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

23 February 2024

Bad Whiskey



A lot of stories take their cues from music. I listen to music when I write, and I often say I can't write listening to Carrie Underwood or Roger Waters because they're telling stories in their songs. Actually, I can't listen to Roger Waters on anything after 1980 because... Okay, that's another rant I'll save for elsewhere. But Carrie Underwood writes entire novels in her music. "Blown Away" and "Two Cadillacs" come to mind.

And then there's southern rock. Ever listen to some of Skynyrd's songs and see a story unfold in your mind? "Two Steps" is a good one and might have spawned a different story had I heard it around the time we started planning the Murder, Neat anthology. Instead, a friend of mine sent me this video of her husband's band. For a group who played mostly bars (though they did open for the likes of Black Country Communion a few times), they did a rather professional video. When it opened, I thought, "Cool. Johnny Lynn's playing slide!" But they had a few stories to go with the verses, many of them fitting that southern rock vibe half of Johnny's bands embrace. (Johnny is the aforementioned friend's husband.)

I had a video, awaiting the CD, and I had an email from either Leigh or Robert and a follow up from Michael Bracken: Write a story set in a bar. Put a murder in it. I had a soundtrack, an inspiration, and marching orders. This is why I love anthologies as a writer. When the prompt hits just right, the stories spin off on their own.

The song is called "Bad Whiskey." How's that for a southern rock title? And if the video shows the ill-effects of bad whiskey in general, the story flows backward and reveals just how bad one man's whiskey was. 

And in case you were wondering, here is the aforementioned song that inspired the story, "Bad Whiskey" by the Russell Jinkens XL Band.



02 February 2024

The Second Murderer by Denise Mina



 For the first time since Poodle Springs, Philip Marlowe shows up in a Philip Marlowe novel and manages to stay well past Chapter 4. If it sounds like I'm giving damning faint praise to author Denise Mina, I'm not. Mina has written the latest authorized Philip Marlowe novel, and for once, we have an author who understands how to place Marlowe in context and not belabor the similes.

Like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, Philip Marlowe is one of those characters who won't die with his author. You have to go to science fiction to get anything else American like it. Star Wars is a Marvel-like franchise now instead of the story of a farm boy becoming Siegfried. Star Trek just avoids that fate by becoming a setting more than a story about set characters. Marlowe is...

Well, he's Marlowe. And he has dozens upon dozens of imitators: Lew Archer (more a means for Ross MacDonald to tell a story), Nameless, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Kinsey Milhonne, VI Warshawski. Even a certain Sleuthsayers contributor originally from Cleveland invented his own not-Marlowe. Which reminds me, there was another not-Marlowe from Cleveland by a much older writer from Cleveland. Seems like everyone wants in on the action.

But Bond and Holmes are larger than life, to the point where Holmes is recognizable the moment he appears, and Bond is now two Bonds: literary and cinematic. Marlowe is a working stiff, a guy in a corner office. If you reinvent him, you almost have to create a new character. Many have tried. The result has been not-Spenser, a book full of wisecracks and similes, or some guy named Philip Marlowe who happens to be or was a private detective. The closest anyone came to the original was Lawrence Osborne's Only to Sleep, featuring an elderly Marlowe in Mexico, though the story had an almost Miami Vice vibe to it. Denise Mina writes a story about the character Raymond Chandler created.

The similes and an odd metaphor or ten are there, but they need to be. That's how Marlowe talks. And he's in period. The Second Murderer begins with Marlowe wrapping up a case but wondering if he got it wrong: The death of a Western character actor on the eve of World War II. He has no time to think about it as an elderly man, in shades of The Big Sleep, summons Marlowe to Stately Montgomery Manor to hire him. He doesn't want the job, but Montgomery wants his daughter found. Because Montgomery is a Very Important Man(TM) from a Very Important Family(TM). And unlike The Big Sleep's General Sternwood, Marlowe doesn't like this guy. He's a shriveled monster who beats his family Yet Marlowe takes the gig. He finds the daughter, Chrissie, soon enough. But he also runs into Anne Riordan, a character so strong she could probably carry her own series. And Mina has made her a PI in her own right. Something's not right.

Marlowe and Riordan soon realize they're working at cross purposes here, and even the police are being played. Despite being at odds in their missions, the pair are soon walking a fine line between what they're tasked with and protecting Chrissie, who has a few secrets of their own.

Mina writes this in period. There's no overlay of modern sensibilities, although she does avoid some language Chandler might not have blinked at. But she's writing in 1938 and focused on the rhythms and the consequences of Hollywood trying very hard to pretend Hitler is someone else's problem. The dialog is in-period. However, the book comes from a Scottish writer, so the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all UK. That takes about a chapter to get used to. As an editor, I've seen the challenge and once had to leave Australian rules in place. But there were occasional lapses. One particular instance has Marlowe describing the rain on his car's "bonnet" (hood to us yanks.) Fortunately, the Britishisms are few and far between, and Marlowe even makes fun of one characters' faux British accent.

Much is made of Denise Mina being the first female author to tackle Marlowe. But I find it interesting a a Gen X woman from Scotland did a far superior job resurrecting Marlowe than Robert Parker or some of the other writers who attempted to carry on the legacy. First off, she focuses on telling a good story. She organically adds in Anne Riordan as a callback to Farewell, My Lovely without being gratuitous about it. And the Marlowe in her book is the Marlowe Chandler wrote. Considering she's been doing this for over twenty-five years, she was a good choice to add a chapter to Marlowe's story. I'd read another by her.

12 January 2024

Rookies


In the past two years, I've become a professional editor in addition to writing. I'm still good at writing as a writer, editing as an editor, and reading as a reader. When I'm doing any one of these things, my brain doesn't want to do the other.

But after fifteen books for Down & Out plus a couple of freelance jobs, some things do make my inner editor scream. One is the inevitable neophyte writer's rant online about "The Rules." We're all familiar with Elmore Leonard's list. 

It's a good list. It's also written based on how Elmore Leonard wrote. Ever read Elmore Leonard? This is how he got good. But his rules and Lawrence Block's rules and Stephen King's rules are all different lists. I'm not talking about those lists. I'm talking about the temper tantrum of a newer writer getting frustrated with the editing process. I recently ran across such a list. My wife found my own "Get off my lawn!" rant toward it quite entertaining. Really, it showed the writer's lack of experience. And it's not unfamiliar to me. I used to think the same way. What were they complaining about?

  • No head hopping - Now this one infuriates me, even if it took me the longest time to understand it. What brought it home was Tom Clancy, an unrepentant head hopper. Clancy would give you whiplash starting in Jack Ryan's head, bopping over to some sonar technician's POV, then ending with some admiral's or politician's. I can't read it anymore. Head hopping is disrespectful to the reader, who has to follow the writer's ADHD-inspired point-of-view shifts. Now, I violently disagree with the "One POV Per Chapter" rule. I always thought that was stupid because it makes for short, short chapters. But one POV per scene should be an ironclad rule. Only four writers I know of since World War II have managed to head hop smoothly: Frank Herbert, Stephen King, George Pelecanos, and SA Cosby. Everyone else needs to remember someone's gotta read this at some point, and more people will if they can follow along.

  • No adverbs. Okay, editors need to really chill about this one, but outright rebellion? That needs to be stamped out aggressively. Mind you, I'm spoiled. I've only beta'd (but not fully edited) one neophyte writer, so the adverbs are usually at a minimum. By the time I get them, they're invisible. But my first professional editing job came from a guy who's been writing longer than I've been alive. (And my puberty began to the strains of Blondie, which was not a bad way for a pre-teen boy to get his hormones flowing. I digress.) So by the time I get most manuscripts, I'm not treated to a flood of "ly."

  • No repeated words. Now let's be clear. I don't have long lists of overused words. I do a crutch word check. I'll leave about 33% of passive voice intact, either for context or because it's been about three pages since the last instance. But repeated words. Yes, you'll use a word multiple times in a manuscript. That's a given. But let's take a word like "peculiar." Unless it's a verbal gambit, that word shouldn't appear again for at least another page. Twice in the same paragraph? There's a reason we do multiple drafts. While I'm not a big fan of thesauruses--I've seen them abused too many times--you may want to pick one up if you find yourself leaning on one word to say the same thing.

