Peace Bombs

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Two weeks ago I was in Luang Prabang, Laos–a truly magical city on a peninsula between two rivers, surrounded by incredibly picturesque mountains. Every day before dawn, saffron-robed monks walk the streets to collect alms–morsels of sticky rice that will be their only food for the day. Every evening the main road in the tourist part of town is suddenly transformed into a night market with dozens and dozens of collapsible red-canvas stalls erected by vendors selling locally produced crafts, including silk scarves, Hmong embroidered bags, t-shirts, jewelry, and small woven baskets for holding individual servings of rice. Walking through this crowded bazaar with so many dazzling colors and patterns can be overwhelming, particularly for someone who doesn’t savor the fine art of shopping. All during our trip through Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, my wife was on a quest for silk, and some of the best items she found were in Luang Prabang. While she perused the stalls with an expert eye, I took in the spectacle with no intention of purchasing anything myself. I’m not much for souvenirs.

IMG_0546But one night as we ran the silk gauntlet on our way to a restaurant highly recommended by Trip Advisor for it fine interpretations of traditional Loa cooking, I looked down and spotted something no one else in the market was selling–metal bottle openers in a variety of clever shapes. It was the electric guitar-shaped openers that first caught my eye. (I’m a sucker for anything guitar related, and my guitar-dar is finely tuned.) There were also tigers, elephants, monkeys, dogs, and rabbits, but when I saw the hand-grenade bottle opener, I knew I had to have one. And a guitar for my guitar buddy, Greg. They were easily packable and cheap–my kind of souvenir. But when I hunkered down to inspect them further, the woman selling them handed me a printed slip of paper that explained their origin. The metal used to make them, as well as the spoons and bracelets she was selling, was aluminum recovered from bombs that were dropped on the country during the Vietnam War.

According to the peaceBomb Project, the organization that promotes theses crafts, between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped 250-260 million bombs on Laos to halt the spread of Communism. On the slip of paper, I read “1 B-52 plane loaded with bombs every 8 minutes 24 hours a day for 9 years.” According to Wikipedia, “Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world.” Unexploded cluster bombs from that era are still a big problem, killing and maiming dozens of people each year. Currently there are about 12,000 cluster bomb victims living in Laos. Scanning the breathtaking mountain scenery around me, I couldn’t help feeling that this was the equivalent of carpet-bombing Vermont.

Holding these bottle openers, I was reminded of the bitter protests against the Vietnam War and how young men my age dreaded the prospects of being drafted. I suppose I could make a big point here about America’s tragic misadventure in Vietnam and the horrible “secret war” in Laos, but I won’t. I think the bigger point is the insanity of war in general and the fact that Laotians are still suffering 40 years later. But I’m heartened to see that a group of craftsman are making lemonade out of deadly lemons. Profits from these items go to microloans for artisans, electricity for rural schools, and organized efforts to locate and safely detonate bombs throughout the countryside.

I gave the guitar opener to my friend, but I’ll be keeping the grenade for myself. It probably won’t get much use as a bottle opener, but it has nice heft in my hand and whenever I rediscover it in the kitchen drawer, I know I’ll stop and think about beautiful Luang Prabang and how these craftsmen are doing their version of beating swords into ploughshares.

If you want to learn more about the peaceBomb Project, go to http://www.peace-bomb.com/peacebomb/ourmission.html.

 

Henry Miller’s 10th Commandment

HenryMillerI recently came across Henry Miller’s eleven “commandments” for writing, a set of rules he made for himself in 1932 while he was writing Tropic of Cancer. It’s an interesting list, one that will resonate with anyone who has ever undertaken the Sisyphean task of writing a book. Of all commandments, number ten was the one that made me nod with recognition: “Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.”

Amen, brother!

I have found myself in this situation many times, especially when working on a novel that’s part of a series. Good ideas–or what strike me as good ideas–crop up all the time and I want to jot them down in a notebook, like a squirrel saving nuts for the winter. BAD IDEA! First of all, thinking about future books takes me away from the project right in front of me. Progress grinds to a halt. I lose forward momentum. Writing a book is like pushing a stalled car. Once you get it rolling, DON’T STOP! If you do, you will regret it.

But there’s an even better reason for not pondering future books: it dilutes your creativity. I’ve written a slew of series novels and I’ve learned the hard way that a writer should put everything he or she’s got into the one in progress. I say, pull out the stops. Go for broke. Run like it’s your last race ever. Give it everything you’ve got. Write as if your life depended on it. You can always edit out the extraneous stuff later. Maintain your forward thrust. Don’t worry about smooth. That will come in the editing. Just make it soar and roar.

