Category Archives: Influences

The Green Acres Effect

After much delay at the hands of family matters, I’m back on the case of finishing The Amazing Secret of the Castle Omi La for this year’s VBS.

A little bit of history here. The first VBS play I did was The Terrible Misfortune. It was a pirate-themed show. It was influenced by every cliche in every pirate movie I’ve ever seen.

Next came An Unpleasantness At Lonesome Gulch – you guessed it – a wild west themed show inspired by every cliche in every western I’ve ever seen.

In line after that was The Incredible Adventure of the Frozen Man, a pastiche of cliches from the original series of Star Trek.

And for this year? The pre-knights of the roundtable tale named above. And it’s major influence is…

Robin Hood? Nope.

Camelot? Nope.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Nope – and I’m working really hard to keep it that way.

No, the major influence for this year’s show is the redoubtable Green Acres.

(Wait a minute – did he just say Green Acres as if it was something worthy of respect?)

Yes, I did. And here’s why.

While a lot of people saw Green Acres as a “hick show” that went along with a lot of the CBS lineup at the time (The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw), it was quietly subversive by building one of the most surreal universes on television, at least until Twin Peaks came along (and David Lynch may owe some gratitude to GA for making TP possible).

It did this by taking the fish-out-of-water plot (city couple moves to the country) – and after the first few episodes to get everything established, it began to turn things inside out. Lawyer turned farmer Oliver Douglas suddenly found himself (ironically, since he was the one who wanted to make the move) operating in a world whose rules he could never quite comprehend. His ditzy wife, Lisa (who didn’t want to make the move) takes to this new world like a duck to water and understands it perfectly. But Oliver becomes the one voice of sanity in a place where sanity is optional.

After Green Acres, the fish-out-of-water plot was never the same. It was no longer enough to put someone in a strange place. The strange place had to have its own set of rules, to a point where reality became stretched rather thin. Hence the groundwork is set for Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure and… well, I’m sure there might have been a couple of others, but I’m not that big a TV watcher.

Granted, this idea of the misplaced fish is not a new one. Jonathan Swift and Aldous Huxley used the fish-out-of-water to great effect in their respective satires to point out the foibles of society as they saw them. The difference between them and Green Acres is that they used Gulliver and John Savage as why characters, a character that exists so the new world can be explained without resorting to clumsy dialogue and exposition. What made Green Acres so subversive is that the good folks of that universe never offered any explanation as to why it was the way it was. It simply existed that way and it was good enough for them. If Oliver Wendall Douglas couldn’t quite fit in or figure things out, that was his problem.

All of this extends its influence into my current VBS play to the point where characters veer off into an argument over subatomic particles “which haven’t even been discovered yet”, but most folks just seem to know about. There’s a goofy inventor who was consciously based on Hank Kimble, the scatterbrained county agent. And there are not one but two waterless fish – the young man who has come to claim his inheritance, and the nasty King who is blocking his way. Although while the newcomer is only moderately bewildered by some of the goings on in his would-be kingdom, it is the king who suffers the most by trying to get his subjects to conform to what his idea of medieval squalor should be.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit much for a bunch of grade school kids. But there’s enough slapstick and other goofy gags to make them happy, just like in all my other productions.

In the meantime, if you’re called on to discuss a novel or movie where one person is just unable to fit in with a universe that is becoming increasingly bizarre, you can throw a spanner into the works by insisting that the influence is not Swift or Huxley – but rather Green Acres.

And judging from the limited and under-educated viewpoint of many, many writers out there, you’d probably be right.

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Michael Crichton, 1942 – 2008

In 1969, this kid who wanted to be a writer walked into his local library and was browsing in the adult section when he happened upon a book on the New shelf. The cover intrigued him. He picked it up, read the inside flap, read the opening sentence – and was hooked. He checked the novel out, took it home, plopped down, and read it.

Well, not only did he like the book. It also changed the way he looked at writing. He loved the way the writer added to the atmosphere of the book by including an appendix and a list of references to an assortment of documents and scientific papers. And the story, about science gone wrong and a handful of people in a desperate struggle to find a solution, he found riveting.

