Answering Your Questions

Golden Gate GraveyardI have happily received emails and questions lately about the process of my novel writing. In response, I have written a brief page addressing how I determine aspects like the setting, plot, characters, and researching.

 

Visit the “Writing Novels” tab above to learn more about how I write mystery novels. You’re welcome to leave a comment if you want. If you have an additional question that didn’t get answered here, you can also contact me at my email address, via the “Contact” tab.

 

Keep the questions coming, and thank you for your interest.  Tell a friend!

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Jet in Australian rainforest with Golden Bowerbird bower, research for Wicked Walkabout.

Jet in Australian rainforest with Golden Bowerbird bower, research for Wicked Walkabout.

 

Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is the most visited attraction in San Francisco, entertaining over 1.3 million visitors every year. The Los Angeles Times declared it the seventh most popular landmark in the world (06.16.15).

 

Every day one boat after another leaves Pier 33 loaded with Alcatraz-bound tourists who are curious to visit the famous prison, learn the notorious history. As a San Francisco resident I had already visited here, then returned one day in 2014 to study the setting for a scene in my novel.

 

How Alcatraz began. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, prospectors, businessmen, and families arrived here in droves. It was determined then that the increased value–millions of dollars worth of mined gold–created a need for defense and protection.

Alcatraz dock

Alcatraz dock

Thereafter it became a:

  1. Fortress and military installation (1853-1933) ;
  2. Federal Penitentiary (1933-1963)
  3. Native American protest occupation (1964, 1969-1971)
  4. U.S. National Park (1972-present)
Alcatraz cell block

Alcatraz cell block

Read more history, overview here.

 

Touring “The Rock” requires  reservations and involves a fun ten-minute boat ride on the San Francisco Bay.

 

More about touring here.

 

 

Visitors take a self-guided tour with audio tapes narrated by prison guards. You can stay at the island all day until the last boat departure, but most people stay a few hours.

 

Alcatraz cell

Alcatraz cell

In addition to being a tourist prison island, Alcatraz (the Spanish word for “pelican”) is also a prominent site for nesting birds; and has tide pools, sea mammals and other wildlife, even glowing millipedes.

 

The day we were there we saw Anna’s hummingbirds, a variety of sparrows, plenty of gulls and cormorants.

 

National Park Service nature info here.

Glowing millipedes on Alcatraz here.

 

The boat drops you off at the dock, a ranger gives you an overview of the facility and the rules. There’s a steep walk up to the prison, passing by old military gunnery, the water tower and guard towers, other old buildings, and gardens.

 

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33, Jet (in pink)scoping it out

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33. Jet (in sunglasses) scoping it out.

All the photos here are from that October day when I went to observe and take notes. Golden Gate Graveyard readers will recognize some of these sights from the Alcatraz scene.

 

Once you get up to the cell blocks, you can walk around inside the prison, see where prisoners showered, slept, and ate. Outside you view the warden’s half-burned house, the lighthouse, beautiful views of San Francisco and other sites.

 

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Having written and researched a lot of history about San Francisco for this novel, I find two things especially fascinating:  over the years once-serious facilities, like Alcatraz, have turned into frolicking tourist attractions. And how curious it is to witness visitors’ intrigue and animation at this decrepit and defunct old prison.

 

The prison has been extensively featured in books (ahem), films, video games, TV series, and more. A popular new Alcatraz-related attraction is the Escape Alcatraz Drop Ride at the San Francisco Dungeon. It is a stomach-dropping ride simulating an attempted escape.

 

Alcatraz Control Room

Alcatraz Control Room

All modern-day Alcatraz folklore stems from the inescapability of this maximum security prison. It was long touted as the place from which no man ever left alive.

 

But is that true? Over 50 years after three prisoners escaped and their bodies were never found, there is still speculation and “Search for the Truth” documentaries. I recently watched a 1979 film starring Clint Eastwood called “Escape from Alcatraz.” It’s pretty good, shows life on The Rock and is based on the actual escape.

 

For an old prison that hasn’t seen a prisoner in over half a century, Alcatraz sure is a lively place. I’m happy it makes for good fiction.

 

Alcatraz view of San Francisco

Alcatraz view of San Francisco

 

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Golden Gate GraveyardIf you haven’t bought Golden Gate Graveyard yet, it is available in paperback ($20) or digital format ($6.99). Buy a copy for yourself or a friend…but whatever you do:  stay legal.

