Showing posts with label Stephen King. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen King. Show all posts

14 July 2014

Places I Have Lived


by Fran Rizer

Last Tuesday, Stephen Ross posted "Friends and Influences" which began with a description of a time he spent living with several friends in an interesting farm house.

For some reason, my mind immediately traveled back to the year I was ten when my dad took a six-month leave from his job as an electrical engineer to write a book.  He'd saved for this and was joyfully enthusiastic to put one of his dreams into action.  As part of his plan, he rented out our home and we became tenants in a more rural, less expensive house.

The reason the rent was so cheap is because that house was so old.

It looked okay from the outside– a large building with a porch across the front with a swing. The small yard in front of the porch was fenced, but the driveway on the left was not enclosed. That drive led to the door into the kitchen at the back of the house and to what seemed tremendous to a ten year old, but was probably no more than an acre of land planted with grape arbors and fruit trees--lots of pear trees, apple trees, and peach trees. 


How Daddy probably saw the same house.
Add a fence, trees, and a driveway on
the left and this is similar to how I
remember that house.

Every room had a fire-place, the only form of heat available and of course, there was no air conditioning. We had to go out the back door to a porch to use the bathroom because it had been added and opened to the porch and not to the inside of the house.

My favorite room was the kitchen because that's where Mama usually could be found. There was a round, pot-bellied stove in there, and the room was always warm.It also smelled good. When I awoke in the morning, the scent of bacon and eggs wafted into my room.  When I got off the school bus, I could smell dinner cooking before I even reached the house.

Thinking back, those must have been very hard times on my mother.  She spent those months hauling wood into the house and keeping those fires burning. Daddy had made a budget and it didn't allow for the same kind of groceries we'd been accustomed to. Mama had to learn to cook less expensive foods, which was great with me because what's known as "soul food" evolved from making the best of limited resources in the South, and to this day, I love that kind of food.

The front room was Daddy's work room.  Now, I confess that I was totally spoiled as a child, but the rules were firm:  Don't make loud noises that would disturb him and don't go in that room.  He wrote from 8:00 AM until 6:00 PM and then we had supper.

I have some happy memories from that house and the trees out back.  There was one that was perfect to climb and sit in.  I spent many weekend hours and time between school and supper sitting in my favorite tree and reading.  Perched atop my favorite limb, I met Oliver Twist and became an avid Charles Dickens fan. I'm sure my mother was far less happy than I was because of the extra work and because when the writing didn't go well, my father was capable of extreme irritability.

However, my most vivid memory is fear.  We moved into the house in the fall.  I was terrified of the front yard. The only trees in that small fenced yard were deciduous and all the leaves fell off leaving naked branches.

There were bare trees in the back yard, but they didn't scare me. When I got off the school bus, I ran as fast as I could down the drive to get past the fenced area. I always arrived at the back door breathless and rushed inside to my mother and the warmth and good smells. I don't know what I thought might get me in the front yard, but I don't recall ever going across from the gate to the front door by myself, and I don't remember ever using that swing.  

What does all this have to do with writing?  Stephen Ross's jogging of my memory of living there brought two facts about writing to mind.

FACT 1:  It is most helpful, perhaps even necessary, to have a designated, private place to write. Stephen King recommends this and adds that it should be a space with no distractions. 

FACT 2:  We, both as writers and readers, react to how a place makes us feel from its "aura" more than from the reality of the site. This was vital in my writing of The True Haunting of Julia Bates, my horror novel that is now seeking a publisher. I tried to make the reader feel what I felt as a small child dashing past that scary place that I knew in my heart was fenced to keep the monsters within its borders.



Postscript One: That was my father's first book, and it was published by the University of Texas at Austin.

Postscript Two: I've wanted to try one of those houses where authors live together and write since I first read Frankenstein and the story of its creation.  That's not what Ross wrote about, but his description of that week dampens that idea a little.

Until we meet again, take care of … you!

17 February 2014

To Suspend or Not To Suspend?


by Fran Rizer

                    Just because something really happened
                    doesn't make it believable in fiction.
                                               ----Dr. Christopherson

As an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, I intentionally scheduled my classes with the professors known to be demanding and eccentric.  Dr. Christopherson definitely fit that category. Sharp and witty, he was known for throwing anyone who irritated him out of his classes even if the student simply sneezed one time. He also locked the door of the lecture hall and wouldn't admit anyone after he began. He was mockingly brutal in critiques, but I learned a lot from him.  That line at the beginning, however, is the only thing he taught me that I can now quote word for word, and it leads my thoughts to today's topic--believability.

A Personal Experience:
  
At a writers' circle, I read a brief excerpt from a horror novel aloud to make a point. Immediately, one of the others exclaimed, "I don't think that's believable. What about suspension of disbelief?  I don't think it could be extended that far."

"How many horror or fantasy books have you read in the past three years?" I asked.

The response was, "None.  I read and write literary fiction. I've never read a horror novel."

I replied, "The piece was an excerpt, so we don't know what the author had done previously to assure extreme suspension of disbelief, but I believe that when a reader picks up a horror or fantasy novel, suspension of disbelief is a given."

Masters of  Temporary
Suspension of Disbelief
Stephen King.

