Friday, February 24, 2006

Location, Location, Location

Jamie Ford has a terrific post on his blog today. He talks about living in a "small town" of "50,000 people" in Montana.

OK. I'd think that any collection of 50,000 people in Montana would make that collection a buzzing metropolis, but I digress. Jamie makes an excellent point. Small towns mean small town life and small town values. Those are great things. Small town life means, as Jamie says, your kids can walk to school. There are other great things, too: You know all your neighbors and a whole bunch of other people, as well. The pace is more relaxed. There's more free time. It doesn't take an hour to get to work. There's no smog.

I know all this because I grew up in Cooperstown, population, just over 2,000. That's a small town. Actually, I lived three miles away, in Fly Creek, population under 600. Fly Creek is where I learned to hunt, and in Cooperstown, it's pretty easy to develop a passion for baseball, especially working at the Hall of Fame.

Jamie's post really hit home for me for another reason: I live in the suburbs of Boston (the suburb where I live has a population of 50,000 and is considered a city by itself, but it's so close to Boston that it's basically an extension of the Hub).

Here's the kicker: My writing is all about small towns.

Well, let me explain a little.

My first novel happens in a small town that looks suspiciously like Cooperstown. The setting is a fictional place, but let's just say that the fictional place looks a whole lot like the place where I grew up.

There are plenty of mentions of other (real) locales where I've lived and worked. But most of the story occurs in a fictional small town in a fictional county.

My second novel starts in a setting where I've never been and never hope to be: state prison. But it moves, rapidly, back to a small town... it's another fictional place, another fictional county, right next to the fictional county in my first novel.


Partly because I know Cooperstown and the surrounding area, so I've already done the research for this fictional county next door to the fictional county in my first novel. Mostly because I like writing about small towns.

The majority of us live in cities or suburbs now, and fewer and fewer of us get to experience life in rural areas. I didn't know it at the time, but rural living was a great joy to me. I couldn't wait to get out of Cooperstown when I was in high school, but now I can't wait to return. I visit as frequently as I can. And my writing reflects that. There are places in Cooperstown where I haven't set foot in fifteen years, but I write about them as if I were there yesterday. There are places in Boston that I visit daily that don't even register to me. If I want to write about them, I have to visit with a notebook and jot down details.

I'm also noticing a huge difference politically between rural and urban areas. No, that's not a news flash. I mean, specifically, guns.

I spent ten years as a Democratic political consultant. One of the great debates, especially during Presidential elections, is gun control. Republicans have successfully framed the issue this way: Democrats want to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. We Democrats have failed in our message, mostly because we're spending too much time responding to the Republicans. The funny thing is that a large majority of Americans favors gun control, but those who vote based on gun control are gun owners. Gun owners who vote based on gun control tend to support Republicans because the Republican party is in bed with the National Rifle Association. That's not a news flash either.

We're all missing the point. This is not a Democrat-Republican issue. This is a rural-urban issue.

The reason most people in this country favor gun control is that most people in this country live in cities or suburbs. If you're in a city or a suburb and you see a gun, you tend to have a slightly different reaction than you do when you see a gun in a small town, or way out in the country.

In a city or a suburb, a gun in the hand of anybody but a police officer means crime. (And on further reflection, it means the same thing even if the gun is in a cop's hand.) It means crime even to responsible gun owners who keep their guns for protection or target practice. If you see a gun, and you're not on a target range, you think: crime. You're justifiably terrified.

When I'm in Cooperstown and I see a gun, I think: venison, preferably marinated in red wine and crushed garlic, grilled (over charcoal, not gas) to a perfect medium rare. I think of my grandfather; I think of my favorite uncle. I think of my cousins. I think of spectacular times growing up, what we call quality time today. I think of the hours I've spent target shooting and the (fewer) hours I've spent hunting and the long walks in the woods that I don't take any more, because I don't like the woods and I don't live near any forests. But growing up, allergic to everything outside, hating the woods, I still loved hiking through them with my uncle, my cousins, my grandfather, looking for birds and game.

I'm a liberal, over-educated 35-year-old male. I'm a recovering lawyer, a former Democratic consultant. I write fiction. I have a Saint and three kids. I vote exclusively Democratic.

And I'm a marksman. Or at least, I used to be. I won shooting contests as a Boy Scout and could hit just about anything I aimed at when I was growing up. I own two firearms. They're both in Fly Creek, because Massachusetts has restrictive gun laws, and I'd have to register them here.

How can that dichotomy-- a liberal who hunts and shoots-- exist?

