7/8/15: Enrico's Head-Scratcher Paradox. The Milky Way Galaxy is mind-bendingly, incomprehensibly huge. It’s believed that there are some two-hundred to four hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. Revolving around those suns are an estimated one hundred billion planets. We now have catalogued about two thousand exoplanets (planets not in our own solar system), and it’s only been a couple of decades since the very first one was discovered. Even so, the Milky Way is a mere speck in the Universe. Estimates are that there are one hundred to two hundred billion galaxies beyond ours.
Given that vastness, in 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi posed the big question about extraterrestrial intelligence. In brief, the question was, “Where the heck are they?” If there is intelligence out there, why hasn't at least one made itself known to us?
Here’s the conundrum. Most stars are billions of years old. If an intelligent civilization is a mere thousand Earth years more technologically advanced than ours, they should be plying the interstellar spaceways with ease, with technology we can’t even imagine. It’s been estimated that, even with much-slower-than-light speeds, a civilization could build self-replicating robot craft (called a Bracewell-Von Neumann probe) that never stop multiplying, and expanding the reach of exploration, and would visit every system in the galaxy within four million years. Sounds like a hell of a long time, but our galaxy is more than ten billion years old.
So if we haven’t heard or seen them, the Fermi Paradox suggests that we may be unique or nearly so. Alone. Now that’s depressing.
Lots of credentialed and accomplished notables (i.e., scientists, philosophers, and thinkers, not Internet wankers like me) have come up with plausible explanations. The truth of the matter is probably a combination of all. Rather than going into each of them, and being pessimistic by nature, I offer my humble resolutions to the Fermi Paradox. There are several parts; pay attention, people.
First, most of the intelligences out there don’t give a rat’s ass about us. Why should they? We kind of suck. They downloaded a couple of episodes of Three’s Company and said, “This is bullshit. What else you got?”
What could we possibly offer that would amuse them or improve them?
Blood sport, maybe. I’ll grant you that. A Predator motive. Wishful thinkers have argued that any species advanced enough to cross the vast distances of the stars would clearly be morally advanced as well. This is laughable in the extreme. It presumes that we have some sort of understanding of alien philosophy and biology. We don’t even understand the motivations of different cultures here on Earth, and that’s among our own species. Look at an ant colony. There’s a certain kind of collective intelligence going on there, with each bug carrying out a function. What motivates them? Survival, of course, but colonial expansion seems to be the unreasoning, collective strategy of survival.
Another argument against the lovable ET variety of alien is brain evolution. Are we top dog on Earth because we like our vegetables? No. Human beings are omnivorous, consumers of both flora and fauna. Plus some other phyla, such as fungi. Look at different species; intelligence seems to be highest among those that are both social and predatory. Wolves. Orcas. Dolphins. Chimps. Us. (Just being a social species alone doesn’t cut it; cows are both social and stupid). Brain development is accelerated among populations which hunt, and more importantly, hunt together. Why would we not expect intelligence to follow predation in alien species?
This begs the question, if aliens come a callin’, should we answer? Luminaries such as Stephen Hawking emphatically say “no!”
Maybe intelligent beings are doomed by their own brilliance to bring their own civilizations crashing down. If you can build nuclear weapons, are you bound to use them? The nuclear club continues to grow on Earth. Unstable nations like Pakistan have The Bomb. Others will undoubtedly have it soon enough. Even if we don’t have all-out nuclear war (and I don’t think we will), lots of experts believe that a limited exchange of a couple dozen nuclear weapons would be enough to bring civilization to its knees. It wouldn’t wipe us out, but would set us back a few centuries, and in a few more we’d be right back to the same edge of annihilation (Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz explores this brilliantly).
Perhaps even more likely than death by nukes is the intentional or accidental release of civilization-canceling disease. Many nations have bio-weapons and are probably willing to use them if push came to shove (the deterrent being the likelihood of infecting themselves as well as their enemies). More likely still, the use of such a weapon would be caused by fanatics and terrorists who come into possession through the collapse of an unstable government. Nah, that’s unlikely… there aren’t many fanatics and unstable governments in the world, are there?
