Death in Death Valley


Night shot 096 DV 10 2009 Death in Death Valley

Night, Death Valley

Photographer: Jack Freer


About my novel

Macy Gallager’s husband Kevin is killed in a mysterious car accident in Death Valley, California.  The Inyo County Sheriff’s Office won’t share details of the investigation, so she’s left to her own devices to try to dig up information.  She moves to Sacramento to live with her brother and sister-in-law, organic urban farmers who give her a part-time job to help keep her mind off Kevin’s death.  Unfortunately, troubling questions remain: was her chemist husband mixed up in counterfeiting and wine fraud?  Why did he lie to her about his plans for the weekend of the accident?  What had he been doing in Death Valley anyway, and what exactly was involved with his relationship to the glamour couple next door?

Fictionalized true crime

Two local California crimes became the basis for my ideas.  One was the 2012 sentencing of Mark Christian Anderson for the 2005 arson of the Wines Central wine storage warehouse in Vallejo.  The other was the conviction of Sarah Dutra for her role in the 2001 poisoning murder of lawyer Larry McNabney.

The settings

I used Sacramento for three reasons: first because I live nearby, second because I fell in love with a historic neighborhood there I wanted to fictionalize called Poverty Ridge, and third because it is becoming the ‘Farm to Fork’ capitol.  This movement is not only tremendously exciting but growing stronger every year.  I felt I had a unique opportunity to combine my interests in history, crime and organic agriculture into one new story.

I used Death Valley for many reasons, among them: it is gorgeous, intense, dangerous, mysterious.  I used to live in the Eastern Sierra, so this proximity gave me the privilege and opportunity of spending time there.  I think Death Valley is underutilized in fiction as a geographical ‘character.’  I think about what Tony Hillerman did to promote the beauty of Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona; perhaps in my own way I can draw attention to this incredible resource.

As part of my novel research I came across an amazing photographer named Jack Freer, and he has graciously granted me permission to use the beautiful photos of Death Valley included above and below selected from his Overland Photography website

I also want to mention a fascinating story he wrote called “Finding Norman,” a true account of his search for a missing suicidal man in Death Valley.  See .


Sunrise Dantes View IMG 5602 3 4HDR1 1 1024x503 Death in Death ValleySunrise, Dante’s View


Dunes 062 IMG 1278 tonemapped 1024x506 Death in Death ValleyThe Sand Dunes, Stovepipe Wells


Badwater Basin 076 MG 2481 1024x528 Death in Death ValleyBadwater Basin


Race Track 130 DV1004 1024x682 Death in Death ValleyThe Racetrack, view of the Grandstand


Inyo Mine 122 DV1004 Death in Death ValleyInyo Mine


If you are interested in another true search story in Death Valley, check out “The Hunt for the Death Valley Germans” on Tom Mahood’s website:




Phase II


My novel is finished now so Phase II, getting it published, continues.  It officially started after I attended a Writer’s Conference this spring, pitched my novel to two literary agents I met there, sent the requested materials and waited months only to be turned down by both. I’m learning that ‘rejection is the name of the game’ as my wonderful editor said about the process of trying to get published.  I’m going to have to develop a thick skin and continue to believe in myself.


12 1 15 768x1024 Phase II

Jackson & Perkins Co. red ‘Impatient’ and fiery orange gold ‘Charisma’ roses light up December.

It’s Finally Done!


Final novel cover 662x1024 Its Finally Done!

This is the very wonderful cover Davis artist and graphic designer Mark Deamer created for my finished manuscript.  A new chapter of marketing and promotion now begins.

Flower Resume, Editing Job



Ceanothus 1024x768 Flower Resume, Editing Job


Flower resume

In 2012 and through December, 2013 I worked on the beneficial insect border at the UC Davis Student Farm.  When the job ended, I found I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to focus my future on two areas:

1) Designing landscapes and pollinator habitat

2) Fiction writing

These two fields are compatible for me in that they represent lifelong interests and they also provide balance; I love being outdoors in the cool mornings, and I also love sitting indoors writing and designing in the hot Central Valley afternoons.

Because of the plight of the honey bees and Colony Collapse Disorder, many people are asking ‘what can we do to become part of the solution?’  For me, the answer to that question revolves around learning as much as I can about the plants bees love and planting as many of them as I can.  The process already started with native plants added to the Student Farm border (see Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ above), but I realized if I want to add this focus to my residential design business then I would need a flower resume.

A flower resume?  Yes, plants I really grew, see the photos for proof.  The Student Farm manager graciously gave me a 200 foot long, 5 foot wide bed to use for my pollinator habitat adventure.  This is a good arrangement because it gives me the opportunity to learn and experiment with support— I get access to all the water I need, tractor assistance and supplies such as drip tape.  In return I do a lot of volunteer farm weeding, and I am also keeping on top of the border watering to help new plants establish.

To begin the process I started quite a few types of garden flowers and native wildflowers (forbs) in my small home greenhouse over the winter.  Various things went wrong:  it was too hot in the greenhouse, it was too cold; I over watered, I under watered; CA native wildflowers are planted in the fall, not the spring and it turns out I used unfinished compost from the wrong farm pile so some of my seed flat mix was unsuitable.  There were also fungus gnats in the compost, and they compromised the root systems of seeds that did germinate.  Next they multiplied and tried to come into my house to visit.  I had to use organic treatments to kill them that didn’t work.

start of pollinator bed 4 29 14 054 768x1024 Flower Resume, Editing Job

Planting bed ready to go, April 29, 2014.

Back to greenhouse issues: by early May it was clear that so few of my seeds thrived that I had to put Plan B into effect.  This involved going out and buying plugs and 4” plants.  I finally got everything planted in half of the bed.

pollinator habitat 7 15 14 IMG 2536 768x1024 Flower Resume, Editing Job

Here is my flower resume on July 15th, 2014.  In the fall I used the other half of the bed to direct seed the native wildflowers that need winter chill to germinate.

Goldfields and Lupine 768x1024 Flower Resume, Editing Job

Photo above:  Here is the direct seeded area on 3-14-15.  Goldfields is the yellow wildflower mixed with blue lupine.  I love to watch the many beneficial insects that are attracted to these flowers.


Editing job


archy13 Flower Resume, Editing Job

Image above:

Cartoonist George Harriman’s classic illustration from the life and times of archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis, published in 1949.

