23 January 2022

Company Town, Part 2


Last week we peeked in on a Florida spy town and a couple of planned utopian communities. Today we’ll visit a few other curious ‘company towns’.

Celebration, Florida postcard

Celebration
No Mickey Mouse Operation

Walt Disney World is the only corporation I know that’s also a government entity greater than a township, for most purposes a Florida county, the Reedy Creek Control District. Its handpicked residents comprise a few Disney loyalists who ‘vote’ whatever needs voting on. RCCD provides the government-friendly structure for WDW and Disney controls RCCD.

Disney also built the town of Celebration. While retaining critical properties and office buildings, Disney sold houses and apartments to those who could pay, guided with an invisible three-fingered hand through its homeowners association.

Nothing is nefarious. Buyers either agree to ultra-strict rules involving their property or they buy somewhere else without an HOA.

But once upon a time, a trouble-making scofflaw was afoot. In the dark of night, a wicked, subversive rebel crept through Celebration’s oak and cypress. He ducked under well-groomed hanging moss, and planted pink plastic flamingos on neighbors manicured lawns. Plastic pink flamingos (PPF) were strictly forbidden.

The community was outraged! Worse, the PPFs seemed to breed and multiply. These crimes had to be stopped before society collapsed.

The sheriff’s department investigated. Security Officer Obie took 8x10 glossy photographs and fingerprinted the PPFs. Twice they almost captured the miserable miscreant, but the perpetrator faded into the shadows before police could turn their cars around. Terrified residents claimed a chilling voice laughed with abandon, “Mwah-ha-ha-hah.”

Early one morning the tables turned. Authorities caught the bad guy pink-handed, populating neighbors’ lawns with PPF.

Except he was also a good guy. A local minister on a mission, a pastor with a passion for challenging authority whilst having fun.

But fun is precisely how evil takes root. Prosecutors proposed a fine and the PPF reign of terror came to an end.

Holiday tip: Evenings in Celebration are a fun place to visit during the Christmas season with caroling and Disney ‘snow’. (The flakes are made from a soapy substance.)

Sarasota, Florida postcard

Gibsonton
The Circus Comes to Town

In years past, baseball teams, carnivals, and circuses liked to winter in Florida. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey favored the Gulf Coast. In 1927, Ringling bought property in Sarasota and the influx of circus residents influenced the look and feel of the town.

Forty-some miles distant, the ‘The World’s Strangest Couple’, 8½-feet tall Al Tomaini and his 2½-foot tall wife, Jeanie, built a camp at the hamlet of Gibsonton. They established a fire department and police department. The fledgling town became popular with so-called carney ‘freaks’ and sideshow denizens. It became a home where folks couldn’t be judged by outsiders. It developed a carnival ambiance with bright lights and tents, and a sense that residents awaited a call to the big top.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey combined shows, buying up additional land in Florida, including Haines City, where entrepreneurs built Circus World and later Boardwalk and Baseball.

Circuses no longer bore the cachet of turn-of-the-century traveling entertainment extravaganzas. Perhaps Circus World’s park was too close to Disney or too far, but various owners struggled to make a profit. Visitors can sense theme park desperation, and the Haines City projects were doomed.

Meanwhile, tourists were welcomed to visit Ringling’s Sarasota estate with its museums and entertainment venues. Perhaps the most fascinating was an extensive diorama explaining the complex operation of a traveling circus, from the advance man who visited towns arranging for an empty field, permits, water, feed, food, and other servicing, to the clean-up crew that followed the circus. It portrayed the kitchens, medical staff, the vets, the accountants and bookkeepers, housing, administration, and security. Little wonder running off to join the circus fascinated little boys.

Cassadaga, Florida postcard

Cassadaga
I Foresee a Town…

The town of Cassadaga calls itself the Psychic Capital of the World. The village isn’t what I expected. I don’t understand: It has road signs. Residents listen to weather reports. Posters advertise clairvoyant meetings. Hey, shouldn’t psychic citizens simply know?

