Dreams

One of the challenges of being a writer is keeping your work fresh and new and interesting; it becomes easy -for want of a better phrase–to just phone it in and repeat yourself. This is particularly true for crime writers/writers of series; how do you continue writing about the same base foundation of characters without recycling plots or falling into formulaic structure?

One of the primary reasons I stopped writing my Chanse MacLeod series was precisely because of this; as I was writing the last book (thus far) in the series, Murder in the Arts District, I found myself thinking things like okay now it’s chapter five, I need some action here or I need to have a twist in the story before I get to chapter ten…and so on. I didn’t even think about it as I was writing the story–but when I was doing the revisions and edits, I remembered having those thoughts (I generally don’t have them while writing Scotty, but that’s a story for another time…and of course, as a reader pointed out, how many car accidents has Scotty been in, anyway?), and when I turned the book in, I went back and speed-read the entire series over again, and after about the fourth book, the writing pattern became rather obvious to me; and if it was apparent to me, I would imagine it was also fairly obvious to the readers. So, I decided to either end or take a lengthy break from the series unless another great idea for him jumped out at me; I have had several ideas since then, but the longer I go without writing about Chanse the less likely it becomes that I will write about him again. (Caveat: I have written a Chanse short story and have a novella in progress with him as the main character; I guess it is more accurate to say that I am not done with the character completely, yet I cannot see myself writing another novel with him as the point of view character–and will have to go another step forward with that as well to say at least not one set in New Orleans, as I am toying with an idea for a Chanse case in Louisiana but not New Orleans. Yes, that’s me–definitely not definite.)

I have nothing but the utmost admiration for series writers who manage to keep their series going for decades and dozens of books without writing the same book and structure over and over and over again; Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, and Sara Parestky are just a few of them I can name, and their achievements have made them legends in the field. But other legends who wrote series took a different approach to their careers. Agatha Christie wrote several series–Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence–but also wrote a lot of stand-alones over the course of the years. (Seriously, when it comes to crime fiction, Christie did everything first) Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben started out writing series and moved on to stand-alones; as have numerous other authors.

And then there’s Laura Lippman.

Gerry Andersen‘s new apartment is a topsy-turvy affair–living area on the second floor, bedrooms below. The brochure–it is the kind of apartment that had its own brochure when it went on the market in 2018–boasted of 360-degree views, but that was pure hype. PH 2502 is the middle unit between two other duplex penthouses, one owned by a sheikh, the other by an Olympic swimmer. The three two-story apartments share a common area, a most uncommon common area to be sure, a hallway with a distressed concrete floor, available only to those who have the key that allows one to press PH on the elevator. But not even the sheik and the swimmer have 360-degree views. Nothing means anything anymore, Gerry has decided. No one uses words correctly and if you call them on it, they claim that words are fungible, that it’s oppressive and prissy not to let words mean whatever the speaker wishes them to mean.

Take the name of this building, the Vue at Locust Point. What is a vue? And isn’t the view what one sees from the building, not the building itself? The Vue is the view for people on the other side of the harbor, where, Gerry is told, there is a $12 million apartment on top of the residences connected to the Four Seasons Hotel. A $12 million apartment in Baltimore.

Nothing makes sense anymore.

The apartment cost $1.75 million, which Is about what Gerry cleared when he sold his place in New York City, a two-bedroom he bought in the fall of 2001. How real estate agents had shaken their sleek blond heads over his old-fashioned kitchen, his bidet-less bathrooms, as if his decision not to update them was indicative of a great moral failing. Yet his apartment sold for almost $3 million last fall and, as he understood the current was laws, he needed to put the capital gains, less $250,000, in a new residence. Money goes a long way in Baltimore, and it was a struggle to find a place that could eat up all that capital without being nightmarishly large. So here he is at the Vue, where money seems to be equated with cold, hard things–marble in the kitchen, distressed concrete floors, enormous light fixtures.

I’ve been a fan of Lippman’s since I read her debut, Baltimore Blues, mumbledy-mumble years ago. I absolutely loved it; I loved the character of Tess Monaghan, former reporter turned private eye, and the cast of regular characters who she interacted with on a regular basis throughout her amazing series run. Tess remains one of my all -time favorite series characters; the books were always compelling, interesting, and very hard to put down. Lippman is also that writer who can write short stories that are just as powerful as her novels, and over the last few years she has taken up writing personal essays that are also rather exceptional (her collection, My Life as a Villainess, was a bestseller during the pandemic). Her writing is always whip-smart and intelligent; following her on social media one can see how widely and perceptively she reads. About seven years into her career she took the risk to move from her series to stand-alones; a calculated risk, to be sure–but she then spent the next few years alternating between the series and stand-alones (alas, it’s been a while since the last Tess book, Hush Hush, although she has occasionally made guest appearances in her stand-alones when a character needs assistance from a private eye). Her books have explored themes of motherhood, what it means to be a good girl, and have also paid homage to time-honored sub-genres (Sunburn is one of the best noir novels of this century) and classic novels by either flipping the script (for example. Wilde Lake owes an enormous debt to To Kill a Mockingbird, imagining, really, where the characters and story would be decades later). She has also played with form, tense, and character–Lady in the Lake is almost Faulknerian in its use of point-of-view; I lost track of how many different point of view characters were in this book, and every last one of them rang completely true–and she has become, over the years, a true artist.

In my often-benighted first writing class in college (whose scars I still carry to this day),my incredibly pompous professor once berated one of the students for writing a story about a writer. “It’s the laziest form of writing, and character,” he proclaimed from his lectern at the front of the classroom, “and it tells you more about who the writer is more than the character ever will. If you ever start reading anything where the main character is a writer, you should run from it as fast as you can.”

