Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
December 12, 2018

Roll Up, Roll Up for the Mystery Tour

by James R. Preston

Welcome! Welcome to another exciting installment of Writers in the Storm.

This episode promises, thrills, chills, journeys to foreign lands in search of writing glory, as well as encounters with writing history and deadly foreign bacteria! And, Gentle Reader, there is a Moral to this story.

That’s An Invitation . . .

Writing is sometimes exhilarating, but most often it’s lonely and painful — and the latter can be on a good day.

You must learn the craft, practice, find your voice, practice, complete manuscripts and send them out. See the Notes at the end of this essay for a way to find those steps in detail.

And through all of that, when you wake up at 2:00 am and think, “Am I any good?” even if you answer that with, “Bah! Humbug!” you must, must find the courage to keep going. You must avoid the impulse to say, “I suck! This is useless. No one cares.” If you are a regular reader of this blog (and if you’re not you should be) you have heard reasons to keep going. I’ve contributed some of them.

Well, here’s something new.

At a low point in my writing career the Universe, God, fill in your own idea, stepped up and spoke to me. Here’s what happened.

. . .to Make a Reservation

It was an age long ago, in the distant past, 1978 to be exact. Some college friends, my wife Nancy, and I went on vacation to Great Britain and France.

I’d written book reviews and a magazine called The Pacific Northwest Review Of Books seemed to like my work, or at least they didn’t hate it, so I wrote them and pitched an idea for an article about antiquarian bookstores in London. They wrote back saying they might be interested and could I supply pictures? Sure! (I had a camera, so how hard could it be? Don’t answer that.)

I looked up three London bookstores and about a month before we left, wrote to them, sort of “Oh hi, I’m coming to London, can I talk to you?”

None of the bookstores answered the letters, but no matter.

The first bookstore on my list was Peter Eaton, Ltd. I showed up and met a nice man, and was convinced he’d have everything I’d need, until he said he’d never heard of me. I showed him the letter. He said it must have gone to the owners, who rarely came in to the store. I could try calling back later. He couldn’t talk to me.

Next was G. Greer. This time — good news — they had received my letter but it would not be convenient to talk to me. At all.

Then there was Magg’s. The older gentleman said I could try calling back for an appointment with the owner, but he didn’t come into the shop very often. He couldn’t talk to me.

So I tried a new approach — wandering aimlessly into bookstores to ask about business and see what happened. The kids working the cash registers were about my age and they could tell me how to ring up a sale. The owners, if they were there, basically said, “You want what?! An interview?” when they spoke to me at all.

Dying to Take Me Away

Okay, I was bummed. No joy. Snake-belly low.

So it was all a waste, right? Not just a waste, humiliating. Not only a humiliating waste of valuable vacation time, but also a black mark against my name at a magazine that liked me.

But, of course, this True-Life Adventure story has a happy ending, right? 

Well, England is cold. Apparently even in the summer. And, uh, well, actually I got pneumonia, then turned out to be allergic to the ampicillin I was prescribed, and then didn’t know what was happening so I kept taking it. Later, when I was writing medical training scripts one of our staff nurses heard this story and explained that the germ was foreign and I had no immunity. I had no chance at all once those nasty bacteria got ahold of me. And the allergic reaction? I could have died. Next, most of the friends we were traveling with left Nancy & me behind and went to off to Wales. We later dubbed this the “Eat the Weak” vacation. Yeah, they ditched me. I didn’t blame them; I just waved weakly at the car as it drove away.

But it wasn’t a waste. Here’s why.

They’ve Got Everything You Need

We visited Stratford-on-Avon, yes, that Stratford-on-Avon, home of Shakespeare. And while we were there I saw a framed poster advertising a production of “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” to raise money for restoration of the building.

One of the stars of the charity event was Charles Dickens.

Yes, that Charles Dickens. He was donating time to help save the home of one of his favorite writers. I realized there was this long tradition of writers helping each other as they created stories to entertain and enlighten, a chain that goes back past Beowulf to campfire tales to cave paintings.

And in one of the few true epiphanies I have ever experienced I realized that I was part of that same tradition. A small part but a link in that chain nevertheless.

