Friday, February 22, 2013

RLS and Lighthouses

Robert Louis Stevenson has always been one of my favorite authors--Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde... I read most of RLS's novels as a kid and in high school. I bought A Child's Book of Verses to read to my children and still have it, a tattered souvenir that traveled with our family to our many duty stations with the U.S. Navy. When we moved to Hawai'i for two years in 1984, I made a surprising discovery about RLS. He loved lighthouses and had a strong connection to them!

His father and grandfather were Scotland's greatest lighthouse engineers. RLS, himself, was trained in civil engineering and wrote papers on the construction of lighthouses. On his vacations from the University of Edinburgh, he traveled with his father to some of the grand sentinels of Scotland. At age sixteen, RLS began working in his father's office. By this time, Robert Stevenson the senior was designing lighthouses all around the British Empire. One of them was Point Venus Lighthouse in Tahiti, built in 1868 and named for a "Transit of Venus" observed there by Captain James Cook in 1769 to help astronomers gather data to make an accurate estimate of the size of the solar system. (I recently wrote an article about it for a magazine and am bugging Jon to take me there so I can see it. Imagine, my two favorite past times in one place--astronomy and lighthouses!)

In 1887, RLS traveled to the United States and visited several lighthouses on the continent, including Point Pinos Lighthouse at Monterey, California, where today's museum docents claim he played the lightkeeper's piano and signed the guestbook. I saw his famous signature in the guestbook and admired the piano on display, though I'm not sure if it was the one he played. It was fun to think so, and to run my fingers over the ivories where RLS's fingers may have lingered 125 years ago.
After leaving Californa, RLS sailed to Hawai'i in a chartered yacht, the Casco. His wife and mother were with him. Stevenson suffered from ill health, and doctors had advised him to seek a tropical climate. Perhaps another of the reasons for the trip was to escape the doom and gloom of Scotland, since its weather was not only damp and bad for the lungs, but RLS's father had recently died. The two men had had a troubled relationship after RLS decided to forsake a career as a marine engineer and become a writer. The elder Stevenson never reconciled with his son's decision, even after RLS became world-famous. Stevenson's mother was thrilled but called her husband "wonderfully resigned." No doubt, RLS was glad to leave these father-son memories behind when he left his homeland. But he rued the poor relationship with his father and his abandonment of the family profession. These lines, written in 1887, reflect those feelings--
 Say not of me that weakly I declined
 The labours of my sires, and fled the sea,
 The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
 But rather say: In the afternoon of time
 A strenuous family dusted from its hands
 The sand of granite, and beholding far
 Along the sounding coast its pyramids
 And tall memorials catch the dying sun,
 Smiled well content, and to this childish task
 Around the fire addressed its evening hours.
King Kalakaua of Hawai'i (above) showed RLS and his entrouage a good time in the islands. There was a lot of drinking, smoking, and partying, I think, reveling by night and sleeping late into the day. Then RLS left in his yacht for the South Pacific. On the way, he stopped in Tahiti and took his mother to see Point Venus Lighthouse. Looking up the seven-story, 76-foot tower was a sobering moment for the 38-year-old RLS. He wrote in his journal: "Great were the feelings of emotion as I stood with mother by my side and we looked at the edifice designed by my father when I was sixteen…"
The Casco and its famous passengers also visited the Gilbert Island and New Zealand. Eventually, RLS reached Samoa and fell in love with the place. And, it was time to stop the vagabond's life. His health hadn't improved a great deal and he needed rest. He settled on the island Upolu and built his home, Valima, on a hillside overlooking the sea. He died there, probably of a stroke, at age 44 in December 1894--a great literary lighthouse gone.
RLS's poems about lighthouses are rich and descriptive. I love the series he wrote on lightkeepers. You'll find them here, along with a picture of his father's most famous lighthouse, the Bell Rock--

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Writing Ritual, a Pleasant Place to Work, and Hershey Kisses

Over the years--since I began working as a freelance writer in 1982--I've developed a ritual that gets me ready to write.Maybe you have one too. I think most, if not all, writers will admit to doing this. It's more than habit; it's necessity. There are a set of actions that lead to a successful work session. This protocol for getting to work is not a bad thing. It tells my stubborn, often lazy, brain that something is expected and an important task is about to happen. I've discovered that if I obey the rules of the ritual, I can be more creative and productive.

Usually, I can write anywhere, but my best work comes out of my home office. It's the main part of my writing ritual, the place. It's a wonderful room, even inspiring according to some people. The north wall is dominated by a tier of three windows that overlook a grassy quarter-acre of lawn, a maple tree and, beyond that, a fir and cedar forest with a bird feeding station. From one limb of the maple hangs a comical homemade Tin Man--my amateur handiwork. I wired him together from cast-off items--a coffee can for his head, a funnel for a hat, a bucket for his middle, and legs and arms made from empty vegetable cans. His shoes are empty sardine cans. Various nuts and bolts form his eyes, nose, mouth, and buttons. I was a devoted reader as a child and my favorite story was The Wizard of Oz. The Tin Man reminds me of pleasant childhood afternoons spent reading on the sofa or, in summer, reading on the front porch glider with its faded, striped green cushions.

