Archive for May, 2010


I’m beginning to wonder if I’m wasting my time getting into the kind of shape Layla is in. 

You know what I mean – painfully stretching my limbs in every direction, building my upper body strength, doing crazy-ass parkour workouts so that, like Layla, I could theoretically do second- and third-story heist jobs in places that seem nearly impossible to get into.  Of course this skill set also entails lock picking talents and advanced abilities to jam or disable electronic security systems.

 parker pipes

After all, I reasoned, this tough skill level is what’s needed for my lead character to do her job in my novel.

That’s why there’s no way I would write the following scene for Layla.  It’s embarrassingly simplistic, couldn’t possibly happen in real life, and is unthinkable in our high-tech world of modern security. 

Scenario:   In the middle of the night, a single masked thief goes to the great Paris Museum of Modern Art.  He wants to steal a Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, Braque, and Léger.  These five paintings are together worth maybe two hundred million dollars. 

Museum doors

How does he get into this fortress-seeming marble building in the middle of a busy city?  By merely 1) breaking through a glass window on the ground floor, then 2) smashing a padlock on a grille door.  That done, he takes the paintings, exits the building through the broken window, and once outside removes them from their frames and leaves the frames behind.   His theft is captured on the museum’s security cameras, which means at least one of the three guards in the building that night should have seen him on the monitors; but either the guards weren’t doing their jobs or one of them had been bribed by the thief.

For an absurdly convenient coincidence, the alarm system in the particular gallery where those paintings hung has been broken for over six weeks.  The security system operator ordered spare parts to fix it but hasn’t yet received them from the supplier.

Art police

And here’s the real clincher:  this heist will turn out to be the most costly in the history of French art.

What a ludicrous scenario!  How low brow!  Any thriller novelist or Hollywood screenwriter who churned out such unimaginative crap instead of a labyrinthine plot would be forced out of the profession and have to take up professional bowling instead.

And this is what’s driving me crazy because THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED LAST WEEK!

That’s right.  Some burly guy who clearly wasn’t in the best shape broke into the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and pulled off the heist of the twenty-first century.

His extraordinary feat was a plain and simple smash-and-grab.

And that’s not all.  One British newspaper I read online listed some of the greatest art heists of the last couple decades.  Details were scant, but at least a few of them seemed to be more simple smash-and-grabs, while my favorite one was this:  “A $65 million Leonardo da Vinci painting was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in southern Scotland after two men joined a public tour and overpowered a guide.”  Are you shitting me?

And simple, brain-dead but lucrative heists aren’t restricted to the art world.  In April The New Yorker had an in-depth article about the “Pink Panthers” – the large, fluid group of thieves, most of them from Kosovo and Serbia, who have pulled off dozens of jewel thefts around the world that total in the tens of millions of dollars.   How do these daring thieves pull off their now legendary heists?

You got it.  Smash-and-grabs.

It’s enough to make me say to hell with writing and take up professional bowling.

fireworks

I received a sweet gift yesterday, which ironically just happened to be my birthday.

I got an email from London, and not just from anywhere in London, but from the publisher Faber and Faber and a wonderful person in the permissions department who gave me… drum roll please

Permission to use gratis (that means for free, folks) 150 words of the book they published and that I quote!   I really am so happy

Okay, this news probably doesn’t make you give a big whup, but you have to understand that this hold-up in obtaining copyright permission has been delaying my plan to self-publish The Compass Master.   Now the way is clear! Now I can finally publish…

Well, actually I can’t publish it just yet ’cause I have one more editing to do of the whole manuscript, and I also have to injure poor Layla late in the story, as I described in an earlier entry here.   But all of this I can do.   It was trying to take care of the copyright permission stuff that was driving me nuts because it was ultimately out of my control and involved unseen people very far away.

typewriter

And on that note, I’d like to thank nice and helpful Nicci who informed me in her email that she had assumed the paperwork regarding the permission status had reached me, but it never did, so she efficiently took care of the matter herself.   Thank you so much, Nicci!

Also on that note, please disregard my pissy complaints about F&F in my last entry.   My cup of frustration was simply boiling over.   Now all is well.

So from here on out all I have to do is edit an approximately 160,000 word thriller.   That’s the standard length for the kind of thriller genre Compass fits into.

When I’m done, I am so going to need a vacation.

Irrelevant Postscript:   As some of you know parkour training has been part of my Layla plan, so you might be interested in the movie Prince of Persia because  the  lead actors were trained in parkour for some of the scenes.  Might be fun to see.

Great news! I just received copyright permission to reprint a Monty Python song in The Compass Master!

