Showing posts with label Jim Winter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jim Winter. Show all posts

16 September 2022

Canon Shots


 Some people make it a mission to read everything a writer puts out. Some multiple writers. I have several, plus a list from Harold Bloom.

Harold Bloom's List

Harold Bloom could be both fascinating and infuriating. But he did put forth an interesting list of novels to read going all the way back to Don Quixote and ending with recent novels Blood Meridian, Invisible Man, and Song of Solomon. For the most part, I've liked about every book on the list, though I found Crime and Punishment difficult. (A native Russian and one who knew the language said it loses something in translation.) I skipped two, one for sheer length and one for... Well...

I'm not exactly sure about the merit of a book where the author begins with his own literary criticism. I won't say who it was.

Still, it's a good exposure to classic literature, though there are some titles I wish he'd included.


William Shakespeare

The Bard is the English language writer. Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night's Dream are all cultural touchstones. The Tempest even gets remade periodically as science fiction. (Forbidden Planet anyone?) Getting a proper chronological list of plays is tough. Sometimes, they contain plays we have no copies of, like Loves Labours Won and Thomas More.

I started with all three Henry VI plays. For such a weak English monarch, it always puzzled me why he got three plays. Parts I and II were actually written later, but in the interest of continuity, I read them as a whole.

My favorites so far are A Comedy of Errors and Richard III. Romeo and Juliet is next up next. I read it in junior high, but that was a have-to. This is a want to. Loves Labours Lost was fun in places. I thought it read like an Elizabethan rap battle. Some, like Edward III, are slogs. In Shakespeare's defense, you can tell he was brought in to save Edward as it was disjointed and doesn't even read like one of his histories

I started going through the Bard's canon about six years ago. It'll probably take me another six to finish. 


Source: stephenking.com
Stephen King

Of course, he's the most popular American author in history. Somehow, a horror writer has supplanted writers of a literary bent. But King's horror is not the cheap horror of the sixties and seventies. It's not the all-out horror of Lovecraft (of whom Kind is a fan.) No, in King's novel, the devil moves next door, seems perfectly normal, and even asks to borrow your mower. Only he's worried about the guy that moved in across the street. He's the monster.

Like Shakespeare, he has his hits (Salem's Lot, The Stand, It) and misses (Cell, anyone?) King's real genius is world-building. The fictional Maine is as real as the one in our world. Castle Rock, for all its northern New England quirks (and monsters) is the small town everyone knows. It's how Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption resonate without being horror, but we're also sucked into various versions of It and The Stand when they come to television. He's even ventured into crime with the first two entries of the Bill Hodges Trilogy and Billy Summers, though End of Watch took a supernatural turn. So vivid is his worldbuilding that Richard Chizmar, his coauthor on two of the Gwendy books, wrote the second installment of the series solo while hitting all the notes that make Castle Rock Castle Rock. I've been reading his books in order, not counting the Bachman books, since about 2010. Now reading one a month, I plan to finish up, including the Bachman novels, next year. And the guy who wrote Fairy Tale is not the same one who wrote Carrie. Any writer worth his salt should find out how by reading his nonfiction masterpiece, On Writing.

 

Mark Twain

I dove back into Twain when his full autobiography came out. Twain didn't so much write his life story as he wrote the extended travelogue his publishers did not have the capacity to release. Tales of his early career and life sound either like backstory for Tom and Huck, the extended version of The Innocents Abroad, or one of his sarcastic essays where Mr. Clemens is as much the target of his satire as anyone else around him. When we get to the middle of his life, his narrative is both heartwarming and heartbreaking as he talks about his wife and daughters, two of whom he would outlive. His final years saw a dark cynicism, and possibly a bit of cruelty that he dutifully presents as an unreliable narrator. There's a reason he stipulated the work not be released in its entirety or in chronological order until 100 years after his death. I went back and reread Huckleberry Finn while waiting for the final volume. Then I went back to the beginning and read his travelogues, essays, and novels in order. I must say I actually prefer Twain's nonfiction to his fiction, but then if there were no Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, there would have been no Hemingway, no Chandler, or even Stephen King.

And as one who appreciates a good smartass, I appreciate Twain as much as I appreciate his spiritual ancestors, Washington Irving and Benjamin Franklin.

15 July 2022

What's In A Name? Part Deux: Electric Boogaleux


 Back in ye olden days, when we would take the Maxwell down to the local druggest, gather around the soda fountain, and listen to the swingin' sounds of Rudy Vallee on the store's Victrola, I decided to write under the name Jim Winter. The how and why and origins of the name are best left in the murk of the 90s. (Oh, how I miss the 90s. Just not dial-up Internet.)

When I decided to this "for real," I used Jim Winter convinced I was the next Dennis Lehane, then riding high with Mystic River. But I also heard tales of well-known authors having manuscripts shoved at them by hopeful neophytes under the stall doors of restrooms, of Stephen King's home invaded by obsessed fans, or just not being able to finish a meal at a restaurant. I decided to cloak myself in anonymity, calling myself "Jim Winter' and not even showing my face until my first novel came out. (The publisher said, no, he wanted a head shot for an author photo and pointed out it was in my contract. Jerk.)

So I became Jim. I also signed badly. Starting revolutionary technology firms or car companies or even just a respectable business out of one's garage is the stuff of legend. Out of one's garage, like my then publisher? Not so much.

But sign badly I did. Had I waited two weeks, I'd have had an agent and possibly a respectable career as a crime novelist. That did not happen, and here we are. The thing is there is a still swath of people in the crime fiction community who still know me as "Jim."

"Well, gee, um, Jim, you write this column as Jim Winter. What's your point?"

Quiet. I have bushes to beat around!

Flash forward a few years. I had an agent, but the partnership really didn't work out. I decided the one standalone novel I wrote, Road Rules, made a good candidate for the Kindle Revolution. A note on revolutions: You want to get in early. I did not. But I did finish off the first three Kepler novels, a novella, two short story collections, and, of course, Road Rules. Might have been nice if I understood how to make covers and format manuscripts back then. I might have done better.

But I also wrote an early version of Holland Bay, which made the number of plot threads in Game of Thrones look like a two-page outline. I wrote. I rewrote. I thought I had another agent. That fell through. A towel got thrown in, and off I went to become science fiction writer TS Hottle.

A funny thing happened on my way to failing to become the next John Scalzi. My wife read Holland Bay and told me to send it backdoor to a friend at a Big Five Publisher. (Never mind which one. I do not want to get this person in trouble.) It bypassed the slush pile, made it up to the C suite, and an acquisition editor proceeded to do due diligence. Only...

I had trashed the Jim Winter platform. No more web site, Facebook, or even Twitter. This editor searched for TS Hottle on teh intrawebs, and...

The Children of Amargosa is a scifi novel. So is Second Wave. So is Tishla. No Road Rules. No Northcoast Shakedown. No The Compleat Winter

Oops. They passed. 

But...

Jim Winter, renaissance man!
TS Hottle, handsome devil

Someone referred me to Down & Out Books. And for that to work for them, I had to resurrect Jim Winter because I had already down two short story anthos as Jim.

So, for science fiction, I'm TS, stuck in his own universe. For crime, I'm Jim. And sometimes, I'm Maurice, 'cuz I speak from the pompatus of love.* Jim does not wear glasses or a hat. TS wears glasses. And a jaunty hat. Worn, as required, at a rakish angle.

 


*I can't back that up.

03 June 2022

Amish Mafia. In COLOR!


Amish Mafia
Source: Discovery Networks

 So about eight or nine years ago, Discovery ran a show supposedly about The Amish Mafia. It centered on a Lancaster, PA man named Levi who never entered the faith but was tasked with "collecting" for an Amish benevolent society. His methods were... um... questionable. Part of the show took place in Holmes County, Ohio and centered on a religious zealot named Merlin, who would declare to the camera that "Amish do not..." whatever it is had his dander up that particular moment.

In interviews, Merlin would boast about how he was a wanted man in Holmes and nearby Stark County. 

Yeah. About that.

I am tangentially related to the sheriff in Holmes County. He was the one who got word back to my family that my dad died. His niece is my first cousin once removed. And her grandmother (my aunt) grew up Amish. So, what did the sheriff of Holmes County think of one of his most dangerous citizens having a reality show?

"Honestly, I never heard of him until this show came on the air."

It gets better. My cousin knows all about the Amish not only from her grandmother but from spending a good chunk of her childhood in Holmes County. You can't not do business with them, nor would you want to try. Fire wood, food, furniture, these are things they excel at and sell to us "English". Plus, they're the neighbors. Usually, good neighbors. So when my cousin tuned into this show listening to Merlin pontificate about what is and isn't Amish (or better still, watching Levi tool around greater Philadelphia in a Cadillac Bruce Wayne would love to retrofit for his fleet of Batmobiles), let's just say her head exploded.

My personal favorite was Merlin declaring, "The Amish do not drink!"

