4/29/15: Syndromes and Sleuths. In light of current medicine and psychology, it’s safe to say that many great fictional characters clearly fall within the parameters of syndromes outside the “norm.” Is there any doubt that Sherlock Holmes, with his antisocial, obsessive, yet brilliant behaviors could be anything other than an Aspergers’ Syndrome case? Asperger’s, a high-functioning and mild form of autism, shows up in many creative persons, as it focuses an individual on certain habits and tasks, allowing them to avoid the distasteful distractions of society.
Of course, some psychologists (as well as Holmes fanatics) argue that Holmes was not an Asperger’s at all, but rather, someone with schizoid personality disorder (PD). Schizoid, for the uninitiated, is not the same as “schizophrenic.” Not even close; the latter is the famous split-personality disorder, whereas schizoid is associated with, among other things, lack of interest in social interaction, lack of interest in sex, and emotional detachment. Certainly, those could be applied to Holmes. But even with my admittedly superficial knowledge of such things, I’d wager that he was an Asperger’s.
More interesting than the correct diagnosis of Holmes’s personality disorder is that so many fans seem to obsess and debate these points with vehemence. Holmes is a fictional character, after all. Indeed, some are amazed that Doyle could write an Asperger’s character at all, many decades before Hans Asperger even diagnosed and described the disorder in 1944. Why a reader would find that surprising is a mystery. Just because the label didn’t exist doesn’t mean the syndrome and the individuals with it didn’t exist. Doyle observed real persons with specific personality traits and built a character around them. It’s called “writing.”
4/28/15: Sherlock’s Arch-Nemesis. For all the myth that’s grown up around the diabolical Professor James Moriarty over the years, he’s really a bit of a disappointment. He actually only appears in two of Arthur Conan Doyle's original Holmes stories. The first, “The Final Problem,” (1893) was written as a way out of the Sherlock Holmes rut Doyle felt trapped in. He’d tired of writing the character and wanted to stop. The logical way to stop was to kill Holmes, but Holmes was practically untouchable in his brilliance; no run-of-the-mill hoodlum was going to kill him.
So Doyle invented an evil genius, someone as brilliant, perhaps even more brilliant, as Holmes himself. James Moriarty, the mathematician, mastermind in deep hiding, untouchable in his own right, controller of a vast network of criminals in London. So far, so good. Here’s an adversary at last worthy of Holmes.
Yet the only evidence of Moriarty’s genius in the story is that Holmes keeps insisting upon it. As Holmes puts it:
"He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them...”
The evil professor doesn’t actually demonstrate anything particularly clever in the story. He has one of his minions try to kill Holmes by dropping a brick on him from a nearby building in London. That’s right. A brick. At least Dr. Evil tries to use sharks with laser beams. At the very least, hire a sniper and shoot him from a hundred yards away.
Anyway, the oft-praised climax—the fight at the top of Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, in which both Holmes and Moriarty plunge to their deaths, is a dud as well. Nobody actually sees the high-stakes duel. Watson doesn’t see the fight. He just sees the evidence of it and a note from Holmes saying that he’s taking Moriarty down with him.
But anyway, Holmes’s death was assumed by everyone, including Doyle. Sherlock was dead, and the author could get on to other projects at last.
Doyle, however, was a literary superstar by this point, and Holmes was beloved around the world. His fans (a Victorian herd of Trekkies) would have none of it. Angry letters poured in, and Doyle reluctantly resurrected his great detective. In a weak literary device, so vital to modern soap operas, Holmes simply returned from the dead, having dragged himself to safety from the falls.
The Moriarty-Holmes contests had the potential to be fantastic yarns. Instead, the opportunity was missed, mostly because of Moriarty’s original purpose of serving as a labor-saving device for Doyle. Pity. The Moriarty seen in works by other authors, and in particular in film, lives up to what the guy should have given us. Let’s go with that one, and not the original.
2/10/15: What's In a Name? Part 8: Gun Moll. In early 20th century gangland, the “gun moll” became a pop culture fixture. Basically just the girlfriend of a mobster, the gun moll was an unwitting gift from the underworld to movie-makers of the1930s, who seemed fixated upon gangster movies. The gun moll provided a ready-made, true-to-life, and camera-friendly visual icon. Eye-candy on the arm of the tough guy. Dress her in gaudy, revealing clothes, have her smack chewing gum loudly and talk like a baby, and you’re in movie shorthand business, often with a bit of comic relief.
