Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts

18 July 2024

Dog Days of Summer

Happy Mid-July! Hot enough for ya?

Funny story- I grew up in a literal suburban cul-de-sac. But Instead of a couple of split-level ranch houses at the endpoint where our little slice of suburbia eventually expanded into the inevitable dead-end circle, there was a large corral that served as a home for several llamas.

The cloven-hooved, Inca-pack-animal-kind. Not the robe-sporting, enlightenment-spewing kind.

This kind.

So of course the residents of our court (it wasn't a "street," or a "place,' or a "drive," but a "court.") had to accustom themselves to a seemingly never-ending, slow rolling procession of people out for their daily walks, who liked to come down and look at the llamas. It could make our quiet side street pretty busy, especially in the summertime.

Now, this was the late-‘70s/early ‘80s. The time of the After School Special, Kool-Aid commercials, and Bert Convey hosting Match Game. To say, “It was a different time,” would be a massive understatement. 

And not least because we never ever locked our front door.


Well, okay. Maybe when we were going out of town.

Because it was the ‘70s?


Because three of our neighbors on our cul-de-sac were cops.

Yep. The guy to our right, and the guy to our left, and the guy across the street.

One patrol officer. One detective. One long-time undercover operative.

Lived next to all three of them for a couple of decades. I guess that this experience has helped hone both my tastes as a reader and my writing style when it comes to crime fiction.

I’ve said it before elsewhere and it certainly bears repeating: Ubervillains BORE me. Unrealistic. Usually a crutch fir laaaaaaaazzzzzzyyyyyy writing, and just not at all my thing.

Turns out the same holds true for me when it comes to cops. Or for all law enforcement types, for that matter. Superheroes BORE me!

Is this because the neighbor who worked undercover as a fake biker, sitting in biker bars and eavesdropping on biker gang members doing drug buys looked an awful lot like a young Wilford Brimley unless he had a week’s worth of beard going? Or that the beat cop on the other side was a lousy gardener who took inordinate pride in the hedges he mutilated? And that his son was a stiff-necked jock who barely tolerated his dad, his wife detested him and his elder daughter was kinda messed up? Or that the detective across the way never touched either coffee or cigarettes? Or that all three o them were certainly scofflaws when it came to the 4th of July, and the county-wide ban on fireworks such as M-80s?

Maybe. Or maybe, like my Vietnam War hero helicopter pilot father, I just have a hard time suspending disbelief when seeing something in a story, fiction or otherwise, that directly contradicts my own lived experiences? (For my dad it was stuff like seeing Jan-Michael Vincent turn on “whisper mode” in his stealth helicopter in the 80s TV action-adventure show Airwolf. Boy did that crack him up!).

I like to think that my lived experience has helped make me a more discerning reader and a better writer. For me, the character has to be believable. The guys who lived around me were hardly Dirty Harry. But they also weren’t cops from the “Files of Police Squad,” either.

And I guess that’s how I like my characters. Realistic.

Anyway, that’s it or me this go-round. Happy Dog Days to you!

arf art

04 July 2024

Happy 4th! (Now with Jokes!)

Another turn in the rotation, another Summer holiday! Happy July 4th to SleuthSayers near and far!

And of course, me being me, I have some thoughts about this most American of holidays, and I fully intend to let 'er rip.

You know, some current events. Laced with a fair bit of (hopefully) relevant historical analysis. Some snark. Some "getting real."

So, the usual.

But first, some writer-adjacent humor!

A writer and his agent were stranded in the Sahara Desert, the only two survivors of a plane crash. After wandering for several days without food or water, they climbed the top of yet another sand dune, only to see an oasis, with a lagoon and a bubbling spring of fresh water beckoning them.

The two of them stumble/tumble/run down the dune to the oasis, and just as the writer is kneeling down to take a drink from the lagoon, out of the corner of his eye, he sees a stream of yellow liquid arcing from behind him into the lagoon.

The writer looks over his shoulder, and to his horror, sees that the agent is PEEING in the pool!

”What the HELL are you doing?” the writer yells.

The agent beams back at him. “I’m improving it.”

Q: What has twenty-seven actors, three settings, two writers, and one plot?

A: Six hundred and seventy-one Hallmark movies!

Q: How many mystery writers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Two. One to change the bulb, and the other to give it an unexpected twist at the end!

He is not wrong.

Q: What do you call an immaterial fantasy writer?

A: A non-fungible Tolkien.

Q: What's the difference between a 19th-century shipwright and a 21st-century writer of fan fiction?

A: One tries to fit as many cannons as they can onto a ship. The other tries to fit as many ships as they can into canon.

Q: Why don't escaped convicts make good writers?

A: Because they never finish their sentences!

And on that note, let me come clean.

This year I have no moral to impart. No examples from history to share. No pithy remarks about the state of our Republic, other than to express my continuing pride in it and abiding faith in its foundation: the People.

Nothing I say here is going to change who anyone reading it plans to vote for. So let's take the day and grill, and watch fireworks, and listen to that one uncle tell that same story about the time he met Ed Begley, Jr. in an airport one July 4th many, many years ago, and hold our loved ones close and make the best sorts of memories.

Happy Birthday America. I love ya!