Purchase from publisher

or

Amazon.com or any other major book retailer.

 

 

Golden Gate Graveyard Has Arrived

Golden Gate Bridge Clock

Golden Gate Bridge Clock

The time is here!

 

I am pleased to announce my new mystery novel, Golden Gate Graveyard, is now available for your enjoyment.

 

Available in paperback and e-book, below are links for convenient internet purchase.  If you prefer to purchase from a bookstore, you can special-order it at your favorite bookstore.

 

Golden Gate GraveyardClick here to order paperback or e-book at publisher’s store

E-book also available at Amazon.com.

Paperback: $20.00

E-book: $6.99

 

 

Briefly, I spent the past three years writing and researching this mystery novel set in San Francisco.  The plot and characters are entirely fiction, interwoven with some of the city’s history and traditions.

 

Golden Gate Bridge-and-sailboatRead more here for the book description or go to the Books by Jet Eliot tab above.

 

Next week and in the weeks to follow I will be featuring highlights of San Francisco sites as mentioned in the book, here on my blog.

Alcatraz

Alcatraz

 

San Francisco cable car

San Francisco cable cars

You will not only find posts with iconic San Francisco vistas, but also posts about the writing of the book.

 

San Francisco Painted Ladies

San Francisco Painted Ladies

So if you have a question about my writing process–the tools I use, how I write, or research, etc.–I am happy to answer your questions. Just shoot me an e-mail via the Contact tab (above) or ask in the comments below.

 

I have spent hundreds of hours in the past three years on San Francisco hills, street corners, and shorelines–taking notes, listening and observing, attending tours and events.

 

Pier 39, California Sea Lions

Pier 39, California Sea Lions

A former San Francisco resident for 13 years and a monthly visitor, I have really enjoyed creating this story and sharing the spirit of this lively and diverse city.

 

Whether you read books or not, with the holidays around the corner surely there is someone you know who would enjoy a good page-turning mystery.

 

San Francisco Ocean Beach

San Francisco Ocean Beach

It is a joy and honor to share this book with you.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

The Moai of Easter Island

Watercolor and ink drawing of Moai by Susan Sternau

Watercolor and ink drawing of Moai by Susan Sternau

I invited fellow author and friend Susan Sternau to be a guest blogger today, to describe a day from her recent trip to Easter Island.  I am pleased to share Susan’s travel adventure below.

 

As background, it is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world and lies 2,300 miles west of Chile in the South Pacific Ocean.  Easter Island, a World Heritage Site, is famous for 887 stone statues, called moai, created by the Polynesians, or Rapa Nui, who lived there.

 

Book for sale on website or Amazon

Book for sale on website or Amazon

Susan A. Sternau is the author and illustrator of Easter Island Sketchbook:  An Artist’s Journey to the Mysterious Land of Giant Stone Statues.  If you are interested in learning more, please follow these links to her website or Amazon.  Her book has more than 65 watercolor and ink paintings with vivid, remarkable images and insightful, informative captions.  Here’s Susan:

 

“Visiting Rano Raraku on Easter Island: A Quarry Frozen in Time” by Susan A. Sternau

 

Moai excavation

Moai excavation; photo from Easter Island The Mystery Solved (1989) by Thor Heyerdahl

One of my favorite days on Easter Island was visiting Rano Raraku — the quarry on the side of a volcano where all the statues were made. We ate our boxed lunch in a picnic gazebo during a downpour. Then the sun came out and we walked up a path on the side of a volcano dotted with moai statues in all shapes and sizes. The dark volcanic rock of the quarry contrasted beautifully with the smooth green hills. The ocean was nearby, and when we rounded the side of the hill, the restored Tongariki site was visible below.
The quarry path curves around one side of a volcanic cone. (The other side of the cone is a steep cliff face). It is incredible to realize that all the statues that we are seeing as heads or partial heads are actually complete figures, some up to thirty feet high. They have been buried over the years in sediments that have washed down the slopes during heavy rains. 
Recently I saw photos of Thor Heyerdahl’s party standing in their excavations. The men are completely dwarfed by the statues they have uncovered. These are the same figures we are seeing today, but they have been reburied as though those excavations never occurred.
There are more than 900 moai on Easter Island and over 300 are still at the quarry. All the carving was done with a hard stone tool called a “toki.” Statues were begun as a long box shape that was literally “blocked” out of the stone. The head and torso were carved facing up to the sky. Eventually the block was undercut and the statue was propped upright so carvers could finish the back.
You can see statues in all stages of completion, some still lying on their backs attached to the hill, and many standing upright, still waiting to be moved to their final location on the coast. There is a sense of work interrupted, as though the carvers just took a really long lunch break, but are expected back at any moment. Time has passed, lichen, wind, and rain have smoothed some of the features, but you somehow expect to hear the rhythmic chink of stone against stone resume again shortly.

