Showing posts with label Stephen Ross. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen Ross. Show all posts

24 July 2017

Withnail & I

by Stephen Ross

Picture this: A large, empty, cavernous movie theater auditorium in the depths of winter. I'm in a jacket and scarf, and my breath is visible. It's a matinee screening and no one else came. The lights go down and the ruby red curtains part. A soulful saxophone echoes: a four a.m. version of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale. Up on the screen, a man sits in profile in a darkened sitting room and smokes a cigarette. He's contemplating the universe, or he's about to face a firing squad.

This is a memory burnt into my mind. And I am lately reminded that it happened thirty years ago.

Thirty years ago, Kevin called me up on the telephone. "You should go see it," he said. He'd called to tell me about a movie that had opened a couple of days earlier. I don't remember his exact words, but I remember his enthusiasm, and the movie was Withnail and I.

"What's it about?"

A couple of days later, I sat alone in that aforementioned empty movie theater: The Embassy; a cold, uninspiring Art Deco building of creams and off whites. It used to stand on the corner of Lorne and Wellesley Streets in Auckland City, and it was a proper movie palace: wide, a couple of levels, big fat chocolate leather seats (and not a darkened shoe box like most cinemas today).

"What the hell was that about?" Francine asked, two weeks later, when I suggested we go see it (me for the second time), and we did, and we sat in a café afterwards.

The movie is set in England in 1969 and it's about a lot of different things, and to describe any one of them would do disservice to the others. To my mind, it's about as close to a book as any movie has ever gotten. When I close a good book, I'm left first with a mood, a feeling; it's taken me somewhere emotionally. Remembering scenes and moments (and the plot) comes later.

Essentially, Withnail is the story of two actors. They've graduated from drama school and are looking for work. They're unemployed and the world owes them no favors. In fact, the world seems to offer no hope whatsoever. The world is crumbling.
This can be read as a metaphor, and it's the key to the movie's popularity (it flopped when it was first released, but it's since become a perennial favorite; a cult classic). We've all been there. The waiting. The what next? The what do I do now?

It doesn't matter the career or chosen path, be it actor, writer, musician, or ________ (fill in the blank). Most of us have found ourselves, at some point, standing at the crossroads wondering what the hell do we do next?

Do I wait for the phone to ring? Do I go out and hustle? How does this thing work?

And there is no right answer. And Withnail doesn't provide one.

That's the trouble with most movies today. There's always a right answer: it's provided for you, usually in triplicate, and underlined. You can watch and "understand" most movies today without almost any assistance from your brain.

I'm not arguing that Withnail & I is the greatest movie ever made, but it takes you somewhere, if you want it to. And I will argue that it's one of the more sharply written and better acted.

Withnail ends in Regent's Park, London. It's raining. It's a miserable day. One of the actors has left to catch a train; he has secured a job. The other is left drunk at the bars of the wolf enclosure, his future uncertain. He recites the what a piece of work is man? monologue from Hamlet. The wolves are uninterested.


Again, a metaphor.

Withnail & I is about whatever you want to find in it.

Withnail & I (at the IMDB)

Stephen Ross (on Facebook)

12 March 2017

International GoodBooks

by Leigh Lundin

I love Looking Glass Alice and good books and well-done animation and charitable causes. When they come together, that's Wonderland. Check out this lovely Alice clip from the land of Stephen Ross— New Zealand.


The good folks at International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) can apparently deliver pretty much anything worldwide through Amazon channels. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you use their portal rather than Amazon’s, purchases are supposed to work the same but they get credit.

Brilliant, both the sentiment and the advert. Let me know how you make out.

For fans of the surreal Alice like me, Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland is delightful and much better than the 2016 Through the Looking Glass follow-up. I also admired the computer game America McGee’s Alice for its brilliant music and surrealism.

Before leaving New Zealand and the phantasmagorical, check out this 1967 NZ classic by House of Nimrod, Slightly-Delic. (Page includes a free download.)

25 April 2016

Brief Encounters of the Story Kind

by Stephen Ross

Writing a book or a short story is like a relationship. You meet a pretty girl (you think of a cool idea for a plot). You discover the girl is super smart and intelligent (the idea has depth and resonance, and is compelling), and you become even more attracted to her. You start on page one (you ask her out), and there begins your relationship in earnest. Your first several dates go off without a hitch, and you make good progress on the first draft. The relationship grows and blossoms.

Without extending this metaphor into the realms of the surreal, you fall madly in love (you get into the zone of writing the story), and love (your writing) flows as poetically as a Shakespearean sonnet on a summer's day.

Pause for sighing. Ahhhh...

But, unlike in the real world, your relationship with your story is doomed to failure because, at some point, the relationship has to end. It must end. You can't keep writing the same story for the rest of your life. There has to be closure. We writers sometimes spend so much time with our creations, they are describable as significant others: loved and cherished, honored and obeyed, and breaking up can be hard to do.

Sometimes, the breakup might be mutually beneficial, especially when the story has been a hard write, and there's been a lot of bickering between you and it in the course of its telling. You know those stories, the ones with lots of long silent nights sat staring at each other, with nothing to say. And you're just mopping up the loose ends, to get it over with, so you can go your separate ways, with both hoping to survive the bitter separation.

Worse, still, is when you leave the story for another. And it sits there, alone, in the café of your soul, drinking endless cups of coffee waiting for your return. And when you do return (after your torrid affair with another story), it's never the same.

For most writers, writing is rewriting. I think only in movies (and in our dreams) does anyone start on page one, spend a couple of months working through to page 400, type in THE END, and then send the completed book off to a publisher (where, of course, it immediately sells and is immediately published)). The first draft is merely the gateway into the story. The real writing comes in the rewriting.

But rewriting can't last forever. How many times can you read over a story and refine it and polish it? Every time through you find something new to fiddle with and adjust: another adverb to throw out, another debatably redundant word or phrase to toss, another he said or she said that can be dropped, because it's quite obvious who is talking.

And every time you get to the end of a read over, you think, yeah, let's do this just one more time.

The best way to end a story is at the train station.


You're about to board the train (to continue on your journey), and your story is going to wave goodbye from the platform. You both know it can't go on, that you must part, that it's over. You're done. All that needs to be said has been said, and you both know it.

The encounter, albeit brief, has come to an end.

Your train departs.

You both wave goodbye.

Tears.

To actually go ahead and shunt this metaphor firmly into the realms of the surreal, your story then becomes your child.

It goes off on its own, and you have little or no more control over it. All you can do is sit back and watch as it grows and makes its way in the world.

Hopefully, it'll graduate from high school (i.e., sell and get published). Hopefully, at least, somebody might say some nice things about it. It might even get lucky and get nominated for an award; it might even win one.

It might even mature into an adult and get picked up by another medium: audio, film, theater, computer game (and who knows what else awaits us in the future). And it might even one day grow up to be considered something rather special: an outstanding story among its peers.

And one thing is absolutely for certain: no "mights "about it. Your story will outlive you. And long after you have gone, someone somewhere may still know of it, have a copy in his or her hand, and perceive a sense of the love that once bloomed.

Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and we can still feel the resonance of love in his writing:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it...

Be seeing you.

P.S. The photo is a still from the 1945 movie Brief Encounter. If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat.

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24 August 2015

Queen of Crime

by Stephen Ross

I met Sam Neill (the movie actor) once. For a short time, in a galaxy far, far away (the 1980s), I worked as a bank clerk on campus at the University of Auckland, and Mr Neill came in one quiet afternoon to make enquiries about foreign exchanges. His brother was a lecturer at the university (his brother, Michael, would later be one of my English professors). I mention this brush with movie stardom simply because I can state that I have met and spoken to someone who not only knew, but was a good friend of, writer Ngaio Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh sold four stories to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I mention this upfront, because it's the only other connection (albeit tenuous) that I can claim to her; I too have had stories appear in the same magazine.

