Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Writing What You've Lived


I believe in America...

So begins my father's favorite novel. A story of immigrants, loyalty, family, and crime. Mario Puzo's The Godfather.

I never read the book until after I'd seen the movie, and like most books being used as the basis for a movie the richness of the story between the pages is so much better than that on-screen it deserves to be appreciated as a separate work of art. It was after reading the book that I realized my novels are written in a style similar to Puzo’s.

In the first third of the book, I bring in all the major characters along with her back stories to allow the reader to get to know each one. The second third is setting up the major action that will take place as things transition throughout the pages. The final third allows all the complex parts of the story that has been readied in the front part of the book to spring into action. The last few pages, conclude each storyline or allow for the characters to move on to the next tale. It is the type of story I like to read, and therefore the type that I create.

Eventually, I saw all three movies in The Godfather saga and was never disappointed by the story or the way it was presented. It is hard to believe that The Godfather movie came out 50 years ago. It stands up very well. Francis Ford Coppola created a masterpiece.

A streaming miniseries called The Offer that details the creation of the movie from the book recently launched. It gave me an insight into Puzo I lacked before. The story opens with him as a struggling novelist, who had just completed what he considered his strongest book ever only to find it garnering a mediocre response. When discussing the book with his wife, she suggests that he write a new novel concentrating just on the gangster parts of his flailing novel. At first, he pushes back insisting he had fought his entire life to get away from that and write the stories he wanted. Eventually, the need for a source of income pushed him into sitting down and writing what he knew, The Godfather.

Like most fortunate events, I saw this at a time when I was doing my best to avoid writing a novel that I knew had a good storyline but lacked the passion that I knew would capture readers. I mentioned before that another author asked me why I never mind the stories from my time in information technology as a source of a good story, and I didn't have a reason. The Offer instead presented me with proof of what can happen if you stop resisting the inevitable and write what you know. I liked what I saw, and CyberMortis is now in the process of becoming my fifth novel.



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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Hey, That's My Name Too!

Never, ever use your password this way.

In my current work in progress (WIP) all of the main characters have nicknames. Since they're computer hackers it's not unusual that they would be hiding behind an alias to keep their true identity secret. In the story, all of the names were assigned by the alpha hacker in their group. Behind each name, is a short back story as to how they wound up with it. These backstories tell you a little about the person given the moniker and the person who handed out the names.

When I was thinking about this part of the story, my mind drifted to the nicknames I'd been given over the years. The first name I can recall being was tacked on me at summer camp when one of my fellow staff members began to refer to me as Socrates. For some reason, I was mouthing off philosophical platitudes in the name was slapped on. Given that I was in eighth grade at the time, I'm not really sure how I came about any level of wisdom.

There was also a span of time between sixth and eighth grade when I chose to go by my middle name rather than my first name. We'd just moved to Oklahoma from South Carolina and it was a good time to make that sort of change. Looking back, I can't remember why, I just that I did it. 

By the start of ninth grade, I was back to using my first name, but my friends were still calling me Socrates. It was okay, I was hanging out with guys named Duck and Peabody -- it fits. A move to Virginia allowed me to shed all nicknames.  I didn't pick up another until I was in college.

The TV show MASH was popular at the time, and my offbeat sense of humor led me to be called Hawkeye. The nickname stuck through college, my first few years in the Air Force, and I eventually used it to sign artwork I created during that time. Once I set the name down, I didn't pick up another for many years. I still have college friends who call me Hawkeye, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm just glad that after all these years we're still friends.

At this point in life, I no longer have any nickname, but I do have a nom de plume I use for my fictional writing. I created it primarily to prevent confusion with software and technical books I write under my real name. It also allows me to me hide behind the curtain while I play with the knobs and levers that control my characters as they perform on the stage.

Just wait until you meet Lynx, Spyder, and a few others.



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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Desktop Parking Lot




The four stories that made up POMSILv2 came to me simultaneously. That’s not to say the tales were fully fleshed out, but I had the basic storyline and the hook in mind before I ever sat down to put the first one on paper. Of course, not all of the stories lend themselves to needing or being able to obtain a prop to serve his muse. Still, one story, in particular, did, Beyond AM Radio.

