Well, there could have been a monster in there…

As much as I hate to say it, for the majority of authors, their writing is their avocation rather than their vocation and I am no exception to that rule.  I write because I enjoy it and because someday I would like to do it for a living.  In the meantime, I have to work for a living like all the rest of you.

It is not that I don’t think writing is work, it is and sometimes it is very hard work, its just that I think of writing as a pleasurable experience, something I can do without anyone telling me what to do and this is not always the case in the “real world” business environment.  So, I get up each day and (hi ho, hi ho) it is off to work I go.

For the past two and half years, the place I trudge to is biotech whose main business is making breast implants.  I’d write a sitcom about the place but no one would believe it.  Anyway, for several months of this time, I worked in one large building that was virtually empty.  I know for sure that I was the only person working on the second floor.  Most of this time, I worked in a secured file room and though I am not one who frightens easily, if at all, there were times when I heard noises that I did not think I should be hearing. I can’t say for sure if these noises were just in my mind or if they were produced by workers outside of the building but one day, when I started to go into the men’s room, I could have sworn I heard a noise come from inside it.

That was bad enough but when I opened the door, the self lighting unit did not activate right away so I was left standing in dim light for a few seconds.  When the lighting did come up, staring back at me were three empty stalls and two urinals–which all seemed to be laughing at my unease.

It was during those few seconds between darkness and light that a story came to me.  I call it There is a Monster in the Bathroom and it is available in my collection of stories in Angel and the Bear.

When I wrote the story, I wrote it just as it happened, right down to the layout of the floor I was on, the only exception being that there was no monster in there making those noises.  As I usually do, I let some of my friends read the story before I published it and several of those friends are people I work with.  Everyone of them guessed correctly that I set the story in the other building outside of the bathrooms located there, so I guess I got the details right.

As a writer, I think using people and places you know well as models is important because since you know them so well, you can write in detail about them.  This is an instance where the location of the event was of primary importance because all of the characters in the story were pure fiction, including the muscular man who was working alone on the second floor…

Angel and the Bear: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KZ3QF8I

Character Development

I tell everyone that I am not a novelist and to this day that is  true.  It may change some day but for now I am novel-less, so to speak.

The closest I have come to writing a novel is when I wrote On Borrowed Time, my book of mysteries that revolve around Detective Anderson and his private investigator agency.  In the book, many of the character have recurring roles.  Two of these characters are B.B., Anderson’s stunningly beautiful “Office Manager, full-charge bookkeeper, and all around do everything person” and Nate Kubrick, an up and coming young private investigator.  Around mid-way in the series, I wanted to develop these characters more because they were pretty interesting and because I had plans for them later in the series.  So, I decided to write a story called Into the Dark Desolate Night where they were the main characters.  In fact, Anderson and his partner Coombs are not in the story, though they play heavily in the background.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say that the story involves B.B. more or less blackmailing Kubrick into stealing Coombs’ new car, a candy apple red Cadillac El Dorado convertible.  Along the way we discover that B.B. is short for Beth-Ann Banks, her boyfriend’s name is Ray Ramundo aka Ray Ray, and that Kubrick has a juvenile criminal past that is unknown to Anderson and Coombs.

Why B.B. wants Kubrick–and only Kubrick–to steal the car is the crux of the story.  In the end, though, Kubrick finds a major league Miami crime boss deeply in his debt.  This is a situation that he does not relish, but he cannot get away from it.

For the record, the title of this story was the original title of the book and it fit well with the cover of the book, but after talking to a “book coach”, I figured it was too long so I renamed the book to another story.  I am not sure this was the best move but I have researched the question of long book titles and it does appear the shorter titles sell better.

So far I am not sure how accurate this assessment is.

