Ah, yes, Norma Desmond’s famous line from the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard.
And suddenly, compliments of another one of Marshal Zeringue’s cool blogs, My Book, The Movie, Rachel Gold may be ready for her close-up. Marshal seeks out authors of new novels and asks them to cast the movie version. So when he got word that Face Value, the 9th in the Rachel Gold mystery series, was about to be published, Marshal offered me the chance to become a casting director.
As I explain in my post, which you can read here, the casting decision for the role of Rachel Gold has changed over time. The right actress to play her today is quite different from the one dating back 20+ years to the publication of the first book in the series, The Canaan Legacy (renamed in paperback Grave Designs).
See what you think of my casting suggestions.
A few days ago I wrote a post about a truly fun website for readers and writers entitled “Campaign for the American Reader” and run by Marshal Zeringue. Marshal had asked me to tell his readers what I was reading at the moment, and I did.
But then Marshal challenged me to take his Page 69 Test for my newest novel, Face Value. While I’m not sure of the origins of that particular test, it’s probably a first cousin to the Page 99 Test, which can be traced back to a quote from Ford Madox Ford: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” The Guardian, however, traces the roots to Marshall McLuhan, who supposedly suggested that if you are trying to decide whether to read a particular book you should open it to page 69, read that page, and if you like it, read the rest of the book. From Marshall to Marshal. Nice.
As I explain–and with Marshal’s permission–I turned the Page 69 Test on its head and instead took the Page 96 Test. But first: a trigger warning for the faint of heart. There is a word that starts with a “C,” ends in a “K.” will not be found in the New York Times, but does appear twice on page 96 of Face Value. Twice. Ready? Here are the results of my Page 69 Test.
To see the results for other authors who took the Page 69 Test, click here.
“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”
For those of us who love to read novels, the Word Nerds blog is a true delight, despite its intriguingly strange name. But as the blog’s motto announces: “No pocket protectors here; just don’t break the spines on the books.”
Thus I was flattered when they asked me to write a guest blog post in connection with the publication of my new novel, Face Value.
Thinking back to one of my recent posts on how and where authors get their ideas (available here), I realized that I could trace the origins of Face Value to an old paperback collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories that I just happened to come across in my bookshelf last summer.
From Sherlock Holmes to Stanley Plotkin to Rachel Gold was a long and winding road–and a challenging one, as I try to explain in my Word Nerds blog post.
I hope you enjoy it.
Marshal Zeringue runs a truly cool website for readers and writers entitled “Campaign for the American Reader” and found here.
As Marshal explains: “The goal of this blog is to inspire more people to spend more time reading books. I’ll try to do that by shining a little light on books that I like and think others might find worthy of their time and attention.
Thus I was flattered when Marshal contacted me with a few questions, one of which is what I am reading right now. Here’s a link to my answer.
I guarantee you will have fun browsing around around Marshal’s blog, but perhaps the best place to start is with his wonderful bio, right here.
The Goodreads website has just announced a Book Giveaway for my latest Rachel Gold mystery novel, Face Value. The book is scheduled for publication on June 3rd. So here’s your chance to win a free book.
Just follow this link to Goodreads and enter to win! Good luck.
But sometimes I do. The best example is the premise of my first novel, The Canaan Legacy (renamed Grave Designs in the paperback edition). That mystery opens with the law firm of Abbott & Windsor retaining one of its former young associates, Rachel Gold, to look into a curious development arising out of the death of a powerful senior partner. As with most such partners, the law firm handled the preparation of his will and estate plan. But after his death, the firm discovers, to its embarrassment, the existence of a codicil to his will establishing a $40,000 trust fund for the care and maintenance of a grave at a pet cemetery. The problem? No one in the dead lawyer’s family ever owned a pet or knows anything about that grave, which is for someone or something named Canaan. Shortly after the law firm retains Rachel Gold, the grave is robbed.
The origin of that idea? It dates back to before I went to law school–back when I was an elementary school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. I lived a block from the El tracks and used to wonder who was riding that train as it rumbled past at 3 a.m. When we teachers went out on strike, I decided to do a freelance story for Chicago Magazine on life on those trains after midnight. Yes, I rode El trains from midnight to dawn. Chicago Magazine accepted the story, and the editor told me to keep him in mind if I had any other bizarre story ideas.
A month later, our landlord’s dog died. The landlord was on the first floor of our three-flat, and we were on the top floor. During my condolence call, I asked him where the dog had ended up. He said he had no idea. He said he called the vet, who arranged for some service to pick up the corpse. On the way back upstairs I had my bizarre story epiphany: what happens to all the dead dogs and cats in Chicago?
In seeking an answer to that question, I visited a taxidermist (who specialized in house cats), a rendering plant (who provided a macabre version of a dog-eat-dog world), and a pet cemetery. At the latter, I learned, among other things, that you could bury just about anything in a pet cemetery.
And thus several years later, when I decided to write my first mystery novel, I thought back to that pet cemetery.
Naively, I started writing that novel with absolutely no idea of what had been in the Canaan grave–or why it was robbed. I’ll figure that out later, I assured myself. I kept putting off that looming question until about page 200 of the manuscript, at which point I had to go back and rewrite most of the earlier chapters.
