Wednesday, May 25, 2016
In 1942, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie called Saboteur. It starred Robert Cummings as an ordinary guy framed for a crime in California, who had to flee across the country to establish his innocence, and it ended with a fight to the death atop the Statue of Liberty.
It was maybe the 20th best movie Hitchcock ever made, and is seldom seen today, except at Hitchcock film retrospectives.
In 1959, 17 years later, Hitchcock made a movie called North by Northwest. It starred Cary Grant as an ordinary guy framed for a crime in New York, who had to flee across the country to establish his innocence, and it ended with a fight to the death atop Mount Rushmore.
It’s widely regarded, half a century later, as a masterpiece, one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made.
Same Idea; Different Execution
The discerning reader will no doubt have noted that Saboteur and North by Northwest were essentially the same movie. Except that they weren’t, and the contrast between them shows the difference that the execution of an idea makes.
As a mystery novelist, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. My standard reply is that ideas are all over the place and any idiot can find one. The hard part is turning ideas into a coherent story, with lively and interesting characters and details.
In a book, the author has to get everything right without much assistance. In a movie, the actors can make a huge difference. Robert Cummings was no Cary Grant, and while he did a capable job, he didn’t hold the screen the way Grant did. Similarly, the villains in the first film were not particularly memorable, whereas James Mason and Martin Landau in the latter gave such vivid performances they immediately come up in the mind’s eye, when you think about the picture.
A Matter of Tone
North by Northwest had a better script, too, credited to Ernest Lehman. The script for Saboteur was nothing to sneer at (Dorothy Parker worked on it, for crying out loud), but about the only line I remember is Cummings’ “Who’d listen to me? I’m just an ordinary guy from Glendale, California,” which was the inspiration for the title of this blog.
The really big difference between the two was the tone. Saboteur was released when America had just entered World War II, and the outcome was far from certain. It dealt with enemy sabotage, and the tone of the picture, despite several engagingly pleasant light moments, was pretty serious. At that point in time, a light-hearted espionage thriller would have been neither appropriate nor well received by audiences.
North by Northwest, on the other hand, is a sure-handed, light-hearted romp from start to finish. The villains are simply villains, the situations are more over-the-top (think of Grant being attacked by a crop duster in the middle of a cornfield), and no one seems surprised by anything. It’s as if Hitchcock saw the story anew and realized, “Ah, this is the way to handle it.” Moviegoers everywhere are delighted he decided on a do-over.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
One of the problems with writing a series of books with the same running character or characters is keeping the stories straight. You might, for instance, have a character who appeared in Book 1 and is now coming back in Book 4, but you can’t remember if in the first book he was selling insurance or real estate.
If you’re lucky, you’ll remember where you put that information in Book 1 and be able to look it up fairly quickly. Or, perhaps, you can slide around the question of the character’s occupation. If not, well, nobody ever said the writer’s lot is an easy one.
There’s also a question of dealing with backstory. In the early books of a series, you can make up the backstory as you go along and, if you’re smart, which I wasn’t, make notes on it as you go along in case it comes up again. But another serious issue plagues the writer of serial books. At some point you get into a situation where you need to rely on some backstory that was in an earlier book.
Teasing Without Spoiling
I’m encountering that situation now, in the fourth book of my Quill Gordon mystery series. I’m trying to create a situation where Gordon, my protagonist, is letting go of some issues created in the first book, The McHenry Inheritance, and writing those sequences is a case of threading an extremely fine needle.
If everyone who reads the fourth book has already read the first three, there would be no problem. But that’s never the case. Some readers are scrupulous about reading a series of books in the order written. Others, like me, read whatever books in the series we can get at the time and come back to the others later.
I try to write my books in such a way that each one will stand alone, but also in a way such that a reader who takes them in order will see some growth and development. But there’s one other consideration that looms large in writing these types of backstory scenes.
Oh, No! You Spoiled It!
For readers who haven’t yet read the earlier books, you don’t want to spoil the surprises in them. So if you’re mentioning something in a past book, you need to do it in such a way that the reader who read the earlier book will understand, while the reader who hasn’t read the book can at least get the general picture without missing out on some of the surprises if and when he or she does get to the earlier book.
How, exactly, does the author do this? I don’t know of any magic way. It basically becomes a situation where the author has to say, “I’ve read enough books and written enough words that I think I know more or less how to finesse this.”
Then you do it the best you can. Then you show it to a couple of friends and get their feedback. Then, after all that, you click “Publish” and unloose the book on a waiting and sometimes cruel world. If you’re good, lucky, or both, the stratagem will work well enough and no one will complain. If you didn’t get it right, maybe the readers will let you know, and you’ll have another chance to do it better the next time.
