16 January 2017

Stranger Than Fiction


Image may contain: 1 person, smiling People wonder where writers get their ideas for their stories. We've all discussed this here many times but when news comes up like things happened this week, I can only be reminded that we have to only be aware of the daily news because there are stories every day to give fiction writers ideas.

A baby girl kidnapped eighteen years ago in Florida has been found and reunited with her biological mother and father.  The woman who kidnapped the baby who was only five hours old has been jailed.

If you watch, there will be books and stories written with a kidnapped baby at the center of the story. I probably would have written one myself, but my thought is to let this information percolate on the back burner for a time and see what rises out of the news this week.

The story goes that the woman who abducted the baby had posed as a nurse and moved to South Carolina. The biological mother was sixteen at the time and the biological father was in jail for having sex with the young mother. But the couple never gave up. The mother made pleas for her baby's return. The mother also had a birthday cake every year for her missing daughter and saved a piece and froze it every year. The husband of the woman who kidnapped the baby thought the little girl was his and he loves her dearly. He hopes he can still be someone in her life.

The young baby grew up and became interested in seeing pictures of missing and exploited children. Something made her suspect she was a missing child. Haven't heard yet what made her suspicious but as of this time has been reunited with her parents and grandmother.

The other big story to me is the "news" about the mysterious saga of D.B. Cooper. The man who high jacked a commercial airline in 1971, demanded a ransom of $200,000, and parachutes in return for releasing the passengers and jumping from the airplane and disappearing. It's been forty-five years and no trace of the man or his money has been found. Okay, money was found at one point, $5800, the serial numbers matching the ransom recorded by the FBI. But no other money has ever been spent or located.

The man who jumped from the place has actually not been identified. A nicely dressed man in a suit, white shirt and tie and who said his name was Dan Cooper paid cash in Reno for a ticket to Seattle. Back then, no ID was required. Once on board, at the back of the place, the man ordered and paid for a drink. One account even said he smoked a cigarette, which you could also do on planes back then. He then handed one of the attendants a note, with his demands and showed her what looked like a bomb in his briefcase.

The pilot followed the man's instructions getting the ransom money and the parachutes. And Mr. Cooper allowed the passengers and part of the crew to get off at Seattle Sea-Tac Airport. The man gave instructions for the speed, direction and altitude of the plane heading to Mexico. The one female attendant left on board saw the man strapping something around his body. Shortly afterward the rear staircase on the plane opened and the man jumped out. Many reports say the night was rainy, stormy and the plane was flying over a big wooded area.

A few months ago, the FBI formally closed the case of D.B. Cooper also known as NORJAK, Northwest High-jacking. However, recently some new evidence has been discovered by one of the Citizen's Sleuth Groups who have been investigating the case for a number of years.  The J.C. Penney tie that Mr. Cooper was wearing and left on the plane when he jumped has turned up some 100,000 particles that officials believe could hold clues. Particles detected by one of the new powerful microscopes include Strontium, Sulfide, Cerium and titanium. The thinking is that the man could have worked at Boeing. He could have been an engineer or manager at one of the plants. There is hope these particles can lead to someone who remembers an employee who disappear around this time.

There is so much mystery and intrigue still about this mysterious man and the missing ransom money. I can imagine any number of new books being written with this material. Feel free to research and work out your own story.

Although the FBI officially closed the investigation if any new evidence comes to light, they will certainly will devote time and energy to solving the case.

Robert Lopresti, I'm sure you have great background information on D.B. Cooper, right?

15 January 2017

Seoul Searching


by Leigh Lundin

Comfort Women
© Japan Daily Press

A simple sculpture of a small, Asian woman is causing a big uproar.

I’m not a believer that blame and shame should be a life sentence, nor that the sins of the fathers must be visited upon anyone else. On a global level, I commend governments that have apologized for war crimes or, in the case of our own country, wrongful imprisonment of our own citizens because of ethnicity.

While humans are capable of horrid barbarity, they’re also capable of great forgiveness. Even so, atrocity denial is making a resurgence.

Comfort Women

Asia had its own version of the holocaust. Leading up to and throughout the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the Japanese Army institutionalized slavery of men and women. The scale was so huge, it’s easy to be blinded by the sheer volume of statistics. But the sexual enslavement of perhaps 200 000 young women from Korea, Philippines, and China bring matters into a more personal focus. The term ‘comfort women’ became a euphemism for what Japan considered captives turned into state-owned prostitutes.

Japanese are good at many things, but national responsibility is a tough hurdle for them. Deniers argue
  • it never happened… but if it did,
  • ‘only 10 000’ women took part,
  • they willingly ‘volunteered’,
  • they must have been, uh, ‘prostitutes’,
  • they queued up to offer themselves,
  • they could freely choose which soldiers,
  • it was ‘necessary to maintain discipline,’
  • it's racist and divisive to discuss it,
  • they're all ‘lying’,
  • and really, it didn’t happen at all.
The few comfort women still living are affectionately called ‘grandmothers’ in both Korea and the Philippines, and are highly regarded. In the 1990s, South Korean and Japanese governments agreed to let bygones be bygones. A former prime minister apologized and Japan even paid compensation, but the attitude of Japan’s mass denial offends Koreans, Filipinos, and the Chinese as well.

Ordinary citizens groups did something about it. Activists placed a statue memorializing the comfort women in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, mirroring similar sculptures in forty other South Korean cities including Seoul. Japan withdrew its ambassador in protest.

The sculptures have appeared in other parts of the world including the US. The first here was erected in Palisades Park, New Jersey, and the second in San Francisco, Osaka’s sister city. Japanese denial organizations unsuccessfully sued to prevent one going up in Glendale, California and at present, a Change.org petition is circulating to remove the one in San Francisco. It insists there’s no documentation or evidence of forced sexual slavery.

Deniers had more success in Australia. A Sydney suburb banned a park statue, but a Uniting Church of Australia volunteered to host the comfort woman memorial.

Unintended Consequences


Apparently Japan has never heard of the Streisand Effect, the phenomenon where attempts to hide or censor information result in further widening distribution of that information. And now you know.

Nobody hates the Japanese– I’m pretty sure South Korea doesn’t– but glossing over a wartime atrocity rankles the public. If I might be so bold as to advise Japan, even if you can’t admit it, stop denying it. Then some day the misdeeds might become a sad footnote in history.

What is your take?

14 January 2017

Revision: Murder by Pencil


"Murder your darlings"--that may be the most famous piece of advice about revision, one that's been attributed to just about everybody but really, apparently, originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch, a British writer and critic born in 1863. I think it became famous because it so vividly sums up two facts almost all writers instantly recognize as true:
  • Revision is mandatory.
  • Revision hurts like hell.
We labor so hard to bring our words into this world that sending any of them back into the void feels wrong. It feels like murder--a kind of murder even mystery writers don't enjoy. And according to Quiller-Couch, the words we labor over hardest, the ones we love best, are probably the ones we most need to obliterate. How can we force ourselves to be as pitiless as we know we need to be? Is there any way to make the process less painful?

