Doing Democracy

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Rick Atkinson chose the title of his new book—The British Are Coming—not because those words ever crossed Paul Revere’s lips (Atkinson says he was much more likely to have said “The regulars are coming!” since pretty much everyone in the Colonies was British).

Instead, he chose it because at the outset of hostilities between Britain and its rebellious American colonies, the British were indeed coming, across more than 3000 miles of ocean, and in force, with their huge navy determined to defeat the colonists through seapower.

Recently, he gave a lively presentation about his new book at Washington Crossing State Park—an appropriate venue, because it’s where General Washington crossed the Delaware River with his men in preparation for the battles of Trenton and Princeton. These were the first major battles won by the colonists in the Revolutionary War. And those victories gave the colonists new hope, at a time when hope had been “all but extinguished” by their losses.

Atkinson devoted some time to reflecting on the Founding Fathers. They weren’t flawless, he said, and in recent years some of their flaws—owning slaves, especially—have been emphasized more than their accomplishments. Writing in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they were certainly making more a statement of aspiration than of fact. Many groups (not only slaves, but Native Americans, women, indigents, and others) were not treated equally under the laws of 1775.

Nevertheless, he emphasized, no other country in the world was doing what the Founding Fathers were doing at that time, as they worked to free themselves from Britain and toward achieving a “more perfect union” among vastly different colonies. And so, for nearly two hundred and fifty years, our nation’s creation story has remained vivid and compelling to people across continents.

We learn several things by examining those early days, he says: the nation was born bickering; we thought certain truths were self-evident; good leadership was vital; and whatever trials we face today as a country, we’ve been through worse. In November 1776, General Nathanael Greene lost Manhattan’s Fort Washington to the British. After this terrible setback, when he said to his wife “be of good courage,” he was speaking to us, Atkinson said.

When he started researching this book, the author had access to a new trove of archival material, including letters and memoranda written by George III himself. He has a knack for unearthing the telling incident that illuminates a bigger story and using a modest amount of statistics in a compelling way. One new (to me) set of statistics he gave showed the difficulties the British soldiers faced. Of the hundreds of ships sent from England to bring provisions to its troops, huge numbers were lost. The animals aboard died. The flour and supplies were spoiled. As one example, of 550 Lincolnshire sheep sent, only 40 survived the long voyage.

The insight that most startled him as he worked on this 564-page volume was the strength of the myths the British held about America and the war. Certainly not King George, nor any of his ministers, ever set foot in this country, where conditions were very different than at home. Our population was growing at four times England’s rate; two-thirds of white colonial men owned land, while in England only one man in five did; and two-thirds were literate and could vote, compared to one Englishman in six. And, because Americans lived in a frontier society, they were heavily armed.

The British leaders had an even more dangerous blind spot. They didn’t realize the extent to which Americans, isolated from their mother country by an entire ocean, had simply become accustomed to governing themselves.

A point Atkinson made several times, including in the context of the political upheavals we face today, is that “Democracy is never done. It is always something we must be doing.”

If Rick Atkinson is coming to your area, don’t miss him!

Painting by William Tylee Ranney:  “George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton”; from https://www.goodfreephotos.com, public domain.

CrimeCONN 2019: Writers’ Inspiration

chalk outline, body
(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

There’s a buzz from just being in a room packed with crime writers and hearing topics discussed that consume your waking brain (but are of negligible interest to your kids, your running buddy, and pretty much anyone else). Then there are the ideas the discussion sparks. Oh, for the luxury of time to follow all those ideas to their dramatic conclusion and to absorb into my bones the writing advice provided by panelists Jane Cleland, Steve Liskow, and Hallie Ephron.

Here are 10 ideas and tips that struck me at last Saturday’s CrimeCONN at the beautiful Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut. (Yesterday’s Post: Lawyers, Guns, and Money!)

1. Themes and variations. How a case is investigated and handled in court varies across jurisdictions. Envision a clutch of short stories in which similar crimes have very different handling and outcomes.

2. The case of the gentleman prosecutor. When a defendant’s mistress was about to be called to testify, the prosecutor let his wife know she might be happier waiting in the hallway. What other courtesies might a prosecutor extend?

