Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A recipe for good writing

Writing, like cooking, can by fairly basic. A sentence like "See Dick run" is like pouring a can of soup into a pan, adding water and putting it on the stove. A more sophisticated piece of writing, say John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, is more like making soup from scratch, using whatever ingredients happen to be on hand. Good writing uses ingredients from various sources, including the writer's own experiences and memories, to create something unique.

Do you remember in high school how your teachers told you to write an essay using at least four or six sources, or whatever. Most students in my era just wanted to go to the World Book and paraphrase what they found there. If you followed instructions, however, melding together the information you found in these various sources, you probably came up with the superior essay. It was, at least, original.

I wrote newspaper editorials for many years. My worst editorials were those based on just one article, usually one appearing in the previous day's edition. The editorial would paraphrase the information in that story, then tack on an opinion. This was not much better than paraphrasing a World Book article. Much better was when I used information from a variety of sources, perhaps even stories that were printed a year or more previously. Some of my favorite editorials were those citing two seemingly unrelated recent news stories and then finding some common thread between the two.

The psalmist who wrote, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," could have simply said, "The Lord gives me what I need," but it wouldn't be the same. So many people would not have memorized the 23rd psalm or want to refer to it in times of crisis. The metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep, probably rising out of the writer's own experience, turned a simple idea into a literary and spiritual masterpiece.

Writing involves taking a little of this and a little of that, tossing it into a pot and seeing what develops. It doesn't always taste good, and but it will always be original.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The language of the street

It's ridiculous to write a book in a language you don't understand.
Lyndsay Faye at a New York City book signing for The Gods of Gotham

George Washington Matsell was notable in mid-19th century America for two things: 1) He was the first chief of the New York City Police Department. 2) He wrote a book called The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum, or the Rogue's Lexicon.

His book amounted to a lexicon of flash, an underworld slang term meaning "underworld slang." Matsell thought his fledgling police force might have more success arresting criminals if they understood what criminals were saying.

Lyndsay Faye, a former actress, makes both Matsell and flash important elements in The Gods of Gotham, her 2012 novel about the origins of New York's police. Matsell is not the book's main character, however. That role falls to Timothy Wilde, a bartender whose wilder brother, Valentine, talks into taking a job with the newly forming police force. Tim has his doubts about his new job, yet it soon develops that he alone among the recruits possesses any natural ability to solve crimes.

Tim's first big case is a lulu. He finds a little girl in a bloody nightdress running through the streets. The story she tells leads to the discovery of numerous bodies of children, The new cop risks everything to find out what happened to these children, wherever the trail might lead.

Faye uses flash extensively in her novel, making it difficult reading at times. Fortunately she places her own lexicon, based on Matsell's, at the beginning to help readers better understand what's going on. Here are some excerpts from the lexicon:

BAT. A prostitute who walks the streets only at night.
DIARY. To remember.
EASY. Killed.
HICKSAM.  A countryman; a fool.
HUSH. Murder.
JABBER. To talk in an unknown language.
MAZZARD. The face.
MOUSE. Be quiet; be still.
PEPPERY. Warm; passionate.
QUEER. To puzzle.
STOW YOUR WID. Be silent.
TOGS. Clothes.

Faye admits she wrote The Gods of Gotham without understanding the language her characters were using. Readers don't need to understand it either to enjoy this novel, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. In fact, you may find you already understand many flash terms. As Faye explains in an afterward, many of these terms found their way into the language most Americans speak today.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Tucker Coe subsidiary

On the dust jacket of Tucker Coe's 1972 novel Don't Lie to Me it says: "A self-made conglomerate, TUCKER COE is a subsidiary of a writer better known to most readers under a different name, perhaps his own."

That "different name" is Donald E. Westlake, who died in 2008 after writing more than 100 books, mostly crime novels and mostly under his own name. Among his many other "subsidiaries" were Richard Stark (the popular Parker novels), Samuel Holt, Alan Marshall,  Edwin West, Curt Clark, John Dexter, Andrew Shaw, Barbara Wilson, Timothy J. Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Judson Jack Carmichael and John B. Allan (a biography of Elizabeth Taylor). All those pen names allowed Westlake, always a prolific writer, to have more than one new book in stores at the same time, all with different publishers. It also gave him more opportunity to write different kinds of novels, everything from soft porn (in his early Alan Marshall period) to hardboiled crime (the Richard Stark novels). Under his own name he mostly wrote comic crime capers, such as the Dortmunder series.