While my work on the flowers was going on, in January 2014 I finally finished my novel— I was so excited!  I sent it off to my wonderful editor who worked on it for about a month.  When I got it back, there were many suggestions and comments: about 700 of them.  They were very insightful and helpful— I even agreed with the vast majority of them… still, it was a lot to tackle.  In late July I finally finished; however, I was now over the recommended word limit.  So I am currently working on cutting 30,000 words.  Which is also challenging. Editing is definitely a job and not as much fun as playing with flowers.  Useful and important though… part of the commitment and detachment necessary to complete the project.


Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891-1973)


 Ews bath 1900 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

 E.W. Scripps mansion bathroom, 1900.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections,Ohio University Libraries.

We came in through the bathroom window one late afternoon in 1972.  Seven of us, all sixteen years old that year, climbed up into the thick branches of a shrub against the east wall of the abandoned E.W. Scripps mansion, swung over the sill of an opaque glass window and dropped down onto the black and white octagonal tile floor of a large bathroom.  In the center was an ornate barber’s chair.  We gathered around it in astonishment then everyone had to try it out.  ‘May I give you a shave my good man?’  We peeked into cupboards, opened drawers and twisted squeaky faucet handles on the porcelain sink.  The air was cool and still, smelling faintly of old soap.  One door led from the bathroom to a large empty room hushed with heavy velvet drapes pulled across the windows, the other to a long, wide, dark corridor.  We gathered around the barber’s chair to consult.  The light from the window was already fading, and our mothers would expect us home for dinner.  We thought we had better explore while we had the chance.


EW Scripps 1912 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

You would definitely need a good barber to maintain such an elegant mustache and beard.  Wealthy newspaper publishing entrepreneur Edward Wyllis Scripps as he looked in 1890 when he retired at the age of 36 to build his family home on a mesa overlooking the ocean in San Diego, CA.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

How we came to notice this window and enter E.W .Scripps mansion came about in the following way:  in 1970 I was part of a group of teens who had all moved with our families to Scripps Miramar Ranch, a new housing development on the site of the former E.W. Scripps property on the northern edge of San Diego.  My family in particular had relocated from Orange County because the aerospace industry which had boomed for so long was now going bust.  By the late 1960’s my father had become so alarmed at the escalating layoffs that he had started taking night classes at Chapman College in information systems analysis to reeducate for a new career.  When he finally landed an administration job at San Diego State University, a period of great stress and anxiety for our whole family came to an end.

We began driving down from Orange County on weekends to explore neighborhoods in San Diego and soon my parents decided to buy a new tract home in the first phase of a new housing development at Scripps Ranch.  I liked it because the rolling hills and open fields reminded me a little of the landscape I had explored so happily in Orange County.  I was also intrigued with the vast eucalyptus forest E.W. Scripps had planted seventy years ago.  Thinking of living among the graceful, airy trees with their slender trunks somehow made the wrench of moving from a familiar place less painful.


Scripps Ranch forest early 70s 7086580 R1 E014 1024x691 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: an early 1970’s photograph from my father’s collection showing the understory of the eucalyptus forest.

The soil of the area was stony and dry, but a network of smooth, well-worn paths curved over hills and down narrow, wooded canyons making it possible to travel around by foot or bicycle.  In warm weather I went everywhere barefoot and remember how these paths felt.  I believe they were part of the early 1900′s landscape and perhaps represented horse trails used by the family and employees to access different areas of the vast ranch.


Scripps Ranch early 70s 7086580 R1 E003 1024x691 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: another early 1970’s photograph from my father’s collection showing the hilly terrain and how the new tract houses of the Scripps Ranch development were set into the eucalyptus trees.

In the early 1970’s, Scripps Ranch was fairly isolated from surrounding communities.  Our nearest neighbor was the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station covering a vast expanse of windswept land to the south and west of Interstate 15.  About twenty minutes further south was the nearest junior high and high school in an area of San Diego called Clairemont Mesa.  Our group of teenagers had all become acquainted on the long bus rides back and forth to school and had started meeting after we got home in the afternoons.  A popular place to congregate was the sloping parking lot in front of the only store in Scripps Ranch, a small convenience mart in a portable building with an excellent supply of all the junk food most of us were not encouraged to eat to home: Hostess Twinkies, Hostess Ding Dongs, Hostess Cherry Pies and Coca-Cola in glass bottles.  From the back of the store it was a short walk west to the old Scripps mansion, an imposing white stucco building with square towers, looking a bit like a cross between a castle and a hacienda.  One afternoon we wandered over to look at it.


Miramare entrance 2007 1024x768 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)A 2007 view of Miramare castle in Trieste Italy which provided E.W. Scripps with part of the inspiration for his new home.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.

Molly McClain’s excellent article, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment” begins with the context behind the decision Edward Wyllis Scripps and his sister, Ellen Browning Scripps, made to buy land in California and start building a new home in 1891.  It is available online in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of The Journal of San Diego History, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in finding out more about the Scripps family.  She explains that they decided to name the home ‘Miramar,’ Spanish for ‘view of the sea.’  E.W. envisioned a structure partly designed to reflect the style of Miramare Castle, home of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria on the Gulf of Trieste in Italy, and partly to reflect classic Spanish architecture with living areas organized around a central courtyard.


Miramare1880 1 1024x707 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)Above: an 1880 photograph of Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy showing some of the architectural features E.W. incorporated into the design of his home in San Diego.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.


Miramare mit Garten 1880 1024x708 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)Above: an 1880 photograph showing the formal gardens and grounds of Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy which influenced the Scripps Miramar Ranch courtyard landscaping.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.


1906 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: E.W. Scripps mansion and grounds in 1906 showing the southwest tower on the left side of the house.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.


Scripps Miramar Ranch Aerial View 1930 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: 1930 aerial of E.W. Scripps mansion and grounds, showing the sides of the house organized around the central courtyard.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

Negley Cochran in his book E.W. Scripps comments: “It was semi-arid mesa land, stony, treeless and bare, no water, no roads, buildings, or improvements— just a tough job for Scripps to tackle” (p. 104). Apparently E.W. loved the challenge and threw himself into the work of developing the property— building roads, creating reservoirs in the canyons to store water,  constructing an extensive irrigation system and planting not only thousands of eucalyptus trees but also groves of citrus and olives across the extended ranch, over 2,100 acres in all (pp.104-106).

By the time our family arrived in 1970 the axial Beaux-Arts main drive that headed east toward the top right side of the photo above had disappeared, a casualty of a new regrading plan for streets and tract home lots.  The mansion itself; however, remained open for docent led tours (I recall going on one with my mother), and the beautifully landscaped grounds that surrounded the house remained intact.  The little convenience store where our group met was located just past the middle far right edge of the 1930 aerial view of the mansion above.


