Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts

07 April 2015

Because Something is Happening Here But You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Mister Jones?

by Paul D. Marks

One of the things that scares me most as a writer is an illiterate society. Not only illiterate in the sense of people being unable to read and write. But “illiterate” in the sense that, as a society, we have touchstones that everyone or at least most people are familiar with. Or I thought we did at one time. I’m not so sure anymore.

Let’s start with plain literacy on a personal and anecdotal level.

When my wife and I were looking for the house prior to our current house we noticed something odd, at least odd to us. We’d go in various houses in different parts of Los Angeles. But, unlike some of the shows on HGTV, you could still see the real people’s stuff in their houses. Their junk, ugly sofa, hideous drapes and kids’ toys strewn all over, laundry baskets, cluttered closets, etc. One thing we didn’t see much of were books. Sure, a house here or there had them, but the majority didn’t. And if they did they had a coffee table book or two of some artist they thought would make them look chic or intelligent or maybe a book of aerial views of L.A. One place we expected to see lots of books was in kids’ rooms or a potboiler on their parents’ nightstands. But, alas, the “cupboards” were bare.
This was twenty or so years ago, so well before smart phones, Kindles and e-readers. So, it’s not like all their multitudinous libraries were in e-form. No, there just weren’t many books to be seen.
We found this odd, as we have books stuffed to the rafters, as do most of our friends. Here, there and everywhere, in the living room or the dining room, library, the hallway, and even shelves upon shelves in the garage.

Flash forward: Cultural Literacy

29291When we went hunting for our current house, about ten years ago it was more of the same. By then there might have been some e-books and the like but the real revolution still hadn’t hit full bore yet.

Again this seemed odd. But more than odd, it’s scary. Especially for a writer. Because a writer needs readers. And if people aren’t reading, I’m out of a job, and maybe likely so are you. Even scarier though is the fact that, imho, we are becoming a post-literate society. And we are losing our shared background, some of which is gotten through books. Aside from the greater implications of that in terms of the country, it makes it harder as a writer because when we write we assume some shared cultural background. And we make literary or historical allusions to those ends. We mention composers or songs or symphonies. Books, authors, “famous” or “well-known” quotes that we assume most readers will be familiar with, some foreign phrases, even biblical references. Hemingway and even Bob Dylan songs (and I’m talking those from the 60s before he found religion in the 70s), as well as other writers, are filled with them. But often these days readers are not familiar with these references, so they miss the richness of the writing. So then we begin to question whether or not to include these references and sometimes end up writing to the lower common denominator. And that diminishes our works and our society, even if it sounds pompous to say that.

Maybe people won’t know who Rudy Vallee is, and that's understandable, but many also don’t know who Shakespeare is in any meaningful way.

743625500929_p0_v1_s600When I would go to pitch meetings in Hollywood I would often have to dumb down my presentation. I would try to leave out any historical or literary allusions. Hell, I’d even leave out film allusions because while these people may have heard of Hitchcock, few had seen his movies. And they were mostly from Ivy League type schools, but they didn’t have much of a cultural background. So when you have to explain basic things to them, you’ve lost them. They don’t like to feel stupid. And sometimes they’d ask me to explain something to them about another script they were reading by someone else. One development VP asked me to explain to her who fought on which sides in World War II, because she was reading a WWII script someone had submitted. The writer of that script already had points against him or her since the development VP didn’t even know the basics of the subject matter. And I would have thought before that incident that just about everybody knew who fought on which side in WWII. And this is just one example. I have many, many more experiences like this.

After college, the stats show that many people never—or very rarely—read another book. Literacy rates in the US are down. A lot of young people aren’t reading, but they think they’re smart because they look things up on Google. But looking something up on Google isn’t the same as knowing, though it’s better than nothing, assuming people do look things up. See: http://www.salon.com/2014/10/12/google_makes_us_all_dumber_the_neuroscience_of_search_engines/
Hw-shakespeare2
I’ve seen several authors, some very well known, ask on Facebook if they should include X, Y or Z in a novel because their editor says no one will get the references, even though the references aren’t that obscure. But even if they are, what’s wrong with using them and having people (hopefully) look them up. Isn’t that how we expand our knowledge? But nobody wants to challenge anyone in that way anymore. We’re dealing with generations now that have been told how wonderful they are without having earned it. So when we unintentionally make them feel stupid by using references they’re not familiar with, they turn off. Is it just me or does our society seem to have no intellectual curiosity, no interests or hobbies other than texting or watching the Kardashians? They don’t have the will to look further than the screens of their smart phones?