The term grew from the simpler and much older slang term, “moll,” which in turn was short for Molly (according to some sources, it was short for Mary, which begs the question, shouldn’t she then be a “mare?”). A molly was a term for whore or prostitute back in the 17th century. Side note: be careful to research baby names thoroughly before selecting one for your child. You don’t want them to hate you forever.
You never hear “moll” used anymore. Which is a shame. Although, apparently the word still enjoys usage in Australia, that continent of weird terms, and refers to any promiscuous or “easy” girl.
Not content to remain pleasant distractions, some gun molls became big names unto themselves, most notably Bonnie Parker, of Bonnie and Clyde fame. Bonnie, who actually was quite a cute thing (just as portrayed by Hollywood), had no reservations about ventilating you with her shotgun if the situation called for it. And although Bonnie and Clyde somehow carved a niche in the national psyche as populist Robin Hoods of a sort, truth was, they’d much prefer knocking over a small gas station than a powerful bank. Plus, they left a string of thirteen dead during their cross-country crime spree. Such a charming couple.
2/8/2015: What's In a Name? Part 7: The Slipped Mickey. Colorful crime slang owes a great debt to colorful criminals. Case in point, the slipped mickey. As in, “The room started to spin. My knees buckled; I glanced at my Scotch on the rocks, jiggled it, dropped it. The dame laughed, and gave me a shove. I fell like a sack of potatoes. She’d slipped me a mickey.” Standard plot device, and where would private eye tales be without it?
The mickey, or sometimes “mickie,” or sometimes “Mickey Finn.” Obviously, the last handle is a giveaway as to its origins.
Bartender Mickey Finn slung drinks and managed the Lone Star Saloon in Chicago from 1896 to 1903. Before going into that line, he had built a reputation as a cheap pickpocket and thief, with a penchant for singling out drunks as targets. It’s a sound business model, to be sure. I’ll bet most of the victims never reported the crime or told their wives (“Honey, it don’t matter none that I got so hammered I couldn’t pick my head up off the bar; I’m the victim here, and I’m feeling mighty traumatized…is there an 1890s reality show I can go on?”).
A “Mickey Finn Special” was the delightful drink served. Finn himself, or sometimes one of his “house girls,” would sneak a little of the “white stuff”—most likely, chloral hydrate, of which Finn had in ample supply--into the drink of the unsuspecting drunk. Zonk! Mr. Drunk is now bombed out of his gourd. Easy pickings. He’d be robbed and dumped in the alley, and would probably remember nothing other than getting sloshed.
Apparently, Mr. Finn kept beat cops on the dole so that they’d overlook his less savory business practices. We might also safely assume that the house girls weren’t really only there for cleaning and bartending; one of them, a friendly lady (for rent by the hour) named Mary “Gold Tooth” Thornton, was available for rent by the hour. Ms. Gold Tooth provided testimony in 1903 about Finn’s bar, and the resulting newspaper accounts ran breathless stories describing Finn’s use of “knockout drops” on customers. Mickey Finn’s bar was ordered closed after the public dustup of 1903. Later, in 1918, Finn was arrested again, this time for operating an illegal bar.
Given all this, it’s highly probable that this bit of Chicago lore is the origin of the term “Mickey Finn.” However, nothing is ever certain, is it? Mike or Mickey Finn was a pretty common Irish name, so there’s a chance the slang term had some other foundation.
A variant on the “knockout drops” form of the Mickey Finn was the “purgative” form. It’s like it sounds; instead of rendering one unconscious, it renders them with an undeniable need to evacuate the bowels. Serve it to the dickhead you want to leave the bar, and he’ll surely be leaving in short order. Not a bad idea, that one.
2/2/15: Ripping Yarns. Similarly to the way Shakespeare's identity has become a lucrative enterprise, a name-that-monster industry has sprung up around Jack the Ripper. Every couple of years, someone makes a splash with new claims to having uncovered the identity of the Ripper. And instantly there are howls of protest by those scholars who have previously proven that Jack was someone else altogether. Why all the claims, why all the indignation? Because money—big money—is at stake.
Now it would be nice if the true identity of the Ripper were somehow discovered, if for no other reason than to put an end to all the silliness and “proof.” And maybe some DNA identification breakthrough will indeed yield an answer. Guess what? We’re in luck!
