The day the dogs left town began as an ordinary day: Despots threatened neighboring nations with annihilation, politicians were caught with their pants down, and an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico devastated three thousand miles of pristine beaches and three score species. An ordinary day . . . .
The banks of Midwestern rivers overflowed, the earth trembled along the Pacific coast, tornados roared along the Kansas plains and carried away a girl in sparkling red shoes, while oranges shriveled like frozen warts in Floridian orchards. A slow news day . . . .
But no such catastrophes were occurring that morning in the little town in upstate New York, a hamlet nestled between the Adirondack Mountains to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east. There, the rivers flowed gently, the earth held firm beneath the fawn’s hooves, the breeze blew gentle and balmy, and apples reddened in the warm August sunshine.
The beagle rose up as the dawn breeze wafted in to flutter his master’s curtains; the Labrador was alerted by the cock-a-doodle of the rooster; the Boston terrier blinked when a shaft of sunlight pierced the bedroom gloom; the scattering of mice in the closet wall crept through the dachshund’s dreams, the rodent musk overwhelming his slumber. One by one each canine left its night-nest at the foot of its master’s bed, or arose off the cool kitchen tile. Others waited at their sentry posts on the oval rug by the front door, where in the dark, with one eye opened and nose alert, a dog might luxuriate in the sweet fecundity arising from the loamy garden soil beyond the welcome mat. Each dog stood transfixed by an unspoken call, a silent signal, and the whiff of something in the air that washed over the little town to send them stirring. Something out of the ordinary floated in with the morning mist, something unusual that raised the dogs from their sleeping places to stand pointing toward the locked and bolted doors while their owners slept on.
They waited . . . .
They waited for the alarm clocks to jangle, the clock radios to break the peace, the aroma of water dripping over grinds in the automatic coffee machines, and the call of nature to awaken the people with whom they lived. They waited for the doors to open, revealing the great expanse of sky, and the open spaces where one might run without ever hitting a wall or breaking a lamp or being yelled at for sending a stream to mark one’s place: The great uncovered place is where they each knew they had to go to, because the moment was at hand.
And when the palm hit the knob on the alarm clock, and the snooze setting had finally exhausted its whining impatience, and the hot pungent liquid filled the cup, and the call of nature had finally been answered, each dog, whether young or old, assumed the spritely spirit of the pup with a wild and almost carnal anticipation of what was to be. What had to be.
Nervous little dogs, like the Chihuahua and the Jack Russell, whined and circled and bit at heels, causing their owners to throw on sneakers and sweaters and to raise their arms in gestures of reaching for leashes, while others, the lumbering four-year-old Lab and Shepherd and Great Dane, assumed the hypnotic stance of the show-dog as they pointed at the ready, facing the back door.
Finally, the moment had arrived; doors were flung open. The dogs led their owners down the sidewalks and footpaths and wood trails.
Suddenly, nostrils quivering, sniffing at the air, they stopped; leashes slackened. As their humans stood waiting for the usual morning business to be done, scratching their heads and yawning and admiring Mr. Trumble’s Turf Builder lawn and Mary Casey’s Miracle Gro dahlias, the signal sounded.
The Labrador retriever, the beagle, and the Shepherd yanked their leashes taut, causing unsuspecting rumps to crash down to the ground, crushing flower beds, while the fashionably coiffed Mrs. Chenoweth was thrown, ungracefully and head first, into the holly bushes in front of the Hendersons’ bungalow.
The Great Dane and the powerful mastiff broke free of their masters’ stronghold, leaving a dislocated shoulder, a sprained wrist, and an air of general bewilderment in their wake as they galloped down the street to the chant, “Bad dog! Bad dog!”
The Chihuahua wrestled out of her mistress’s arms; a Chow snapped its lead, splashing designer-brand coffee onto the Arts & Leisure section of Mr. Robinson’s Morning Register. The Jack Russell, whose teenage boy had kept him waiting, squeezed out of the narrowly opened bedroom window and onto the porch roof, where he slithered down the drainpipe like a trapeze act. The nursing pups were led out through the kitchen door flap and rolled like furry tumbleweeds along the roadside. The dachshund circled her Karate master’s sturdy ankles, tying him up and taking him down to topple onto his face. Ears flapped as the little red critter scattered away to join the flight.
The Doberman couple, Fred and Ethel, leaped the gate like jumpers at a horse show. The aged Rottweiler dug out between the fence-posts, along the way discovering a long-buried soup bone from ten years past. Brave little dogs breached invisible fencing and, shocked, trotted off with carefree delight to join the exodus through the vast forest.
When it all was over, when the yells and frantic cries were spent, when the scrapes and bruises were assessed, when the mulch was brushed from hair and hands, not a dog was left in sight. The incident was duly reported to the authorities.
As the people went about their daily business—the grownups to the office, the children off to school—there was presented a new and exciting prospect for the feline population of the little town. And cats will always have their way.
No longer resigned to lounging the afternoon away on a sunny window seat—for no longer was the big brown eye of the hairy beast around to keep one in check—with tails high and legs outstretched they strutted around the rooms of their lairs with newfound confidence. Alone at home, and safe from marauders who might send them leaping atop refrigerators, they set to play. There were, after all, curtains to shred, aquariums to fish in, walls to spray, and birdcages to swing from. And so, the cats, they had their way.