3. Is that your best argument? An appellate lawyer advised, “Put your best argument first,” while people are still listening.

4. If you’re reading crime fiction to assess the state of the market, “don’t go back farther than five years.” There was a lot of nodding and murmured assent to the notion that Agatha Christie couldn’t get published today.

5. Coincidences happen in real life all the time. But in fiction, forget it. At least, “have no more than one,” advised Hallie Ephron, who for a similar reason nixed twins as a plot device. (We won’t mention that Louise Penny based a plot on the Dionne quintuplets.)

6. American English is tightly connected to rhythm, said Steve Liskow, which is why reading a manuscript aloud exposes problems in the language that are invisible on the page. Readers will stumble over the same awkwardnesses you do.

7. No need to write in dialect. In fact, don’t. Mention a character’s accent once and use word choice and the rhythms of subsequent speech to reinforce it.

8. Jane Cleland said great heroes are not afraid to act, though the panelists agreed they have a flaw or failing that must be overcome.

9. Put the important information at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Bury your red herrings in the middle.

10. And keynote speaker Peter Blauner repeated advice from legendary journalist Pete Hamil: “When doing an interview, listen very carefully to the last thing someone says to you.” You’re on your way out the door, your interviewee’s guard is down. This could be the juicy stuff.

See you at CrimeCONN 2020!

Lawyers, Guns, and Money: CrimeCONN 2019

lawyer

Organizers of this year’s CrimeCONN—led by Chris Knopf and Charles Salzberg—truly delivered. Their MWA-NY sponsored committee put together excellent panels and presentations, followed by entertaining keynote speaker Peter Blauner, whose resume includes the award-winning novel Slow Motion Rider and several seasons of Law & Order.

Lawyers as Characters

Authors who are lawyers or are writing legal thrillers peopled several panels. Some of them use their lawyer-character as a nexus of the story’s conflict. The conflicts may be external to their character and arise because of the inherent contentiousness of situations they set up, essentially because of the conflict between the lawbreakers they represent and orderly society. They also use characters who are advocacy lawyers—say, working for an environmental or women’s rights group—to raise issues without clunky exposition.

By contrast, other authors said their emphasis is on the character they are developing, and the fact the character is a lawyer is almost incidental to the story. These characters’ conflicts are often internal, when their needs and values conflict with the actions required of them.

Either way, writers and lawyers are professional storytellers following a loosely analogous process. A lawyer starts a case with the facts (novel set-up), makes arguments (development of the novel’s plot), and arrives at a conclusion/summation (denouement).

Attorney-author Connie Hambley said when she writes, she envisions her reader as “very smart opposing counsel,” answering in one way or another all the objections that reader might make. A variation on this point was the observation that lawyers are logical, accustomed to preparing their cases in a logical way, and a crime story also generally follows a trail of logic, through its accumulation and interpretation of evidence.

What Goes Wrong?

We remember the things that bug us, and though novels/tv/movies get a lot of details right, panelists had a long list of pet peeves. These included stories in which: surveillance is easy (and affordable); extradition happens almost overnight; judges make snap decisions about motions; and if it’s an organized crime case, there’s lots of electronic evidence. IRL, organized crime figures know what our politicians haven’t figured out: no emails, no texts, no Instagrams. And here’s one of my eye-rollers: DNA evidence that comes back in 24 hours. At the same time, panelists agreed that a story that strictly followed what happens in an investigation or in the courtroom would be unreadable (and cited this article).

They said witness testimony is often presented as too black-or-white. Either a witness is a truth-teller or a liar, when, in real life, witnesses do a bit of both. What’s more, they may not be intentionally lying, they may misinterpret something, they may misremember or simply forget.

Topic Pivot: CIA Fun

For what goes wrong (and right) with spycraft in the movies, see this entertaining video with Jonna Mendez from Wired. It’s a followup to her previous film of CIA tips on developing an effective disguise.

Tomorrow: Tidbits that might make good plot points

Photo: “Bewigged man.” by gappa01 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Painless Public Readings

microphone

If you write, you may receive invitations to read from your work to a book group, at a public reading, or for a bookstore event. It’s a chance to connect with an audience, to find places in your work that still need work, and to build fans. But writing doesn’t prepare you for reading.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, has written a spot-on essay for lithub on “how not to bore your audience at a reading.”

