Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Blood Flats FREE on Amazon Kindle August 20th and 21st

Amazon reader reviews:

"Action-packed thriller…This is one of those stories that really rewards the reader for making it to the very end."

"On edge..."

Book description:

“Meth, murder, and the mafia---a vast tapestry of a southern gothic crime novel with a Dickensian cast of characters.”

Available for the first time on Amazon Kindle.

***Lee McCabe is home from Iraq, but home has changed.***

Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran and recently discharged U.S. marine Lee McCabe never imagined the dangers awaiting him in Hawkins County, Kentucky. While Lee has been in the Middle East, a network of violent methamphetamine traffickers have established a foothold in the county, corrupting, intimidating, or murdering anyone who stands in their way.

***Charged with murder and marked for death***

Lee quickly discovers that his neighbor, Tim Fitzsimmons is a meth dealer. When Fitzsimmons and his girlfriend are killed in a drug-related hit, Lee attempts to intervene. The law and the community blame Lee for the murder. The meth traffickers target Lee for death, knowing him to be a witness to the crime.

***Enemies motivated by passion, greed, and desperation ***

Sheriff Steven Phelps has his own personal reasons for hating Lee: Twenty-five years ago, Lee’s now deceased mother had a youthful affair with the sheriff. The sheriff planned to marry her--until she jilted him to be with the man who became Lee’s father. Phelps is torn by his duty to justice, and his obsession with the doomed love of his adolescence.

Lester Finn is a classics-quoting, self-aggrandizing local hoodlum and meth dealer. He is caught between the law and the Chicago-based mafia, which wants a greater share of the southern methamphetamine trade. From his bar, the Boar’s Head, Lester controls a sordid regional enterprise that consists of gambling, drug trafficking, and prostitution. Lester is torn by his grudging respect for Lee---and his need to see the ex-marine dead.

Paulie Sarzo is a Chicago mobster, a rising star in the Coscollino crime family. He despises Kentucky, Lee McCabe, and most of all, Lester Finn. But Paulie has an important mission to accomplish in Hawkins County: If he fails to eliminate Lee, he risks the ultimate punishment for failure in la cosa nostra.

***A journey toward death or redemption***

Dawn Hardin is a former golden girl, honor student, and premed whose life has fallen into a downward spiral of meth addiction and prostitution. Dawn had a tumultuous relationship with Lee before he went to Iraq. Now she tries to help him wage war against the mafia, even as she struggles with her own inner demons, and a family that wants to deny her existence.

The Hunter is a mysterious figure who compels Lee to go on the offensive against the forces pursuing him. But will the Hunter offer any concrete assistance, or only advice?

Brett St. Croix is a journalist who offers to tell Lee’s version of events. But Lee suspects that St. Croix has a contrary, private agenda of his own.

Ben Chamberlain lost his wife to a meth-related murder. Will he assist Lee; or will Ben’s desire for revenge destroy them both?

***A battle in Blood Flats***

Pursued from all directions, Lee embarks on a cross-country journey toward the town of Blood Flats. There he faces a showdown---in which he must pit his wits and determination against the ruthlessness and superior resources of his enemies on both sides of the law.

Why “The Caliphate” is set in Canada

The other day a reader asked me why “The Caliphate” is set in Canada. Why not in the United States—since I’m an American? This is a good question, and one worth answering here.

First a bit of background, for readers unfamiliar with the story. “The Caliphate” is a short story set in the near future, in the Canadian province of Ontario. After a prolonged battle with Canadian authorities, an Islamist group called “Harb” (“war” in Arabic) has smuggled nuclear weapons into Toronto and set up a miniature Islamist state in and around the city.

This is the background of the tale. The main plot concerns a conflict between Marty and Phil, two young Canadian men who react differently to the new status quo. Marty is a willing, if cynical, collaborator. Phil begins the story as an acquiescent collaborator; but he later finds that he cannot stand back and allow his own corner of Western civilization to be destroyed by savages.

But back to the reader’s question: Why is “The Caliphate” set in Canada?

The basic idea of this story occurred to me back in 2007 (though several years would pass before it would fully take shape on paper.) This was more than half a decade after 9/11. The initial outrage over the terrorist attacks had long faded in the mainstream media, and was giving way to hand-wringing about the dangers of “Islamophobia.” Patriotism was out; political correctness and cultural relativism were in.

At the same time, a fresh wave of Islamist extremism was beginning to rear its ugly head in Europe. In 2004 and 2005, bombings in London and Madrid resulted in numerous deaths. America was not the only target of Islamic extremism. Any liberal Western democracy was a potential target.

And we were behaving like targets. When the Pope visited Turkey in 2006, he was burned in effigy in the streets of Istanbul. How did the Pope respond? He apologized for making a brief and innocuous reference to an ancient Byzantine text. Around the same time, Muslim extremists in various European countries rioted and incited violence because of…a newspaper cartoon. Rather than boldly standing up for free speech and Western democratic values, the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, issued an apology.