Seers have no shortage of prophecies and prognostications when it comes to criminal cases. Invariably, predictions prove wrong.

In 1979, St. Cloud, Florida police relied upon Cassadaga fortune tellers rather than criminal science to assist in the homicide of a preacher's wife. They failed miserably.

In 2008, nearly ninety psychics weighed in on the search for little Caylee Anthony. Having pointed police in wrong directions, they failed miserably.

Perhaps most embarrassing was a 2001 case of missing Lillian Martin and her grandson, Joshua Bryant. Cassadaga mediums claimed…

  • A trucker abducted them.
  • The grandmother killed the grandson.
  • The parents killed both the grandmother and the boy.

Wrong. The body of Joshua would be found three years later  virtually on Cassadaga’s doorstep, the victim of a confessed killer.

The FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children maintain that to their knowledge, psychic detectives have never solved a single missing-person case, not one, not ever.

Clearwater, Florida postcard

Clearwater
Imagine a secretive organization…

  • infiltrating more than a hundred US government agencies, embassies, and foreign powers using 5000 or more spies and agents.
  • engaging through its intelligence arm in kidnappings, burglaries, wiretapping, false imprisonment, covert surveillance, and attempted assassinations.
  • declaring war on the FBI and IRS, and breaking into federal courthouses, DoJ and IRS offices.
  • plotting bombings.
  • framing a reporter for murder.
  • framing the mayor of a Florida city for sexual impropriety and reckless/drunken driving.
  • infiltrating newspapers critical of the organization.
  • disappearing the wife of its beloved leader, David Miscavige.
  • taking over a Florida city at the same time it declares itself a victim of persecution.

Now imagine this is no foreign power, no insidious 007 SMERSH, but instead a cult/church/corporation/criminal enterprise called Scientology. We’re talking the religion founded on a bet amongst science fiction writers, a bet gone horribly wrong.

Scientology’s internal Guardian’s Office operates as an intelligence bureau to investigate Scientology’s ‘enemies’. The FBI uncovered an astonishingly lengthy list of clandestine operations. While posing as a religion, Scientology regards its tenets and teachings as trade secrets, its symbols trademarked properties, and, unlike a real church, doesn’t hesitate to take opponents to court. The Church of Scientology (CoS) has not hesitated to use illicit and illegal means to silence its critics.

Scientology fought a ‘war’ with the IRS for recognition as a real religion, eventually overwhelming the agency with unceasing political and legal pressure, as well as infiltrating the IRS and other government bodies.

Shelly Miscavige, wife of current CEO David Miscavige has not been seen since 2006, notwithstanding a reported sighting by the National Enquirer. Former members believe she is held captive at the Church’s compound outside San Bernardino. Although not claiming to have seen her face to face, Los Angeles police believe they spoke with her by telephone.

For the past half century, Scientologists have attempted to surreptitiously take over the city and government of Clearwater. Around 2000, the ‘church’ doubled its land holdings via a thousand secret purchases through shell companies. They've bought up much of the city's waterfront. In a downtown sale of a lot, the seller chose to sell it to the city at a third of the price the 'Church' had offered. Unsurprisingly, the Church sued, claiming religious discrimination. In an attempted coup d’├ętat, Scientologists plotted smear campaigns against the mayor in an attempt to remove him from office.

To me, the most compelling crimes inflicted by the cult of Scientology were against author Paulette Cooper. At the height (or depth) of the plots against her, Scientologists attempted to sue her and her father into bankruptcy, defame her with false accusations about pedophilia and other rumors, and ultimately frame her for bomb plots. At one point they planned to attack her (and according to one report assassinate her) outside Clearwater.

Exciting times. Rather than leave upon a sour note, Let’s visit a couple of company towns outside Florida.

