14 November 2013

A NaNoWriMo Reality Check

by Brian Thornton

For those of you who in the writing community who have been living under a rock, November is "National Write a Novel Month." Who declared it such? I have no idea. Someone did, and it stuck.

So every year tens of thousands of people- including several friends of mine sharpen up their metaphorical pencils and go to work, writing furiously, in an attempt to get an entire novel down in the days between November 1st and 31st.

My response to this notion?

Have fun with that.

Maybe it works for some people, but the idea of writing a complete first draft during a month with not one, but two big holidays (sorry folks, I'm a veteran, from a family of veterans, it's a big deal in my house), a full-time day gig, a marriage/mortgage/one year-old to spend time/effort on, holds zero appeal whatever to me. What's more, it held the same level of appeal back when I wasa kidless, single apartment dweller.

The irony of this is if you asked my wife about my work habits, she'd likely tell you I work better under a deadline. She's seen time and again how, when faced with a due date on one of my writing projects, I will pump out content at a rate that she finds truly impressive.

There's a difference, though. One BIG difference.

Put bluntly, my deadlines invariably involve dollar signs.

To be honest, it all comes down to time. I have a finite amount of it. Now moreso than ever. As a result, it's tough to sit down and bang away at something for the hours on end over a month's time required to turn out a draft of a novel. This is not say I can't turn out product, when it comes to fiction, I have a rough time doing it in assembly line fashion. Some folks can do that, and God bless them. For me it's a short-coming. When I'm writing fiction, I have to put a ridiculous amount of thought into it before I even pick up my (metaphorical) pen.

Back before I got married, I entered into a devil's bargain with a nonfiction publisher that had already published several of my books. These guys always wanted the turnaround on their content yesterday, and they didn't want to have to shell out a whole lot for it. I knew this going in.

At the time I was also wrapping up an editing project, where I'd collected and edited some inspiring nonfiction stories. I was working for the same press, with the same editor I'd worked with on my previous books. She knew how I worked, and that she didn't need to micromanage me or hold my hand while I generated content for her. We worked well together.

This new project involved working with a brand-new editor, who had no idea how I worked, and wasn't especially interested in just having the end result of my efforts just miraculously appear on her desk by deadline date. As I said, she was new, and eager to prove herself.

You can probably see where I'm going with this, so I'll just cut to the chase.

The long and the short of it was that after this new editor started up a pissing match with my original editor over my 25%/50%/75% due dates, I wound up completing the first book exactly eight weeks before the TWO new books I had agreed to write for the difficult-to-work-with new editor were due.

These were children's books, with an intended length of 40,000 words apiece. That's 10,000 words per week, folks.

Oh, and by the way, my day gig is teaching. And this eight week period started on September 1.

In other words, eight weeks of every waking moment not working my day gig pretty much consumed in NaNoWriMo on steroids.


Somehow I managed to complete the contract. Miraculously both books are still in print to this day, years later. The in-over-her-head editor who caused me so many headaches during this initial back-and-forth was eventually directed by her boss to cc her on all further communication with me about this matter. I won't go into it any further than that, other than to say she is no longer with that publisher, and hasn't been for some time.

So, NaNoWriMo? No thanks. Been there, done that.

And at least I got paid for my trouble!

13 November 2013

Hour of the Gun

by David Edgerley Gates

John Sturges made a fair number of pictures in the course of a thirty-year career as a director. Some of them are pretty good, and some of them are dogs. The best-known are probably BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and THE GREAT ESCAPE. He made Westerns, and war stories, and thrillers. He wasn't celebrated for a light touch, and didn't have much luck with the occasional comedy. His full list of credits is here: 


In 1967, he made HOUR OF THE GUN, a sequel to GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, ten years earlier. He uses a different cast, and the tone is more somber, the biggest change being character. The manic Doc Holliday played by Kirk Douglas is taken over by a saturnine Jason Robards, and the upright Burt Lancaster as Earp is instead imagined by James Garner as far more morally ambiguous. They're still, of course, the heroes, and the Clanton gang the villains, but the movie comes a lot closer to the actual events in Tombstone, in October of 1881.

The real story is about politics, and business rivalries. Wyatt and his brothers were town-tamers, but in return they got a major piece of the action, primarily gambling. They were opportunists, and if not criminal, they were certainly corrupt, and in it for the money. (The best source I've come across is
AND DIE IN THE WEST, University of Oklahoma, 1989, by Paul Mitchell Marks.)

In the movies, though, the Earps are never shown this way. Wyatt himself helped shape his legend, in later years, with Stuart Lake's hagiographic FRONTIER MARSHAL, and John Ford claimed to have gotten the details of the gunfight straight from the horse's mouth. Wyatt was a blowhard and a bully, and a shameless self-promoter, and most of what he told people was snake oil, but you don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. The end result is that you get Henry Fonda or Burt Lancaster or Hugh O'Brian, to name a few, and almost invariably they're pushed reluctantly to act, moved beyond patience by the evil Walter Brennan or his ilk. The less said about Earp as a cold-blooded killer, the better.

This is where HOUR OF THE GUN gets interesting. The arc of the story, yes, is similar to others, and after Morgan and Virgil are backshot, Morgan dead and Virgil crippled, Wyatt has good reason to go after the guys who did it. But in this telling, Wyatt gives only lip service to making formal arrests. He simply guns the men down.

The best example of this is the death of Andy Warshaw. Earp and his small posse find Warshaw in a back corner of the Clanton spread. Wyatt sits his horse, Warshaw with his back to him, straddling a split-rail fence, smoking.

How much did Clanton pay you? Wyatt asks.
Warshaw, head down, tells him it was fifty dollars.
Fifty dollars. To see a man shot.
I only watched, Warshaw says. I wasn't with the guns.
Wyatt gets off his horse. I'm going to give you the chance to earn another fifty dollars, he says.
I don't want such a chance, Warshaw says.
I'll count to three, Wyatt says. You can draw on two, I'll wait until three.
Warshaw climbs down off the fence and drops his cigarette.
An empty moment.
Warshaw draws on him.

Two things about the scene. First, you feel Warshaw's fear. He's facing a known man-killer. In fact, your sympathy is with Andy, because the outcome is foregone. He feels a grievance. He wasn't with the guns. He only watched. The second thing, Wyatt's thrown away the badge. He's become the kind of man he hunts, a man without remorse, beyond the law.

Doc Holliday hands Wyatt a flask. "Here," Doc tells him. "Have a drink. You need it to make this morning stay down, same as I do."