And when he finished it, he closed the book and said, “Wow. THAT is the kind of book that I want to write!” Then he picked it back up and started to read it again.

By now you’ve no doubt guessed that the kid was me, the library was in Gillette, Wyoming, and the book was Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain – and that intriguing 1969 cover is what you see over there on the right.

Those two reads wouldn’t be the last time I read the book. I eventually bought a copy when it came out in paperback and continued to revisit it as the years went by. It was a book that influenced me as a writer more than any other novel I read, and it’s an influence that stayed with me.1 It was so influential to me that when my first novel was published, I described A Death of Honor as “Casablanca meets The Andromeda Strain.” And I always hoped that someday I might cross paths with Dr. C so I could shake his hand and thank him for what he did for me.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance. My career as a novelist ran aground, and now Michael Crichton has passed away at age 66, after a private battle with cancer. He will no doubt be eulogized by better sources than me, so I’m not going to try. I just wanted to put these words out there in belated thanks to someone whose work appeared to a boy with a narrow view of a genre and then expanded it in a way he hadn’t imagined – and was the standard he was chasing with every word he wrote.

  1. 1. Kurt Vonnegut was also an influence for a time – I loved the way all of his novels seemed to be interconnected as part of some grand mega-story. I ended up outgrowing him early in college (I hit my Vonnegut period early, during high school). A good thing, because it wasn’t long after that that he devolved into sad self-parody, allowing his writing schticks to take the place of his imagination.

Scary Monsters

More fodder from my friend Scoob, spinning off of an e-mail discussion we were having about comic books part of which was referenced here. Only this part of the conversation has to do with fear. Namely, things that scared me as a child.

Growing up in the 1960’s was a fairly idyllic time, at least in the front half of the decade. During the back half, my father became convinced that anarchy might break out at any time, given all the increasing rioting over the Vietnam war, and one day he brought something home. He was prone to doing that, bringing home surprises from his long days on the road. But instead of a chiming table clock or a Rouvaun album, he brought home a blue steel Smith and Wesson .38 special. Took me out in the middle of nowhere to shoot at a coffee can, and when I had gone through a cylinder full of bullets, he smiled and said, “You’re a better shot than your mother.”

That didn’t scare me, though, because this took place in Worland, Wyoming, a sleepy little town on the badlands side of the Bighorn Mountains, where the most threatening thing was the ash from the sugar factory that settled over everything overnight. The fighting in the jungle and on college campuses that I saw on the TV didn’t seem real to me, and to his credit, Dad never told me why he bought the gun – I pieced that together over the years. He didn’t want me to worry, I guess, because he was worried enough for all of us.

No, I was scared of more important things. Things that mattered to a nine year-old kid. Here are some of my childhood fears, in chronological order:

  • The opening to the TV series The Outer Limits
    That ringing rrrrrrrrrrrrr sound and that voice… “We control the horizontal… we control the vertical…” They were controlling our TV set from far away! Never occurred to me that a), that opening was probably the scariest thing about the show, and b), I had control of the TV myself in the form of the OFF switch. Tell that to a six year-old.
  • Daleks
    I’ve mentioned here before how, before we moved to Worland, we lived in Canada for enough time for me to come back spelling and talking funny – and how I got to see episodes of Doctor Who fresh off the boat from being filmed in the U.K. I’ve seen that lost episode about Marco Polo (he was scary, too), but nothing matched the Doctor’s eternal enemy the Daleks for sheer hide-behind-the-couch terror (and I should confess at this point that I always went back for more). This would endear me to the Britcom Coupling many decades later, when the lead character declared that the only thing couches were good for was “hiding from Daleks.”
  • That horrible villain who took away the Blackhawks’ senses
    A World War II fighting team co-created by the brilliant Wil Eisner, by the 1960’s the Blackhawks were being shoved into superhero molds by D.C. comics. I still loved them as only a little kid can, at least until they came out with this cover, which showed each Blackhawk losing something that was really important to him – touch, sight, sound, etc. It was just too creepy for a little kid like me. I never bought the issue.
  • Virus X
    In a sleepy drug store in sleepy Worland, Wyoming there was a sleepy rack of comic books where I made my selection every week. That is, until Superman got Virus X, a form of Kryptonian leprosy. Noooo! Worst of all, there was no cure! Superman… super leper! I looked at the comic in the store, but was too terrified to buy it. I think I might have been afraid that I would carry Virus X home with me if I did. Worst of all, it was a serial story, so I had to go back each month to see what happened to Superman in what had to be his darkest hour.