Several years ago, I ran into two essays that transformed the way I revise. Both had been around for decades, but I hadn't encountered them before. (They were in a prose anthology I used in a first-year composition course I was teaching. I chose the anthology because I hoped it would help students improve their writing. If it helped them half as much as it helped me, it was a good choice.) While both essays contain many valuable insights about writing, they've made a difference for me primarily because each recommends one specific technique that has helped me murder my darlings more efficiently.

The first essay is Donald M. Murray's "The Maker's Eye: Revising Your Own Manuscripts," published in 1973 and available online here. Murray first discusses the early stages of revision when most writers, he says, focus on "the larger problems of subject and form." Then he discusses the stage when writers move "closer and closer to the page," working through the manuscript sentence by sentence, sweating to make every word right. At this stage, Murray finds it best to work "in short runs, no more than fifteen minutes at a stretch." If he tries to keep going longer than that, he says, "I become too kind with myself. I begin to see what I hope is on the page, not what is actually on the page."

At first, this approach sounded strange to me--it seemed too fragmented--but I gave it a try. It works. Now, when I reach the final stage of revision, I set a timer for fifteen minutes (or usually, to be honest, thirty) and start working. I'm alert, I'm focused on revision, and I'm determined to find ways to make improvements. When the timer goes off, I take a ten-minute break. I put in a load of laundry or do some other household chore, I respond to an e-mail, or I read a chapter of someone else's book. Sometimes I exercise (I should do that more often), and sometimes I fix a snack (I should do that less often). When the break is over, I attack the manuscript with renewed alertness, focus, and determination.

I think this approach helps me revise more effectively; I know it makes me more ruthless. When I try to revise without taking breaks, it's too easy to slip out of revising mode and into reading mode. I start enjoying the characters and smiling at the dialogue. After all, I created this manuscript--it's natural for me to love it. But if I want other people to love it, too, I can't afford to go easy on it. I have to scrutinize it critically and be prepared to murder any little darlings that aren't as good as I'd like to think they are. Revising in short runs helps.

The other essay is William Zinsser's "The Act of Writing: One Man's Method," written in 1983. (If he'd written it more recently, he probably would have called it "One Person's Method.") Again, there's lots of good advice about revision in general, one specific technique that stands out for me. When he was teaching writing at Yale, Zinsser says, he would read through students' essays and "put brackets around every component . . . that I didn't think was doing some kind of work." The "component" might be a single word, such as "the adverb whose meaning is already in the verb (blare loudly, clench tightly)," or it might be an entire sentence that "essentially repeats what the previous sentence has said." "Most people's writing," Zinsser says, "is littered with phrases that do no work whatever. Most first drafts, in fact, can be cut by fifty percent without losing anything organic."

I don't know exactly why the brackets work so well, but they do. When I'm reasonably satisfied with the content and general shape of a manuscript, I print a hard copy and go through it again, looking for words, phrases, sentences, and--who knows?--whole paragraphs I might be able to cut. I always use a pencil, not a pen. That way, any hasty decisions I make while revising can easily be reversed, anything I cut can readily be restored. Sometimes, I can cross things out immediately, confident they aren't doing "some kind of work" and will never be missed. Often, though, I hesitate. Okay, so maybe that phrase isn't strictly necessary, but I like it--it's a darling--and I hate to cut it. So I put it in brackets and move on, postponing the final, painful decision. Later, when I go back and see a page studded with half a dozen or more bracketed words, phrases, and sentences, I realize how much tighter and sharper the page can be if I find the courage to make the cuts. Usually, I grit my teeth and cross out everything in brackets, and the page snaps into shape.

Maybe it's easier to murder our darlings if we do it in stages. We put a component on trial by bracketing it, we later weigh all the evidence about the page or the chapter as a whole before reaching a verdict, and only then do we convict and execute. And when I look back at a page and see only a few brackets, I know I've slipped into reading mode and haven't been ruthless enough. It's time to take a break, and to come back in ten minutes determined to find more suspects to put on trial.

You could also, I'm sure, type the brackets, or highlight possibly superfluous components, or find some other way to use this technique without printing a hard copy. For me, though, for revision, a hard copy and a pencil work best. Maybe that's because I'm a dinosaur who wrote her first manuscripts on yellow pads and manual typewriters. Or maybe there's a real advantage to getting physically closer to our manuscripts during the last stages of writing, to having our hands travel over our words as we make our final decisions about their fates--which ones to keep, which ones to change, which ones to murder.

I do know these two techniques have made a difference for me, and that's taught me another lesson. Before I read these essays, I'd been writing for decades, teaching writing for decades. I considered myself an expert on the writing process, and I thought my own process was set. These essays proved me wrong. We never know enough about writing. No matter how experienced we are, we can still learn from what other writers have to say. Some of the books and essays we read will simply repeat things we already know, and some we'll reject as just plain wrong. Once in a while, though, if we keep reading, we'll find valuable new insights, ones that might even make us revise our approach to revision.

How do you approach revision? Can you recommend techniques that have worked for you? 

# # #

Last year, the day before I planned to leave for Malice Domestic, I tripped on a stupid throw rug, fell, broke my right arm, injured my left leg, and ended up going to the emergency room rather than to Bethesda. I've gotten rid of the throw rug, and of every other throw rug in the house, and hope to make it all the way to the conference this year--but I've learned not to take anything for granted. If you're also planning to go to Malice and haven't yet completed your Agatha nominating ballot, please consider "The Last Blue Glass," a short story that appeared in the April, 2016 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can read it here. (Even if you aren't going to Malice, you might enjoy the story. I worked hard on revising it.)






13 January 2017

Time to Rant


by
O'Neil De Noux

It's a NEW YEAR and time to rant.

Let's start with the word February, it's not Febuary. Neither 'R' is silent. It's February

Stop using air quotes in conversation. You look like a constipated duck unable to take off.

Stop using 'quite' and 'literally' and 'actually' and 'what can I do you for' - instead of what can I do for you - and 'coinkidink' - instead of coincidence. I mean, like, come on.

Don't smoke around me.

There's nothing cozy about a murder. I've seen enough to know. It's awful. Death can be peaceful but murder is rarely peaceful. Victims cling to their last breath.

Cats cannot solve murders. Neither can dogs. Actually, only a few humans can. I'd be happy if my cats solved the mystery of where is the litter box (I think I said this before).



Kittens are the cutest baby animals in the world. Human babies are pretty but admit it - they look like mini-Winston Churchills.

Stop demanding I share anything on Facebook. It's annoying when I'm asked to prove I like children or kittens or Jesus or the USA and if I don't share, then I don't like them. I like them. You, I'm not crazy about at the moment.

And don't test me, demanding I put a selected word in a comment to prove I'm reading all your junk or I want to remain your friend. When I don't respond, I hope you get the message.

Stop the damn game requests on Facebook. You sound like a Jehovah's Witness.

Why do my friends think I care which elf they are in the tedious LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy? Why do they want to know which elf I am? I'm not a freakin' elf, don't want to be one. I want to be one of those large ebony guys who chews off the elf's head.

People don't pass. They are dead. Deceased. Expired. I know death is scary and the word 'dead' is so final. But death is final. Sorry. I didn't create this world. If I had, a LOT of things would be different and a lot worse for bigots, prudes and tight-ass fanatics.