I heard some snickering coming from the direction of a cemetery in nearby Fredericksburg, where my parents are buried. In fact, given that I was in suburban Cincinnati at the time, I'd say it was a hearty guffaw from beyond the grave by my late father. Dad once informed me that the Amish not only drank beer, but they brew their own. And apparently, steeped in German purity laws (for they are German and Swiss), their beer will knock you on your ass. (And they don't sell it, which kind of sucks as I haven't known any Amish on a first-name basis since about 1990.) The Amish do indulge in a lot of things Merlin declares are just not done. But Amish communities are so insular and segregated that guys like Levi and Merlin can make a bullshit show depicting a supposed Mafia (of which both considered themselves dons.) 

In the interest of diversity, some of those on the show were Mennonites, 'cuz Mennonites have cars and electricity. However...

Quite a few have televisions. I assume not that many watched Amish Mafia. And then there are the Brethren. The show has them wearing a lot of flannel, suspenders, driving older cars, and basically being Amish for the twenty-first century.

Uh huh.

Allow me to set the record straight. I grew up Brethren. At the age of four, I discovered Star Trek when my parents subscribed to cable (In a valley. You watched cable or the NFL wasn't happening.) and bought one of those large color TVs that were basically furniture. My dad drove a 1971 Fairlane he bought new. Mom listened to Johnny Cash and Elvis. When I came of age, I blasted KISS and Blondie.

So, how does a Brethren family get away with that if Amish Mafia says their Amish-lite?

If you haven't picked up on it by now, Levi (who is also executive producer of the show. Hmm...) and Merlin are selling a fantasy. I suspect one or both of them read a lot of Elmore Leonard. Too bad we're not getting Justified out of the deal. Now that was a show. The Brethren do, in fact, have their roots in what's called the Anabaptist tradition. Which also gave us the Baptists. Who drive new cars, stream, and listen to a lot of Blake Shelton and Imagine Dragons. The Brethren are more Baptist-lite than Amish-lite. Indeed, my parents walked away because they leaned into the hippie movement more, and they wanted to be more traditional. The pastor when I was in junior high went to Woodstock, argued about the merits of Deep Purple with me (He was more a coffee-house acoustic guy), and was trying to restore a battered Alfa Romeo in his spare time.

In other words, they were no more bizarre than your office coworkers. (Bad example. Some of my coworkers over the years have left me questioning my own sanity.) 

Amish Mafia reached peak absurdity after it was canceled by Discovery. Levi and Merlin decided to appear on Dr. Phil so Phil could mediate their "dispute." They basically took over the show, which is the only time I actually sympathized with Dr. Phil. 

More recently, I sent out a novel for a read before I do final revisions and give it to my publisher. I got the most curious note back. "Is there really an Amish mafia?"

There's probably something like it, but, as the actual Sicilian mafia would say, "Our thing is secret." The Amish struggle with the same things as everyone else, which means someone somewhere in one of the communities is exploiting the culture's rigid customs to their advantage. It's hard to say because they don't call the police until it gets beyond their capacity to deal with it. Plus, with few phones (usually a community phone or an English neighbor's mobile), 911 is not the push of a button it is for most of us. 

But most Amish I've known over the years are honest, hardworking, and shrewd. I'd venture to say that my cousins with the formerly Amish mother got their business sense from them. Two of the brothers run a thriving angus farm that took over for their father's dairy operation while the oldest is a real estate wizard.

And not a Levi in sight. Unfortunately, because Merlin prowls my old stomping grounds in NE Ohio, I'll probably run into him at some point.

Maybe I'll ask him if he can get me Dr. Pimple Popper's autograph. My young cousin will think that's hilarious.


13 May 2022

You Said What About the Bard?


Recently, someone told me what a rebel he thought he was for giving Stephen King a three-star review on Goodreads. "Look at me. A nobody. And I dared to give Stephen King a three-star review. I had to point out that I once wrote a review in a forum that Cell was utter crap. I, too, am a nobody, but as a reader, I have to be honest. And believe me, I'm going through King's entire canon, a years-long project I may wrap up next year.

Years earlier, in a chat room where a bunch of mystery types hung out, Shakespeare came up. I had recently seen The Tempest performed. Now, The Tempest is a great story that's been the template for a lot of subsequent tales, quite a few science fiction. Prospero, the exiled duke, is a terrific archetype for someone powerful cast out of society or even a mad scientist. And why not? He's both. But during the chat, I mentioned, "But I can't stand Ariel. She's like the token female." One could make that argument about Alaira in Forbidden Planet, which sets The Tempest in space, files off the serial numbers, and no one calls Leslie Nielsen "Shirley." However, Altaira, while providing the leggy eye candy many fifties movies required, is an active participant. Ariel bored the hell out of me. The response?

"That takes a lot of balls to criticize the Bard!"

Really?

First off, William Shakespeare deserves his place among English language writers. He did more to drag English into the modern era than anyone else, dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern era and away from Canterbury Tales. It also helped standardize English to the point where Pacific Rim countries use English because, as I sit here, there are at least six languages, not counting Russian, from Northern Japan to Malaysia, including several in China. Learning English is simpler. I'll leave the debates about cultural imperialism and colonialism to someone else. The point is, English, like French before it and still alongside it in some places, is an international language.

That said, Shakespeare was a writer like any other, human and prone to mistakes. He was very good at catching mistakes or, like a musician who doesn't have a modern producer interfering with his work, good at exploiting mistakes. He makes the most judicious use of anachronisms of any writer in any language, which helps make his work timeless.

But dare one criticize the Bard? Let me ask you this. How often do you see King John performed. John was a fascinating figure, a tyrant who'd be right at home among the tech moguls, autocratic leaders, and arrogant CEOs of today. But there is a consensus among scholars that Will did not execute his take on the Plantagenet's most unpopular heir very well. One even suggested they liked Mel Brooks's version from Robin Hood: Men in Tights better. Brooks is no Shakespeare. On the other hand, a collaboration between the author of MacBeth and the creator of Blazing Saddles would be hilarious. That's another topic.

The point is that yes, he has earned his place in the pantheon of English letters. So have a lot of writers. But Shakespeare occasionally wrote garbage. So has Mark Twain. And Hemingway. And there's no shortage of people lining up to lecture you on why Stephen King is overrated. Some other time, I may Jimsplain why they're wrong about King, but not today.

So, why would I criticize the Bard? How dare I? I'm the one Will worshiped. I'm the audience. I'm the reader. If he's not connecting, or he's rubbing me the wrong way (Titus Andronicus is a recently read example.), I'm going to say something.

The flip side of that is that Shakespeare's reputation is safe. No one's going to rethink their position because some minor crime writer from Ohio thought that Titus Andronicus or King John are weak plays. On the contrary, because he wrote MacBeth and Richard III and Romeo and Juliet, I can finish up Edward III. (In Will's defense, I think he was brought in to salvage that one at some point, since it was a collaboration.) But not to say anything?

We hold Philip Roth up as a man of American letters, but there is no end of criticism leveled at Operation: Shylock. Looking at King, even King will tell you there are a few books he wished he hadn't published, and I don't mean the violent, disturbing Rage (of which I have a copy.) He claims no memory of Cujo or Christine, mainly because his chemical hobbies interfered with his writing. And the aforementioned Cell was one of the first novels started after his accident. There are explanations, but it doesn't change that two of those books were ordeals to finish.

So, why not the Bard? We love him. We read and watch his plays endlessly. He attracts us whether we love Hallmark or scifi or history. Richard III is the ultimate political thriller. The Taming of the Shrew is a raunchy version of the latest Lacey Chabert offering. The Tempest manages to get remade as a scifi movie or TV episode every couple of years. So, why not come out and say when something doesn't work? Do we not learn from the mistakes of the greats the way we learn from what they get right?

11 March 2022

The Town Tamer


CC 2011 Bradford Timeline

One of the most tired cliches from Westerns is the town tamer. And you can thank Wyatt Earp for it. In the 1920s, no one had heard of Tombstone, Arizona and the OK Corral. But Earp, who had been a US Marshal in places like Dodge City, Kansas and Peoria, Illinois, still considered frontier land four years after the death of the state's favorite son, Abraham Lincoln.

The OK Corral is an iconic legend of the Old West. But it really didn't enter the public imagination until Earp drifted into Hollywood as what's now called a technical consultant during silent film's heyday. Earp told a screenwriter or a director or possibly even Tom Mix of how he, his brothers, and his consumption-wracked pal Doc Holliday took on a gang of outlaws. Back before Tinsel Town lost the ability to do anything more than remakes or franchises and charge you a second mortgage to see the latest James Bond, they never met a cool story they didn't like.

Nor did a writer named Dashiell Hammett, who decided to adapt the concept for his Continental Op series. The Op, never named, rolls into Personville, Montana, dubbed by the locals as "Poisonville" for its violence and its filthy ground and air from nearby mining. Hammett moves Tombstone north, swaps out the Earp brothers and Holliday for the Op as a solo operator, and uses a recent labor dispute in Butte, Montana (the real-life inspiration for Personville) as a jumping off point.

