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

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 clichéd 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.

13 November 2014

My Worst Case Of Writers Block


About four years ago, I got laid off from the job I held for fourteen years. I had severance, so this actually turned out to be good. After about four months, though, I'd started to lose interest in everything. Especially writing.
It had been a few years since my original publisher imploded, and my then agent failed to sell Road Rules, the Leonardesque road trip caper I'd written on a dare. I had no clue what to do next, and I didn't really care. I fired my agent and decided to just give up writing.

Fast forward about six months. New job doing what I'd trained for instead of being stuck doing only what my old employer wanted me to do. I started to get an interest in writing again, but what to write. A new Nick Kepler novel? A follow-up to Road Rules? A pre-9/11 thriller I'd been toying with? None of these really captured my interest. But I wanted to write.

Finally, I just sat down and wrote the autobiography of a rock musician character a friend and I used to kick around when we were in our late teens. The beginning was interesting, reminding me of one of those Stephen King novels that flash back to the characters' childhood days. The real challenge was writing the character in the late fifties and early sixties as a kid and giving him time in Vietnam. And then one weekend, with nothing scheduled or planned, I sat down to write about his adventures in late sixties London.

When I stopped on Sunday evening that weekend, I'd written 17,000 words. Not 17,000 words total in the manuscript. 17,000 words from Friday evening all the way to Sunday.

Very rarely does anyone write that much, and I wouldn't submit these pages for any publication. Besides, I borrow liberally several historical figures, some of whom are still alive.

Since that time, the book or mock autobiography or whatever you want to call it has served to give me time writing original work when I'm between projects. It also had an interesting side benefit. I soon was rereading the next novel I wanted to submit for publication (for which I now owe an agent revisions). I started writing almost constantly.

I've always heard that one should write through writers block. That's actually the easy part. The hard part is finding what to write.

30 September 2014

Fast Eddie


Once upon a time, a man named "Fast Eddie" Watkins could get in and out of banks quickly, relieving them of cash, and usually not harming anyone. He became one of Cleveland's most notorious criminals, and that says a lot in my hometown. Cleveland had the Torso Killer. Its suburbs produced Jeffrey Dahmer while the Tremont neighborhood spawned notorious kidnapper Ariel Castro. A branch of the Genovese crime family ran the underworld for years, and Irish mobster Danny Green met a fiery end when his car exploded leaving a union hall in the late 1970's. So, yeah. The Northcoast has hosted its share of thugs and monsters.
But we always had a soft spot for Fast Eddie. Sure, he robbed banks. But he was a gentleman thief. In and out, and he loved the publicity. The Plain Dealer, The Press (infamous for its shoddy reporting of the Sam Sheppard murder case), and the local TV stations faithfully recounted his exploits. In a city more famous for its burning river and its serial killers, Watkins developed a Robin Hood reputation.

The one time Fast Eddie's robbery didn't go so well, he took 9 hostages. After 21 hours, though, he let everyone go and surrendered. The feds sent him to prison in Atlanta. He escaped, and therein is where Fast Eddie crossed a very young Jim Winter's path.

South of the exurb where I grew up, there is, to this day, a stretch of potato fields called The Muck, a handful of rock quarries, and cornfields all sandwiched between the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. We used to ride our bikes out through there, headed for the tiny little freeway burg of Burbank. Only one day, the local police stopped us.

"Why can't we ride out to Burbank?" I asked the Lodi cop at the roadblock.

"We got a bank robber cornered out past the rock quarry."

I went home. At 6:00, WEWS led their news broadcast with the standoff between Fast Eddie Watkins and the Medina County Sheriff. By 7, Fast Eddie was in custody and headed back to prison.

Watkins never hid the fact that he was a bank robber. He said he enjoyed it. "I wanted to be a big shot," he confessed. His illegal withdrawals helped finance his lavish lifestyle. So where did he keep his money?

"I trust banks with my money. They're insured. It's the best place in the world to put your money."

But was it the money? Watkins wife once said no. Mrs. Watkins said that Fast Eddie ogled banks the way most men ogled girls.

But even in prison with his criminal career over, Watkins remained a character. The Cleveland papers occasionally reported that Fast Eddie had taken up painting while behind bars, favoring landscapes.

