Saturday, April 9, 2016

Murder, He Wrote

Thriller Guy is off at some undisclosed location doing God knows what. I, in the meantime, have been rattling around in that particular writer hell known as What’s Next? That’s when you’ve finished a major project, in my case a memoir of my early years, and you don’t have any idea of what you’re going to write next. This didn’t use to be a problem for me as I had a fiction series I was writing and after finishing one I would just move onto the next. After six of these books (you can find them on Amazon here) I am reluctant to continue the series, mostly because publishers aren’t interested in buying a new one nor are they interested in taking up the cause of the extensive backlist. So unless there’s a groundswell of buyers, I’m going to stick with Johnson’s famous sentiment about only fools writing if there is no money involved. Or at least the possibility of money.

Many kind folks have asked that I extend my memoir, but many of those who I would be writing about are still alive and, frankly, I don’t really want to piss anyone off, which my writing about them surely would.

Those of you who read this blog know that I have spoken about the What to Write problem before. My usual prescription is to settle down with a bottle of gin and drink until I come up with an answer. That doesn’t seem to be working this time, though I am valiantly soldiering on in this direction.

Recently, by accident, I stumbled upon a Wikipedia site that I believe might well spur a solid plotline. It’s an extensive collection of unsolved murder cases in the United States, and it makes for fascinating reading, falling in the I’ll-read-just-one-more catagory. Once you start, it’s tough to stop. Here are a few edited-for-length, interesting examples.

On May 28, 1911, the body of Belle Walker, an African-American cook, was found 25 yards from her home on Garibaldi Street in Atlanta. Her throat had been cut by an unknown slayer, and the crime was reported in the Atlanta Constitution under the headline "Negro Woman Killed; No Clue to Slayer." On June 15, another black woman, Addie Watts, was found with her throat slashed, followed on June 27 by Lizzie Watkins. The search for the serial killer, called "the Atlanta Ripper" by the press, found six different suspects, but no convictions were ever made, nor was the crime ever solved. By the end of 1911, fifteen women, all black or dark-skinned, all in their early 20s, had been murdered in the same manner. The "Ripper" may have had as many as 21 victims, but there is no conclusive proof that the murders were carried out by one person.

6 to seven dead, 6-7 injured from 1912 to 1919
The Axeman was not caught or identified, and his crime spree stopped as mysteriously as it
had started. The murderer's identity remains unknown to this day, although various possible identifications of varying plausibility have been proposed. On March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was published in newspapers saying that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19, but would spare the occupants of any place where a jazz band was playing. That night all of New Orleans' dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.

He was born Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr. Born to a life of privilege and wealth, David Bacon graduated from Harvard. He summered with his family at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, where he became involved during the early 1930s with the "University Players." There he met then unknown performers James Stewart and Henry Fonda, with whom he later shared accommodations while he struggled to establish himself. He moved to Los Angeles where he met and married an Austrian singer, Greta Keller. In her later years, Keller disclosed that Bacon was homosexual, and that she was lesbian, and that their lavender marriage partly served as what she referred to as a "beard", allowing both of them to maintain a respectable facade in Hollywood, where they were both attempting to establish film careers.
In 1942, Howard Hughes met Bacon, and signed him to an exclusive contract, with the intention of casting him in The Outlaw (1943) as Billy the Kid. Though Hughes later decided not to use Bacon in The Outlaw, he kept Bacon to the terms of his contract, casting him in several smaller roles. Hughes did lend out Bacon for a role in the Republic serial The Masked Marvel (1943). The serial was produced with a low budget, and marked a low point in Bacon's career, with Keller recalling that he was completely humiliated. Today it remains his best-remembered work.
On September 13th 1943, Bacon was seen driving a car erratically in Santa Monica before running off the road and into the curb. Several witnesses saw him climb out of the car and stagger briefly before collapsing. As they approached he asked them to help him, but he died before he could say anything more. A small knife wound was found in his back – the blade had punctured his lung and caused his death. Keller, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, collapsed when she heard of her husband's death, and later her baby was stillborn.
When he died, Bacon was wearing only a swimsuit, and a wallet and camera were found in his car. The film from the camera was developed and found to contain only one image, that of Bacon, nude and smiling on a beach. Police theorized that the photograph had been taken shortly before his death by his killer. The case attracted publicity for a time and remains unsolved.