It’s hard to imagine that other intelligent species are eager to have us spread our filth and disease beyond our planetary system. Look at our own terrestrial explorations; typically, when a culture spreads out to contact cultures which have been isolated, the results are typically catastrophic for the isolated one. Disease overwhelms them. If a being a thousand light-years from us is a bag of bones and goo like us, it will also be susceptible to disease. Even if you’re the most fastidious human being alive, approximately one to two percent of your body weight is bacteria. Disgusting as that sounds, you can’t live without them, and if you’re visiting another world, you’re bringing those bacteria with you. It may be that once a culture reaches a certain level of technology and the ability to move out amongst the stars, the others say, “Not so fast, hotshot. That’s not how we do it out here. Galactic quarantine rules are in effect.”
Population crashes happen in nature. When a species exceeds in number of individuals its ability to find or make food, it tends to collapse. Collapse would be magnified in human societies, because we have the cleverness to stretch food production far beyond what should naturally be expected, and because the production of food has been relegated to a smaller and smaller percentage of individuals. This approach yields inherent benefits, but also is swimming in inherent risk. Catastrophic risk. Environmental change, crop diseases, human diseases, war, natural disaster… a multitude of things can break production and delivery of food and bring it to a screeching halt. Grocery stores in the U.S. would be pretty much empty within a few days of a stop in delivery. Then what? Take a giant step back, O People of Earth.
Perhaps there’s a happier explanation of the Fermi Paradox, one in which a benign Federation of Planets, like in Star Trek, has a “do-not-interfere, do-not-contact” policy in effect concerning planetary backwaters peopled with hillbillies like us. And when we discover warp drive, they decide it’s time to welcome us with open arms and tentacles into the circle of love among space-faring species. Wouldn’t it be nice?
It would. But don’t hold your breath.
6/23/15: Bio-Weapons of the Ancients. We tend to think of biological warfare only insofar as it is currently imagined. Lethal viruses such as Ebola or influenza or polio, unleashed. Bacteria such as anthrax slipped into a food supply sprinkled from above. Fungi, such as “rice blast,” introduced to crops to incite failure and subsequent starvation.
But bio-warfare runs sad and deep in our history.
The germ theory of disease didn’t gain widespread traction until the late 19th century. Nevertheless, although peoples before that may have not known or understood the actual causes of so many diseases, they could observe the tendencies of disease spread. In fact, they were far more acquainted with disease and death than the typical civilized person of today. Being what we are, some (many) apparently turned this knowledge into new ways of killing.
Bubonic plague, the terrifying “Black Death”(caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis) scourged Europe in the 14th century, not as a weapon but as a natural, particularly vicious, plague event. Or was its catalytic event an artificial one? An Italian notary, Gabriele de’ Mussi, witnessed the 1346 siege of Caffa, in the Crimea, and wrote that the invading Mongols hurled the corpses of plague victims into the city, thereby unleashing the plague upon its inhabitants. Many fled and unwittingly spread the disease outside of the region. Although the original point source of the Black Death remains unknown, it seems likely that Caffa played a part in its spread, at least in the region.
So of course the knowledge that bubonic plague is a nasty thing led others to see it as a promising weapon. Centuries later, in 1940, the Japanese dropped bags of Yersinia-infected fleas on China, touching off a plague.
In 1763, British colonial troops in North America gave Ottawa Indians blankets that were infested with variola, the smallpox virus. Native Americans had no immunities to the disease and it burned through the population with a terrible effectiveness. This was the brainchild of Commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst. How does one look oneself in the mirror after such an atrocity? This is the kind of service that’s deserving of knighthood?
Around 400 BC, the Scythians, a nomadic people that ranged far and wide across the cold, windy steppes of central Eurasia, had archers fond of dipping arrow points into the rotting flesh of the dead before shooting them at enemies. Sometimes they smeared the points with manure. Either method could inject a victim with all manner of harmful microbes.
Not to be outdone, ancient Romans, Greeks, and Persians were not above contaminating drinking water supplies by dropping dead animals into wells. Much later, Barbarossa found this strategy much to his liking, and dropped dead soldiers into wells in the 12th century AD Battle of Tortona.