    Interestingly enough, before the run was over, I had my first peek of writer’s prescience. At one point in the story arc, something happened that clicked inside of my ten year-old brain. That’s it! That insignificant thing that happened is going to be what cures Superman!. And sure enough, the next month, that’s what happened.

    Now that I’m a grownup, I’ve decided to collect this run of comics for the sake of sheer nostalgia. You’ll also be interested to know that I wasn’t the only kid terrified out of his socks by this story – check out a complete synopsis, along with another confession of terror in this excellent write up of the Virus X story arc.

  • Classic Trek
    As a kid I was also lucky enough to see the adventures of James T. Kirk and the Enterprise first run. And a couple of the episodes scared me to death. It wasn’t the people with rays coming out of their eyes (although the strangulation scene made me nervous). Nor was it the salt-seeking creature that wanted to fix it’s suction cup paws on McCoy’s face. No, what scared me to death was Operation: Annihilate!, where blobby creatures injected a stinger that wrapped itself around your spine and made you go insane. And that disease in Miri, (which took place on a carbon copy of Earth), where this disease made the kids live a long time, but the grownups got this blue-green fungus that rotted them away.

Interestingly enough, from this list you can see the core of what my base childhood fear might have been – invasive, icky diseases. Maybe that’s because I went through the whole regimen of Chicken Pox, Measles and Rubella, and the idea of getting sick with something that presented on your skin was just too much for me to take. Nowadays, I’m no longer terrified of them, but I do find them rather horridly fascinating, like that Morgellon’s thing that’s cropping up right now.

So why bring any of this up at all? Because, with a little work, you can channel your fears, old or new, into your work – with the prospect of having a fresh idea you can deal with, more writing under your belt when you finish it, and perhaps even a little personal exorcism while you’re at it. That’s three birds with one stone.

Regular readers might be leaping up at this moment and saying, “so that’s where that icky disease in A Death of Honor came from!” Well, yes and now. Childhood fears did influence Honor, but it wasn’t disease. It was part of my extended family.

About the time I was busy being scared by Virus X and creepy Star Trek diseases, I realized something else. There were certain relatives that I dreaded visits from. And even while the comic and TV terrors faded, the dread of these relatives would linger on for several more years.

They were what I call doom ‘n’ gloom conservatives. When they got together, they would all talk about the state of the handbasket was that this country was in. One used to brag, “When the Commies take over, I’m going to be the first one they shoot!” Virus X couldn’t begin to contend with the fact that the Soviets were massing tanks at the North Pole, and Canada (“Nothing more than a socialist puppet state!”) would do nothing to hinder them from rolling south across the border until they were in the town square, where they would hang people from the sleepy lamp poles.

By the time I was in my twenties, I wasn’t scared any more. Not even by Jimmy Carter’s playing of the Nuclear Fear card during a debate with Ronald Reagan (“I asked my daughter Amy what the most pressing issue facing mankind was and she said, ‘Nuclear war'”). I might have been angry about all of that nonsense I had to listen to as a kid, but mostly I think I was fed up. Honor wasn’t supposed to be a political novel at all, but I decided to use the nightmare scenario of a Soviet-dominated world just to wash some of whatever debris remained out of my system.

And, well, you know the rest.

