A NOTE AT THE BEGINNING

Six years ago I found myself in South Florida for the winter; newly married, newly retired, and with lots of time on my hands.  The mortgage career I had grown to hate was now in the rear-view mirror, and stretching out in front of me were hours and days during which I would be accountable to no one and tasked with producing nothing.  I had the luxury of getting up whenever I wanted, taking long walks on the beach, staying up late reading trash novels, and sleeping in the next morning.  I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven.

After a couple of weeks I started to panic.  What was I going to do with all this freedom?  I had started working before I was ten, harvesting cascara bark with my older brother John and selling Burpee’s seeds.  By the sixth grade I had a full time paper route.  I had worked my entire life and I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t have a job.  Now I was officially retired and I couldn’t imagine starting over again in a career.  What to do?  I started getting up early in the morning – really early, for me, like 5:30 – and began working on a journal.

The next winter we went further south, to Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, down near Guatemala.  It was a trip we were to make each winter for the next six years.  We’d leave Portland at the end of December and come back in May, tan and a few pounds lighter, having eaten almost nothing but fruits and vegetables for four solid months.  Each trip I’d fill up another notebook or two with observations, letters to grandchildren, short stories and poems.  I wrote about our little fishing village and what it was like to be a gringo in Mexico.  I wrote about growing up and moving around the country as my dad’s work required.  I wrote about the joy of having children, the anguish of divorce and the long arc of healing afterwards, and the unbelievable luck that led me to my wife Jackie.

After a while whole stories began to almost write themselves, stories about everything from our first dog in Shelton and being almost run over by a boat in Mexico (all true), to fiction pieces inspired by people I’d met and places I’d lived.  Some of the pieces began to link up with others to create a longer narrative.  I didn’t intend to write a book, but describing that process is what this Blog is all about.

Publishing 101

Hi, faithful readers,

I took a two month hiatus from the book after an agent in Florida agreed to look at the entire manuscript. I’m learning that the road from finishing a manuscript to actual publication is a lot longer and more fraught than I had expected.

The process goes like this. You send out a query letter and some chapters to pique the agent’s interest. If the writing and the subject strike a nerve the agent will ask to see the entire manuscript. Then the agent sells the thing for big bucks to a NY publisher and you’re on to fame and fortune.

Actually, no.

I’m finding out that, one interested agent notwithstanding, the chances of a book ever getting published with the Big Boys in NY are close to nil. It’s important to submit to many agents (after doing a lot of homework about what they’re interested in), expect a raft of rejection letters (if they ever respond at all), and don’t give up the day job.

So in the interests of keeping you all up to date, here’s a sample of the query letter I send out to agents. You can be sure I’ll let you know as soon as there is some action on the other end of the fishing pole.

QUERY: ‘SUNRISE, YEOMANS COUNTY’

Overview: ‘Sunrise, Yeomans County’ is a coming of age story about social and racial prejudice, sexual predation, revenge, and redemption, with lifelong repercussions for all the main characters. I lived in both the Pacific Northwest and the Deep South during the Civil Rights era described in the story, nevertheless ‘Sunrise’ is almost totally a work of fiction.

Thanks for taking time to look at my work.

Mike DesCamp 503-407-3443 mikedescamp@gmail.com

Synopsis: A message arrives from Yeomans, Georgia, signed only with the letter J, and Attorney Will Letour, comfortably retired in Portland, Oregon, is pulled back half a century to a place he has spent his entire life trying to forget.

After strife between his logging and oyster growing relatives in the Pacific Northwest tears his family apart, Will’s father is forced to accept work at a mill in Deep South Georgia. The family arrives at the height of the Civil Rights conflict – Catholics in a Baptist town, Yankees in a Confederate world.

Will’s brother Jack, his best friend and protector, withdraws into a life of football and moonshine. Will is bullied and ostracized. His only friends are Dal and Jenny, two other bookish outcasts. His father is unable to help him as he struggles to fit in.

Only two other adults play a strong role in his life. One is his Biology teacher, Jenny’s father, who educates him on Confederate history and venomous reptiles. The other is his music teacher, whose attentions are as dangerous as the deadly snakes that Will learns to handle.