In 2002, bestselling suspense author Patricia Cornwell was lured into the fray, and published Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. Ignore if you can the clumsy three-part title for a second and consider her “proof” of the Ripper’s identity. The Ripper was the diabolical Walter Sickert, Cornwell says, basing a lot of arguments on his funny penis shape. Yeah. She said that.
Now I trust in Cornwell’s extensive research. However, that doesn’t mean she didn’t snag a few facts and run with them. Snagging-and-running doesn’t constitute scholarship, much less actual proof. And indeed, the other Ripper scholars (if they can legitimately be called that) piled on to—dare I say it?—rip her conclusions to shreds.
In summer, 2014, another story broke that a genetics “expert” and his well-heeled businessman sidekick had solved the case, employing brilliant DNA analysis. People fall over themselves if someone mentions the magic letters, “DNA,” so one must take it seriously. This time, the Ripper was identified as one Aaron Kosminski.
The story was trumpeted, without peer review, in UK’s Daily Mail, not exactly a bastion of journalistic integrity. And sure enough, by October the story had unraveled, once actual experts got a look at the evidence. The claimed “rare mutation” that was the major DNA clue, it turns out, isn’t rare at all. The flaw, of course, is that crime-solving contemporary to the Ripper’s day generally consisted of beating the shit out of suspects until someone—and often, many--confessed. The term deoxyribonucleic acid had not even been invented yet, and “custody of evidence,” so crucial in DNA-related evidence even today, was a fantasy. So how can the results, even sketchy results like those obtained, be trusted?
They can’t. Although, admittedly, the guy fingered in this new evidence has long been considered one of the prime suspects.
Now in my own Ripper short story, “The Wreck of the Edinburgh Kate,” I unveil him as a specific man with a specific past. But this is fiction. For entertainment. I have no wish to have it mistaken for fact or history. Of course, I would hope that even the fans of my story would question my motives for doubting the claims of others. Obviously, if someone proves the Ripper is someone else, then my story loses its legs. But that’s what skepticism is all about and why it’s a healthy thing.
12/28/14: Stealing Shakespeare's Soul for Fun and Profit. Unlike literary types of today, William Shakespeare jumped genre lines fearlessly. He drew upon historical drama, war, suspense, horror, the supernatural, fantasy, and comedy without fear of labels. The scope of his work astounds. Which of course provides the basis of the post-Shakespeare, lucrative industry of “proving” his true identity.
These multiple claimed proofs yield a bounty of amusement (and annoyance). Self-styled scholars and hacks have proved, at least to their own satisfaction, Shakespeare to be over eighty different persons now. Serious scholars rightfully dismiss these claims as so much horse shit, but that doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of revisionists.
Why do they do this, especially since no one in Shakespeare’s actual time doubted his authorship? The obvious answer is that because there’s no way this man of humble beginnings could really have been that smart, right? Seriously, that seems to be the main reason for all this nonsense.
So who has he been proven to be? Well, one of the most favored suspects is Sir Francis Bacon. Truly a brilliant essayist, philosopher, and statesman in his own right, and few would dispute that. Never mind that he never wrote a single play under his own name. So why would he scribble out these magnificent works of art and hand them over to some doofus in the theater? Because, his proponents say… drum roll… he was such a huge star he couldn’t risk not being taken seriously if he were unmasked as a lowly playwright! That’s right. His boosters think people would have thought less of him if it were discovered that he’d penned Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Tempest. Who’d want to be blamed for that? This argument is so monumentally idiotic it blows the rest of any arguments for Bacon right out of the water.
Another jaw-dropping claim is that Will was in fact none other than Queen Elizabeth. Wow. Much of the same arguments are made for her authorship as were made for Bacon. Too important, too royal, to be associated with something as silly as groundbreaking masterpieces, blah blah blah.
Ultimately, one could argue that this type of silliness gets back to elitism; never give credit for genius to someone not high-born. There’s a degree of that, to be sure, especially in England which has centuries of classism obscuring rational thought. But Americans fall for this stuff too, so, like with most things, it comes down to nothing more than some goofballs, who feel no obligation to the truth, trying to cash in.
And so, the easiest prediction one can make is: this isn’t going to stop as long as there’s a buck to be made.