We’ve all seen movies in which some dastardly Third-World fiend slips a venomous snake or scorpion into the sleeping hero’s room. This begs the question, why not just walk up and stab him to death? Okay, it’s a plot device, I get it, and I’m certainly not above it. Anyway, in 190 BC, Hannibal had his men hurl clay jars full of venomous snakes onto enemy ships in the Battle of Eurymedon. Naturally, he won the battle. Elephants in the Alps, snakes on boats… Hannibal thought of everything.
These are just a few of the recorded examples. No doubt, the number of incidents of biological warfare in the distant past went unrecorded. Indeed, it would be shocking if this type of killing didn’t stretch far back even into prehistory, into the Paleolithic era. Furthermore, one must suppose that a lot of the ancient practitioners of biological warfare, not knowing much about what they were dealing with, also fell ill and died. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s lethal, it ain’t rocket science, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to control, and it inspires panic and terror. It does, on the other hand, inspire very little confidence in the human race.
6/19/15: A Real-Life Locked Room Mystery. Sure, it may be a literary gimmick, but the locked room mystery has even popped up a few times in real-life criminal cases. As the theory of Occam’s Razor suggests, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and in the real-life cases the simplest explanation turned out to be suicide, rather than murder. But that doesn’t make such a great plot line. Most notably, the 1929 case of Polish immigrant, Isidore Fink, baffled the police and remains unsolved.
Fink owned a laundry service. Lived in a heavily window-barred and locked New York apartment. One day, screams and sounds of struggle were heard, and when police investigated they found Fink dead of gunshot wounds in a locked room. A transom window over the door seemed the only point of access, and police fitted a small boy through and had him unlock the door from inside. Fink had suffered three gunshot wounds, two to the chest, one to the wrist, which also showed powder, evidence of a close-range shot. No fingerprints, other than Fink’s. No gun, so no suicide.
It seems that Fink must have been shot from the transom, but that doesn’t account for the close-range shot, nor the sounds of struggle. Nothing makes a lot of sense in the case, but there you have it. Given Fink’s reclusiveness, penchant for high security, and his mysterious death, I suspect that there was a lot more to the man than a simple laundry business. The circumstances surrounding his killing seem so unlikely, they point to a professional hit. And a professional probably don’t go gunning for laundry guys for no reason. Unless Fink's usually excellent laundering skills took a holiday and he subjected his customer to a hell of sartorial shame. That’s actually a good reason, especially in the Big Apple.
6/17/15: Wonders of the Locked Room. When Edgar Allen Poe launched the mystery genre with “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), he also created a subgenre, the “locked room mystery.” A crime (almost always a murder) takes place in a locked room, and the possibility of it even have occurred defy logic and. In other words, the victim is found in a place where a perp could neither get in to kill him or her, nor out to escape detection. It’s a great extra layer of mystery, solving the howdunit as much as the whodunit.
The locked room mystery can be narrowly or broadly interpreted. In the broader sense it doesn’t necessarily require the presence of an actual locked room, just an inaccessible setting. Or not even that; it could be in an accessible place, as long as the scenario defies logic and the mechanism of the crime appears insoluble (my own novel, Brigands Key, involves a bit of locked room mystery… in this case, the “locked room” is a cave at the bottom of the sea, previously undiscovered, but containing a fresh murder victim at the very moment the cave is discovered).
In Poe’s story, the locked room was indeed a locked room, inaccessible, or so it seemed to the lesser criminal investigators. Impossible to solve, except to Monsieur Dupin, who quickly saw that it offered little resistance if one set aside one’s prejudices of method and motive.
As one would expect, Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a go at the locked room in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892). Another early example, among the first in novel form, was The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), by Gaston Leroux (of Phantom of the Opera fame). A sizable portion of Agatha Christie’s most popular works revolve around locked rooms.