And as the sun was setting and the blue of evening settled over the little town, the children and the grownups returned to their cozy homes. They were not greeted by panting and leaping and circling excitement—no, not this first night of the day the dogs left town. But, rather, as the humans entered through the front doors they unwittingly stepped into the terrible paths of feline destruction. After much hair-pulling, hand-wringing, and chest-thumping, after the gaping and screeching and stomping had subsided, the cats flew from off the chandeliers, the countertops, the stacks of books, the etageres, and, racing through the still opened doors, put themselves out for the night.
It was a terrible night.
Televisions blasted loudly throughout the little town—and even with the windows closed you couldn’t hear the Evening News over the din of the racket outside. Later, after everybody was tucked into bed, one needed earplugs to get any sleep. Cats were prowling the dark streets, alone or in gangs, hunting down the rodent population. For sport the cats terrorized the raccoon family who’d moved in down the street, and blatantly dared the nocturnal skunks to spray them. Some felines partied in backyards, crooned old tunes on fence-posts, or bayed at the moon with longing for lovers long gone. Tough tomcats brazenly had their ways with the more gentle females; catfights broke out and the injured retreated to lick their wounds. In the general chaos of four o’clock in the morning, the rooster shivered in his cage; he dared not utter his wakeup call for fear of disclosing his location to the dangerous mob hungry for a chicken dinner.
People irritably abandoned their tumbled bed sheets. They went about their morning rituals like bad actors in a zombie movie. Cats were scratching the window glass, clinging like big Xs on the door screens and caterwauling to be let back in. There was much hissing and whining accompanied by rather frightening stares.
“What to do? What to do?” thought their people. The cats had gone feral, they couldn’t be let in, but they couldn’t be kept out. Prissy, the once-affectionate Persian, was viciously digging up the catmint plant by its roots, dragging it over to her confederate, the herb-drugged Siamese, Soy Sauce, who had chosen a Big Boy tomato hanging from a vine for a punching bag. Boozer, the big Maine Coon, was gaily taking down the wash from the line, dragging the Ralph Lauren sheet along the dirt path, while wearing Ms. Joanna Merkle’s Victoria’s Secret panties as a headdress during the foray. It was all that people could do to get out of their houses, dashing to the safety of their cars and shooting out of their driveways in a getaway. Cats cursed their exhaust fumes.
The birds, who had been quietly observing the events of the past day, were directed by the scholarly owl to find refuge in the massive chestnut tree that stood regally in the middle of the big woods at the edge of town. There, they might discuss what best to do. No cat could venture up the great shaft of the tree’s trunk, so the gentle birds, the gray doves, the sparrows, the chickadees, the cardinals, and the pigeons, took refuge in its wide-sprawling canopy. Only the squawking blue jays and the bossy black crows and the scheming hawks couldn’t be bothered to attend the conference. It would be hours of pointless chatter with the pompous old owl holding court, delivering his hollow sermon, and action against the mobs had to be taken at once. They had a plan of their own for a strategic air strike, a plan to put into action what they had perfected millennia ago, a maneuver observed and learned by the humans and that the birds would now employ to protect their more vulnerable friends. The blue jays, the crows, and the hawks flew in through the gash in the slate roof of the fire-gutted Dutch Reform Church at the far end of Main Street to confer on the rafters.
During this second night after the day the dogs left town, the townspeople gathered in the community room of Town Hall to discuss the alarming changes to their little hamlet. While armed guards patrolled the parking lot with orders to shoot any offending feline, the mayor and councilmen considered how best to proceed. The townspeople could not come to any sort of an agreement about how to handle the wildcats, and there was a lot of yelling and screaming, some spitball firing, name calling, and gavel smacking before slaps and punches were thrown about. People who had once gladly lent cups of sugar to their neighbors, brought over casseroles at births and deaths, helped carry groceries, or called the police during domestic disputes became violent enemies. Slingshots were unpocketed. The mayor stormed out, the councilmen quit, and everybody else just got up, walked out, loaded their guns, and scurried off to their homes, their car windows rolled up against each other and the tide of cats. Safe behind locked doors, parents and children huddled together in front of their televisions, watching the Evening News to hear about the strange events happening around the world.
“Things have gone to hell in a hand-basket,” yelled the frustrated anchorman, whose Pan-stick makeup barely covered the cat-claw stripe running down his left cheek. “People armed with automatic weapons are taking to the streets in their vigilante patrol of their neighborhoods against the frenzied felines. Some counties are paying as much as twenty-two dollars a head for cats. In a little village in Vermont, forty-six people who got in the way of the quarry are dead from gunshot wounds. The images about to be shown are not pleasant, and might be disturbing to the young, the sick, or the addle-minded.” Parents were warned to ask their children to leave the room. The editorial asked the question, “What to do? What to do?”
After the second night of destruction, as the sun rose in the south, people peeked out through window curtains to see trees stripped of their bark, flowerbeds upturned, and fence-posts scarred like scratching posts. Cats, spent from a night of wild partying, lay sleeping atop claw-frayed canvas convertible tops, dozed curled up in the opened mailboxes, or lay dazed in cabbage patches.