Ngaio Marsh's 
short stories 
in EQMM
I Can't Find My Way Out (August 1946)
Death on the Air (January 1948)
Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery (August 1973)
A Fool About Money (December 1974)

A couple of Dames at the Savoy (Christie and Marsh)
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in 1895 (April 23; same birthday as Shakespeare) and died in 1982. In both instances, in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you want to talk about New Zealand and crime/mystery fiction, you start (and can pretty much end) with Ngaio Marsh. From the 1930s through to the 1980s, Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 novels (most still in print). She is considered to be one the leading writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and along with her stable mates Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, has been described as one of the original four Queens of Crime. The actual Queen (Elizabeth 2), made Marsh a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and in 1978 (along with Dame Daphne du Maurier), Dame Ngaio Marsh became a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's highest honour: the Grand Master Award. No other New Zealand writer of mystery fiction has yet achieved her standing. In fact, no other New Zealand writer. Period.

Ngaio Marsh's parents met in Christchurch. Her mother, Rose, was a New Zealander and an actress, and her father, Henry, was British and a bank clerk with an interest in the theatre. They were married in 1894 and Edith, their only child, was born the following year. An uncle fluent in Maori was asked to provide an indigenous middle name (a custom at the time, apparently), and he came up with "Ngaio", which is a Maori word for a type of tree, with the additional connotations of clever, methodical, and restless.


So, how do you pronounce Ngaio? And I have been asked. Being an authority on the New Zealand vocabulary and accent (because I be one), I can tell you it's pronounced Nigh-Oh [ /ˈnaɪ.oʊ/ ].


Marsh's childhood, from all accounts, was reasonably spiffing and splendid (we'll skip over the fact that she was bullied at school and for a time (10-14 years) was home-schooled). She read everybody. Ah... pause for a moment to imagine a life before the Internet, before television. Imagine summer afternoons in the countryside reading Kipling, Dickens, Henry Fielding, Smollett, Shakespeare, and Conan Doyle. You can just picture her, in Edwardian attire, basking on a blanket in a soft breeze, with a flask of lemonade, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and thoroughly absorbed in Smollet's The Adventures of Roderick Random (mark the name Roderick well).

In addition to reading, Marsh also had a taste for the theatre, like her parents, and while still in school she mounted several amateur theatrical productions. She also began writing: short stories and plays. At first, her audience was her school peers, but by her 20s, she was in print, with stories and poems appearing regularly in Christchurch's The Sun newspaper. She also had a strong passion for painting, and she graduated in 1917 with an Arts diploma (first-class honours) from Canterbury University College (Christchurch is located in the Canterbury province of New Zealand).

By the time Marsh was in her early twenties, the three corners of her world had been set. It's no surprise, then, that theatre and the arts would later form the backdrop to several of her novels. And although painting would figure prominently throughout her life (dare I call it a hobby), it was to the gravitational pull of words, both those written down and those spoken aloud, where her heart fell.

For the next ten years after graduation, until 1928, Marsh continued developing her talents as a writer: writing plays and working on a "New Zealand" novel. Together with a group of likeminded artists she formed "The Group" (a group, mostly women, with avant-garde leanings). And she found on-going employment with a handful of professional theatre companies. It was in this time that she "paid her dues" and learnt her theatre craft. In fact, had Marsh never written a single novel, she would still be recognized as one of the doyens of 20th Century New Zealand theatre. Indeed, my first introduction to her was in a theatre, when I was 14. I had joined an amateur repertory company (the other members were mostly adults), and I remember Marsh being spoken about with reverence on winter evenings over cups of hot tea and crumbly digestives (a type of cookie).

Marsh (in beret) with "The Group", 1936
My first introduction to Ngaio Marsh the author had come about earlier, when I was about 6 or 7, only I hadn't been aware of it at the time. There was a bookshelf in my parents' living room. The upper shelves were lined with the classics of literature, and the lower shelves with a healthy selection of crime fiction (Cat among the Pigeons, Death on the Nile, etc.). One title on the bottom shelf always caught my eye: "Surfeit of Lampreys". I was a small boy. The title may as well have been written in Klingon. Or Latin.

In April 2012, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine published my short story Pueri Alleynienses, and a friend asked me if the Latin title was a reference to Ngaio Marsh's detective, the principal character of all 32 of her novels, Roderick Alleyn. No, it wasn't, but then I discovered, unintentionally, that it was. My story was about two old men who, many years earlier, had attended Dulwich College in London. Pueri Alleynienses is the title of the Dulwich school song. It translates from the Latin as "Boys of Alleyn" (the founder of Dulwich College was Edward Alleyn). My interest in Dulwich had been based on the fact that Raymond Chandler had been a pupil there (1900-1905). In 1882, part of Dulwich College was annexed as a separate school, to be known simply as Alleyn's School, and it was at this school that Ngaio Marsh's father received an education, and from where she took a name for her character.

And a home for her character, too. London. Inspector Roderick Alleyn worked for Scotland Yard. He was British, a member of the gentry (his older brother was a baronet). He was an Oxford graduate, and had a background in the British army and the Foreign Service before he joined the Met. Almost all of Marsh's 32 books are set in England, with just four set in New Zealand, where Alleyn is either on secondment to the New Zealand Police, or is on holiday (Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool, Vintage Murder, Photo Finish). A fifth, Surfeit of Lampreys, starts out in New Zealand, but promptly returns to London and stays there.

Why London? Because in 1928, Marsh went to live there. Why? Probably because, like most other New Zealand artists and creatives (and even more so 80 odd years ago), New Zealand is a bit empty. Even today, the population is well under five million, spread out over a land mass equivalent in size to the United Kingdom, or California, and not a lot of people in that population could give a flying truck about the local arts scene. Unless it involves Peter Jackson and lots of loud noises.

Nowadays it's called going on The Big OE (Overseas Experience). Yes, there is actually a name for it: when young New Zealanders venture overseas to find fame and fortune, or to get a life. Nowadays, an OE could mean venturing anywhere: Spain, Norway, the US, South America; but until about 20 years ago, it meant only one thing: London. There are very few New Zealanders who work, or have worked, in the arts who haven't done it. Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, to name two others. Even I’ve done it. I lived in Soho for a year (before decamping for the continent). The Big OE is written into the DNA of many New Zealanders.

Marsh (1935)
London's (and Europe's) appeal to Marsh would have been great. To quote Eddie Izzard, "It's where the history comes from." Marsh's father was British, her mother a second-generation New Zealander with strong family connections to the "old" country. And through her connections in the New Zealand theatre world, Marsh landed in London on her feet running and co-opened an arts and crafts shop in Knightsbridge. She wrote a series of travel articles that were syndicated by the Associated Press, the strength of which gained her admission to the Society of Authors in 1929. And she gave up on her New Zealand novel. The "colonial novel" had by this time become a little passé, and not something an artistic, sophisticated, independent lady of London would care for.

And then one wet winter's weekend in 1931, trapped indoors with nothing much else to do, a bored Marsh thought she would try her hand at a detective novel. She had been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries since she had been a child, and she was au fait with the emerging detective genre (she had read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al). The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction had begun, and Marsh probably didn't realize it when she put pen to paper that weekend, but she was about to join it. Her first book, A Man Lay Dying was published three years later in 1934. Inspector Roderick Alleyn entered the minds of readers and found their favour, along with most critics'.

