Google and Real Places

Google is wonderful.  For a person writing thrillers, it’s a critical resource.  Need a Russian phrase?  No problem. An overhead view of a village like Hainburg an der Donau in Austria (my second novel)?  Google Maps has you covered. The uniform of a Florida state trooper?  Google images. But … there is no substitute to actually having been there, having heard, having felt, having smelled.

I’m reading the end of a draft by a marvelous writer, Tim Mahoney.  (Extended sidebar:  If you’ve been feeling inundated by screaming headlines about today’s madness … an entirely new chapter beyond yesterday’s … take a look at realnews.ink.  Mahoney is a newspaperman, and he aggregates the news that matters.  No Kardashians, no triple repeats of the latest presidential silliness.  Stuff that one might look back on a few years from now and say that was important.)

And now, back to the story at hand: Tim’s story takes place in Vietnam during the Vietnam war.  He was there.  Of course, I know that, and therefore am more inclined to believe the picture his protagonist paints.  But I can’t help thinking that an author can’t know when to mention the heat and humidity, when to comment on the exhaust from the motor bikes, without having been there.  Or maybe it’s writing with the confidence of deep knowledge.  In any case, his good writing plus having been there has taken me out of myself and into the story.

Hainburg panorama

In my second novel, I needed a place for an important event to happen (no spoiler … the book may yet get published), and the speed of the Danube current (google search) and the rate of progress  of a lovely riverboat  (ditto) called for the place to be Hainburg an der Donau.  I needed to have action in the hospital (google maps) and the police station (ditto).  I wrote Hainburg into the story and was quite pleased (well, after Tim and a cadre of other writers tore the draft apart).  Then I had a chance to go to the town itself.

I’m not sure why I changed the few words I did.  I left the hospital inaccurate but changed the police station to be just as it is.  An my constable benefitted from a friendly discussion with the constable on duty.

Maybe it’s just that I now believe what I wrote is real.

Genre, Storytelling, Literary Fiction

I recently applied to a contest that asked, as part of the upload, what the genre of my novel is.  I answered dutifully, Thriller.

Yes, I know that the judges have to have some way to classify submissions, and I have just read a bit about plot, timing of events, when backstory is best introduced, and so on.

Problem is, I am reading Redemption, a fine story of New Orleans by Frederick Turner.  I have studied New Orleans music and give presentations about it.  Turner creates 1913 New Orleans – Storyville in particular – with such skill that you swear you’re there in that so steam, seamy, funky place right along with his protagonist Fast-Mail Muldoon.  When you read his descriptions, highly articulated, precise, and unafraid to use a full vocabulary, you think “Literary Fiction.”  Turner doesn’t mind taking a healthy paragraph to describe the quality of the mud on the banks of the Mississippi or a chapter to let Fast-Mail Muldoon ponder lost love. But if Turner were to submit to my contest, Redemption’s genre would be Historical Fiction/Suspense.

Just a reminder for me that fiction writing is story-telling.  Storytelling is about language; thus all fiction ought to be “literary,” and the whole point of telling a story is having a compelling plot.

Perhaps a banal observation, but I’m relatively new to the business side of writing.  It’s easy to get lost in trade arcana.

Plot Complexity and the Value of Regularity

A fine Minnesota writer, William Kent Krueger, plans his mystery novels out in detail, I’m told.  He is well known for going to a diner each morning and writing.  His stories are detailed and coherent, and his prose is clear and finely balanced.  His Ordinary Grace won the 2014 Edgar for best novel.  Clearly, he knows what he’s doing.

Kent Krueger was one of the founders of one of my Minneapolis critique groups, Crème de la Crime, although he has left the group under the pressure of success.

One of my several conceits when I began writing seriously several years ago was that writing is an organic process.  We plant the seed of a character, and the character grows through the story.  The story must have an arc, and main characters must grow through the arc. Ahem. Like many of the other conceits, that one is true but not sufficient to justify waiting for inspiration to carry me away on its gassy clouds.