Thus, the town tamer was born. And it shows up again in the twice-fictionalized tales of Sheriff Buford Pusser (one of Joe Don Baker's surprisingly decent acting turns and a miss for Dwayne Johnson), Jack Reacher's debut (well-adapted for television on Prime), and one of the better latter-day Spenser novels.

What is it about the town tamer that's so intriguing? Earp, after all, was a law man who hired his brothers and deputized the local dentist. Pusser, in the original based-on-a-true-story version of Walking Tall, was a local sheriff.

Source: Amazon Prime Video

The Op and Spenser are professionals brought in to solve a problem. Reacher blunders into a small Georgia town that looks like a gentrified version of The Dukes of Hazzard, minus the idiot sheriff and lovably corrupt county boss. (Ironically, Reacher's casual girlfriend is named "Roscoe." I'll let Lee Child explain that one.) Reacher isn't a professional. He's like the Op, except he doesn't even freelance. He's just there to hear some blues music from the source.

But it's one man taking on the system. And in each of these stories, the system has gotten complacent. Earp may have been taking out a local gang of thugs easily knocked over these days by the likes of The Wire's Stringer Bell or one pissed-off police district (or even a bar brawl that goes horribly awry for them.) The Op took on a mining concern that counted on fear to get its way. Reacher goes after counterfeiters who made the mistake of killing his brother. Spenser knocks over a Mexican gangster who decides he's kingpin from Daredevil (either version. It's the same guy.) Usually, where this happens, someone gets too comfortable with their reign of terror. And one thing that such people forget is that reigns of terror require actual terror. If the one coming at you isn't terrified, the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.

Sometimes that works in real life, but it's a staple of our crime fiction, even scifi and spy thrillers. Someone turns "Boo!" into a superpower, and someone else not really feeling it becomes their kryptonite.


07 January 2022

Three Books in 2022


Since about 2011, I've kept a spreadsheet of what I've read over a given year. Thanks to multiple formats, the number's been as high as 100. Thanks to Audible, it's never gone as low as 30. Last year, I read 52. One of them was a book on speed-reading.

I read widely. I'm working my way through Stephen King's back list, and with any luck, Billy Summers will be one of the last books I read this year. I do a rotation. Non-fiction of some sort, crime, science fiction, an indie writer who's caught my attention, a classic, and King. Part, but not all, of the classic side includes Harry Bloom's novel list from How to Read. I'll spare you the rest as the non-fiction tends to be all over the map, and SF is not really the purpose of Sleuthsayers. So, let's focus on crime.


Every year since about the mid-2000s, I've started off with Ken Bruen, mainly the Jack Taylor series. Assuming 2022 does not involve kaiju, nuclear annihilation, another great plague, alien invasion, or Ken writing one more Jack Taylor, I will probably finish the series in January of 2023. For January, 2022, I'm reading Galway Girl. I was not a big fan of Em when she appeared in the series. I couldn't figure out if Ken was passing the baton to a young woman even more rage-prone than Jack or something else. (Spoiler alert: Something else.) But then, at the end of In the Galway Silence, he introduces a woman who is a clone of Em, and, it seems, by choice. She calls herself Jericho, and yes, she is there to make Jack's life a living hell. Only, whenever someone wants to torment Jack, they have to get in line. At the head of the line, they inevitably find out Jack calls that "Tuesday."  Ken doesn't so much write a novel with the Taylor series as much as write violent epic poems set in Galway. Galway Girl is proving to be a dark, bleak novel full of nihilism and death. It's a marvelous way to start off a new year full of hope and optimism. (Or at least the fleeting hope that the hangover from 2020 will finally lift.)


The next crime novel on the list is SA Cosby's Razor Blade Tears. I'd like to compare Cosby to Ken Bruen, but the first thing by him that I read, Black Top Wasteland, I found too optimistic. Seriously, though, I read Wasteland last year after connection with Shawn online. It was probably the best crime novel I'd read in a long time, so both Razor Blade Tears and his upcoming All Sinners Bleed are on this year's TBR stack. Cosby writes about the South, does not shy away from race, yet writes about a world not too dissimilar from where I grew up, which was seventies and eighties Rust Belt. Like Blacktop, Blade is about an ordinary man without privilege who has his life upended by crime, in this case, the murder of his son. What's amazing about Cosby's work is the characters may lead a different life from most of us, but the landmarks on their path are quite often all-too-familiar.


Third on the list is Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles. Set in 1954, its premise has a lot in common with SA Cosby's work. A young man released from a juvenile work farm is driven home to Nebraska. He intends to pick up his recently orphaned brother and head for California to start a new life. Two of his fellow inmates have secretly tagged along with another plan: They want to take him to New York. Lincoln Highway covers more familiar territory for me geographically, rolling across the Midwest, though it's a time when the steel mills still roared, Studebakers still rolled off the assembly lines alongside Packards, and steam powered the railways.

There will be more, obviously. Someone who read 52 books last year, with every sixth Kindle, paperback, or hardcover a crime novel, these three are only enough to get me through early spring.

So, what's on your TBR stack for this year?


03 September 2021

How I Spent My Summer Vacation


 Every couple of years or so, I find myself traveling somewhere that takes me out of my comfort zone. When my wife and I dated, I had intended to propose to her in Put in Bay, a quaint summer village on an island in Lake Erie. Yes, it's in Ohio, but it's an entire world away from there. (The ring didn't come back from the jeweler in time, so I had to propose when we got back.) 

Put in Bay is many things. Historically, it's where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry launched his famous counterattack against the British during the War of 1812. But the pace of life there is slower. You're surrounded by a large inland sea, and the sound of water lapping against the beach reaches the entire island.

These kinds of trips always have some sort of impact on my writing. No two places are the same. When I attended Bouchercon semi-regularly, I loved going to Toronto, Chicago, and Madison. (Indy is close enough to my home to be familiar.) Writing trips to Baltimore and even Frankfurt, Kentucky, an evening drive round-trip, took me away from normal. And it always finds its way into my writing.

Two years ago, my wife, her mother, and my stepson took a long-awaited trip down Route 66 that included me taking a frantic phone call at work. Candy informed me that she was driving through a blizzard.

In Arizona.

Four days before Memorial Day.

I couldn't get a full two weeks off at work but I wanted my own cross-country drive. So after meeting the family in San Francisco for the weekend, my stepson and I took a rented Ford Fusion back to Cincinnati, which took a week. We saw snow again on Memorial Day, drove through the alien landscape that is the Nevada desert, visited Vegas and Hoover Dam, snapped a photo of me holding a cup of Starbucks over my head in front of the Mormon Tabernacle (My former mother-in-law was offended, my ex-wife thought it was hilarious, and Candy's cousin, a Mormon preacher, thought that was the funniest thing he'd heard all summer.)

Every state was different. Arizona was freaking gorgeous. I got why the original Mormon settlers came to Utah in the first place. Wyoming is literally the big empty, and Colorado is nothing but mountains. Big mountains. We won't speak of Kansas other than to say after staring at a horizon curving away from me for six hours, flat earthers should be ashamed of themselves.

Which brings me to the most recent trip: New England. Through two marriages and even my dating life, I'd always wanted to take whoever the woman in my life was at the time on a romantic tour of the six states east and north of New York. Candy's health has made the romantic getaway a bit unfeasible, but we made it a family vacation. 


But because Burlington, Vermont, where we stayed our first night in the region, is so remote - No major airport and not really on any of the main Interstates - we used Buffalo as a layover. So, Niagara Falls served as our stop on the way up. And let me tell you, you need to see the falls up close and personal at least once in your life. That much water moving between two inland seas is amazing. And the Seneca tribe of New York have built a really nice resort nearby.

The next day, we had to go cross western New York to get to Burlington. Candy's health prevents her from going more than seven hours a stretch by car, and the trip to Burlington went past that limit. We ended up getting lunch in Rome at a little hole-in-the-wall diner. While this was not a truckstop, it still proved the adage "Eat where the truckers eat." Had Eddie's been near an exit, they would have eaten there.


Vermont and New Hampshire were mostly pass-through states, and what pass-through states they were. Driving through the mountains, we saw our first bear, a cub crossing the road. But no moose. Lots of moose signs, but no moose. Maine, however, was the entire point of this trip. Specifically, Bar Harbor. Crossing the state put us in the real-life inspirations for Stephen King's fictionalized Maine. We even drove through the town that inspired Pet Semetary. Naturally, while in Bar Harbor, I bought a copy of Mr. Mercedes. Of course, I'm going to buy a Stephen King novel in the state where he lives. What kind of writer would I be if I didn't?

Bar Harbor is on an island, and there is something different about life on an island. Yes, Bar Harbor is crammed with tourists, even during the pandemic, but life is still slower paced. And the island is bigger than Ohio's South Bass. So there are multiple towns on it. The rest cater to boaters and hikers in search of Maine's Acadia National Forest.


