Book Cover Fail

Monday, September 18, 2017


I hate it when book covers misrepresent the contents.

My first middle-grade historical, Desert Jewels, is about the Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. So of course I wanted the cover to be historically accurate. And since the book is about an ethnic group I don’t belong to, I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t promote any stereotypes or do anything else that the Japanese-American community might find offensive.

I failed. I haven’t heard any complaints from the Japanese-American community yet, but I’ve been told that the girl on the cover is Chinese, not Japanese. When a Caucasian woman said that about a week ago, I puckered my brow and said, “but she looks a lot like some of the girls and women in Dorothea Lange’s pictures from that time.” (See the two photos below for a sample, and imagine them both in profile.)


Since the comment came from another Caucasian, I was inclined to brush it off as mistaken. But then I remembered an earlier response from a Chinese-American friend.

Several weeks before the book came out, I showed a proof copy to my writers’ group. Helena said, “Oh, I see you have an Oriental girl on the cover.” She suggested a change to the back-cover copy but didn’t tell me that the girl was Chinese, so I didn’t think anything about it. Or not much, anyway. I did have an uneasy feeling that the way she said “Oriental girl” meant something, but I didn’t ask about it at the time.

But I saw Helena on Saturday, so this time I asked. Helena said yes, the girl was Chinese, but many people confused Japanese and Chinese and Koreans. I asked if the cover was a problem, and she said no. But although Helena thinks it’s no big deal, it is a big deal to me. And I still don’t know how the Japanese-American community will react.

Knowing my shortcomings as an observer, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at my error when viewing this design. Despite being Caucasian, I can’t tell someone of Italian descent from someone of English descent. And I expect a lot of variety within any ethnic group. After all, my mother had 100% German ancestry but her brown hair and eyes didn’t fit Hitler’s ideal of a blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan race. (Thankfully her beliefs didn’t, either.)

There is one thing I did right. My book cover designer gave me one alternative that included a drawn or computer-generated image highlighting all the stereotypical features, and I rejected it immediately for that reason. But I didn’t realize that the option I did choose got the ethnicity wrong.

At this point, I can’t afford to change the cover, so I’ll have to live with it.

But I wish I’d gotten it right.

__________

Dorothea Lange took both pictures in 1942 as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because they are government documents, the photos are in the public domain.

The Original GPS

Monday, September 11, 2017


I love GPS, but sometimes it takes me way out of my way or even leads me to the wrong place. Those are the times I prefer a good old-fashioned map, and that’s why I carry several in my car.

The book I’m working on right now has several settings, but a significant part of the action takes place along a Louisiana bayou. I bought a state atlas to help orient me, but it didn’t provide enough detail. So after the atlas helped pinpoint the area I wanted, I purchased a larger-scale map used by fishermen. It isn’t the perfect resource, because my story occurs in the mid-1800s, and the bayous have surely changed their courses and depths and many other characteristics since then. But it gets me close enough (I hope) to make my setting authentic.

When I was writing the just-published Desert Jewels, I studied diagrams and aerial photographs of Tanforan Assembly Center and the Topaz War Relocation Center and read memoirs that described those locations. In my recently completed book about the Great Chicago Fire, I studied maps showing the spread of the fire and highlighting the burnt-out areas. Desert Jewels and Inferno are both fictionalized accounts of events occurring at real places, and it is important to get the details right.

Maps even help when the setting is made up. J.K. Rowling drew a map of Hogwarts to make sure that she didn’t make any continuity errors. Someone might notice if Harry and his friends exited the castle on the way to play Quidditch and turned right, but the next day they turned left on their way to the same place.  Of course, Hogwarts is magic, and it could have had a floating Quidditch pitch, but that wasn’t Rowling’s plan. So she drew a map to keep everything consistent. I did the same with the campus layout for the fictional Dewmist Indian Boarding School in Creating Esther.

Agatha Christie also drew maps. In Evil Under the Sun, for example, Christie created an island and set the murder in a cove away from public view. She drew a map to help her work out the details, or perhaps to make sure the details she had already envisioned worked. Either way, the map helped make sure the plot functioned the way it was supposed to.

And it isn’t just maps. When working on Death in the Air, Christie created a seating chart showing where each person sat on the airplane. For A Caribbean Mystery, she drew out the components of what at first glance appeared to be a red herring but was actually a vital clue. [The word “glance” is itself a clue, but I won’t say anything more in case somebody plans to read the book.] For myself, I have often drawn out floor plans to ensure that the rooms in a house remain in the same place.

