Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

17 March 2023

Il Grande Lebowski—and beyond

My fellow SleuthSayer Bob Mangeot recently shared a marvelous post about a film that is currently celebrating its 25th Anniversary. It’s the only cult film that I can say I truly obsess about, but I will admit that my experience of it is a little strange. Or shall I say, un po’ strano.

The year was 2003. I had left the United States to live overseas with my new fiancé, who covered soccer for ESPN abroad and had an apartment in Rome. My Italian was so rusty that local television was an exhausting blur. Luckily, Denise had bought a number of DVDs of popular American movies at a local DVD shop, and we spent our evenings watching those—again and again and again—after switching off the subtitles and reverting the audio back to the original English dialogue. No matter what we did, however, we could not shut off the Italian subtitles of a film called Il Grande Lebowski.

I remembered seeing the film in a US theater when it arrivated in 1998. And while I’d enjoyed it, I did not rush to see it again or acquire the DVD when it was released to the home market. As a result, I never really comprehended just how much a debt the film owed to Raymond Chandler.

But now I did, and in my new temporary home, this very American film unwittingly became my window to another culture. I boned up on my Italian by ceaselessly watching the same Coen Brothers film and slowly associating the English words I heard the actors say with the Italian phrases printed at the bottom of the screen. Over time, my Italian got good enough that I could spot when an American idiomatic expression was rendered poorly in Italian. For example, the nickname of Jeff Bridges’s stoner character, the Dude, is somewhat mistranslated as Il Drugo, but that monicker sorta, kinda makes sense. (As do the other nicknames Drugo suggests in the film: Drughetto, Drugantibus, or Drughino.)

When we returned to the states and settled in the American south, we were delighted to find that we lived not far from Louisville, Kentucky, which hosts an annual LebowskiFest, featuring lookalike contests, bowling tournaments, live music, and two days of tempting merch. One year, we booked travel and lodging, only to cancel when a crop of unexpected freelance work popped up on our radar. Similar fan events are held in other cities, but we’ve never gone. It’s something I hope to do one of these days, but it’s not like I haven’t had my fill of accumulating Lebowski-themed swag.

For many years, the official artist of the Fest has been the LA-based Bill Green, whose style is truly inventive and wonderful. A signed poster of Maude Lebowski (played by Julianne Moore) hangs prominently in our living room, flanked by three bowling pins that Mr. Green has lovingly decorated with a hand-drawn image of the characters. (Three points to the astute reader who can tell me why Maude Lebowski is depicted upside down on one of these pins.) You can find more of Mr. Green’s artwork at his website.

A few years ago, the organizers of LebowskiFest released I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, a book of interviews with the actors from the original film. And when some college profs approached them, saying they’d like to present some academic papers about the film at the next fest, the organizers accommodated them, though they admitted that they had no idea this was something brainier fans of the film did in their spare time. The result of these papers is a book entitled The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies. Before you run out to grab this title, understand that it is a collection of truly academic writing. I love Il Drugo with a passion, but I could not keep up with the writing that flowed from the pens of deconstructionists. Turns out, I don’t need to know the meaning of the word metonym. I passed the book along to a friend with tenure in an English department.

Another writer, Adam Bertocci, later weighed in with a much more palatable book entitled Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, in which every line of the Coen Brothers’ script has been rendered as if penned by the Bard. When two thugs burst into the Dude’s shabby apartment and stumble across his bowling ball, the exchange goes like this:

Thug: (extracting bowling ball from a bag): What the f— is this?

The Dude: Obviously you’re not a golfer.

In Shakespearese, the dialogue goes this way:

Thug: Villainy! Why this confounded orb, such as men use to play at ninepins; what devilry, these holes in holy trinity?

Dude: Obviously thou art not a colfer.

The pages of this book are liberally sprinkled with footnotes and etchings that shed light on Elizabethan phrases, history, and culture. I really enjoyed it, and I rooted for a local theater group in our city that wanted to mount this as a production one year. They were put off the plan only when no one could figure out how they could get the performance rights.

Somewhere in my basement is the ultimate prize—a giant one-sheet movie poster of the Italian film. I dream of showing it off someday. I just need a hunk of wall big enough to display it.

Until I buy a new house, until I demo a corner of the living room, until I build a new wall, I’ll have to make do with my assortment of tiny Lebowski bumper stickers.

As the Dude might say, until then, Il Giuseppe abides.

* * *

See you in three weeks!


Bowling Pins by artist Bill Green.

Swag by artist Bill Green.

24 February 2023

The Software That Thinks Like You

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

There are two experiences everyone that every writer or creative person is familiar with. One is frustrating, the other pleasurable. 

The frustrating one has to do with “idea capture.” Every day ideas for stories pop into our heads. In the course of our days, we also stumble across great quotes, interesting observations, clever articles that spin our heads in new directions, compelling us to keep a copy or write down a single germ of an idea for future use. If you’re like me, you end up with a pile of Post-Its, scraps of paper, or old envelopes on your desk, or PDFs, links, photos, or screenshots buried somewhere on your hard drive. If you’re not careful to tuck these precious morsels away somewhere safe, you’ll have a devil of a time finding them again.

Just a few weeks ago, my fellow SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti dropped one such gem. In a post entitled “On a Winter’s Night, A Writer…” Rob talked about this dilemma and shared this interesting idea:
Decades ago I remember reading that Buckminster Fuller said that from the moment you have an idea you have 17 minutes to do something physical with it—write it down, tie a string around your finger, sing it out loud until it's stuck in your head—or it will disappear.
I loved that Fuller quote. It touched on a few of my interests. For one, I’m a productivity geek, probably because—who are we kidding?—I’m spectacularly unproductive most of the time. But I nevertheless love hearing about ways that creative people work with ideas. I also have a local connection to Fuller. In the late 1940s, Fuller taught at Black Mountain College, a liberal arts college that once operated not far from where I live in North Carolina. The school closed in 1957, but is remembered fondly because it’s where Fuller and his students first began experimenting with geodesic domes.

Could there be a short story about Bucky in my future? Maybe, but I’m not ready to deal with it now. But I wanted to keep this little nugget of an idea. Where do I put it?

In the old days, I would have saved a link to Rob’s piece in a Word doc somewhere, and instantly forgotten where I slipped it into the bottomless morass of folders on my hard drive. Worse, I would have printed out the post and tucked it into a file cabinet, where it would also be lost forever.

