Sunday, August 20, 2017

How You Say It

An old creative writing professor once said, ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.’   At the time I didn’t give this tidbit of advice much consideration. But over the years, it’s come back around time and again. This week I got a perfect reminder of that adage.

If you’re familiar with my writing, you probably know that I’m originally from Detroit. The city is famous for so many different things, from cars to music to industry and more.  If you’re from the area, you grow up hearing certain names and sounds that you just assume everyone understands.  But a little history helps.

Detroit was founded by French settlers in 1701 and named by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. 

The name itself means the straits, connecting Lake Erie with Lake Huron. As such, there are many streets around the area whose names have a French pronunciation.  Fascinating, right?  And what does that have to do with this week’s column?

Well, if everything goes right, “Why 319?” will be made into an audio book. I was pleasantly surprised to find out this was an option and even more surprised to have a couple of actors audition to be the narrator. I selected one a few weeks ago and have been trying not to think about how long this process could take. Now that it's a possibility, I'm anxious to have this option available.

Wednesday I received a demo of the first fifteen minutes of the book.  And that’s where my reminder about ‘how you say it’ came to play.   The protagonist in the book is Jefferson Chene.  Anybody familiar with Motown will recognize this as an intersection near downtown and they all know how to pronounce it. Chene sounds like Shane. 

But the actor didn’t know that. I made the mistake of assuming everyone would know how to pronounce such a simple name.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to make the correction and share a few other bits before he got too far into the recording.  One of the silliest ones is Gratiot Avenue, a major road that rocks through the east side and is mentioned several times in the story.  Gratiot is pronounced grass shit. 

So like the old professor said, ‘it’s how you say it.’  

Here’s a little background music that’s close to the message. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

No Outline Required

Different people take different approaches. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about life, career paths, culinary efforts or the route to the grocery store. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Imagine how boring it would be if we all did the same things in the very same way. 

Take writing.  There are some very talented authors who are meticulous when it comes to planning out their work. They take the time to diligently plot out each step along the way. Some use notecards, others use a spreadsheet on the computer or a large whiteboard or flip chart. Hey, whatever works.   

But that method is definitely not for me.

Even from an early age, I had difficulty working with an outline. It was too restrictive and made writing almost painful. I remember a nun at the elementary school who required an outline to be written and turned in before we wrote the paper. I cringed. I struggled. Nothing came to light. Images of getting my knuckles cracked by the good sister’s ruler for my ineptitude didn’t help matters. Then inspiration struck.

I wrote the paper first. Got it where it worked and covered all the topics. Then I went back and wrote the outline. That was turned in on schedule and I already had the big project done.  The nun was pleased with both the paper and the outline. So in the long run, everything worked out just fine.
But I still can’t write with an outline.

I find it confining. For me, it’s more natural to come up with an idea for the overall story and maybe a key character or two.  Once I’ve got them settled in, it’s my job to turn them loose. Forget micromanaging. I just trot along beside them and see what happens. And when I write, it’s rare that the story is shaped in chronological order. Very often I’ll have an idea for a scene or some dialogue that will just keep the neurons firing in my brain until the only recourse is to write it. When it’s down on the computer, then I can go back to the story. That’s one of the beauties of technology. I can move paragraphs or pages anywhere, all at the click of a button. Write it in sequence?  No thanks!

Here’s an example from “Why 319?” In this scene, Captain Pappy Cantrell grudgingly reveals his strategy for the three homicide investigations to Sergeant Jefferson Chene. The story is told from Chene’s perspective.

I waited until everyone else filed out of the room. Cantrell let his eyes close as if he were meditating. With the smoke curling up around his head, he looked like something out of a Tennessee monastery. The Art of Zen, courtesy of Jack Daniels.

“Well?” he muttered without opening his eyes.

“When were you going to clue me in on this plan, Pappy?”

“Y’all weren’t ready.”

I didn’t try to keep the anger from my voice. “Bullshit. I’ve been the lead on ninety percent of the investigations we’ve handled for the last three years. You know it. I know it. The whole freaking squad knows it.”

He took a long drag and pulled the cigarette from his lips. “But not everybody likes it.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “You mean Barksdale. The guy’s a dinosaur.”

“Would that be a triceratops?”

I was surprised he was able to name one, but then, Cantrell could be full of surprises. Like this new plan. “So how do you see this?”

“We split into three teams, just like Ah said. We put Koz with the new girl, Laura. Give them the oldest case, the Wayne County. You and Megan take the Macomb one. Bloomfield will want their girlie working their crime. We stick her with Barksdale.”

“So why didn’t you tell me before?”

“You all right, Chene, but you ain’t no actor. Ah wanted everyone to know this was a surprise, even you. It made your reaction real. You gettin’ pissy ’cause Ah didn’t tell you about it first.”