If you don’t believe me, go push a car, a big one, maybe even a truck. Let it roll to a stop, then start all over again. You’ll see what I mean.

Use all your good ideas on the current project. Trust me–you will get other good ideas when the time comes.

No Lyrics, Please

songwritingmachineIn his book, “On Writing,” Stephen King revealed that he listens to rock while he writes. I think I had read somewhere that he once invested in the local radio station in the town where he lives and had them play what he likes so he wouldn’t have to stop writing to turn the record over. Obviously this was a while ago.

I always listen to music while I write. Usually I stream it on Pandora, Spotify, or iTunes Radio. Sometimes I play my own playlists (yes, music I actually bought!). But I don’t just listen to anything. I’m pretty finicky about what kind of music I can work to. Some kinds of music help the words flow while others just distract me. My preferences shift as the day progresses. In the morning when I get most of the good writing done, I play early classical music–Gregorian chants, choral music, lute, just about anything Medieval or Renaissance. John Dowland is my go-to guy. When I need to concentrate, solo lute music puts me in the zone.

After lunch when my powers of concentration are starting to wane, the playlist changes to jazz. I love jazz. It keeps me going. I might start with Eddie Lang, King Oliver, or Sidney Bechet as a transitional stage but end up with Miles, Monk, Mingus, Bird, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins… you know, the classics. By late afternoon, I’m dipping into jazz-rock (though I don’t care for that term), particularly the guitar players–John Scofield, Larry Coryell, Mike Stern, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, Wayne Krantz, Oz Noy and my long-time, all-time favorite, John McLaughlin.

If I’m still going strong after six, blues and rock will take over, stuff that smacks my brain around a bit like cold water in the face. Just enough to keep me focused and on task. Ronnie Earl is always good at this time of the day. So is Ry Cooder (instrumental only), Dead Combo, Booker T and the MGs, and Big Lazy to name a few. From there I often veer into jazzy funk like Soulive, Lettuce, Galactic, the RH Factor, and the Greyboy Allstars. And surf music is always better than caffeine. A cup of Los Straitjackets will keep me going for another hour or two.

Basically I’ll listen to just about anything while I work, except for one thing. Lyrics! No lyrics, at least not in English. Too distracting while I write. I love the sound of voices, but I hate when the singers’ words compete with the ones in my head. Scat is fine. So is Brazilian bossa as long as “The Girl from Ipanema” is in Portuguese or any other language I don’t understand.

Stephen King apparently doesn’t have that problem. Straight-up rock’n’roll is good enough for him. But as I said, I’m fussy. When I’m writing, there can be only one word guy in the room.

 

Lester Godwin? God, No!

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What’s in a name? Well, a lot. I’ve been wrestling with an idea for a new mystery series–and I do mean wrestling. So far it’s gone through at least two major overhauls, but I think I’m finally getting it where I want it… except for one thing. The hero’s name. I keep changing it because it doesn’t feel right. It’s like an itchy sweater. It looks okay, but I know I won’t be able to live with it forever.

First, my hero was “Sean.” Then he was “Gabe.” Now he’s “Matt.” I think he’s going to stay “Matt.” So far that name seems like a good fit. But what’s the big deal? you’re probably saying. One name’s as good as another, right? Just pick one and start writing.

Well, not so easy. If the name doesn’t feel right, it becomes a speed bump in the writing process. It slows me down and makes me think about it every time I see it. I become like the guy who bought a metallic orange car because the price was right. Every time he looks at it, he feels a ping of regret.

I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. The great Elmore Leonard couldn’t start a new book until he’d named his characters, and the names had to feel right. Suppose he had gone with “Lester Godwin” instead of “Raylan Givens.” Dollars to doughnuts, it wouldn’t have been the same character. And I’m willing to bet he wouldn’t have been as good.

So here I am playing the name game, thumbing through Name Your Baby books and wishing I still had a paper telephone directory. (Strolling through cemeteries is another method I’ve used. I’ve gotten some good ideas scanning headstones. Except in my Philadelphia neighborhood, the closest cemetery has more “Jedidiahs” than “Johns” and I don’t write historicals.) But let’s hope “Matt” sticks. I want to get moving on this book. Fingers crossed, I’ll keep him around for a long time. Like a good sweater.

