clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Monday, March 31, 2014


At left, a character waiting for the bus.

You kill a character, drive them away, push them out of scene - make sure they are missed.

If the reader doesn't care that you got rid of them, what the hell were they doing in the story?

Think about that a minute. I'll wait.

There is a great deal of narrative tension to be wrung from our "throw away" characters. Chandler and Hammett did it well: the nobody with whom we are intrigued for the short two pages they are in the prose.

They leave and we miss them.

I've been listening to T Bone Burnett lately. I especially like his song "Humans from Earth" for its vague threat. You have to know us humans to know what T Bone is suggesting in the song but then, you know us, too.

What strikes me about music that T Bone produces (he's a top end producer) is that when the song is over, you miss it.

So, you need a ticket-taker, a beat cop, a homicide detective, a receptionist, a mother-in-law. Please, make us miss them when they're gone. We're reading. It's the least you can do.

I'm off and you'll miss. I'll leave some pages for you, though. I'll leave pages.

You should leave some too. They don't write themselves, you know.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Secret History

At left, a Trabant whose photo was produced by Cholo Aleman on wikicommons. The license tag of "stasi" was irresistible.

The secret history is fun. These are the "inside stories" we writers love to hear. I think we're all drawn to them.

Every family has a secret history. Every state apparatus certainly does. Certain industries have them and some make for great reading. Lose a nuke lately, general?

Characters in a novel have them. There is the story on the page and then there is the story to the novelist.

The novelist knows it all - or in the case of Raymond Chandler, knows which parts he knows and which he does not. The story on the page is a version of this secret history.

In many ways, writers are more producers than composers. We grab bits and pieces of the continuum of events we know and share them with the readers.

Some readers enjoy putting the pieces together to infer the scenes behind the scenes. I'm one of those fellows. It makes the plotting interesting for me. It's a bit like crafting your own crossword puzzle.

So, not everything goes onto the page. A great deal is swallowed up in the writer's mind.

There are several books about which I'd like to ask questions. There are several for which the secret history may ruin my illusion.

If you had the chance, would you ask of the author?

Off to write. There are tales to twist.

One of the tales involves a secret policeman. I hope his trusty Trabant  will start.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Good Defense

At left, US soldiers examine fortifications of the Maginot Line. This particular fortification was built in 1932. For those whose history is fuzzy, the Maginot Line was a series of emplaced fortifications stretching the boarder between France and Germany. The purpose of the deign is obvious.

I love characters with thick defenses. I love it when those defenses are breached.

Smiley, LeCarre's spymaster, has a formidable dose of logic and dispassionate outlook though he is nearly defenseless when it comes to his sometimes wife. That gap in armor is delightful.

Many characters in the crime genre have some weakness: some dark past haunting them. What I like most are those whose past doesn't merely haunt them, it provides an expressway into their psyche.

I like it when that expressway is available to readers and we travel it to see their breakdowns.

I don't like Superman.

Kryptonite is his weakness and no one manages to put half a dozen bullets of the stuff into his head. Yawn. Some villain Luthor turns out to be.

Batman? Now there is a guy with problems I can get behind. Women, geographic locations, the turn of a phrase, little kids ... the guy has enough screws loose to open his own hardware store. Villains exploit his weaknesses. Friends exploit them. Women. Alfred, even.

Sure he's a hero archetype. Sure he has big muscles and beats guys up in some twisted scheme of vengeance. Oh yea - code against killing. I hear you. You're missing my point.

Even the code against killing is a weakness. The guy is just a bag riddled with holes. (no pun intended, Riddler fans).

I like the sort of hero who gets gut punched by a 12-year old and feels it. I like to see him knocked down. I like to see the boy scout kicked right out of him.

Then, I like to watch him get up.

Superman - well. He has to protect us because we're pathetic worms who can't do the job ourselves.

Batman? He's one of us. Flawed. Insecure. He's not even as emotionally tough as your Aunt Millie. 

But he has one thing going for him.

He get's back up. Every time. No matter the cost, he gets back up.

I love that in a character.

I hope the readers I'm writing for like it too. Speaking of which, I better go write.

So should you. Watch your flanks.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Crazy Guy

At left, the Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane [ Photo courtesy Patricia Drury as uploaded by Gary Dee on Wikicommons].

Somethings, things just happen.

I love logical plots that fit together like little puzzle pieces all nice and tight. Maybe they're like Lego blocks: versatile and yet orderly.

In my life, little works that way. Things just happen. I have friends who help things happen. They're mostly insane. They do things on whim and there words are often out of phase with the activities and responsibilities of the day. In short, they're the cumulative crazy guy.


I speak tonight of the crazy guy in your life. That character you know around whom things happen. He (or she) is like a handful of possibility grease and no matter how odd, things just pop into the world of probability around them.

They make engineers nervous.

In chemistry, a catalyst is a special item which enable substances to transform from one thing to another ( or to transform at a faster rate).

Characters can be catalysts of a sort, too.

In my case, crazy guy is the fellow whose presence allow all the various elements of conflict and capability to transform into the salient plot outcomes.

Let me put that another way:

Crazy guy is that fellow who bring together the forger, the safe cracker, the acrobat, and the money-man to pull the big museum robbery without anyone knowing Mona has gone walkabout.

Now, do you have a nice story marching down the isle to the inevitable conclusion of the wedding one spring afternoon? Why not let crazy guy be involved in getting the groom to the chapel. Better story - right?

Hackneyed - sure. Whole franchises have been built upon crazy guy.

I'm suggesting that crazy guy can take many forms. He can wear any guise you like. However, his function is pure utility with respect to anchoring plot twists for a reader. Everybody knows a crazy guy.

Everybody understands the archetype.

Now, I've got to go write before tying a pony to the tree outside crazy guy's house in my life. His daughter will love it.

Random pony appearance: perfect plot twist for crazy guy. Wait, that means I'm the crazy guy in this story.

Who is crazy guy in your story and is it better if you add one?

I think the voltage is a little high on my crazy-o-matic helmet tonight. I better go adjust it and write something while I am at it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Long Trip

At left, a picture by Liliane Painguad of the yacht Creole now owned by Gucci heirs. It is the largest wooden yacht in the world. It is beautiful.

It is also a murder boat. Well, two wives overdose on the boat and you have to wonder. Not a Gucci wife, though. Mr. Gucci bought it from the gentleman whose wives died aboard.

Of course, Mr. Maurizio Gucci himself was murdered by his own wife. Hit man actually, hired by the Mrs.

A great piece of teak though, don't you think?

I'm starting a long piece of fiction this week. It's like packing for a trip. I need a good premise. I need some plot twists. I need handholds in the form of an outline. I need some idea of destination preferably in the form of the closing paragraphs or two. I need characters I want to live with for a while.

A novel is a boat at sea. When you are writing it, you cannot go anywhere else. You're on board or you get off and drown. You live with the characters and the plot and the premise in very close proximity. They're constant as the sun and stars.

If you've spent any time on a small boat at sea, you know the relentless pressure of being confined with a few people on a common mission: survive. If you haven't been to sea but have written a novel, then you know what it is to go to sea.

This for me is a "survival" draft. I'm excited here on the dock. I'm apprehensive. I'm willing to go on the adventure. It could kill me.

When going on a journey, pack well, attended to business before you go, and select a good means of conveyance. The Creole above would do nicely. Not being a Gucci heir, I'll have to content myself with a couple decent notebooks.

You look like you could use an adventure this spring as well. Pack a bag. Take a trip. See what you find on the other side of the hills.

