Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

Needed: Big Blue Box

Posted by midiguru on July 10, 2014

I really ought to go back to writing science fiction. In science fiction you get to make stuff up. The trouble with writing about the real world is, you pretty much have to get it right. Or at least, I feel compelled to do so.

I like reading mystery novels, so it would be natural to think about writing one. (I don’t actually like reading science fiction. With a few exceptions in the fantasy genre, SF annoys the shit out of me.) But modern police work is complex, not least for reasons of advanced technology. If I were to try writing a mystery set today, nailing down the details of law enforcement and digital surveillance would be a lot of work, and not very gratifying work. Besides which, crime itself has sort of fallen victim to technology. How can the murderer concoct an alibi when there are video cameras at every stop light and GPS tracking cell phones?

At first blush, then, writing historical mysteries seems like a terrific idea. No fingerprints to worry about, no DNA, no wiretapping. But while the research is a lot more fun than talking to modern cops would be, the need to get the details right is still driving me crazy.

This story, see — it starts in a town in Wisconsin in 1871. Possibly a town called Two Rivers. The truth is, any town in Wisconsin would do. I picked that one by throwing darts (metaphorical darts) at a map.

The difficulty is, I know zilch about Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The bulk of my story is set in Chicago, and finding good research material on Chicago in the post-Civil War period is not difficult. Research on Two Rivers, though? Good luck with that.

I figured, there had to be lumber mills in that area in those days, so let’s use a lumber mill as a dramatic setting. But tonight, while searching the Web in vain for information on the Wisconsin criminal court system in the 1870s, I learned that the lumber mills in Two Rivers went belly up in 1857, owing principally (according to this particular source) to the fact that the nearby forest had been logged out.

The big industry in Two Rivers in the 1870s was a factory that made chairs. It was apparently one of the biggest chair manufacturers in the world.

Chairs — not a gripping backdrop for the opening of a mystery novel.

History is an endless, echoing cavern. Try as I might, I’ll never know enough. What I need is a big blue box — a police call box, one that’s a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside. Short of being there and seeing what there is to see, how can you really think you know anything about history?

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A Taste of History

Posted by midiguru on July 8, 2014

History is not as far away as we tend to think. Once in a while it rises up and gives you a little extra ripple of pleasure.

Right now I’m doing some research for a possible rewrite of a novel I wrote five years ago. The novel is set in Chicago, in 1885. I enjoy doing research, and I’m also somewhat obsessive about wanting to get the details right. If you want to know about the development of the bicycle or the telephone, let me know. Both were new in 1885. The phonograph existed too, but it wasn’t in common use.

The details of daily life are endless. What kind of paper money did people have and use in 1885? That’s a good question. Since my story involves a robbery, I need to know. I couldn’t find any good answers online, and my local public library was mostly a bust, so I availed myself of the inter-library loan system. This is a great system, as long as you’re careful not to lose books. (The fine is $100.)

Today I got an email notification that the books I requested had arrived, so I drove down to the library and picked up a copy of a book called United States Notes, which was sent down at my request from the University of Nevada. The paper is a bit yellowing, the language somewhat archaic, and as it turns out, there’s nothing in the book that’s very helpful. But here’s the fun part:

Flipping to the front, I found that the book was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. This is not a Dover reprint — it’s the original damn book. It has been sitting on a library shelf in Nevada since a year before the events in my story.

My grandfather, Frank Aikin, was 20 years old in 1885. But that’s an abstract fact, and anyway, I never knew him. This book is concrete. It’s sitting right here on my end table. History.

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What’s in a Name?

Posted by midiguru on July 7, 2014

Five years ago I wrote a historical mystery novel. My agent didn’t think it was marketable, and in retrospect he was right. There were problems.

Ever since, I’ve been mulling over ways to fix it. Last month I figured out what needs to be done, so now I’m ready to attempt a rewrite.

The difficulty I’m wrestling with today is what name to give my detective. All the good names are taken. I think of one that might work. I google it. There’s already an actor named that, or a historical figure from the same period, or a novelist.

In the original version, his name was John Gordon. I like the dark vowels. What I don’t like is “Gordon.” It’s customary to call an adult male character by his last name — and “Gordon” is ambiguous. It could be a first name. And not a very strong or dignified first name — a bit wimpy, in fact. Gordon this, Gordon that. Not good.

It occurred to me that his ancestors might have come from Wales. Morgan is a good Welsh name, but there’s already a John Morgan. There’s a John Corwin. There’s a John North. There’s a John Moore. There’s a John Flint.


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Bringing It All Back Home

Posted by midiguru on March 21, 2014

Last week in this space I was musing about how the personal life of the detective has invaded the mystery genre. The genre has hybridized with the soap opera. But it’s not just about milk and cookies (though sometimes it is; that’s even worse). Tragedy strikes those around the detective with numbing regularity. I’m reminded of the cliche observation about the old Star Trek series: If an unknown crew member gets into the transporter with Kirk and Spock to beam down to an unknown planet, you know that crew member is going to die.