 

Fiction or Non-Fiction?

openbookFiction or non-fiction? This is a frequent dilemma for writers, like me, who write both. I will latch onto an idea for a book, always a crime-related story, something that really happened, something historical. I’ll let it ferment in my brain for a while to see if it still seems like a good idea after a day, a week, a few weeks. When I get one that won’t leave me alone, I’ll start to do some serious reading on the subject. If I’m still intrigued, I’ll do more reading. I’ll buy books and scour the Internet. Some ideas will fall by the wayside usually because there’s not enough available information or the information that’s out there is obviously unreliable. More often than not, what I had thought was a golden find isn’t as promising as I’d hoped.

But other ideas get better with time. The more I look into the subject, the more possibilities I see for creating a great read. I get excited. I can visualize my finished book, even the cover art. The source material turns out to be better than I expected. My vision for presenting it will make it spell-binding, a page-turner, a bestseller!

Then reality sets in. When the giddiness wears off, I start to see problems. (There are always problems.) The story in my mind is great, but the source material isn’t quite as complete as I need it to be. There are insufficient records of people and events to fill the narrative tapestry I want to create. Now I start to get nervous. I fear that, like Mr. Hyde, the novelist in me will take over. I’ll take too many liberties in telling the story. I then start to hear critics in my head roasting me over hot coals for making things up. It’s one thing to say John Wilkes Booth, for instance, drank his coffee with cream and sugar when there’s no record of how he took it or if he even drank coffee. In that case, no harm done. What difference does it make, really. It’s unlikely that his beverage preferences would have changed the course of history. But if the writer has Booth talking to contemporaries when there’s no record of such meetings, or thinking thoughts the man never wrote about or told anyone else about, the writer is skating on very thin ice.

This is when the BIG DECISION has to be made: do I write it as fiction or non-fiction? Now contrary to what many people believe, historical fiction does not by definition mean bullshit. Sometimes a good writer can reach deeper levels of truth using common sense and the probability of events to connect the dots he wishes he’d found in his research. If the writer can limit the what-ifs and concentrate on the things that probably did happen, he might produce a compelling and worthwhile read. BUT  in all likelihood it won’t be taken as seriously as a work of non-fiction. In fact it might be passed off as fanciful fluff no matter how much research and honest effort went into it.

Even though Mario Puzo based many of the characters in The Godfather on real-life gangsters, no one reads that book as a treatise on the Mafia. It’s a great story, colorful and well told, but any glimpses of factual Mafia history are bonuses to those reader who recognize them, ingredients that not everyone tastes. Ideally I want my research to give me all the facts I need to to write non-fiction as tasty and satisfying as, say, Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

So that’s where I am right now and why I’m writing this blog entry to get it off my chest. I have a juicy idea, and I’m casting my research net every day, searching for more material to let me realize this idea as non-fiction. But I’m not coming up with a whole lot of new discoveries. Pretty soon it will be time to consider doing it as a historical novel. Or look for a new idea. Sigh…

Turning in Papers

A-on-examSupposedly you never get out of high school. That might be true, but I think I never got out of elementary school. I suspect this is true of most writers, aspiring and professional. Nothing can match the glorious feeling of self-worth and accomplishment that came with turning in a paper and getting it back with a circled A and maybe a succinct comment of praise. “Excellent!” “Keep Up the Good work!” “Well done!” Unfortunately grown-up writers rarely get this kind of unqualified ego boost.

 Criticism and rejection come with the territory. Editors, agents, reviewers, and readers line up like a firing squad–or at least it can feel that way.  The competition is tough, and the marketplace changes with every new mega-bestseller. Writers are often urged to follow the trends, then later condemned for being trendy. Originality that sells is praised, but when it doesn’t sell–or when a publisher can’t foresee it selling–it gets the hook. The secret to success is to be totally original and exactly like everything that came before. Readers–as well as the gatekeepers of written content–want material that’s meaty, entertaining, and even startling as long as it comes in a reassuring form. Tell readers what they don’t know but in a way that they do know. Think about it. How many contemporary sleuthing duos hit the bookshelves every year following the blueprint laid down by Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories? Retellings of Shakespeare? Too many to count. And even the Bard borrowed freely from works he read and plays he saw. It wasn’t considered plagiarism back then; it was working within the tradition. And then there’s the Bible, which is the bible of relationships, conflict, hardship, hope, dreams, salvation, and retribution. Plot lines and characters galore to filch and rework for fictional purposes.