The west wall of my office has a single window, but the view is incredible. It overlooks the Olympic Mountains, primarily Mt. Constance, Mt. Jupiter, and The Brothers. They rise to elevations of about 6,000-feet and are snow-capped all year. I love to watch them change clothes throughout the seasons--sparsely clad in white wimples in summer and mantled in alabaster snow during the winter months. They change color and texture each day too. At dawn their snowy dresses glow pink, then cantaoupe, and finally gold. Toward noon they are blinding white in the sun or muted if skies are gray. By evening, they take on a taupe hue and wax slowly darker until they capture the meaning of "purple mountain majesty." I sang that lyric from "America the Beautiful" for nearly fifty years before I saw the phenomenon for myself, right out my west office window.

The south wall of my office shares a laundry/mud room wall--no windows. But when the Maytag is running, there's a rockin' rhythm that provides cadence for my work. I've framed the covers of all my books and displayed them on this south wall, a montage of lighthouses and stars and planets. It took many years for me to convince myself it was okay to do this. I saw it in a picture from another author's webpage. It seemed like an ego trip at first, but now I appreciate my accomplishments. That wall of book covers reminds me to be proud of what I do, and to keep working. There are a lot more stories I want to write before I leave Earth for whatever comes next.

The east wall has a large desk and hutch for storage and pretty French doors that open into the great room of the house. Filing cabinets filled with research, largely about lighthouses and astronomy, stand in a corner. (I recently cleaned out all the odd topics--stuff I collected over forty years, thinking I might use it in an article or book. After a time, this sort of pack rat life takes over and runs its own agenda!) An aquarium bubbles softly on top of another filing unit, with a dozen or so captive but happy fish. My lighthouse dollhouse, a brass lighthouse clock, a small lighthouse quilt made for me by my sister-in-law, and various lighthouse ceramics and other trinkets provide addiitonal inspriation and atmosphere. Several houseplants finish the decor.

It's important to have a pleasant space to work. Comfort is important. A place with ambience and appeal, with reminders everywhere of the things I love to research and write, will call me to work and keep me on task.

I've strayed a bit from the main topic--the ritual of sitting down to write. I have a wonderful office with an incredible view and a decor that reflects my work, but there's more...

There's a beverage, always a drink to keep me going. In summer it's iced tea with a large piece of lemon. In winter it's coffee or hot tea. If I forget to bring a drink, I don't get far into a project before I find myself reaching for the coaster beside my computer. And thank goodness for those plastic drink cups with straws and screw-on lids. No frying the keyboard if I knock over the cup.

An under-desk keyboard gets pulled out and has to be arranged "just so." Though I learned to type properly in high school a very long time ago, I now type with just four fingers, one on my left hand and three on my right hand. I'm a 40% typist, I suppose. My husband is amazed at how fast I can type, though. It's not "hunt and peck." I'm actually fast, easily 60 wpm when my fingers are keeping up with my brain. It looks funny, I'm sure, but it works. If I try to invoke all the finger placement rules I learned in high school, well...I get too focused on that and lose focus on the work. I've never developed a very adroit left hand, except for chording a guitar. So the keyboard needs to be turned "just so," so my dominant hand can do its work.

I spend an inordinate amount of time arranging items on my desk before I feel ready to start work. It's a funny behavior, like a dog turning in six circles before it lays itself down. My chair has to be positioned just right, and if it's a cold day I need the afgan over my lap, folded so it doesn't snag on the rollign wheels on the chair. And the cat--I can't forget her. She needs to take her place where she can see me and I can see her. Sometimes she sits in one of the north windows and watches the birds or enjoys the outside air through the window screen. At other times, she curls up on a fleece blanket on my desk and sleeps. If she's feeling mischieveous, she pokes at the cursor on the computer screen.

At the last minute, before I begin work, I might notice a plant that needs water or a few spent leaves removed. Perhaps I'll run out to the bathroom one more time, or grab a snack. Finally, I settle down and get to work. The startup ritual can last a half hour, but when I'm satisfied that I'm ready to work, I'm productive.

Once I start, time seems suspended. I easily lose track of it. The clock ticks softly on the wall without my notice. The sun drops low and shadows change on the walls, and the light turns from white to yellow to gold. The cat sleeps on. My stomach will remind me that time has passed, or the phone might ring. More often, it's the oven timer in the kitchen that returns me to the real world. Nothing is baking. I set the timer to remind myself it's time to quit work and make dinner or go to campus for class, or just to say, "enough for today." Otherwise, I might dwell in the kingdom of verbiage long into the night.

Would that be so bad? Probably. I have other things to do, include sleep. Yet, there is something to be said for burning the midnight oil. I love to write at night. Many writers do. Night is quiet, and the darkness throughout the house and outside my office windows cloaks all distractions. The cat will join me for these late-night sessions. It makes complete sense to her to be up at night attending to business. She gladly takes her place on my desk and assumes a zen-like pose. Far away, a coyote might cry or an owl call.