  • Show, don't tell. I've got a whole rant about why editors and veteran writers really need to give this one a rest. But I saw this on one of those "lists" and realized writers like this are never going to let editors or veteran writers give it a rest. My problem with show-don't-tell is overzealous beta readers who love rules lists too much and people who can't sell their fiction selling writing courses. (You know who you are.) But ignoring this rule leads to lazy writing. "I don't need to describe Sarah's reaction. I'll just say she was angry.)

    Oh, no. That's precisely why editors and more experienced writers won't ease up on this. The inexperienced writer tends to use this as an excuse to write less. If Sarah's reaction is a minor detail, then yes, just say she's angry. Better yet, cut the anger altogether. It will likely become obvious further into the scene. If Sarah is the POV character, we need to see her jaw clench or fists tighten, hear her growl, see her vision turn red.

There are others. Passive voice, which is abused by experienced writers as well, including this one. The fact that some writers use "that" to join dependent clauses too often. 

But when a writer says they're going to ignore all these rules? That just shows inexperience. I know. I used to say this myself. And a friend who started writing a couple of years ago needed to be guided, particularly in POV issues. He's now an editor for Running Wild Press. And he calls me when he gets overwhelmed by a neophyte writer who thinks the rules are, "Like, oppression, man!"

 The rules exist for a reason. They work when they're applied with nuance, which means you have to know how to use them to know how to break them.  Ignore them at your own risk.

22 December 2023

Holiday Tradition: A Very Tom Waits Christmas - An Homage to the Master



Author's Note: I've posted this annually, more or less, every year since the mid-2000s. It's going here this year.

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 martinis, knows when to keep her mouth shut
But it’s the loneliness, the loneliness 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 loneliness
The loneliness 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.

01 December 2023

Why Marlowe?


Open Road Films

Last year, Liam Neeson appeared in Marlowe, the first Philip Marlowe movie in years. Marlowe's been scarce on the big and small screen until recently, but there seems to be a need to continue his story beyond Raymond Chandler's death. Most notably, Robert B. Parker finished the last Marlowe novel by Chandler, Poodle Springs. One blurb stated emphatically one couldn't tell where Parker picked up from Chandler. Spoiler alert: Not only is it glaringly obvious, the dialog changes mid-scene with Marlowe suddenly talking like Spenser. Still, Parker would have been my first choice to finish the last Marlowe novel.

There are other characters who have been as timeless as Philip Marlowe. James Bond is always a product of his times, with Connery and Lazenby's versions aficionados of Playboy while Daniel Craig's iteration had more of a conscience. Sherlock Holmes has also proved enduring, but with the exception of some films during World War II, Holmes remained rooted in the Victorian Era until the twenty-first century, with versions set in present-day London and New York, each using aspects of Doyle's work to justify the updates. (Then there's the Margaret Colin movie where she wakes up Holmes from suspended animation in the 1980s. Let us never speak of that one again.)

Like Holmes, Marlowe has usually been stuck with his original period on the big screen. But subsequent post-Chandler novels have been all over the map. This year's novel, The Second Murderer, takes place in the 1940s while others move the knight errant forward in time to the 1970s or 1980s. Unlike, say, James Bond, Marlowe is a product of his time.

On the big screen, filmmakers were able to do present-day Marlowe as long as the present day was within 30-40 years of his debut. Robert Altman's controversial The Long Goodbye was a product of the 1970s, complete with Altman's off-beat shooting and writing style and then-baseball celeb Jim Bouton as a supporting character. The 1975 remake of The Big Sleep, a TV movie from the same people who brought you UFO and Space: 1999, aged Marlowe, put him in London, and cast an aging Robert Mitchum as Marlowe. It was an uneven turn from the same actor who played Marlow in Farewell, My Lovely a few years earlier. There, his presence gave Marlowe realistic aging by setting the story in the 1940s.

For some reason, Marlowe also has yielded experimentation. After his conventional debut in Murder, My Sweet, 1944, Robert Montgomery directed and starred in The Lady in the Lake, in which we literally see the story through Marlowe's eyes. The entire movie is shot with the camera as Marlowe, taking the first-person narrative as literally as possible. And of course, Altman took the novel The Long Goodbye as a polite suggestion and sent Elliot Gould muttering about 1970s LA. But perhaps the best-known, best-loved iteration of Marlowe on the big screen is Humphrey Bogart's 1946 turn in the original The Big Sleep. Bogart plays a warmer PI than his almost sociopathic turn as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The movie is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Chandler novel. Yet it sizzles with the obvious heat between Bogart and costar/future wife Lauren Bacall (22 and already one of the classiest presences on screen.)

For the post-Chandler books, Marlowe receives uneven treatment. Parker, of course, kept him aged in the 1950s as that was where Chandler left him when he died. The next novel, Perchance to Dream, gets meta and has Marlowe in the 1940s work with a writer named Raymond Chandler on a case. The last Marlowe book I read, however, was set in the late 1980s, with Marlowe trying to stay retired in Mexico and running into drug cartels. Denise Mina, however, takes him back to his roots, placing him in the 1940s. 

The trouble with Marlowe is that authors either try to imitate Chandler's trademark similes, expected from Parker, or they ignore it altogether. The result is either a pastiche or a story about a guy named Phillip Marlowe. 

Neeson's Marlowe, based on Benjamin Black's The Black-Eyed Blonde, probably comes closest to the original Marlowe. Neeson, probably needing a break from threatening people with "I will find you!", is the perfect choice to bring Marlowe's world-weariness to life.

But why new Marlowe novels? And why does he endure? Like Bond, some of his original stories inspire cringe in the present day. Holmes is infinitely adaptable, and as someone likely on the spectrum, has a renewed sense of chic. His mind doesn't work like most people's and keeps him eternally interesting. Bond, however, is cinematically a present-day creature. Connery and Lazenby's versions would not have worked in the 1990s or even today, whereas Brosnan's Bond is a halfway point. But why Marlowe?

Marlowe is a product of the Depression, with the world in a post-Victorian hangover, not to mention bracing for another World War. Nevertheless, he's persisted, showing up in the 1970s, a brief revival in-period in the 1980s, and several authors keeping him alive from the 1990s forward. But why? In an era where the PI is either a relic or off fighting right-wing extremists hiding in the shadows, Marlowe is still going down these mean streets.

It's probably because Marlowe's foes are still with us. Gangsters might have changed, but they never really went away. Drugs remain a scourge, even if pot is either legal or decriminalized, depending on where you live. And the crimes have gotten worse: human trafficking, child porn. All these are in Philip Marlowe's wheelhouse. And Marlowe makes no pretense of being virtuous, something his spiritual descendants insist on with their Hawks and Bubbas doing all the dirty work. (Even Robert Crais's Joe Pike, but he's a special case.) 

Many question the need to reboot James Bond after Daniel Craig's version died in No Time to Die. The enemies seem to be within. Holmes inhabits a realm that never really goes away. There will always be theft. There will always be murder. And there will always be a fascination with an unconventional mind that disdains the rules.

Marlowe, however, seems to be finding a new niche. It's a cold and confusing world. Who better to fight the good fight than a world-weary man who faces the nastiness with a wisecrack?

19 October 2023

The Last Stephen King Post. For Now.


Stephen King
Stephen King © Rolling Stone

It finally happened. Last night, I finished Holly, the latest Stephen King novel, which concludes my reading of his entire canon. There was, of course, a sense of "What do I do next?" (Answer: Read someone else. Congratulations, Mark Twain. I'm already halfway through your canon.) Something tells me I'd have enjoyed this journey more if I'd have started with Carrie in 1974. My mother did, and as my eighth birthday was a month away the day Carrie debuted, Mom was not about to let her oldest boy read it. My oldest brother had just turned one. My youngest brother had yet to appear.