See you in two weeks!

20 June 2024

Happy Juneteenth (Plus One)!

You have heard the saying about how a seventh son of a seventh son is a lucky man indeed, right? Special, and possibly imbued with magical powers to heal and ward off evil? No? Well, it's mostly an Irish thing, so is it any wonder that with a name like "Brian Thornton," I practically grew up on stuff like this?

The connection between fathers and sons, the things they carry in common beyond the genetic, is part of what I'm writing about today. You see, I was born on a holiday. So was my son. Not the same holiday, but a holiday, nonetheless.

The holiday with which I share my birthday? April 1. Yep, April Fool's Day (Spare me the jokes. Trust me. I've already heard them!). My son? Well....

Here's a niiiiice subtle hint for ya!

On June 19th, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger, new commander of all U.S Army troops in Texas, issued General Order Number 3, and directed that it be read out as a proclamation on the main street corners and in the public squares of the newly captured city of Galveston, Texas:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

This proclamation officially brought to an end the institution of slavery within the borders of the United States in fact as well as in legal code. With the Trans-Mississippi section of the states rebelling against the government of the United States having been surrendered to Union troops by Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith a mere seventeen days earlier, it was close to a sure thing that many enslaved residents of the area had no idea that President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 had already (legally and technically) set them, and every other slave in the states then in rebellion against the Union, free.

So of course it goes without saying that as of 1865, June 19th has been viewed by many in this country as being a real mile marker in the history of our imperfect, flawed, lumbering, plodding, inefficient, frequently unfair, and yet still-the-best-option-we-have-going republic.

Think about it. 159 years ago this incredibly important event signifying the end of nearly 350 years of legalized slavery took place, and today, 159 years later, we as a nation commemorate it with a federal holiday, and what I am given to understand is a whole lotta barbecue.

Which means that not only did slavery on this continent have an official ending date, but one that none of the following could erase from collective memory:

  • Racially motivated violence.
  • The failure of Reconstruction.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Black codes.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Jim Crow laws.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Hundreds upon hundreds of racially motivated lynchings.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • The presidential administration of Woodrow Wilson.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • "Sundown laws."
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Racial segregation.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • The Klan.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • The United Daughters of the Confederacy.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Steppin Fetchit.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Ex-Confederate post-bellum revisionism (See Germany, June of 1945 onward over several decades: "Yes, Hitler was terrible. I never liked him and I never voted for him and I was never a Nazi and I didn't know what they did to the Jews until the Allies freed the concentration camps..." etc., etc., etc. Now tweak it a bit: "The war was never about slavery. It was about states' rights..." Un-huh. Sure.).
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Douglas Southall Freeman.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • All those cheap bronze statues of ex-Confederate military leaders popping up all over the country in the 1920s (thanks largely to groups like the above-mentioned United Daughters of the Confederacy).
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • The United Daughters of the Confederacy (Again).
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • The "Lost Cause" hogwash.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • The Birth of a Nation ("Hey! President Wilson! Look! The Klan are the GOOD GUYS!").
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • The Civil Rights backlash (in so many ways still ongoing).
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Racial profiling.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • Keeping Harriet Tubman off the $20 bill.
  • Racially motivated violence.
  • And did I mention....
  • Racially motivated violence?
  • I'm sure I'm leaving plenty out.

Bear in mind that I'm an historian with an advanced degree and a specialization in 19th century America, and yet I never once heard of Juneteenth in any way, shape, manner or form until just about ten years ago. Now I know what you're thinking: "What does that say about your skills/education as an historian?" I'll tell you what it says about them. It says, "I was born white and male, raised and educated on the West Coast, and didn't hear about it until I actually did."

Now to tie it all together with a bow.

My son is 12 years old. I first heard about Juneteenth if the context of its coincidental sharing the date with his birthday. That's right. At 11:55 AM on June 19th, 2012, James Andrew Thornton came in to this world. That's 147 years after General Granger's proclamation of General Order Number 3.

The part that gets me? James is older than our collective national recognition of the importance of Juneteenth by 8 years and 364 days. President Joe Biden, the most consequential president of my lifetime (Yes, I said it, and I MEANT it. And what's more, I'm bringing receipts.), signed "Juneteenth National Independence Day" into existence the day before James' 9th birthday, on June 18th, 2021.

As i said above, our creaking, inefficient, sluggish, slow-to-change republic has been tardy on the recognition of this so very important holiday, this hallmark moment, this mile marker, this signifying that we as a nation finally get that it is WRONG to enslave fellow human beings.

The United States. Nearly always late to the party. But still the best option we've got.

So Happy Juneteenth! And Happy Birthday to James, who, at 12, is older than the holiday!

(Yes, I am aware that this won't post until the 20th. My celebration of this important day stands!)

28 March 2024

Forget "Time to Write" – What About Headspace?

 Hello fellow Sleuthsayer Faithful!

Feels like forever since I jumped into the swirling maelstrom of thought and discussion which is our beloved Sleuthsayers blog!

Anyway, let's get to it.

I was thinking just today about this passage I read a long time ago, I'm not sure where:

"On the 49th day there under the fig tree, the Buddha finally silenced his mind."