Scripps Miramar courtyard 1969 San Diego Magazine 1024x784 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: The E.W. Scripps mansion courtyard as it looked when the mansion was open for tours from a 1969 issue of San Diego Magazine.  Courtesy of California History Room, California State Library.

1Miramar ranch birds eye view 1910 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

1910 photograph showing the east wing of the mansion courtyard, flat topped roof and tower.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

The photograph above shows several interesting features E.W. Scripps included in the design of the house.  Since the Pacific Ocean was just twelve miles away and visible on the horizon, Molly McClain mentions in “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment” that the flat roof was used by E.W. as a place to promenade (p. 12).  Negley Cochran comments in E.W. Scripps that another design feature was a large central courtyard originally planned with auto access in mind.  This allowed guests and family members to arrive and depart conveniently (p. 104).  Arched windows surrounding the courtyard brought light into an interior corridor with suites of rooms opening off the inner walls.

2Nackey in corridor 1907 1910 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

The photograph above was taken sometime between 1907 and 1910 and shows E.W.’s daughter Nackey standing inside one part of the corridor that surrounded the courtyard/auto court.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

I recall from taking a tour of the mansion that one of the towers was the ground floor location of the living room with high ceilings, an imposing fireplace and windows with views south and west.  The house was elegantly furnished with oriental rugs and stately but comfortable furniture.

3EWs office 1960s Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

E.W. Scripps office circa 1960’s as it still looked when I toured the mansion in 1970.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

The somewhat bare slopes surrounding the house evident in the 1930’s aerial photograph had changed over the years.  By 1970 the grounds were rich with luxurious plantings, groves of pines and stands of mature eucalyptus trees.


 4Hendrix Pond scripps ranch Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

This is a present day photograph of Hendrix Pond, a reservoir about a quarter of a mile west of the mansion.  According to a September 2002 entry in the Scripps Ranch Civic Association Newsletter, the pond dates from the E.W. Scripps period.  Courtesy of Epic One Real Estate.

On one of our first explorations of the mansion grounds in 1970, our group discovered a large pond below the house surrounded by eucalyptus trees, edged with reeds and looking almost exactly as it does now in the photograph above.  Conveniently tied up at a small dock was a large wooden raft.  We immediately got enthusiastic about Huck Finn possibilities and hatched the idea of a moonlight raft party.  My father almost had a coronary when I asked if I could go and said, “absolutely not!”  But my mother said, “Let her go.”  So I did go, more than a bit apprehensive when it finally came down to actually drifting out in the dark on a body of murky unknown water in the exclusive company of pushing, shoving, giggling teenagers.  Perhaps whoever was providing oversight to the estate heard about our unsupervised adventure because when we returned to the site another time, the raft was gone.


511 2 12 Google Earth photo of hendrix pond Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

This 11-2-12 image from Google Earth shows the location of Hendrix Pond and its relationship to the former mansion site just east of the tennis courts.  My recollection was that in 1970 the southern section of Avairy Drive ended at the driveway of the clubhouse and pool complex.  It was possible to travel from the clubhouse to the homes of friends who lived north of Atrium Drive via a wide path through the eucalyptus and pine trees.  Another path led to the pond.

At some point during the next few years, the tours ended, the mansion closed and a temporary chain link fence went up around the perimeter.  My mother told me that ‘they’ (I’m not sure at this point who was involved in the decision making process) were trying to find a buyer for the house and grounds.  The goal was to preserve the mansion as an important historical landmark; unfortunately, the costs of upkeep were already prohibitive and there didn’t seem to be any reserve fund to keep it up indefinitely.  Various options were being explored in the hopes that something could be worked out.

I, for one, certainly hoped something could be worked out.  Perhaps because I had spent several years in Villa Park Elementary School’s 1890’s era Mission Revival building (see Strawberry Fields Forever post), I could appreciate the home’s grand scale and gracious proportions.  Beyond that, the mansion was also beautiful and romantic— the courtyard, in particular, with its lush plantings, fountain, stately bird of paradise plants and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ staircase curving up to the roof was a place I returned to again and again.


1Bird of Paradise Flower 222278866 1024x682 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)Bird of Paradise Flower (Strelitza regiane).  Magnus Manske, 2005.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons

And so it was partly because we never tired of its allure that we wandered over from the little store to the mansion one late afternoon in 1972.  We slipped through a gap in the chain link barricade and climbed up on a large pile of bulldozed dirt just inside the fence to look around.  One of the males in the group declared himself king of the mountain and began unceremoniously shoving the rest of us off.  Then someone else, either propelled from the hill in a humiliating grand arc or just running to escape the reigning tyrant fell into the shrubs against the wall under one of the mansion’s windows, happened to look up and noticed that it was slightly ajar.  The game of abandoned house crashing promised to provide a much more level playing field so within a few minutes we were hiding in the shrubs under the window making an impromptu plan to go inside.  No one seemed to be around to observe us, so we climbed in the window.

The rest of our afternoon mansion exploration adventure takes on a surreal quality once we made the decision to leave the bathroom and move down the closest interior corridor.  As if we had become actors in a scratchy black and white film, I see us clinging to each other and moving cautiously through darkness punctuated by thin slits of light at the edges of heavy drapes.  Rooms off the corridor were spacious, carpeted, shadowy, empty.  One bedroom had a bay window behind the curtains, the seat cushion in the light filled alcove bleached to a pale gold by sun damage and covered by fine white dust.  There were interconnecting doors between the rooms leading to more bathrooms with more shiny tiled floors.  Finally we came to the great, hollow living room and walked under the heavy mantle and into the massive fireplace; the bricks were cold and smelled like the stale smoke of a thousand fires.  We slipped down another corridor and came to a dining room with side pantries filled with cupboards and doors we opened and closed—all disappointingly bare.

2Dining Room Miramar early 1890s Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Early 1890’s photograph of the E.W. Scripps mansion dining room.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

There was a big empty kitchen with more empty cupboards and more empty drawers.  There was a door opening onto to a tower stairway that we decided we better not climb.  We left then, retracing our steps down the dark corridors, climbing back out the bathroom window (careful to shut it again) and running our separate ways home in the twilight to home and dinner.  At some point a security guard appeared and began to patrol the mansion and grounds.  It seemed too risky to try to go inside again.

In 1973, the decision was made to destroy the mansion and turn the land to other uses for the new development.  I’m not sure at this point in my research who made this call, but I do remember being extremely upset about the news.  The house was built of thick adobe bricks and a crew was brought in to do the work of dismantling the structure by hand.  Several of the teens in our group applied and were hired on as temporary help.  While this seemed traitorous on one hand, on the other I could understand the financial incentives.  We were all driving by then and trying to manage cars, gas and insurance on a shoestring.  I remember repeatedly standing at the east side of one of the first tennis courts built as part of the new Scripps Ranch clubhouse and watching the walls come down over a several week period.  The huge adobe bricks were stacked on pallets to be sold and everything in the house from beams to lighting fixtures was also stripped out and sold.  By the time the walls were almost down to the ground, I simply couldn’t bear to watch any more.