Throughout the West, the pattern was always the same: Muslim extremists trampled on civil liberties and indulged in orgies of violence and destruction. The West responded with apologies. And more apologies.

It became clear to me that what was going on was not just a battle between America and al-Qaeda. This was a battle between the free, liberal, democratic culture of the entire Western world, and a group of amoral barbarians who wanted to drag us all down into their medieval version of hell.

On the battlefield, the West was responding forcefully. Law enforcement agencies and military organizations in America, the United Kingdom and Europe did the work they needed to do. But our intellectual institutions—our media, our universities, our political leadership—were hampered by the straitjacket of political correctness. No matter what atrocity Muslim extremists committed, the press and the liberal university professors would always concoct a long-winded explanation of why it was actually America’s (or Western civilization’s) fault. The doctrine of radical cultural relativism was dominant in American institutions; but the situation was even worse in the UK and the Netherlands. I saw that this was not just an American problem—but also a European and Canadian problem.

I therefore decided that “The Caliphate” should not be set in the United States. Had the story been set in the U.S., it would have become a specifically “American” story. I wanted “The Caliphate” to be a story about the fight to preserve not only America—but Western civilization as a free, liberal, and rational cultural sphere.

I chose Canada as the particular setting for several reasons. First of all, I have spent some time in Toronto and Mississauga, so I was confident that I could accurately write about this area. I also chose Canada because Canada is the non-American country that is most like the United States (though some Canadian readers might disagree). A story set in Canada, I believed, would appeal to an American readership, while still maintaining the depiction of a larger, worldwide struggle for freedom and Western values.

For me, the central conflict of “The Caliphate” can be summed up in an exchange between Marty and Phil. After the Islamists execute two Christians in Mississauga, the simmering hostility between Marty and Phil erupts into a violent confrontation. (Note the final two paragraphs of this excerpt, which I have bolded below.)

“No, Marty. Collaborating with Harb and murdering the Donovans was insane.”
Don’t you see?” Marty said. “We had no choice but to go along. Harb was going to execute the Donovans one way or another. You couldn’t have saved them. If I hadn’t stopped you, Ali would have had you killed and then killed the Donovans too.”
“Marty, sometimes saving your own neck isn’t the most important consideration. There are some things that you shouldn’t be a party to, no matter what.”
“You don’t get it, do you Phil? Have you read the news recently? There were Harb uprisings in London and Paris last week. It’s Toronto and Amsterdam all over again. Ali tells me that they’ve got a lot of sleepers in New York and Los Angeles, too. The United States is going to be next.”
“So you think they’re going to take over the world, huh?”
“I don’t know, Phil. I really don’t. What I can tell you is this: They believe in their value system, as warped as it is. And they’re willing to fight for it. They’re not ashamed of who they are. That’s their advantage.”
“And what does that say about us, Marty? Are we ashamed of who we are? Are we willing to stand up for our values? Or are we going to roll over and tell ourselves that an Islamic society is just the next phase of our history?”   
The West, in short (and not only the U.S.), needs to stop apologizing to extremists. That is the real message of “The Caliphate,” and the reason for its Canadian setting.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Monday, Tuesday Kindle giveaway

The short story "Last Dance with Emma" will be free on Amazon Kindle Monday and Tuesday (August 18 ~ 19). 

"Last Dance with Emma" is part of my Hay Moon short story collection, which is also available on Amazon.. 


Giants in the Trees (online fiction)

Below I read the short story "Giants in the Trees" in three installments. 

When you're done here, read the full description of the short story collection Hay Moon and Other Stories.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Friday, Saturday Kindle freebie

My short story "The Dreams of Lord Satu" will be available free on Amazon Kindle August 15 & 16.

This is part of the collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense.

Blog and comment policy announcement: August and September

Well folks, I've got several "hot" writing projects that I need to finish in the next couple of months: I have to complete the edits and revisions for Our House, as well as the initial draft of another novel. 

That will mean some changes in the time and attention I can devote to the blog and comment moderation, and a temporary policy change. 

Throughout most of this year, this has been a news-driven blog, with lots of blog posts about current events. 

For the next several months, it will become more of a typical "author blog" with updates about book releases, etc. (plus the occasional Kindle giveaway). 

Blogging about news events and politics is fun, not to mention cathartic; but there are only so many hours in the day, and you know--the priorities thing. 

As a result, I'm going to be shutting off comments for a few months as well.

I generally take the position that when I'm blogging about current events, it's bad form to suppress comments. But for the next few months, political/cultural posts will be few and far between, anyway. Comments moderation, moreover (including spam management) is time-consuming. (Each day I have to delete about a dozen spam comments from recent posts.) 

I will still be posting essays here--but they'll generally be longer and more infrequent, and probably won't involve current political topics. 

I'll turn comments on again when I have more time to devote to moderating and responding to them. That will probably be sometime in the fall.