And you are, too.

It didn’t matter that no one liked my sf novel. It didn’t matter that my article was a disaster. I’m not alone. Neither are you.

Back home, after the rash that covered my back and chest cleared up and I had for the most part stopped coughing, not letting a minor detail like I didn’t get any of the interviews I’d promised to deliver stop me, I wrote the article anyway. Content? We don’t need no stinkin’ content. “Let’s Not Talk About Old Books in London, or, Opening the Mummy’s Tomb” was sent off to the magazine which promptly rejected it despite the catchy title and a nice picture of the front of one of the bookstores. 

Forty years later I remembered Stratford-on-Avon and that Dickens poster and I thought of sharing the story with all of you.

Because, unless you are Stephen King, you will hit low spots. And like all those who came before you, you will have to find a way to suck it up and keep going.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

I can tell you, dear reader, about the adventure and hope to provide a chuckle and — in a way — the article lives. 

There is value in your work. No matter what, there is value in your work.

In 1848 Dickens helped save Stratford-on Avon. A hundred and thirty years later that act helped save my writing career.

Remember, always remember, you are part of that tradition. Some writers are 33rd Degree, we may be 1st Degree, but we’re members of the same lodge, the fraternity of ink-stained wretches, and when you are sitting there at 2:00 am wondering “What happens next?”, thinking “Bah! Humbug! Why am I doing this?” and you feel like Tiny Tim on crutches hobbling through the snow, remember Dickens scribbling notes on a scrap of paper held on his knee as his carriage races through the foggy London night.

If you feel like you’re part of the tradition, share with us the writers you’re proud to be associated with. After all, we’re in this together.

God bless us every one. Happy Holidays!

Have you had a vacation experience, domestic or international, that might appear in one of your novels? How have you worked through those times when you ask, "Why am I doing this?"


Thanks to Robert A Heinlein for articulating the “33rd Degree” idea in his wonderful YA novel, Space Cadet.

Google Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing for all of them spelled out.

For the Stratford-on-Avon restoration story do a Google search. It’s a great tale, with P. T. Barnum actually trying to buy the building and move it to his collection in the U. S. I’m not making this up.

Even King wondered if he was selling only because he was Stephen King and were the stories any good, and that led to the “Bachman Books.” They sold well. They’re good.

James Preston survived the Attack of the Alien Virus and went on to write the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Reviews said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com. His next appearance will be a panel on January 26 at the Fullerton Public Library.

28 comments on “Roll Up, Roll Up for the Mystery Tour”

  1. Encouraging writers has become an important part of my life. In fact, right now I'm up early to write with my writing partners. We get on line to encourage, to kvetch and to crow about the great writing we accomplish before the sun rises. I don't know if I'll ever be a great writer. But darn it all, I will encourage anyone with an itch to pick up a pen (figuratively speaking. After all who does that anymore?) I just may be lighting the fire that fuels the career of the next Shakespeare, Dickens or Preston.

    1. Thanks, Mary! You're doing a very, very good thing with that 4:00 am encouragement. I'm certain your writing partners appreciate it. Writing in longhand? Well, I edit on paper with a pencil, and Barbara Tuchman wrote The Guns of August in longhand. And, BTW, her first book, Bible and Sword, collected thirty rejections before it sold.
      But, really, 4:00 am? Yow! Hopefully you take a nap in the afternoon.

  2. Love that story, James. Hard to imagine Dickens was still alive then - I think of him living way earlier. Almost all my motorcycle vacations in the Western States show up in my books.

    I love being an encourager. I've recently found #WritingCommunity on Twitter - strong supportive group - check it out!

    1. Laura, thank you. For those who don't know her work, Laura's newest, the Last True cowboy, was named an Amazon Best Book of December. And that's on top of a RITA award. However, Laura, I'm still waiting for a picture of the motorcycle on your web site. I know, nag, nag, nag.

        1. Thanks, Laura. Cool bike! I have cousins who ride. We used to attend the Cattle Call Rodeo in Brawley on a regular basis and it was great, a lot of fun. My favorite event was Amateur Bronc Riding, where teams of local businessmen would run out in the dirt and try to catch and saddle a wild horse. It was hilarious! The score was always roughly Horses 10, Humans 0, but everybody had a good time.