It was at this time, at the brink of dawn, that the birds of the little town roosted in the treetops, perched in the cupolas, towers, and widow walks, and balanced agilely on the weathervanes. They were at the ready for the signal that was to come at the moment the sun flashed green light in the sky as it dawned on the horizon. And when it came, that flash, the crickets fell silent, the little night creatures ceased their scurrying, and the bats were safe deep within their caves. There rumbled a low, foreboding gurgle of the pigeons and doves, before a throbbing racket erupted: the flapping of a million wings that darkened the sky and eclipsed the rising sun.
The hawks spiraled down upon their marks. A murder of crows cawed and swooped down upon their prey; the blue-jays squawked as they beaked their enemies with saber-like precision; the smaller birds—the sparrows, the chickadees, and the peaceful gray doves—bravely provided diversion for the fighter pilots zipping through the sky. The cats, who had been dozing after their night of folly, were taken in surprise ambush and, drunk from sleep, lost their advantage to the birds. The felines scattered under crawlspaces, into sewers, or under lawn chairs.
Now the birds became a powerful force in their own right. No more the stealthy, four-footed dominatrix lurking behind the bird feeder, sneaking up to the birdbath, disrupting the early morning dig for worms on the lawn, or leaping into the nests to terrorize their chicks. Now, those bully cats who had found sport in slapping around the songsmiths cowered in their hiding places, and the birds chattered sweet victory!
The birds became fearless as they descended upon the berry bushes, the vegetable gardens, and the fig trees, striping all of their sweet, bulbous fruits. The crows battled the jays for the dogwood berries, and the hawks and owls fought viciously over the squirrels’ nests. The racket of wings and chirps and screeches was deafening, like the sound of a thousand doors slamming over and over again in rapid succession, and it only got worse as the morning wore on. But, by noon, the frenzy had abated; the gardens, trees, bushes, and cornfields had been stripped clean, and the greedy birds, inebriated from bellies so full of fruit as to make them top-heavy on their stick-like legs, began to fall from their perches.
The people were shuttered in their houses, waiting for the frogs to fall from the sky. Some prayed; some did naughty things. What else could happen? The whole world had tumbled upside-down. Nothing made sense anymore. As they tuned in their battery-operated radios—for there was no more television or electricity or telephone or high-speed Internet service since the birds had snapped the cables with the weight of their numbers—the people listened to the philosophers and statesmen and pundits, while Judge Judy expounded on the new phenomenon that had swept across the globe, rendering a new world order. “Blame Global Warming,” said one; “Blame the EPA,” said another. A spokesman for the Humane Society blamed human beings for their lack of humanity, and PETA put out a statement that amoebas had rights, too. A professor of classics at Oxford University blamed Socrates, who had failed to warn us. Dr. Phil blamed an overbearing mother. Reporters converged on the little town in Hummers and dressed in body armor and hard hats for protection against the dive-bombing birds. The President called in the National Guard.
When did this all begin, asked the politicians? The last administration was to blame! No, it started when the new administration came into office.
“No,” said little Mary Robinson, the eight-year-old Wunderkind now in her third year at Harvard. “It began the day the dogs left town.”
“Could it be? The dogs had left town, that’s right! The dogs knew enough to get out of town before the madness began,” said the Speaker of the House of Representatives. “How could they have known?”
“Don’t be a fool,” said little Mary to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mary didn’t suffer fools easily, and this man was certainly a fool, one of many sent to Congress by millions of other fools. “It was because the dogs left town that the world has gone awry.”
“Well,” said the Big Man, “get them to come back home.”
“Would that it were that easy,” remarked the President’s press secretary, bringing tears to the eyes of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. “It may take negotiations, a lot of ego stroking, and a full benefits package, including Beggin’ Strips, to save the planet.”
Six days had passed since the dogs had left town, and the casualties were rising. There seemed to be little hope left for a return to a world of harmony.
“Harmony?” asked Mary the Wunderkind. “Was there ever harmony?”
At dusk on the seventh day there appeared, on the summit of the mountain overlooking the little town, a mutt—part Papillion with a dash of terrier. He stood looking down upon the little town, at the wreckage caused by man and beasts since his departure the week before. He looked at the scene long and hard, and considered the apparent imperfection of the scheme of things before the departure. He turned his head to look at the pack, watching from their hiding places among the tall pines, awaiting his decision. He weighed the wisdom of whether it was time for them to return, and for the world to go back to the dogs once again.
The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a cavernous repository of books located in the bowels of a building in Barcelona; a final resting place of books that are out of print and have been sadly dismissed, little read or forgotten. It is the premise of, and an inanimate protagonist of the series of novels by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I am not reviewing the books, however, except to say that the novels are beautifully crafted and compelling reads. I want to talk about forgotten books.
I’m not alone in the belief that the words of millions of authors are the whisperings of their souls, and that within every novel exist the spirits of its characters, begotten by their authors. As is the case with life and for most of us who walk the earth, most novels are eventually forgotten, if not long after one’s death, then after a few generations. This is a daunting reality, because most people want to be remembered, if only to validate their existence and to give meaning to their lives. An author, any artist, inventor, entrepreneur wants a lasting legacy, and those who say otherwise are lying.
Today, with the ease of the internet, e-books can exist forever, even if their publishers stop printing the paper versions. But that doesn’t guarantee readership. And these days, since any idiot with a keyboard and access to the internet can publish even the most poorly crafted story, it doesn’t mean that all of the stuff thrown out there is worthy of our time.
Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels List comprised by their board and readers are the novels we are made to read in high school and college. They are all Twentieth Century novels, mostly sweeping sagas, stories with philosophical leanings, books written by authors affecting an innovative style of modern writing, or glimpses into time capsules of different generations of society. I suspect the readers’ list is made up of books that readers are expected to say are great, because they were told they are worthy and great works of art. Why else would Ayn Rand, Hemingway and Joyce have multiple mentions by readers? What about Mario Puzo who wrote The Fortunate Pilgrim? Where is Evan Hunter’s Streets of Gold? I know why. Those fellows authored popular crime fiction, too.
What I find disturbing is that, although recently re-published by The Indiana University Press, Raintree County, by Ross Lockridge, Jr., one of the most innovative and brilliant novels of the last mid-century, isn’t included on either list. I can’t find the book an any list.
I know I am a fickle lover. I fall in love with books and constantly favor the delights of new discoveries, often juggling the top contenders. But of the many thousands of novels I’ve read, Ross Lockridge, Jr.’s Raintree County remains always at the top, above Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon. Then follows all things Edith Wharton, followed by Steinbeck, and on and on. . . . I love Raintree County so much that the title of my latest book is a quote from it, A Tall, Imperious Bloom.
Is Raintree County a forgotten book? Has it been buried in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, this soulful novel that no one under the age of seventy seems to even remember, other than it was the title of a rather awful film? The powerful voice of its author can be heard upon opening the covers of his book, so why is no one parting the covers? As a lover of great books, I can make the comparison to an avid opera fan never having heard Pavarotti sing. Open those boards and listen to the music of the prose.
HERE is the link for Raintree County.
And then, to learn more about Ross Lockridge, Jr., read Larry Lockridge’s revelatory narrative of his father’s life and tragic death in Shade of the Raintree: Centennial Edition.
HERE is the link for Shade of the Raintree.
Until next time,
Washington Square Park is teeming with ghosts, spectres of the past. And there are also many living souls revisiting the past.
My friend Shelley and I met at the Washington Square Park fountain last week in an attempt to revisit places frequented in our pasts, our “haunts” of Greenwich Village, places ventured on our journeys toward adulthood. For Shelley it was the Café Wha?, where she and our mutual school chum, Judy, liked to hang out, dressed up like Beatniks-black from head to toe, dark glasses and tilted berets—sipping espresso and pretending to be “hip”. At fourteen years old. Later, Shelley performed at Village clubs during the Hippy generation.
For me, it was Washington Square Park where I’d meet my groovy friends, the Flower Children of the late 60s and early 70s. I didn’t really fit the image of a young hippy as portrayed in Hair. I was very fashionably dressed, in skimpy, flowing voile, and adorned in beads, yes, but I tended to lean toward Mary Quant rather than tie-dyed apparel, and never smoked “grass” or used LSD, and didn’t believe in Free Love. I suppose I was the square in the Square. . . . Art and music and theatre were my obsessions. There was also the East Village, 8th Street, the Electric Circus, the bookstore, leather shops, and the tenements of the alphabet avenues, the old Ukrainian area where my artsy friends lived, but Washington Square had always intrigued me. Perhaps it’s the Henry James novel, Washington Square, that I read in high school and the play adapted from the book, The Heiress, that drew me there, not for its depiction of a father-daughter relationship, but for its setting in Old New York. Old New York, especially in Edith Wharton’s Golden Age novels, has always fascinated me. I love the elegant “Row” bordering the park. Today, NYU owns all of the buildings surrounding the park, including the remaining “Row” north of the park.
While Shelley and I sat on a bench basking in the warm sunshine of that October afternoon, the park alive with students from the university, a few performing as mimes and several performing acrobatic feats alongside waif-like creatures in dirty, worn-out jeans and scraggly facial hair singing folk songs to guitar accompaniment and conjuring memories of the late 1960s, I realized that I’ve set three of my novels in the Village, specifically on the Square: Mystic Mah Jong, The Murder Club and Murder Story! The park’s arch is featured in Murder Story:
Many things about the park have radically changed since my youth. There’s a dog park on its southern end and a children’s playground. There was a time when the park was a minefield of dog crap and litter, the lawns mere dustbowls, junkies and dealers openly conducted business, so esthetically, now, the environs have been improved upon. But still, you may not want to walk through the park on certain nights. Certainly not when there’s a rising mist, or a rolling fog from the Hudson River, or there’s a hint of snow in the air because . . . it’s HAUNTED!
Little did I know all those many years ago, nor do the people who enjoy the shade of the yellowing raintrees today, watching men playing chess, or finding relief from the cooling spray of the fountain on hot summer days, that we are treading over the graves of more than twenty thousand men and women. At least, that is the estimate. It may be quite a bit more, because the park was once an Indian burial ground and later a potter’s field for the thousands of Lower East Side residents who died of the Yellow Fever epidemics in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They lie alongside interred criminals hanged from the park’s big elm.
Greenwich Village was established as a residential area during the Yellow Fever epidemics when people fled the swampy conditions and stagnant air of the over-populated southernmost regions of Manhattan Island for the countryside, where the land was swept clean by breezes off the North (Hudson) River. It became a refuge from the wretched and diseased conditions of lower Manhattan.
