Thursday, July 3, 2014

Happy Fourth of July

While contemplating whether or not to post anything in honor of the holiday, I happened to be perusing my books when it occurred to me that the Fourth plays a prominent role in some of them, going back to my first effort, Sumner Gardens

In that one, twelve-year-old budding thespian Conner O'Neil gets involved in a town production of The Music Man performed over the Fourth of July weekend. The night of the Fourth, he engages in bottle rockets at forty paces in the middle of the street with his future brother-in-law.

In my vampire saga Applewood, fourteen-year-old hero Scott Dugan uses the Fourth to have his first date with a girl who has moved in across the street. The two ride their bikes to a New England downtown rich in history to enjoy the festivities. When the city girl finds it a little cornpone, Dugan sets her straight:
Puzzled by the question, Dugan had to think a moment about
his answer. “Well, first of all, you better start using ‘us guys’ when
you talk about this stuff now, remember?” Her smile took some of
the sting off. “But I guess you’re right, it is a big deal around here,
probably ‘cause there’s so much history. You can’t turn around in
this town without bumping into some of it.
“Coupla years ago, there was this high school teacher shot
himself out in the woods over by the school. They never did figure
out just why he done it, shot himself I mean, but to close the case,
the cops needed to find the bullet. They looked for weeks out in
those woods, and recovered seventy-eight bullets. Some of the bullets
they found went all the way back to Revolutionary War days.
But they never did find his bullet.”
She looked thoughtful as Dugan went on.
“The place you’re sittin’ right now is the same place that the
volunteers came when the Revolution broke out, and after that the
Civil War. I’ll bet if we went back far enough, we’d find out that
some kinda Indian thing happened right there too, long before the
white man set foot on these shores.”
He looked over at her and smiled. “Like I said, you can’t get
away from it.”
I suppose that's true of most everywhere, but it is absolutely true for those of us who grew up in New England. There is no getting away from it.

Finally, in my pirate adventure Swash!, in which eighteenth-century pirates find themselves trapped in our time, another Fourth finds young protagonist Chris Duggan at the town parade. For their sake (and his own sanity) Chris has tried to keep the pirates under wraps, however, at the parade, Chris finds the pirates are about to make a very public debut:
Another marching band followed, and Chris knew the short parade was almost over. He began to hear cheering and whistles from down the street. Everyone stood on tiptoes trying to get a glimpse of what it was. He couldn’t see anything except the cab of a truck slowly making its way up the street, but a moment later he recognized the white haired man waving from the passenger seat and smiled to see Barney Zimmerman. Whatever it was, his float was getting the most effusive cheers. Then, through gaps opened by crowds of people rushing toward it, he saw it.
Rising majestically from the back of the flatbed was a pirate ship made entirely of living things. Its palm tree masts were festooned with purple lilacs. The billowing sails were made of sheets of green sod. As it moved closer, like he knew he would, Chris saw the crew of the Lady Grace, all manning their stations while waving and throwing beads to the crowd. But their appearance had changed. They looked different somehow. It took more than a moment for him to realize it was their clothes. Gone were the silly hand-me-downs taken from the giveaway bin at the church. They were now dressed in proper pirate costumes, though costume wasn’t the right word, for Chris knew this was how they should be dressed. And the captain was the best dressed of all.
I don't know what it means (if it means anything at all) that I'd return to the Fourth at least three times in my books. I was a bit of a history nut growing up. It is that most American of holidays. For myself, I have mostly good memories of Fourths of July past, though some bad. As in most things, I prefer to remember the good.

At any rate, may your own Fourth of July find you safe and happy and among those you love. And as always, thanks for reading!

"Not only won't I play it, but if Robert Preston doesn't, I won't go see it." - Danny Kaye turning down the lead in the film version of The Music Man.

Monday, June 23, 2014

News from the Cover Department

I'm delighted to report I've freshened up the cover to Swash!, my tale of eighteenth-century pirates let loose in the modern world:

Isn't it wonderful? The image itself comes from the public domain and is titled "Who Shall Be Captain?" by a man named Howard Pyle, who did a series of pirate illustrations as well as many others. You can read all about him on Wikipedia.