3site of Scripps mansion Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

This 11-2-12 image from Google Earth shows the location of the former mansion.  In 1973, only the two tennis courts closest to Aviary Drive existed.  The E.W. Scripps house took up the approximate space that is now covered by the two east side tennis courts, the top of the parking lot beyond the courts and what looks to be the roofs of apartment buildings to the north of the parking lot.  Our group enjoyed using the original pool and clubhouse to no end (most teenagers would), but the destruction of such an important historic treasure was absolutely not worth any plans to expand the recreation complex.

Time passed.  I went to college, detached from home and family and finally moved away from San Diego returning only to visit my parents who ended up buying a home in Ocean Beach to live out their retirement years.  I never found out why the mansion had to be torn down, and I never returned to Scripps Ranch.  Eventually I moved to northern California.

Many years later I started writing my first novel.  Every story benefits from a compelling setting, so one of mine became a fictionalized version of the Poverty Ridge neighborhood in Sacramento.  This was an interesting residential area I had fallen in love with partly because of one particular home that had caught my attention—an elegant two story with creamy rose stucco walls and a clay tile roof.  I had parked on the street near it one day, purely by chance and on other business in the area.  I remember pausing to look at it closely.  Somehow it seemed familiar.  There was a heavy wood front door and a little glimmer of leaded glass in recessed windows.  It reminded me of the only residence Julia Morgan designed in Sacramento—the Mediterranean Revival Goethe mansion on ‘T’ Street.  Even the landscaping was similar (imagine the photo of that house below without the Italian cypress and round topiary trees by the front door).


4Julia morgan house September 2012 wickimedia commons 1024x680 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

This 2012 photograph shows the Sacramento mansion designed by Julia Morgan and now called the Julia Morgan House.  The house was a 1920’s era wedding gift to Charles Goethe and Mary Louise Glide from the bride’s parents.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.

Later I couldn’t get the Poverty Ridge house out of my mind, and I wondered about my fascination with it.  I spent some time searching for information although clues proved elusive.  In any case, I decided to create a fictionalized version of the house in my novel.  As I began to develop that idea, I started to realized the Poverty Ridge house was probably important to me because it represented a link back to the Scripps mansion.  That beautiful and mysterious place was gone forever, but maybe some sense of it could live on… at least in my imagination.

One of the very unexpected and really enjoyable aspects of writing my novel has been discovering new information loops that keep curling out from my original premise.  Three months ago, I doubt a thought about the E.W. Scripps house had crossed my mind for twenty years.  Now I find myself pulling out those memories like faded photos from a box and also wanting to know more.  Are there construction drawings for the house?  Are there images that show the mansion and grounds between 1930-1973?  Are there any maps of the ranch?  Why was the ranch sold for development in the late 1960’s? Who managed the house and land after it was sold to the developer?  Why wasn’t the family able to save the house?

The E.W. Scripps Papers, 1868-1926, are a fantastic resource and available online through the Robert E. and Jean R. Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections at Ohio University.  Many of E.W. Scripps philosophical ‘disquisitions’ are also available for viewing as part of this collection, and it is interesting to read his wide-ranging thoughts on everything from politics to the nature of man.  Wonderful photographs are also included in this collection.  Some of my favorites are:

5EW with fish 1907 1910 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

The photograph above was taken sometime between 1907 and 1910 shows E.W. Scripps (left) and a companion with fish caught in one of the Miramar Ranch reservoirs.  Notice the rake.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.


6Nackie with horse 1907 1910 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

The photograph above shows E.W.’s wife, Nackie Holtsinger Scripps (1866-1930), with her horse in the mansion courtyard between 1907 and 1910.  She was an excellent rider and frequently made the trip to the beach by horseback.  Notice the vines now added around the courtyard windows.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

7Miramar Garage 1907 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Photograph of the Miramar Ranch garage taken sometime between 1907 and 1910.  I don’t recall seeing this building in the early 1970’s so perhaps it had already been taken down.  Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.


8EW Scripps on beach 1918 1919 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

Above: E.W. Scripps at the beach near what is now the city of La Jolla circa 1918-1919. Courtesy of Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.

9Wipeout Beach La Jolla CA date and author unknown wickimedia commons Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

La Jolla beach.  Courtesy of Wickimedia Commons.

Growing up in San Diego during the 1970’s was a wonderful experience and very much centered on the coast.  From just the little research I have done on the Scripps family so far, it is evident they loved the San  Diego beaches just as we did.  We drove the same route, now paved, over the mesa to the coast as they did.  We swam at La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores as they did.  We picnicked at Torrey Pines as they did.  We watched the sun set over the ocean as they did.


10Sunset at Torrey Pines State BeachCA Levi Crouch 2006 Wickimedia commons 1024x768 Lost Romantic Landscape: the E.W. Scripps Mansion (1891 1973)

I had not realized that E.W. Scripps and his sister Ellen helped found the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and that Ellen Browning Scripps had donated land and support for the present day Torrey Pines State Beach, but it makes sense.

Most of all I can connect with the love E.W. Scripps had for the house and landscape he created at Miramar.

“In digging, plowing, ditching, building—engaged in these pursuits I am always happy.”

The Astonishing Mr. Scripps: the Turbulent Life of America’s Penny Press Lord by Vance Trimble.  (p. 175)





Space Transformation


A 128 Space TransformationEichler home photograph by Ernest Braun

When builder and developer Joseph Eichler teamed with architects Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons to design affordable modern homes, they transformed the California suburban living experience.  Connecting back to ideas developed in the glass botanical structures of the 1800’s, German architect Bruno Taut’s 1914 Glashaus, Mies van der Rhoe’s Farnsworth House (1945-1951) and Phillip Johnson’s Glass House (1949); Jones and Emmons dynamically changed the residential tract home in the 1960’s.  One of their innovations involved combining the technology available to create large plate glass windows with the ancient idea of the courtyard as part of home living space.  The entire back wall of many Eichler homes, as illustrated in the photo above, was constructed almost entirely of floor to ceiling glass as were three sides of the interior courtyards included in most floor plans.  The result was that Eichler homes were filled with light and a wonderful sense of spaciousness.  Even as a child, I distinctly remember experiencing this in contrast to the much darker feel of our previous 1950’s ranch style house.  This wonderful photograph of a new Eichler home obtained with permission from Ernest Braun’s son, captures the experience of standing in our living room and looking out at the hills beyond.  My mother even bought the same chairs on the patio and put them in our family room.