Every time I spend nearly thirty dollars for a new Stephen King because I can't wait for the paperback, my disbelief is in a state of suspension before I open the cover.  However, the suspension is temporary.  I didn't continue to believe what happens in Dr. Sleep after I completed the book. 

Years ago in the classroom, the students who read R. L. Stine's Goosebumps books suspended disbelief before beginning stories about parents turning into plants in the basement and supernatural creatures living next door.
R L. Stine 

Stine's endeavors as a novelist, short story writer, executive television producer, screen writer and editor have almost all dealt primarily with topics that require suspension of disbelief: children and adult horror, science fiction, humor, and Gothic fiction.



Origin of the Concept
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The term (AKA willing suspension of disbelief) was coined in 1817  by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet and philosopher, in Biographia Literaria. He used it primarily in reference to supernatural and Gothic poetry, but it is an important factor in fictional works of action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres.

Coleridge qualified the suspension by suggesting that the writer should infuse a "human interest and semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale to enable the reader to suspend judgment of the plausibility of the narrative." Personally, I think that in many cases, like my choice of King and the students' love of the Goosebumps books, the reader suspends disbelief before beginning and maintains it until the author does something that breaks the suspension.

Suspension of Disbelief in Mystery Writing and Movies

Even "realistic" fiction receives some suspension. The audience doesn't jump up shouting, "No, it takes weeks or months," when forensics reports are back immediately in CSI shows.  Readers don't cry, "Foul!" when private investigators and good guys shoot guns in public places without killing innocent bystanders or getting in trouble with law enforcement.  In real life, crime scene investigators and forensics technicians are not the people primarily responsible for investigation, arrest, interrogation, and solving crimes alone, no matter what you might read or see in Bones.  Without any involvement of supernatural, the audience suspends disbelief in exchange for entertainment.

Secondary Reality - Acceptance of the impossible, but not the improbable. 

Disbelief is usually only suspended if the character or action stays within the realm of the created fictional universe.  A reader may accept that the Grand Mage can teleport across the world or that a spaceship has technology to make itself completely invisible, yet reject that the villain (whether human or not) conveniently has a heart attack and dies just before it attacks the main character.  Like Annie Wilkes says in King's Misery, writers are expected to play fair. In other words, when dealing with fictional situations, the suspension of disbelief generally works within the reality and rules the author creates, but coincidental events aren't accepted.


Star Trek's Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk

Star Trek includes some outrageous ideas, impossible even by today's advanced technology, but the acceptance was made easy by their staying consistently within the realm of their created universe.
  

Note that some works of fiction intentionally push the suspension of disbelief to the maximum limit. An example of that is the Indiana Jones movies where the audience was expected to react to the improbable antics as amusing. 
Jeff Dunham with Achmed the Dead
Terrorist

Suspension of Disbelief in Other Areas

This topic could go on forever, but we'll close with one of my favorite examples: Jeff Dunham, the American ventriloquist, whose repertoire includes a variety of characters.  I can actually see the sticks that operate some of the dummy's limbs and see Jeff's throat move when the character speaks, but during Dunham's show, my disbelief is temporarily suspended to the point that I accept their personalities and statements.  

What are your thoughts on suspension of disbelief?  Please share them.

Until we meet again, take care of… you!

16 December 2013

I, A, B, II, A, (1) (2) (a),(b) B


by Fran Rizer


If you've heard this before, and some of you have, now's the time to go for another cup of coffee. Please come back with it because before this ends I'm going to tell you how and why I used an outline for the first time when writing a book.

Last year, my grandson's language arts teacher told the class, "All writers plan their works with graphic organizers or outlines."

Aeden's hand shot up and he responded, "Not all of them."

"Yes, real writers do."

"But my G-Mama doesn't."

To shorten this story, the class wound up Googling me to satisfy the teacher that Aeden's grandmother really does write professionally.  
Grandson is now
a teenager.

Aeden insisted that I don't use organizers and outlines, but the teacher still made the students all use the graphic organizer sheet she'd printed.

My classroom days are over, and I agree some of the forms used in classes no doubt help develop better student writers.  Some of them address plot; some, characterization; some, setting; some, literary devices; some, other topics ad nauseam.  



Frequently the forms are cute and most kids like cute much better than the old outline form with its capital letters, lower case letters, Roman and Arabic numerals that was used when I was in elementary school. 

In my personal opinion, a lot of what's being used is too restrictive, even for students. Aeden's accelerated LA instructor this year sometimes uses forms requiring the writers to use a metaphor in the first paragraph, onomatopoeia in the second, direct quotations in the third, and on and on and on.

So where am I headed with all this?  I haven't used an outline or, heaven forbid, a mimeographed graphic organizer sheet since I was a kid... until this year!


I started the first Callie book with a nursery rhyme, stuck a casket in it, and produced a title.  (A Tisket, a Tasket, A FANCY STOLEN CASKET)  I then thought of an ending. I wanted to have the protagonist wind up locked in a casket, and I actually wrote the climatic chapter first.  After that, it was easy to start from the beginning and write until I reached the ending.

That pattern worked for the next four books, but the sixth required me to actually have a plan, an outline of sorts.

