08 April 2013

Lost Ideas

Jan GrapeI'm thrilled the President is backing research on mapping the brain. Mainly, because I'd like to know where my brilliant ideas go inside my brain when I lose them. Does this ever happen to you? I can't understand it and it's wonderful that scientist are going to map out the brain. I wonder if it will be like a file cabinet and things will be labeled alphabetically? Or will they just handle things regionally? Texas things here. NY things here. California things over here. Music, art, literature, science, mathematics, food, wine, sex, uh oh. I really don't care I just want to access those awesome ideas when I have them.

The aggravation is, I know I had a wonderful idea for this post last week. It was on writing and the lessons were perfect for the beginning writer, for the advance writer and for the astute reader. I had examples I planned to use and even thought of book covers I could incorporate. But silly me, I didn't write any of this down. You see, I was laying (lying?) in bed trying to go to sleep and my brain was running about 120 miles per hour. It happens to me at least twice a week. I just can't turn off my brain and go to sleep.

So I'm lying (laying)? there and suddenly I began having a brainstorm. I'll bet at least half of those 86 billion neutrons were popping at the speed of light and the thoughts kept blinking off and on. Off and on. I'd have a good thought and that in turn would melt into another related good thought. The next idea flowed into another and it all made wonderful sense.

I know, I know, I probably should have gotten up, picked up my pad and pen from my night stand and made notes. Problem is, I was so comfortable. I had my body in exactly the right position so that nothing hurt and it was so nice that I just didn't want to move. When you get to be my age, good sleeping positions are to be cherished and the worst thing you can do is move a muscle. Because once you move, that warm comfy position somehow slips away. No matter how much you try, after you get up, to get back into that comfort zone you just can't find it. It's gone. Where I don't know, but perhaps with the brain mapping there will be a cabinet drawer that's labeled "Comfort Zone For Sleeping." Lord, I hope so.

So I'm totally comfortable and I'm not about to move. The next best thing is to sternly tell myself, "Self, this is important. This will make a super article for my SleuthSayers blogspot." Okay, so I repeat several times what I believe is the main theme of my article. I mentally write on my forehead, as if it were a note pad. Number 1: The fantastic way to do this is by writing...this. Number 2: It's very easy to do, all you have to do is...this. Number 3: Show examples of this. Number 4: Get someone to show you how to pull book covers off web sites and put into your article. Finally, Number 5: bring it all together in a meaningful way and wow...you got this.

That's when the danged alarm went off and it was time to get up and get ready for my bowling league. I was exhausted because I had not slept a wink all night because I had this extraordinary idea to write for my blog. However, I couldn't remember any of it except all the meaningless things.. Like being too comfortable to get up and make notes. Like talking sternly to myself and saying "You will remember, you will remember, your will remember." Like mentally writing bullet number points on my forehead as it it was a lined sheet of paper.

BUT I had absolutely no idea what my article idea was about. Nothing. Nada. No way. I've tried every day for nine days to remember. Used every trick I could think of to bring it all back to mind and nothing works. Which means that y'all now have this silly little article about my forgetfulness and my frustration. As my Mama used to say, "It's aggra-fretting."

Please Doctor Scientist, hurry up and get our brains mapped so I can know exactly where to go in my mind to find those super ideas that I manage to come up with. And maybe, just maybe that awesome idea is there, filed away somewhere in my mental file cabinet and I'll be able to resurrect it and write it up for all of you to read.

07 April 2013

A Fiery Death in the Afternoon

by Leigh Lundin

I write about Florida crime news because it's so weird, offbeat, even kinky and often awful, such as the guy arrested for returning used enemas to a Jacksonville pharmacy or the woman who was arrested this week not for breaking and entering a man's home, not for swimming nekked in his swimming pool, but for answering the call of nature in his backyard. She reportedly blamed President Obama.