These days, I create and devote a page to this single idea in my Obsidian app. Obsidian is an interesting piece of software that works on Mac, Windows, and Linux systems. You can load it on your phone or your desktop. It’s also absolutely free, unless you are buying it for everyone at your business and want access to future developer support.

To save a note, you open a blank window, type your note, then code the text as well. I’m a Luddite, so when I say I’m “coding,” you can bet that doing so is pathetically easy. Tags are generated using the hashtag (#), highlighted/underlined words are generated using double brackets [[like this]]. This is known as a Markdown program, but you don’t need to know that to use Obsidian.

Here’s how the Buckminster Fuller quote page looked when I got done with it. 

Notice: Fuller and Lopresti are underlined and highlighted. Concepts like the 17-Minute Rule, geodesic domes, idea, and Black Mountain College are tagged.

If I’m in a hurry, I don’t bother coding. I’ll do it another day. That’s one of the things I like about Obsidian; you can always return to your collection of notes to see what you’ve collected. I use those sessions to prune, code, and tidy my files. Doing this helps jog my memory and remind me what I’ve amassed. (You can also correct or update old files if new information comes to light. Quotes, for example, are often attributed to the wrong people. In this case, I could not quickly find a source online that could verify that Fuller uttered the observation about the 17-minute-rule. Rob said as much in his post.)

That caveat aside, if you follow through and diligently code your ever-expanding collection of notes, Obsidian establishes connections between all these things. When you underline Robert Lopresti, for instance, the software instantly creates a Robert Lopresti page elsewhere in the software. I can return to that page and drop in other factoids I know about Rob. (For some reason I forgot to add that Rob is a folk singer who has released an actual album.)

Likewise, in the future, if I click on Fuller’s name, the software will pull up the dedicated Fuller page that it has so kindly generated. If I click on a tag, it will find all the references to that item that may be lurking in my otherwise mixed-up files.

Which brings me to the pleasurable experience I referenced above. Imagine a dinner party with good friends in which you and your companions chat well into the night.

“I saw this article on geodesic domes,” one person will say. “And did you know—”

“That’s cool,” another person says. “My great-aunt Gertrude actually dated Buckminster Fuller!”

“No way!” says another, “you know, I heard that he said you can only remember new ideas for 17 minutes. That kinda makes sense! ”

“I hate forgetting ideas. I keep a notebook near my bed at night!”

“I have a tape recorder!”

“I use my phone!”

In any conversation where the speakers are actually listening to each other, everyone starts free-associating, tossing off whatever pops into their head about the current topic of conversation. Granted, the connections between what you are all saying may only be tangentially linked, but you can go hours mining the recesses of your subconscious for factoids that touch upon the central topic. 

This sort of interaction is one of the great pleasures of human relationships. If the conversation goes well, everyone returns home at the end of the night thinking that had a great time. Why? Because they bonded with their fellow humans over a great meal, a glass of wine, and a rich tapestry of ideas.

Obsidian mimics the way our minds draw connections in those situations. The more pages of notes you add to Obsidian, the deeper, richer, better, and, ahem, Fuller, those connections become. Then, when you click on the software’s graph view, you get a picture that resembles drawings I’ve seen of neural networks.

This can be useful if you’re accustomed to writing essays or blog posts. The graph view reminds you of connections you’ve probably forgotten, and suggests ones you haven’t even thought of. In this scenario, the center node—How Long Ideas Last—is the central idea around which slighter connections (Fuller, Lopresti) revolve.

You’ll find videos on YouTube that can help you master Obsidian. At the end of those tutorials, the productivity gurus often say that while it’s fine to just use Obsidian as a file cabinet to collect all your notes in one place, its true value lies in tracking your own ideas—not just ones you picked up in your reading or mined via a SleuthSayers post.

Obsidian hasn’t completely banished paper from my desk. But these days that pile has been reduced to daily to-dos. Creative ideas are collected swiftly. If something pops into my head at night, I can always groggily snatch the phone off the bedside table, type a note into the app, and drift back to Snoozelandia long before that 17 minutes has elapsed. Somewhere, Bucky is smiling.

See you in three weeks!

03 February 2023

Plotting Your Story with Aeon Timeline

I’ve spent the last year working on a nonfiction ghostwriting project for a client who got a deal to deliver a memoir about, shall we say, his military career. (Our contract precludes me from spilling many of the details, but I’ll try to work around it.)

Recently, I asked the client a question that puzzled even him.

“Did you return home at any point during your first deployment?”

“No, why?”

“Because your first daughter had to have been conceived during that year. If you were overseas…”

I stopped shy of asking him who the father really was…

A few days later I got a flurry of humorous texts from his wife. They both had a good laugh over my question. Yes, she recalled, he did come home once during that period of time. (She had photos of a romantic dinner and getaway weekend to prove it. Not that I needed it!) By the time Dad returned home again, a beautiful three-month-old baby was waiting to greet her father for the first time.

“That’s so funny,” the wife told me. “It was so long ago, we forgot that little detail. How did you figure it out?”

Normally, I can use these moments to brag that I’m the greatest reporter ever. But in this case, the tipoff sprung not from my brain but from a piece of software that I’ve been using to plot the book.

The software is Aeon Timeline. Product developers use it to plot the trajectory of their real-life projects. Scholars and historians use it to map out their areas of study, both Before Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE). Lawyers use it to plot litigation strategies and timelines. Writers of all stripes use it to map out fiction and nonfiction. Screenwriters presumably can do the same.

This is not the world’s most expensive software. You’ve got it forever for $65. If you want annual updates, that will run you a little extra. All completely tax deductible for a professional writer.

What do I like about the program? I can list every single character in the book I’m planning, inserting their birth and death dates. From that moment forward, whenever Character A meets Character B in the timeline, the software automatically calculates each person’s age down to the years, months, and days. For the project I’m working on now, I can insert real-life historic events—the election of presidents, dates of wars, what-have-you—and everything will populate on my screen, showing me how people, places, events all intersect.

As you can imagine, this can be pretty useful for mystery writers working with tricky timelines. On its website, Aeon actually uses Murder on the Orient Express as one of their case studies. (I have reproduced some of the Orient Express screenshots here, but you will find them infinitely more readable on this page of Aeons website.

