Thursday, May 26, 2011

Writing Contemplations: Justifying the Impossible Or the Unlikely In Fiction

Note: When I do book reviews or appreciations, I've started to note points of interest to writers. I thought I'd also do  occasional posts with thoughts about the writing lessons found in books and film. Here's the first. 

In the recent Blue Bloods season finale Jamie Regan (Will Estes), youngest cop in the show's featured family of New York cops, reveals to dad Frank Regan (Tom Selleck) that he's been quietly conducting his own investigation into the death of his brother Joe.

"Why didn't you come to me?" asks Frank, voicing the viewer's question as well. Why would the youngest and greenest member of the family not turn information over to his father, the police commissioner, and older brother, a seasoned investigator?

The question is the kind writers for the screen, tube and page deal with every day. The real answer of course, is that there'd have been no story, or a different story, if he'd made a different decision. 

Often the easy answer is not the one the writer or the story wants, nor is it the one the reader wants. When people turn to fiction, they don't want a newspaper account of  a worried neighbor who phones the authorities. They're looking for an extraordinary story of extraordinary individuals. 

Sure, the amateur sleuth could just phone the police and wait for them to handle the mystery of who poisoned the headmaster's breakfast, but if the story's about the bookish spinster who solves murders that just won't do. 

Jamie explains in Blue Bloods he felt his brother had left him information about a rogue band of cops as a passing of a torch, and in pursuing the truth alone he was honoring his brother. It fits his character, established over a season's worth of episodes. He's a Harvard grad who decided to eschew law practice to enter the family business, law enforcement, that's steeped in tradition and a sense of duty and honor. 

What reason could the bookish spinster have? Well, maybe like with Joe, something personal could drive matters. Maybe the murdered headmaster's the lover who broke her heart when she was a young school teacher. Maybe that's why she's a bookish spinster and maybe there's a strong sense of need to find out the headmaster's secrets. Maybe some of the reasons years ago that spurred him to break her heart without explanation have contributed to the cause of his murder. 

Say, that sounds intriguing. A little finesse and  layering of ideas can justify a lot in a story and make it richer and more interesting in the process. 

Victims of circumstance
Circumstances as well can force characters along the desired course. A few years ago a friend saw the movie Cellular before I did. It's the story of a woman trapped by kidnappers. Her damaged cell phone makes a connection with a young man who has to stay on the line or risk losing her call. Fortunately he's not an AT&T customer.

"How'd they explain him not going to the police?" I asked, because I always think about the writer at the keyboard behind a story.

Police after all, would be able to trace calls and end the story in a hurry.

"He did go to the police," my friend said. "But there was gang riot and..."

And the young man couldn't risk losing the connection, so as distracting hordes of prisoners were hauled into the police station he had to move on and handle things on his own. Is that how things might really unfold? Meh.

That point in the story did introduce William H. Macy as a dedicated desk sergeant, representing authority and  ultimately helping out. But the gang riot kept the story from being hijacked and  becoming  one of the FBI and vast technological resources being called in.

It's a contrivance, but it's a polished one with great presentation. It also serves as one of those rocks writers are supposed to throw at heroes.

Back to the amateur sleuth
So what could plague our bookish spinster? Even with her personal ties to the murder, she'd likely grow discouraged, hit a few speed bumps, discover some clues out of reach.

What might keep her going against those rocks we're tossing her way?

Suppose the police detective assigned to the case doesn't have a gang riot on his hands? Say she's in a small town, a quiet spot where murders might not roll around every day. The detective might not have the experience of a seasoned homicide investigator.

Suppose the bookish spinster's chief suspect is from a rich and influential family? When she turns in what she's found,  the local cop might not be inclined to tackle the firestorm and go the extra mile to build up the evidence.

Even though she'd like to get back to that copy of Infinite Jest, the sleuth's got to see justice done for her former lover, and clues may not be enough. She's got to find a way to...

And with a few layers, she'll be believable.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

New cover for New Year's Evil - young adult supernatural suspense novel

Here's the new cover art for the e-book edition of New Year's Evil, one of three young adult novels I wrote under the name Michael August. It will be coming out soon from Crossroad in most ebook formats. 

The book's available at the Crossroad Press site and coming soon to Amazon and other vendors.


Friday, May 13, 2011

A few of my favorite movie songs

A lot of great songs come out of movies, and a lot of others get used in movies. Johnny Cash's fab "The Man Comes Around" has been in more movies than some movie stars.

You Tube's made reliving the musical moments from old films possible since soundtracks are sometimes hard to come by. Below are a few of my melodic favorites.