Before I give you Nguyen’s tips, here’s an important one from Walter Moseley. He told an audience at Princeton last year that “the longer I read, the fewer books I sell.” Author venues like Noir at the Bar, Mystery Writers of America, and my own Princeton-based writers group limit authors to 10 to 12 minutes. A taste and a tease. Nguyen’s tips and a couple of my own:

1. A reading is a performance. Writing is storytelling and good storytellers put some pizzazz into their reading. Your audience wants to be moved by your words and how you share them. He recommends listening to skilled readers, like author T.C.Boyle (here reading from his The Harder They Come, starting 7:50 in).

2. Create a script, rather than simply reading from your book. With a script, you can enlarge the type (I use really big type—18 to 20 points), so you don’t have to bury your head in the pages, and you can see the words easily even if the lectern is poorly lit, a lesson learned the hard way. Mark your script with underlinings and squiggly lines where you want to speed up, slow down, get louder, pause. Number the pages. Circle words you trip over in rehearsing. You may trip over them again. Authors with younger eyes tend to read from their tablet or cell phone, but paper never has a low battery.

3. “Practice, practice, practice,” Nguyen says. And time yourself. Cut out a paragraph here or there if, at the twelve-minute mark, you want to reach a particular point. A description that seems slow to you as a reader, probably is.

4. Make eye contact with your audience. Repeatedly. Those rehearsals you did will let you take your eyes off the page for longer too.

5. Be aware of how close to the mike you need to be and cement yourself  there. A little movement  is fine, especially with the arms, but avoid weaving back and forth, shifting your weight from one foot to the other in a seasickness-inducing way. Plant your feet and keep them planted.

6. How you look is important. “Dress up, whatever that means to you,” he says. It shows you are rising to the occasion. If certain colors or outfits perk you up and you feel good wearing them, choose one of those.

7. Bring energy into the room. “Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand,” Nguyen says.Here’s the bottom line: Once you’re on stage, you’re a performer. “You are putting on a show, whether it is for five people or fifty or five hundred. That’s what people have come for. If they just want to read your words, they can do it at home. Respect their time.” Don’t be boring. And if you’re really prepared, you won’t be.

And see advice from Jane Friedman‘s blog: “How to Plan a Book Reading that Wows Your Audience”!

Photo: Pete on Flickr, creative commons license.

Reading at the KGB Bar

Last night a writing friend and I participated in an even that puts us right at the fringes of the fringes of New York literary society—a reading sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America at KGB Bar in the East Village. KGB Bar is hidden away on the second story of an old tenement, up a vertiginous flight of stairs.

Although this description doesn’t do it justice in terms of its fine balance of joie de vivre teetering on the edge of seediness, here’s what the founder, Denis Woychuk, says about it:

In the years since it opened in 1993, KGB has become something of a New York literary institution. Writers hooked up in the publishing world read here with pleasure and without pay to an adoring public . . . The crowd loves it. Admission is free, drinks are cheap and strong, and the level of excellence is such that KGB has been named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and everyone else who bestows these awards of recognition.

He’s right about the pleasure part. It was attentive crowd, even though I was the final reader of five, when the audience had already enjoyed several of those drinks! Wanting to appear convivial yet be one-the-ball for my reading, I’d nursed one glass of wine all evening. “What white wines do you have?” I asked the bartender. “Pinot grigio.” “Oh. What red wines do you have?” “Cabernet Sauvignon.” “I’ll have that.” The barrel savage. How appropriate.

The other readers—P.D. Halt, Mary Jo Robertiello, James D. Robertson, and A.J. Sidransky—each read a scene from one of their novels. I read the opening of a short story to be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. No idea when it will see the light of day, but if you’re a subscriber, watch for it! It’s called “New Energy.”

I’m so thankful to my writing group, Room at the Table, for organizing our twice-a-year public readings. (The next one is March 27! For details, see our Facebook page.) Great prep for my eight minutes at KGB–a former speakeasy and Lucky Luciano outpost, then h.q. for the Ukrainian Labor Home, a socialist hangout, which explains the Soviet memorabilia and the hammer-and-sickle matchbooks. It was fun!

