Showing posts with label Craig Johnson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Craig Johnson. Show all posts

13 September 2017

Cabin Fever

by David Edgerley Gates

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock (September/October) includes stories by me, Eve Fisher, and Janice Law - all of us SleuthSayers contributors. Here's looking at you, kid.

My story, "Cabin Fever," was written quite some time ago, and it's taken a while for it to work its way to the top of the stack. I'm mentioning this because what I'd like to talk about here is how stories get started, why an idea takes hold, and what kind of legs it needs to get us across the finish line.

Here's a curious thing. For some years now, Craig Johnson has been coming through Santa Fe as each new Longmire title launches, and for the past six years, his visits have coincided with the shooting schedule of Longmire, the TV series. As it happens, when Craig came to town to promote Hell Is Empty, the Longmire cast and crew were shooting the episode based on the book. And also, somewhere in this time period, or not long after, I'd started "Cabin Fever." The point is, Hell Is Empty has Walt tracking down an escaped con through a winter blizzard. "Cabin Fever" has my guy, Hector, held hostage by escaped cons in the middle of a forest fire. But. I didn't catch up with Hell Is Empty until later that year and the Longmire season opener wasn't broadcast until a year after that. There wasn't any cross-pollination. My idea came out of thin air.

Or not? We've all had the experience of things floating around in the zeitgeist, or drifting by, in our peripheral vision, that suddenly take on shape, and density. In our sentimental moments, we might even call it inspiration, the light on the road to Damascus. On a less exalted plane, it's more like you're hitching a ride, and somebody pulls over. I couldn't tell you where the set-up for "Cabin Fever" came from. Hector's truck breaks down, he's out in the back of beyond with no cell coverage, and a weather system's blowing in. He decides to try and find shelter, and beat the storm. There turn out to be other people lost in the woods, and soon enough they find each other.

I think it's safe to say that a story's going to change with different storytellers. The approach, the attack, the retreat. We might call the story "Stop Me If You've Heard This." A cop, a priest, and a hooker walk into a bar. You and I are entirely likely to go off at right angles to one another, or in completely opposite directions. It depends on what we think the story is. Where's the emphasis, who's got the POV, when do you show your hole cards?

Supposing that Craig and I did have a similar idea, and at more or less the same time, the end results turn out differently in the actual telling. I can give you another example. And in this case, I know where and when the match lit the fuse.

I was faithful reader of Marc Simmons' weekly column Trail Dust, in the Santa Fe New Mexican, until he retired the column last year. (Simmons, a highly-regarded New Mexico historian, has a reported forty-nine books under his belt.) He wrote a piece about the Butterfield freight line and a stagecoach loaded with gold that disappeared on the eve of the Civil War, in the desert west of Lordsburg. Was there treasure buried in a place called Doubtful Canyon? OK. First off, Lordsburg. John Ford's movie Stagecoach is based on the Ernest Haycox story "Stage to Lordsburg." I couldn't possibly pass that up. Secondly, how does anybody resist a name like Doubtful Canyon? There's your title, ready-to-wear. Last but not least, the bare bones of the story itself, men on the run with thirty thousand in Yankee gold, in hostile Apache country. I'm lathered up already.

The story I wound up writing ("Doubtful Canyon," of course) clocked in at some 20,000 words. It capped off, at least for a while, the bounty hunter series. I thought it was terrific, fully fleshed, peopled with rattlesnakes and rascals, and a satisfying answer to the puzzle, if made up out of whole cloth. It wasn't an easy sell, though, not at that length. I was a little disheartened. About a year later, then, you can imagine my shock when I ran across a new novel on the Westerns shelf at Collected Works bookshop called Doubtful Cañon - Cañon the Spanish spelling. What fresh hell was this? I knew the name, too. Johnny D. Boggs. I'd read one of his earlier books, Camp Ford, and liked it a lot. I was going to revisit my opinion now, you can bet your sweet ass.

Much to my chagrin, this Boggs turns out to be no schlump, as a writer. And this being Santa Fe, we bump into each other, sooner rather than later, at a library event. He's genuine, personable, and funny. All-around good company. The guy coaches Little League, for John's sake. Impossible not to like, which is even more annoying.

Johnny's novel is a YA, and yes, it does take off from the same start point, the missing stagecoach full of gold. There are other synchronicities. We both tell the story from a distance, in hindsight, although he gives it twenty years, and I gave it fifty. Part of this is, I think, a sense of perspective, tilting the horizon, and another part of it artful misdirection. Johnny and I both used a split screen, in effect, and the device of a not entirely reliable narration as well, but we deployed it differently. In my case, I alternated the two time-frames, too.

As a writer - or as one of two writers grazing the same section of fence - I'm probably more interested in the confluences between Johnny's approach to the canvas and mine. A critical reader, who doesn't have skin in the game, might well be more interested in where we diverged. But absent the annotated Library of America edition, we'll skip the play by play. The question isn't whether the idea is original, it's whether we made it our own.