Mom loved scary novels. Not an out-and-out horror fan, she did, however, enjoy The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. Then again, she and Dad every Friday night religiously watched the schlock horror show Ghoulardi/Houlihan and Big Chuck/Big Chuck and Li'l John, introducing us boys to its UHF counterpart Superhost. So the spooky, despite some early religious admonitions, was always there for them. 

But The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby were a different kind of horror from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the lurid type of paperbacks King referred to as "Just Plain Books." I bought a few of those when I turned eleven and never really got through the first chapter of Hand of Cain. Amazingly, I also bought a Western from such a desolate rack and somehow held onto it into middle age. I'm glad I did. It was written by Elmore Leonard. 

Carrie fit the mold of The Exorcist, but the writing also attracted Mom. (Dad was a TV-and-movie guy and went to his grave sick to death of Star Trek. Sorry, Dad. I might have been a little overzealous.) She eagerly snapped up Salem's Lot when it came out in paperback. By then I was ten, and while again, I was not allowed to read it, I was allowed to watch the miniseries three years later. And then I saw why mom loved King.

I didn't read The Stand at that age, and missed The Shining and Firestarter. I did see the Kubrick movie. Despite King's protestations how Jack Nicholson was wrong for the part of Jack Torrance and Kubrick missed the point, there was a vibe that would inhabit all the best King adaptations and even one of the worst. Lawnmower Man retained only the title, but the script they slapped it on could easily have come out of King's trunk.

So my first King novel was actually The Dead Zone, which bewildered me. I, being a sheltered, naive teen, didn't get a lot of the adult references. I did, however, take special glee in the fate of Gregory Stilson. I went back and read Salem's Lot. Tell no one this, but I like it better than Dracula (which I've reread a few times.) My first King to be gifted was It, which I absolutely loved as I was in that stage halfway between child and adult. I even had a mental cast for the movie. I was disappointed the miniseries did not cast Marilu Henner as the adult Bevvie.

The original Mrs. Winter bought me Gerald's Game shortly after our wedding, partly knowing I loved King, partly as a gag, and mostly as a... hint. By then, I was stuck on Mr. King from Maine. I missed a few novels and came back to them over the years. Hated Christine. Found some of the 90s books meh. Was impressed by the effort of the Dark Tower Series but not really connecting to it.

And absolutely fell in love with On Writing. Harold Bloom should have been made to read it aloud to students before his death. OK, I'm still bitter about Portrait of a Lady on his novels list. 

And so here we are, in 2023. I started in 2010 to read his entire canon, minus Faithful, a collaboration about the Red Sox season in which they won the World Series. Sorry, Steve, but I came of age in Cleveland when the then-Indians were owned by a dead guy. When your team becomes a farm team for the Yankees and the Blue Jays, then you can talk to me about true sports suffering. (And Cubs fans would like a word.) But I even read the screenplay Storm of the Century

But I just finished Holly last night. It's a straight-up crime novel, a serial killer novel actually. There are references to Brady Hartsfield (who became supernatural in the third Bill Hodges novel) and the Holly Gibney novels The Outsider and If It Bleeds. But Holly laments her quarry is a pair of plain ol' evil human beings (and wildly off their rockers, which you figure out within the first 50 pages.) One thing odd about this particular story is King's tendency to go off into the past and tell a related story. Sometimes this works. Often it doesn't. Instead, he uses flashbacks to show the reader what horrific monsters the nonegenarian Harris's are, not to mention racists, homophobes, and intellectual snobs. You just want to punch Emily in the face despite her nearly debilitating sciatica. And Rodney? Oh, my God! Some people should not be permitted to read Jonathan Swift, and he tops the list.

That said, finishing the book, which I enjoyed very much, capped a years-long personal project for me. King is by no means done. He has a collection due out next year, You Like It Darker, and that always accompanies a novel. So what next?

Does there have to be a next? I edit. I write. And there are thousands of books out there, some of which we talk about here. Some of them we write. But I got through this author's canon, and I'm glad I did.

Now, off to read Tom Sawyer Abroad.

08 September 2023

On Stephen King...


Photo by Shane Leonard

 As I type this, a copy of Holly, the latest Stephen King novel, sits in a TBR stack I keep in my living room. It's a few books down and obviously not the last King book I will read. I've read most of his canon in the order published, segregating the Bachman books at the end. But until You Like It Darker drops next year, I'll have read everything he's published with a few exceptions. Some of the screenplays, some uncollected short stories and novellas. I definitely never read The Plant because King put the kibosh on it when his ebook experiment (pre-Kindle) did not work. I also did not read his book about the Red Sox recent World Series run.

King is an odd choice to occupy his place in American literature. He's an unabashed horror writer who's recently shown a penchant for crime fiction. To his annoyance, some complain when he eschews the supernatural for crime, but the Bachman books show he's just as at home there. In fact, only two Bachman books, Thinner and The Regulators, are overtly supernatural. Rage and Road Work are out-and-out noir, while Blaze, an admitted trunk novel, takes its cues from Of Mice and Men. The Long Walk and The Running Man are both dystopian thrillers with one foot in noir and the other in science fiction. One wonders if this is what they watched on TV in Gilead in A Handmaid's Tale

Yet horror is King's wheelhouse. Horror is not supposed to produce classic novels. Yet The Stand, The Shining, It... All these are cultural touchstones. They might owe some spiritual strands to HP Lovecraft, but they're hardly Lovecraftian horror. (Well, It is basically Cthulhu in  a clown suit chewing scenery and inspiring Bill Skarsgard to channel Tim Curry. Bad example.) But horror is just a canvass for King to paint on. 

His real talent is making a fictional place seem real. Castle Rock, or rather Castle County, gets its first mention in Blaze, written before Carrie. You really believe there's an Overlook Hotel (or was), You expect George Bannerman or Alan Pangborn or Norris Ridgewick to answer your 911 call. And we just won't mention Salem's Lot or Derry. By the time of the Gwendy trilogy, Derry is actually more dangerous than the Lot. 

I always described King's horror as this. The guy next door who borrowed your mower is Satan. And he's not the problem. He's worried about the weird stuff going on across the street. But the horror takes a backseat to the characters and the story. Jack Torrance in The Stand is already headed over the edge. The ghosts and the isolation of the Overlook just give him a not-so-gentle shove. The Stand takes ordinary people and tosses them into the post-apocalyptic battle between good and evil. 

But perhaps his greatest monster is not Pennywise or Leland Gaunt or even Randall Flagg. It has to be Annie Wilkes, the obsessed fan of one writer's work who suddenly has him in her clutches. King actually imagined Annie offing poor Paul Sheldon and feeding him to her pig while she enjoyed his last novel lovingly bound in his skin. If you've read the book or watched the movie, it's almost a surprise that was not how it ended. Annie is that most dangerous creature: The one unaware of their own evil and convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

Next year will be sixty years since Carrie was published. Naturally, there are hits and misses. Cell is a huge misfire, a lightweight Stand that doubles as a rant against cell phones. The Dark Tower Series is uneven until King figures out what he wants it to do (and manages to plug it in to most of his canon.)

King himself has lamented that his best regarded work came early in his career. The Stand and Salem's Lot are cultural touchstones. But listening to my share of rockers, I'm not surprised. There's a certain quality that comes with a lack of inhibition and ignorance of the rules. King will tell a story in a long, rambling style. He'll go off on tangents, but the tangents are stories unto themselves. And the man has an eye and ear for character. In his brilliant nonfiction tome, On Writing, he relates the accident that nearly killed him and may have revitalized his passion for writing. In describing the man who hit him in his minivan, King says, "I was nearly killed by one of my own characters." Years later, as Roland crosses into our world from that of the Dark Tower series, both King and the late Bryan Smith, the driver, do become characters when another character literally comes out of the story to badger the author into finishing. (Methinks the later Dark Tower books were therapy as much as parts of a longer epic.)

 The next time I land in this space, I'll either be reading Holly, his latest, or have finished it. But next time, I want to look at King's alter-ego, Richard Bachman.