Fast Eddie died in 2002 at the age of 82 after a long battle with heart and lung disease. Unlike the bank robbers of an earlier era, going out in a blaze of glory wasn't for him.

09 September 2014

The Places You've Never Been


I will be revising a novel I'd been working on forever soon. Which is going to be fun. It takes place in a city in Ohio called Monticello. Monticello came about as an exercise in world building. I can tell you the history of the place, who all the landmarks are named for, and that, if you own a Passat or a Jetta, it wasn't built there.

If the name sounds familiar beyond the reference to Thomas Jefferson's estate, I admit I lifted it. Once upon a time, when I was much shorter, there was a soap opera called Edge of Night. Like Dark Shadows, Edge was genre-based rather than hospital melodrama like most other soaps. Unlike Dark Shadows, it was a crime show. Set in a city called Monticello, the series existed in a Midwestern state so generic that it's capital was Capital City. The skyline in the opening credits was actually Cincinnati, home of Procter & Gamble which produced the show. (Except for its final two seasons, when LA was used.) But it's not the only fictional city that crime aficionados have adopted.

Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhonne lives in Santa Teresa, which looks suspiciously like Santa Barbara. While Santa Teresa does not exist, Kinsey shares the town with another PI, Lew Archer. That should be no surprise. Archer's creator Ross McDonald also used the name for a fictionalized Santa Barbara. And Grafton did know McDonald in his later years. Santa Teresa is so real, thanks to Grafton, that many people look for it while driving down Highway 101. Read enough of the novels, and you can see downtown and the seedy Hungarian restaurant where Kinsey would be treated to goulash.

Take it a step further. Hill Street Blues, the classic police show from the 1980's, took place in a city even more generic than Edge of Night's fictional state. It had a Major League baseball team, but even the team was never named. Still, the city was quintessentially Midwest without looking like a thinly disguised LA or Chicago (or Toronto, which has doubled for several American cities.) It's amazing how Hill Street made its city look so real without giving any clue as to where it was.

But the mack daddy of fictional towns?

That would be Ed McBain's Isola. Many people assume Isola is the name of McBain's fictitious city, but actually, it's a borough (a word McBain never uses) roughly analogous to Manhattan. The City is and yet is not New York. Indeed, many 87th Precinct movies have been shot in, and sometimes set in, New York. Yet the precinct, even the other boroughs, have distinct characters all their own. One wonders if the City is sandwiched between Metropolis and Gotham City.

What makes a fictional city real to a reader? A sense of place. When neighborhoods and landmarks are described as though the author might have lived there, it makes the setting a character unto itself. Similarly, giving a fictional place a history gives it a life of its own. There's a reason certain names pop up on streets, schools, and landmarks. The reader may never know why, but if the writer does, it creates a sort of randomness that's hard to duplicate otherwise.

So where is your favorite place you've never been?

19 August 2014

Don Quixote, PI


When people talk about the PI, they always trace the character back to three writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. Most people think the modern PI is based on Hammett's Continental Op. But you have to go farther back than that. Sherlock Holmes?
Well, yes, Holmes's fingerprints are all over the modern PI. He even has an erudite, if seemingly less intelligent, sidekick, the brainier forerunner of the psycho sidekick popularized in the Spenser and Dennis Lehane novels. But you have to go farther back. And I mean farther back than Poe's August Dupin, considered the first modern detective character.

No, the PI is a knight-errant, righting wrongs, defending the weak, and dispensing justice. The knight-errant was around for centuries, springing from stories of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, of Roland and Charlemagne, of the various knights of Camelot. But the archetype wasn't truly solidified until Miguel de Cervantes's comic novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (which I plan to review this Friday.)

[Cue needle across vinyl.] "Duh... What? Don Quixote was nuts! And his sidekick was equal parts wise and ignorant."

Yes, well...

The comic aspect of that dynamic did not really repeat on a grand scale until the classic 1980's sitcom, Blackadder. In the beginning, Prince Edmund, the Black Adder, is more bungling than mad, and sidekick Baldric is much smarter than he appears, frequently saving the hapless prince from himself. Later, the roles were flipped, and Blackadder became an evil version of Holmes - arrogant, clever, and just as sarcastic - while Baldric became the embarrassingly dimwitted sidekick who always had "a cunning plan" (that always ended in disaster.)