 

Text and images copyright 2014 by Susan Sternau.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

Joining Jeopardy for a Day

Outside Jeopardy Studio at Sony Pictures

Outside Jeopardy Studio at Sony Pictures

I had an energizing urban adventure last week in Los Angeles.  There’s a popular quiz show in America called Jeopardy, and it goes all the way back to 1964.  When I was a kid my mother would reward us a penny for every correct answer.

 

In my young adult years I fantasized, like most other viewers, about becoming a contestant.  I felt I did pretty good with correct answers.  Then more years passed and reality hit.  Turns out I’m a writer, and also shy by nature.  I like to sit in the back of the room and watch all the stories unfold.  Put a moving camera in front of me and I either freeze or giggle.  Being a front stage contestant was just not for me.  So then I decided to visit the studio and simply watch.  And this is what I did last week. 

 

I’ve been to studio tapings before and was aware that much of what you see on the television screen is very different from what you see in real life.  I prepared myself for the illusion.

 

At the appointed time and date, we stood in line outside in an alley surrounded by giant murals of TV shows; then about 50 or so of us filed into the studio.  Inside there were contestants on stage rehearsing with a pseudo-host.  They were getting familiar with their signaling devices and answering questions, while production staff and sound engineers bustled around adjusting microphones, cameras, and lights.  The game board and other things did indeed look different than on TV, there were illusions; but they were minor. I also saw there was not as much magic as there was hustle.

Once we were seated, the announcer Johnny Gilbert told us how important we were to the show. Live clapping is better, he explained, than canned laughter.  He made me want to do the best possible job of clapping.  His rich voice lifted me in its familiarity, this voice I hear every night but never had a face to place with it.  Now I had a face, one of warmth; and his generous time and openness with us transformed me.  I stared at him, taking it all in, as he told us what to do.   Later, when we could ask questions, I asked him about their volume of fan mail and he gave an articulate and enthusiastic response.

 

mock set up (no photos allowed on the show)

mock set up (no photos allowed on stage)

When it was time to go on the air, the countdown started:  Five, Four, Three, Two….  As if I was an astronaut about to catapult into space, I was filled to the brim with pure excitement.  Pink lights flooded the stage, the theme song I’d known for my entire life blasted the studio.  Johnny Gilbert at his lectern shouted out in his booming voice, “This Issss Jeopardy.”  I thought I was going to explode.  Then Alex Trebek came marching out from behind the stage, initiating another one of the more than 6,500 shows he’s hosted. Oh did I ever clap hard.  We all did.  I looked around and saw the whole studio audience smiling broadly and clapping heartily.

 

During the commercial breaks Mr. Trebek (how can I address him as Alex?) came over to the audience.  He is just as handsome in real life as he is on television, but he’s more entertaining in person.  As a TV viewer you pick up on his dry humor and self-deprecating jokes, but until you’re there at the studio, you don’t get to hear all his jokes or witness his theatricals (he tap-danced for an impromptu half-minute).  Most importantly, you don’t realize how hard he works and how easy he makes it look.

They tape five shows a day.  At 7:30 that morning Mr. Trebek gets the material for all five shows of the day.  At 61 clues and answers per show, and five shows a day, he facilitates 305 questions a day in front of a television audience of nine million people.  He’s done this for 30 years, and so has Johnny Gilbert; but you would never know it from their level of enthusiasm.

 

It’s an array of impressive feats for everyone on and off that stage.  We watched one of the judges call up to heaven for a ruling on a question, saw the answer man behind the curtain, watched the director demonstrating to contestants how to flail their arms and project their voices for a future commercial.  Was even introduced to the Clue Crew!  Everyone has a designated job on this team, and they are all important to the success of the show. 