I’ve read a few more of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels. In one, Gunther picks up the threads of an old, never-solved case, and his memories of the old case flow side by side with memories of his wife dying of cancer during the same six-month period. Then, in another book, a woman Gunther is living with is killed by an insane sniper in the closing pages. Clearly, Joe Gunther has bad luck with women.

What’s worse, this is gratuitous manipulation of the reader’s feelings. The sniper could have missed the woman … but no. Mayor even indulges in two or three pages of pointless, shallow, manipulative suspense by not telling us quite yet which woman died, the current girlfriend or the former girlfriend.

And now I open a novel called Vengeance, by Stuart Kaminsky, an author I’ve never read before, and on the second page this is what I find: “…my wife Read the rest of this entry »

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More About Mysteries

Posted by midiguru on March 18, 2014

In my ongoing search for new mystery authors, I picked up The Vanished Man, by Jeffery Deaver. It’s a New York police procedural — a bit more gritty than I prefer, but not too gruesome. The chief sleuth, Lincoln Rhyme, is sort of like Nero Wolfe on steroids, or reverse steroids. He never leaves the house because he’s a quadriplegic. That’s weird, but every modern mystery series needs a gimmick, right? A quadriplegic is far preferable to cats.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but as I ponder the plot, it occurs to me that the main bad guy is using a convoluted method that only makes sense because he knows he’s a character in a murder mystery. If his goal were to kill the guy he has been hired to kill, he wouldn’t have engaged in all of the convoluted nonsense (several other murders) that preceded the hit. But if he had just gone ahead and done the job he was hired to do, there would have been no novel.

His motivation doesn’t even rise to the level of the killer’s scheme in Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders. The murderer in that story intended Read the rest of this entry »

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…and the Mysterians

Posted by midiguru on March 15, 2014

In search of new mystery authors, I have now read three novels by Laura Lippman. I’m giving up on her. Too slow-paced, and when you scrutinize the plots they tend to have holes. I’ll put up with holes in a mystery plot, up to a point — but only if the writing is taut.

Last night I plowed through Lippman’s To the Power of Three. Spoilers follow.

The story concerns a shooting at a high school, in the girls’ restroom. Two girls end up dead, and a third is shot in the foot. The third girl tells the cops what happened — one of the dead girls burst in, drew the gun, fired, then there was a struggle over the gun, in which the shooter got shot. But the evidence doesn’t quite add up. 400 pages later, the third girl gives it up and tells the cops what really happened.

The obvious problem with that thumbnail sketch is that the police don’t really solve the case. They bumble around, and then the third girl has an attack of conscience and tells the truth. Also, there’s not a thimbleful of suspense.

What’s worse, in the end it turns out there wasn’t a murder at all. The first girl shot the second girl by accident, and then shot herself. The third girl then deliberately shot herself in the foot, so as to confuse the police. Her motives for doing so, however, are murky at best. What it amounts to is, if she had told the truth from the outset, there wouldn’t have been a novel.

In the end, it’s revealed that there was a fourth girl in the restroom, who scampered away before the cops arrived. This girl’s presence was key to the whole encounter — but in order to mystify the reader, Lippman has to hide the identity of the fourth girl until the very end. She’s not among the six or eight viewpoint characters who have whole chapters to themselves. When she shows up in the final flashback (popping out of the restroom stall), we’ve never met her, so she isn’t a real character, just a name. When the whole plot pivots on a character who isn’t there, you have a problem.

Along the way, Lippman spends far too much time dallying Read the rest of this entry »

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Hunting for a Mystery

Posted by midiguru on March 4, 2014

Yesterday I prowled the Mystery section of the local public library, in search of a new author. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries over the years, both classic pulp paperbacks and fat books by johnny-come-latelies. We all have our tasted in mysteries. I don’t care for heavy suspense or oodles of gore, and I find detectives’ sexual exploits tedious — but I do like a good story.

I picked up four books, choosing authors who had a number on the shelf (if you find a good author, you don’t want to just read one book, although I’ve read a couple of great mysteries by authors who only wrote one or two). When I got home, I started with The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday, by Alexander McCall Smith. After 35 pages, there’s not a trace of a hint of a crime, nor even anything odd and inexplicable. The viewpoint character is a woman in Edinburgh, Scotland, who owns a quarterly academic journal on ethics. Her boyfriend is a bassoonist. She has a maid who believes in spirit visitations. Yawn. Next.

Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know was heavily padded with 30-year-old flashbacks, which I skimmed, but there was a genuine mystery. The characterization was good, and the ending was satisfying. In retrospect the mystery angle seems quite forced; it only existed because a key character was stubbornly lying about her identity, and at the end I still didn’t understand why she was lying.