I know I’m generalizing and that there are pockets of intellectual curiosity (like the readers of this blog!), but I feel like we are becoming a minority.

And when you do a book signing or a library event, do you notice the average median age and hair color of the audience? More times than not they’re older and grayer. And where are the young people? That’s scary.

I wish more people would make New Year’s resolutions to improve their minds as well as their bodies, to exercise their brains as well as their muscles. So maybe we should do yoga for the brain as well as the body.

At this point I’d even settle for grownups reading comic books or graphic novels as long as there’s words in them.

All of this scares me, not just as a writer, who might not have an audience in the future. But for society as a whole. We need to have a shared background, a common knowledge, a literate society of people who are engaged. Not everybody can know everything, of course. But there should be some common background that we can all relate to.



Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg#/media/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg
Blonde on blonde album cover: "Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg#/media/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg

08 September 2013

The Kemper Case

by Leigh Lundin

If I were to blame someone for my interest in a life of crime, it would be my Aunt Rae, Rachel Kemper. She devoured mysteries leaving them for this impressionable child to read– Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr… she seemed to prefer male authors. By the time I was ten, I would discover the detective stories of Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and of course Agatha Christie.

John Kemper
John Kemper
My cousin, John Kemper, has also been doing detective work in libraries and on the internet, researching our ancestors, a passion of our mothers and grandmother. John is exacting and meticulous. If he can’t nail down each and every particular, a questionable link won’t fly with him.

He turned up the fact at least one ancestor floated over on the Mayflower, Stephen Hopkins. Hopkins is the only person to appear in both Jamestown and Plymouth. A contentious hard-head with authority issues (yes, the bloodline tells), he damned near got himself hanged for mutiny in Bermuda. Shakespeare may have modeled the character Stephano in The Tempest after our Stephen.

After Jamestown, this true adventurer signed up to come to the New World a second time, bringing his family to what would become Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Indeed, Hopkins contributed majorly to the success of Plymouth.

In choosing to battle Indians rather than live with and learn from them, the Jamestown colony provoked a disaster, worsened for the Indians by the arrival of a despicable historical character, Lord De la Warr (Delaware), with a genocidal mandate to wipe out Indians altogether.

The surname Kemper is considered either a Dutch-German place name from the Kempen regions or a Germanic occupational name meaning peasant farmer or hemp grower, the latter of considerable interest to some. It may also be an English corruption of the French Camp or Champ from the Latin Campus, a military field.
In Plymouth, Hopkins and Indians cooperated. Before leaving England, Hopkins had purchased gifts and offerings for the natives. The Pilgrims repaid Indians for caches of corn they’d discovered and filched upon arrival. The colony tried and executed at least one man for killing an Indian. Hopkins’ house became a regional meeting place between Indians and the Europeans. The result was a peace and partnership that lasted half a century.

But wait, there’s more!

Years ago, I remember mailings from a company that promised to research one's royal lineage and produce a book, complete with history, heraldic symbols, and the opportunity to buy wall plaques and coffee mugs with your coat-of-arms. Turns out they had ways of surmising royal connections for just about everyone. The book, titled something like The Snerdsbottoms of America, turned out to be generic, mostly a history of heraldry itself, great houses of Europe, and finally a few paragraphs about the Snerdsbottom family, their supposed connection to the Duchy of Snerdly, and their "painstakingly researched" coat-of-arms. That and a £5 or €10 ticket will get you into Versailles or the Tower of London to view your Crown Jewels.

Plantagenet
Plantagenet Coat-of-Arms
1198-1340
It turns out we’re also descended from another rascal, Edward III, son of the failed Edward II. Thus we bear the burden of the Battle of Bannockburn, the Hundred Years War, not to mention the death of Jean d'Arc and that whole French Templar debacle. Ah, the chains of history.