I'm certain the quotation isn't exact, but "mindfulness" and the benefits Buddhists believe accrue from protracted periods of silence really aren't the point I hope to address today.

I'm talking, of course, about headspace.

Heh.... I wish.

I once took just eight weeks to write 80,000 words. I had a two-book contract on which I was past deadline: word count for each? 40,000 words. The only reason I was able to pull it off is that both books were nonfiction.

I currently find myself close to missing another deadline. The reason?

How long have you got? Excuses? I have none.

Reasons? I'm positively lousy with 'em.

I probably ought to add that when I wrote two books in two months, I was single, between girlfriends, no mortgage, and aside from a serious falling out with the editor originally assigned to me by publisher (new to the business. I was her first "project." Talk about GREEN!), I was pretty much the definition of "care-free." Just me, the day-gig (For those of you playing at home, I teach history), and my writing time. Oh, and my crippling student loans. That's what I wrote all that nonfiction for. To supplement my paltry day-gig income and help stay on top of my student loans. So, still mostly "care-free."

That was then.

Next week I turn 59. And although I have never been happier in my life than right now, this moment, I am no longer "free from care."

I'm happily married to one of the best people I know. I'm the father of an 11-year-old boy who by turns both delights and confounds me.

And because I'm a parent now, and a husband, and a devoted son to parents staring down the onset of their 80s, and brother to a great guy currently living and working out of state, I worry.

I know some guys feel it somehow unmanly to admit to worry, or even to talk about things like anxiety, but the older I get the more I've come to think that's hogwash. If you're a private person, that's one thing. Keeping a lid on what's going on with you emotionally is just a recipe for a stroke.

Anyway, the worst part?

I used to be able to silence my mind. Not like the Buddha. Forty-nine days to get it done and find enlightenment? That guy was a boss for that alone. Mad respect.

But I could shut everything out when I had to and just do, as the late G.M. Ford so often put it: "Ass. Chair. Write."

It's all laid out there, just waiting for us, right?..... RIGHT?

Not anymore. I have more and more trouble shutting out the things that worry me. Plus, I have a lot going on: family members with a variety of ailments, concerns that arise at the day gig, the thousand course corrections required of a responsible "middle school parent" these days.

Don't get me wrong, I still have my good writing days. And my wife, who knows me better than anyone (which is as it should be), has said many times that I "thrive with a deadline."

Which reminds me....that deadline....yeah.

If you read this far hoping that I'd reveal my discovery of some magic bullet that could help grant instant, deep, abiding and never-ending headspace, sorry to disappoint you. In fact I wrote this post hoping to crowdsource my dilemma.

So how about it, friends? Got any semi-secret tips on getting into and remaining in a writing headspace? Or not-so-secret ones, for that matter? 

If so, please feel free to drop a suggestion into the comments. And failing that, if you're a fellow traveler on this perplexing road of perpetual distraction, feel free to come to the comments if only just to commiserate!

And that's it for me this go-round. 

See you in two weeks!

23 November 2023

Giving Thanks in 2023

 Holiday Greetings, SleuthSayers Faithful! Since my spot in the SleuthSayers rotation comes every other Thursday, it seems inevitable that every few years my spot will fall on this, in many ways the most American of holidays.

I'm speaking, of course, about Thanksgiving.

The last time I wrote a Thanksgiving post for Sleuthsayers was in 2020, when we as a planet found ourselves mired deep in the Time of COVID. If you'd like to compare, you can find that post here.

So here's my three-year update of what I'm thankful for:

My Family: most especially for my wife, Robyn, and my son, James. The two of them keep me honest and keep things around Casa Thornton fun. Also grateful for my parents, my brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, etc.

My Friends: What can I say? Friends old and more recent, they fill me up, and support me. And I do my damnedest to return the favor.

My Health: After some recent challenges to my health, things have been looking up for the lion's share of 2023, with only metaphorical blue skies in evidence for 2024.

My Writing: I dove into the deep end of the short story market this past twelve months, and it was nice to be able to not only find my groove again, but really work to up my game, write scenes I might not have considered, conceived or attempted earlier in my career. It's been, and continues to be, a wonderful ride!

My Day Gig:
 I love my job. Make this, jobs. Both of them. My writing career (see above) has been, and continues to be, a labor of love that has paid dividends since the jump. My day job is teaching history (currently, and for the past seventeen years, to eighth graders). With COVID, overcrowded classes, and wrestling with a district administration that frequently seems to fail to understand the importance of what I do for a living, it had admittedly been a struggle over the past years.

The kids, for the most part, have remained AWESOME. Absolutely the best portion of what I do. And this year, even more so.

This year, I'm teaching a new subject (Yay U.S. History! And I'll miss Ancient & Medieval, but this is still a welcome change.), working on updating curriculum across multiple fronts. And get this: one of the newest members of my school's history department is a former student of mine. Yes, I have indeed been around that long.

I've written before about "Kids These Days", and fresh on the heels of parent-teacher conferences held just last night, my thoughts turn yet again to this subject: these children and the families who love, support and raise them, are our collective future. And judging from the families I've gotten to know and their wondrous progeny, our future rests in good hands.

