My Corporate Years

Irvine, California

I began my career in the print industry, and held various jobs at several local newspapers, before I accepted a position as marketing coordinator for an architectural firm, Northrop Architectural Systems, owned by Northrop Aerospace. When the company sold, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work as a technical writer for a well-known ophthalmic corporation in Irvine, California—CooperVision Surgical.

Corporate life had its high points, the most rewarding of which was the knowledge I gleaned while working in the architectural, aerospace, and health care industries. These experiences would serve as the basis for several novels in the Darcy McClain techno-thriller series. In early 1986, the idea for my first novel, Blind Revenge, began as fragments, the ideas flitting in and out of my mind at will until they persisted with regularity, prompting me to jot them down. Soon, they coalesced into a plot. At this point, I was still employed at CooperVision, but not as a technical writer. I had been promoted to manager for the retinal product line. The technical theme of Blind Revenge is industrial espionage, and the subject matter is an ophthalmic product with a futuristic twist. The novel is set in Southern California.

Toward the end of 1988, Blind Revenge was a 150,000-word manuscript. As a novice writer, I would eventually learn that the primary downfall of the manuscript was its word count. The same would be the case for my second book, Genocide. Both were initially rejected for their length. I immediately went to work cutting over forty thousand words from Blind Revenge and continued to submit query letters to various literary agents. But after twenty rejections, I shelved the book. Since 1988, I have rewritten Blind Revenge to incorporate it into the Darcy McClain series. The new version will be published at a later date under a new title. I never intended to write a series until well into Genocide, when I realized my main character too closely resembled the main character in Blind Revenge. To me this sent a message—that the friend who suggested I write a series had a great idea. Thank you, Harlene Miller.

In early 1990, Genocide was already firmly planted in my mind. However, when it came to the plot something was missing, and despite dwelling on a fix, nothing worked. Then one day, while sitting in my doctor’s office, I picked up a copy of Science magazine and read with great interest an article by neuroscientist Dr. Simon LeVay. Suddenly, everything in the plot line clicked, and the story fell into place. The subject matter for Genocide is genetic engineering, and the setting is Northern California, which I visited numerous times while I lived in Southern California for more than fifteen years.

In late 1990, we relocated to Texas. At first, the move proved to be a tough one, but as my father always said, “Every place has something good to offer.” And he was right. I’ve grown fond of Texas and am proud to call the state home. In the future, Darcy and her sidekick Bullet will find themselves as much at home in Texas as I am. All of my thrillers are set in states or countries that, for one reason or another, have captured my heart. And because I have travelled rather extensively during my lifetime, some novels in the Darcy McClain series will be set overseas.

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California Book Settings: Napa

Gardens and lake at Chateau Montelena.

Early the next morning, we made a quick stop at Starbucks for drinks, then strolled Fisherman’s Wharf. The only early risers were runners, cyclists, people making deliveries, someone power washing the sidewalks, a lone skipper loading fishing tackle into his boat, and us saying goodbye to the sea lion colony on our way to Ghirardelli Square to window-shop.

Bright sunlight warmed us as we walked back to the Hyatt to check out. Our destination? Napa for a half day of fact-checking and a full one of fun.

It was close to lunchtime when we drove into St. Helena, and we had our sights set on Gillwoods Cafe for lunch. After we ate I set to work on my to-do list.

Hilltop Cellars, the fictitious winery in Genocide, is a combination of wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. The main house at Hilltop Cellars is constructed from memories of a Calistoga bed and breakfast I discovered years ago, but the Mediterranean-style house sold to a private party before I could book a reservation. The wine-aging cave at Hilltop Cellars was inspired by the hillside aging cave at the Kunde Family Winery in Sonoma Valley.

I returned to the location where the Mediterranean bed and breakfast had once stood, hoping to glimpse the house from the quiet lane that stretched in front of the residence, but no such structure was anywhere to be found along the dead-end road. I assumed it had been razed. Disappointed, I cruised the highways and byways of the valley, verifying facts, but there was little to update in regards to Genocide.

The sun was low on the horizon by the time we checked into our hotel, but as soon as we changed clothes we went in search of Ninebark. Again, don’t get excited about this restaurant. According to the news, it closed temporarily in July 2016 but is now permanently closed. Ninebark opened in late 2015 in the space formerly occupied by Fagiani’s Bar, the scene of an infamous murder.

We arrived early at the restaurant and made our way to the rooftop bar to enjoy drinks, the view, and the warm evening, cooled by a soft breeze drifting off the Napa River. Within the hour we were seated downstairs in a quiet corner near the windows, and our server was prompt and friendly.

