Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock as Facebook

I had not seen my first birthday when Woodstock started forty years ago today. However, that 1969 music festival's shadow has extended to my generation. For us, Live Aid (1985) was like our Woodstock. Granted, only people in London and Philadelphia got to see the concerts in person but millions of us around the world gave up a day to plop in front of a television and watch act after act. It was fantastic even though my dad asked for (and was given) the keys to my 1973 Dodge Dart. He was mad at me but he got over it. I got my keys back, .

As the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock occurs today, Saturday, 15 August, we will all be inundated with tributes and remembrances. A good one appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times. “Moment of Muddy Grace - The Enduring Appeal of Woodstock,” by JohnParales , is one man’s thoughts on attending the concert back in 1969 and what Woodstock has meant in the decades since. The Times also has slide shows andpodcasts. Check’em out if you’ve got a mind to.

One particular passage in Parales’ story is this quote:
When the hippie subculture surfaced en masse at Woodstock, two years after the Summer of Love, it was still largely self-invented and isolated. There were pockets of freaks in cities and handfuls of them in smaller towns, nearly all feeling like outsiders. For many people at the festival, just seeing and joining that gigantic crowd was more of a revelation than anything that happened onstage. It proved that they were not some negligible minority but members of a larger culture — or, to use that sweetly dated term, a counterculture.
As I write this post, I'm watching the "Woodstock" movie (1970) for the first time. It's a little surreal to see scenes I've heard about for years. In the segment juxtaposing the skinny dipping youth and the angry older generation, a young girl swimming echoes the same sentiments. "You realize you're not the only one in your city doing the same things," she says.

I’m old enough to remember the days when Entertainment Tonight and Rolling Stone were the only outlets for news about music and events. On the book publicity front, a few additional outlets existed--newspaper book reviews primarily--but not many. Word-of-mouth was the primary communication means: one guy loans another his new album featuring a new band; a gal loans her friend a book by a new, favorite author; new movies were foretold by trailers in movie theaters. One by one, groups formed and, even amid these various groups, longed a question: are we alone?

Parales’ comment about Woodstock is so simple it’s meaning is easy to miss. Woodstock was like a giant Facebook fan page. For the kids who thought they were alone in their musical and cultural tastes could point to Woodstock and say, “Yeah, I’m part of that.” The movie acted as further evidence. The youth and the older generation could watch what went on in New York forty years ago this weekend and learn from it. The youth could get some affirmation that they were not alone. The older generation could look upon it and, possibly, realize it ain't all bad. The presence of Woodstock must have been like a ton of bricks coming off common shoulders.

The Internet has fundamentally altered the landscape. Crime fiction fans or devoted followers of a particular band's music merely have to log on and discover a place on the Internet to find folks who like the same things. We have Facebook where anyone can make a fan site for any sub-sub-sub genre they like: quilters who love jazz; cat fanatics who love math; or any political sub-group you can think of. Loners and other kids (and adults, too) on the fringes of society have a place to commune with others. We know we can find solace online with other like-minded individuals. It’s reassuring if not still isolating. And we can still be naked, at home, if we want to be.

Woodstock as Facebook. I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch. Do you?

Friday, August 14, 2009

"I know at least, oh, about 127 words... and I still prefer..."

By Russel D McLean

In my best Channel 4 announcers voice, I’m going to tell you that there may be discussion of bad language and worse language here. But since its going to be prevalent, I’ll star it out for the weak of heart.

And to get you in the mood, Billy Connolly isn’t going to star out his swearing. And he encapsulates, far better than I, some very similar theories about bad language:

One of the things I never get is people who complain about bad language in crime novels. It is the one complaint I get about my books, these people going, “Oh, I liked the characters and I liked the action and all that, but did the drug dealers and murderers have to swear?” Oh, f*** off, he hinted.

I like my crime fiction at the street level. I don’t have time for people who artificially elevate their characters, try and make them smarter or more erudite than they would be (and the reverse is true, nothing more patronising than trying to make someone sound tougher than they are). I’m writing – a good deal of the time – about people who were not educated at the best schools or who didn’t from the best homes. My central character isn’t an alcoholic, but I guess he’s got a lot of pent up rage. And, yes, like me, this rage manifests itself in the occasional use of language that might make a sailor blush.

The argument against swearing (in adult novels – novels for adults, in case you didn’t hear me the first time) tends to come threefold:

1) There are better words.