Monty Python group

And that’s all the excitement you’ll find in this post.

As you can tell by the title, what I’m writing about today isn’t exactly an action packed subject.    But for you writers who, like me, will be publishing your novels yourselves (whether by hard copy or electronically or both), my experience in seeking and obtaining permission to use copyrighted material might come in handy.   Or it might be a somber warning.

In The Compass Master I have a couple of extensive quotations for which I knew I needed copyright permission.  One important clue in my novel involves two stanzas of a Monty Python song; in another chapter I quote several sentences from a non-fiction book by the British scholar Alethea Hayter.   (ANTI-SPOILER ALERT: Because I don’t want to give away red herrings or clues in my thriller, I won’t tell you which song or which book.)

mailboxIcon

For the Monty Python song, I got on the Internet and searched.  I easily learned who wrote the song — four men share authorship. But various Internet listings variously cited it as belonging to Virgin Records, Kay-Gee-Bee, EMI, or BMI.  I wasn’t sure where to start, so I started emailing and calling.

Over a few weeks I got bounced around from L.A. to Memphis to New York, and along the way some helpful unseen people sent me the names of companies I should contact.  Finally I ended up in the right place: the Hal Leonard Corporation in Milwaukee.

Hal Leonard’s website was easy to use and steered me to the correct application to fill out.  A few emails later, I confirmed that I was dealing with the correct people, sent them the additional info they requested (including the pages of my manuscript in which the song is quoted), mailed them a payment of $100 for the “permission to reprint a lyric excerpt” in The Compass Master, and signed a contract giving me that permission.

Copyright-CircleC

What really simplifies things for me as a self-publisher is that the contract provides the exact wording I must use in my book to show that I have copyright permission.

Total time it took to get that permission once I contacted Hal Leonard Corp.?  Less than three weeks.   Bless ‘em for their efficiency.

big ben

As for permission to use quotes from Alethea Hayter’ book…

It’s been like throwing one message after another into a black hole.

The original publisher of the book is Faber and Faber in London.   Their website tells you what info they need from you.   So I emailed off my application… LAST SUMMER.   How far did I get? After three months and prodding on my part, someone emailed a reply stating that Ms. Hayter was now deceased, hence my request had been forwarded to the solicitors for her estate.

A great silence followed.

FINALLY this last February I changed a few details in my permission application and this time mailed a hard copy of the whole package (including a copy of the entire chapter in which the quotes appear) off to Faber and Faber.   My logic was that F&F might pay more attention to a big honkin’ envelope full of papers than they will a measly email.   The result?

It’s been ten weeks of silence.

A few days ago I sent a polite email querying the status of my request.   The result?

Nada. Zip. Silence.

John Cleese

My next move (ARGH!) may just have to be to submit my request through an internet legal firm that specializes in copyright requests.    It’ll be expensive and a pain in the ass, but very often lawyers only respect communications from fellow lawyers.

Anyway, here’s the lesson I’ve learned from these experiences:

If as a writer you need to obtain copyright permission for something, get started as early as you can because it might turn out to be a painfully lengthy process.   And if you need to obtain permission from some snooty publishers or estate solicitors in London… God help you.

Postscript: I recently found out that Faber and Faber was the publisher for some of T.S. Eliot’s poems that I also quote in The Compass Master.   I can’t tell you how happy I am that those poems are now old enough to be in the public domain and I don’t need F&F’s stinkin’ permission to use them.

I’ve got a confession to make.  To understand it, you have to read my last blog before you tackle this one.

Finished?  Okay, here’s the confession.

Dreambody

I really want to believe what scientist Duane Kniebes told me and other people about graves.

I love the faint and strange possibility that the final memories of the dead linger at their graves like a mourner.  That a physical imprint of these memories – whether composed of energy or an electrical pattern or something – is as real as the body it once belonged to.  That in some limited way we the living can access it.  I’m not talking about souls or spirituality, but of things physical.

Hey, I’m a writer and romantic, so of course such a notion appeals to me.  That said, I can also be a habitual skeptic.

Which is a good thing.  As Mr. Kniebes pointed out, when dowsing for graves it’s best to remain skeptical.  You shouldn’t want to find something.  Instead, keep the mind blank and wait.  You must also walk and move very slowly, because the older the grave, the slower the rods will respond.  The energy of those bodies and memories fade with time, it seems.

But as long as that energy or electricity or whatever is there, you can ask simple questions and the rods will give yes and no answers:   Is a man or woman buried here?  Adult or child?  And there are other limitations.  He’s found that three years old is pretty much the cut-off age for getting an answer from a child; any younger, and the memories can’t form a reply.  A person who died of Alzheimer’s also leaves behind only incoherence.