12/12/14: The Past Writ Large: A Chat about History in Suspense Fiction with William Burton McCormick. I met the talented Bill McCormick a couple of years ago when we were co-panelists on an International Thriller Writers presentation. Karin Slaughter was the headliner, and the rest of us scrambled and fought over her glittering, perfect crumbs. McCormick is an amazing young talent; his novel, Lenin's Harem, brings to life an important and forgotten corner of the 20th century. I'll call this Q&A, "Spill, Bill. Volume 1." Because it's my blog and I can.
Welcome, Bill. Enough of that. Now talk about yourself and your work.
I’m from a small town in Nevada outside of Las Vegas, went to college in Providence, RI, and since have lived and worked all over the United States and in six other countries.
Why six countries? Well, if I do a little dime store self-analysis, I think that first move from the desert of Nevada to snowy New England at the age of eighteen was so illuminating, such a voyage of discovery, that it ultimately took me around the globe. All the Old World shadows in Providence, I guess. It was like going back in time. So, New England lead to “Old” England, then onto Continental Europe, and finally over to Eastern Europe. And, of course, it became quite natural to write about what I discovered there.
So, in short, I write thrillers and historical fiction set mainly in Eastern Europe. I report back what I learn (fact) or what I’m inspired to create (fact-based fiction). Everyone always accuses me of being a spy over here, it’s a running joke with my friends, but in a way I am spying, it all goes into my writing (though my work can be read outside of Langley, Virginia, I promise).
Maybe you are a spy. Even a double-agent… Anyway, your novel, Lenin’s Harem, gets to the heart of European ethnic divisions and animosities in the early part of the 20th century. Tell us about the genesis of the novel.
I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and had dreamed up a rather generic thriller. I wanted to set it somewhere in Eastern Europe, but didn’t really have an idea where. I went to the Latvian Museum in Maryland and bought a few Latvian history books to sort of consider that country as a possibility. I read about the events that happened to the people in Latvia in the early 20th century, and what an important role Latvians played in the birth of the Soviet Union. They were kingmakers really, and their people were dreadfully punished by those same Soviets afterwards. I realized this was a more gripping story than my thriller. So I tore up the old book and wrote a serious historical novel.
“Lenin’s Harem,” by the way, refers to a group of Latvian soldiers that protected Lenin early in the Bolshevik Revolution. The book, as some will surely be disappointed to learn, has nothing to do with Lenin’s love life. It’s really about a young man and his family trying to survive the revolution and both World Wars and to find their own identity when the sides are changing constantly.
The World War I gas attack depicted in the novel is gripping, and the cloud becomes almost a living thing.
Yes, those were truly horrific events along the Daugava River in Latvia. I spent several weeks researching that one chapter. I wanted to show the conditions at Saulkalne accurately. Considering so many people died it would be a dishonor to do otherwise. Many readers mention those scenes as some of my best writing.
Lenin’s Harem became a bestseller in Latvia. Are you a rock star there? Literary groupies beating your door down?
Well, it was a good seller. I wouldn’t call it a bestseller. I’m not close to a rock star, I haven’t got the clothes or the big hair, or the musical ability (if that’s required) but I’ve been on television, the radio, and in print interviews over here. I’ve been recognized a couple of times on the street and in cafes, and many people seem to know the book.
I’m still waiting on the literary groupies. Should I give out my number? Hopefully they arrive by the time you publish this interview.
Being a small country sandwiched between powerful, aggressive neighbors kind of sucks, as Poland could attest. Are the national psyches of Latvia and the other Baltic states still defined by this situation?
Absolutely. You can still feel it in certain national attitudes, a cynicism, and distrust of foreigners, and the recent increase in tensions with Russia hasn’t helped.
The novel, if pigeonholed into a genre, would likely be “historical drama,” yet employs elements of mystery and suspense, and the war scenes remind me of Alistair MacLean’s early work, Hemingway, and most especially of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. What say you?
It is interesting you mention MacLean as he was one of my earliest influences. I can still remember being eleven or twelve and reading The Guns of Navarone at our hotel in Disneyland and thinking this was far more thrilling than any of the rides.
All Quiet on the Western Front was also in my mind when I was writing all the World War I scenes in the novel. I hoped to touch on a fraction of the “soldier’s view” the reader gets in that masterpiece.
On the flip side, your short stories plumb the realms of mystery, suspense, adventure, and thriller, but employ historical settings. The great challenge in historical settings is the research and getting it right. It’s one thing to look up details, and another thing altogether to understand them and how daily life went. You took the extraordinary step of moving to Latvia for the sake of getting it right.