This time, the idea wasn't a nursery rhyme, but a song--"The Twelve Days of Christmas."  The full title naturally was On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me A CASKET UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE.  I wanted to relate it to the song, so I Googled and printed out the traditional words. That led to wanting to sing it, so my sons and grandson began making up lines that fit the melody but were related to mystery or crime or the South.  I decided to use them as chapter headings.  We came up with twelve presents to use. Here they are:

Everyone knows the pattern.  It begins with the first verse:
On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
A corpse under the Christmas tree.
The second verse is:
On the second day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
Two broken hearts,
And a corpse under the Christmas tree
Each additional verse adds a new present and then repeats all the previous gifts.  At the end, it goes like this:
 On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Twelve eggs a’nogging
 Eleven axes grinding,
        Ten turkeys trotting,
        Nine guns a’smoking,
        Eight collards cooking,
        Seven doggies howling,
        Six tongues a’wagging,
        Five stolen rings,
        Four falling flakes,
        Three red wreaths,
        Two broken hearts,
        And a corpse under the Christmas tree                                                     
I had an outline--not with all those letters and numbers, but a plan. I decided each chapter should be twenty to twenty-five pages to make twelve chapters add up to novel length. Later I added recipes for my friends who laugh at recipes and knitting patterns in cozies and also because my agent likes for the Callie books to run between 80,000 and 85,000 words.

Next task:  Develop an overall plot using chapters appropriate to their titles.  I confess it took some thought, but I managed it and made one-line notes for each chapter. Then I wrote A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree.  I can now say I've written a book essentially from an outline.

Currently I'm not working on a Callie, and I've reverted back to my favorite kind of writing.  I call it "falling into the page."  Stephen King describes it this way:



Until we meet again, take care of ...you!

13 August 2013

Who Was That Masked Writer?


by Dale C. Andrews 
In 1968 or 1969 Paul McCartney said a wistful and startling thing in an interview. He said the Beatles had discussed the idea of going out on the road as a bar-band named Randy and the Rockets. They would wear hokey capes and masks à la Count Five, he said, so no one would recognize them, and they would just have a rave-up, like in the old days.
When the interviewer suggested they would be recognized by their voices, Paul seemed at first startled … and then a bit appalled. 
                                                                   Stephen King
                                                                   Why I Was Bachman 

      In The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck ended a famous soliloquy with the conclusion “we can’t start over.” This may be true, but that has not stopped some writers from trying. 

       Writing as someone else, that is, under a pseudonym, has always enjoyed a subversive and at times roguish popularity among writers. Over the years there have been many motivations for hiding one’s name -- Mary Ann Evans, author of Silas Marner, for example, wrote under the pseudonym of George Eliot because she believed that to be taken seriously in the mid-1800s an author really ought to be male. Thankfully, we are well past such “necessities,” but, for a host of reasons, authors still, at times, give in to a temptation to write as someone else. 

       Mysteries, which are all about secrets, have always been a particularly fertile ground for cultivating new identities. Ellery Queen, a pseudonym on his (or their) own, also wrote pseudonymously as Barnaby Ross. Earl Stanley Gardner wrote the Perry Mason mysteries under his own name, but wrote his D.A. Doug Selby mysteries under the name of A.A. Fair. Ruth Rendell writes not only as herself, but also as Barbara Vine. The reasons these writers,and many others, decided to write as someone else are varied, but among particularly popular novelists, such as those who have staked out claims to the top spots on The New York Times list, there is a particularly tantalizing temptation to coin a new name. They want to prove John Steinbeck wrong. 

J. K. Rowlings and friend
       Apropos of all of this, on April 30 Mullholand Books published a new mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling, by “first time author” Robert Galbraith, described on the book jacket as an ex-military officer making his first foray into fiction writing. Although a debut novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling attracted the attention of a number of reviewers, including The New York Times, which had this to say about the book: 
Robert Galbraith has written a highly entertaining book... Even better, he has introduced an appealing protagonist in Strike, who's sure to be the star of many sequels to come.... its narrative moves forward with propulsive suspense. More important, Strike and his . . . assistant, Robin (playing Nora to his Nick, Salander to his Blomkvist), have become a team - a team whose further adventures the reader cannot help eagerly awaiting.
There was also a shared theme in the reviews of the book -- it seemed too good, too polished, for a first time work. The reviewers began to wonder, and to speculate. 

       In any event, buoyed by similarly favorable reviews The Cuckoo’s Calling was doing passably well for a first novel, selling 8,500 copies within a few weeks of publication and garnering two inquiries concerning possible film adaptations. It was then that the wife of a lawyer in the London law firm that had done legal work for the book, revealed on Twitter, contrary to the terms of a secrecy agreement, that the author was none other than J. K. Rowlings. Rowlings has now admitted authorship, settled with the law firm, which has committed to making a large donation to the same soldiers’ charity that is also receiving the royalties from the book. 

       When asked why she elected to begin a new series using a pseudonym, and writing as a man, Ms. Rowlings had this to say: 
I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback. It was a fantastic experience and I only wish it could have gone on a little longer.  
I [also] wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me, so a male pseudonym seemed a good idea. I am proud to say, though, that when I “unmasked” myself to my editor David Shelley who had read and enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling without realizing I wrote it, one of the first things he said was “I never would have thought a woman wrote that.” Apparently I had successfully channeled my inner bloke! 
George Eliot could not have said or done it better! 

