Friday, January 15, 2021

SOME OF MY IDEAS ARE ALL WET!

I’m about a third of the way through my latest thriller and have found it a harder slog than usual. It might have to do with spending so much time trying to procure a covid-19 vaccination. Here in Florida, the same people who run the unemployment website apparently run the pandemic website.

I think the plan is to have everyone die of old age before they get a check or a shot.

Luckily, I rarely suffer from writer’s block. In fact, my fevered brain is almost always coming up with new plots or ideas to fit into an existing one.

Often, the ideas occur to me in the most awkward moments. I’ve found myself in the shower when an inspiration or a piece of dialogue hits me. I’m at that age where if I don’t get my thoughts down right away, I risk forgetting them.

There have been occasions when I’ve left the shower dripping wet, wrapped myself in a towel, and raced to my den. If I’m lucky, I can sit at the computer and jot something down. If I’m not and I have to boot up the computer, I run the risk of sitting there shivering and damp and wondering why.

(I once managed to get a thought down, only to have the doorbell ring. Insistently. I got a very strange look from the delivery guy who wanted me to sign for a package as I stood there in a towel.)

Now, you may ask, why don’t I just grab the nearest piece of paper and write things down? I’ve done that, but finding paper and pen in my house is a bit problematic. We have plenty of both, but my wife is a neat freak who is always cleaning up. She doesn’t understand that I leave things lying around so they’re handy.

Really. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Thankfully, I work at a desktop computer. It’s basically immovable and, thus, safe from her Pine-Sol predations. (I do have to occasionally plug it back in after she’s vacuumed and dusted; not the smartest maneuver when dripping wet.)

So far, I have been fortunate that inspiration hasn’t struck when I am in other ways indisposed. (Let your imagination run rampant…)

Most ideas, fortunately, occur when I’m reading or watching TV, which I’ve mentioned before. (No, I’m not talking plagiarism; I don’t lift words or actions verbatim.) Take, for example, my current Colin Dexter mania, which combines both my BritBox subscription on Amazon Prime and my actual reading of Dexter’s Inspector Morse books. I’ve read all of them and seen all the TV shows (starring the inimitable and unfortunately now-deceased John Thaw), but I’m still picking up new things I can use in my own books.

For instance, in both the TV series and books, Morse is always working a crossword puzzle. So, I’ve incorporated a crossword into my latest novel. I did the same with a chess game after watching “The Queen’s Gambit.” (Funny, I’m not inspired by anything I see on the news. Probably because I don’t write fantasy.)

In some Morse books, Dexter starts each chapter with a quote, usually from Shakespeare or some other luminary. Now I do that, too, using Bartlett’s as a guide. It’s actually fun trying to find a quote that’s apropos to a particular chapter. I’ve used Shakespeare, but I’m equally fond of Yogi Berra.

Dexter and others have also inspired me to up my game, description-wise. I try not to pad my writing, and I also avoid verbiage, similes, metaphors, and cliches like the plague (I had to get that in). But a little color in any book can be a game-changer, stylistically!

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

IF WISHES WERE VERSES ...

 Like most writers, I love good quotes. Don’t you? “I wish I had said that” is a refrain uttered — or thought — by most people.

So, in the spirit of the seasons (Thanksgiving or Christmas, whichever comes first; this year, I’m confused), I will cite some of my favorites, offering attribution when available. Some of the quotes deal with writing and literature. Others are just funny. All come from a marvelous book, 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne (not THE Robert Byrne).


“Though I am not naturally honest, I am so sometimes by chance.” – Shakespeare

“The chicken probably came before the egg, because it is hard to imagine God wanting to sit on an egg.” – Unknown

“Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.” – Moses Hadad

“He who hesitates is not only lost, but miles from the next exit.” – Unknown (Been there, done that!)

“Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.” – Samuel Johnson

“There is no gravity. The earth sucks.” – Graffiti

“A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.” – Thomas Carlyle

“If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; but if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.” – Abraham Lincoln (Hopefully, Abe wasn’t talking to the White House chef.)

“Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.” – Ovid (More than 2,000 years ago!)

“When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” – Raymond Chandler (As a mystery and thriller writer myself, I’ve taken this one to heart.)

“You are no bigger than the things that annoy you.” – Jerry Bundsen

“I do most of my writing sitting down. That’s where I shine.” – Robert Benchley

And one of my favorites:

“I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth if it costs them their jobs.” – Samuel Goldwyn

And finally (for now):

“Nothing is said that has not been said before.” – Terence (Also from over 2,000 years ago!)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

BOOK IT, DANO (AGAIN)!