But even in these solitary, peaceful sessions, I still need my startup ritual and my comforts....the drink, the blanket, time to arrange my desk items, maybe a midnight snack. After dark, with no one looking over my shoulder, the snack is usually Hershey Kisses!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Gift

A conversation with my college students this week centered on the importance of reading. Students often despise their course reading assignments and do a poor job of completing the work. I try to help them get past this negative attitude and embrace the written word, even when it seems dry and dull. As a mass market writer, I know I must capture my readers quickly, or I’ll lose them. Textbook authors appear not to have the same approach or desire; they already have a captive audience. And, we do treat captives differently than we treat those we’re pursuing.
Students dislike the captivity of textbook reading. Any reading assignment, in fact, seems to elicit moans and “do we have to” pleas. "Can't we watch a video instead?" they ask. A few students nod as I’m giving the assignment, and I know they'll hunker down and do it, amybe grudgingly. That’s what I did in college and what I still whenever the reading is tedious. How do we change our attitudes about tasks like this? How do we interact with print that is exceptionally dull?
A little self-talk about “the gift” helps....
This week in class, we discussed language as a gift. When you’re given a gift, I reminded students, you should unwrap it and use it, and appreciate that it was “given” to you. My message was clear: Read and write as much as you can, ramp up your vocabulary, converse and listen. Imagine if you couldn’t do these things. How difficult would life be then? Embrace and love language. It truly is a gift. It will help you succeed in life.
Overall, students agree with me about this. We’ve discussed how other species did not receive "the gift," at least we haven’t discovered any other creatures that speak, listen, read, and write as humans do. Isn’t language what moved us upward and made us the dominant species on the planet? Sure, we have big brains and a tight social structure, but the ability to use language—speak, listen, write, read--seems like a crucial factor in human success, I think.
Students still hedged in last Monday’s class. Textbook reading is difficult if you aren’t motivated to do it. So is writing. How do you motivate yourself, I ask them? They give various canned answers, such as: "I put on music I like." or "I promise myself I can go hang out with freinds if I get it done." “Just do it!” ones says, invoking the Nike mantra.  “How do YOU do it?” they ask me. “You do it a lot;  you write books!”
II should mention here that I use YouTube clips a lot in class. It keeps the students interested and breaks up the monotony of lecture and keyboard work. I wish I had a YouTube video that shows this: A little kid who suddenly realizes she can read and write. It’s an amazing transformation to witness…
II've never been able to find the right video, so told the class about my student teaching experience many years ago. I had second graders, twenty-four emergent readers….little, energetic sponges ready to absorb everything I could give them. They knew their alphabet and letter sounds; they knew books were filled with words, and they saw how older kids and adults used the words in books to learn and discover and do things. Usually, their families underscored for them the importance of books.
At first, my second graders liked the pictures more than the words, because they knew how to interpret images. Pictures were very familiar. Words were still a mystery, for the most part…a challenge. They preferred to draw pictures rather than write words, to listen to someone read rather than try it themselves.
They started the school year with decoding skills learned in kindergarten and first grade—the ability to take apart a word letter-by-letter to sound it out. D-O-G….dog! And a picture of dog came to mind, or they saw a picture of a dog next to the word. I taught them sight words—about 25 of them to memorize, like a like a little meme—so they could recognize these groups of letters as words, picture them in their heads, and feel like they were getting somewhere with reading.
We read every day, and wrote too. Writing was the same for them at this point as reading, a recognition of letters strung together to make words, except that it was more like drawing, though not particularly interesting drawing. There were rules, and kids tire of rules quickly. Learning to read and write was slow; it required repition, all the senses, and dedication. Nothing is more inspiring to watch than a dedicated second grader grappling with a book and a pencil and paper.
“Every day!” I reminded them. “Let’s do this every day.”  At age seven, kids understand the word "daily;" they know what practice means. “If you want to get better at T-ball, what should you do?” I asked. Their answer was firm: “Go to practice, play by the rules, be nice to the other players, and try again and again until you can do it. Then practice some more to get better.” 
Each child, after a time, unlocked the door to reading and writing. They realized there are rules, just like in T-ball, and that those who play by the rules could go farther, better, faster. But they also saw that each player could add his or her own flair to the sport, some special technique or skill or idea. And there were coaches to help and parents to cheer and peers to impress! There were other rewards too, like Kool-Aid and cookies to celebrate the achievements.
It’s magical when it happens, because very often it happens so suddenly. Kids’ facial expressions and body language change. A triumphant demeanor overcomes them. They sit up straight, smile, wiggle, get excited. They look like they’ve just discovered a new world with no borders in sight…
...and they have. “Oh, the places you’ll go,” Dr. Seuss said. As one after the other of those long-ago second-graders broke through the language barrier to become real readers and writers, interpreters and creators, they paraded to my desk with books and pieces of writing. “Look what I learned…read…wrote!” they said with pride. “I’m going to write my own book now!”
College students know this too. They chuckle when I ask them the same questions about sports and practice and how we become masters of anything. Their answer is the same as a second grader’s answer.  Okay, then, I remind them! “Think of reading and writing and speaking as sports. Practice, be dedicated, play by the rules, come to the games, play nice…you’ll get better at it.”
It’s too bad we can’t emote like kids do, getting that look of pure amazement when we discover we can do something. In sports we still do. We jump up and down when we score big, we do a little dance, hug our teammates, and celebrate.

Ashley told me in her journal: “This makes so much sense. I never looked at it this way. These things were always separate in my mind—class work and sports.  I am on the college basketball team, and language is so much like basketball for me now. I am ‘body smart’ but I can be ‘language smart’ too. My coach told me the best athlete is a literate athlete.”
This is what keeps me in the classroom!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Royalties for the Lighthouse Queen!

