Showing posts with label T.S. Hottle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label T.S. Hottle. Show all posts

26 August 2022

The Day the Language Changed


Recall your high school English classes, the books you had to read. Early on, it's usually Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter or even Robinson Crusoe. Of this last, I prefer the Andy Weir version, but that's a story for a different day.

Now let's not kid ourselves. No English teacher is going to assign Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks. Their job is not to bump up sales at Barnes & Noble. They want culturally significant writings in the English language. A stranded sailor in the waning days of exploration, a metaphor-heavy story about an angry captain and the whale who maimed him, and religious hysteria in Colonial New England have a lot to say about how the language has evolved.

Take those three tomes with Charles Dickens' body of work, and you realize that, at least in the 18th and early 19th centuries, novelists were a wordy bunch.

And then some guy from Hannibal, Missouri writes a travelogue laced with humor, local color, and... spare prose? The Innocents Abroad is a diary of one Samuel Clemens's travels from the Mississippi River through Utah and Nevada, to California, and even to Hawaii back when it was still independent. Writing as Mark Twain, he ditches the heavy, ponderous prose of Melville and Hawthorne (and Dickens) for one-liners. Instead of long introductory essays (Hawthorne goes on a political rant about the Whigs), Twain jumps in and starts talking about preparing for his trip. This isn't fine literature. This is a cigar-chomping Border State wanderer talking to you over a bottle of whiskey. 

And the eyes sweep right across the page. Even though language has shifted somewhat since 1870, you understand instinctively what Twain is saying. It's a refreshing change.

He's not the first English-language writer to cut to the chase. Shakespeare himself kept his dialog spare, lacing just enough in to avoid long passages of stage setup and sound effects. Yes, he wrote drama, but in between his less-than-subtle references to classical literature and to history (skewed, of course, toward the Tudors and their Stuart cousins) are puns, dialog meant to appeal to the masses. But Shakespeare wrote drama. Washington Irving did not. If you've ever read his essays about living among the Dutch of Upstate New York or his famous The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, you know Irving didn't waste words.

But Irving was an exception. Twain, more popular in his own time than Irving ever hoped to be, was, no pun intended, novel.

Of course, Dickens, Melville, and Hawthorne, while trying to lean into symbolism and history (sometimes contemporary history), also had to keep hungry audiences coming back. In an age before mass media, readers in Illinois or Texas had no clue about whaling ships or pre-Revolution Massachusetts. Dickens knew his readers did not just live in London, and those that did knew nothing about parts of their own city. So, internal monologue and heavy description were not just smart, they were mandatory.

Twain emerged after the Civil War, when telegraphs sent news and messages instantly across the continent. The telephone would follow in 1876. And anyone could hop the railroads and cross the country. So, people's knowledge of the world had widened. By the time of A Tramp Abroad, Twain did not have to spend pages describing the Swiss Alps or the German Black Forest unless it served his story.

In fact, the first really difficult Twain book to read is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and mainly for his insistence on writing in Huck's broken dialog. On the other hand, we are discussing a book that introduces a character too racist for the Confederacy, that being Huck's Pa. The Prince and the Pauper, The Gilded Age, and Tom Sawyer all have more in common with Stephen King and Nicholas Sparks than Herman Melville.

Is it our shortening attention spans? Maybe. But Twain, for all his reputation while alive and since, was an outlier. For an example, I direct you toward Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, which begins with James doing his own literary criticism. (Spoiler alert: I abandoned that one. I could finish Moby Dick.)

It wasn't until after World War I, a few years after Twain's death, that prose started to tighten up. We now look to Hemingway as our role model. Clean, sparse prose almost to the point of white room scenes, Hemingway was part of the Lost Generation. Raymond Chandler made fun of him in a Philip Marlowe novel, but that same novel followed his example, just with more similes that fell to the ground like cocaine from a politician's coffee table. (Ouch. That was bad.)

Hemingway's time overlapped that of Tolkien, whom I would call the last of the classical writers. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has so much description, interior monologue, and side stories that Stephen King's work looks like a collection of pamphlets. But try to submit something like The Fellowship of the Ring today, and expect a form rejection letter back. Update The Old Man and the Sea for the present day, and you might get a serious look.

But I have to believe Hemingway took Twain's get-to-the-point method of storytelling as permission. Some lament the change as the death of the "high-minded novel." Normally, that means tales of middle-aged college professors in inappropriate relationships with young female students. (Actually, Philip Roth pulled that off brilliantly in The Human Stain, but that was a jumping off point.) These days, especially in crime fiction, we want our prose lean.

05 August 2022

Can't Happen Here


 It happened in January. On my street, we park our cars along the street. There are big, wide spaces that are clearly not part of the road, but do give us enough space to park one or two cars. Not surprisingly, we get possessive of these spaces. The guy across the street, universally considered the nicest guy in the neighborhood, can get nasty about someone parking in front of his house. Never mind that it's actually public parking.

After five years living in this house, someone hit my car. Alcohol was not likely involved. No, it was one of my own neighbors from literally up the street. I had taken late December and early January off from Uber and had planned to go out the next evening. I would not drive again until March. My response?

BUT THAT NEVER HAPPENS HERE!

It's a fender bender. So, naturally, I'm not nearly as skittish about parking out front. It took five years for someone to hit my car. Plus, if you'd seen our driveway, for which I still haven't forgiven the previous owner, you'd understand why I'm still risking it. And no one was killed. Though there's a black cat my neighbor attempted to miss that's in danger of landing in the violin factory.

Yet, as I type this tonight racing a deadline, I'm watching a news story from nearby Arlington Heights. The towns surrounding Lockland, including Arlington Heights, have fallen on such hard times since the disappearance of Lockland's industrial heart that some of them no longer have police departments. A woman was attacked inside her home despite her street now patrolled heavily by neighboring Reading. The woman says, "You hear of this elsewhere, not here." 

She wants to leave. Granted, someone knocking in your car's door because their driving skills leave a lot to be desired doesn't compare to an assault inside your own home by two strangers. Violence traumatizes people. It's a leading cause of PTSD. If someone beats the hell out of you where you live, leaving is not an unreasonable reaction.