That novel is a good example because everything hinges on the events occurring over one night aboard that infamous train. Poirot nimbly tucks away all the details in his little gray cells, but I’m pretty sure Dama Agatha plotted her story using a handwritten version of what Aeon shows us in these screenshots.

If you need to keep track of murder weapons, locations, character traits, etc., you can easily create a new entry and start tracking that plot point or detail. 

I guess you could say the software is remarkably flexible. I like that about Aeon Timeline. I also sorta kinda hate it. This is one of those software programs that rewards a long learning curve. Luckily, there is a knowledge base, forum, and developer support on the software’s website, not to mention countless YouTube videos to help you piece together how to use it.

Early on in this project, I found myself spending a tedious week trying to input all our nonfiction milestones into the software. I pulled the details from a mountain of documents the client shared with me. Four or five days into this, I had to ask myself if this was all worth it. Was I wasting my time? Couldn’t I just hand-write the details on sheets of paper, the way I’d always done?

I could have, but then I would have had to keep a mountain of paper at the ready. Instead, once I input everything into the program, I tucked the reams of paper into a banker box, forgot about them, and focused on the unfolding story instead. Every time I did another interview with the client, I spent a few post-call minutes plugging new dates and times into the program.

Aeon has been a lifesaver, and I’m eager to try it again for an upcoming fiction project. I think you’d get the best mileage out of Aeon using it to plot longer projects such as novels, novellas, or anthology book series. One feature I’m eager to try is Aeon’s narrative timeline, which allows you to drag and drop plot points from one timeline into a secondary timeline that mimics how you will actually structure the book.

Example: A scene actually occurs at the end of the timeline, but you can drag it into the prologue position. That could be a valuable feature if you were planning a project with an abundance of flashbacks.

All that said, Aeon might be helpful if you’re writing a short story of unusual complexity. Since my short stories tend to be, ahem, fairly clueless, I don’t think it would be smart to plot them digitally. Most of the time, a sheet of scrap paper with a five or so plot points is enough to keep track of where I’m going. And besides, I enjoy writing short stories precisely because dense outlines aren’t necessary.

It may not look like it, but I really do try to limit the amount of software I use in my daily work. If something doesn’t blow me away with its usefulness, I chalk the whole thing up to an experiment that didn’t pan out, and delete the program from my computer. Because, in the end, who really has the time?

I’ll discuss another software program for writers when I see you in three weeks!


13 January 2023

Have Caulk Will Travel

Alfred Hitchcock called them “icebox scenes.” Movie viewers stay riveted for 90+ minutes, dazzled by the story they’re watching. Only when they get home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox (Hitch’s imagery, not mine) do they realize that something about the storyline doesn’t quite make sense. When a producer pointed out the implausibilities in the script of the soon-to-be-shot Casablanca, the Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz reportedly shrugged them off, saying, “I make it go so fast nobody notices.”

Plot holes are every writer’s bane. While I’d love to be the kind of writer who trusts that he can make the story zip along so fast nobody notices, the written word suffers from one fatal flaw that movies did not share until the invention of rewind and freeze frame. A reader can always choose to read slowly or reread a scene a second time.

My experience has been that I’ve gotten better at noticing problems in my stories and nipping them immediately, either in the first draft phase or on a second or third read. I draw a vertical line in the margin of my hard copy, and scrawl the word “fix.” That’s usually enough for my subconscious to get to work writing me out of that particular box.

When I was younger I used to fret more when I spotted these sort of problems. I took them as a personal creative failing that could easily upend the premise of an otherwise tight 3,500-word story. But as I witnessed myself seal up one hole after another, my confidence grew.

Plot solutions present themselves in one of two ways. The classic pops into your head when you’re doing a completely unrelated activity. You’re squeezing peaches in the produce aisle. You’re in the shower. You’re flossing. Whatever. The solution presents itself, often solving a problem you didn’t yet realize you had. Those moments feel like magic; the closest I’ll ever come to a lightbulb moment.

The second solution scenario is far more prosaic. The idea comes to you while you are immersed in the creative process, writing your story. You notice the problem, you ignore it for now, you type a few hundred words more until it’s time to take a break. You circle back a few grafs to see how things look, and you suddenly you know exactly how to fix the damn thing. And that feels wonderful.

The only method that doesn’t work is sitting with a sheet of paper and pencil and telling yourself: “I need to fix this plot hole. Time to brainstorm.” In that situation, my brain is useless. In fact, it’s more likely to cough up an idea for a new story than solving the problem I have in hand.

Novels can be far more problematic. More words, more plotlines, more characters all add up to more ways to screw up. In some cases, I have ignored an acknowledged hole for weeks and weeks, knowing I had to fix it but not quite sure how to do so. I have officially hit the Wall of Insecurity. The problem festers, and takes on disproportionate power in my mind. It begins to feel like avoidance not to deal with it.

You know what batters down that wall? The same two techniques: either the idea pops into my head full blown, or it occurs to me while I am again engaging creatively with that problematic scene.

The first time I handily fixed a problem scene in a novel, I was so stunned that I’d come up with a solid solution that I scoured my desk notes, wondering if I had scrawled the fix down and forgotten that I’d done so. How could it be that an idea that never occurred to me should suddenly pop until my head, free for the taking, while I was actually writing?

This question is laughable, of course, because it summarizes the essence of all creative work. Nothing exists until we make it. Duh. But it’s a lesson I have had to learn and relearn again and again.

I’d love to brag that I’m confident in my ability to fix holes that pop up, but the record shows that there’s such a thing as being too confident. A few years ago, I told myself I could easily circle back and fix a problem I’d spotted early on in a novel I was working on. When I circled back at the end of the first draft, the problem refused to budge. In fact, it was such a major hole that it sank the book. That manuscript is entombed forever on my hard drive.

Writing gives me life, but writing is not life. A while back we discovered that the previous owner of our home drilled holes in the exterior brick to attach some object, which was later removed. But the holes remain, and offer shelter to returning insects summer after summer.

“Are you going to caulk those holes?” my wife said.

“I’m thinking about it,” was my cagey response.

I have mulled over plugging those holes for seven years. Strangely, this has not fixed the problem.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

23 December 2022

Mysteries at the Heart of the Season

Speak comfort to me, Jacob Marley— Southern Comfort!