Most of our money went into Bar Harbor. But most of our time was spent there. Massachusetts was almost a pass-thru, but we intended to stop at Quincy Market to get chowda from the source. (No kidding, both chowder shops we saw spelled it like that.) Had it not been raining so bad, we'd have toured the Samuel Adams Brewery as well. Rhode Island was most definitely a pass-thru, but I count it among states visited. Connecticut...

My wife fell in love with Connecticut. We stayed in Hartford and walked around the city center that evening. She wanted to move there. I wanted to move to Burlington, Vermont, but Hartford most definitely was easier to get to and from. A stop in Buffalo on the way back introduced us to the original Wings (the Anchor Bar) and weck (Schwabl's, which predates the Civil War) and home again the next day with a stop in Cleveland to see my brother.

Every town and every state had its own vibe. The further from the major cities we traveled, the more laid-back the attitude. But even Hartford, whose metro area bleeds into Boston's, seemed calmer than the industrial cities of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. It had none of Boston's traffic congestion or cramped streets, nor did it bustle like New York City to the south. It was the perfect balance between urban area and isolated region. If I worked in NYC, I could see myself taking the train from Hartford and back daily.

And now, as I wrap up the follow up to Holland Bay (out November 22 from Down and Out Books. Thanks for asking.), I have a week spent in a part of the country I've never seen before. The history, the accents (I said "Bah Hahbah" and "Baston" for over a week), where the roads are laid out differently, the dialect is different, and so is the food. I crushed a lobster dinner. My wife got to indulge her inner shutterbug. And now I have a deeper well to draw creative inspiration from. "Write what you know" might be a cliched and ultimately debunked bit of writing advice, but it does make it a lot easier to make stuff up when you have more to model from.

24 July 2021

Feast or Famine


 

 Years ago on a writer web site, I wrote about doing a screenplay as a writing exercise. "What's the worst that could happen?" I said. "Someone buys it?"

A few writers who did shop screenplays piled on to tell their horror stories, but I think they missed my point. I had no interest in selling it. I just wanted to see if I could do it.

So, before the pandemic, I submitted Holland Bay to Down and Out. I did not expect an immediate response. My policy with a manuscript once the publisher asks for it is to forget it exists. I work two jobs, care for an ailing wife, and labor under the delusion I'm the next Robert Heinlein (minus the ideological pretensions.) So, in the interim, a fellow SF writer told me, "Hey, your stuff's a good fit for my publisher, but they want a long list of material because they release fast. Can you spin up an arc?" As I worked up a good rant about how busy I was and how I needed to finish my original trilogy, I went into the restroom at work before telling him off, and came back to say, I had an idea for a nine-story arc.

Um... Yeah. But I didn't expect it to overwhelm me, especially since I had nothing scheduled beyond the trilogy I was wrapping up. And come pandemic time, I discovered I can dictate. So dictate I did. But the publisher passed on all that work. Meanwhile, Down & Out pulled the trigger. No problem. I can work on revisions and publicity while I shopped this monstrosity around.

Well... No. CHBB not only took it, they work faster than Down and Out. So now I've got a scifi novel coming out next month and will have to go through final edits between now and then. Meanwhile, copy edits came back on Holland Bay. Somewhere in there, I'm taking a long-planned vacation to New England.

From the be careful what you ask for department...




07 October 2019

West of Hollywood


Libby Cudmore
Libby Cudmore
In this world, you have to ask for what you want.

In some cases, you have to pick a lock and break in.

When I heard that Brian Thornton was putting together a pair of crime-themed anthologies based on the music of Steely Dan, I knew I had to be part of it. It didn’t matter that the slate was already full.

Over the past several years I have positioned myself as the Queen of the Dandom, a mighty figure in the realm of Steely Dan Twitter, and as the author of the critically-acclaimed mixtape murder mystery, this was the project I had been waiting for.

I emailed Brian this:


Hi Brian,

I just saw your article about your Steely Dan anthology and I think it is the GREATEST IDEA EVER IN THE HISTORY OF ALL IDEAS. I was wondering… room for one more? I am a huge huge HUGE Steely Dan fan (I've seen them six times; am wearing my "The Dan Who Knew Too Much" tour shirt as I write this) and I know I could write you an amazing story… plus I'm quick!

Please and thank you!


Brian told me he liked my enthusiasm and my Dan credentials (since then, I have seen them another four times, bringing the grand total to 10 shows, plus The Nightflyers / Dukes of September) and although he initially told me he couldn’t make any promises.

I told him that if not this one, I’d love to collaborate on another. A few days later, he responded with this:


All that aside, I value passion, especially when it comes to music, and doubly so when it comes to GREAT music. I have no doubt that this collection will be the stronger for your participation.

So congratulations, kid. You’re in! I’ll make it work.


I was ECSTATIC. If the first lesson is shoot your shot, the second is to always be gracious and forward-thinking. Being a jerk gets you nowhere.

Settling on a song was the difficult part. So many of the good ones were taken – including “The Second Arrangement” – but I wanted to go with something a little off-beat. I’ve found a lot of fans underrate Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, so my initial thought was to write a stalker story around “Lunch With Gina.”

A Beast without a Name
But the story wasn’t coming together, and with the deadline clock ticking down, I switched over to “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature. There’s a cold undercurrent of broken passion there that fascinated me, something wild that had since crumbled to dust. I based it around a pair of con artists and former lovers who reunite for one job in the Hollywood Hills.

As soon as I settled on the concept, the story came together in almost one draft. I like to think it was guided by the spirit of the late Walter Becker.

But never one to keep all the good stuff for myself, I was also able to recommend that Brian bring in my friend/fellow Steely Dan fanatic Matthew Quinn Martin in, and he wrote a devastatingly good story based on “Pretzel Logic.” Both stories will appear in the second volume, titled A Beast Without A Name, available from Down & Out Books on Oct. 28.

Libby Cudmore
It never hurts to ask for what you want. Be prepared for a no, which makes celebrating that YES even better. I am forever grateful to Brian for making space for me in this anthology, and I’m really looking forward to sharing “West of Hollywood” with all of you when it comes out.

30 August 2019

"Hi, this is Jim from Uber..."


A couple of years back, I got into rideshare as a side hustle. Since 2017, I've gotten married, bought a house, a new car, and had my wife stop working for health reasons. So life's gotten expensive (but so worth it.)

Uber logo
A couple of people have asked me if driving for Uber (or Lyft, for that matter) provides me with any fodder for crime stories.

Like the man once said, "Boy, howdy!" Let me tell ya, brudda!

A frequent conversation I have with passengers is what the job is like. Most of the time, it's fun. But they ask me about problem passengers, which actually only make up about 5% of my business. I tell them that 5% can serve as entertainment for the other 95%. Even then, Uber drivers rate their passengers as well as getting rated by them. I've only 1-starred maybe 5 people out of nearly 2000 rides in two years.

There are certain things you just don't do in my car. Most of them could go sideways into a crime story, and I may just spin a few of those out. Why don't you play along and consider these story prompts if you're so inclined.

The first thing you don't want to do in my car is hurl racist insults at… Well… Anyone. As a majority of my passengers after 8 PM on a Saturday night are drunk, I cut just a little slack, which four college girls came close to using up one night in Cincinnati's Banks district. I picked them up on Freedom Way, the main drag through the Banks to take them all to the Hilton up in the Business District. A couple was pushing a baby stroller across the street as we started to move.

The one girl, clearly approaching the pass-out stage of drunkenness, said, "Oh, my God! Who does that in this neighborhood?" (Incidentally, the Banks is considered rather safe compared to even my neighborhood, and I live in the suburbs.) "Oh, my God. They're black people. Black people are so stupid."

The knee-jerk reaction, which I would not fault any other driver for going with, is to slam on the brakes, kick them out of the car, and reset for the next passenger(s). I took a different tact. I simply said, "One!"

The girl missed the hint and continued. "No, seriously. Black people always…"

Lyft logo
"Two!"

Ladies and gentlemen, we do not get to three. Instead, I pull the car over, inform everyone that the ride has ended, and report the occupants to Uber. (Yes, Uber and Lyft allow us to do that.) Pray we are not in the wilds of Clermont County or on the Brent Spence Bridge (which has no berm. You would be left on I-75 in traffic) if this is you, because the ride ends now.

Instead, one of the other girls said, "Dude, shut up. You're pissing him off."

We enjoyed the rest of the ride in silence. They got a one-star for being disrespectful.

Other things that will get you kicked out that may not be good story fodder: messing with my dashboard while I'm driving (A teenager did this to me last weekend), give me bad directions (after midnight, I just ignore them anyway as I assume people are drunk), backseat driving, and being abusive to other people in the car or, if you're calling ahead to get an ETA, being abusive after I clearly inform you that (1) I'm with a passenger and (2) you're on speaker because I'm still driving. I have a 2% cancel rate from my end, so this is not usually a problem.

But one thing the rideshare services want us to be on the lookout for is whether someone is in the car of their own free will. I've had a couple of gentlemen get in the car with their girlfriends and start talking smack (to me) about them. As you can imagine, Uber Support got an earful. I'm not shy about that. It's also a story I generally don't regale passengers with. Drunken stupidity is funny, even when you're the drunk. Abuse is not. I'll shame a racist. I don't think a woman with a bad boyfriend needs that story spread for the entertainment of strangers.