 When last we spoke, I recommended books to read for those who might be stuck at home during the pandemic. Since very little has changed, I’m going to recommend some more, once again plumbing my bookcase, which is full of books I read years ago and now, occasionally, re-read.

Local libraries are reopening — or delivering — and, of course, there are other ways to get older tomes via the internet: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, etc. I can’t swear that I haven’t mentioned these books in previous columns, so, if I have, shoot me an email. It would be nice to have some new correspondence. Give me something to do other than staring at my bookcase.   

The Best of Robicheaux (The Author’s Choice) by James Lee Burke. Now, I don’t know if the great Burke actually chose In the Electric Mist with Confederate DeadCadillac Jukebox, or Sunset Limited as his “best” Dave Robicheaux books. His publisher probably just put the anthology together. (Personally, I like Burke’s Heaven’s Prisoners.) But these three are great thrillers and a terrific introduction to the reformed-alcoholic Louisiana detective. Burke is an atmospheric writer, so be prepared to get a hankering for Cajun food.

The Pigman & Me by Paul Zindel. A crazy title for a small and hilarious book by the author better known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Heck, that’s a crazy title, too! Anyway, The Pigman & Me is allegedly a true story about Zindel’s life on Staten Island, New York City’s “forgotten borough.” It details Zindel’s formative years. Having spent my own formative (or deformative) years on Staten Island, I can attest that Zindel’s interaction with, among hundreds of other oddities, the apple tree, the water-headed baby, Cemetery Hill, and Nonno Frankie Vivona (the Pigman) are probably not exaggerated. In fact, let’s do away with “allegedly.”

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean. Most people remember the great Brad Pitt movie made from this book. “I am haunted by waters,” Maclean writes at the end of the title piece, which contains his recollections of life with his father and brother as they fished the Big Blackfoot River in the Rockies. You will be haunted by this book, which is more about life than fishing. Maclean published River in his 70s (giving us all hope). One of his earlier works, Young Men and Fire, about Montana’s Man Gulch forest fire of 1949, has resonance to this day, as we are all sadly aware.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve mentioned this great comedic thriller before, but it, and I, bear repeating. The plot is pure genius. A Miami loan shark named Chili Palmer finds himself embroiled in Hollywood intrigue — and is right at home! John Travolta — aided by a terrific cast that included Renee Russo, Gene Hackman, and Danny DeVito — played Chili perfectly in the film of the same name. It’s one of those movies that, if you come across it while channel surfing, you ignore the grease fire in the kitchen to watch. The novel is just as addictive.

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. At one time, horseracing was one of America’s premier sporting events. And this true tale of an undersized, non-thoroughbred-looking Thoroughbred who captured the imagination of a Depression-ravaged America belongs in every reader’s winner’s circle. Hillenbrand is now probably better known for Unbroken, the true story of a man who survived Japanese torture during WWII. But Seabiscuit, which is as much about the people and an era as it is about the horse, is justifiably a classic.  

Olivier by Terry Coleman. The definitive biography of the greatest actor, stage or screen, of the 20th century. Who doesn’t remember his performance as the sadistic Nazi dentist in “Marathon Man” (“Is it safe?”), drilling Dustin Hoffman’s teeth without Novocain? But my first memory of Sir Laurence is his mesmerizing portrayal of the tortured Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights.” There is not one movie with Olivier in it that is not special. In this biography, Coleman brilliantly defines a man who somehow weathered an affair (and marriage) to the great but depressive Vivien Leigh, debt, many serious illnesses, and, of all things, crushing stage fright!

Saturday, September 12, 2020

WHAT'S OLD MAY BE NEW!

 

It occurs to me that it has been a while since I wrote a column in which I recommended books to read. Since many people are presumably stuck at home, now is probably a good time.

However, unlike many such lists, I will highlight books that may not be particularly current. Why? Well, mainly, because I am also stuck at home staring at my bookcase, and it’s full of books I read years ago.

Some of those that I mention may be hard to find, but heck, that’s what Amazon is for, right? So, here goes, in no particular order:

 FICTION

 Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. This massive 1985 tome is probably my favorite science-fiction novel. The plot is believable. An alien race consisting of a species (whose members look a lot like pachyderms) attacks and then invades Earth. What makes this story so compelling is that the invaders have their own moral code (we see things from their perspective), and their weapons are not all that superior to ours. I won’t give away the ending, but I will tell you that the battle is touch-and-go, and the human race produces some very unlikely heroes.