The famous Row was built around 1830 to accommodate well-to-do residents of the city as the urban sprawl moved uptown. A German cemetery lay to the north, and to its south, the potter’s field. This wreck of land was covered over and made into The Washington Military Parade Ground. A few years later, there was a campaign to make it into a park. As work ensued in its conversion, corpses sprung up from their pathetic resting places, causing people to trip over reaching skeletons and exposed skulls—a dog’s treasure cove of discovery—and many of the displaced remains had to be re-planted. During the 2009 renovation of the park, with the intention of moving the fountain over twenty-odd feet to align it with the triumphal arch on the north side (I suppose it was meant to provide symmetry in the photographs tourists returned home with), a headstone was unearth, seven feet deep. It had belonged to a man of means. James Jackson had to have died of the Fever in 1799, since no one who’d died a Yellow Death was allowed to be buried in any other Manhattan graveyard, but none who were buried in this potter’s field was allowed a marker. . . . The headstone is now displayed for all to see as a reminder of the park’s history.
The Hangman’s Elm on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park, supposedly served as gallows. The field was always crowded with onlookers at Sunday morning executions; the condemned were buried in the afternoon. The elm is currently the oldest tree on the island, 334 years old, outliving Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree on the northeast corner of 13th Street and Third Avenue. No one is really sure its limbs were the executioner’s choice, but so the legend says. . . .
They say, on certain nights, one can see the yellowish shrouds of fever victims rising from up from the ground, and the dangling spectres of the condemned swing by on the breeze. . . .
The next time you visit Washington Square Park tread carefully. You know not on whom you tread!
Or, to put it more poetically, as Ross Lockridge, Jr. stated in Raintree County:
“Bare feet of lovers, thudding on the
roof of mounds, press lightly on these
For a spooky, funny read this Halloween at Washington Square get Mystic Mah Jong: A Dorothy Parker Mystery
Until next time,
My story begins with Bill Davidson, recently divorced, who finds solitary comfort in routine as he lives with the odds and ends of his past. Nearing forty, Bill is a successful public relations executive for a firm in Upstate New York. Perhaps he drinks a little too much.
Ariel Trent is admired for her ethereal beauty and her talent, but is plagued with small-town notoriety. Since the death of her second husband, William, she has sequestered herself from the world, waiting and living out her days with memories that linger to haunt her.
On a snow-covered side-street, on the Millennium New Year, Bill’s and Ariel’s paths cross violently, altering the course of their lives.
Guilt-ridden for being the cause of the automobile accident that lands Ariel in the hospital, Bill begins a daily vigil beside her hospital bed. Captivated by her delicate beauty, he yearns to know more about the woman with whom he is falling in love. He begins to search through Ariel’s past, through her journals and love letters, and becomes obsessed in his attempt to free her from the ghostly hold of William, the great love of her life.
I have discovered that to read is to learn new things about the world and yourself; I get to explore more fully what I’ve learned through the exercise of writing. Twenty years ago I read Raintree County, by Ross Lockridge, Jr. It’s haunting prose and imagery stayed with me. A Tall, Imperious Bloom is in many ways inspired by his novel.
A final word: This novel is not a comedy! Nor is it for the faint-hearted. But, if you’ve ever known a grand passion, this book is for you. If you’ve ever yearned for a grand passion, this book is for you. If you’ve known and lost a grand passion, this is your story.
– Agata Stanford
Get the book here.
Want to write a mystery novel? Consider these points:
1) Before you start you need to understand that every plot scenario has already been used thousands of times over in variations of the themes of greed, lust, jealousy and revenge. Although the names and descriptions of your characters are different from other characters in other books, it is the author’s voice that must be unique and not so much the plot line. Improbable plots line devised to show how original you are often frustrate the reader, who has already agreed at the start of chapter one to suspend disbelief, so don’t make him change his mind. Whatever you do, don’t get stuck trying to devise a new, extravagant way to kill someone by setting his hot air balloon on fire by shooting flaming arrows at it when simply pushing him out a window will do the job. Avoid silly contrivances. The mystery writer, or the writer of any fiction must revive the shopworn plots by creating a sympathetic protagonist. It comes down to building your characters into relatable or likable human beings that your audience will want to know more about, will care about, and will want to hang out with. Build from the inside out. Give the fellow an interior life, not just the face the world sees. The best stories are often the simplest, but the people in those stories have rich interior lives that influence their actions. You need to be a psychological profiler, in a way. Draw your characters as real people. That is to say, give them a life, a history, color them with virtues and faults that make them human. Use these virtues and faults to drive the action. If the nature of a man will not permit him to do something, you cannot make him do it. Be true to the character you’ve created. That means, you must love the hero as well as the villain or your depiction will be tainted. Do not write from your villain’s point of view, even if great writers like Dean Koontz have.
2) You will have a free-flowing pipeline for inspiration if you just let your imagination guide you. Stop working so hard to find a great story. Be aware of the world around you. Something will click. A news bite, a line spoken in a movie, an incident occurring on the street as you’re walking along, even a television commercial can spark an idea. Relax, but listen, watch for it. And then let it roll around in your mind. If something strikes you, take a walk, sit quietly. If you’ve a creative bent your mind will begin to create the world and the people within that world. But struggling to find a story will shut down your imagination.
3) Read, read, read mysteries! Read the classics! Study and define what is great about the heavy-hitters of literature.