The story’s protagonist is a government employee, Cordeil, who locates an extraordinary radio sitting on one of an overstuffed and forgotten warehouse shelves. The radio had been there for decades. It was the exact radio he needed to complete the restoration of a 1947 Cadillac Series 62 convertible given to him by his grandfather. When I started writing the story, I didn’t have a specific car in mind. However, I knew what I wanted the radio to look like, which led me to begin looking through pictures of old cars.

The radio wasn’t the only thing required about the car, but it was the starting point. I also wanted the car to be a convertible for no other reason than I like convertibles. Finally, I wanted the car to be a model worth being handed down through generations. There are many incredible vehicles worthy of collecting, but this one had to be special to the original owner. Something he would’ve obtained after World War II as a treat for having survived. As I continually narrowed down the choices, I eventually decided on a Cadillac. It was the car my father considered the one you buy when you want to treat yourself to the lap of luxury.

I was surprised to find Cadillac, rather than naming their cars during this period, simply numbered them. As I started looking through the various models they had available, the Series 62 caught my eye immediately. With the choice being made, I wanted to get a close-up view of the car. Unfortunately, in the middle of COVID I couldn’t go to an automobile museum. A model would have to be the stand-in, and I found one that was part of an estate sale being conducted on eBay.

The model’s doors, hood, and self-lowering antenna were all movable. So I could move things around and look more closely at details as I wrote the story to make sure the story remained authentic. I also got in touch with the Jose Gomez of The Cadillac & LaSalle Club, who helped me with technical specifications and guidance on the intricacies of the car.

As I wrote, I imagined myself as Cordeil sitting in the car and going through the motions of the story. Opening and slamming doors, crawling underneath, and eventually installing the radio acquired from the warehouse leads to the story’s climax.

Now, the model sits on my desk. I still pick it up and play with it occasionally, so it’s not gathering too much dust yet. But every time I look at it, I’m reminded of the story, and I smile.

 Here's a full description of the Beyond AM Radio,

When Cordeil starts a new job, he discovers an antique car radio he needs to finish restoring his 1947 Cadillac. It might be perfect, but it is stored in a strictly controlled government warehouse, and taking it would be a federal crime. Over time, Cordeil convinces himself that since the radio has been sitting there for half a century untouched, stealing it will do no harm. Unbeknownst to him, he will not realize the true cost of his decision until he powers it up for the first and possibly last time.

Beyond AM Radio is one of four short stories in POMSILv2, available in AudioBook, Paperback & eBook.

 

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Monday, May 2, 2022

Roll On Thunder, Shine On Lightnin'

 
If you ask a person what their favorite movie is, the answer would probably change in ten years. It is not disloyalty; naturally, your evaluation of a particular film will change over the years. Sometimes it gets remade, sometimes it doesn’t age well, and sometimes a movie just hits you at the right point in your life to make a significant impact. Nothing else ever really matches that level ever again. For me, that movie was Phantom of the Paradise. I am warning you upfront this entry about this movie, released in 1974, may or may not contain things you consider a spoiler. Since the film has been out of theaters for almost fifty years, it is beyond the time when that should be a concern. 

Winslow Leach

Because I was a military brat, it is not surprising that this movie, like most others, was seen in the base theater. Like most installations I lived on, the theater on Fort Eustis was located within walking or biking distance of the housing area. Because I went to this movie with a larger group of friends, we walked en masse to the theater rather than taking bikes. As I remember it, Phantom was the Saturday late-night movie which meant there weren’t very many people in the theater. Like many movies I saw during that time in my life, I had no idea what I was walking into. Usually, by the time a movie made it onto the base, it was a year or more since it’d been released off base. All the advertising was gone, and back then, the base theater didn’t show previews most of the time.

Swan

Phantom of the Paradise is, in the simplest of terms: Faust, mixed with Phantom of the Opera, and a dash of Dorian Grey set to Rock & Roll from 50s to metal with an intro and epilogue by Rod Serling plus a villain/hero with stainless steel teeth....the whole thing is presented in classic Brian De Palma split-screen. But that is the simplest of terms. To me, at age fifteen, it was so much more.