But I digress, as writers tend to do–got to fill up those pages after all. My original point was a nostalgic observation. By the time the writer is an adult, the sweet memory of turning in a school paper and getting praise has long evaporated. Publishing is a business, and businesses are about making a profit. If the content provider gets a good feeling from creating his work, all well and good, but the writer’s gratification is no one’s top concern. I understand that. I’ve been working these fields for a long time. But I still yearn for the giddy elation of getting an A on an essay and pleasing my teachers. And let me just point out that many of the no-nonsense nuns I had in Catholic school were not easy to please.  They could be merciless. Just like publishers. I’m just saying.

 

 

The Research Trap

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I’m reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, a non-fiction account of an American Olympian’s unrelenting ordeals as a POW in the Pacific during World War II.  The book is a genuine page-turner. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse for this poor guy, they do. But what struck me as I was reading–and distracted me–was the kind of detail she provides. Where did she get all this information? The design of a B-24 bomber probably isn’t that hard to find. But the subject’s favorite foods? Incidents with his high-school chums? Verbatim messages he was forced to deliver for Japanese propaganda radio broadcasts? I can see how Hillenbrand could have unearthed some of this stuff, but page after page is full of wonderful material.

I turned to the Acknowledgments, hoping to find out how she’d done such amazing job. Well, right off the bat I learned that she was able to interview her subject who in his nineties was ready, willing, and able to share his stories. She also found others who had lived through that period willing to talk. Some kept diaries and scrapbooks and saved letters and newspaper clippings, which they shared with Hillenbrand. She also used various libraries and archives in the US and Japan. She was lucky to have found such rich sources of information, but luck doesn’t detract from her achievement in putting it all together to create an exciting read. She deserves all the kudos she’s received.

Researching a non-fiction book can be a full of traps. Fiction, not so much. (Settle down–I can hear the complaints already.) When a novelist says he’s researching his next historical novel, he’s like a shopper in the supermarket filling his cart. He knows what he wants to write about and already has a pretty good idea of how the plot will go. What he’s looking for is interesting details to give his story color and texture. Oh, I think I’ll have my protagonist wear these clothes, work at this kind of job, worship at that kind of church. It takes work–no question about that–but it can’t stop you dead in your tracks the way non-fiction research can. The only research trap for fiction is finding mesmerizing gems that distract you from the bigger story. A French foot soldier in the 14th century would drag his own dead goat to war for food, hacking off pieces of meat whenever his stomach growled and the enemy wasn’t trying to kill him. It’s a great detail, but if you divert your entire plot just to work in the dead goat, the narrative thrust might suffer and your novel could become like a dead goat–smelly and indigestible.

But with non-fiction, the traps are more perilous. You can dig for months, filling notebooks, underlining stacks of books, photocopying articles, assembling your arsenal, but then one inconvenient fact can cross your path and stop your progress like a huge boulder in the road. This fact might call into question everything you believed about the story you wanted to tell. Your urge is to ignore it, but you know you can’t. Even if you get it by your editor, some reviewer somewhere will call you on it, embarrass you, and worse, discredit your work. You think maybe you can get away with adding a footnote explaining that this fact isn’t really that significant, but deep down you know it is and you can’t get around it.

Another potential pitfall is the trek through the desert. You search and search, but you can’t find enough good material. You want to believe it’s out there, but every day is just another useless slog. (Recently this situation has been exacerbated by the government sequester, which has closed or limited access to public archives. But don’t get me started on that.) I recently spoke to an author who told me he had spent nine months researching a book and ultimately had to abandon the project because there just wasn’t enough information for a book-length treatment on his chosen topic. When this happens, it’s time to starting thinking about downsizing to an article.

True crime has one advantage when it comes to research. Trial transcripts can be a treasure trove of information. They’re not always complete, and they’re not always accurate in cases where the defendant was wrongly convicted, but they’re a good place to start. The pertinent names and places are all there even if the interpretation of the facts is suspect. Trial attorneys, after all, are like novelists. Each side is selling a narrative to an audience, the jury. But at the very least, trial transcripts show you where to start digging.

Right now I’m doing research for what I hope will become a non-fiction book. It’s a World War II story that involves a partnership between the US military and organized-crime members on both sides of the Atlantic. No crimes were committed–at least from the Allied point of view–and therefore no trials or trial transcripts. It’s also an episode in US history that the military had tried to bury, and I’m finding that they largely succeeded. It would be great to be able to interview people who participated in this alliance or even their children who heard stories from their fathers and have diaries, letters, and photos they’d be willing to share. So I intend to keep digging. I know there are good stories out there–I just have to find them. Hopefully, I’ll strike a vein as rich as Laura Hillenbrand’s.