4) Know what you are talking about. If you know nothing about forensics, don’t make your detective the chief medical examiner. If your plot revolves around a particular profession, beware! You had better know all about that job or someone will call you out. I don’t think you have to write within your comfort zone, but if you venture out into an area of which you know nothing about, become well informed and do extensive research before you proceed.
5) Get an editor! Not just a copy editor, but someone who can detect inconsistencies in your story and can tell you when too much is too much and where you are lacking. No matter how scrupulous you think you are in keeping track of clues and timelines, you will miss something important. Friends, family, are often the worst editors. (Sorry if there are typos in this posting. Can’t find the spell check icon on WordPress anymore!)
6) Listen to criticism from people who have your best interests at heart, but beware the glowing reviews from parents and people who love you. Give your mystery manuscript to people you know who actually read mysteries. Are you secure enough to stand by a work that may be lacking in the essentials of quality writing? Do you understand the elements of style (not just the handbook), and understand what makes a fiction novel truly good? Steer clear of agents who charge you a fee to read and evaluate your book. Don’t fall in love with every single sentence you write. If it’s for effect or makes you appear clever or intelligent, scrap it. If it drives the plot and is not a contrivance, it may remain. Otherwise, as they say in publishing, “murder your darlings.” Write simply and forget the poetry, rein in your tendency toward hyperbole and restrict the metaphors when you start out. Be direct and write what you see happening in the scene playing out through your mind’s eye.
7) Don’t copy other writers, their styles, their approaches. Just respect them and what they do. You have your own voice.
8) Agents who want you to describe your work in a query, likening it to a popular author’s style are people to run from. Check out Predators & Editors, an on-line site to see what other writers think of individual agents and publishing houses. These days it’s all right to self-publish, but keep away from those vanity press companies. For a big fee they will do all the work—cover art, printing—because they want to sell you 500 copies of your book that you will never be able to sell on your own. Instead, hire a good compositor and graphic artist to design your cover and set the type, like my guy, Eric Conover, and a good copy-editor to find those typos, a professional, like my gal, Shelley, and give him/her your best and cleanest manuscript. Always produce a paper version of your book as a POD (print on demand) option at the same time you release your ebook.
9) Beware writers’ groups! Why depend on other aspiring writers to tell you if your work is good or bad? Believe me, these people are only interested in what they are writing. They don’t give a hoot about your progress. Unless you have a great instructor who dares tell you the truth and can zone-in on your problems with composition in order to set you on a track for success, it’s a waste of time. Best to read the thoughts of established authors for guidance, take classes in composition at a local college and classes in literature.
10) Carefully consider the narrative’s point of view. Should the book be written in the first person or the third? This decision sets the tone of your book. Never refer to the reader by the use of “you” when using the first person—i.e: “you how it is when things go wrong.” It breaks down the fourth wall. When your character is talking to himself it is all right. Only one writer I know has ever gotten away with that approach. Jack Finney. But his stories were so original and compelling that he was forgiven. You have to learn the rules in order to break the rules.
11) Practice! I don’t remember which famous writer said, “You have to write a thousand pages of crap before you can become a writer.” Take that to heart.
12) If you’re not enjoying the challenge, play golf, collect stamps. Not everybody has the talent or the stamina to become an author. Don’t expect to make a fortune. It shouldn’t be about money. It should be an artistic endeavor.
Best of luck, and with a sincere wish you will see your literary dreams come true!
Until next time,
On this Friday the 13th, with a full moon and the expectations of shooting flares from the sun to herald this auspicious day, it is only fitting that Murder Story, my new noir mystery and suspense novel is now launched and available in print and in ebook. Whether or not the stars are properly aligned, I don’t really know. You can’t have it all.
Murder Story is a different kind of journey for my readers, a darker one, a more menacing tale than my usual humorous Dorothy Parker Mystery fare, even though the roots of the story were actually planted in my last Dorothy Parker novel, The Murder Club, where six authors in search of murder plots for their new novels meet to discuss and perfect their books’ crime scenarios. I wanted to develop the relationships of the six authors first introduced in The Murder Club, and in a funny way Murder Story exists in a sort of parallel noir universe; the fictional characters are the same, but the plot of this book and their fates are very much altered. Don’t get the wrong idea; there is nothing Sci-fi about it. Pure NOIR!
The action takes place in New York’s Greenwich Village on the eve of the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Add to that the ambiance of seedy artists’ cafes, cheesy flats squeezed along cobblestone streets, the sub-culture of the writer’s life, and the test of a man’s character. I hope you want to read it! It’s available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Nobel, and available at bookstores and book websites worldwide.
Buy the soft-cover version and you can purchase the ebook for an additional $1.99. A good deal for a journey back in time.
Hope you enjoy it. (And the movie, too, when it gets optioned.)
Until next time,
In My Winter Solitude
These are days to be savored. The snow is piled up nearly obscuring the view of the neighborhood porches, and I am happily wrapped in my bathrobe, cozy and warm and in a sort of self-imposed sequester. Where, in the spring, summer and fall, I am outdoors at every opportunity, during these snowbound days, I prefer to remain inside, alone with my characters.