I guess he wasn’t a fan of Philip Roth. (To be completely fair, neither am I. I’ve tried, but have never really got the magic there, but have always accepted that as my failing as a discerning reader rather than his.)

Stephen King often writes about writers; ‘Salem’s Lot has Ben Mears; The Shining has Jack Torrance (and the most deadly and horrifying case of writer’s block in literary history), It has Bill Denbrough, and on and on–but of course the most famous, and best, example would be Paul Sheldon in Misery. While I always have enjoyed King’s writing, and have gleaned things from his writer characters, Sheldon and Misery, for me, has always been the best. Sheldon was perhaps one of the most realistic and compelling writer characters I’ve ever read about–the man with aspirations to becoming a critically acclaimed literary writer, who yet makes a living by writing a bestselling romance series about a character named Misery Chastain whom he has come to hate and despise even as she makes him enough money to live well and focus on simply being a writer (the dream of all of us, really). He has killed her off finally in his most recent book, ending the series at last and finally taking the leap to write what he thinks will be the game changer for his career–until he has a horrific car accident and is rescued by Misery’s biggest fan.

The parallels between Misery and Dream Girl are there, of course, and easy to spot; Lippman’s character Gerry Andersen is an enormously successful literary writer (a la Updike or Roth) who is also kind of a dick in how he has treated the many women who have come through his life, and of course, his ego justifies all of his bad behavior until he, too, has an accident in his home that winds up with him trapped in a hospital bed in his secluded apartment (despite it being in Baltimore; the appeal of the place is its privacy and seclusion). But while Sheldon is being victimized by his sociopathic fan/caregiver in Misery, what is happening to Gerry is very different; he has his original fall that causes his injury because he receives a weird letter from someone claiming to be the real person whom he based the title character in his biggest success, Dream Girl, on, and she wants financial compensation. In his shock and surprise–people have always wondered, and have always asked him, if she was a real person and he has always said no–he falls down his stairs and busts up his leg. Once he is housebound, he has a night nurse AND his personal assistant there–rarely being ever alone in the apartment–but he starts getting strange phone calls from the woman claiming to be the real ‘dream girl’–but there’s never any record of the calls on his called ID, and the original letter disappeared as well. Is his medication playing tricks on his mind, or is there something more sinister at work in his cold, sterile, remote apartment?

As with so many other things, that writing professor was wrong about writing about writers. I’ve stayed away from it myself for most of my career–as I said, the scars are still very much there–but I have started dabbling into it a bit (my Amazon single, “Quiet Desperation,” is one attempt, and I may go even further; I’ve created a character who’s appeared as a minor character in some of my Scotty books who is a writer). The mystery here is quite compelling, and more than enough to keep me turning the pages to see what happens next. But I was also enjoying the insights into another writer’s life, albeit he was a fictional character; I find it incredibly easy to identify with characters who are writers because despite the fact that all writers have different methods and different careers and different mental processes, there are always those little nuggets of oh yes I know that feeling or I thought I was the only person who experienced this or ah yes this is exactly what it’s like.

Dream Girl is an excellent edition to the Lippman canon.

Everything’s Gone Green

My memory has truly become amazingly awful and limited as I grow older. Yesterday was one of those days that reminded me just how bad it’s become–and how rarely I follow through on plans I make.

I started writing about Kansas when I was a teenager living in Kansas, and I wrote a long, messy manuscript by hand that was essentially a kind of Peyton Place tip-off, with tons of characters and plots and subplots that meandered about and never really had one cohesive central story. Over the years since that handwritten, almost a thousand page first draft was finished, I came to the realization that as a single novel itself I would need to cut out a minimum of fifty percent of the characters and even more of the subplots while tightening it into one cohesive story. The name of the town changed multiple times, as did the names of the some of the characters, while others remained the same from beginning to end. I had no idea at the time of how to write a novel, or how to structure one…but since it already existed, I began mining it for other novels and short stories, pilfering names and subplots and so forth (the murder story in Murder in the Garden District, and the Sheehan family in the book, were directly lifted from this old manuscript; I changed the family name from Craddock to Sheehan). My young adult novel, Sara, also had a lot of story lifted from this same old manuscript–even characters’ names–so when I started building this iteration of what I’ve taken to calling “the Kansas book” over the years, I knew it was possible I was repeating names from the old original, and at some point I would have to check Sara at some point to get the character names from it, to not repeat them. The Kansas book was also intended to be set in the same world as Sara–Sara being primarily set in the county and the small grouping of three small towns consolidated into one high school; with this book set in the county seat, the small city/large town I called Kahola. Kahola never really sat well with me for the town name; it’s perfectly fine for the name of the county as well as the lake (there actually is a Lake Kahola; it’s where we went when I lived there and “went to the lake”), so I decided to change it to Liberty Center (which I got from Philip Roth’s When She Was Good, so it’s also an homage) and Sara geography be damned. So, yesterday while the Saints played terribly and ended their season (and possibly Drew Brees’ career), I was scanning though the ebook of Sara and pulling out character names–even minor ones– as well as place names and so forth.

I am very pleased to report that there is only one character name that traveled from the original manuscript to Sara and finally into this new iteration of the Kansas book, and obviously that needs to be changed. I am not willing to change the name of the county seat back to Kahola; it never really seemed to fit, and Liberty Center works much better on every level, but I can change the name of the character in #shedeservedit to avoid confusion…not that there would be much, since Sara is my lowest selling book for some reason I certainly don’t get, but it would unsettle me, so it cannot be. As I was pulling names out of the ebook, and place names and places of interest, I also began remembering other things.