18 August 2023

Do You Speak the Language?



 I've been an editor for Down & Out Books now for about nine months. One of the challenges has been dialect. I apply the normal rules of editing to each manuscript, though I'm not nearly as dogmatic about it as some. For the most part, I've only had to worry about foreign variants of English. I downloaded a trial version of PerfectIt to handle a manuscript from an Australian author. Not UK. Australian. Yes, there's a difference.

But Australian English, like UK or American English, is a formal dialect. It evolved in a certain country with its own rules and variations. Likewise, Canadian English is not American English, and if you use the wrong word choice, you hear about it. Boy, do you hear about it. (BTW, editing tool makers, I have yet to read an American writer who writes "leaped" instead of "leapt." Whoever's programming your AI needs to back off a bit.)

But then we get to local dialect, usually evidenced whenever a new actor becomes the Doctor on Doctor Who. Of course, the real explanation for the Doctor's sudden change in speech is Patrick Troughton did not talk like Tom Baker, who did not sound like Christopher Eccleston, who did not sound like Peter Capaldi. In fact, the most hilarious reaction to Jodi Whittaker's turn as the first female Doctor was, "Really? We go from Geordi to London to Scottish and get a Yorkie?" Past actors have tended to waffle between the RP, London, Scottish, with the odd detour to Northern England. (Hence, a few of them sound like Geordis. So... Brian Johnson of AC/DC is a Time Lord?)

And then we come to America. Like it's big neighbor to the north, America is big. Really big. People who do not live in North America assume there are only three accents on the continent: Midwestern, Southern, and some bastardized Scottish accent where people say "aboot" and "Eh?" I invite you to talk to someone from the Maritimes or Quebec. Tell me someone from Georgia sounds like a Texan or one of those old Tidewater families in Virginia. While Californians definitely speak with Midwestern accents, you can tell you're not in Cleveland or Chicago. In fact, just within the state of Ohio, the accent changes every two hundred miles or so.

Clevelanders have this nasally accent, the product of a lot of Slavic and Irish immigrants in the last century. Cincinnatians have a slight southern accent due to their proximity to Kentucky and speak slower than their northern counterparts. In the middle of the state, you have Columbus, which, while having a larger population than Staten Island in New York, is somewhat isolated. Unlike the two big cities at either end of the state, Columbus did not spawn a megalopolis with its neighboring large towns and smaller cities within sixty miles. 

But it was Dana King's The Spread that challenged me. Dana lives in the Pittsburgh area, and his Penns River series is set in that area. Pittsburghers speak a dialect called "Yinzer," as in "youins are." It's a mix of East Coast, Pennsylvania Dutch, Slavic accents, and West Virginia dialect. So the dialog had to break rules. It's a tightrope. I would never want to edit Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series or the late Bill Crider's work. Both wrote in that clipped East Texas dialect, which has more in common with Huckleberry Finn than Raymond Chandler. My editing brain tells me to yank out 75% of the apostrophes. Bill, whom I knew fairly well for a time, would have been offended. Mosley would give me a lecture about disrespecting not just Easy and Mouse's past, but even a lot of the white people from that region. It's as much their identity as anything else.

Even more of a shock, I discussed editing with a potential client from the same area as Dana. Her husband did a sports podcast in Pittsburgh. I mentioned I learned to adjust for "Yinzer." Had I permission, I'd copy one of her emails here as her rendition of the local speak was even more dead-on than Dana's toned-down version, which was clearly written for a wider audience. (Incidentally, The Spread is an awesome book from Down & Out.)

Even milquetoast Cincinnati, where everything (according to Twain) happens ten years after everywhere else, has it's verbal ticks. You can literally tell the Eastside from the Westside by the accents, references, and even personalities. But Cincy has its own speak. For instance...

 

"Please?" - I haven't heard this in about a decade, and even then, only on the Westside. But this Cleveland boy had to learn to respond to people saying "Please?" instead of "I beg your pardon?" or "What was that?"

"Three-way" - Notoriously uptight Hamilton County has had its share of sex controversies, but three-way actually refers to Greek meatsauce on spaghetti with cheddar cheese piled high, aka Cincinnati-style chili. A four-way is with either beans or onions. A five-way is beans and onions. There are two six-ways: jalapenos on top (Blue Ash Chili) or fresh garlic (Dixie Chili.)

"Pony keg"/"Drive-around" - In most places, this is called a drive-through, as in a drive-through store, not a fastfood joint. Drive-around seems to be a Kentucky-derived term, but pony keg is the more common phrase for that sort of convenience store.

"Big Mac Bridge" - I-471 traverses this wide bridge supported on either side by two large yellow arches. Starting with former traffic reporter John Phillips, locals started calling it the "Big Mac Bridge" (actually the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge) due to its resemblance to the McDonald's logo. Sidenote: I totally stole this when I wrote Holland Bay

"Cut-in-the-hill" - The cut in the hill refers to the man-made trench leading from Dixie Highway and the large bluff overlooking the Ohio River into Covington, the riverfront city across from Cincinnati. It's a mile-long steep grade which sees semis slow to twenty-five miles an hour uphill. There is a second cut in the hill that refers to an excavated gap along I-71 leading into Kenwood, a northern section of suburban Sycamore Township. That one is often called "the Kenwood Cut in the Hill."

"Warsh" - Wash. Whereas New England flattens out all the Rs, Cincinnati tends to add them.

"Up the pike" - Often said alongside "up the street" and "up the road." Many roads here are called "pike," such as Princeton Pike, Springfield Pike.

"CVG" - The airport code for Cincinnati Airport. The code stands for "Covington." The airport is actually in Hebron, Kentucky, one county over from Covington and most definitely not in Cincinnati.

"Where'd you go to high school?" - How to identify a fellow local's background. Elder/Seton are dead giveaways for Westsiders.

"Carryout" - Carryout is not only food you pick up, it's the corner store, like a pony keg. Or a drivearound.

Cincinnati is not the only city with its own language, as I discussed with Yinzer speak out of Pittsburgh. Seattle has a local dialect even more distinctive and hard to pick up for outsiders.

 



28 July 2023

Poisoned Pen


A friend of mine sent me this article asking if I knew anything about it. The long, tortured affair took place in Circleville, one of those small railroad towns that dot the Midwest. This one is north of Columbus and not on any of the Interstates. I grew up on the fringes of the Cleveland area, spent six months in Amish country, and have lived in Cincinnati ever since. So, no. I barely knew of Circleville.

Which is interesting because of the town's long-standing mystery. Who's writing all the nasty letters?

It began in the 1970s. A bus driver named Mary Gillespie began receiving letters accusing her of having an affair with the school's vice principal. The harassment continued for some time until her brother-in-law and his wife tracked the letters back to one of Mary's coworkers, a man named David Longberry. Longberry was never charged, though he was later charged with sexual assault in an unrelated case.

But before the letters stopped, Mary's husband received a phone call. Angry, he went to confront Longberry with a pistol. Almost an hour later, police found his pickup off the road, him dead.

While Longberry was never charged, he came under some unwanted scrutiny. The letters stopped.

For a time. Then they started up again, along with signs on Mary's bus route detailing her alleged affair. The number of letter recipients increased as well, as more and more Circleville residents began receiving their own poisoned pen letters. Things escalated when Mary attempted to rip down a sign along her route only to find one crudely booby-trapped with a pistol.

The perpetrator attempted to file off the serial number, but a forensics technician recovered it. The gun traced back to a brewery employee in Columbus, who in turn sold it to his supervisor, who then sold it to someone else. The gun belonged to Paul Freshour, Mary's brother-in-law and the one who fingered David Longberry.

Before long, the sheriff began looking at Freshour.Eventually, he was convicted and sentenced to prison. The letters stopped.

Again, only for a time. Eventually, Unsolved Mysteries got involved, sending a production team to the small town. Soon, producers received their own poisoned pen letters threatening the crew if they showed up. Spoiler alert: Robert Stack totally did a segment on the unknown letter writer. Perhaps feeling the heat, the letter writer soon went silent for good.