"Richard Bachman" from the
Thinner book cover  (Actually Stephen King's
agent's insurance broker)
       J. K. Rowling was not the first best selling author to succumb to the temptation to begin again. Stephen King attempted the same feat in the 1980s when, writing as Richard Bachman, he published five novels before being outed in 1985 just about the time that the fifth Bachman book, Thinner, was beginning to do well in the bookstores. Stephen King reportedly had several reasons for inventing Bachman. First, King is remarkably prolific and his publisher, early on, feared that publishing at the rate King wrote -- more than a book a year -- would flood the market. So a pseudonym created a new outlet. 

       But part of it was, in King’s words, the same hunger that tempted J. K. Rowling’s to invent Galbraith. Here is what King said in Why I Was Bachman, the essay that accompanies the 1985 omnibus volume The Bachman Books collecting the first four of Richard Bachman’s novels: 
You try to make sense of your life. Everybody tries to do that, I think, and part of making sense of things is trying to find reasons . . . or constants . . . things that don’t fluctuate. Eveyone does it, but perhaps people who have extraordinarily lucky or unlucky lives do it a little more. . . . Part of you wants to think that you must have been one hardworking S.O.B. or a real prince or maybe even one of the Sainted Multitude if you end up riding high in a world where people are starving, shooting each other, burning out, bumming out, getting loaded, getting ‘Luded.  
But there’s another part that suggests it’s all a lottery, a real-life game-show not much different from “Wheel of Fortune” or “The New Price is Right” . . . . It is for some reason depressing to think it was all -- or even mostly -- an accident. So maybe you try to find out if you could do it again.  
Or in my case, if Bachman could do it again. 
       King’s experiment was also cut short. The next Bachman book was to be Misery, and, in King’s words, “I think that one might have taken 'Dicky' onto the best-seller list.” Rowling’s experiment was cut way short, even though her next Cormoran Striker mystery will still be published under Galbraith’s name in 2014. 

Robert Galbraith and Richard Bachman sharing a stage
       It is interesting to compare Galbraith and Bachman with, respectively, Rowlings and King. Galbraith's mystery is much grittier than any of the Harry Potter books.  The Cuckoo's Calling is prone toward the use of idle profanity, darkly modern themes and urban settings.  And Bachman is also darker than King.  Bachman’s The Long Walk is sort of like The Hunger Games but without the love story -- just children dying in a televised contest. And Rage, centering on a young gunman taking over a school room, has been withdrawn from the market out of concern as to what it might prompt or might already have prompted. 

       But while the pseudonym authors differ markedly from their creators, behind the curtain, nonetheless similar narrative voices are discernible. Before being outed by a meticulous book store clerk who found an obscure reference to King in one of the Bachman copyright documents, there was rampant speculation that Bachman was King premised on the similarities of sentence structure, word usage, and plots. And today, 30 years after King’s Bachman experiment, apparently computerized digital comparisons between the Harry Potter books and The Cuckoo’s Calling were on the verge of outing Rowling when that tweet from the lawyer’s wife pulled the rug out from under her. 

     As noted, Galbraith and Bachman were doing respectably well before their identities were pierced. But sales in each case went ballistic when the pseudonym mystery was cracked. The Washington Post reported that “the news helped [The Cuckoo’s Calling to] climb straight to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list” the next week. And Richard Bachman’s Thinner was selling very well when King was outed. “But the fact,” King observes, “that Thinner did 28,000 copies when Bachman was the author and 280,000 copes when Steve King became the author, might tell you something, huh?” 

       Galbraith will continue to write mystery novels, but as a known pseudonym of Rowlings. Bachman, according to King, died of cancer of the pseudonym in 1985, although some “posthumous” Bachman works have been published since then. 

       In the end, what can we say of these experiments? Do they ultimately prove that hard work wins out or do they validate the lightning strike of luck? Both The Cuckoo’s Calling and the Bachman novel The Long Walk were rejected by publishers that would have jumped at the works if armed with a little foreknowledge. 

       Experiments cut short may ultimately yield no good answer. But on a side note, consider this. Amidst the confusion that attended the news that Rowlings was, in fact, Galbraith, and the ensuing rush to secure copies of her new book, Ron Charles of The Washington Post reported an item that can keep us pondering: 
The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t the only Cuckoo title on The Post’s list this week. Cliff Stoll’s nonfiction story, The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy through the Maze of Computer Espionage is No. 4 on the nonfiction paperback list.  
Why would a book from 1989 pop up now? Are NSA employees buying copies in bulk? Are Rowling fans confused about her pseudonym? Or is it just wizardry?  
That lightning may have struck Cliff Stoll.  Assuming, of course, that he is Cliff Stoll.

01 July 2013

Co-Conspirators


by Fran Rizer

My favorite King photo.  You'll see it anytime
I write about him.
John Mellencamp when
he was
John Cougar Mellencamp
On June 6, 2013, I watched Stephen Colbert when Stephen King, John Mellencamp, and T-Bone Burnett appeared as guests.
Any one of these three being interviewed would interest me.  As we all know, Stephen King is a tremendously successful writer who also happens to be a favorite of mine.