Marsh was back in Christchurch when the book went to print, having returned in 1932 to nurse her ill mother. She wouldn't return to Europe until the late 1930s, and from then on she largely made her home in New Zealand. The Big OE was over. If I was to write a movie script about Marsh, that's where I'd end it: The publication of her first book to great reception. The end. Roll credits. The rest of her life is largely a matter of bibliography and milestone. She wrote 31 more novels featuring Inspector Alleyn (about one every 1-2 years), cementing her place in the literary pantheon. She wrote numerous plays, short stories, articles, and three works of non-fiction, including an autobiography. And she dedicated the remainder of her time to her other love: theatre.

Selected Milestones 
(not mentioned above)



1949
Penguin Books publishes the Marsh Million, in which one million copies of ten of her titles (i.e. 100,000 x 10) were released on the same day.

1950
Marsh produces her favourite play (Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author) at the Embassy Theatre in London.

It's interesting that this was her favourite play, given her love of Shakespeare. It's an oddball piece of theatre (in my tainted opinion -- I sat through a million amateur performances of it in the 1980s as a lighting designer). I much prefer Rod Serling's Five Characters in Search of an Exit, if you know your Twilight Zone.

1951 
An Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reader's poll votes Marsh one of the best mystery writers currently active.

1963 
Receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Canterbury University.

1967 
The Ngaio Marsh Theatre opens. It is a 400-seat proscenium-arch theatre on campus at the University of Canterbury (currently closed due to earthquake damage). Opening night was a Ngaio Marsh produced production of Twelfth Night.

1967 
Death at the Dolphin nominated for the Edgar Award

1969 
Marsh produces A Midsummer's Night's Dream, starring Sam Neill.

1973 
Tied up in Tinsel nominated for the Edgar Award

1978 
South Pacific Pictures (a NZ television company) produces four feature-length adaptations of the New Zealand-set novels, starring George Baker as Inspector Alleyn.

Click here to watch online: Died in the Wool

1990-94
The BBC produces The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, adapting nine of the novels.

2010 
The Ngaio Marsh Award is established by journalist Craig Sisterson. The award is given each year to the best crime novel written by a citizen (or resident) of New Zealand. 

Roderick Alleyn

Roderick Alleyn's initials are RA. As a painter, Marsh would have known that the initials "RA" after an artist's name stand for Royal Academician, i.e. an artist elected (to the distinguished title) by members of the Royal Academy of Arts. I mention this purely as an observation.

Agatha Troy 

Agatha Troy first appears in Artists in Crime (1938). She is a famous painter. She is Marsh's version of Agatha Christie's  Ariadne Oliver -- i.e. a character through which the author can vicariously live in the story. Troy reappears in the later books and becomes Alleyn's wife.

Ngaio Marsh's 
Mystery Books 
1. A Man Lay Dead (1934)
2. Enter a Murderer (1935)
3. The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
4. Death in Ecstasy (1936)
5. Vintage Murder (1937)
6. Artists in Crime (1938)
7. Death in a White Tie (1938)
8. Overture to Death (1939)
9. Death at the Bar (1940)
10. Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) [US: Death of a Peer]
11. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
12. Colour Scheme (1943)
13. Died in the Wool (1945)
14. Final Curtain (1947)
15. Swing Brother Swing (1949) [US: A Wreath for Rivera]
16. Opening Night (1951) [US: Night at the Vulcan]
17. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) [US: The Bride of Death (abridged, 1955)]
18. Scales of Justice (1955)
19. Off With His Head (1957) [US: Death of a Fool]
20. Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
21. False Scent (1960)
22. Hand in Glove (1962)
23. Dead Water (1964)
24. Death at the Dolphin (1967) [US: Killer Dolphin]
25. Clutch of Constables (1968)
26. When in Rome (1970)
27. Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
28. Black As He's Painted (1974)
29. Last Ditch (1977)
30. Grave Mistake (1978)
31. Photo Finish (1980)
32. Light Thickens (1982)

Don’t ask me to name a favourite Marsh. I've only read two of them, and a long time ago at that. The word tardy is applicable. In researching this little post, I turned up the fact that the bafflingly titled book on my parent's bookshelf, Surfeit of Lampreys, is considered her best book. I've left a memo on my desk to get a copy and read it.

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.

Light Thickens was Marsh's final novel (1982). The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare's Macbeth (quoted above), and a principal element of the book concerns the theatrical taboo of "the Scottish play". Marsh completed the book shortly before her death. The Golden Age was over. The last queen was dead.


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Photos: The Christchurch Press, The NZ National Library

20 January 2015

The Long White Cloud

by Raymond Chandler

You probably didn't expect to read an entry from me in this slot. I'm in New Zealand house-sitting for the kid (Stephen Ross); he's gone on vacation to work on his book. I suspect he's really gone on vacation to catch up on his reading; he's a prince among procrastinators, and there's a gap on the bookshelf where his collection of Perry Mason mysteries used to reside.

The kid asked me look after his house, feed his cat, and ghost write this blog entry. I have no interest in being a ghost, and blog is not a word to inspire confidence; it has a connotation best left to outhouses. I offered to write him a journal entry. He said, "Call it what you like, dude." The kid is under the misapprehension I am a cowboy.

There's no cash remuneration involved. He's left me with the run of his house, a full refrigerator, access to the Internet, WiFi, satellite television, and a Kindle. I'm not entirely sure what a Kindle is supposed to do, but it's convenient as a tray for my cup of coffee.

I may be of antique vintage, but I don't shy away from technology. I owned one of the first television sets in my building and on the block. The old woman in the neighboring apartment thought it was the work of the devil. She left bibles outside my door. The kid has a television set. It has the dimensions of a pool table and is about as thick as a paperback. For three days, I thought it was a room divider. I also invented Google, apparently.

So, what can I say? It's January and the weather is summer, which is strange to my Northern Hemisphere sensibilities. I'm sitting here at the kid's desk in a Hawaiian shirt and a pair of Bermuda shorts. My socks are English (they're plain and polite). The electric fan that's oscillating nearby came from Korea. The kid's desk was made in Canada, and he bought it in Germany. I suppose the carpet came from the Moon.
The kid's house is in Whangaparaoa; a peninsula that juts out like a finger, pointing across the Pacific at North America. I'm about 25 miles north of Auckland, which is the country's largest city (pop 1.3 million), and until 1865 the country's capital (until they relocated the government down to Wellington, at the request of Sir Peter Jackson). Do I like the Lord of The Rings and the Hobbit movies? No. I'd rather watch cloud formations.

New Zealand is located at the foot of the Pacific Ocean, and it's so damp, it may as well lie at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It has a population of 4.5 million and a climate that I would describe as peculiar, as in you'd walk on the other side of the street to avoid talking to it. I'm sitting here in the heat and humidity of the sub tropics and in winter you can go snow skiing.

New Zealand is so far south (by the way, only Australians are ever truly considered "downunder") that the southern city of Christchurch is the last gas station before Antarctica (Scott, Shackleton, and every scientist currently down there now has swung by at some point).

I can hear the cat scratching at the front door.

For the life of me, I don't know how to pronounce Whangaparaoa correctly, and any word that requires five "a"s to get about its task of being a word is plainly asking for trouble. According to Starchild, the waitress at the Pacific Bar (about a block from the kid's house), Whangaparaoa is a Maori word and it translates as "bay of whales". This may be correct, as I'm sure I heard the echoing sound of one in the distance yesterday morning.

They used to hunt whales in this country. A couple of hundred years ago, there were a handful of whaling stations dotted along the country's coastline, worked chiefly by British, Scots, Irish, Scandinavian, and North American whaling teams. These impromptu towns were the original "Hellholes of the Pacific"; cheap rum, prostitution, and absolutely no law whatsoever. Shoot a man dead and he'd lie in the street until someone downwind got fed up enough to move him.

According to Starchild, whales are now a protected species (it's a jail-able offence to kill one), and anyone who tries to hunt one down within 200 nautical miles of the New Zealand coastline will in turn be hunted down by the Royal New Zealand Navy (and their harpoons have fancier names... like torpedo).