 

As a writer I sit alone at the computer typing and deleting thoughts all day long.  No one sees me, yet my office is filled with voices, dances, catastrophes, and murders that all reside within my busy head.  Things originate in my head and they blossom out in the world after that.  To sit in that studio audience chair at Sony Pictures and see what happens after their writers and researchers have done their work, to actually hear the music and bells, see the colored lights and flashing signs, the waving arms and gestures, and witness the bloopers that will be edited out later…it was all a dream come true.    

 

It was also a reminder.  We all work away on our day.  Sometimes it feels boring, uneventful, even futile at times; we work day in and day out.  But it seems to me that just when you need it, we are reminded of how our work fits into the big picture and how important our work, our existence, is.  Everything we did from the time we were a kid on the floor in front of the TV up through today…it all matters. And just between you and me:  I hope in 30 years I’m as smooth and cool as Alex and Johnny.

People Watching in Africa

Victoria Falls women

Women at Victoria Falls

I am researching East African ethnic groups for my next novel, Sinister SafariEthnic groups were once called tribes. It’s a complicated task because people are complicated. 

In Tanzania alone there are more than 120 different ethnic groups and, as happens with development and globalization, the cultures continue to evolve.  There still exist today many groups who have predestined marriages, village elders, medicine men, circumcised women, and education for boys only.  But simultaneously there are also Maasai warriors who are saving rather than slaughtering lions, college-educated young adults of both genders, and Africans teaching Africans about AIDS.

 

Regardless of where in the world one travels, there are always people to watch.  As it goes in most places in the world, the cities in Africa are more populated and have pockets of modernism.  Then the more you travel away from the cities,  the less modernized conditions can be.  As one who revels in open space and chasing wildlife, I tend to find myself in some of the most remote places in the world.  Africa has many remote places that are still habitable and pleasant, which is why it remains one of my favorite places on earth.  I thought you would enjoy viewing a few people photos from our travels in Africa. 

Child_Zambia

Child in Zambian Village

ShoppingCentre

Village Shopping Centre

Zambezi River Ferry Crossing

Zambezi River Ferry Crossing

Flamingo Fandango

flamingo

Flamingoes, Rift Valley, East Africa

With over 10,000 species of birds in this world, there are many birds to write about.  I’m doing a lot of research on Africa right now, so here are photos and fun facts about the exquisite flamingo. 

It’s one of my favorite birds.  There are many aspects of the flamingo that are interesting and memorable, but their sound and group behavior are what thrill me the most. 

The flamingo can be found all across the world.  Here in the United States they are in Florida, Texas and other southern coastal areas.  They also live in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mediterranean; I’ve seen them in the Galapagos Islands, there are even some in parts of Europe.  In much bigger flocks they can be seen in India, parts of Asia…and then there’s Africa. 

 

I like seeing them in Africa because, well, I love Africa.  The alkaline lakes in which they feed produce an abundance of carotenoid pigments that give them an especially rich pink color.  This photo was taken in the Rift Valley of East Africa.  They flock here in the thousands.  I have watched flamingos for hours, and after awhile one might think they’re a bit freaky-looking with the crooked bill, legs longer than its body, and that outrageous bubble-gum color.  But they’re not freaky, they’re exotic and lovely. 

 

The bill is a work of art.  First, it is designed to filter mud and debris from its food with the help of comb-like structures and a rough tongue inside the bill.  Second, because the bird wades in shallow waters and has exceptionally long legs, the head is always upside down; so the bill operates in an inverted manner.  It is called an arcuate bill because it is bent, and it’s bent so it can scrape the bottom of the lake. 

 

Greater Flamingo

Greater Flamingo

The huge flocks are also fascinating.  Even when I knew we were on our way to see the flamingoes, I wasn’t sure that’s what I was seeing.  We were bumping down the dirt road from miles away, descending into the valley, and there in the distorted-heat-wave distance was a blanket of pink.  I thought maybe it was wildflowers.  Then as we approached, I saw the lake completely covered with flamingoes.  They were all standing wing-to-wing, so close together. 

 

Being a very skittish bird, it is difficult to know how close you can get before they’ll disperse, but the guide helps with that.  When you get out of the vehicle, quietly, quietly, you hear them.  It’s not the honking flamingo sound you hear on You Tube videos filmed in a zoo.  It’s an electric sound, a low-pitched buzzing amplified by a thousand. 