I had originally intended for all of my young adult novels to be connected in some way, kind of how R. L. Stine had done his Fear Street series, where all of the books take place in the same town and high school, and a minor character in one would become the hero of another. I was reminded of this because Laura Pryce is mentioned by name in Sara; she was the protagonist of Sorceress, and she was from the same rural part of Kahola County and went to the same consolidated high school. Sorceress tells the story of how Laura goes to live with her aunt in a huge house outside the California mountain town of Woodbridge; Woodbridge is also the setting for Sleeping Angel, and characters overlapped from Sorceress to Sleeping Angel. The Chicago suburb in Sara where Glenn is from is the same suburb that the main character in Lake Thirteen was from; it is the same suburb where Jake’s father, stepmother, and half-siblings live in Bury Me in Shadows; and of course, this latter is set in Corinth County, Alabama–which is where my main character in Dark Tide was also from. As I was picking out the character and place names from Sara, I was also reminded of other books I’d wanted to write, and I had introduced some of these characters in this book intending to revisit them again at another time in another book or story–books and stories I have since forgotten about completely, and yet there are the characters, crying out to me from my Kindle app for me to write about them.

Having triggered my brain into the creative mode yesterday by doing this chore during the Saints game (I started during the men’s finals at the US Figure Skating Championships; congratulations to our world team o Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, and Jason Brown) I also began remembering other things I was working on–like “The Rosary of Broken Promises” and “To Sacrifice a Pawn,” two stories I started for a submissions call I didn’t manage to make; or some of my pandemic story ideas (inspired by the pandemic or during it) like “The Flagellants”, “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap”, and “The Pestilence Maiden”; amongst so many, many others. This is why I despair of ever writing everything I want to write during the limited time I have on this earth; I could spend the rest of my life trying to write every story and novel idea I already have and would never be able to finish them all.–and I have new ideas, all of the time; it’s almost ridiculous.

I already know I am most likely going to revisit Corinth County in Alabama again–it’s basically where my already-in-progress novellas “Fireflies” and “A Holler Full of Kudzu” are set, amongst many other ideas for short stories, novellas, and novels. I will undoubtedly return to Liberty Center at some point as well; I have ideas for other Kansas books and stories, too; I’ve revisited Kahola County, Kansas in my short stories numerous times already as well. I’ve also got my own parish in Louisiana–Redemption Parish, which I wrote about in Murder in the Arts District, The Orion Mask, and some other short stories. I’ve also already invented a fictional town on the north shore–similar to Hammond–that showed up in Baton Rouge Bingo and will undoubtedly turn up again in my work, although perhaps not under my own name.

I spent some more time with Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and am thoroughly enjoying the ride. King’s authorial voice is so strong (and reminiscent of the late great Elizabeth Peters) that I cannot wait to read more of the Mary Russell series–it’s so different from her Kate Martinelli series, which I also love–and intend to spend some more time with it this morning with my coffee as well; I see a new tradition for non-working days developing; reading with my coffee in the mornings, which is simply wonderful. I recently acquired Alyssa Cole’s thriller When No One Is Watching, which I am also looking forward to, and I have added both Stephen King’s The Stand and Faulkner’s Sanctuary to the reread pile…and I’d also like to get back to the Short Story Project at some point….and of course there are all those ebooks piled up in my Kindle as well.

We also spent last evening after the Saints’ loss getting caught up on The Stand, which I am enjoying, although it’s made some choices I find questionable. I’m okay with everything having to do with the plague and the characters making their way to either Boulder or Las Vegas being done entirely in flashback, but the focus on the character of Harold Lauder–whom, while important to the story, was at best a supporting character in the novel and the original mini-series–is an interesting choice. They’ve certainly spent more time with him than they have with any of the people who were the novel’s protagonists–Stu, Larry, Glen, Frannie–so the focus of the mini-series seems a bit off to me….but props to them for casting the delightful Alexander Skarsgard as Flagg; his beauty and charisma–so evident as Eric on True Blood–playing perfectly into the role of the dark leader of the other side. Over all, the series is well done and well cast (Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abagail doesn’t quite work for me; in the book she was old and frail and Whoopi is many things but frail is not one of them; I’d have gone with Cicely Tyson or any of the other gifted Black actresses who are older now) and I am a bit more forgiving than most when it comes to adaptations, I think–especially since the key part of the word is adapt. (I saw some more Hardy Boys enthusiasts bitching about the Hulu series somewhere again yesterday; honestly–I really have to center a book and a mystery around a kids’ series’ overly enthusiastic fans) We still have the rest of the first season of Bridgerton to watch, and season two of Servant has dropped on Apple Plus–do NOT sleep on this creepy-as-fuck show; you will not regret it–and I am also anticipating the release of Apple Plus’ adaptation of Foundation, starring Jared Harris, and we’ve also got a second season of The Terror somewhere to watch, and the second season of Mr. Mercedes on Peacock as well…so we seem to be set for things to watch for a good while.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Today is going to be mostly spent reading Laurie King this morning, and then the rest of the day spent with my manuscript as I try to work out the kinks and figure out what else needs to go into it. Have a happy holiday Monday, and do try to remember Dr. King’s message of equality, unity, and freedom for all.

Shake It Off

Believe it or not, we have finally reached the last Monday of 2020.