12 November 2013

The Continuous Dream

Creating vivid characters and believable settings is a complex process--or rather, it's at least two processes, since character and setting aren't the same thing.  But the these processes have something in common, and that something is the vivid dream. 
When I speak to writing students about creating vivid characters, I suggest that they start with a detailed visual picture that they then relate selectively, picking the two or three or half a dozen details that will make a character a unique individual for the reader.  The same thing goes for the setting in which their characters move and argue and strike each other with beer bottles.

Quiet Please.  Writer Visualizing.
All of which assumes that the author can see the character and setting and see them as clearly as a recent memory or a particularly vivid dream.  In the case of character, you can work from life, using your third-grade teacher or a man you saw on the bus this morning, or you can pick someone out of an ad or an old movie.  For settings, you can travel your neighborhood or the globe or pore over the writings of someone who has traveled.  Or, yes, you can make up either a character or a setting out of whole cloth.  However you start, at some point you have to see that character and that setting.  Really see them.  Your setting has to be a real place in your mind's eye and your characters real people.  (You'll also hear them and smell them and touch them, if you're writing from all your senses, but, for me, seeing comes first.)

When I write, I'm watching a movie in my head, seeing characters in the setting.  As they move about, I see what elements to mention, like the heroine's hair being pushed away from her face and falling right back again or the moving shadows from the tree above the patio table at which the murderer sits. 

Grant, Gibson, and Saint
And visualization isn't only important for descriptions.  It also helps me avoid "continuity errors," which is a movie term for little mistakes that pop up in a scene when multiple takes are edited together.  Like the Gibson cocktail that appears and disappears in front of Cary Grant while he's talking with Eva Marie Saint in the club car in North By Northwest.   These things can happen in our writing, too, when we're not visualizing the actions we're describing.  A student once gave me a chapter in which a man yanks a derby down to his eyebrows in a show of determination.  So far so good, but a line or two later, the same character slaps his forehead in surprise.  Try slapping your forehead after you've yanked your derby down.  The author had gotten caught up in the dialogue of the scene (which was, incidentally, very good) and stopped visualizing.

Am I claiming that my mental movie is identical in every respect to the one playing inside the reader's head when he or she reads my finished story?  No.  That would take more detail than even a Gustave Flaubert could cram into a scene.  Or else a kind of magic.  And yet there is a sort of alchemy at work when the reader completes the circuit and reconstitutes the freeze dried images we put on the page.  (The preceding sentence has been submitted for a mixed-metaphor award.)  I believe that if my settings are real places for me and my characters real people, my readers will pick up on it.  They'll meet me halfway, plugging in the missing details from their own experience or imagination. 

And my dream will live on independent of me.  Which is something worth seeing.  


11 November 2013

Comedy, Strange & Weird Thoughts

by Jan Grape

The comedy part is the whole plagiarism by one of our country's high profile politicians. Don't know if any of you are a Rand Paul fan but this man obviously does NOT understand plagiarism. If I had written all the words in Wickipedia or the web sites or his books, I would have been upset.

Some news media have suggested that perhaps the author was thrilled that someone in national office would use their words in everything he writes and speaks. Maybe so, and we all know that politicians don't write their own speeches, but still. The funny thing is that the man got mad at everyone who pointed out this plagiarism. Instead of saying, "I've got to check into this, someone in my office needs to go back to school." That probably would have been the end of it. He tries to act as if nothing is his fault. He's ready to fight a duel if dueling was still legal. He talks about references and footnotes and how he can't do that in a speech.  What was wrong was saying, "This reminds me of a scene in a movie and I quote?" The more he's vented his rage, the more all his previous work has been checked and more and more plagiarism has been found.

The strange is how CBS's Sixty Minutes was duped by a guy claiming to have been present in Benghazi when our Ambassador was killed. He said he was there watching it all, and how the enemies didn't see him because he hid in the dark. He gave strong details. I haven't read his book but looks like it might be a complete work of fiction. Seems it didn't take much to disprove his story and yet the powers that be at Sixty Minutes didn't do their due diligence. I've heard the reporter and CBS has apologized and I'm waiting for the airing tonight to see if they retract the story on their time on air. I'm also wondering if anyone from that program will be fired.

The weird to me seems that lying has become the normal for politicians and the media. What the heck? We're the ones who tell lies for fun and profit, aren't we? How dare they try to take our jobs away from us. Look, folks it's hard enough to sell our fiction nowadays without everyone and his dog claiming their story is important. And they get national attention for it. I know, I know, politicians and news reporters have been lying for years but suddenly it's become rampant. Well, I for one am sick of these Johnny-come-latelys horning in on our turf. I think we should organize a sit-in demonstration. Any takers? Just spread the news, set the time and place and I'll be there with my sign of protest. I'll bring my goggles in case the fuzz tries to pepper-spray us.

That's all I can write tonight. I have a few things I need to plagiarize for a media outlet or a politician, I can't remember which.

10 November 2013

Professional Tips– P. D. James

P D James
P. D. James © The Times
One of the grand dames of mystery, a mistress of the post-Golden Age following Agatha Christie, P.D. James, has given us her tips for effective writing. A student of putting words on paper, I've shared tips from great authors.

As it turns out, the Baroness James has written at least two sets of tips, as noted by one of our readers, which we've gathered in one place. Important: Click the links in the headings for the full articles and explanations.

Writing Tips I, Mystery

  1. Center your mystery
  2. Study reality
  3. Create compelling characters
  4. Research, research, research
  5. Follow the 'fair-play rule'
  6. Read!
  7. … and write
  8. Follow a schedule

When working on a story, I daydream a lot, but it's creative daydreaming about the plot, as opposed to dawdling, which the grand dame refers to. There's a story about an actress wannabee who said she wanted to be a famous movie star. "Tell me," said the career counselor. "Do you want to be famous or want to be an actress?" James is saying the same thing: The goal in the front of your mind must be writing the best you can, not fantasizing about fame.

Here again is the Baroness, the inimitable Phyllis Dorothy James, with an update.

Writing Tips II, General
  1. You must be born to write
  2. Write about what you know
  3. Find your own routine
  4. Be aware that the business is changing
  5. Read, write, and don't daydream!
  6. Enjoy your own company
  7. Choose a good setting
  8. Never go anywhere without a notebook
  9. Never talk about a book before it is finished
  10. Know when to stop

And so I shall.

P D James
P. D. James © The Telegraph

09 November 2013

Sorry, I Need to See Some I.D.

I was fortunate enough to be invited a few months ago to give a keynote address at a writers' conference, and when the time came I found that my audience included not just writers but a number of readers and publishers and literary agents. And as I stood there at the podium, I realized that I felt a little like the guy in that Hanks/DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can. I was an impostor.