But sometimes I stumble upon incidents that grab the throat or seize the heart and won't let go. Years ago, a dear friend told me of a wandering high school classmate who'd been sent from her parents' home in California to Plymouth, Massachusetts. She had trouble fitting in and no one was surprised when she disappeared that autumn, supposedly hitchhiking. The grandparents had a large wooded property and the following spring, they began trimming back the overgrowth. There at the back of the property under an apple tree, they found their granddaughter where she'd hanged herself.

But what shocked me was what the girl had with her: A favorite book, a guitar, and an alarm clock. A god-damned alarm clock. To this day that haunts me, a girl I never met setting a date and time to meet her own destiny with… an alarm clock.

Death. Cold, cold, but very, very personal.

I suppose such an incident might inspire a writer, if one could figure out whether it's the beginning of a story, the end, or the journey itself. Or perhaps it overwhelms an ordinary writer, too existential, too esoteric in its implications.

I've been driving a couple of hours each day mostly on Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike, enough that I had to buy a new set of 225-55R16s. Details, fodder for writers, where the rubber meets the road.

So this past week I'm running up the Turnpike at 70mph, 120km/h if you're reading this overseas. Ahead, brake lights. Smoke. Dark smoke, billowing black. Flames reaching into overhead girders.

I'm not a gawker, never have been. Cate says, "Oh, my …."

Out of my peripheral vision, I see a car has smashed into one of the support pilings under an overpass. It's reinforced concrete, two feet in diameter, an immovable object. The Japanese car that plowed into it is not an irresistible force. It's concertinaed into a third of its original length.

Flames, heavy smoke. No ambulance yet. By evening, efficient Turnpike crews will have painted the columns, swept up the glass, repaired the melted asphalt, shampooed the last vestiges of molten metal and fricaseed flesh. That's what your Turnpike tolls pay for.

"Oh," says Cate softly. She turns, drawn by the horror. I focus driving through the traffic and smoke.

Through the flames she can see the rear of the car. "There's writing on the rear window," she says.

"Writing?" I can't turn to look even if I wished.

"Writing, white shoe polish, like…" Only one application comes to mind, a date with destiny. "Like on honeymooners' cars," she says.

Honeymoon bliss, perhaps but certain fiery death in the afternoon.

Sometimes we stumble upon incidents that grab the throat or seize the heart and won't let go. Whether it's the beginning of a story, the end, or the journey itself, it's haunting.

06 April 2013

The Current Crop of Clichés

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I wish I could say that every writer knows how important it is to keep his or her language fresh. In theory, none of them would deny it. Yet all too often, I find myself reading the same tired old phrases and misapplied words. Leafing through a recent read, I found “a knee-jerk reaction,” “a vibrant industry,” “the spitting image,” “short and sweet,” “like he’d seen a ghost.” It’s one thing to use such expressions in dialogue, another in narrative. But that is not actually my beef today. I would like to complain about the fact that in addition to the old clichés, we now have an abundance of new clichés to guard against. Where did they come from? How did they spread so fast? And why, oh why do so many writers insist on using them?

When, for example, did “night and day” (or “day and night”) become “24/7”? When did “back in the old days” or “way back when” become “back in the day”? How did a simple “never” turn into a facetious “not anytime soon”? Actually, that one charmed me the first time I saw it, in Rosemary Harris’s first mystery. When her wisecracking suburban protagonist meets a hostile and suspicious female police detective, she says, “We were not going shopping together anytime soon.” But all too soon, I saw the same expression everywhere. Note to self: if “anytime soon” (or “back in the day” or “24/7”) should inadvertently trickle from your fingertips, delete asap!

I know where “thirtysomething” (and its derivatives, “twentysomething” and “fortysomething,” if not “fiftysomething”) came from: it was the title of a TV series that debuted in 1987. The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1993, where it was qualified as “specifically applied to members of the ‘baby boom’ generation entering their thirties in the mid-1980s; also attributed as an adjective phrase (hence, characteristic of the tastes and lifestyle of this group).” But the baby boomers are now “the new thirty,” ie in their sixties, and I’ve seen manuscript after manuscript in which “thirtysomething” appears simply to denote a character in his or her thirties. Published books, “not so much”—another overused phrase that has emerged in the last couple of years.