Hershey, Pennsylvania postcard

Hershey, Pennsylvania

Mmm, chocolate. It’s a tasteful company town, for sure. Milton Hershey founded the town in 1903 for company workers and their families. Hershey-built homes provided the most modern amenities of the era, including electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating. The town maintained a public trolley, free schools including a vocational school to train orphans and the underprivileged. In later years, Hershey built parks, golf courses, a community center, a sports center, a zoo, and an amusement park.

When I visited as a teenager, I took the factory tour, but the part that stuck in my mind was the street lamps– they were shaped like Hershey Kisses, some silvery with the tag of paper in the foil, some just chocolate as shown in the photograph.

Naked City’s Sundial
Naked City’s Sundial

Naked City, Indiana

An hour south of Chicago, a pair of nudist resorts outside of Roselawn, Indiana saw the 1930s launch of a different kind of company town. At one time, the village hosted the Mister and Miss Nude pageants. The state brought obscenity charges against Naked City, which included the showing of an X-rated film, and brought about the resort’s demise. It is now called Sun Aura, which seems to have retained the famous leggy sundial sculpture (at right).

Hoosiers need not worry. Indiana has other nudist camps and colonies, including Our Haven Nature Sanctuary in the town of French Lick, which…

Hey Janice! Stop giggling. Eve! Decorum, you two. Stop it! Ladies! Behave!

22 January 2022

Wanna be a Paperback Writer? Ten things you didn't know


Alternate title… Perils of Publishing…
How to keep sane while traversing a career in the wilds of publishing.

Hello there!  Melodie here, with more shop talk about the perils of publishing.  Oh, how I miss those writer gabfests in the bar at the Drake Hotel where we did what authors like to do best when they get together. Which is, bitch about the industry.

There are many steps to becoming a published author with a traditional house, and each one is a milestone.  First, you finish that book (pass the scotch.)  Then, you bag an agent if you're lucky (more than a wee dram for that.)  Then, you get a contract for your first book (break out the champagne.)

You make it through that fiendish obstacle course, and people think you've got it made.  Hell, YOU think you've got it made.  All you need to do now is write!  Other people will take care of all the rest of it.  But believe me, everything is not clear sailing from there.

Strange things happen in publishing.  Things that not even a clairvoyant with a crystal ball could predict. 

You may say, "Oh, she's being so far-fetched.  That'll never happen."  But let me tell you, every one of these things have happened to me.

And guess what?  I'm still standing.  (okay, sitting in a comfy chair while typing this)  Still writing.  And still getting published.

Welcome to the insane, inane world of publishing.

1.  Your agent - the one from New York who finally agreed to represent you after months of negotiation...the one who was negotiating a deal with Ace Fantasy in England and Berkley Paranormal at home, will kick the bucket before cementing a deal (no disrespect meant.  He was a class guy.)  Worse, no one in his office will let you know for two months.  Worse, you didn't think to question the length of time between emails, because he was so lousy at getting back to you in the first place.

2.  The ad campaign that was carefully planned and paid for by your publisher will feature an ad where the title of your book is misspelled in such a way that not even Saturday Night Live could have come up with it.  Or saved it.

Rowena and the Dark Lard may be a great name for a cookbook. But it is unfortunately not the sort of thing to entice readers of epic fantasy to part with their money.  (real name of book:  Rowena and the Dark Lord)

3.  The book that was an outlier (Sci-fi) that your publisher loved, that your pals thought was your best, that got so many good reviews on Amazon...will go nowhere.

4.   The publisher that took a chance on you, believed in you, applauded when your book was featured on USA today and helped to bring your book series to bestseller status, will go out of business.

5.   You can't get the rights back for the covers of those books because the artist who worked for the house has disappeared off the face of the earth.

6.   Your next publisher - the one with the world-wide reputation and selling legs - will decide to close the line your series is in, even though your books are bestsellers for them.

7.  And the unfunny one - Someone closest to you will die the week your 15th book comes out, such that the book receives no attention at all for the year-plus you are in heavy grief.