On Borrowed Time: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005H7LNDO

These “sayings” drive me CRAZY…

Saying things like this is a sure way to get me in your face and if you use these terms in a story, without making the character a total caricature, it will get you a terrible review, which is what you would deserve for taking short cuts with the English language. You are a writer, so write, say it in a way that doesn’t only appeal to Valley Girls and Stoners.  Write for the world and avoid these phrases at ALL cost:

  1. “I am going to REACH OUT to that person” – If you are not within arms distance of a person, you cannot “reach out” to them.  You can call them, email them, make an appointment to see them somewhere, or even snail mail them  If you ever get within arms length of them, then you can truly “reach out” to them; just make sure they want your advances.
  2. “I can’t wrap my head around that” – Perhaps if you wrapped your head around a brain you would not have this problem.
  3. “Back in the day…” – What day?  Last Tuesday?  A month ago?  1899?  Get specific, tell me WHAT day you are back in.  I have posed these questions to idiots who have used this phrase when talking to me and all I got in response was stuttering inanities.  Which is why I figured they used this phrase in the first place.
  4. “Don’t go there” – Ummmm, where is it you don’t want me to go?  We were having a discussion and not traveling anywhere.  Do you want me to go to a specific place?  Should I leave the room?  The building?  The planet?
  5. “It’s not rocket science” – That’s good since we were NOT talking about ROCKETS or SCIENCE or anything remotely related to these professions.  We were talking about what to have for dinner tonight.
  6. “Push the envelope” – Well gee, I can push an envelope.  Heck, I can push thousands of them all at once.  Does that make me special?   Do you have any idea what it is you mean to say?
  7. “Think outside the box” – Sorry, does it look like I have a box on my head?  Maybe you should talk to my barber.  What box is it that you speak of?  Do you have any idea?  If not get your head out of your as…
  8. “Chill out” – Are you referring to my Martini?  I mean it is already cold.  I drink them in toast the the English language that is being slowly killed off by catch phrases.
  9. “Don’t throw (someone) under the bus” – This punishment should be reserved for people dumb enough to use this irritating phrase.
  10. “It is what it is” – But what is it?  Can you tell me or are you just using this idiotic throwaway phrase to tell me you are too ignorant to express yourself in words?

There are more but if I keep writing this, I will blow a gasket….

Fact into fiction

When I first moved to California, I lived in Santa Barbara–a town I had never heard of before relocating to it.  It is a nice place, great weather, terrific scenery, and Hollywood stars walking on the streets like all of us nobodies, but after 5 years I decided it was not my kind of town so I moved south to the beautiful little town of Ventura and that is where I have been ever since.  I love it so much here, that I will never leave it really.  I have it set up so when I die I will be cremated and my ashes will be spread just off the coast so they can slowly wash ashore (thank you Neptune Society).

One thing that I really did like about Santa Barbara was their library.  It is a beautiful facility with a large collection of books.  Well one day I was there just browsing for nothing in particular when a title caught my eye.  It was A True History of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Conspiracy of 1865 written by a man name Louis J. Weichmann.  I had never heard of this author and I always thought I knew everything about Lincoln’s assassination so I would have normally passed on this book but the intriguing title enticed be to pick it up and at least read the dust cover.  After I did that, I checked the book out, took it home, and read it is just a few days.  It is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it to anyone, history buff or not.

I, for one, didn’t know all the intricacies of the plot against Lincoln which included the kidnapping of the President in order to hold him for ransom.  When that plot went astray, sadly, John Wilkes Booth took matters into his own hands.  I also did not know that there was a mystery woman who often visited Booth in the home of Mary E. Surratt, the mother of conspirator John H. Surratt.  This mystery woman has never been identified.  There is a lot in the book that I did not know but that is because the revelations in it were divulged by Weichmann–a man who lived in the same house with the conspirators but was not party to it.  Louis J. Weichmann was a clerk in the War Department at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Anyway, the mystery of the woman who Weichmann spoke haunted me for years even after I moved so one day I applied the magic “What if…” question to this lady and came up with a wild plot for a story.  I call it Saving Abraham and it is available in Angel and the Bear.

The story is a science fiction tale that revolves around a plan to stop the conspiracy and assassination; the idea is dreamed up by a scientist living in Atlanta in the year 2145.  The scientist known only as Johnson, and his partner Locke, have invented a machine called the Timatron which can not only let you travel in time, it can also transport you to specific places as well.  For his own reasons, Johnson wants to save Abraham Lincoln from Booth’s bullet but he and Locke disagree on what this would do to time. They have a spirited debate on that subject with Johnson finally hooking in Locke’s greed to get him to come around to his way of thinking and help him on his mission.  Well, things go terribly awry–in a most personal way–but you will have to read the story and it’s double climax ending to see how badly Johnson miscalculated the power of time.