Dear Russian beauties, I'm not in the market. I'm a happily married older man who knows better. Also - to my male friends - stop sending me photos of naked women in emails (some labeled 'surprise' others labeled 'don't you know me'). Seriously, I know what it looks like.

All right, this is a writer's blog so I'll say something about writing. I want to thank those who write
cliché books set in New Orleans. Manslaughter at Mardi Gras. The Gumbo Drownings. Bigamy at Jazz Fest. The Shrimp Creole Garottings. These books are amazing. So many exclamation points and people calling each other Cher and Ya Mama and Who dat? Just like the real city. New Orleeens.


 "OK, that was quite actually cleansing," he pontificated as he used air quotes to emphasize his point, looking like a mallard, literally struggling for flight.

dog with dead mallard

www.oneildenoux.net




12 January 2017

Readings


by Brian Thornton

It never ceases to amaze me how many authors are loathe to do readings. Or signings. Or library talks. Or personal appearances of any kind.

I realize that many writers are introverts, who find the writing life, and its tendency toward lots of time spent alone with your thoughts, naturally suits them. For writers of this stripe, I can understand where readings, signings, personal appearances, can take a toll of them. After all, like the lady once said, an extrovert is someone who is filled up by interaction with other people, and an introvert someone emptied by the same experience.

Personally, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an introvert.

But I am married to one. In fact, I'm married to an introvert who is damned good at her profession, which, interestingly enough, involves constant personal contact with dozens, even hundreds of people over the course of any given workday. And my wife is the best at what she does.

So while I can't completely relate, I'm definitely sympathetic to what it must be like for an introverted writer to even contemplate doing something like a public appearance wherein you read from your latest book.

That said, you'd be nuts to pass up on any opportunity to read your stuff, especially in this day and age.

Why?

Because writing a good book just isn't enough anymore. Because there is competition out there for your entertainment dollar, and if you've got a roomful of people willing to be persuaded to read your stuff (and pay for the privilege of so doing), you're passing up the opportunity to do more than sell your books.

You're passing up the opportunity to self yourself.

Yes, I'm talking about "branding."

I've been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately, because tonight, I'm reading as part of the January 2017 lineup for Noir at the Bar Seattle. And it occurred to me that as much as we writers talk about the craft of writing, and we talk about the ins and outs of "branding" ourselves, I haven't seen a really good bit on the dos and don'ts (and there are a LOT of them) of author readings.

So I've decided I'm going to do something about that.

And what's more, I'm going to crowdsource it. I'll be at Noir at the Bar tonight taking notes from the other participants on what, to them, constitutes a good author reading, and collecting amusing anecdotes about what can (and has) gone wrong for them.

I'll post the above, in addition to my own lists, in my next blog post, in two weeks.

Wish me luck!

11 January 2017

MIDNIGHT COP


We all have guilty pleasures we harbor unwavering affection for, in spite of their weaknesses. One of my favorite movies, for example, is RED DAWN - the 1984 release, written and directed by John Milius, not the gratuitous remake. Another is Danny Kaye's sublimely ridiculous THE COURT JESTER, which is quite possibly genius. And further down the list is MIDNIGHT COP, a German noir that gleefully peddles its own exploitive trashiness, but then through some inner alchemy finds transcendence. Not that I pretend to understand how this works, mind. It's flax into gold.

Couple of curiosities about the movie. The original title was KILLING BLUE, a literal translation of the German. When it came out on DVD, somebody in marketing obviously decided that was too enigmatic. And the DVD jacket headlines Morgan Fairchild, along with Michael York and Frank Stallone, which is somewhat misleading. The guy with the most screen time, the star of the picture, is Armin Mueller-Stahl, followed by Julia Kent. But back when, Armin wasn't a known quantity. Julia, a German actress with an Anglicized stage name, wrote the screenplay as well as co-starring. The director is Peter Patzak, with a list of credits going back thirty-five years. Let's just say that MIDNIGHT COP probably isn't a career personal best for any of them.

The plot's full of holes. The movie seems, even, to add up to less than the sum of its parts. The script sets up moments that work by themselves, but don't connect.  The set pieces are well-managed, effectively blocked and shot, and then they evaporate. One thing doesn't lead to another. The character tropes are derivative, and annoying. Why does Armin Mueller-Stahl's cop, Inspector Glass, have to be so dismissive of his newly-assigned partner, because she's a girl? Yeah, the movie was made in 1988, but seriously. This was worn out then. And the whore with the heart of gold, Morgan Fairchild's part. She does okay with it, although it doesn't require Shakespearean chops, and of course Glass can't keep his hands off her, but SHARKY'S MACHINE it ain't. Oh, and lest I forget, it's a running joke that Glass has loose bowels. You get the idea. Too much that amounts to laziness. The real problem is that it's unconvincing.

The most promising relationship, dramatically, is between the two main guys, Armin's cop and Michael York's prosecutor, Karstens. They open the picture together, the two of them a little drunk, playing jazz in their underwear, Glass on trumpet and Karstens on sax, hazy early morning sunlight filtering through the windows, a train going by on the elevated tracks outside. It establishes a comfort zone. We expect it to be subverted, but the plot mechanics require Michael York's character to disintegrate, and by the time we get to the finish line, it's utterly laughable. We don't believe it for a second. (The climactic scene also involves smearing Morgan Fairchild in lard, or maybe Vicks VapoRub, which tells you something.) I think this is a missed opportunity. One of several, yes, but insult to injury. It's a critical failure of nerve. Reversing our expectations is fair enough, playing us false isn't. Aliens might as well have dropped out of the sky.


And yet. What is it that I find so compelling about this movie? Drugs, sex, blackmail. There's a certain sameness to it. It's not all that original. Armin Mueller-Stahl is a big plus. He makes Glass consistently interesting, even if the character isn't written. Doesn't seem like much, damning with faint praise. There's a feel to the picture, though. Shot on location, with four - count 'em, four - cinematographers credited, the visuals are surprisingly consistent. A lot of medium and long shots. Very little moving camera or zoom. Static set-ups, where figures enter and exit the existing frame. When they do use close-ups, it has a claustrophobic effect. But there's nothing flashy or self-conscious about the technique. It doesn't call attention to itself. By and large, interiors are lit bright and hard, so the surfaces are shiny, and exteriors are gauzier, or shot at greater distances. It always seems damp, outside. Fog, rainy streets, wet windshields. I don't remember it raining so much in Berlin. Here's another thing. There isn't a single shot of a landmark in the whole movie. There's no Brandenburg Gate or Checkpoint Charlie, no Memorial Church or Funkturm or the Wall. They have no bearing on the story. It's all back streets and nightclubs and industrial parks and subway stops, high-rent places off the Ku-damm, working-class neighborhoods like Steglitz. If you were a stranger to the town, you wouldn't know you were in Berlin. You're in on a secret.