The family’s time in Georgia is cut short after death strikes close to home, ugly and personal.

Now, fifty years later, Will is forced to face the part he played in another death, one that has haunted him his entire life. His only path to resolution and redemption will take him back to Yeomans County.

Editors and Agents and a Recipe For Success

Just picked up from the ‘Literary Midwife’, a literary magazine in Portland, OR, by Mary Rosenblum, the best editor in the world.

…..and now we get to the ‘Agent’ part of the post…

Editing is the expensive part of publishing and that’s the part that most self publishing writers overlook.  Hey, it’s an awesome book, they know it’s an awesome book and so do their friends!   But remember, you want about 30,000 strangers to think it’s an awesome book, too.

Let me share Mike Descamp’s story with you.   Mike Descamp brought me a novel for a full content edit.  He had submitted it to a friend, an editor in the NY publishing world, and it had been politely and firmly rejected.   I had a lot to say about that book, suggesting he make some big changes, including remove a character who simply didn’t belong and reorganize the way the story unfolded. That’s a lot to ask of a writer and I give Mike a lot of credit, a LOT of credit, for trusting me, listening to me, and making some signifcant changes in that book.

It shaped up into a powerful coming of age story with some echoes of Catcher in the Rye, the loss of innocence of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also the modern darkness of family dysfunction and child abuse. For all that, it’s a book of redemption and hope, and will leave readers satisfied.  I’m very proud of the work Mike has done on it.

Mike met an agent at a casual writing event recently and the agent graciously, if a bit reluctantly, said she’d look at a pitch, then asked for a chapter by chapter outline and thirty pages.  We worked on those together and sent them off.  I cautioned Mike to expect a looong wait, but lo and behold, she called him about a week later, to say she had looked at the outline, started reading the pages, he’s a powerful writer, and please send the whole book.  She’s taking it to New York.

I’m not in any way taking credit for Mike’s success. Sunrise Yeomans County is a powerful story and he is indeed a very strong writer.  But he made some beginner mistakes that hid its strength and we worked as a team on this book, with the same goal;  make this story as powerful as it could be.  And it is powerful.   Great work, Mike, I really expect this agent to sell the book to a New York publisher, and  I’m looking forward to seeing it in print! Thanks for being such a cooperative client, you’ve been a joy to work with!

So, the bottom line is that you must have a strong book and you must promote it.  Those are the key elements to success in publishing today, no matter how you go about it.  Hmmm.  Now that Mike has his book placed with the agent, he has time to go spend on that website.  Great picture on the page, Mike, excellent!  Now get to work!

Check out Mary at http://www.newwritersinterface.com

About the Blog….

This is a blog about writing a book.  It’s not an autobiography.  It’s also not about real people, family members, or events that have happened in my life.  As they say, “any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  Ideas have to spring from somewhere, the characters have to have a skin and somewhere to walk around in order for the story to take place, and some of them might vaguely resemble one’s less-than-attractive acquaintances.  But on the whole I’ve taken pains to avoid real people and events.  And I have access to good legal advice (Hi there, Robin!).

So, some facts….

It is a fact that our family lived on Puget Sound up in Washington State, and that Dad worked at a paper mill there.  It is a fact that when the mill closed in the late 1950’s he moved the family, all ten of us, down to Deep South Georgia.  We were truly ‘strangers in a strange land’ – Catholics in a Baptist community and Yankees in a society that still hadn’t forgiven the North for winning the Civil War.  Our arrival coincided with the Centennial celebration of Georgia’s secession from the Union.  The first year we were there members of the Ku Klux Klan, hooded for anonymity, rode in the Fourth of July parade.  This was the background for the story, but all else is fiction.

Pretty much.

Pardon This Slight Delay…..

The last couple of weeks have brought a series of frustrating events, starting with my computer melting down.  Or crashing – I’m not tech savvy and don’t know the exact words to describe the situation.  One evening everything was fine; the next morning I turned the thing on and saw a blue screen filled with cryptic letters, at the end of which were the ominous words, ‘your computer is screwed’.  At least that’s what I remember; I was rushing to turn it off before the damage was complete and may not have read the screen clearly.