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I always loved summertime. In addition to no school, there was a lot to love about it: Hot weather, baseball, swimming pools, fresh fruit, and long nights when it seemed as if you could play forever.
I still recall one particular game of Over-the-Line played at Balboa Elementary School, just down the street from where we lived in Glendale. Our three-player team had racked up a big lead, and the other team was coming up for its final at-bats just as the sun had set.
In the gloaming, every fly ball — every pop fly, even — turned into a potentially lethal missile, nearly impossible to see or catch. We got two outs early, but our invincible lead was melting as an ice cube would have on that same playground two hours earlier. Finally, with the lead down to one run, I snaffled a ground ball for the third out and we won the game.
It was 8:30. We walked home in the dark, laughing.
Plenty to Do After Dinner
I don’t go out and play with friends after dinner anymore, and maybe kids today don’t do it either. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for the inexplicable pending ballot initiative to end Daylight Savings Time in California.
But even so, you’d think people would like long summer nights for other reasons. They give you time, when you get home from work, to run some errands, go for a walk, watch the sunset, or do some gardening after dinner. The earlier the sun sets, the less likely you are to do those things.
Look, I get that people don’t like changing time and setting the clock back or forward an hour. It’s a pain and it messes up your sleep patterns for two or three days. But isn’t that small price to pay for those summer nights? If the extra hour at night lets you catch one good sunset you otherwise might have missed, the change was worth it.
An Earlier Wakeup?
The summer solstice is on June 20 this year; sunrise in Santa Cruz that day will be at 5:49 a.m. and sunset at 8:31 p.m. The lingering light will mean you can still see without artificial light until 9 o’clock. That’s with Daylight Savings Time.
On Standard Time, we’d be having sunrise at 4:49 a.m. and sunset at 7:31 p.m. The predawn light means you’d be able to see outside by around 4:20 a.m. I’m sure there are people who would get more done with an extra hour of light in the wee, small hours of the morning, but a whole lot more of us are going to find the light a whole lot more useful in the evening, when we’re awake.
We are now at the beginning of what I call the Hundred Days of Light, the longest hundred days of the year. Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time are both man-made concepts, neither one inherently right or wrong. The critical question is which gives us the best use of those long days. That’s a no-brainer. It’s Daylight Savings Time.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
I once read a mystery novel by a conventionally published author of multiple titles in which four bodies were discovered in a storage locker early on. By the time the book reached its conclusion, there still had been no explanation of who killed the four people and why.
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy. Leaving one murder unaccounted for might charitably be excused as simple carelessness. Leaving the reader in the dark about four corpses borders on gross negligence.
When something like that happens, the reader is left wondering not only about the lack of editing services at the publishing house, but also dissatisfied in a spiritual and existential way. To put it another way, unexplained puzzles are a violation of the author’s compact with the reader and the reader’s expectations.
Better Than Life
Life is random, absurd and chaotic, which is why we expect mystery novels not to be. One of the great pleasures of a mystery novel comes from being confronted by a baffling situation (the crime) and seeing smart, competent people (the detectives) work through the confusion and get everything sorted into place. The comfort of seeing chaos turned to order is one of the reasons for reading these books.
In the classic mysteries of the Golden Age (between the First and Second World Wars), authors took great pains to be sure and dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s at the end of the book. They assumed the reader wanted that, and probably no publisher of the time would have accepted a novel that didn’t explain everything (or almost everything) in the final pages.
In the hands of masters like Carr, Christie, and Ellery Queen, the explanations made for gripping reading. They were so tight and plausible that, after reading them, you could find yourself wondering why you hadn’t seen what the detective ultimately saw so clearly.
Sometimes Not So Plausible
Of course, not everyone brought it off as well as the masters. I recall reading one book of that era in which the criminal got into a rowboat during a tide so high it took the water nearly to the top of a 60-foot cliff, enabling the killer to fire a shot from the wave-tossed boat through the windows of the house and plug the unfortunate victim. It was a case of better shooting than plotting.
As a writer of mystery novels in the classical tradition, I do my best to see that a reader gets a good explanation of the crime or crimes by the end of the book. Loose ends belong in bad hair, not mystery novels. You can no longer call all the suspects into the study, as the detectives of the 1920s and 30s routinely did, but you can show the investigation as it develops and leave the reader in no doubt as to how and by whom the crime was committed.
Tying the story up neatly by the end is important in a mystery novel, but so are character development, atmosphere and detail. It’s a challenging time to be practicing in the genre, but some of the old ways are still good ways. If nothing else, the reader should finish the book knowing what happened and why.