I just went and fed the cat (it's the late afternoon). The cat didn't seem remotely interested in the bowl of colorful kitten nibbles I laid out for it. It had a quizzical look and held its paw up, as though it was requesting a menu, and it seemed miffed there was none. I have no idea if cats are a protected species in this country, but I do know that we human people should be a protected species from them.

The kid's cat is a feisty little furred creature that shifts the doormat each day, leaves fur balls on the pavement leading up to the door, and is considering a life of crime, as most cats are. You can tell by the eyes. Go look at your cat and it'll show you its innocent eyes; its ain't I as adorably cute as a button eyes. Slip a couple of drops of catnip into its milk and it'll lose that veneer. Then you'll see the other face: The 3 a.m. face, when it drops its guard and truly reveals how it feels. It's going to kill something: a mouse, an insect, a bird... maybe even you.

Cats are one of the few animals that kill for the hell of it. Humans are the other one. Most animals kill for survival or out of fear. A cat will dispatch a mouse with as little thought as Lucky Luciano. It'll even leave the body on your doorstep as a "present", which is its thinly veiled way of saying: "You could be next."

Charles Darwin was the first to observe it: Cats don't have opposable thumbs. That's why they can't open doors or load hand guns. If they had them, my name would be "Fluffy Chandler" and we human people would all be in the cat pampering business. Wait a minute...

It's now about 11 in the evening, and I'm sitting here with a glass of wine and am quietly contemplating names. The kid left me the key to his liquor cabinet, but the only thing in it was a half-drunk bottle of Le Chat Noir. My New Year resolution for 2015, by the way, was to quit drinking. This has become my traditional way of starting a new year.

Why is this little country at the foot of the world named "New Zealand"? Where's the old Zealand? Does everyone here have a lot of Zeal? I made a long arm for the kid's bookshelf and his encyclopedia. According to what I read:

The first European to sight the country was the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman (in 1642). He named the country Niew Zeeland, after the Dutch province of Zeeland. He didn't stick around. After making landfall, four members of his crew were killed by a local Maori tribe. Tasman named the place it happened "Murderer's Bay". He never came back, but he is remembered: the stretch of water between New Zealand and Australia is named the Tasman Sea.

In 1769 (126 years later), the British Admiralty dispatched Captain James Cook down to the bottom of the Pacific (to look for the mythical Great Southern Continent), and he rediscovered Tasman's New Zealand (the anglicized spelling of the Dutch). Cook circumnavigated the country and drew the first map. He discovered that New Zealand was a long country (about 500 miles) and principally divided into two islands: the North Island and the South Island; with a land mass equivalent to the United Kingdom or Japan.

Around this time, the French had a serious sniff of New Zealand, and at least one Spanish and Portuguese expedition took respective peeks. The reason the kid speaks English today can be attributed to the British Admiralty -- they sent Cook back on several more expeditions, and firmly established the notion that if any colonial power was going to shove a flag into the turf, it was going to be the British. Oui.

The Maori people didn't have a flag, and their name for the country was "Aotearoa" -- a name largely ignored by the Pakeha (Gringos) until the mid 20th century. Today, the kid's passport bears both names. Like the European settlers, the Maori also sailed to New Zealand, arriving around AD 750 (they were part of the great Polynesian migration that populated all the islands of the Pacific). According to Starchild, Aotearoa translates roughly as "land of the long white cloud".

And at least the Maori people had a bit more imagination when it came to naming things (North Island, South Island, FFS!? to use the modern vernacular). And the country would have been better known as the land of the long goodbye, given how long it would have taken to sail to the bottom of the world in those days, and the lack of certainty you'd ever arrive there in the end. The breath of the wind is not the most reliable of ways to travel.

Starchild told me a joke: A man tells a woman if she marries him, he'll take her to the end of the world. She marries him. He drives her to Invercargill.

The kid left the following note for inclusion in this journal entry.

Many thanks to Raymond for ghostwriting this blog entry for me. I seem to have so many writing tasks on my list of things to do at the moment, it's crazy! I will be back as soon as my workload lightens up a bit. Thanks to all of you! You guys are the best! Be seeing you soon...


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30 December 2014

The Ponsonby Post Office Murder

by Stephen Ross

On the evening of Saturday, March 13, a person or persons unknown entered the house of Mr. Augustus Braithwaite, the postmaster of Ponsonby. Braithwaite was shot dead and the keys to his post office stolen from his pocket.

Ponsonby is a central city neighborhood in Auckland, and the post office (built in the Edwardian era and featuring a clock tower) has long been a focal point and landmark in the neighborhood.

The postmaster's inert body was discovered by his wife. He was still warm, and a doctor was telephoned for. The attending doctor immediately recognized that he was looking at bullet wounds (one to the abdomen and a second to the throat), that Braithwaite had been murdered, and a police constable was summoned.

It quickly became apparent that the postmaster's keys were missing. Within an hour, the police constable, together with officers from the detective branch of the Auckland police, made their way to the Ponsonby post office...  It had been robbed. The strong room had been unlocked and the cashboxes inside jimmied open. Clear fingerprints were evident on three of the boxes.

On March 15, the cashboxes, together with a list of the usual suspects (24 known criminals thought to be in Auckland on the night) were sent by train down to the CRB (Criminal Registration Branch) at the headquarters of the New Zealand police in Wellington. They arrived on the desk of the nation's fingerprint expert: Senior Sergeant E. W. Dinnie (ex Scotland Yard and 17 years of fingerprint investigative work to his name).

No fingerprint match was found.

Three days after the murder, which had gripped the nation and had taken up residence on the front page of every daily newspaper, a retired prison warder thought he might drop by the Auckland police headquarters. The retired warder had seen a man by the name of Dennis Gunn in the vicinity of the Ponsonby post office. In fact, he had seen Gunn loitering several times near the building on the day of the murder/robbery.

Dennis Gunn wasn't a known criminal, but he had two years earlier served a two week sentence in jail for the conviction of evading military service, and the retired warder had recognized him. Subsequent to the criminal conviction, Gunn's fingerprints were on file.

A telephone call was put into the CRB in Wellington. Within hours, they had a fingerprint match, and four days after the robbery, Dennis Gunn was arrested and charged with the postmaster's murder.

Gunn is on record as having smugly remarked to the arresting detective: "You'll have the devil of a job to prove it."

Three days after Gunn's arrest, a recently-fired revolver was located in a canvas bag in the bush down a steep gully near his mother's house (where he lived), together with the stolen post office keys, a jimmy, and a bag containing 229 pennies. A fingerprint matching Gunn's was taken from the revolver.

Gunn was still confidently smug.

A ballistics match was quickly made with the revolver: Grooves were matched. There was little doubt the gun (a .38) had fired the two bullets that had killed Braithwaite.

Gunn was still confidently smug. He was probably sitting in his police cell, clipping his fingernails, and thinking about hopping aboard a steamer bound for the islands for his summer vacation.

Gunn was smug because this was 1920, forensic science was still in its infancy, and no New Zealand citizen (in fact, no citizen in the entire British Empire) had ever been convicted of murder based solely on the evidence of fingerprints.

And there was no other evidence. The two gunshots had been heard, but in 1920, it wasn't an uncommon occurrence to hear a gun being fired (it was only two years after the Great War, and many a man still had his service revolver tucked away in his sock drawer).

There were no eyewitnesses, no convenient boot impressions left in the mud, no left-behind telltale strands of hair or threads of fabric. Nothing (not even the gun proved traceable). All there was were sets of damp little etchings, where a man's hands had touched several metal surfaces and had left behind little impressions of whorls and ridges.