In the meantime, a special thanks to those of you have been regular commenters and emailers (especially Brian L, Boxty, and Mary L.). I've enjoyed your feedback and suggestions immensely, and look forward to engaging with you again in the future. 

Now--I have to get back to the books.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Wednesday, Thursday short story Kindle giveaway

My short story "Giants in the Trees" is free on Kindle August 13th and 14th.

If you're video enabled, you can listen to me read this short story aloud here. But why not download it while it's free, anyway?

If you like the story, you might consider the entire Hay Moon short story collection (of which "Giants in the Trees" is a part) or my horror novel Eleven Miles of Night.

Writing "diverse" stories (mailbag)

Regular commenter Brian writes:

Hello Ed,  
I'm not sure if you keep up with The Walking Dead comic series, but in case you don't, there's a tough fighter character called Paul Monroe who happens to be gay. I like Paul, but Kirkman's decision to throw in the gay aspect has me wondering how an author can create diversity in characters tastefully. Ed, do you have any thoughts on that? Is there a way for authors to organically add diversity to characters in a story as opposed to just tossing it in?  
To illustrate what I'm thinking, I'll take Paul as an example again. Before
Kirkman revealed he's gay, Paul was a powerful character with tremendous fighting abilities. There were no suggestions at all about his sexuality and I bet every reader thought he was a straight man. Then came one issue where Kirkman seemingly just threw in the gay aspect by introducing Paul's male romantic partner.  
I didn't think twice when ethnically diverse characters were introduced because in my mind you can expect that. Nor did I when Eric and Aaron, a gay couple, were introduced (I think because their homosexuality was revealed almost right away). But Paul's homosexuality just seems a bit pushed.  

*    *    *

Before we answer the question, it is probably worthwhile to examine why authors typically don’t write very diverse works, and why their efforts to so often seem contrived.

It was Ernest Hemingway who said, “Write what you know”. Most writers of fiction follow this advice to one degree or another, because it is the path of least resistance for the writer who wants to achieve authenticity.

This is why you’ll find that for about 75% of all novelists, there is a close linkage between the author’s preferred subject matter and the author’s life.

Hemingway himself wrote numerous stories about brooding, haunted men who had served in World War I: The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms are autobiographical. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Hemingway contemporary, wrote about social climbers and the Jazz Age elites that so fascinated him.

Fitzgerald’s writing also had a strongly autobiographical bent. His breakout book, This Side of Paradise, contains elements of Fitzgerald’s life that are very thinly disguised.

I could cite more examples, of course—especially from Dickens, but the reader is probably more interested in contemporary novelists.

Consider the following:

  • John Grisham is a white Southern progressive who went to law school. His main characters, overwhelmingly, are progressive-minded white attorneys, who usually hail from the South.
  • Clive Barker is an openly gay author of paranormal fiction. Barker tends to explore gay subculture in way that other writers usually don’t and probably couldn't.
  • Amy Tan is a Chinese-American female. Lo and behold, most of Tan’s books about Chinese-American women.
  • Emily Giffin’s main characters are invariably highly educated white women who pursue boutique careers in New York law firms and PR agencies. Read Giffin’s online biography, and you’ll see the parallels: Giffin herself is white, upper middle class, and she worked as an attorney before she achieved success as a novelist.
  • Khaled Hosseini is an Afghan-born American novelist. His books deal with life in Afghanistan. The Afghan English-language novel is Hosseini’s niche.
  • Alice Walker, born in 1944, is an African-American woman who came of age during the civil rights movement. It should come of no particular surprise to find that Walker writes more or less exclusively about the African-American experience in the US—with a special focus on African-American women.

Do the above writers lack “diversity”? Perhaps; but this failing doesn't detract from their overall body of work.

I don’t fault Emily Giffin or Alice Walker for a lack of diversity because the orientation of the their stories tends is distinctly female. Neither Giffin nor Walker (nor Hosseini, Tan, or Barker for that matter) would likely write the sort police procedural novels that I love, with a hard-boiled detective like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch in the leading role.

Harry Bosch, probably the best-loved of modern fictional detectives, is a product of crime author Michael Connelly’s experience: Connelly was never a police officer, but he wrote for the LA Times, and specialized in crime reporting. Anyone who reads Connelly’s novels will quickly see the connection to the author’s life, identity, and experiences. Khaled Hosseini would have a difficult time writing Harry Bosch, and Michael Connelly would definitely struggle to write a novel about Afghanistan.

The point here being that a “lack of diversity” within a particular author’s work is nothing sinister, sexist, feminist, ethnocentric, etc. That’s why there are something like a zillion and a half books for sale on Amazon.com. As a reader, you can let Hosseini take you to Afghanistan, let Connelly guide you through the gritty side of the Los Angeles underworld, and let Emily Giffin show you the neuroses of overly educated career women who are on the prowl for the perfect husband before their biological clocks ring.