I’m not a person who thrives on having a regular schedule.  I feel guilty about that in a number of areas of my life, but I always have excuses: those immediate quotidian issues and tasks … groceries, dentist, car service, getting the books back to the library … seem to jump in front of writing.

I mention all of this because I am realizing how important regular writing is.  The more complicated the story, the more important regularity becomes.  In my third novel, of which I’ve drafted perhaps a third, the plot has, as they say in the bi’ness world, a lot of moving parts. If I were clever like Krueger, I’d be writing every day, which would keep the plot details in my head at all times and prevent the egregious plot mistakes I’m trying to backflush.

Too late for a true New Year’s resolution, but I hereby resolve to write on a more regular schedule.

Cyberwar

cyberwarNot long ago, a writer friend said, “You’d better get published quickly, or your concept will be part of history.”

He’s right. Back when I got the idea for my first novel, Fatal Score, I thought there would be a future war in cyberspace. I guessed at the time (2011) that it would start with a bang in 2018. I was wrong.
I was wrong because “war” had, in my mind, a definite beginning. Like Richard crossing the Channel in 1066 or Franz Ferdinand being assassinated in Serbia to start World War I.
The foreword to Fatal Scores says that, in the unspecified not far future in which the story takes place, “the world is not dramatically different, but what the media called Cyberwar I has happened. In the wake of fires, floods, power-grid failures and a small nuclear episode, the United States rushed to develop the most secure (and most expensive) data vault in history. They named it, in bureaucratic mumblespeak, the Interagency Communication Channel. The acronym was thus the unpronounceable IACC, which shortly became ‘Yak’ in popular speech.”

Like lots of events in this new world of ours, the whole notion of war is being torqued by technology. It seems as if Cyberwar I has started, perhaps by our attack on Iran’s centrifuges, perhaps earlier. It heated up in the recent election.

One thing almost certain: it will escalate further.

I need an agent.  Double quick.

Art, Wisdom, and the Comics

Sally ForthI must admit that I glance at the front page of the paper, scan the news of the day and go to the comics page for wisdom.

So, here you have it.  We writers often miss this truth, vainly trying to lock the reader into our own special vision.

(from www.sallyforth.com)

Fiction and reality

I have just returned from a trip to reality.

In my second novel, a main character is drugged and pushed off a Danube river boat. She ends up in a little town at the eastern edge of Austria called Hainburg an der Donau.

With my Internet resources, I was able to see a Google World view of the town, locate the hospital in it, observe the uniform of Austrian policemen, calculate the actual speed of the boat after it left Vienna for a trip to Budapest, view a plan of a boat similar to my fictional one. I knew the depth and temperature of water in late June, and I knew that a single screw (propeller) would most likely not drag an unconscious person through its blades. More than enough information to write a credible story, right?

A little over a week ago, my wife and I had dinner in VGruner Veltlinerienna with several friends from my former business life. Over a very nice glass Grüner Veitliner, I allowed as how I planned to ride the train to Hainburg the next day. Chuckles. Well, I said, part of my novel takes place … Outright laughter. “In Hainburg?” they asked, with the same inflection a Manhattanite would use to describe central North Dakota.

I mentioned that I had written ahead to the Tourist Bureau there (not-so-stifled laughter) and received a long German reply to my request to visit the police station. The Tourist Bureau had summed it up in four English words: “It is not possible.”

My friends Werner and Tina took pity on us and drove us to Hainburg the next day.

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg panorama

Hainburg hospital

Hainburg hospital

The town was substantial, but definitely in the sticks, at least to my sophisticated city-dwelling friends. The hospital was far more substantial than I expected, and its design would not have allowed the story line as I had written it. The police department, the one which was “not possible” to see, produced a constable very like my fictional one and an interior design that made what I had written plausible.

I will make some revisions, but fiction is fiction. The lovely little town Hainburg an Der Donau with be portrayed, umm, a little inaccurately.