I considered it for a moment. The old bastard had it down cold. Barksdale would have pitched a holy fit if I’d made the decision to split the team by case and assign him the outsider. He and Megan could barely stand each other. Laura was too new to stick with him. That left the Bloomfield detective. Since the orders were coming down from Cantrell, there was no way he’d argue it. Especially when it appeared that Cantrell did not trust me to make the call. It was a stroke of genius, pure logistical genius. I told him as much.

“’Tweren’t nothin. You might have figured it out in a couple of days.”

“Don’t be so modest, Pappy. You know how to manipulate him.”

“Uh huh.”

It took me a moment to admit the rest. “And me too.”

He nodded slowly. “Hell, Chene, if Ah can’t ever manipulate ya, y’all ain’t no good to me.”

Yes, even though it's been decades since I graced the halls of the Catholic schools, the sight of a nun in a traditional habit can still creep me out. 

For today's musical interlude, here's a classic. Don't try to analyze the lyrics, just enjoy the ride.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sharp Dressed Man

In my youth I remember reading a book that was filled with so many unremarkable people with similar names that I had difficulty telling them apart. If I couldn’t keep them straight, were other people having the same problem?  I considered that to be either laziness or a lack of imagination on the part of the author.

So once I started writing, it became part of my profile to make my characters different. Just like the people you see at the store, in the gym, walking through the neighborhood or driving in crosstown traffic, no two people will look or behave the same.  I want the people in my stories to be memorable.

Now except for rare occasions, I’m a casual guy. Jeans, T shirts, sneakers or boots pretty well covers it.  So my knowledge of fashion is somewhat limited. But thanks to the power of the Internet, it’s easy to find details on just about anything.

While working on “Fleeing Beauty” I wanted to include a character who was out of the ordinary.  Someone who didn’t fit the standard background, upbringing or attire. Someone who would stand out. So after several attempts, I landed on Harrison Mundy. He became the perfect foil for Jamie, with just enough intrigue to keep her guessing.  It took a few passes, but in the end it worked well.

Here’s the scene where Mundy makes his first appearance. Jamie and Linda are meeting him at a classy restaurant in the hopes that he will have information about her father Peter’s stolen artwork. 

Mundy flashed a smile at me that was almost blinding in its brightness. “I prefer to know as much as I can about the people I am meeting. Even though I am retired, I like to keep my senses sharp.”

“So you’ve retired from a life of crime?” I asked.

“Really, Jamie, you know I am not a criminal. I was never convicted or even accused of an illegal act. I have many interests that have been cultivated over the years. Is there a particular area of my expertise that appeals to you?”

I took a moment to study him while phrasing my response. He was very handsome, with the dazzling smile, smooth complexion, and thick silver hair. He was fit and trim, perhaps a little taller than me, which would put him about five-foot eight-inches tall.  I had no doubt the suit he was wearing was tailor made for his frame. He spoke with an educated tone. His nails were manicured.  

“I would like to know about art thefts, particularly the best way to do it. Did you always have a buyer in mind?”

He chuckled dryly. “Jamie, what makes you think I know anything about thievery?”

“Perhaps in your studies of the subject, you learned how thieves work.”

“That is a very good answer,” he said. “May I presume your interest stems from the recent discovery of your father’s work?”

 “You may,” I replied somewhat sullenly. It dawned on me that I was mimicking his precise way of speaking. This wasn’t like me at all. And it was obvious that Mundy was in complete control of the conversation and the situation.

“So if you were hypothetically going to steal some of Peter’s artwork, how would you go about it?”

“There are many ways to execute a perfect crime. But each one takes a great deal of careful planning and preparation. Contingencies must be calculated as well.” Mundy paused. “Tell me about the building.”

Linda and I took turns describing the structure. I was surprised how much detail she was able to give, knowing she’d only been there today. But Linda is extremely observant. I described the minimal security system. Before I could tell him what had been stolen, Mundy raised a hand.

“Pardon me, Jamie, but I do not want to know what is missing. You are asking me to postulate a hypothetical robbery. I will need some time to consider various options. I must ask your indulgence.”

 I realized Mundy was now on his feet.

“You’re leaving?”

Harrison Mundy dropped his linen napkin on the table. I noticed his glass was empty and the appetizers were gone. He shot his cuffs.

“Our meeting was for one hour. That time has passed. I have another commitment.” He turned slightly toward Linda and lifted her hand. Smoothly he bent forward and grazed his lips across her knuckles. “It has been a delightful pleasure to meet you both.”

Linda’s cheeks flared red. “Thank you,” she stammered.

Mundy turned to me. I was standing now, trying to figure out how to prolong the conversation.  His eyes were twinkling as he looked at me.

“Your reputation is well deserved, Jamie. I must admit to be intrigued by your—situation.  When the time is right, I will be in touch.”  With that he gently, but firmly, took my hand and did the knuckle grazing kiss.  I felt a flush run through me. Who was this guy?

When it comes to Sharp Dressed Man, you know there's a song that goes with it.


Here are a couple of possible photos of Harrison.