December vexes me. Like Charlie Brown in the old TV special, I am always trying to wring some vestige of meaning from a season that is needlessly overwrought and overburdened with cheap sentiment.

Without intending to do so, some years ago I became an obsessive student of Christmas. I spent five years of my life and 500,000 words trying to write the ultimate Yuletide novel. Was I successful? Eh. Let’s just say that in the process I learned a lot about the holiday. I learned that when the season turns dark and cold, we at least have great writing (not mine) to sustain us.

Some pieces I love: The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford is solid, narrative nonfiction about the writing and publication of A Christmas Carol by that canny self-published author, Charles Dickens. I like A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. The old recording of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, read by Dylan Thomas himself, is a perfect way to embrace the close and holy darkness. If there is a church nearby that is mounting a production of Handel’s Messiah, I will always go to hear the Hallelujah Chorus one more time. But if you are short on time, you can do no worse than “The Gift of the Magi,” by O Henry. For that matter, as long as you’re going short, my fellow Sleuthsayer David Edgerley Gates wrote a post on Christmas Eve, 2014, that chokes me up every time I read it. Each year, late in December, I navigate to this very website and that particular post to re-read his critical graf:

“Taken at face value, unto us a child is born—no room at the inn, the shepherds tending their flocks by night, the journey of the Magi—it still works its magic. You don’t have to believe it’s the hand of God, necessarily. Probably doesn’t do any harm, either. The hopes and fears of all the years. We bring a lot of baggage to any story. Maybe we bring more to this one than most. It's an investment. We all believe in a child’s native innocence. The loss is our grief. If, for sake or argument, we don’t know the story’s end, but only how it begins, then the birth of Christ is the stirring of hope. We embrace the myth because it’s our own, each of us born, each of us begun. Destiny waits to be chosen.”

He’s marvelous, isn’t he?

Of course, if you’re me, maybe you end up scrolling to this web page maintained by the National Institutes of Health. There you will find numerous peer-reviewed academic papers that attempt to solve the mystery at the heart of Christmas: What ails Tiny Tim?

Tiny Tim is the third-most important child of December. The first, of course, is the child you know and love. Your children and grandchildren, say. The second is the child who gives Christmas its name. Then comes Tim, in his threadbare jacket, limping along on his crutch.

For 179 years this poor child has appeared in stage and screen productions of the Dickens novella and the entire world knows his pain. From Day 1, astute readers should have anticipated that eventually actual doctors would begin to wonder just what was wrong with the tyke. That is the essence of those NIH papers: Modern masters of the differential diagnosis are having a blast trying to figure out just what illness nearly killed poor Tim.

Here are the facts: The boy suffers from an unnamed ailment that renders him lame, forcing him to wear a brace and a crutch. In the fictive glimpse provided by the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come, Tim dies. After Scrooge’s redemption, however, we are told that Tiny Tim “did not die.” In other words, Tim’s affliction could in fact by cured by a judicious expenditure of Ebenezer’s silver.

Did Tim have rickets? Or was it tuberculosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or renal tubular acidosis (RTA)? All of these diseases can be ameliorated, apparently, with the right kind of medical attention. Every year, when the now-practically-annual article about Tim’s illness appears in my newsfeed, I read the story eagerly, wondering if someone has definitively cracked the case. No such luck. Indeed, it’s beginning to look a lot like we will never know the truth, and that Dickens took this one to his grave, along with the solution to Drood.

One of the best articles I’ve found on this medical mystery concludes with the observation that Charles Dickens, reformer that he was, truly understood that the horrors of poverty are fundamentally socioeconomic. Who knows? Maybe Tim was never completely cured, but if his family had just a little more coin, they alone could have ensured that Tim lived a comfortable and long life. (The writer Louis Bayard wrote an entire novel entitled Mr. Timothy on the premise that Tim survived into adulthood.)

And maybe that is just as well. Because we have plenty of other Christmas mysteries to solve. In recent years I have begun seeing articles in which doctors attempt to puzzle out the mystery that appears in Stave V of A Christmas Carol. After his encounter with the third spirit, Scrooge awakes in his bed, clinging to his bedpost, “laughing and crying in the same breath.” Later, Dickens tells us:

“Really, for a man who had been out of practice for many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!”

Several actors over the years have tried to bring this laugh-cry to life. Patrick Stewart has probably done it best. Here. Watch:

Here’s what some medical detectives are wondering: does that laugh/cry indicate a troubling respiratory condition?

And that, dear friends, is when I realize that I’ve spent entirely too much time researching and fretting about Christmas and too little time enjoying it.

I wish you the best in this season—and beyond.

Besides the links I’ve shared in this post, you might enjoy this post from an illustrators’ blog about best illustrated versions the Dickens classic.

02 December 2022

Sherlock's Kid Sister Returns!

Boy, have the marketing geniuses in the back room got us pegged. They know that we are positively nutty for our Holmes. Just in time for Thanksgiving, Netflix released the long-anticipated sequel to their 2020 film, Enola Holmes 2 about the adventures of the younger sister of the Great Detective.

I discussed the first film last year. Edgar-winning author Nancy Springer wrote the (now) eight-book series from which the concept sprung. For two years, Enola fans whispered the rumor that the second film would draw inspiration from The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, the second book in the series. Not so! I’m afraid that I’m a bit of an author snob. The plot here is fun and clever, but I prefer film franchises to adhere as closely to the source material as possible.

As our tale opens, Sherlock’s teenaged sister has opened a detective agency of her own. Yes, at 16 or 17 years of age, she does strike one as a bit young to be doing such a thing in Victorian London, but as Mother Holmes says in a flashback: “Too many people make it their sole purpose in life to fit into the world around them. This is a mistake!”

Business at the agency isn’t great, but dear brother Sherlock fares no better. The banking scandal he’s investigating has proved “vexing,” his sister reports. After a number of potential clients decline to avail themselves of Enola’s services—“Are you you sure we can’t get Sherlock?” says one—she takes the case proffered by a young matchstick girl whose sister has gone missing. Before long, Enola is disguising herself to gain entrance to upper crust balls, employing the womanly arts of pugilism and bartitsu to dispatch malefactors, and the game is soooo afoot.