The Writing Community At Large: I mentioned "friends" above, and many of my friendships began as acquaintances in the writing community, so of course I have friendships which double dip in "both" my daily life and my peers among the Writing Community at large (thinking especially of my MWA-Northwest cronies here). But more than that, I continue to find writers in general interested in what other writers (myself among them) are up to, and more than willing to be of assistance if at all possible. Twenty or so years into the game, I cherish these associations, and this community, more than ever.

Where I Live: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I've lived a lot of places, but there really is no place like home. Still love the Pacific Northwest.

Yes, I know, I know. The rain. I've lived in the desert. Still enjoy visiting. Lived on the prairies. Magic there, too. LOVE going back.

Still, this is home.

The Seattle Mariners and Baseball in General: Yes, I know they missed the playoffs. Don't care. We'll get 'em next year. And it's only 80 days until "Pitchers and Catchers Report"!

SleuthSayers: This place helps keep me writing. Those twice-monthly deadlines are always there, looming. And as my wife (who ought to know best) is fond of saying of me, I do my best work on a deadline. And that thankfulness includes those of you dear readers who took the time to read this, and for all the folks who have stopped in to have a look at my work over the past decade and a bit.

And on that positive note I am off. Here's wishing us all a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!

09 November 2023

A Veterans' Day Speech Reposted

  Dear SleuthSayer faithful–it's that time of year again, with Veterans Day falling on a Saturday this year, I'm re-posting the following because, as always, it continues to be both timely and relevant. I look forward to a day when it may not actually be "timely."

Also, thanks all over again, to all of my fellow veterans, everywhere, for your service. And here we go:

In 2015 a former student reached out to me and asked that I serve as that year's featured speaker for her high school's Veteran's Day assembly. I have posted below the speech I gave on that day. I hope you will join me in thanking all of our veterans, living and dead, for their service to our country, and to the world.

I love this country. I am honored and humbled to have served her. I wish you all the best on this, a day of remembrance.


Hello, and thank you for that warm welcome. While I’m at it, I’d like to thank Dr. _______, the staff, and the student body here at __________ High School for inviting me to speak to you today, on this occasion where we take time to honor our country’s veterans. My name is Brian Thornton, and I am a veteran. It has been my privilege to teach Ancient & Medieval World History at _______ Middle School, here in the ______ School District, for the past ________ years.

But before I began my career as a teacher, before my time in college training to be a teacher, before I moved to the Seattle area, before I got married and started a family, I lived a very different life, in very different locales, doing a very different job.

But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an historian, so I’d like to start off with a few words about the date on which we celebrate Veterans’ Day. It was only after my time in the military that I understood the significance of November 11th as the date we choose to honor our veterans. Far from being some random date on the calendar, November 11th was chosen for a very specific reason. Originally called “Armistice Day,” it marks the anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire agreement that effectively ended the First World War. Dubbed by turns “The Great War,” and “The War to End All Wars,”- this conflict resulted in the deaths of over 16 million people- only 9 million of them combatants- during its four years (1914-1918).

The First World War redrew national boundaries, toppled empires, wrecked a continent, and wiped an entire generation from the earth as surely as the swipe of an eraser removes ink from a whiteboard. By 1918 society had been so thoroughly rocked by the havoc this conflict wrought, that many people began to believe that they were witnessing the death throes of society itself- that civilization would literally cease to exist.

So the men who negotiated and signed this armistice (and they were all men. Human beings had yet to awaken to the importance of having the wisdom and experience of women at the table during negotiations like these), believed that with their actions, they were literally saving human civilization from eventual collapse and humanity itself from likely extinction.

And so they arranged for the cease-fire to go into effect on a symbolic date: literally at 11 o’clock in the morning, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year- hence the phrase “at the 11th hour”- a phrase that we use to this very day, in describing disaster being averted at the “last minute.”

I cannot help but find it fitting that we choose such a date to pause and take note of the contributions made to this country by our veterans. After all, it is the most American of traditions to take a painful memory and to substitute a hopeful one for it.

And to speak of the contributions, the sacrifices, of our veterans, is to speak of hope. Hope is an aspirational emotion, born of a desire for something greater, something better. People motivated by hope can achieve incredible things. America itself was founded on hope. Countless millions have flocked to this country from every corner of the planet, motivated by hope- hope for something bigger, greater, deeper. And they hope to find what they’re seeking in America, a place that the great poet Bruce Springsteen has dubbed “The Land of Hope and Dreams.”

And over the past two-plus centuries our citizen soldiers have answered their country’s call time and again out of a sense of dedication to that country, and to that hope. Such loyalty, such patriotism makes of mere countries the greatest of nations.

And as the service of veterans has helped to transform America, so, too has it had a transformational effect on those who served.

I served as a quartermaster in the United States Navy from 1985 to 1989. A quartermaster’s job is to serve as principal navigator onboard ship, and as an expert cartographer (a “map maker”) on land.

During my time in the navy I visited every continent on the planet, with the exception of Antarctica. I lived and worked with thousands of different people, from a wide variety of ethnic, economic, and geographic backgrounds. I experienced places and cultures and sights and smells and tastes that I never knew existed. It was a far cry from my childhood growing up in Eastern Washington.