The tide is going out. I've got to write.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Above, an apt illustration of  Scrodinger's cat. He lives and dies both and neither in a sort of duality.

In physics, we describe items - particles - which appear in pairs as having the property of strangeness. It's a sort of duality where the particle and the anti-particle coexist at the same time and thus conserve some principles of creation.

There is something liberating in a new project. It is a trip to an uncertain destination along a map we draw as we travel.

I have a friend starting a new novel and his premise revolves around a road trip of revelation. Elizabeth Spann Craig over at Mystery Writing is Murder had an essay this week on road trips as well. Looks like everyone is one the road.

Our characters need a sense of duality. In part, they need it because they reveal things about the human condition and the human condition is a mixed bag at best. Duality fits right in. 

Mostly, they need duality because no one can be all bad, all good, all innocent, or all evil. We need some of both for the mix to hold our reader's attention.

The lovable rogue: great archetype. 

I'm using a slightly different path this time. I'm starting with an innocent man who - because of environmental factors - becomes inured to the baser motivations of man. Instead of becoming a criminal himself, he becomes desensitized to the worst criminals have to offer. This outcome is courtesy of Chicago Police Department who "always get their man ...well, a man - anyway." 

This stain gives him a unique ability to interact with the worst of the worst. His own difficulties with the charge of murder gives him credibility and a certain type of vulnerability attractive to the criminal class I feature.

I'm leaving him a fugitive. I like that duality. An innocent man on the lamb. Yes, an old saw. But done well ...done well: anything is possible.

I hope your new project is going well. I hope your criminal endeavors all involve malice aforethought and unlike my protagonist, you are pursued for your true guilt. 

I'm guilty of needing to write more. I'd better turn myself in now.

Mind the cat.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Dance Monkey, Dance


I saw the Muppet movie tonight which featured a song whose chorus includes the phrase "dance monkey, dance."

There's no accounting for taste but the song has a place in the heart of every writer following along after a more successful colleague.

There is the novel we can write. By "can" I mean this in the Mrs. Shean definition of "are physically able to perform." Then, there is the novel we want to write.

We learn techniques and tricks as we write. After a while, stringing together these slight of hand devices becomes a sort of parlor game. 

The transition from dialogue to narrative summary to dialogue back to narrative summary with a return to dialogue at the end of the chapter is a common enough structural element. We learn to hasten in our dialogue structure the revelation to the reader in a mix of showing and telling.

If we only show everything through action and dialogue, the novel becomes ponderously slow. If we only use narrative summary then readers are not able to structure their own attachment to characters. We compromise. We craft. We use a slight of hand again and again and we move on.

We develop these tools and find comfort in them. 

More substantially, we tell tales we think we can tell and push off some of the tales we want to tell.

We neglect some of the stories we most wanted to tell when we started writing. Maybe they don't matter anymore. Maybe they require degrees of the craft we don't yet know how to employ.

I'd encourage you to write one of those novels you don't yet have the skills to master.

Maybe the story is of a kid you knew in high school who was to himself an unreliable narrator. His inner voice was a pack of useless lies and fabrications (rationalizations?) though - because of a lack of any serious demands placed upon him - he was able to drift along through life without ever confronting this doppelganger.

Put this kid in a house with everyone dead. Let him flee the scene with a neighbor calling after. Let him see the world turn around him knowing that he will be blamed for the unfortunate demise of a family.

"Had it in him" they'll say. "Never was any good."  His classmates know him and will say things like "he stole those cupcakes out of Sara's desk in sixth grade - who'd know it could turn out like this?"

You know these characters. You know these stories.

You thought of them on that drive to see you boyfriend in Dallas. You were on a plane back from Baltimore and thought of these things instead of reading the book you had with you. Did you ever finish that book or do you just say you did?

Write one of these novels that you don't know how to complete. Write one where the techniques are new and fresh and ... scary.

A little bump in the night quickens the pulse. The pounding on the door - pounding - at 3:07 AM: it makes you feel alive.

Never fear the pounding on the door. Bad things like the DEA, the FBI, the DNC? They don't knock. You'll wake up and they are already in the bedroom.

You could use a little shake-up. I can. I found that out this week.

Go. Write something you can't. I will.

Pay the money, call the tune. Dance monkey, dance.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Odd Things We Collect

We writers collect odd things. At left, a picture of the Nindawayma rusting away in Montreal..[ Picture courtesy Matt2099].

I am looking at an article I've dug out of the files entitled "How To Improve Your Investigation and Prosecution of Strangulation Cases" by Gael B. Strack and Dr. George McClane. It's a great article for a crime writer but - really?

From my chair I see books on venom, toxicology, rare hunting rifles of wildcat calibre, trees, and the principles of modern fighter combat.

What a lot of odd things we collect as writers. It's doubly so as crime writers.

A lot of this collection is of no use to anyone. In the manner and order by which I acquired it, it means a lot to me.

I was looking in a book on the natural toxins of animals of the Australian continent just last week. While lots of animals use toxins, no one is quite sure why those in Australia are so terribly venomous. A little goes a long way but these folks have it in spades. Shake the blanket out before you lie down. Seriously.

So, tomorrow I'll write about "writing the book we want to write" but today I am struck by all the odd things - and the odd ideas - we writers carry about. I had an exchange with a writer about a body in a competition bar-b-que smoker. It wasn't remotely an original idea.

The ship above looks like a lovely place to have a murder. It screams "put the body in here."

Off to write. New project. Lively, irreverent storytelling. Everything one could want.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


At left on my desk this morning, a 4wt fiberglass fly rod ( Steffen blank) with stacked leather handle (custom Mark McKellip special) and an Abel click-and-pawl reel. WF 4wt rio LT line.  Three brassies in size 14.

I imagine it is spring.  Season isn't open here.

I'm finishing a story this morning after I finish this blog entry, then I'm running to work to get a jump on the week whose theme is "finishing."

I was thinking of spring - imagining it actually - and reflected on writers and imagination.

I poke some fun in these posts about fiction, crime writers, lies and deception. There is however no doubt in my mind that we fiction writers good and bad share a common trait: we have active imaginations. We see our characters in a room having a conversation.

We imagine aliens or dinosaurs or even honest politicians walking the earth.

Where did this come from?

I grew up alone without siblings or playmates. I had to find ways to entertain myself. Sometimes that was imagining my Frisbee was the Jupiter II from Lost in Space flying through the "tree" nebula storm.

Sometimes it was imagining the rope from a large elm hung was the rigging of a pirate ship.

Everyone does this. It's not exceptional.

I think it was the books. I think it was finding my current environment stagnant and all my imaginary games dull that allowed the stories I read in books to come alive. It wasn't long after they started coming alive and I started envisioning the characters as actual people that I became more entranced with books than people.

I still like books more than people. Books disappoint us less.

Anyway, my supposition is that a lot of writers come from "fully supporting and engaging familial environments" or "single child isolation." Great generalities, I know.

When I was in my teens and writing stories, my family thought it a waste. Better to be doing work and there was plenty of work to do.

I did work. But, I kept writing in my head. I completed two plays that I composed entirely in my head while milking cows. Talk about isolation. At least the ladies didn't complain about my Caruso imitation. Not sure how it affected milk production, though.

Off to write. I'm got a brain full of imaginary people. So do you. Introduce me to some of them, will you?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

At the Desk

 William Styron.

I looked on wikicommons for images of writer's actually writing. Turns out, there aren't a lot of pictures of that subject. I guess the laundry room is not that photogenic.

I found Mr. Styron at his desk in a little room between the garage and the kitchen of his Mart's Vineyard home. He wrote in pencil, in longhand.