I'm guessing that's it, or a big piece. Being in on the secret. Which could mean it's only me, or a select group. Not an elite, just people with a working knowledge of Berlin at a definite point in time. MIDNIGHT COP was made a year before the Wall came down. That makes it an artifact. The last shot of the picture, which lasts three or four minutes behind the closing credits, is a slow pan across the city skyline at dusk, with an aircraft on the horizon, coming in to land at Tempelhof or Tegel. You can perhaps make out the Europa-Center in the distance, the Mercedes logo at the top. It begins with with Armin playing the mouthpiece of his trumpet like a kazoo, and then segues into a tenor sax solo of "A Whiter Shade of Pale," which for the Cold War generation is entirely emblematic of Berlin. I actually get teary watching that sequence. It's transporting, and transformative.  

10 January 2017

I am Arturo Bandini


By Nail Babayev (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
 via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown and writer-director of Ask the Dust, has called Ask the Dust by John Fante the greatest novel ever written about Los Angeles.

“Fante was my God,” Charles Bukowski wrote in the introduction to a later edition of Ask the Dust.

***

This post is the tale of a young punk and John Fante, author of Ask the Dust, Dreams from Bunker Hill, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, and more. They never met, they never talked, they never corresponded (though sort of), but one was greatly influenced by the other.

Some time before Fante died, the young punk discovered his work, especially his seminal work, Ask the Dust, about Arturo Bandini (Fante’s alter ego), a young writer struggling in Los Angeles in the 1930s. The young punk devoured everything of Fante’s he could get his hands on, and at that time not everything was in print as Fante hadn’t been rediscovered yet. The punk thought that Fante was speaking to him, writing about him. The punk related to Bandini’s struggles and aspirations.

Ask the Dust is Bandini’s story. Bandini was born to be a writer and he is more than excited when he sells his first short story. Fante, uh, Bandini, was a struggling writer living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles in the 1930s (see my piece on Sleuth Sayers from 12/2016 –  http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2016/12/remembering-los-angeles-bunker-hill-in.html  for more on Bunker Hill). Even then the once-impressive neighborhood, filled with grand Victorian mansions, was rundown. Many of the mansions had been turned into cheap rooming houses. Both Fante and Bandini lived in cheap hotels there, Fante in the Alta Vista, renamed the Alta Loma for Bandini:

The hotel was called the Alta Loma. It was built on a hillside in reverse, there on the crest of Bunker Hill, built against the decline of the hill, so that the main floor was on the level with the street but the tenth floor was downstairs ten levels. If you had room 862, you got in the elevator and went down eight floors, and if you wanted to go down in the truck room, you didn't go down but up to the attic, one floor above the main floor. – John Fante, Ask the Dust

Bandini (Fante) traveled the streets of downtown LA, from Pershing Square to the Grand Central Market, where he liked to look for girls. Bandini was elated when he finally sold his first short story, as was the punk when he sold his first paid piece – an article on John Lennon.


Screenwriter Towne decided he wanted to make a movie of the book. His dream finally came true in 2006, with mixed results. But one thing that the movie got right was the sets, at least in tone. Built on two “football” fields in South Africa, they recreated the look and feel of the hot and dusty Bunker Hill of the 1930s. Maybe every little thing isn’t in the exact place it should be, maybe every little detail isn’t exactly right, but the overall ambience and milieu is there and you feel like you’re there among the hoi polloi and the people just hustling to get by. And you feel that you could run into Bandini – or Fante – in a diner or the Columbia Buffet on Spring Street.



***

Fante and Bandini moved to Los Angeles from Colorado. The punk was born in LA. Fante lived in Bunker Hill, once the city’s most affluent neighborhood, but by the time Fante lived there it was what Raymond Chandler called “shabby town”. The punk never lived in Bunker Hill, but would see it often as a child on trips to downtown LA. And later as a young adult when the old Victorians were being torn down or put on dollies to move away, he and a friend explored several of the Victorians that hadn’t yet been moved. He still has the finial from a newel stairway post that he liberated from one of those old houses...and that he recently pulled out of storage.

And those images of the Bunker Hill that used to be linger still in the movie playing before the not-so-young-anymore punk’s eyes. A romantic vision of shabby gentility. Or maybe not so much gentility as seen in several noir movies that were filmed there in the 1940s and 50s, including Criss Cross, Kiss Me, Deadly and Cry Danger.

***

The young punk identified with Bandini and Fante. And even young punks who think they’re cool have idols and one of this young punk’s idols was John Fante. To that end, he decided to reach out to Fante.

As a young man, Fante had begun a correspondence with H.L. Mencken, journalist, scholar and co-founder of a magazine most of the readers here will know, Black Mask. The punk hoped to have a similar relationship with Fante. He sent Fante a long, 3 page single spaced typed letter. It was a fan letter, but also more than simply a fan letter, and the young punk hoped to begin a correspondence with Fante like Fante had had with Mencken.

The young punk had done a lot of things like that, writing to a lot of well-known people. Got letters back from some, phone calls from others (Cary Grant), and was even invited to Gene Kelly’s house. And from others nothing. As time went on, the punk started to lose hope that he would ever hear from Fante.

Even though Fante eventually had success in Hollywood, writing movies like Full of Life, Walk on the Wild Side and others, he never seemed like a happy man. He thought of himself as a well-paid Hollywood whore. And the punk knew that Fante was bitter and angry and in failing health. He never did hear back. He figured Fante was too sick or too angry or both.

On April 8, 2010, John Fante’s 101st birthday, Fante Square was dedicated in downtown L.A., near Bunker Hill. The area may have changed a lot, but the spirit of Fante and the old Bunker Hill is still there.

By eigene Aufnahme (Own work (Original text: eigene Aufnahme)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons


Fante died on May 8, 1983 and the not-so-young punk liked to think that maybe Fante read his letter or a family member read it to him before he died. And the punk kept writing, hoping to someday be able to say “I am Arturo Bandini.”

Books by Fante:

The Road to Los Angeles (1936, publ.1985)
Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938)
Ask the Dust (1939)
Dago Red (1940), short story collection
Full of Life (1952)
Brave Burro (book, with Rudolph Borchert) (1970)
The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977)
Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982)
The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories (posthumously, 1985), Dago Red and short story collection
1933 Was a Bad Year (post., 1985; incomplete)
West of Rome (post., 1986), two novellas

Fante/Mencken: John Fante & H. L. Mencken: A Personal Correspondence, 1932–1950 (post., 1989), letters
John Fante: Selected Letters, 1932–1981 (post., 1991), letters
The Big Hunger: Stories, 1932–1959 (post., 2000), short story collection

###
And now for the usual BSP:

Coming on January 30th from Down & Out Books:
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea 
A collection of 15 Private Eye stories from some of the best mystery and noir writers from across the country. Available for pre-order now on Amazon:


And I have a couple of appearances in January.

Santa Clarita: The Old Town Newhall Library
Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM.
24500 Main St, Santa Clarita, CA  91321

Cerritos Library, where I’ll be moderating a panel:
Saturday, January 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA  90703


09 January 2017

Books for Writers


Well, 2017's a week old, but this is my first chance to wish everyone a Happy New Year dripping optimism and good intentions. Those good intentions show up in the resolutions we make and--sorry, but it's true--often break. Many writers vow to read more books, review more, attend more workshops, or improve their writing in some way, and I'm no different. Especially when I look back at how far I've come...and how much further I still need to go.
I tell people in my workshops that if you can read something you wrote more than two years ago without wincing, you have stopped growing as a writer. The only upside to low standards is they make you harder to disappoint.

