Thursday, September 29, 2011

Organizing Your Plot

I used to keep an outline on the computer of whatever novel I was working on. That way I could look at it, see what day it was when such-and-such happened, see who knew about what, who was still friends with whom, who had been murdered and who was still alive &c &c. You would think a person could keep stuff like that in her head, but I like to jump around so much that it's hard for me to know where I am in the cosmic order of things.

And so I kept four files open on the computer whenever I was working: my outline; my research file, which might contain head shots of my characters and details of their lives, as well as maps of cities, train timetables, historical timelines and the like; an outtake file, where I could save things I cut in case I came to like them again; and, of course, the actual Work in Progress.

The trouble with this system was that as I worked things changed, not only the names of characters but the sequence of events, the events themselves, even the days of the week and the dates. Sometimes I remembered to go back and revise the outline, sometimes not.

When I set out to write my latest, I hit upon a terrific way to keep track of the stuff I used to use the outline for. Here it is, in case you work in Word and want to use it too.

Embed your notes about the action and the day of the week in the text as separate paragraphs, and style them H2. Chapter headings, of course, are H1. Another approach is to rough out your outline in H2 headings and then fill in the text as you write.

In this way you can run a Table of Contents (Insert - Field - TOC), update it from time to time, and see at once that you have only one Friday in the week and that it follows Thursday, that Millicent already knows Angelique's secret by page 30, and that the scene you need to go back and fix between Millicent and Rupert is on page 22.

Try it. You'll like it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Civil Unrest and the War of 1812

Civil unrest in this country is nothing new. Folks have been rioting here since the white people first annoyed the Indians. Sometimes the protestors are opposed by the police and the civil authorities, the way they were in the nineteen sixties, the way they are today in the Occupy Wall Street movement. At other times, the civil authorities ignore the protestors, even cooperate with them.

This is how it was in the first Baltimore Riot, when the very first casualty of the War of 1812 was created by a protestor dropping a rock on the foot of a passerby. The police were absent. The mayor was there, passing among the rioters, remonstrating gently with them.

What were the people of Baltimore upset about? Not the war. They were delighted when the country declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. Federalists were against the war, but those of the Democratic-Republican persuasion were hot to get started fighting. In Baltimore, a city of 41,000 and growing apace, many of the residents were French, German, and Irish immigrants, and most were Democratic-Republicans. Not war protestors.

No, they were mad at Alexander Contee Hanson, who with his partner Jacob Wagner had dared to denounce the war in his newspaper, the Federal Republican. They began to gather at Hanson's newspaper offices on Gay Street as soon as the despised issue of his paper hit the streets, and by nightfall they were in such a passion that they tore the building down. Hanson and Wagner were not there, and so escaped a tarring and feathering.

But Hanson came back to Baltimore the following month and published a new issue of the Federal Republican, denouncing the Republicans of Baltimore as tools of Washington politicians and a rival publisher (the Baltimoreans had been rioting ever since he left). He published his street address. Two thousand rioters showed up to attack Hanson and his supporters; when they rushed the house one of the attackers was shot to death. The mayor and the police took the Federalists to jail, promising them safety, but the rioters broke into the jail and attacked them in an orgy of violence that some compared to the French Reign of Terror. One of Hanson's friends was killed and several others tortured and dreadfully maimed. Hanson himself was badly wounded.

We hope things don't come to that on Wall Street. As in Chicago in 1969, it can be tough sometimes to see who is doing the actual rioting. If past events are any guide, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

They're After Us Again

I see by all the uproar that the masters of Facebook are messing with us again, tweaking the format, proposing to collect all sorts of new kinds of personal information about us that we may let slip in the course of our social interactions. There's an old New England saying regarding this: Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead. Since Facebook is not expecting to turn up its toes anytime soon I suggest another slogan: Mum's the word.

We – that is, my friends and I – are on Facebook for two reasons, chiefly: to share family pictures and stories, and to connect with people who might do our writing (or other) careers some good. Many people in this latter category are actual friends, that is, people we like, people we help when we have the chance. Facebook is a handy way to keep abreast of things with all these folks, easier than email or checking blogs and web pages, way easier than snail mail. But make no mistake: We are being watched. Statistics and personal information are being gathered and – what's that word they like? – monetized.