No there aren’t. Swearing, as the esteemed Mr Billy Connolly says, is a language all of itself. There is no English equivalent for “F*** off. Because those two tiny wee words say it all. You are in no doubt of what is being communicated. And, yes, there really is a huge difference between, “leave me alone” and “f*** off” that comes down to intent. “Leave me alone” is weak and half-hearted. Its almost like, “I don’t care if you do or you don’t go away.” Where, “F*** off,” is forceful and definitive in the way it looks and the way it sounds. You are left in no doubt as to intention. It’s the difference between a half-hearted push to the chest and a smack in the pus*.

2) No one talks like that.

The other day, I crossed the road, had some guy behind me say, as I moved at an angle so I could get to my work quicker, “Walk in a straight line, ya c***.” Listening to people on the street, in everyday situations (why writers really should spend some time working in retail or in a job where they interact with the general public) some of them use these words as an endearment, as punctuation. So, sorry, but people do talk like that.

Do I?

No. Not usually. But I do swear. When I get angry or annoyed to extreme degrees.

Or when I want to make a joke of it. Because, yes, swearing can be funny. Its not big and its not clever, but sometimes, employed in the right way, it can make milk shoot our yer nose.

3) It makes me uncomfortable.

Have you ever considered that that is the point? At a late point in the debut novel, two hard men refer to a dead woman as a “c***”. I debated over using the word there and at other points in the novel. But I kept it in because, well, it said everything about these characters and who they were and what their attitudes were. And yes, it makes the reader uncomfortable, but the word in comparison with these guy’s actions? It pales into insignificance. Oh, and yes, it crops up in the second novel, but not so often because the characters involved aren’t the same (in fact I believe the swear count is lower just because of the different types of people that McNee is investigating).

I have no problem with crime novels where there is no swearing of course. I do not believe Steve Hockensmith’s rip-roaringly funny Old Red/Big Red novels have much cussin’ in ‘em (at least, not Deadwood style) but in context, they don’t need the language. And if I was writing in a context where I didn’t think swearing was going to say a lot about the characters, I wouldn’t use it. Innapropriate or innefective swearing is as bad a crime as a avoiding it altogether. Swear words, like any other words, must be used at the correct time and to have the correct effect. Writers don't just pluck 'em out of thin air. They always have a justification for them. Even if its one you don't neccasarily agree with.

And it may interest fact fans to note that at least one regular and recurring character in the universe of J. McNee does not swear, or least no worse than a damn or a bloody.

When I think about it, too, if you looked at some movie scripts, dear God, they’d make me look temperate. Scarface? The Depaahted? But people don’t get their heads (quite so) twisted over these because a) its acceptable in movies, perhaps because when hearing an actor deliver a swear, its over quicker and sometimes you just don’t notice when you’re hearing rhythm and unable to go back over what you just observed and b) somehow they believe that books should aspire to some mythical “higher level” of art than movies, an argument I’ll get back into another time.

I’m constantly amazed by how words have the power to shock. In an age where corruption is a daily fact of life, where we voyeuristically watch observe eejits 24 hours a day on our TV screens, where our role models are vacuous, talentless, money-grabbing attention seekers who are on a path to self destruction and where programs like The Apprentice teach us that to succeed we have to make other people take the blame for our mistakes, we are still seriously shocked by four letter words? Like they’re the cause of all this corruption and decadence and idiocy? Ask me, its more likely the other way round.

And in case you think I have no morals, I don’t swear in front of children. Because I don’t think children need to know these words. That can wait till they get older and realise what disappointment and anger truly are. Because swearing is, I think, a metaphor for that kind of anger – the best signifier of pain and hopelessness and outright frustration with the universe.

Oh, you bet your f****n’ ass.

*Apologies to Dave White, who hates footnotes, but I think one is Scottish slang and might need explaining to some of our international audience. Rough translation is, a punch in the face.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wishing on a Star

By Dave White

There are days I wish I was Spenser. I wish I could drink a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, eat a doughnut, run five miles, shoot a bad guy, drink some beer, snap off a joke or two, and then make a gourmet dinner.

There are days I wish I was James Bond. Traveling the globe, shooting at bad guys, getting every available women, and again with the jokes. (The movie Bond, anyway. Fleming's Bond was rarely funny... and when he tried to be... he still wasn't.)