Well, it started with the novel. Maybe other authors can do it, but I couldn’t live in America and write an accurate historical novel about a foreign country. I had to go there, absorb it, talk to the inhabitants, to the survivors and descendents of survivors of the wars and occupations, to see the culture then and now, the landscape, the architecture. Total immersion, I suppose. But it was worth it, I learned something every day useful in writing. And I still do. I’ve more ideas than I’ll ever get on the page.
And doing the research, to get the details of history, it’s obvious, of course, but the best source is personal accounts. I’ve worked with museum curators and historians in these countries, and they’ve introduced me to people who have lived through the events I want to describe, or for some of the older events at least their parents lived through them. Even if I am using a translator (as I usually do) you can still tell the emotions and the feelings. That’s what an academic history book can never really give you. It can tell you what happened, but not how it felt, not what people were thinking in the moment without the passage of time for perspective. Those you get from interviews.
You received a degree in Novel Writing in England, and England of course has an illustrious history of crime fiction. Did you lurk the streets of London, visiting Sherlock Holmes sites, and the like?
I didn’t really go to any Sherlock Holmes sites like Baker Street. But I did visit London’s East End and go to all the sites of the Jack the Ripper murders. It’s really disturbing when you go there and see how small an area we are talking about. All the killings were within a quarter mile of each other or so. When you actually get a feel for the scale, with literally a million people living there, it is even more amazing Jack never got caught. Still chilling well over a century later.
I also seriously researched the anarchist movement in early twentieth century England while living there. I’ve drafted a whole novel on it, just need to get about editing it.
What authors inspired your loves of suspense and history? What standout works pushed you in this direction?
Well, in crime fiction I’d say Hammett above all else, with a lot of Conan Doyle, Graham Greene, and James Ellroy, and more recently Ian Rankin, though none of them are really suspense writers in the modern Dean Koontz way. The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Thin Man, The Third Man, The Hound of the Baskervilles, L.A. Confidential, Black Dahlia, and Rankin’s Watchman, these are all major crime novels for me. But for real suspense, I look outside the medium to Hitchcock. I love his films, how he plays the audience like a violin, and preys on their expectations. When doing suspense, I try to translate his tricks and method to the written form. I’m not always successful, but a cinematic quality is something I consciously try to include in my writing. I envision how Hitch might shoot a scene, and do my best to describe it to my readers. Hitchcock is one of my primary influences without a doubt (or should I say, without a Shadow of a Doubt).
Also, sometimes I like my suspense to build slowly with the idea that the reader might be more aware of what is happening than the narrator. I love that feeling of helplessness when as a reader, I am fully aware that something dreadful is behind that door, but can’t stop the protagonist from opening it. It is often very subtle. For that I look to M.R. James and his wonderful Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and his later collections. Whether you are doing a ghost story or a conventional suspense story, he gives you the technique for the slow build. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” too, is masterfully suspenseful (as well as horrific).
I actually don’t read a lot of historical fiction. Instead I read and watch a lot historical nonfiction which in turn inspires my fiction. I am voracious in my history reading, everything from Livy’s The War with Hannibal, to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, to Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, to the Unknown War, to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, in terms of weaving a historical narrative, Killer Angels should be mentioned too.
Are there other genres you dabble in?
I have a few “non-historical” writings. And, I have a farce/satire in my best P.G. Wodehouse-meets-Blackadder mode called “The Great Odessa Race of 1905,” but as the title suggest, it has a historical setting.
I also write video game dialogue scripts. Is that a genre?
We’ve joked that all Lenin’s Harem needed was a teen vampire to push it to the top. In all seriousness, the tone of your writing, as well as the settings, would lend itself well to horror. Any thoughts of giving that genre a try?
I have a paranormal mystery story that definitely could be called “soft horror” entitled “The Antiquary’s Wife.” As the title suggests, it shows the M.R. James influence I mentioned earlier. So, yes that is slowly building gothic horror. Not too interested in the blood-and-guts sort of thing.
If you were stranded on a desert island in the middle of the Pacific, with but one suspense genre novel or anthology to see you through, what would it be?
Well, the most suspenseful novel I’ve read was probably Jaws. I remember being unable to put that down (at least, until the last three chapters when Benchley rips off Moby-Dick). I read that book in one night. Of course, if I’m really stranded on a desert island, it may not be a good idea to ponder all the gigantic carnivorous fish close by. If that’s the case I’ll go with The Day of the Jackal.