You know him for Sophie's Choice and in my case, The Long March. 

I think Martha's Vineyard has a great deal to offer as an author's residence. It's probably not right for me. I do think a nice cabin on a trout stream becomes more and more appealing. Maybe something in the driftless area of south-west Wisconsin. I like the prairie.

I wanted to show today the rather primitive and plain surrounds of a very influential writer.

If you're in the laundry room next to the drier, take heart. You've found the right place.

Now, off to write. Rotate the laundry for me after you finish the next page, will you? The basket is on the floor.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Bad Company

I've brewed the tea and now am prepared to write. At left: Mae West who was prepared to do just about anything.

Tonight I'm contemplating making a "bad guy" likable which tells you something about the company I keep. I'm finishing story A and thinking a little about the next draft of story B. That doesn't happen to the best way for me to work.

I've got a string of characters who are protagonists while they do engage in activities would describe as nefarious. Of course they're up to no good. Priests and banker seldom show up in crime writing.

Wait, they do. Bad example.

The question is - given the desire to start in media res - how to show a bad guy that is our good guy?

The protagonist carries the emotion of the reader forward and unless you have more talent than I've seen in person, it's bloody hard to start a story with a bad guy doing bad stuff and then have him remain with the reader.


Bad guy doing stuff to other bad guys. Crime readers seem to give you a break in the scenario.

Bad guy doing almost "full evil" but pulling back at the end with a gesture of mercy or compassion (even better: compassion). This is a nice cinematic technique. Call it "the Bruce Willis grin." It's a little harder to pull off in text because the object is to show a guy pulling up just a little without becoming a whole different person.

Bad guy doing some bad stuff and then breaking down before doing more bad stuff. This is a fun technique where the proverbial hitman is overcome by the victim making a "go ahead and do me a favor."  Maybe the hitman killed both the guard dog and the bodyguard. The bad guy is so moved by the intended victim's hard luck story that he shows he has a heart of gold. This technique usually requires the cover of the book to feature a character having a vague similarity to Burt Reynolds in the early 1970's.

Bad guy doing bad stuff caught up as the target of other bad guys who do worse stuff. This is the inverse of the first twist. It's big in some pulp. Think drug dealer pursued by corrupt cops.

Lastly, detachment. This is where "it's just a job" and the writer sells it to the reader. Often this requires "bad stuff" to happen off screen until the climax. The lesson is that there is a big different between Big Louis telling his dog that he shot two people today and the reader seeing Louis sneak into the house and blast a man and wife as they sleep with double-ought buckshot. Huge difference.

So, not a comprehensive list but certainly there are some ways around the protagonist as a "bad guy." After all, it is the company we keep.

What's fun is to make up a path that you know you can sell to the reader. Oh, you probably read it somewhere but you don't remember.

I once wrote three quarters of a novel that turned out to be a dull Michael Caine movie from the late 1970's that I don't remember seeing. I must have though. I even named the protagonist for his character in the movie.

Do something bad tonight. Write for an extra hour past bedtime. Mae would. I will.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

She Wore a Fur Coat to Bed

At left, a consulting writer in his natural place: co-pilot. [ Photo Jonatan De Geest].

Writing? You need help. A dog is best.

I don't have such a lovely picture as above of Louis because I drive a smallish car now and am driving. My co-pilot does ride beside me but he doesn't sit well for pictures in or out of the car.

This is a lovely beagle.

A dog helps you write. 

How? Those long morning walks? Perfect for mulling over the problems of plot or character. Tumbling a little in the late evening? You're going to be interrupted by the nuzzle of necessity and be forced to resolve an issue with haste.

Awkward passage? You can read it aloud to the dog - who does indeed look at you with contemplation - and not feel the idiot for reading aloud in an empty room. It's good for the self-esteem. ( The dog, in contemplation, is listening for the works "biscuit" or "walkies" but that's no real matter for our consideration tonight. Illusion will do...)

Best of all, the dog cannot offer suggestion and criticism unlike every other human on the planet.

When it is going well, you won't notice the snoring beast beneath your desk. When it is going poorly, the occasional thump of a tail or a foot nuzzle will convince you that it is all a matter of perspective.

John Le Carre famously acquired a long stretch of cliff in Cornwall upon which to walk. I like to think he does so with a hound or two.

Your writing is strongly influenced by your attitude and outlook. Having a dog as a writer improves one and tempers the other.

Having a cat does the inverse for me.

You can pick either, but you need a consultant on staff who wears a fur coat to bed.

Your writing will be the better for it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Big Empty

This is a grain elevator from just outside the big empty. Where I grew up, this was the mark of industry. This, and shabby oil derricks.

On the map where you see no roads, no towns important enough for any but the smallest dots, that's the place: the big empty.

There's a story I heard when I was a kid that in one of these little bergs, two men were found dead on a gravel side street beside their car. No one happened to live anymore on the little block where they lay.

They stayed that way for three days until a sheriff's deputy happened by and had them collected.

It wasn't a serious matter for the law. They were from somewhere else. Order is taken more serious than law in some places.

You haul your own load, carry your own secrets, wave at the neighbor you haven't seen for three months. Everyone wears of a mask with more than a little distrust.

It's the sort of place where little changes in fortune made a big difference in the community. Someone got a new car - and I mean new car. Someone's kid went to college back east. Someone bought a new horse worth a cutting of hay.

For every up there's a down and when someone went up, the neighbors all watched waiting for the inevitable reversal of fortune.

I think of it as a balanced environment where all things were conserved locally: nothing untoward happened without offset. Secrets couldn't be kept long.

As writers, we like the other side of that eventuality. We like ups without offsets. We like downs without redemption. It's easier for the reader to put our stories in a large context if we tell part and let the reader fill in the rest.

Tolstoy tells you everything. You know it all from beginning to end.

Hemingway tells us little. We know sometimes the end. Sometimes we know a middle.

I increasingly like stories where we know the early elements of discord and change, their initial event chains, and we know the sharpest of the transformations. The rest?

I'm not in the happily ever after business. 

Neither are you. Tell us enough that we see the consequences of conflict and transformation. 

You don't have to put a bow on everything.

In crime, don't show me the trial, merely point to the criminal. In literary fiction, you don't have to make him chase after her in the final scene loading everything he owns in an old Chevrolet to drive to Salt Lake City.

Leave a couple of bodies on the ground. Let's see in our own mind if anyone notices.

I'm going to write and see if anyone notices. I think you should try the same. Maybe you can find a big empty in your house in which to do it. Maybe you've been a bit of a big empty on the map thus far, too.

Let's make that dot grow a little, shall we?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Land Mines

From Dickelbers, a mine warning sign from Israel.

I liked the old ones showing stylized bodies blown apart and flying through the air. Literacy is a problem in that part of the world and thus the change. This sign makes it more likely to be misunderstood by someone who is illiterate.

No, I'm not kidding.

Fiction is full of landmines.

For writers, one of the most debilitating landmine is the curse of the "believable" critique. It goes something like this: "that doesn't happen and the whole premise is implausible."

Frau Bear says this about all science fiction, for example. I can't tell you how much fun Independence Day was in its theatrical release for me. Star Wars? Forget it. Jaws has trouble in my house.

Of course, Life of Pi was loved (book was better) so there's no accounting for reason.

Which brings me to the point. When a critique arrives on your desk and is marked with "cannot happen" it tells you two things: one, this reader is not your target audience (get over it) and, two; you should consider the degree to which your fantastic elements are immersed in realism.

I like aliens.