I cannot overstate the effect that serving my country during those four years had on me. My worldview was radically changed as a result of that experience, and while it was not an easy journey, I cannot stress enough how important my military service has been to me in the years since my discharge in 1989.

The military taught me so much. Patience, mostly. And more patience. And then….still more. Those of you with a veteran in your family, ask them about the phrase “Hurry up, and wait.” See what reaction you get.

In the navy I learned to get along with people with whom I had nothing in common, other than the shared experience of serving our country. The navy brought me into close contact with people I might never otherwise have gotten to know. One of the life skills I value most is the ability to work well with people you may not like very much. Another is the ability to get past initial differences and find things to admire in others, things you might not have noticed on first acquaintance. The navy taught me how to do both of these things, and so much more.

None of this should have come as much of a surprise to me. You see, when it came to the military, I had a reservoir of previously acquired knowledge to rely upon at home while I was growing up. My father flew Huey gunships in Vietnam. Two uncles served in the navy. One retired from the Coast Guard. My grandfather was a tail-gunner in both B-17s and B-29s, flying bombing sorties over both Germany and Japan during World War II. Much of my childhood was spent listening to stories, not only of battle, but of boredom, “unintelligent” leadership, pranks played, and fast friendships formed.

Once I had served my own hitch, I had my own stories to tell. Tales of bad food, long work days, freezing cold watches stood on piers in faraway places with hard-to-pronounce names. And the exploits of “my buddies,” guys I served with. Guys I’ll never forget, like them, love them, or hate them. My younger brother did his own hitch in the army, serving as crew chief onboard Chinook helicopters. And he in turn brought home his own stories.

I have a lot of veterans in my family, including ones like my cousin, Ronald Quigley, who never lived to tell their stories. You see, my cousin Ronnie died while serving as an artilleryman in Vietnam. You can find his name inscribed with those of the other honored dead from that war on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I was three years old when he died. All I have left of him are some jumbled memories from his going-away party when he left for Vietnam.

And yet, my cousin, and those others whose lights were snuffed out too early, who never lived to tell their stories, the ones who, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, gave “the last, full measure of devotion” to this country, they deserve to be remembered. To be celebrated. To be honored.

And we, as a nation, have an obligation to keep their memory alive, to keep them from becoming just another name on just another war memorial. To help the citizens of this great nation remember the terrible cost incurred every time young people answer their country’s call to arms. To serve with honor, and to be transformed utterly by the experience.

And that leads me to the crux of this speech. Because, once you’ve lived it, once you’ve taken the oath, once you’ve stood the watches, and fought to stay awake, and been afraid, and laughed, and argued, and sweated, and ached, and bled, and loved and cried, all in the service of your country, like it or not, you’ve become a part of something larger than yourself. 

A fraternity. 

A family.

A group of women and men who have sworn to protect this nation. Who have made its continued existence their personal responsibility.

And it doesn’t change much once your hitch is up. Once you’ve done your bit, you’re a member for life. And for ever afterward.

That’s what being a veteran is.


See you in two weeks!

26 October 2023

When Writing Historical Fiction, It's Better to Travel

(A repost from a few years back. Still useful, still timely. Hope you enjoy! - B.T.)

[Elmore]Leonard was originally no more a man of the West than was the Ohio-born dentist Zane Grey. While a kid in Detroit, Westerns enthralled him as they did most people in the 1930s and 40s. When he grew interested in writing during college Western fiction seemed a promising genre he could work in part-time. Unlike many writers then selling Western tales to pulps, though, Leonard insisted on accuracy, and kept a ledger of his research over the years, later crediting his longtime subscription to Arizona Highways magazine for many of his authentic descriptions. All had to be genuine: the guns, Apache terms and clothing; the frontier knives, card games, liquor, and especially the horses. 

  Nathan Ward, from "Elmore Leonard's Gritty Westerns," in Crime Reads

It's certainly never a bad idea to follow the writing advice of the great Elmore Leonard. His Ten Rules For Writing are rightly famous as terrific advice for any writer of fiction.

The Great Elmore Leonard

In those instances where Leonard's advice isn't readily available, it never hurts to follow his example, if at all possible. Take the one in the quote above from Nathan Ward's Crime Reads article on Leonard. For years Leonard apparently leaned heavily on the content of Arizona Highways magazine.

It's a fine notion. Now, don't get me wrong: it's always better to travel. There is no substitute for actually going to and spending time in the place you're writing about. But, if you're writing about someplace and you can't afford to go, read travel writers. For that matter, even if you can afford the investment in both time and treasure to visit the region where your work is set, read travel writers. No one can help you get a feel for a certain place like people who make their livings helping their readers get a feel for a certain place.

Take William Dalrymple. The British-born-and-raised son of a Scottish baronet, Dalrymple these days is best known for his recent run of riveting books on the history of the subcontinent: India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dalrymple is a terrific writer and a first-rate historian who splits his time between a farm just outside Delhi, in India and a summer home in London.