In the 1970s, I wrote five deservedly unpublished novels. When retirement loomed in the new millennium, I knew I wanted to make at least one of those novels better and vowed to learn the craft, which I'd never bothered to do before. As an English teacher I knew how to write a decent sentence or paragraph, but I'd never learned how to tell a story. Once I retired, I attended workshops, joined writing groups, and read dozens of books on writing. I'd always read writing texts for the classroom, but now I had a different focus. It was the start of a much more arduous journey.

Since I began teaching, I have probably read over 1000 books on writing or how to teach writing, and it's a sad paradox that most of them are poorly written. English teachers worry more about formal correctness than style, and most creative writing classes are too big to give people individual attention. Writing is a personal thing and everyone does it or learns it differently, which is why composition classes have such mixed results. You need to do most of the work yourself.

And here's how. The following list is for potential fiction writers, not necessarily of mystery/crime, but slanted that way. These are the books that have helped me, which doesn't mean they will help you, too, but give them a shot.

PLOTTING:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby                        This is geared toward screenwriting, but it covers premise, plot, character, setting, dialogue, and how to blend them into a cohesive whole better than any other book I've found.




Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt          This expands Georges Polti's over-praised The 36 Dramatic Plot Situations from a century ago. Schmidt, also a screenwriter, is clear, concrete, practical and demanding. The offers many questions that will help you generate your own ideas in a lot of different forms.

Story by Robert McGee                   This has been considered the book for some time, and I think it gets a little more abstract and philosophical than it has to. I prefer Truby, but it's a matter of taste.

Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham                  Bickham's prose is dry but his discussion is crucial. Many later books refer to this one, which is appropriate because nobody else has explained the mechanics as well or as thoroughly.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler            One of many books on the Jungian/Campbell hero model, but more readable than most of the others. Like Schmidt, Vogler is a script doctor.

CHARACTER:

I've found more good books on character than on any other fact of fiction, and here are my faves.

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress
Character, Emotion and Viewpoint  also by Nancy Kress                     These two books repeat a little material, but Kress's discussion is concrete and practical. The first book includes a huge worksheet for developing a character that may be overkill but demonstrates how much there is to consider. It also has an excellent discussion different ways to handle internal monologue.

Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon              There are several dictionaries of baby names and the like, but this one cross-references by nationality, meaning, and gender. It also has common surnames and explains how the language or culture developed those names.

45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt                Same author as the plot book. She uses mythology and Jung to sort the characters into types and has a concrete discussion of how various character complement each other to develop a deeper plot.

SPECIALIZED TECHNIQUES:

Dialogue by Gloria Kempton            There are few books on dialogue, and most of the others are terrible, including those geared toward play-writing. The belief seems to be that either you can write it or you can't (mostly the latter), but this book give you solid techniques and exercises that generate plot or character, too. It's cheaper than taking my workshop, too. ;-)

Hooked by Les Edgerton              Supposedly about openings, it covers several other aspects of fiction and ties them together well.

Description by Monica Wood                 A masterpiece about the technique everyone loves to overuse...badly. This book shows how description can strengthen theme, tone, character, setting, and everything else.

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

Setting by Jack Bickham                  Again, dry prose but a deep and thoughtful discussion of all aspects of how and why your location can make or break your plot and your characters.

REVISION AND EDITING:

Don't Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden               If you don't already have this book, buy two copies, one as a spare for when you wear the first one out. Roerden is a former reader for a major publisher and also a ghost-writer. Here, she offers helpful--and often hilarious--examples of how to ruin your writing and how to fix it.

Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell                This covers all the crucial issues above: plot, character, pacing, dialogue, tone, point of view, and gives helpful examples and exercises. Even though it's only one chapter, his discussion of dialogue is second only to Kempton's.

Story Fix by Larry Brooks                 Brooks offers a long discussion on the importance of a solid concept and premise, which few other books even mention. He makes a strong argument for tweaking that idea until it can support the mechanics of plot and character and shows how to strengthen your structure.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King                 This has been around for quite awhile, mostly because it's very good.

Sin & Syntax by Constance Hale                 Discussing how to build a style and voice is both difficult and dangerous, but this book does it well. Again, many excellent and funny examples.

Alone With All That Could Happen by David Jauss                             This is a collection of essays on various aspects of writing fiction. Jauss's discussion of point of view leaves everyone else back on the wagon train, and his analysis of present tense is only slightly less brilliant.

You'll probably notice a few omissions. Yes, The Elements of Style is a crucial text, but it's better for exposition than it is for fiction. Writing narration as Strunk and White suggest can lead to a more clipped and impersonal voice than you might want for stories. That said, it's the be-all and end-all for crafting strong prose. I've also left off grammar books and dictionaries because I'm an old-fashioned grump.  If you don't know grammar, spelling, and punctuation already, why the hell do you think you should be a writer?

What are your favorite books that I've missed?

08 January 2017

Slings and Arrows


    Although this article contains opinions about the television event Goliath, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers.

Acknowledgements
    Friend Sharon brought Goliath to my attention. (Thanks, Sharon.) Friend Thrush’s Amazon Prime made it available for viewing. (Thanks, Bob.)
by Leigh Lundin

Amazon isn’t known for outstanding television productions, but they found a winner in Goliath, a legal drama set in Southern California. Catch it if you haven’t seen it. I binge-watched all eight episodes in a 20-hour period, a unique experience for me.

As soon as episodes ended, I pondered them as a writer looking for lessons. With luck, I’d like to see a season 2 (and 3 and possibly 4) with all of the characters returning. (You too, Brittany.)

 
Trite and True, a Word about Clichés


At first glance, the clichés almost overwhelmed me. I had just surfaced from critiquing a sci-fi rebels-versus-the-Federation story. I told that author,
“It’s packed with clichés,” I said. “Federation is Star Trek and the rebels smack of Star Wars.” I pointed out examples.

“No,” he said. “You’re wrong. It’s a generation thing. These are memes.”

“They’re not…” I fumbled for a sensitive way to say not original, thinking it read too much like fan-fict. “They’re derivative.”

“Of course. That’s the point. You mention a meme like ‘the Federation’, and everyone understands what it means.”
Meanwhile, back to our story…

Thus I entered the series with a mindset still grumbling about means and clichés, and initially Goliath appears loaded with them:
  • an anti-hero with a drinking problem
    • who drives an eccentric car
    • lives in a dump near the ocean
  • a Harvey Dent-like bad guy
    • who listens to classical music
  • a hooker with a heart of FeS2
  • a high-strung, Asperger’s engineer
  • a lesbian affair
  • incessant overuse of the ƒ-word so you know the script is way cool
Nonetheless, the plot and the characters, clichés or not, won me over. Frankly, the entire cast turned in star performances, which is quite a compliment. I especially like the women… all made it seem like they were born to their rôles.

Although I listed the twitchy, temperamental engineer in my gripes above, my complaint is more a matter of degree. I worked with engineers and highly technical people in depositions, and their obsession with precision nearly derailed their testimony. The nervous Ned may be a bit cartoonish, but his portrayal is not that far off. Cheers for his girlfriend too.