All of these writers are good writers, by the way, although their stories won’t be for everyone, and each lacks “diversity”—if we define diversity by its original, dictionary definition: “a range of different things”. 

Does that let the writer off the hook on the diversity question? Not quite.

There is a common problem that one finds within the body of work of any novelist who cleaves too tightly to Hemingway’s admonition to “write what you know”: The novelist who does this invariably becomes a one-trick pony; and all of his novels develop a cloyingly autobiographical feel.

Consider Greg Iles. Early in his career, Greg Iles demonstrated a broad range, with novels about Nazi Germany (Spandau Phoenix, Black Cross) kidnapping (24 Hours), the misuse of superweapons (The Footprints of God) and even ghosts (Sleep No More).

Then Iles began writing novels set in his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi. One or two of these books would have been okay; but before long, Iles was writing only novels about his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi; and these books were peopled by a recurring cast of characters.

Penn Cage, a recurring hero in Iles’s Natchez novels, is a novelist. (Novelists should generally avoid writing books that cast novelists as the lead characters, by the way.) At times Penn Cage seems to be an idealized projection of Iles himself. 

The similarities between Penn Cage and Iles have sometimes gotten the real-life author in hot water with his readers. One of the Natchez books, Turning Angel, features several age-inappropriate relationships between middle-aged men and young women in their late teens. A number of Iles’s female readers (via Amazon.com reader reviews) accused him of using the novel as a projection of his own midlife fantasies. This accusation is probably unfair; but the transparent similarities between Penn Cage and Iles don’t help matters. If you’re going to write yourself into a novel, make sure that the conduct of your fictional self is above reproach.

But Greg Iles isn’t the only author who writes himself into his books. Read the online Wikipedia biography of the late Stieg Larson, author of The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.). Then ask yourself if Larson might not have been writing an idealized version of himself in the character of Mikael Blomkvist.

Like Larson, Blomkvist is a politically left-of-center journalist who is obsessed with the various boogeymen of the Euro-Left, like neo-Nazis and absurdly over-the-top misogynist males. In keeping with Swedish notions of political correctness, Blomkvist is a proper feminist who is never too sexually assertive around women. But this makes little difference. Women throw themselves at Blomkvist, and the poor guy—feminist or not—simply can’t say no! (In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist manages to bed every major female character between the ages of 25 and 55.) 

And what about John Grisham? John Grisham began as a formula writer, and has continued to be one. There is always an idealistic young lawyer, a pot of money that is up for grabs, and often issues of racism in the background.

Grisham does a better job than Iles of keeping his formula fresh, to be sure; but it is difficult not to see the recurring character of Jake Brigance (A Time to Kill, Sycamore Row) as an idealized version of the author. 

*    *    *

How does an author avoid becoming a one-trick pony who writes autobiographical novels? The solution is to seek out experiences beyond your own little corner of the world. This is where the “diversity” factor comes into play. And here I’m talking about “diversity” in a general sense, as well as “diversity” in its current political usage.

The first step to seeking diversity is to talk to people. Get to know lots of them—and not just the ones you went to grade school with, or the ones who’ve been working in the next cubicle over for the past twenty years. 

Mark McCormack, author of What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, advises his readers to “eat lunch with a person from another department in the company” at least once per week. (Tom Peters has given similar advice.) This is not bad advice for the aspiring writer. You have to step outside your comfort zone and your usual circle of friends if you want diverse experiences and inputs.

Writers struggle with this early on because many of us are introverts by nature. (I certainly am.) Well-known writers like Greg Iles and John Grisham likely struggle with this because they have become so well known. For the writer who is truly a household name, the unscripted conversation with a stranger may become a rare experience. (But if you’re reading this essay, that probably isn’t a problem for you yet; and you can more easily overcome your introversion and social inertia.)

Another step to seeking diversity is to read widely. And here I am talking about not only fiction, but also nonfiction.

Although most of my writing nowadays is fiction, my reading is still equally divided between nonfiction and fiction. I read nonfiction books in the fields of history, current events, economics, science, religion, and philosophy.

Curiosity, both about diverse people and diverse subject matter, will give your work considerable diversity. At the very least, curiosity is a good first step.

Nevertheless, the writer should know his or her limits. You will find that there are certain types of diversity that you are better prepared to delve into than others.

Back to John Grisham: Grisham’s characters frequently include African-Americans from the rural South. As a Southerner, Grisham would have had plenty of interactions with rural African-Americans in the Southeast. Grisham’s depictions of characters like Lettie Lang, an African-American Mississippi housekeeper who stands to inherit a $24 million dollar fortune in Sycamore Row, therefore ring authentic.

Notice that Grisham does not attempt to portray the lives of African-Americans who reside in South Central LA, the epicenter of that city’s 1992 riots. Grisham is also unlikely to write a novel about urban Detroit. That environment, too, is outside his range of experience. 