Best Mysteries/Thrillers — Fall and Winter Reading List

I am reading through a list of 15 36 48 books that I believe define the genre I’m writing in, Mystery/thriller.  I’ve attached my list as a separate page.

When I began writing, I didn’t choose a type of fiction or a genre. I just started  telling stories. To my surprise, I found I was writing what is now classified as a Thriller.

Trouble is, the Mystery (subcategory: Suspense, sub category: Thriller) world is huge, particularly since publishing houses discovered calling a book a thriller is a marketing advantage. In a thriller, Hero, frequently an ordinary person, Stack of booksdiscovers a big, bad problem, and we’re off.  My two novels, one complete, one almost so, run that way.

After a couple of years of research on my own (aka stumbling around), I ran into a lively discussion of fifteen great mystery writers at Minnesota Crime Wave. Energized, I made a list and amplified it with suggestions from my writers groups. The list includes mystery, suspense and thriller titles. Most mystery writers produce series (after all, when you’ve created discovered a good character, you have to let him or her live a little), so tried to find the single title in a series that best represents the author, with some outstanding help from the fine folks at the bookstore Once Upon a Crime and Karl Jorgenson, who reads widely and has encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. (See his reviews at Goodreads.)

Most of the authors on my list are famous, established writers.  I’ve added a few less famous writers whose works I’ve admired, including books from members of writers groups I’m in, Tim Mahoney (gangster-era noir) and Carl Brookins (several mystery series).  I did not include mystery categories distant from adult thrillers. That means I left out some fine works of writing group members. The cozy mysteries from Monica Ferris aren’t on the list, nor is Susan Runholt’s YA story, The Mystery of the Third Lucretia. Also missing are Karl Jorgenson’s (oops, John Sandfraud’s) send-up of John Sandford (a short novella) and Kara Jorges’ mostly romance novels. (There’s a fine caper mystery coming soon.)

I’m halfway through my list.  Trouble is, it keeps growing.

Putting an Edge on Writing

My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person thKnife sharpenerat she is, she gave me a professional knife sharpener several years ago. It’s big and electric, so she has plenty of warning when the urge to sharpen takes me.  The device has three sharpening positions. The first one comes with a special cover and dire warnings that it should be used only with very dull and distressed knives. The second grinding stone is where the basic business of sharpening gets done. The final position is not a stone, but an emery cloth that polishes the edge.

The sharpening process is similar to rewriting, at least for me. That first, most dangerous stone is for very dull writing, the kind that should be thrown out entirely. In my case, the second stone is my writing groups, where help from others grinds away some words, sharpens dialog and puts an edge on plot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The final polish is copy editing to make the work shine (ditto).

Okay, it’s a bit labored as a metaphor, but it works for me.

Two Books

I am fortunate to be in writing groups with some great writers.  Two of them have published books recently.

If the Dead Could Speak, by Tim Mahoney.  (Goodreads, Amazon)

Great noir mystery set in St. Paul Minnesota before Minnesota Nice was in style.  If you like historical fiction, you’ll like this.  Fast-paced Mystery? Ditto.  Lovable losers nicely drawn? Ditto.  Aw, heck.  Give it a read.  Tim is an editor by trade and a fine writer.

Fifty Shades of Prey, by John Sandfraud (?) (Goodreads, Amazon)

It’s a long short story … almost novella.  It’s got fifty shades of gray (without the lubricious details).  It’s got John Sandford plot and character development (if that’s the word).  What’s more to want?  Sandfraud, who chooses to remain anonymous, is a fine writer who gives you witty, acerbic asides and fast pacing.  If you’re a Sandford lover (the prey series, Lucas Davenport), you’ll get a lot of chuckles; if you don’t like Sandford, guffaws. If you’re a guy, you’ll squirm as you read about your Inner Matron; if you’re a gal … well, what do I know? I’m still tied in knots (laughter AND agony) by the Inner Matron.

I happen to know the fraudster has at least two good novels stored away waiting for a perspicacious agent.

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).