Along the way to this conclusion, though, you will read a historically accurate tale that I wrote with the aide of Weichmann’s book.  The boarding house of Mary E. Surratt, where Johnson takes up residence is where it really was located in 1865, the livery he used, the events of the time, the visitors to the house, etc. are all real people and places described by a man who lived in that time period and with these people.  The only part of the story that is truly fictional is the actions of Johnson and Locke.

However, to make these dueling scientist seem more real, I based them on two other men famous for their dueling diatribes.  They were based on the movie critics, Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, both of whom now have sadly passed on.  I admired them greatly and was such an avid fan, I could easily see them fitting into the roles I created for them.  At one point, Locke even gives Johnson a “thumbs up”.

This story not only shows how I used real people of the past, but real people of my time (Siskel & Ebert were both still with us when I wrote this).

Here are two links to the real people involved:

Louis J. Weichmann http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_J._Weichmann

Siskel & Ebert http://siskelandebert.org/

Animal Crackers

All through my posts I have told you how I often use real people as models for characters in my stories. Now I have a confession to make: This practice is not limited to humans.

The title story of my most recent book, Angel and the Bear, revolves around a real dog named Angel.  She is all of 6 pounds soaking wet and though she is often afraid of many things like an ironing board and a  smoke alarm, she is one of the most intelligent little creatures I have ever met.  Angel is not my dog, though I wish she was, but her and her brother Hercules lived with me for about 2 years while their owners found a place to live that accepted dogs.  Though Hercules is not related to Angel, he is her adopted big brother and he will use all of his 12 pounds to protect her at any costs.  They love each other dearly.

One thing that Angel is very brave about is barking at noises she hears in my backyard.  I have an alley running behind my house which is often a place people walk through with or without dogs in tow.  When Angel hears this kind of traffic, she and Hercules will go out and bark as loud as they can until I tell them to knock it off.  I hate telling Angel this because her yapping is so darn cute.  One day after I shooed them inside, I told them both, “I wonder what you’d do if there was a bear out there?”

This question plus my love of Yosemite National Park, where I have actually seen bears roaming around, led me to the title story of Angel and the Bear which is about an intelligent black, 6 pound, toy Shih Tzu dog who uses her active little mind and speed to help save her daddy from a bear attack.

There is a sad parts in this involving Hercules (who is still alive and thriving) but over all this story is meant to uplift readers with some humor and some action along the way.

I even read the story to Angel and got a lick of approval.  A writer can get no higher praise.


Research: You have to love it

Unless you are an authority on a certain subject, you may have to do a lot of research to write a story or article.  Articles, of course, are usually nothing but the facts (though Opinion is allowable) but fiction can be written without them.  The problem with that, though, is that you can write a story full of nothing but fantasy and lose a reader because they have no real reference points.  I find that hard facts make a fiction story more real to a reader no matter what genre it is written in.  Take Jurassic Park as an example; what occurred in the story is highly unlikely to ever really happen but due to all the scientific facts used in the writing of it, the story certainly makes it seem like it could happen at any minute and make you feel that it is happening somewhere in our world.

In an earlier blog post, I told you about the creation of my story Woman In Black, which tell the adventures of a time-tripping better half of the Men In Black society.  In this story, Debra, our heroine, is sent back in time to deal with a pesky alien known to the masses as Jack the Ripper.  Her job is to eliminate this alien because his presence caused too many disruptions in the future—or so she is lead to believe.  The problem with this is that you cannot drop a beautiful blonde assassin, who is an expert fighter, a dead shot, and who can slice an alien up in a minute using her very non-regulation Stiletto, into the middle of the Whitechapel District of London in 1888 and not have her stick out like a strobe light in a darkened room.

So in Debra’s Assignment Package, there was suitable clothing and money for the period but there was something else that I put in there as well.  I thought about the time and place and realized that Debra’s pattern of speech would make her stand out just as much as anything else.  Jack the Ripper hunted his victims in a very poor part of London where criminals of all types roamed.  His victims were mostly poor prostitutes that sold their wares just so they could get a roof for the night.  As such, most of the denizens of the Whitechapel district spoke Cockney English.