But what is the absolute worst thing you can do in my car that might get turned into a crime story?

Go ahead. Yell at the cops, as one passenger did one night. Already, as you can imagine, there are probably a dozen or so stories you can spin from that. After this incident, it's an automatic end to the ride and an invitation to the friendly (well, friendly before the passenger opens his mouth) officer to whip out the handcuffs.

ride share car sketch
The incident that spawned this policy began with a pickup at my stepsons' favorite bar. (Bad move. Everyone there knows the twins, and I talk to the twins often.) These boys wanted to hit Waffle House for some after-hours grub. I'm all for that. I very nearly went there myself. However…

We drove by a really bad accident with at least four vehicles in various states of disrepair parked on the grass, three cruisers surrounding them keeping traffic out of the way. One of the passengers rolls his window down and starts screaming obscenities at the officers. I pull the car over.

"You do that again," I said, "and I turn around and let you pull them out of the car. I'm not going to jail for you. If anything, I'll drive you there myself."

They shut up. But from that point on, the ride ends automatically.

"So, Jim," you ask, "why do it if you have to put up with these people? Or people getting sick in your car?"

They're memorable because they are rare. And as for getting sick, there are ways to manage that if you know what to look for. Most of my passengers and I forget each other after we part ways. A lot of the rides are fun. On Saturday nights, many of them bring the party to my car. Others just want to ride in silence. One couple…

Well, this is a crime blog. Maybe I'll send that story over to an erotica blog.

It's not as gross as you think. But very, very strange.

Besides, you get to see humanity at their best and their worst and everywhere in between. It's a writer's dream job.

28 April 2015

All This Has Happened Before


by Jim Winter

Last night, I watched about an hour of CNN to see what was going on in Baltimore. I did like how police officers and community activists comported themselves when interviewed. However, two of the reporters discussed, without irony, how the constant coverage of rioting and burning after recent incidents starting with Ferguson might be fanning the violence each time. I say without irony because, while everyone spoke, CNN kept running video of fires.

Baltimore burning

Yeah, I'm sure that's helping calm things down.

They did this when Ferguson erupted. And in 2001, even the local news had round-the-clock coverage of the riots here in Cincinnati. Yes, my adopted hometown has been through this. That should give you some hope. We got through this. I won't kid you and say everything's fine here, but it's been a lot less heated in Cincinnati for years now than it has been in Baltimore of late.

But I also remember how opportunistic the Cincinnati Enquirer was in the months that followed. The normally conservative paper openly turned the police into its personal punching bag. It had less to do with any shortcomings of the police and more to do with selling papers. It did no service to race relations in Cincinnati. The local (and national) media did nothing to resolve the situation, only milked it to sell Toyotas.

Eventually, things calmed down. The police made efforts to reach out to the community. It's not all Kumbaya, but there's not this sense of rage that was palpable in the months leading up to the riots.

The spark that lit the explosion was the shooting of a Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old black man, by Officer Stephen Roach. The confrontation? It was over traffic citations. So an unarmed man ran because of traffic tickets. And the officer shot him as he ran away.

That was the match tossed into the powder keg.

I had a part-time job at a pizza place at the time. Many of my coworkers were high school students from Withrow High School, a predominantly black school. I occasionally gave some of them rides home. One guy, who had moved into assistant management when he graduated, told me he was worried because many of his classmates were getting harassed by cops. Being a pizza delivery guy, I also interacted with a lot of cops. And they were getting frustrated because they did not think they were getting much support from the city. Yeah, tempers were getting ready to blow. It would only take one incident to set off the whole works.

When the riots subsided, there was a boycott. There were police reforms. And eventually, peace returned to the city. If Cincinnati can get past it, so can other cities. I'm under no illusion that it can't happen here again. But things go in cycles. If you want the cycle to end, you have to work at it.

That's what Cincinnati did. There's no reason other cities can't. Might be nice if the media would help, but that might not sell enough Coca-Cola.

10 March 2015

Double Identity


by Jim Winter

It's a brave new world, publishing is. Self-publishing doesn't quite have the stench it once had. If a writer does not go traditional, he or she can write anything they want. But the gatekeepers aren't gone. If anything, there are more of them. They're called readers, and they still have rules no matter what the JA Konraths and John Lockes of the world try to tell you.

Most of the rules are common sense. Write a good story. (I like to think I do.) Don't look like an amateur. (Probably need to work harder on this one.) Stick with your genre. On that one, readers are far less forgiving than Barnes & Noble, indie bookstores, and even the Big Five publishers. So what to do?

What any writer would do, traditional or independent. Write under two names. I started doing this in the last couple of years. While I was in a groove with an ambitious police novel I describe as "The Wire meets 87th Precinct," I felt that this thing had time to fail. It might not find an agent. It might not get a deal even if it did. I'm talking with an agent now, but it still has time to fail. I had to start looking beyond.

So I started a science fiction novel under a different name. I referred to this name as "Dick Bachman," though that's not what I really use. It is, of course, a Stephen King reference to the novel The Dark Half, wherein an author's pen name comes to life to stalk him for doing away with him. Early on, I made the decision not to make any public connection between the two names. Why?

In 2005, Northcoast Shakedown sold reasonably well for a release by an unknown from a micropress that had trouble paying its Lightning Source bill. Had I made some different decisions, I'd have probably wrapped up the Kepler series a few years ago and moved onto thrillers or even finished the police novel sooner. So it could be done. I wanted to see if I could do it again.

A handful of people know the details. A couple think it's silly to keep the identities separate. One suggested I just stop being Jim, use the new name, and find another name for the science fiction. But I've already gone pretty far down the rabbit hole not to see this through. The new name has a lot invested in branding as science fiction, and I don't want to lose the ability to resell and repackage Nick Kepler.

And besides, it's fun. I'm not doing stupid things like having Twitter wars with myself (though I often joke about that). Sooner or later, the charade is going to collapse in on itself. I'd rather that be part of a game I and the readers can play. It's a lot of work to have two independent identities as a writer, but it lets me experiment a little with each.

Who knows? Evan Hunter and Ed McBain collaborated on a book once. Why can't "Dick" and I do that at some point?

17 February 2015

Who Are These People In Our Heads?


When Northcoast Shakedown originally came out, I got accused by a coworker of basing most of my characters on people in the company where we worked. We worked at an insurance company. Nick Kepler scored free office space from an insurance company, and both were big property/casualty companies. However, I would be a little disturbed if the executives at TTG Insurance bore any resemblance to the ones at the company I discreetly refer to as BigHugeCo. The truth is the two executives who make Nick's life difficult in that story started out as stock bad bosses. That's how they got into trouble. Elaine, the secretary? She started out as someone for Nick to vent to while having a beer next door to TTG's offices.
The trouble with basing a character on an actual person too closely is that the writer then starts trying to bend a character to the real person, which makes for stilted, dull writing and poor dialog. A person may inspire a character, but if a writer is skilled or, at least, has good instincts, the character will take on a life of its own.

Sometimes, a central character is the author himself or herself. Sue Grafton has admitted as much about Kinsey Milhonne. She has stated that Kinsey is her if her life had taken another turn. Ditto for Spenser and Robert B. Parker. The darker tone of the earlier novels reflect a lot of the personal struggles Parker himself spoke of in that period of his life while later, when he was in a better place, the novels took on a lighter, clearly amused tone.

(Incidentally, I am not Nick Kepler. He's not as technically savvy, and I never had as many girlfriends as Nick. Though I think I had better luck with them.)

A clich├ęd piece of advice I used to get when I first started was to base a character on an actor. (Early on, I envisioned John Cusack as Kepler, though that faded away after a couple of stories.) Sometimes, that works as long as it's not someone over the top like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel. The trick here is to use the actor's persona as a jumping off point. Let's say you love Kaley Cuoco Sweeting from Big Bang Theory and want to drop her into your novel. Well, I'm sure Kaley will be flattered, but most likely, you really like how she plays Penny on the show. But if that combination of appearance and personality works for you in a tough-as-nail lady sheriff in rural Wisconsin, knock yourself out. Just know that a woman who has managed to get elected or appointed sheriff of a Midwestern county is going to already have a different background from an aspiring actress and waitress at a California Cheesecake Factory, particularly if there are no nerdy scientists around to color her life. (You might get away with a Sheldonesque coroner, but that's pushing it.)

Often, for me, characters just arise. They are functions of the story. Take a guy, put him in a situation, and ask yourself who he is and why he's there. More often than not, that's the first scene of a story as well as the birth of a story. It's not creating a role and then building a story around him. It's all about finding this imaginary person and creating a story to find out who he is. Nick Kepler is a function of a rainy night and having walked down at least two or three semi-rural highways in my time.