It's easy: Our attitude on guns is not based on party. It's based on where we live. City dwellers are scared of guns, with good reason. People who live in the country see guns and they're happy, also with good reason.

It really does come down to the simple matter of location.


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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cheney plays Folsom Prison

OK, not really, but here's my blog entry for today. Somebody over at the Huffington Post messed around with Folsom Prison Blues and Cheney-ized it. Click here to play it.

A warning: If you are easily offended, don't go to the link. Let me rephrase. There are f-bombs galore, so if you aren't wild about people who swear, oh, every other word, don't click on the link. I hope that's clear enough, because you only get two warnings.

But if you're a Johnny Cash fan, or if you find yourself amused or appalled at our Vice President's escapades, click away, and pass the link to all your friends.


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Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Writing Commences

So I'm a chapter and a half into the new book. It's going well. I'm not pleased with the writing or the story yet, but this is the very beginning of my first draft. I have a long way to go. I am pleased, however, with my progress. Writing is like going to the gym: the hardest part is doing it. Once you get started, it's easy.

I haven't kept the Saint awake at night, and haven't lost any more envelopes with important musings on them. All in all, I'm tickled.

For a couple of great reads, go check out Konrath's post on racism in publishing. He's talking about how a ton of African American authors find themselves segregated in the African American sections of bookstores, rather than on the literature shelves, the mystery shelves, or wherever the books would go if white authors had written them. It's a provocative post.

I'll add here that Ernest J. Gaines's masterpiece, A Lesson Before Dying, is one of my all-time favorites. Gaines is a black writer, but I found his book in the fiction section at B&N. I've read the novel four times. It stunned me the first time I opened it, and it gets better every time I read it. I've passed it around to a bunch of my friends to unanimous acclaim.

Go grab it if you have a chance. If it's in the right place, it's in fiction or literature, where it belongs. It's one of the best works written in this or any other language.

After you're done with the heavy stuff on Konrath's blog, skip over to E. Ann Bardawill's place. She's got some great stuff, laugh out loud funny. Put down your beverages before you start reading, otherwise you'll need a new monitor. When you read the cameo about me, remember that it's fiction, people. As in, not true and never going to come true. It's a figment of Bardawill's blatantly warped imagination.

Meanwhile, I have friends from Cooperstown arriving later this afternoon, and I also have an empty house. So I have to crank out another thousand words or so on this manuscript before the friends arrive and the Saint and the kids get back. We're having dinner out tonight. Civilized, adult conversation, and a little bourbon to make us act like kids.


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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Notes from a Liberal Who Hunts (but not a Liberal-Hunter)

Would Sam Alito have shot Harry Whittington? I have no idea. Like Dick Cheney, Alito also claims to be a hunter. I hope Alito can hit the quail instead of the lawyer, but you never know.

It's amateur hour down in Texas. All the NRA types are either stunningly silent about the Vice President's latest target, or they're blaming the victim for being behind Cheney. Literally behind Cheney.

I might have mentioned that I grew up hunting.

Here are the four rules I learned at my hunter safety class, when I was 14:

1. The gun is always loaded.
2. Know your target, and beyond.
3. Use a safe field of fire.
4. Control the muzzle of your gun.

I've known the first rule since the first time I touched a gun. I think I was three. The second came with my first round of target practice, at 5. The third and fourth arrived with my very first attempt to shoot skeet, at 8.

My point: Anybody who has ever learned about guns or hunting can recite these rules by rote... in my case, roughly 30 years after first hearing them. In fact, before I could get my first hunting license, I had to recite them. But I've also had to live them.

Why are all these hunters running around saying our illustrious Vice President is also a great hunter? He's not even a great shot.

Cheney had the same four rules the rest of us had. How come he gets to break three of them? How can he possibly be a good hunter? He shot a guy who was behind him. And then his handlers and hosts blamed the victim... for standing behind Cheney. Sort of like his handlers blamed the messenger on that whole WMD thing. Whoops.

One question: Where was Whittington supposed to stand? In front of the Vice President? In retrospect, he might have been safer.

Here's another rule Cheney broke: All good hunters are safe hunters. Period. No exceptions.

How can Alan Simpson, a guy I've always respected, stand up and announce that Cheney is one of the best hunters he's ever seen? Is it only because they're both from Wyoming, and they served together in Congress? I mean, if Simpson actually believes what he said, he needs to surrender his hunting license. Or maybe he should go quail hunting with Cheney.

Message to the gun lobby:

Good hunters don't shoot other hunters.