 

As you watch them longer, feeling that electric buzzing vibrating through you, you notice few are actually standing still.  Some are feeding, neck bent down, wading, feeding like methodical lawn mowing.  Some are grooming.  Others are five, six, sometimes 10 in a line, all moving in unison.  And this is the part that I find so unusual:  they move in a synchronized line like chorus dancers.  They hold their long neck erect and glide around on straight long legs, first one direction, then another; all in perfect harmony.  This chorus line moves as other flamingo chorus lines move, each line hurrying in a different direction but no one losing a step or bumping into another.  This is courtship.    

 

What a grand sight:  a lake so big you can barely see the other side, animated by flashy pink dancing flamingoes.  It truly is a flamingo fandango. 

Let’s Go on an African Safari

Many people say they want to go on an African safari. Some people talk about it their whole life, but what does it take to make it happen?  I have been on four safaris spanning five different African countries, and although there is a lot more to see and I have only barely scratched the surface, I can give you a brief overview. I would like to add, though, that I am not a wealthy person. My partner and I worked hard and saved money for years prior to each safari, had to close some doors and make sacrifices, never lost sight of the goal, and made it happen. And you can too.

I’ll be talking more about Africa and safaris in posts to come, but today it’s just an overview of what a good safari is all about. First of all, there are many types of safaris, as you will see once you start googling and looking at ads for safari adventure travel companies. Some people go to observe and photograph wildlife, others go to shoot a trophy animal. There are people who go but don’t necessarily want to be too far out or in too many inconvenient or rustic venues, and others who only want to experience a safari on foot. It’s just a matter of personal preference.

There are safaris in many parts of Africa, and many parts of the whole world for that matter. I’ve been on safari in the Amazon, the Galapagos, and many other places in the world. A safari is merely a journey, an expedition. But the most popular place to go on a safari is East Africa. South Africa, Botswana, Zambia—these are also great places to go, but the quintessential African safari is in Tanzania or Kenya, the Serengeti. So that’s what I’ll talk about here. (I find hunting the animals abhorrent, so I will not even address that kind of safari.)

In some parts of East Africa it is a crime to shoot wildlife, punishable by death. That is why there are still many animals left in the Serengeti. Although there is indeed a devastating amount of poaching and illegal massacre of wildlife, there is a concerted effort even by the government to save the wildlife. It is an attractive and lucrative tourist activity, and they do take this seriously.

When you go on safari, every day and every night is about the wild animals. This is what I love. Your tour company reserves accommodations that are as close to the wildlife as possible. Your day is based on the weather, the migration, where the animals are, and the light. The time of year your trip takes place is usually based on the great wildebeest migration. The weather is a big factor because the water and food are what attract the herds. When you go to sleep at night you hear the animals, and the next morning talk about what you heard, try to identify who was outside your sleeping quarters. You forget about home, cell phones, work, and do nothing but think and talk about one crazy creature after another.

Often times people sign up a year or more in advance. In that year prior to departure they prepare:  study the mammals and birds they hope to see, buy safari clothes and field guides, learn Swahili, invest in extensive camera and optical equipment for observing, practice using the new equipment months before departure, buy new hiking boots and break them in, eat less and get their body in shape, don’t engage in any dangerous or super physical activity prior to departure. For most people there are various inoculations and malaria medication to consider. It is an expensive investment and therefore a wise move to be as prepared as possible.

Because it is so far away from the United States, you usually go for no less than two weeks, and three or more are advisable. It takes 15-20 hours to get to the Serengeti depending on where you live in the States, and with layovers and transfers that usually equates to one to three full days of travel. So you don’t want to turn around the next week and do all that to get back home. If you are a working person, it is not so easy to get three weeks off of work; this is what I mean by sacrifices. You may have to risk getting passed over for a promotion one year.

If you choose a good company, here’s what they will do:  they will take you out in the field for the maximum amount of daylight hours, provide you with a reliable vehicle that provides protection from the sun and ample viewing, have excellent drivers who know where the animals are and park the vehicle to maximize the best light for photographing, employ intelligent and friendly guides who can share their love of the wildlife with you, and supply you with food that is fortifying. Is it necessary to go with a group?  The short answer is yes.