GPS tells me to go right or left or to stop here, but it doesn’t give me the same bird’s- eye view that a map does. And it can’t help me when I’m sitting at my desk at home. I hope today’s generation learns to read maps and diagrams and understands their importance.

Because they are valuable resources for keeping our stories authentic.

Comparing Stories to Plants

Monday, September 4, 2017


Stories are like plants. Give them a little care, and they grow, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Each summer, Roland and I buy two or three pots of flowers for our balcony. This year we were on vacation during late May and early June, so we decided to wait until we returned. But when I went to the nursery, the best ones had been picked over.

The best flowers, that is. I saw two pots of mostly foliage plants that I liked, so I got those. Both are nice, but we especially like the one pictured above. It was already on the large side when I got it, but since I brought it home it has taken over its corner of the balcony.

Usually plants have little plastic tags sticking into the soil to identify them and describe the care they require. This one didn’t, so I asked the clerk if it would work in partial shade. (Unfortunately, I forgot to ask her what it was, and I still don’t know.) The clerk said the plant should be all right if I gave it plenty of water, and she was correct. If I let it go more than a day in the hot weather, it begins to wilt. But if I take care of it, it grows faster and stronger and beyond what I expected.

That brings me to my writing point, although I should start with a caveat. Every writer is different, and what works for one may not work for another. But I start with a short outline, and the basic idea behind the story never changes. As I water my story by sitting down and writing, however, it grows faster and stronger and beyond what I expected. Actually, it has occurred enough by now that I would be surprised if it didn’t happen, but I am still surprised at the actual direction the story takes.

I just finished the first draft of a middle-grade historical novel that takes place in 1850 and 1851. The main storyline deals with a riverboat disaster on the Mississippi. That is how I conceived it, and that is still the main plot. As I wrote, however, a minor character turned into a significant one (although he appears only in the middle of the novel), and slavery introduced itself as a dominant subplot.

The story will change even more as I write the second and third drafts, and I’m excited to see where it takes me.

Because a story, like a plant, only needs a little care to grow in unexpected ways.

P.G. Wodehouse: World War II Broadcasts

Monday, August 28, 2017


A small error in judgment can haunt someone for the rest of their lives. Is it fair? No. But it happened to P.G. Wodehouse.

When World War II started, Wodehouse was living in Le Touquet, France, among a number of other British expats. He was almost 58 years old and as naïve as a schoolboy. His first mistake was his conviction that there would be no war. Then, as war raged nearby, he waited too long to leave France.

When the Germans occupied the area, they rounded up all of the British male expats under sixty, and the 58-year-old Wodehouse spent the next eleven months as a civilian prisoner. Conditions were bad, but Wodehouse’s sense of humor got him through.

Internees were rountinely released when they turned sixty, so Wodehouse wasn’t particularly surprised when they let him out three months before his birthday. He didn’t know that the Germans had a plan and that he was a pawn in it.

In the beginning, the plan may have been fairly benign. America was still neutral, and Wodehouse’s American fans were clamboring for new of him. So the German Foreign Office though that it could gain favor with America—and convince it to remain neutral—by having Wodehouse record a series of radio spots broadcast by German radio for an American audience. As part of the plan, they released him early and planted the idea in his mind to use the radio to reassure his American fans.

Wodehouse recorded five innocuous broadcasts about his incarceration, all told with his usual humor. The transcripts certainly don’t portray him as a German sympathiser. In fact, he took some mild shots at the Germans. So if it had ended, as originally planned, with the broadcasts to America, Wodehouse might have been able to return to his normal life after the war.

But it didn’t end there. The German Propaganda Ministry had its own plan, and it broadcast the spots in Britain about a month later. Since they were recorded rather than live, Wodehouse couldn’t stop it. And in the general hysteria surrounding the war, British journalists branded Wodehouse as a traitor.

Those broadcasts haunted Wodehouse for the rest of his life. He was afraid to return to England, where his grandchildren lived, for fear that he would be arrested and tried for treason. And although he was able to see the humor in every other episode in his life, including his time as a civilian prisoner, he never could find anything except sorrow in the events surrounding the broadcasts. He admitted that he had made a mistake broadcasting for German radio, but he died believing that the broadcasts were his idea and that his early release was unrelated to anything except his approaching birthday.

