Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Learning From Film

I recently watched the film “Heaven’s Gate” and was reminded how much a writer can learn from a film—even a bad one.

I’m sure Michael Cimino didn’t set out to make a bad film and may not consider this as broad a failure as history has judged it. Nonetheless, this 1980 blockbuster has been panned by hordes of critics—both professional and amateur; was a bust at the box office, contributed to the demise of United Artists and virtually destroyed the director/writer’s career.

Few books have had such a calamitous impact on their creators.

Personally I think it could have been a great film. I believe it was Cimino’s intent to make a great film (why aspire to anything less?). It had an ambitious and worthy premise: a historical incident in which wealthy cattle barons set out to slaughter immigrant settlers encroaching on their property, with government giving nod to the intent. The film had a stellar cast, much good dialogue, some beautiful music and poetic cinematography (though there were occasions when smoke and atmospheric effects made it difficult to see what was going on).

The major flaws in the mix were a lack of clarity in some important areas, scenes that contributed nothing to the flow of the work and an exhausting length.

The issue of clarity is the first lesson for the writer. The opening of the film devotes a good 20 minutes to the graduation of Kris Kristofferson and John Hurt from Harvard. It then flashes forward 20 years to Wyoming where the former is a lawman and the latter a drunken cattle rancher who can’t decide which side he’s on. Other than citing a previous relationship between the two men there appears little necessity for the lead in. It could have been handled with a simple bit of dialogue. I suspect Cimino’s intent in this and some other places was to parallel the privileged lives of the wealthy and the insecurity of the poor. If this was his good intention, it failed and served only to confuse most viewers. That was probably also the intent of the epilogue which, again, failed.

If you’re going to say something, say it clearly enough for all to get it. Symbolism is fine provided the symbols can be understood.

And, speaking of saying something, there’s the issue of mixed languages in a work. There’s a scene in this film where the immigrants assemble to decide whether to flee or fight. Apparently Cimino sought to be historically accurate but the lengthy period of babble is more annoying than enlightening. If introducing a foreign tongue, be sure the meaning is clear. Cormac McCarthy is good at this. When he has a passage in Spanish the action generally makes clear the message.

Now we come to scenes. There are several in this film that could have been cut with no loss to the project. For example it’s obvious Cimino loved the scene where characters dance on roller skates. Poetic—yes. But it contributes nothing to the forward movement of the plot. The time spent here could have been used to better advantage expanding on the major characters, who are all too thinly addressed. If you like a scene which does nothing to advance the tale save it for another day.

As to length, a story should only be as long as it takes to tell the tale. Make every word count.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Cure For Crime

As one who writes about the subject, I'm always interested in theories for reducing crime.

Dr. Arthur MacDonald offered an interesting one in address before Congress in 1903. His suggestion: eat more meat and potatoes.

Now before you jump to the conclusion he was a crank it should be noted MacDonald was a respected criminal anthropologist in the employ of the U.S. Bureau of Education. The author of numerous books and scientific papers, he was an advocate for the creation of an apparatus combining the pneumograph, psychogalvanometer and cardiospysmograph—what became the modern polygraph.

He was also a follower of the theories of Cesare Lombroso who believed criminals were born and could be identified by physical traits—profiling to the extreme.

As to meat and potatoes, the good doctor contended one of the reasons for an increase in crime was a decrease in their consumption and a tendency toward less solid and staple foods.

“The less cost of living and the increase of wealth, with the luxuries of the table,” he proclaimed, “have tended to over-eating, which, in connection with lack of exercise, has had its evil effects and doubtless produced an additional reaction on the nervous system. When the nerves are unstrung by overpressure the will may become weak, depression and pessimism set in and loss of self-control follow with its consequent abnormal actions leading on to crime and other social evils.”