8.  Back to funny - Your 16th book will come out the first month of a world-wide Pandemic, and all promotion events will be canceled for at least two years.

9.  More pandemic humour - You will be asked to emcee a prestigious book award event, which will be cancelled due to the pandemic.

10.  And More - Your 17th book will be held up in production at least 6 months due to a paper shortage worldwide.

I used to tell my writing classes that you need three things to become a writer:  You need talent.  You need to learn the craft.  And you need passion.

I've now decided that the most important thing you need to continue to be a writer is a healthy sense of humour! (and a big supply of scotch)

So raise a toast to all the authors out there who continue to write and publish, while continually having to face loopy hurdles like the above.

How about you?  Would love to hear more Perils of Publishing stories in the comments below.

Melodie Campbell continues to write books and short stories south of Toronto, in spite of the perils. You can find her books in all the usual suspects.

21 January 2022

For the Love of Enola


For a guy who likes to think he’s up on children’s literature, I’m ashamed to confess that I had not known of the writing of Nancy Springer, an American writer based in Florida. She has one of the longest (and possibly the most poignant) author profile I’ve ever seen on Amazon’s site. (Read it here.)

Trailer to Enola Holmes

Suffice to say, Springer has been through the emotional wringer, and her life has given her insight into how women might have fared in earlier eras. Writing, she says, saved her mind and soul. In this powerful essay, she writes that she is especially interested in books that focus thematically on “the lost who are alive.” Springer has written about fifty books for middle grade and young adult readers, largely in the science fiction fantasy and mystery genres. A practitioner of what she calls “murderless mysteries,” she is a four-time Edgar finalist, and a two-time winner in the Edgars’ juvenile and young adult categories.

She didn’t come across my radar until last January, when the robot brain of my Netflix queue started insisting that I watch a film called Enola Holmes, based on a series of books by Springer.

How well the robots know us! The film is wholesome as heck. Solid family entertainment. Enola, the daughter of a late British squire, awakes on the morning of her 16th birthday to discover that her mother has disappeared from their country estate. After a short investigation, Enola (whose name spells you-know-what backwards) wires her brothers in London for help, and rides out on her bicycle to meet them at the station.

When the two chaps disembark, we are shocked to discover that Enola’s elder siblings are none other than Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes! Of course, they are the most strapping, youthful, and ridiculously handsome versions of themselves that have ever been committed to film. Mycroft is shocked, shocked, to find their ancestral home is an overgrown shambles. Where are the gardeners and servants and governess he has been so generously paying for?

Well, obvs, dude, Mother (played delightfully by Helena Bonham Carter) has been pocketing the money for some mysterious purpose. She has stuck around long enough to tutor her only daughter in such valuable subjects as physical fitness, chemistry, physics, art, natural history, chess, anagrams, cryptology, and the power of original thinking. You see, Mother values personal freedom above all else; she just has never been able to seize it for herself. “There are two paths you can choose, Enola,” Mother says at one point. “Yours, or the path others choose for you.” Her work seemingly done, Mother vanishes! A scandal in Bohemia, indeed.

Mycroft, stubbornly determined to reenact the family drama that no doubt led to mother’s disenchantment, enrolls Enola in a stuffy finishing school so that she can become a Proper British Lady and be transformed into suitable marriage material. A childhood marked by Mother’s afternoon lessons in archery, tennis, fencing, and the womanly arts of pugilism and jiu-jitsu have spoiled Enola on the merits of learning how a lady sips soup. 

The game is afoot, after all. Enola runs off to find Mother, and becomes embroiled with a dishy teenaged Marquess who is running away from his own family scandal. A scandal, I might add, that might well shake the Empire to its very core! Bwahahaha…

What’s not to like? The actors are wonderful to watch. Millie Bobby Brown as Enola. Henry Cavill as Sherlock. Sam Claflin as a very uncanonical Mycroft. The costumes and sets are appropriately atmospheric to the period. Enola breaks the fourth wall throughout the film to elaborate on her deductions. And the producers stuck close enough to Springer’s first book—The Case of the Missing Marquess—to win my approval. I found the film great fun, and have since been urging my neighbors to get their preteen daughters to watch it. (Especially the kid who keeps telling me she loves mysteries!)