The late James Clavell specialized in novels about Asia, both in historical as well as contemporary settings. Clavell was a British Australian, but he spent much of his life in Asian environments.

As a soldier in WWII, Clavell was a POW in the infamous Changi prison in Singapore. He traveled throughout other parts of East Asia as well, and was a lifelong student of Asian culture.

Clavell was therefore well positioned to write Tai-pan, Shogun, and King Rat. (The last of these novels is a quasi-autobiographical book about the Changi POW camp.)

Clavell did not attempt to write about Latin America, the American Southwest, or Eastern Europe. He was a “diverse” author, but his diversity was constrained by his experiences and interests.

I’m able to assess my own limits as a writer as well. I’ve spent extensive time in Mexico and Japan, interacting with people in these countries in their own languages. I could therefore write a novel set in contemporary Mexico or Japan with a certain degree of authenticity.

A novel about growing up in post-Soviet Estonia, on the other hand, would be far more challenging for me. I have no experience in this environment, nor much interaction with people from this environment.

My novels and short stories contain a fair amount of ethnically diverse characters; but I wouldn’t claim that ethnic diversity is a stand-out feature of my work.

One of the characters in Blood Flats is Joe Wilson, an African-American man who eventually comes to Lee McCabe’s aid in his war against a homicidal alliance of meth dealers and Mafiosos from Chicago. Joe Wilson is primarily a product of rural Kentucky, an environment that I’m intimately familiar with. Wilson’s race is in all ways secondary to his function in the story. Blood Flats is in no way “a book about the African-American experience in the U.S.” Novelists like Alice Walker can do a far better job of that than I ever could; and it would be presumptuous of me (not to mention awkward) to attempt to work in this niche.

The main character in my short story “The Vampires of Wallachia”, Vincent Chang, is a Chinese-American. He is cast not for the sake of diversity, but because I needed a main character who had intimate knowledge of Chinese culture and language. While a non-Chinese Sinophile could have fulfilled this role, I felt that a heritage speaker of Chinese would be far more believable.   

The writer should avoid checklists. Our current national obsession with identity group politics has lately invaded literature, such that many writers have become somewhat self-conscious about it when planning a novel or short story. (“Hey, there are no gay Hispanic females in this 400-page novel!”)

There is nothing inherently wrong with a novel that is disproportionately peopled by heterosexuals, whites, African-Americans, gays, Hispanics, or whatever. Writers should resist the political pressure to develop a “quota mindset”.

One of Clive Barker’s novels, Sacrament, delves deeply into gay subculture. That’s perfectly fine, but I wouldn't write a book like that. I’m not particularly interested in the subject matter, and I couldn't write about it authentically, even if I were. I’d be the wrong author for that book.

The writer should avoid well-traveled PC tropes. The most common example here is the novel (or film, for that matter) in which all African-American characters are saint-like victims, and all white characters are virulently racist, bent on exploiting or marginalizing the African-Americans in their midst. (“We don’t cotton to n------s around here!”)

We all know that real life isn’t like that.

A one-sided depiction of race relations and racial conflict might be permissible if one’s setting is the pre-civil rights Jim Crow American South. But America’s laws, attitudes, and acceptable speech about race have radically shifted in the last 50 years. Today the situation is more complex, and writers who portray race relations in simplistic terms will be immediately recognizable as politically correct frauds or lazy hacks.

For an example of how race relations can be handled more skillfully, I point the reader to the movie Crash (2004). This movie acknowledges that there are still individual whites who hold racists attitudes. But it also acknowledges bigoted and self-destructive tendencies within African-American communities.

In several of the characters in Crash, the clichés of economic power are reversed: The film includes rich (and bigoted) African-Americans, as well as working-class whites who have been marginalized by the quotas and set asides for minorities. Without taking sides, Crash depicts the complex mess that identity group politics has become in twenty-first century America.

Another, more recent, PC trope is the saint-like gay character who serves as a foil for heterosexual follies. You can see an early forerunner of this in the 1999 movie American Beauty.

The relationship of Carol and Lester Burnham, a heterosexual married couple, is a mess. By contrast, the gay couple next door (known only as “Jim and Jim”) are urbane, well-adjusted, and generally superior to the movie’s confused heterosexual cast.

One of American Beauty’s chief villains, Col. Frank Fitts, USMC, is obsessed with rooting out homosexuals to satirical degrees. And, of course, (spoiler alert) it also turns out that Fitts secretly harbors homosexual desires himself. Oh, the irony of it all! And the predictability. What could be safer, in today’s political environment, than another movie about The Evils of Homophobia?

Note: There is nothing wrong with having positive gay characters in a movie or novel, but these should be balanced by negative ones—or at least ambivalent ones. Otherwise, the saint-like gay character becomes even more of a cliché.

I would say that it is nearly impossible in our current environment to publish a novel or produce a film with a gay villain. And a gay villain who is also a serial killer or a child molester would be absolute kryptonite. No matter how good the movie script or book was, no publishing house or movie studio would touch it. 