It happened to me once when I first moved to Cincinnati. Taking my girlfriend on an afternoon trip downtown, we wandered around the late, lamented Skywalk. Walking between Carew Tower and the Westin, a guy came up and started muttering about violence to someone who did him wrong. Then he asked us for a couple dollars. My response to the homeless had been sometimes to give them money to make them go away. There is a subset of people who will make intimidation or aggravation a means of getting money out of hassled passersby. This guy did not go away. Back in the Tower, we thought we'd grab lunch. Only our friend was back. With a friend of his own. We thought it was because that was his territory. Only he followed us. We went down to the food court. He and his new friend followed. We crossed to the elevators. He made a beeline for us.

We escaped by taking an elevator up a floor, then jumping into another car, taking it up ten floors. It bewildered the people at the law firm on that floor, but we were able to leave in peace. We had lunch across the river in Kentucky. 

That was 1992. I did not visit Carew Tower again for five years. By then, my experience with the characters downtown had deepened. I could spot the bad actors, the harmless cranks, and those who actually needed help.

It only takes one incident, no matter how rare. My stepson AJ will not ride his motorcycle on Ronald Reagan Highway after a hit-and-run sent him to the hospital. His mother won't drive in nearby Covington alone after a carjacking. We like to think we understand the risks, but especially these days, we've become risk averse. If it happens once, it's hard to imagine it won't happen again.

15 July 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

Quiet. I have bushes to beat around!

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

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

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

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

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

Oops. They passed. 

But...

Jim Winter, renaissance man!
TS Hottle, handsome devil

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

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

 


*I can't back that up.

24 June 2022

The Sound Of Music


Music can be a powerful motivator for a writer. Years ago, I heard Annie Lennox's cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." The image of a dead man lying at the side of a highway as semis (or "lorries," as Young puts it in his lyrics) at sunrise crystalized a series of unconnected scenes. Years later, after putting it on the shelf and dusting it off again, that project became Holland Bay.

Of course, you hope a song exploding in your brain like that pays off sooner. Holland Bay took so long to write that I spun up an entire trilogy and adjacent arcs of novellas by the time I sent it to Down & Out Books. In fact, I had no idea I would be getting back into science fiction when I started.

In the early days, when I wrote about PI Nick Kepler, I wanted a series of prompts to keep short stories flowing. In my misspent youth, I had an obsession with, along with Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, heavy metal gods Deep Purple. I decided I wanted a short story named for a song title from each of their (ever-growing) list of studio albums. That was a start. But "Hush," which spawned a short story about hush money, became "Just Like Suicide," as the hush money involved a murder made to look like suicide. The obscure "Chasing Shadows" involved a witch and a graveyard (the former making a return appearance in the novel Bad Religion) became "Full Moon Boogie," another obscure song by a later iteration of the Jeff Beck Group. So music led to music. But some were obvious.

Deep Purple's second hit, an instrumental called "Wring That Neck," has a title that calls to mind chickens meeting an untimely demise before ending up in a bucket with eleven herbs and spices. Nick Kepler was a creature of Cleveland and its suburbs. However, I had lived briefly in what I now dub Amish Mafia territory, specifically Holmes County, Ohio, where my parents spent their final years. I remember I was culture shocked being fifty miles from anywhere. So Nick went looking for a Romeo and Juliet couple who run off to more rural than rural Ohio. It ends a bit better than Willy Shakes' tragic tale, but Nick is a fish out of water, even slipping in chicken poop at one point. He is less than charitable to his client after that.

Then there's "Flight of the Rat," written about two years after 9/11. Many of us struggled to deal with that event without hitting the reader over the head with it. The song, from Purple's In Rock album, gave me an obvious title. Nick chases a bail jumper into Cleveland's Hopkins Airport on 9/11 and gets away with things he would not be able to do twenty-four hours later. That one, I played the source song over and over while writing it.

Lately, one song came up on Tidal, my streaming service of choice. "Last Plane Out" by one-off band Toy Matinee has shown up several times on Daily Discovery. While inspired by Yes, UK, and, to some extent, Asia, the band featured Guy Pratt, aka Roger Waters' replacement in Pink Floyd. The song, however, has more in common with Radiohead and Coldplay but doesn't take itself nearly as seriously. "Last Plane Out" begins with the line "Welcome to Sodom. How we wish you were here." It goes on to tell the tale of someone living in a land of decadence and vice but hoping for a seat on the titular last plane out. Edge of the apocalypse stuff.

The song is quite catchy, but the lyrics suggest the second season of Jack Ryan, as Ryan and Greer seek to navigate a fictionalized Venezuela. Currently, I'm pondering either going with a thriller and accessing my inner Lee Child or making this a second outing for my science fiction space spy Eric Yuwono, who may return to the land of sin and vice already in a pending novel. "Welcome to Sodom," the Biblical land of violent hedonism, seems an irresistible jumping off point for either a present-day character or a futuristic spy finding himself on a planet about to implode under the weight of its own over-indulgence.

These aren't the only examples. Our own Brian Thornton edited two anthologies inspired by the music of Steely Dan while the same publisher just released one based on Warren Zevon's. (How can you not do crime fiction with a title like Lawyers, Guns, and Money?) And music is all through Stephen King's books, quoted, as themes, and even in the meta fiction. (The Dark Half's main character wrote a literary novel called Purple Haze that may or may not have had an intrusion by his violent dead twin pseudonym, but clearly channeled Hendrix in its tone.)

And why wouldn't music weave its way through our writing? Some writers listen to specific music to set the mood for a scene. Others want a wall of sound to keep the world out so they can concentrate. And sometimes, it just helps you think.

13 May 2022

You Said What About the Bard?


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

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

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 April 2022

Writing a PI



The first real novel I wrote could bear the label "in the tradition of Hammett, Chandler, and McDonald." Nick Kepler did have a lot in common with the Op, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer. Yet, unlike those three, I actually immersed myself in Sue Grafton, Robert Parker's first ten or so Spenser novels (After that, Parker was just having fun with the characters), and dabbling a bit in Elvis Cole. Of the three, I liked Kinsey Millhone the best. She was a loner who, despite protestations of having no life, had a more interesting personal life than the other two. Really, I've had Amstel. It's not that great. Neither is Rolling Rock. Sorry, Spenser.