Here's a last little teaser, a sort of exercise. I ran across this poster at my local frame shop. Tell me it doesn't conjure up all sorts of possibilities. I'm not sure how I'd use it, myself, but I'm going to let it rattle around in the cupboards for awhile. How about you?

10 June 2015

Heavy Breathing

David Edgerley Gates

Warning: NSFW

About a third of the way into writing VIPER, my Cold War novella - which is about the antiwar movement in Berlin in the 1970's, a KGB deception, and a love affair, among other things - I realized I had to do a SEX SCENE. I'd boxed myself in, there was no way around it. It couldn't happen off-stage, you had to see these people doing the horizontal mambo. Otherwise, the story wouldn't make any sense.

Now, let's face it, this can be a deeply embarrassing prospect. How many writers do you know who've done it convincingly? With the possible exception of D.H. Lawrence, my own feeling is that women are better at erotic material than men. Harold Robbins? Gimme a break. Or maybe Norman Mailer, THE TIME OF HER TIME? You might as well just call a plumber, since it's all about leaky pipes.

Twist Phelan has what amounts almost to a comedy routine, talking about writing sex. She says, you avoid at all costs an overwrought euphemism, 'the scepter of love,' for instance. On the other hand, you should steer clear of clinical description - you don't actually have to use the word 'cock.' If you manhandle, so to speak, a turn of phrase like, 'she took me in her lips,' the astute reader can probably imagine she's not hanging onto a subway strap. Less, at least in this situation, is probably more.

I like the way Deb Coonts deals this particular card, and she deals it from the bottom of the deck. Near the end of LUCKY CATCH, there's a really hot scene. First of all, she sneaks it up on you. You're not ready for it at all. You're going, like whoa! Secondly, she doesn't cheat your expectations. She goes all the way. And last but not least, she defuses it afterwards with a laugh line. Who'd expect you could make sex funny? Then again, why is it always taken so seriously, or in books, anyway? C'mon. We're supposed to be enjoying it.

Craig Johnson tells a story. Somewhere around the third Longmire book, he puts two major characters in bed together. Of course, this has consequences, but the point is that Craig gets them in and out of the sack in maybe three sentences. ("Which shows you how much of a pussy I am," he says.) Down the road, he's at a reading, and he's taking questions, and a woman raises her hand, and says, we need to talk about that sex scene. Craig says okay. She says, it went on forever

Craig gives this a long beat, and then he asks her, well, how many times did you read it?

Which brings us back to VIPER. The novella is 17K words. The sex scene takes up two pages, so I lapped Craig. Then again, those two pages took me something like three or four days to write. I was sweating bullets. It was as though I'd set myself a hurdle. Writers do this, of course. You sometimes trick yourself, and set something up, and then you have to do it. (For example, the dive sequence in "Cover of Darkness." That's basically the whole story, and because you're underwater, there's no dialogue. It's all physical action, it's nothing but description. Try it some time - you'd be surprised how hard it is.) Anyway, by the time I got done, I was completely exhausted. I'd been having sex for four days. But the end result works. It's not a complete embarrassment. How many times did I read it aloud to myself? It seemed to go on forever

Here's the thing, though. The real point of the scene is that these two people are invested in each other. If it doesn't have emotional resonance, it's just plumbing. And that was the tricky part. The grappling, the earthiness, showing skin, all of that is to no purpose, if you're just waving it around in a warm room. The money shot was making their physical hunger count for something. Martina tells herself afterward, I surrendered, this was rescue. And if I haven't convinced you of that, it's a dry hump.

What it comes down to is purpose. Why do you need it in the story? Anybody in their right mind would turn and run. Unless you're into whips and chains. Let's be honest. Doing it is terrific. It's consuming, It lights you on fire. But trying to convey that sensation is like pushing water uphill with a rake. In this case, it was utterly necessary. Do you have to ask, would I do it again? Bring on the whips and chains. I'm putty in your hands.

27 March 2013

Left Coast Crime 2013

by David Edgerley Gates

Left Coast Crime is an annual conference that gathers together writers, fans, agents, and editors, and runs for three-and-a-half days, with interviews and panels, and awards among other prizes the Rocky, for best mystery by a writer in the West---or west of the Mississippi. This year it was held in Colorado Springs.
LCC logo

I drove up from Santa Fe, not on the interstate but on Route 285, a road a friend of mine told me is called The Shotgun, because it runs straight as a bullet from Espanola up to Alamosa, just across the Colorado border, where you bump smack into the Rockies. It was a great ride, through wide-open ranch country, grazing beeves and horses, and lots of wildlife, pronghorn, mule deer, wild turkeys, and I even spotted a small herd of elk.