In that same address to Congress MacDonald averred automobiles, electric cars and the telephone were equally to blame for the increase in crime, insanity, suicide and other forms of abnormality. He argued these inventions caused people to exercise less and think more. This, MacDonald said, puts an abnormal strain on the nervous system as compared with the muscular system. “States having the greatest intelligence and education also exceed in insanity, suicide, juvenile criminals, nervous diseases and paupers.”

So, if we want to reduce crime all we have to do is eat more meat and potatoes and stop thinking.

And you thought it was going to be difficult.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Miracles Do Happen


There was probably a lot of head-shaking and muttering of “milagro,” Spanish for miracle, yesterday when the U.S. men’s national soccer team humbled Spain—the best team in the world. The Yanks scored a 2-0 victory on the field in South Africa.

This is a big achievement. It’s the first time Spain has been beaten since they were trumped by the Romanians back in 2006.

Except for dedicated fans, many Americans won’t even have noticed this stunning achievement. Soccer still isn’t a big draw for sports fans in many parts of this country, at least not on a par with football, baseball, basketball and, even, golf (a boring sport). Why this should be is beyond me.

In my neck of the woods, football (American version) is THE SPORT. Personally, I’ve always considered it BORING. I mean, how can you get excited about big guys bumping into one another? If they run 30 feet it’s an achievement. And then they call a time out so officials can measure how far the ball rolled. See what I mean? Boring.

I was introduced to soccer when I went to Asia. Now here, I thought, is a sport worth watching. It’s fast, it takes individual and team skill to maneuver the ball and it’s exciting. Did you notice, they’re not all padded up either.

I was thrilled to see interest in the sport growing in recent years. I can even see it on TV now. Two of my grandsons played one season in youth leagues, then they moved on to baseball and basketball. Nothing wrong with those sports. But, I have to admit, there was some disappointment on my part that they didn’t want to stick with soccer longer.

I’m the only one in my circle of family and friends who cares about soccer. I get mystified stares when I mention Altidore, Dempsey or Bocanegra. That’s okay. I’ll keep hoping for another milagro Sunday when the U.S. goes up against Brazil in the finals.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Background For a Novel

Fleeing famine and brutal oppression, more than a million Irish refugees flocked to the United States between 1846-1855. It's been estimated 44 percent of immigrants to the U.S. in that period were Irish.

They couldn't have picked a worse time to come. The nation was coming up of one economic downturn and about to enter another. The majority of the immigrants were Roman Catholic and anti-Papist sentiments boiled up in tandem with the economic panic. Newspapers of the period are full of examples of anti-Catholic/Irish sentiment, including cartoons depicting them as savages and animals.

Many of the Irish found their way to Pennsylvania's anthracite coal region where they encountered some of the worst exploitation and hatred. Wayne Broehl in his excellent "The Molly Maguires" says, "All the past hatreds and slights came welling up again, and the mining patches were quickly divided, physically and socially, along ethnic lines. Soon the Irish turned to protective societies."

The subject of the Molly Maguires is controversial today with many refusing to believe there was such an organization or that its members were guilty of the crimes of which they stood accused. There is a possibility many more attrocities were attributed to them than did exist. But the organization's existence is documented and people do have a tendency to strike back at oppression.

It's against this backdrop I've set my novel "Watch The Hour." Benjamin Franklin Yeager is a coal company police officer who does his best to follow orders while trying to be fair to the workers whose lot he sees as little different from his own. Despite his efforts at fairness, Yeager's job makes him the enemy of the Irish. And that's the crux of his troubles. For Ben is in love with an Irish girl.

You can read an excerpt from the novel here http://www.whiskeycreekpress.com/chapters/WatchTheHour_JRLindermuth.shtml

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Writer's System

I'm reading Michener's "My Lost Mexico," which details how he began the novel "Mexico," abandoned the manuscript for 30 years, then came back to complete what became an international bestseller in 1992-93.

Ironically, though I admire Michener as one of Pennsylvania's stellar writers and have read much of his work and love Mexico, its history and culture, I've never read this particular novel. I can't really say why I've neglected this particular book, but I expect now I will have to read it.