Seriously, of all the folks in the room that day, and of all my colleagues at SleuthSayers, and of all the (two or three) people who might be reading this column right now, I am probably the least likely person to have become a writer. I was not an English major in college; I do not have an MFA degree; I've never had any formal training in writing; I am not, as so many authors are, a former journalist; I did not, as so many authors did, begin writing at an early age. I didn't even like English in school, or the lit classes. I liked math.

My course of study in college was, of all things, engineering. Afterward I was hired by IBM and then spent four years on a leave-of-absence to the Air Force, during which time the only writing I did was filling out performance evaluations (which, I admit, got a little creative at times) for the airmen and sergeants and junior officers in my group. When I completed my stint in the military I returned to IBM and spent my entire career there, as both a systems engineer and a marketing rep. I specialized in finance, and did actually write a technical manual once, about a remote check-processing system that I helped develop, but those words were--believe me--not a lot of fun to put on paper. I suspect that they were even less fun to read.

But that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Much later (I think it was 2009) I did a booksigning and a reading in the town where I had attended college, and during the Q&A session one of my long-lost classmates in the back row--I hadn't seen him in years--raised his hand and said, "I have a question." He then asked me, looking truly puzzled, "How in the world can someone who graduated in Electrical Engineering wind up writing fiction for magazines?" With a straight face I said, "It makes perfect sense: you have to be crazy to do either one."

I was trying to be funny, but I still remember thinking, as I sidestepped that question, that my old friend had made a good point. What qualified me to be doing what I was doing? The real answer is that I had no idea. I still don't. Here I am, writing short stories left and right, and posting columns every other Saturday at this blog alongside folks with real literary credentials, when all my training is in a completely different field. I ran into one of my former IBM clients recently who said, "Hey, I hear you're teaching night courses in computers." I replied that she was half right: I've been teaching them for twelve years now, but they aren't computer courses, they're writing courses. I left her scratching her head, and probably wondering if I was disguising myself as somebody she once knew. Who WAS that masked man?

How did I end up with this unlikely second career? Beats me. All I know is, I've always been addicted to reading fiction and watching movies--and then one day I just started dreaming up stories of my own and writing them down and submitting them to editors, and lo and behold, I found I couldn't stop. Yet another addiction. Not long ago I sat down with my records and a calculator and discovered that I have published more than a million words of short fiction, the equivalent of a dozen or so novels. But the truth is, if I were spotlighted today by a beam from Heaven and heard a James Earl Jones voice telling me that from this day forward, nothing that I write would ever again be published . . . it wouldn't change a thing. I would still continue to write stories every day. It's relaxing, it's challenging, it's fun, and it's therapy.

I realize that there are and were other, and far more notable, authors who took unusual paths to publication. I'm comforted by the fact that writers like Michael Crichton, John Grisham, O. Henry, Tom Clancy, Raymond Chandler, and J. K. Rowling wandered down the road in the wrong direction a bit before homing in on the literary life. I also like to think that their experiences in those other areas (medicine, law, banking, insurance, the oil business, education) might have contributed new perspectives to the fiction they were later able to create. But I also sometimes find myself wishing that I had discovered this intense love for storytelling when I was a kid, rather than as a grown man involved in an nonliterary career.

I'd be interested to hear from those of you (or those who know of others) with unrelated backgrounds who now write for a living--or even as a hobby. How did you, or they, get from there to here? Was it a logical, planned transition, or did it just happen?

This brings up another question, one that's received a lot of attention these past few days at the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Yahoo forum: when can a person call himself a "professional" writer? The consensus seems to be that pro writers (as opposed, I guess, to amateurs) are those who get paid for what they write. Do you agree with that? Or do you feel, as some do, that a professional writer is one for whom writing is his sole source of income? Or one who has made a profit for three of the past five years? Or should it even be a question of compensation at all? Are there other qualifiers? 

I sincerely admire those who knew at an early age that they wanted to be a writer, professional or not, but I have come to believe that the strange path I took worked out well for me. If I had known many years ago that I would enjoy writing as much as I do now, I would never have wanted to do anything else, and my family would probably have starved. Maybe Fate knows what it's doing, after all.

Now, where'd I put that mask?

08 November 2013

Never Know Who You'll Touch

As you pass through life, you sometimes do things at the turn of a moment, whether the action springs from an emotion, a sudden thought, or maybe even a natural and common occurrence. What you can't know at the time, is what effect your action may have in the future. You never know who you may touch in some way or another......unless they contact you.
During my high school and early college years in Wichita, there were three of us who ran together: me, Steve King (no, not the famous writer) and Tom Whitehead. None of us seriously applied ourselves to our college studies in those days, too much beer, pizza, cards, girls, pool and fun in general, which soon brought us to the attention of our local Selective Service Board.

Tom was the first to go. He signed up for the Army and they gave him a couple months at home before he had to show up for Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, or as many trainees later came to know it, Fort Lost in the Woods, Misery. In the meantime, since he was part native American, the local Ponca and Osage held a pow-wow for him in the local armory one Saturday night in November of '65 in order to give Tom a good sendoff. He was on the train to Kansas City soon after, followed by a long bus ride down to the Missouri Ozarks.

Steve and I got our congratulation letters from Uncle Sam that following January and hopped a train to the induction center in K.C. for our physicals. The next day, they were kind enough to tell us we passed. They sent us home, saying that we'd probably be called up in about sixty days. Before any call up could occur, Steve visited with a sweet talking Army recruiter. Next thing I knew, I'd been talked into enlisting under the three year plan for something called the Buddy System, where you got to go to Basic Training with your buddy. Of course when you're dealing with the government, it helps to pay close attention to details.

After Basic, Steve and I went different directions. He got to Nam in January of '67 and I made the trip across the pond that July. While forted up in the Central Highlands, I got letters from Steve who was down south in Cu Chi with the 25th Infantry. Seems he had run into Tom Whitehead, also with the 25th, but stationed outside Cu Chi at a fire base. Tom was working as an armorer, keeping weapons in shape for his unit, and had made the rank of Specialist Fourth Class. Then, I didn't hear anything more until I came back to the World.

Shortly after I stepped off the plane wearing Army greens in Wichita during the summer of '68, some friends of the family who happened to be at the local Pizza Hut for lunch that day, told me Tom didn't make it. He was crossing his fire base when the VC dropped a mortar down the tube. It caught Tom out in the open with no place to go. Nobody wanted to tell me about it while I was still over there. On my way down to Texas later that July to visit my folks, I stopped off in an Oklahoma cemetery to say a few words at Tom's grave.

Bagpiper at the Moving Wall
Decades later in the 90's, the travelling Wall set up in the Black Hills of South Dakota for a few days. I found Tom's name on one of the panels, along with those of others I'd known. One of the pamphlets handed out said you could also leave an e-mail memorial comment somehow digitally attached to the full-sized Vietnam Wall in D.C. So I did.