Gunn had no alibi. He had no plausible explanation as to why he had hung around the post office that day, and he couldn't account for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. His trial began on Monday, May 24 at the Auckland Supreme Court, and quickly became a test case.

The matching fingerprints were the only things that tied Gunn to the gun and to the cashboxes; and the reliability of fingerprints as evidence was furiously argued against and discredited by his lawyer. As Gunn's lawyer correctly pointed out, there was simply no precedent for such a serious conviction based on such evidence.

After five days of heated courtroom debate, the jury retired for deliberation. Given that this was only two years after the First World War, when New Zealand's population was around 1.2 million, and that the country had recently lost more than 17000 men in the fighting; and given the fact that Gunn's earlier conviction was for desertion (a fact known to the jury); they'd have probably hung him for jaywalking.

A verdict of Guilty was returned for the robbery (the takings from the post office had amounted to 67 pounds, 14 shillings, and 5 pence), and a verdict of guilty was returned for the murder of Augustus Braithwaite. Gunn was promptly sentenced to death.

On that afternoon, Friday 28 May, 1920, a legal precedent was set for New Zealand and the British Commonwealth. As Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of Australia, concisely remarked at the time: "He who leaves a finger-print behind him, leaves an unforgettable signature".

Gunn was hung in Auckland on the grounds of Mt Eden prison, on Tuesday June 22, 1920. He was 25.

Gunn never confessed to the murder and had remained largely quiet throughout his trial. After the verdict was returned and the death sentence passed, he immediately attempted to blame two others: He confessed to the robbery, but claimed he hadn't pulled the trigger. The two others he fingered (a brother-in-law and an associate) both had alibis and neither of their fingerprints had been found on the gun or at the post office.

It should be noted that there were two other .38 revolvers found in that canvas bag retrieved from the gully, together with 30-odd rounds of ammunition. Neither of the other two guns was traced to an owner and neither held any fingerprints.

I've once or twice wondered if Gunn's keeping his mouth shut during the trial was some kind of thieve's code of silence (he clearly thought he would get away with it), and that once the verdict came in, all bets were off... It's unlikely we'll ever know.

Gunn is buried in Waikumete Cemetery: A vast cemetery in West Auckland that I often rode past on my bicycle as a kid. Gunn's mother never believed in her son's guilt. The epitaph on his gravestone reads: In loving memory of Dennis Gunn. Sadly wronged.


Be seeing you!


Newspaper Clippings form the National Library of NZ:
Dennis Gunn :  Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 67, 18 March 1920
Fingerprints : Observer, Volume XL, Issue 40, 5 June 1920
Death notice : Auckland Star, Volume LI, Issue 145, 18 June 1920

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09 December 2014

Adapting (to the conditions)

by Stephen Ross
I'm writing this on a bus, on a laptop. I have a 75 minute commute to the office each morning, and home again in the evening. Auckland is a spread-out city (think LA, but without the permafrost cloud of pollution). I live in a nice neighborhood, and I work in a nice neighborhood; unfortunately there's about 40 kilometers of road in between.

New Zealand is a car nation, and Auckland is the capital of cars. Public transportation exists, but it's little more than buses. There's no underground (or elevated), no streetcars (they were phased out in the 1960s). There is a rail line, but it's only a single line, and unless you are fortunate enough to live on it (I don't), it serves no benefit to you.

So, for the last couple of years, I've been taking the bus. It's hysterically cheaper than petrol and parking for the car, and until three weeks ago, when I bought a laptop, it gave me guaranteed time built into each day in which to read.

Learning to read while in motion was a new experience for me. For most of my life, I had been a confirmed motion sickness sufferer, a strictly stare-out-the-window-and-wait-until-we-get-there traveler.
  • Reading comics in the car as a child: ill 
  • Reading a magazine on a 747: ill 
  • Reading a plaque while standing on the deck of the HMS Endeavour replica while anchored in port: nautically ill
  • Trying to take photos out of the window of a helicopter 300 feet over Diamond Head: scenically ill
When I started commuting by bus I thought, at 400 kilometers a week, I was going to go out of my mind unless I did something to occupy myself. So I took a book one morning and committed to learning how to read. I was nauseous for about two weeks, and it was hell, but I broke through. Now I can read anything while in motion: books, my Kindle, emails, Facebook, WhatsApp, whatever.

However.

I am a writer, and in the times when I wasn't reading on the bus, I did a lot of thinking about writing; but thinking only, with the frustration that I couldn't do anything. So, after two and a half years, I finally bought a laptop. Reading a book every week or two is all fine and good, but it's NOT writing.

 If I was to code the problem, it might look like this:

$Writer == WHERE words(Output > Input);
Writing on a bus has meant learning to adapt. Probably 95% of all the fiction I've ever written has been done seated at the desk in my office at my house. The conditions for writing there have been finely tuned over the years and are optimal. Writing on a bus is like writing on a rollercoaster; you don't know what lies ahead.

As with learning to read while in motion, it's taken a couple of weeks to learn how to write while in motion, but it hasn't been too difficult. There are the usual distractions: other people and noise (generally forgotten about with a set of earbuds and the right music track). I honestly think I could write anywhere now. In fact, I'm getting adventurous; I today sat in a café in my lunch break, with the laptop and a cup of coffee which, for me, is completely out of the ordinary.

Writing in public, especially on a bus, does have one pitfall: if someone sits right behind you and can read what's on your screen. That's one distraction I find hard to ignore. Yesterday, I was writing a sex scene in my book. I had the impression the woman seated behind was trying to read what I was typing. In my mind, she was busting an eye socket trying to read my purple scarlet prose. In reality, she probably couldn't even make out the words, or even the language -- my font size is pretty small (so that I can see 3 pages spread across the screen). But it's the thought of it that's distracting.
Pick your bus seat wisely.

And while I'm talking about bus seats, allow me to gripe about the dimensions of bus seating on Auckland City buses. I'm 6 foot 1, hardly a contender for the Guinness Book of Records. The seats on buses here were designed for hobbits. Seriously.

A couple of other tips for writing on a bus:
  • Avoid the glare. If you can, sit on the side of the bus that's opposite to the sun.
  • The back seats are where the kids hang out. They like to fidget and kick seat backs. Only sit there if you're researching a story about teen angst.
  • Don't sit near anyone over 40 with an old phone in his/her hand. He/she will use it. Loudly. Everybody else quietly social networks on smartphones.
  • Sit near to people with books (they're the nice people)
  • Know the route: know the corners and potholes where it's a good idea to hang on tightly to your laptop.
How do you write? What distractions can you tolerate, or not? Can you write anywhere?

Be seeing you!

18 November 2014

Postcards from the River

by Stephen Ross

A couple of years ago, I was living in a city called Hamilton. It's one of New Zealand's few inland cities; New Zealand is a long, thin slice of country and the ocean (Pacific Ocean to the right, Tasman Sea to the left) is never more than an hour or two's drive away. Although inland, Hamilton is not without water frontage, as the Waikato River flows through the center of the city and effectively splits it into two.

I lived a couple of blocks from the river, and the office building I worked in downtown was located riverside on London Street. Naturally, I often walked to and from the office each day along the river, taking advantage of the excellent system of paved city walkways that hugged the river bank.

Given the remoteness of some parts of the track, and the signs of nocturnal delinquency (graffiti, condoms, needles, etc.), I expected most mornings to find a body. I did "find" a couple of drunks and several shifty teenagers, but thankfully never anyone dead. My mind had other ideas. Although I've never used the riverbank walkway specifically as a setting, it has inspired two short stories: Boundary Bridge (where an angry, American TV writer shoves a young man off one of Hamilton's five bridges into the river); and The Riverboat (which curiously ended up being set in the early 20th century, in the deep south of the US).