Many contemporary crime writers eschew devices like the locked room, and focus on the psychological aspects of crime. “Too clever,” they say. “Too gimmicky.” That’s all well and good, but why can’t the two work together? Puzzles constitute hooks, and layer in a form of intellectual suspense, which is at the heart of the traditional whodunit. Novelist Donald E. Westlake speculated that the appeal of the locked room puzzle is that it reassures us that there are logical explanations for everything. In a horror story, the locked room would be no problem; you just have an evil spirit pass through the wall, perform its fiendish deeds, and drift away again. That’s unnerving, being presented with the premise that there’s no safe place. Westlake of course knows full well the illogical and irrational nature of the human mind, and therefore he’s correct about the appeal; we know how terrible and demoralizing we can be, and we fear the unknown, so it’s comforting to set that aside and let the joys of an intellectual puzzle take us out of that.
6/10/15: Launch Platform of the Hardboiled. Mystery, as a literary genre, had bounced around a while, mostly in the clean, well-lighted parlors of the English mystery, when young writers of the early 20th century began to study the dark, gritty world all around and decided the genre needed to get down and dirty. They did and it did, and hard-hitting, hardboiled crime fiction broke into the staid drawing rooms and smashed the fine teacups. Damned Americans.
Surprisingly, H.L. Mencken, the acerbic journalist and pundit from Baltimore, played a major role in getting hardboiled, well, boiling. Mencken, along with fellow highbrow George Jean Nathan, launched the pulp magazine Black Mask in 1920. Honestly, Mencken is the last person one would have guessed started the genre…except for perhaps drama critic George Jean Nathan (the man with two first names sandwiched around a girl’s name). It’s unclear whether they had any actual interest in this stuff; they created it as a money-maker to support their money-hemorrhaging literary magazine, Smart Set.
In its infancy and in the spirit of commerce, Black Mask tried to cover many genres, perhaps too many, not just mystery. And the mystery was modeled after the English style, all prim and proper, with plenty of waxed mustaches to go around. It did okay, so you can’t fault the founders. After publishing a mere eight issues, Mencken and Nathan decided they’d made a decent profit, and sold it. The magazine continued without them, and editorial focus slowly sharpened toward grittier crime fiction. By 1927, savvy editor Joseph Shaw, who came on board in 1926, had steered the magazine almost solely into detective fiction.
Like so many pulps, Black Mask gave up-and-coming writers a chance to hone their craft and make a little money. Good ones emerged from the ranks, among them, heavyweights such as Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Max Brand, and John D. MacDonald (on a side note, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, revered in my home state of Florida as an early champion of the Everglades, published in Black Mask).
To underscore the magazine’s growing quality, Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon, first appeared as a serialized story in 1929. Hard to apply the label “pulp” as a pejorative when it’s responsible for such enduring and influential work.
The typology of the hardboiled (which fashionably later gave us noir, a French word handy to film critics that allowed them to warm up to genre and claim it as their own), pretty much was born in Black Mask. In 1923, author Carroll John Daly cast the mold for the bare-knuckled private eye with Terry Mack and followed him up with the even harder-boiled Race Williams. Tough bad guys. Tougher good guys and gals. Terse, sharp dialogue. Cynicism, seediness, and darkness. The language of this new world set it apart from the polite drawing-room world of fictional crime, and made it a world of squalor and need and violence and passion, a world hinted at by Charles Dickens and subsequently ignored.
But all good things must end. Black Mask peaked in the 1930s and began a long, slow slide into the grave, finally ceasing publication in 1951, the victim of changing tastes, increased competition from film and radio, and climbing production costs. Thirty-one years, not a bad run. One might imagine its founder, Mencken, admiring its growth and influence from the sidelines, happy to have birthed a whole new genre, even if unintentionally.
6/4/2015: Setting as Character...The Parker Francis Interview. One reads a lot of novels and short stories which could be set any old place without affecting the story. They can be well done, of course, but I’m drawn to literature in which the setting is a big part of the story. Novelist Parker Francis, talented writer and master of fictional setting, agreed to shine a little light on this topic.
Welcome, Parker! Give us the nickel tour of your background and work.