Another feature of the many windows in Eichler homes was to minimize the separation between outside and inside.  Writer Christopher Hawthorne expresses this aspect in his Architectural Digest article titled, “The Glass House.”  He quotes architect Thomas Phifer’s comments on visiting Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1983. Phifer says, “I remember being particularly struck by how its transparency allows the landscape to flow right through the house.”


Glass house philip johson architecture new canaan ct Space Transformation

Glass House photograph by Christopher Peterson

On a sunny day in Orange County the light shone on the new back yard square grid cement patio of our Eichler home and on our new seeded grass lawn.  My father had planted five maple trees right outside our living room/dining room windows, possibly to remind himself of the Pennsylvania forests he had left behind to come to California.  We also had an expansive view across a huge field to the hills beyond because he pulled off about 16 feet of redwood fence boards behind the trees to open up our rectangular back yard.  It truly did seem as if the warm, bright, dry southern California landscape flowed right through our house.

The winter of 1969 brought another dimension to the Eichler home outside-inside connection.  1945 to 1969 had been drought years in southern California with only two wet winters in 24 years.  Then in February, heavy rain began to fall day after day.  In her Los Angeles Times article, “Day of the Deadly Mud: 1969 Floods: Tragedy and Heroism Mix” Lucille Renwick explains: “For a solid month, an average of 7 inches of rain had fallen each day, swelling creeks and flooding streets throughout the region.”  I knew it was really bad when my atheist parents started discussing Noah’s Ark in all seriousness over dinner, and I remember this storm vividly in small details.  One was that there was so much water pouring down that I actually stopped complaining about the hated clear rubber galoshes my mother made us wear over our school shoes.  Another was that our street crossed a deep cement drainage ditch, usually empty, but now filled to the brim.  On the way to the school bus stop we would put our fingers through the wet chain link fence and stare with silent, grim fascination into the brown water rushing by just a few feet below.  Another memory was sitting on our brick fireplace hearth with my back to one of the living room walls being mesmerized by the endless rain sheeting across one of the plate glass windows.  Fat drops and rivulets and streams of water flowed down, divided and reconnected.  It seemed as if I were floating, transported somehow like a fish into some mysterious, glass walled watery world.

Our new housing tract never flooded, but just one third of a mile away was the Santiago Creek channel which suffered devastating washouts as the 100 year storm raged.


1969 Orange County floods Space Transformation

This 1969 archival photograph provided by the Orange County Public Library shows a typical scene.

Just east of our tract, the Santiago Creek channel had been greatly expanded by years of gravel mining by the Sully-Miller company.  East Santiago Canyon Road had once dipped down to cross the flat bottom of the gravel pit then risen up a hill to join our new development with the community of Villa Park on the far side.  A large section of this road washed away in the ’69 flood and in March after the rain finally stopped, our usual pack of siblings and friends ventured out to assess the damage.  Sully-Miller had thoughtfully put up a temporary chain link fence at the end of the broken asphalt to keep people from falling into the now sharply eroded sides of what had become a vast crater.  Gone were immense piles of loose gravel that had once covered the bottom of the pit and now, the familiar dusty mining landscape had been magically transformed into a magnificent lake with waterfalls running down orange sandstone bedrock on the far side.

We all gasped in stunned surprise.  We were awed, we were ecstatic; it was so beautiful, so unexpected.  We promptly shinnied under the fence and slid down an extremely steep and very long rocky slope to the edge of the water to better to appreciate the scene.  Here we jumped around for a while yelling splashing, laughing and planning Huck Finn rafting and fishing expeditions.  Then after a few of the younger ones fell in the water (either accidentally or on purpose), it dawned on me that we really didn’t know how deep this new lake was and no one actually knew we were even here.  I made everyone turn around and make the long climb back up the slope.  We returned home safely that day; however, one other memory involves a group of us somehow managing to get across the lake to the waterfall area a few weeks later.  The flood had scoured bedrock ridges into a giant undulating rock waterslide and since we conveniently happened to be wearing our bathing suits, we had the delirious fun of climbing up and riding the water down into deep rock pools.  I only remember doing this one time—perhaps my parents finally decided the whole area was just a bit too dangerous for the thirteen and under crowd.


North Santiago Blvd. Space Transformation

This 2013 Google map image shows the washed out end of what was once East Santiago Canyon Road.  Now, Blue Ribbon Landscaping (bottom left corner) occupies the narrow spur of land where we once stood looking down into the gravel pit lake.  Most of the water on this side is gone, but you can still see the seasonal creek flowing down the bedrock areas on the far side of the old gravel pit (top left).  The photo does not do justice to this immense, deep space that was utterly transformed on that wonderful day.  It did make me happy to think a satellite was able to let me know it still existed.

Sometimes a 100 year rain storm might fall in our personal lives.  A raging flood might develop which will tear out roads, bridges, power lines.  It might change everything, permanently— and we might lose home, family, friends.  Yet paradoxically, all that devastation can result in radical space transformation.  One day, many years later the sun will come out again for us, and we might walk to the end of a washed out road.  We might see something very surprising.

I went through a storm like this and now live in a transformed space both emotionally and geographically.  I now live on the edge of a rural area surrounded by agricultural fields to the east, south and west.


Marston Field 6 9 13 1024x768 Space Transformation

It is peaceful and serene; it is comfortable here.  I love the spaciousness and openness.  I would never have chosen the storm that so drastically changed my circumstances but it gave me a gift—the time and space I needed to start writing.  I was surprised by that.


Image Credits:

Photograph of Eichler home, circa 1960’s by Ernest Braun.  Website:

Photograph of Glass House, date unknown, by Christopher Peterson.  Website:

Photograph of Silverado Canyon Road, 1969 Flood, creator unknown.  Source:  Orange County Public Library and Calisphere University of California.

Google Map data, 2013.  Source: Digital Globe, US Geological Survey

Photograph of sunflower field, 6-10-13 by Laurie Gates


Strawberry Fields Forever


SF 4 27 12 IMG 1558 1024x768 Strawberry Fields Forever

Organic strawberries and yarrow, a beneficial insect plant, at the UC Davis Student Farm 4-27-12.