So I inserted a copy of  “Hanson’s Cockney-to-English Dictionary” into her Assignment Package and gave her a few days to learn her new language.  Fortunately, Debra is as smart as she is sexy so by the time it was time to transport her to the Ripper’s hunting grounds, she was proficient in the verse, so much so that the following conversation took place as she roamed the streets hoping to trap Jack into an attempt on her life before he could get to poor Polly Nichols, who was his first known victim:

“Very nice, neck down, ya know.  The boat face is a problem, but then I don’t ‘ave to look a’ it I ‘spose.”

Whirling at the comment, the tawdry looking woman retorted, “‘oo you talkin’ ’bout, guvna?  Take a butchers at this.  These’ll knock yer mincers out.”

She then pulled down her neckline showing a wealth of cleavage.

“Ain’t neve’ said y’ ain’t got a bit of a body on ya; nice arse an’ all.   But a plain one y’are, I say.  Maybe a bit o’ color would dice you up.”

“Ain’t neve’ touched the stuff, an’ I ain’t gonna start fer the likes of you.”

“Oh I’d duck, ya right enough, you witch.  But I got ta get home to the trouble ‘n strife.  Maybe it’ll be I’d pass this way again.”

“Right, you get to yer troubles, she’s got yer by the barnacle bills, she ‘as.  Go on, get it on ‘ome, I got my bees knees to attend to.”

The man gave her an angry glance, she tensed, ready to act, but he only cursed at her, pulled the knot tighter around his leather apron, and faded into the fog.  Probably heading home for a warm meal and a dry bed; something Debra wished she could do at that moment.

The reference to the man’s leather apron is nod to the only real suspect the police had in this case.  Not only was a mysterious stranger called Leather Apron by terrified prostitutes in the area, a leather apron was the usual garb of butchers in that day and age.

While I was researching Cockney I discovered that it was more of a code language criminals used as a way to speak openly around Coppers who supposedly did not understand it.

I think the addition of these realities into a wide ranging science fiction story gave it some credence; who knows, maybe Jack the Ripper really was an alien.

If you want to learn Cockney and translate the conversation above, here is a link to a great site that will help you:  http://www.freelang.net/dictionary/docs/html_cockney_english.php

To read up on Leather Apron, go here:  http://www.jack-the-ripper-walk.com/leather-apron.htm

The Art of Non-Fiction

In my last blog post, I may have seemed to indicate that writing non-fiction required no imagination, but that was not my intent.  As someone who has written numerous non-fiction articles and one book in this genre, I know that it does take some imagination, just not as much as it does when you write a fiction story from scratch.

One day, many years ago, I received a call from a man who liked a letter to the editor (a topic I will cover in the next blog) that I wrote and was published in the local paper.  It was a letter condemning the war in Iraq as being senseless and unnecessary.  We talked at length on the subject during which time I found out that the caller was 99 years old and had been working in Democratic politics for over 70 years.  This made me realize that I was talking to a man who most likely had voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Upon inquiry, he told me had done so–three times.  I was floored and I told him that I was interested in writing an article about a man who had been involved in party politics for such a long time.  I wanted to write a “living history” piece about it.  The man was very humble with his response but agreed to meet with me and discuss the idea.  So we made a date for me to go over to his house; when I got there and met William LeCrone Hammaker, my story idea went into the shredder.

The reason for this was due to the fact that I found out that Bill had a greater interest in another subject than that of politics; he was far more interested in the promotion of peace in our world.  So much so, that was the longest active member in the history of a group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) http://forusa.org/  Among his contemporaries in this group was the late Martin Luther King.  After our interview, I went home, read over all the notes I had taken, then let my imagination kick in.  I didn’t change the facts one iota, but I did come up with a catchy title for Bill that stayed with him until his death three years later at the age of 102.  I dubbed him “The Professor of Peace”.  He loved the title and the recognition it brought to his work.  You can read about this remarkable man here: http://www.vcstar.com/opinion/at-100-years-old-william-l-hammaker-still-for  (this is a re-print of my earlier article, it was re-printed on his 100th birthday).