For some reason, my neighbors haven’t yet done so. I can live with that. But clearly someone likes the film. Warner Brothers originally acquired the rights to Springer’s series and shot the film, intending to release it in theaters. When Covid lay waste to the land, WB palmed the project off on Netflix, which unveiled it as a streaming release in September 2020. Enola Holmes has since become one of the most highly watched Netflix “originals” in the streamer’s history, with 76 million homes watching the film during its first four weeks of release.

You know what that means. Just this month, the squealing of fans nearly broke the Internet when it was announced that preliminary shooting of the sequel—based on the second Springer book, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady—had wrapped. I assure you that you can find countless freaking YouTube videos of fans dissecting the minutiae of the photos and trailers that have already been released. Some impatient fans have even cut their own Enola 2 trailers, using footage from the first film.

As of this writing the sequel will be released in late summer 2022. I expect to watch it the way I watched the first one—on my phone, at a bar, drink in hand, while my wife screams her lungs out watching a Roma soccer game. I hope sweet Lord Omicron will allow this fantasy to happen.

Springer has written seven Enola books. The most recent installment, Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche, pubbed in August 2021, with a new publisher and cover artist. I admire the author, the series, and this film franchise, if only because they all stared down a lawsuit from the Doyle estate, which quibbled with the producers’ portrayal of Holmes. The central complaint? The production gave Holmes too many feelings. (The suit was dismissed, probably due to a settlement.)

I’m not saying I absolutely dig this Sherlock and Mycroft. In my mind’s eye, I will always see Paget’s Holmes, or Jeremy Brett’s. But it’s fun and necessary to reinvent Holmes for each new generation. In recent years, we’ve had Cumberbatch, Miller, and Downey, Jr. If we don’t continue to mix up the characters and canon, how will they survive the brave new world that awaits them in the public domain?

It’s interesting to contemplate how Sherlock might have treated a younger female sibling who shared his gifts. I enjoyed the scenes between Cavill and Brown. They felt authentic in a way I had not anticipated. Holmes is present, feeling, and yet still somewhat distant. You can tell he loves his sister, but the expression of that love will always come as a celebration of, and the nurturing of, her intellect. There’s a marvelous moment when Sherlock realizes that Enola has beaten him. I won’t give it away, but his reaction is perfectly Sherlockian. I can’t imagine Rathbone or Brett selling it better.

Why shouldn’t we consider the possibility that Sherlock and Mycroft acquired their remarkable gifts from their mother? And why shouldn’t we spin a series that has historically appealed to young boys as one predominantly aimed at girls and young women?

At the end of the film, Enola observes:
“To be a Holmes, you have to find your own path... I am a detective. I am a decipherer, and a finder of lost souls. My life is my own. And the future is up to us.”

Quite so, I thought. Indubitably. Elementary. Thank God Holmes lives, and lives forever.


***

See you in three weeks!

Joe



20 January 2022

Bloody Scotland


 My dad's reaction to genealogy ranged between dismissal and fantasy. When I was quite small, I remember asking him about our more distant relatives. "Horse and cattle thieves," he said promptly. That, with the addition of the detail that three of his four grandparents had lived into their nineties, was the sum total of his genealogical information until, years later, assisting our son with a school project, he invented Don Alonzo Law, surviver of the Spanish Armada, to account for the "Iberian Influence" in Scotland and for our dark hair and eyes.

Well, a grain of truth in both cases, as there was a prehistoric connection with the Iberian peninsula, and the Laws were lowland people originally and probably engaged in one way or the other with the long unrest between Scotland and England. 