I'm doubly pleased to report that Swash! has it's first Amazon review! It is extraordinarily kind. A snippet:
In all honesty, this book is one of the most enjoyable surprises I've come across in a long time, and I am an avid reader. From the moment I started this delightful tale, I felt like I was transported directly into what was happening. I was drawn right in and didn't want to leave. 
To read more of the review (and more importantly, to pick up your own copy in either paperback or Kindle edition) click this link to go to its Amazon page.

By way of refresher, the plot of Swash! goes something . . . like this:
When a late winter storm unearths an ancient shipwreck, the sleepy seaside town of Sully's Rump is turned upside-down, first by the media, then by the resurrected pirates who come back to reclaim their ship. 
Local historian Arthur Cobb wants the ship for himself, but so does his nemesis, gazillionaire businessman Barney Zimmerman. Caught between the two is young Chris Duggan, the boy who found the wreck, who just wants to help the pirates get home. 
He realizes the only way to do that is to rebuild the ship and fulfill the pirate curse, but soon learns dislodging the pirates from the Rump may prove more difficult than was deciphering the curse that brought them there. 
Give it a shot! You'll like it. I promise.

And as always, thanks for visiting.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Fun with Text Analysis

As promised (or threatened, depending on your point of view) in this post a few weeks ago, I've been puttering away on a new Dick Londergan tale.

For those that don't know, Londergan is my version of homage to the iconic private detectives of the past, except in Londergan's case, he's a detective from the past who happens to be caught in the modern world.

Meanwhile, one of the things I like to do while writing is to run my stuff through a text analyzer, mostly to make sure I'm not falling into the trap of repeating crutch words over and over (as is my habit) and also with an eye toward the Flesh-Kincaid grade level and reading ease scale, just to make sure I'm not overwriting.*

I mentioned in a post years ago this was one of the silly things I do (along with reading aloud) to make sure the words flow smoothly. I remember noting in that post a couple of the habits of Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite writers.

Chandler came to writing late in life, sharpening his skills writing short stories for Black Mask and other pulp magazines before setting off to write his first novel, The Big Sleep, and the rest of the Philip Marlowe canon.

I remember reading somewhere that Chandler used to write his stories on index cards, just to make sure SOMETHING HAPPENED on each and every card that would move the plot or the story along. Otherwise, he just tossed the card.

So recently, just to get myself into “hard-boiled mode” in preparation for writing the new Londergan, I read a few chapters of Chandler, then had the bright idea to run some of his prose through the online text analyzer I've been using lately.

Here's what it had to say about the first two chapters of The Big Sleep:

Number of words:   4051
Number of sentences:   374
Average number of characters per word:   4.16
Average number of syllables per word:   1.36
Average number of words per sentence:   10.83

Small, short words, as you'd expect from the machine-gun cadence of the hard-boiled patois. Sentences were longer than I'd have guessed, though. Now, to the "reading ease" portion:

Flesch Kincaid Grade level:   4.69
SMOG:   7.52
Flesch Reading Ease:   80.71

(The "SMOG" index is ostensibly how many years of formal education a person needs to understand the text upon first reading.)

Just for fun, here are the results from the first Dick Londergan short, Telegraph Hill:

Number of words:   4446
Number of sentences:   405
Average number of characters per word:   4.04
Average number of syllables per word:   1.34
Average number of words per sentence:   10.98

I'm actually kind of blown away by the similarity, but in a good way. Then again, I do remember being in the zone when I wrote that one. I was so flinty, you coulda lit a match off me.

And "reading ease":

Flesch Kincaid Grade level:   4.54
SMOG : 7.55
Flesch Reading Ease:   82.06

And . . . I'm blown away again. I don't think I've ever written anything before or since that low on Flesh-Kincaid, including the rest of the Londergans. Plus, I'm usually lucky to be around 77 or 78 on reading ease.