William Dalrymple
But before he began to make a name for himself with books such as White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century IndiaThe Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, The Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842, and The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence and the Pillage of An Empire, Dalrymple began his writing career as a travel writer, taking readers on a tour through the Eastern Mediterranean and the Holy Land (From the Holy Mountain: a Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East), and of course, chronicling the early days of his life-long love affair with India. With his first book In Xanadu: a Quest, published in 1989, Dalrymple chronicles his modern retracing of the journey of Marco Polo from Jerusalem in the summer palace of Kublai Khan in China. But it was with his second book, 1994's City of Djinns: a Year in Delhi, a memoir of his first visit to the city which has had such a tremendous impact on his adult life, that Dalrymple really began to make his mark.

And there is so much to this memoir which can be of use to the writer reading about the city. Here's an early excerpt laying out his introduction to Delhi and to India:

I was only seventeen. After ten years at school in a remote valley in the moors of North Yorkshire, I had quite suddenly found myself in India, in Delhi. From the very beginning I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before. Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices. Moreover the city—so I soon discovered—possessed a bottomless seam of stories: tales receding far beyond history, deep into the cavernous chambers of myth and legend. Friends would moan about the touts on Janpath and head off to the beaches in Goa, but for me Delhi always exerted a stronger spell. I lingered on, and soon found a job in a home for destitutes in the far north of the city. The nuns gave me a room overlooking a municipal rubbish dump. In the morning I would look out to see the sad regiment of rag-pickers trawling the stinking berms of refuse; overhead, under a copper sky, vultures circled the thermals forming patterns like fragments of glass in a kaleidoscope. In the afternoons, after I had swept the compound and the inmates were safely asleep, I used to slip out and explore. I would take a rickshaw into the innards of the Old City and pass through the narrowing funnel of gullies and lanes, alleys and cul de sacs, feeling the houses close in around me.

Now, I ask you. Can this guy set a scene, or what? Really helpful for drinking in the flavors, colors, scents and sounds of what on the face of it comes across as a truly unforgettable place. Really not a bad guide if you're interested in writing about modern-day India.

But what if, like me, you're a writer of historical fiction?

In Leonard's case, as stated above, he exploited a modern magazine to help give him local flavor not just for another region of the country, but for that region in another era. No mean feat. It's a testament to Leonard's talent, coupled with his singular vision that he was able to "world build" (to borrow a phrase from our friends who write speculative fiction) using these building blocks for his foundation.

So sure, you can (and should) definitely use your imagination to fill in the cracks. There is certainly no substitute for imagination in the fiction writer's tool kit. That said, you need more than one tool in order to get the job of writing fiction done. I've often felt like our "tool kit" as fiction writers should be more aptly called a "tool warehouse." And of course, another way to use travel writing as one of those tools, to help get the feel for a city or street, or region or state or county or what-have-you during a bygone time is to go and find travel writing from the time in which your work-in-progress is set. 

I have a writer friend whose current work-in-progress is set during World War II. One of his major characters has a back-story in which he lived in Germany during the 1930s, in the run-up to the war. I referred him to A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, the first volume in a superb three-volume memoir of a trip on foot across Europe, from Holland all the way to Turkey by travel writer, war-time British commando (the account of his part in a successful kidnapping of a German general in Crete is not to be missed), bon vivant, and (some say) one of Ian Fleming's models for his literary creation James Bond, Patrick Leigh Fermor.

 Leigh Fermor set out for Constantinople (Istanbul) in December of 1933, less than a year after Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had come to power. His narrative is replete with rich details about German life during that period, laying out how the Nazis had both a heavy and in some ways, a negligible impact on the country they would eventually drive to absolute ruin. Here is Leigh Fermor's initial impression of Cologne, the first major German city he visited:

After a first faraway glimpse, the two famous steeples grew taller and taller as the miles that separated us fell away. At last they commanded the cloudy plain as the spires of a cathedral should, vanishing when the outskirts of the city interposed themselves, and then, as I gazed at the crowding saints of the three Gothic doorways, sailing up into the evening again at close range. Beyond them indoors, although it was already too dark to see the colours of the glass, I knew I was inside the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. Except for the little constellation of tapers in the shadows of a side-chapel, everything was dim. Women knelt interspersed with nuns and the murmured second half of the Gegrüsset seist Du, Maria rose in answering chorus to the priest’s initial solo; a discreet clatter of beads kept tally of the accumulating prayers. In churches with open spires like Cologne, one could understand how congregations thought their orisons had a better start than prayers under a dome where the syllables might flutter round for hours. With steeples they follow the uprush of lancets and make an immediate break for it. Tinsel and stars flashed in all the shops and banners saying Fröhliche Weihnacht! were suspended across the streets. Clogged villagers and women in fleece-lined rubber boots slipped about the icy pavements with exclamatory greetings and small screams, spilling their armfuls of parcels. The snow heaped up wherever it could and the sharp air and the lights gave the town an authentic Christmas card feeling. It was the real thing at last! Christmas was only five days away. Renaissance doors pierced walls of ancient brick, upper storeys jutted in salients of carved timber and glass, triangles of crow-steps outlined the steep gables, and eagles and lions and swans swung from convoluted iron brackets along a maze of lanes. As each quarter struck, the saint-encrusted towers challenged each other through the snow and the rivalry of those heavy bells left the air shaking. Beyond the Cathedral and directly beneath the flying-buttresses of the apse, a street dropped sharply to the quays. Tramp steamers and tugs and barges and fair-sized ships lay at anchor under the spans of the bridges, and cafés and bars were raucous with music. I had been toying with the idea, if I could make the right friends, of cadging a lift on a barge and sailing upstream in style for a bit.