Time passed.

Then, about four years ago, I got an e-mail from a stranger. He had read my memorial to Tom and had a few questions, if I would be kind enough to help him. Seems he was a doctor in Albuquerque and his father was dying. His father had recently told him a story about marriage, divorce and re-marriage. In the end, it turned out that Albuquerque doctor had a half-brother (Tom Whitehead) he'd known nothing about. The father had lost touch with his old family, but now wanted any info he could get about his estranged son who had died in Nam.

I'd always known Tom's father was missing from his family, but they never talked about the situation, so none of us inquired. Now, I dug into past letters and old memories for anything about Tom. Even mentioned the situation to Steve, who then e-mail attached old photos he'd converted over to his computer. Everything I had or ended up with then got e-mailed to the doctor who knew almost nothing about his older half-brother. The doc then shared that information with his dying father in a veteran's hospital down in Houston.

There was a quick flurry of e-mails back and forth. Dad was pleased to know his oldest son had been an enlisted man like he himself had been in World War Two. Doc sent his gratitude for the info. Then the lines went silent. The old man was gone and we had nothing further to talk about. But there, for a brief slice of time, someone had been touched by something I'd written about a man I'd known a long time ago. Someone was touched who I didn't even know was out there. Someone touched to the quick, who then sought me out.

As Eve Fisher quotes from Philo in her e-mails: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  And to that I respond, you never know who you'll reach out and touch.

Ride easy 'til we meet again.

07 November 2013

Enough is Enough

(NOTE:  I'm sorry if I haven't responded to anything this week, but we upgraded computers, e-mail, and everything else.  Cyber-chaos at our place.  Back up and running.  I think...  And now, on with the blog:)
We've all said it:  "Enough is enough!"  And sometimes we've even followed through on it.  The question is, what triggers it?  I'm raising this question primarily because I just changed my email address for the first time in 17 years, but I think it has application for other things, like changing brands, leaving relationships, killing someone, going on a fiery rampage ending in death, doom and destruction...

Here's what happened with the email:  I'd been with Yahoo mail from the get-go, and it was fine, great, etc. - but then things started changing.  They tweaked here, tweaked there, and it seemed like every time I turned around there was a new feature that I had to learn (which I did), or if I wanted a mail without ads, or mail with lots of memory I had to pay for it (which I did), and then they changed the format and I had to get used to it (which I did), and it got slower and slower and froze up a lot, and I had to cope with that (which I did) and then, a member of this respected body and I exchanged a couple of e-mails and Yahoo somehow managed to conflate emails from someone else with ours into a senseless spam-like screed that was, frankly, the last straw.  So I changed my e-mail to g-mail.  I'm having to learn a whole new system - if anyone has a cheat-sheet on keyboard shortcuts for g-mail I'd appreciate it - but it's worth it because I'm done with the old system.  I am loyal through an amazing amount of thick and thin, but when I finally do get fed up and quit, I am not coming back...

But some people make other choices.  Like murder.  One of the things that has always interested me is when people decide they've had enough and have to kill someone.  The long slow burn...  which finally explodes.  The classic example is a murder that took place here in Madison a couple of years ago.  An old guy, a farmer in his 70's, came back to the town where he grew up and started knocking on doors.  The first door he knocked on was his brother's, but he was at a basketball game.  The second door he knocked on was a former high school classmate, retired English teacher, and when he answered the door, the old guy shot him in the face and killed him.  The reason?  Fifty-five years before, the teacher and the farmer had had a fight in the locker room of the gym, and the future teacher had thrown a dirty jockstrap at the future farmer and hit him in the face.  Everyone laughed.  The future farmer fumed.  And 55 years later...

But why did it take so long?  I have no idea.  I don't know what sparked it off.  I do know that he came intending to kill someone - he would have killed his brother if he was home, it seems out of pure jealousy and envy.  And if he had managed that, would he have gone on to the teacher's house?  Hard to say.  After he shot the teacher to death, he got in his car and headed out of town, back home, where he holed up until the police came for him.

That one, as I say, is a mystery to me, because it took so long.  Not so adolescent shooters - the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds of the world - they're fairly easy (for me) to understand.  Adolescents live in a world of such terrible urgency:  if they do not have this (whatever or whoever it is), they will die.  If someone laughs at them, the humiliation will last forever.  And, since they know they are bulletproof, invincible, and resurrectible (the Tom Sawyer fantasy of being at his own funeral and surprising everyone afterwards is pretty universal), to take up arms against a sea of troubles - literally - is an tragically unsurprising solution.  I'm waiting to see if the LAX shooter - 23 years old these days can be just as adolescent as 14 - is of that ilk or is one of the militia types who have decided that war has been declared, and is going to fire the first shot.

File:Turnerdiariescover.jpgI've met a lot of militia types, here and elsewhere, thanks to my work in various court systems.  They are very chilling.  As one told me after the Timothy McVeigh bombing, "War has been declared."  When I said the children in the day-care weren't soldiers, he replied, "There are no innocent victims."  Their literature (see "The Turner Diaries") is all about killing everyone who doesn't meet their standards, to the point where you wonder if even in our weapons-rich environment, there really are enough bullets to get that job done.  I've read "The Turner Diaries" and other works, and the basic idea is that you have to arm, arm, arm yourself, and get ready to kill, kill, kill, because - as one survivalist screed said - "who would want to die in such a world"?  The logical fallacy being, of course, that somehow you're never going to die.  Ever.  You'll "win", and live forever, master of all you survey.  Again, adolescent thinking.

And that perhaps is the trouble.  So much of our media - video games, television shows, movies, websites - is all about marketing to teens, and has been for quite a while.  Facebook is in trouble because its teen share is dropping, but Twitter is rising.  Every business has to get that all-important teen audience.  Because they have money, and it burns a hole in their pockets.  (I remember the feeling...)  But if you market to adolescents, if all your entertainment and information is targeted specifically to lure, entertain, and keep adolescents as they are...  isn't what you get, more adolescents?  Perpetual adolescents?  Whose only solutions to life's many problems are those provided by a media that is keeping them perpetually adolescent?

When will we say enough is enough?

06 November 2013

The Story I Said I'd Never Write

I am delighted to report that the January/February 2014 of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine is out this week and features my 24th appearance in that fine periodical.  Even better, it marks my third chance to grace the cover (and what a perfect illustration it is!).  "Devil Chased The Wolf Away" is a short story but the history of how it came to exist is a long story, so you might want to fortify yourself with a cup of coffee or something.  I'll wait.