There followed several weeks of unrewarding interactions with Best Buy. Their Geek Squad confirmed that the hard drive was toast and told me to call the manufacturer for something called a ‘restore disk’.  The disk arrived promptly but the Geeks couldn’t get it to work, so they set the computer aside and waited for me to call.  I, of course, was waiting for them to call.  Eventually we all got together on the same page.  Unfortunately it was a page on which my computer was still toast and the resident Geeks had no idea why the usual fixes wouldn’t work.  A lack of communication resulted in my returning to the store three times to pick up the computer (having been alerted by an automatic system that all was ready, which it was not).  My disposition was not improved by each successive fifteen mile trip on Florida’s notorious I-95, where every hour is rush hour.

 

Finally the store and I brought the sordid proceedings to a close, mostly out of mutual exhaustion.  I ended up with a new hard drive, Word system, and external backup system, along with a refund of all labor charges (about $300 when all was said and done).  The store ended up with the promise that they will never see me again.

Oystering on Hood Canal, 1950’s

….The winter oyster operations were in full swing the next time I biked out to Esther’s place.  Esther had enough workers to shuck the oysters, but she always found other stuff for me to do around the place and she paid me more than my weekly allowance at home.  She said she got bored just watching over the workers and she liked someone to talk with. Me, I liked the chance to get away from the house.  I helped out by keeping a low fire going in the wood stove, shifting crates and kettles when things got really busy, and other chores as needed.

“Will, get me one of those brown bottles up over the icebox.  Just too damn cold out here; I gotta keep the blood flowing.”  As I left the shed and headed for the house she yelled after me, “And drag some more wood into the kitchen while you’re at it!”

********

OYSTERING ON HOOD CANAL

Will’s family on his mother’s side, the Tolleruds, had been growing and harvesting oysters on Hood Canal ever since the mid 1800’s.  Their operation was typical; a small family affair employing about half a dozen workers at the height of the season.  Will’s uncle Lloyd and Lloyd’s mother Esther had both worked as shuckers when they were younger, but now Lloyd directed the planting and barge operations and Esther did the books and kept an eye on the workers out in the shed. Many of the day laborers hired during the season were Native Americans who lived along the Canal.

Growing and harvesting activities took place in the water just off shore, in beds covered with oyster shells. Lloyd and his workers would spread seed oysters over the beds and leave them to grow, and once the shellfish reached maturity (typically a year or so) workers would pole barges out over the site. At low tide the barge would sit on the bottom and the oysters could be raked together and pitchforked into the barge. At high tide the barge would be floated in to shore to the oyster preparation shed. There were usually enough oysters in one bargeful to keep two or three people busy shucking for an entire day.

Once the barge reached the shore workers would transfer the oysters to a shed for processing. The Tolleruds had a gasoline powered conveyer that carried the oysters from the barge. The conveyer belt went up to an opening in the top of the shed and dumped the oysters into a metal-lined silo. At the bottom of the silo was a wooden flap that dropped the oysters onto a table. You can envision an operation similar to that of an automatic dog food feeder; fill it up and as the dog pulls the pellets out at the bottom, more fall down.

Shuckers stood at the metal topped table and opened the shells, put the meat into metal buckets, and threw the empty shells on the floor. Later the shells would be gathered up and recycled to act as the medium on which oyster spat – oysters in the larva stage – would grow.

The oyster meat was then carried over to a second station, dumped into one gallon containers with drainage holes, and hosed down to clean out dirt and sand. The meat would then be packaged and sent off to market.

Barging oysters was physically demanding work, and there was always the danger of falling into the water and drowning. Oyster season stretched from October to May, the worst weather of the year in the Pacific Northwest, so outside work was extremely uncomfortable. Conditions inside the sheds weren’t much better. The sheds were dry, but most didn’t have any electricity, so the only light source was whatever sun came through a skylight in the roof. Most of the sheds weren’t well heated either, because it was important to keep the oysters cold.

All in all, it was a difficult way to make a living, made more difficult by the pollution that flowed daily into the bay from sawmills and paper mills in the surrounding towns. By the mid-1900’s the region’s famed Olympia oysters, described by Mark Twain as ‘the closest thing to heaven on earth’, were in danger of complete extinction, and a battle in court between the oystermen and the logging interests became inevitable.