So what's this have to do with the PI?

Think about Holmes, particularly as portrayed at present by Messrs. Downey, Cummerbatch, and Miller. The modern depictions of Holmes have more in common with Blackadder than in prior decades, while Watson is portrayed as long-suffering and sometimes the source of Holmes' brilliance. This was Doyle's original vision of the pair, and you can draw a direct line back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But whereas the don was off his rocker and Sancho had a simple view of the world, the impulses were the same: Quixote, like Holmes and like every PI character who followed him, loathes injustice and wants to see things set right. Panza, like Watson and the later stock psycho sidekicks, sees Quixote's (or Holmes's or Spenser's or Patrick and Angie's) mission as noble, though often has to show great patience standing in his brilliant partner's shadow.

The motivations and the levels of intelligence change. Even the personal missions change. Spenser, never mind Holmes, could not have thrived in the time of King Arthur or Charlemagne. And the whole thrust of Don Quixote's story is that the knight-errant was already part of a fictional past.

The PI is not the only evolution of Don Quixote, but it's the most obvious. Fans of Doctor Who can pick up on Quixote's madness in the Doctor, but it's darker and more bizarre. And more intentional.

So Don Quixote is still alive. When the PI is done right, the character taps into that zeitgeist. When it's not, he or she is simply parroting the Op and Marlowe.

15 July 2014

Criminal Savants


by Jim Winter

About a decade ago, several businesses on Cincinnati's east side suffered break-ins, almost always on a Sunday night. Police could not get a handle of the suspects. They would break in, lift the safe, and leave absolutely no evidence behind. By the time they had an arrest, they had found several safes in the nearby Little Miami River, and businesses had lost well over $100,000.

Surprisingly, two of the safe crackers worked for cigarettes. So how did the police find out?

Ring leader Jimmy Godfrey liked to walk into an East End bar and brag about his heists to his buddies.

Yes, the man smart enough to hit safes when they would hold the most money and insist on his fellow thieves wearing gloves while not allowing them to spit or use the bathroom was not smart enough to keep his mouth shut. The story of how the police busted this ring is straight out of a Tarantino film.

You would think Godfrey was a criminal mastermind. He forbade his fellow thieves from eating, drinking, smoking, or going to the bathroom to avoid leaving any traces behind for forensic technicians to find. See, Godfrey was a fan of CSI, and he actually learned something from the show. He even avoided wearing the same shoes twice on a job. Why? He didn't want anyone tracing the shoe prints.

Godfrey was also persuasive. He convinced his girlfriend and two relatives to work for cigarettes while Godfrey himself pocketed the cash. The problem was how Godfrey disposed of some of the swag he stole. One neighbor in East End, a rundown neighborhood along the Ohio River known at the time more for its Confederate flags and rusty cars than anything else, took a big-screen TV from a nearby shop and mounted it in his apartment. In 2004, big screens and LCD's were about as common as electric cars are today. Godfrey's girlfriend helped herself to a handful of expensive Christmas tree toppers.

Worse for Godfrey, some of his relatives were more than willing to sell him out to the police for very little. One woman received $35 in exchange for information about Godfrey's nocturnal activities. But they weren't the only ones. Godfrey's own worst enemy was Godfrey himself.

He paid very close attention to detail on his jobs: Taking care to leave no evidence, using rubber gloves, even timing his jobs for maximum take. However, he did two things wrong. His own cohorts sold him out since he would keep all the cash. But that was not his worst mistake. If you wanted to know who robbed Mt. Lookout Television, City Beverage, or the Sky Galley restaurant, just ask anyone living along Eastern Avenue, the main drag through East End. Godfrey would brag about his crimes to anyone who would listen.

To add insult to injury, Godfrey would have been done in by his own brother, who was sloppy by Jimmy Godfrey's standards. The younger Godfrey would frequently leave traces of himself behind, and once banged his head during a job. The injury bled which gave evidence technicians a nice DNA sample to use just in case Jimmy Godfrey clammed up.