Have you read advertising copy for clothing lately? When did “pants” or “pair of pants” become “pant”? Men can buy the “Outdoor Research Foray Pant” at Zappo’s—for one-legged mountain climbers, no doubt—or the “Polo Ralph Lauren Hudson “Preston” Pant” at Bloomingdale’s—for one-legged polo players, maybe? My one consolation is that, as far as I know, nobody but advertisers and maybe retailers is using “pant” as a noun.

The most ubiquitous shift in usage that I’ve noticed, this one more in the spoken than the written word, is “iconic,” which has replaced the synonymous and perfectly good “legendary” and stands in for adjectives with a number of different meanings: “classic,” “typical,” “best known,” “original,” and “household word.” Where did that one come from? You will probably be able to visualize the item I have in mind, whether I say “an iconic Coke bottle” or “a wasp-waisted Coke bottle”—but one is neo-cliché, while the other, I hope, is prose.

05 April 2013

Of Memory and Organic Change

by Dixon Hill

In my last post, I promised to explain how R.T.’s comments on Louis Willis’ earlier post (the one that set my three-part character diatribe in motion) illustrate the manner in which characters organically changed, in order to add depth and life to a 250-word story that had felt like a skeleton, resulting in a final story of nearly 8,000 words, which sold to EQMM. And, I mentioned that this would naturally result in explaining how plot sometimes changes in my writing, due to character behavior or attitude.

To create that 250-word piece, I let my subconscious (I believe, at least) speak to me through a hard-bitten mercenary’s voice. I typed what “the guy” said into my computer, but then pulled out and incorporated only the key points in the story, because of the word limit.

Naturally, this left me with a lot of left-over parts on my computer, because that character in my head had told me a lot about his life, while I’d used only a small portion of it. I suppose this is rather similar to all the parts you’d have left over, if you bought a plastic car model, but only glued in the window glass before gluing the chassis to the body and adding the wheels where they belonged. There wouldn’t be any engine in the model, or any interior to see when looking through the windshield. It would merely be the shell of a car model.

And, to me, that analogy seems to stand up, since the 250-word version of “Dancing in Mozambique” felt like only the shell of the story. It had a body and chassis, and I’d built the driveshaft by twining the story around a shooting concept called The Mozambique. But, most of the stuff the main character had told me sat parked in my computer unused.

One day, quite a while after I decided the 250-word version obviously wasn’t going anywhere, I pulled it out and looked it over. I had the notes I’d “dictated” from my mythical mercenary on a separate Word doc contained within the same story file on my computer. And after reading through all of that, I started thinking that it might make a very nice piece.

The problem was:

I felt that there were still some parts of the over-all story that were missing. They weren’t in the short version of the story, but they weren’t in the dictation notes either. I didn’t know where they were, but pawing through all the pieces in my computer, and mentally matching them to the parts already assembled, I could tell that pieces of the story I wanted to write were definitely missing.

Harkening back to my previous example of the plastic car model, we might say the story had no engine to provide true motive force. Thus the story lacked the power it needed, if it were to drive anywhere – particularly anywhere of significance. Nor did it have a comfortable interior that might lend somebody – the reader perhaps? -- a place to “nestle in.”

 And, this is where R.T.’s statement on Louis’ post, a few weeks back, helps explain what I did to locate these missing pieces. In his comment, R.T. made two points I felt very familiar with. The first was:

I usually reach back into the past, mostly for criminals and street people I've run across and how they would act/react . . . 

 I, too, tend to reach back into my past for characters I’ve known. And, during my time in the army – and since – I’ve known a lot of characters. Since this story dealt with a mercenary who had once been a regular soldier, I found it natural to dredge-up soldiers I’d once known instead of criminals.