Finally, the text analyzer provides Helpful Hints! on how to make your writing clearer. Here are some of the suggestions it made about Mr. Chandler's masterpiece:

List of sentences which we suggest you should consider to rewrite to improve readability of the text:

Here, in a space of hexagonal flags, an old red Turkish rug was laid down and on the rug was a wheel chair, and in the wheel chair an old and obviously dying man watched us come with black eyes from which all fire had died long ago, but which still had the coal-black directness of the eyes in the portrait that hung above the mantel in the hail.

Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair.

There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible.

I stood up and lifted my coat off the back of the damp wicker chair and went off with it among the orchids, opened the two doors and stood outside in the brisk October air getting myself some oxygen. Then the butler came pushing back through the jungle with a teawagon, mixed me a brandy and soda, swathed the copper ice bucket with a damp napkin, and went away softly among the orchids.

The old man licked his lips watching me, over and over again, drawing one lip slowly across the other with a funereal absorption, like an undertaker dry-washing his hands.

The butler did his best to get me through without being smacked in the face by the sodden leaves, and after a while we came to a clearing in the middle of the jungle, under the domed roof.

It goes on like that for pages.

And yes, Mr. Chandler will get right on that.

* The most cursory Google search on Flesh-Kincaid reveals lots of discussion and debate among writers about just what it means and how important it is. The answer is, and should be, not at all. For example, you'll find children's books that rate a 10th grade reading level, and adult literary masterpieces (some Hemingway shorts, for example) that rate a fourth-grade level. Like anything else, it's just a tool. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Year of the Gerbil

The Year of the Gerbil: How the Yankees Won (and the Red Sox Lost) the Greatest Pennant Race EverThe Year of the Gerbil: How the Yankees Won (and the Red Sox Lost) the Greatest Pennant Race Ever by Con Chapman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The passing of baseball lifer Don Zimmer brought a number of thoughts to the mind of this Red Sox fan. In 1978, as manager of the Red Sox, Don Zimmer brought the team to a 14 ½ game lead over the hated New York Yankees . . . and then the wheels came off, in historic fashion.

No need to recount the horror, the loss upon loss, Butch Hobson sailing throws past first base, Bobby Sprowl (“the kid has ice water in his veins”), the Boston Massacre, the one game playoff, Bucky (bleeping) Dent . . .  like I said, no need to recount the horror.

Needless to say, there were very few books written about that season. In fact, the only one I've ever run across dedicated to that season alone was this one, “The Year of the Gerbil” by Con Chapman.

Longtime Sox fans know 'the gerbil' was Red Sox lefthander Bill Lee's unkind* nickname for Zimmer, referring to his jowly visage. Of course, Lee had his own reasons for disliking Zimmer, not the least of which was Zimmer burying him on the bench, refusing to pitch him out of spite when the Red Sox might have used him, when winning just ONE GAME might have made all the difference.

What brought this book specifically to mind was reading the thoughts of former Red Sox shortstop Rick Burleson. As tough and gritty an on-field competitor as there ever was, Burleson played for Zimmer on that ill-fated 1978 team. In his tribute to Zimmer, Burleson said that Zimmer was “the best manager he ever played for,” and that's no surprise. As a former player himself, a teammate of Jackie Robinson, a member of Brooklyn's only world championship team, and an original Met, in his own day, Zimmer too was about as tough and gritty as they come. No surprise at all that Burleson and he would get along just fine.

But it's a quote about Rick Burleson that will forever stick in my mind from this book, that is that “Rick Burleson loved to win in the same way Norman Bates loved his mother.” And anyone who ever saw "the Rooster" play knows exactly what he's talking about.

Anyway, for this Red Sox fan, it was worth reliving the horror, if only for lines like that.

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UPDATE: Delighted to have a visit from the author himself. In the comments section, he clarifies just where the "gerbil" nickname came from, and at least initially (after Lee was goaded into it) it wasn't meant at all unkindly. Thanks Con for both the visit, and for clearing that up.