These are just three examples chosen at random from the extensive list. As a historical novelist, these older examples appeal to me more than the current ones, though they are interesting as well. I could imagine writing about 1911 Atlanta, or the Axeman of New Orleans. Imagine the fun you could have writing that scene where all of New Orleans played jazz one night to keep the Axeman from killing again. Fabulous. And I am particularly drawn to the failed actor, circa Hollywood, 1943, stumbling out of his car with a small knife wound in his back as the air leaked out of his lungs while he begged for help. What a story.

Hmmmm. Maybe I’m on to something here. Let me get my gin bottle. Time to do some heavy thinking.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Jim Harrison

This week’s Reaper Report features, sadly, Jim Harrison, who dropped over dead at his desk a few days ago while working on a poem. The world is a less interesting place without him writing about it. I have to say, while I devoured his non-fiction, especially the stuff about food, and I was a fan of his poetry, I admired rather than loved his fiction. I knew it was good, certainly literature of a high order, and his descriptions of the natural world were lyrical and often beautiful, but I found his stories slow and his characters, even though they were often different, or not so different, versions of himself, not very compelling. I understand this is a lack of something in me, rather than a lack of something in his work.

I recently read a long interview with him, I can’t remember where, at the end of which he learns his wife of many years was dying, and he said that he didn’t know if he wanted, or could bear, to go on living without her. And he didn’t, so I guess he had made that decision.

His first famous book, Legends of the Fall, came out when I was under the influence of writers like Harrison who were putting out big, powerful books, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone, strong books that impressed young men. I read Legends and understood why it was important, but I fell by the wayside when others, many others, followed. But now I’m an old man, not quite Harrison’s age but getting up there, so maybe it’s time to go back and read him again. Maybe I’m smarter now, wiser. Or maybe not. We'll see.

Here are some random quotes from some of the books, and random thoughts from Harrison. R.I.P.

“If you added it up, without her there was nothing--but with her even the simplest of gestures of walking a bird dog in the desert, or selecting the ingredients for a meal for two rather than one took on an ineffable charm.” Revenge

“His own life suddenly seemed repellently formal. Whom did he know or what did he know and whom did he love? Sitting on the stump under the burden of his father's death and even the mortality inherent in the dying, wildly colored canopy of leaves, he somehow understood that life was only what one did every day.... Nothing was like anything else, including himself, and everything was changing all of the time. He knew he couldn't perceive the change because he was changing too, along with everything else." The Man Who Gave Up His Name

“After dinner the Texan invited Cochran to accompany him to a whorehouse but he declined saying he'd feed, walk and water the horse.
'Strikes me you had a big day and some poontang might ease your mind.'
'Nope. Killed a man I hated today and I don't want to mix my pleasures. I want to lay in bed and think how good it felt.'
The Texan nodded and lit a cigar. He was no man's fool.”
Legends of the Fall

“Perhaps swimming was dancing in the water, he thought. To swim under lily pads seeing their green slender stalks wavering as you passed, to swim under upraised logs past schools of sunfish and bluegills, to swim through reed beds past wriggling water snakes and miniature turtles, to swim in small lakes, big lakes, Lake Michigan, to swim in small farm ponds, creeks, rivers, giant rivers where one was swept along easefully by the current, to swim naked alone at night when you were nineteen and so alone you felt like you were choking every waking moment, having left home for reasons more hormonal than rational; reasons having to do with the abstraction of the future and one's questionable place in the world of the future, an absurdity not the less harsh for being so widespread.”  Legends of the Fall

“Death steals everything except our stories.”

Saturday, March 5, 2016

First Things First

This week’s Reaper Report notes, alas, the passing of the great Pat Conroy. Most of you will have
your favorite Conroy books, and though I loved Prince of Tides, my favorite book of his is The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life. I have bought and given away many copies of this book over the years. It’s wonderful both for the recipes and the stories. My most requested recipe from my daughter is his creamed corn, which is truly delicious.

This entry is going to be a continuation of my last, about developing a voice for whatever you are writing. I believe that voice is the most important element in writing, and without a good one, one proper to your story, no matter how high concept your book is, it will not excel.