So here is my tip to all fledgling writers: figure out what was in the grave before you start writing Chapter One.
The editors of The American Scholar–the quarterly publication of the Phi Beta Kappa Society–have published a piece on their website featuring their ten favorite sentences from fiction and nonfiction. Several were familiar, including one each from The Great Gatsby, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, A Farewell to Arms, and Pride and Prejudice. My favorite of their Top 10, which is from one of my favorite novels, Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War masterpiece, The Things They Carried, reads:
“In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.”
As with any “10 Best List”–especially in the arts–the mere posting of it is a call to arms, as the editors realized. They invited readers to suggest their own favorite sentences, and the 800+ postings that followed include a delightful collection of favorites that range from the magical opening of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon–“In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon.”–to this gem from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
“After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.”
As I mulled over my own favorites–and, in the process, tried to articulate what made them my favorites–I found I could break down my group into two categories: (1) opening sentences so compelling that they force you to read the next sentence, or (2) descriptions so vivid that they seem magical. Occasionally, the two qualities combine into one astonishing sentence, my favorite being the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).”
As for that other category of favorites–namely, a sentence of sheer beauty–three of my favorites are found within the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby–indeed, within the same few paragraphs of Chapter 1, all at the beginning of the scene where Nick Carraway drives over to East Egg to visit with Daisy and Tom Buchanan. Here is Nick’s first glimpse of the mansion:
“The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens–finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”
It only gets better. When Tom escorts Nick into the main living room, Fitzgerald unreels a series of sentences in two paragraphs that are so beautiful and vivid that to fully appreciate my two favorites–both underlined below–you need to read them in context:
“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
All we fellow writers can do after reading those two paragraphs is sigh and shake our heads in wonder and respect. Please share with me one or two of your favorite sentences.
Just in time for Passover, the editors of Kings River Life have published my mystery short story, “The Bread of Affliction.”
Originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine back in 1999, it won the Readers Award that year.
I hope you enjoy it.
We Baby Boomer authors came of age before cell phones. In our formative years there were plenty of phone booths for Clark Kent to duck into. But beyond providing a dressing room on every corner for immigrants from the planet Krypton, the lost era of the rotary phone supplied crucial plot points for the dramatic and fictional arts of those decades.
Think of Casablanca. The crux of that movie–indeed, the pivotal event that separated Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman)–occurs in a flashback to that grim rainy Paris morning as Rick waits at the train station for his beloved Ilsa. The lovers had planned to escape the advancing German army together on the train to Marseilles. Ilsa never shows, and a devastated Rick starts his lonely descent into the life of a cynical owner of a bar in Casablanca.
Or think of Sleepless in Seattle, with that final dramatic scene on the observatory deck of the Empire State Building, where Sam (Tom Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan) tragically miss one another and then, at the very last possible moment and purely by chance, they meet.
And now update those two movies to today.
- Rick stands forlornly on the platform. His cell phone beeps. He pulls it out of his trench coat. A message from Ilsa. Ah, now he understands. Life goes on.
- As Sam and his son Jonah stand alone on the observatory deck, Jonah–who has set the whole thing up–shoots a text to Annie: “Where R U? Hurry!”
As Matt Richtel wrote in his clever 2009 article in the New York Times entitled “If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone“: “Technology is rendering obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone. Such gimmicks don’t pass the smell test when even the most remote destinations have wireless coverage. (‘It’s Odysseus, can someone look up the way to Ithaca? Use the “no Sirens” route.’).”
Indeed, as Richtel explains, many writers intentionally set their stories back in time to avoid the plot-blocking nature of new technologies. One writer, who elected to set her next story in 1948, explains, “You miss a train in 1888 or even 1988, and have no way to contact the person waiting at the station on the other end. He thinks you’ve changed your mind, been captured, weren’t able to escape. You miss a train in 2009 and you pull out your cell and text that you’ll be two hours late.”
For those of us captivated by the recent HBO series True Detective, the show’s creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, had to devise a way to plot around modern technology in the final climactic scene of the last episode of the show. (Semi-Alert: I will try to avoid a spoiler here.)
Our two private detectives, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), have used the latest in technology to track the suspected serial killer to a creepy set of structures deep in the bayous of southern Louisiana. The two men are out there on their own–no backup, no reinforcements on the way–and they are about to confront a terrifying supernatural killer.
As they get out of their car, Marty does what any rational human being would do: he takes out his cell phone to call the police. And thus a technology buzzkill to an otherwise breathtaking conclusion. Marty will make the call, get back in the car, roll up the windows, lock the doors, and wait for the arrival of the squad cars and SWAT team, sirens screaming.
Ah, but wait.
Marty isn’t punching in a number. He is staring down at his cell phone. He shakes his head in frustration, announces he has no reception, and strides toward the creepy house to use the land line, which, of course, has been disconnected for years.
And thus we have a new plot driver in the 21st Century: poor cellphone reception. It’ll work if you need to set up a spooky confrontation deep in the wilderness. Or up in the Himalayas. Or out in the desert. Not so sure, though, if you want it to occur in the warehouse district of New York or along an abandoned wharf in Los Angeles or up on the el tracks in the Chicago Loop. If one of those is your setting, better summon your Time Machine.