Royalties.  Sounds like something for a queen! (Hence, my title.) These post-publication earnings are the much-deserved payback for years of research and hard work to create a book.  Some authors call them  “the gift that keeps on giving,” because years after a book is printed  you can still draw royalties, especially if it’s a popular book. Even your heirs can earn income if they apply for and own the royalties after your death. ( I wonder if my family might….nah!)
Many people think authors write a book and then get rich on royalties. It’s a common notion. When I tell people I’m an author, they assume I make a huge income from my books. I wish I did. Some authors do—the NYT bestselling ones for sure—but most don’t.  Few titles sell more than a few thousand copies before they disappear from shelves and stores. This is partly because books usually aren’t kept in print long enough to sell in large volume and earn much money for their authors.
In addition, royalties on print books have always been rather small. The best I’ve ever done is 15% of the net, meaning I get 15% of what the publisher makes on the book.  Crunch the numbers on a $20 book and I earn about $2 per book. I’d have to sell a lot of books at that price to get rich. If I share the book with another author I earn less because we split the royalty. Then there’s the disappointment of “returns.” These are unsold books stores return to the publisher, usually with wear on the covers. Returns do not earn a royalty. If an author is not careful with a book contract, lots of sales can be considered “no royalty.” For example, library bindings, or international sales, movie rights, etc. sometimes fall under reduced or no royalties.  I can’t speak for all authors. This is my experience.  Perhaps hiring an agent would serve me better when it comes to negotiating book contracts and royalties. But agents are another story, for another blog entry....
Sometimes, if it’s offered, I’m better off if I take a book advance of several thousand dollars. This gives me some working $ while I wrote the book and wait for royalties to come in. It gets worked off as the book sells, and once the royalties equal the advance I can start earning more. However, I’ve had several books go out of print before the earnings equaled the advance.  Advances aren’t usually offered to first-time authors, unless they have a killer, timely topic. I earned my way into book advances by establishing myself in niche publishing with a popular topic--lighthouses. Even so, advances aren’t offered with every contract.
There are many erroneous beliefs about what authors do and how they get paid. I sometimes give pep talks to students and writing groups. They are always surprised to learn how much of my own income I invest in a book. Travel expenses, photos, and all the incidentals of writing need to be factored into the cost to produce a book. (That's me in the picture below at Sheringham Point Lighthouse in British Columbia, on a research trip that put a dent in m purse!) Seldom is there $$payback$$ until at least a year after the book goes to print. The first royalty is paid after the first full six-month royalty period, so if a book goes to print in February, the first full royalty period will be June through December. After that most publishers have up to 90 days to calculate royalties and send a check. So that first royalty check on a February book probably won’t come until the following year in March or April.
None of my publishers is willing to pay for pictures beyond a cover image, unless I share the royalty 50-50 with a photographer. That can be as little of 2% or 3% of the net—not much. If I have no photographer co-authoring a book, I take the pictures myself or scare them up on my own from archives or amateur photographers who want to see their images in print. (This is a good way to get exposure for your pictures, by the way, and many amateurs really are excited to donate their images in return for some gratis copies and the pleasure of seeing their work in print.) Museums and libraries usually charge use fees for their images. The fee is normally calculated on the estimated print run and can be quite expensive. My genre is pictorial--lighthouses--so I need pictures., lots of them. Thankfully, I’ve collected thousands of images on my own and don’t have to shell out a lot of money for images. If I had to purchase them from professional photographers or stock photo sources, I’d probably go in the red for a book or not write it at all.
With eBooks becoming increasingly popular, successful authors are seeing better royalties. EBooks aren’t costly to produce, nor are they the financial gamble of hard copy books; thus, a higher royalty can be offered. At this writing, I believe Amazon offers the highest eBook royalty—70%--on eBooks that sell for under $10.00. Barnes & Noble is less, maybe 40%. Those are good deals.  There are some exclusivity rights that go with these arrangements, but no one can go wrong marketing on a site like Amazon. It’s the mega-bookseller in the industry, the first stop for most people looking to buy a book.
This said, don’t under-estimate the marketing required to make serious money as an eBook author. I recently took an e-Book publishing class and was surprised to see how much of the marketing I would have to do. Without a traditional publisher’s help, the onus of reaching an audience falls on the author. It isn’t impossible, but my guess is I’d spend much more time marketing my work than actually writing. As it is, I spend a portion of my time working on marketing for my hard copy titles. Authors are expected to participate in the marketing process. They are fools not to, I think. (Thus, you are reading my blog and maybe will visit my website and Facebook page--all avenues for leading you to my work.)
A number of my in-print titles currently are being re-formatted as eBooks. I’m glad it’s finally happening! I own a Kindle Fire and love being able to access the big library of eBooks. I plan to produce some new titles as eBooks in the next year or two, so stay tuned to see those. My friend and colleague, eBook novelist Daphne VanBerkom taught me the basics. Her crime novels are selling well.  In fact, as I write this, she's in Mexico in the warm sunshine sitting on beach chair with her laptop open, writing another novel. That's eBook success! Check out her work at

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Funny Lighthouse Pictures--The Jaded Lighthouse Photographer's Hobby?

I love to take funny pictures. When you take a lot of pictures, sooner or later you'll be tempted to play. I have several friends who love this sport as well--Bob Trapani of Rockland, Maine, Bruce Robie of Puyallup, Washington, and Chris Mills of Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia. They keep me in pictures and in stitches with their funny images.