I could not be more content in my little home, in my stuffed leather chair, laptop on my lap, my feet up, and the muses conferring in my head. My fingers trip rapidly along the keyboard for hours—which pass like minutes—at a time. I stop as soon as I am about to open a new door leading to new revelations in my story, as if pausing a DVD movie for a bathroom break. I feast on left over Chinese take-out purchased yesterday—shrimp in garlic sauce—and I relish every morsel of it before returning to the laptop, to my new friends, the characters who tell their story to me, that I might relay it to my readers out there.
There is nothing so wonderful as reading a book; nothing so mystical as writing a book. Yes, there are the joys of relationships, the love of my parents, the bloom of romance that I’ve been fortunate enough to have known; the births of my children, the joy of friendships, but writing a book is an experience so compelling that it, too, has a place in the long list of pleasures in my life.
Not every moment is bliss. There are multitudes of struggles along the way. But when you’ve gone over the hurdles at the initial stages of crafting a story, the rest of the ride is exhilarating, let me tell you!
Last night, as happens frequently when I am closing in on the last quarter of a novel, I fell asleep for about half an hour, only to awaken to thoughts filled with ideas leading to the story’s conclusion. I suddenly had great insight into what had to be done. Or, should I say, my characters, having come alive in my head, were making demands. It was as if everything I had already written leading up to the story’s denouement had presented a perfect resolution. No snags, no loose ends, no complications. That’s when I decided to challenge myself. I was about to add a few complications to characters’ lives.
As in real life, characters in fiction might think they know where they’re going, but things don’t always work out as you plan. You know the expression: Man plans; God laughs. Authors are like mini-gods, moving their poor fictional plebeians around for their own amusement. Now, at three in the morning, after three hours of just thinking, moving these make-believe people around here and there, like chess pieces, having one show up here, changing my mind and telling him to go home–is the action happening on a streetcar—No! We’re at Chumley’s, the speakeasy! That’s better, because. . . . As I maneuvered my people around, I suddenly take a sharp turn, an unexpected turn, and new possibilities arise for the ending.
Writing is mostly thinking. An author of mysteries plots with deductive reasoning, but there is also a lot of intuitive thinking, too. Yes, characters must behave within constricts of their personality traits and moral convictions, but a writer must trust his intuitive abilities when setting a course for their characters to travel.
So, now that my new book is done in my head, and I am rapidly translating those brain morsels onto the page, I find myself grateful to have this wonderful and, yes, mystical experience, of storytelling. To make things even better, a lovely pomodoro sauce I cooked awaits me, that I will have it atop penne tonight!
Until next time,
Why is it that whenever I close the cover for the last time on a really good book I feel this sense of loss? Is it because I have become so immersed in the world created by the book’s author, that I feel evicted from that world? Or is it just difficult saying goodbye?
I remember a line in Jack Finney’s Time and Again in which the character expressed a sentiment that has always stayed with me at the end of an enchanting book: if it were possible to read it again with the same excitement of discovery as one has on the first reading, I would be so glad! I really become so enraptured by works of fiction that I sometime shed tears after the joy abates.
I wailed at the end of Gone With the Wind. Of course, I had the flu, was thirteen, and I just couldn’t deal with Rhett’s departure, stupid Scarlett.
At the end of A Tale of Two Cities I completely fell apart when Sydney Carton was executed! I was fourteen and highly impressionable. The guillotine was a frightening end for such a noble man. I learned that sometimes doing the right thing can get your head chopped off.
Completing Emil Zola’s L’Assommoir, and experiencing the death from starvation of laundress Gervaise (Nana’s and Eteinne’s Mother in the Les Rougon-Macquart series), I was devastated that all hope had been dashed for my heroine who had struggled against all odds and against drunken, good-for-nothing husbands! I was thirty-something and experienced several of her problems. I could relate, even if I was sufficiently fed.
East of Eden? So much more than the Cain and Abel story focused on in the James Dean movie. And speaking of Steinbeck, I have read Of Mice and Men three times, seen the Broadway play and the movie versions. I dissolve in a puddle every time. I learned from that book that with love there is responsibility, and devotion demands that you have to shoot your own dog (figuratively) or you will always regret having a stranger do it for you.
Raintree County completely undid my strings. (Don’t bother watching the terrible movie. It’s an insult to the book.) It was after some time that I understood that the hero, Johnny Shawnessy, of the tale by Ross Lockridge, Jr. was not really the protagonist, not really. It was the women who circled his life and pulled him like a tide who really propelled the story. I am still in awe of that book and carry its beauty and wisdom with me twenty years after first reading it.
I don’t want them—my new-found friends—to leave me. But, they always send me on my way to make new friends “between the covers”. Other covers, other books, and other people; characters who will enchant me once again when I become happily entrenched in new lives. (Makes me sound like a voyeur, because they don’t hear or see me. I am only peeking into their lives and times.)
Some books I revisit; some are too tender to return to. Some, I have found, disappoint on second reading. I admit that I’ve grown more discerning and my tastes have evolved. So I rarely re-read. But the great books, the ones that have influenced me the most, are the ones that never cease to bring me joy upon my return. Like visiting old and trusted friends: they may age, sometimes well, sometimes they creak. Sometimes you can’t help but see flaws in their natures that you didn’t notice the first time you met them. But you are older and wiser now, too, and are seeing them with more mature eyes. Like family, like lifelong friends’ you see their faults but you still love those people.
Now it’s time to move on. Bring on the next book. It’s time to meet new friends.