I  always remember loving the mysterious melody and lyrics of the Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a  song released in 1967, the same year I visited agricultural strawberry fields in Orange County on a sixth grade science field trip.  In my mind, the words had always been linked to the plants with beautiful red berries dangling below evergreen, glossy leaves.  Later I discovered ‘Strawberry Fields’ was actually a place John Lennon had visited as a child; evidently  sort of wild ‘secret garden’ on a property next to a Salvation Army children’s home in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool.  But does it matter?  Each place was beautiful in its own way and linked to childhood happiness.  The title is symbolic and the song a masterpiece—still haunting, engaging, fresh and sweet after all these years.

When we lived in Orange County in 1963, my father had been working as a technical writing editor at the North American Rockwell facility in Downey.  Unfortunately, this involved a grueling commute in freeway traffic gridlocked in each direction.  I distinctly recall the stress and unhappiness this caused him (and by extension all of us); fortunately, new job opportunities closer to home were opening up.  A June 11, 1989 Los Angeles Times article by David Olmos, “County Has Rich History of Attracting Aerospace Firms” sheds some light on the explosive growth of the aerospace industry in Orange County at this time and how this in turn impacted my family.  Olmos explains that when North American Rockwell’s Autonetics Division moved to Anaheim in 1960, “The initial work force of 250 people, housed in one building, grew to 4,700 in six buildings by the spring of 1963.”  This expansion must have been what allowed my father to transfer to the newer facility in 1963 and my parents to buy a brand new Eichler home in a small tract just being developed about 3 miles south east of the city of Villa Park.

Olmos continues:  “The grounds [of the new Autonetics Division] were designed to resemble a college campus, with gardens, trees and lots of open space, which company officials thought would help them recruit Ph.D. researchers to the facility.”  I do remember my father being very proud of this new working environment and taking us on a number of occasions to the large Autonetics employee recreation pool located in a park-like setting.  On a summer Saturday the concrete deck would be crowded with chatting parents and the water so crammed with enthusiastic children that you could literally have walked across the pool on bobbing heads.

During this time I was not exactly clear on what my father did all day when he left for work in Anaheim (a much shorter drive away), but Olmos explains: “Over the years, the Autonetics Division has been involved in such work as guidance systems for the Minuteman nuclear missile and submarines, and navigation and control equipment for aircraft.  Autonetics employees also have worked on NASA’s Apollo and space shuttle programs and on the Air Force’s B-1B bomber.”  Later I remember my father explaining that he helped write and edit the many technical manuals and handbooks the engineers needed for these programs.


Berkeley Design Archives Strawberry Fields Forever

Eichler homes brochure from UC Berkeley Environmental Design Archives (all photo credits listed at end).


fairhills oc574 b 998x1024 Strawberry Fields Forever

Here is our floor plan although built as the mirror image, with the garage on the right.

After we moved to Orange, our parents would turn us out on weekend mornings with the instructions: “Go outside and play.  Come home for dinner.”  It was a safer world then and we did not feel neglected or abandoned, rather we felt proud of their trust in our ability to take care of ourselves.  I remember roaming about in packs with siblings and friends, breaking trails though tall stands of ferny anise, exploring a shallow abandoned mine shaft on a rocky hill above the old avocado grove, building forts and shacks and teepees and always, every day climbing trees: orange, avocado, eucalyptus and oak.  Of course we could have been in danger during some of these adventures (particularly the ones involving swamps at the ends of remote drainage ditches), but for some reason this never seemed to cross our minds.

During this time period I attended Villa Park Elementary School.  This 1922 photograph from the Orange County Historical Society shows the wonderful circa 1890’s Spanish Mission Revival building where I spent my fourth and fifth grade years.  It looked much the same in the 1960′s.


Villa Park grammar sch 1922 OC Historical Society Strawberry Fields Forever

 I recall absolutely loving this building.  I remember long cloakrooms with low hooks where you could hang your sweater and shiny, squeaky, waxed wood floors.  Big banks of pane windows and high ceilings made the rooms airy and sunny and high up on the ivory-grey plastered walls, a portrait of George Washington looked down upon our efforts to memorize the capitols of all fifty states, his expression serene and wise.  Nearby was an open courtyard formed by the older buildings and the two wings of more modern classrooms.  This area included picnic tables and a group of very old California pepper trees (Schinus molle) with thick, gnarled, twisted trunks and dry, rose colored berries that hung in pendant clusters from the weeping branches.


 CAPepperTreeLeavesFruit Strawberry Fields Forever

 It was Mr. Frankendahl , my fifth grade teacher at Villa Park Elementary School, who recommended me for a special sixth grade program at Taft Elementary school.  That next year I remember as being fantastic— a Renaissance experience in literature, drama, history, science, math, art and music.  Our group had a separate building with four classrooms and a botany lab where we had the opportunity to do many very interesting experiments with seeds and plants.  Taft also provided two large open spaces for gardens and each student assigned a 10’ x 12’ plot in September.  We chose plants from catalogues and a nursery, made a small planting design then planted, watered, weeded and tended our gardens the rest of the year.

That year (1965-‘66) our science teacher took us all on a field trip to the South Coast Field Station, a 200 hundred acre agricultural research facility established by the University of California in 1956. There we saw many crops, but the strawberry fields and groves of citrus trees on the beautifully maintained property stand out.


Avacado grove at the South Coast Field Station Strawberry Fields Forever

 Present day avocado grove at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center.

At the end of the tour one of the staff offered to donate strawberries to our garden project back at Taft, and the following week a pick-up truck arrived with about 20 large plants.  The man who delivered them helped us create a long raised bed, plant each strawberry and cover the whole with clear plastic to keep out weeds.  I recall we used furrow irrigation and were all completely thrilled with our new acquisitions.  On Google Earth it is possible to see the open space directly to the south of our building where they were planted, and a Taft school employee told me the garden program there had continued strong for over 20 years before it was discontinued in the 1990’s.  At the end of the sixth grade school year in June, those who wanted to keep a strawberry plant were allowed to take one home in a pot, and I planted mine in a small garden space I cleared in the corner of our back yard.  There the plant lived for another two years providing my first introduction to perennials.

Many years later the past started to connect with the present, like the two ends of very long mobius strip.  In 2010 I got involved with the UC Davis Student Farm and ended up being able to help grow organic strawberries there as an experiment.  It has been a fantastic opportunity for me especially since I am not a farmer or a scientist, although fortunately we have many of those on hand.  In the Beatles strawberry fields, “nothing is real,” but at this farm everything is real.  There you experience plants, soil, air, water, sun and rain… they are not dreamlike illusions.  And because they are real they are very satisfying.