The menu headings at Ninebark were interesting: Provisions, Market, Appetizers, Plates, and Etcetera. For starters, we ordered salt cod beignets with garlic aioli and honey; meatballs of beef, pork, and lamb with goat cheese and a three-day red sauce; and Dungeness crab toast with Sichuan chili, pickled rose, and grilled citrus dashi. The portions were small and we shared. When eating out I will rarely pass up duck, and that night was no exception. It was charcoal roasted and served with lavender honey, heirloom spinach, and grilled lovage sabayon. Dave ordered the flatiron steak with fresh Napa chimichurri, koji barbecue sauce, and grilled baby scallions. For dessert I had a tawny port, and Dave, Calvados.

For the record, the best duck I’ve ever eaten was at the Black Cat Bistro in Cambria, California. Another dish I love is risotto, and by far the best was at the Boscolo Milano hotel in Milan, Italy. A close second was the seafood risotto at Artisan in Paso Robles, California.

We had another full day ahead of us with more fun was on the agenda, and while the reader may not find these wineries or restaurants in Genocide, look for them in future Darcy McClain and Bullet thrillers.

Chateau Montelena was the first winery we toured on our honeymoon and has remained a favorite—not to mention it produces excellent vintages. The Franks, who once owned the property, had emigrated from Hong Kong, which accounts for the Chinese gardens and Jade Lake, home to wildlife and weeping willows and a sanctuary for all, including people.

In the early 1970s, Jim Barrett bought the land, and under his leadership the vineyard was replanted, the chateau outfitted with modern winemaking equipment, and wine made for the first time. Today Barrett’s son Bo is at the helm of the family-owned business.

We didn’t have time to visit another of our favorites, Grgich Hills, but a stop at Chateau Montelena always reminds me of Grgich’s success as a winemaster and his impact on the wines of Chateau Montelena. In 1976, at a blind tasting held in Paris, a small number of Napa Valley chardonnays were included in the sampling. When the scores were tallied, the French judges were shocked to learn they had chosen a 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay crafted by Mike Grgich as the finest white wine in the world. Mike emigrated to the US from Croatia. You can read more about him in my blog post titled: EUROPE 2011: Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia.

Our next stop Clos Pegase, designed by architect Michael Graves, who passed away in 2015. Construction of the winery was completed in 1987, months prior to our first visit in the same year. The architectural design is postmodern with a touch of ancient Mediterranean: dramatic shapes and bold coloration, and the gardens are xeriscape. According to House and Garden magazine, Clos Pegase “has raised two ancient arts—architecture and winemaking—to a height that resonates with echoes of the ages.” While Dave joined the wine tasters, I shot photos. From Clos Pegase we drove to Rombauer to sit on the deck and savor a glass of wine while we took in the view. Koerner Rombauer was once a commercial pilot for Dallas-based Braniff International Airways, an airline I flew on many times from Miami to South America en route to Africa. Braniff went bankrupt in 1982. Our next destination was Sterling Vineyards. The starkly white hilltop estate was designed by Martin Waterfield and is a Mediterranean-style stucco structure inspired by the dwellings on the Greek island of Mykonos, where the winery’s expatriate owner once lived. Since its opening, Sterling has been sold several times and is now owned by Treasury Wine Estates, an Australian firm.

Famished, and with ten minutes to spare, we entered Morimoto. As the name implies, the restaurant serves Japanese fare. Our table had an unobstructed view of the Napa River. We sipped cold sake while we waited for our sushi and sashimi to be prepared and laughed about our experiences with San Francisco taxi drivers.

On the first night in the city, our cabbie had no idea where Volta was located and ended up dropping us off eight blocks from the restaurant. The next night we got wise and located Benu on our iPhone in case we had to give the cab driver directions. Good thing, because he had never heard of Benu. Politely, I asked, “Are you new to the city?” He replied, “No. I’ve lived here for fifteen years and I’ve always been a cabbie.”

As our last day in northern California drew to an end, we strolled along the riverfront to our parked rental and then retired to our hotel, for we had an early flight out of San Francisco back into DFW International.



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California Book Settings: San Francisco

In late February, after a number of passes by several pairs of editorial eyes, I was finally ready to send Genocide to the typesetter. Someone once told me that my goal of perfection would never be obtained, because perfection doesn’t exist. I have no argument with that statement, but striving for perfection is rewarding unto itself, and my father always said, “If you can’t give your best, don’t do it at all.”

In May 2016 we flew to California. Dave came along for fun, and I was on a fact-checking mission to verify earlier research for Genocide. I love San Francisco and Napa, and neither has ever disappointed. We stayed at the Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf for two reasons: the hotel is centrally located to almost everything I needed to see, and it is not a high-rise. While I don’t suffer from seismophobia, I am realistic about the possibility of earthquakes and will always book a room in a low-rise whenever I am in an earthquake-prone region. I’ve certainly experienced my share—Mexico, South Africa, and many while living in California, as well as a few here in Texas, although nothing on the magnitude of the first three. I posted about my past earthquakes: The Early Years: The US and Mexico and The Ceres Earthquake: Wellington, South Africa

We arrived in the city around mid-afternoon. By the time we checked into our hotel and unpacked, there wasn’t much day left to tackle anything on my ambitious to-do list, so we shopped at Pier 39 for an hour, then watched the comical antics of the sea lions until dusk fell.