John Mellencamp is a rock star, also a favorite of mine for more than just his best-known "Jack and Diane."  I was a Mellencamp fan back when he was a Cougar and I wasn't.

T-Bone Burnett
  T-Bone Burnett has multiple musical credentials. He's a musician, song writer, and arranger, but his greatest achievements and awards have come from production of such people as Roy Orbison and Elvis Costello and producing  music for many films including O Brother, Where Art Thou?  He's won the Frederick Loewe Award for Film Composing, Golden Globe Awards, and many Grammy Awards.
    
Sorry this current photo of the
threesome is a bit fuzzy.  It
came from a video.
 Since their appearance on The Colbert Report, the three of them have appeared on multiple shows including Morning Joe, NPR's World Cafe, NPR's All Things Considered, SiriusXM's Outlaw Country, The Charlie Rose Show,and The Late Show with David Letterman--all during the month of June!  (Oh, John, don't we wish we had their publicist scheduling our signings!)

WHY ALL THIS?  Here's the answer: 



AEG Live has announced that the southern gothic, supernatural musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County will be touring twenty cities throughout the Midwest and Southeast beginning October 10th in Bloomington, Indiana and ending November 6 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Tickets are on sale at aeglive.com.

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County began when Mellencamp told King about a cabin on his land in Indiana where two brothers had gotten in a fight over a girl resulting in one brother killing the other.  Only a few days later, the surviving brother was killed in a car accident.  The girl was with him and died also.

Mellencamp shared this story over thirteen years ago.  King outlined a play about it.  After that, they were off and on, back and forth, until they developed it into a full-length musical.

On advertising and the book covers, CD, and DVD covers, King, Mellencamp, and Burnett refer to themselves as "co-conspirators."

Joe, Frank and Drake's dad, and brother of Jack and Andy sees his sons headed in a downward spiral similar to their uncles.  He decides it's time to reveal his own terrible secret at the site of the tragedy before it's too late.

Mellencamp wrote the music.  Instead of the songs telling the story, they reflect the feelings of the characters.  The blues 'n roots music covers a wide range of styles, and it's masterly produced by T-Bone Burnett with many famous artists.

Multiple products are available--the musical and recordings and books. You can even win prizes from the Bloody Disgusting Contest.  Check the Internet for merchandise, tour info, and ticket information.  You can find it on any of the three co-conspirators' pages as well as Ghost Brothers of Darkland County's website.

A quote from Stephen King:

"John can make rock & roll records and I can write books for the rest of our lives, but that's the safe way to do it, and that's no way to live if you want to stay creative.  We were willing to be educated, and at our age, that's an accomplishment."

I looked them up.  Stephen King was born 9/21/47; T-Bone Burnett, 1/14/48; and John Mellencamp, 10/07/51.  They're all in their sixties, and I am, too.

I think it's time to stray from the safe way.  I just sent the Christmas Callie to the publisher yesterday.  Tomorrow, I'm beginning a paranormal.

12 March 2013

Gone South (Again) -- Play Ball!


Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Florida --  Spring Training Home to the Washington Nationals
by Dale C. Andrews

    One of the things about posting articles for over one and a half years on SleuthSayers is that my annual habits begin to reveal themselves.  Nowhere is this more evident than during the winter months.  As I have written before, my wife and I, as we approached retirement, most looked forward to escaping the east coast during the months of January and February.  We are blessed with the fact that our elder adult son lives with us and his slightly younger brother lives close by, so there is no problem each winter with leaving the cats and the house behind along with the weather. 

    This year, like last year, we escaped for ten days in the Caribbean in January, and were under sail on the Island Windjammer ship Sagitta when my birthday rolled around.  Then we were back in the District of Columbia or two weeks before leaving for the Gulf Shores of Alabama, where we encamped for 5 weeks in a condo overlooking the beach and the Gulf.  We have spent most of a short twelve days back in the D.C, survived a final winter snow false alarm, and are now poised, once again, on the brink of our final winter trip – to watch the Washington Nationals in Spring Training in Viera, Florida.
Our Smart Car exits the Autotrain (to general laughter)

    As great as the prior winter escapes were, in many ways this one is my favorite.  Instead of driving our larger “road car” south, as we did when we travelled to and from the Gulf Shore, on this trip we drive our convertible two-seater Smart car the 20 miles to Lorton, Virginia, and then board the Autotrain for an overnight trip to Sanford, Florida, about 50 miles from the cottage we rent across the street from the beach at Cocoa Beach, Florida.  We will be there for one week, then catch a few days in Orlando re-acquainting ourselves with “the Mouse,” and head back to D.C. at the end of March, hoping to have finessed our way through winter once again.

Our rental cottage at Cocoa Beach
    But while the Autotrain and Cocoa Beach are terrific, what I truly love about this trip is its underlying theme:  the return of baseball, and the boys of summer.  It is difficult to understand what it is like to be a Washington, D.C. baseball fan without having lived through the last 40 years here.  Those years included a 33 year stretch without any baseball at all.  Remember that we lost the Senators twice:  First to Minneapolis, then to Texas.  In the intervening years there were repeated attempts to lure the nation’s pastime back to D.C. – one year it became so liklely that the San Diego Padres would relocate here that baseball cards were issued for that team, re-named the Nationals – but all of the previous attempts ultimately failed, generally as a result of a veto by Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, who persisted for decades in the smug belief that if he held us captive long enough Washington D.C. fans would embrace the Orioles as their own.  Sorry.  We didn’t.  There are some things that even hostages will not do.   