Shoot ahead to the day of your first game drive. You’re out in the field after breakfast and it is still dark out. You climb onto the cruiser with your daypack filled with sunscreen, snacks, water and equipment, find your seat. The vehicle bumps along on the grass or dirt roads, and you all start waking up, looking for wildlife. Every hour of the day you’re looking for wildlife. Good drivers have sharp eyes and see things far in the distance, and have communicated extensively with other drivers to know where the herds are. Your driver spots something in the dim light and off you go to get as close as possible without disturbing the animal. From the first time you see your first animal, you will be on your feet, hanging on with one hand, the wind blowing through your hair, an excited attempt to see every possible wild creature that is out there.

Here’s a possibility of what you might see. In the dark morning, nocturnal animals are heading back to their lairs after a night of hunting. Successful lions have full bellies and are lethargically laying beside a small lake, digesting, yawning, dreaming. The hyenas still have bloody snouts, the leopards are climbing into a tree for a nap, the cheetahs are returning to the kopje (a group of rocks) to tend to their pups, and the three foot tall vultures have found remnants of a dead zebra and are in a feeding frenzy. The light is just starting to liven up the landscape, baby fox are coming out of their dens and frolicking, raptors are still in their nests waiting for the thermals, giraffe are grazing on acacia thorn shrubs, the wide open sky that is devoid of wires, planes, and human structures is lit up in a pink glow, enfolding you in the magic that is the Serengeti. And that’s just the early morning.

Every time of the day is a different array of wildlife to observe. In some parks it is illegal to go out at night so you go out at dawn or dusk instead. The heat is a consideration, because the animals are affected by it. But every time of day is unique to some wonderful activities and most game drives cover a variety of hours of the day; some are all-day ventures, some are half day, some are just a few hours in pursuit of a specific species, and there’s usually some combination of all these.

The wildebeest migration is the major activity in a safari because it involves hundreds of thousands of wildebeest on the move. A wildebeest is a four-legged animal, not unlike a horse, and they cyclically move across the African grass savannahs, birthing the next generation, and following the abundance of food and water. Their cycle is predictable and their vulnerable young are prey to the other wildlife.

On the great savannah grasslands of the Serengeti all of life is before you in the most raw and untamed form. There is life and death, mating and birthing, terror and sweetness, beauty and cruelty, tiny and gargantuan creatures…and everything in between.

BotswanaZebraThis photo was taken by my partner, it is closer to southern Africa, and the significance of this shot is that it is two countries. The zebra here are crossing the Chobe River going from the country of Botswana into Namibia. I like this photo because it is two African countries, and yet when you look at it all you really see is an open grassland with peacefully grazing zebras near the beautiful Chobe River.

I’ll have more photos and African stories to tell in upcoming posts. I’m steadily working away on the next novel, Sinister Safari. It’s fun because the reader goes on a game drive every day, and yet there is the underlying element of the murder mystery to be solved. While I work away on that, you can take an Australian safari by buying my e-book entitled Wicked Walkabout. It talks about the kangaroos, crocodiles, platypus and other wildlife from Down Under, and a captivating mystery is threaded into your Australian visit.

And after you’re done buying the e-book, you might also want to invest in a good World Atlas. It’s the best and most inexpensive way to start thinking about the places in the world you really want to see, and begin scheming about how you will make that dream a reality. Dreams don’t become reality, ya know, unless you make them happen. Go ahead, make it happen.

G’Day Australia

Today I am bidding adieu to my Australian blog posts, at least for a short time, simply because I don’t want to go schizoid. I suppose the experienced novelists can have their heads in all kinds of different countries or time periods simultaneously, especially when they have a staff to do their research, a separate marketing and advertising team, and an agent to guide them along the way. But I am solo here, and I find it a bit tricky to schlep groceries and take out the garbage in winter California, market a book set between the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, research and write a tropical mystery safari in East Africa, and prepare for an upcoming birding trip to Central America.  Worldly head goes haywire.

My Australian mystery novel is over now and I am at my desk earnestly working on the next novel, based in East Africa. If I’m not careful I’ll start inter-mixing Australian remarks with Swahili.  It’s okay for me to wander around the neighborhood giving a Swahili hello to the animals (“Jambo!”) and “G’Day” to the neighbors and no one will be the wiser, but my readers are a LOT more sharp than the robins, and they will definitely notice.  ha.