To write a story about aliens landing in central park tomorrow, we consider how crazy stupid people really are. There would be folks running to the the space ship (yeaaaa, friends!), they're be people so shocked as to irrationally attempt to ignore the existence of the phenomena (say, a boss I once had who would tell me the Caruther's contract had to be finished, aliens or no ) , there'd be folks at church-mosque-synagogue praying for deliverance (queue banjo), and they're be the mad bombers in militia green.

If we wrote the story, we'd have to account for how the event changes - or not - the people surrounding our protagonist. We'd need to make sure the protagonist's  actions seemed rational and plausible NOT in the face of the aliens but in the face of how the people close to them acted, felt, believed, made pudding. Context - that's the key.

Put vampires in the lemon grove - great! Make them interact with the world that makes sense in light of their reactions to each other, the world, and the odd folks who might understand what's going on.

I hear you. What about Harvey the rabbit? The story there was how Jimmy Stewart related to the people who did not see the giant rabbit. The rabbit was real in the movie. He was plausible in the fiction because the manner in which the character related to everyone else was plausible.

It's a delicate point which I've mashed a bit underfoot.

Basically: crazy shit happens in fictionland and there is a whole section in the library for people who cannot swallow the possibilities you put forward (non-fiction).

The things you write can be fantastic. The characters you write must be plausible. You have to know the difference even if the critique partner does not. There you have it.

Speaking of crazy... I had an inquiry on the nuclear jet engine (here) to the point "was that the craziest thing ever?"

Er, not. Not actually.

The craziest thing ever (now declassified) was the intention to use tactical nuclear devices in Germany.

During an initial pullback of some territory which would cause the Soviets to rush forward and occupy the empty ground, time delayed nuclear devices enhanced to be especially dirty for a short period of time (the time duration part is classified) would be detonated. The front-line A units would be cut off from resupply and the rear area support elements would be - er- disrupted.

No, that's not the crazy part (unless you happen to be German). The crazy part was that in the earliest version, the Brits were in charge of the nuclear (atomic) landmines and their concealment.

To keep the electrics all in warm and toasty order so that when the timer went off the bombs would go off too, chickens were to be incorporated into the devices to use body heat to keep all operational. 

No, it's not a joke. Chickens as nuke warmers. Think of it as "pot pie got even."

Now perhaps my occasional reference to exploding chickens becomes clearer. It's just hilarious to me.

The thing had about a dozen names. Project Peacock was one of the last before the Brits were relieved of the - er - participation.

They were however on the right track.

Look, no one really wants to put resistance heating (electric coils) near extremely high-yield conventional explosives (used in the ignition of the bomb). The explosives used in warhead manufacture "can be/was/is sometimes" a definite "no smoking near here" item. Sparks and heating coils are right out because if the ladyfingers go off in error, the big bad giant living inside doesn't know the difference and he comes out with a big can of whupass all ready to spread it around.

So, when you are thinking of crazy stories and someone says "that can't happen" - just tell them that live chickens were used to keep atomic bombs in good order so they could go off after Soviets drove past them in the Cold War.

That's some crazy stuff from the late 1950's. What do you suspect the mad scientists have been up to since then?

Oh if you can't sleep now, write something. I will.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Show Yourself

The peacock at left is from a lovely photo from Jose Mario Pires. Nice job.

A friend asked why I'm not posting more stuff on a critique site to which I belong or on the blog here. Piles of content, she accused, not available for public consumption.

She's right: piles of content none of which is quite there yet.

If I know it isn't ready because I can see fundamentals that must be addressed, I hardly am ready for other comments.

Her argument is that critiques at early stages help a work along before too much is invested. It's not my argument.

Hemingway has a letter to Charles Scribner where he responds to some suggestion of low output - either from Scribner or a colleague. Hemingway's letters are a bit of unsourced monologue. Anyway, he comments on 350 words a day as being fine provided they were the right 350 words.

I'm having fun. I'm making progress. I'm feeling confident in the ability to craft short stories at the moment and the trick is crafting the short stories I want to have read. "Murder by Penguin" should never see the light of day. 

I hope the after-dinner coffee is just right for you tonight. I hope the day has left you prepared to put your best work forward however many words that might be.

I'm killing a man with rats tonight. It's a lovely scene. Bloodless on the page, thankfully.

I hope you are writing. I'm going to go and do some. I might write until I hear the birds.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Leftover Lies

I write fiction. I lie with abandon.

At left, a nuclear powered jet engine configuration. I'll tell you about it in a bit. Yes, it works. No, that's not a lie.

I like to fish for trout on a fly rod. Don't fly fish? I'll explain.

Using a fly rod to catch a trout is akin to using a washing machine to catch a rhinoceros. It is singularly the least effective technique (outside of merely sitting on a bar stool) to do the job.

See why sitting in an empty room in order to engage in communication through fiction appeals to me?  It doesn't make any sense either.

Fly fishing: brought to you by the people that brought you golf, I'm convinced. Lots of debate exists over the origin of fly fishing. I suspect the Scots because its just the sort of thing they'd do to the rest of us.

No characters tell lies all the time successfully when those lies are predictable.

The key with their lies is to lie to the reader. Having a character lie to the police about where he was last Tuesday night when the reader already knows he has a mistress is not good enough. Having him lie to the police AND to the mistress begins to carry weight especially if he asks her to lie for him to the police as an alibi.

You knew that already.

I like fishing because it is a sport of liars. The obvious part "what did you catch" is cliche. That's not the lie.

In fly fishing "what did you catch it on" can be the real lie. "Oh - I used a #16 Soft Hackle Sparkle Dun right there as the sun started behind the tree."  That's the lie. Bobby could no more see to tie on a size #16 fly in the twilight than he could sprout wings and fly himself. He used a #10 caddis and prayed that he didn't snag because he'd never get another threaded in that light.

Saying you fished the fly your could thread onto the tippet instead of the fly conditions dictated would be a kind of loss of face. So, a lie. "I'm smart enough to do the right thing ...but I did the precise wrong thing and had success. Can't admit that."

Lies are funny things. That's my point here.

And above, the nuclear jet engines: not lies. They worked.

Nothing wrong with the theory and the reactor construction was quite the stroke of brilliance. What normally would be air expansion because of burning fuel was instead air expansion because of the enormous gaseous heat transfer of the power plant. It was an air-cooled reactor that in this case just wasn't very air cooled.

Problems? The air was a single stage direct loop so what came out of the jet exhaust had been inside the reactor and it carrier more residual radiation than was "good." By that, the jet could not be allowed to fly over the continental US. Meh. Bad guys live elsewhere so no big deal. Airbase the beast on the coast.

Also, the crew needed a bit more shielding than initially designed. Again - not the end of the world. Kennedy killed the program because of inadequate progress for this component of the triad. Conventional bombers that refueled did the job. [ During the cold war, entire wings of bombers would remain airborne just short of the "go" points to launch an attack. Really. Stopped in 1968, mostly.].

The Soviets tried the same thing in nearly the same way.

Both countries flew live reactors over their own territories for a while testing the shielding process for a live reactor - though neither airplane was powered by their reactor, yet.

These are all truths that sound like lies. They're not. They true.

What is worse: the flying reactor is actually a good means of handling a two-stage life device. I'll explain.

A significant portion of any vehicle to go into orbit is fuel. Most of the fuel is used in the first 20,000 meters of flight .. say about 60K feet. That's right: most of the fuel is used close to the ground. Staged rockets - like Apollo - throw away parts of the craft after the fuel it carriers is used up.

Now, to get to space from the ground, carry the rocket to - oh - 60K feet. Much smaller rocket, much less fuel needed. Cheaper craft.