    All of this is background to explain how our household, and much of Washington, has embraced the return of baseball to the Nation’s capitol.  As Laura Ingalls Wilder observed, joy is always best when it follows sorrow.  Our thirst was quenched following a very long drought. 

    Last year in an analogous post I recounted some recommended readings that embrace the national pastime and that are great preparation, read in early spring, for what is to come with the boys of summer.  This year I thought I would add at least two more gems to the list, each by well-known authors who also apparently can’t get baseball out of their minds this time of year. 

    First up, Stephen King.  King is a long-time victim of baseball fever.  His 2004 non-fiction volume Faithful is based on his correspondence with fellow novelist and co-author Stewart O’Nan, both rabid Red Sox fans, throughout the course of the 2004 season and ending with Boston’s trip to the world series.  King has also penned two short works inspired by baseball, 2010’s Blockade Billy, about a mythical 1957 catcher who, for reasons best told by King, has been erased completely from baseball history, and 2012’s A Face in the Crowd, also co-written with O’Nan, a long short story recounting what happens to a baseball fan who begins to see long-departed acquaintances from his past seated around him at the ballpark.  But while each of these works can serve to establish King’s baseball credentials, to my mind his finest baseball-related work is the 1999 novel The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, the story of a girl lost in the woods who is counseled, in her imagination, by Gordon, the real-life Boston closer from the 1990s, and is ultimately inspired to “close” the novel as Gordon would have a game.  A great read for spring.

    Batting second, John Grisham.  Long before attending law school Grisham dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals and to this day he is a big supporter of little league teams in Mississippi and Virginia.  His non-legal 2001 quasi-autobiographical novel A Painted House features a narration punctuated by family gatherings around the radio to listen to Harry Caray’s play-by-play of St. Louis Cardinal games.  (Yep, that’s where Caray was, paired with Jack Buck, prior to his Chicago days.)  Even though baseball is only a supporting character in A Painted House, the novel is a fine spring read.  But Grisham truly excels with his 2012 novel Calico Joe, inspired by the real-life story of Ray Chapman, the only ball player ever killed by a pitch.  For a National’s fan like myself the novel proved prescient soon after it was released when, in the summer of 2012 rookie Bryce Harper, the team’s boy wonder, and the closest thing we have to Calico Joe, was beaned on purpose by Philly pitcher Cole Hamel for no reason except that Harper was new, young, eager and poised for greatness.  Like the pitcher antagonist in Calico Joe, Hamels self-servingly defended his action as nothing more than a lesson in “old school” baseball.  Former Phillies pitcher Curt Shilling (and, one would suspect, Grisham, as well) had a better word for it – “stupid.”  That lesson is learned in Calico Joe – another great read as we await opening day.

    Time to pack.  I am off to Florida.  Play ball!

(Next week acclaimed mystery writer Terence Faherty joins SleuthSayers, alternating Tuesdays with me.  Terry’s accomplishments – including authorship of both the Owen Keane and Scott Elliot series of mysteries and numerous awards—leave my own scant efforts in a pale cloud of literary dust.  But at least we have this:  Terry and I both love a good pastiche, as anyone who has read Terry's recent  short story A Scandal in Bohemia (EQMM, February 2013) knows full well.  And this we also share:  an understanding that the rules of constrained writing, once mastered, can also be bent.  This extends not just to plot, such as in Terry's re-imagined telling of Conan Doyle’s Bohemian Scandal, but to writing styles as well.  I noted in my last blog Churchill’s admonition that ending a sentence in a preposition was something “up with which he would not put.”  And here is Holmes dismissing the sanctity of the rule in Terry’s Bohemian pastiche: 
The wording of your note is out of character with a true free spirit.  “A matter up with which he can no longer put,” indeed.  Only someone sitting on a particularly rigid stick would go to such lengths to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.”
I am certain we are all looking forward to welcoming Terry to the SleuthSayers ranks!)

10 March 2013

The Dean of SleuthSayers


David Dean
Chief David Dean
by Leigh Lundin

When I began David Dean's The Thirteenth Child, I didn't know what to expect. I'd admired the Baroque cover art and read David's article of a semi-feral child who haunted his neighborhood, but all I'd heard were rumors that it wasn't really a paranormal novel, which sort of hints at paranormal elements, doesn't it? I mean if someone says Mr. Soprag isn't really an alcoholic, you'd think umm… But when Fran and David say it, I believe them.

Besides, I know David Dean is a good writer from his stories in Ellery Queen. Thus with curiosity, I delved into the 226 page novel and I began to understand those not-really-paranormal rumors. I shy away from analogies with other writers, but the novel bears comparison with the best and most intimate of Stephen King. I won't give away anything more because I want you to discover what it's all about like I did.