Ready?  Okay, here goes.

About fifteen years ago I attended a concert by a man who had been considered a master musician.  The problem was he was long past his prime, and it showed.  He was confused and his playing was clumsy.

That would have been bad enough, but worse was the fact that his accompanyist, the man who had been driving him from show to show, was clearly fed up, and was rude and disrespectful.  This made the show quite unpleasant.

And as I watched it, being the person I am, I found myself thinking: is there a story here?  A crime story?

By the time the show was over I had invented Cleve Penny, an over-the-hill old-time fiddler from Kentucky.  His tale, "Snake In The Sweetgrass," appeared in the December 2003 issue of Hitchcock's.  

I thought it was my best story and some people seemed to agree.  Several urged me to write about Cleve again, but I didn't want to.  I was afraid that what seemed magical the first time might turn out to be just slight of hand the next time around.  Besides, if I kept dragging my old guy around from stage to stage, wasn't I being like that accompanyist?  So I made up my mind not to write a sequel to "Snake."

Then Bruce Molsky came to town.

Now, I must immediately explain that Molsky is not over the hill.  He is king of the mountain, and can play old-time guitar, banjo or fiddle as well as anybody.  This video should prove my point.  (And he can sing while he plays the fiddle, which is just plain cheating.)

But a few years ago Molsky performed here with a brother and sister act, only one of whom was old enough to drive, and watching him interact with those talented youngsters I had a sudden thought: wouldn't it be fun to have Cleve Penny work with some children?

I thought it would.  Not long before this my family had visited Chicago for the first time, which  included a pilgrimage to the Old Town School of Folk Music.  The School was founded in 1957 and has been offering lessons, concerts, and jams ever since. 

So I invented the Cornheim School of Folk Music, and installed Cleve Penny as guest Artist in Residence.  Then I gave the school a problem and invited Cleve to take his unique approach to solving it.  

But I had another problem.  "Devil" is in some ways a direct result of the events in "Snake."  Cleve's actions in the second story are heavily influenced by what he did in the first.  I can't assume that everyone who reads "Devil" will have read "Snake," much less remember it a decade later.  So how do I slip in the backstory?  I actually got into an interesting discussion on this subject with mystery writer Neil Schofield and wrote about it  at Criminal Brief.

I think I licked that problem, but Linda Landrigan, editor of Hitchcock's, offered an even better solution.  As I said last week, you can download a free podcast of "Snake."  I highly recommend you read/listen to it before you dig into "Devil."  You will enjoy them both more that way.

I think I'm done with Cleve Penny now, and he can settle into a well-deserved retirement.  But I have learned to never say never.

05 November 2013


Amazingly, not a single online dictionary contains a definition of the word “gullible.” 
       Last week many of you may have stumbled onto an online article reporting that, in an interview with Fox, Sarah Palin described at some length how Jesus celebrated Easter with his disciples. The article quotes Palin as stating that “[w]e need to return Easter back to the way it was when Jesus was still alive.” According to the article Palin explained this as follows:
When Jesus celebrated Easter with his disciples there were no Easter bunnies or egg hunts. There were no Easter sales at department stores or parades in the street. Easter was a special time of prayer and Christian activism. 
       I was on board for all of this. It was absurd but still barely credible. But then I came to the following quote: 
Jesus would gather all the townspeople around and would listen to their stories about the meaning of Easter in their lives. Then he would teach them how to love one another, how to protest Roman abortion clinics and how to properly convert homosexuals.
       Well, heck, I concluded. I had been punked.  But at least I was not alone, and at least I got out early. Piers Morgan of CNN, by contrast, tweeted the story on his Twitter account as . . . err . . . “gospel.” 

       Hoaxes can broadly be divided into two categories. The Palin article, which appeared on the satiric website The Daily Currant, follows a pattern that is typical for the well-crafted satirical hoax: Start with a premise that is just barely credible, and then start ratcheting it up. Make each claim just a bit harder to believe and then watch to see at what stage your audience begins to jump ship. The purpose of the satirical hoax is that the reader will eventually catch on and then laugh at themselves. Or, even better, a reader like Piers Morgan might swallow the whole thing hook, line and sinker, allowing the rest of us to laugh at him. The other broad category of hoaxes are meant to be taken seriously -- they are trying to pull off the scam without ever raising suspicions. They are crafted to sneak by, leaving the reader completely unaware of the hoax that is being perpetrated. 

Illustration of the triumphant balloon from Poe's article
       There have been a wealth of hoaxes of both varieties over the years, and a surprising number arise in the literary world. One of the earliest hoaxes was perpetrated by none other than Edgar Allan Poe who, in 1844 wrote a series of newspaper articles that, in great detail, recounted the first crossing of the Atlantic ocean by balloon. The story ran on the front page of the April 13, 1844 edition of The New York Sun under the following banner headline: 
       The story, however, was an utter fabrication on Poe’s part. It is still debated why Poe wrote the ruse, particularly since it could not be sustained for more than a few days at best before it would unravel under close public inspection. But, at a time when financial matters might have had a more preeminent place at the publishing table, the story sold a record number of copies. And the retraction, published on April 14, did almost as well. 

       Poe was not alone here. In a December 28, 1917 New York Evening Mail article entitled “A Neglected Anniversary” H.L. Mencken offered a detailed, and completely fictitious, history of the bathtub. The article is still, at times, relied upon as authority for the (erroneous) propositions that the bathtub was first invented in 1842 and was first used in the White House by Millard Fillmore. Over thirty years later Mencken still marveled over the lasting power of his hoax: 
The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity ... Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions. 
      There have also been numerous examples of literary hoaxes that were never meant to be found out -- usually scams concocted with a dollar sign at the hoped-for finish line. Who can forget The Hitler Diaries, which had their 15 minutes of fame in 1983 when the German magazine Stern paid nine million marks to publish thirty eight volumes of the “autobiography” of Adolf Hitler that turned out to be crude forgeries riddled with historical inaccuracies and copied in large respect from other volumes? And who can forget Clifford Irving’s attempt in the early 1970s to fake an “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes, based on interviews between Irving and Hughes that never happened?

       But, to my mind, the really great hoaxes are those that are concocted with tongue planted firmly in cheek and with a point to make. My favorite of these is the Atlanta Nights hoax, which centers around what may be the worst book ever written.