Longberry and Freshour have both since died. Curiously, letters continued after Freshour went to prison. Only when Unsolved Mysteries showed up did they stop. The long story sounds like the beginnings of a Stephen King story, although King would have made the perpetrator supernatural or had him run afoul of the supernatural. More likely, it has much in common with SA Cosby's semi-rural Virginia tales, should Cosby opt to write an homage to Sherwood Anderson.

The motivations and machinations behind such episodes are familiar to anyone who grew up in small towns, exurbs, and even suburbs. Like the Cleveland-area town where I grew up, Circleville is exactly the type of American or Canadian town described in the song "Subdivisions," existing between the bright lights and the far, unlit unknown. Most of us who grew up there hear whispers, half-heard gossip. So-and-so is having an affair with someone-or-other. The bus driver grows pot on an abandoned farm. The undertaker enjoys his work too much, or the small bank president is skimming the receipts. Undoubtedly, the original letters arose from something like this: misplaced outrage or perhaps jealousy. Over the years, someone else became a copycat, the way some serial killers or burglars will copy some of the more outlandish of their chosen crimes. This person or persons saw a way to lash out at small-town hypocrisy. Unlike burglars, robbers, and worse, their crime is one of nuisance. It can flare into deadly confrontation, but the reason the person or persons behind Circleville's ordeal could continue for so long is one of resources. Small town police and rural/semi-rural departments are understaffed while urban agencies have a higher number of murders, rapes, robberies, and property damage to deal with.

And of course, now I have a pitch for Down & Out Books.

26 May 2023

They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore


With apologies to Greg Kihn.

I just finished listening to The Iliad on audio. Read by Dominic Keating of Star Trek: Enterprise fame, one got the sense one was listening to Homer riffing in front of a crowd in some Athenian public space. Keating had to read a fairly new English translation, but The Iliad and its companion piece, The Odyssey, are really epic poems. Keating's dramatic read hewed closer to Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan doing Shakespeare. Homer, especially after listening to some of the translator's background in the intro, probably sounded like Jack Kerouac to those ancient Greeks.

Except I've read Kerouac's On the Road. Incidentally, that, too, is meant to be performed, not read. But I digress. Kerouac's prose is the beat poetry of the fifties laid over the prose of the day, which, like today, has Hemingway in its bones. He's into a scene, and he's out, and the flourishes come from spending short snatches of time in Sal Paradise's bizarre mind.

Homer, on the other hand, does things in The Iliad no editor, even the most forgiving of editors, would let out of the slush pile, let alone into print. The goddess Athena is referred to not merely as the goddess of wisdom or daughter of Zeus, nor does Homer limit himself to the epithets like Pallas Athena. No, she is "Athena, she of the bright, shining eyes." Achilles, who spends most of the story sulking in those final days besieging Troy, is "Achilles of the fleet foot." These are not one offs. Homer uses this or a similar phrase every. Single. Time. 

Mind you, it's an epic poem, and Keating's reading, even after taking out the supplemental material, is almost twenty hours. (Also, Homer likely never ended with "Audible hopes you've enjoyed this program.") And we don't see a lot of epic poems these days. Even its spiritual descendant, rock's concept album, is a bit of a dinosaur. Its last adherent seems to be Roger Waters, and lately, most people wish Rog would just shut the hell up.

These days, if you're going to ramble, as Homer does without anyone really noticing, you have to be Stephen King about it. Going off on a tangent? Tell a story within the story, then circle back to the point. Most editors won't allow that these days. (And I really think current editing dogma is too rigid. Says the editor.)  Otherwise, get to the point (says the guy who likes writing lean prose.) So when a character walks into a scene, the most extreme example of modern description is to find a trait, use that trait as a placeholder, and only change it when their name is revealed. Robert B. Parker did this throughout his career, but it began all the way back in The Godwulf Manuscript. The one I remember best is where Spenser's attempts to rescue Susan Silverman overlap a government black op. Spenser says the agent looks like Buddy Holly, and for a page or two, refers to him as Buddy Holly. I don't remember the guy's name or if he even had one, but I remember him, his job, and most of what he did.

Even Dickens, one of the most verbose writers in modern English, stuck with names or something descriptive, like the Artful Dodger. His name was actually Jack Dawkins, but how many Jacks are their in novels set in 19-century England or America? Hell, Jean-Luc Picard's son is named Jack, named for his half-brother's father. Sometimes, the title or job sticks better. But for all Dickens's wordiness, Artful Dodger is a short, powerful shorthand for a character in Oliver Twist. Contrast that with Dickens's American counterparts, Hawthorne and Melville. One of the reasons I found The Scarlet Letter so unreadable, at least at the age of 15, when I'd discovered King and Tom Clancy, was the constant refrain of "It seemed as though Hester Prynne..."  (And in 2023, my inner editor is going, "HEY! STOP BEATING THAT DEAD HORSE!") On the other hand, Melville scores points for being more episodic in Moby Dick and hanging genius labels on Ishmael's shipmates, such as Starbuck or the cannibal (who ironically doesn't eat anyone in the story.)

Much of this is the function of the culture. Even if we write stories about Greek or Roman or Norse gods, they come off as aliens or superheroes (or supervillains) or both. Marvel built a big chunk of its mythos around Thor and Loki. As far back as Twain's era, we didn't want Athena of the Bright Shining Eyes or Zeus Who Holds the Aegis. Nowadays, we want Wonder Woman's sister or Liam Neeson shouting, "Release the kraken!"* In Homer's day and even into Shakespeare's time, we wanted heroes. Mythical heroes. Of course, until the Enlightenment, we weren't quite as sciencey as we are now. Hence, even Harry Potter has to follow some sort of rules and most conspiracy theories are based on bad science skimmed while scrolling the phone in the bathroom. When we pay closer attention, ignoring Newton and Einstein without an explanation is what writers call "a plot hole."


*Fun fact: He meant the rum, of which I have a bottle, actually. Too bad I don't drink much anymore.

05 May 2023

Listen


audible.com

One day while I doom scrolled Twitter, a writer declared listening to audio books to be cheating and not really reading. I may have unfollowed him or some other petty overreaction to all things social media. I also told myself he's entitled to his opinion no matter how wrong it is. 

Audiobooks are about a third of the books I consume in any given year. Last year, it was half. And while it's not reading with one's eyes, it is reading. There's even an editing technique having Word play back a manuscript. (Use that only for yourself. Edits for clients should contain track changes, and listening to that would be torture.) So, instead of whatever your inner narrator sounds like as you scan the page, you get an actor. Or several in the case of scifi author Gareth Powell.

I listen to audio books during my commutes to the office (only two a week now as we've gone hybrid.) and when I'm out taking a walk. Sometimes while doing the laundry or yard work. My listening lists range from memoirs to history to fiction off the beaten path (or can't get to with my towering stack of books and Kindle editions) to ancient texts to classics. I'm currently listening to The Iliad, read by Dominic Keating. Keating played Reed on Star Trek: Enterprise, so it's great to hear him perform something besides an overworked security chief on a balky starship. 

And often, it's the reader that makes the difference. Some, like Alice Walker, are authors reading their own work. In the case of Walker, who is also a lecturer, it's perfect. Walker wrote The Color Purple in dialect and could read it properly. Other times, it might have been nice if the author hired, if not an actor, then maybe their teenage niece or nephew who just did the high school musical.

Other times, publishers or authors hire a reader. Wil Wheaton has a thriving second career doing audio books, and he reads with a wicked sense of humor that was perfect for The Martian (after the publisher decided it didn't want original reader RC Bray, himself no slouch.) Other times, like some apocrypha I've been listening to, the reader probably needed some caffeine. I kept making fun of one reader but aping his annoying monotone as a forgotten Bible character asking God why he snored during his prayers. "Oh, Jedediah, my son. I would listen but your monotone has caused me to rest an eighth day, and lo, all the Heavenly host are face down in their lyres."