One of the problems I had was – though the story’s protagonist had clearly indicated (in my head) that he’d been in the US Army during the Viet Nam conflict, and that experiences there led him to become disenchanted with Regular Army military life, as well as the civilian world at home – he hadn’t told me what the catalyst for this change in his perspective had been.

Not to worry.

Many years ago, long before I ever seriously contemplated joining Special Forces, I had an army buddy we called “Speedy.” Speedy’s nickname – many of you will be happy to learn, I’m sure -- had nothing to do with drug use. In fact, Speedy never used drugs, as long as I knew him. And, the last time we spoke, he had clearance and access up around Battle Star Galactica level, so I’d imagine he’s really not the sort of fellow who’s ever going to start.

No, his nickname, instead, had a lot to do with the brush fire pace at which he ran around a track.

Speedy and I shared upper and lower bunks in Heavy Equipment Operator’s School, and thus became pretty good buddies. We were young (late teens) and spoke often about things “back home.” One night, while we sat outside the barracks talking, Speedy quietly told me about his father, who had been in Special Forces during Viet Nam. And, he went on to relate a war story his father had once told him concerning the fact that supplies had been disappearing from their convoys, which ran from Saigon out to their SF basecamp in the hinterlands. It seems that the A-Team’s supplies were definitely on the trucks when they left Saigon, but portions of them disappeared before they reached the basecamp.

Evidently, the Viet Cong guerrillas were hiding in the jungle along the roadway, then running out and snagging supplies off the back, when the trucks slowed to a crawl on certain stretches along the road.

One day, a friend of Speedy’s dad decided to put an end to this pilfering. The guy grabbed a meat cleaver and a .45, then climbed into the back of one of the trucks as they pulled out of Saigon with supplies, saying he was gonna “get Cong!”

I won’t tell you what happened, here. However, the horrific results were completely unexpected, and the dad’s friend wound up feeling extreme guilt and remorse for what he had wound up doing during his attempt to protect their supplies. As Speedy put it: “Dad said he was really f#*&%@d up by it, and was never the same afterward.” And, having heard what happened, I completely understood why.

Recalling the story years later, I also realized this was just the sort of catalyst my protagonist would need to have encountered, in order to find himself becoming a mercenary in Africa. Consequently, the passage in “Dancing in Mozambique” in which the Rangers deal with those pilfering supplies from their trucks, is based very closely on the story Speedy said his dad told him -- an incident that probably really happened.

Sometimes these story characters … get bent to fit the story as it emerges …. 

This is something R.T. also mentioned in his comment.

 In my writing, characters do sometimes get bent to fit the story, but I often find that the story bends more naturally, to fit the characters. Which is another way of saying that – in my writing style -- the story tends to grow organically from character actions, and sometimes changes in odd little ways.

In the case of Speedy’s story, I thought my protagonist was more likely to have been a Ranger than a Special Forces soldier. I made that decision based on the experience level he seemed to have at the time he was in Viet Nam. So I suppose that’s change number one. Not a big one, but a change to the story, nonetheless. And, one that I made based on where I thought the character would have been at that time in his life.

In the real story, the guy with the cleaver wound up being mentally and emotionally wounded, but he didn’t kill himself over what he had done; he lived with the guilt and remorse for the rest of his life instead. I, on the other hand, only had 8,000 words to work with, so I needed to show the impact of his actions on his psyche, while also stressing the impact it had on my protagonist. My solution was to have the cleaver-wielder commit suicide, since I thought this would work as a quick and dirty demonstration of the impact. 

Remember, however, that the voice I’d originally heard in my head was speaking in first person. He was telling me what had happened to him, how he had come to find himself in this dark place – very powerful stuff that could cut a reader to the emotional quick. Consequently, I was writing the story in first person, since that’s where its power clearly lay.

Writing the story Speedy had told me, however, using the first person voice of my protagonist, my protagonist’s voice and mannerisms gradually overtook the narrative. It was as if that voice in my head “switched on” again. And, I was glad, because this is seldom a bad thing for my writing. This change in voice caused several minute changes in the story, and helped fill in some missing blanks to lend verisimilitude. But, then it accomplished something more.