The two main protagonists, Police Chief Nick Catesby and the town egghead/drunk Preston Howard, find themselves dealing with a child abductor. To clarify, the Police Chief tries to find the abductor and Preston is trying not to be taken for the perpetrator and not succeeding very well. To further confuse the situation, Chief Catesby tangles with office politics and becomes caught up in a relationship with Preston's daughter, Fanny.

She's a sweetly fetching daughter, and here the author paints an appealing picture of the girl next door– kind, intelligent, patient, generous, and unfortunately long-suffering when it comes to her father. One of the wonderful lines from the novel is that she doesn't stop forgiving because she can't stop loving. She's someone we want to know, the woman who cushions the hard edges of society and life.

Thirteenth Child
And finally, the author gives us not one, not two, but three people we love to hate: two cruelly vicious teenage boys and a backstabbing police captain who attempts to exploit the situation. I like to think the boys might learn a lesson, but I doubt Captain Weller ever will, despite a well-deserved comeuppance. (I identify with this because the dynamic between Chief Catesby and Captain Weller is surprisingly similar to a situation in some of my own work.)

The author enhances the texture of the plot with an underlying fabric of history, making the plot a richer experience. Dean sets scenes well– we see and feel the woods, an abandoned rail line, the inside of a church, the room where Preston lives, and a mouldering burial crypt. The author adeptly builds an atmosphere of menace.

At one point, the peril from two teen boys feels more immediately deadly than the perpetrator. The story perfectly captures the essence of young bullies. The reader has no doubt any of the three will kill, but the perpetrator is what he is, albeit with a scheme of his own, while the teen boys choose to be cruel.

The author, a Jersey Shore police chief, gives the reader confidence he knows the policing side of the case, and he manages it subtly without drowning us in procedural details. All in all, he creates a town we'd love to live in, at least when Chief Catesby is on duty and David Dean is there to tell the story.

If you like classic Stephen King, you'll love David Dean's The Thirteenth Child. It's murderously good.

04 February 2013

And Where Is THAT?


by Fran Rizer




St. Mary, SC, is my town, and Surcie Island is my island.

When I wrote the first Callie Parrish Mystery, I created St. Mary, a small town on the coast of South Carolina, not far from Beaufort and Fripp Island. It's located near Highway 17. To get to Columbia or Charleston from St. Mary, take I-95 north to I-26 where a turn to the east leads to Charleston and circling round to go west leads to the midlands. I Googled carefully to be certain neither St. Mary, SC, nor Surcie Island exist. Surcie is actually based on Edisto Island before it was commercially developed (with a little Daufuskie thrown in), yet inevitably, at book signings, readers assure me that they've been to St. Mary or Surcie Island. I don't attempt to enlighten them, but it does set me thinking about fictional places I've been.

Most photos of William Faulkner are formal and solemn head
shots, possibly because of his height of 5'5".
I like this one because it's more relaxed than most..
The first and most memorable is Yoknapatawpha County in northwestern Mississippi. I traveled there frequently in my youth and return occasionally even now. It's bordered on the north by the Tallahatchie River and on the south by the Yoknapatawpha River. William Faulkner referred to it as my "apocryphal county."

Fourteen of his next seventeen novels after Sartoris were set in Yoknapatawpha County, including my personal favorites: The Sound and the Fury; Absolom, Absolom; and The Reivers. The eight short stories set in Faulkner's own county include my favorite Faulkner short story of all time--"A Rose for Emily."


This marker directs visitors to William Faulkner's
grave in Oxford, Mississippi.


William Faulkner drew this map of
Yoknapatawpha County for
The Portable Faulkner (1946).

Now travel with me from Mississippi to Maine where we'll visit Stephen King's town of Castle Rock. This town is part of King's fictional Maine and first appears in The Dead Zone. Writings set in Castle Rock include Cujo, "The Body" (which became the movie Stand By Me), "Uncle Otto's Truck," "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut," The Dark Half, "The Sun Dog," Needful Things, and "It Grows On You."

Castle Rock is also referred to in about ten short stories as well as fourteen novels, including 11/22/63, Bag of Bones, The Stand, Gerald's Game, and Pet Sematary.

Stephen King's Maine
King openly admits to being a fan of H. P. Lovecraft who created a series of fictional small towns in New England. King follows this idea of Lovecraft's with Jerusalem's Lot (in Salem's Lot), Castle Rock, Derry (in It, Insomnia, Dreamcatcher, and 11/11/63), Little Tall Island, and Haven.

There are several real Castle Rocks in the United States in southwest Washington and in Colorado, south of Denver. King denies his Castle Rock evolved from those real places and acknowledges that he got the name "Castle Rock" from the fictional mountain fort in William Golding's 1963 novel Lord of the Flies.

Stephen King, creator of Castle Rock, Maine
King's Castle Rock has been referred to in several works by others. A signpost in Peter Jackson's alien invasion movie Bad Taste points to a town named Castle Rock. This has been confirmed as a reference to King's town. In her 1993 novel One on One, Tabitha King mentions Castle Rock and thanks "another novelist who was kind enough to allow me to use the name."
Angela Lansbury as Jessica
Fletcher in Murder, She
Wrote
While we're in Maine, let's stop off at another fictional place I've visited many times: Cabot Cove, Maine-- the small fictional fishing village where Jessica Fletcher lives when she's not flitting around New York and Europe in the Murder, She Wrote series. I have friends who will argue that Cabot Cove, Maine, really exists. "After all," they say, "we see it all the time." The fact is that the television series was filmed in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and in Mendocino, California.

