’t touched them now for over fifteen years. After all, deep fried pig skins are still pig skins. Good for footballs, not my stomach.

In front of me is a long-haired man, a snowy beard dappled with black, short, energetic, hands waving about as he explains something to a woman’s he talking to. The crowd surges around us, islands in the middle of the stream.

The fiberglass man grabs Tom the carny’s arm, “He’s a writer,” pointing at me.

Tom nods, “Yeah? I’ve got a writer, school teacher down in Selmer, gonna write my book.”

I think, ‘Wonderful, that’s the end of that…time to go back to the table.’ Still, I’m not about to leave without throwing in my two cents. “That’s great! Are you working on it now?”

He shakes his head, “She hasn’t had time, been teaching school.”

I nod, thinking, ‘Yeah, I’ll bet…what’s a good excuse for me?’. Before I can say anything, he’s off and running, veering through stories, piling decades together, not quite in sequence.

It was the story about the unknown dead guy that got me. Man who had worked for him for six months, running the ‘duck pond’. A game that has rubber ducks floating in it, numbers on the bottom. Put a dollar in the man’s hand, pick up a duck, see what prize you won.

Tom the carny had called him “Quack Quack”, since he didn’t know his real name. Lots of people, on the run, making a living, just getting from one place to another, no names, pay in cash, gone in the morning. Carnies don’t ask any questions, just as long as you pull your weight. Otherwise you can hit the road, the carnival doesn’t need any freeloaders.

They had set up for the weekend. The carny told me that he had left with his girlfriend, spent the day at the lake, swimming and picnicking. Got back late. In the morning he goes to check on Quack Quack and finds him dead on his cot, lying in the back of a game trailer.

Now, over thirty years later, the carny wants to find out Quack Quack’s real name and contact his family, tell them where he’s buried. That and write a book, except for one problem.

He doesn’t know how to write.

ad naseum, ad nauseum, ad nauseam, etc.

I HATE misspelling words. Use my spellcheck often, still mess up.

When I wrote the title to the previous post, it bothered me, but I was in a hurry and published it. Since it wasn't in my dictionary, I finally checked it tonight and found out that I had it wrong.

It stands corrected and I learned something.

All these years, I had been spelling it wrong, as in the second example, besides the fact that I left out the 'u', as in the first example in the title above, when I wrote the previous blog post.

I can only offer the lowly excuse that I never took Latin in school.

Now back to our regularly scheduled misadventures.