As always, I have a lot of work to do, but I slept exceptionally well for a change and the bed was comfortable and felt so lovely I stayed in bed for another hour after I woke up initially; sue me. I have a gazillion things to do today, including going to the bank and making groceries as well as going to the gym at some point; I also have to work on the book today. The work went very well yesterday and I was enormously pleased with what I managed to get done yesterday. I have a mere five chapters left to revise and a final chapter yet to be written; all of which needs to be done by Friday, and I do feel like it can be done–especially since I don’t even need to leave the house on either Tuesday or Thursday. I am not certain if the gym is going to be open on Friday–I guess I can ask when I go there today; I do find it strange that they don’t post their holiday hours anywhere around the front desk or on the front door, but it’s also not “my” gym, so I guess they can run it however they please. I also have a gazillion emails to answer, which doesn’t sound in the least bit fun or interesting, but it has to be done.

I did, as I mentioned earlier, manage to get a lot done yesterday–and not just on the book. More cleaning and organizing was required–still have some more to do today at some point–as well as making new folders, both physical and virtual, and of course, this meant more filing. While it was busywork, it needed to be done, and I actually did the floors in the kitchen–well, the rugs anyway–which always makes the kitchen look ever-so-much better. I am going to do the rugs in the living room today at some point, and then over the rest of the week do the actual floors themselves–and yes, I am going to do the windows as well.

I intended to start reading the new Alison Gaylin–I am lucky to have a very advance copy of The Colleciive, available from your local independents and on-line this coming summer of 2021–but I got caught up in Czity of Nets, which is, of course, Chlorine research, and after reading through it (I went ahead and bought the ebook; I do believe I must have donated the hardcover after I finished reading it, as Chlorine had yet to occur to me at the time I read it) I thought about it some more and was like, dude, you’re going to be writing the Kansas book next–maybe you should do some more background on it…because truth be told, most of it is being written based on almost forty year old memories of Kansas, and that really won’t do, will it? So, I went into a Kansas internet wormhole for quite some time and actually got pretty far afield from what I was originally looking up–you know how one thing inevitably leads to another on-line–and soon I was looking up rivers and lakes and the small rural towns scattered around the nucleus of Emporia, which was the county seat of where I lived as a teenager–towns with names like Admire and Allen, Bushong and Cottonwood Falls, Council Grove and Neosho Rapids, Olpe and Hamilton and Reading and Hartford. I’ll probably also take another read of In Cold Blood while I work on this revision as well; few writers have captured Kansas quite the way Capote did in that book. I also started looking at history as well–the history of Bleeding Kansas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both of which were preludes to the Civil War. And as much as I am basing my fictional city of “Liberty Center” (shout out to Philip Roth and his When She Was Good) on Emporia, I also have to remember–just as how Bury Me in Shadows is a fictionalized version of the part of Alabama I come from–that I am fictionalizing the town; so I can make changes as needed and the fictionalization doesn’t have to be exact.

It’s so wild that the Kansas book is going to finally be finished and published–and all the different iterations it’s gone through over the course of my life. I actually started writing this book originally in high school–which is when I came up with the character names and places–and it was actually the very first manuscript I completed, by hand, in 1983 after writing it for about four years, continuing the stories I started writing about these characters in high school. This book will bear very little resemblance to any of those earlier iterations; over the years I’ve used the character names in other works, primarily my only other Kansas book, Sara–which I really need to reread to make sure I don’t re-use names I’ve already used. I think the ones I’ve used since high school were used in Sara, which I thought would be my one book about Kansas, so I threw all the character names and place names into it. I had wanted to connect this book in a way to Sara as well; since they are about the same part of Kansas, and I try to connect all of my work in some way, but I’ve never ever liked the name I came up with for the county seat, and now I’ve settled on Liberty Center….but I also tell myself that the two differently named counties can actually be next door neighbors, Liberty County can be right next to Kahola County, and thus Kahola High can be Liberty Center’s arch rival.

Looking into those small towns, some of them considered to be ghost towns now, also piqued my interest. I have several ideas about writing about Kansas–the Bloody Benders, of course, and I have a great title for a prairie noir called Kansas Lonesome I really want to write–and as I said, this book has been through many iterations. The great irony of finally publishing this–and finishing it, let’s be honest–still doesn’t mean I am writing the Kansas book I’ve always wanted to write; this book does focus on the murder of a high school football player, as the Kansas book I’ve been wanting to write since around 2002 did; but this is a vastly different story from what I originally wanted to write–and I still may write that book, centered around Kahola rather than Liberty Center; I’m not sure–and there’s also the cult college thing–the Way International and their Way College of Emporia, which isn’t there anymore; they closed the campus and sold the property to Emporia State University–and the Way has declined over the decades since they were large and wealthy enough to buy a bankrupt Presbyterian college in a small city in Kansas–but that’s a whole other story. There’s also the megachurch story I want to write about Kansas….which is also sort of tied into my original story of the quarterback’s murder. Who knew Kansas could be so inspirational?

But you see how I wind up wasting days….

And on that note, tis time to return to the spice mines. Those emails will not answer themselves, after all, and I’ve got a lot to get done today before the sun sets. Have a happy final Monday of 2020, Constant Reader!

Footsteps

I wound up deciding to take yesterday off from the world–computer, social media, you name it–because for whatever reason my desktop was acting wonky yesterday morning and eventually I grew so irritated I decided to run my errands. When I got home from that further irritation–nothing like people not only not wearing masks in public but not maintaining social distance as well–and I just wanted to scream at everyone: “do you want us to be on lockdown through September? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

But then I remember–this is New Orleans and nobody follows rules here; or at least, they ignore them when they’re inconvenient. It’s sadly part of the charm here, and now that it’s something important…I see how dangerous that can be. But it was nevertheless more fuel for my irritation, and by the time I got home my computer was still wonky so I decided to say fuck it and take the day away from the computer and social media. It was kind of nice–I fell into a Youtube hole of history videos (I am really glad to be studying history again; as I’ve said before, I kind of wish I’d majored in History in college–but would have never been able to narrow down a field of majority interest). I spent most of the afternoon moving and rearranging books and filing and cleaning while this Youtube videos played on continually; I learned some more about the Byzantine empire, the plague, and the Hapsburgs–who are so fascinating to me. Let other wars, you, happy Austria, marry.  Someday I’d still like to do a book about the powerful women of the sixteenth century; and many of those important women were Hapsburgs.