What does the future hold for young Bill McCormick?
I don’t know about young Bill McCormick, but this old one has a few short stories coming out, including the 2012 Derringer finalist “Blue Amber” and a new one as part of The Prometheus Saga, a collection of interconnected historical fiction/science fiction short stories written by the authors of The Alvarium Experiment beehive (including you, of course, Ken). Hope to see that early in 2015.
Then I expect the second edition of Lenin’s Harem to be published in English. And I have some new longer fiction. A suspense novella called Mr. Humble which contains characters from “The Antiquary’s Wife,” and two new novels. One is a modern mystery set in Riga, Latvia, and another work of serious historical fiction on the Forest Brothers of Latvia/Lithuania, partisans who held out against the Soviet occupations well into 1950s. That should keep me busy until 2016 or so.
That and waiting on the literary groupies.
Thanks, Bill, and best of luck!
9/17/14: I Feel Your Pain: A Chat about Fictional Injuries with M.J. Carlson. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing science fiction author and Renaissance Man M.J. Carlson speak a couple of times on the topic of injury in fiction. Carlson—one of those rare individuals that might justifiably be called a polymath—brings a wealth of real-world experience and expertise to his writing. I’ve incorporated Carlson’s tips into my writing when trying to describe what happens when one of my fictional characters gets subjected to the physical abuse I love subjecting them to, so I coerced him into sitting down to an interview. Enjoy!
Describe your background, education, and experience, MJ...
Diverse. I’ve supported myself at different times by copy editing at a newspaper, doing pencil sketches of people, working on motorcycles, driving a truck, designing commercial building sites and power generation plants, and restarting the occasional heart. I’ve been homeless and taken strangers into my house because they were. I even studied and taught Okinawan martial arts for a few years. As for education, I’ve studied art, and have degrees in engineering technology, natural science, microbiology, and medicine. So, I guess you could say I get bored easily.
I became interested in this subject through conversations with a good friend. Our conversations gradually deepened and I ended up with enough research to put together a talk on the subject that I occasionally do for writers groups.
What does Hollywood get wrong about injuries?
Hmm, in most cases, almost everything. It must also be said that Hollywood is less concerned with “getting it right” than telling a story, maintaining the audience’s interest, and building tension, which is mostly as it should be.
Let’s set some parameters. What we’re talking about here is not the objective view of an injury (what another character would see), but the subjective experience of that injury to the character who experiences it. That’s vastly different and substantially more difficult to write about for a lot of reasons. Also, we’ll leave illness alone, because it’s a big topic and injuries are much more fun.
What does Hollywood get right?
Good question. The film Regarding Henry, written by J. J. Abrams, managed to tell an engaging story about a man who experienced brain damage from blood loss after being accidentally shot witnessing a robbery. It’s a wonderful story with an unexpectedly happy ending and I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to do so. There are many other instances where verisimilitude doesn’t hurt the drama or the tension, so clearly, it can be done.
The other thing Hollywood does get fairly closely, is the external experience, i.e. what we would see or hear from the vantage point of another character. In all fairness, it’s really hard to bring internal experiences to film. Generally, more recent (within the past decade) work is better.
What are some glaring or glowing examples of the above? Movies or TV… what makes you roll your eyes?
Glaring? Gosh. Short answer; American television. Long answer; American film, novels, and television. There’s one series that sticks out and that I use in a talk I do for other writers on this subject, and that I probably shouldn’t mention by name. Anyway, in one episode the main character, is, over the course of about four minutes, knocked unconscious, shot (either in the upper chest or shoulder, it’s never really clear), tied to a welded aluminum chair, which she wedges against a convenient protruding piece of steel and breaks, after said gunshot injury. Then, she wrestles a 70-pound compressed air cylinder into position on a pile of bricks, hammers the valve off with a wrench to blow a door open, runs up a flight of stairs, disables two trained men using hand-to-hand techniques, shoots a third with the gun she took from one, and escapes into a city at night, on foot––all after being shot, you’ll recall, and the response to this superhuman capability is––adrenaline. Don’t get me wrong, adrenaline is a wonderful drug, but come on.
Glowing? Several excellent examples come readily to mind. Generally, English literature, film, and television do a much better job with the subjective experience of injuries. The series Sherlock, for instance. Authors would include Terry Pratchett, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Dean Koontz, Richard K. Morgan, Steven J. Cannell, and Paolo Bacigalupi. Sorry, if I missed your favorite. It wasn’t intentional.