I may not be a monarchist, but everyone likes to think they have royal blood, don’t they? Excuse me for a moment whilst I polish my brassy snob appeal.

But how meaningful is such a claim? Those who follow my articles know I enjoy math puzzles, so let's assume thirty generations of descent, and if you graph the numbers on n children to the 30th power or n30, it becomes obvious you, you, possibly you and millions of other people can brag of their distant royal ancestry. It's called 'pedigree collapse', a phrase I picked up from John and apparently discussed in a Stephen Fry QI episode. But for an instant or two, we can enjoy those few strands of regal DNA.

When Good Kempers Go Bad

A column on crime wouldn’t be complete without villainy. I’m not talking about an unfortunate character in the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (glad I didn't see either), but I couldn’t help but admire a girl so taken with the character’s name Kemper, she tenderly named her baby after him. I hope that’s the last we hear of him in this context.

John also researched Edmund Emil Kemper III and determined, much to his relief, that Edmund Emil is not related. This Kemper is the sort of character the television program Criminal Minds focuses on– bad childhood, badder adulthood. He was one sick… well, rather than the word that comes to mind, let's say malefactor.

With high IQ and low resistance to his mother’s depravations, Edmund’s become a poster boy for the belief murderers aren’t born, they’re made. His older sister threw him in the deep end of a pool and may have tried to push him under a train.

The word ‘necrophilia’, literally ‘love of corpses’, isn’t capable of expressing the depth of Edmund’s sickness and frankly neither am I. Suffice to say it’s a stomach-churning read. The only positive note after ten murders– three of them relatives– he realized he was one sick, well, miscreant and turned himself in to police. Until that point, authorities hadn’t a clue who the perpetrator was.

Thus I’m happy to report, thanks to the laudable work of John Kemper, we’re not related to Mr. Edmund Kemper III.

08 January 2013

What's In A Name?

by David Dean

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (as if I needed to tell you that).

Easy for Juliet to have said, after all who doesn't know her name?  I often think when I'm writing that all the good names have been taken.  If there's one thing I find vexatious when conjuring up characters it's the naming of them.  I blame Shakespeare and Dickens mostly.  They got all the good ones.  Let's face it, how are you going to top names like Romeo?  You can hardly think of young love and lovers without it popping unbidden into your brain.  As for villainy, how about Iago, or better yet in my book, the obsequious and insinuating Uriah Heep of David Copperfield?  If you give a thought to pick-pockets what name jumps up at you?  The Artful Dodger, perchance?  Indecisiveness--Hamlet, anyone?  Decay and bitterness?  Need I say Miss Havisham?  Need I go on?  Those two guys used up all the good names!  Never mind that they actually had to think them up.  I'm sure any of us could have done it given enough time.

I'm seldom satisfied with the character names I come up with, they're all so ordinary and common.  No Prosperos or Micawbers amongst them.  I blame my generation.  We all had common, ordinary names, nothing special to distinguish us.  Every kid I knew was named David, Ricky, Susan, Rita, Mary, Tommy, Terry, Steve, Laura, Keith.  Of course this was in the era before color was introduced into the world.  Everything was in black and white, so our names had to be suitably bland as well.  We didn't know any better during that gray time and thought it was just fine.  As a result we are name-challenged...or at least I am.

I've tried different tactics with only low levels of success.  In the beginning I worked the names of family into my stories.  It was sort of an inside joke and they seem to get a kick out of it.  But sometimes a name borrowed from one of my kids didn't fit the character I was creating.  Then I was thrown back on my own creativity--not a happy place for me when it comes to names.  So I would sit in front of my computer listlessly staring at a cursor pulsating with impatience for the "name".  Lacking true inspiration I fell into lifting names from the authors of the books stacked up on my desktop.  I would mix and match them.  Clever, no?  No...not particularly.  None of them rose to "Ebenezer Scrooge" status and distinction.  When I penned the suspense-filled actioner, "Tomorrow's Dead", the best name I could come up with for it's rugged protagonist was Byron.  Byron?  I ask ya.  Not even a second cousin to a Mike Hammer, or a Sam Spade.