 Again, this is quite a scene the writer is setting! So much good material, such a solid feel for the place. Leigh Fermor wrote the memoir some forty years after the trip, based on large part on the deep and thorough entries he made in his journal as an eighteen year-old looking for adventure in a rapidly changing world. And then he goes on to talk about his attempt to "make friends" in that timeless way young people have from time immemorial: he went to a bar:

I made friends all right. It was impossible not to. The first place was a haunt of seamen and bargees shod in tall sea-boots rolled down to the knee, with felt linings and thick wooden soles. They were throwing schnapps down their throats at a brisk rate. Each swig was followed by a chaser of beer, and I started doing the same. The girls who drifted in and out were pretty but a rough lot and there was one bulky terror, bursting out of a sailor’s jersey and wearing a bargeman’s cap askew on a nest of candy-floss hair, called Maggi—which was short for Magda—who greeted every newcomer with a cry of “Hallo, Bubi!” and a sharp, cunningly twisted and very painful pinch on the cheek. I liked the place, especially after several schnapps, and I was soon firm friends with two beaming bargemen whose Low German speech, even sober, would have been blurred beyond the most expert linguist’s grasp. They were called Uli and Peter. “Don’t keep on saying Sie,” Uli insisted, with a troubled brow and an unsteadily admonishing forefinger: “Say Du.” This advance from the plural to the greater intimacy of the singular was then celebrated by drinking Brüderschaft. Glasses in hand, with our right arms crooked through the other two with the complexity of the three Graces on a Parisian public fountain, we drank in unison. Then we reversed the process with our left arms, preparatory to ending with a triune embrace on both cheeks, a manoeuvre as elaborate as being knighted or invested with the Golden Fleece. The first half of the ceremony went without a hitch, but a loss of balance in the second, while our forearms were still interlocked, landed the three of us in the sawdust in a sottish heap. Later, in the fickle fashion of the very drunk, they lurched away into the night, leaving their newly-created brother dancing with a girl who had joined our unsteady group: my hobnail boots could do no more damage to her shiny dancing shoes, I thought, than the seaboots that were clumping all round us. She was very pretty except for two missing front teeth. They had been knocked out in a brawl the week before, she told me.

 And that's just a taste. Leigh Fermor's three volumes here truly form a treasure trove: a window into a long-vanished world, and a feel for both the time itself and the timeless humanity of its cast of thousands. Well worth a read whether you're writing something set in Middle Europe during the 1930s, are a student of human nature, history, great writing, or (most likely) some combination of all of the above.


Patrick Leigh Fermor (Right) in Crete, 1943

And that's all for now. Let's hear from you in the comments! Favorite travel writer(s)? I'm always on the lookout for new material!

See you in two weeks!

12 October 2023

The Sincerest Form of Flattery? Part 2

Oh Marlowe,’ she patted my shoulder. ‘Women tell each other things we would never tell a man. You don’t know how it is. There’s just so much backstory to being a woman. Chadwick used to be a lot worse. He committed her mother to a sanatorium and they drugged her so heavily she drowned in a bath. It’s not as dramatic as it looks. Anneliese bruises easy and every time he beats her up she figures he’s bringing himself closer to death.‘

                    - Denise Mina, The Second Murderer

Great speech, right? It's Anne Riordan talking to fellow P.I. Phillip Marlowe in a scene written by Scottish writer Denise Mina. Can you imagine the girl reporter Anne Riordan of Farewell, My Lovely talking like that to Marlowe in the first place, and him just accepting it, in the second? That’s just one of the many differences between Raymond Chandler’s original take on these characters, and Denise Mina’s successful update of them in The Second Murderer, the first Marlowe novel commissioned by the Chandler estate, to be written by a woman.

Of course, Mina is hardly the first “successor writer” to take on Chandler’s iconic private eye at the behest of the late author’s heirs. There have in fact been several; some of them decent, all of them not really successful. In my last round on our blog carousel, I laid out the history of approved Chandler sequel novels, with brief commentary on how authors such as Robert B. Parker, Benjamin Black and Lawrence Osborne fared in their attempts to bring Marlowe and his world to life. If you’re interested, you can find that entry here.

I also laid down a marker that, in my opinion, Mina’s work surpassed them all. And I stand by that conclusion. Here’s why.

Mina’s Marlowe closely resembles Chandler’s original, but is hardly a carbon copy, and definitely not some sort of slavish homage. She gives us Marlowe’s familiar, abiding righteous anger at the injustice inherent in daily life in 1930s/40s Los Angeles. Also making frequent appearances are the wisecracks Marlowe so often deploys as part of his attempts to cope with the injustice he sees all around him. These are a mixed bag. Chandler’s humor rarely missed (“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake.”), and Mina’s wisecracks, when they land, stand up by comparison (“Chrissie Montgomery was easier to find than an optimist in a casino.” “He looked like a headache in a suit.” “The windows were small and many and a heavy roof hung over it all like a furrowed brow.”), but when they don’t land, they really don’t (“Her laugh had a tinny rattle now, sharp edged, like a comedian’s wife planning her divorce during a live show.”), mostly because it feels like there's an element of trying too hard about them.