Millie Bobby Brown returns as Enola. Henry Cavill is back as the devilishly handsome Superman—er, I mean Sherlock. The actor who played Mycroft in the last outing was unable to join us this time around, but Helena Bonham Carter returns as the free-spirited Mrs. Holmes, mother of the brilliant three siblings.

The sets and production values all look appropriate, delightful, and convincing. Many of the things I liked the first time around caught my eye again. Enola breaks the fourth wall to address viewers. Back stories are filled in via a fun assortment of animated black-and-white photo sequences. And the plot is advanced through the use of secret codes, wordplay, poems, and clues referring to flowers that young viewers will have no trouble following.

I was intrigued to find that the plot was drawn from a real-life labor action at a Victorian match factory. And I was glad that the story had such a strong feminist leaning, since that is the central thematic interest of the Springer series. That said, the ending still struck this adult as a little pat.

That was not my biggest quibble with the film. Without giving too much away, I might mention that the ultimate villain of this saga turns out to be a certain professor of mathematics who will vex Sherlock for decades to come. It’s fun to see the Napoleon of Crime—and this is by far the most original incarnation of the character I have ever seen—but I couldn’t help thinking, “Really? You’re only on your second film and you play the Moriarty card? Most vexatious, indeed!”

But what do I know? This film debuted on the streaming network in early November and quickly hit Netflix’s No. 1 in 93 countries.

I promise you that if you gather around with the family to watch, adults and kids alike will have a blast, though not for the same reasons. Serious Sherlock geeks will enjoy the specter of a drunken Sherlock. They will admire the pluck of a screenwriter who dares give us Lestrade’s first name for the first time on film. And they will probably snort aloud (as I did) when Enola turns to the camera and quips, “The game has found its feet again!”

Sweet Diogenes! Thank goodness we have Holmes for the holidays.

* * * 

Please note: If you are thinking of starting a young reader on the books this season, bear in mind that there are currently eight in the series. Some online retailers confuse the number of titles because Springer has more than one publisher. See the bibliography here.  

See you all in three weeks!


11 November 2022

The Curious Case of Mr. Poe & Mrs Hale

The centerpiece on our dining room table this month was inspired by three recent books my wife did on the subject of Thanksgiving. One figure is our old pal, Edgar Allan Poe. The limited edition Bobblehead depicts Sarah Josepha Hale.

Together, they and the turkey add up to an interesting tale with a connection to the mystery genre. In the 19th Century no editor was more powerful than Sarah Josepha Hale. For fifty years she edited the most-read periodicals in the nation, Godey’s Lady’s Book, published out of Philadelphia.

For $1 to $3 a year, Hale’s readers received monthly magazines that brought the world to the farflung homes of a growing nation, delivered by stagecoaches, steamboats, and pony express riders. In each issue, readers found sheet music, clothing patterns, blueprints for Victorian home designs, recipes, news, editorials, literary reviews, and works of fiction.

When Hale spoke, readers listened. When she suggested young ladies wear white dresses when they married, they did. When she described the curious European custom of erecting a Christmas tree in one’s home, Americans followed suit. Fifty percent of the nation blushed when she shared this exciting French word with her readers: lingerie. Hale drew the line at bloomers; she did not weigh in on that controversial bit of clothing until someone had invented a free-flowing garment women could wear when taking outdoor exercise.

Hale was a consummate crusader, but not in the way we think. She never warmed to the notion of giving women the vote. But every issue celebrated the idea of women’s education and important causes to which she urged her readers to contribute a few cents here and there. Micro-funding, in other words, as a way of making a big difference.

She ushered in the novel practice of paying professional writers for original work, instead of simply stealing copy from other publications.

Godey’s welcomed writers we would all recognize today: Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Stowe. Hale’s review section sang the praises of the young Louisa May Alcott. And then, one month in 1830, Godey’s celebrated the work of another young writer no one had ever heard of:
“It is very difficult to speak of these poems as they deserve. A part are exceedingly boyish, feeble, and altogether deficient in the common characteristics of poetry; but then we have parts too of considerable length, which remind us of no less a poet than Shelly [sic]. The author, who appears very young, is evidently a fine genius; but he wants judgment, experience, tact.”
The poetry collection was Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, the second volume of work ever published by—yes, you saw this coming—Edgar Allan Poe.

Scholars find it strange that Hale asked one of her regular contributors to cast a glance at one of Poe’s more forgettable works, and that the review appeared so quickly after publication. In order for the review to appear in this volume, she (or her reviewer John Neal) would have had to have received galleys months before the book came out. How did a 21-year-old self-published author with little clout or pocket money pull that off? We find something of a clue in a letter Hale received from her son, David E. Hale, Jr., a few years later:

I have communicated what you wrote to Mr. Poe, of whom perhaps you would like to know something. He ran away from his adopted father in Virginia who was very rich, has been in S. America, England, and has graduated at one of the Colleges there. He returned to America again and enlisted as a private soldier but feeling, perhaps a soldier’s pride, he obtained a cadet’s appointment and entered this Academy last June. He is thought a fellow of talent here but he is too mad a poet to like Mathematics.

Turns out, Hale’s son attended West Point, where he made the acquaintance of Poe. Did Poe cozy up to David, knowing David’s mother was the nation’s most influential editor? Who knows. We do know that nearly everything in David’s letter about his friend is a lie, but that’s how Poe rolled.

Poe later became a regular in Godey’s pages, contributing 22 pieces from 1834 to 1849—a mix of short stories, poems, essays, and literary gossip. The latter attracted the most notice. His column, “The Literati of New York City,” skewered his contemporaries to such a degree that New York writers complained, and Louis Godey—the magazine’s publisher—insisted on inserting a disclaimer that the opinions expressed in these articles were those of Mr. Poe’s, not Godey or Hale’s.

It’s hard to tell what Hale actually thought of Poe. One of Hale’s biographers suggests that she grew fond of Poe’s small, impoverished household, when they were living in the same city, Philadelphia, and may have helped the family with groceries and other necessities. While the magazine lavished praise on his later work, continuing to celebrate his “genius,” she’s on the record as having paid him pitifully for his work—50¢ a page for a story that appeared in her Christmas annual. (In this case, he would have pocketed $5 for a 10-page story.) That is not terribly bad, if that was all her budget allowed, but at the same time, Nathaniel Hawthorne demanded (and got) $25 a story from Godey’s. Hawthorne famously argued that if he held out for better pay, he’d be able to support his family writing only 12 stories a year. Can’t really blame him.