       To really savor this hoax a little background is necessary. As any writer knows, there are many publishers out there, some legitimate, some less so. Around fifteen years ago a new one, Publish America, entered the fray Since its beginning Publish America has gone to great lengths arguing that it is not a vanity press. But many authors have nonetheless complained that Publish America operates by publishing any manuscript it receives and then making its profit by enticing the authors to buy large quantities of very expensive volumes of their own work so that the authors can sell these to friends, relatives or (perhaps) friendly bookstores. Throughout all of this Publish America has claimed that it is a legitimate publishing house that only publishes works that it has reviewed and deemed meritorious. It goes so far as to suggest that it has an 80% rejection rate for manuscripts. It’s website proudly makes the following claim to aspiring writers: 
If indeed you have been dreaming of getting published, and you want us to review your work, please fill out the form below and let us know who you are and what you have written. Your manuscript will be reviewed by our Acquisitions staff, who will determine whether your work has what this book publisher is looking for.
        Sometimes you need to be careful when you throw down the gauntlet. A number of writers from the Science Fiction Writers of America, under the general direction of James D. MacDonald, the author of many successful science fiction novels and a long-standing opponent of vanity presses, decided to put Publish America to the test. He gathered a group of fellow SciFi writers and they collectively agreed to write a book. But not just any book. The writers committed to do all they could to produce the worst book imaginable. 

       Following a general outline written by MacDonald each writer was assigned one chapter and asked to write it as horribly as possible. None of these authors was privy to the complete outline, and no one of them knew what the chapters other than their own were to contain. Here is a sample of the prose they produced, taken from the book’s website: 
Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday. . . . 
       Not only is the book consistently clumsy, a clod of words riddled with grammatical and syntax errors, its internal structure is designed to strain credulity well beyond the breaking point. Chapters 13 and 15, written by two different authors, cover identical events in the narrative. Chapter 21 is missing, while chapters 4 and 17 are identical, word for word. Chapter 34 is “written” by computer story generation software that constructs the narrative from a word analysis of previous chapters. Toward the end of the book one chapter reveals that all that preceded was in fact a dream, but then subsequent chapters continue the narrative (such as it is) with no reference to that revelation. The genders of key characters periodically switch and then switch back. The book is, in a word, a mess, contrived to be the worst novel ever written. And finally, with a nod to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the initials of the characters taken together in the order of their appearances spell out the phrase "PublishAmerica is a vanity press."  Take a look at the complete manuscript online -- it is a masterpiece of terrible writing.

       The hoax here is utterly apparent to any objective reader. But that is not the reader for whom Atlanta Nights was written.  It had one, and only one, reader in its sights. You guessed it. Following submission, Publish America promptly accepted Atlanta Nights for publication

       One is left to ponder:  What is the real hoax here? Atlanta Nights or Publish America?

04 November 2013

Word Power

One of my favorite photos of Leonard Elmore shows him standing in a room decorated for Christmas.  He's wearing jeans and this 
T-shirt.  It's now on the Internet advertised as "the Leonard Elmore tee."

Though I hardly ever wear T-shirts, I do collect them.  Since I'm in no mood to write today, I'm sharing some of my favorites with you. The next one has emblazoned across it my answer (usually unspoken) to people who approach me with great ideas for novels and want to tell me all about them, but never put anything on paper or a computer.

My favorite before I saw the Leonard Elmore version:

I call this one the "get lucky" tee that belongs to a young
sci fi writer friend of mine.

This is more my style--threat instead of promise.

Another favorite.

Another threat.

A truism if ever there were one.

I'm beginning to worry about myself.  This
is another threat.

My second favorite shirt.

I apologize that I can't supply a pic of my most beloved T-shirt of all time.  I wore it out years ago, but Callie wears one in her first mystery.  The tee said:


(This is a very old shirt.)

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

03 November 2013

Old Characters, New Novels

Criminal Brief readers might remember pastiches have to be damn good to win me over. That doesn't mean I dismiss or entirely dislike old heroes brought back to life by other than their original authors, but they must attain a high standard. One of our own, Dale Andrews with his thorough research, sets a high bar with his Ellery Queen stories.

Pastiche authors also have to capture the flavor of the original stories, the era, the settings, and especially the characters. More often than not, one of these will fall flat. Then the question becomes whether readers (and movie viewers) accept the character.

The Saint
The Saint
Saintly Motives

Often acceptance hinges upon what a reader or viewer is first exposed to. I recall an English friend complaining bitterly about the Roger Moore version of The Saint. At first blush, what wasn't to like? The cast and crew were British and whilst the series wasn't as good as anything the Patricks  appeared in (McGoohan and MacNee (not to mention Diana Rigg's Emma Peel)), it was a good diversion.

And then I started reading The Saint novels and became properly hooked. I understood ITC failed to capture the period and much of the ambiance of Leslie Charteris' characters.

Shelfish Motives

One other reason I'm slow to embrace pastiches is the abundance of fresh and perhaps unique stories that might never see the light of day (at least a bookstore day) thanks to being elbowed aside by better known heroes and authors. It's bad enough movie makers recycle characters and plots, but it seems a shame when book publishers do it.

Yes, I can understand hankering and hungering for more of characters one's grown to love. Perhaps for this reason and because it's not my chosen genre, I'm less critical of classic romance characters resurfacing than I am of mystery reprises. Recycle the Janes (Austen and Eyre) but don't touch Marple!

(Romance fans might be interested to learn new Jane Austen novels are in the pipeline including updates of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. And for the particular attention of our friend Travis Erwin, not all fans are pleased one of those authors is male, Alexander McCall Smith.)

If anything, romance fans are even more engaged and critical. You might remember the harsh criticism of Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind. The music field witnessed bitter, even vicious comments about Hayley Westenra covering Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights. While I rarely prefer remakes to the originals, I compliment Bush's creative genius but I find her little-girl performance a bit shrill for my ears, although I seem to be an exception.

Solar Powered

Okay, I confess a bit of tongue in cheek (cheeky lad, that!). There is another way: I very much like the Solar Pons stories. August Derleth was such an admirer of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote Conan Doyle for permission to pick up pen and continue the series. Doyle declined, but not to be entirely put off, Derleth invented the great detective, Solar Pons.

The character became so popular, that when an edition came out that edited some of the Americanisms and timelines, the fan base reacted harshly, and an omnibus correcting the corrections soon followed.

But here it gets curious: A few years after August Derleth died, British author Basil Copper began writing further Solar Pons stories. In other words, Copper wrote pastiches of Derleth's pastiches! (And to be perfectly clear, Basil Copper was the editor who'd corrected Derleth's occasional Americanisms.)

Bonding with Fans

Only recently, we learned Jeffrey Deaver was engaged by the Fleming estate to write an 'official' new James Bond novel. Deaver, an American as you know, received not unpleasant mixed reviews for his effort, some positive, some not so much but they were better received than his immediate predecessor, Sebastian Faulks (who rather sounds like a Bond bad guy). As some have pointed out, Deaver is a better writer than Ian Fleming was, but critics are tough when it comes to capturing the essence of a character.