What common mistakes do writers make?
Single biggest mistake? Using an injury as a convenient plot device. Sometimes, it seems any time a writer needs a character silenced, moved, or subdued, they just “whack ’em on the head” with the proverbial blunt object, after which, the character is good as new. Another, and this is pure Hollywood hype, is the idea of “just winging” a character; that a character can be shot in an extremity and there will be no significant consequences––ever. In reality, there are some really big blood vessels and nerves that run through the shoulders and upper legs, and blood loss is still blood loss, bones do break, and paralyzed is usually forever.
Next is using the inaccuracies of other writers for research. I’m the first one to admit that medical text books are a great substitute for [insert your favorite sleeping medicine], the information is often buried under tons of material irrelevant for writers’ purposes, and the Internet is often no help. There is so much misinformation out there it’s impossible for the average person to separate the wheat from the chaff. If I can make a shameless plug here, I hope to have a book available on this subject, sometime in 2015. To the best of my knowledge, there’s currently no other similar work available, anywhere.
I’m buying a copy of that book when it’s out. Now then: do writers take their cues from Hollywood?
Often, I think that’s the case. There seems to be a pervasive attitude, especially in Hollywood, that the main character of any story must border on the superhuman (I’m lookin’ at you, Bruce Willis). I think that’s because Americans grew up surrounded by the “anything is possible,” “larger than life” Paul Bunyan myth. We often view historical figures the same way, when they were mostly ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. That’s why I personally prefer to use regular people as characters. I find them more interesting. Besides, I have a low threshold for superhero stories, whatever the genre, after which I just find them tedious.
When does the writer cross the line of believability?
Whenever the truth takes second place to convenience. Superhero stories aside, if you find yourself writing a scene that involves a significant injury to your POV character and they’re still able to run from or chase the bad guy (I won’t mention any names), the scene has probably missed the mark. I was told once that fiction isn’t reality, but mimics reality––that is, to tell a story and be believable without being mundane.
What are some good resources for believable writing?
As I said earlier, most anything within the past 10 to15 years written in the UK. The Harry Potter series has some very believable injuries told from the character’s POV. Also, authors in the UK aren’t as hampered by the American “journalistic style” of writing. Their stories have much more individual voice.
What’s the most important thing for a writer to grasp about injuries to their characters?
That sometimes injuries to their characters have significant impact, not only on the character him or herself, but on the other characters and the story. While the body is resilient and pretty tough, we are still governed by physics and made mostly of squishy, brittle, vulnerable stuff, and a significant injury is nature’s way of telling your character to slow down, at least temporarily.
Which contemporary writer gets it right?
I can think of several that at least have perspicacious moments (wow, I thought I’d never work that word into sentence––that’s a check-mark on my bucket list). Anyway, the names I mentioned above are my go-to list. Except for Cannell, they’re all living authors.
Robin Cook. Michael Crichton. Tess Gerritsen. F. Paul Wilson… physicians have gone on to become bestselling authors in the various genres of suspense or science fiction. Have any favorites?
I’ve read and enjoyed all these authors in turn. The nice part for me, trained in science and engineering as I am, is that their backgrounds usually won’t let them stray too far from reality. Their characters mostly behave in believable ways, physiologically as well as psychologically. They often write darn good stories, as well. I would include Rivka Galchen. Her book Atmospheric Disturbances is based on Capgras Syndrome, a rare disorder where an individual believes his or her spouse has been replaced by an exact duplicate. There’s a long history of physicians and scientists being authors. I like to think it’s because we’re trained to think in terms of cause and effect, and to tell a story, albeit a very concise story.
Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician. I would count him, because the forensic methods he introduced in his Sherlock Holmes series bordered on science fiction at the time. As for science fiction specifically, the obvious is Michael Crichton, but there’s also David H. Keller, who wrote science fiction, horror, and fantasy under at least six pen names, and Alan E. Nourse. Alison Sinclair, Janet Asimov (yep, his wife), Alex Comfort, who also wrote The Joy of Sex, and F. Paul Wilson.
Do you suppress your science side for the sake of story?