24 June 2014

Kill My Landlord, Kill My Landlord (or How Eddie Murphy Sparked a PI Novel)


by Jim Winter

One afternoon in 1999, I was watching reruns of Saturday Night Live from when Eddie Murphy was the only reason to watch the show. Outside, my upstairs neighbor was up on a ladder doing some balcony work for our landlord. On SNL, Eddie Murphy began doing one of his most famous bits as a prison poet. The poem had the refrain "Kill my landlord, kill my landlord." Most people would just laugh and say, "Wow. Eddie Murphy used to be funny before Pluto Nash." And that thought did cross my mind.

But I also wondered if my landlord instead of my neighbor did the balcony work, could one getting away with shoving him off the ladder?

Kill my landlord, kill my landlord.

Naturally, I started scribbling notes. What was the landlord's name? (Not mine. I usually dealt with his wife, who was a very nice lady.) How do you shove him off the ladder and make it look like an accident? I spent the evening banging out the basics of a story and had 14 pages of an outline by the time I got shut down the computer. I even tacked on Eddie Murphy's poem at the beginning for inspiration.

Kill my landlord, kill my landlord.

All this went into my first novel, Northcoast Shakedown. I guarantee when people finally read it, they weren't thinking of Eddie Murphy. They might have wondered if my landlord looked over his shoulder or if I had a blonde neighbor who entertained me with chicken wings. (I had a blonde neighbor. Never saw her eat wings.)

It's one of the more unusual places someone has found an idea for a story. Pink Floyd's The Wall might be the most odd. The classic album sprang from an incident where Roger Waters spat on an obnoxious fan. It wasn't even the most memorable incident that night. (Waters hurt his foot later horsing around backstage.)

I talked before here about where stories come from. There were the usual sources: Snatches of conversion, ripping from the headlines, what if scenarios. It's these strange moments that grab a writer's mind that are the most interesting. Sometimes, there's not even a story in the beginning. There are only disparate elements that a writer finds interesting and keeps mixing them up until he has a story. Think Caddyshack. The original story about a caddy trying to get a scholarship is still there as a polite suggestion, but Harold Ramis had no clue what his movie was about until he realized the real conflict was Bill Murray vs. the gopher.And that was after the movie was finished.

10 June 2014

A Place In History


I was telling my son a few months back about a story idea that had occurred to me.  It would draw from my days in the army when I was stationed in what was then known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic.  He listened politely, then observed with a snort, that I was writing a "historical."  With that single word I suddenly realized that my earlier life had entered the slipstream of history.  It was a sobering thought that carried with it undertones of pending mortality--my pending mortality.
"Smartass," I replied, my ancient and inflexible brain unable to come up with a pithier rejoinder.  This was the same son who had been born in Germany, though he recalls very little of our time there.  And since this piece concerns itself with history, it is worth noting that Robin gave birth to him at Landstuhl Military Hospital while survivors of the Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut were being cared for there.  Two hundred and forty one marines died in that attack, an incident I would later be moved to write about in a story titled, "Ibrahim's Eyes." 

Later that evening, I unearthed some photographs from that time and place.  They were pre-digital and had acquired a yellowish patina.  The people captured in these snapshots bore a strange resemblance to my own family and myself.  I was relieved to note that other than the deep lines in my face, my hair having gone completely gray, and a sagging neckline, that I had hardly changed since these pictures were taken.  I was about the same age then as my son is now.  The time was the early 1980's. 

In one photo, my family and I stand beneath a sign for the town, or stadt, of St. Julian, holding an infant of the same name, the male heir and aforementioned future smartass.  We look healthy and happy even though we are in a strange land through no desire of our own.  The assignment was for three years--the army would involuntarily extend it by six months (I was that necessary to the effort).  We knew no one and were a very long way from our families.  Letters took a long time to transit the mighty ocean, and phone calls to friends and loved ones were hideously expensive for a G.I. supporting a family of five.  I would spend weeks away on training maneuvers.  Still, we managed to make a great time of it, for which I mostly credit my imaginative and indefatigable wife.

My father had also been to Germany courtesy of the U.S. Army (more history), having arrived on Normandy Beach on D-Day and fighting his way into the Fatherland.  Naturally, he had some assistance in this--I believe a cook accompanied him.  It was funny to think of myself there so many years later.  The barracks my unit was assigned to had been formerly occupied by Nazi troops; our artillery range established by the same.  Even so, there were many, many differences between our visits--the most obvious being that no one was actively shooting at us.  The main threat was now the Soviets and their allies.  Both the East Germans and the Czechoslovakians manned the borders between the American and Soviet spheres, while the West Germans, and us, manned our side.  I'm not sure that the Germans loved us exactly, but they liked us a lot better than the alternative.