Ken, thanks for letting me share space on your multifaceted blog where readers can get a peek behind the dark curtain of the Pelham mind—which is a scary thing. You asked for the nickel tour, but with inflation you only get three cents worth. I’m retired now and a full-time writer/volunteer/house husband/cat wrangler. My career was in broadcasting, public relations, and special events. Even while producing live events like the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, TV documentaries, and special programs, I always considered myself a writer. So when I retired thirteen years ago, my first task was to complete a novel I’d started several times and discarded. I did that by tossing out everything but the title and starting from scratch. That novel was the first in the Windrusher trilogy, three adventure/fantasy novels with a feline protagonist. Yes, a real four-legged cat. Why? It’s a long story, but at the time our house was dominated by a herd of the furry creatures and it seemed like the right thing to do.
I made the leap to hard-boiled mysteries in 2011 with the first Quint Mitchell Mystery, Matanzas Bay. The book had a long incubation period and won several awards before it was even published, including Florida Writers Association’s 2009 Book of the Year in the Unpublished Category. Quint has gone on to take the lead in two more mysteries, including Bring Down the Furies, the 2013 Gold Medal winner in the Florida Authors & Publishers’ President’s Awards competition. My most recent release, Hurricane Island, is off to a fast start and picking up steam as the Gulf waters heat up.
I moved from Windrusher to the Quint Mitchell Mysteries because I’ve always been a reader of mysteries and thrillers and wanted to try my hand at writing what I loved to read. It took some time to learn the ropes as mysteries are more convoluted and layered, and I’m still learning as I go.
Our backgrounds and experiences of course inform our writing. How do yours fit in, not so much in character development, but in setting?
I believe setting pulls the reader into the story, giving them an experience as close to reality as possible. Reading is a Zen-like experience where we lose ourselves in the fantasy world the writer has created, and live vicariously through the character. Let’s face it; what we do as writers is a lot of smoke and mirrors, which is why a good story is a form of magic. Does that mean we don’t really know what the hell we’re doing? Or as Homer Simpson said about jazz musicians, “Those guys are just making stuff up.” But when all the stars align and the suck gods are feeding on someone else’s soul, feathering in vivid setting licks at the proper time can make a story come to life.
I’ve always had an interest in history, which I’ve tried to weave into my stories. Setting is a part of that history since environment helps to shape the community and the people who live there. So when reading fiction I want to be able to see, smell, hear and feel the place where all the action takes place.
Is Quint Mitchell inspired by anyone, real or fictional? Do you become Quint when the police commissioner shines the Quint signal in the night sky?
Isn’t it obvious that I am Quint Mitchell? Of course Quint is younger, better looking, more athletic, smarter, quicker with a quip, and braver than me. But those are only minor points since I know what makes Quint tick—his writer, and that’s me. The truth is that I love John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee novels. Travis wasn’t a licensed private investigator like Quint, but listed his occupation as “Salvage Consultant,” yet managed to get himself in a lot of hot water helping others—like Quint. MacDonald was one of the first crime/suspense writers to point out the impact of development on Florida’s environment. Many writers were influenced by MacDonald and the Travis McGee character, and you can see this in books by Randy Wayne White, James W. Hall, Carl Hiaasen, and many others. So I’m sure there’s a bit of Travis in Quint.
Hold on, there’s the Quint signal. Gotta go.
Sit down, you’re not going anywhere. Now then… Matanzas Bay hit all the right notes that make up St. Augustine. The heat, the sweat, the history, both ancient and not-so-ancient… The town itself becomes a vital character.
I was very familiar with St. Augustine, as we live only 25 minutes away from the Old City. It seemed the perfect place for Quint’s first mystery, a city where ghosts seemingly hover near the ancient buildings, where tourists walk brick streets, dodging slow-moving (could they go any slower? I think not) horse drawn carriages, where a violent history could be put to use in a contemporary novel. I used that history, both ancient and more recent, to fuel the conflict in the story. Many of my readers have commented on how large a part the setting played in their enjoyment of the story.
Have you ever tried to write a locale that you hadn’t visited before? How’d that work out?