But is listening reading? Depends on how you define it. Sometimes, I choose by performer. Johnny Depp is hilarious reading Keith Richards's autobiography, Life, even doing a stoner Keith from the 1970s before Keef himself takes over. (And Keith is actually not a bad reader, but I often wonder how many takes he had to do, given his propensity to mumble.) One of my favorites was Jean Smart, she of Designing Women fame, when she did the VI Warshawski novels. She was VI Warshawski.

But if reading is consuming text, then yes, listening to audio books is reading. If you're adamant reading is done with your eyes, and listening is just hearing a dramatic performance (except when Mr. Monotone prompts the Almighty to nod off. Then it's not so dramatic.), then no.

I listen to Audible exclusively right now. I may roll back to the library's offerings if I slow down, and the subscription is no longer worth it. But until then...

I'm not done with the book until I hear that voice say, "Audible hopes you've enjoyed this program."

24 March 2023

Pulled From The Ether



People ask a lot of questions when they find out someone is a writer. Some show a distinct lack of knowledge about what writing pays. Either the person is chronically unemployed or already has their retirement funded nine times over. In reality, most of us have day jobs or are retired. Some are about research. Of course, I wrote here a couple of times about where characters come from, and, of course, my favorite topic: setting. One question, however, sets almost every writer's teeth on edge.

"Where do you get your ideas?"

From the reader's, or at least non-writer's, point of view, it's a fair enough question. Most people may daydream, but they don't spend a lot of time trying to spin it into a story. Or if they do, not something beyond telling tales in a bar after it's too late to drive one's self home. So, why does this bother writers so much?

Well, ideas come from just about everywhere. I don't care if you're Harlan Ellison cooped up in a hotel room banging out the original version of Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever" on your ancient Underwood manual typewriter or my buddy Rick Partlow dictating the first of 5000 words a day while in the shower. You don't know where the ideas come from.

Stephen King often talks about this. Once, he referenced Ellison (I think. The memory is fuzzy after so many years), that famous master of sarcasm, who said, "Oh, I have a service in New Jersey I subscribe to for $25 a month." I read that in 1985, so I'm assuming, with inflation, it's now $75. Seriously, though, while I won't even try to fathom what went through Ellison's mind, I have seen where King's ideas came from.

Carrie - King's breakthrough novel and his debut is also his least favorite. (Me, personally, I don't like Christine, but I like Cell a lot less. But I'm just a silly consumer.) It came from working as a janitor in a high school and cleaning the girls' locker room. What are those weird dispensers on the wall? This was 1973, after all, and that stuff just wasn't talked about. Why were high school girls so mean? What about two girls he went to high school with who were outcasts? His contact with high school resulted in his first three novels: the Bachman books Rage and The Long Walk, and Carrie. He regrets Rage for what happened after the fact, but Carrie ended up in the garbage after a handful of pages. Why? He didn't get the main character. Fortunately, Tabitha King did and helped him finish it.

Pet Sematary - One of the king boys, I think it was Joe Hill, was a naughty little toddler and liked to run out in the road. At the time, the King family lived in a Maine logging town, and little Joe (or was it Owen?) nearly got squished by a logging truck barreling through at a pretty good clip. The incident, of course, prompted King to write his own version of "The Monkey's Paw," but was this latest edition to the Castle Rock continuum made up? A couple of years ago, my family and I toured New England. Driving from Burlington, Vermont, to Bar Harbor, we went through a hamlet situated between a mountain and a large foothill. I told my wife I thought this looked familiar. Might have been the buildings along one side of the road. And then a logging truck blew past us, its wake shaking the car. I said, "Oh, my God, Candy! We just drove through Pet Sematary!"

Cell - My least favorite King novel and a pale copy of The Stand. King hates cell phones. Get off his lawn. What if these idiotic gadgets set off the zombie apocalypse? I appreciate the sentiment, but not the execution. Although this was one of the first novels written after his accident, so give him credit for at least getting back on the horse. (Much prefer Duma Key.)

That's just Stephen King. Some ideas come from more bizarre directions than this. My first novel Northcoast Shakedown had its genesis in some balcony work at an apartment complex where I lived. What if someone pushed the guy off the ladder? On the scifi side, I came up with TS Hottle's Gimme Shelter when I saw a video game ad with ordinary people grabbing assault weapons to ward off aliens, all to the strains of... Well... "Gimme Shelter." I've had short stories inspired by getting stuck out in the rain, obsessive scifi fans, and the titles of Deep Purple songs.


Anthologies provide the best hooks. A few years ago, I was invited to one with a theme of Steely Dan songs. More recently (and unfortunately, I pulled out too soon), I submitted to a one-hit wonder themed anthology and came up with "Black Velvet" and its Elvis-themed lyrics. My favorite, though, was when someone wrote a story based on "Kid Charlemagne," the song itself having a real-life inspiration. 

One never knows when an idea will strike. I walk along railroad tracks a couple of times a week on my way home from Ye Olde Day Job. Between Norfolk Southern's woes and my still-childish need to see a train once in awhile, there may be a toxic heist in the offing.

03 March 2023

I'm In The Story, Part Deux:
This Time It's Personal. Or Maybe Not.


Last time in this space, I talked about one of my least favorite types of story: the roman à clef. I used Valley of the Dolls as my example. Roman à clefs are usually bad because they try to force fit real people, dialog, and events into a fictional narrative. Either the disguise doesn't really work, or you get flat characters and wooden prose.

Some people in the comments, however, objected, saying they either read or wrote characters based on real people. I countered that Frederick Forsyth often inserted real historical figures - Well, they were more like present-day notables at the time of the writing - into his work. That's not the same thing. Nor is using a real person as inspiration for a character. That's pulling ideas out of the ether.

In the first novel I wrote, Northcoast Shakedown, I based a few people on neighbors and friends. A couple people read it and picked out who immediately. But George, the apartment complex manager, was not Lee, the neighbor across the way. For starters, I think Lee would have fainted dead away with some of the stuff George had to do. The landlord who died might have looked like my landlord, but his demise was inspired by a neighbor he hired to redo the balconies in our complex. And the building itself just lent itself to the storyline. My coworkers at the time tied themselves in knots trying to guess who, at Terminal Tower Insurance, was really someone among us. I told them I didn't do that because, again, using real people as characters often backfires for one reason or another: bad writing, hurt feelings, or those damn characters doing whatever they wanted.

My stepson had trouble understanding this when I wrote the TS Hottle novella Flight Blade. I had my two pilots try to cover the one's oversleeping by saying they had miscommunicated and did not realize they were leaving early. The flight commander aboard their starship was named for my stepson and a lieutenant commander. "Why am I not an admiral?"

"I named the character after you. He's not you."

"But why am I not an admiral?"

It took a few go 'rounds to explain it. Then I read him the passage.

"Oh. I like that."

To quote said stepson, "Uh-huh."

What a lot of non-writers don't understand is characters are easy enough to pull from the ether. Someone else said every person is actually a hundred people, only one or two coming out in certain situations. The writer is a person who can pull all one hundred onto the page at the same time. One could actually look at a real person and spin four of five characters from them if they know that person well enough.

More often, the real-life inspiration is either an actor or a notable figure. Actors' performances sometimes crystalize an idea. I once wrote a character I pictured as Bill Pullman after seeing Independence Day. However, the way I wrote the character, someone else suggest Denzel Washington. Today, it would probably be Ryan Gosling and Idris Elba. (Actually, Idris would be the better fit if I still wrote that person. He has the same sense of humor, but can turn on the Luther/Stringer Bell intensity when needed. Plus the English accent would totally work.)

Notables are either ones with larger-than-life personas, or compelling life events that may inspire the story itself.

If you must know, I pilfered a couple of names from real life for Holland Bay, though the characters are not their real-life counterparts. I based one character on Ken Bruen after he gave me some input. But then Ken blurbed that book, so now the character is named Kearny. There's no Jack Taylor in Kearny. The others might have taken cues from real people, but they evolved on their own. Branson, Murdoch, and Armand Cole are all cut from whole cloth. Rufus had some television inspiration, as did Baker, who is what another character from another story would be like if the original wasn't a manipulative idiot. In reality, I liked the actor. The original character I couldn't stand. One has to be careful when using fictional inspiration. The gap between custom archetype, homage, and plagiarism is painfully small.