Who taught me that? For starters, my grandfather and my uncle. But I learned the exact same thing at my hunter safety course, sponsored by the NRA, conducted by an NRA member.

Let's say it again: Good hunters don't shoot other hunters. I've written it twice so even Ann Coulter can understand it (I mean, I hope she can understand it, because I've read that she owns a gun). Cheney himself (finally) admitted the shooting was his fault.

Here's our Vice President's record, by the way:

1. One unfinished Ph.D.
2. Two drunk driving convictions (one up on his nominal boss).
3. Five draft deferments (which certainly qualified him to be Secretary of Defense).
4. One wounded hunting buddy.

I'll bet Justice Scalia is breathing a giant sigh of relief right about now. There but for the grace of God and all.



Sunday, February 12, 2006

Do What it Takes

Writers are funny. We obsess about everything.

I've learned not to obsess, by obsessing. Counterintuitive? You bet.

This is not like winning the lottery, as Joe Konrath is fond of saying. It's not a quick fix; it won't make us rich (at least it won't make most of us rich).

So why do we do it?

I don't have a choice. Writing is hardwired into my DNA. If I never sell a book, I'll keep writing. This is who I am, not what I do. Sometimes, I wish I had a choice, but not really. There are worse vices than writing. I have some of those, too.

How do you tackle this addiction?

1. Marry a Saint. I already did, and you can't have my Saint. Go find your own.

2. Keep writing. Do not give up. Ever.

3. Read. Read great literature. Read within the genres in which you write. Read outside your genre. Read crap. Read fiction and non-fiction. That "Read fiction and non-fiction" part just paid off for me. Last night, I finished James L. Swanson's Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln's Killer. Best piece of non-fiction I've ever read. You read that right. I'll probably blog about this again. Great fiction and great narrative non-fiction have similar qualities, but the part Swanson really nailed was the villain. As Konrath has said, you need a great hero. But you also need a great villain. The villain needs to be evil, but also somewhat sympathetic. In other words, even as you hate the villain, you need to like him. Swanson does that, with a real villain, maybe the greatest villain in American History: John Wilkes Booth. Seriously. Run out and buy this book. It's truly amazing.

4. Marry a Saint. Right. Said that already. It bears repeating.

5. Finish your current writing project. I don't mean shelve it and come back and tinker with it. I mean edit the Hell out of it and make it the best it can possibly be, as if it were already printed, bound and on the shelves at bookstores everywhere. Don't talk about what it still needs. Don't whine about how the words aren't right. Don't moan that your agent won't like it. FINISH IT.

6. Start another one. I learned this the hard way. Just trust me here. You don't want much of a gap between your last great writing project and your next one.

7. Don't wait for your muse to inspire you. Make your own muse. Just write.

8. Stop relying on luck. You have no control over luck. Just write. Then write some more. When you're done with that, start writing.

9. Listen to your favorite music. Why do you like it? What do the lyrics say to you? Do you find yourself writing fiction like your favorite singers write songs? Or is that just me? I've always tried to write songs the way Bruce Springsteen does, and to a lesser extent, the way Johnny Cash did and Kris Kristofferson does.

10. Every once in a while, re-read a classic. Every couple of years, I re-read these three: All the King's Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, and A Lesson Before Dying. I learn something new every time. I spent ten years as a political consultant, and reading All the King's Men is a treat after that. Here's my favorite quote from the book: "Maybe a man has to sell his soul to get the power to do good."

11. And the most important thing: Marry a Saint.


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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Paging 2005

My daughter is 2 today!

It still seems like she arrived five minutes ago: The day after the Super Bowl; a week or so after I signed with my agents.

Her first year crawled more slowly than she did. In fact, she never really crawled.

Then she turned one. The Saint got a new job. I got a new job. Our sons grew like weeds. I went to 4 Springsteen concerts. There was little league and soccer and family visits and some weddings and, and, and, and...

And always, Daddy's girl, Daddy's girl, Daddy's girl...

Daddy's girl learned to run, and she hasn't stopped. Has she really only been here 2 years?

Where the hell did 2005 go? Daddy's girl has already been here 2 years? How is that possible?

Time sprints just as my daughter does, but my daughter is more fun to watch. In her, I see her brothers. In her, I see the Saint. In her, I see someone else entirely. And all of these sights make me happy.

Like her brothers and the Saint, she is funny and kind and independent.

Like her brothers and the Saint, she makes me a better person just by being nearby.

Like her brothers and the Saint, she's also smarter than I am. Unlike her brothers, she knows this.

Happy Birthday, Pretty Girl. Daddy adores you.

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