Whereas a number of recent shows tack on lesbian encounters for shock or titillation value, it actually works in Goliath. The affair advances both plot and the development of multiple characters.

Ellipse
If you hammer a nail into a board, drop a loop of string over it, stretch the loop taut with a pencil and draw, you sketch a circle. If you drive two nails into a board, cast a loop of string over them and draw, you form an ellipse.
An ellipse contains two foci, two centers, if you will. So does Goliath.
The Ellipse Theory

Stories are sometimes described in terms of the protagonist being a focal point, surrounded by a circle of acquaintances. Major characters reside closer to the center, minor characters float closer to the perimeter.

Goliath more resembles an ellipse with two strong foci, the protagonist Billy McBride and the antagonist Donald Cooperman. There are no minor characters: all participants are important and well executed.

One of the best villains is Callie Senate. The actress must have had a ball playing the devious, back-stabbing lead lawyer. Those of us who’ve worked in offices recognize her. Yet the character does something in her private life so reprehensible that it makes the vicious office politics look like charm school. She’s so effectively cast that to males, she exudes a treacherous sexual attraction. Guys pick up deadly warning signals, but some fools can’t resist trying to mate while hoping to keep their heads.

Another smart character is Lucy Kittridge, a brilliant and ambitious junior lawyer who wants to move upstairs in the firm. One reviewer waxed sorry for her, portraying Lucy as a victim who, when she fell in love, suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. I didn’t see it that way at all. Yes, there is a shocking example of sexual predation, but Lucy was no fainting-couch filly. While appearing shy and introverted, she showed every interest in meeting the great man himself, knowing what she was getting into. More than once, she revealed her teeth and claws, using a disability as a weapon. She took delight when she seized opportunities to lord it over others. The sad part came when she appeared spurned, but even then she seemed to read the signals differently… correctly.

Missed Opportunities

The show opens with an impressive night-fishing accident before introducing us to the main characters. As good as that was, nothing compares to the stunning ending of episode 2, the best of season 1.

Unfortunately, drama trailed off in the third quarter of the series and never fully recovered. That surprised me because I felt a number of threads could have provided considerable tension and thrills.

For example, a very menacing bad guy stalked McBride, his witnesses, and his legal team, killing key figures. Yet as effective as Karl Stoltz was, the writers wrote him out of the script not with a bang, but a whimper. His demise left a question unanswered… indeed, unasked… who murdered him?

Likewise, crooked Police Officer Ezekiel Sanders delivered a follow-up beating that also went unanswered. That assault may have set in motion a betrayal of McBride.

Trial and Tribulation

Finally, the courtroom drama tapered to a trickle. The story asked us to believe the law firm tail wagged the corporate dog. Viewers are used to courtroom shortcuts, i.e, objections that go unanswered, but in the final hours, the legal writers could have taken suspense lessons from Perry Mason.

The main issue for me, the plaintiffs didn’t present sufficient convincing evidence. Of course McBride attempted to show the corporate defense staff and the judge unfairly kept matters from the jury, but if I were a juror without access to the backstory, could I have been persuaded?

The most satisfying moment of the dénouement wasn’t the verdict nor the post-trial negotiation. That moment came when McBride asked for help with his cell phone. You had to be there.

And I liked the end… just the sound of surf.

Have you seen it? What do you think?

07 January 2017

The English Language


NOTE: It is my honor today to welcome my friend Herschel Cozine as a guest blogger. Herschel has published extensively in the children's field, and his stories and poems have appeared in many of the national children's magazines. His work has also appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazines, Wolfmont Press Toys for Tots anthologies, Woman's World, Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, and many other publications. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and his flash story "The Phone Call" appeared in Flash Bang Mysteries' summer 2016 issue. He currently has a mini-mystery in Over My Dead Body, and a story scheduled in OMDB's next issue as well. Herschel, it's great to have you here (again)! — John Floyd





I would like to concentrate today on the English language. I'm not talking about its idiosyncrasies that  allow one to use "ghoti," according to GBS, to spell "fish." Rather I am more interested in the variances between the British and U.S. in the spelling and meaning of words.

I am fully aware that the British were here first, so to speak, and that it is their language that we have borrowed and, supposedly, corrupted. But because one is the first to use an item doesn't necessarily mean he is using it correctly.

The British, for example, have the philosophy that two letters are better than one in the spelling of a word. "Why use one when two will do the same job?" It sounds like our government's approach. A brief list to demonstrate my point:

Sulphur
Aluminium
Honour
Humour
Programme
Grille
Favourite

I won't even try to spell "maneuver" the way they do.

It seems to me a waste of space and ink. Walt Disney drew his characters with three fingers instead of the usual four. "Think of the money I save on ink," he said.

But Disney wasn't dealing with the British. They're awash in ink; most of it red as I understand it.

Recently I contracted with a magazine in Canada to write a story, and was told by the editor to use the British spelling of words. Fortunately for me there were only two. I'm not good with this kind of thing.

Then, of course, there is the meaning of words. In this instance I see no advantage of one over the other. Here are a few:

US                                 British

Hood                             Bonnet
Trunk                            Boot
Elevator                        Lift
Policeman                    Bobby
Gentleman                   Chap
Run (in stocking)        Ladder
Panties                         Bloomers
Bathroom                     Loo
Excellent                      Capital
Flashlight                     Torch (or Electric Torch)

Then there is the ubiquitous "bloody," which encompasses most of the four-letter words we Americans use. In this case the British have economized. Would that we followed their example in this instance.

Of course, the British refer to a two-week period of time as a fortnight. I have no idea why. When I was in the army, stationed at a fort, a day seemed like two weeks. Is there a connection here?

One need not travel to the United Kingdom to see and hear differences. In this country we speak several different languages, depending on which part of the country we are in. My father, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, changed the "erl," liked "berled" potatoes, and lived on "Thoid" Street. When I lived in New England, the residents drove "cahs," went to "grammah" school, and ate "botatoes." Since they dropped the "R's" from words, they found themselves with a surplus, so they put them on the end of other words. "Idears" and "diplomers," for example. Southerners eat "ahs" cream. Texans? I am still grappling with that one.

Here in California, we don't even speak English. Recently I was in a coffee shop. The table next to me was occupied by some young folks. One young lady with purple hair and tattoos on her arms and eyelids was holding court. I couldn't understand a word she said. I attributed that to the ring in her nose, which kept her from enunciating. But the others at the table had no problem with it. Truly remarkable.

But I digress. In the past few years a whole new language has come into existence with the emergence of texting. I wonder if the British text. How could they possibly communicate using a single letter? LOL.

I wonder, too, if this form will ever influence our writing. Just as English in Chaucer's time is far different from today's, will future generations see a similar change? Hamlet will soliloquize thusly: "2BR not 2B." I will, gratefully, not be around to see it.

CU later.