The Waikato River flows through the Waikato Plains region of the North Island of New Zealand, and at 425 kilometers (265 miles), it's the country's longest waterway. The Waikato Plains are one of the country's dairy heartlands, and Hamilton is the region's largest city (the fourth largest in the country). Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

One Monday morning, however, there was a dead body at the end of my walk. It was in the alleyway next to the front entrance of the office building I worked in (located about 20 yards from the river).

Actually, the body was no longer there; there wasn't even a chalk outline (they don't actually draw those). There was, however, a police line, a couple of dozen evidence markers, a frozen police officer, and a sea of fingerprint powder residue -- every inch of the alley and the building's entrance, every rock, every piece of litter, all of it caked in the stuff.

The police officer was frozen because he was dressed in his uniform of a blue shirt and dark slacks. I, by contrast, was dressed for an Antarctic expedition -- it was the middle of winter. It doesn't snow in Hamilton, but we were down to about 2°C that morning (that's less than 36°F).

According to the slowly-turning-blue representative of the thin blue line, the dead body of a man had been discovered in the early hours of the morning. The street had been closed off and a forensics team brought in to examine the scene. Yes, the man had been murdered.

The body had been taken away about 30 minutes before I arrived. The remaining officer was standing watch, preserving the scene (possibly forever) as the detective in charge hadn't given the all clear, which meant access to the building was a no go.

"You're not going in there, mate," said the officer, who must have been made out of concrete -- or was slowly turning into concrete.

"When can I go in? I work on the second floor of that building."

"I think you might be getting the day off, mate."

That was nice of him.

My boss (who arrived a few minutes later), when informed of this hindrance in our approach to our desks, and at our being given a day's holiday by the constabulary, said, "This is not good enough." Actually, he didn't say that, but that was the implication I could extract from the obscenities.

After about an hour, the all clear was finally given and we were allowed to enter the building -- to thaw out from the cold. It was a gloomy day at the office; not a joke was uttered. Bad taste took that offered day's holiday. The media had a vulture's picnic on the doorstep, and the scene of the crime became a tourist destination for Hamilton's lowlifes.

Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross "The Waikato River flowed through Hamilton like a dark freeway. I spent afternoons sitting at the table in the living room staring down at its cool, shady water. Any day, damn it, I was going to jump in and hitch a ride out of town."

BOUNDARY BRIDGE
Stephen Ross

In the afternoon, a friend said: "I suppose you'll use this murder in a story?"

My reply was "No".

I make a very clear separation in my mind between real murder and imaginary murder, and I don't have a lot to do with the real stuff. Sure, I read about such stories in the newspaper, but note them only in passing. I don't believe I've written any story inspired by real life events.

The thing about writing crime fiction (and the operative word here is fiction) is that I get to make it all up. And importantly, I get to serve up justice where and how I see fit. Murder in the real world isn't that neat and tidy, and most writers, I guess, write because we want to bring order to that chaos...  And I won't write anymore on that line of thought, as I'm sure there are at least 50,000 university papers already collecting dust.

Real murder is complicated. It's ugly and banal. The "wonderful" killers I get to write about don't exist in the real world (inventing "Moriarty" types is a big part of the fun of writing).

Hamilton, New Zealand, June 2010

The dead man in London Street was Donald Alfred Stewart. He was 74. Towards midnight on Sunday 27 June, he stopped his car to use a public restroom in the central city. He was murdered for his car keys. His killer, a boy aged 14, and his accomplices, aged 15 and 17, were caught within days. All three were tried, convicted, and jailed.

Click here for New Zealand Herald report
Photo (c)2010 Stephen Ross

Be seeing you…


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28 October 2014

Why do you write Crime Fiction?

by Stephen Ross
Friday afternoons drag. If you work in an office, it can feel like the devil has planted one of his hooves down on the minute hand of the clock, slowing down time to the point where it starts to hurt. The happiness you felt earlier in the week has gone, the bright colors of life have faded, and all that remains is a seemingly endless, black and white, nothingness. Punctuated by the random antics of work colleagues, who are even more insane than you are (miniature remote-controlled helicopter racing, anyone?). Friday afternoons are a good time to start thinking about the next SleuthSayers article.

And then Friend K asks: Why do you write crime fiction? This is not a question I've been asked often; in fact, I can recall only one other instance. And I didn't really know how to answer it then, either. The short answer is: That's the way I evolved.

First of all, I actually think of myself as a mystery writer, not specifically a writer of crime fiction. I like mysteries, and at the heart of every story I've written you'll find one. It's a fundamental "human thing" to look for meaning in things we don't understand, to want to bring order to the chaos of life. Who, as a kid (and I mean everyone who's ever lived), hasn't looked to the stars at night and wondered what's out there? My foremost pleasure in writing a story is engaging the reader in a mystery; some kind of problem or enigma that needs/demands to be unraveled and solved. Seeking resolution is what makes readers keep turning the pages. I know it's why I do.
Danger! Conflict ahead! 
It's no surprise, then, that I grew up watching dozens of TV shows and movies about detectives and police officers. The mystery of who did it, how they did it, or why they did it, is central to any story in this arena; it's their raison d'être. I also grew up loving science fiction, because in Sci-Fi, the mystery can be as big as the universe. In fact, my favorite TV show of all is The Twilight Zone.

The thing I like about the Twilight Zone is that no matter how "out there" the stories were, they were mostly stories about real people. Rod Serling (the show's creator and principal writer) even said so. Setting stories in the "twilight zone" enabled him to explore almost anything about the human condition, that placed in a "realistic" or contemporary setting, he would never have gotten past the network censors or advertisers.

I don't write a lot of science fiction because I mostly prefer realistic settings and situations. I'm more interested in the girl hiding her dead boyfriend's body after she strangles him, rather than the girl who has three eyes and a luminous tail.

So, mysteries and stories about real people.
Picture a classroom in a suburban high school. The building is barely three years old and everything still has the feeling of the new and the modern about it: spacious, large windows, well lit. Teacher H is standing at the front of the room. She's middle-aged, has dark hair, glasses, and curious sense of humor. She's written "What makes a story work?" on the blackboard. It's English class, the last class before lunchtime on a Friday. The class is filled with a bunch of tired students, daydreaming about the weekend, their sandwiches, or the cute boy or girl seated in front of them.

This was a question that caught my attention and woke me up. And no one had an answer. No one put up his or her hand. No one had a clue, not even Student D, the cute girl who sat in front of me, in the front row -- the class Hermione, who usually had an answer for everything. In fact, she turned around to see if anyone else was putting up his/her hand. We traded vacant shrugs.

"Anyone?" Teacher H asked.

Nope.

She defined story: The plot, or everything that happens in a book, or a movie, or a TV show.

Teacher H, by the way, was the teacher who entered class one morning and announced: "The king is dead". I was proud that I was the only one in the room who knew what she was talking about. It was the day Alfred Hitchcock died.

She wrote the answer on the blackboard. "Conflict". She explained. Stories work when people are in conflict with someone, something, or themselves. What makes a story work is conflict. She cited three examples from our reading that year:

  • Romeo and Juliet's happiness in their love is prevented by the conflict between their two families.
  • The conflict in The Importance of Being Earnest is the misunderstanding (lies and confusions) that exist between most of the characters.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus' decision to defend a man he believes to be innocent in a rape trial threatens his family's safety.

Teacher H summed it up: Conflict is a problem to be resolved. The conflict and its resolution ARE the story. A story about a man who wakes up on a nice sunny day, goes out and buys groceries, and then comes home again, is not going to be very interesting or memorable. Without conflict, there's nothing to be engaged with.

You don't forget teachers like that.

So, mysteries, realistic people in realistic situations, and conflict -- the evolution of my writing gained mass around the nucleus of these three core components.