I was lucky that I was doing this job as a freelancer.  Had I been assigned to do this story by a magazine or newspaper, I would have had to stick to the story line but instead, I was able to use my imagination to write the story with a different angle to it and bring some satisfaction to Bill and his family.

When writing non-fiction, the question “What if…” is not so much a factor as the questions of Who? What? When? Where? and How?  By asking them, you can see that the curiosity that drives the mind of a fiction author, also drives the mind of a non-fiction author since most of the time all of these questions need to be answered in a work of non-fiction.  Then they have to be presented in a way that will hold an editor’s and an audience’s interest.

I remember a time when the Why? question came to my mind.  I remember it clearly; I was driving in my car going around a corner in front of the now defunct Montgomery Ward store in my town when a song on the radio ended and the DJ announced that the band who performed the song was The Goo Goo Dolls.  I thought, “Why would anyone want a band name like that?”  So I set out looking for the answer.  Around 150 band names later, I found what I was looking for and I had a large database of band name origins so I decided to add a few hundred more and came up with this book: You’re the Who?: A guide to classic band name origins + rock connections!  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0073YIU30

The only “problem” with writing non-fiction is that you have to stick to the facts whereas with fiction, if a fact does not exist, you can just make it up.  It takes a great deal self-control to keep from embellishing a non-fiction story to make it more interesting so it will produce a sale, but with the right amount of skill and some imagination, you’ll find that embellishment is not needed.

Never throw anything away–ever! (Part 3)

I remember it as if it were yesterday and not 1989.  I was working at a small software company and we were in the middle of a boring meeting that I was trying not to sleep through when someone said something that woke me up.  They asked if the leap year, next year, would affect our program (it was a tax program).  This resulted in the following conversation:

ME: Leap years only occur every four years so the next one is in 1992, not next year.

QUESTIONER: You seem to know a lot about leap years.

ME: Well that is the way I designed them.

EVERYONE: Hahahahahahahahahahaha

After becoming fully awake, I made a joke of my faux pas which made everyone laugh harder and the meeting went on from there.  Though I tried, I could not go back to sleep because some questions kept nagging at me:

  1. What if I had designed them that way?
  2. What if I really were God and had the power to do that?
  3. Most of all what if I were God and I decided I didn’t want to be God anymore?
  4. What if I was tired of taking all the credit and blame for everything?
  5. What if I was fed up with all the pleadings I hear every second of the day?
  6. What if I just wanted to be a man and live out my life then die like all mortals do?

After all these questions, all I could do was write a story about it called Return To Eden.  I got all of five pages written when I hit the wall.  I know this because I just pulled it out of the drawer and checked.

Now, flash forward 13 years! 

It is now 2002 and I am working at a large insurance company.  At the moment I am having one of my frequent lunches with my friend Debra.  As usual, she is dressed in skin tight black clothing and her blonde hair is frizzed out as if she had just gotten out of bed.  She looked beautiful as usual.  We are laughing about something as we always did when I say to her, “Debra, I am going to write a story about you.”  Which makes her laugh even more.

That night I went home and started working on Woman In Black, the title story in a collection of short stories that are not currently available for purchase (but will be again soon).  I decide that Debra will be one of the better halves of the Men In Black except that my lady will also be a time-traveler who goes back in time to deal with pesky aliens that caused the future to be disrupted in some way.  Her assignment this time is to go back and kill that alien known as Jack the Ripper.

The first 7,000 words flew out of my fingertips and I was really having fun writing this because my real friend Debra was such a character; that brought my fictional character more to life.  Then I hit a wall.  This was a problem because I had kept the real Debra up to date on the story and suddenly I had nothing to report.  Writer’s block was something she didn’t believe in and she thought maybe I just didn’t like her anymore.  Well, I convinced her otherwise of that and so she began to sympathize with my problem while promising not to keep asking me for updates since that only made matters worse.

Flash forward another year.  Debra has forgotten about the story and I had also nearly done the same.

Woman In Black is in the drawer communing with Return To Eden and I am no closer to finishing it than I was when I put it in there.  Then one morning, as I lay half awake just letting thoughts drift in and out of my mind, the answer came to me: Just combine the two stories with Return to Eden being the ending of it.  I will be making this collection available again soon so you see the results two dead stories becoming one live story packed with action, adventure, and danger for Debra.  The real Debra loved it, by the way.