I also love to dine out in San Francisco, as the city has some of the best restaurants in the US. I have my favorites but decided to expand my culinary horizons by sampling some new eateries. The first restaurant on my short list was Volta, a French-Scandinavian brasserie. But don’t get too excited. I’ve learned that Volta has permanently closed after only nine months in business. I’m glad I had the chance to savor their duck terrine with cherry compote and black truffle gastrique, and for my main, the dry-aged duck breast with Seville orange topped with mandarins and roasted turnips—the perfect marriage of textures and tastes.

Daybreak, and I had a full agenda for day two. First I hiked the steep grade to Mandalay Lane, a fictitious name for a real street in San Francisco. I wanted to photograph any changes in the neighborhood since my last visit. I wasn’t surprised to see that many of residences had been remodeled, but this had no effect on the references to the street in my book. I rapped off at least a dozen shots for future reference, recorded a few comments on my iPhone, and caught up to Dave on Lombard to retrace Darcy’s footsteps in the opening chapters of Genocide.

Leisurely, we walked down the waterfront toward the Ferry Building and Pier 1, mindful of runners and cyclists, present even at this early hour and on a Sunday. We made a U-turn at Pier 1 1/2 and headed back up the Embarcadero to Piers 15 and 17. Our tour of the Ferry Building itself was on the list for the next day. Yes, there is also a Pier 1/2.

Piers 15 and 17 are the new home of the Exploratorium. The hands-on scientific museum was created by Frank Oppenheimer, brother of Robert Oppenheimer. Both were physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. For years the Exploratorium was housed at the Palace of Fine Arts but moved to its current location in 2013. The move changed a couple of sentences in Genocide, but since the museum was of no significance to the overall plot, I deleted any reference to it.

Marina Boulevard.

We left the Exploratorium for Pier 45, where we ate an early lunch at Alioto’s restaurant, then made the trek to the Palace of Fine Arts via Fort Mason, again following in Darcy’s footsteps. We paused often during our Fort Mason and Marina Boulevard walk to snap pictures on that beautiful, sunny day.

As I retraced Darcy’s steps through Fort Mason, I noticed that repairs were being made to the seawall and the Bay Trail had been detoured. I included the “detour” in my book. Some might say it will date the thriller. In today’s age, technology, and often life, moves so quickly that “history” is inevitable. Photo to the left: The detour was a bit steep and narrow, but Darcy is fit and she sprinted up the steps with ease.

Palace of Fine Arts

By mid-afternoon we arrived at the palace, “one of San Francisco’s most beloved landmarks.” After a seven-year, $21 million renovation, it reopened to the public in 2011 and was as imposing as I remember from my first visit in the 1980s.

Dozens of photos later, we left the palace to return to our hotel. We hoped to flag a cab for the return trip, but as luck would have it we only saw two, and both already had fares and were headed in the opposite direction. Besides, we needed the exercise to work up an appetite for dinner. Photo below left: Palace of Fine Arts, the very spot where Sean Ireland was found murdered.

To celebrate our anniversary, we had reservations at the Michelin three-star restaurant Benu run by Corey Lee, formerly the chef at the French Laundry in Yountville. I couldn’t wait to savor his lobster coral soup dumplings. We chose the twelve-course tasting menu along with the wine pairings. The experience can be summed up in one word: top-notch. Our beverage director was Yoon Ha, who excels at wine pairing. He made our evening  

extra special by printing our menu and having the waitstaff sign it with anniversary wishes. To complete the celebration, Courtney, the executive pastry chef, surprised us with an elegant dessert just for the occasion.

On day three we returned to the Embarcadero to visit the Ferry Building. We grabbed breakfast at the indoor marketplace and ate outdoors, watching the steady streams of ferry travelers as they poured into the terminal, in a hurry to reach jobs in the city.

From there we made our way to the Castro District, mapping out our own course—walking or hopping a cable car in one direction and riding the F-line streetcar on the return trip. We wrapped up our fact-checking tour around 4:00 p.m. and changed for dinner. That night we would celebrate my birthday—at Quince.

Quince is “the only Italian-inflected Michelin three-star restaurant in America,” I’ve been told. My interest in it was much simpler: I was there to eat. We both chose the tasting menu and the wine pairings as we did at Benu, but when it came to a couple of choices on the prix fixe offerings, Dave picked one item and I ordered the other, giving us a taste of both. Another memorable evening and another fabulous dessert.

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