06 January 2017

Resolutions & A Residency


I don't believe that any of us make ourselves anew each January 1, but I do believe very strongly that the turn of the new year can offer opportunities for for reflection, for taking stock, and for articulating some intentions and ambitions for the immediate future. Vague resolutions like "Eat better" or "Lose weight" or "Be more patient" are, in my opinion, largely doomed to failure. Better are those that set not just goals but also the path toward reaching those goals: "Instead of a cookie for an afternoon snack, I'll eat more fruit instead," for example... and then you buy fruit, you keep fruit instead of cookies at your desk—in fact, you throw your cookies away. Resolutions that involve cultivating new habits are, it's been proven, the most successful—and it takes a month or more of building those habits for them to stick. "Read War and Peace" never worked for me, until I changed it to "Read War and Peace one chapter a day"—and as I've written about before, that ultimately seemed an integral part of my day for a while.
Among my own new year's resolutions this year are plans to build a more positive attitude, for example—something my wife and I are embarking on together. (This was prompted, I should explain, by a recent weekend trip to New York where our son got sick; recounting the story to friends afterward, that sickness became the focal point of an ill-fated weekend—until we realized we could tell the same story a different way, shifting focus to all the fun things we did, and suddenly the weekend looked like a terrific adventure, despite some small stumbles.) For our resolution, we bought a small journal, and each evening our goal has been to write down at least one thing that stood out as positive about the day. Truth is, a couple of times already we've forgotten and then played catch-up the following morning. But with persistence, I think that this small record will become such a regular part of our day that we'll do it by routine—and, with luck, some more positive attitudes will grow out of that routine.

Another of my resolutions is always about writing—some articulation about writing projects for the year, some implementation of a plan to accomplish those goals...even as I recognize that some of those plans may at times go off the rails.

Coming off a tough year and a busy semester, I found myself at wit's end about my writing: a novel that had lost traction, four stories in various ragged degrees of being unfinished, the sense that all of them needed attention, and no idea about which draft to tackle first—which meant working on none of them. Clearly, a shift in perspective was needed, and a shift in perspective is what we've taken.

Hand in hand with a resolution to give fresh priority to our writing, my wife Tara and I jumped on the opportunity to start the year off with a week's worth of immersion in the writing life. As I finish this post, my wife and I are taking part in the writer-in-residence program at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, NC—a program that promises some much-appreciated time and space both to indulge our imaginations and to focus intently on our craft, freedom and diligence in equal measure.

The timing of this was good—both because I'm still on winter break from my teaching at George Mason University and because the start of January helps us to get the new writing year off on the right foot. This is the first writing retreat/residency I've ever done, so I have little to compare it to, but the experience has proven a positive one, in great part thanks to the kindness of our host, Katrina Denza, of the Weymouth board. The Weymouth Center's home is the Boyd House, a beautiful mansion built by James and Katherine Boyd, the former a writer of historical novels best known for  Drums, set in the Revolutionary War and illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Writers in residence at Weymouth stay in one of several rooms named for the Boyds' friends and frequent visitors to the home; I'm staying, for example, in the Sherwood Anderson room—which I adore, of course, given my commitment to short fiction and my admiration for the novel in stories, and it's inspiring to know that Anderson himself was one of the most frequent visitors to the mansion in the late 1930s. Other rooms are named for Thomas Wolfe, Maxwell Perkins, and Paul Green—the latter the room that Tara chose—and each room has a bed and a desk, inevitably echoing that famous saying of Virginia Woolf's about the need for a writer to have a room of one's own.

With only small breaks over the last few days (more on that below), I've worked at this desk from the moment I rolled out of the bed three feet away until close to dinner time. While my schedule at home (at least here on winter break from school) might seem to offer some of the same flexibility, there are significant differences. If I were in my office at school, I would likely feel the need to devote part of the day to prepping syllabi for the next semester  or to answering the emails that are inevitably coming in despite my away message; but I'm putting off that syllabi prep for now and I'm very much treating that away message seriously (sorry to say for anyone who's reached out). If I were trying to work at home, there would inevitably be things to do around the house—all of which are too far away right now even if I was suddenly looking for a distraction (as I know we writers are prone to look for).  And on the flipside of those negatives (can't do this, won't do this), there's also the pervasive sense of what I am here to do and I need to take it seriously. And lest we forget that purpose, there are reminders hanging on every door—signs which both Tara and I are already wishing we could take home.

Has it worked? I printed up drafts of those four stories I mentioned above, and the first half of the week I did major revisions on two of them—refocusing some of the thematic threads of one story and then reshaping and finishing up some extensive line edits on another, to the point of trimming away nearly a quarter of that story, streamlining it considerably. And around all that writing and revising, I've been reading steadily—works that I hope helped to engage and inspire.

The next few days? Well, as I write this, a winter storm is bearing down on the area, and it will be after this post is public that we make the decision whether to ride out the storm or head home before it arrives.

In the meantime, a word about those small breaks I mentioned above. Downtown Southern Pines, within walking distance, is a great haven of fine restaurants and shops as well as home to a beautiful bookstore, The Country Bookshop; we've gone down there at least once each day during our stay for a quick bit of exercise or bite to eat or to browse some books—and pleased to see my own book on the shelf there too! And mid-day on Thursday, we popped up to Raleigh for lunch with my parents and our son (they've been taking care of him this week—thanks so much, Mom and Dad!) and to visit the new location for another of my favorite bookstores, Quail Ridge Books. (And yes, looked for and found my book there too. Took pictures in each case as well, as you'll see below.)

On the shelves at the Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, NC

On the shelves at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh


Needless to say, this too helps keep the momentum going—seeing where the hard work might end up one of these days.

Circling back to where I started this post: I'm not certain how well that overall momentum might continue—even through the rest of the week, given the uncertain weather, much less back in the real world of laundry and dirty dishes, lesson prep, daily grading, and the daily grind. But, keeping a positive outlook (that other resolution!), I'm feeling encouraged by the work I've done, and making headway on a couple of those stories so far has helped clear my head for work on the others and on my longer project.

And here's sending out good wishes to all the writers reading this! May 2017 treat all of us well.



05 January 2017

Gifted


Necklines plunged further, needing a chemisette to be worn underneath. Sleeves widened at the elbow, while bodices ended at the natural waistline. Skirts widened and were further emphasised by the addition of flounces.
Victorian Ladies, a/k/a Wikipedia
I trust that everyone had a Merry Christmas,  Happy Hanukkah, Silly Little Solstice, a Happy New Year, survived the holidays (this is harder for some than others - come to an Al-Anon meeting over the holidays some time and I'll show you), and were/are/will be gifted with good things.  We had a lovely time, thank you.

Other than the fact that our furnace went bad on Boxing Day, and we had a couple of days of Victorian temperatures in the house (50s and 60s) while waiting for parts to arrive. (BTW, now I understand completely why Victorians wore 37 pounds of clothing.  It wasn't all about modesty.)  We were lucky.  Considering it was 14 degrees outside, with a windchill of minus 5, when this happened, we were VERY lucky. Our plumber showed up by 8 AM, and our furnace, thank God! is fixed!!!  Huzzah!!!!

I did almost no writing over the holidays - too much going on for concentrated work, and when I did sit down at the old computer (or even the old pad and paper), I managed to distract myself really well. But I did get a lot of reading done.  I always get a lot of reading done.  I have a gift for reading.