Using real people as a basis for a character is not roman à clef. It might surprise you to learn there was a real-life Beavis whom Mike Judge used as a model for his monumentally stupid creation, Beavis. However, the real Beavis had the name, the voice, and apparently in sarcastic moments, the laugh. But the hideous appearance, lack of intelligence, and disturbing fascination with fire all came after Beavis and Butthead had a few episodes under its belt. Let's hope the real Beavis had a sense of humor. Since he used to hang out with Mike Judge (whose normal voice is that of Butthead without he lisp and a larger vocabulary), I'm going to assume he got a big laugh out of it. A real one, not "Huh huh. Huh huh huh huh huh."

Of course, again, the difference here is the real person - notable or familiar - is the starting point. Once the character is in the story, they're going to do what they want, including flesh out an entirely new backstory. Which is what they're supposed to do.


10 February 2023

I'm In That Book, Aren't I?



 Ah, yes. We get that question all the time, don't we? We write a book and immediately, the main character is always the author. Yeah. I'm a 21-year-old interstellar spy of Indonesian descent according to the scifi book I released today. Or I based that character on someone I know. Or the person asking the question. Or some celebrity.

Of course, I did. Because never, in the history of writing, has any author anywhere made something up. Well, someone had to. I'm currently reading Gilgamesh as I write this, and even characters in Greek mythology would say, "Dude, that's just too weird to be real." 

That's not to say writers don't base characters on real people. Some inspire them. I had a bubbly, party girl neighbor once who became a villain in a Nick Kepler novel. But no one would mistake the character for the real person. There are even whole novels where the characters are thinly veiled versions of real people. These make up a genre known as the roman a clef

And most of them are awful.

The most famous example is Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. It's still a bestseller, but I can't imagine how happy Judy Garland (who died not long after the book appeared), Ethel Merman, or Dean Martin could have been when Valley hit the bestseller lists. Certainly anyone who knew Carole Landis at the time of her death squirmed reading about Jennifer North's suicide. It might have been a bestseller, but it was never a classic. In one memorable scene from Star Trek IV: The Search for Nuclear Wessels, Leonard Nimoy, playing the emotionless, unflappable Spock, can't keep the sarcasm out of his voice when Kirk rattles off the names Susann and Harold Robbins. "Ah," he says in a dry tone that does nothing to hide what Nimoy the actor is thinking, "the giants."

Jacqueline Susann did manage to sell a lot of books. But try basing a character on a real person and getting it to work in the framework of a fictional story. I have tried. I always have to either reduce the character to a walk-on, emphasizing personality traits that made this sound like a plan, or throw out the character altogether. The fact is, when I or most writers create a character, the character doesn't care where I got the idea that brought them into being. They are in a fictional world I created, and they're going to go do what they want. So, you're weird friend from high school whom you thought would make a comedic version of Jeffrey Dahmer ends up being the annoying used car salesman instead. (Actually, I think my one weird, creepy friend does sell used cars now. Bad example.) 

I did successfully pull it off one time. There is a very short Nick Kepler novel in the drawer that has Nick dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He goes into a restaurant called Candy's Home Cooking, owned by a short, vivacious Kentucky girl named Candy. I just happened to marry a short, vivacious Kentucky girl named Candy who used to cater. It did work, but notice the book is not published and not likely to be in the near future.

I've had characters people assumed were me. Jeff Kagan from the Holland Bay series. JT Austin from my scifi. But Kagan is the son of one of the Mafia's pet cops. JT stormed out of a life of wealth and privilege only to blunder into an interstellar war. My parents were neither rich nor knew anyone in the Mafia. At least, not enough that it affected them directly. And anyway, I have more in common with Jessica Branson, the once-disgraced detective trying to revive her career. But I married a short, vivacious Kentucky girl who used to cater, not shacked up with a lovable hairy nerd.

The fact is, most characters come from the ether. There might have been a real person there in the beginning, but even obvious avatars of real people end up with their own histories. It goes back to a possibly apocryphal story about Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci had an enemy he so despised that, while painting The Last Supper, he put the man's face in for Judas. But he could not get the painting to work. He used a different face, and now the painting hangs in a convent in Milan that is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, if da Vinci couldn't do the roman a clef, it's probably a hard no for anyone else.


Da Vinci was nearly sued by Moe over use of his bar, as well as being portrayed as Judas.
Said the master artist, "D'oh!"
Source: Fox

20 January 2023

Only Immortal For A Limited Time


Jeff Beck in concert
Source: jeffbeck.com

I'm writing this the day after the great Jeff Beck passed away at the age of 78. Together with the other two Yardbirds legends, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck played a huge role in expanding my musical palate. Every kid of a certain age came up on Clapton's blues and country influenced rock, though it's his work with Cream and shortly thereafter that caught the attention of us metal heads. Then there's the lick master, Pagey. If you were a Gen X male in the Midwest, Led Zeppelin dominated your playlists. In fact, I often joke that, in 1989, I had a mullet, all Zeppelin on cassette, and a Camaro. No photographic evidence exists of the mullet. The Camaro died of benign neglect. But Zeppelin when straight to CD as soon as that format became available to me.

At the center was Beck. With Ronnie Wood (later of the Rolling Stones) and Rod Stewart, he formed a sort of proto-Zeppelin.But alas, it was Page and John Paul Jones and, eventually, Bonham and Plant, that went for the heavier sound. Beck turned to his true love, jazz, to reinvent rock and roll, with a whole lotta Miles Davis as inspiration.

And now he's gone. So is Bowie. And Neil Peart. And Charlie Watts. Emerson and Lake, leaving only Palmer. Mick Mars of Motley Crue, who thrilled many of my high school classmates (I was a Deep Purple, classic metal kinda guy. No Ozzy for me. Gimme original Sabbath, who sounded like a garage band. A really good garage band.) had to retire because his joints are freezing up. Chris Squire, the sorcerer on bass, and his partner, drummer Alan White, are gone. I mention this to my brother every time we lose another legend. And he always says the same thing.

"We're getting to the age where we're losing our heroes."

In a way, that's sad. I like to point out that there are still three Beatles alive. Paul and Ringo, of course, but also Pete Best, who's still working. Maybe at a less noticeable level than the two surviving Fab Four, but enough to annoy the hell out of Decca Records.

It's funny because I don't respond the same way to the deaths of other artists the way I do musicians. And I'm not a musician. I probably could have been had I gotten an instrument in my teens and practiced, practiced, practiced. Even 76-year-old Robert Fripp still practices and points at guitarists I would consider lesser talents and say, "Another reason I still need to practice." But I'm not a musician, I'm a writer.

I'm sure Stephen King's eventual demise will rattle my cage. But I did not respond to the loss of Robert B. Parker, Philip Roth, or Sue Grafton the way Tom Petty still has me in mourning over five years later. And actors? Anymore, I can't keep up with the younger ones, and the older ones I often catch myself saying, perhaps tactlessly, "He/She was still alive?" (Alan Rickman was an exception. That one hit hard.)

But musicians are a different breed. They shine brightly in the beginning, achieve a certain level of success that lets them do what they really want, then use the original glory to support their music habit well into old age. (Yes, Willie Nelson is still working in his 90s. I suspect the Stones will be the first centenarian rockers. Well, rocker. They are slowly turning into the Keith Richards Band.)

It does, however, go back to living memory. During my childhood, the echoes of World War II still rumbled loudly, even overwhelming the Cold War. Though my grandfather did not serve, he worked for GM during the war, and many classmates' parents and grandparents served in some capacity, military or civilian. Moreover, our reruns and special guests on sitcoms worked in that era. If the president wasn't a WWII vet - Nixon, Reagan (whose eyesight confined him to Hollywood), GHWB - then they served in Korea: Ford and Carter. But that generation is rapidly disappearing the way the World War I generation vanished before my thirtieth birthday. It might explain the confusion and uncertainty of today. Where do we go next?