The Tucker Coe novels had a hero, Mitch Tobin, on the right side of the law, which was a bit unusual for Westlake. Tobin is an ex-cop working as a private investigator, which made him very much like any number of other fictional heroes operating in the 1960s and '70s. This may be why Westlake lost interest Tobin after only five novels.

Don't Lie to Me, the last of the series, is always entertaining. Tobin is working as a night watchman at a museum when he discovers the body of a nude man in one of the galleries. Anyway, that's what he tells the police. The real story is that he has a woman with him at the time, his former lover named Linda, who has come to see him to enlist his help in keeping her husband straight after his release from prison. Tobin doesn't want Linda to get involved in a murder investigation, and he also doesn't want his wife to find out he is seeing Linda again.

While the cops, who know Tobin is lying, and a gang of criminals, who want Linda's husband to work with them, are both out to nail him, Tobin reluctantly solves the murder himself.

This is a short, fast-moving tale that makes one wish the Mitch Tobin subsidiary had lasted longer than it did.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Really devoted to awesome sausages

"You can't apply the word devoted to a sausage."
Ben to Kate in The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney

There aren't many light moments in Frank Delaney's novel, but this is one of them. Kate says, "I have become devoted to frankfurters," and Ben takes exception to her choice of words. "Devoted suggests a spiritual dimension," he argues.

And, indeed, the word once did suggest a spiritual dimension.Gradually, like the almighty dollar, the word became devalued until it could also be applied to one's country, one's lover, one favorite baseball team and, at last, sausages.

Many words have similarly become devalued with the passage of time. Awesome once referred to something that inspired awe, such as God, a cathedral, the heavens on a clear night or the Grand Canyon. Now anything, including unusually tasty frankfurters, can be described as awesome.

This probably has a lot to do with why the English language has so many synonyms. New words must be created to replace other words that have lost their value. Consider all the words for big: large, huge, great, gigantic, enormous, mammoth, etc. If you can describe a hamburger as enormous, then how do you describe a bull elephant? You need a different word. Thus we get words like ginormous entering the language.

After the events of 9-11, words like horrible and terrible seemed inadequate, even though they mean "inspiring horror" and "inspiring terror," and thus should have been perfect. So horrific became the most popular adjective in the new century. Already that word has lost its power through over use, and it will seem inadequate for the next great tragedy.

Rather than constantly discover new words, one option is to employ words like very and really to describe our descriptive words. Thus we often hear phrases like very awesome, really devoted or extra extra large. Perhaps after the next great tragedy, someone will call it "really horrific." That may have to do until the right word comes along, however temporarily

Monday, July 22, 2013

The perfect restaurant in my mind

Most of us sometimes fantasize about opening our own restaurants, but these fantasies take different forms with different people. Those who know their way around a kitchen probably think about menus. What cuisine will they offer? What dishes will they serve every day, and what might their daily specials be? Those with a gift for decorating will think about decor. What will their restaurant look like? Should they line the walls with antiques, teddy bears, movie posters, works of art or what? And what might they do to make the dishes they serve look especially appealing? The music-minded will imagine the live music they will present on Friday and Saturday nights. Would a karaoke night attract more customers than it will chase away? What kind of background music should be playing?

As for me and the perfect restaurant in my mind, I think about what my staff will say to diners or, more to the point, what they won't say. Here are some words and phrases that would be outlawed in my restaurant:

I'm (...) and I'll be taking care of you. Taking care of customers is the server's job. Why is it necessary to announce it? It's like the custodian saying, "I'm Harvey and I'll be emptying your waste basket." Most servers wear name tags, so introductions are not needed.

You guys. The waitress serving the family in the booth next to ours at Denny's yesterday managed to use the phrase "you guys" three times in her first three sentences. I can see why women would be offended at being called guys, but guys should be offended, too. The phrase is both too familiar and too slangy. It's also unnecessary. The Denny's waitress could have simply said, "I'm sorry you had to wait." She didn't need to say, "I'm sorry you guys had to wait."

Enjoy. The other day a waitress placed my food before me and said, "I hope you enjoy your meal." I actually liked that. It even sounded sincere. Most servers, however, just say the word enjoy, then walk away. I sometimes feel like tossing a dinner roll at their backs. A server need say nothing more than, "Will that be all?" Then just walk away and let the diners enjoy their meal in peace.

Let me take this out of your way. Just take the dirty plates out of the way. Again, servers don't need to make an announcement. Many servers seem to think they are the main attraction at the restaurant. They're not. The food is, and perhaps the atmosphere. Servers are there to serve, not to call attention to themselves. If anything needs to be said before taking plates away it might be "Are you finished?" or "Would you like a box?"