I have to wonder what Godey’s genteel readers made of the most famous story of Poe’s to appear in the magazine, the one in which a wealthy nobleman entombs his enemy alive in a basement crypt. A modern Hale biographer suggests that “The Cask of Amontillado” fit neatly within Hale’s worldview. She saw the world of men as hopelessly corrupt, goes the theory; women were the only hope for decency in such a world. (That particular issue goes for astronomical prices online.)

Cute story. But why is this unlikely pair decorating our Thanksgiving table in 2022? Because besides giving America white wedding dresses, Christmas trees, and the outlet for one of our most macabre authors, Hale also became the Mother of Thanksgiving. She was obsessed with the holiday her entire life and lobbied five US presidents to make Thanksgiving a national holiday that occurred on the same day every year. At that time in history, the holiday was declared by governors and lesser officials for whatever day they thought reasonable. George Washington had proclaimed a Thanksgiving for the last Thursday in November, 1799. John Adams did so too, but Jefferson maintained that the separation of church and state prevented a president from declaring a religious holiday. Later presidents whom Hale approached trotted out similar objections.

So it went until the depths of the Civil War, when Hale’s letter landed on the desk of Abraham Lincoln. His proclamation for the last Thursday in November 1863 was mocked by Confederate-leaning newspapers, but nevertheless observed by the Union. The holiday didn’t become official until an act of Congress in 1941.

I for one remain eternally grateful that Mrs. Hale lobbied presidents on behalf of this holiday. I shudder to think what we’d all be consuming at our bountiful holiday tables if Mr. Poe had been the one with the holiday obsession. I don’t think I could stomach carving the Thanksgiving raven.

I learned about this story and other connections from my wife's nonfiction books:

We Gather Together: A Nation Divided, A President in Turmoil, and a Historic Campaign to Embrace Gratitude and Grace, by Denise Kiernan (Dutton, 2020).

Giving Thanks: How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday, by Denise Kiernan. (Philomel, 2022.)

21 October 2022

The Marvelously Inventive Mr. Hicks

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the books of a children’s book author named Clifford B. Hicks. Among other books, he wrote a series of books about a kid named Alvin Fernald, who was sort of the MacGyver of the kid world. With a toothpick, a piece of string, and leftover jelly sandwich, Alvin could build a contraption to save the world.

Each book was constructed around a central mystery that took place in Alvin’s small town in the American midwest. Alvin tackled issues that seem grown-up in retrospect, but Hicks somehow managed to make them seem “safe” and accessible to kids: corruption in city hall, kidnapping and extortion, stolen industrial plans, and water pollution. Always, in the end, Alvin managed to save the day with the help of his pal Shoie, his kid sister Daphne (aka the Pest), and an arsenal of kooky inventions.

These books enchanted me. More than anything, they seemed to radiate a gentler, more affectionate tone than many of the other books I was reading at the time. The Alvin stories were longer and more sustained than the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.

Alvin’s world of the ‘60s and ‘70s seemed more modern and realistic than the world of the Hardy Boys. Unlike the Hardy and Nancy Drew books, the Alvin series was written by a single, real-life author, not a committee of ghostwriters. Hicks seemed to care deeply about the little town of Riverton, Indiana, he’d created, and even cared about the quite serious issues he was writing about. The Wonderful World of Disney, the old Sunday night TV series, adapted one of the books and brought Alvin to a wider audience.

These were the first books I ever asked a local bookstore to special-order for me. After locating the first book in the series, The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald (1960), I set about creating my own inventions just the way Alvin did, using items from my carefully assembled “inventing box.” You’ll be relieved to know that nothing I created ever made it to the U.S. Patent Office. There’s a reason I’m a writer and not an engineer.

Once, in the mid-1970s, I wrote to the author in care of his publisher. “Can you send me the plans for a Sure-Shot Paper Slinger?” I inquired. I told him that my brothers and I had a newspaper route, just like Alvin, and that we would love to be able to shoot rolled-up newspapers from the rear of our bicycles onto a customer’s lawn.

“You’re crazy,” my father said when he heard about my note. “If you can shoot something, you might kill somebody!”

Yes, Dad, with a rolled-up newspaper.

To my delight, Hicks wrote back from his home outside Chicago:
“Gosh, Joe, I’m sorry I can’t tell you how to build one… When I was a kid, my friends and I made up almost all the other inventions, but I just dreamed up the Paper Slinger without ever building one. If Alvin is clever enough to build it, I’ll bet you are too, Joe! Let me know when you make it work. CBH”
I know it sounds like a carefully crafted brush-off, but I was over-the-moon-amazed to receive a response from Hicks. It was the first time I’d ever gotten a letter from an author. I have carefully preserved it all these years.

Years later, when I myself was working as an editor at Scholastic, I tried to locate fresh copies of the books and was surprised to find that they were out of print. That bowled me over. If kids were flipping over Harry Potter, why wouldn’t a publisher like my own employer reissue books that followed in a similar vein, about plucky kids with unusual talents who saved the day?

A little digging revealed that the Alvin series ended abruptly in the mid-eighties with the publication of Alvin Fernald, Master of a Thousand Disguises. Sales of used books proliferated on the Internet, with diehard fans rhapsodizing in reviews about how much they enjoyed them. Clearly, I was not alone in my affection. Here are some of the tributes I located online:
“I am 45 years old... my 44-year old-brother came over and talked about how this book changed his life. He read it as a kid and became an inventor of sorts himself... a perpetual tinkerer.”

“The Alvin books were my favorites as a kid. I checked them out from the library repeatedly and devoured them. As a 10 year old, I wanted to hang out with Alvin and Shoie. The books are full of laughs, adventure, and great storytelling. They take us back to small-town America, before kids had to deal with grownup problems. If you have a kid, buy this book for him. Buy it used, buy it on eBay, buy it at a used bookstore!”

“When I was about 11 years old, I read many of Alvin’s adventure stories. This book in particular inspired my imagination. I have vivid memories of trying to copy Alvin
s inventions! One summer while staying at my grandparents’ camp, I rigged a security device similar to the one in the book so that no one could enter my bedroom. I have been looking for this book for a very long time, as I seem to have lost my copy. It thrills me that these books are listed [online]. This book is without a doubt my favourite and I would love to share it with my daughter.”
Some years later, I read that two small publishers were beginning to bring out the old books. I found a website put up by the author’s son and discovered that Clifford Hicks, a former science journalist turned author, was not only alive and well—now in his late eighties—but living not far from where I’d had briefly lived in the mountains of North Carolina!