There are, of course, degrees of conflict. A misunderstanding where a guy asks a girl on a casual date and she misinterprets his intentions is at one end of the conflict scale. A man murdering another man because he stole his girlfriend is at the other. The scale itself is one of life endangerment -- the higher the risk, the more extreme the conflict.
As a writer, I tend to lurk around the extreme end of the scale. Heightened conflict engages the reader (and me). I simply find it more interesting to write about people in deeply dramatic situations -- more often than not, that involves some kind of crime. Had I not been so inclined, I might have become a romance writer, or a writer of literary fiction.

I don't know if my scale of conflict (illustration above) actually holds any water, I only just made it up (on the day before you read this) so I haven't had time to really think about it. Feel free to shoot it full of holes.

Anyway, that's why I write crime fiction.

Be seeing you!


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07 October 2014

Stealing People

by Stephen Ross

Christopher Isherwood wrote, in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking." I don't live in the world Isherwood inhabited (I'm not living in 1930s Germany, to start with), but I like the analogy and readily apply it to myself; with a slight modification: I am a vacuum cleaner, on full speed, actively inhaling all that is around me, quietly storing it away for future use... And what I find of most particular value in the dust bag are the people.

A question I get asked from time to time is: Where do you get your ideas? The question no one has yet asked me is: Where do you get your characters? It's a better question. Stories are about people doing things. A plot can't exist without someone in it doing something to someone else. And even if it's a story about a lone man climbing a mountain, it's still about at least one person doing something. A plot without characters is called a landscape painting.

I've written a few plot-driven stories in the past, and not surprisingly, none of them have ever sold.

For me, plot ideas often start out as abstract thoughts or singular slivers -- snippets of information; like this one: A MAN breaks into the company safe to steal the money inside, but instead of cash, he finds a $5 box of chocolates.

A snippet can be quite simple, and often quite plain and ordinary. What can set it on fire is when, as in the above example, the MAN becomes a character; when he moves from being a "placeholder" and comes to life with a back story, motivation, and physical traits. For example, the MAN becomes Jason Andrews: a 44-year old accountant with a drinking problem, grooming issues, and a gambling addiction. He owes $5000 to a loan shark who's promised to put a bullet in his good knee if he doesn't repay the loan by Friday (deadlines always make characters leap to life). Jason is desperate. He already walks with a cane, as his other kneecap was busted from a "prior financial incident".

With the beginnings of a fleshed-out character, the plot snippet has come to life, and the story could go anywhere. BUT (and I can't underline that enough times) wherever the story does go, it's primarily because the character of the character has led it there.

So, where did Jason Andrews come from...?

I made him up. From component parts.

  • An old man used to regularly catch my bus on Thursday evenings. He had a cane and a particular way of walking.
  • A friend in high school accidentally got shot in the leg, and reminded everyone regularly about how much it hurt.
  • A work colleague at my first job was a Colonel Blimp type. He had an exaggerated opinion of himself and talked a lot of self-important rubbish. He was also often on the phone talking to his bookie. Every call ended with him slamming down the phone.   
  • I have known many men with alcohol "problems". 

Jason Andrews came from people I know (or have known, have known in passing, or have maybe just seen once).

Three characters
Many books on writing suggest compiling lists when "building" your characters, e.g. age, height, eye color, occupation, IRS number, DOB, food preferences, favorite TV program, lucky number, and so on. I've never liked this idea; lists are just random surface information. I make up my characters as I go along, fine tuning each to fit the plot, mixing and matching traits and characteristics, part "borrowed" from real people, and part out of pure invention. I'm a bit like Dr. Frankenstein -- a leg here, a motivation there, a brain from over there. In short, I steal people, and everyone I know is a potential surgery candidate for my character laboratory.

People are fascinating. Some have the depth of an ocean, some are no deeper than a puddle. Some are Rubik's Cubes, some are about as complex as a paperclip.

One question I got asked once was: Do you ever put yourself in your stories (à la Mary Sue)? No. I like writing about things that I'm not. In fact, I try not to let my personal opinions, values, or beliefs drive any of my characters. I don't like didactic writing.

The hero of the book I'm working on is a Catholic priest. I'm neither a priest nor a Catholic -- if you ever see me near a church (of any faith), it's probably because I'm admiring the architecture.

By the way, if you ever want to experience Burke's idea of the sublime (intense awe), stand right in front of the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), stare upwards, and then remind yourself that construction of this enormous and impossibly tall cathedral was begun about 350 years before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. In fact, so long ago, the first stone was laid in the same year the Aztecs kick-started their empire.

And also, by the way, thank you David Dean for your excellent recent piece: Adventures in Catholicism. It has been duly cut-and-pasted to my research folder.

So, where do you get your characters...?

Be seeing you.

16 September 2014

Rangitoto Island, etc.

by Stephen Ross

It's Friday. I'm reclining on an orange sofa in the lunch room (so orange in color, it's probably radioactive). I've got my iPhone open to Google Docs and my wireless keyboard Bluetoothed in. It's my lunch break and I'm trying to think of something to write about, as two of the ideas I had for this week's article have lately been written about.

And then I have a conversation with a friend about Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro (an excellent read, by the way), and Rangitoto Island, which is on display through the lunch room window. And then I think maybe I should finally visit Rangitoto and research it for a possible short story setting (I've spent about 75% of my life living in Auckland City, and I've never once set sail across that short stretch of water to the island).

And then I'm commuting home. I'd love to be able to write my book/short stories on the bus on my morning and evening commutes, but (and I've tried), there are too many distractions, too many bumps, too many tight corners, and way too many passengers discussing their current critical concerns: "Have you ever been inside a mental institution?" (An actual question put to me from a girl with faraway eyes).


I'm one of those lucky writers who earn their entire living from writing. Words pay my bills. However, the writing of mystery fiction is only a supplemental part of that income. I have a day job in a software company as a technical writer. I write instruction manuals and technical guides (I'm one of those people for whom RTFM holds deep meaning and significance).

Monday to Friday, nine to five, I work at a desk in the middle of an open-plan office. I'm surrounded by software developers -- a form of wildlife that is congenitally noisy and borderline insane (the typical desk of a software developer is an anthropologist's field trip). In fact, I'm quite sure the IT field was invented so that eccentric people would have somewhere warm to gather and work. I just know one day I'm going to arrive at the office in the morning, step out of the elevator, and be passed in the hallway by someone on a unicycle. It's like holding down a job in P.G. Wodehouse's Drones Club.

I could not write fiction at that desk, not in the middle of all that commotion and chatter. And to even write tech documentation, I often have to counter the distraction by putting in earbuds, with industrial-strength construction-yard earmuffs over that, and crank up a LOUD ROCK Spotify playlist (I couldn't write fiction listening to that, either).

And therein hides one of the only real points of this little piece (thankfully, a theme has emerged): that there's a big difference between the mindset required for technical writing and that of fiction writing. They are two very different beasts.

There aren't many adjectives and adverbs used in technical documentation; the "voice" of tech writing is the driest voice in literature. It's the Sahara Desert (without the dunes). It lies somewhere between Walter Cronkite and the voice of HAL the computer (from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is authoritative, wholly objective, direct, and emotionally void, or as a boss once intoned in my early days of tech writing: "You are the voice of God."

To write fiction, I need a completely different environment. Thankfully, at my house, I have a room of one's own. My office (study, writing room, studio, factory, boudoir, cave -- I never know what to call it) is a small room on the second floor, and it has a view of a lake (at least, where the sight of it isn't obscured by the houses across the street).