Voyage of the Imogene

On the afternoon of December 4, 1925, the sternwheeler Imogene cast off from her berth in the Olympia harbor for her regularly scheduled route up Puget Sound. She was loaded to capacity with bricks and lumber, bound for the small logging town of Shelton where her cargo would be used to build a replacement for the old Timber Tavern on Railroad Avenue, which had burned to the foundations a week before.

The Imogene, 85 feet in length and weighing in at 100 tons, had been built in 1899 for the Seattle Transportation Company.  She was part of the Mosquito Fleet, hundreds of boats of all descriptions which traveled the length and breadth of Puget Sound from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s.   During that period they transported cargo ranging from produce and passengers to timber and fuel.  Toward the end they carried the automobiles that would help to make them obsolete.

Unlike the stately Alida and the North Pacific, which closely resembled steamboats that plied the Mississippi, the Imogene had a decidedly plain appearance and was sometimes derisively described as a ‘cracker box on a raft’.  In addition to her awkward looks she also had a tendency toward instability unless carefully trimmed.  Despite these shortcomings she was nevertheless in constant demand for two reasons: she was fast, and her shallow draft allowed her to slip through low water better than any other boat in the fleet.  Her captain, Kurt Tollerud, took advantage of these characteristics, cutting corners and going into parts of the Sound that other craft would have to avoid.   Tollerud was a picky and impatient man and the boat’s peculiarities suited him well.  He also was extremely competitive.  On one occasion he was said to have thrown part of his cargo – jugs of cooking oil – into her furnace in order to squeeze out a few more knots and beat a rival boat to the dock.

The weather was ugly when the Imogene departed Olympia on the afternoon of December 4th and it worsened steadily during the trip.  By the time she rounded Arcadia Point and turned up Hammersly Inlet toward Shelton the fog had formed a thick grey wall, and a strong north wind was blowing rain sideways through the wheelhouse.  By 4:30 darkness had begun to fall and visibility was down to less than one hundred feet.  Despite these conditions Tollerud was determined to make schedule.  He kept a full head of steam on as he approached Coffee Creek, where other members of the Tollerud clan had built a dock on the south side of the inlet to service their oyster operation.  Directly across the inlet from the dock lay a shallow expanse of mudflat, fronting a farm.  Lights from the farmhouse could usually be seen from the boat, and Tollerud had used them before as a beacon to help him stay in the middle of the channel, sufficiently removed from the shallow water.

Tollerud, like most of the captains in the Mosquito Fleet, had an almost photographic memory for his routes and so he was surprised to see the farmhouse lights suddenly appear out of the fog to starboard, much closer than he expected.  He had just wrenched the wheel hard to port when he realized that the lights were not on the farmhouse porch but instead were hanging off the bow of an oyster raft, lying at anchor in the shallow water, waiting to be towed upriver.  The Imogene was able to clear the raft, but by the time Tollerud spun her wheel back to starboard she had crossed to the other side of the narrow inlet and struck the dock at an angle, chewing through pilings and decking and out the other side, leaving a tangle of timber in her wake.

As soon as she cleared the wreckage Tollerud brought her out into mid-channel and throttled back the engines.  Then he spent an anxious hour while her crew repositioned the cargo, which had shifted in the collision and was causing her to list dangerously to port.  He made a final check for leakage below decks and, finding none, continued on to Shelton.

The dock was declared a total loss and never rebuilt.

Boy

Will and his family arrive in Georgia, dogless.  He lobbies his parents to let him replace Chub, who was left behind in the move.  He doesn’t have much luck but keeps on trying.