Todays subject is first lines. Book openers. We writers fuss over them for hours and hours because they set the tone for the entire book. Note how the following first lines telegraph the style in which the rest of the novel will be written and how some of them, while not necessarily snappy, set up the plot to come. We’ll give the honor of the first first line in this collection of great first lines, to Pat Conroy. RIP, Pat.

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” Prince of Tides.

And the others, which, mostly, were lifted from writer Tyler Miller’s blog, The Black Cat Moan  

The first four are from Elmore Leonard.

“Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”  — Freaky Deaky

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.”  — Glitz

“One day Karen DiCilia put a few observations together and realized her husband Frank was sleeping with a real estate woman in Boca.”  — Gold Coast

“Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.”  — Bandits

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  — 1984, George Orwell

“By the time he graduated from college, John Smith had forgotten all about the bad fall he took on the ice that January day in 1953.”  — The Dead Zone  Stephen King

“This is the story of a lover’s triangle, I suppose you’d say — Arnie Cunningham, Leigh Cabot, and, of course, Christine. But I want you to understand that Christine was there first. She was Arnie’s first love, and while I wouldn’t presume to say for sure (not from whatever heights of wisdom I’ve attained in my twenty-two years, anyway), I think she was his only true love. So I call what happened a tragedy.” — Christine   King

“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years — if it ever did end — began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”  — IT  King

“She was standing at the center of the subway platform, waiting for the uptown train to come in, when the man stepped up to her and punched her.”  — Kiss, Ed McBain

“Suicide bombers are easy to spot.”  — Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child

“Two hours before the accident occurred, Devlin Jamison drove over the crest of a hill on the pitted two-lane asphalt and saw, far below him, the multiple lanes of the east-west highway, the yellow octagon of the stop sign.”  — Cry Hard, Cry Fast, John D. MacDonald

“Ok, so here I am, Lee Morris, opening doors and windows to gusts of life and early death.” — Decider, Dick Francis

“Ignatius Martin Parish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things.”  — Horns, Joe Hill

“The legless man was wise enough to understand that heroes can be found in the damnedest places.”  — The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, Don Robertson

“I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer’s headless body in the trunk, and all the time I’m thinking I should’ve put some plastic down.”  — Gun Monkeys, Victor Gischler

All of you out there who are working on something, go back and look at your first line and ask yourself, Is it good? Is it great?

Friday, February 19, 2016

To Kill a Writing Prompt

Horton Foote

Reaper Report. Thriller Guy can’t let Harper Lee’s death go by without mentioning that To Kill a Mockingbird was a great book and a great movie. But you knew that. TG recommends reading the screenplay for the movie by the masterful Horton Foote.

Thriller Guy’s pal Larry has a good blog entry over at TheNon-Fiction Novelist about writing prompts. Writing prompts are the little exercises that writing teachers hand out to writing students to get their pumps primed, or something. The idea is, I guess, if you get someone writing anything, just writing, they will then leap into their own work with a sense of purpose and vigor. Bullshit. What a waste of writing time. No real writers do this, trust me. Real writers, fiction or nonfiction, write to earn money, either today or tomorrow, and no one ever made money writing someone else’s idea so they could then be in the mood to work on their own idea. TG is aware there are those of you out there who will now send me yet another of those mewling comments about how you write for “ideas” and for the sheer love of writing, etc. etc. And just because there are those who need a further explanation -- this doesn’t mean that when you’re writing your novel you’re writing with the sole goal of making big money, that a publisher is going to immediately pick it up and buy it (those days are long gone). What writing for money means is that you should write it with enough thought and care to produce a work that a publisher or reader will pay for the pleasure of publishing or reading.

So stop writing little exercises where writing teachers, how-to-write books or websites give you a subject and a time limit and tell you it’s going to be fun. Writing isn’t fun. Just get to work.

But TG would like to suggest that reading the right, or wrong thing before writing can certainly influence one’s writing style, for better or worse. So a few minutes of reading can be very valuable.