Having enjoyed that one, I tried Lippman’s Another Thing to Fall. Again, the writing is engaging — but for more than a hundred pages (in a 300-page book) there’s no mystery in sight. We catch glimpses of a stalker, or someone who is behaving rather like a stalker, but we don’t know who he is or what he’s up to. (Alfred Hitchcock recommended against this technique, by the way. The suspense, he proposed, is greater when the audience does know what’s going on.) Then, abruptly, there’s a brutal murder. And as in What the Dead Know, the ending is rather unsatisfying if you stop to think about it. Lippman is a good writer, but not a great mystery writer.

The next morning I had a go at The Buzzard Table, by Margaret Maron. After a brief suspenseful opening, which is evidently a teaser, we’re plunged into the world — well, really, into the extended family — of Deborah Knott. Unless I mis-read (and I’m not going to skim back through to check), Knott is a district court judge. Evidently in a rural area. In the course of the first 25 pages we’re inundated with fragments of family back-story. Among the people mentioned, most of them very briefly, are Read the rest of this entry »

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Working Class Hero

Posted by midiguru on January 10, 2014

Most of us have our low-class, guilty pleasures. My friend Bob is a fan of pro wrestling (or used to be), for no reason that I could ever fathom. Me, I have a large collection of paperbacks by Erle Stanley Gardner.

I’ve written about Gardner a couple of times before in this blog. He was a terrible writer, but very consistent and hugely successful. Now that I’ve seen all of the Law & Order reruns that I can stomach, I’ve started re-reading Gardner’s Perry Mason and Donald Lam mysteries.

Having nothing better to do this afternoon, I whipped up a database of titles, and discovered that I’m still missing quite a few. They’re all out of print, of course, although a few are still available as Kindle downloads. But sellers of used books list their wares on Amazon, so with a little luck, in a week or so I’ll have more than a dozen “new” ones, some of which I expect I’ve never read.

There were better writers of mysteries in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Rex Stout was better. Agatha Christie was better. In the earlier period, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were better. Later on, Ross MacDonald was better, as was John D. MacDonald. But none of them ever sold as many books as Gardner. He was prolific and reliable — the Doritos of mystery paperbacks.

I’m not quite sure why I find his cheesy stories enjoyable, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. Some people like Vivaldi; some like Jeopardy; some like Doritos.

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Solipsist Sodality

Posted by midiguru on July 9, 2013

Writing is a solitary activity. When not writing, some writers are outgoing and sociable, but a lot of us aren’t. Making connections with your peers is a valuable thing no matter what field you’re in, but those who engage in solitary occupations face some special challenges.

Today I’ve been looking into writers’ organizations. I’ve got a couple of leads that may pan out, but on the whole it’s not a pretty picture.

The California Writers Club has a chapter headquartered not too many miles from me. The chapter has monthly activities. But when I look at the bio pages of about 20 members, I would have to say they’re not my peers. Not to disparage any of these charming people or their passion for writing, but I’ve been a pro for upwards of 30 years. It’s not the case that any two people who put the word “writer” in their bio are automatically peers, or that they can engage in mutually beneficial concourse.

I’ve tried a couple of online writers’ groups, but it’s pretty much the same picture — a horde of amateurs. Not people I can discuss nuts and bolts with. Plus, an online forum is a public place. What I’m seeking is more in the nature of a private, personal dialog with two or three people who have similar experiences and concerns.

Conventions are a big deal in science fiction and fantasy. Lots of writers fly off to conventions, both to promote their books to fans and to schmooze with one another. At the risk of indulging in a cliche, I would rather attend a convention than have bamboo shoots driven under my fingernails … but, well, how many bamboo shoots are we talking about? I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.

It’s not so much that I want to talk about what I’m writing, though that’s fun (and I’d be happy to hear about what you’re writing, if you’re one of my peers). I’m more interested in Read the rest of this entry »

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Get Your YA-YAs Out

Posted by midiguru on July 7, 2013

I start reading a lot of novels and don’t finish them. I can think of at least two ways to interpret this bad habit. One would be, fiction doesn’t really interest me. Another, opposite interpretation would be that my unconscious is getting disgusted and saying, “That’s not how I would do it.”

For reasons that I may talk about at some point, I’ve started reading Young Adult (YA) genre fantasy novels, and forcing myself to finish them. I’ve now made it through two — Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza: City of Masks and Cinda Chima Williams’s The Demon King. Both of these are first volumes in multi-volume series, and at some point I may be moved to go on with either series. In the meantime, I have half a dozen more first volumes to explore.

Both books are decently written. What they have in common is that the plots are not structured in quite the way that a plot would be structured in a novel for the adult market. In both books, the hero and heroine (one of each, in each book) sort of drift along, carried forward by events in the adult world.

This wouldn’t work in a novel for adults. The idea in the latter, or so I’ve been taught, is that the hero or heroine Read the rest of this entry »

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