                                                                           ******

We sat on the porch and looked at Dal’s skinny, tan-colored hound.
“What’s your dog’s name?”
“Boy, I guess.”
“What?”
“His name. I just call him Boy, like, ‘c’mere, Boy’. Doesn’t matter what I call him; he doesn’t come anyhow.”
Boy looked like every other stray I’d seen hanging around Yeomans. The dogs all seemed to be part of one large family and they were everywhere; lying in small groups by the side of the road and wandering through the neighborhoods. Nobody seemed to own them, at least I never talked to anyone who did, and I never saw anybody feed them either. The dogs never moved except when they absolutely needed to, like when someone shied a rock or a stick at them, and when they did move it was in slow motion. I had tried a couple of times to get close to one for a better look, but each time I got to within about ten feet the dog would get up, stretch, and saunter off in the opposite direction.
Boy lay sprawled on his belly, his head on his paws, taking advantage of the cool sand in the shadow of the porch. When he heard his name he turned toward Dal and cocked one ear, but in the dense heat even that minor activity seemed to be too much; he laid his head back down and closed his eyes.
“So, do you hunt him? What’s he good for?”
Dal thought for a moment. “Nothing much, I guess. He just kind of sticks around; goes where I go. He’s never far.” Dal reached out and gave Boy a couple of pats on the back. Boy thumped the ground once with his tail.
“Wish I still had my dog,” I said.
All of us kids had protested when we had to leave Chub behind. Dad gave all sorts of reasons; Chub was too old to travel, he’d be uncomfortable in the heat, they’d found a farm where he could run free and play with the other animals. We were skeptical and we said so. Dad wouldn’t change his mind, but he did promise to talk about getting another dog once we arrived in Georgia. So far he and Mom had avoided the discussion.
“So, how’d you find Boy? Did you buy him?”
Dal laughed. “Oh, hell no. You don’t buy a dog. He just turned up one day. I started feeding him and he stuck around.”
Boy reached his head up over his back and gnawed vigorously on his rear end and then, exhausted by the effort, slumped back down onto the sand.
I knew if I asked for a dog Mom would say no, given the size of our house, and Dad would probably go along with her. Still…
“So does he eat a lot? Where does he sleep?”
Dal was silent for a moment, like it was the first time he’d thought about these issues.
“Let’s see, food. He gets table scraps, mostly. Never seems too hungry. I think he chases stuff down like all the other dogs here. And he doesn’t much like to come in the house. I’d say he’s an outdoor dog, just a typical dog, y’ know.” He seemed ready to move on from this conversation.
“C’mon,” he said, “Let’s go on out to the river.”

Speaking of Dogs

Dogs play a large role in the story, both in Washington State and after the LeTour family moves down to Georgia. The fictional Chub in the book was modeled after our own dog when we lived in Shelton.

*******

“I don’t remember a time when Chub wasn’t part of our household. Dad told us he got him as a puppy from a local farmer, not long after he and Mom were married and before any of us kids were born. He described Chub as a tiny, snub-nosed puppy, just barely weaned, who needed a home because there were just too many other puppies for the mom to manage. By the time I paid much attention to him, Chub had grown into a huge, black, slow-moving bear-like creature. He was supposed to be an outdoor dog, but whenever he came in out of the rain (and it rained a lot where we lived in Washington State) he carried around him a smell like a damp mattress, and no matter how hard we rubbed him down with Mom’s old towels he never seemed to really dry out. He and Mom eventually came to a truce; she gave up trying to keep him out of the house, and he spent most of his time under the piano in our front room. This worked for Mom because that way she wasn’t always tripping over him, and it worked for Chub because under the piano it was warm and dry and he could engage in one of his favorite activities: sleeping.
Chub’s other favorite activity was eating. He’d finish off his bowl on the back porch and then pad slowly through the house, going from one kid to the next, a look of hunger in his huge brown eyes. Of course he was irresistible, and when Mom wasn’t looking we would sneak him treats from the kitchen or more kibble from his bag. He’d sprawl on the floor with his great head on his paws and we’d feed him by hand. In return he’d let us use him as a pillow while we were reading.
Chub refused to come or fetch, he had bad breath, he was fat, and he shed.  No one took him for walks because he was too big to drag, and when he did go outside it was usually to make a deposit in Mom’s favorite flower bed.  In short, he was completely worthless as a dog.  On the plus side, though, he was gentle and patient and a great babysitter. Every one of us kids learned to walk by holding onto his long hair as he wandered slowly from room to room.”

Thought For The Day

Emily Dickinson (1830–86). Complete Poems. 1924.

THERE is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.

This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

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