Phoenix
The hero of the story is a composer named Winslow Leech, who is having a rough time getting his music heard. His current project, a retelling of Faust. The person who controls the entire music industry is an egotistical villain named Swan. He hears Winslow’s music and decides, rather than buying it, to steal it. When Winslow tries to get his music back, he meets an attractive singer named Phoenix, auditioning for his cantata that Swan is now producing. Naturally, she has the perfect voice for his songs. After several attempts to confront Swan about the theft of his music, Winslow ends up jailed and accidentally, through a quirk of fate, has his natural teeth replaced by stainless steel. Admittedly, that is a strange sidetrack for the plot to take, but there it is.
The Phantom

Eventually, due to his superhuman strength when angry, he escapes prison. He attempts to destroy the factory producing an album of his music, sung by Swan’s house band (whom Winslow loathes). It does not turn out well as he ends up being maimed and left voiceless by the record printing machine he is attempting to destroy. Swan creates a rock ‘n’ roll venue called The Paradise (Not the one Styx sang about). Winslow sneaks in, steals a costume, and becomes the Phantom, causing mayhem in the theater to prevent the opening of the Faust cantata. Are you with me so far?

Beef
After the Phantom takes out Swan’s band, they meet and make a deal. Swan gives Winslow an electronic voice. He will produce the Phantom’s cantata -- the price, as usual in fame and fortune contracts, his soul. Phoenix appears at an audition and is selected at Winslow’s urging. Swan locks the Phantom away in a studio vault so that he can complete Faust while feeding him a variety of pharmaceuticals. Once the music is finished, Swan bricks the Phantom into the studio a’la Cask of Amontillado. He then selects a male lead, Beef, for the show but leaves Phoenix as a background singer. The Phantom’s immense anger allows him to break through the brick wall, and then he kills Beef on opening night, which leads to Phoenix taking over the performance. Later that night, the Phantom witnesses Swan’s seduction of Phoenix, breaking his heart.

I won't give away the ending.

If you followed all of that, you could see how it’s a short jump from that story to one of any average teenage males growing up in America in the mid-70s. I was at a point in my life when I saw the movie that I had been through several Phoenixes and had been blocked and torn down by a few Swans. Short of selling my soul to the devil, I could identify with all of the emotion and lovelorn helplessness of the Phantom.  

When the movie finally showed in the base theater, the first home VCRs were still five years from release*. Once the film was gone from theaters, there was no way to see it again until it appeared on TV years later. At this point, I had seen the movie once, and it made an impression. What solidified it was a bit of chance. 

A long time ago, radio stations would give away things based on what number caller you were when they told you to call. A few months after seeing the movie, I was the correct number caller to win a free album of my choice at a local record store. Guess which soundtrack had just arrived when I came to pick up my free album? Ain’t kismet neat?

I listened to that album over and over and over. I knew all the words to both the serious ballads and a playful number about a rock musician who committed suicide to pay for his sister’s operation (more details on the impact of that particular song here, see the Umleitung). 

Paul Williams, although not a great vocalist, is a fantastic songwriter. His lyrics are excellent and managed to say things in rhyme and metaphor that most people can’t say plainly. As I listened to the album, I found more parallels between the movie and where I was in life. Every adolescent does the same thing. Like movies, it’s just a matter of which album hits you at the right time. There wasn’t a single line from the album that didn’t somehow fit into what was going on in my life for at least the following year. I guess I had enough innate optimism to see their hope, even if some were meant to be melancholy. Jessica Harper had a beautiful voice that blended so well with the emotion-filled lyrics being sung.

The movie was nominated for several awards, including an Oscar, but it became a victim of timing. The same year Phantom of the Paradise was released, Tommy came out. Tommy was a good movie, and it had a stellar cast: the Who, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Jack Nicholson, and Ann-Margret. There was just no way this little movie would win over Tommy. Phantom was the better movie with the more meaningful soundtrack of the two.