Writing about the aftereffects of the horrifying incident, I found myself writing the protagonist’s story (the words were coming out of his “mouth” and in his voice, remember) in a way that didn’t just demonstrate what the incident had done to the guy with the cleaver. Instead, through his suicide, my protagonist’s buddy had left my main character to shoulder the burden of guilt all alone. It took the guilt of a mistake made by another character, and slammed it on top of my protagonist.

I didn’t plan this. It’s something that happened when the storyline was transmogrified through retelling by the protagonist’s voice. Only after writing it down, did I realize what I’d done.

I’d like to expand on this notion, but this post is already long and my time today is rather short. So, I’ll sign off now, and expand on things some other time.

See you in two weeks!


04 April 2013

My Interview With Crime Fiction Author James R. Winter

by Brian Thornton

"Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game."

                                                                                                                                  - North Dallas Forty

Writing is a funny business- erm- game.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this business/game is the networking, and the connections that result from same. One of the first I made when I first ventured out in search writing success was with a funny guy from Cincinnati named Jim Winter. Here are his basics:

Jim Winter was born near Cleveland in 1966. In 1991, he moved to Cincinnati marry the love of his life. He finally met her in 2008 and married her before she could change her mind.  Jim is the author of Road Rules, Northcoast Shakedown, Second Hand Goods, and The Compleat Kepler. He has previously reviewed for Crimespree, January Magazine, and Mystery Scene. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Nita, and stepson, AJ. Visit him at http://www.jamesrwinter.net.

I first met Jim nearly a decade ago through the Short Mystery Fiction Society's email list. We met up in person for the first time a couple of years later at the Toronto Bouchercon. Toronto was also where we both met crime fiction icon Ken Bruen for the first time, camping out for hours in an Irish pub across the street from the downtown convention center, an encounter later immortalized (fictitiously) by our mutual friend Steve Hockensmith in a short story called "Envy," which later made it into one of the annual Mystery Writers of America anthologies (Still waiting for my cut on that one, Steve...)

 Anyway Jim is a real mensch, and if you haven't stopped in at his blog and given it a read (especially his hilarious take on politics and his deep thoughts on music), you're missing out. Many of his novels and short stories feature a smart-ass P.I. based in Cleveland named Nick Kepler, and each of them is worth a look. I was so impressed by his work that I made a point of inviting him to contribute to West Coast Crime Wave, an anthology I collected and edited a couple of years back. The resulting story ("Bad History") is one of my favorites.

 And so for my third outing as a Sleuthsayer, I figured a guy this interesting was worth an interview. It's transcribed below.

Many authors have interesting paths to publication. None less-so than yours. Tell us about it.

Well, I did, in fact, play in someone else’s sandbox through most of the nineties. Probably a bad thing, since it absolved me of having to deal with rejection slips and editing and so on. But it was a good experience to use a prefab world and focus on building plots and characters on my own. By the time I rid myself of that habit, I realized a lot of the characters I’d created would have been better off in something original. Too late. By then, I was creating Nick Kepler’s world and leaving the land of space battles and lumpy-headed aliens behind for the real world, and a version of the real world of my own making.

And yet you wound up writing crime fiction. What is it about crime fiction that motivates you enough that you chose it as the genre in which to express yourself?

I thought it was easier for people to relate to someone’s seemingly normal life disrupted by a man-made catastrophe, like murder or theft or an accident. Also, I didn’t have to spend three paragraphs explaining that this takes place on another planet in low gravity where the trees all have feathers and two moons hang in the sky. Crime sort of demands tighter writing. To me that was a challenge. The first Kepler short I ever wrote went almost 8,000 words. Now I can usually wrap up a story in about 3000-4000 words.