The nuclear airplane takes off and lands with the same amount of fuel aboard. (OKAY - negligible mass is lost in the form of matter-to-energy from radiation and nuclear decay emission. Nothing near the mass of an average high school cheerleader though. More like the mass of a nice hamburger at most). That 747-800 carries nearly 425,000 pounds of fuel. It's got about  four times the thrust of the B-52 bombers of the 1960s. (upgraded B-52's have more thrust).

So, reusable launch vehicle, fly over the pacific ocean, put things into space cheaply. Mad science stuff. It works, though. It works.

So, I'm done with the truth for awhile. It's too bloody strange.

 I'm back to my strength: lies.

Write some yourself tonight. Sleep tight. Aren't you glad I told you the truth about your government's mad science programs.

What about the ones you haven't heard about? Bwaaaaaaahahahahahahaaa.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Heat Me Up

At left, the now shutdown Omega West reactor. This beast was a specially built research reactor at Los Alamos. A great deal of critical materials science research was performed using the neutron tube structure this particular device included.

The glow is really special. It's Cherenkov radiation that normally should be shielded from view. This is a special low-power design with a lead-glass window allowing such a special picture.

Project Iceworm came to light in the late 1990's as a plan to base nuclear missiles under the ice sheet in Greenland. No, you probably have never heard of this before. You wouldn't have unless you read the International Herald Tribune in the late 1990's.

Now, the Greenland endeavor failed because the ice flows selected move much quicker than anticipated. Turns out, nobody really pays for much ice research until you want to put nuclear missiles in the stuff.

Camp Century - the C3 facility for the effort - was powered by a small nearly-portable nuclear reactor. The modular reactors ran their course through the 1970's when the military stopped running them of their own accord. So the story goes.

Camp Century does not seem to be the last time something was buried in the ice.There is a problem with ice, though. It's full of hydrogen and as such is an odd moderator. Subcritical nuclear assemblies are delicate things. Extremely delicate. Running your hand over a subcritical highly-enriched sphere  of U235 provides a enough moderation to push it to criticality ... that's how tightly bound these beasts are to criticality. It has to do with the efficiency of the material and ease at which a push to a prompt super-critical state can be achieved with practical equipment. [ super-critical means a radioactive pile makes more neutrons than its own process can absorb => you need this state to ignite ANOTHER reaction chain which in a nuclear weapon precisely what you do, bomb one ignites bomb two - and if you are Soviet, bomb three].

A bullet is reliable because it is an extremely simple machine. You really want your warheads to be simple like bullets. Safe and inert, but simple to activate.

Now, without neutron absorbing shielding, putting an air-burst warhead in a trench surrounded by ice is entirely different than storing one in a cement bunker. Odd things can happen.

Sometimes when odd things happen, neutron-induced radioactive products emerge. Clean-up in remote areas previous included "abandon the site."

Looking for a good secret lair for your mad scientist? These sites make ready homes.

Now, who do you call for real estate if you are a mad scientist needing a fortress of solitude hopefully far enough away from a population center where a bit of escaped gamma radiation doesn't cook chickens in the coops?

Have I got a realtor for you.

I love it when a plan comes together. I've toyed with this idea for a couple of decades and over a nice pot of tea and a ham-and-cheese (late start this morning) I rationalized that the unusual twist on the commonplace does make a fun story to write. Add the elements of actual human conditions within and there is a setting that can delight.

I'm off to work on story A so I can get to story B. Are you ever like that? Are you faced with "idea that is attractive" while you work on "idea that is near production ready?"

I can't be the only one whom inspiration strikes at all the wrong moments. Notebook to the rescue! Save that idea for later.

I hope you're writing. I know you are scheming.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Authorial Pursuits

It's thinking about spring here. The fellow at left shares my mind.

The glacier is receding. We've only six more weeks with any real chance of snow. Record this year. Ninety inches for the season.

Life isn't just work and writing. It seems like it through these long late winter days though.

I've made arrangements for a week this spring in a cottage on the best trout river east of the Mississippi. I'll use my new custom fly rod [ Thanks Mark!], smoke a briar, walk, write.

I've raspberries to replace from winter loss. I need to expand the Blueberry extravaganza to include a hedge separating yard from meadow along the lane. My blackberries did very well last year and it should be a great year.

I've meadow to scythe. I've bunnies for the foxhound to chase. I'll have fawns in the meadow again if the two deer herds visiting my sumac patch are any indication. One has seventeen does, one has eleven.

I'm painting a hallway, the master bedroom, a bathroom.

I've oils and a plein air box to use for some Sunday painting and I do need to start a painting for the grand daughter of a girl bear on an exotic alien planet. I think exotic alien planet means a "purple moon."

I'll have a Sunday dinner in the front yard on trestles for a dozen or so friends. I'll make fried chicken.

There are so many things that make me happy. It is however the writing that puts my mind at some form of ease.

I don't know why this grows more and more these days. As I say in my bio: it's a type of disease.

I hope your happiness is coming along nicely here in the last of winter. Hang on there: spring is coming.

The ice cream store in my little town opened today. That's a sure sign.

Have a cone. Write about it. Imagine spring, cold water, and dancing trout on four weight line.

I will.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Release the Hounds

Ian Hudson took this fine picture at left of a hunting pack. Yorkshire. Part of that wonderful Geograph project.

Disclaimer: I own a foxhound. He's American and not English and he doesn't hunt foxes for a living. He mostly chases a couple cats around the house, claims my favorite ottoman for his own, and snores when I write.

Writing is an oddly frustrating endeavor. It's horrendously difficult at times. Often it is completely unsatisfying when the writer views his own product.

Every once in a while though, you make progress on something that you haven't been able to crack just right before and boom: you can't imagine anything else as rewarding.

There are many writing web sites that admonish you that a professional grinds out the text whatever the cost and impression. I believe this is true. It does not mean however that the emotional roller-coaster of the effort is not just has horrendous to professional writers as to soon-to-be professional writers.

I love making progress. I love it when blocks fit together and you can surge ahead on a project. I had one of those moments today. I figured out how to frame a couple scenes to provide some unification to a story that was becoming a badly orchestrated series of independent scenes.

Now, I'm not likely to go running across the field baying at the top of my lungs. There's too much snow and it's entirely too cold for that sort of baying. I want to, though. I want to.

I hope you're on the trail, your tail is up, and your nose is down. The only thing better than running down an idea is having a pack of friends right there with you. I've been to a writers' conference and wanted that experience. I haven't had it yet. It'll come.

Until then, chase some bunnies on a warm spring day and keep your eyes open for those rare solutions that let everything break free.

I'm off to write. I'll try not to bay too loudly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Writers' Tools

Tonight, I wanted to review some tools for writers.

At left, the Lamy Studio pen. I can hear it now. A fountain pen?


It's a great model, runs under $100, and has the heft to make your words feel substantial when they're still just tentative scratches on foolscap.

The flow of the ink on white unlined paper, the freedom to annotate with little diagrams whatever scene you need to craft, the satisfaction of choosing words instead of creating them with percussive force: these are the joys of using a fountain pen.

I see glazed eyes. Here's one for you. Neil Gaiman uses this beauty: Lamy 2000.

It is not in the price league for someone who doesn't know if they want to use a fountain pen so be warned. It's a substantial piece of hardware with a price to match. Pretty cool though.

Only uses bottled ink. How about that?

Too Luddite for you?

Then let's move to the act of composing on the keys.