So here is a salute to the AustAustraliaFlagralian flag and all my fictional and not-fictional friends from Down Under. All the adventures we had in the many different territories of that majestic continent will not be forgotten:  searching for the platypus, the cassowary, the forest birds, and numerous parrots; the majestic Opera House in Sydney and the Esplanade in Cairns, the black bogs and  swamps, berry-painted rock drawings, 110 degree days, clouds of mosquitoes, rowdy Aussies, and menacing crocs…what a wild and wonderful place.

As an independent publisher and an entrepreneur, marketing my first Anne Lamington novel will never stop.  My virtual “trips” to Australia will always be as vivid as the grazing kangaroos along the roadside, and there will no doubt be more posting about Australia too.  There may even be a day when I have a staff to help me out with everything, like the big-time authors.  But on this day in this new year of 2013, I am the leader AND the pack…and I have to keep my head on straight.

For now, it’s time to take the kangaroo hologram off the desk, put away the Opera House notepad, and make room for the Maasai warriors outside the tent, and the sleeping leopards in the overhanging acacia tree.  The wildebeest are on the move, charging across the Serengeti, there’s a serious murder to investigate, and a Serengeti police detective who hates Americans and lions too.  Time to instill some order on the Sinister Safari.

An Enlightening New Year

Today is the last day of the year. One of my goals for the new year is to pay more attention. As a novelist, it’s my job to pay more attention. But the task of paying attention in general can be daunting and over-stimulating. So much noise and busyness. Is this what I should pay more attention to?

No, I decided, I need to pay more attention to the natural world around me. What time did the sun come up today?  Or did it ever come up?  Was there wind or clouds today?  What about this parking lot I have parked in, does it have any birds in it?  And what is that flower bush with the fragrant white flowers? It’s grounding, not only for a novelist, but for everyone.

American-RobinThe American Robin, pictured here, is a good example. Look at this bird. Who knew robins were so beautiful?  That distinct eye ring and bright clay-colored breast make him look so dapper. You can see there are not many berries left on the toyon branch because he has just made a hardy meal of them; only a few berries remain, behind his body. Even his posture is perceptive, so sharp and alert. He’s in the thrush family, the same family as the bluebird. Most Americans know the robin, but do they know what an exquisite creature it is?

Where I live, in California, the winter boasts an abundance of robins. West coasters, Floridians, and some residents on the south gulf coast of the U.S. have the winter delight of the American Robin throughout the winter. The birds migrate here where the winter temperatures are more mild. Yesterday I looked up into the sky on two different occasions and I counted at least 100 robins. The sky was awash with robins.

What a glorious sight, especially when the sun is shining, to look up and see all those orange-breasted birds traversing the sky. If it is near dusk, the lower sun lights up each robin breast and turns it into a bright red beacon. They fly slightly apart from each other and do not flap in unison, and as a result they spread across the sky in huge flocks. They roost in large flocks at night, so you often see them in the early morning or at dusk in these abundant flocks.

Even if you’re not looking up at the moment, you can often hear one or two, and that is the indication that the sky may be full. They have a sort of chuckle sound, tut tut tut. Another sound is similar to a horse whinny. They often sound to me like they’re laughing. This makes me smile. The robin also has an incredibly fluid and melodious song, but we don’t usually hear that in the winter because they’re not in their breeding mode, not focusing on being attractive to a mate. Even when they’re not in the big flocks, you can hear them. I’ve heard them in many parking lots, on busy street corners, parks, urban streets.

In California there is a large part of the human population that has also migrated here from other parts of the United States. We were taught from a young age that seeing the first robin is the sign of spring. And it is, if you’re in the eastern United States or Midwest or the Rockies. But this is simply not true if you live where the robin spends its winter. And yet many people who live on the west coast, where robins absolutely fill the winter sky, still believe that the robin is only here in the spring.

I know this about robins because I am a birder and I have studied birds. But there must be so many of these myths that I am misinformed about, still adhere to, simply because I am not paying attention.

My new year, this wonderful chance to live more days on this plentiful and incredible planet, is going to be about paying attention to the natural surroundings. These are things that literally ground us, help us to come out of our busy minds and pay attention to what is going on right here and now. It ensures a slower and more sure step. It helps you to take an extra moment to let that car back out of the parking space, look both ways before stepping off the curb, give an old woman pushing a walker a little more space. Alleviate the rush…listen for a thrush. And have an enlightening new year!