I sometimes post these images on the online course platform of the college where I teach, and ask students to write about the messages they see. The image below, taken at Fisgard Lighthouse in British Columbia in 2001 always draws some interesting interpretation. One student said I look like I'm unscrewing the lantern on the lighthouse. Another student called me "The Fifty Foot Lady Lighthouse Keeper."

Opportunties are everywhere, but my friends and I specialize in funny lighthouse pictures. You'll find a slection of them here. I hope you enjoy them, and that you'll try this photo fun yourself!

Here I am playing the lighthouse ghost at West Point Light in Seattle....

 Here comes the bride, wearing Concord Point Lighthouse, Maryland, as her veil.
This girl has a new hat!--Cape Meares Lighthouse in Oregon.
Yes, Point No Point Lighthouse in Hansville, Washington could be haunted. (Sometimes we can't resist a little Photoshopping.)
 This guy is buff! He can hold Mullholland Lighthouse on his back. It's in New Brunswick.
Bob Trapani captured this shot of the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Bristol, Maine paired with one of those tourist telescopes.
Chris Mills, a former BC lighthouse keeper, calls this shot "I'm so vane!" I'm not sure what lighthouse this is, or "weather" Chris suffered any pain creating this image.

Bruce Robie is cleverly attired in a lighthouse hat at Baccaro, Maine. I wonder how many shots he took before this one turned out just right?

Bruce again, inside a lighthouse lens in Virginia...
...and Bruce shooting a picture into a window at Turn Point Lighthouse in Washington.
My favorite--Bruce as "The Bell Boy" at Fort Point Lighthouse, Maine.
Bruce had some fun on Halloween at Mukilteo Lighthouse, Washington. A little extra exposure will do it! Are these ghosts triplets? They all look like the same guy.

Oh Buoy!

Buoys fascinate me. Yes, buoys, not boys, though I am fond of boys too. Some people pronounce buoy and boy the same, but I say buoy like the name of the famous rocker, David Bowie, or the knife maker, Jim Bowie.
A skein of fishing buoys hangs on the fence separating my property from my nearest neighbor. I found them washed up on a beach, their yellow and red paint scheme showing signs of a well traveled life.  I also have a wind instrument hanging at the end of my driveway that gongs mournfully, replicating the warnings of a famous buoy in Camden Harbor, Maine, not far from where I lived in the early 1970s. My research file on buoys is filled with stories, history, lore, and hundreds of images; I snap photos of buoys wherever I go.  My favorite is a red buoy I photographed from a ship while traveling the Baltic Sea from Gdansk to Hel Peninsula to visit the Hel Lighthouse. It was a windy, bouncy trip, as the picture below shows. Seabirds flew off the buoy just as I raised my camera. The sight of this old friend, so far from my home in Puget Sound, was a reminder of how ubiquitous is the humanitarian effort to keep the seaways safe.

Buoys don’t get much press, but they should. Any object that hides most of itself underwater, yet provides critical guidance and warning, serves as a platform for seals and sea lions and birds (not to mention castaways—see my article “Rescued by a Buoy” on, and is at the total mercy of the sea…well, let’s just say it deserves big kudos. I wrote several articles about buoys for boating and sea magazines back the 1980s-90s. Mail from readers echoed my appreciation for these humble navigational aids. I discovered I wasn’t the only person with an odd affection for buoys.
When my recent book, The DeWire Guide to the Lighthouses of Alaska, Hawai’i and the U.S. Pacific Territories, was nearly done, the book designer/editor told me there was extra space and asked if I had anything unusual to add. Buoys—of course! The book hit stores in September 2012 with a special section devoted to buoys. My editor called it a "Bonus Section." Buoys are the unsung traffic signs of the sea, and I am glad to give them some much-deserved credit for the work they do. I’ve already received mail from a Hawai’i reader who was not only glad to have the profiles of Aloha lighthouses, but thrilled with the buoy section too.
This makes me feel less self-conscious about my buoy obsession. Others are attracted to these rotund, comical, but essential marine traffic signs too.  Just last week I traveled across Puget Sound to Seattle in one of our state’s green and white car ferries—the Hyak. We passed several buoys. I knew to watch for the red one off Orchard Point and the fish pens. It's the Orchard Rocks Lighted Buoy #6. It flashes red every 2.5 seconds. It usually has some fish-fat sea lions parked on it. Word gets around quickly on the ferry when the pinipeds are on this buoy, and people rush to the port side to see them. The picture below is of a buoy in Alaska. It's a Coast Guard photo. Sometimes the Coast Guard crews that tend buoys have to fight off the sea lions. They can be quite aggressive, and they think the buoys belong to them!
Cheers to the U.S. Coast Guard for keeping these vital aids positioned and working properly. Buoy tending is hard work, but the modern vessels that handle buoys are well-equipped with low work decks, huge engines, and stout cranes. They maneuver easily too. I’ve had tours of several of them—the Mallow in Honolulu, Hawai’i and the Henry Blake in Everett, Washington. I even had lunch with the skipper on the Henry Blake, a delicious meal of roast chicken, dinner rolls, scalloped potatoes, and mixed vegetables. There was cherry pie and ice cream for dessert and plenty of coffee. I complimented the mess hall cooks. The crew eats well, and they need the calories for the heavy work.
Most buoy tenders carry botanical names, an old tradition carried over from the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. I love the idea of burly, black-hulled ships with rough and sometimes rowdy crews being named for flowers and shrubs and trees. Imagine going to a tavern on your off-duty time and telling the bartender: “Yeah, I work on the Daffodil.”