At right, the Das Keyboard Ultimate. The beast is solid, has individual mechanical switches for each key, and is blessed with ultimate coolness: no key labels. Oh sure, there are models with letters printed on keys. If you don't know the letters on the keys, why aren't you using the pens above?  [ I use a Das Keyboard with the letters printed. I type like a chimp. You can't use that excuse if you can touch-type.]

The advantage of the mechanical keyboard is the positive action and an ability to select the individual switch function for release.

Additionally, they last for millions of keystrokes. The rocker switch Chiclet-style that came with your latest system will last for only a fraction of this count and - face it - you'll write half a billion words before you're done. Better to invest in the sure footed keyboard that will last for a decades than fight through the degradation of the factory model that comes with your PC or Mac.

It does help your typing word count.

 Which brings us to storage. You're going to have drafts and edits and more drafts and edits circulated to your critique groups and returned with coffee stains and comments. You need somewhere to save that article you tore out of the magazine on the airplane and somewhere to place that one page "I'll write this story when I get good" idea sheet.

These collapsible file boxes are available from big-box office supply stores, cost next to nothing, and provide a much needed organizational scheme that even a writer cannot mess-up. You write the topic and date on the manila folder, put it in the hanging folder slot, and close the lid. When it rains, you can dig through and try to remember what a label like "sea monkey murder mystery" actually meant.

Oh,and writing. We've talked about some tools but there is an important idea primer.

A teapot. Writing and a decent cup of tea go together like writers and - I don't know -  angst? 

Notice I said decent cup of tea. Now, this is a darling little art deco business above from the 1930's. It isn't mine. I have a conventional red roundpot design. However, some of you are stylish.

A decent cup of tea really requires a decent teapot to brew. Yes, I make tea in a cup from time to time with - gasp - a bag. No, it is never as good as a three minute steep in an honest-to-dog teapot. It won't break you at all: buy one.

The cozy you'll have to wrangle on your own.

Oh, tea doesn't work?  Something stronger?

Wander over to HollowBookCo. here, on the web - and get a lovely volume complete with flask because if there is anything that attracts writers: it's booze. Scotch is my flavor if you're asking. I might bitch about a blend; but, I'll drink it.

I didn't say it attracted good writers; but, it does.

Who doesn't need a copy of The Great Shark Hunt with a flask inside? Perfect for the writer you know best.

Hemingway man, are you? am I.

Now, I'm off to earn the moniker of writer. You might be off to earn the moniker of shopper.

The right tool makes makes a master of a journeyman. What will yours look like?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Unfortunate Demise

At left, the factory floor for we crime writers. [ Photo P.J.L. Laurens]

We have the body.

There are stories about extortion, arson, kidnapping, even rape.

Murder is my speed. I like a body. I don't need to see the killing on the page; but, I do like a body there.

I was thinking on the way home tonight of all the great body reveals I've read. We're starting the story, maybe know the protagonist, and boom: we're at the crime scene.

In the procedural, we're about the steps through the maze to find the killer.

I don't think I care about that anymore. Sorry to say I like to know the cause of death. I like to know the reason for death. The "who" part doesn't do nearly as much for me.

Professor Plum in the Library with the Candlestick. I rather like the image of murder by candlestick. The good professor means less to me.

So, I'm driving tonight and reflecting on this seeming disconnect coupled with what I know of my own mental state. It came to me then.

We have detective driven - compelled - by an unseen conviction to pursue the cause of murder as if on a holy crusade. Wallander of Henning Mankell's pen seems an apt example. The man is a mess. [ Disclaimer: My son married a Swede.]. Nevertheless, he is "devoted" to the cause of catching murderers in precisely the manner in which Ahab sought the white whale. [ disclaimer: whale tastes good.]

So, I'm contemplating the detective without compulsion.

Seems like a bit of a challenge to create a character that might be likable by the reader but whose emotions do not flow to any personal connection. Doesn't mean they cannot be the object of unrequited love.

Off to write. Snow tonight. Maybe six inches. Maybe more Lovely.

Monday, March 10, 2014


It's a fairy door, for those who don't recognize it. Some of you have too little child left in you. Eat some pudding. It'll help.

I'm thinking about secrets tonight. It's suitable because lies and deceit are aimed at keeping something secret: infidelity, extortion, murder? Murder.

Powerful secrets can be effective at defining behavior in a character. However, the reader needs to be let in on the secret early on to understand the reasoning for the departure from some expected rational line of action. Bat Shit Crazy is not good enough.

I read a story yesterday where the character was BSC. In the last two pages, the author generously provided the reveal that made some of the more dubious actions this character undertook appear slightly more balanced, all in all.

I didn't like the treatment. It felt like magic. Shazaaam! See - there: makes sense.

I think the technique is to provide characters with desires. Then hinder these desires. Time and again the stories we remember do this well.

In Get Shorty Elmore Leonard gives a master class in the impedance of one character's desire by the progress of another character in realizing their desires. I assert Get Shorty was a kind of academic exercise by a writer in command of his craft to show other writers "there hand behind my back and I did it. You try."

Secrets which threaten the stature, safety, security, or self-image of a character can be critically important obstacles to the satisfaction of their desire. The lesson though is that the reader needs to be let in early on the nature of the secret. We can't just watch BSC for twenty-seven pages.

You lose readers.

There are ways to reveal the secret without telling the reader or - gasp - the dreaded interior monologue (which I despise). When you plot the story, having a secret revealed by or to another character gives you the ability to manifest an obstacle in a character - Elmore Leonard style. That's hardly slumming.

A story's mystery is satisfying when it is about the "how" as much as the "who" in crime fiction parlance.

Think of me. Reveal the secret early. Disappoint someone in the story. Crush their confidence at the betrayal. Make an enemy on the page. Have it be a sidelight but do let it be a way for the reader to know our protagonist is driving forward from a sense of whim and logic and is not just BSC.

I'm off to write. There are confidences to betray. You've got some to betray as well.

Get to it.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Dead Blog Post

Siegfried Sassoon's grave at left as photographed by Graham Allard as part of the Geography Project.

I've wanted to write this post for a couple weeks now.

Blogging was once the required social media venture for new writers. Blog, we were told. People want to connect. Readers want to know you. Agents expect you to demonstrate an even hand at media savvy promotion.

I didn't swallow any of it. Many of my favorite authors are notorious hermits (and my all time favorite popular recording artist Kate Bush is right there with them).

I use this blog as a type of rambling journal in which I say many things I could never say to people in person for it would be both intrusive and rude. Offer unsolicited advice on craft? Hardly good sport at all.

The advice to blog and its value on enforcing a kind of public rigor to a new writer (you must keep up with entries or everyone knows you are slacking) has passed. Social media savvy yes; blogging: not so much. Maybe an author page? Sure.

I've written that the best form of promotion is content. A dozen short stories with one or two in anthologies is a good stepping stone for a novel which is a good stepping stone for fourteen other novels.

The blog? It's a good stepping stone to finding kindred spirits. Think about that a minute, will you?

Not so easy, is it? Maybe you make friends quickly. If you're a writer, I bet you make acquaintances quickly and friends painfully slowly.

When you blog and say what you think as a writer, you put a bit piece of yourself out there for others to see.

Most of us are just not the "popular" kids from school. We don't immediately attract followers - and by this I mean folks who might regularly drop by, read, comment, pass on gems from their experience, even encourage us.

We don't draw folks in very well without very carefully constructing the matrix defining the interaction. We learn to draw readers into our prose. We do less well at drawing friends into our kitchens.

We work not in the center of a party (Martini? Love to!) but in the converted closet, laundry room, basement, corner desk in the kitchen when the family is asleep. We're inches from living in a 10' x 14' cabin in Montana: every one of us - at least when we're writing.