One of the things I’ve found interesting is how writers are engaging with their lockdown situation and their social media. Lists are popping up everywhere; and as I daydreamed yesterday while doing my chores and so forth, I started thinking about my own lists–rather than ten albums or books or movies that shaped me, I wanted to come up with more specifics: My Ten Favorite Agatha Christie novels, my favorite romantic suspense novels, my favorite crime novels by women, and so on. The reboot of Perry Mason, coming this summer from HBO (it looks worth a look, frankly; although I imagine there are any number of Mason purists who will naturally hate it; there always are), might be worth taking a look at some Perry Mason novels–I feel the books don’t get nearly as much attention as the TV series based on them; and the books don’t get talked about nearly enough, either. Talk about puzzles–Erle Stanley Gardner was a master of crime plotting, and red herrings, and confusing the reader; I don’t think I ever correctly solved a Perry Mason case until Perry revealed their identity, dramatically, in the court room (which is, of course, where that trope originated); and I do have a couple of them lying around on the shelves in the laundry room–The Case of the Calendar Girl and The Case of the Crying Swallow–so perhaps, as part of the Reread Project, I should revisit them both.

I also spent some time thinking about The Plot Against America–which is directly related to our finishing Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood last night on Netflix. Both are alternate histories, but one of the things about Hollywood is that it was an alternate history that was actually appealing; usually, alternate histories inevitably paint an uglier reality than the one that actually happened (although it’s hard to imagine a more dystopian alternate history for the present day than the actuality); Hollywood didn’t do that. Instead, it showed how horribly racist, homophobic, and misogynist the country was, and how Hollywood reflected that…and then gave us a lovely alternate history where a Hollywood studio saw its duty to change those things and open up society in the late 1940’s. It’s quite marvelous, actually; I kept waiting for reality to break over them, but it never did. It’s very well done, and it’s shot in the style of Hollywood films of the time, right up to the obligatory happy Hollywood ending. And of course, the boys were beautiful. The Plot Against America, on the other hand, was completely horrifying because it was so easy to imagine that we as a country could have gone that way. I don’t know how the novel ends–I never finished it; I have said before that I am not a fan of Roth and I never got past the first chapter of this one–but I thought the way the show ended was perfect, even if it was terrifying at the same time; it was more of an indictment of the United States (as I said to Paul, “this show is terrifying because it could so easily have gone this way here”) and humanity than anything else.  Hollywood also could be seen as an indictment of the way things used to be–its message seemed to be this could have all changed so much earlier if anyone in Hollywood had the courage to make these changes–and that is just as damning as The Plot Against America.

Today I am going to write and edit and revise and get things done. I think I am always teetering on the edge on Saturdays anyway; still leftover tired and so forth from the week, and then having to deal with the general public on top of that is always draining and rough on my moods. Computer issues on top only heightens the aggravation, and being already on the razor’s edge doesn’t make it any easier. I kind of have a mess here in the kitchen that needs to be handled–I deliberately avoided my desk yesterday, so there’s sorting and filing that needs to be done around here as well–but this morning, after I finish this, I am going to abjure to my easy chair and read for a bit. I want to get further into Mysterious Skin, and then I am most likely going to move on to another Mary Stewart reread, either Thunder on the Right (which I don’t remember at all) or Madam Will You Talk?, which I have some memory of; and there are also short stories I’d like to sink my teeth into. I haven’t touched the most recent Lawrence Block anthology, which looks terrific and has some amazing contributors. I want to get my story “Night Follows Night” revised today and possibly submitted somewhere; I’d also love to get some revisions done on “This Thing of Darkness” and “Never Kiss a Stranger.”

And of course, the Secret Project. I really need to get back to work on the Secret Project.

So, yes, I have my work cut out for me today. I also should spend some time drafting the replies to the massive amounts of emails I’ve accumulated over the last day or so. And then I feel like I can face Monday with a clear conscience.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader. I plan to.

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The Former Enfant Terrible

I don’t know that I would consider myself a former enfant terrible; I’m not entirely sure I am not currently one, given the actual definition of the term. In French it means unruly child, and I don’t know that I was one of those or not, but the current Webster definition (that of a person whose unconventional or controversial behavior or ideas shock, embarrass, or annoy others)–that I can actually see. I’m certainly annoying; I can be embarrassing; and I am pretty sure I’ve said or done things other people might consider, or see, as shocking. I mean, just being gay shocks some people.

If I could choose which of those three verbs I would pick, if I could only be one: most definitely, without question, annoying.

I am sure there are many who would agree that I have already succeeded on that score. (shrugs) It happens.

Well, we’ve made it to Wednesday somehow, and that’s an accomplishment of which we can be terribly proud. Making it through any day these days is an accomplishment, really; I know that everyone else is as sick of the phrase the new normal as I am (it certainly begs the question of what is normal); and I’m not certain this is a ‘new normal’ anyway; the real new normal is what comes after all of this, and that’s the part I’m kind of worried about, to be honest. What will the new world, arising from the ashes of the COVID-19 pandemic like the phoenix of lore, look like? We had already established that there is a certain percentage of the population who aren’t civic-minded, don’t care about anyone outside of their immediate circle of selfishness, and believe that if they’re unhappy no one else should be; appallingly awful as they are, at least they’re setting example for everyone else of who not to be–although others–a much smaller amount, to be sure–see their wretched behavior and jump on the bandwagon of selfishness and hatred. We’ve always had those people in this country; they were Tories during the revolution; pro-slavery; America First while the Nazis ravaged Europe and began slaughtering undesirables; and so forth.