My writing desk is relatively small (about half the size of my desk at my day job) and has two computer monitors on it placed side by side. Configured like that, I can see six pages of a Microsoft Word document spread out at one time without scrolling (about 1400-1600 words). There is nothing on the off-white wall above the desk and the only thing that moves in the room (apart from me) is the second hand of my wristwatch. It is a distraction-free zone.

To write fiction, I need calmness. I need peace and quiet and zero interruptions to write about murder and mayhem, and it took me years to distill and quantify that state. I need to concentrate. I need to be totally IN the story.

If technical documentation is the voice of God, does that make crime fiction the voice of the Devil?

The only distraction I can't escape in my "room where I write", however, is the sound that pours in from outside in the street. Gentle reader, I live in Noise Zealand.

On weekends, when the sun comes up, New Zealanders go outside. They mow lawns, they whack weeds, they wash cars; they stand in their front yards, drink beer and discuss their current critical concerns. Their kids go abstract expressionistic and decorate the sidewalk with pink chalk, or restage the D-Day landings with lightsabers and soap bubbles, or simply stand in one spot and SCREAM.

To counter this racket on weekends, I'll wedge in my "Bullets" (my noise-reduction earplugs). My Bullet earplugs are rated at 30 decibels, which is enough to muffle and hide most sound. And yes, the soft foam plugs are shaped exactly like bullets (from a .45). Perfect for the crime writer! And if not earplugs, I'll put in my earbuds and go back to Spotify.

Rangitoto Island
Spotify, in case you don't know, is an online music service. You can custom-create playlists, selecting from around 20 million pieces of music, including classical, soundtracks, jazz, funk, and everything in pop from Abba to Zappa. I've created several playlists specifically for writing. One of these is labeled "Writing Background" and contains 20 hours of music, ranging in styles from drone and mediation "atmospheres", to soft lounge music (Disclaimer: I don't own shares in the Spotify company).

Writing at night is another country. After dark, certainly after about 10, the typical suburban New Zealander has gone indoors -- to do what, I don't really know, but it probably involves the Internet, YouTube, and cats. A Wi-Fi scan after dark (or on rainy afternoons) lights up with around 40 different signals, all within a hundred foot radius of my desk.

Natürlich, I write best at night.

Writing fiction is like meditation. Actually, it is meditation -- a creative meditation. If I'm in the zone, I can write. Knocked out of the zone, and I may as well go outside into my front yard and discuss my current critical concerns. With my mailbox. In the moonlight.

And that's the way it is.

Be seeing you.


https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author

26 August 2014

The Long of the Short of It

by Stephen Ross

 "It was a dark and stormy night..."
"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."
"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills." 
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." 
"Call me Stephen."

The above might give you the impression this little piece is about opening sentences in books. Nope, it was just a nice way to start. This is about book beginnings, but it's only about the beginning of one book: my book. Like many writers of short stories, I too am working on a long story. I've been working on it for several years, and part of the reason I've been working on it all that time is because it started life as a short story.

I wrote a nice little story back in 2005: a thriller/mystery. It clocked in at about 6000 words, and I sent it out to the usual suspects. There was no sale. After nine rejections, I moved the story into a new folder on my PC labeled THINK, and there it sat (for several years). I wasn't concerned, I knew it would be a hard sell, but more importantly, I had the feeling there was a better story that could be had from it. This has actually become my preferred working method: Think up an idea, get some way into plotting or writing it, and then put it to one side for cogitation. And to be honest, most of the time an idea gets put to one side is because it's hit a roadblock. But that's another story altogether.

I returned to the short story several times and made improvements. I widened the plot and added a new main character (previously it had been shared between three). I rewrote the story in first person. I twice changed the main character's occupation. I tried different settings and time periods (the original had been set in New Zealand in 1969). I rewrote it set in Germany in 1950. I then went back to third person and tried it out in England in the 1930s. For three months, I thought of adapting what I had as a screenplay for a locally-set TV drama. For three months after that I thought it might make for a decent novella. Then, finally, I slammed my head into my desk and surrendered. What I had was a novel.
I had been thinking that all along, but I had kept putting it off for the fear of commitment. Writing a novel is a serious undertaking. It's like joining the Foreign Legion for a tour of duty, or flying to Mars. Once you sign on for the ride, it's you and the devil, baby.

I spent the summer of 2012-13 mapping out the novel's plot (Summers in New Zealand are over Xmas/New Year). I moved the story back to 1969 and its setting to California. I then tweaked that by bringing the story into the present day. Despite the story's original setting and time period, for the bigger story that had evolved, it was a perfect fit. And frankly, there are commercial considerations here. I'm not writing this book to print it out on my dot matrix to pass it around friends. I'd like to sell it, and I want to give it the best chance it has in the marketplace.

Books set in foreign countries are fine, but in my experience, trying to sell a book (to a publisher) in the US, that isn't set in the US, is like trying to climb the Chrysler Building in nothing more than flippers and a bunny rabbit onesie. Short stories, by contrast, can be set anywhere, as long as you know the setting and can bring it to life for the reader.

So, I devised a decent plot for the book a year and a half ago, why haven't I now finished writing it..? Because I've been working on the book's opening.
Stephen's Writing Flowchart

I define "opening" as a book's first quarter. For me, it's the most important part of the book, as everything that occurs in the following three quarters must have its roots back in the first. Shotgun over the fireplace in the first quarter -- someone pulls its trigger in the last quarter. To most writers, this is a no-brainer. I'm a slow learner.

I've written the book's opening about six times. I say about, because I've lost count. And with every new draft, I had the sense I had finally gotten it right. However, a little voice inside me kept saying: "No" (like that "little man" inside Edward G Robinson in the movie Double Indemnity).

The first problem was the story's origin as a short story -- it took me a long time to break free of it. The first draft of the book retained it almost entirely intact, with scenes simply added in and around it.

Little voice said: "No."

I expanded the beginning and wrote a new, and what I considered to be a perfect, first chapter. The three people who read it remarked the same thing: That's a nice first chapter, Stephen. But it still didn't work. And despite my knowing it didn't, I hung onto it like the pair of us were hooked up to mutual life support.

Little voice said: "No."

The chapter didn't work because it was a prologue. It described events that happened thirty years before the rest of the story. Subsequently, chapter two felt like the book was starting all over again. A brick wall for many readers. Eventually, I incorporated the events of the prologue into later chapters, where they were actually relevant to the progressing story.

Another problem I had was that I was holding too much back from the reader about the main character. It was as though I didn't want anyone to know anything about him. He's the MAIN character; we should know something about him! We should know his thoughts!

Little voice said (with a hint of weariness): "No."

A rereading of Stephen King's On Writing kicked me back on course on this one. To paraphrase King: Don't keep secrets from your readers. As a side note, I've read a pile of books about the craft of writing, and King's book is the one I keep coming back to. So, after another restart, my main character is now more engaging -- he actually does things, and we get inside his head -- the book flows a lot more smoothly as a result.

Today (late August 2014), I'm about two weeks out from finishing the book's first quarter, and almost everything in the first quarter of the book now takes place before the events in the short story, with almost none of the short story (as it was originally written) making it into the book.

I've learnt a couple of valuable lessons in the last year and a half. Be ruthless with your writing. Kill your darlings. Give them a pair of cement slippers and row them out into the harbor at midnight. And don't write a book in denial of the truth, especially when the truth is right under your nose. So, when will this book be finished? Now that my writing pocket watch has come off glacier time, hopefully within the next year. I have a rough draft already for most of the rest of it (I didn't spend all of that year and a half entirely on the first 20,000 words).

Little voice says: "Och, we'll see about that, laddie!" (my little man is a Scotsman).

On my tombstone will be engraved either Tenacious, or Fool. Or as a friend cheerfully suggested: Both.

Be seeing you!

Bonus Quiz: Can you name the books each of the opening sentences (at the top of this piece) are taken from?