A newer class of tenders are named for famous lighthouse keepers. Henry Blake was the first fulltime keeper of New Dungeness Lighthouse on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Anthony Petit was in charge of the crew at Scotch Cap Lighthouse in the Aleutian Islands in 1946 when a tsunami destroyed the station. (The Anthony Petit is pictured below.) His namesake ship is now operating out of Ketchikan. The Joshua Appleby, named for the keeper of Sand Key lighthouse who died in the Great Havana Hurricane of 1846, is homeported in Miami. The ladies are justly represented too. Katie Walker works out of Bayonne, New York and honors a 4’ 10” energetic little woman who kept Robbins Reef Light in New York Harbor for some forty years. The Abbie Burgess in Rockland, Maine remembers the bravery of a lightkeeper’s daughter, and the Ida Lewis in Newport. Rhode Island recalls the heroic rescues of “America’s Grace Darling.” Ida Lewis, who died at Lime Rock Light, Newport in 1911 is credited with dozens of rescues.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that buoy is from: “Middle English boye, probably from Middle Dutch boeye; akin to Old High German bouhhan sign — more at beacon.  First Known Use: 13th century.”
And then, there’s the verb "to buoy," which ought to have its own blog entry. I can list a hundred things that buoy me through life….
Moby Dick has a scene with a life buoy thrown overboard to a drowning crewman who fell from the crow’s nest while looking for whales.  (It always surprises students of history to learn that one in three seaman died from drowning in the heyday of whaling, and few sailors could swim in those days.)  Oddly, the life buoy thrown out from the Pequod, a wooden cask on a rope, sinks and itself drowns. The heavily tattooed Queequeg offers his coffin for a buoy and it is quickly nailed shut, tethered, and prepared to be tossed into the sea. Captain Ahab sees this strange turn of events and extracts a metaphor from it. I’ll let you read the rest of the chapter to learn the nature of Ahab’s musings and if the unfortunate man overboard is saved.
A few poets have given tributes to the lowly buoy, including Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The Bell Buoy.”  Kipling was well-traveled and spent much time at sea. He loved lighthouses too.
Today, while "Googling" buoys, I found the animated poem below posted on There was no author listed. It seems a good way to end this blog post. After all, buoys are rather comical—

A little buoy had come of age
And reached a fairly awkward stage
He wanted to go out at night

Which gave his folks an awful fright

His mum told him he must stay put
And keep his rope tied to his foot

He wasn’t made to run away

But warn ships entering his bay.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Errata Happens...Darn It!!

As any seasoned writer knows, it's hard to fix every little mistake in a piece of writing. The longer the piece, the more chances that errata will be overlooked, especially typos. Often, it's just plain near-sightedness. You spend so much time with a piece of writing, you can't see the errors, even when they pop up in front of you. And the more you review a piece of writing, the less you see the details. This can make "letting go" agonizing. You think even the smallest error will send you to writer's purgatory where you'll languish unread, unappreciated and, eventually, completely destroyed.

Sometimes, ignorance is to blame for mistakes. We perpetuate inaccuracies of content based on the sources we use. This has happened to me so often. Every book I write goes to print with some of these errors in place, and only when an update or new edition is done can I correct them. E-books will make this less of an issue, since it's so easy to remove, edit, and reload an e-book.

We tend to be more forgiving about these content mistakes, since we are only passing along bad information, not creating it. Very little information is original, really. Most of what we write and read is composed of ideas and stories that have been recycled and re-invented in a variety of ways, sometimes for centuries. In academic writing, footnotes and endnotes will save you from the errors of content that come from inaccurate sources. You can always point to a misguided source and say: This is what so-and-so says about it, and I was quoting him/her or just repeating that same information. But in mass market work for the popular reading public, where footnoes, endnotes, bibliographies, and other formal additions are frowned upon by publishers (they feel these bore readers, and they take up vital  and expensive space), there's nothing to protect your content mistakes.

Anyone who risks having work in print will at some point suffer the indignities of having their mistakes pointed out, perhaps even publicly paraded in a book review. There are experts out there in the real world, most of them legitimate, even kind, but some critics exist who simply have an ax to grind with writers. I used to hear from a curmudgeon-like, lighthouse afficiando after every one of my lighthouse books or articles went to print. His comments were heavy on the negative side, to the point of being rude, until one day I suggested he write his own lighthouse article/book. I never heard from him again. A speaker at a writer's conference I attended in Honolulu many years ago put it well when he likened error-obsessed fans and heartless critics to those know-it-all friends who chide you about how you raise your children, yet they have no children of their own.

To continually produce, you must find something new, or put a twist on something old. Develop a thick skin--not so thick that you turn your back on legitiamte commentary--and do your best to defend what you've written and where you obtained your information. Then dutifully fix the errata when you get the chance--a new edition perhaps or a slip sheet inside a book listing the errata and correcitons. It may take several iterations to clean up the issues, and chances are you won't please the purists. It's literary evolution. I learn new information and am constantly correcting past writings.