David Dean revealed a few weeks ago that a reader of his The Thirteenth Child pointed out "mistakes" he'd made about their town, not noticing that Dean's town had a different name. I'm an avid Faulkner, King, and now Dean fan, but I confess I think a writer creating his or her own location is the easiest way out. (That's why I took that route, but now I'm finding that as I'm working on the sixth book in the series, I'm having to check back on some geographic facts that I myself created.)

I admit that I have even greater admiration for those who recreate accurate, believable, historical settings in their fiction. An example of that among SSers is Janice Law's Fires of London. For more examples of impressive locations, see David Dean's recent blog Location, Location, Location.


This began with my emphatic statement that St. Mary, SC, and Surcie Island, SC, are my creations. I'll close by telling you that a writer friend of mine has sold a story he set in St. Mary, SC. He used a low country ruins scene I made up for another series and actually had his character mention Emily from my story Leigh likes: "Emily's Ghost Story." He called me on the telephone all excited about the sale (and when he has a publication date, I'll share it with you), but I confess that though he called it "homage," I wasn't really joyful about it. However, if Stephen King gives his wife permission to use his town in her novel, my friend can borrow some name from me.

I never introduce a song performance nor a prose reading with an explanation. I feel that the work should stand on its own. I also am not fond of books that begin with a list of character descriptions and/or a map of the location. I prefer to learn these things as I read, yet, after writing this, I actually considered making a map of St. Mary, SC, showing locations of events such as where Bill was caught making out with Loose Lucy during the candlelight vigil when Jane was kidnapped and where Little Fiddlin' Fred is buried in his gold-plated casket as well as recurring places like Callie's apartment, Middleton's Mortuary, Pa's homeplace, June Bug's burned out "Club," Rizzie's Gastric Gullah Grill, and other spots.

On second thought, that sounds like far too much work. Callie's readers will have to be satisfied with word descriptions.

Until we meet again, take care of. . . you!

26 August 2012

I'm Now …


by Louis Willis

… a Stephen King fan, which I owe to you. I wasn’t a fan before reading that many of you admire his writing. It’s not that I didn’t like his stories, I just never felt compelled to read them. I liked the movies based on his stories. My favorites are The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. My least favorites are The Tommyknockers and The Dreamcatcher. The movies showed his storytelling skills but didn’t persuade me to read the stories. 

I read The Dreamcatcher when it was first published because of the title and the negative reviews. I wondered how anyone could catch dreams. Also, I knew King was a prolific and popular writer who usually received positive reviews, so, I wondered, why the negative ones? After I read the novel, I agreed with the reviewers, it is a bad novel, and the movie didn’t improve the story. 

I decided to read more of his stories because of your admiration. I bought two of his books at random: The Gunslinger: The Dark Tower and Just After Sunset. The third book, Different Seasons, I bought because it contains the story on which The Shawshank Redemption is based

For this post, I read the 13 stories in Just After Sunset. The protagonist in the story titledN,” describes better than I can what King’s stories are like: “Reality is a mystery, … and the everyday texture of things is the cloth we draw over it to mask its brightness and darkness.” 

“N” is the best and most enjoyable story in Just After Sunset. N, an accountant, sees a psychiatrist for his obsessive compulsive disorder after a weird experience he had while taking pictures of rocks in Ackerman’s Field. When he looks with his naked eye, he sees seven rocks and strange shapes, but when he looks through his camera’s viewfinder, there are eight, and things appear normal. The aftermath of the experience causes him to see even numbers as safe, odd as unsafe, and he must make sure there are an even number of objects on tables, etc.. Although he fears whatever he sees or thinks he sees in the field, he returns again and again. No spoiler, so I won’t tell you how it ends, but the end is scary.

“A Very Tight Place,” involving a conflict between two men over a piece of land, proves that you can still enjoy a story even when you foresee the protagonist will escape a trap his enemy has laid. Such a story satisfies the reader’s anticipation. The incident in “A Very Tight Place “ involving the protagonist’s escape from a portable toilet occurs about a third of the way in the story and kept me on the edge of my seat. I knew he would escape – his being trapped was nowhere near the end of the story. Not only did I want to see how he would escape, I wanted to help him. King’s prose is so good that I felt right there in that sweltering, stinky toilet with him.

“The Gingerbread Girl” is the poorest story in the book where implausibility overwhelms credibility. A young woman who lost her child and is thinking of divorcing her husband goes to her father’s cabin in a deserted resort where she encounters a serial killer. To flee his house, (no spoiler here) after escaping from the kitchen chair he'd taped her to, she runs into the bedroom/office with him pursuing close behind, where she bars the door with a chair. She throws an old school desk through a window, wraps a blanket around herself, and jumps out the broken window. In escaping from the chair, she sprained her wrist and lower back. It seems to me that those injuries would have made it rather difficult for her to escape though that window. I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

I haven’t decided which book to read next. I am certain of one thing, I shall not read more of the stories on a dark and stormy night.