The interesting part of MLM is how it provides insight into Michener's writing process. He was a prodigious researcher and a hard worker. He often spent 12-15 hours a day at his typewriter. He was a genius at plot construction. Yet his lengthy, complex novels came together on the barest of outlines. The examples he gives of his outlining in this book show that the term to him might be as simple as a single word defining the 'outline' of a chapter. Other elements he refers to as 'outlining' include drawings and photographs which he used to focus his imagination.

He also talks about "the persistence of memory" and how his books tended to influence one another in symbiotic ways.

I may have more to say about this book later.

I should also note that although I've read and enjoyed much of Michener's fiction I particularly love some of his non-fiction. Some favorites in this category include "Rascals in Paradise," "The Floating World" and "Iberia."

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Successful Signing--Sort Of

I suppose many writers find promotion the most difficult part of the business. That's why God created agents and publicists, isn't it?

It takes courage to face potential readers and tell them why they should choose our books from among the multitude available to them. It's not that we're not conceited enough to think our words should take precedence. The problem is many of us are more introverted than extroverted and find it easier to face the keyboard rather than people. Where is that publicist, damn it?

I shared the bully-pulpit last night with another writer at the historical society where I'm librarian. We were both to speak. He being the guest, I graciously urged him to go first. (I wasn't just being nice; I needed more time to get psyched.) A former teacher, my friend had no problem facing the audience and speaking extemporaneously about his book.

My turn came and I felt reasonably confident. Rather than focusing directly on my book I thought I'd give some consideration to the reason the Irish flocked to Pennsylvania's coal region and the exploitation and bigotry they faced, which are themes of my novel. I'd just started on my spiel when my mobile rang. I'd forgotten to turn it off. My daughter was calling to see how things were going. Well, that shot my nerves and I stumbled through my presentation.

At the signing which followed I was surprised to find my listeners didn't think I did half as bad as I thought I had. In fact, a number said they enjoyed my talk. The signing went well and we both sold books.

And, before the night was over, I had a commission for another speaking engagement.

Life is wrought with surprises.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Signing Coming Up

I have a signing coming up on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Northumberland County Historical Society, 1150 N. Front St., Sunbury PA.

This will be the first for Watch The Hour and I'll be joined by Barry McFarland, author of The Northumberland Man, which is a non-fiction book about his ancestor who immigrated from Ireland and was a success in the coal business. It should make an interesting contrast with my novel, which deals with the hardships of Irish immigrants in the anthracite coal region.

Watch The Hour has garnered three positive reviews to date and I've had good feedback from a number of readers.

I'm optimistic about this event.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Finding a Fortune

Rare is the person who hasn't dreamt of finding a fortune in the attic, a dusty over-looked relic destined to allay economic concerns.

Many youngsters, particularly boys, are intrigued by treasure tales. Most abandon interest with adulthood, though the dream persists in the American obsession with the pursuit of sudden fortune through lotteries and other games of chance.

I'm librarian of my county historical society and I admit we'd like to find a bonanza in our collections. Recently, members of a neighboring historical society did find one: a dusty copy of what they hoped might be an original 18th century Poor Richard's Almanac.

While many doubted its authenticity, the Berwick PA society submitted the almanac to Sotheby's in New York. On Tuesday, June 9, an anonymous bidder paid $556,500 for the 1733 relic--the second highest ever paid for a book printed in America.

How's that for luck?

Need I say we at our historical society are envious. But, with tight funding plaguing all such institutions, we also applaud their good fortune.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Curiosity, the Key to Creativity

In his book 'Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention' Mihaly Csikszentmihaly stresses the cultivation of curiosity as vital to creativity.

I'm convinced, curiosity is a major ingredient in the process.

We're born with an ample portion of curiosity. Children come equipped with a natural curiosity which enhances the ability to learn. Though curiosity got the proverbial cat in trouble, there can be no learning and, hence, no creativity without it. Curiosity is the seed from which all invention flowers.