I got there Wednesday afternoon, and met up with Deborah Coonts, author of the Lucky O'Toole novels, and Chuck Greaves, nominated for a Rocky for his book HUSH MONEY. Deb took us out for dinner at the Broadmoor, a resort hotel dating back to the 19th century. Good time, good company.

The conference and the panels started Thursday, but we played hooky. Along with Chuck Rosenberg, who's written a legal thriller called DEATH ON A HIGH FLOOR, Deb got us out of the hotel to drive up to the Garden of the Gods, a spectacular geological formation with Pike's Peak looming in the background at 14,000 feet. Then through Manitou Springs, and a short detour into the canyons. (I should mention that these three writers happen to be lawyers, for what it's worth, but Chuck Rosenberg is the only one with a still-active practice.
Pike's Peak from Garden of the Gods

Okay, enough of that. You want to hear about the trade show, and who was there. Among others, Margaret Coel, Ann Parker, Linda Joffe Hull, Manny Ramos, and Janet Rudolph---I'm leaving a lot of people out, go to the LCC website for the complete list, along with a couple of lesser lights, Craig Johnson and Laura Lippman.

There were of course some conflicts with the panels and workshops, i.e., you had to triage when two things you wanted to see were scheduled opposite each other. So it happens. There was a really interesting discussion, to me, about social commentary or politics in mysteries, or in fiction, generally, whether it's the financial crash, or poisoning the environment, or Mormon polygamy, or the drug war in Mexico, or whatever. The consensus was to tread lightly, one of the guys mentioning Samuel Goldwyn's quote, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Another cool one was about the anti-hero, and during the Q&A, one of the questions from the audience was whether you could have a female anti-hero, the guys on the panel all men, to which the moderator, Simon Wood, popped right back with Charlie Fox (this is a shameless plug on my part for Zoe Sharp, of course). Then we had one on humor, that Deb Coonts moderated. Chuck Greaves, Rochelle Staab (a later winner of the Watson, for best sidekick), Brad Parks (winner of the Lefty, for best comic mystery), and Harley Jane Kozak. Deb wasn't able to moderate them much: a very funny and good-natured bunch who stepped on each other's laugh lines without apology.

Deb's panel

Deb's posse, by the by, had now grown in include Sally Anne Rosenberg, Chuck's wife, Paul Levine and his girlfriend Marcia Silvers (another pair of ambulance-chasers), as well as Rochelle. We had lunch Friday with Beth Groundwater, one of the other Rocky nominees, and Thomas Perry, somebody I've been queer for ever since he published THE BUTCHER'S BOY, thirty years ago. A very genuine and gracious guy, in no way full of himself.

Deb's posse

Saturday morning led off with a panel about writing other cultures, Margaret Coel and Craig Johnson in the mix. Murder in Hollywood, both the movies and the town itself, Harley Jane and Paul Levine among the participants. After the lunch break, Twist Phelan interviewing Laura Lippman, an utter hoot. Then a legal thrillers panel, Chuck Rosenberg, who was the script consultant on L.A. LAW, as well as other shows, holding his own. I got to moderate a panel myself, with Tom Perry and Mark Sullivan, both of them big guns in their own right, but talking about the collaborations with, respectively, Clive Cussler and James Patterson. The most interesting thing they said was that in spite of the many books they've each written on their own, working with those other guys was very much a learning experience. Old dogs, new tricks. The final panel I looked in was the Rocky nominees.
Rockies - Craig, Darrell James, Beth, Chuck, Margaret

At the awards banquet, there was the added suspense of Lou Diamond Phillips being among the missing. A winter storm had blown in, a real whiteout, closing the interstate south, and Lou had been sitting on the tarmac in Albuquerque since seven in the morning, waiting for clearance for take-off. In the end, he made it, about eight o'clock that night, to a standing ovation for being such a mensch. He interviewed Craig, finally, long after both their usual bedtimes.
Robert Taylor, Craig J, LDP - LONGMIRE wrap party, Santa Fe

Sunday morning was the finish line. I did get to see one last, and also very funny, panel, moderated by Catriona McPherson (who'd won the Bruce Alexander memorial award for best historical), about first breaking into the business. By this point, most of us were running on fumes. This kind of rodeo is, to put it gently, an endurance contest.

My takeaway? Well worth the trip. I'd have to say, though, it wasn't so much the big-ticket events, as the stuff that kind of fell through the cracks. My time with Deb and her gang, first and foremost. My lunch with Tom Perry. All-too-brief conversations with Clark Lohr, about place, and mining disasters, and with Leo Maloney, a former black ops guy who hails from the Boston area, so it was cool to hear that home-grown accent again, and not least, a chance encounter with our own R.T. Lawton, at the last minute. In other words---a nod to the lawyerly crew I hung with---it was all about the sidebars.