Tomorrow, tomorrow
"Tomorrow is the Song I Sing" from Richard Gillis is one of several tunes that punctuate the offbeat Sam Peckinpa Western The Ballad of Cable Hogue. It's catchy an infinitely hummable. It, happily, is available from iTunes as part of the Gillis album Blow the Gates of Heaven.

Reachin' to the sky
Folk genius Leonard Cohen's melancholy "The Stranger Song" opens another offbeat Western, Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller. It really is a perfect tone-setter for the Warren Beatty outing. It's also found on The Essential Leonard Cohen.

I can almost see that old Bandera Highway...
Barry De Vorzon's "San Antone" is actually on a couple of movie soundtracks that I know of, both of which he served on as musical director.  He's best known for Nadia's Theme.

The tune is the homecoming song that opens the revenge flick Rolling Thunder. It's more wonderfully moody and nostalgic in contrast to the opening scenes of William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration, aka Twinkle, Twinkle Killer Kane. Sadly it doesn't seem to be available for purchase in a pristine MP3.

Over the hills and far away
The television adaptations of Bernard Cromwell's swashbuckling Sharpe novels adopted a John Tams rendition of the 17th century British song "Over the Hills and Far Away."

 It's catchy and a wonderful mesh for the excellent films with Sean Bean. I don't think it's on iTunes, but The Music of Sharpe CD is available in the U.S. on Amazon.

I could go on, but that's a pretty good playlist for a blog post. I'll forego the theme from Kelly's Heros and The Osmonds?! performing "Chilly Winds" on the risque Rock Hudson/Angie Dickinson thriller Pretty Mains All in a Row from Gene, but I kind of like both of those too.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Indiana, Indiana and The Lovely Secrets

(Contains Some Spoilers)
Indiana, Indiana (the dark and lovely portions of the night) from Coffee House, 2003, is one of two novels by Laird Hunt that I read for school last year, and it's stayed with me.

It's a novel with a very basic through story. It is given the heft and richness of a book-length work by the author’s stylistic, poetic approach in exploring his central character’s thoughts and soul.

To say Indiana, Indiana is a simple story, however,  is to do it disservice. It is brief with only a few characters, and most of the tale unfolds from the protagonist’s pouring over mementos from his life.

Yet it is a complex exploration of the simple-minded man and his rural life. His reflections on his past and longing for his institutionalized wife, Opal, open up the narrative to incidents and intrigue.

Hunt’s approach is meditative, yet as he delves into the mind of Noah Summers and dissects his reflections, he offers a certain objectivity. We are often allowed to interpret Noah’s reality from within Noah’s perspective, with some revelations withheld for narrative impact.

We see Noah Summers lacks something. He’s capable of serving as a postman, yet incapable of the discernment that it’s inappropriate for a civil servant to sit down with people he happens on at mealtime.

Simple gifts
Noah has other gifts that stand in for what he lacks. Psychic abilities allow him to help the local sheriff with unsolved crimes, and he’s wise enough to bargain with his abilities and eventually to imitate Opal’s behavior in an attempt to be institutionalized with her.

Since the book unfolds through Noah’s memories, stimulated by mementos, Hunt offers additional narrative touches that further enhance and open up the story. Sprinkled throughout the chapters are letters from Opal, for example. These hint at her sensitivity and perhaps some delusion, yet the spirit of what makes Noah miss her so much is evident.

“Yesterday, I got out of the bath. While I was in there, all of the leaves had fallen off the trees. I was sad when I saw they had already raked all the pretty leaves up.”

In another letter, she observes:

“I had hoped I would see humming birds at the new feeder but none came. Least ways not while I was watching. … They’re so tiny—like pretty thoughts.”

Another interesting addition to the narrative is an outline of the entire work found at the opening of each chapter, with that chapter’s events or letters highlighted and others grayed.

In the box
The lines feel at first almost like a 19th century novel approach, but they are appropriate, since the narrative is an amalgamation of memories and mementos. The outline is like the box of memories through which Noah sifts, reliving his life, and it helps organize and unify the meditation.

Indiana, Indiana is a moving portrait of the type of a man not often given fictional scrutiny. To delve into it and to gain entry into Noah’s world is a fascinating and emotionally haunting journey, a little like Noah’s contemplative evening with his memories.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Giveaway 1 Is Over

Thanks for everyone who followed or even visited during Giveaway 1.

It's now officially over, and a winner has been randomly selected from all followers and those who commented on the review of Steven Sidor's Pitch Dark.

I wrote all the names on a pad, cut the sheet up and drew from my Fund for Animals mug.

I've sent a private message to the winner and will post a notice when I get a confirmation.

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