Bring Down the Furies, the second Quint Mitchell Mystery, is set in a small town in South Carolina. I’d never been to Allendale, SC. Never heard of it before finding it online. Why Allendale? Quint’s hobby was archaeology, and that played a major part in Matanzas Bay, the first in the series, since it opens with Quint helping his friend, St. Augustine’s city archaeologist on a dig where he proceeds to unearth the body of the vice mayor. I was hunting for a story idea for the second book and searching the Internet for archaeological sites in the Southeast when I happened upon the Topper site outside Allendale, South Carolina, where they’ve discovered artifacts made by the pre-Clovis people dating back thousands of years. Claxons began ringing in my head, and I asked myself what if a Creationist minister feuded with the archaeologist and it boiled over into a tension-packed media circus. Now I felt I was onto something that could explode from a single idea into a longer, more compelling narrative.
With more research I learned that General Sherman’s troops had burned down the original town of Allendale during the Civil War. This bit of historical news tripped another set of creative neurons and I decided fire would play a major role in the story. That led to the idea of a serial arsonist at work in Allendale.
I’d never been to Allendale and did all my research online, including checking out Google Earth to peer at the streets and structures through the Google lenses. It seemed like your typical Southern small town. I had written maybe six or seven chapters in the book when my wife and I visited Charleston, where I’d been invited to speak to a writers group. Checking the map I saw Allendale was about two hours west of Charleston, so we took the long way home so I could scope out the town in person. I’m glad I did, but what I discovered was one of the most pathetic little towns I’d ever seen. Half the storefronts were boarded up, a motel falling in on itself, a building gutted by fire. Everything was closed that Sunday afternoon except a Hardee’s. We went there for lunch and I struck up a conversation with one of the few customers there. Turns out he was a long distance trucker, so I asked him what had happened to Allendale. He said the Interstate system happened. When I-95 and I-10 were opened, many small towns along Route 301 and the other “major” highways of the time simply dried up. Of course, when I returned home I worked this angle into the story.
Wow, that illustrates how vital knowing the locale up-close is. How about time period? Your short story, “The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover,” feels atmospheric and real. Perhaps we underestimate you, but the general assumption is that you haven’t invented time travel, and yet…
“The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover” was a kick to write. Getting inside the heads of famous folk like Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley is what writers crave—or am I confusing writers with brain surgeons? This short story was part of The Alvarium Experiment, which gave rise to The Prometheus Saga anthology. All of us were working from a single premise of an alien race leaving behind a humanoid probe to track the progress of the human race over the course of 40,000 years. We could set our story at any point during that time span, and I settled on a singular historic event when the three creative icons came together in the summer of 1816 at Lord Byron’s rented estate in Lake Geneva. From that week of what has been reported by some as alcohol and drug-fueled debauchery and literary experimentation, came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Fortunately, I found a great amount of material online about all of the principals, and various reports about the place and time of their celebrated holiday, including the fact that a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia in late 1815 had plunged the northern hemisphere into a freakishly cool and sunless summer. This forced our characters to stay indoors and find other outlets for their energies. The gloomy atmosphere became part of the setting for the story. For the most part, all the pieces came together for Lord Byron, Mary, and Percy, along with the other characters involved, including our alien probe, Anastasia, who played a major part in helping Mary develop Frankenstein.
Fast forward now to Cedar Key and Hurricane Island…
If you’ve ever been to Cedar Key, you know it’s a pleasant enough little town on the outskirts of nowhere on the Florida Gulf Coast. Cedar Key bills itself as the little town where time stands still, and it does have the look and feel of Old Florida, if you disregard the tacky souvenir shops on Dock Street and the rows of condos.
My first visit there was about seven years ago during a high school mini-reunion with about 30 other classmates from the Jurassic Period. Unfortunately, it was a cold February weekend, but we enjoyed sitting in the waterfront restaurants, watching the sunsets, and maybe drinking a few adult beverages in the process. I immediately saw the potential in Cedar Key for a future mystery and put it in my file marked “Possible Potential Settings for a Mystery.” After Furies was published and I was casting about for the next Quint Mitchell Mystery, I decided Cedar Key was the place Quint would find a heap of trouble, since being the hero of my books brings with it both awesome responsibility and a lot of pain.