As I stated in my intro to this piece I'm familiar with your work having edited one of your stories for an anthology I worked on. I see a whole lot of the likes of Mark Twain and his spiritual descendants in your work, with more than a dash of Ed McBain and others from the no-frills, straight narrative school in your writing. Do you agree with this assessment? Why do you consider your greatest influences as a writer, and why?

It's funny you should mention McBain because the 87th Precinct was an inspiration for (his latest project) Holland Bay. But yes, there's definitely a little Twain in there. I love how he's able to say something uncomfortable and call everyone out on it for not questioning things around them. He is a master of sarcasm.

Stephen King is probably my earliest influence. I try not to be as long-winded as he's become over the years, but King had a certain talent for making a fictional place as real as anything out there. I love that he blends the real world with fictional places so that you're almost convinced that Castle Rock really is about 40 miles from Portland, Maine.

Getting into crime, I picked up on Robert Parker when he was at his peak. He had this ability to hang a one-word description on a nameless character and give him or her a personality without having to stop and go through half a page of backstory. I also was a student of Chandler early on. He taught me about dialog and made me comfortable with being a smart ass in my narratives.

Your back catalog includes some stuff that really makes your hometown (Cleveland) come alive for the reader, yet the city that's the setting for your latest work (the eponymous "Holland Bay") is at least as fictional as Ross MacDonald's "Santa Teresa" and Raymond Chandler's "Bay City." These fictional cities were thinly disguised doppelgangers for actual one ("Santa Teresa" for Santa Barbara and "Bay City" for Santa Monica). Is "Holland Bay" cut from whole cloth, or is based all or in part, on cities you've experienced over the course of your life?

Well, Monticello as a whole started out as a way to avoid having to go back to Cleveland or bug people in Cleveland about details. It’s a five-hour drive, after all, and the people I know up there have busy lives that don’t allow for running downtown and checking out if a certain restaurant is on still on Fourth Street or who owns what hotel and so on. So it does have its genesis in Cleveland. That’s what some of its culture is based on. Then I hit on the idea that it Monticello might be split up into boroughs, like New York, with each borough similar to its New York counterpart and the southern one that tapers off into suburbs kind of like Long Island. That plays well with Holland Island, which has become, over time, about as un-Staten Island-like as you can get. On top of that, each borough has taken on the flavor of yet another city I’ve been to. For instance, Holland Bay is part of Harbortown, where downtown is located, which looks a lot like Chicago. And yet Harbortown corresponds with Manhattan as well. All built over an analog of Cleveland. So it’s alternate reality Cleveland, which incidentally, exists in this story.

Take us through the process outlined above. How do you balance research and invention?

Well, a fictional city still has to look real, so I do have to look things up and ask questions. At the same time, fiction gives me the option to fudge things, put geographic features wherever I want, and indulge in a bit of history to make the city seem real. Like the city sits in Musgrave County, Ohio, which, of course, is not on any maps. But there’s a whole backstory as to how it got that name and why a bunch of other names and places around the city are what they are.

OK so you can't really expect to say something like: "But there’s a whole backstory as to how it got that name and why a bunch of other names and places around the city are what they are," and not get a follow-up on that. Can you give us an example?  

Well, for the county name, I came up with a founding father of sorts, a British colonel in the Revolutionary War who defected and wound up with a land grant in the area where the city sits now.

On the other hand, when I was writing some back history for the city, I decided I wanted it to have one of those wars between two sides of the river you hear about from the pre-Civil War days. Cleveland had one over bridge tolls around that time. So I had a neighboring city (now part of Monticello) take up arms over where these newfangled railroad thangies would go. Since the war was over "where the choo choo go," I stuck the name "Rock Ridge" on the western side of the city as a joke from Blazing Saddles. Only I never bothered to change it. So now we have a whole borough named for a Mel Brooks comedy.

Any plans to genre hop again? Maybe a detour back into spec-fiction, or some sort of cross-genre project, a la Kat Richardson's work?

I have something in the works, but I’m going to keep it quiet for now.