...years later, and every now and then, when I find myself needing a little something – – I head off to the Swannage to watch a film about a sound. The search for that sound -- the man who made it, -- the girl who sang it, -- and the monster who stole it.

*Home media side point: Phantom of the Paradise was never released on VHS and didn’t come out on DVD until September 4, 2001. In August 2014, it was finally released on Blu-ray. While in Okinawa, during a typhoon evac from Guam, I came across a copy of the movie on VHS in 1983, complete with forced Japanese subtitles. The tape was lost during one of my many moves.


This was the last thing Rod Serling ever recorded.


Full Trailer

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Monday, April 25, 2022

Want a Beer? All Aboard!


I once heard a writer say they’d written 7,000 words, but only 5,000 good ones -- I know what that feels like. Sometimes, when the thoughts are flowing, you just keep writing. Even though I realize not everything I write will wind up in my final work, I keep writing. There is always the chance I might use these words somewhere else later if I at least take the time to flesh out the thoughts fully. Likewise, there are events and places I'll put into a story only to take them out later because they just don't fit or because they prove to be distracting. I try to avoid distractions to keep the reader focused on what's important. I like to include enough detail so they can imagine a fully fleshed out world where the story is taking place, like the Aglow nightclub in Firebird's Nest

I was recently working on my current WIP and creating a place for two of the main characters to meet. It was a place where they used to hang out years before when they were in college. So I invented a pub that used a model railway set up to take orders and deliver food. 

The train system ran around the outside wall of the restaurant, which placed it at the internal end of the table for the booths. You would push a button on the table to call the train, and when it stopped, you would place your written order on the flatbed car. Then, it would disappear, and another train would show up with your order in tow a short while later. Sounds like a unique idea, right? Then the reality of it started to hit me.

The train would have to be rather beefy to handle a pitcher of beer and a couple plates of food. Then, when the train stopped and started, there was always the chance of things spilling drinks and food. Suppose someone took off their coat and threw it into the booth, and it landed on the tracks? Along comes a train with an entire order of food and drinks, then…what a mess. Of course, as in real life, there would also be the chance of someone hijacking a pitcher of beer as it went by or stealing a few fries. It could happen.

In the end, I went for a rather blasé pub with a few dartboards. Yeah, it's boring, but what is important about that particular scene is the conversation between the two people. It is their first phase in quite a while, and it is because a hacker they knew from way back during their college days is up to some rather nefarious doings. The two were previously married. Due to a variety of issues, they ended up divorced. Still, they maintain an occasional professional relationship when they need to mount up against a particular cyber threat. He is the one who filed for divorce due to several reasons which will get brought out later, and she is bitter because she thinks he found it too easy to dispose of her. The man didn't. He's still deeply in love with her and, worse yet, fiercely attracted to her.

I think the tale will be gripping. Like many things in life, the way the story came about has its own path from genesis to where I am now. If the story works out as well on the page as it does in my mind, I will owe someone a thank you letter for suggesting it.

Note: After writing this update, I was researching pictures and came across Výtopna in Czechoslovakia. There are probably others in the world. Since this one has been in operation since 2009, I’d say the idea is entirely feasible. Maybe in the next book-- Maksim could drop into this place for a drink. 



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Thursday, April 14, 2022

By Any Other Name


Along with creative titles for books and stories, I admire the appropriateness and cleverness of the names some authors come up with for their characters. I guess it probably started with Ponyboy and Sodapop in The Outsiders. Original and unforgettable. Sometimes names are pulled from history and inserted into a story to purposely push the characteristics of the original owner. Once in a great while,  there is just certain poetry to the names being used which has to be admired -- Katniss Everdeen. 

In my writing, I try to use names that fit the personality of the character they are assigned to. I'm also mindful of the cultural and national origins when assigning names. Maksim Fillyp Bondreovich, the main villain in the Evan Davis Tales series, is obviously Russian - the first name being a Russian derivative of the Latin Maximus, meaning greatest. The Arabic names I used in From Within the Firebird's Nest, were all based on the Arabic meaning of the name as a word. The first name of a secondary villain in the story, Qa’id Al-Abidin, means leader. A purposeful name. 