I will be your cashier. There's no hurry. Whenever I hear the phrase "There's no hurry," I'm reminded that there is a hurry and that management probably wants my table for other customers. Most customers already know they are entitled to remain at their table and converse for as long as they wish (whatever management may desire). Sometimes it's good to be told how to pay the check, although a few words on the check itself would clarify that.

Although I think servers should say less, I would be satisfied if they just didn't sound like they were all following the same script. Another waitress at Denny's yesterday complimented a little boy on his good manners. Never mind that the boy had been running around his table throughout most of the meal, the proud look on his mother's face told me the waitress had said the right thing. It wasn't in the script.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Reporters and writers

The best journalists are those who are both skilled reporters (able to dig out information, develop trusted sources and persist until the story is complete) and capable writers (able to turn facts into prose that people will read with pleasure and understanding). Not all journalists, as I noticed during my more than 40 years in the business, possess both skill sets in equal measure. Some are better reporters than writers; others are better writers than reporters. Too introverted to be a first-rate reporter, I always considered myself more of a writer.

At a Chautauqua performance in Ashland, Ohio, last week I heard Karen Vuranch perform as Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons. "I don't care about grammar," Parsons said during the presentation. "I care about the story." She was a reporter. She got scoop after scoop. Getting the story and getting it first was what mattered to her, not grammar nor even proper word choices. She called herself "Mrs. Malaprop." William Randolph Hearst ordered his editors not to edit his star reporter, so her Malaprops, poor grammar and misspellings often made it into print. She didn't care as long as her facts were right.

When. fresh out of college, I worked for The Messenger in Athens, Ohio, back in the 1960s, and one of my colleagues was a middle-aged woman in Point Pleasant, W.Va., named Mary Hyre. She was an atrocious writer, and when her stories came through those of us in the newsroom would often read aloud some of her sentences and get a good laugh. It was my job to turn her jumbled stories into something printable. I still have a box full of Mary's original copy that I sometimes look through with amusement. Yet she seemed to know everyone in Point Pleasant, and there wasn't much that happened in that town that she didn't know about. She could cover the big stories (like the Silver Bridge disaster and the infamous Mothman sightings that they made a movie about a few years ago) and events like bake sales with equal enthusiasm. I may have been a J-school graduate who knew how to write a decent sentence, but I had no doubts about which of us was the more valuable Messenger employee. I would have been easy to replace, as I was within two years, but finding another Mary Hyre would have been difficult.

Some journalists fall at the other extreme. Mark Twain was like that. He got his start working for a newspaper, but his stories often turned out to be fanciful. Many of these stories, such as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, are still read today. He was a writer, not a reporter.

Joe Eszterhas and I were both freshmen when we started working together on The Post, the Ohio University student newspaper, on the same day in the fall of 1962. He went on to become editor. I remained a reporter. Joe's long and richly detailed stories drew a lot of attention, but he was one of many reporters about whom it has been said that "he never let the facts get in the way of a good story." He worked briefly for The Plain Dealer in his hometown of Cleveland, where inaccuracies in a story he wrote about that same Silver Bridge collapse led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision against him and The Plain Dealer. After a stint at Rolling Stone, Joe, like Louella Parsons, ended up in Hollywood. He put his vivid imagination to work on screenplays for such movies as F.I.S.T., Jagged Edge, Flashdance, Basic Instinct and Showgirls.

The best journalists may be those who are both good writers and good reporters, but Louella Parsons, Mary Hyre, Mark Twain and Joe Eszterhas are all testimony to the fact that one can be mostly one or the other and still find success.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A tall tale

There are no leprechauns in Frank Delany's The Matchmaker of Kenmare. Even so it qualifies as an Irish tall tale. Narrator Ben McCarthy, also the hero of Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show, works as a folklorist. He travels about the Irish countryside in the early days of World War II collecting folk tales. While investigating the work of matchmakers, he meets Kate Begley, a young woman who is learning the business from her grandmother.

Ben becomes smitten with Kate, but there are a couple of problems. First, if you've read the earlier novel you'll know that he is married to actress Venetia Kelly, who has disappeared. While Ben roams the countryside, he continues his search for his missing wife. Second, while Kate likes Ben, she loves a dashing American officer named Charles Miller, and she enlists Ben's help as she tries to make her own match with him.