We started watching David Simon’s new HBO mini-series, The Plot Against America, based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth. I’m not going to argue the merits of Philip Roth as a writer; he won every conceivable writing award during his lengthy career, and whenever I’ve dabbled into his canon, I’ve not really come away terribly impressed. At the direction of my friend Laura, I read When She Was Good, and I had read another one of his earlier novels already, Letting Go; I wasn’t really impressed terribly by either–I’ve never really understood, or gotten, novels about the sexual messes straight people get themselves into because of their warped sense of everything about themselves, let alone the American puritan ethic about sex and sexuality; I tried reading The Plot Against America because it was a topic that interested me: what if Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh had been elected president in 1940, rather than Roosevelt winning his unprecedented third term? I gave up about a chapter into it–as I often say about literary novels (looking at you, Jonathan Franzen), why would I read a novel about characters the author clearly doesn’t like? I”m not interested in people debating me about the genius of Philip Roth; I don’t get it, and that’s fine. I’ll give him another try–probably after I finish watching this show, I’ll probably give The Plot Against America another try, It came out around the same time I read Sinclair Lewis’ disturbing, if flawed, It Can’t Happen Here, which was chilling in its depiction of how easily Fascism could rise, and become perfectly acceptable, in this country (I sometimes wonder what Lewis, a brilliant social critic and writer, would think of these modern times in which we find ourselves), which is something I’ve chewed over a few times myself, and have considered writing about at some point. I saw the possibilities of where we are right now back in the 1980’s, during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as people died and no one cared because it was “the right people” who were doing the dying. That was what first inspired my alternate American history novel idea–one that still is bubbling in the back of my mind, the rise of the American dystopia, and the concurrent horrors that would come in its wake.

I do think that the times in which we currently live will be referred to by future historians as “the Oligarchy” or “the Oligarch Age,” as opposed to the truly falsely named “Gilded Age,” when workers were as disposable as animals and the capitalistic monsters rose to wealth and power in ways unforeseeable to the original founders.

I’m still reading Mysterious Skin (or rather, rereading it) and I’m very interested to find that I don’t remember as much of it as I had originally thought. It brings back to me a lot of memories of Kansas, and while I was never a child there, I can imagine what it would have been like. There’s a dark sensibility to this story, and the writing, that I’m really enjoying; I’ve always believed Scott Heim could write amazing noir stories, and kind of wish he would. I just haven’t been able to focus as clearly on reading as I would like lately; primarily because I’ve been writing again, and apparently, I can either focus on writing or focus on reading, but not both at the same time. It’s a very vivid depiction of being an outsider as a child–for both of its main male characters–and that is certainly something I can relate to, even now; although I never truly felt like an outsider until we moved to suburbia. After that, I spent the next twenty-three years feeling like I didn’t belong, in either my world or any world, for that matter. Heim really gets that across, and far better than I did in Sara.

The weather outside is frightful. Last night as we watched another episode of The Plot Against America, a massive thunderstorm rolled in, and it continued to rain throughout the night–and even this morning, this storm system (or another one, who knows? Not a meteorologist) is still raging outside my windows. Right now the rain has stopped, but when I first woke up it was coming down pretty intensely. It appears that is our forecast for the rest of the day as well, so it’s good, gloomy day for working from home. Ah, there was another blast of lightning, and thunder immediately behind. Yikes! Glad I am not going out there into that mess, quite frankly.

And of all things–because of course I don’t have enough works in progress–I started writing some new short stories last night–“In the Shadow of a Tomb,” “Procession of the Penitent,” “Dimestore Cowboy,” “The Plague Doctor” and “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap”–mostly openings and an idea of the story, and who knows whether anything will ever come out of any of them, really, but it’s nice to be productive again, even if it’s scattered and all over the place. But I am going to try to spend this weekend sending stories out for submission again; it’s a really nice feeling to have stories out in the world, even if they don’t get taken.

And on that note, back to work. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader!

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Venus

My sleep patterns are so messed up. I woke up this morning (several times) before eight (the first time was at three) before finally getting up around seven thirty. This is the first time I’ve gotten up early on my own without an alarm in weeks, maybe even months. I’ve been sleeping later and later every morning, but lately, if I don’t set an alarm I seem to not wake up until sometime between nine-thirty and ten; which is a lot of sleep. I’m not complaining, mind you–the sleep is restful and good when it comes–but at the same time I hate that I always mentally default to oh, I’ve wasted my entire morning in bed.

Sleep is never a waste; nor is my morning wasted because I didn’t get up until almost ten.

And yet this morning, my Sunday this week, I somehow managed to wake up early. Let’s see how much I can get done this morning, shall we? I’d like to get back to the gym today, try to reestablish that workout pattern I slipped so easily out of a few months back. Those months of regular workouts for naught now; I have to start over again and try to get back into the swing of regular workouts before trying to start pushing myself and trying to burn off the fat and gain some additional muscle. I’ve been very dissatisfied now (for years) with how my body shape has changed; and if I don’t start doing something about it soon it might become more permanent; and above all else, it’s not healthy.

And healthy has to be the primary motivating factor now, not appearance.

I did finish reading Philip Roth’s When She Was Good this past weekend, Constant Reader.