Whether or not Dad's throwaway remark was a sign of my future career in literary crime, I was certainly not surprised when Scandinavian Noir was followed a few years later with the recognition of what wags called " Tartan Noir." Far from being a late comer to the mystery game, Scotland had long played an important role in the development of our favorite genre.

Consider that the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, was not only written by Edinburgh-born and bred Arthur Conan Doyle, but was inspired by one of Doyle's medical school professors, Joseph Bell. Add Robert Louis Stevenson, who, besides historical thrillers, wrote the greatest of all supernatural mysteries, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His slightly later countryman, John Buchan, helped create the modern thriller with The thirty-nine Steps, while working in government service, including a stint as Governor General of Canada.

All three have had important successors. Ian Rankin and Val McDermid are probably best known to Tartan Noir fans, but they are not alone on the evidence of Bloody Scotland, a recent anthology edited by James Crawford, publisher at Historic Environment Scotland, a heritage organization in charge of some 300 sites and buildings. The anthology presents an interesting group of mystery writers, Scots and a few of what my Aberdonian relatives would call Sassanachs: English who write about or in Scotland. 

Most of the usual suspects are included with the exceptions of Rankin, Kate Atkinson and Alexander McCall Smith. Each writer has taken one of the organization's properties, ranging from pre-historic Mousa Broch in the Shetlands (Anne Cleeves naturally) to The Forth Bridge (Doug Johnstone) and Edinburgh Castle (Denise Mina – a truly terrifying story). 

Because the structuring device of the anthology is architectural and archeological rather than thematic, Bloody Scotland gives an unusual range of styles and types of stories.

We do have a revenge tale and a rather unusual serial killer, but we also get a glimpse of Viking life, a contemporary fellow coming undone, a frighteningly feral child, a murder at an early textile plant, and what is probably the closest one can come to a comic hostage taking.

As a result the mood ranges from gruesome to understated with plenty of stylistic variety. Historic Environment Scotland probably conceived this volume as a fundraiser, and there is certainly a story for just about every taste. Including the frankly antiquarian. 

It will not spoil Craig Robertson's "The Twa Corbies of Cardross" to say it references a work in one of Scotland's earlier claims to literature: the famous border ballads. Sir Walter Scott collected many of these and published them in The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first edition 1802. That puts "Twa Corbies" (Two Ravens), an account of a murder in a handful of stanzas, a few centuries ahead of Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Robertson updates this stark little ditty and recasts it in prose but he keeps the two ravens, big carrion-feeding corvids for the non-birder, showing that in our genre, at least, there's always a place for a good plot and good detectives.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

19 January 2022

Go Poe! Yo ho ho!



  Joyous felicitations of the season.  I wish all of you a happy Edgar Allan Poe's birthday!  He entered this world of wonders on January 19, 1809.  I trust that in his honor today you will all do something appropriately Poe-ish, such as:

* Marry your thirteen-year-old cousin.

* Become a champion broad-jumper.

* Get court-martialed out of West Point.

* Inspire Robert Louis Stevenson to write Treasure Island, thereby becoming godfather to what everyone imagines is the way pirates spoke. 

* Apply for a position as a customs official and then fail to show up for the interview.

* Write the only poem to inspire the name of a professional football team.

* Join the army and become a sergeant major, the highest  rank available to a non-commissioned  officer.

* Be the author of 425 movies, according to IMDB

* Drop out of college due to insufficient funds.  (This may be the easiest item on the list for modern Americans.)

* Get fired from an editing job for drunkenness.


* Write an essay that seems to describe the Big Bang Theory, eighty years before it was formally explained. 

* Die at age 40 after being found wandering around Baltimore in someone else's clothes.

* Be slandered as a madman in your obituary by a rival who also became your literary executor. 

Or if all that seem like too much hassle, how about this easy one?

* Invent a genre of literature that is still going strong 170 years after your death, and have its major award named in your honor.  (And congratulations to everyone who was nominated for an Edgar today!)

