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:


The Importance of Being Obstinate


Garden Grove House age 5 1024x626 The Importance of Being Obstinate


Here I am at age six in front of our next house in Garden Grove which came with this wonderful xeriscape mound covered with boulders and cactus.  In the 1960’s parenting was a little different than today.  My parents said, “sure you and all the neighborhood kids can play on the cactus mound!  You’ll figure it out.”

I still remember the plants at this house.  In the back was a thorny pyracantha and a jacaranda tree with beautiful, soft mauve flowers.  Against the house wall in the picture you can see a tree fern and the twisted spires of a Hollywood juniper.  The shady, cool space underneath had baby tears moss, hairy tufts of blue fescu and papyrus that looked like green silky umbrellas.

By this age I had started running away from home.  I would pack a paper shopping bag with a snack, picture books and a few stuffed animals.  I would spread a blanket out on the grass under the shade of a big tree that was just to the right of the mound in the picture.  There I would sit and read or color for as long as I could.  One day my father came by and looked at the picture I was coloring in my coloring book with my brand new 64 crayon set of Crayola crayons all very sharp and hardly used.  I remember showing him what I was working on and asking if he thought it was pretty.  He said something that absolutely stunned me.  He said, “you know, you can color outside the lines.”  This was sixties talk for ‘think outside the box.’  “No thank you,” I said.  (Probably really not that polite).  “Go away,” I said. “I like coloring inside the lines.”  Ironically I now make part of my living coloring inside the lines for landscape design.  But I know what he meant, and I still think about it.

By this age I was already very obstinate.  Although television had been around for a while, my parents finally broke down and bought a black and white set with a wire antenna that sat on the top.  Such was the allure that my brother and I routinely got up at 5:00 a.m. to watch it.  Of course there was no programming available at that hour, but we would sit and stare the grey bars of the test pattern expectantly anyway.  For hours.  Cartoons came on in the afternoon and we loved Popeye, Felix the Cat and Wile Coyote.  With cartoons came commercials and soon my mother began to regret her decision because I became absolutely adamant that she needed to buy Sugar Frosted Flakes because Tony the Tiger said so.  My mother had been raised during the depression, and she thought this was reprehensible subversive brainwashing on the part of advertiser.  She just as adamantly refused; Wheaties were good enough.

The argument raged for months until finally she said, “Fine.  Take your allowance (I probably earned a dime a week doing a few chores), walk down to the grocery store and buy yourself a box of Sugar Frosted Flakes if you want them so much.”  Well I did want them desperately, but the store was  blocks and blocks away and you had to cross a very busy four lane street with a stoplight to get to the huge parking lot of the store.  You then had to cross that, enter the store, find the cereal box, go to the cash register, purchase it and walk home.  I was six so this all seemed quite daunting.  So I thought about it very carefully for a while, but then I went.  Bolstered by sweet success I even went a number of other times.  But soon I got tired of spending my entire allowance on this product and realized that by dumping two heaping spoonfuls of sugar on Wheaties you could get a similar effect with a lot less work.

If you have not written your first novel by the time you are in your early twenties, life events will conspire to delay your efforts.  Being obstinate will help you return to the task.


Image credit:

Photograph by Paul or Priscilla McCoy, 1962.


Making a Mark

Here I am in a picture my father drew at about age four either drawing or trying to write.  I’m making marks on paper.  The house is in Anaheim in Orange County, California.  In 196o little girls still wore cotton dresses with bows in the back that had to be ironed.


Laurie by Paul McCoy 1960 938x1024 Making a Mark

I was born in Seattle, Washington in 1956.  Here is a drawing my father did the year I was born.  It’s funny but, to this day, I love sweet peas almost more than any other flower.

Sweet peas Paul McCoy 1956 757x1024 Making a Mark


My parents moved to Seattle in the early fifties after my father got an MA in English from Cornell following WWII.  My father loved literature and poetry and thought he would continue into a PhD program at the University of Washington to study with poet Theodore Rotheke.  But Rotheke ended up leaving to travel in Europe, so my father changed plans and got a job editing technical manuals for Boeing in Seattle.  The work was boring and his other passion was art, so he started wondering if he would like to make his living as an artist.  My mother said they cleaned out their savings and sold stocks to travel and live in Spain for eighteen months so my father could paint; in the end their money began to run out, and he decided he might not enjoy the life of a starving artist.  Back in the states the aerospace industry was booming and salaries were lucrative.

My parents returned to Seattle and shortly after my father went alone to Orange County, got a job, bought a car, rented a house and called my mother on the telephone.  He said, “Bring the children down and join me.”  So she did.  The wooden crate of drawings and paintings from Spain came later on the moving truck.

I grew up in a family where people drew and wrote.  It was the modern period of art and design.  This is another picture my father drew of the same house.

Anaheim House Paul McCoy 1960 791x1024 Making a Mark


I think this is the same chair in the picture.


Eames Molded Plywood Chair DWR 784x1024 Making a Mark

Eames Molded Plywood Chair

In my childhood I was trying to write and draw because I enjoyed it.  I think that sometimes when we become adults we forget that writing fiction is very fun.  Reason enough to pursue it.


Image Credits:

Drawings by Paul McCoy circa 1950’s and early 1960’s. Laurie Gates private collection.  Photos of drawings by Laurie Gates, 2013.

Photograph from Design Within Reach catalogue, date unknown.