 The Complete Father Brown Stories by G. K. Chesterton. I have been watching past seasons of the BBC’s excellent Father Brown series, in which the inquisitive umbrella-carrying Catholic parish priest solves cases the local (and exceedingly dim) British constabulary bungle. So, I decided to spring for some of the original short stories written by Chesterton in the 1920s and 30s. (The BBC series has been updated to the 1950s.) The Wordsworth Classics paperback contains more than 50 of the stories and with preface and introduction clocks in at almost 800 pages.) Not to worry! It is available on Amazon for $4.99! That’s not a typo or the 1950 price. Snap it up.

 The Cape Cod Lighter, by John O’Hara. Another collection of short stories, by the great Philadelphia Main Line writer. O’Hara stripped the pretenses from well-to-do Americans better than just about anyone. And he did it in the 1960s, before a lot of the people he skewered even knew they were pretentious.

 The Drowning Pool by Ross Macdonald. Macdonald’s real name was Kenneth Millar and he wrote this thriller, which many critics consider high art. Some readers may remember the movie “The Drowning Pool” that starred Paul Newman as private eye Lew Harper. In the book, he was named Lew Archer. I don’t know why they changed the name. But, then, I don’t know why Millar changed his. In any event, both book and movie, which deal with corporate greed and family hatred in California, are terrific. Get hooked on Millar/Macdonald. He wrote 24 other great thrillers.  

 NON-FICTION

 Oh, Florida by Craig Pittman. Readers of my Facebook rants know that I think the state of Florida, where I live, is full of people nuttier than I am – and that’s saying a lot! I offer this book as proof. If I had put it the FICTION section, nobody would have noticed. Pittman details some of Florida’s most-outrageous crooks, shysters, charlatans, scams, schemes and politicians in a fun, rollicking and well-researched compendium of corruption. And, yet, you can’t help but realize that he still loves the state. As do I. How nuts is that!

 Iwo Jima, Legacy of Valor by Bill D. Ross. Lest folks think that I am a political malcontent, I offer this sobering book about unbelievable heroism and self-sacrifice. William Manchester said it best: “Moving and dramatic; a tribute to those who sacrificed their futures that we might have ours.” At a time when I often think that the “Ungrateful Generation” is betraying all the things the “Greatest Generation” won for it, Iwo Jima, Legacy of Valor, is a stark reminder of how great Americans can be.  

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

I HEAR YOU!

A couple of years ago, I devoted a column to the popularity of audiobooks. I recounted how some members of a golf group I occasionally joined were enthusiastic audiobook aficionados. I was asked why my books weren’t part of the “lucrative” audio market.

I don’t see many of those golfers much anymore. I’m not the president; I don’t really play all that often. Besides, the pandemic shut down the course for a long while, and when it reopened, only walking was allowed. After 18 holes in the heat (and it’s been brutal), returning golfers look like they were at a casting call for “The Walking Dead.
I walked only nine holes until golf carts were allowed back. You have to ride alone now, unless you’re with your wife (the rationale being, I suppose, that couples who golf together want to kill each other anyway.)

But if I do run into those duffers, I can’t wait to tell them that I now have an audiobook in the works.

To recap, there are three ways to create an audiobook: You can narrate your own; you can hire a narrator and pay an upfront fee; or you can hire a narrator who will accept a percentage of future sales rather than a fee.

The first two choices are modestly expensive and very expensive, respectively. The last route, the revenue-sharing one, has no cost. But the author will give up some royalty income which, believe me, isn’t that great to begin with.

I don’t want to narrate my own books. Thus, I needed a good narrator. The audiobook universe is expanding exponentially thanks to downloading technology and the pandemic’s stay-at-home effects. And there are plenty of narrators out there; many artistic types have to supplement their incomes. But finding a suitable narrator isn’t that easy.

The Amazon ACX platform, where audiobooks are created and reside, has its own online “university” to explain the process, as well as how to find and interview potential narrators. I read the ACX instructions, which appear to have been written by the same folks who put together the Florida unemployment website.

Fortunately, a narrator found me! Wayne Miller, an old friend and actor who likes my thrillers and mysteries, contacted me and wanted to know if I was amenable to a revenue-sharing deal. He has done some voice-over work on TV and has his own little recording studio in his house. He even sent me a chapter of one of my books as an audio file.