TG writes in many different styles. When writing time travel novels one “trick” is to hint at the cadences and styles of the period one is writing in. This is what pal Larry calls writing in “old.” As opposed to, say, writing in Spanish. TG’s alter ego, Allen Appel, gets this process moving by reading letters, newspapers and even novels written in the period in which his novel is set. Even five minutes of this is enough to channel your writing brain into, again, the cadences of the period. You don’t want to copy anything other than the sound and the rhythm.

An extreme example of this recently came Appel’s way. Several years ago he decided to challenge himself by learning how to write a novella rather than a full-length novel. The subject would be the most unlikely he could come up with. The winner? Chickens. Could he write a novella or novellas in several different styles about chickens? Stories that would work as stories and not jokes or simple pastiche? The result was The Christmas Chicken, The Flock, and The Maltese Chicken. (All three novellas are available for Kindle here.)

The Christmas Chicken was recorded by the incomparable Brad Wills and is available on Recently Brad decided to record The Flock, which meant that Appel was going to have to go back and re-edit that novella to make sure it was in good shape for recording. At the same time, he has been working on his memoir (a shorter version of which can be read at the blogsite http://mylifeinthebigredband). The memoir is written in, well, memoir style, whatever that is. In this case sort of breezy and humorous. The Flock is written in the style of H. P. Lovecraft, and the two are decidedly different. Here are examples, the first paragraph of each piece.

“So in that summer that was not summer, for the cold never left the land, I went to a deep woods known as Wolfsbane, far from cities and towns, to an odd community that lived with whatever strange Gods they worshipped, wanting to be left alone, the lot of them, and the world was happy for it to be so. They called the Hunter, as others have called before, and I came. But it was not wolves who were the bane of these people, though at the time I did not know that, no, not wolves, not Canis Lupus, creatures who ran the cold woods and howled into the deep dark night, though they be fearsome creatures themselves, but others, far more mysterious, and more terrible. It was these that compelled the people of Wolfsbane to summon the Hunter. And if I knew then what I know now, I would not have responded to that summons. But that is Life, is it not? To never know? Yes, Life. And Death.”

My Life in the Big Red Band.  It was one week into the first summer of band practice when I
first had my ass kicked. I don’t mean that in the general sense of the term, like being beat up in a fight. I mean having another person literally kick me in the ass. Getting beat up in a fight would be a good way to begin a memoir, but this is nothing like that. Pain, loss, abuse are all perfectly good stories to reveal a life shaped by adversity. God knows enough true stories have begun with a belt, a fist, or a wire hanger smacking a child in the face. But this is anything but that. In fact, it’s the opposite of a life forged by adversity, more a life shaped by mostly good fortune. Where’s the drama in that, you might ask? I don’t know, I guess we’ll just have to find out.”

As you can see, the two styles are radically different. Moving from one to the other was going to screw up the cadence of both of them. What to do? In this case, it was to take the time to stop and read a lot of whatever one I was going to be working on, to expunge the style of the other. I was lucky here, in that I had a sample of the exact style I needed to continue in the style I needed. My own style. So that’s TG’s first piece of advice, and it’s a simple one: Screw the stupid prompts, read your own work before you begin writing your own work. This is what you should be doing anyway: when you begin work you start by editing the work you did the day before. Then when you start in on new stuff, you’re already in your own cadence. TG knows some smarty-pants out there is going to write in and say he/she doesn’t need to do this because he/she always writes in his own style, blah blah blah, but TG contends that in most cases, anyone who sits down to write will have already read something that someone else has already written beforehand. Often it’s the newspaper or even emails, either of which will channel your brain into someone else’s style. Expunge it!

But what if you’re at the beginning of a new piece, so you don’t have your own work to read and mimic? TG suggests spending a few minutes every day before you begin writing reading in whatever style you’re writing in, just to get your writing brain in the proper gear. With The Flock, that meant reading a Lovecraft story every day before working. With the memoir Appel read memoirs in “his” style, My Father’s Eyes, by Mary Bonina, Liars Club by Mary Carr, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson were just a few that he enjoyed before starting his writing day. All were extremely helpful in getting him into the proper brain groove.

So stop with the stupid writing prompts. Grow up and write your own ideas. Unless someone is paying you to write theirs. But read before you write. Your own work if you’ve got it, or those of other writers you think are working in a style that is close to what you are trying to do. Above all…

Sit down, shut up, get to work.