Not very “diverse”.

You are going to be naturally drawn to some kinds of diversity more than others; and that is fundamentally okay. Because the concept of “diversity” has become so politically charged, the concept itself is now defined by various “rules” of political correctness.

Let me give you an example from real life. A few years ago, when I was still part of Corporate America, a female colleague of mine complained that our side of town “wasn’t diverse.” This complaint was made somewhat out-of-the-blue, and she didn't define what she meant by “diversity”.

I objected. My neighborhood alone contained an Asian Indian family, a family from the United Kingdom, one Jewish couple, two Chinese families, etc. And anywhere you go in Cincinnati, you’ll find people with Italian last names.

She gave me a dubious look, as if I were being deliberately obtuse. I asked her for an explanation, and she said, “There are no African-American families on our side of town.” This wasn't precisely true. (There were, in fact, African-American families on our side of town.) But what struck me was how my colleague took the broad concept of diversity and condensed it down to one metric: the number of African-Americans living in a specific part of town. As if those Chinese, Jews, and Italians weren’t sufficiently “diverse”.

But narrow concepts of diversity are commonplace today, and tend to shift according to political trends. Diversity should encompass not only race and sexual orientation, but broader metrics like socio-economics, religion, age, and profession. And what about the single most important form of “diversity” of all: the diversity of viewpoint?

If you seek to inject diverse elements into your writing, you need not feel compelled to conform to the narrow definition of diversity as presently dished up by CNN and Huffington Post. If you usually write about New York attorneys, then you can add “diversity” to your writing by including characters from Appalachia. You don’t have to tick every box in the diversity checklist.

My novels typically include strong female characters. This comes naturally to me. As a heterosexual male, I’ve been observing women and paying close attention to them my entire life. As noted above, I also have a strong interest in certain non-American cultures—especially those in Asia.

On the other hand, gay subculture has never particularly interested me, and that makes me unlikely to write about it.

That doesn't make me hostile toward gays. I’ve admired the intellectual and artistic achievements of plenty of writers (Clive Barker), musicians (Freddy Mercury), and filmmakers (Joel Schumacher) who happen to be gay. I’m just not interested in their sexuality.

That doesn't mean that the next writer can’t be or shouldn't be. It simply means that the Great American Novel about Gay Life will have to be written by someone other than yours truly.

This doesn't make me any more bigoted than the writer who isn’t interested in Japan or China, for example. The only difference is that there is currently a lot of political weight attached to one’s interest (or lack thereof) in gay issues (and being interested in the right way), while an interest in East Asia is regarded as purely optional.

Age—the overlooked form of “diversity”

I disagree with novelist/blogger Nick Mamatas about all sorts of things. (I’m a conservative; he’s a neo-Marxist, so the list of our disagreements is endless.) However, Mamatas, in his writing book Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life, does level a valid criticism on Stephen King—the famous author’s generational myopia.

As Mamatas puts it, King can only write authentic characters when he’s writing a character of his own generation. Many of King’s books and stories focus on the generational milestones of the Baby Boom generation: Vietnam, Watergate, the cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s.

King’s focus on Baby Boom characters worked for many years—when that generation was in their twenties, thirties, and forties. But if King wants to write about Baby Boomers today, then he has two choices: He can write about senior citizens, or he can write novels set in the past. (For his 2013 novel Joyland, King opted for the latter option. Joyland is a coming-of-age mystery/supernatural tale with a young male protagonist. The protagonist and his experiences ring authentic. But the story is set in the early 1970s.) 

King isn’t the only writer whose perspectives are hemmed into a particular generational timeframe. Nor is this problem limited to older writers. There are plenty of twenty- and thirty-something novelists who would struggle to write authentic stories set in the 1970s or 1980s.
I can report to you that generational differences are real, even as there is considerable variation among individuals within each generation. During my lifetime, I’ve been able to know and interact with adults from five generations: the World War I generation born in the 1890s, the World War II generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X (my own generation) and the current young folks—the Millennials.

My grandmother—like many women born in the 1920s—was frugal to the point of obsession. This was the result of her experiences during the Great Depression, and rationing during the war years. You never know when you’re going to run out of sugar or gasoline, after all!

My grandfather, like many white males of his generation, was basically a social conservative who voted Democrat—an almost unthinkable combination in today’s political setting. He was uncomfortable with anti-government zealotry of either the right- or leftwing variety. The World War II generation generally believed that the government was on their side, whether correctly or incorrectly. They came of age before Vietnam, Watergate, or an IRS that targeted conservative citizens for political purposes. During their formative years, protest was tantamount to treason, and “pulling together” was what patriotic Americans “just did”.