You can read the transcripts for yourself at this link: http://www.pgwodehousesociety.org.uk/wartime.html.

__________

The photo of Wodehouse was taken around 1904, long before his German radio broadcasts. However, photos from those years are not yet in the public domain.

P.G. Wodehouse: Lyricist

Monday, August 21, 2017


Whenever I hear the name P.G. Wodehouse (pronounced Woodhouse), I think of Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves, the protagonists of many Wodehouse novels. Or I think of his other equally humorous books. But I never thought of him as a Broadway lyricist.

Then I started reading P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, edited by Sophie Ratcliffe, and I learned several things that surprised me. One is that Wodehouse wrote book and lyrics for numerous Broadway shows. His most successful musicals were collaborations with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton during the late 19-teens and the early 1920s and include Miss Springtime; Leave It to Jane; O, Boy; and Oh, Lady! Lady! Although his association with Jerome Kern ended in the 1920s, his working relationship with Guy Bolton lasted into the 1950s and their friendship lasted until Wodehouse’s death in 1974.

Wodehouse also worked with the Gershwin brothers (and Guy Bolton) on the successful musical, Rosalie, which was first produced in 1928.

During his Broadway days, Wodehouse continued writing short stories and humorous novels and often had three or four projects going at once. And yet he also found time to exercise daily, to socialize with friends, and to write letter after letter after letter. That’s my kind of work ethic.

Most of the shows Wodehouse worked on are little-known today, and his lyrics have followed them into near-obscurity. His best-known is the song “Bill,” which he wrote for Oh, Lady! Lady! but was cut before the show opened. As was often the case in those days, a song that was cut from one musical might later show up in another, and “Bill” ended up in Show Boat. Oscar Hammerstein II revised the lyrics somewhat, but Hammerstein made sure Wodehouse received credit during the 1946 revival, which occurred while many considered him a traitor.

That’s the subject of next week’s post.

Conventionality or Creativity?

Monday, August 14, 2017


This year I moved up to the advanced photography category at the Lake County Fair and faced much tougher competition than in the past. So I wouldn’t have been surprised to walk away without any ribbons and was gratified to win second place in the Domestic Animals Color class.  But I was surprised at which photo won. That’s because it was my most conventional, and therefore least favorite, entry.

I take photos because I enjoy it, not to win competitions or even for the sake of art. But I do think that creativity should play a role in photography competitions. My biggest disappointment with the judging at the Lake County Fair was that—with some exceptions such as the insect category—the judging seemed to emphasize conventionality over creativity.

The floral category is a good example. The winners were all beautiful pictures, but they were also similar—conventional rather than creative. I don’t have any of those photos, but this one I took years ago is typical of the conventional style.

My entries were more unusual. I’m not saying they should have won. There were other equally distinct entries that were probably worthier of a ribbon than mine. Still, it would have been nice to see creativity win out over conventionality. And just so you can see what I mean by creativity, I have included my entries (color and black & white) below.


Art is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t really fault the judges.

But I wish they had given more weight to creativity.

Art is in the Eye of the Artist

Monday, August 7, 2017


We’ve all heart the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That’s also true of art. But I also believe that beauty and art are in the eye of the artist. I look at an alligator and think it’s ugly, but its Creator sees something beautiful.

Not everyone has the same taste, and that’s okay. If you are writing or taking photographs for public consumption, then you should keep your specific audience in mind and try to please it. But the person you have to please the most is yourself.

For the last three years, I’ve entered photographs at the Lake County Fair. The first two years I competed in the beginners’ section. In 2015 I entered four photos, and “Water Under the Bridge” (the photo above), won second place for Scenic Nature B&W. In 2016 I entered seven photos and won third place in the Architecture B&W category for “Boarding School Escape” (the photo below).

This year I entered twelve photos in the advanced section. More about that next week.

As I wander around and look at the other entries, I often wonder, “Why did that one win when I like that one better?” But that’s the wrong question. Part of it is the science—there are breakable “rules” designed to add interest to photographs and draw your eyes to the main focal point. But most of it should be the art, and art—like beauty—is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s interesting that my 2015 and 2016 winners were both black and white, but maybe it’s just that there were fewer entries in those categories. Still, it does take some skill (or art) to know what looks good in black and white and what doesn’t.

Maybe the more important point is that I consider myself best at landscape and architectural photography, and those are the categories for my winning entries from the past two years.

But as long as I’m happy with my art, winning or losing is secondary.