I didn’t love it. It’s one of his early novels, like Letting Go, which I also didn’t care for, and am now wondering if I should actually try to read one of his later novels. I am giving him more chances than I usually give an author, but I also do think it’s kind of unfair to judge an author solely based on early works. When She Was Good is about small-town morality and small-town mentality; set in some ambiguous Midwestern state in the small town of Liberty Center (just across the river from the bigger city of Winnisaw), it focuses on the tragedy of young Lucy Nelson, whose life and world views are shaped by being the daughter of an alcoholic failure. The end result is she sets impossibly high standards of success vs. failure, of morality vs. immorality, and she makes people miserable. Her big failure is getting pregnant while in college (which she takes no responsibility for her part in) and proceeds to make her husband miserable. The whole book is about responsibility; and it’s not a terribly exciting read. Lucy is awful but so is her husband and his family; if anything, the book serves as a commentary on the phoniness of small town values, like Peyton Place; the primary difference between the two being Roth’s novel is smaller in scope while Metalious’ has a plot and characters you care about and you want to know what happens to them.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Mad About You

Summer has returned, and while expected always, it’s return always, somehow, catches me off-guard; I forget what it’s like to always have damp socks, to have that slick feeling of sticky dried sweat on your skin, the way the sweat affects the corners of your eyes and your eyelids, the way the heavy wet heat drains all of your energy from you. Even after twenty-two years here, every summer there’s an adjustment period of getting used to it. The heat index is in the high nineties now every day, regardless, and life comes about making it from one air conditioned place to another as quickly as possible.

Thursday night Paul stayed at the office late working on a grant that was due yesterday, so I was at home with Scooter and at loose ends. I wasn’t able to get much writing done that day–one of those days–and as I sat in my easy chair with my journal and a cat asleep in my lap, I decided to watch the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential on Prime. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tab Hunter film (other than Polyester and Lust in the Dust), but I knew he’d been around since the 1950’s. I knew he was a teen idol/heart throb. I also knew he’d been involved with Tony Perkins, and that he’d come out in a memoir also titled Tab Hunter Confidential. As the documentary started, I realized with a start, I’ve met Tab Hunter–several times, in fact and so as the documentary played I kept thinking, wow, I’m one or two degrees of separation from everyone in this, including everyone he co-starred with.

And, I knew how handsome he was because I’d met him in person.

I was completely blown away by how beautiful he was when  he was young.

I mean, wow.

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I mean, don’t get me wrong–he’s still an incredibly handsome man, which should have given me some idea of just how breathtakingly beautiful he was when he was young.

It’s also very weird to be watching a documentary and realize, oh, yeah, I’ve met Tab Hunter a couple of times.

My life is so weird.

It’s an interesting documentary, about being a closeted star in the Hollywood system and having the studio “fixers” cleaning up messes and keeping you out of the papers and so forth. There’s a terrific gay noir novel just waiting to be written about 1950’s gay Hollywood, and I am almost there coming up with the story in my mind.

I already have the two books I am writing though, and once they are finished, I know what the next two are going to be…so Hollywood gay noir will have to be after that, I guess.

I have to work today; I am doing testing all day at Gay Pride, but have Monday off. So, I am going to hopefully finish reading the Roth today between clients, and maybe, maybe, finally get to start reading Alex Segura’s Blackout.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Live to Tell

Well, yesterday was a complete wash as far writing is concerned. I did write about 200 words on the Scotty book, but it was one of those things where once I started trying I could tell I wasn’t going to get very far with it. I was not feeling it, as some might say, and there’s simply no point to forcing it on those days unless I particularly want to feel incredibly frustrated.

And I didn’t want to feel that way.  So, I didn’t try to force it.  Sometimes I can force it and, as Stephen King so aptly put it in Misery, the page will open and I will fall into it. Other days, not so much. Yesterday was definitely one of those days.

Not being able to, apparently, write yesterday led me to trying to be productive in some manner, so I started going through old stories and partial drafts of work-in-progress to see if there was anything that could provide a base for this short story I want to write for a market on my bucket-list (I don’t know why I’m being coy; it’s Cemetery Dance). I always forget that I hand-wrote and then manually typed about twenty or thirty short stories (or fragments of short stories) in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s; I paid someone to type them up as Word documents about ten years ago in case any of them might be usable, reworkable, etc. (They are all terrible…there’s nothing quite so humbling as going back and reading things you wrote years before you knew how to really write.) I printed out about five or six that had potential–based on my memory of them–and I intend to read them over this weekend and see if, indeed, there is anything worth salvaging in them.

I do need to say that one of these longer stories became my novel Sorceress, and some of the others were salvaged and turned into something else, so this is not without precedent….hell, I wrote three chapters of a horror novel back then called The Enchantress that eventually became the foundation of my novel Dark Tide. (In fact, I had turned one of those chapters into a short story, which is one of those I printed out last night.) I don’t think the short story adaptation works, but just remembering the story again made me remember that failed attempt at a novel, and also it was actually a pretty good idea, maybe now you should revisit it?

And this is how, Constant Reader, my creative ADD gets out of control. Last night I was watching documentaries–one was for curiosity; but it triggered a reminder of a book I wanted to write, so the entire time I was sitting there watching it I was also scribbling notes for the book idea. When that documentary finished, I started watching another one, and again, this documentary–I only got about twenty minutes into it–solved an issue with another book idea I had, and made that particular book idea–one I hope to write later this year–even better than it was originally.

This is, of course, kind of exciting…if you don’t take into consideration the fact that I am already writing two novels and have the next one planned as well.

Heavy heaving sigh.