That being said, there were radical groups within the Federal Republic that were dedicated to the expansion of communism throughout the west, and by any means possible.  Two of these, the Baader-Meinhof Gang (they called themselves the Red Army Faction), and the RZ, or Revolutionary Cells, could be extremely violent.  Throughout the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, they were responsible for a number of bombings, murders, kidnappings, bank robberies, and airline hijackings.  They trained and networked with several middle-eastern terrorist groups; their ideological brethren in Italy and France, and received money and logistical support from the East German Secret Police, the feared Stasi.  They succeeded on several occasions in bombing American military bases; killing and wounding both soldiers and civilians.  They were no less savage with their fellow Germans.  We were cautioned to examine our cars, if we owned one, before putting a key in the ignition.  That seemed good advice to me.

Meanwhile, I functioned as an intelligence analyst assigned to the 8th Infantry Division Artillery.  Not very glamorous or exciting.  My vast knowledge of Soviet tactics, equipment, weapons, and training, however, were largely responsible for discouraging the Russians from doing anything foolish.  They realized early on that they were simply outclassed.  You may recall that the Iron Curtain would crumble altogether within a few years of my arrival in Europe.
My Soviet Counter-Part

Now, a few decades later, I contemplate fashioning a novel out of that distant time and faraway place.  Even to me, it now seems as if this were another world altogether--quaint, if somewhat dangerous.  The Soviet Union no longer exists, and its demise led to the birth (or rebirth) of dozens of nations.  Germany has been reunited.  Czechoslovakia has been disjointed; the face of Europe made completely foreign to my time there.  Yet, I was there and an actual participant.  And though it did not appear unique to me as I was living it, it became history even so.

Shortly after I wrote this, the Russian Bear reentered the world stage in the Crimea and is growling at the Ukraine.  Perhaps my experiences are not so remote in time as they seemed.  History keeps happening and I'm expecting a call from Washington any minute now, "Dean...we need you...we need you now!"



Switching focus here: As most of you know, Dale Andrews was injured in the line of duty, so to speak, and is now on hiatus.  We have discovered that to replace him required the talents of not one, but two, able-bodied writers: Stephen Ross and Jim Winter, both of whom have graced us with their talents of late.  They have graciously consented to share the yoke on a semi-permanent basis.

Next Tuesday, June 17th, Stephen, through the miracle of the internet, will appear among us all the way from New Zealand.  Or at least his blog will.  Stephen will probably remain in his native land.  But I don't know, as I have heard that his people have harnessed powers that the rest of us can only dream of.  Jim, who is an Ohioan, and speaks a dialect of our language, will share his thoughts with us on the following Tuesday, June the 24th.  From there on out, Tuesdays will rotate between the three of us.  Please give our new co-conspirators a round of virtual applause, and tune in on Tuesdays for exceptional, and once again international, entertainment!

21 May 2014

A Greek God in Every Book


Jim Winter
Born near Cleveland in 1966, Jim Winter had a vivid imagination – maybe too vivid for his own good – that he spun into a career as a writer. He is the author of Northcoast Shakedown, a tale of sex, lies, and insurance fraud – and Road Rules, an absurd heist story involving a stolen holy relic.

Jim now lives in Cincinnati with his wife Nita and stepson AJ. To keep the lights on, he is a web developer and network administrator by day. Visit him at JamesRWinter.net , like Jim Winter Fiction on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @authorjimwinter.

There’s a Greek God in Every Book

by Jim Winter

Lately, a lot has been made about the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s template for myths and legends. It’s most obvious examples in modern times are Star Wars and the Harry Potter series. But sometimes, trying to plot around the Hero’s Journey can lead to formulaic writing. It can also lead to some very shallow clichés. There’s a difference between paying homage to The Maltese Falcon and creating unintentional parody.

Not that I know anyone who’s ever done that.