Chrome and Steel Poetics

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn

Last Saturday was Michigan Statehood Day, and to answer the kind of question my young daughter would ask, no, I was not around for those festivities back in 1837. A few days before the anniversary, I learned something new about my home state that is another cause for celebration.

Emily Temple at lithub compiled a state-by-state list of winners of America’s three major literary awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Michigan, tenth in total population, ranked seventh in the list with 15 of these top prizes. New York was first, of course with 71, followed by California (29), Illinois (28), Pennsylvania (24), Massachusetts (20), and New Jersey (17), a function of population size and the location of the country’s cultural epicenters. New Jersey slips in by grasping the coattails of Manhattan and Philadelphia.

Detroit’s population peaked at 1.85 million in 1950, the year Detroit native Nelson Algren won the National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm. After that, the city’s population numbers went into a precipitous decline, coming to rest at 673,000 in 2017. Though the city’s prospects appear to be looking up lately, its downward economic spiral had statewide effects. Yet a dozen of the state’s literary awards occurred in the post-apogee.

We Michiganders can thank the poets for keeping our state in the award limelight, up to and including Jess Tyehimba, who won the 2017 Pulitzer for Olio. Poet Philip Levine is responsible for four of the awards, two for the same book, Ashes, and poet Theodore Roethke for three. Levine worked in the auto factories from the time he was 14 and was committed to giving a voice to the anonymous workers there—a Diego Rivera of words. Not all the poets are Detroiters, of course. Roethke’s work hearkened back to his childhood among Saginaw’s fruit orchards. One of my favorite poets, Marge Piercy, titled one of her poetry collections Made in Detroit, and a scrap of paper with an excerpt of  her “In praise of joe” flutters next to my computer (and coffee cup). She’s not on the list of prizewinners, but she auto be.

photo, top, the Ford Rouge plant, Wikimedia, creative commons license


Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

Be Very Scared . . .

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

Credited with inventing detective fiction and contributing to the popularity of the then-new genre of science fiction, Edgar Allan Poe was one of America’s earliest authors to devote energies to the short story—as he defined it, a composition that could be read in a single sitting. Yet, his heart’s desire was to be a poet. Had he not died so young—at age 40—he might have been a great one.

This year, around the 169th anniversary of Poe’s mysterious death in Baltimore, Camden Park Press published Quoth the Raven, an anthology of poems and stories inspired by Poe’s work and sensibility, reimagined for the twenty-first century. Lyn Worthen was the collection’s hard-working editor. One of the short story authors, Tiffany Michelle Brown, interviewed seven of the collection’s 32 authors about their inspiration.

Brown: Imagine you’re in an old-timey elevator, a rickety one that boasts a well-worn, rusty cage. There’s a man in all black in the elevator with you, and he asks what your poem or story is about. What do you tell him?

Poet Tony Kalouria said she was inspired by the notion that unsolicited, unwanted advice is “for the birds.” Menacing, nay-saying birds, the spawn of Poe’s Raven.

Story-writer Susan McCauley used “The Cask of Amontillado” to inspire her story of murder and revenge, whereas my story sprung from Poe’s “Berenice.” In it, a woman sees her twin brother as the other half of herself and will stop at nothing to keep him close. In “My Annabel,” Emerian Rice told the story of two surgeons caught in a pandemic and their fight to stay alive for one another, and Sonora Taylor propelled Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” into the maelstrom of social media with “Hearts are Just ‘Likes.’”

“Considering the rust on this rickety cage,” said Stephen R. Southard, “I’m not sure we’ll even make it to our floors.” His story sprang from Poe’s tale about a balloon trip to the moon, which, naturally, left many unanswered questions. Poe intended future installments, but never completed them. “Someone had to write the sequel, so I did.”

Brown: What’s a story or poem – by any author – that has truly creeped you out (in the best way possible, of course)?