For Gen X, especially the older Gen X, along with the youngest Boomers, we have music. Music brought rebellion and freedom in the sixties, unexpected flights of fancy and walls of sound in the seventies, complete reinvention in the eighties, and back to basics in the nineties. And now we're losing the ones who made that happen. That's our living memory. Perhaps in twenty years, reality stars will begin to pass on from something other than excess or accident. Old age, cancer, the next great plague will take them. And Millennials and Gen Z will feel it the as acutely as I still feel the loss of Tom Petty and Jeff Beck.

30 December 2022

2022 Rearview


Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

By the time you read this, I will be finishing up the 104th book I've read this year. This includes Audible. It's rare I can read that many books in a year. Had I not learned to speed read, I probably would not have pulled this off. With the ability to speed read certain books, I actually could give them the attention they deserved (or didn't.)

The Herculean reading list was driven in part by wanting to finish Stephen King's canon. Assuming only one book in 2023 for Mr. King, I probably will wrap up this years-long project with Holly in October. As I finish up the two latest, Gwendy's Final Task and Fairy Tale, I'll turn my attention to the Bachman books. Rage, which is now out of print by King's request, will likely be the most difficult to read in this era of school shootings. Road Work, though short, will probably be the slog I remember when I first read it twenty years ago.

I also rotated through some classics – Twain, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, as well as Harold Bloom's list of novels from How to Read. One from this last list proved to be a massive disappointment. Another I decided to save for later due to its sheer length and a lack of an Audible version that wasn't a glorified radio drama. So what did I read this year?

I'll skip science fiction unless it fits a category here.

First Book: Galway Girl by Ken Bruen. Until this year, I made it a point to start with one of Bruen's Taylor novels. Due to a release date issue, I read is last in November. But Galway Girl seems to be a mulligan for Em's fate in a previous book. A new foil, a virtual clone of Em (deliberately so, as we find out), comes to menace Jack. It's not bad, but gone are Ridge and Maeve. Father Malachy is a more reluctant antagonist. And Clancy is nowhere to be seen except in a couple of scenes. We're left wondering just how much more Jack can take at the hands of his creator, meaning Bruen. We find out in the follow-up, A Galway Epiphany, which I also read this year.

Last Book: We can look at it two ways: on the day I'm writing this, I finished King's On Writing, one of a handful of books I reread annually or every other year. But on the day you read this, I'll be wrapping up an ARC of Right Between the Eyes by Scott Loring Sanders. So far, Right Between the Eyes is turning into a cross between a Stephen King novel with its small-town New England setting and an SA Cosby book, semi-rural crime with lots of secrets and lies.

On Writing, of course, is a must-read for any writer. The book never seems the same to me twice. Maybe because, while I reread it more than other books, I don't read that often.

Best Book Read This Year: Under Color of Law by Aaron Philip Clark. Clark's Detective Trevor Finnegan is setup to fall as he investigates the death of a brother officer. Finn, as he's called, decided to be a cop to "make a difference," even giving up a promising art career to do it.

Rather than a tirade on race, Clark paints a nuanced portrait of LA's racial tension. He does point a finger at the LAPD of the nineties for the present undercurrent of distrust. But Finn is uniquely positioned to see both sides. Yes, police brutality and systematic racism are very real, but Clark manages to convey something that gets lost in the narrative. With each shooting of an unarmed civilian and each violent protest that follows, police officers feel something they're paid not to show: Fear. And each incident makes it worse. Yet Finn understands why a black man also feels fear, so it's double for him with a foot in each world. 

Clark gets the whole picture, all the while having Finn confront the same corrupt department politics we normally see. His solution doesn't give his would-be rivals the satisfaction they crave.

Biggest Disappointment: Portrait of a Lady. And some heads are probably exploding over this one. Too bad. I pulled this one from a list of novels recommended by the late Harold Bloom in his book How to Read. Harold owes me an apology. The book begins with the author doing his own literary criticism, which left me screaming, "That's not how this works! That's not how any of this works!" And then we're treated to fifty pages of the problems of rich people. I am aware I said this as someone who also watches The Crown and Succession. The former, though, is history through people who are supposed to represent it. The latter is watching the 1% trip over themselves trying to rule the world. (And let's be honest, it's a joy to watch Brian Cox work.) This started with a bunch of bankers sniffing disdainfully at how it must be sad not to be a rich Victorian. I barely got to see the lady of the title before I bailed. 

This is one of those books we're supposed to read, and somehow, King found it praiseworthy. King also likes Roger Corman films whereas I generally skip them unless they have three silhouettes at the bottom making wise-ass comments. (Mind you, Corman has mentored generations of filmmakers, so he can make a movie about Prince Harry's grocery list for all I care. The next Tarantino may learn something from it.)

Biggest Surprise: Ohio: A Novel. This one hit a little close to home. These were Millennials growing up in a town not too dissimilar to the burb where I grew up. It's even set in NE Ohio, my old stomping grounds. My mind's eyes supplied Lucas, Ohio, a town near where my parents spent their final years, as the set surrounding this drama involving five local kids who return as adults for the funeral of a classmate who died a war hero. Ohio captures the despair of the Rust Belt from a generation that doesn't remember when Big Steel and Big Auto ruled. A sixth member of the group is missing. It seems she's gone to Southeast Asia and disappeared, but her actual fate is teased out over the novel It becomes clear that Ohio is less about a fallen war hero who was not the paragon from his eulogy and more about this missing woman who mysteriously still writes home.

Newest Addiction: SA Cosby. This year, I read Blacktop Wilderness and Razorblade Tears. Had to wait until December for the rerelease of My Darkest Prayer, which will be second read of the new year. Cosby does what Ken Bruen does: Paints a dark portrait of a very real place. Instead of Galway, we get Virginia, away from the Beltway and the DC suburbs. Like Pelecanos's DC, which ignores the "visitors," Cosby writes about the south, how religion and race and poverty all go into the stew that is southern culture. Some pieces are quite unpleasant, but the whole is not. And if we're going to call it a stew, then SA Cosby is a master chef.


07 October 2022

The Pros And Cons of Rideshare



 I've done rideshare for a while now. It's an easy way to make exrra money and get a leg up on bills. Gas hasn't been too bad for me. But I live in Ohio, and my car gets decent mileage.

But lately, the job hasn't been as much fun as it once was. Some of that comes from not driving so late. I don't do the 12-3 drunk rush on Saturday nights. The people who get into my car are generally sober. They're also rather subdued.

But that's not a stressor. I drive less now partly because the service now pays bonuses for twenty runs a weekend. That's good. I get tired more easily these days. And that's one reason I want to wind down my rideshare career.

  • Fatigue - I always got tired driving. But I used to drive set times, some of them until the wee hours on Saturdays. Now I notice it more knocking off at 10 or 11 PM. 
  • Wear and tear - This is a nice car I drive. I'd like to not buy another one for a few more years. Yet that dreaded 100K number is coming up.
  • Driver shortage - You'd think this would be a plus. Fewer drivers mean more money. But the runs are longer. At one point, I got sent almost into Dayton. I live fifty miles south of there. Not a good night.
  • Karening - I had a passenger who complained when I slowed down to look for an address. She reported me for falling asleep at the wheel. I reported her for being disruptive. I got $100 for having my account suspended for an evening. 
  • Violence - It's in the news. Violence is escalating. Random shootings have happened in Over the Rhine, the bar district where I've made a lot of money. It's not been a problem. Yet. The shootings tend to happen after I log off for the night. Still, one evening, I stopped at a Shell Station in Cincinnati's Price Hill neighborhood. Literally, it looked like a scene from The Wire. There was no question what was going on. I had four toddlers in the backseat while their grandmother ran inside to pick up something. I never locked the door during a shift before. I did this time.

Some would say, "Hey, this is a great opportunity for crime fiction." True. But if you've read just my stories, you know being in the story is not much fun. 

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.