A few years ago, however, someone introduced me to a pair of books by psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen. The first was called The Goddesses in Every Woman. It had a companion book, which I also read called The Gods in Every Man. In them, Bolen posits that the pantheon of Greek gods served as a personality spectrum for the human race. If you find a Greek god or goddess to attach to a character, I discovered, you can use that to flesh out a character. Does it apply to crime fiction?

Oh, come on! Really? Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones. You’ll be surprised.

ZEUS: Zeus is the king of the Greek gods. His personality is simultaneously the calm, solid leader and the petulant overlord who will preserve his position at all costs. Think of most CEO’s. They range from the brilliant innovators (Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google) to the self-absorbed jerk with too much money and power (Donald Trump). Perhaps the darkest crime fiction example is Noah Cross, the water baron in Chinatown.

ATHENA: Athena was the goddess of wisdom and the goddess of the law. Athena types tend to be a bit aloof, a little ruthless if only because their mission calls for it, and extremely logical. Hilary Clinton is an Athena, as are tech CEO’s Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. In crime fiction, they are the female judges, who tend to be less hot-headed and more strict than their male counterparts.

POSEIDON: Brother of Zeus, king of the seas, Poseidons either wish they could be leaders, blaming others for their shortcomings, or they are leaders lacking confidence. History’s best known Poseidon is Richard Nixon, whose worst enemy was himself. A more benign example might be Bill Lumberg from the cult classic movie Office Space, who can’t relate to his underlings and speaks with a huge lack of confidence. Many male PI characters are Poseidons, such as Philip Marlowe. Marlowe does not play nice with others and vents his cynicism and anger at the system through wisecracks and semi-poetic similes.

ARTEMIS: Artemis is the twin brother of Apollo. Like her twin, she is often competitive and fiercely independent. Artemis types are a good model for female PI characters as they don’t really like being told what to do. Erin Brokovitch, the brassy activist, is a good example of an Artemis, refusing to accept the status quo. In crime, Kinsey Millhonne is a prime example.

HADES: The lord of the underworld is a tough one to figure out. He’s the role model for both Obi-wan Kenobi and for Hannibal Lecter. It all depends on which direction you want to go. Hades types spend a lot of time up in their heads. When it works, they’re contemplative philosophers. When it doesn’t, they’re in a world of their own that can be dangerous to those around them. The Dalai Lama and Ted Bundy are two sides of this very strange coin. Dexter would be a crime fiction example. Then again, so would Joe Pike.

HERA/DEMETER: Hera is the wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage. Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone. I put these two together because they are defined by fierce loyalty. Hera is fiercely loyal to her husband. Demeter is loyal to the point of murder to her daughter. One is proverbial woman behind the man. Think Nancy Reagan. The other can easily be the overbearing mother. Think Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.

HERMES: Messenger of the gods and the Greeks’ answer to the Trickster archetype. (Think Loki, Thor fans.) Hermes is forever boyish and forever the smartass. A typical Hermes response to a stressful situation is to crack wise. That’s almost every male (and quite a few female) PI character you ever met. Spenser is the king of the Hermes PI character, followed very closely by Elvis Cole.

APHRODITE: You’d probably think Aphrodite is the archetypal slut. You’d be right, but you’d also be wrong. It’s much deeper than that. The movie There’s Something About Mary is a whole treatise on the Aphrodite personality. Cameron Diaz’s Mary is hardly a loose woman, but every male character in the movie falls hopelessly in love with her to the point of insanity. Sometimes, a woman of this time knows how she affects those around her and uses it. That’s the classic definition of the femme fatale. Other times, they seem oblivious to it. They may or may not be the damsel in distress, but men either want to her or to possess her.

DIONYSUS: This is the strangest one of all, and you need only look at the prime examples of this personality type. Dionysus, the god of wine and debauchery, also had a rebirth component to his myth. So Dionysus is either the eternal hedonist or the martyred messiah. In crime fiction, rock star Johnny Boz dies at the hands of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. Both are hedonistic Dionysus types. From the more messianic perspective, take a look at Sean Chercover’s The Trinity Game, where huckster televangelist Tim Trinity finds himself becoming an unwilling mouthpiece for God. You know where this is going to end.

There’s more, of course, and Dr. Bolen’s books aren’t really writing guides. Nonetheless, they offer a fascinating insight into how ancient cultures tried to use their religions to sort out the confusing vagaries of human behavior. They were almost the first psychology guides ever written.