Sometimes, it really is a real person who inspires a character. Sherlock Holmes, probably the ultimate crime fiction protagonist in the English language, came from a rather quirky and highly intelligent doctor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew or knew about. A more extreme example comes from the 1990's. Mike Judge, the mind behind Office Space and King of the Hill, actually based the dimwitted, gravel-voiced Beavis on a guy he used to know (though I'm assuming the real Beavis was nowhere near as... um... intellectually challenged.  Heh-heh. Heh hmm heh. Fire!)

And sometimes, a character just demands to be written. You get a character like Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones whose personality is so clear that one has to write a story or three about him.

01 February 2015

Ending a Series


Gypsy's Kiss by Jim Winter
by Jim Winter

Leigh graciously gave me his slot today (we have a special guest coming in on my normal Tuesday slot) to talk about ending a series. And, let's be honest, I'm here to pimp my latest work, Gypsy's Kiss. But it's the end of Nick Kepler. For now. Maybe.

When I thought about writing about this, what came to mind was the end of a series. They all eventually end. Sometimes. I'm not so sure if it's wise to continue them beyond a certain point, but success often makes that decision for writers. It's clear Robert B. Parker had finished telling Spenser's story around the time of Ceremony. The novel had a certain finality to it as the consequences of the previous A Savage Place presented themselves. But Spenser and Parker continued. Within a few novels, it was clear he was just having fun now, making good money having that fun, and giving readers something nice and comfortable. But what if Parker had decided to end it all right there? Could he have continued as a writer?

My beloved 87th Precinct series ended when Ed McBain, AKA Evan Hunter, passed away. He wisely opted not to allow publishers to continue his series after his death (except for a posthumous release or two.) Sue Grafton has said that Kinsey Millhonne will also end with Z is for Zero. We are up to W now with X due out this year and Y in a couple of years. Sue Grafton has publicly stated that Z is for Zero will take place on Kinsey's 40th birthday so we won't have to watch her go through menopause. Hey, she said it. I didn't.

Which brings us back to Gypsy's Kiss and the end of Nick Kepler. Maybe. If I don't get the itch or a request to do it again. There are a lot of reasons for closing the book on Kepler. For starters, all but the first novel are independent releases. Mainly, I was burning off a couple of finished novels in various late stages of editing. I thought about returning to Nick's story again as I prepped a new novel (and potential series) to send to an agent. So I sat down to prep Kepler #4 and found he's stopped speaking to me. I hadn't written anything but a short story called "Gypsy's Kiss" in years. I liked the idea of Nick and Gypsy moving on, but I hated the result. So I hit on the idea of making it a novella, long enough to make the premise - call girl Gypsy wanting Nick for her final client - work while not taxing the reader with a long novel. Besides, I'm busy.

So what's it about? Gypsy is Nick's favorite informant. She's taken a bullet for him and even risked her own life to trap a sexual predator he once followed. Like Elaine in Lawrence Block's Scudder series, she's used her income from the sex trade to escape a life of being used. Now that she's ready to move on, and to celebrate, she wants a dollar from Nick to be her last "client," nothing outrageous (though it's pretty clear she's game even if Nick can't see it), just a quiet evening splitting a bottle of wine and watching old movies. But someone doesn't like Gypsy leaving the skin trade and leaves her a violent calling card.  This being early spring, Nick stashes Gypsy on an island in the middle of Lake Erie, guaranteed to make her hard to find during cold weather. He digs through her past to find who wants to hurt her all the while trying to save his business from closing.

I wrote Gypsy's Kiss for a number of reasons, not the least of which was working with this form. I've done novels. I've done short stories. I've never done a novella. Also, even though all the Kepler novels were released, I wanted to give the Kepler series some closure. I didn't just want to walk away with Nick confused and angry at the end of Bad Religion. Since this was going to be my last original independent release (not counting short fiction), I wanted to go out with a bang. What happens to Elaine? What happens to Nick? Is it really safe to go to New Orleans in 2005?

It's left open-ended. Nick could appear again, either back in Cleveland or someplace else. But if I never pen another line of Kepler again, I've left him in a good place.

Gypsy's Kiss is available for order today.

27 January 2015

What's In a Place


by Jim Winter

If you've been following along at home, you know I'm fascinating by setting, particularly fictional cities. Done right, a place that never existed can be as real as where the reader is sitting and have just as much history.

Often, when cities are created for a story, you're almost hit over the head with it. DC Comics had a long time, though, to flesh out Metropolis and Gotham City. Notice that the show is called Gotham, and they seldom use the name "Gotham City" in dialog. But what makes two cities full of superheroes and costumed psychopaths as real as, say, New York or Peoria, Illinois or even Redding, California, up in the redwoods?

There's a sense of place and identity about those fictitious towns. Gotham, for instance, has a geography. Some river empties out into another river or a lake or the Atlantic, forming "The Narrows." Bruce Wayne probably lives in a place north of the city that looks suspiciously like Atlanta's Buckheads. And there are nightclubs, restaraunts, and city landmarks that get recycled and repurposed with every incarnation of Batman and its spin-offs. Thanks to Christopher Nolan's films and the new TV series, Gotham looks a lot like a place you can go to.

Contrast that with the typical comic book or movie device of hitting you over the head with a city's unreality. It's always something-"City." Very few large urban centers are actually called that.

"But, Jim, what about Mexico City?"

Glad you asked that. It's an Americanism. We call it either Mexico City or Ciudad de Mejico because, English or Spanish, it's hard to differentiate between the city of Mexico (and that's all actual Mexicans call it) and the country.

There are exceptions, of course. But often, when I hear something like "Bay City" or, pulling from the soaps, "Genoa City" (Really, Young and the Restless writers? You couldn't just call it "Genoa"?), I hear "Fake." It worked on Battlestar Galactica because, like Mexico, the city of Caprica needs to be differentiated from the planet Caprica if you don't live there. Genoa City sounds like lazy writing. (And in the soaps' defense, they do have to crank out at least 260 scripts a year.)

But what really makes these places real?

Well, let's look at my personal favorite nonexistent town, Isola, a borough of... McBain spares us a lame name for his City. It's just The City, just like every urban center you've ever been to. From the first 87th Precinct onward, you get a sense of the city's geography (including the only two rivers in America that flow west into the Atlantic), history (often lifted from New York's own), and landmarks. Grover Park is not Central Park. Diamondback is the roughest neighborhood in Isola. You have to take a ferry to Bethtown. And I'm still not sure where the Alexander Hamilton Bridge goes.

McBain sprinkled just enough of these little details into the series to make Isola and its fellow "sections" real to you. You can almost picture the drive upstate to Castleview Prison.

But even better at making a town real is Stephen King. I've been to those little stores in Castle Rock and played in a place that looks a lot like Derry's Barrens. And then there are the backstories. If you lived in small towns dependent on a nearby city for its media (like I did living near Cleveland as a kid), you know the ebb and flow. You know certain places are going to get mentioned in the news and in conversation. You remember a sheriff very much like Alan Pangborn, and you know what happened at your high school happened in Derry. King takes the common experiences we all have, good and bad, and creates a Maine that does not exist but looks so much like the real one that you can't miss it. Oh, and there's a monster in there somewhere, like a clown that eats children or aliens messing with your head or something. The horror is almost secondary. Almost.

And finally, the history is often important. Street names and neighborhoods and landmarks take their names from people you don't remember. Here in Cincinnati, there is a William Howard Taft Road, named for the city's most famous president, and a lot of things called Hudepohl and St. Clair. Until the stadiums were built, a Pete Rose Way ran from Sawyer Point to the grungy barge docks that begin the city's West Side. Many streets are named for Civil War heroes who came from here, for meat-packing moguls like Buddig and Morrell, Procter & Gamble executives long dead before the current management was born, and sometimes, just somebody who helped layout the town.

McBain and King include these things, and I think it's the most important aspect of creating a fictional town. If you know a little about its history, you get an idea what to name things and where to put them.

It helps the reader live there with you, even if it's in both your heads.

06 January 2015

What's in a (Place) Name?


by Jim Winter

Once upon a time, I had a friend from New York who insisted on pronouncing everything with a French name in French. Never mind that the closest she had come to Paris was growing up about 200 miles from the border with Quebec. When she lived in Cincinnati, it deeply offended her that nearby town of Versailles, Indiana was called "Ver-Sales."

"It's pronounced vayr-SIGH!"

"Yes," I said. "In France, it is. In Indiana, it's pronounced 'ver-sales."

"Well, that's ignorant. It should be pronounced in its native tongue."

"OK. From now on, you have to call the town in Clermont County 'Moskva.'"

She wasn't down with that. Russian, to her, was too ugly. So even the Russian capital, in her reckoning, was called "Moscow."

But this has long been on my mind since childhood. I grew up in a town called Lodi. Most people can pronounce it since we've all heard, sooner or later, the Creedence song "Lodi" at least once. This song ended up being massively overplayed on Cleveland's WMMS and even CKLW out of Windsor. All because there was a town in the Cleveland area called Lodi.