Being a noob, I didn't realize that all I was doing was driving this year's less impressive model of a classic. Sure, I was driving a Mustang, but was it the forgettable eighties Mustang? Or the Pinto with "Mustang II" slapped on the side? (I actually owned one of those. We shall never speak of it again!!!) Really, Nick was more like the 1990s Mustang - sleek, powerful, but lacking the soul the original and New Millennium versions had. Nick swapped out blues for the jazz of earlier PIs. He had a psycho helper a la Joe Pike, Hawk, and Bubba, but he was a minor character among several. He shared a working arrangement with Kinsey, scoring office space from his former employer in the same way. So... Different. Right?

Well, I come not to bury the PI. People are still churning them out, seeking a new spin on the knight errant. The day of the thriller has also brought story tropes that require the archetype change. And besides, I've met a few PIs over the years. The one I met in the 90s while working at the Computer Stuporstore (which we shall also not speak of again) had a vastly different approach to his job than the lady who knocked on my door looking for a woman who lived here before I bought the house.

By the time I wrote the third Kepler novel, though, I realized it would never be traditionally published. It was time to move on. I wrote Road Rules as a dare, channeling my inner Elmore Leonard. I wrote Holland Bay, partly mourning the end of The Wire, partly because I had seen and read so much about police in the late 2000s, and partly because Christopher Nolan built a new Gotham City, prompting me to build my own city. To me, the PI was dead, despite later botching a dive into the Kindle revolution to get out those last two Kepler novels.

But would I go back? I sort of did. I wanted to know what happened to Gypsy from the short story "Roofies," wrote a novella called Gypsy's Kiss (still sort of in print), and have a novel that needs expanding about Nick facing down Katrina in New Orleans. Actually, he's facing down the aftermath and a guy who thinks he's Jim Jones. Only Nick doesn't like Flavor-Ade. 

But the New Orleans novel, still in second draft, awaits a deeper rewrite. My focus in crime has been Holland Bay and its follow-ups. 

But is the PI dead? No, he's just morphed. Again. Like he always does. One need only look at Jack Irish, by the late Peter Temple. I've been watching the Australian series on Acorn. Guy Pearce's disheveled ex-lawyer isn't really a PI per se. He's a woodworker. He's a debt collector. He's kind of a lawyer. And he spends most of is time trying to piece his life back together. (And I will never forgive the antagonist of Season 2 for destroying that beautifully restored Studebaker.) But it's hard to compete. After all, James Bond continually reinvents himself, adapting to Jason Bourne and inspiring numerous spins on the character, including female agents. Marvel dominates, and DC profitably sputters on the big screen. And let's be honest, between the return of Star Trek (literally, in a couple of weeks with Captain Pike's last crew and James T. Kirk slated to appear next season) and more Leonardesque streamers like Better Call Saul and Ozark, the PI sometimes gets relegated to supporting character or even minion.

But can he be reinvented? I don't see why not. If we ignore Mark Wahlberg's Spenser (Really, a love letter to Boston with two familiar character names slapped onto the story), Spenser or even Marlowe are the perfect vehicles for the ten-episode season format. And to be honest, I prefer this. Britain, Ireland, and Australia have done this for decades instead of the long, hard-to-maintain 26-episode system used in the US and Canada. But an updated or period-set take on either character makes a very doable way to introduce to PI to a new generation. 

Hmm... The last Holland Bay novel I wrote is written like it's a ten-episode season. And the follow-up is outlined the same. Maybe there's hope to revive Nick after all.

Sidenote: I say that both the real and fictional PI have changed. Except, one morning not long after I moved to my current home, I drove through the neighboring town of Silverton, Ohio. The PIs I've met over the years occupied suites of offices in New York City or cookie-cutter offices in suburban office parks adjacent to law practices and insurance companies. I just happened to look up on my way to pick up a pizza when I saw a second story window with pebbled glass that read "Private Investigator" and had the phone number. Don't know who the person was, male or female, old or young, white or black, but there has to be a story there. It was like Archer stepped out of a battered paperback and into our world.

18 February 2022

You Should Write...


My brother-in-law started writing. Pushing sixty, he's taken to it with a zeal I had in my twenties. At least he knows what he's writing. I dabbled in someone else's sandbox before sending out the first Nick Kepler short around the time we worried Y2K would end the world. Good times!

Since then, I've discovered I can write crime at a reasonable pace expected by traditional publishers. Holland Bay is done. It's sequel is off to the first reader, and I'm outlining the third in the series. One a year? We can do that. I also found I can spin out scifi pretty much in my sleep. It probably comes from that sandbox I played in during the 90s. The serial numbers are even original, not filed off, though I might rightfully be accused of my one protag aiming to misbehave. (If you've read my stuff and got that reference, you know those two characters would not get along at all.)

So while I've worked in relative obscurity for the past 20 years, I've had a decent output. This inevitably leads to that conversation. I'm not successful enough to get the "Hey, I have an idea. You write it. We split the profits" conversation. I have been in earshot of that conversation, and I cringe every time I hear it. The writer is usually well-known. If I know the person well enough, I can rescue them with, "Hey, [insert writer's name here], Ken Bruen's holding court over at the back table. Let's see if we can figure out who in Ireland he doesn't know." Sidenote: When I was temporarily single and at a mixers event, I rescued a woman who turned out to be a neighbor from a rather obnoxious suitor this way, pretending to be her date instead of using another writer's party as an escape hatch. Five minutes later, I was her date. Who says skills learned as a writer don't apply to real life?

 The version of the conversation I now get when someone looks at the combined output of Jim Winter and TS Hottle is, "You should write..."

Uh huh. Holland Bay took forever to write. And I spent quarantine dictating what is now called the Suicide Arc - 9 books, people. Add to that writing a scene that let me get into the heads of two characters, and last week's output - which was supposed to be a crime short - fell only 2000 words shy of a novella. And yet...

My brother-in-law started text bombing me one night about a character named Mitsuko. Mitsuko plays with swords and automatic weapons and hangs out with space marines. She is a supporting character in the two novels currently out and the star of a novella called Flight Blade. And BIL is a fan.

A huge fan.

I appreciate that. If I had the time to talk up my characters and stories in person, I'd probably sell a lot more books. But BIL took it one step further.

"Hey, I got an idea. You should do a whole series about Mitsuko's kids!"

Um... She's not married at this point or even looking to have kids.

