Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is Writing a Mystery Novel Painful?

      I've heard and read a goodly number of comments by writers about how painful a process writing is. They say that each day, as they begin a session, they're sure they'll never get a single word onto paper or screen, and if they do, that word and any others they manage to squeeze out will be terrible, unsalvageable. Then, when they finish a manuscript, they dread going back to start the next book. Facing a blank page reduces them to fidgets.
      I don't get it. I wake up every morning and can't wait to get to my computer and see what's going to happen. Does something big explode into prose every day? Not close. Is every piece of prose deathless? Hey, I live in Seattle; is every day a sunny day? But eventually, the sun always does burst through, and after an extended spell of nasty weather, that glow often seems wondrously brilliant.  
      Maybe personal history plays a role. My previous line of work involved looking after people with serious medical problems - talk about performance anxiety. The idea of a bad day on the job then was unthinkable. So if my characters decide to take a day off here and there, no problem. They're just trying to get themselves together. They'll shape up tomorrow.
      Maybe it's just that a person has to be a little off-center to willingly spend all day locked in a room with a bunch of imaginary people. But that's the key word: 'willingly.' No one's forcing me to go down to that writing room five mornings a week. If it weren't enjoyable, why on earth would I ever do it? 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Little Mystery of the Trains of Littlefield

      There's been a longstanding conflict among the citizens of the town of Littlefield. Some of the residents are convinced their town was the setting for a miracle. Others insist the event can be understood through rational processes.
      It all began early on a foggy morning many years ago, when Olaf Nielssen climbed into the engine of his train in Calico, fifty miles west of Littlefield. His fireman looked concerned; the old Norwegian engineer had that set to his jaw that said he'd had another argument with his wife, and would be stubborn, pigheaded, and obnoxious all day.
      At the same time, Sam Gibbons stumbled into the engine of his train, in Sea Flats, fifty miles east of Littlefield. Sam's fireman shook his head. The engineer had been drinking again. It was going to be a long day.
      The trains set off at seven A.M., one eastbound, one westbound, and an hour and a half later, as they approached Littlefield, Harold Mallon, the stationmaster, walked out onto the platform, and to his horror, saw the trains speeding toward each other on the same track. The westbound train was supposed to slow, permitting the eastbound train to be shunted aside to another track. But both trains were going full speed ahead.  
      The reason why the westbound train didn't slow was that Sam Gibbons, drunk as a lord, had passed out atop the throttle. The fireman had tried to pull the engineer away from the controls, but slipped on some oil on the floor and knocked himself cold.  
      On the eastbound train, the fireman pleaded with Olaf Nielssen to hit the brake, but the engineer shook his head. By gum, he had the right of way. He was not about to yield.
      As the trains approached, hell-bent for leather, Harold Mallon buried his head in his hands, and waited to hear the horrible crash. But it never came. A moment later, the stationmaster peeled his fingers off his face, and to his astonishment, saw the two trains, still on the same track, vanishing eastbound and westbound.
      To this day, Littlefield remains divided. Half the citizens are certain divine intervention spared their town a disaster. The other half claim that the event is easily explained through straightforward logic and reason: Norse is Norse and Souse is Souse, and never the trains shall meet.

      OK, I've got that out of my system for a while. I'll be better behaved next week.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Death of a Dentist

       My dentist is a very nice man, but just seeing him come around the corner into the examining room breaks me into clammy sweats. I've taken in stride a number of uncomfortable medical procedures performed on unmentionable parts of my anatomy, but having a dental cavity filled leaves me feeling like a soaked dishrag.
       I know why I feel this way, and it still doesn't help. My first dentist was, believe it or not, my godfather, a long-time family friend. He was a large person, topping 300 pounds, bald, and usually with a cigar sticking out from one or the other corner of his mouth. Unfortunately, my baby teeth were persistent devils, wouldn't fall out to provide space for their successors, so they had to be pulled. This was always done under nitrous oxide, which induced terrible dreams and had me throwing up for hours after I awakened. Consequently, routine dental checkups came to be events which would keep me awake for several nights beforehand.
       When I was ten, an X-ray showed the need for another extraction. I jumped out of the chair, and told the dentist and my mother I wouldn't have it done unless I could "have the needle" I knew Mother got for her dental work. They both agreed, but when I sat back down, the dentist threw his hairy arm across my chest, slammed the nitrous mask over my face, and pushed. I started hitting, kicking, screaming, until finally I lost consciousness.  
       After I woke up, my mother scolded me for kicking "Uncle Doc" in the shin, and so hard. In between barfs, I told her I was sorry I hadn't kicked him higher, and that I'd never let the liar near me again. Nor, I added, was I terribly pleased with her. Several solemn promises later from both miscreants, I relented - what's a ten-year-old kid going to do? - and got my dental maintenance and repairs done under local. But the damage was done. There's no way I can anticipate a dentist-visit with anything short of terror.
       So, when I began to write murder mysteries, you know what was one of the first ideas to come into my head. But I've never written Death of a Dentist, and I doubt I ever will. Whenever I think about spending every day of a coming year and more in a dentist's office, I get the cold collywobbles.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Don't Jazz Me, Man. It's Ragtime

       I've been delighted at how many people have told me they've enjoyed my three ragtime-based historical mysteries. But churlish as it may be, my stomach tightens when I hear, "I really liked your jazz series."
       Let's clear up a couple of points.
       First, the books comprise a trilogy, not a series. In three parts, they cover the story of popular ragtime music in America, from its birth in 1899, to its death in 1916, to the early stages of its revival in 1951.
       More important, it's ragtime, not jazz. As conceived by Scott Joplin and his publisher, John Stark, popular ragtime, a blend of the syncopated melodies of early Black Americans and the classic regular double beat of the European march, was intended to be a form of classical music, no different from a Schubert song or a waltz by Brahms, and so, was to be played strictly according to the score.  
       Joplin and Stark's caution, "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast" became famous, but not everyone agreed. One (possibly apocryphal) story has Charles L. Johnson, a fine composer of midwestern folk ragtime, a more rollicking form, putting Allegro Vivace on a composition, then telling John Stark at a party, "You know what that means? It's Latin for 'Stick it in your ear.'"
       Nor did the hot piano players from the saloons, barrelhouses, and brothels take heed. They competed to see who could play ragtime fastest and with the most impressive embellishments, and gradually, the music evolved into an improvisational form which was first called jass.
       John Stark, no surprise, hated jazz. Not long before the publisher's death in 1927, Paul Whiteman, the self-titled King of Jazz, came to St. Louis with his orchestra to play a concert, and dropped by to issue Stark a personal invitation. But no amount of persuasion succeeded in convincing the old man to come.
       So let's give proper consideration to one of our very greatest American composers, and the publisher without whom we might well never have heard this lovely music. Nothing wrong with jazz, folks, but this is ragtime.