I also want to finish reading this damned Roth novel. There are so many other things I want to read, but I am stubbornly determined to finish reading this damned book.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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When The Going Gets Tough (The Tough Get Going)

Monday morning, and a long week ahead of me. Gay Pride is Saturday, so I will be testing in the Carevan all day–but at least I can take Monday off, which is lovely.

Yesterday I didn’t get as much done as I would have liked–I had a technology problem that wasted a couple of hours and then I had to calm down from being so enraged, which was hardly the right frame of mind in which to work–but I did wind up correcting the fourth chapter of the WIP (which I can now polish) and I also started the copy edit of Bourbon Street Blues, which I did by reading it out loud (it’s amazing what a difference this can make!). I also brainstormed a bit on some short stories–I was asked to write another one yesterday, which was absolutely lovely, and the pay is spectacular–and read a little bit of the Philip Roth, which I still haven’t finished. I really should either sit down and force myself to read it until it’s done or put it aside.

See, that’s my problem with Roth, and with most literary writers (I said most, don’t come for me); there’s never a sense of urgency with their works. Yes, the writing is beautiful, and yes, the characters are painstakingly rendered…but I don’t care enough about them to feel a sense of urgency to find out what happens to them. Given how much grief women crime writers get about writing unsympathetic characters, I find it astounding that no one ever asks literary writers about their unpleasant characters and if they aren’t afraid of losing their readers and so forth, the way women crime writers are.

Case in point: Lucy, the main character of When She Was Good, is a good small-town girl with all the morals and principles and so forth…and it’s perfectly plain that, as a woman of her time, she’s destined to be perfectly miserable with her life and disappointed and bitter about the choices she’s had to make.  As I said, she’s very real, her problems are very real, and the tight constraint of the society she lives in upon women is very real, and it’s all incredibly beautifully written.

But…I am not driven to pick it up every day to find out what happens.

I’m sure that’s a failure of my intellect.

Ah, well.

Here’s the opening of my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor,” which will appear in The Beat of Black Wings, probably next year, edited by Josh Pachter:

The elevator doors opened. Cautiously, her heart thumping in her ears, she walked out of the elevator into the hotel lobby and paused, taking a quick look around. Over at the front desk the young woman in uniform was checking in a couple. They didn’t look familiar. But it had been so long since she’d seen any of them…would she recognize anyone?

She didn’t notice she’d been holding her breath.

She walked across the lobby to the hotel bar entrance. A reader board just outside said WELCOME BACK BAYVIEW HIGH CLASS OF 1992!

The black background was faded, the white plastic letters yellowed with age.

The urge to just head back to the elevators and punch at the up button until the doors opened, get upstairs and run to her room and repack all the clothes into her suitcases, everything she’d just carefully put away neatly in drawers and hung in the closet, was strong. She resisted, recognized the need as irrational, closed her eyes, clenched her hands until she felt her ragged bitten nails digging into her palms.

You can do this you can do this you can do this you can do this.

There was a dull murmur coming from inside the hotel bar, laughter and talking, the rattling of ice against glass, the occasional whir of a blender.  From where she stood she could see the bar was crowded, cocktail waitresses in too-short black skirts and white blouses maneuvering expertly around groups of people with trays balanced on one hand.

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And now back to the spice mines.

Papa Don’t Preach

So, for Pride Month, on Facebook I am posting a queer book every day that impacted me in some way; whether it’s personally or professionally or both. It’s actually been kind of fun tracking down book covers on the Internet, remembering these books and how I felt when I read them. My teen years were sort of a barren desert; the 1970’s in rural areas wasn’t exactly where the we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it chants were ringing across the prairies.

And, as always, I found solace and comfort and joy in books.

As I write the afterword to the short story collection, I find myself reflecting more and more on my life and my past; how things have changed for society in so many ways over the many decades, how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. The afterword hasn’t quite gelled in my mind yet; there are so many thoughts to process and put together and work out; I’ve already tried to get started on it several times, but I am going to knock it out this weekend.

I’m also going to finish reading that damned Roth novel if it kills me.

I want to get some work on the manuscripts done this weekend as well; and maybe even a short story or two. I feel so crazy talking about yet another mental breakthrough I’ve had about short stories. For some reason I’ve always thought they needed to be written about and set in the present; why, I don’t know. I realized with “Never Kiss a Stranger” one night this would work so much better if it was set in the 1990’s and BOOM.

Why can’t it be set in the 1990’s?

And there it was. I started revising the story so it’s set in 1994 and it flowed and worked and made more sense; and I realized how silly I had been. I really am stubbornly focused sometimes, and then when I realize how silly and stubborn about something I am being, I feel so freed and relieved once I get past it. No, no, this is how I have to do this. Um, no, you don’t have to do anything this way. This was, you know, the primary problem with the WIP. I’d become so adamant that it had to play out the way I originally envisioned it, and then tried to force the story to fit the structure I envisioned…well, that’s why I never could figure out how to end it. And then I realized that I’d pretty much tagged every single cliche in the manuscript, the beginning as I’d seen it wasn’t the beginning and actually was yet another horrible cliche, and thought, hey, why don’t you start the story HERE and see how that goes? 

And there it was.

So simply, really. And I am never sure if it’s laziness (ugh, I’ve already written an entire draft and that’s a lot of work) or stubbornness (the way I originally envisioned the story is the only way it can possibly be written) or something else…but it’s a lesson I never seem to learn, even after all these years of writing and editing and rewriting and revising and so forth. I never seem to learn the trick to step outside of myself and the story and looking at it in a different way. Is it any wonder that writing makes me crazy?

Sigh.

And now back to the spice mines.

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