  • The Exorcist — book and movie! “I was considering therapy for almost a week, I was so traumatized. And pea soup was definitely off-menu for a very long time” (Tony Kalouria). Frankenstein. “It’s terrifying and heart-breaking at the same time. And the way it plays with ideas of gods and monsters is really quite genius.” (Donea Lee Weaver)
  • Emerian Rich chose The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. “I read it after watching the movie because I just adored the film. The book has this underlying chill that scared me more.” He said the house (or the bog) seemed to mesmerize characters into doing strange things or paralyze their thought process in some insurmountable way.
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, said Susan McCauley. “I first read it in my early twenties and had to sleep with the lights on for several nights.”
  • Sonora Taylor picked the short story “Shadder” by Neil Gaiman. “ I read it in bed (having learned nothing since reading Poe’s “Hop Frog” in bed years before). Even though it’s short, even though I knew it was fiction, even though I had all the lights on, and even though my bed is up against the wall, I still felt the urge to look behind me at the end.”
  • Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, said Steven Southard. “It’s a re-telling, and update, of George Orwell’s 1984 and a chilling tale of how easy it may be to slip into totalitarianism.
  • My pick was The Silence of the Lambs, the first modern “thriller” I ever read. The scariest film would have to be Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was decades before I didn’t think of it when in the shower. Or the deeply disturbing ending of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing. Nightmares.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. When you purchase this book by clicking on the photo above, you help me fill the jar. Thank you!

Finding the Core of Your Story

figurine

px here, creative commons license

Now that Glimmer Train is winding down its publication schedule, I find myself returning to earlier issues to read the author interviews again. Sometimes I’m in the very wrestling match with a short story that these notable writers describe.

So it was with my recent return to the interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade (interviewed by Jeremiah Chamberlin, Issue #100, Fall 2017). Quade authored the prize-winning book of short stories, Night at the Fiestas and her work has been seen in “all the best places.”

Chamberlin commented on how Quade resists big epiphanies in her endings. “There are moments where the stories turn of shift,” he said, “but the characters don’t experience Joycean flashes of recognition.” Quade explained that she writes slowly, and it sometimes takes her “a long time to figure out what’s going to happen in a story.” She might write a long buildup, putting in lots of potential elements, in search of the one that will reveal what the story is truly about and therefore, how to end it. Ah. Like me, a pantser.

Once she takes hold of her ending, the core of the story, she trims away what isn’t necessary and can “write toward the ending.” She also eliminates any unnecessary rambling that comes after the ending. Perhaps she’d heeding Chekhov’s advice “to cross out the beginning and the end” of a story,” as unnecessary warm-up and (one hopes) unnecessary explaining. This is an exercise that would have improved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in my opinion, but Chekhov said to do it because “it is there that we authors do most of our lying.” Eliminating the temptation of those further thoughts also prevents an overly neat-and-tidy resolution. Trust your reader to get it, he might have said.

The heart of the story may lie in the backstory, in an unworked-out thought or subconscious association that needs to come forward into greater prominence. During Quade’s revision process, she might list all the characters, settings, and objects she’s put into the story so far and see whether she should be doing more with some of them. “That will often help me find my ending.” Or at least get her closer to it. Those people, places, things are in there because they hold meaning, even if she hasn’t clearly identified what it is yet. It isn’t, perhaps, their surface meaning, but some significance for the characters.

I just read a fine story by Simon Bestwick, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” (Crimewave 13), in which a man’s lover is murdered, her flat trashed, and all the cheap souvenirs she bought from second-hand shops smashed. He exacts revenge on the men responsible for her death, dropping a few bits of broken china or glass on their bodies—not because these fragments held meaning for him, but because they meant something to her. Memorable.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. If you purchase this book by clicking on the photo above, you’ll help me fill the jar. Thank you!

If You Met Poe, What Would You Say?

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

My fellow-authors in the anthology inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Quoth the Raven, have bonded via social media. Tiffany Michelle Brown, author of the story “My Love, In Pieces,” has interviewed a number of us regarding our experience looking at contemporary issues through a Poe-ish lens. Her interview with me is now posted on her website.

I loved Tiffany’s story because it grew from the seed of Poe’s gothic tale “Berenice,” as did my story, “Tooth and Nail.” Yet, they’re so different! She notes that when “Berenice” was first published by the Southern Literary Messenger, readers were so disturbed by its graphic content, they complained to the editor. When Poe published it subsequently, apparently he toned it down a bit. Hmph!

Dark like the days, and scary like the times.