"What if [other character] and her hookup?"

One, they'd kill each other, and two, both would say, "Ew!" at that idea.

It went on like this for about twenty minutes. I had to explain I had the entire arc in the can already, and the stories, including one needing a total rewrite, are pretty much etched in stone. I also explained that Down & Out is expecting a final draft of a novel this spring, and I would like to get a follow-up sliding across the keyboard by then.

And anyway, don't you have a novel to finish, too?

He's not the only one, and part of his enthusiasm comes from discovering writing only last year. It helped him forget a recent health scare, and it's also as addictive as I've found it. Maybe he'll start writing under two names, too. (I hope not. If I weren't married to a woman who's good at refocusing my attention, I'd have no life.)

Someone always thinks I'm the perfect vehicle for their political viewpoint. (Don't do that. It doesn't matter your politics. I hate pundits and will likely hurt your feelings.) Or they really do have an idea but don't want to do the work. Or they don't understand how writing works. It took a month to write Suicide Run but three to write next year's The Dogs of Beaumont Heights. Both burned a lot of brain cycles to create. Plus I'm trying to get back into short stories.

Plus, the way publishing works, were I to get enough traction under either or both names, a Baen, a St. Martin's, a Tor, or a Random House is going to want me to send something completely original. At some point, I have to build a new sandbox to play in, maybe two. I have a couple of ideas on the crime side that can go to the next level, maybe allow me to finish Branson's story eventually. Scifi may prove a tad more difficult. I can't seem to extract myself from my sprawling universe. Maybe I won't, just change characters.

But, reader or writer, we've heard that horror story about someone accosting a writer with "I've got this great idea, and you should write it." Many of them back off when they realize that's not how it happens. Others are a bit disheartened when they realize the idea is not what's copyrighted or what the publisher or readers pay for. It's the execution. My next scifi novel will owe a lot to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse: Now. Unlike Copolla, though, I finished mine. But aside from a real piece of work named Kurz and a bunch of soldiers sailing upriver, the novel will bear little resemblance to either Joseph Conrad's novel or the movie. For starters, I seriously doubt either Conrad's gone-native madman nor Marlon Brando's incoherent colonel had cause to say, "And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids." 

There are stories that come from headlines, from those documentaries on A&E and Netflix, and from stories I hear driving Uber that give me story germs of my own. Many who don't do what we do, and even quite a few who do, think that writing is typing. You can write 1000 words an hour, so you should have a novel in two weeks.

I wish it did work like that. For every Road Rules, though, which I wrote in 13 days, there's a Holland Bay, which I started in 2007, rewrote multiple times over the next 12 years, and finally published in November. Those are extremes. Road Rules was a clearly defined story written on a dare. Holland Bay needed a couple of drafts just to finish the world building. Yes, even crime stories need world building.

The stock answer, which has the answer of usually being genuine, is "Why don't you write it?" Sometimes, they take the bait, and off they go down the rabbit hole.

Like my brother-in-law did. He's on Book 2 and is still revising Book 1. Took me a few years to learn that.

28 January 2022

One-Horse Town


 This week, I'm working on a short story, the first in a while that isn't intended for a specific market. Remember that old cliche with the woman tied to a railroad track as the 3:15 to Yuma bears down on her? It's a staple of westerns, but I thought about what that might actually entail if it really happened in 2022. It helps that, on the two days I go into the office, I drive through a quaint little village called Glendale, which is bisected by a major CSX line. Yes, I'm a dork. I watch the trains. So, I fictionalized the village and needed a name.

Do you know how hard names are to come up with? It took me years, literally, to come up with Monticello for Holland Bay. And like a lot of my small town stories, this one takes place in the fictitious constellation of suburbs around Monticello. But it needs a name.

I considered Fernwood and discarded it. Fernwood, for those of you of a certain age, served as the setting for two shows, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2night. Based on a clip from the latter, in which Tom Waits is shanghaied into performing "The Piano Has Been Drinking," I deduced Fernwood existed somewhere along the Ohio Turnpike., which crosses the northern part of the state. Well, Monticello sits to the north, and Fernwood gets a passing mention in both Holland Bay and several short stories that need to come back out of the vault. 

But Fernwood came off as a bit too cutesy. I then considered Willowbrook, a town that not only gets mentioned in passing but features in a short story about a burglar dressed as Santa getting all Grinch on a trailer park on Christmas Eve. In some ways, Willowbrook is based on Lodi, the far-flung exurb of Cleveland where I grew up. (Yes, we all got sick of WMMS playing Creedence's "Lodi" long after Creedence had faded from airplay. Boy, did we get sick of it. It was still playing when the Sex Pistols flamed out and Bruce Springsteen became the king of rock and roll.) And it doesn't really fit the mold for a fictionalized Glendale.

So...

Lift a town from a previous fictional work, one not named Fernwood. Well, Sherwood Anderson wrote about Winesburg, a town based on the very real Clyde, Ohio (which is now, apparently, a suburb of Monticello. Thanks, Sherwood!) Only...

For six months in 1991, I lived ten minutes from a town called Winesburg. In the heart of Ohio's Amish Country. Not quite what I was looking for. It started looking like an homage to another Ohio writer wouldn't work. 

Okay, what about history? Monticello's location in my fictional Ohio sits at the very edge of the historical Connecticut Western Reserve. If you've been to Cleveland or any of the surrounding towns and counties, you see Western Reserve plastered all over the place. It's one of those names like Northcoast that define the region. But I looked more toward Connecticut, which somehow managed to make Northeast Ohio part of the state early on. Virginia and Pennsylvania did that, too, but Pennsylvania borders Ohio, and West Virginia and Kentucky used to be part of Virginia.

A lot of towns in Ohio derive their names from towns in Connecticut. I could have gone with any of the New England states. There's a Boston Township near Cleveland, and settlers from Worcester, MA, came to north central Ohio and decided the English city that gave their hometown its name was spelled stupidly. So they spelled is Wooster. There are only two possible pronunciations. (Mind you, the 1800s was the golden age of simplified spelling.)

But I stuck with good old CT. I avoided Mystic. Too obvious and too close to Dennis Lehane's Mystic River (still my favorite crime novel ever.) But there's a Hartford. There's a Bridgeport. There's a Windsor. All in Ohio. Some are large towns. Others barely a speck on the map - a gas station, a church, and a scattering of houses all in a space shorter than my street in suburban Cincinnati.