Pictures of kittens at play on the page? Sure. People throng to the page. Thoughts on our favorite perspective of inner conflict? Maybe not so many folks.

So, new writers begin the dreaded blog. They stumble to attract an audience. The struggle with the craft. The feel the pull of other pursuits - mainly of that horrendous box in the family room for which they've been conditioned their whole life to turn to for recreation that is a passive as it is corrupting.

They let other thoughts into their minds: thoughts not their own and they neglect any sort of discipline at sorting and filing and purging these thoughts so they don't spill over into their efforts in prose.

They stumble. The blog withers. They come back to it a couple of times. Sometimes for a short series of time and most frequently for a few sporadic entries. May 2011. December 2011. June 2012. August 2013. Then, nothing.

I search for their work hoping that this voice I found which I enjoyed is out there: producing. Maybe, their career took off and the blog just wasn't a priority with all the interviews and discussions of screenplay adaptations and ... No. Nothing. No citations on Google. Nothing on Amazon. Nothing in a periodical.

A lost blog only.

I think there is nothing more heart-rending than a dream gone dark. I think of it as losing sight. I think when a writer abandons their work, a piece of their soul is blinded.

I'm a little man. I live a little life.

I've been fortunate to be near those upon whose will the world turns. I've had every opportunity to make the world turn upon my will in many spheres: finance, politics, world affairs. I've wasted more opportunities in life than most people ever get. It makes me a deplorable person - and I am.

All I have left is the ability to lie. School trained at it, actually.

There is more than a little wrong with me and while I deliver a little utility and industry, it is marginal. I'm just not that important to making the world go around. I'm a writer because of it.

Somehow it all seemed to fit.

I read a writer's blog and I'm intrigued by their voice, their ideas, their insight into the struggles of this pursuit. Then, I refresh the entry to "current" and find the last post was in 2012.

I went down the hill with the occupants of a very small town once to see a station wagon hit by the local train. We were all ashamed for looking later (I suspect) but we couldn't stop ourselves at the time. The dreams of the dead hung in the air for me.

That feeling of looking upon someone's deceased dream is what I see when I search blogs for "writer narrative voice" and find a great essay from 2004 and nothing more from 2005 onward.

The blog can be an effective electronic tombstone for our lost dreams.

There is little as sad to me.

I'm off to write. I hope you are, too. Try to put a note on your blog while you're out there.

It's much more meaningful to your followers than inane shouting in 140 characters or less.

From "Does It Matter" - Sassoon.

Does it matter? — Losing your sight?
There's such splendid work for the blind,
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering,
And turning your face to the light.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Premise and Plot

Someone somewhere on the internet this week has a blog post discussing premise and plot. I think it was from a couple years back. Perhaps I saw it on a search through "crime writer" blogs long dead which  I did on Tuesday.

To whoever seeded this idea in my brain: thank you. I wish I could attribute you properly here but I didn't save the site URL and so it is lost in the ether.

At left, a Jaguar XKE [ photo Jay Cross]. Like a premise, it's a beautiful thing that will end up disappointing you should you use it as your principle mode of transportation.

We all have ideas. Some of them are so beautiful and pure as to bring tears to the eyes. As writers, it is almost impossible not to fall in love with some of these in their earliest states. Long legs and blonde, they steal our hearts.

But, we can't marry them. We can't go to bed with them. We have to be able drop them in an instance to take up with their sisters: the better ideas.

No premise will get you through the novel. Most can't even get you through the short story.

She wears a housecoat and has curlers in her hair; but, that old battleax plot and her ugly sister characterization are whet we need to finish the story. We need them. We're already in bed with them. We can't afford to divorce them because they take all the sexy right off premise and leave the story in our hands flat of interest and broke for want of readers.

Great premise: A serial killer on the loose in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Great plot: the risk and reward trail of chasing the killer to the protagonist, his family, and his wife. [ Child 44 ].

The book, the story, is about the condition of the protagonist, her tumult and risk, and the threats to her desires and needs. The premise is about the sexy way you paint it up.

Our stores must be about characters and their interactions first. The great setting - say intergalactic war - is secondary to the strength of the core human story. When you see a movie, this becomes dull in your mind. A movie is an illusion. You've learned how to watch them and how to compensate for weakness in your own mind. Case in point: car chase. It solves all manner of shortcoming in certain films. If you read the screenplay you'd say : "Wait a minute...this sucks!"

Crime guys love Elmore Leonard. He earned that adoration. Get Shorty is a great premise: loan shark in Hollywood - guy who knows all the angles. However, the story is good because Mr. Leonard clearly defined the characters involved, their interests, their perspectives, and the interaction of this soup of humanity on upon another. He maked it clear to us how these characters interact and what risks that interaction entails one for another. Everyone in the story wants something. Everyone in the story is an obstacle to some other character getting what they most desire.

That's my best example off the top of my head. It's a great premise: low-level gangsters in D-grade Hollywood movie production. It'd be a poor story but for the honest composition of plot and characterization.

Please. I know the Jaguar well. If you pick it for your daily driver, you'll lose your job. You won't be able to get t the shop reliably enough to do your job.

We love sexy. We need solid. Put them both together and I'll be waiting in line for you to sign a copy for me. I might even gush a little about how you've inspired my own third-tiered work.

Now, that great idea you had? Go put plot and characterization in the room with it. Let some glamour rub off and lend that air of respectability to the hussy. She needs it to survive to publication.

I'm off to throw a party to get premise and plot both on the dance floor. Let's see if they like the tango.

I do.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Like Spring!

[ What is with the exclamation points this week? Did you fall on the ice and strike you head? Put down the cough syrup and drop the extremes of punctuation. NyQuil is not for recreational use. Usually. -ed. ]

Feels like spring around here. The sun is bright and warm off the glacier. Pictures of my hilltop at left.

It is melting a bit. Hit 40 today. That was nice.

I thought about aliens again today. I have something else to write but I couldn't stop thinking of aliens. Elizabeth had to go and mention X Files and I got all Spooky Mulder about it.

Fashion models. They could be aliens. They're not like anyone else. Maybe they are able to synthesize nutrition from diet coke and cotton balls. Good disguise.

I was thinking about interstellar travel. Now, without resorting to "fucking magic" (which is a technical term among science fiction writers), how does one get from star to star. Answer: you don't in a universe ruled by Einstein. You send a proxy.

If you were an inquisitive race with sufficient technology, you might send drones. You might send extremely small drones. These you'd have construct the bio-mechanical means of exploration and observation once they arrived where you sent them.

Perhaps the form of those bio-mechanical explorers are more familiar than you'd initially suspect.

It's hardly an original idea. I'm thinking of the imperatives of life on this planet: propagate. Everything expands to the limits of available resources. Is that universal?

 So. That girl in the third row of the poetry class you took in college? You know the one. Maybe she wasn't what she seemed.

I believe in unreliable gods. No bush has ever burst into flame and spoke to me. I have to admit that passing out engraved stone tablets two-thirds of the way up a mountain does seem like a pretty fair bit of social engineering for a sufficiently advanced alien entity. It has the right flavor of the absurd.

If you shoot one of my aliens, what happens? Do they flop like Daryl Hanna in Blade Runner?

I'm thinking. Shortly, I'll be writing.

You should do the same. Unless ... you're an alien in which case you should go out an observe local culture.

The human race: two drink minimum.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


I don't have a picture tonight because no one does, I suspect.

Aliens: are they dead as literary machinations? We have vampires, zombies, werewolves, the cursed, the haunted, wizards and even dinosaurs. What happened to aliens that they became eclipsed?