Deaver wasn't the first American appointed to write official 007 tales– that was novelist Raymond Benson– but I was surprised to learn we're about to see another new pastiche, this one by British writer William Boyd.

Wait, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Samantha Weinberg's chicklit trilogy, The Moneypenny Diaries. And I should mention internationalism works both ways: Irish author John Banville, writing under the name Benjamin Black, is channeling Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

James Bond is hardly the only character brought back to life. I do my best to ignore the Batman-like parody of Sherlock Holmes that Robert Downey, Jr came up with. But other works have either arrived or are on the way.

British children's novelist Anthony Horowitz was licensed to write a new 'official' Sherlock Holmes with an Edith Wharton sounding title, The House of Silk.

Bourne Again

Apparently Robert Ludlum's estate didn't feel the Bourne Trilogy satisfactorily wrapped up the series. They've authorized yet another retake called The Bourne Dominion by Eric Van Lustbader.

And finally, we return to Agatha Christie, not Jane Marple but Hercule Poirot. You may remember Christie hoped to prevent pastiches following on her novels, but her estate had other ideas. They've contracted with writer Sophie Hannah to produce a new novel featuring the egg-headed Belgian detective.

While I may criticize errant pastiches, one parting thought occurs to me: Wouldn't we authors like to reach that pinnacle, one where readers love our works so much, they can't get enough even after we're gone?

02 November 2013

Taking revision to the next level

by Elizabeth Zelvin

I continue to be amazed and pleased that sixty-odd years after I first said I wanted to be a writer and four years since my first mystery publication, the road to learning my craft, especially as a fiction writer, is still rolling out before me. I would much rather be a writer of whom readers say, “She gets better and better,” than one who “never lived up to the promise of her first book.” And while I’ll leave it to others to judge my published work, I’m proud to say that I’m getting better and better at revision.

I might never have understood that revision is an essential part of writing if I had never taken the risk of subjecting my work to critique. I can’t say this didn’t come up until I started writing fiction. Back in the 1970s, when I was actively writing poetry, I was part of a workshop group that met monthly to critique each other’s work. I remember the group’s very lively discussion of one of my poems. It was a divorce poem (murder mysteries aren’t the only way a writer can get revenge) that later appeared in my first book. The memorable part is that when the group got through with it, and I’d gone back and rewritten it incorporating their suggestions, it was exactly the same poem—except that all the words were different.

I did a lot of tinkering with my first mystery while it was making the rounds for four years, having made the mistake of sending out my first draft. But the big revision came when an editor with a major publisher told me one of my alternating co-protagonists was terrific, but the other would do much better as a sidekick. This opportunity was too good not to grab, especially as I’d had a lot of rejections by that time. I had to rethink half the chapters and decide in each of them whether to give the scene to the other protagonist, tell it from his point of view, or turn it into a close third-person scene for the sidekick. It made the manuscript much, much better, and another editor at the same house eventually took it. Although it was an enormous revision, I found it went a lot quicker than writing the first draft. I already knew the story—I just had to change the words.

Writing and revising Voyage of Strangers, my still unpublished historical novel about a young marrano sailor with Columbus, proved a voyage of discovery beyond my previous horizons. I had to put the flesh of my fictional characters and their story on the skeleton of what really happened to real people on a historical time line, rather than building on a structure of crime, investigation, and solution.

I had my protagonist and his sister in my head for more than a year before I wrote the story. When they talked to me, I’d jot down whatever they said. And I was reading and rereading my sources and becoming familiar with the chronology of the historical events. I wrote the first draft easily—first time that’s ever happened. Then a couple of respected early critiquers said they thought the first half of the book needed work.

I rewrote. I tried to make the scenes more suspenseful. I added action, texture, and a character or two. I had to think more about pace and structure. I understood that giving the first half of the story as much momentum as the second was crucial. The most dramatic events in the Indies actually happened. Readers agreed I got the second half right the first time. But to get there, readers had to hang on and cross that ocean. I had to keep them turning pages as my fictional characters made their way across Spain, having fictional adventures.

I had to start the story in a different place. I had to take sections—multi-part scenes—in which the narrative moved gently along and make something happen, something dramatic, conflictual, suspenseful. I started with a nice clean hard copy of my previous draft. But I soon discovered that I wasn’t editing. I had to retell these parts of the story from scratch, without referring to the old text. This time, revision meant rewriting. To my surprise, it went as smoothly as creating the first draft had. Although I was making up new incidents, I knew the characters and the story well enough to choose among various ways that I might tell it.

The biggest surprise is one I attribute to all the years of writing and revising and trying to be open to critique and hearing other writers talk about their craft leading up to this moment when I absolutely had to change what I’d written to something better. You know how writers struggle with the need to “kill their darlings”? We hate to relinquish the well-turned phrase, the sparkling line of dialogue, the oh-so-clever joke. My revelation: there were hardly any darlings at all that I couldn’t bear to let go. And that freed me to write the same story with not only different scenes and incidents, but different (and I hope better) words.

01 November 2013

The Accidental Accent Thief

A Symphony of Subtleties

Akwaaba means "Welcome" in Twri, the language of the Ashanti
In Ghana, West Africa
Accents, in my opinion, are comprised of subtle linguistic aspects. But, when these subtle aspects—of tonal inflection, word choice, phraseology, and myriad other factors—combine, they can team-up to dominate the way a person speaks. The greater the linguistic domination, the “heavier” we say a person’s accent is. That’s the way I see it. And, I have a certain feel for accents. After all …

I’m An Accent Thief 

I don’t do it on purpose; it just happens. Put me in a room with somebody who has an accent, and before too long I’ve caught that accent the same way a hypochondriac might catch a cold. Instead of becoming infected with my conversation-partner’s sniffles, I’m speaking with his twang, maybe dropping certain parts of words, unintentionally borrowing certain phrases, widening my mouth when I make a vowel sound, or perhaps accumulating schwas.

Sometimes this comes in handy. When I was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for instance, I quickly discovered that many local mechanics tended to automatically raise their rates when working on cars that belonged to folks who “ain’t from aroun-cheer.” So, I made it a habit to drop into a drawl as soon as I hopped out of my convertible at the repair shop. The “Fellowship of the Ya’ll,” as I called it, earned me good discounts on new brakes and other necessities.

On other occasions, however, my odd tendency to capture accents leads to embarrassment. I recall speaking to a British gentleman who suddenly cut me off (something I’ve noticed Brits rarely do) to ask: “Are you making sport of me?” (I don’t think he used the word “sport,” though. But, I can’t remember the word he did use.) I apologized, and explained that I tended to “catch accents” but didn’t mean to poke fun at anyone. In fact, I hadn’t realized I was doing it, until he called my attention to it.