As I thought about Hurricane Island, I wanted to add some new wrinkles (and believe me, I have plenty to spare). First, there’s no direct archaeological link in the story as there were in the first two. I wanted to inject more of the elements of a thriller into this book, making it a non-stop roller coaster ride. And I think it does that since all of the major action takes place in twenty-four hours.
Another difference between Hurricane Island and the others in the series is the point of view. If you read either of the first two books, you know they’re told solely from Quint’s point of view in first person. We’re inside Quint’s head the entire time, and the reader knows everything that Quint knows, hears, and sees. That makes it the most intimate of viewpoints, but it’s also very confining staying with one character for the entire book. Hurricane Island is still Quint’s story--he’s the main character, after all--but there are also sections where we see through the eyes of the other major characters.
Hurricane Island starts innocently enough with Quint and Serena Howard in Cedar Key. Serena is Quint’s on again, off again girlfriend from Matanzas Bay. They’re visiting Woody Carpenter and his wife Kate. Woody is Quint’s old Navy buddy from the first Gulf War, a former Atlanta police detective who now captains a charter fishing boat in Cedar Key. So the expectation is for a leisurely weekend of fishing and relaxation. Reconnecting with an old friend, and enjoying a few margaritas as they watch the Gulf Coast sunsets. As you would expect, though, things don’t turn out that way. In fact, they go horribly wrong and all four of them are soon caught up in murder and kidnapping.
Two of three Quint Mitchell novels are anchored firmly in Florida, and the state produces a disproportionately high number of good suspense writers. Any theories about that?
Have you watched the news lately? Florida is the home of the weird, the incorrigible, the bizarre. The Sunshine State is where you’ll find the world’s biggest scammers, high stakes con men, and low-life grifters. You can’t make this stuff up. So it’s a free-flowing feeding ground for writers who are naturally drawn to a state where there’s no state income tax, the weather is better than decent most of the year, and we have a surplus of promising premises thrown at us every day from all corners of the peninsula, including the state capitol.
A writer can also overdo it with setting, belaboring beautiful descriptive details, piled on at the expense of story.
As in preparing and serving a good meal, you have to be careful how much sauce or gravy you ladle on or it can turn an exquisite dinner into a soggy mess. It’s always best to use a few pointed details to highlight a scene rather than try to convey too much descriptive information. Those long chunks of gray copy can send a reader scrambling for the comfort of white space. Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Good Writing” offers practical advice from a master. One rule tells us, “I leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” Old Elmore was probably talking about those overdone descriptive passages.
Sometimes a writer may feel he’s gone to all this trouble to research a setting, digging up a wealth of fascinating trivia, and by God, he’s going to use every detail whether you like it or not. This is the writer’s ego in control. The truth is, you don’t want setting to read like a Chamber of Commerce brochure. A few graphic details will go a long way in helping to bring the setting to life. Plus, you want the reader to invest herself in the story, and she does this by using her imagination to fill in the rest of the details.
Where will Parker/Quint be taking us?
I’m juggling a few ideas for another Quint Mitchell Mystery, but I’ve actually started on another story that might either be a stand-alone or turn into another series. It’s too early to tell, but it’s a thriller set in the near future. In my spare time, I’m working on that time travel thing you mentioned. I think I have it figured out if I can find enough plutonium.
Thanks, Parker. Please put my silver ware back in the drawer.
After a career in broadcasting and special events, in which he produced the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, Vic DiGenti turned to his first love—writing. As Parker Francis, Vic writes the Quint Mitchell Mystery series. Other writings include the short story collection, Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices. His short story, “The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover” is part of The Prometheus Saga anthology. Visit him at www.parkerfrancis.com.
5/28/15: Science vs. Mysticism in Fiction. After reading my novel, Place of Fear, a couple of reviewers clucked in disappointment that I had glommed supernatural or mystical aspects onto it. Such comments left me scratching my head and wondering if they read the same book I think I wrote.