One town in CT did not have a town in Ohio: Stoneport. So, in the Celloverse (Can I coin that, or do I need a fan base to do that for me?), settlers from Stoneport, CT came to the Monticello area in the early 1800s to found a town named for their point of origin. So, now I had a town name. Now I could get on with the business of one of Stoneport's uniformed officers finding a woman tied to the track at 3 AM with an Amtrack train bearing down on her.

What? That's not a thing?

07 January 2022

Three Books in 2022


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

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


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


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


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

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

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


17 December 2021

Annual Tradition: A Very Tom Waits Christmas


 Every year, since about 2006 or so, I've always posted a riff on Tom Waits around Christmas time, supposedly from the point of view of one of the reindeer. I've posted it here at least once, and since next Friday is Christmas Eve...

Well, here we are.

A VERY TOM WAITS CHRISTMAS

By Jim Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 November 2021

Black Friday


In year's past, anyone who read my previous blogs knows I am not a fan of Black Friday. To many, it's the official start of the Christmas season.

It's also a primo time for crime. How do I know? I drive Uber.

No one's committed a crime in my car in all the time I've been doing rideshare. Usually, people want to get from point A to point B. But especially since the world is ready to move on from the pandemic – Whether the pandemic is ready to move on from us is another story - this year promises to be packed.

Malls and big box stores will be ideal locations for pick pockets, muggers, and the odd smash-and-grab. Already, one person has jumped in my car and talked about witnessing a fight and the aftermath of a homicide in Over-the-Rhine here in Cincinnati. Years ago, that would not even have been news. I got propositioned by a working girl there on Vine Street back in the bad ol' days. (Spoiler alert: I rolled up the window and jumped when the light turned green.) Now, however, it's party central. So when bad things go down there, it's news.

Crowds are like riots. In reality, riots are just angry crowds. And crowds bring out the worst in people. I know attending the sold out show of one local band, the Naked Karate Girls, or, as I call them, the Beastie Boys of the Queen City, I had to leave the bar several times. They're that popular. As the night wore on, alcohol worked its magic, and my then-spousal unit found herself bumped by a couple of guys who thought nothing of shoving the cute blonde (who, cute as she is, had about fifteen years on these schmucks) the way young boys pull girls' hair or snap their bras because they can't just say, "I think you're cute. Wanna dance?" When I came back into the bar after that, she pointed them out to me. The thing about drunk belligerents is weakness. Some guys are spoiling for a fight, and you avoid them unless you yourself are also spoiling. (When they won't leave you alone, all bets are off. That's usually when someone goes to the ER.) But when they prey upon someone because they perceive them to be weak, they don't handle quiet intimidation well. 

So, I intimidated them. They started bumping other girls. I planted myself in front of them and pretended not to notice them. They moved away. I moved with them. They moved again. I moved with them. Anyone who's met me knows I'm the least scary person in the room. However, I'm also 6'1" with broad shoulders. A person of that description who is scowling and not saying anything?

They moved right out of the bar, out to the parking lot, and into their cars. Probably thought I was the bouncer.

Riots are worse. We all know there are people who live for riots, who, like Heath Ledger or Jared Leto's Joker, live to watch the world burn. Get a crowd worked up and angry, and they're like a pyromaniac with a box of wooden matches. They'll throw a rock in a window. They'll set fire to a car. They'll pick a fight with a cop or even a protester. Or start a fight between one of each.

In one hilarious example a few years back in Baltimore, one such gentleman found himself on CNN spouting incoherently about police brutality – Never mind he couldn't tell you the actual event that spawned it, which was a suspect not taken to the ER when he had breathing trouble – when his mother marched out on camera, grabbed him by the ear, and started dressing him down in front of not only a squad of cops in riot gear, a crowd of protestors, but the entire country. This guy wasn't protesting. He was trying to drop a match on the world. His mother's reaction to his playing with matches was similar to my mother's. Only I played with actual matches, and my mother didn't have an audience, just a fly swatter. (Pre-timeout days, but my father was an artiste with the timeout. Ask my younger brothers.)

Black Friday is somewhat like this. People used to make fun of those at Walmart at 4 AM to grab a $20 DVD player. Yet one year, my brothers and I found ourselves in Walmart on Thanksgiving. Walmart was in This-Is-Not-A-Drill-Mode with sections of the store cordoned off so workers could prepare for the next day's onslaught. It was surreal. The aisles had stacks and stacks of the DVD players with crowds of people at 6 PM on Thanksgiving standing there with their hands on them. It reminded me of a Stephen King novel about a town taken over by Sinister Forces™.

Or the Purge movies. In fact, that year, my niece was on a Purge kick, so I posted to Facebook that my brothers and I were at Walmart "where murder is legal for the next 24 hours. The new Founding Fathers thank you for shopping at Walmart. Have a blessed day." (I suspect Walmart will not be carrying any of my books, especially if one of the Waltons reads Suicide Run, but that's scifi and for another blog.)

Nonetheless, I plan to mask up and go out next weekend for Uber. There will be no shortage of those wanting to take advantage of the mad rush, and the extra trips will let me get some shopping done while I'm between shifts.

Hopefully, my crime-free streak will continue. If not, barring serious injury, I'll have another story to tell while I look for a new side hustle.

I'll be back in three weeks with my annual A Very Tom Waits Christmas. For now, here's Steely Dan's take on Black Friday, featuring the late Walter Becker…

15 October 2021

Careful With That Website, Eugene



 Last week was... um... interesting for Facebook. Not in the usual "Wow, that tech company invented something really cool" way. That seems to be left to SpaceX these days. (Let's face it. How many of you, even devoted Apple users, yawn at a new iPhone anymore?) No, Mr. Zuckerberg had an interesting week as in the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."

For starters, one of his own managers went on 60 Minutes and confirmed what most of us suspected. It's more profitable to let us at each other's throats through Facebook than to actually combat misinformation and outright fraud. That was Sunday night. On Monday morning, it got worse. Suddenly, Messenger did not work. This aggravated me not because "Oh, noze! I can't have my favorite cyber-distraction while I work!!!" No, Messenger displayed a "No Internet Connection" message. Not good. Usually, this means my computer's aging WiFi card flaked out. I had to kill my work session and reset my card. Sounds arcane and technical, but all it means is I right-clicked and reset in about three mouse clicks. It takes longer to find the router on the list of connection choices. Only...