Another connection point for me with my elementary school years is the blend of old and new on this 20 acre section of the UC Davis campus.  The land has been used for agricultural research for over 100 years and not all that much has changed in all that time.  In many ways the farm reminds me of the 1890’s gracious, sturdy, still functional rooms at Villa Park Elementary School; there are also aspects of the farm that remind me of the living in our Eichler house and neighborhood.  Maybe  it is something about the clean, straight lines of rows of crops, or the wide open spaces with fields, fences, trees, clouds and sky.  Or maybe it is the comfortable community feeling there, the sense we are working and learning together.

A happy déjà vous with the trip to the strawberry fields is that it was also in sixth grade that I wrote my first detective story.  Now 45 years later I am growing strawberries and writing my first mystery novel.  It also has a detective in it, but that’s another story.


Image and information credits:

-Photograph of strawberry beds at UC Davis Student Farm, 4-27-12 by Laurie Gates

-“Strawberry Fields Forever” by Lennon-McCartney.  Source:

-Photograph of Eichler home from brochure, photographer and date unknown.  Source: Berkeley Environmental Design Archives Exhibitions,

-Eichler Fairhills #OC-274 Floorplan, 1953 square feet (house).  Source:

-Photograph of Villa Park Grammer School, 1922 courtesy of Orange County Historical Society. Source:

-Photograph of California pepper tree leaves and fruit, date and photographer unknown.  Source:

-Photograph of avacado grove at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center.  Source:


The Cats that Launched a Website

Have you ever noticed how throughout recorded time and in so many cultures, people love their pets?


Greece Cat 2 The Cats that Launched a Website


Here is a photo of a Greek cat I came across when looking for art depicting ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman cats.  I guess this common thread bond between humans and animals is why many writers include pets in their fictional work; however, this practice is not without challenges.  In their extremely funny, How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid them—a Misstep-By-Misstep Guide, authors Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman some pointers on how to include pets in your first novel, if you must.

In their chapter on developing the hero, the authors include a section called “Love Me, Love My Cat: Wherein there is a cat.”  They strongly advise the following: writers are to refrain from naming the cat “Magnifi-cat or similar pun, after a composer (Bartok, Mahler, etc), after a writer (Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, etc.), after an ancient Greek” or naming the cat “Mr. + adjective = anatomical feature (e.g. Mr. Prickly Paws)” etc.  (pp. 66-67).

Obviously in the hands of skilled writers, pets can add a wonderful touch of ‘ordinary world’ to a drama.  One example would be the many cats and dogs included in the British Midsomer Murders film series, perhaps  building on precedent set by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950’s era television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  However, since I was writing my first novel and my skill level at this point was questionable, I decided to take their advice and omit pets.  So it was with interest that I saw an article in our local newspaper, The Davis Enterprise, specifically about books and cats.  The article, which appeared on April 12, 2013 was titled, “’The Cat Who Chose to Dream’: from art comes hope” by Anne Ternus-Bellamy, and featured a beautiful drawing of two cats sleeping.


Jimmy Mirikitani The Cats that Launched a Website

It turns out that Davis psychologist Loriene Honda had seen a film documentary by Linda Hattendorf (all links and information provided at end of post) about artist of the drawing, Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani.  She found it moving and significant especially since both Jimmy Mirikitani and her own father Lawrence Honda had spent time in internment camps during World War II.  The film became the starting point of a creative journey for Loriene that ended with her writing The Cat Who Chose to Dream, a children’s book exploring how the power of imagination can transform tragic experiences into art and beauty.  Her book incorporates Mirikitani’s art and will be released later this year by Dixon-based Martin Pearl Publishing.

I absolutely loved so many elements of Mirikitani’s composition: his use of black, orange and icy blue, the elegant balance of solid and open forms, the fantasy elements of autumn leaves falling as if on invisible water with a fish darting away below ….  I was also intrigued that the two cats were able to sleep calmly in spite of a pronounced triangular wave or blade image in the lower left corner, and a mysterious black net that weaves around them like a shawl.  The older cat is even embracing this net, holding it with his or her paws, pulling it up close like a blanket.

The more I looked at the drawing, the more I thought about war and peace.  These cats, depicted here in such a nurturing and cozy way can also be vicious and deadly hunters by instinct.  This dichotomy becomes symbolic on some level of the mystery of our human existence here on this earth.  We struggle to reconcile such radical opposites— the power to love and preserve; the power to hate and destroy.  These tensions and themes fuel many of the great classic works of literature, but we are also caught up in these conflicts in the here and now.  We are asking, how will ‘war’ and darkness change us?  Will they render us powerless and hopeless?  Will tragedy, abuse and injustice crush us?

After I saw the drawing of Mirikitani’s cats, I decided I would actually go forward with an idea I had been considering for about a month.  I would start a website to write about the process of writing a mystery novel, and I would talk about the ‘war’ and peace that has shaped my own life.  Perhaps in doing so I would also have the transformative opportunity to create art.



Image Credits, Information and Website Links


Photograph of Greek cat by Chmouel, March 2004


The Davis Enterprise article


Image of two cats sleeping by Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, date unknown.  Image accessed from Linda Hattendorf’s website about her documentary film The Cats of Mirikitani: and used with permission.


The Cat Who Chose to Dream by Loriene Honda, PhD with artwork by Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani and graphic design by Mark Deamer, expected out in Summer/Fall 2013.

Readers can reach Loriene Honda through

or Martin Pearl Publishing:

and for questions or pre-orders for the book.



Nothing is a Part of Something

I grew up playing with cubic geometry.  My parents had been raised during the Great Depression and this experience gave them a different perspective on what toys children ought to have.  They had played with paper, scissors, cardboard boxes, wood blocks, balls and string and this was all still going to do for the spoiled post WW II generation, as far as they were concerned.

 Paper dolls were still popular when I was a little girl.  They had beautiful paper outfits you cut out and that were supposed to stay on with little folded tabs but never did.  Sometimes I created my own smaller paper dolls that would fit into shoe box houses.  We would take the lids off the boxes, and my father would use his Swiss army knife to cut out doors and windows that folded back.  When it was time for the dolls to go to sleep in their match box beds, I could put the lid back on and it would be night inside—the rectangular space filled with shadowy darkness.

When I was in third grade, my parents bought a new Echiler home in a tract just outside the city of Orange.  The next year my father converted part of the garage on the right side of the house into an art studio.  He covered the cement floor with new yellow-white pine boards that fitted together tongue and groove, put a shelf on the wall for his oil paints and brushes, set up an easel and one rainy winter installed a small black potbellied Franklin stove for heat.  Here he would paint at night and on weekends, interesting paintings we all grew to love as we watched them take form.


Linda Vista house in Orange CA 1970 1024x655 Nothing is a Part of Something


This is one painting from that period, an untitled work on a large piece of masonite of people walking in Laguna Beach, our favorite place to go in the summer.