Amazingly, Ben goes along with Kate's plans, which soon involve sneaking into occupied France to kidnap a German officer and bring him back to Ireland. Before the war, Kate had found a wife for the German, who it turns out is only too happy to be rescued from the war and taken back to neutral Ireland. Upon returning with her prize for Charles, he agrees to marry her. Then he leaves for the war.

Soon Kate enlists Ben's aid once again. Charles, who has earned the nickname Killer Miller, is missing in action and presumed dead, but Kate remains convinced he is still alive. She and Ben return to France and go behind enemy lines to look for him. I don't know which is harder to believe: that a woman would venture into a war zone to find her husband to bring him home with her, that another man (who also loves her) would help her or that members of the underground would put their lives at risk for such a crazy scheme.

The search for Charles (and Venetia) continues even after the war's end and takes Ben and Kate to America, where they travel halfway across the country in the company of a giraffe. I said this was a tall tale.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Word families

Rarely do words generate independently. More often words beget words, which then beget other words. And as with people, it can sometimes be surprising that two members of the same family are actually related. Take the words glance and glacier, for example. There is a slight family resemblance (gla-), but the two words have such different meanings that it can be hard to believe they have anything in common. But they do.

Think slippery. Both words stem from the Old French word glace, meaning ice. A glacier is a giant mass of accumulated ice. The English word glance first referred to what we now call a glancing blow, or something that barely touches before it slips on past. In time a glance came to mean what it does today, a brief look. A man, for example, may avoid looking directly at an attractive woman but, instead, will glance at her somewhat furtively in order to slip past the attention of the woman and, perhaps, his own wife.

Another example: The Romans called a beard a barbus, from which came the English word barber. An arrow was once called a barb because of those feathers at the end, which reminded somebody of a beard. Other sharp objects became known as barbs, leading to barbed wire. Barbados got its name from Spanish explorers because the islands had many native figs that appeared to be bearded. The tribesmen who overran a region in northern Italy had long beards, or longa barba. The region became known as Lombardy as result.

No, the name Barbara is not a descendant of the Latin barbus. It comes, instead, from another word meaning strange or foreign, the same source from which barbarian comes. I'm not sure this will be much comfort to all the Barbaras out there.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Getting back to the future

It was as if the entire space-time continuum had been engaged in an elaborate plot to keep them from reaching John Bartholomew.
Connie Willis, All Clear

This sentence, tucked into the middle of All Clear, describes in a nutshell what both this novel and its predecessor, Blackout, are about. The phrase "an elaborate plot" also describes what sci-fi author Connie Willis gives her readers, even if the basic plot can be easily described in a single sentence: Historians from 2060 travel back in time to study World War II in England and then get stuck there.

For more than 1,100 pages total, these young historians (Polly, Eileen and Mike) struggle to either find a working drop that will transport them back to their own time or to be found by those they feel certain will be coming to rescue them. Yet "the entire space-time continuum" seems to be working against them. Things keep happening to block them, divide them, distract them and thwart them in every way imaginable. They fear that they, sent only to observe history, will not just alter it but cause Hitler to win the war. Further, they fear they and many of the people they have come into contact with will have to die as time struggles to correct itself.

Time itself becomes a character in the novel as the story becomes increasingly metaphysical. Is time God or is God time? The Christian symbolism at the climax of the novel, set in St. Paul's Cathedral, makes it clear, if it's not already, that Willis gives her tale religious implications.

This second novel, even more than Blackout, can be tough going, and some readers will wonder if it is worth the effort, but the last 50 to 100 pages, when Willis untangles all the many plot threads and finally makes it "all clear," reward us magnificently for sticking with it.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The story continues

The Second World War may have ended nearly 70 years ago, but it remains a popular setting for novels, including two I've recently read: All Clear by Connie Willis (2010) and The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney (2011). The novels are quite different -- one is a time-travel sci-fi tale set mostly in London during the Blitz and the other is a romance in which an Irish woman ventures into German-occupied territory in search of her missing husband, an American soldier -- but they have two things in common other than time and, occasionally, place.

1. Each continues a story began in a previous novel, Blackout and Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show, respectively.

2. In neither case does the publisher, Spectra and Random House, respectively, mention on the cover that the book in hand is the second of a two-parter and that it might be helpful to read the first one first. Actually, it's not just helpful, it's practically necessary to understand what's going on. Each novel contains numerous references to events to characters and events from its predecessor. You need to understand these references to make much sense about what you are reading. These are not stand-alone novels like some that are written in a series. You can read a Molly Murphy mystery out of sequence, for example, yet still understand perfectly what's going on in each novel. That's not the case with either All Clear or The Matchmaker of Kenmare.