My work session came up fine but no Facebook or Messenger. There are then two sites I go to for what's going on with the Internet. One is downdetector.com, which tells you if your favorite web site or your Internet provider is having a bad day. The other is Twitter, which lets you use the hysteria of the world to gauge people's reaction to it. Downdetector usually has a few hundred reports when Amazon is slow in updating its site or Google has a rare outage. Oh, no. The graph showed reports of Facebook and related sites in the hundreds of thousands. Compare that to the next day, when my web host flaked out for about fifteen minutes. Forty reports, and while not GoDaddy, this is not exactly a bit player in the trade.


 

What did Twitter look like? Oh, my friends, it looked like a party. Normally, I hate Twitter. They keep serving up political tweets I don't want to read. That day, I noticed how easy it was to mute [insert preening politician or idiot pundit here]

Earlier, author Sara Celi, whom I've had a few conversations with, mentioned the 60 Minutes interview and suggested we, as writers, are getting too dependent on Facebook with marketing. I suggested Facebook would, like AOL before it, implode and become irrelevant, that someone would build a better mousetrap for data, one that didn't rely so much on division and falsehoods to drive revenue. Then Facebook went down. I followed up my tweet to Sara with, "I was kidding! I didn't think they'd take me seriously!"

It is, however, true we've become dependent on Facebook. Also Google, Microsoft, Apple, and probably a few you don't even think about. But you can live without Google. Not everyone has a Gmail account, and there are other search engines. Your computer could be run on something other than Windows or OS X, and it would not take much to replace the iPhone or your favorite Android device.

Source: Paramount

But Facebook has surpassed AOL in its ubiquity and its user base. The number of people without a Facebook account, even in less developed places, is actually a minority. The problem is writers, particularly small press and independent writers, are almost chained to the platform.

That same platform that disappeared for six hours on Monday.

Social media is not going away anytime soon, if ever. Like television, it will likely morph and fragment in the future. But the specific platforms? 

I liken it to Dan Ackroyd in Grosse Pointe Blank shouting "Who is like this Beast? Who can stand against him?" whenever someone worries some retail juggernaut is monopolizing our buying. In retail, the Beast was originally Woolworth, supplanted by, in order, Montgomery-Ward, Sears, K Mart, and now Walmart. And Walmart is running scared of Amazon. Before you decide Amazon is unstoppable, let me point out that Jeff Bezos says that one day, Amazon will go out of business. Hard to argue with the man who rode into space on the most expensive phallic joke in history.

It's even more pronounced in the realm of online platforms. Who was like CompuServe (or, as those of us who couldn't afford it called it, Compu$pend)? Who could stand against them? Well, AOL could. But AOL got knocked off its perch by Yahoo, who toppled before MySpace, which got crushed by Facebook. What makes anyone think Facebook is invincible or immortal?

Maybe they are immortal, but as a wise man from Hamilton, Ontario, once said, you're only immortal for a limited time.

Inertia killed CompuServe, the first big shared platform of note. (There were others - GEnie, Prodigy, FidoNet.) It also reduced MySpace to that site where booking agents find bands (and much less blinding these days.) But hubris killed Facebook and will most certainly destroy Facebook. Already, a simple solution to the damage they cause has been posited: Chronological feeds instead of using the algorithms to guess which posts people will get twitchy enough to click. But Facebook's revenue is too dependent on an divisive model that change, if it comes, will come too late.

Meanwhile, someone will build a new mousetrap to collate data and connect your online world without being so damn creepy. They'll likely partner with someone like salesforce.com or Google or even Microsoft and/or Apple. All four companies have shown an interest in a more effortless way to manage content. All it takes is one person to do with the social network concept Mark Zuckerberg played with at Harvard and do like Bezos and Musk are doing with Project Mercury and Apollo. Duplicate it, fight off the patent trolls, and give people a less stressful platform.

Will the last person on Facebook please turn off the lights?


24 September 2021

Hi, This Is Uber...


Uber ride
Source: uber.com

My current side gig is Uber. Not sure how much longer that's going to last as I'm in job transition. By the time you read this, I'm probably in my final week as an employee at my current company, hopefully becoming a contractor as I move on to…

Well, it's the 2020s, so a new place to login to every morning, with a couple of afternoons in the office. But for now, I Uber. I will drive Uber tonight after you read this and tomorrow night.

There's kind of a Bob Ross quality to driving rideshare. This is your car. You make the rules. Not that Uber doesn't have rules. They ding you for declining or canceling rides. Passengers can affect your ratings and your earnings. But we rate the passengers, too. I know some drivers who go out of their way to make passengers earn a five-star rating. I don't. They're my customers. I start them with five stars, and unless they do something spectacularly bad, they end their trip with all five. I have hard, fast rules that can result in someone getting kicked out of my car, but in all the time I've been doing this, I haven't had to. It's probably luck, but every rule has a source.

The last time someone failed to get a five star from me, he objected to my playing jazz on the ride. That, in and of itself, is not bad. Sooner or later, someone's not going to like the music. Unfortunately, his only answer to what genre of music he wanted was "Good music." After flipping to three different radio stations, he could only ask why I couldn't play good music. New rule. If a passenger can't tell me what he or she likes, I pull up King Crimson's entire Larks' Tongues in Aspic suite - All 45 minutes of it recorded over a 30-year period - and declare the subject closed. Like a lot of incidents, I doubt this will be repeated. It wasn't a ride-ending incident, but it added a level of aggravation I hadn't seen since driving the "Zombie Apocalypse." The ride, however, got worse.

The Zombie Apocalypse is what I call the midnight to 3am stretch on Saturday nights. I used to work it most weekends as it's quite lucrative. It also provides the best opportunity for someone to get sick in your car. People are not at their best. They're also fodder for stories since most passengers ask, "Got any stories of rides?" I tell them five percent of passengers are bad apples. They get to be entertainment for the other ninety-five percent.