Csikszentmihaly offers some advice on cultivating curiosity in our daily lives.

1.Try to be surprised by something every day. He suggests looking at the world around us in a new way. Being open to new experiences. Exploring.
2.Try to surprise at least one person every day. Break from routine. Don't be predictable. Try something new and see where it leads.
3.Write down each day what surprised you and how you surprised others. This is intended to provide opportunity for reflection on the new experiences and to help see where they might lead.
4.When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it. This is where curiosity comes into full play.

Curiosity provides an adventurous outlook, the ability to take chances and risk falling on one's face in the name of experimentation. That, my friends, is creativity.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Bookland Heights

I'm guest today, Tuesday and Wednesday at Bookland Heights, http://www.booklandheights.blogspot.com

Information about my books is available and visitors will have an opportunity to learn more about me and my writing, ask questions and leave comments.

I'm looking forward to the interaction (I hope) with curious readers and potential readers.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Am I On A Winning Streak?

While attending an art auction in March I won a drawing for an original print by French/Brazilian artist Linda Le Kinff. I like her lush, colorful work and was pleased but took the win as a once and done pleasant experience.

Then, in May, I was informed I'd won a copy of Dianne Ascroft's novel "Hitler and Mars Bars" in another drawing. The following week came an email from publisher Tony Burton notifying me I've won a drawing for admission to the Killer Nashville writers' conference in August.

Two days later I received a $20 gift certificate for Amazon as a winner in The Keeper Game, which is being used to promote my friend Natasha Mostert's new novel, "Keeper of Light and Dust," and I'm still in the running for the grand prize, choice of a Kindle or a pair of boxing gloves.

By this time I'm thinking maybe I should invest in a lottery ticket and see if I can win enough to support my writing and travel without economic concern.

By the way, if you want to try your luck at The Keeper Game, here's the link: www.thekeepergame.com

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Selling Yourself

Some creative people like to think they're different from business people.

That may work if you chose to live in an ivory tower and don't care about selling your product. If you want the world (customers) to value your work, then you must develop a business attitude. That's especially true in today's competitive market.

Take writing, for instance. Bowker statistics reveal 560,626 new books were published in 2008. That works out to 1,532 books a day. That's a lot of competition. The big name writers receive a lot of help from their publishers and their established reputation. If a newbie wants to compete in that marketplace, he/she must take efforts to stand out from the crowd.

How do we achieve that? We begin by producing the best product we can. Second, we seek every possible opportunity to promote our product and make it known to potential customers. Most important, we must cultivate an attitude of success.

As Cervantes so eloquently put it: "The brave man carves out his fortune, and every man is the son of his own works."

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Fourth in a Series

I never contemplated writing a series. But it seems my characters had other ideas and kept intruding on my imagination. I've just completed the fourth novel in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series and am preparing to submit it to my publisher for consideration.

In this novel, a wealthy doctor and entrepreneur reunited with a strayed son brings his family home to rural Swatara Creek. Investigation of the murder of an out-of-state reporter keeps bringing Sticks and his team back to this family.

The question here is one of identity.

Can anyone truly ever know another person? Who we are and how others see us is, at best, a matter of perception. The word person comes from the Latin and originally referred to the mask worn by actors. We, all of us, conceal our true identity behind the mask we present to others.

Sticks is still serving as unofficial consultant to Police Chief Aaron Brubaker but Hetrick’s political enemies are driving a wedge between the two friends which threatens to end their professional relationship. Hetrick’s new love-interest, Anita Bailey, is prodding him to accept a job offer as investigator in the county prosecutor’s office where she works. Hetrick’s interested but fears Brubaker might see it as confirmation he conspired with the politicians.

There are sub-plots concerning the ongoing relationship of Officers Flora Vastine and Harry Minnich, an attempt by professional criminal Earl 'Fingers' Schurke to go straight, and a competitive threat to Lena Stroble's restaurant.