I am very fortunate.  I started early.  My mother taught me to read when I was three years old.  (She always said she did it because she got sick of reading the same story to me every night before bedtime, and I believe her.)  One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor of the old living room in Alexandria, VA, with an array of word flash cards that my mother made out of plain index cards.  I specifically remember putting the word "couch" on the couch.  I don't know how long it took me to actually learn to read, but I know that by the time I was four, I was reading [simple] fairy tales on my own.  I can't tell you how magical, how full, how rich, how unforgettable it is to read fairy tales at the right age, all by yourself.

Someone once said, they liked books rather than TV, because books had better pictures.  When you start reading young enough, they do.  Then and now.  I can still remember the worlds that those fairy tales created in my mind - so real that I shivered, walking down a snowy lane.  I could smell the mud under the bridge where the troll lived.  The glass mountain with the glass castle on top of it, and the road running around the bottom.  And it only increased over time.  I know the exact gesture that Anna Karenina made as she turned to see Vronsky at the ball; have heard the Constance de Beverley's shriek of despair, walled up in Lindesfarne; have seen the drunken Fortunato bouncing down the stone walls of the tunnel to the wine vault; have shivered slightly as drops of cool water fell upon the sunbather. For me, reading is a multisensory experience.

And I get drunk on words.  Let's put it this way:  when I read John Donne's poetry, I fell in love with a dead man, and cursed my fate that I never, ever, ever got to meet the man who wrote such burning words...  And I've had the same experience with others:  Shakespeare, Tennyson, Chaucer, Cavafy, Gunter Grass, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Laurie Lee, Rostand, Emily Bronte, Dickinson, I fall hard and deep and willing into words.

My office.  And this isn't the only wall covered with books.
When something gives you this much pleasure, you get good at it.  For over fifty years I've read every day, obsessively, compulsively, constantly. When I was a child, I knew that reading was the best thing in life, and there were too many books and too little time.  So I taught myself to read faster - not speed reading, I don't skip (although thanks to graduate school, I do know how to gut a book) - but I can read every word at an accelerated pace.  (My husband says I devour books.)  And I remember what I read. My mind has its own card catalog, dutifully supplying (still) plot and main characters (sometimes minor ones, too), as well as dialog and best scenes from a whole roomful of books.  And I think about a book, while I'm reading and afterwards.  I analyze it.  I synthesize it with other readings.  I'm damn good at reading.  It's probably the thing I'm best at.
BTW, this was one reason I really enjoyed graduate school, because (in history at least) you spend most of your time reading books - a minimum of 1 per class per week - and then writing an analysis to present to the class, as well as reading everyone else's analysis and arguing away about it.  I was in my element at last.  
Scenes from a Marriage DVD cover.jpgAnyway, constant reading as a child inevitably led to wonder about writing my own.  The real breakthrough into writing came when I realized that the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the "Little House" books was the same as the Laura Ingalls character in the "Little House" books.  Wow!  Real people actually wrote these! So I started writing.  I wrote very bad poetry on home-made cards for my family, and I wrote short-shorts (now called flash fiction).  I tried writing novels, but as a child I thought that you had to start at the beginning and go straight through until the end, without any changes or editing, and it never occurred to me that people plotted things out.  So I was 24 before I wrote my first novel (a sci-fi/fantasy that has been sitting on my shelf - for very good reasons - for years).  

Before that, I went through a folk-singer / rock star stage and wrote songs.  I wrote my first short story in years because someone bet me I couldn't do it (I won that bet), and then many more short stories that were mostly dull.  Until I had a magic breakthrough about writing dialog watching - I kid you not - Bergman's "Scenes From A Marriage".  I stayed up all night (I was so much younger then) writing dialog which for the first time sounded like dialog and realized...  well, I went off writing plays for a few years.  Came back to writing short stories.  Along with articles, essays, and blog posts.

And here I am.  Good to see all of you, damn glad to be here.

Meanwhile, Constant Reader (thanks, Dorothy Parker!) keeps on reading.  And re-reading.  Speaking of re-reading, I don't see why people don't do more of it.  I mean, if you like going to a certain place for lunch, dinner, picnics, weekends, or vacations, why not keep reading stories / books that do the trick?  If it's a real knock-out, I'll read it a lot more than twice.  By now I've practically memorized the "Little House" books, "Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass", "David Copperfield", "The Left Hand of Darkness", "Death of a Doxy", "The Thin Man", "Pavilion of Women", "The Mask of Apollo", "In This House of Brede", "The Small House at Allington", "Cider With Rosie", "Nemesis", "Death Comes for the Archbishop", "The Round Dozen", and a whole lot more, not to mention a few yards of poetry. Because I want to go to the places those books and stories and poems take me, again and again and again...  Or I'm just in the mood for that voice, like being in the mood for John Coltrane or Leonard Cohen or Apocalyptica, for beef with broccoli or spanakopita or lentil soup.

So, this Christmas, I reread some Dickens, Miss Read's "Christmas Stories", "Hans Brinker & the Silver Skates", and Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales".  BTW, I have "A Child's Christmas in Wales" in the collection "Quite Early One Morning", available here, which includes "How To Be A Poet", the most hilarious send-up of the writing life I have ever read.  Excerpt:
"The Provincial Rush, or the Up-Rimbaud-and-At-Em approach.  This is not wholeheartedly to be recommended as certain qualifications are essential...  this poet must possess a thirst and constitution like that of a salt-eating pony, a hippo's hide, boundless energy, prodigious conceit, no scruples, and - most important of all, this can never be overestimated - a home to go back to in the provinces whenever he breaks down."  [Sound advice for us all...]
Reading, writing, good food, good company, good conversation...  life doesn't get much better than this.  I've found my calling, which makes me a very gifted person indeed.

Happy New Year!







04 January 2017

A Flood of Ideas


by Robert Lopresti

The town where I live is usually pretty soggy, but this was the wettest October in recorded history.  Then, the first Saturday in November we got two and a half inches of rain.  And that was too much for the walls of my sixty-year old house.

I should explain that I live in a raised ranch, with what is known as a daylight basement.  And about half of that basement flooded on Saturday night.  Luckily, it was mostly the unfinished section.  We emptied at least seventy gallons out of there with wet vacs.
'
I collapsed around 1 AM but Terri stayed up most of the night.  When I got up to relieve her I found myself doing a mindless physical task while half awake.  And as some of you know, that is a perfect condition for a writer to start bouncing ideas off his skull.

* What would Shanks, my mystery writer character, do if his basement flooded?  Complain a lot, naturally.  It's what he does best.  But could he use that mess to solve a crime somehow?

* Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine just bought the third story in my "Bad Day" series, each of which is about a group of strangers in fictional Brune County getting tangled up in a crime.  What if my incompetent Brune County cop, Officer Kite, got called to a flooded house?

* What if a family turned off (or didn't repair) their sump pump, causing disaster to neighbors downhill?  A family feud begins...

* The cabinet in our back tool room got soaked and all the boxes of effluvia and paint cans had to be tossed.  What if a couple who was, say, renting a house, experienced the flooded basement and, in the process of cleaning up, found something they weren't supposed to see?

Hmm.  I like that one.  Maybe once things calm down I can wring out the computer keyboard and see what happens...