I understand the films. Of course we have films.

I'm thinking here of mainstream commercial text.

Is it possible that very nicely done aliens are possible? Is it possible that "the unknown" must have such conforming rules that the wide open world of aliens is just too daunting for a reader?

I'm thinking about aliens. I'm not going to write about them; but, I'm thinking about them.

Where did they all go?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Grand Day!

At left, the reward for a productive day. The teapot is from Denby and is not mine.

I really like it. No, I'm not getting another unless my squatty breaks.

I'm way to young too start having more than one functional teapot at a time.

I am having a nice cup, though.

It's cold here. Still the throes of winter. It isn't even close to the freezing point. The birds think it is spring, though. We had nice bright sun.

I had a grand productive session with a friend tonight. We write together on Wednesday evenings at the local (and very nice) library in my little town. I put my head down, focused, and solved both voice and tone issues with my latest draft of a story!

 Last night I worked out a nice plot outline with snippets of prose interspersed. Tonight, I revised the protagonist, gave her a much stronger voice, stitched three conflict arcs through the story and wrote two key scenes for inclusion into the longer full draft re-write.

Yes, I earned my tea. I'm quite pleased.

It isn't spring yet; but, it feels like it inside when we make progress. I love that about longer works,too. Solid progress on a chapter or two of a novel just brightens my heart. Sure, they'll probably be quite different in the final version but the progress feels good.

I've a half-dozen short-stories shaped to where it is time to do the last pass draft carefully and slowly after a solid read-through and notes. Scrub a MacGuffin here, tune a conflict there. It's fun work when you think the plot and voice and twist and reveal all are beginning to work for a story.

So, off to read. I'm almost done with the horrendous state of affairs as Fukushima Diichi. Still, fascinating stuff.

I've been writing. Have you?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


Lamb stew at left courtesy Magnus Manske.

I'm stewing tonight. I've got a story I need to jump on that I've been carrying the last few days.

Why the angst?

I have to get closer to the protagonist. Earlier drafts have come back from a critique group asking to be closer to the protagonist. They like her.

They don't know she's me in some form.

I made the character a youngish girl with the perspective of someone much older. Whose perspective did I have handy? Guess.

So, I'm stewing.

I'm wondering if any of you out there in authorland stew about your stories as well? I wonder if they fill you with angst at the fact you may end up losing a little control of the character if you indeed do "open the vein and bleed" Hemingway style?

So, there is a conglomeration of personalities to include in the protagonist. Instead of just stewing over the  plot contrivances, I'm also stewing over the protagonist's perspective.

Do any of you stew before launching into the story?

I'm off to write. This one has to move forward.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Still, We Watch

At left, an unfortunate MD-10 (Boeing re-worked DC-10) in Memphis.

Pilot error. First officer put the plane down hard and snapped the right main landing gear. Minor injuries. Everyone else was fine.

I'm reading non-fiction at the moment: the Fukushima after-action reports on the reactor failures following the March tsunami three years ago this month. Fascinating.

I can't put the material down.

The linear narrative of the first 72 hours after the waves struck and reactors 1,2,3 and cooling pool of 4 all began to spin out of control. Explosions, sacrifice, herculean efforts, conflicting orders, mis-information, communication failures, supposition, and poor engineering assumptions all make for powerful stories.

The short version is that after the infrastructure was destroyed by the wave, the blackout conditions at the reactors doomed them to meltdown. Even if the road had not been blocked and the full might of TEPCO was available to address the crisis, the loss of the power routing infrastructure effective rendered the reactor controls "broken."

It was a matter of time.

I know what is going to happen. I'm aware of the current status of the plant (the "robot graveyard" is the high radiation area where robots go in ....but they don't come out). Still, I have to read.

So, why this topic? We all want to write like that. We all want to tell such compelling stories that the reader cannot help to plunge through our works. Even if the narrator begins by saying " three of us survived" we want the reader to engage to see how only three remain from the crew of forty-seven about the spaceship.

There is something here in real-life drama that has been missing from my prose. There has been an detachment from the emotional tumult of the narrative. I haven't placed the reader close enough. I've let the reader remain safe.

I'm done with that.

I'm putting the reader in the cockpit as the plane enters a flat spin and plummets. I'm going to make the reader feel the plane race to the ground faster than gravity would pull it so that the reader floats up towards the ceiling of the cockpit clawing for the controls and screaming for the first officer to deploy the starboard speedbrakes.

I'm going to make my reader want to read. I'm going to invent compulsion from within my narrative.

You should too. We've plenty of detached literature around where we watch as the protagonist is wheeled into the room for electro-shock treatment.

Let's put the reader on the gurney. Lets have the reader feel the desperation of fight or flight. Let's have the reader sigh and sob as Dr. Jones appears on scene in time to call of the horrible medical mistake that would lobotomize the reader.

Let's write something compelling that drives the reader on, shall we?

I'm going to go try as soon as I finish these next dozen or so chapters.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


At left, ZR-3, the USS Los Angeles at an 85 degree incident angle after a wind gust lifted the 656 foot craft into cooler air above, increasing lift, and causing the rise.

The craft flew the next day in a training evolution. It suffered almost no damage.

Interestingly, this is a craft built in Germany as part of WWI war reparations. The US was awarded operational airships of the German fleet but the crews sabotaged them. This particular airship was a newly built craft in 1924 as a consequence of the United States being deprived of awarded war treasure.

I write today of the unbalanced: those concepts we include in our stories which seem completely out of line.

A civilian involved in a murder investigation?

A boy adrift in a boat with a tiger?

Dinosaurs? Really?

A competition to the death involving children?

When you writers assemble the machinations of your plot devices, they really don't stand critical inspection. At some time in your writing career, you'll reflect on this non-sequitur and considering changing the premise. Maybe you'll reach this point because of an off-handed conversation with a friend.

"What's it about?"
"It's about a boy who turns a shade of purple."
"Because he's different."
"But why? Why does he turn purple and why doesn't he turn back."

Then, we're at it. Why does the character remain purple? We've never seen any who was purple - well, who was to live for long, anyway. So, maybe the purple boy is a stupid idea. It isn't realistic anyway.

We don't want to write one of those books that might be classed with those about magic flying wombats. No one takes that sort of thing seriously. 

No one wins Man Booker for anything so extraordinary. It just isn't serious literature. Except for The Life of Pi. Surely that was just an anomaly.

The point is: anything you think of won't stand close scrutiny as just an elevator pitch. It won't stand that scrutiny until you write, re-write, hone, and come to love the characters, concept and execution. Then, that elevator speech becomes a confession of investment, love, and confidence.

"It's about a boy who is fundamentally different from everyone else on  the planet, how he learns to use his condition as a statement of his existence, and how his ultimate confidence transforms those who hate him for his difference into allies and admirers."

Purple didn't matter. Different mattered. You'll think that when you watch Hopkins thank the academy from his role in the film adaptation.

Write it. Literature isn't life. Literature is life in a mirror of your choosing.

Put the bones in a box. Let the dog talk. Put the fifteen year-old girl at the murder scene and walk us through her deductive reasoning which solves the crime the police believe to be a freak event.

You don't have to explain "balance" in the concept to anyone. Not. Even. You.

Write it well and the concept's surface absurdity won't matter. Your palette is the human condition. The contrivance of circumstance you use to stage the backdrop for the story is merely that: a contrivance.

Don't examine the raw concept for balance. It's as immaterial as a boy wizard.

Write something that might fall off its axis if you explain it to your father-in-law. I will.