The novel is out there, to be sure. But every far-fetched detail resides within the bounds of scientific theory, if not the current applications as we grasp them. So perhaps one’s viewing it as mysticism and the supernatural depends on how one defines those things.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary yields the following definitions for “supernatural:”
1: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
2a : departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature
2b : attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit)
Most of us would agree with those, but the inherent flaws bubble to the surface. What exactly is the “visible observable universe?” Astronomers and physicists believe that we can’t even see most of the stuff that makes up the Universe. Is dark matter “supernatural?” We think it exists primarily because that’s what the math predicts. What about gravity? Is it “observable?” Gravity is measurable, but that’s not the same thing as observable, and physicists admit that we know little about what gravity actually is. So by broad definition, is gravity supernatural? If so, we’re all witches or warlocks or demons, practicing and invoking gravity with such gleeful abandon.
The second part of Definition #1 gets all religious. But don’t gods, demigods, spirits, or devils then require defining? If such beings or critters exist, maybe they’re natural denizens of a parallel universe. Guess what? Parallel universes fall within the realm of possibility of quantum physics (mind you, not all physicists agree on the existence of parallel universes; as yet, it’s not a testable premise).
Definition #2—departing from what is usual or normal so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature— is pretty open-ended. When the double-slit experiments were performed, and caused photons to seemingly exist simultaneously as both particle and wave, it appeared to transcend the laws of nature. But rather than fall down and rend their garments out and sacrifice a goat or two, physicists reexamined and rewrote the laws of nature. Voila! Quantum theory was born.
Certainly nowhere in my novels is there anything so preposterous as flying about on a broomstick, but we don’t bash Harry Potter for the use of magic and such. This is not a rip on Harry or his creator. J.K. Rowling did her job as a writer in building a real and consistent world for Harry and Ron and Hermione, with its own rules and internal logic, and she doesn’t violate them.
How about mindreading? No one has ever demonstrated it in a believable manner, much less proven it. Every self-proclaimed psychic you see on TV or in shows is an out-and-out fraud, using tricks that are nothing new, and are easily exposed as such. Some psychics are bigger, better frauds than others. Call them mystics if you will, but in reality they’re first-magnitude bullshitters. Yet physics doesn’t specifically preclude mindreading or telekinesis from the possible. Brain waves occupy a small range of the electromagnetic spectrum, just like visible light, infrared light, ultraviolet light, and radio waves. And waves can be detected, and even manipulated.
Now, there are physics problems with brain waves as a vehicle for telekinesis and such. Brain waves are exceedingly weak, and can only be measured to a few millimeters outside the skull. Big problem, that, with manipulating things at distance. I sidestep this by invoking quantum entanglement of particles. When particles become “entangled,” they interact with each other, no matter the distance. How they become entangled is another problem, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
A few of my characters have a limited ability to glean an inkling of the future. Again, highly unlikely, but possible. Einstein demonstrated that time and space are not separate, and are in fact parts of the same thing, space-time. Space-time is stretched and warped around all things of mass. Some physicists believe that all time exists simultaneously, or even that time itself is an illusion that doesn’t exist at all. Within these parameters, a connectedness exists between all moments already, meaning that information can pass between moments, even those that reside in our “future.” Indeed, there is some evidence suggesting that we can actually sense the future to about three or four seconds ahead in time.
The point is, most of what can be imagined is possible, and with a scientific basis. The mathematics can’t be undone; two plus two still equals four. But give Harry Potter the right technology, and he can fly on a broomstick and zap his enemies with energy fields from a stick. Put my fictional characters in touch with the right wavelengths, and they can read minds. So when I read a criticism that I’m relying on the mystical and supernatural, I settle back in smug satisfaction and cluck that the reviewer is scientifically illiterate.
All that said, an essential skill in a modern world besotted with self-proclaimed mystics is skepticism (Carl Sagan provided a primer on the “fine art of baloney detection” in his marvelous book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, so there’s really no excuse for gullibility). The world is lousy with frauds and charlatans and self-deluded nutjobs. If someone shows up on TV claiming to possess the powers or events I’ve written in my novels, I laugh my ass off and turn the channel. Hypocritical? Not at all. The difference between fiction (an openly asserted pack of lies) and fraud (a pack of lies asserted to be the truth) matters a lot, and one might happily enjoy the first while heaping scorn upon the latter.
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.
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