In one case, I relayed a story to a guy about a drunk two weeks previously. He realized I was talking about him. I don't really see faces, so I didn't know. I picked up the gent from a bar in Clifton, the neighborhood surrounding the University of Cincinnati. When we established he, indeed, was the subject of the story, I said, "Look, tell your friends the Uber guy told you a funny story about a drunk he picked up from your favorite bar. No one has to know you're the drunk, just that the story's funny." He liked that. 

You would think the Zombie Apocalypse would have its share of ride-ending incidents, and most of my rules for staying in the car come from earlier shifts that time of night. But I have learned watching cops over the years to use "the voice" to keep people in line. Because, having been the zombie myself in my younger days, I know that's not easy after five shots of Cuervo and a dozen beers. Most people listen. 

The rides I wish I'd have handled differently actually came earlier in the day. One in particular still bothers me. I got a call to Short Vine, a street near the university. The passenger gave his pickup spot as Bogart's, a well-known concert venue. I pull up in front of Bogart's. No show. I call. Across the street, I see a guy with his girlfriend answer his phone and looking straight at me. "This is Uber. I'm here." Behind me, a cop is yelling for me to move.

This is something you need to understand when you call Uber or Lyft: Police win all arguments. If they say move, you move. Period. End of discussion. My passenger wasn't having it.

"No, you're not," he sneered, still looking right at me.

Meanwhile, the cop is off his motorcycle and has that flashlight out with the strobe on it. Time to go. 

"Sir," I said, thinking something more obscene, "I am looking right at you." I had the window down now so the cop could hear my predicament. "You have thirty seconds to get across the street and get in the car, or the ride's canceled. You can take it up with the officer walking up behind me."

The cop slowed but still approached. The guy dragged his girlfriend behind him and got in the car.

Before he could say word one, I looked at the officer and said, "I'm tempted to let you have this guy."

The cop said nothing as I put the car in gear. 

The girl in the back looked a bit dazed. The boyfriend, who already landed squarely on my bad side, began talking smack about her. Would I want to be with her? Awkward descriptions of her anatomy. At the time, I had no guidance from Uber, but in retrospect, I wish I'd booted him from the car and asked the girl if she wanted to go somewhere. Later, Uber told us some subtle ways to short-circuit those situations: Turn up the music, change the subject, or point-blank ask the woman if she really wants to be there.

For the most part, though, people like jazz. If they don't talk, they ride quietly. And since the pandemic, that job has actually been fun. Except for Mr. Good Music. That guy can walk next time.

03 September 2021

How I Spent My Summer Vacation


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

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

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

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

In Arizona.

Four days before Memorial Day.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

24 July 2021

Feast or Famine


 

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

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

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

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

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

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




11 June 2021

Writing Soundtrack


 I wrote a few weeks back about being on a jazz kick. It's what I listen to while I work in the morning, when I drive Uber, and sometimes when I write. In fact, on Sunday mornings, I have the Morning Jazz playlist on while everyone else is asleep. Yes, I'm that guy, the one who gets up early even on Sundays.

But what is good music for writing?

In all honesty, it depends on the writer. This came up on the Liminal Fiction scifi group about a week ago. What do we listen to when we write? The answers were all over the place. Some want absolutely no sound whatsoever. Others want ambient or classical, something unobtrusive. Jazz fits that bill when I also want something quiet and in the background. (And then my curated jazz playlist includes Herbie Hancock's "RockIt" and a couple of selections from Frank Zappa's Jazz from Hell. Not exactly quiet jazz.)

This being a primarily science fiction and fantasy group, it did not surprise me that many of those responding liked soundtracks. Not playlists of classic and obscure tunes like Cruella. More like Marvel, Star Trek, or Apollo 13. This is definitely mood music, a concept I truly understand. I wrote Second Hand Goods and Bad Religion with a lot of Metallica and Alice in Chains as Nick was a very angry man in those stories.

But when I wrote Northcoast Shakedown all those years ago, I channeled a lot of blues and blues rock. Some of this came from an author friend giving me two Rory Gallagher CD's. It was also a time when most of us in the crime community, even some cozy writers, fell head over heels for the music of Tom Waits. So, Northcoast and a lot of the short stories I wrote in the 2000 had an earthy feel to them, like someone was in the background playing wailing blues solos or wooden acoustic. 

These days, I write first thing in the morning. I have about two hours before I have to help my wife start her day and make my way downstairs to the office. I work at home. During breaks I give myself to write, I play jazz in the morning and vinyl in the afternoon. The vinyl ranges from Sinatra to the Beatles to AC/DC. 

For me, music is brain juice. I write well enough in silence, but a lot of that has to do with the two hours I spend at the beginning of the day. I also read then. But when full time in the office was a thing, I would go to Starbucks on my lunch break. It had music, coffee, and best of all, no coworkers. (Sorry, coworkers, I love ya, but I really need to put our shared day job aside and reboot.)

So what do you listen to when you write? Do you listen to anything? Anyone listening to the sounds of cicadas as they get words in? (Spoiler alert: I'm not. My ears hurt.)

19 March 2021

Thank God for the Man Who Put the White Lines on the Highway


 

Every city has its sound. That's part of what goes into the setting. There are jazz towns like New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco. Memphis is all about country and roots-based rock. Nashville owns country. I won't call Seattle grunge, but Seattle still burns the punk torch.

Living here in Cincinnati, I sometimes lament that I moved to a "wedding singer" town. The bands here all play cover tunes, although my former spouse is married to a guy who plays some tasty Southern Rock originals. (Link at the end of the article, with a few others you might like.) Some cities are like that, content to have bands that do nothing but cover tunes. Which is sad because I really think rock would benefit from hearing originals from the Rusty Griswolds, Naked Karate Girls, or the Menus, all highly regarded Cincinnati bands that sometimes sound better than the ones they cover.

But, if I haven't beaten you over the head with it recently enough, I grew up in the multi-county empire known as Cleveland. And Cleveland gave us not only the name "rock and roll," it gave us Kansas transplant Joe Walsh, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and the spell he put on you, half the members of The Cars, and Nine Inch Nails. (Yes, they started in Cleveland as an offshoot of another band Trent Reznor played in, the Exotic Birds.) Unfortunately, it also gave us Eric Carmen with the song that caused a million wrists to be slit, "All by Myself." (Thanks, Eric. The makers of prozac, Xanax, and Paxil thank you.)

It also gave us one Michael Stanley Gee.

Who?