I wrote a second fan letter—thirty years after the first one. I told Hicks that I’d lived for a short time in his neck of the woods, but had moved away, and was now thinking of moving back. A few weeks later I received an email in my inbox. The voice was the same as I remembered from childhood: warm, avuncular, friendly.

Hi, Joe:
What a lift your letter gave me! I’m delighted, and proud, that you liked my Alvin books so much that you were inspired to become Alvin Fernald. 
When I was about 12 years old I became enamored of the Tarzan books, and quite definitely made up my mind to run away from home, go to Africa, and learn to swing from the trees. My three sons have known of this dream for years, and a few days ago one of them gave me a copy of Tarzan of the Apes that he located on the Internet. With some regret I turned the last page of that book this afternoon, just before writing this note to you. The book was just as exciting as it was the first time I read it. A magnificent story—but badly written!
In any case it’s incredible that you kept my letter all these years, dragged it to college with you, and still have it.
In a way, I’m flattered that you went into journalism, Joe. You can’t keep me hanging like this... Here we are, our paths crossing at least twice in our lives, yet separated by only 20 miles.

Come back to Hendersonville, Joe, so we can actually meet…I’ll never answer another reader’s letter without thinking of you!
I finally did move back. Hicks and I exchanged a few emails but kept postponing our meeting. He was ill for a little while, then entered rehab. He phoned one day to apologize for not being able to meet. And then, before I knew it, he passed away in September of 2010. I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He was 90 years old.

Clifford B. Hicks

I see that you can still link to his old website via the Wayback Machine. I bought a couple of the newly reissued books for one of my nephews, who loved them. The Alvin books marked a turning point in my life as a reader. They were among the last kids’ books I read before making the switch to predominantly books written for adults. In a sense they were the literary dividing line between the adult and the kid world. Hicks’s stories whetted my appetite for mysteries in general. And you could say that when I was through reading his books, I was well prepared for the larger world of adult mystery fiction.

But, as it turned out, I was not through with Alvin Fernald. The year before he left us, Hicks published a brand-new Alvin Fernald book, entitled Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure. That title rounded out the Fernald books to a perfect 10. I thought of it as a parting gift from the magical Mr. Hicks.

* * * 

Note: Frankly, the books are still a challenge to find. Amazon and other retailers carry four or five of the new reissues, but you need to dig for used copies to read the others.


Wired magazine: The Geekly Reader: Danny Dunn and Alvin Fernald

Mystery Scene: The Magnificent Brain of Alvin Fernald, Clifford B. Hicks' Charming Kid Crime-Solver

30 September 2022

The Secret Inside You

If you grew up within driving distance of New York City during a particular period in history, you and your classmates would inevitably be bundled up at some point in your academic career and dragged en masse to the Museum of Natural History, so you could while away the hours peering at creepy dioramas of Neanderthals frozen in time, or rampant dinosaurs recreated from their fossilized remains, or a giant life-size blue whale dangling precariously from the ceiling.

When the time came, I too made the trek to that museum, but I didn’t have to like it. By the time I was in fourth grade, the only New York museum worth my time was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all because of a book.

This is the actual book. I’ve kept it all these years. It’s called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg, who died in 2013 at age 83. I’ve never read any other books by her except this one. Mixed-Up Files was enough to carry with me all these years. And only a few years ago did I realize the debt my writing owes to it.

The story doesn’t sound terribly remarkable. Feeling unappreciated in her white-bread Connecticut household, a young girl named Claudia decides to run away from home. She knows herself well enough to know that she requires money and comfort to pull off this caper. She enlists the help of her brother Jamie, a master card cheat, who has the princely sum of $24 to his name. The two run away to New York City and move into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By day, they educate themselves by tagging along with school groups. By night, they swipe pocket change as they bathe in the museum’s fountain and sleep in Marie Antoinette’s bed.

While living in their magnificent digs, Claudia becomes obsessed with nailing down the provenance of a mysterious statue of an angel, which the museum has recently acquired. Some evidence identifies the statue as the work of Michelangelo, but the experts beg to differ, as they always do. Claudia and Jamie spend the remainder of their money to travel to the home of the statue’s last known owner of record, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, who just might know the truth. Eccentric, witty, rich, and marvelously perceptive, Frankweiler offers the children a challenge: The truth is hidden somewhere inside her Mixed-Up Files, a long bank of file cabinets in her office. If they are clever enough, they can find the answer. The children accept the wager, and what they discover in their search makes me want to cry like a baby forty years later.

I like two things about this book. It just took me until adulthood to figure out what they are.

One is that the book is written in first person by Frankweiler herself, who appears at the very beginning, writing a letter to her attorney, and saying that she feels compelled to explain the changes she is about to make to her last will and testament. She tells us that since she’s interviewed the two children extensively, she feels qualified to present this unbiased account. This narrative framework seems dodgy, but I’m currently using it with a book I’m writing. It seems to be working.

With that intriguing intro, she leaps into the story, though she will not appear as a character in the main action until the last quarter of the tale.

I think you should read Mixed-Up Files if you haven’t already, so I won’t give any spoilers. (If nothing else, see if it is suitable for the child in your life.) Suffice to say that Claudia and Jamie solve the mystery, and Frankweiler—a proxy for Konigsburg herself—manages to save one last satisfying secret for the book’s final pages.

The second reason the book charmed me is that it’s remarkably wise. The author understands that all children—young and old—want to feel special, and solving a mystery is one of the best ways to arrive at that specialness. This may partially account for the mystery lover’s addiction.

Here’s the quote that sells it. Frankweiler, in a conversation with Jamie, says:
Claudia doesn’t want ad­ven­ture. She likes baths and feeling comfortable too much for that kind of thing. Secrets are the kind of adventure she needs. Secrets are safe, and they do much to make you different. On the inside, where it counts.
Yes. Yes. Absolutely true. Konigsburg, throughout her long career, became known for spouting similarly profound gems in her writing. I sometimes like reading quotes people have pulled from her books. She was that good. Here’s another:
Some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up and touch everything. If you never let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.
When I was still working at Scholastic, one of my office mates was lucky enough to interview Konigsburg about one of her new books. Like me, my friend loved Mixed-Up Files and so she was tempted to ask a few questions about that book. One too many questions, I might add. Konigsburg bristled, saying Mixed-Up Files was her second book, it was old, and puh-leeze, she was trying to promote the new book.