But anyone who writes knows that errata criticism has and always will, embarrass writers. I never receive a negative criticism that doesn't make me wince, at least a little wince, and feel as if I've let down my readers. I've come to realize that writing is like disrobing in public. I'd best be ready for hard stares and rough comments!

If all writers were too frightened, too wary to publicly share their words, where would society be? Every book or article I send out carries the risk of being chastised for what is incorrect more than lauded for what is correct. It's the nature of the work. I have been a book critic myself and know how hard it is to balance an assessment. A few mistakes give a poor impression, always. This is why we rue them so when they float out of our ken during rounds of editing and why I must always set a date to be done with a book or article. Otherwise, I'll continue to pick and pick and nitpick at it. Opinion can kill an effort instantly, or launch it to fame. I always hope for some happy place between the two.

Thankfully, most readers can see beyond typos and minor errors of content. I like to think they can, anyway. The diverse reviews I've received over the years attest to that. Editors assure me readers can abide a few mistakes. I once had an editor at Voyageur Press tell me the "Amish Quilt Rule" regarding mistakes: Always leave at least a few small errors in your work, lest you offend the Divine Power in Heaven.

The Amish lead a simple, uncomplicated existence, and their ethos of humble living  and attitude is a lesson for us all. That said, I feel absolutely certain, nothing I've ever created in the way of print has offended Heaven or even approached Heavenly perfection!

Writers & Their Cats....A Purr-sonal Connection

I confess--I'm helplessly smitten with animals. I grew up in Maryland and Pennsylvania with a menagerie of pets. Very early in my life, my parents ran a dairy farm. I have distant memories of that, mostly through recollections of other family members. My daily chore up until the age of eleven was to gather the eggs and tend our large flock of chickens. The "farm genes" must have been passed along, for today I have my own little flock of spiled hens.

My love of animals is reflected in my writing too. I've authored many articles about animals and, for a few years, was a contributing editor at Fancy Publications, publishers of animal hobbyist magazines. One of my books, The Lightkeepers' Menagerie, is about animals at lighthouses. My column for a New Jersey seasonal newspaper, "Shore Almanac," often features marine animals. I even love the zoo in the sky--the animal constellations of astronomy. They appear in many of my articles and also The Florida Night.

"Write what you love" is the author's mantra!

Cats...I'm thinking about them today, as Sophie is sprawled across my papers napping. She likes to be where I am and is happy that at least one of my jobs keeps me home several days a week, seated at my desk. Sometimes she even helps with the work, as evidenced in this photo.

Few years of my life have been catless. There were always cats in our family during my childhood, mostly outdoor kitties to keep down the rodent population around the chicken house, barn, and other outbuildings. Except for a brief period early in my marriage when Jon and I lived in apartments that didn't allow pets, I've always had cats. Their names pepper our family conversations and photo albums--tomcat Sonar, Boots with fat, polydactyl paws, Cody, rescued from the bottom of a farm silo, Dusty, Puffy, Warhead (yes, that was really his name!), timid Hootie, tailless Buster, voluptuous ZsaZsa, a.k.a the famous Lighthouse Kitty in the image below), and now, sweet Sophie. I'm proud to say many of these kitties were rescued mixed breeds, and all were fixed. As much as I admire pedigreed cats--Ragdolls, Burmese, Persians, Russian Blues--I would never buy a fancy cat when so many shelter kitties need homes.

Here's a confession: One room in my house is decorated entirely in a cat theme--to the absurb degree that it startles most visitors, who then snicker and toss me looks that say: "How old are you?? Did you not grow up?" Sometimes, a kinder kindred lover of kittens visits and nods knowingly, a fur person who understands the spell of the cat. To assure you this is not some odd personality defect, I'll mention a friend whose house is totally decorated in horses and another with a ladybug fetish. I don't consider this thematic bend to be much different than a Man Cave decorated with deer, elk, fish, hunting dogs, game birds, and the like. Themes, I think, indicate a categorical way of thinking and appeal to our primitive hunting,-gathering urge. There's no end to the hunting-gathering fun when you decorate with a theme! The neighborhood kids seem to grasp this fact; they love my "cat room."

My "Cat Room" is the laundry room, a fitting choice for a cat theme: Cats are fastidious, always cleaning themselves and tidy about their purrsonal habits, and they do like water. Sophie is fixated with sinks, the bathtub, dripping faucets, fountains, fish tanks, anything that gurgles, burbles, bubbles, splashes, or dribbles, including the toilet. She loves to climb into the laundry room deep sink, park her front paws on the ledge between the sinks, and drink from the dripping faucet.

My laundry room is rife with meow memorabilia collected over a lifetime. A border of playful kittens wraps around the wall/ceiling jointure. Cat pictures, postcards, greeting cards, paintings, and stitchery decorate the walls. Feline ceramics, puppets, and stuffed toys sit on shelves and counters. A cat doorstop guards the exterior door, and a cat draft-stopper thwarts the cold that creeps in through a north window. Cat ad nauseum, yes, but so fun. One of my favorite collectibles is a framed watercolor of Santa Claus in his sleigh, pulled by eight harnessed cats. I also have a curious watercolor of a mercat, complete with a green fish tail.