I strive to be faithful to the timeline of the character as well. I don't think anyone could imagine giving a newborn today the name Percy, however, it was popular at a certain time in history. Likewise, I avoid names that have preconceived conflict attached to them. Some names will carry baggage forever and distract from the story. 

I can't think of a time when I purposely used the name of someone I know in a story. I purposefully try to avoid it simply to avoid the real-world conflict that might arise. That doesn't mean that I haven't been tempted to name a villain in the story after a villain from my personal life or to use the name of a high school crush for a romantic interest in a book. Like all writers, I mine my experiences for bits and pieces of stories, but I shy away from including names and places where it all took place. 

As I started writing my first stories for public consumption, I came across an interview with Elmore Leonard who wrote the stories and books that eventually became the TV show Justified. He was talking about how he came up with the name Raylan for his main character. He confessed that he didn't imagineer it but stole it from the sewn-on name on a workman's shirt he saw while traveling. In fact, Leonard told the man he was going to use his name and make it famous. He did. I thought obtaining interesting names by thievery was a great idea. From that point on, I've kept a list of names that I come across and find interesting. As of today, there are fifty-eight names on that list.

Once in a great while, there is a confluence of forces that brings a name to me just when it is needed. That happened recently.  My current work in progress has a character who was nameless, not an unusual situation in an early draft. Then out of the blue, I got an email about another matter and the name of the sender was perfect for the character. Yoink! Lightning strikes.

Every now and then, just to shake things up, I do something like what happened in DD603 (POMSILv2)-- none of the characters are named.  It wasn't intentional. I was midway through the story when I realized I had not named anyone. It also occurred to me that adding names might take away from the story's meaning, so I didn't add any.  For that story, it worked. After all, if a rose by any other name still smells as sweet--  why do you need to call it by a name to enjoy its smell?


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Tuesday, April 5, 2022

A Reading Tool -- Goodreads


 

Unlike many during the pandemic, I found it difficult to concentrate enough to read a book, let alone write one. Deep down, I felt this loss. It is through reading that I exercise my mind and at the same time escape reality for a bit. I've long been a member of Goodreads but aside from using it as a writer's tool, I've never used it as a reader's tool. That changed in January.

Aside from being able to see what your friends are reading, and maybe find some good books, there are also many reviews online for independently authored books that are generally worth reading. I’ll provide a warning here that not all reviews are worth reading, as I detailed on my blog but, it only takes a few minutes to sort out genuinely bad books from just bad reviews.

Thanks to my membership in a Book Club, I was already being steered to some pretty good books. That was when I found the reading tool inside of Goodreads which lets you track your progress through a book either by page numbers read or percentage. It may seem like a minor thing that you could actually do a lot of different ways, but something about it being organized inspired me to make reading a habit again. Using the tool, I have a goal of completing 10% of any book I'm reading, every time I pick it up.

Generally, I read three books at once. One is a novel, one is nonfiction or some kind of self-improvement, and one is humorous. It is a balance of genres that I've had for many years and that works well for me. More than anything, it gives me an escape from one book to another if I find myself losing interest. Currently, I am reading the novel Dead in Their TracksThe Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, and a collection of humorous and poignant stories called Keys to the City: Tales of a New York City Locksmith. It may seem like a really strange selection of books for one person, but there is variety in the way each came to me.

The first book is this month's choice for my Book Club. I heard about the Jesuit’s Guide while listening to a podcast while traveling (sorry the name escapes me now). Finally, the author of Keys to the City (James Martin) was doing a reading of the book on the radio and I found the story about Tarzan intriguing enough to seek out the book.

What am I really saying here? Be a reader. It improves your mind, it gives you an escape and gives you something to discuss at a boring dinner party if you need a topic. There are literally zillions of books available at your fingertips – – pick one up and read it. Not only read that one, make it a habit to read at least a few times a week if not daily. Your mind will thank you. The authors will thank you. And that other person's board at the dinner party they will also thank you.



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