Happy 213th, Eddy.  You don't look a day over 200.

18 January 2022

My American Project – Where does the story take place?


Dutch author Anne van Doorn first joined us back in August. He is a regular reader and commentator here at SleuthSayers. He's also a friend of mine. I'm pleased to share his guest column with you today.
— Barb Goffman

My American Project – Where does the story take place?

 by Anne van Doorn

When I challenged myself to write a mystery novel in American English, I confronted myself with an important question: where will my story take place? Most writers would recommend staying on familiar ground. Write about what you know. I’ve followed that advice for over twenty years. Many of my stories are set in the area where I live, in the Netherlands.

However, I discovered that few people outside this area are interested in stories taking place here. At least, bookstore owners elsewhere don’t sell my books. National newspapers don’t pay attention to them—and my country is roughly the size of New Jersey. I honestly don’t think anyone would be interested in a mystery novel set in my area, written in American English. That’s just too…outlandish.

However, write about what you know is solid advice. That's why I’ve decided to set my story in the only part of the United States I’ve ever visited: Manhattan, a borough of New York City. Even though it has been ten years ago now, in April 2011, I still have vivid memories of my time there. I have many photos and some video footage to refresh my memory. I stayed near the UN Headquarters, in a small apartment in the New York Tower on East 39th Street, just off First Avenue. I walked the streets, traveled on the subway, rode the avenues and streets, and saw many places, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New Amsterdam Theatre to see Mary Poppins the Musical. Central Park was like a magnet to me.

The advantages

My choice for Manhattan offers, in addition to my experiences, some advantages. First and foremost, everyone around the world knows New York, whether they have visited the city or not. It’s easy for a reader to imagine the place. We’ve all seen pictures of the high-rises, the avenues, the bridges spanning the East River and the Hudson. I don’t choose New York to gain a readership there, but for everybody’s familiarity with it. The readers who love the kind of story I want to write—the whodunit—will recognize the city in their mind’s eye.

A second advantage is that New York City is a town of immigrants and ex-pats. For me, as a Dutchman, it would be difficult to write convincingly about Americans in the rural parts of the country. New York City, however, is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. Perhaps portraying the main character with European roots—a first- or second-generation American—is easier. If he behaves in a non-American way, it’s easy to understand why. Besides, didn’t Agatha Christie have huge success with her novels about a Belgian refugee living in England? And what about our very own Josh Pachter? Didn’t he write stories about Mahboob Chaudri, a Pakistani working as police officer in Bahrain? I think he did that convincingly—an inspiring example!

A third advantage: there are tons of information on the internet: photos, videos, and firsthand experiences, including about a place I once stayed. Visiting Google Maps allows me to read dozens of reviews written by people living there. Did you know there are dead cockroaches in the laundry room? And the elevators are consistently out of order. That’s what the reviews say, at least. Oh, the internet is a voyeuristic delight!

And last but not least, wasn’t Manhattan once a colony of the Netherlands? I think it’s appropriate to firmly plant a Dutch flag on New York soil, again!

 Discovering the city

I haven’t decided yet what part of Manhattan I'll use as a base for my American Project. But what I could already do is study how other writers portray the city and its police force. I don’t think I will fool the New Yorker into believing I’m one of them, but I want to get as close as possible.

Since I started working on the American Project, I’ve read and learned from the Rex Stout and Ellery Queen books. What strikes me is that their descriptions of the city are scarce. But with only a few of them, they conjure up recognizable images. I think that’s the way to go, as I want to write a plot-oriented story—definitely not a travel guide!

On my TBR-pile are books about New York that will help me discover interesting places. In this regard, my friends, I can do with recommendations. Which book should I buy to get to know New York? What websites are worth checking out? Do you know a YouTube channel that shows Manhattan as it is: the good, the bad, the ugly?