I've been thinking a lot about my favorite characters lately, in movies, books and TV, and there seems to be a common theme that runs through them. Indiana Jones, Spenser, Bond... they're all typically the same person, gruff, tough, funny, confident. They're not the everyman. They're the ideal man. They're the code hero, not the Hemingway hero. They get up.

When I sit down to look at my characters, very few of them have this thread going through them. They're not happy people, usually. And when they are happy, that happiness is taken from them in a flash.

My characters are a bit more realistic, I suppose, but I'm not sure they have the staying power of Bond or Spenser or Jones. They don't often stick with you months after you put the book down. My characters are dark heroes. They do their job, but they're never better for it.

I tend to like both types of characters... but I write about what I think I do well. I'm not sure I could come up with a Bond type character. The never lose your cool kind of guy. I don't see much tension there.

But these are the types of characters people love. These are the characters I'm drawn to over and over and over again. I still read Spenser... I still see every Bond book. I can't even bring myself to hate Crystal Skull.


Probably because it's what we can't be. And it what we want to be. So they watch this characters and imagine they'll have the same witty line, the same grin, the same cool under pressure.

It strikes me, that when you look at these popular heroes... the code heroes...They stick out because we, the audience, is the Hemingway hero. We're, in a way, jealous that these guys can keep getting up and up and up.

Deep down, we know we'll stay down.

So, dear reader, what's appealing to you about the code heroes? And why do we still enjoy reading about the Hemingway hero at times too?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


by John McFetridge

(I'm on vacation with my family. Sorry this is late. I wrote it in time, I just didn't get it posted in time. My fault).

You can find inspiration in real life or you can find inspriration in art – both are equally valid. – Michel Basilieres, author of Black Bird.

A little while ago in a post on The Rap Sheet William Landy wrote about the terrific novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. He wrote about Higgins, a lawyer, listening to hours of wiretaps and reading thousands of pages of police reports – hearing what would become the characters in his books in their own voices.

Also a little while ago in a blog post, Matt Rees wrote about studying literature at Oxford Unversity, “and then I read Dashiell Hammett.”

So, one gets inpriration from real life and one from art – both equally valid.

As a Canadian I tend to find inspiration in a mix of both – we Canadians are the products of, well, pretty much every other culture in the world. It hasn’t distilled into a single culture yet but it’s still young.

As the blurbs on my books say, I attended a murder trial when I was twelve years old. My older brother, an RCMP officer was giving testimony. What I really remember from the day was that the two defendants were laughing and joking. These were two guys, career criminals, who had kidnapped a young boy and in the botched ransom exchange killed two police officers. And they just weren’t taking the trial seriously.

When I talked to my brother about it afterwards he said, “Well, they know they’re spending the rest of their lives in prison, that’s just their final ‘fuck you’ to the rest of us.” I hadn’t really seen that attitude from murderers in the movies or on TV so this attitude stuck with me. And I’ve seen that kind of childish defiance a lot since.

Also in that trial I saw the matter-of-fact approach of the cops. My brother testified about finding the wallet of one of the victim’s near the crime scene when he was one of the cops searching the area.

(the weird thing is I also remember the testimony of the lab guy explaining in detail about how the particular make up of mud that was found in the defendants’ boots could only have come from three feet deep in the exact area where the victims’ bodies were buried, but it has never ocurred to me to use forensics as a factor in fiction. Oh well....)

Those attitudes more than any specific actions are what I’ve used as inpsiration for my writing.

And a lot of real-life events. My wife sends me some of those, “weird criminal” stories from newspapers she finds online. Not the ripped from the headlines page one stuff, that’s usually so odd and out there it’s unbeliveable. More stuff like, Mykal Carberry, 13, was arrested in Hyannis, Mass., in March and charged with arranging for the murder of his 16-year-old half-brother, Jordan, so that, according to police, he could take Jordan's place atop the family's prosperous Cape Cod cocaine distribution ring. (The boss's job was open following the boys' father's recent imprisonment.) [Tampa Tribune-AP, 3-2-09].

But I also get a lot of inspiration from art.

As an angry teenage boy I used to spend a lot of time talking about things I didn’t like. Movies that were, “total crap,” and TV shows that, “sucked bigtime.” And music, oh man, so much music was just awful. We could talk about crappy music for hours. Now I really only like to spend time reading, watching and talking about stuff that’s good. Sometimes I do sit through a movie that isn’t very good and when it’s over I try and pull a few good things from it – pretty much the opposite of what my teenage self would have done.

