Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award–winning novel White Heat, and his Macavity Award–winning short story “Windward” was also nominated for a Shamus Award and appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2018. He is an EQMM Readers Award Winner for his story “The Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” part of a series that vividly evokes the particular atmosphere of Los Angeles. In this post, the author discusses an aspect of modern L.A. living that affects daily life and specifically the life of a writer.—Janet Hutchings
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
Raymond Chandler called it in the opening of his story Red Wind above. He mentions the Santa Ana Winds, which are something we have to contend with here in California for several months of the year. Also known as the Devil Winds, they’re usually accompanied by low humidity and create extremely dangerous fire conditions. So, in an effort to prevent fires both SoCal Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric have been doing preventative safety power shut-offs to large swaths of both southern and northern California respectively.
Because my wife Amy and I live in a fire-prone area we’ve had to deal with these power cut-offs twice recently and possibly more by the time this is published. And let me tell you, it’s not fun. I think we’ve come to take electricity and all it provides for granted, both in general and in how it relates to our writing.
It’s a little mind blowing to realize how dependent we are on electricity for the creature comforts, but in particular how much our writing has become dependent on electricity. Sure, we could write with pen and paper, but how long could we continue and how much would it impact what we write and how we edit?
During the recent nearby fire, we lost power for several days off and on over a week because of the preventative shut-offs, which caused us to lose internet, cell-phone service, and even our landline phone.
Some of the other things we had to do without: refrigeration—and once the power came back on we ended up having to throw out tons of food. No TV or computers. With flashlights we could read a little at night but I’m no Abe Lincoln wanting to read by candle or flashlight. Gas stations weren’t pumping gas. If the power had been off longer we might not have been able to get natural gas either. As it was, we couldn’t heat the house, but the water heater stayed warm. No cooking. And, of course, no writing.
The whole area was dark, which leads one to be concerned about the possibility of looting as well. It was also difficult not knowing what the fire situation was as we couldn’t check the internet. We’re so connected for so many things these days but without internet and, since the cell and landline phone service was out too, we really felt “blind” and disconnected. You’re really on your own. That wasn’t a good feeling.
Under normal circumstances, my wife and I can communicate at almost any time, especially in an emergency . . . or so we thought until this recent outage when everything went dead. She takes the train to work and not too long ago got stuck in a flash flood. If it weren’t for e-mail, texting, and voice calls on the cell phone we would never have been able to communicate and I wouldn’t have been able to pick her up as the train had stopped running. If this had happened during these current outages, when cell and landline service went off, she would have been stuck.
So, while we can still do things the way our parents and grandparents did, and even we did in the olden days, we’ve become accustomed to the plugged-in conveniences of modern life. We might still like to read a paper book or eat a slow cooked meal when we get tired of microwaved food. And we still need to “unplug” sometimes, turn off the cell phone, log out of Facebook, and even take a break from writing and let our minds drift. But we want to do it at our convenience.
In the ye olden days, we did things differently and in a pinch we can go back to those ways, but it isn’t the same once you’ve tasted the “good life” of the modern world. When I began as a writer I was on a typewriter. And when PCs first came out I thought who needs this? I was happy working on the latest incarnation of a typewriter, the Selectric, that had a ball that you could actually change fonts with. Wow! And moving a paragraph from page 3 to page 93 was simple. All you had to do was get out a scissors, snip snip snip, move the paragraph, Scotch tape it to the new page, white out the lines, Xerox it and hope the lines where it was taped didn’t show too badly. So who needed a computer to write? One day, my then-writing partner got one of the very early PCs and I went over to his house and saw him magically move that paragraph from page 3 to 93: I was hooked. I was the second person I knew to get a personal computer, one of those fancy-schmancy things with two floppy drives, no hard drive, and a thimble full of memory. But it was, indeed, Magic. No literal cutting and pasting. No Liquid Paper (“Wite-Out”). It was liberating.
Not only have we become uber dependent on computers, we’re also dependent on “mini computers,” like cell phones with Skype and Uber and Waze. We can’t go anywhere or do anything now without our cell phones. Can’t find out what our friends and relatives are doing or where our kids are hanging out. Can’t find a restaurant or a movie or a parking space—or check on fire and evacuation info. Can’t write.
These electric and electronic conveniences have made our lives easier and have also made writing easier. You no longer have to go to the library and spend hours looking through books and microfiche to dig for information and sometimes come up empty. Now you can do most of your research online. You can do it at 3 a.m. when the library is closed. You can interview someone in France while sitting in the comfort of your own living room.
The internet also helps writers be more connected, to network and share ideas and tips (like on this blog). Writing used to be (and still is) a lonely profession. But social-media websites have made it possible for writers to gather around the virtual watercooler and shoot the breeze or commiserate. I missed that when the power was off.
Computers have changed the ways we work. In some ways they’ve freed us to be more creative. We’re able to be more flexible, change things and rewrite at a whim (like my example above about moving a paragraph). We also have spell checkers and grammar checkers and programs that will keep track of your characters and word count.
The creative process is still difficult. No matter how many bells and whistles we have, there is still the daunting process of the actual writing. And whether you’re writing on an iPad or a stone tablet, it’s still difficult to express those ideas and get them out into the world. Facing a blank computer screen isn’t any easier than facing a blank piece of paper. A writer still needs skill and inspiration to work. But all these modern conveniences really do make the process easier.
I didn’t get any writing done while the power was out. I suppose I could have tried to write with pen and paper but when you’re worried about running out of battery power and trying to get a radio signal so you can find out where the fire is and what areas are evacuating, you don’t have a lot of concentration to write. Besides, I like writing on those modern conveniences—and my handwriting is so bad these days I can’t read what I’ve written. Maybe I should have been a doctor. . . .
So, while all of these devices have made life easier in general and the life of a writer easier in specific, we’ve also become so dependent on them that it becomes very difficult when we don’t have access to them. Of course, our pioneer forbearers would laugh at what we find inconvenient and a hundred years from now our great grandchildren will think about how primitive we were.