This is why I tell writers to never throw anything away–ever.  What may seem like a bad idea now may seem like a great one later on after you’ve acquired more knowledge.  I don’t think there is such as thing as a bad story idea, I just think that some are better than others.

This is the last post I will write on this subject.  In my next blog I will reveal the one question that every person needs to ask if he or she is going to be a writer.

Never throw anything away–ever! (Part 2)

In a previous blog, I told the story of how I came to write Tat, the lead story in my book, On Borrowed Time http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005H7LNDO.  The truth be told, if I were one to discard story ideas that I could not finish, then this story–and the rest of the book–would have never been created.

As I said in that post, this was my first attempt at writing mysteries but I figured I had read enough of them and viewed enough of them in movies and on television, that I could crank one out with little effort and, indeed, my story got off to a roaring start!  The first few thousand words just flew out of my fingertips.  People who read it to that point were intrigued by the mystery and could not wait until I finished it.  That wait, however, turned out to be more than a year.

The problem was that I had a great beginning, a dynamite ending, and a highly unlikely killer, but I could not figure out how Detective Anderson would figure out what was going on.  I was extremely frustrated. I read and watched more mysteries, I thought of many ways to put Anderson on the track of the killer but none of them made sense.  So, I decided “mystery writer” was never going to be on my writing resume.

Then, a year or so later, the way to connect the first part of the story with the second came to me in a flash.  I was doing a job for Bank of America (freelance administrative work is my day job), which is a very uptight place to work, when I walked into their coffee room and noticed a tall red-headed young lady dressed in all green.  That was not so unusual but what caught my eye was a little bit of green protruding out from under her long sleeve blouse just above the joint of her hand.  She had a green tat of some kind.  So, I casually walked up to her and said, “I guess you have to hide your tats in a place like this, right?”.  Then I pointed to her wrist.  She smiled and started complaining about how she had to dress so “straight” just to hide her “ink”.  As she went on, I knew how to complete the story.  Read Tat and you will know too how green ink caught a killer.

Keeping this story on my computer and a having a copy in print kept the story fresh in my mind even though it was frustrating, but if I had tossed the story, I would have had to start all over again once I had the plot twists all worked out and most likely I would have not done that.

Oddly, I had no trouble at all writing the rest of the stories in my book.  I guess I just needed to get over that first hurdle to win the race against writer’s block.

As I said, there was over a year between the start of my story and the completion of the book but that makes it a short-timer compared to my story Woman In Black which I will write about in the next section of this blog.

Why I write like I do…

Unlike some authors,  I do not write in just one genre.  I let the story idea dictate which category it fits into so that way I do not force a hard edge sci-fi story like Life In The Fast Lane into a detective story such as A Notary Public Is Missing!.   

The late author, Michael Chricton, wrote the same way.  For example, would the theme of Jurassic Park fit into the storyline of Exposure?  That would be doubtful.  More than likely he, like me, had ideas about stories and wrote them in the genre that served them best.

Unlike this great author, though, I only write short stories.  I have tried to write novels but no idea will stick in my brain long enough to complete one.  I have to get stories out of my fractured mind before I forget what I am writing about.

One other thing about my writing is that I frequently create my stories and characters out of real-life situations and real people that I know.  I only change their names to protect me from the innocent.

For instance, the latest victim of The Prime Cut Killer in my story Tat is based on a real-life bartender who is every bit as beautiful as described in the story. When I showed her the final work, her only objection to it was that she was dead.  When I told her that she would be the lead supporting actress, and possible co-star, if the story were made into a movie, she dropped her objection.  Hollywood is waiting.

Not only that, the story Tat is based on a real-life incident that occurred in the very same bar where she works.

In this blog, I will be going behind the scenes of my works to reveal what lead me to write a story. I have given talks on this matter and people are often surprised at how little an incident needs to be to get me going.  Sometimes it is just a word or a sporadic action that lights the fire and, believe it or not, I never know in advance what it will be.

I will also be talking about the art of writing.  Not so much how to do it but how and where to find inspiration to do it along with examples from my life.  I will offer advice to new authors as well.