Of course, there's a washer and dryer in the room, and a deep sink, ironing board, vacuum, cleaning supplies, my sewing/crafting area, and lots of storage. Sophie's "necessary box" is discreetly hidden under a counter, and one drawer in the craft cabinet is full of assorted cat toys, some of them handed down from past cats because, let's face it, cats don't really play with storebought toys. The more expensive a toy, the more likely it will be ignored. Sophie prefers foil rolled into a ball or that plastic thingy that secures the cap on a milk jug.

I love this room. My daughter says it a guilty pleasure, a room filled with what some consider silly, useless things. but if I could squeeze my desk, computers, and file cabinets into the laundry room, I'd be in writers' heaven, surrounded by the softness, thrumming purr, and quietude that characterizes cats.

So, yes, add me to the list of writers who take joy in having a cat and, perhaps, need one to be inspried and productive. We all know the famous cat-loving authors--Hemingway, Twain, Eliot, Sartre,  Keroac, Poe.... The list is long, and it's made longer by the fact that writers of lesser-fame (moi?) love cats too. The presence of a cat is a quiet reassurance, I think. Cats never judge our efforts, never hurry us or put down deadlines. They seem content to be near us while we work. Sometimes they are part of the work.

During the years I worked for Fancy Publications, I churned out plenty of cat articles. If I needed inspiration, my owns cats often provided it. Warhead, a free-spirit fellow we acquired in Hawai'i, was a constant source of fun and amusement for my kids. Their father named him, for the part of a torpedo that makes trouble. Imagine going to the vet and filling out paperwork. Name: Warhead. The kids made up stories about Warhead's mysterious past, his "powers," and his extended imaginary family. His great-great-great....great-grandfather, they said, was a ship's cat who jumped overboard from a whaler in Lahaina Roads and swam ashore. There the rowdy tom commingled with a few feline wahines, and generations later Warhead was born. This fun-spun tale inspired me to write an article about ship's cats. I found an image or two in old sources, primarily the Alan Villiers' book called Joey Goes to Sea, but I had to manufacture my own images to round out the piece. Enter Warhead, willing to pose next to a ship's wheel and other nautical trinkets. The editors at Fancy Publications loved him!

Hootie, a sweet-natured black and white kitty, was fondly nicknamed "Cover Boy" after I snapped a closeup of his face and it ended up on the cover of Weatherwise magazine. A cat on a weather magazine? He complimented an article about cats as weather predictors. Buster contributed as well, turning his backside to the camera. Superstitious sailors loved tailless cats aboard ships, since they believed cats carried gales in their tails. A tailless cat couldn't start a storm, nor was there a long tail to be stepped on in the small space a ship affords.

ZsaZsa, one part Ragdoll and many parts unknown, had the most illustrious career of all my cats. She was the mascot of a column I wrote for about eight years for Lighthouse Digest. (This is a niche publication devoted to people who love lighthouses--my biggest audience!) Called "Kids on the Beam," the column was targeted at younger readers, with activity pages, crafts, literature, and more; but all ages seemed to enjoy it. Lighthouse Kitty (ZsaZsa's nom de plume!) received lots of mail. Her personal assistant--me--diligently answered all of it.

The many letters and emails, coupled with a large crate of lighthouse research that featured animals, inspired me to write The Lightkeepers' Menagerie: Stories of Animals at Lighthouses. I dedicated to Lighthouse Kitty. A picture of her sitting on top of my computer appears on the dedication page. After her death, a friend painted her portrait. It hangs in that cat-overkill laundry room and is so realistic you'd think at any moment she might jump out of the frame and come alive again. If only....

Loss of a furry friend is tough, almost like losing an entire chapter in your life story. Jack Kerouac once said the loss of his cat, Tyke, "was like the death of my little brother." I grieved over ZsaZsa for a long time. I was a catless writer for almost three years, selfishly thinking if I had no cat I could never again lose a cat. Everyone who knows me said: "You need a cat! It's just not right for you to be without a cat." My daughter promised to "leave a basket of kitten on your doorstep."

A stop at the pet shop one afternoon in February 2011 confirmed the truth. I did need a cat. I always will. I was aiming to get fish food for my Tetras that day, but a sweet little face in the humane society cages caught my eye. I threaded two fingers through the bars on her cage and tickled her neck. She rubbed and rubbed and uttered a pitiful little mew. My heart doubled in size. Nothing is more sad than a homeless kitten in a cage. Sauvignon was the name on her tag. Her sister, asleep in the small litterbox in the back of the cage, was tagged Chianti. The caretaker called them Chi and Sauvi. "Sophie," I thought she said, and it stuck. I filled out the paperwork, bought a cardboard carrier, and took her home. She lived on my lap for days. It felt wonderful to sit at my desk with a small, warm furball curled on my thighs.

Sophie has yet to make her debut in my writing. She's only a year old. But ideas are swirling in my head. Sophie travels with Jon and me in our motorhome. She's been places...and she's going places! I sense a series might travel books.....for kids. Sophie Goes to Mardi Gras.....Sophie Visits Mount Rushmore......Sophie Meets Beau the White House Dog.....Sophie Goes to London to Look at the Queen....Sophie Explores the Greek Acropolis......Sophie Climbs the Great Pyramid and Takes a Nap on a Sarcophagus.....Sophie Becomes the First Cat to Live on the International Space Station....  Or, perhaps as this picture suggests, Sophie Dreams of Faraway Places.

The possibilities are endless. Meow. May the Purrs be with you.