Better known as Michael Stanley. Of the Michael Stanley Band. Those of us of a certain age will remember three of his songs. Those of us from the Midwest of that same certain age will remember quite a few more. (Working from home, his last regional hit, "Shut Up and Leave Me Alone" gets put on heavy rotation on Spotify whenever the sales team has a "crisis.") The first is that early eighties guilty pleasure, "He Can't Love You Like I Love You." Michael doesn't sing on this one, but he is memorable.




As you can see from the video, the city's blue-collar, manufacturing ethic is on full display here. "He Can't Love You..." was a fun song and a breakout hit for MSB (as we know them). Joe Walsh and Eric Carmen left town to make it big, as would Trent Reznor when NIN gained traction. MSB insisted on staying put. After all, you can travel to New York to record and tour anywhere. Why should they abandon their hometown? Over on the country side, Willie Nelson did not really gain success until he went home to Austin, Texas. That might have contributed to their difficulties breaking the charts.

The second song is Cleveland at heart, a jilted boyfriend making the long, lonely drive home during a snowstorm. "Lover" has a line that, if you're from that area, you hear over and over every winter. "Thank God for the man who put the white lines on the highway." Even before I knew what noir meant, I thought the song was noir as hell.




It's companion song, "In the Heartland," is pretty much their signature tune and explicitly mentions local spots, including the "boys on Mayfield" looking for a fight. Readers of Les Roberts's work will recognize that particular street as the turf of Cosa Nostra off-shoots, the Mayfield Road Mob, purveyors of fine illegal booze from 1920 through 1933.





Of course, I wax nostalgic about one of my graduating class's high school heroes as Michael Stanley pass away a couple weeks ago. After he called it a career, Stanley joined local classic rock station WNCX as an on-air personality and worked in television. He was a natural, an affable, down-to-Earth guy who refused to surrender his blue collar roots. We still love him for it.

So, perhaps it's fitting that I leave you with MSB's final hit, an ode to his hometown that should have been the state rock and roll song. (I still haven't forgiven Governor Celeste for picking "Hang on, Sloopy." Jerk.) Because like Michael Stanley, Cleveland is still very much "My Town."




For that tasty Southern rock I mentioned, check out the Russell Jinkins XL Band on Facebook.
 
And for more Northcoast rock, check out Northcoast Shakedown. No, I had nothing to do with the band. Except sharing DNA with the oh-so-talented lead guitarist, Chris Hottle. That, and I might have signed off on the name.

26 February 2021

All That Jazz


T.S. Hottle aka Jim Winter
T.S. Hottle aka Jim Winter

Hello, yes! I'm back. The Artist Occasionally Known as Jim Winter…

I did the formerly bit, but then Down & Out liked something I wrote, so here I am.

And what have I been up to? Well, I've gotten on a bit of a jazz kick, which is interesting. Because Robert Parker, Lorne Estleman, and to some extent, Michael Connelly all got static for having their primary protags – Spenser, Amos Walker, and Harry Bosch – into jazz the way 15-year-old boys in the 80s knew what the lead singer of Motley Crue had for breakfast.

A little background on how this came to be a topic, aside from Miles Davis blasting off my new turntable as I write this. (Yeah. I'm into vinyl now, too.)

In the beforetime, in the long, long ago,  when I first wrote crime fiction, I needed a way to differentiate my PI character, Nick Kepler, from every other PI character out there. He wasn't a bookstore hound like Tess Monaghan or a loud dresser like Elvis Cole. And he didn't have a minimalist lifestyle like Kinsey Milhonne. And forget the psycho sidekick. That trope needed to die a long time before Northcoast Shakedown saw the light of day in 2005.

The one thing I could do was make his taste in music parallel to my own. So, I put him in a blues band, had him blast Metallica on his way to lay the smack down on someone who killed one of his best friends, and even had him still using cassette as late as… Well, 2004. So, a blues guy. I didn't even bother listening to jazz. Why? I wasn't writing about it.

Fast forward to 2019. For my wife and stepson, our vacation would be the trip of a lifetime. They had wanted to drive Route 66 all the way to Santa Monica since years before I came into the picture. I could only get a week off work, but I hit on an idea. I would fly to San Francisco where we would spend a weekend, then Matt and I would drive back to Cincinnati in a rental.

While I waited for my family to show, I went to see Haight-Ashbury. Never went on two previous trips. This being San Fran, I Ubered everywhere. My very first driver taking me to Haight-Ashbury played jazz. I told him I, too, drove Uber and asked if the jazz was for him or for the passengers. "Oh, the passengers. I've had maybe two complaints since I started. You should play it. Watch your tips go up."

I took his advice, and lo, and behold, the passengers loved it. And I loved it. Why? Because like the 15-year-old boy named Jim Winter (OK, named TS Hottle) in the 1980s, I could tell you what Keith Richards had for breakfast this morning. (Corn flakes and a cup of black coffee.) I knew nothing of jazz but those wonderful sounds coming out of my speakers.

And then the pandemic hit. We are all now working from home, and my commute is down a flight of stairs. My wife bought me a turntable two years ago. Last year, she bought me Miles and Coltrane. And damn, but it sounds good on vinyl.

So, my days are spent now listening to either curated lists on Spotify, CDs of Frank, Tony, and Ella, or even some vinyl I got my hands on. Oh, the classic rock and grunge and even some punk slip in there And my wife has me listening to country, though not as often as she'd like. But the change reminds me of when I made Bouchercon annually. In the mid-2000s, many of the denizens then opened my ears up to Tom Waits, had me rediscover Johnny Cash, and dive into some of those latter-day blues guys like Rory Gallagher. Jazz has so many overlaps it's crazy. I heard it on albums by Kelly Clarkson, the Foo Fighters, and even Tom Petty (whom I'm still mourning.) So, how does that affect my writing?

I'm coming off an 18-month scifi writing binge, and 2/3 of my output was written to playlists that went from Bird Parker to a salsa princess from the 90s named Basia back to Sinatra and forward a bit into Weather Report.

And oh, the stories I could tell about the here and now driving people around the city to the sounds of Herbie Hancock.

It's been like a rejuvenation of my brain these last 18 months.

My ever-growing, very eclectic playlist is called Jazzhole.

Because I'm sometimes still a 15-year-old boy.