A lot of Gen-Xers are perversely stubborn about their individualism. Many of us were only children who grew up without siblings (me, to cite one example). Many of us were also latchkey kids with working mothers (me again). Others (not me, thankfully) were affected by divorce. (Divorce rates peaked in 1980.) We grew up in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s, when society was still returning to a semblance of normalcy following the counterculture. I was fortunate in this regard; but around 40% of my classmates came from what were then called “broken homes.”

And what about the economy? From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, large corporate employers began breaking the informal social contract of lifetime employment. This was a period of massive layoffs. “I remember when a job with IBM meant a job for life!” was a common catchphrase back then.

This combination of factors produced a generation inhabited by a disproportionate number of prickly loner types who don’t play well with others. But that’s what happens when you spend much of your childhood time alone, and the message of the surrounding culture is: “You can’t trust anyone.”

Things were different for the Millennials who grew up in the suburbs, who were lucky enough to be raised by educated parents. Never in the history of humankind has so much attention, care, and analysis been focused on a single group of young people. The 1990s (the formative years of the Millennials) were a prosperous decade during which America was mostly at peace. But this same group of young people came of age during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession of post-2008. So their background, too, is complex.

These are the sorts of differences that the writer must consider when creating characters of another generation. A young woman of 1940 processes the world differently than a young woman of 1970, 1990, or 2010. (We haven’t even touched upon different attitudes regarding gender roles, sex, or organized religion.)

All of the main characters in my horror novel Eleven Miles of Night are under 30. For our purposes here, Eleven Miles of Night can be described as a novel about a group of twentysomethings whose lives are disrupted by supernatural events.

I could have set this novel in the 1980s or 1990s (when I was a twentysomething). But I didn't want to do that. Instead, I drew upon my experiences with twentysomethings and my reading about them. I took into account cultural changes affecting courtship rituals, relationships with parents, and education that have occurred since my own twentysomething years.

How do you move beyond your generational perspective? You acquire this “diversity” the same way you acquire other forms of diversity: by talking to people outside your default circle of friends, and reading relevant nonfiction materials. Research, research, research.

Final thoughts

  • Diversity is a core element in the writer’s toolset.
  • A writer who lacks diversity will tend to write the same stories and the same characters, over and over again.
  • Diversity is acquired through a combination of deliberate life experience and disciplined nonfiction reading.
  • Diversity is a broad concept, encompassing not only issues of race, gender, and sexuality, but also socioeconomics, political beliefs, regional background, and age.
  • While the writer should strive to write diverse stories, the writer need not feel compelled to write with a “diversity checklist” based on concerns of political correctness, or the present obsessions of the nattering class.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Monday giveaway: Termination Man FREE on Amazon Kindle

Get it FREE on Amazon Kindle (August 11 only)

Book Description:

A long forgotten double murder of two young women in Ohio. A struggling corporation in turmoil. Two powerful men, two bitter rivals, each one hiding his own secrets. One driven by lust and rage, the other driven by a conflicted sense of right and wrong.


“The novel that takes an unflinching look at the dark underside of the 21st century workplace.”

CRAIG WALKER is a hotshot young MBA with his own consulting firm. He’s handsome, rich, and in demand. His Fortune 500 clients—the most powerful men and women in industry—call him “The Termination Man.”

Craig Walker is no ordinary management consultant. He’s a spook, a workplace spy. Assuming false identities, Craig works undercover, building the evidence that will allow his corporate clients to terminate unwanted employees without legal repercussions. His targets are the troublemakers, the agitators, the employees whom management believes are no longer “good fits” for their hyper-competitive organizations.

Craig Walker believes that he serves the cause of economic efficiency, and in a way, the greater good. Most of his targets don’t like their jobs anyway. In a free market, “a firing isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Sometimes an employee needs to leave a bad a situation.”

SHAWN MYERS is a manager at TP Automotive, a global giant in the automotive industry. Shawn struggles to control his lust and rage, and to escape a hideous past that might catch up with him at any moment. His forbidden desire for a girl young enough to be his daughter threatens to drive him over the edge.

When TP Automotive hires the Termination Man to remove two innocent employees from its payroll, Craig Walker is forced to reexamine his notions of justice and morality. But these questions are soon overwhelmed by the dangers that he faces from the TP Automotive management team. After Shawn Myers commits a heinous act in Craig’s presence, the Termination Man discovers that his new clients will resort to any means in order to protect one of their own.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Reads I remember

I am occasionally asked: “What books influenced you as a writer?” and the closely related question “What sort of fiction do you like to read?”

There is no simple answer. Like most writers—and readers—I found that my tastes and influences changed as I changed. What appealed to me twenty years ago, in other words, doesn’t necessarily appeal to me now.

Therefore, to answer the question, I am going to have to break my reading and influences down into stages.

Stage 1: My “Everything Star Wars is cool!” phase

My first real interest in storytelling was prompted by the original Star Wars craze. This was back in 1977, before most of the actors in the recent Star Wars films were even born. (And, perhaps, before many of the readers of this post were born.)