I try not to. For instance, the main character of my first book is hit by two cars, shot (twice, actually) and incapacitated by a stun gun in different parts of the story. His natural healing time is altered considerably by nanotechnology he isn’t aware he possessed, but that was a topic of conversation over twenty years ago, when I was in graduate school. All of my stories are set in the future, and involve technology that today’s readers would recognize, but not necessarily understand, much like a person from the 1920s would recognize a modern car, but not know how to operate it. I like to use technology, in some form, as the central element of the story.
What scares you the most in the world today?
The steady erosions of personal freedom and privacy. We ignore things today with little more than a shrug that would have prompted Chekhov to write an 800-page novel. It’s a recurring theme in my writing, as well as other authors, like Dean Koontz.
What gives you hope in the world today?
The human spirit. Not in the religious sense, but the underlying thing inside people that make us strive to be better and to care about each other.
Any other thoughts?
Lots. Oh, you mean that anyone else might be interested in reading. In the end, a story carries an implicit contract between the author and the reader. It’s the author’s job to write an engaging story that encourages suspension of disbelief, transports readers to new places, introduces them to new characters, and provides them with entertainment and escape. The reader’s job is to find, enjoy, and share those works with others. It doesn’t matter how realistic a character’s experience is. Sometimes we strive for that element because the best lie is often the one with the most truth. However, if, by the end of the story, the writer and the reader have connected on an emotional level and shared an intimate view of the world, we’ve been successful.
M.J. Carlson is an award-winning SF author. Check out his new novel Changed.
9/15/14: Rod's Second Act. Everyone old recalls the early 60s TV series The Twilight Zone, and just about everyone young has at least seen episodes of the show replayed on cable. This is a good thing, for the most part, and Rod Serling will be forever remembered for his clipped, scowling, delivery as he introduced each segment, his unibrow clenching and flexing with great portent. And the intro music—doo DOO doo doo, doo DOO doo doo—is embedded in the pop culture hive mind as shorthand for spooky weirdness.
But for my money, Serling’s later and largely forgotten series, The Night Gallery, was as good or better than TZ. For some reason, the earlier series developed this aura about it, or at least a respectable patina. Certainly the black and white of TZ lent it an aura of mystery and noir atmosphere, something lost in the color broadcasts of the later series. But only some of that TZ love is truly deserved. Now don’t label me a blasphemer and gather with pitchforks in the plaza below. Rewatch the series and its unevenness jumps off the little screen. There were some terrific episodes, to be sure. There were also some terrifically bad episodes.
The similarities between the two series are obvious—an anthology series of short, unrelated stories about the macabre. To split hairs, TZ ventured more frequently into science fiction, whereas Night Gallery stayed firmly planted in the soil of horror and the supernatural.
Introducing each Night Gallery story, Serling would stroll through his spooky art gallery and pause before some impressionistic oil painting, usually featuring tormented souls screaming in an abyss, like a poor man’s Edvard Munch. Serling would scowl and give his trademark intro, replete with clever turns of phrase. And then we’re in the story.
An accomplished author, Serling himself wrote about a third of the episodes, including one which has stuck with me since the decades when I first saw it as a kid. That segment was “The Caterpillar,” oddly named since the bug in question was an earwig. Serling crafted a tale of treachery and deceit in the remote fastnesses of Borneo, in which the plot involves the planned placement of the little crawlie into the ear canal of a love rival. The idea being that it would eat its way through the brain, driving the hapless victim to howling insanity. Creepy stuff indeed.
It’s hard to find and view the episodes now, even in this uber-digitized, uber-piratized century, but fans of these kinds of stories should try. As in Twilight Zone, good acting and writing was frequently offered. Admittedly, it ain’t Shakespeare, but these are well-told stories with pretty good production values. Also as in TZ, the series featured both veteran actors and up-and-comers. Even from the start. The 1969 pilot featured one segment, “Eyes,” starring old Joan Crawford, and directed by young Steven Spielberg in his professional debut.
Anthology series ran aground on the rocky shoals of viewer taste decades ago. You rarely see a producer tackle the concept any more. It seems like perhaps one per decade has cropped up since the 70s and disappeared after a short run. Which is a shame. I suspect, though, that with the new avenues with which we experience mass media entertainment, and what with ever-compartmentalized audiences, some enterprising young producer will bring an anthology to life and find a profitable market for it. Economical CGI and home studio capabilities almost make this a foregone conclusion.
Let’s hope so. I miss the anthologized short story format. Being a time-hoarding curmudgeon, I don’t always want to invest my time and emotion in long single-story series.
More Random Thoughts & Things to Know...