After a moment he said, “I see. So, you’re a bit like a human Macaw, then, aren’t you? Or mynah bird, perhaps.”

My automatic response? “Snap!” We both burst into laughter.

While teaching at the Venezuelan Commando (Cazador, or “Hunter”) School, my buddies and I liked to frequent a nearby cafĂ©, where the waitress was happy to serve me “Peksi Lijera” (Pepsi Light). I spoke to her quite a bit, and learned to order my “Peksi” early-on. In fact, I accidentally acquired quite a bit of her accent. Unfortunately, the reason she said “Peksi” instead of “Pepsi” was because she had a speech impediment—which I also temporarily acquired, thinking it was part of the local dialect!

Foreign Dialects

When studying Arabic, at the Defense Language Institute, we spent the first twelve months learning to read, write and speak Modern Standard Arabic. This is basically the language of the Qur’an.

After that, we broke into smaller classes and focused on individual dialects for the next six months. The dialect I studied was the one spoken in Egypt (a nation pronounced “Musr” in Arabic, with the “s” held for an extra half-beat, compared to most contemporary English usage, and wrapped into a breathy, brief, relatively un-voiced, trilled “r” sound). This was the first time I’d been introduced to an in-depth study of dialectal differences in language, and I found it fascinating—if somewhat over my head.

The most interesting case of dialectal differences I ran into, however, was in Africa.

The nation of Ghana
Capital City:  Accra
On our first full day in Ghana, we were taken to a museum and introduced to the “Twri of Ashanti.” (At this point, I should probably point out that Twri can evidently sometimes also be written or pronounced: “Chee” or “Tshee”, or “Twee”—but, I was taught it as “Twri”, so that’s what I’ll use here.)

The word “Twri” is—surprisingly, perhaps, for a westerner—pronounced just as it looks. The word begins with the “tw” sound we use in the word “Twine”.

The “wr” sound takes that unvoiced w sound from the word “twine” (minus any vowel-ing, of course: just the “w?” part of the w sound in the shorter word “wine”). Then, this w sound is rolled into the back-of-the-mouth, mid-to-upper-throat part of the r sound we use at the beginning of the word “roar.” Now, combine the two sounds, transitioning from the w sound into the r sound without stopping in the middle. Don’t feel like the Lone Ranger if it takes a bit of practice to learn to smoothly transition between w and r sounds.

The “i” sound is pronounced “ee”, so the entire word “Twri” comes out sounding a lot like the English word “Tree” except that it has a w sound between the t and the r. In fact, as I later discovered, this word “Twri” is the “English” word that many people in Ghana often use when talking about a tree in the forest—which helped me more fully understand why the person explaining the “Twri of Ashanti” was, at the time, standing and pointing at a giant tree painted on the two-story wall of the museum as he did so.

That painted tree was shaped similar to the tree seen on the right, but each leaf held the name of a village, while the trunk had the word Ashanti painted on it, and some of the major branches carried other names.

The painting was designed to illustrate how the language of the Ashanti peoples (Twri) had branched into many dialects—some primarily used by peoples other than the Ashanti (hence the names painted on some of the larger branches).

Ghana is not a giant country; in fact it’s area is smaller than that of the state of Oregon. Because the people had only low-speed transportation for hundreds of years, however, coupled with sometimes rather inhospitable terrain, villages were often relatively isolated. This physical isolation resulted in relative linguistic isolation, creating linguistic differences between villages to an extraordinary extent, particularly when one considers the limited area they are all contained within.

The Ashanti region of Ghana
These differences are so great, in fact, that many people I met there did not consider each village to have its own dialect, but rather its own language. I met far more than one person who told me he spoke over twenty languages. Usually, he might speak English, French and Twri—but instead of saying he spoke Twri, he’d then start listing all the village dialects he spoke. Which is not to say that the village dialects weren’t quite different from each other.

My A-Team was there to teach a leadership class to NCO’s in the Ghana Army. We worked in Akim Achiaze (Ah-keem Ah-chee-ah-zay). Akim means village, town or city. Achiaze was the name of the town outside the base where we worked. But, depending on where one came from, Achiaze was pronounced: “Ah-chee-ah-zay”, “Uh-chazzee”, “Ah-chee-ah-zee”, “Ah-kee-ah-zee”, “Ah-kah-shee”, etc.

What Does This Have to do With Writing?

One of the most esoteric concepts in writing, imho, is “voice.” And, somehow, there seems to be a connection between accents and voices—including the written “voice”—which runs much deeper than just a twang.

As I wrote earlier in this essay, an accent can cause subtleties to combine in a domineering way. This changes my speaking voice. In my own experiences as an accidental accent thief, I’ve noticed that slipping into another accent sometimes even shifts the tonal range of my voice several octaves up or down the scale. It influences word choice, phraseology, sometimes even paragraph order.

Tone, word choice, phraseology, paragraph or word order—it’s beginning to sound as if we’re talking about aspects of written “voice” here, doesn’t it?

I found myself explaining this to someone, a few days ago, when he asked me if I read books or short stories when I was working on a story or novel. I answered that I did read while working, but had to be careful not to read anything with a “conflicting voice.”

Answering my friend’s subsequent question (“What the hell does conflicting voice mean?”), led me to explain that I’m not just an accent thief. In writing, I have to be very careful not to let the voice of my work be unintentionally altered by the voice of something else. Further, if I read something that has a voice totally alien to the voice I’m writing in, it can completely derail my project until I can get that other voice out of my head—which can take awhile.

A Final Thieving Smile

About six months ago, I spotted a visitor in our church, here in Scottsdale, who had scars on his face that told me he was a chief’s son—if he came from Ghana. His eyes lit up when I said hello in Twri, and after he responded in kind we shook hands, snapping our fingers off each other (a common Ghana practice, I believe) then gave each other the “thumbs-up” while saying, “Ay-yea” which means roughly “yes” or “okay”.

We called each other “Medonfo!” (may-dawn-foe) then, meaning “my friend” and hugged (another common practice in Ghana, I believe). But, when he asked where I’d learned to speak Twri, he professed not to know where Akim Achiaze was. Undaunted, I began listing all the ways I’d heard it pronounced, and when I said, “Akim Uh-chazzee” he clapped his hands and cried, “Uh-chazzie! Where they have the Army Jungle School—it’s way back in the bush!” 

He knew the place, alright. He just wasn’t used to hearing it pronounced in an Achiaze accent. And, since that’s where I’d spent almost all my time in Ghana, that’s the stolen accent I spoke.

See you in two weeks!