Until next time,
It’s official, I have a huge crush on Pete Hamill.
I first read his lovely Christmas story, The Gift, thirty years ago, and Downtown, My Manhattan, is a love letter to New York, the city where I was born, the city that Scott Fitzgerald wrote in My Lost City, had “all the iridescence of the beginning of the world.”
There’s Why Sinatra Matters. Sinatra’s ballads are played in the background of my life, but Pete Hamill’s tribute to the man explores the appeal in such a striking way, and makes us realize why Sinatra had such an impact on our lives. It’s a masterful portrait of Sinatra as the child of Italian immigrants, and like so many of the last century, his angry, lonely struggle to the top. Thank you, Mr. Hamill.
Tabloid City is a modern day tale that unrolls during the demise of a major newspaper, and presents the multi-cultural aspects of our city, as its characters converge violently one winter night.
Recently I bought copies of North River, Forever and Snow in August, and have become even more enamored with the voice behind these stories. Never would I have thought that the meeting in 1947 of nine-year-old Brooklyn altar boy Michael Devlin and Rabbi Judah Hirsh would make for a story that is so compelling, so heartwarming, or that the relationship between a spunky Sicilian immigrant housekeeper and an aging, struggling doctor tending the poor during the 1930s
Depression years could force me to slow my reading so that I might savor the delicacy of the lovely romance. It is the voice behind these stories that is so enchanting. There is heart behind these works of art, a warm heart overriding any cynicism that might be expected in “a New Yorker”.
I have to admit that I have avoided The Drinking Life. I suppose it is the alcoholic aspects of the book, its relative sadness of the condition of alcoholism, that has kept me away. I have seen, firsthand, too many ruined lives. But, it is not about ruin; the title threw me off, I am told, and I should have known better. You can’t tell a book by its title. It is next on my list, because it is Pete Hamill’s own story, a memoir, and I want to know more about this complicated man.
For God’s sake, if you are a New Yorker, or if you’ve always been fascinated with this extraordinary city, read his books! If you haven’t at least sampled some of the writings of New York’s preeminent newspaper editor and columnist, you must do so. But beware. It’s so easy to fall in love.
Until next time,
So I woke up in the middle of the night pondering the concept of the space-time continuum. Yikes!
I sat up and turned on the light, suspecting that I was caught in a Woody Allen film and expecting to see Woody perched at the foot of my bed mumbling his brand of neurotic psycho-babble. “What is the meaning of life?” “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering, and it’s all over too soon.” “What if nothing exists and we’re all in somebody’s dream? “Will somebody please explain olive loaf and why?”
Why would I wake myself up talking about a theory of physics when I had been, moments before, dreaming about landscaping the troublesome patio area around my house. Go figure?
This space-time theory thing disturbed me, of course, as I turned off the light and punched my pillow, and then attempted to nestle back down. I understood that, every moment of my life—each and every experience—is happening simultaneously. This is disturbing, don’t you think? because I am reliving my mistakes—that wrong turn, that fall down the stairs, those regrettable words—I’m repeating them over and over again, and am destined to repeat them for eternity! These miserable experiences are never in my past; they are always in my present—and future. Oy! The mistakes, the bad hurtful times are continually playing out. Like a nightmare! I still have a crush on that gawky boy in high school who wants nothing to do with me, and I am still almost drowning in the undertow at Jones Beach on the fourth summer of my life. Forever suffering loses and reeling from the big and small betrayals from people who professed to love me . . . .
But along with the bad experiences there exist, too, the precious moments that I cherish and which linger out there in time and space; those peak experiences which were, are, will be the product of pure harmony and love. Like me and Mama eating frozen custard at the lunch counter at Gertz’s Department Store and Saturday mornings with Papa vegetable shopping in the outdoor markets under the El in Jamaica, Queens—lemon ice, pumpkin seeds and sesame cookies. Walks with him to the big tree on the hill in the woods across from our house. Secure in the warm affection of my big sisters, constant comforts in my life. I am still sitting down at Sunday dinner after church with the whole family. My brother’s return home from the army makes still makes me happy. The births of my children, seeing their first smiles, watching them take their first steps . . . Mama, Papa, Richard . . . .
Oh, my! I sound like a monologue from Our Town!
As I snuggled down into my pillow, I also realized that the bad times make the good times feel even more precious. Now, if only I could manage to control the flow of my consciousness through the space-time grid, I could linger happily within the embrace of my long-gone loved ones. I could linger in the pleasant feelings when I was a kid pretending I was the invincible Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and later, as a mother, cheering with joy from the bleachers at my kid’s first home run in Little League. Relying on memories alone is sometimes like watching an old, faded silent film, two-dimensional and shadowy . . . . Photographs and videos only make me melancholy because they seem to stretch the distance from the present day back to the event: You can’t quite break through to the past; you can’t reach out and touch it. I become mesmerized for hours sorting through boxes of old family photographs. I am aware of the dangers of living in the past, but I am who I am because of my past. I learned as an actress to “be present in the moment”, and that lesson served me well on stage. In day-to-day living, I try to be conscious of the exercise. Although Now is all-consuming, and I am aware of the space-time continuum thing, I am left to perpetually ponder, what have I done tomorrow?
It’s lovely to imagine—to believe!—that I’m still out there dancing cheek to cheek with that special someone.
Until next time,