Growing up, we were told the town changed its name from the original Harrisville, named for the town's founder, to Lodi in honor of Napoleon's first battle. Why? Well, Americans hated the British and liked Napoleon. By the time yours truly emerged from Lodi Hospital, the town square had a fountain with the village mascot, Chief Lodi. Nobody ever told us there had been a real Chief Lodi. And yet for a time, the Wikipedia article stated that Chief Lodi was a real person. Never mind what tribe or where he lived. The reference is gone now, but methinks a local had a little fun with the article before it was corrected.

But what goes into those names? Why do we call them what we call them? A small industrial city near where I grew up is named "Wooster," as in Jeeves & Wooster. However, the settlers hailed from Worcester, Massachusetts. Only it's pronounced "Wooster." The Massachusetts town is named for Worcestershire. Yes, that's where the sauce was invented. In true English fashion, that town is called "Woostersher," a concept I still have trouble with these days.

But what of fictional towns? Ross MacDonald loved Santa Barbara so much that he modeled Santa Teresa on it instead of using the real Santa Barbara. Sue Grafton picked up on this and based her career on this fictionalized version of her home.

Ed McBain, in turning New York into his fictional five-borough city, named the main borough "Isola," Italian for "island." I even got in on the act with the city in my current work in process called "Monticello" after the city on Edge of Night. The original had the Cincinnati skyline in the credits. My version probably looks more like Cleveland with the bluffs over the Ohio River flanking it.

I've found when creating or reading about a fictional place, it's good to embed common family names to streets and neighborhoods, corrupt the names of European cities for the names of towns and sections of a city, and reference events in history. It's good if the writer knows that history and how everything came to be, but the reader does not need to know. Done properly, it gives a place that may have been invented only a couple of years before publication an illusion of reality.

23 December 2014

A Very Tom Waits Christmas


by Jim Winter

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
Christmas Eve was dark, and the snow fell like cocaine off some politician’s coffee table
Rudolph looked to the sky. He had a shiny nose, but it was from too much vodka
He said, “Boys, it’s gonna be a rough one this year.”

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
The elves scrambled to pack up the last of the lumps of coal for deserving suburban brats
And a bottle of Jamie for some forgotten soul whose wife just left him
Santa’s like that. He’s been there.
Oh, he still loves Mrs. Claus, a spent piece of used sleigh trash who
Makes good vodka martnis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the lonlieness, the lonliness only Santa knows

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And the workshop reeks of too much peppermint
The candy canes all have the names of prostitutes
And Santa stands there, breathing in the lonliness
The lonliness that creeps out of the main house
And out through the stables
Sometimes it follows the big guy down the chimneys
Wraps itself around your tannenbaum and sleeps in your hat

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
We all line up for the annual ride
I’m behind Vixen, who’s showin’ her age these days
She has a certain tiredness that comes with being the only girl on the team
Ah, there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars wouldn’t fix
She’s got a tear drop tattooed under her eye now, one for every year Dancer’s away

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh and
I asked myself, “That elf. What’s he building in there?”
He has no elf friends, no elf children
What’s he building in there?
He doesn’t make toys like the other elves
I heard he used to work for Halliburton,
And he’s got an ex-wife in someplace called Santa Claus, Pennsylvania
But what’s he building in there?
We got a right to know.

I pulled on Santa’s sleigh
And we’re off Off into the night
Watching the world burn below
All chimney red and Halloween orange

I’ve seen it all
I’ve seen it all
Every Christmas Eve, I’ve seen it all
There’s nothing sadder than landing on a roof in a town with no cheer.

02 December 2014

Early Christmas Present: A Short Story


Hey, all. Jim here. On my blog, I have a feature called Get Into Jim's Shorts, where I run a new short story every month. This being Christmas, I went with a seasonal theme. As an early present, I'm going to share this month's story here as well. So without further ado…