Paul McCoy early 1960s Ray Johnston photo 20071 1024x689 Nothing is a Part of Something


I personally enjoyed spending time watching my father paint in his studio because it was quiet and peaceful there in contrast to the rest of the house filled with five rambunctious children and their neighborhood friends.  But there was one rule if I wanted to watch: ‘no talking.’  Since this was such a hard rule and possibly to give the girls of the family something to do so we wouldn’t need to ask him so many questions, our father built us a an elegant Le Corbusier four story doll house out of wood.


Villa La Roch photo Steve Cadman wickimedia commons 1024x768 Nothing is a Part of Something


This photo is very reminiscent of looking into the open side of our doll house for some reason, possibly the configuration of the squares and rectangles.  Our new place lived at the far end of the studio on the pine floor near the Franklin stove.  It was outfitted with the beautifully crafted English Dol-Toi furniture I had purchased with my allowance over the years when I wasn’t spending it on boxes of Sugar Frosted Flakes.  I still have most of these pieces which came from a wonderful children’s store called The House of the Mouse (perhaps capitalizing on the popularity of E. B White’s Stuart Little) near the Broadway Department stores in one of the Orange County malls.  I had a blue couch and two matching living room chairs, a three inch tall china sideboard, an elegant wing chair upholstered in red Chinese silk, a bed and nightstand, dresser with mirror, upright piano and a desk with a fold-out shelf for writing tiny letters.  Everything else we needed such as blankets, curtains, dishes, rugs etc. to outfit the house all had to be made from inventive reuse of found objects and scraps of wood, cloth and paper.

Playing with dolls was an imaginative pastime, one which appeared to have had no practical usefulness until I got much older and looked back on it.  Now I can see that many of the same elements needed to write fiction were involved.  Once the home was furnished and decorated the dolls then acted out dramas composed of the issues and relationship dynamics observed in the adult world.  The space inside the doll house (the invisible air) was taken for granted—we arranged our furniture and played out our stories within it not realizing it was the ‘negative space’ of an artistic composition and also important.

I finally stopped playing with dolls in sixth grade.  When I went to high school I developed an interest in literature, perhaps drawn to the telling of stories and the creating of alternative worlds in this new form.  Some questions lingered over the years about books and plays I read during that period.  What really possessed the Macbeths to go on their murderous rampage?  Why did Mersault feel no remorse for shooting the Arab?  Why did the deck have to be so stacked against Tom Robinson?  Why did Kurtz whisper, “The horror!  The horror!”?  I could never understand.  Then one day many years later I started to understand.

One purpose of literature is to explore the literal ‘heart of darkness’ inherent in the human condition.  Consequently, if we in our experiences suffer darkness, feel grief or are tormented with insoluble questions— that is not to be counted as ‘nothing.’  That is not wasted time even if it kept us from writing.  Instead, these experiences help us understand what makes literature deeply powerful.  These experiences can make our own stories richer and more compassionate.  They can make our lives and our work one unified artistic composition.


Image Credits:

Real estate listing photograph of Orange, CA Eichler house, 1970.

Untitled oil painting by Paul McCoy, circa ealy 1960’s.  Photograph by Ray Johnston, 2007.  McCoy family private collection.

Photograph of Villa La Roche 1923 Le Corbusier, Paris by Steve Cadman, July 2007.  Wickimedia commons.


Literature references:

Macbeth by Shakespeare

The Stranger by Albert Camus

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad





Sam Shovel


My first detective story (written at age twelve) was a heavily plagiarized if not 100% verbatim version of the exploits of Sam Shovel, a satirical take-off on detective Sam Spade in the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett.  I’m not sure where I came across the Sam Shovel jokes I repeated in my story, but they might have appeared in a skit on the wildly popular TV show Laugh-In (1967-1973) or Sam Shovel might have been featured in Mad Magazine, a source of comic information I consulted every month.

I remember my father giving me the original novel to read and although I found the plot a bit obscure, I was attracted to the mysterious cover illustration.

maltesefalcon Sam Shovel

Last year I found my handwritten story in a box of papers my mother had saved.

Sam Shovel circa 1960s 791x1024 Sam Shovel


It begins: “You’ve all heard of Sam Spade, private eye, well, my name is Sam Shovel, private nose.  The other day I climbed out of my chandelier.  You see, I’m a light sleeper.  I went to my private office, opened my private door, went in and sat behind my private desk and my private secretary came in and poured Murine into my private eyes.”

It continued: “I turned to the door and knocked.  The same beautiful blond opened the door.  She had a gun in her left hand, a gun in her right and a knife between her teeth.  I knew something was holding her back— her garter was caught on the doorknob.”  It ended: “Quick, quick,” she yelled.  “Shoot him with you .44.”  I didn’t have a .44 so I shot him twice with my .22.  Just going to prove that Sam Shovel always digs up his man.”

I recall going out to the back yard one afternoon during a dry, hot, howling Santa Ana windstorm, wrapping myself in a blanket and working on this story.  I remember thinking, ‘I am going to be a writer!’  Fast forward 40 years to 2008; I had still not become a writer.  I had started out as a high school English teacher and later changed careers into landscape design.  I did write, of course: proposals, contracts, letters, reports, etc. for work, and I did read mystery and detective stories all the time (I called this research) for fun.  But I wasn’t actually writing fiction.

One day, I thought of a possible story.  What if a man called a landscape designer and asked her to come and look at some work he wanted done in his back garden.  Suppose the man lived in a new area of town in a grand McMansion.  The designer arrives on the appointed day.  The man tells the designer he had been away in South America on business for three months and had left his wife behind to watch the house and dogs.  In his absence, the wife decided to clean up once and for all the ratty succulent bed along the south back wall.  She asked her mow, blow and go guy to order a truckload of mulch, wheelbarrow it into the back and dump it on top of the offending plants.

The man returned from his trip.  He walked outside his first morning back with a cup of coffee to look at his beautiful collection of rare succulents, given as gifts over the last twenty years from friends at the university.  It would be a hot sunny day and the light would beat down on the wide lawn and the south planting bed now covered with pine chips.  The man would turn his head to explain what happened and rage would begin to suffuse his face.  He would say quietly, ‘I could have killed her.”


Succulent Collection 1024x768 Sam Shovel


So, even though I was not writing, I was thinking about writing.  If you want to write novel someday, that’s still important.

I took this photograph of succulents in a greenhouse on the property of the Donnell Garden designed by Thomas Church.  I am not sure who maintained this collection, but I loved the colors, shapes and textures.


Image credit:

1930 First Edition Maltese Falcon cover.  Source: