Showing posts with label Dickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dickens. Show all posts

09 November 2016

Old Mortality

by David Edgerley Gates

I don't imagine Sir Walter Scott is much read these days. Back in high school, for some of us, IVANHOE was on the reading list, maybe QUENTIN DURWARD or THE TALISMAN. All three of them were made into pretty successful movies, in the 1950's - romantic swashbucklers, not particularly credible, I admit, but incredibly rousing.  


His reputation now perhaps in disrepair, Scott in his lifetime was quite possibly the most widely read novelist in English, and maybe in translation. He's the first brand-name author, at least in trade publishing as we know it. He falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Dickens. not just chronologically, but in how he inhabited the popular imagination. If you look at expressions that have entered out common vocabulary, the Bible of course comes first, with Shakespeare a close second, then Dickens, and then Scott, you might be surprised to realize. The rest of us are back in the pack. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Scott. They're the most-quoted writers in the English language, although more than half the time, nobody's consciously quoting them. Something rotten in the state of Denmark. The best of times, the worst of times. Every dog has his day. Recognize the source? A lot of us wouldn't. They've become commonplaces, There's an interesting transition with the generic. Years ago, Xerox fought bitterly against their name being used as a synonym for copying - "let's Xerox it" - and Rollerblades has done it too, more recently, calling it trademark infringement. Fridgidaire once tried the same thing. Hard to see Dickens complaining about being Uriah Heep'd - it gave him legs.

Shakespeare and Dickens both set out, from the starting blocks, to be rich and famous. Neither of them came from privileged backgrounds, and their ticket to stardom was their skill as writers. Scott had more advantages. He was well-educated, and read for the law. Writing was at first an avocation, not a career. And neither was he drawn to commercial genres. He was fascinated by the Borders, the bloody history, the clan feuds and the religious wars, the Covenanter Rebellion and, later, the doomed Stuarts. His first book was a collection of Border ballads. He'd met Robert Burns when he was fifteen, and it had decided him on being a poet.

Let's be plain about this. Poetry was a gentlemen's profession. It was literature. In the early 1800's, the novel was below the salt. They were written for women, and not to be taken seriously - some obvious irony, here. Scott launched the novel in a new direction. The first of his historicals, WAVERLY, was published in 1814, and it took off like a rocket. I don't think Scott anticipated its success. He wanted to popularize the Jacobite legend, and maybe at the same time, bring it down to earth, make it accessible but show it for the folly it was.

Scott tapped into a hungry audience. They were waiting for it. He
was the missing piece, and he hit the market at exactly the right time, although he hadn't calculated for it. The early books were simply gobbled up.  Of those novels, my own opinion, the best is OLD MORTALITY, which has a political and moral complexity Scott never pulled off again. Yeah, the hero's kind of an insipid boob, but the heavies are jaw-dropping, the Royalist general Claverhouse and the Presbyterian assassin Burley. Think, perhaps, of the IRA Provos, or Islamic fanatics. OLD MORTALITY is deep in those dark woods.  

Scott didn't trade on his celebrity. It was an open secret in Edinburgh literary circles who the so-called Author of Waverly was, but his name never appeared on the title pages of his novels. A quaint convention? Maybe. He put his name to THE LADY OF THE LAKE, which sold like hotcakes, but it was of course epic poetry.

And then the inevitable happens. Scott's success catches up with him. It isn't hubris, or over-reaching, but his publisher, James Ballantyne, goes down. Scott has been a silent partner in the business for years, and his books have supported Ballantyne's bad business decisions. Scott could have thrown them over the side, but he's way too honorable for that. They declare bankruptcy, Scott writes them out of debt, and it kills him, at 61.

This is an over-simplified version of a complicated story. I admire the fact that Scott took responsibility. It speaks to the man. but the later stuff isn't that good, with the exception of ST. RONAN'S WELL, which is patently playing to the romance market, Austen and Bronte, and Scott doesn't shy away from admitting it. 


Seriously, can you envision anybody doing this, in the present predatory publishing climate? I think it's astonishing. The guy's loyal to an old friend, who's been a fool, but not devious. The guy believes that his good name, and his legacy, is more valuable than immediate profit. The guy wants to finish an enormously ambitious building project, Abbotsford, but he won't mortgage his reputation. In other words, Scott's willing to break his ass, and risk his physical health, to make good on his debt to history. I'm not at all sure we could meet that bar.  


23 December 2015

The Dickens Mystery

David Edgerley Gates


It's probably not any secret or surprise that our more familiar Christmas traditions date back to mid-19th century England and the Victorians. Victoria's reign began in 1837; her Saxony-born husband Prince Albert is supposed to have introduced the Christmas tree - a German custom - to Britain. Father Christmas apparently goes back to pagan times, the midwinter solstice, but Santa (a corruption of the Dutch Sinter Klaas, St. Nick) only showed up in the 1800's. The railway and the ha'penny stamp brought about the Christmas card, which dates to 1843, and that same year Dickens published A CHRISTMAS CAROL.


Dickens. Mmmmh, okay. I'm sure we have some differences of opinion, here. Both his critical reputation and his general popularity have gone up and down wildly in the last hundred years, and in fact they ricocheted pretty crazily during his lifetime. Some people admire his mechanics, some people think he's painting by numbers. Some people admire his sentiment, some people consider it treacle. Oscar Wilde remarked that a man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell, and that's hard to improve on. His technical skill is pretty much acknowledged, but then again, as Forster says, all his characters are more or less flat. They have no inner life to accommodate their outward eccentricities, they're simply a collection of gestures, their purpose entirely dramatic.

This isn't by any means a weakness. Quite a few writers ring effective changes on the skin-deep, and Dickens gets a lot of mileage out of his eccentrics. (His most lasting character of any depth is the city of London, too, and its many voices.) A CHRISTMAS CAROL draws its strength from the promise of redemption, and surely the fact that its spirits are familiars. Dickens himself was enormously entertained in the writing of it, and years later, reading it aloud and playing all the parts, for his immediate family or for a paying audience, he relished every cadence and effect. The story's got staying power. Nor do I think it's any real stretch to say Dickens effectively invented our idea of Christmas, or at least embodied it. He wasn't the first guy to write about it, and A CHRISTMAS CAROL wasn't his first shot - or the last, either - but it's the one that sticks to your ribs. And it's bulletproof. You can't fix it because it ain't broke. I was in 5th or 6th grade when I saw an adaption the 8th grade put on, and I was transported by it. Scrooge McDuck, or Alistair Sim. It goes the distance, and it's impervious to harm. That's the test. That it seems both faithful and new, every time.

The 'mystery' of Dickens - if you choose to put it that way, and I will - isn't the unfinished DROOD, or putting his wife out to pasture, in favor of an unsuitable attachment, or the most curious incident of the Staplehurst railway crash, blind chance saving his life. The mystery is his fresh eye. Dickens is not original, in the sense of discovery, but he reimagines the known, turning it back to front. What's different about him, and the difference he makes, is that he has a way of seeing the world, both in detail and in large. He uses, in effect, camera movement. He pulls focus. He approximates the zoom lens, or the dolly shot. Dickens was fascinated by the theater, by all kinds of stage business, tricks of the trade. How did he come by this sensibility, that I'd call cinematic? There's no analog for it, technologically, in his era. And yet Dickens seems so much of his time, a representative figure. I can't account for it. The pleasure is in the writing.


13 September 2015

The Law is an Ass

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard
“The law is a ass” runs the famous quotation by the beadle Bumble (I’ll probably never get another opportunity to write that phrase) in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, chapter 51 (or this squib in context). The sentiment is about the only agreement we find in the comeuppance of the unpleasant Mr. Bumble. Time has repeatedly proven the maxim.

Last year, we mentioned Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi attempted to stop a lesbian couple’s divorce. Not good for family values, see. Barbie Doll Bondi is the same AG who schedules her executions around cocktails.

Asinine is from the Latin for 'ass' and to be sure, Florida is loaded with asinine laws. You may remember we re-elected as governor the perpetrator of the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history. It’s sadly ironic in so many ways that this governor has been a most ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, turning down billions in federal aid to 800,000 of the state’s needy. But you don’t have to oppose ObamaCare to appreciate the irony that Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet (including Pam Bondi) pay only $8.34 a month for individual heath coverage. Our multi-millionaire governor shells out only $30 a month to cover his family of five. The poor need not apply.

As you already know, Florida originated the asinine Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law which supplanted the far more sensible Castle Defense. Now we have a ‘Gun Gag’ law, also called Docs versus Glocks, which forbids physicians from enquiring about guns in the home, even if, say a child, is obviously wounded by a gunshot.

It’s like the story about a poacher who sought medical treatment after a hunting accident. The man said, “Doc, I got run through by a tree branch.” The doctor looked closely at the wound and said, “Really? What calibre?”

In 2001, the governor and legislature proudly enacted the Scarlet Letter law (Florida Statute §63.088, voted for and passed by two present presidential candidates). Intentionally intended to humiliate, the statute required single women who wanted to put a child up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper, not just once, but weekly for a month, paid for by the women themselves. The law compelled them to provide details about their sexual encounters including names of sex partners, physical descriptions (height, weight, hair and eye color), dates and locations. The law provided no exceptions for minors or victims of rape. Sensible liberals and conservatives came together to oppose the law and in 2003, the act was declared unconstitutional and repealed.

The Florida legislature decided it would be a genius idea to label sexual offenders as such on their driver's license so that they couldn't, say, visit Walt Disney World. Except the slot allocated on the Florida drivers licenses shares the same field as organ donor and glasses requirements. What could go wrong?

Florida was hardly done meddling in sex. This year we outdid ourselves with an act barring transsexuals from using public restrooms if their birth gender doesn’t match the picture on the door. Violation of this law, even in emergencies, can result in a year of incarceration although, in a twist of irony, the law doesn’t seem to specify men’s or women’s prison.

But wait, there’s more! Any non-transsexual who somehow discovers the chromosomes of the person in the stall next to them aren’t the same as their own may sue that person for emotional damages and attorneys fees. But stop! Florida law isn’t done. Said non-trans person may also sue the proprietor as well for damages and attorneys fees.

North Carolina postcard
But we’re not finished as we turn our attention to North Carolina.

An arrest in the Tar Heel State prompted today’s article. A minor charged as an adult is facing up to ten years in prison and registration as a sexual predator for having nude pictures of a minor on his cell phone.

Pictures of… himself.

Wait. Try to grasp that. Police are charging a boy as an adult for having naked photos of himself… because he’s a minor.

It’s like corrupting the morals… of himself. (His girlfriend was fined $200 for the same thing and does not have to register as an offender.)

Even though authorities have made his name and face public, the premise of this article is the law is an ass and it’s not up to me to disseminate his personal information. But even beadle Bumble could not have imagined such a plight.

03 August 2014

Debtors' Prison

Little Dorrit
by Leigh Lundin

Mal du siècle

Ever read Charles DickensLittle Dorrit? It's not a light read but please do. Written from the heart, Dickens’ own father was incarcerated when he couldn’t pay his family’s debts. A century and a half after his novel revolutionized society’s notions about debtors’ prison, it’s become relevant again.

To refresh, imprisonment for debts is the novel’s central theme. Edward Dorrit had been a gentleman of means and manner before a business reversal sent him to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. As his daughter Amy (Little Dorrit) works toward paying the two-decade-old debt, an investigation by Arthur Clennam brings to light that Dorrit is an heir to a sizable fortune. Against a background of banking and brokerage schemes and financial collapse, Clennam, through his own honesty, finds himself in prison after the loss of his own fortune.

The Magic of Economics and Politics

The rise of debtors’ prisons is again plaguing our society with ever new and clever machinations. Chances are your legislature, like mine, brags how much money it saves in taxes. Oddly, they haven't cut back spending, certainly not legislators’ salaries, but they claim to have cut taxes. Now closely watch the handkerchief in this hand…

Consider a typical example in Florida. Perhaps you get sick and you lose your job. You can’t pay your automobile insurance. Because you’re a good citizen but naïve about the statutes, you don’t drive your car but, hoping for a little money any day now, you don’t turn in your car’s license plate (called a ‘tag’ in Florida). Even if you never drive during that period, the state of Florida will charge you $150 up to $500 for ‘financial irresponsibility’ and revoke your driver’s license. That’s right: You couldn’t afford insurance but as you’re trying to recover financially, you’re forced to fork over as much as $500 in escalating fines plus fees. It’s difficult to argue this isn’t punishing the poor for being poor.

Machinations

States constantly authorize new categories of fines and fees while criminalizing once civil violations to supplement their shrinking tax base. These are called LFOs, ‘legal financial obligations.’ For example, some states are shifting minor infractions such as parking violations to criminal jurisprudence. Truancy is now a crime but the opposite is also a crime– schooling your child in a district you don’t live in.

And guess who the fines are aimed at? Certainly not those wealthy enough to lobby against paying taxes. That’s not me saying that… it’s the conclusion of a fifteen-state study by my alma mater’s law school, New York University. It’s also the conclusion of an Ohio study that found up to 20% of county jail bookings were the results of inabilities to pay and, to the surprise of some, more women were jailed than men, mainly minority and especially Hispanic women.

Manipulation

Under Pennsylvania law, truancy is now a parental crime. A father or mother can be jailed five days for each truancy violation by their children and on top of that be charged for unpaid fines and fees. As Eve Fisher mentioned, Eileen DiNino, a mother in jail for truancy debts, died recently after being denied medical care after complaining about pain and inability to breathe. In a county where 1600 parents have been locked up, a mother needlessly died after being jailed for unpaid fines.

The Ohio Supreme Court has instructed judges to stop sending the indigent to jail, yet Ohio has authorized non-judicial ‘mayor’s courts’ that aren’t courts in any recognizable sense. Running a sort of collection agency, the magistrate doesn’t have to have a law degree and the so-called ‘courts’ have little or no public accountability or oversight.

Maltreatment

At the same time government has cut back services for the poorest among us, a rash of laws have taken aim at the less fortunate. Thus we’ve defunded child care and cut back food programs. On the verge of the banking debacle, President Bush signed the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005, increasing bank profits while making bankruptcy more difficult and costly for consumers and impossible for student loans. The theory was that even if a citizen was dead broke, when sufficiently threatened, he or she could somehow come up with money to pay, even if they had to forego food and shelter.

The war against poverty has become a war against the poor. Among the services cut back has been mental health. Our prisons now hold ten times the number of mentally ill than do our state hospitals. If you’re homeless, some places make it illegal to sleep or even lie down to rest. Other places ban sleeping in cars. The city of Orlando will attempt to arrest you if you publicly feed the homeless– it’s not good for that touristy promotional image.

Individual managers at Walt Disney World, quiet heroes who know less fortunate cast members are sleeping in cars and vans, do what they can to help them with showers and food.
WalMarts often turn a blind eye to families who virtually camp in the distant corners of their parking lots. Such practices certainly aren't official company policies, but they deserve mention.

Personal Profit Centers


Since imprisoning the poor because of debts is technically illegal in most states, prosecutors and bond holders rely on legal subterfuges to jail the indigent, and often the accused are not apprised of their rights. For example, a respondent doesn’t have the money to pay a $10 debt that grows to $100 in interest, fees, and fines. A DA or bond-holder files a motion of contempt and argues failure to pay the fine is contempt of court. Judges don’t like contempt of court and may well agree. They can move a civil case into the criminal realm. Most states reserve the right to charge citizens for their own prosecution.

Thereafter, of course, the fees and interest continue to climb. A $30 or $40 debt can easily reach three figures or more made worse by state-authorized collection agencies. If you’re arrested, expect to pay double or more for commissary cigarettes and candy, and be charged ten times the going rate for phone calls. Don’t be surprised to be billed for the recording of visits with your family.

States of Despair

In part of Washington state where average felony fines and fees of $2500 increase at 12% interest, inmates can be charged for laboring on the county work crew. An Alabama private probation firm charged $2100 in fees and extra fines for a $200 misdemeanor. An Illinois woman was sent to jail for a $280 medical bill she didn't owe. An indigent Michigan father caught a bass out of season that started a cascade of fines, fees, jail, and a huge bill for room and board while incarcerated. Also in Michigan, a man forged a pain medication prescription and was billed a thousand dollars in court cost… part of which included the cost of the county employees' fitness center.

Complicit judges have contended that in American society, there’s no excuse for poverty, that the poor simply don’t want to work: “They’re poor because they want to be,” goes the thinking. And yet nearly two thirds of inmates in jail have never been charged with anything; they’re there because they can’t afford bail or even a bond.

Out-of-touch judiciary have expressed incredulity that the impoverished don’t have credit cards. According to one judge, the poor could pick up cans beside the road to pay fines and fees. This same judge went on to sentence a man who’d just started work and was due his first paycheck to three weeks in jail, knowing his employer might terminate him– and then made employment a condition for the man’s parole. A Colorado man lost his employment because of a work injury, then, the day before he was to start a new job, an indifferent judge jailed him for failure to pay a traffic ticket for an illegal turn.

Profit in the Poor

The situation has worsened with privatized prisons and private probation companies. These businesses argue they have a right to be paid for room, board, and supervision, even if the “guest’s” stay is involuntary and even if he’s innocent. It’s in the interest of these profit-driven companies to seek the most lucrative penalties possible and their contracts with states mandate quotas to keep for-profit prisons full. Corrections Corporation of America told its shareholders “The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by … leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices.” Indeed, private companies have argued and won the right to extend the original sentence term if a parolee cannot complete his payments. You read that right: A non-judicial, for-profit business can supersede and extend a court’s sentencing.
Miranda Warning
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.

But that’s not all. Say you’re tried for a crime you didn’t commit but you can’t afford to hire an attorney. The federal government says one must be provided for you. But counties in Florida (led by the head of a public defender’s office who campaigned on cutting services to those who needed legal representation) and 42 other states now bill the accused. In at least one state, a defendant can be billed for a jury trial.

What if you’re innocent? You can be adjudged not guilty and yet be sent to jail: Even though you are constitutionally entitled to an attorney, you face the possibility of imprisonment if you can’t afford to pay one.

The Garden State

One state thinks these harsh judges and judgments are wrong and counterproductive. New Jersey believes people want to do the right thing. Last year’s Safe Surrender brought more than 4500 financial fugitives in to settle fines and fees at a significant reduction.

NPR highlighted a war veteran living in his car who lost his driver’s license and was hit with vehicle fines, fees, and interest topping $10,000. Without a license he couldn’t take advantage of assistance programs or take a job that required driving. The Safe Surrender program reduced the $10k to a more reasonable $200… and in a bout of irony, the once homeless vet now works for the local government handing out parking tickets.

I haven’t seen the published results, but while other states find that jailing and billing the impoverished costs more than it brings in, New Jersey may be showing us that compassion can cost less.

Deep Pockets

The world is watching. These issues have arisen on NPR, in the New York Times, and even the pages of London’s highly regarded magazine, The Economist.

If counties and states are clearly violating the civil liberties of the poor, why hasn’t the Supreme Court weighed in? Issues take a while to make their way through the lower courts and fighting them takes money, which by definition the poor don’t have. It also takes awareness and the poor are often beneath the consciousness of the rest of us. But in fact, the Supreme Court ruled forty and again thirty years ago that it wasn’t lawful to jail those who can’t pay. But… the Supreme Court also hasn’t objected to counties forcing indigent defendants to pay for public defenders where application fees alone can amount to $400. States have exploded in arrests of the indigent.

Then there’s the flip side. Staying out of jail may depend upon the amount you owe. If it’s millions or billions, if you’re a major banker or Wall Street broker, a scheming insurer or flim-flam mortgagee, America forgives you. Officially, that is, our government. Me, not so much.

22 January 2014

The 4th Wall

by David Edgerley Gates

I wrote a story awhile back called "The Devil to Pay" and, at the end, Tommy is visiting his grandmother, who's living in a nursing home.

It's a beautiful fall day, crisp and clear, with just enough breeze off the river that she needs a lap robe. He's pushing her around the grounds in her wheelchair. The gravel on the path crunches underfoot. He's telling her a story, full of gangsters and gunrunners. She doesn't really follow it. Too complicated, too many foreign names, too many people she doesn't know.

The point, of course, is that he's telling her the story you've just read. There's a term for his, and I believe it's called metafiction– correct me if I'm wrong– meaning a narrative that's self-referential, where you play with convention, and the story comments on its own structure or dynamic. This, in turn, got me thinking about breaking the Fourth Wall.

Hamlet begins his story by addressing the audience, "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…" Richard III does the same, "Now is the winter of our discontent…" Macbeth, after he first meets the witches: "If chance will have me king…" In each case, they don't step out of character, in fact, the reverse, but they step out of the play, to invite us into their confidences, and make us complicit in what follows. The soliloquy is a dramatic device going back to the earliest theater, but Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan playwrights, like Marlowe, use it in a very specific way, to enter a character's thoughts.