17 January 2022

Next to Last Step


I always read my work aloud as the last step in my editing/revision, but there's one last step I take before that. It's the "Readability Statistics" in the review menu of Microsoft word. When I "Review" with "spelling and grammar check," this chart appears after I've made or ignored all the corrections. This is after my final pass-through on the most recent Woody Guthrie novel, Words of Love.

We see a word count, character (letter) count, sentence count, paragraphs, sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters (letters) per word. I don't pay much attention to these, but Microsoft uses them to determine the values below them: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level. The grade level is in grade and months as a decimal : 7.3 means seventh-grade, third month.

The Reading ease is the percentage of readers at that grade level who can understand that passage. Basically, long sentences and long words are harder to understand, especially if they appear in a long paragraph. My average paragraph is probably five or six sentences. But sometimes, you want something longer.

This is the same tool applied to a long paragraph at the beginning of the late Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which tells how she rebuilt her life after both her husband and grown daughter died unexpectedly within months of each other. John Gregory Dunne suffered a heart attack, and she called 911.

This paragraph is 310 words, or 23 sentences long, more what I think of as Henry James or James Joyce terrain. You could "correctly" divide it into several shorter ones, but Didion uses one long paragraph to show how the events and her thoughts jumble in a huge confusing rush. Her last understated sentence wraps everything up like a hammer blow to the chest.

That long paragraph is short words, averaging four characters each, and 13 words per sentence. It works out to fifth-grade-seventh-month reading level, and 77.9 % of readers at that level being able to understand it.

Reading level is somewhat arbitrary. It uses the number of syllables in a 100-word sample to measure level with no regard to content. Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time occasionally sounds like My Weekly Reader because the text tries to reduce complex math and quantum physics to layman's terms.

All of this is interesting, but SO WHAT? Well, look at the last statistic on the chart. I care about it because it shows how your writing will "sound." It's the percentage of PASSIVE verbs in your selection. Didion's is 8.6, which is very high, but it's appropriate because she is powerless in the scene, at the mercy of forces beyond her control. Strunk and White say to use the active rather than the passive voice, but Strunk made that same distinction.

My novels are usually at about a 4th grade reading level (It doesn't sound dumb, trust me) and I strive for no more than 2% passive verbs. Summaries and shorter selections tend to be higher. Most of my blogs are more, but I can live with it. For fun, type about 200 words from Hemingway, Crane, King, Fitzgerald, Lippman, Rozan, or Child into your computer and see what their stats are.

The newer Microsoft programs include the readability stats in the review. If you have an older Microsoft program, you can add that command in your editing. I'm not sure you can do it with a MAC, because I've never used one. Here's how:

Click on the little carat to the right of your command icons, and you'll see the drop-down menu. Click on the top line "customize quick access toolbar." (Picture on the left).

Then highlight "More commands," at the bottom of the drop-down list. That's the picture below this paragraph.

When you choose "More commands," you'll get another screen with "quick access toolbar" highlighted, and a long list of commands to the right of that.

At the top of that list, the picture below this paragraph, you'll see "popular commands." Click on the arrow to the right of it, and you'll get three choices. Click on "All Commands."

This is what you'll see, a very long list. Scroll down to Readability Statistics (It may have a new name now, Microsoft keeps changing it, so I have to look for it every time I get a new computer. It might be Reading View Research now, or something else).

When you find it, highlight it, then click "Add," the button in the middle between the two columns. The command will appear in the right hand column, which is the commands you use, and you're ready to go.

Obviously, since this is a computer program and we all use idioms in our writing, it's not foolproof. But I like to have a sense of how active or passive a work is before I do the final read-through-aloud. If I see a lot of passive verbs, I make a point of changing some to active. I don't take the reading level too seriously because it's so arbitrary. Once upon a time, the New York Times read at about a tenth-grade level, but that was decades ago. I have no idea what it– or any other publication– reads at now.

The stats give me a sense of how my writing SOUNDS, and that's crucial to me. I want it to sound like a human voice speaking.

Remember Elmore Leonard's rule: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.