I was thrilled both with his suggestion and the sample. He’s now working on the whole book. I have my fingers crossed, hoping that it will be successful for both our sakes. After all, I have more than 20 other books, in three series, which I believe lend themselves to audio…  

Saturday, May 16, 2020

TRUTHINESS

Before I was rudely interrupted by a plague, I had promised to reveal whether some of the following actually happened to me and appeared in my fiction. To recap, in abbreviated form:
  • The Poison Pen: A man is outraged because the poison-pen letter his wife receives doesn’t accuse him of fooling around (as other husbands on the block were) but instead criticizes his yard work.
  • The Log that Wasn’t: A fisherman in Cuba almost steps on a huge barracuda he assumed was a floating log.
  • Religious Experience: A full-service bar below a church sacristy was once a speakeasy and is now used for Rosary and Altar Society meetings.
  • A Head for News: A young reporter with a hangover looks in the back seat of a car and sees the head of its decapitated driver.
Well, all these instances happened to me, but only the first three made it into books. Of course, the last incident will eventually make it in, too!

In case you are wondering, the Cuba incident occurred at Guantanamo Bay when I was in the Marines and went fishing in my spare time. I had achieved the lofty rank of lance corporal, which meant I was basically in command of my bunk, which, I am happy to say, survived the Vietnam War happening 7,000 miles away.

I was thinking about the Marines the other day as I went through some old photos. I recalled that, many years ago, when I worked at the New York Times, the paper printed a story on the anniversary of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima in the Pacific. The reporter said that the iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was “staged” by Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press.
This falsehood, which intimated that the picture was posed, started gaining traction just after WWII and was repeated ad nauseum. The Rosenthal photo was neither staged or posed. He took a shot of the second, larger flag going up, ordered by commanders because it was easier for men on ships to see.

I contacted Al Siegal, an assistant managing editor at the Times, who was the in-house authority on all things and who co-authored the New York Times stylebook (which I still have!). I told him that the photo was not staged, and that a Marine Corps cameraman, Sgt. William Genaust, had taken synchronous film to prove it. Al, as he always did, checked it out, and the paper issued a retraction. (An aside: Genaust and three of the six men who raised the flag were soon killed in action.)

I mention this because I keep getting Facebook, YouTube, and other posts which are either obviously fabricated (in some cases, photoshopped), or which claim that someone is an “expert” speaking on behalf of “thousands” of other experts, and which promulgate all sorts of conspiracy theories. Was covid-19 really started on the grassy knoll by an autistic deliveryman from a Chinese restaurant who was vaccinated against it?

My point is, while truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, in today’s non-gatekeeper world, lies are often taken as fact.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

A POX ON ALL YOUR PROSE!

Wow. It’s amazing how events can overtake us.

I promised in my last column to continue my “truth is stranger than fiction” ruminations, detailing scenes in some of my thrillers and asking you to guess which I imagined out of whole cloth, and which actually happened.
Seems a bit of overkill now, with what’s going on pandemically.
But, just to finish the thought: ALL the incidents I have already mentioned REALLY happened to me. I may have embellished them in my writing, but, hey, that’s my job. I also changed the names to protect the guilty (me). When things calm down, I hope to revisit the topic.

The New York Times recently ran an interesting piece by an author who opined that this might not be the best time to start writing a virus-disaster novel. It’s fine to take notes, but perhaps we should let the dust settle to provide some perspective.
However, in a similar light, don’t you find it weird that many novelists and screenwriters in the past have written about “unlikely” catastrophes that are now in the headlines: “The Andromeda Strain,” “Outbreak,” “Contagion,” “Armageddon,” “Deep Impact,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” and, of course, one of my favorites, “2012” (a movie that came out in 2009!).

Thank God our politicians are always prepared for the worst. Not! 
I myself have written a couple of thrillers (The Viron Conspiracy and Thawed), in which the world is threatened by disease. Fortunately, we all survive, mainly because most of my thrillers are in series form and, well, you know. Of course, in Thawed, I do manage to mess up the Kentucky Derby, and, sadly, so has the current pandemic.

I have four grandkids. The three in Connecticut (ages 14, 12, and 10) are readers. So, I ordered some age-appropriate books for them which I hope mitigates, somewhat, their cabin fever:
I also have a toddler grandson in California who can’t read yet, although I’m pretty sure he can handle an iPhone better than I can.

Finally, there is a letter making the Internet rounds, purportedly written by F. Scott Fitzgerald while he and his wife, Zelda, were under quarantine in France during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1920. It is a parody, easily vetted by his claim that Hemingway punched him in the stomach when told the bars were closed (F. Scott supposedly asked Ernest if he’d washed his hands).

However, there is a great line: “The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy.”

SOME OF MY IDEAS ARE ALL WET!

I’m about a third of the way through my latest thriller and have found it a harder slog than usual. It might have to do with spending so muc...