The equivalent these days would be first-person narration, where whoever's telling the story let's you know what's going on in their head, or admits they don't in fact know what's going on. MAGNUM P.I. often used voice-over, and one common phrase Magnum was fond of, as he went off on some errand you knew could only lead to trouble, was "I know what you're thinking, but–" This is actually a variation on a Victorian literary trope, had-he-but-known. Nor were the Victorians at all
embarrassed by addressing you directly: "And now, Dear Reader, we must leave this scene, and return to…" whatever it is. Dickens does it all the time. So does Trollope. The effect is to make you a party to the machinery, or joinery, and remind that this is all invention. It removes you from the fiction, so to speak, that the story is accidental.

We follow certain conventions, and I think rightly, because we assume a bargain between the writer and the reader, and you basically have to play fair. It doesn't mean you can't have an unreliable narator, or be deceptive, or simply mischievous, but the reader understands you're in collusion with each other. He or she surrenders to the illusion in hopes of being entertained, or invigorated, puzzled, or shocked, or surprised, even transported. When do you break the rules? In effect, only when you have the reader's permission. If you step out from behind the curtain, you have to do it in good faith. "I know what you're thinking, but---" In other words, the reader is your accomplice.

The trick, really, if I can put it that way, lies in not losing the reader's confidence. When you do close-up card magic, for example, the distinction is between the "effect," the agreed-upon narrative, what the audience sees, and the "sleight," meaning the method you use to pull it off. This is known in magic circles as misdirection, but the audience is asking to be fooled.

This is part of the bargain, that you enter into a world of masks, and the writer can let the mask slip, if you have what amounts to informed consent. You're dealing from a marked deck. The reader accepts this, if the narrative is convincing, and the sleight of hand reinforces it. What your reader won't forgive is the loss of trust. You've invited them in, after all, and they've made the choice to be included, to inhabit the fiction, the understanding that you'll give good weight. You promise, across the footlights, to make mad the guilty, and appall the free, unpack your heart with words. They'll take you up on it.

12 December 2013

Good Character / Bad Character

by Janice Law

I’ve been reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, and I was once again struck by his emotional reaction to his characters, especially to Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop, a typical Victorian saintly child, whose precarious situation and dodgy health provoked transatlantic anxieties. Folks actually met British steamers at the New York docks to get the latest news of this Dickens’ heroine.

Few of us will create such emotional havoc in our readers and today the internet spills the beans via blogs or Twitter. But it got me thinking about writers’ relationships with characters, in particular, with the way that some characters just write like a dream while others resist their translation to print and even when successful represent a long, hard slog.

I can hear the amateur psychologists in the background muttering about covert self portraits and sub-conscious impulses. Frankly, I hope that’s not true, because the characters that I’ve had the most trouble with are the virtuous ones, while certain weird and wicked people just jumped off the page.

Of course, evil is stock in trade for the mystery writer. But even slightly off that homicidal reservation I’ve found that the wicked make good copy. Years ago, I wrote All the King’s Ladies, an historical novel set at the court of Louis XIV and based on the Affair of the Poisons. Two particularly heinous characters, the Abbe LeSage, a defrocked priest, Black Mass celebrant, and pedophile, and Madame Voisin, abortionist, vendor of love potions, and poisoner were among the easiest characters I’ve ever written.

I might have trouble with the King, with his various ambitious ladies, or with the celebrated Police Commissioner De La Reynie but never with LeSage or Voisin, who greeted me each morning with snappy dialogue and wholly unrepentant attitudes. Given their habits, I really think I would have found them unbearable if they hadn’t also possessed a sort of gleeful energy, which makes me think that robust vitality trumps any number of other virtues – at least on the page.

Short mystery stories are the natural habitat of such types. The short story needs punch and compression, and characters need to be sharply drawn if they are to make an impact in the handful of pages allotted to them. For this reason, I have always favored either first person narratives or single point of view for the form.

But even in mysteries, evil needs to be the seasoning, not the main dish. In All the King’s Ladies, LeSage and La Voisin were minor characters, however vital, and I only occasionally, as in The Writing Workshop about a writer’s murderous search for a sympathetic editor, write a story entirely from the point of view of a cold-blooded perpetrator.

More usually, the narrator is either an observer who only gradually realizes that his or her friend or acquaintance is up to no good or else is drawn into crime by circumstances only partly beyond control. And here, I think, personal tastes and interests do sometimes surface. I found the would-be literary writer who moonlights in fantasy novels in The Ghost Writer sympathetic because he had, like most writers, little rituals to help him get into the writing mode.

The drug dealer’s girlfriend in Star of the Silver Screen lived a totally different sort of life from mine, but she shared my taste for old movies and found a surprising hiding place within movie fantasies. On the other hand, I didn’t like the heroine of The Summer of the Strangler, though I was sympathetic to her role as editor for her philandering husband. Still, she wrote very nicely, in part because she lived in the suburban Connecticut town were I spent a quarter of a century.
So what is my relationship with my characters? I don’t love them like Dickens, and I’ve only become fond enough of a couple to keep writing about them. Anna Peters ran to nine novels, and Madame Selina and her assistant Nip Tompkins look set for several more outings in the short story markets.

As for my relations with the rest, they are curious. Some writers create elaborate backstories for their characters and can tell you their genealogies and private histories. Not me. Maybe it’s an exaggerated respect for the privacy of imaginary beings, but I only know what they choose to reveal. Characters start talking to me and telling me things and I write them down. That’s about it.
Sometimes they tell me a lot and they wind up in a novel. Other times their visits are brief and end in fatality; they’re destined for short stories. To me, a good character has a distinctive voice, insinuating ideas, and mild obsession. Plus, a taste for gossiping – with me.

08 January 2013

What's In A Name?

by David Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 June 2012

Are You Sitting Down?

by Fran Rizer

Usually,  "Are you sitting down?" introduces conversations that deal with topics that are shocking--either tragically or wonderfully.  In this case, the question is meant literally and directed toward the writers among us.  Perhaps I should expand the inquiry to, "Are you sitting down when you write?
When I first considered this, I thought that people with computers probably always write sitting, but with a laptop or the proper positioning of bed or couch and computer, writing can be accomplished while lying down.  Personally, I know a couple of writers who still write in long-hand before moving their work to a computer.This would make writing while reclining easier.  I also have a friend who writes everything on his Ipad.

Mark Twain, Truman Capote, and Marcel Proust were all inclined to lie down on the job when writing.  They weren't lazy.  Each of them was ambitious and prolific.  Mark Twain scolded writers who complained about the difficulty of writing.  He is quoted as saying, "Writing is the easiest thing in the world...Just try it in bed sometime.  I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away."  Imagine how much more prolific Twain would have been with a computer on his knees!
Marcel Proust's housekeeper said that she'd never seen him write when he wasn't lying down.  He didn't even use a pillow to prop himself up.Truman Capote had a ritual of writing everything in long-hand, then editing and copying it over in long-hand before ever transferring it to a typewriter.  Revisions after the typed versions were typed on a special yellow paper.  Capote wrote lying down while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.  Whew!  No wonder he reclined to write.  Just thinking about this routine makes me tired.

The opposite extreme from the writers who lie down to write are the ones who stand to write.  Ernest Hemingway is said to have written A Moveable Feast at a stand-up desk.

Philip Roth claims he paces constantly when writing and that each page of his books represents about half a mile of walking.  His  Goodbye, Columbus would represent a 100-mile walk, but it did win a National Book Award, so perhaps it was worth the long walk.

Charles Dickens was also a stand-up writer, but when he needed inspiration, he became a walk-around author.  He commented that when walking in Paris, his rambling walks always ended up at the Paris Morgue.


Writers sitting, reclining, standing, or walking? Another interesting consideration is clothing. There are writers who wear their pajamas or nightgowns while creating.  The author of Cyranno de Bergerac, playwright Edmond Rostand, worked while in his bathtub.  D. H. Lawrence sought inspiration by climbing trees when nude.  This is one kink I don't recall reading about in his work.

During a spell of writer's block, Victor Hugo once gave his servant his clothes and had him lock Hugo in a room, forbidding the servant to let him out until he'd completed his day's writing goal. Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, frequently cured writer's block by hanging himself upside down in gravity boots.


What about you?  What's your favorite position to write?  Do you use any special kind of paper? What do you like to wear when writing?  Any unusual rituals?  Tell us about them.

What's that?  You have a question? 

Absoutely not!  I have no intention of telling you where I'm writing this or what I'm wearing.


Until we meet again...take care of YOU!