As with Chandler's best work, the city of Los Angeles itself acts as another character, well-developed and deftly fleshed out:

A mid-September heatwave had descended on the city. Brittle heat rolled down from parched hills, lifting thin dust from roads and sidewalks, suspending it in the rising air and turning the sky yellow. Sounds became crisp and metallic. Everywhere people were gliding along through a gritty yellow fog, mean and squinting, spitting on sidewalks, waiting for the heat to break.

Avid Chandler fans will note how deftly the above passage calls to mind the famous opening paragraph for Chandler's short story "Red Wind," first published in Dime Detective in January, 1938, a little more than a year before Marlowe's full-length novel debut in 1939's The Big Sleep:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

A comparison of the two passages strikes me how skillfully Mina evokes Chandler's descriptive prose without trying to closely duplicate it. It's the difference between an homage written by an author who has clearly been influenced by the original, and a true "pastiche," little more than a copy.

The similarities don't end there. As with The Big Sleep, there is a wealthy, aged, dying client. But where General Sternwood in The Big Sleep is a likeable old cuss,  The Second Murderer's Chadwick Montgomery is not. At all. Both rich old men have rebellious daughters, both families possess secrets they are loathe to have exposed to the light of day.

There are a plethora of other sly references to the original novels. My personal favorite among them is Mina's cleverly naming one of the city's seedy residential hotels the "Brody," an obvious reference to the Chandler character of Joe Brody, the "half-smart" blackmailer so dramatically gunned down halfway through the action of The Big Sleep. A close second was Mina's use of the famous Bradbury Building, renamed the "Belfont" by Chandler when he also made use of it as a setting for part of his third novel, The High Window.

But it's not just the similarities to the original material that make The Second Murderer so compelling. It's also the differences.

The original Marlowe comes across to modern readers as such an outright misogynist and downright homophobe that passages revealing him as such have become the stuff of cliché. As such an update to the character is not only called for–and I say this as a lifelong Chandler fan–but welcome.

Mina's Chandler isn't some "woke" construct. He simply reserves judgement, where Chandler himself always seemed unable to. He's still hardly the driver of the neighborhood Welcome Wago, as demonstrated in this scene where he and Riordan visit the home of an LAPD homicide detective with four annoying school-aged sons, all trying to block them from entering:

'Good morning, gentlemen,' said Riordan.

The oldest boy conceded the stick to the dog and stepped through a carefully tended flowerbed to get into her way.

'What do you want here?' he said. 'Father has been told not to bring his underlings to the door.'

She looked at him, 'We don't work for your father.'

He looked around at his rat-fink brothers. 'Are you from the school?' He wasn't going to let us pass him, not without answers.

'Son, we're here to see your daddy,' I explained carefully. 'So git. Because if you don't git I'll get angry and you'll be picking little tiny bits of your pug-ugly face out of that flowerbed over there.'

The boy did git, which was judicious of him. He was used to talking down to people who worked for his father but I like to think I extended his repertoire of engagement with underlings that day, perhaps in a way that was useful. We walked up to the door.

'Father of the year over here,' said Riordan. 'Is it snotty kids you hate or all kids?'

'I don't hate kids. I hate people.'

And then there's the character of Anne Riordan herself. As shown above, this Anne Riordan is still a "nice girl," but is also a business owner (started her own detective agency when Marlowe earlier rebuffed her request to apprentice with him), and more than equal to the task of fencing/flirting with Marlowe himself. As such she is a welcome update to the original.

It's hardly all positive, though. Nobody is perfect, and novels, being human-made constructs (at least for the time being), are also not perfect. The single aspect of Mina's approach to the character and world of Marlowe that consistently pulled me out of the story is something I can't recall Chandler ever employing in his work (and something of which, as both a reader and a writer, I am most definitely not a fan), a very particular type of foreshadowing, as with this final sentence of one of the novel's early chapters:

The next time we looked each other in the eye it would be over the body of a dead man.

It's not something Mina does more than a handful of times, but it occurred enough for me to make note of it. Hence my mentioning it here. But even mentioning it, I didn't find it jarring enough to make me give up on the book.

When I first heard the premise for The Second Murderer, I wondered whether it would be the sort of bait and switch that the latest season of the Disney Plus series The Mandalorian has been (the title character is barely a factor in this season. It's clearly all about reintroducing the character of Bo Katan...Uhhh anyway, I digress). You know, it's ostensibly a Phillip Marlowe novel, but in reality it's an Anne Riordan novel, with Marlowe doing enough and showing up enough to serve as literary window dressing.

It definitely wasn't. This is a Marlowe novel. And it's a damned good one. Well worth your time. I enjoyed it start to end.

And now I'm wondering what enticement it would take for Denise Mina to once again agree to take us to 1940s Los Angeles. This time in a story featuring Anne Riordan as the main character, perhaps.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below. And for me, I would definitely read that book!

And that's it for me this time around. See you in two weeks!