At a recent family get-together, my brother-in-law, a drama professor, actor, director and writer said he’s constantly hearing conversations and “correcting” them in his head, finding better ways for things to be said, putting the emphasis in different places and so on. Me, when I overhear conversations (and I try to do it all the time) I try to remember them so I can get my writing more the way people actually talk – even if that means it’s sometimes “wrong” with the emphasis in the wrong place.

It’s really just a matter of taste, whichever one you prefer. Inspiration comes from everywhere, then it’s up to us to turn it into something.

Where do you find most of your inspiration?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hometown Blues

By Jay Stringer

Mike’s piece from sunday -and my own ramblings over at my site- have set me thinking about location.

It seems more and more as I get older, I need stories with a string sense of place. I need the setting to be almost as important as the characters. In fact, it needs to BE a character.
It wasn’t always like this. I loved SCI FI and fantasy for a long time, but they seem to have lost their grip over the last decade, largely due to lacking that sense of place.

In the books I read, it’s vital. New York was the most important character in the Matt Scudder books. Writers like Al Guthrie, Scott Phillips and Ray Banks have managed to give enough of a voice to the settings of their work that you find yourself looking past the main characters and seeing a real world in the background.

And, of course, it doesn’t have to be a place that I know. Russel’s book THE GOOD SON is set in a city I’ve never visited in my life, but he put in enough solid groundwork to make it feel like a real place. And once it feels like a real place, then crazy shit can happen.

I think this comes from my need to have some kind of social element in my fiction, and these days crime is where you find the social writers.

This need isn’t just limited to books, though. If you look through my record collection you see it dominated by people who’ve managed to give voice to specific locales; whether it is Paul Westerberg’s tales of unrequited love on the skyway, The Hold Steady’s bar room drama’s of the mid west, Springsteen’s mythic New Jersey, or Strummer’s apocalyptic London.

My brain, and my tastes, somehow seem to be able to swallow a story much more comfortably if it takes place SOMEWHERE. Hell, in the Indiana Jones films, I’m the guy paying extra attention to the little animated maps, so I know where this particular horse chase is going down.

I mention all of this because I’ve found it vital to my writing, as well. A few times I’ve tried writing stories that don’t mention place, which can be set anywhere the reader wants. And I fail every time. It robs the characters of an accent, or a dialect, and it makes the rules of the world a little too flexible. I like writing about the area I grew up in, and perhaps exploring it a little through fiction. I’ve lived in Glasgow for three years now, and still don’t feel comfortable writing stories set here, because it somehow doesn’t feel like I can give the place a real voice yet.

I took a trip back to my hometown at the weekend, and did a lot of thinking. One thing that struck me is that it’s an area that has no fictional tradition in the modern market. It had a huge impact on music, and has a rich history for any novelist who wants to look at, say, the pub bombings, the unions or the gun crime. And yet there is no voice in print. With Mike's recent post in mind, I wonder if this is a good thing –that I have fresh territory to make my own- or a bad thing –that I want to give voice to a region that publishers might not be interested in?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Barnes & Noble expects increase in community, eBook sales

Willy Wonka: But Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.
Charlie Bucket: What happened?
Willy Wonka: He lived happily ever after.

By Steve Weddle

Maybe using Willy Wonka to kick off a crime fiction blog post is enough to get me beaten up outside at recess, but I’ve been beaten up a few times before. Things don’t always go my way. Recently, though, all the stars aligned and I was floating up like Charlie and Grandpa, drunk on the fizzy-lifting drink. Or so I thought.

You see, I need coffee. To exist, I mean. Not like, “I need to feel loved” or “I need to know there’s a reason to live” or bunk like that. Lacking that stuff won’t kill me. No coffee will. They’ll find me curled up like one of those slimy little rodents on the Discovery Channel when they get the night-vision camera inside a groundhog’s nest.

I also need books. Not just to read, either. To read, of course. But also to pile up, to fall over off the piano. To stand in growing towers, my future laid out for me. To line the bookshelves, sporadically organized, my past on display. And the current read, set cockeyed in the middle of the coffee table, waiting for me.
And then I need Wi-Fi, preferably free. Occasionally I need food, something containing chocolate. Something whose name has the words “triple” and/or “dark” prominently displayed. I need a place to write. I need access to a toilet.
Of course I have other needs. Family. Home. Work. Stuff like that. Maybe even someone to walk by me wearing a suit and tie with a button-down shirt so that I have a focal point for all my anger.