Prairie burial

One more rule about asking those questions, whether silently or aloud – you have to ask them in the same language that the dead once spoke.  English doesn’t work with German speaking immigrants, for example.  In one case, Mr. Kniebes asked questions in English at the grave of an Indian and got nothing.  Then a full-blooded member of the nation (he doesn’t remember which one) who lived nearby joined him and spoke in the dead’s native language.  That’s when “the rods moved like crazy.”

Oh, and a person’s ashes are a very small target and you can’t talk to them.  On the other hand, the rods will at least lead you to what’s there in the ground. 

For example, Mr. Kniebes and his wife were once on private land where a single headstone marked the grave of three family members, and documents confirmed that three people were buried in that spot.  But his rods and hers also led them to a spot under a nearby tree and told them a woman was buried there.  Sure enough, after questioning family descendants one relative said that she had been told a fourth family member had long ago been buried under a tree not far from the other three graves.

einstein

Finally, to dowse at all you have to keep your nervous system unpolluted.  Once before dowsing Mr. Kniebes took a Percocet and for the next hour didn’t get “diddley-boo” from his rods.  He realized then that the medication temporarily “killed my nervous system.”

Turns out that Albert Einstein had a similar opinion about our nerves playing a role.  “The dowsing rod is a simple instrument that shows the reaction of the human nervous system to certain factors which are unknown to us at this time.”

Hey, people – that’s Einstein talking.

And Mr. Kniebes really did take pains to emphasize the science of what he was doing.  He seemed to dread the possibility that someone in his audience might think he was a flake or New Age nut job.  So he made frequent references to Einstein and chemistry and other sciences, and how in physics energy never ends and everything is connected.

At least I think that’s what he said.  By then it was hard to catch his every word because, like much of the audience, I had left the museum and joined him in a cemetery just up the road.

crowd dowsing

Yes, there we were — a bunch of apparently normal adults, wandering amongst some of the oldest graves in the place, dowsing rods in our hands.  Most of us had borrowed the rods from Mr. Kniebes.  They were simple pieces of wire he had cut and bent himself.

Dowsing/witch sticks/divining rods are just a tool, he said, therefore any kind of material works “perfectly well.”  They can be iron, steel, copper, plastic, the traditional willow branch – doesn’t matter.  But the rods do have to be in your hands, and the hands have to be held a little away from the body.

One elderly rancher in a trucker’s cap had brought his own.  He admitted to me that he still wasn’t completely sold on this grave dowsing stuff.  Oh sure, he had dowsed on his own land and found the water he was looking for.  And when he needed to find a buried electric cable he dowsed, located it, and followed that cable as far as he needed.  Saved him from hiring a guy to come in with a buncha fancy equipment to find the cable for him.

Then there was the woman who told me that her father had taught her to dowse for water on the family land when she was a kid.  Funny thing was, she could dowse even though she was a skeptic, but her husband was a believer and he couldn’t dowse at all.  Go figure.

Hands and willow

And me?  Yes, I too was ambling about, borrowed rods in my hands.  I hated walking on graves because I had been taught as a child  that this was disrespectful.  So I had to make myself walk up to the headstone for “Mexican Joe.”  That was the only inscription.  And my rods didn’t do diddly-boo.  They just plain didn’t move for him.  Next I went up to the neighboring headstone of a young man killed by lightning in the late 1800’s.  The rods not only moved they crossed.  Same thing happened at the next grave and the next.

I swear to you, I didn’t turn the rods.  I swear that as I lightly grasped them and moved over the graves, I could feel the metal turning in my hands and against my skin.

It was so cool.

And Mexican Joe?  Turns out he wasn’t buried there.  Only his headstone had been moved from another spot in town when the area was being developed.  His remains were never found.  So the rods were right.

First, three simple facts:

b&w cemetery

1.  In Colorado, people can have graves on their property and not know it.

2.  I now possess some fantastic first-hand raw material for a Stephen King-type book.

3.  I spent Saturday listening to a scientist describe how easy it is to access basic information concerning whoever is buried in that lost grave simply by asking.

Right there, at the grave, asking.  No, the spirit or dead person isn’t going to answer you.  Don’t be ridiculous.  But the energy of memories is still there.  As a physicist, he doesn’t understand the mechanism of the phenomenon.  He just knows how to access those memories and get basic answers:  Is an adult or child buried here?  Male or female?  How old was the person at the time of death?  How deep down are the remains? 

I am not making this up.

But before I continue…

Yes, I know this blog is about my thriller The Compass Master and I’m supposed to be exploring Layla’s world of action and archeology and antiquities.