Mostly, I just stick with the near-generic names of my youth and experience.  A story due out this year features a Terry, another a Helen.  You can see my problem here.  I did kinda go out on a limb with "Mariel" in a recent work--downright exotic for me.  One of the few times I thought I got the name just right for the character.

So these are my trials and travails when it comes to the damnable name game.  Don't even get me started on the more minor characters!  I'm considering going to numerical designations when it comes to them, sort of like the bad guys in a 60's Bond film.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject, as I know from reading many of my fellow SleuthSayers works, no one has this problem but me.  Everyone else is clever at naming.  How about a little support? 

Brother, can you spare a name?  Got some loose monikers on ya?  Hey, don't walk away from me...I know you got a few extra handles in your pocket!

18 December 2011

Hugo and Shakespeare

by Leigh Lundin

A series of crushing deadlines dogged me for several weeks, so serious research and writing pushed creative authoring into a tiny corner. It didn't help that the short story I've been working on has been a recalcitrant bear. Even its title proved elusive, another little hurdle in a difficult terrain.
Cosette
not quite this young

The tale grew out of a 'what-if' scenario in my head. At 2900 words, if it were a play, it would be two acts with three speaking rôles. One protagonist is a fair-minded cop who can't be bought, bribed, bent, or browbeaten. The 'criminal' is a sullen twenty-year-old homeless woman. It should be simple, right?

Les Misérables

If not a miserable experience, it's been a challenging and sometimes frustrating one. This is what I learned.

I wrote the first draft in third person. Third person didn't work. It lay flat and lifeless on the page without emotion. I struggled, but it proved stubborn.

I rewrote it in first person from the cop's standpoint. The connection with the characters grew, but it still wasn't right. Disbelief remained unsuspended.

I rewrote it in first person from the woman's view. Just before that moment where I might hate the story, it began to flesh out emotionally.

The story line is less Dickens and more Victor Hugo. Our 'criminal' is sort of an angry female Jean Valjean, sleeping in her SUV with iced-over windows. Our detective, though incorruptible, is more, say, Bishop Myriel than Inspector Javert.

Death Takes a Holiday

Fueled by outside deadlines and pressures from the real world, the story continued to prove difficult, resisting every sentence. What started before Halloween passed Thanksgiving and approached Christmas.

But wait… Christmas? What if I set the story during Christmas season? Acquaintances have sent numerous eMails insisting the White House and the ACLU are banning Christmas, but I'm pretty sure that's not true. We've got time for one more holiday story, don't we?

Only recently have I tackled holiday stories and in each case, the holiday (Halloween, Hanukkah, and Christmas) was integral to the story. I don't believe in welding a seasonal setting onto an ordinary yarn, but with this intransigent new story, a Christmas setting felt right. I'd already cast the weather as cold, bleak, and dreary with a hint of snow in the air. Why not let the season provide the texture of believability for the tale?

Thus it came to pass in the little town of Orlando, the December temperature dropped sufficiently to turn off the air conditioner, wear T-shirts and shorts, throw open the doors, and mow the lawn. And, imagine a story in a snowy, icy city nearer the Canadian border than this close to the tropics.


A Death in the Family
Shakespearean
photo credit: Christine Selleck
Shakespeare & Company is a bookstore (the second of two) in… wait for it… the heart of Paris. Ninety-eight year-old owner George Whitman, who lived above the bookshop, died last week. He let writers, both published and unpublished, bunk in the bookstore in exchange for a couple of hours work each day. Originally from New Jersey, Whitman once called the shop "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore."

I don't believe in socialist utopias, but I do believe in brilliant entrepreneurs who wink at the left and the right and lay down workable business models when other retailers collapse. Owning a bookstore is one of those dreams like owning a pub or restaurant– probably better dreamt than acted upon.

Both Shakespearean bookstores have their own important history. Watch this video about the store or read the fascinating history.

Next week, Louis Willis  will meet you here Christmas Day.