Recently the coffee, books, free Wi-Fi, a place to write, food, toilet – these things all came together, thanks to Barnes and Noble, which decided to move all of their stores, nearly 800, to free Wi-Fi.

On July 28, B&N switched from charging $3.95 for a whole two hours of access to the in-store Wi-Fi (via AT&T) to giving it away.

So there I was. The guy who suddenly had everything, standing in my local Barnes and Noble, walking up and down the aisles while connected to free Wi-Fi.

In a press release, Barnes and Noble’s CEO said it’s all about community: “By providing no-fee Wi-Fi access, we are not only meeting our customers’ needs, but extending the sense of community that has always been in our stores.”

The community stuff I get. It’s a press release. It’s about community and saving the puppies. I wonder about the needs of the customers.

In the release, Barnes and Noble points out that shoppers can “download free Barnes & Noble Apps giving them access to the world’s largest eBookstore with over 700,000 eBooks.” Great news. Just last night I was sitting on my couch, surfing the Web when I realized I wanted to read the latest “Chicken Soup for the Crime Writer’s Soul.”

So I shut the house down, got into my car and drove the 28 minutes to Barnes and Noble, found a parking spot, walked into the store, fired up my iPod Touch, loaded the Barnes and Noble Bookstore Application, then realized I needed to have loaded the Barnes and Noble eReader App, then downloaded the book. Of course, you can’t read a book without a good cup of coffee. So I drove home and brewed a pot.

I suppose I don’t understand who is going to download an eBook in the Barnes and Noble Store. I don’t need the store for this. Am I supposed to walk up and down the aisles, pick up each of the 17 various Monk mysteries, decide which one I want and then download it? Then I go sit in the Starbucks with a Triple Grande Latte and start reading my iPod Touch? Alright, that doesn’t sound too bad. Just kinda weird and unlikely.

So I was in the Barnes and Noble a few nights ago. I love that store and have probably spent $500 on books there this summer alone (the ink-on-paper kind). I like the small, indie stores with the one dude behind the counter and the three people throughout the store, too. But the huge B&N is a different kind of experience. When I was there this week, a guy was giving a reading. Self-help stuff. Under normal circumstances, I would have stayed for the reading. I sort of think of it as my civic duty as a certified holder of a triple-digit IQ to heckle those folks. (Seriously, you want to charge $28 to take folk tales and various public domain stuff and show me how I can apply it to my life? Yeah, I can see how that one about the fox and the chicken and raft really helped you appreciate your co-workers and land the Tompkins account. You’d better be signing those books with an “IOU $28.” Jerk.)

I walked past the guy without even a threat of violence because I’m a nice guy. I was there to enjoy the free Wi-Fi in the bookstore. But I wasn’t enjoying it. I was supposed to download eBooks? No. Doesn’t make sense. You don’t go to a bookstore to download eBooks any more than you go to a record store to download mp3s. I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth (ever tried to clean horse-spit out of a Grizzly Adams beard?) but I just couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do with the free Wi-Fi. Sit in the café in the middle of the bookstore, open up my laptop and play Mafia Wars on Facebook?

What is the purpose of the free Wi-Fi? The statement from Barnes and Noble suggests the Wi-Fi is to create community and allow for the downloading of eBooks. I’ve been to many coffee shops with free Wi-Fi. They don’t promote community. You go in, get your 8 oz coffee to last you 3 hours, then plop down and open your laptop. You think it’s about community? Free Wi-Fi in Barnes and Noble is about “extending the sense of community”? Fine. Try something for me, then. Find someone surfing the Web. Sit down next to the person and, in the interest of “community,” ask the person, “So, whatcha doin? What site is that? Are those pictures of Vanessa Hudgens there?” Go ahead. The first aid station is in the back of the store, by the way.

So how did I use the free Wi-Fi the other day? On the day when, like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, I suddenly had everything I'd ever wanted? Well, I searched the iTunes Music Store and downloaded a couple of versions of “My Sweet Lord” that my lovely bride had wanted earlier in the day. I had both songs in seconds, much faster than I would have had on my connection at home. Thanks, Barnes and Noble. That kind of speed must cost you a fortune.