SUNNY ACRES CHRISTMAS

Frank knew he had exactly four hours to clean out Sunny Acres Trailer Park on Christmas Eve. He figured an hour for people to grab dinner and make their way to Willowbrook Methodist Church, an hour for the first act of the annual Christmas pageant, half an hour for intermission (cake and punch in the church basement during a meet-in-greet with Joseph, Mary, and the Angel of the Lord), one hour for the second act, and half an hour before the faithful returned home. In the meantime, his name was not Frank.
He was Santa Claus. The idea came from seeing Jim Carrey in How the Grinch Stole Christmas a couple of weeks earlier. Only Frank’s idea was better. The Grinch had a dog. Frank had a 1998 Crown Victoria with a huge trunk and only minor engine problems.
The job, of course, could not begin until Amon Yoder, the police chief, left with his wife and kids piled up in their aging minivan. On Christmas Eve, the Willowbrook Police Department shut down, leaving the Sheriff’s Department to patrol the town. That meant the deputy who drew the short straw would park his cruiser downtown and keep an eye on the storefronts until about midnight, when his overnight relief would simply make a few passes on their way through town. But until Yoder and his family drove out to the Cracker Barrel on Route 20, Frank had to stay hunched down out of sight, eyes peering through the steering wheel with endless Christmas music playing on WJLB.
By 6 PM, half the trailer park had emptied. The other half – the heathen half, Frank had come to call them – were getting blissfully drunk on Big Muskie beer and watching whatever movies they’d seen a dozen times before on Christmas Eves past. No one would notice Frank trudging about Sunny Acres in the dark.
They would notice Santa.
To Frank’s surprise, the Santa suit did not keep him warm. Willowbrook, along with the rest of Musgrave County, lay under two feet of snow. While Sunny Acres did a good job plowing and salting the lot, it did not keep Frank from freezing his nuts off in the get-up. No worries. He planned to knock off about ten trailers, all double-wides, before the Virgin Mary gave birth over at the Methodist church.
He picked the locks easily enough. Had it not been for a four-year stretch in Mansfield, he might have made a decent living as a locksmith. More than one cop had given him a pass if he promised to use his powers for good instead of evil, but one day, that luck ran out.
“Yeah,” said Frank, muttering as he worked a particularly stubborn lock, “you try to make a good living without that badge, motherfuckers. Fucking Nissan moving, switching their brake supplier to Mexico.”
As the door swung open, he stepped inside, turned on the lights, and bellowed “Ho! Ho! Ho!” in as deep a voice as he could muster. He’d been practicing all week as a shopping mall Santa in Milan since Thanksgiving. When no one responded “Who’s there?”, he opened his sack, swept as many of the presents from under the tree as could fit, and headed back out, locking the door behind him. Frank, after all, was a thief, not an asshole.
On his third house, he almost did not get the door locked. Whoever lived there kept a huge Doberman. In the dark, the dobie looked like a beast from Hell. As he ran from the double-wide, the dog still barking loud enough for anyone in the neighboring trailers to hear, he wondered what idiot kept a dog that big in a home that small?
He moved onto the fourth trailer, a single-wide going to seed in this otherwise neatly kept trailer park. The old lady who lived here was the church organist. He knew her husband had left her a bundle, which she stretched by living in a dump like this. Nonetheless, she had lots of grandchildren who would want lots of presents. Frank could pawn those presents for hundreds if he were discreet enough. He filled his sack, locked the door, and headed back to the Crown Vic across the road. Six more trailers, he told himself. Empty the sack, hit six more trailers, and he could go have a beer at Mort’s out on Ashland Pike.
As he trudged back out of the park, his feet freezing, he heard a small voice call out to him. “Hi, Santa!”
The girl, no more than six, wore pink feetie pajamas and had her blonde hair in pig tails. She stood on the tiny porch of her family’s single-wide under a naked bulb.
Frank slowly raised his hand. “Uh… Hi?”
“Whatchu doin’, Santa?”
“Um…” He realized he needed to go into Santa mode or this kid would think something was wrong. “Ho! Ho! Ho! I’m taking these presents out to the sleigh to be inspected. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
The little girl jumped up and down, clapping her hands. “Is Rudolph out there?”
“Why, no, little girl. Rudolph retired. He trains the newer reindeer now.” He’d made that story up on the spot one Saturday as some brat sat in his lap telling him Rudolph wasn’t real. “What’s your name, little girl?”
“Taylor,” she said. “Taylor Mills. You know that, Santa.”
“Well, I don’t have my crystal ball with me.”
“Crystal ball?”
“How do you think I see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake? Ho! Ho! Ho!” He needed to get this kid back in the house or three trailers would be all he hit tonight. The dog had already cost him one place. “You should be inside, Taylor. It’s coooooolllllld out here. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
“Taylor,” said a woman from inside the trailer, “what are you doing out there?”
“I’m talking to Santa!”
“Well, come in the house. You’ll catch pneumonia out there.”
You ain’t kidding, lady, Frank thought. “Well, Taylor, you head off to bed, and I’ll be back later with your presents. But remember, you have to be asleep. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Taylor ran back into the trailer, slamming the door behind her. “Mommy! I saw Santa!”
Frank hurried across the street to his car. He still had a lot of work to do.
Popping the trunk of the Crown Vic, he dumped his latest haul inside. Slamming it shut, he patted the deck lid and said, “Thanks, Donner.”
Dashing back across the road, he made a bee line toward the most expensive home in the park. He had seen this one towed in halves through downtown Willowbrook. The man who lived there was a church deacon, and his wife sang in the chorus. If he could hit this one, he could count this as a good night. He wouldn’t have the haul he wanted, but he’d have a respectable amount.
About halfway back to the double-wide…
“Hey, Santa!”
Frank looked up. His heart sank when he saw an adult version of little Taylor Mills standing on the same porch. She wore black yoga pants and a Cleveland Browns jersey.
“Um…” Ho-ho-ho would not work, he knew. “Hi?”
“You playing Santa for the neighbors tonight?” she asked, cradling a mug in her hands.
“Yeah,” said Frank. “Just picking up a few bucks and doing something nice for the kids.”
“That’s sweet,” she said. “I’m Denise. Denise Mills. You talked to my daughter earlier.”
Okay, lady, I talked to your kid. Ho ho ho. Tell her Santa will be back later. “My pleasure.”
“Listen,” she said, “it’s just me and Taylor tonight. Her daddy’s gone.”
“He left?”
“Afghanistan. His chopper went down in the mountains six months ago.”
Oh, boy. “That’s rough, Mrs. Mills.”
“Please. Denise. Look, could I ask you to come in for a few minutes and give my daughter a special visit from Santa? It’d mean a lot. I could give you some hot chocolate with something a little extra in it.” She made a drinking motion with one hand, then mimicked pouring something into her own hot chocolate.
Well, it was freezing tonight. He wasn’t sure if he had much energy left to go beyond the next trailer.
“Please?” said Denise, her lips threatening to pout.
All Frank’s defenses melted. “All right. One cup of cocoa. Is the girl still up?”
“Yes. Come on in.”
Frank climbed the steps and followed Denise into her single-wide. It was cramped like any other single-wide trailer, but neatly kept. Places like this made Frank think of a submarine, everything smaller and either stacked or recessed. Denise dumped a packet of Swiss Miss into a mug and poured hot water onto it. She then reached into the cupboard and produced a half-full bottle of peppermint schnapps.
She held it up with a playful smile. “Merry Christmas, Santa.”
“Well, that’ll make for a warmer sleigh ride.” He accepted the mug as soon as she put a shot of schnapps into it.
“Taylor,” she hollered, “Santa’s here!”
For a six-year-old girl, Taylor certainly thundered down the trailer’s narrow hallway like an elephant charging. She stopped when she emerged into the kitchen. Seeing Frank in his Santa suit, she barely gave him time to put down his hot chocolate before she leapt into his lap. “Santa!”
“Well, ho ho ho, Taylor,” said Frank, adopting his mall Santa voice. “Your mommy thought I should pay you a visit since you’re all alone on Christmas Eve.”
Denise raised her phone and snapped a picture of Taylor on Frank’s lap. “Her grandmothers will love this.”
Frank said a silent prayer of thanks that he’d done a reasonable job on his beard. “Well,” he said in his best Santa voice, “maybe you could send a copy north for Mrs. Claus.”
“Please, mom,” said Taylor. “Please.”
“You just want an edge over all the other boys and girls,” said Denise. “Listen, can you watch her for a second? I gotta hit the little girls’ room.”
“Mommy’s gotta tinkle!” Taylor giggled at her own joke as her mother blushed.
“Taylor Anne Mills,” said Denise, “you behave in front of Santa.” That only made Taylor laugh more loudly. “I’ll be right back.”
Brave woman, thought Frank. Unless she recognizes me from the mall. If she does, I am royally screwed. “So, Taylor, have you been a good little girl this year?”
“Don’t you know, Santa?”
“Well, I have my list that I check twice, but it’s in the sleigh.”
“Can I see your sleigh?”
“Oh, I wish I could show it to you.” Because that’s what every little boy and girl wants to see, Santa tooling around in a 16-year-old Ford. “But I have new reindeer this year, and they spook so easily.”
“What about Rudolph?”
He had to admit he was enjoying this, making up new pieces of the Santa myth on the spot. “Ho ho ho, well, Rudolph’s been with me a long, long time. He’s retired now and trains all the new reindeer.”
“Why does he have a red nose?”
Vodka, thought Frank, who would need a couple extra shots of the stuff when this was over. “Magic. Rudolph’s nose is magic.”
“Magic?”
“How do you think they fly and pull a sleigh behind them without it falling. Christmas is magic, Taylor. Wonderful magic.” Wherein an unemployed factory worker spirits your stuff away to fence after the New Year. But let her figure that out when she grows up.
“The man on the news said the North Pole might melt,” said Taylor. “What will you do then?”
“Why move to Antarctica. Do you know where that is?” And is your mommy pissing a whole two-liter back there?
“The South Pole.”
“Yes. And just like the North Pole, I can get to anywhere in the world from there. Only the South Pole is on land.”
“Are there reindeer?”
“I have them brought in from Finland, which is waaaaay up north.”
The front door opened and in walked a sheriff’s deputy. “Honey, I’m… Oh, hi. Who are you?”
Frank tried very hard not to crap his pants. Gently, he put Taylor down before standing. “Why I’m Santa Claus! And who are you, Officer?”
“‘Deputy,’” said the cop. His phone buzzed, and he looked down at it.
“Is it cold out, Daddy?”
Daddy? Oh, shit. “Well, I must get back to my sleigh,” said Frank, trying to make it to the door.
The deputy blocked his path and had his hand on his weapon. He held up the phone, which displayed a picture of Taylor on Santa’s lap. “Cute. You work out at the Edison Plains Mall, don’t you?”
“Er…”
“And do you drive a 1998 Crown Victoria with a primered fender and a bad set of rocker panels?”
“Daddy, what’s wrong?”
“That’s not Santa, Taylor.”
Denise emerged from the bathroom. “You got here quick.”
“Well, someone called in about an abandoned car across the street, and someone else said the Mrs. Perkins’s Doberman was going berserk. Then I got your text.” He looked at Frank and said, “I’m going to assume that was you, wasn’t it?”
“Er…”
“What happened to ‘Ho ho ho’?”
“I thought you went down in Afghanistan.”
The deputy smiled. “I did. They gave me a discharge as soon as they rescued me. Who told you?”
“I never said he was dead,” said Denise. “I just said he was gone and that he went down in Afghanistan. He was gone; now he’s here.”
Frank looked at the gun on the Deputy Mills’s hip. He could charge. He could grab the gun, threaten his way out, and run for it. But then how far could he go running away in a Santa suit that did not even warm him? He looked down at Taylor, who looked confused. “So, Deputy, are my reindeer all right?”
Deputy Mills hand now rested on his weapon. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to…”
“Because if there’s a problem,” he continued, “we should go. I have some very special presents for Taylor.” He winked at Mills. “So… Shall we go?”
Mills’s hand relaxed on his gun. “I think Rudolph might have sprained his ankle landing on one of the trailers.”
“Daddy!” said Taylor. “Rudolph retired.”
Frank needed a story fast, or both he and Taylor’s Christmas would be ruined. “I believe you mean his son. Adolf. Ho, ho, ho.”
“Um… Yeah. Adolf. Anyway, he looks like he hurt himself. Could you come with me?” Deputy Mills had his hand his gun once more and gestured for the front door. “Shall we?”
Frank turned and knelt before Taylor. “No matter what happens, Taylor, you be a good girl. Listen to your parents. And have a merry Christmas.”
Taylor threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. “Bye, Santa!”
Frank got up and said, “Let’s go, Deputy. I’ve got a lot of houses to visit tonight.”
“Including the big one in Norwalk,” said Mills with a smirk. To Denise, he said, “I’ll be off about three, maybe sooner since I’ll just have to do paperwork on…” He looked over at Frank. “…Adolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“Be careful, honey. Try not to hit any reindeer out there.”
Outside Frank gave one last “Ho! Ho! Ho!” for Taylor’s benefit, then held out his wrists. “Let’s get this overwith before your daughter realizes I’m the mall Santa.”
“Save it,” said Mills. “You could have run, you know. Told my wife you were busy, hopped in your car, and made off with your take. Why’d you do it?”
“Why does a burglar ever…?”
“I mean my daughter. Why did you come in to talk to her? You know you blew your cover the moment my wife invited you in for hot chocolate.”
Frank thought about his own childhood. He remembered that scene from The Breakfast Club where Judd Nelson rants about getting a carton of cigarettes for Christmas. That was his childhood. Broken toys from Goodwill when he was a child, cartons of Camels from the age of 12 onward. Things did improve when Frank got his driver’s license. His old man would give him whiskey.
“I’ve never had a good Christmas,” said Frank as he got into Mills’s cruiser. “And this Christmas, I’m going to jail. At least your daughter would have a happy memory.”
Mills shut the door on him. Climbing in the front of the cruiser, he said, “Well, ‘Santa,’ I thank you for that. Seems you did some good tonight after all.”
As they pulled out of Sunny Acres, Frank saw the tow truck backed up to his Crown Vic, another Sheriff’s Department cruiser parked alongside.
He began to cry.