Monetized. They're turning you into money, friends. No longer is our greatest fear the terror of having our employers see those frat party pictures where we got hammered and took off our Abercrombie and Fitches. Now they're – What? I don't even know! That's the horror of it! But the bottom line is that somebody is going to make money off our stupidity, and it won't be us. Never mind learning the clever fixes your friends are forwarding to you to keep your Facebook posts private. Next week all that will change anyway. Just remember two things:

If you don't want to see it on the front page of the weekly tabloid, don't post it online.

If your thoughts are worth actual money, you probably want to save them, copyright them and sell them your own self.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What I'm Up To These Days

Now that the cool weather is upon us I'm happy to say that I'm experiencing that snap of returned consciousness that comes with the end of a steamy summer. I have plans. First of all I plan to brag about the prize I got from the NJSAA (that's the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance) for The Edge of Ruin until everybody gets sick of hearing about it.

But that won't take long. Then I plan to get busy, or busier, on the two books I'm working on right now, the suspense novel that takes place in a town much like Lambertville and the book about the sailor girl in the War of 1812. Which pretty much takes care of my mornings.

Then I'm actually going to drop the twenty pounds I've been promising to shed for the last ten years. I figure I can do that between noon and one. Maybe I'll stop eating and tap dance.

But what I wanted to announce today is my intention of doing more with this blog.

I'm already posting every Friday to the Crime Writer's Chronicle, which I hope you're following; four really interesting writers are on that with me. But for this one, I'm going to try to post every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday, starting next week. Tuesday's posts will explore aspects of the War of 1812, hoping to gin up some interest in that wacky conflict in advance of the bicentennial. Friday and Sunday, random subjects, until I finish the suspense novel, at which time I may begin running excerpts from Bucker Dudley.

I'm going to have to put one of those gizmos on the blog now that make you copy hard-to-read letters into a box before you can comment. Wish I didn't have to, but I'm being snowed under with the attention of Russian spam bots. I hope you'll forgive me.

And that's what I'm up to.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Prize for the Edge of Ruin

The Edge Of Ruin, the comic thriller I wrote under the name of Irene Fleming about the early film industry in Fort Lee, New Jersey, has won a prize, the annual fiction award of the NJSAA (New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance). I must confess that I'm thrilled.

These folks are historians, not mystery fans necessarily, so the thing they like about it is the history. I think I got it right, not only the events of 1909 but the feelings and attitudes of the people of that time. Research is so much easier now than it used to be. Newspapers have put their old stories online and indexed them. The Library of Congress offers old silent movies reconstructed from the paper copies that were submitted to them for copyright protection.

Apart from the internet there were movies and books. Kino offers silent movies. Netflix offers silent movies. As for books, my two main sources were Fort Lee, The Film Town, by Richard Koszarski, and Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lucas, as well as many biographies and autobiographies. To say nothing of the stories told me long ago by my grandmother, who was living and working in New York City in those days.

I was perfectly comfortable writing about that period. 1812 is more of a stretch. Although Bucker Dudley is set in the Regency period it is in no respect a Regency novel. Most of it takes place at sea, or on military bases, or in the North Woods among the Mohawk Indians. Bucker hardly ever wears a dress, much less a corset. But it's fun. The history is as solid as I can make it. I have something like eighteen linear feet of books on the many aspects of the ever-fascinating war of 1812, and yet I manage to move the action along without boring information dumps.

I'll save the information dumps for the blog. Next week I'll talk about General Wilkinson, that wretched scoundrel.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


There is at least one hurricane connection for the War of 1812. Early in the war, perhaps a month after the declaration, a tremendous hurricane struck New Orleans and decimated the American fleet. (That is, it beat the fleet up pretty badly. "Decimated" ordinarily means "destroyed a tenth part," and don't let anyone try and tell you otherwise. In this case "decimated" means beat the fleet up pretty badly, but I don't have time to find out how badly, because I'm sitting in a rental car under a tree in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, outside the library, which is closed on account of Hurricane Lee. Fortunately their internet connection is available.

So I'm going to leave this spot now, before the tree falls on my rental car. I'm going back to my mother-in-law's house and sit on the porch, watching the wet tree limbs whip back and forth, working on my novel. Later on I'll tell you more about the damage that the unnamed hurricane did in 1812, how it affected the war effort, how a naval officer whose ship was destroyed wrote to the war office in Washington begging not to be put under the command of General James Wilkinson. I'll tell you more about Wilkinson too. He was widely hated. I hate him myself.

Farewell until better weather.