I don't read that much science fiction anymore (although I did read an interesting collection of stories called The Future We Wish We Had last month), but when I noticed All Clear in a bookstore, I knew I had to read it. British historians from 2060 travel back in time to study World War II and then get trapped there. How could I not want to read this story? Not until I got home with my prize did I discover there was a another book I needed to read  first. So I began the search for Blackout, which was a little more difficult to find.

Fortunately I had already read Venetia Kelly when Matchmaker came out, and I remembered reading in a review that both books feature the same narrator, so I was prepared when I picked up Delaney's latest. Even so I was surprised the publisher doesn't even refer to the earlier novel on the cover of the sequel. Wouldn't that make economic sense from a publishing standpoint? The advantage of series books is that once readers become familiar with the characters in one novel, they will want to read all the other books. Isn't that advantage lost if readers don't even know there is a series?

I may have more to say about each of these novels in the future.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Words on a house

Words written on the side of a building usually mean one of two things: signage or graffiti. In the case of the home of Hank Hines and his family in St. Petersburg, Fla., they mean something else: art.

Hines is the director of the spectacular Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, so he should know a thing or two about art and, indeed, the many words printed neatly in Times Roman font on his house do appear artful, even if a bit weird. Hines and his wife, according to a story in the Tampa Bay Times on June 30, first chose architecture-related words for their home, then added words like waffles that were meaningful to their family. The family always eats waffles on weekends.

As much as I love words, I can't imagine plastering my favorite words on the sides of my house. Do I even have favorite words? Words like euphoria, rhododendron, tomfoolery and saunter are beautiful to hear and fun to say, but I don't think I would like them in large letters on my house. I rather like the fact that words, looking like a giant vocabulary list, decorate the Hines home in St. Petersburg, however. I hope to drive by it one day.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Never believe your own press clippings

Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise

Dashiell Hammett died more than 50 years ago, but one of his short stories, An Inch and a Half of Glory, appeared in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. It reads like a parable.

Earl Parish is one of eight men who race into a burning building after they notice a small boy in an upstairs window. The other seven abandon the rescue when they learn the fire department has arrived, but Earl Parish (Hammett always refers to his main character by his full name) keeps going and soon carries the boy to safety. In the local newspaper's story about the fire the next day, Earl Parish's heroism takes up one and a half inches.

At first Earl Parish is embarrassed by all the attention he receives. Then he comes to enjoy it. Finally, and fatally, he comes to think he deserves it. From that point on, his life spirals downward. He loses his job. He can't hold any other job for long. He considers most jobs beneath him. Even the fire department doesn't want to employ a man who can't stop bragging about his one act of heroism.

Earl Parish has made the mistake, all too common, of believing his own press clippings.

When I was a student at Ohio University, I can remember standing in a long line to see a popular movie at one of the Athens theaters. Then I noticed three members of the school's basketball team walk to the front of the line, buy their tickets and go inside ahead of everyone else who had been standing in that line for a long time. Nobody said a word. It may have had something to do with the fact that these athletes were each a head taller than any of the rest of us, but I think our silence was mainly due to the fact that they were stars. They had believed their own press clippings and decided the rules that applied to everyone else did not apply to them, and the rest of us let them get away with it. Most of us probably didn't admire them as much afterward, however.

Many athletes seem to fall into the trap of believing what is written about them. Even kids of high school age and younger can easily start believing they are better, somehow more deserving than others their age. The only time I was bullied in high school was by the school's best basketball player, a boy I once cheered when he scored 42 points in a game. The cheers did not make him a better person.

One can only wonder how much of the trouble former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez is now in, facing murder charges, is due to his believing his own press clippings. Did he come to see himself as being a cut above everyone else? Did he think he could, quite literally, get away with anything?

Are President Obama and members of his administration in so much hot water in Washington these day because they believed a largely supportive press would simply overlook anything they might do?

Writers, too, sometimes make the mistake of believing what is said about them. Harper Lee and Truman Capote were childhood friends who went on to become two of America's best 20th century writers. Lee published just one novel, but To Kill a Mockingbird was so highly praised that she became unwilling to risk attempting anything else. Nothing she wrote could ever achieve that standard again, so she wrote nothing. Capote, after the success of In Cold Blood, seemed to like being a celebrity better than being a writer. He let his talent wither away.

There is no telling how many other writers have believed negative reviews and then gave up trying, perhaps much too soon.

Praise is wonderful and criticism may sometimes be necessary, but it can be a mistake to take either too seriously. Rarely are we either as good or as bad as what others say about us.