Star Wars has been with us for so many years that it is easy to overlook its initial significance at the time (a subject that I might return to at a later date.) More to the point of this entry, though, the film had a major impact on my nine-year-old self.

If you weren’t around in the late 1970s, suffice it to say that the first movie about Luke Skywalker and friends was a major cultural influence that no one could completely avoid. Star Wars—and Star Wars merchandise—was everywhere back then. (I believe that even the Carter Whitehouse made the occasional reference to Star Wars. If ever there was a president who was sadly in need of help from the Force, it was Jimmy Carter.)

But back to me. I not only wallpapered my room with Star Wars posters from Burger King, I also wrote my own nine-year-old’s version of the science fiction saga. Pretty bad and imitative stuff—but at least it wasn’t outright fan fiction: I created my own galactic villain: a stand-in for Darth Vader named “Karn”. I wrote myself and my family members into the protagonist roles. (Yes, I’ll spare you further details.)

Throughout the late 1970s and into the early 1980s, there were a large number of Star Wars comic books on the market. These were followed by comic books inspired by the original Battlestar Galactica television series. (I was an even bigger fan of Battlestar Galactica.)

I pestered and begged my parents every time a new issue of one of these comics appeared on our local grocery store’s magazine rack. Before long I had a massive pile of these books, most of which quickly became dog-eared and tattered.

I outgrew these around the age of ten. This was the time at which I began to read “real” books—defined as books that didn’t contain a significant number of pictures.

Stage 2: Detective Fiction and Ghost Stories

After science fiction, I suppose that detective fiction was the next logical step.

I was ten or eleven years old now. The Hardy Boys would have been the path of least resistance; but The Hardy Boys never appealed to me much. I don’t know exactly what it was—but somehow The Hardy Boys seemed passé even in 1979 or 1980.

Instead I became a big fan of the Three Investigators series. This series of books was similar to the Hardy Boys in concept: it involved a recurring cast of teenage sleuths. However, the plots, characters, and writing styles (the books were written by multiple authors) were more engaging, and less of a burden on the attention span of an eleven-year-old.

Most of the Three Investigators novels were already out of print even then. But I snapped up the ones I could and read them compulsively. (Today the Three Investigators books are nearly all out of print and almost impossible to find. So if you are looking for a great series of books to hand to your own eleven-year-old, you will have to look elsewhere.)

During this period, I also discovered my love of ghost stories and supernatural fiction. I read a lot of books in this genre, but one stands out in particular.

This was a collection of juvenile ghost tales (published by Scholastic, I believe) that contained one especially memorable short story called “The Demon of Detroit.” “The Demon of Detroit” was a yarn about a demon that haunted a bedroom in Detroit (no big surprise, based on the title). This story really spooked me out; and it appears that I’m not the only one. I have seen the story mentioned by other middle-aged adults in various places on the Internet.

Stage 3: High school and Stephen King

Throughout my early teenage years, I read very little. I was seduced by two other pastimes: football and rock music. I had only minimal aptitude for either of these: I sat the bench for one season of high school football. I also took guitar lessons; but I never advanced beyond the novice stage.

Then, in 1984, I happened upon an old copy of Stephen King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. I was working in my high school library as a student aide at the time, and I picked the book off the shelves out of boredom as much as anything else. 

I was blown away. I read Salem’s Lot in a matter of days. And I realized that it was time for me to return to that old world of stories—the one that I had loved so much in my early childhood. I had forgotten what it was like to fall into an imaginary world and get lost there. Salem’s Lot brought that all back for me.

I then began to methodically work my way through all the other novels that Stephen King had written up to that point: Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Stand, Firestarter, The Shining, Christine, Pet Sematary, plus his short fiction collections.

Stage 4: Others

After exhausting Stephen King’s corpus of work, I dabbled with other horror novelists, but few of them were able to capture my attention the way SK could. (King’s talent, in my view, is not so much his ability to scare, but his ability to create characters and situations that can instantly strike a chord with so many readers.) I got into Lovecraft for a while; but Lovecraft was not the world’s most prolific writer, and it didn’t take long for me to read every Cthulhu tale in print.

Nevertheless, that early interest in supernatural tales continues to be reflected in my writing. One of my first published works of fiction was a short story collection entitled Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen modern tales of horror and suspense.

Next I started reading other types of fiction. During my late teens and early twenties, I was especially influenced by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck. (These were writers covered in my high school literature classes that I happened to like.)

I am not much for rereading novels. Therefore, I am constantly on the lookout for new fiction to read. As of today, my favorite novelists include:

Cormac McCarthy
Stewart O’Nan
Stephen Hunter
Frederick Forsyth
Ken Follett
James Lee Burke
Tom Perrotta

The above list is by no means exhaustive, but these are the ones that come to mind right now.

In the next installment, I will answer the second question mentioned above. (What sort of fiction do you like to read?”) I do, as it turns out, have some definite ideas regarding what fiction should be—and what it shouldn’t be.