  3. Wow, what a story (and for me, timely). I'm researching "imposter syndrome" as it affects writers and other creatives for a talk I'll be giving. It's validation for those of us still struggling to establish a platform to learn successful writers have been through this, too.

    1. Excellent! Glad I could help. "Imposter Syndrome" is a new idea for me, but a quick bit of research and -- wow! My guess is your talk will draw a crowd. And Stephen King really did write the Bachman books to see if he could do it again, starting from zero.
      Good luck!

  4. Thank you for this reminder about the writing fraternity. And I love the bit about the 33rd Degree (level of writing). I'm off to read Heinlein. Interesting about the foreign pneumonia bug but not too unlike the Spaniards bringing smallpox to the New World. Too bad you had to find out about it the hard way. Do you think you'll ever do back? LOL. God bless is right.

    1. Oooh, Susan, I hadn't thought about the smallpox connection, but I think you're right. Yes, Heinlein is an amazing writer and thinker. Space Cadet is one of his best YA, but for a good read and (appropriate for our times) a story about diversity and acceptance with a really neat twist, see The Star Beast.
      Sure, I'd go back to that germ-infested island. I might wear a Hazmat suit with self-contained air, but I'd go.

  5. Now I have to go out to the garage to go through my boxes of keeper books to find the Heinleins. I haven't re-read them in forever. Thanks for the reminders, James. I LOVE his five rules! And, thank you again for the reminder: I've got everything I need. Weird, but this came to me in a dream Monday night. What a game-changer!

    1. You must write. You must finish what you write. You must avoid revision except to editorial specification. You must place what you write on the market. You must keep it on the market until it sells.
      I'm doing the above from memory so that's a paraphrase, but Fae, you're right. I revise more than RAH, but then, I'm not a genuine genius.
      My favorite Heinlein is Have Space Suit -- Will Travel. Excellent book -- mostly about education -- that holds up well. And what an opening line: "You see, I had this space suit."

    2. And dreams -- yeah! Ray Bradbury loved dreams and kept a pad and pencil next to his bed so if he woke up he could jot down the dream before it faded. Good you remembered yours.

    1. LOL Well, thanks, Rick. Actually I didn't so much tough it out as just lie in the back of the van and moan. I thought it was appropriate for the season, especially when the Dickens connection popped up. I hope it helped motivate you, too.
      For motivation, see the Foreward to The Guns of August by Robert K. Massie. "Hard work, a good ear, and practice." It's worth a look.
      Okay, type faster!

  6. I have my own dark nights of the soul and now I have new courage in facing them.
    I like your a link in the chain thinking, James.
    I do my small part for our community by promoting books (reviews) and authors (guest posts) on my blog.

    1. I checked out your blog -- very nice. If you want to repost "Roll Up, Roll Up," I'm sure it's all right with the WITS folks.

  7. Leann, I suspect it's actually a pretty big part. Those reviews and guest posts are important! And, truly, we are all part of the same chain of storytellers. Writing this essay reminded me of that, too. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Great piece. Motivational it was and just as I had decided to read what others have written. This will remain in the part that won't let me rest. I forgot I can just write because it makes me feel good. Good or bad to others I don't have to care. Just me.

    1. Right, 50at70, the important thing is to keep in mind all the others who have gone before you, who faced the same issues. I'm glad I could provide a little assistance.

  9. OMG, Denise, no fun! And I am someone who knows what you mean by "vacation of infamy." So, did you write the book? It sold a lot and you sneered at the pneumonia germs, right? "Take that right in the cilia, you germ!"

  10. This is a "Heart Felt" article and all writers should read. We all contribute, eventhough we are not all New York Times chosen authors. Keep moving forward. (I used to work in claims for a major insurance company and at times we felt overwhelmed. I chose the term KSR. Keep the S--t Rolling!

  11. Luther, thank you very much. Winston Churchill— who surely had his share of setbacks — called It, “KBO.” Keep Buggering On. I’m sure your comment also helped writers who have hit a bump in the road. We really are all in this together.

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