Today I know in my heart how she must have felt. But Mixed-Up Files won the Newbery Award in 1967 and has touched millions of readers since. E.L. Konigsburg wrote 21 great books, and I’m sure that in time I’ll read them all. But if I never do, all I need is this one. It is that special.

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See you in three weeks!


09 September 2022

In the MidJourney of Our Life

On a recent trip to the west coast I spent an afternoon immersed in one of my nephews’ latest obsessions, an app called DALL-E. It’s a program that uses artificial intelligence to (fairly instantly) generate works of art suggested by a simple caption written by the user.

For example, if the user types the prompt, “an armchair in the shape of an avocado,” they are rewarded with several images like this:

Avocado chair.

The AI scours the internet in search of inspiration, and reconstitutes its findings into the images you see here. The prompt “an illustration of a baby daikon radish in a tutu walking a dog” generates the following images.

Walking daikon.

You can imagine how a couple of teenaged boys who are addicted to pop culture might use this immediate-gratification brain to conjure up images juxtaposing Jedis and Jesus, Captain Marvel and pizza, and so on. I don’t have access to any of the images I saw on my nephew’s phone that afternoon, but from that brief crash course I had the impression that the software had a long way to go. Most of the human faces it generated were…off. Even the images we asked it to generate—of pop culture icons such as R2D2, Ernie & Bert, Spider-Man—were suggestive of the thing being asked for, not flawlessly clear.

So that was my experience of the hot new thing all the cool kids were playing with about a month ago. The thing could barely draw. If it got lucky, it would turn out a nice picture of a radish. Cute, but so what?

Cut to this week, when a professional book cover designer I follow and whom I have hired to create covers of some of my self-pubbed titles sent around a newsletter in which he sang the praises of MidJourney, yet another AI art app that also debuted about a month ago. When the designer typed the following prompt: “jack the ripper hiding in a smog filled london alleyway with red eyes,” the AI thought a moment before generating the following four images.

I think we can agree this is pretty stunning. And when the designer asked the AI for variations, he got increasingly stunning images of an atmospheric landscape.

Again, this is a machine surfing the internet, gleaning from it how things look, and then spinning off tweaks of its findings as quickly as possible in a new form. Compare the Ripper images above to, say, a the cover of an old issue of The Strand Magazine, or the cover of a book of Sherlockian pastiches. 

Both of these covers were taken from works of art created by humans and licensed by the publishers. The MidJourney images were made by software that can be yours for $10 a month, or $30 a month, depending on the number of images you think you’d like to create.

As a writer, I have zero need for such software, but I can absolutely understand why the book cover designer who sent these around to his clients was excited about this brave new world of art. Most designers I know lament how hard it is to find usable, abundant, or appropriate images on stock photo agency sites. It takes an endless amount of clicking page after page to assemble, say, five good images, from which you knit together a composite image and layer in enough special effects via Photoshop or Illustrator to make it look beautiful. That can be hours of work, for which you can charge an author, perhaps $700-$800, tops, for the resulting cover image. Imagine instead being able to type, click, create, and tweak an image in seconds—and charge your client for the AI’s results.

My last sentence is a bit of a fantasy. The designer told his followers that, actually, it still takes him a long while to coax the appropriate image from the machine—as long as it does when he’s searching stock agencies for photos—but what the AI produces is wholly original, one-of-a-kind art.

From the handful of articles I’ve read, people are already up in arms, in the same way they were when programmers started teaching AI programs to write like human writers. Some of the criticisms I’ve heard:

  • These art programs are racist and/or sexist. If you don’t specify the type of person you want them to generate, inevitably they’ll return a white male. When women are depicted, it’s often in demeaning or violent settings. (Software engineers say they are correcting this tendency.)
  • This means the end of decent paying careers for artists! (I don’t think so; not just yet.)
  • If you write, draw, or create science fiction, fantasy, and horror, you’ve come to the right place. The rest of the creative world has no need for this type of crap. (If you have a strong stomach, you can check out some images intended for horror fiction here.)
  • If indeed the AI is “borrowing” references from other images online, will it not inevitably infringe upon the work of a living artist? (I suspect not, but the monkeys have only begun to bang away on the typewriters.)
  • An art director who hires many artists to create book covers recently waded into the fray, reassuring artists that they are not being replaced, and pointing out that the US Copyright Office does not permit art to be copyrighted unless it was created by a human being. You will probably already know this if you remember that story a few years ago about a photographer who wanted to copyright a photo that was taken by, yes, a monkey who stole, operated, then abandoned the photog’s camera.
  • Already, AI work has won art awards, and human artists are pissed.
So, in other words, we are once again immersed in a kind of moral panic over something very smart people have dreamed up. I think it probably can’t be said enough that if a computer program is sexist, racist, or whatever, and it’s using as its creative input the freaking Internet, then we are truly reaping what we have sown. To the extent that images look lovely or appealing to our eye, that too is on us as a species.

That all said, I created a free MidJourney account and had a look around the communal chatroom where the bot is fed its prompts and where users can download the results of their queries. (You’re allowed 25 free uses before you are asked to subscribe.) I could immediately see that I was in the virtual presence of users who had a distinctly artistic mind. With experience, many of these users had come to know exactly how to word their requests. To get the bot to spit out an image in a particular style, they used buzzwords such as “unreal” or “hyperrealistic” or referenced specific artists or designers. Here are two highly specific prompts I encountered:
  • Ethereal humanoid sphinx, Art by Peter Mohrbacher + h.r. giger + Zdzisław Beksiński + Tsutomu Nihei , unreal engine render , intricate details , hyper details —stylize 5000
  • post-apocalyptic cebu city unreal engine cinematic digital art
Little ol’ unartistic me stepped up to the plate, and fed the AI the following prompt: “a detective named sleuth sayers who says sleuthy things.” Within seconds, I had these (admittedly male-seeming) images:

When I asked the AI to generate variations  on this theme, it returned the following:

Was it something I said?

* * *

See you in three weeks!