But think about it.  Layla’ expertise in ancient Christian texts and manuscripts would by necessity include knowledge of tombs, mausoleums, and other creepy places.  She has a background in archeology and archeologists are forever crawling around tombs and graves.  There’s also an important scene in The Compass Master that takes place in one of Rome’s catacombs.   And she has a gift for finding what her clients are looking for.

nunnery tomb

So it seemed that learning about lost graves around my home state could provide some background information.  At the very least, I might learn something intriguing to use in another novel. 

And that’s why on Saturday I drove to the rural town of Loveland and its museum to hear a lecture entitled Finding Your Ancestors Underground

The scientist who gave the lecture was an elderly WWII veteran named Duane Kniebes; he has degrees in chemistry and physics and still works as an expert witness in gas and oil explosions.  For about ten years he has also done volunteer work with the Colorado Cemetery Location Project in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey of Geographic Names Association and with the Colorado Council of Genealogical Societies. 

Basically, volunteers like Mr. Kniebes take a county, investigate its records in libraries and archives regarding cemeteries or isolated graves, or get oral histories from rural landowners about possible Indian or Old West settler graves on their properties.  Then they go to those graves, obtain GPS readings, and document everything as much as possible.  Their findings become part of an official record.

rock grave

In other words, Mr. Kniebes was no flake and he went out of his way to emphasize the scientific parameters of his work.

His small audience seemed equally no-nonsense.  Most of the folks were gray-haired, down-to-earth small town and rancher types who looked liked they ate meat and potatoes, drove pickup trucks, grew up close to the land and always vote Republican.  And only a few of them appeared slightly skeptical of what this man was telling them about accessing memories of the dead.  Well, if you knew about their experiences…

Mr. Kniebes first showed PowerPoint photos of isolated graves he and his wife had documented.  The graves appeared to be nothing more than some rocks on the ground.  But his expert eye could detect whether it was an Indian grave, or of a small child, or of a white or Mexican adult.  Some of the details were touching – a baby or toddler was usually buried within close view of the homestead, while an adult was on a hill’s crest.  Ninety percent of the time their body orientation is east-west, as if the dead might like to sit up to see the rising sun.  (Layla could tell you that with Muslims the orientation is reversed:  the head lies toward the East and Mecca, the feet to the West.)  Three small white stones might mark a baby’s grave, but Indians would cover theirs from head to foot with fist-sized rocks.  Some of those photos made me realize that I’ve hiked past Indian graves several times in my life and never known it.

“Now I’ll get to what you came here for,” Mr. Kniebes said.  And he pulled out a couple of wire rods.

Sweden dowsing

He told us that it was a sexton at a library who ten years earlier got him “started on rods.”  When Mr. Kniebes told him about locating a nearby grave, the sexton asked, “Did you use your witch sticks?”

“My what?” Mr. Kniebes asked.

The sexton grabbed a pair of metal bent rods from his office and showed Mr. Kniebes how to dowse for graves and get information from a dead one’s memories.

You got it.  Dowsing.  As in the ancient art.  As in witch sticks.  Divining rods.  Willow branches.

Ten years later, Mr. Kniebes and his wife are experts on grave dowsing.  They can locate graves with simple home-made rods and, in many cases, get information about who is buried in them.

And I haven’t even gotten to the strange part yet.  Or about the group’s field trip to the local cemetery.  I’ll tell you more within the next couple days.

womansbackRCI never knew that my body came with a built-in “emotional stress pocket.”  This last week I became intimately acquainted with it.

It seems The Pocket is very low in the back and kind of off to either side in the hips.  In my case, it was my right Pocket that started hurting like hell last week.  I was pretty surprised about this.  After all, I have an unusually strong back (thank you, ballet training!) and only once before have I had really bad lower back pain.

Then again, thanks to the Idiot Black Belt who slammed me to the floor, I have lots of nasty injuries on my left side (which you know about ‘cause I keep reminding you).  This means that while I’ve been healing I’ve lifted and worked only with my right side and can only sleep on my right side. 

dream-interpretation

My chiropractor said that my poor worn-out right side was the main cause of my lower right back/hip being twisted out of place.  But after he fixed me up and I felt much better, he added a second reason.

“Of course, this is also where your body stores stress,” he said.  “It’s your emotional stress pocket.”

Strange, but I instantly knew he was right, and never mind how New-Agey his words may sound.  To put it mildly, I’ve been under a shitload of stress since this accident.  And the legal bitchery that’s been aimed at me is much worse stress-wise than my injuries.  So it really does make sense to me that my body has tried to deal with all this poisonous stress by shoving it down into that built-in body part emotional container.

Sounds flakey, I know.  But I swear to you that in the following days, when the stress temporarily went down, the muscles around that pocket relaxed and the hurt diminished.

You know how I told you that I’ve only had bad lower back pain once before?

It was years ago and the pain was different – it went directly across my entire lower back.  I figured strained muscles from trapeze were the cause.  But when the pain didn’t stop I went to a wonderful massage/physical therapist/yoga teacher named Hansa who worked all my muscles back into place.  And then she asked me, “Have you been feeling like you don’t have enough support in your life?”

dreameater

I wanted to cry.  Loved ones not emotionally supporting me, feeling like I was weighed down too much with my life – that was EXACTLY what I’d been feeling in buckets and spades.  Hansa wisely knew that this was why my lower back was aching like all hell.  So while she healed my muscles I healed my lower back by letting those dark emotions go.  The pain has never returned.

What does all this emotional body parts stuff have to do with Layla or action heroes? 

Luckily for Layla, this is one experience I won’t be passing onto her.  I figure that between the injuries and an emotional trauma that I’ll be adding to her story, she already has enough problems.

Still, the fact remains that action heroes get banged up on a regular basis, and not only physically but emotionally.  If they’re really smart (Layla is brilliant), they know enough to be aware of their bodies and what it takes to heal them.  And if not a fact it’s more than a theory that our bodies never forget trauma and emotions get stuck into various body parts.  Scientists are even theorizing that a person’s mind is not only in the brain but spread throughout the body.  This is kinda scary, when you think about it.

What traumas or accidents or emotionally wrenching experiences are stuck away into different parts of my body like so many rabid bats?  I really don’t want them taking an emotional tailspin through me any time soon.  On the other hand, maybe they’re balanced by good stuff that’s also taken up bodily residence.

At any rate, we writers habitually take many of our personal experiences and give them new life within our stories.  So I figure that eventually my emotional body parts will find their way into print.

Once again I must apologize for writing only one entry last week.  My excuse is that the last few days have been pretty tough for me both physically and emotionally….

(Here I’ll pause to whine for some sympathy.)

Physically, I regressed a little.  But then the cardiothoracic surgeon who fixed my lung gave me a checkup and said my breathing capacity is normal and stable.  (Yay!)  And on Friday my chiropractor made my right leg and hip stop hurting by pushing some of my body parts around.  Seems all that sleeping and lifting only on my right side had thrown me out of whack.  Now I’m almost back in whack  (I see him again on Tuesday.)

As for the emotional pain… Let’s just say that maybe I’ll talk about that sometime in the vague future.

urban_climbing

Anyway, to cheer myself up I did some action hero shopping.  No, I can’t afford to buy squat these days.  Still it’s fun to draw up a list of things that Layla has and I’m gonna try to buy bit by bit.

First up:  climbing and rappelling equipment.

As you can imagine, there’s plenty of it to be found here in Colorado.  Trouble is, most of the ropes, harnesses, and other things are brightly colored, the better for you to be spotted by park rangers or rescue personnel should you screw up while climbing a mountain.  What I need are shorter black ropes, black harnesses, black pulleys and descenders.  Like Layla, I need to be invisible in the dark.

Well, REI didn’t have what I wanted in its main store, but its website does carry an “assaultine static rope” in fashionable black for just over a hundred dollars.  I might be able to swing that.  The website also shows black, inexpensive harnesses I never found in the store.  This is good.  But I’ll have to run all the specs by my mountain-climbing brother to make sure I get the right stuff.

sunglasses

For similar climbing equipment, I found websites aimed at special forces.  But what’s really a revelation for me is that such websites sell spy-like equipment I thought only existed in movies and shows.  My fave rave piece is the camcorder sunglasses.  At $350 to about $600 there’s no way I can afford a pair, nor do I need them.  But Layla could certainly use such spiffy sunglasses because then she can put them on, innocently scope out, say, some bigwig’s estate she wants to get into, then walk away and later review everything she filmed.

I also can’t afford the kind of night vision goggles Layla  uses in a couple of key scenes.  On the other hand, National Geographic sells a night vision monocular for about $200.  It would pretty much take care of my own action needs.  Besides, if you ever get stopped by authorities while having military-type night vision goggles on your person, you might be deemed a suspicious character.  But possessing a nature-loving National Geographic monocular could get you off the hook.

Night vision Use

Obviously, my current wish list is pretty short.  Like Layla I prefer to travel light.  And since I’m also pretty lightweight in the personal finance department these days, a short list with just the basics can be a good thing.