It can be argued that writers are exploiters. They exploit things around them, mostly in a very benign way, in order to construct their stories. Tales or incidents from folks. Things that happen to others. Stories written by others that they have put their own unique twist on. So why not exploit your own fears? Planned or not, I probably saved a bundle on psychotherapy bills.

Plus I got six grand and a published novel out of the deal.* You can’t beat that with a stick.

Listening:
Celebrate we will
‘Cause life is short
But sweet for certain hey
We climb two by two
To be sure these days continue
Things we cannot change

(via iTunes)

*Your individual neurosis may vary. Current performance is not an indicator of future results.

15 Things About Writing and Me

Continuing the memage, the writing variation of the book meme, which mutated here. Looking at the others who have done this, I see that for once I am rather short-winded. I think this is because this entire blog is about writing, and more than enough to make up for my terseness here.

  1. At one time, I wanted the notation “- 30 -” to be the only thing on my headstone (it is one of three symbols proofreaders can use to indicate the end of a manuscript). My wife thought it was “too final.” Now I just want to be cremated.
  2. The first lines of dialogue I can remember writing (in a home-made, hand-drawn comic book about war):
    SHOOTING MAN #1: I’LL KILL YOU!
    SHOOTING MAN #2: I’LL KILL YOU TOO!
  3. Before I got interested in writing novels, I wanted to go to New York (to work for David Letterman’s daytime show) or Atlanta (to write for Bill Tush’s sketch show on TBS).
  4. I’m still hoping I can still take the path of John Jakes and Dean Koontz and find my way into mainstream fiction. But I no longer lose sleep over the fact that my writing career isn’t where I want it to be. I have great kids and I’ve been married to the same woman for 25 years. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that I knew enough to walk away from the word processor when I was needed. And many times when I wasn’t.
  5. I once was ghostwriter on a celebrity novel. When I wrote it, I did all sorts of stylistic things I had seen other people do in novels that I promised myself that I would never do in a novel of my own.
  6. Writing this play is going so well (when I have time to work on it) that I’m wondering if I should go back to writing plays.
  7. I can look at a writing style and, in most cases, imitate it. A boss once gave me a book about how to write direct mail copy. I skimmed it and gave it back the next day and said, “Yeah, I can do that.” That was the beginning of the end for me in that job because she had read the book over and over and underlined or highlighted almost every other line and still couldn’t do it.
  8. That same boss is why I no longer say that anybody can learn to write.
  9. When I talk about writing, I ask my host what direction they’d like things to go, and then I wing it. I was once told that my talk was the best organized speech that had ever been given in her class.
  10. I think I’m good at writing dialogue because I started off writing plays.
  11. I think I’m really good at writing relentless action scenes because I started off writing short stories wherein thinly veiled representations of bullies and tormentors came to brutal, horrible ends…
  12. …and naturally, my High School creative writing teacher thought I was going to end up on a water tower with a high powered rifle. The final piece I wrote for her class actually changed the rules for what was acceptable to turn in for the short story assignment.
  13. I once wrote 24 60-second radio spots in one 12 hour day. I was working at a radio station at the time, and it was seven days before Christmas.
  14. I once wanted to have all my plays and novels connected by a thread of characters and events because I thought it was so cool when Heinlein and Vonnegut did it.
  15. My two favorite words in the English language are “bastard” and “narcotics.” I love the way they sound. Too bad they’re not the kind of words you can go around saying all the time.

Other participating writers that I know of:
Cherie Priest
Naomi Kritzer
Flickering Flames
Byzantium’s Shores
Notes from the Shadows
Kristine Smith

Special thanks to Weirdwriter for pointing these both out to me.

Listening: Eels, “Her” (via iPod Shuffle)

15 Things About Books and Me

There’s a meme going around (started here) wherein readers list 15 (or more) things about the relationship they have with books. The numbers of people who have already done this are huge, and I suspect that I’m the last person in the blogging galaxy to be doing this. But here are some anyway.

  1. According to my mother, I was reading at an extremely early age. I have no memory of what it is like to not be able to read.
  2. And I think I could speed read as a child, but school taught it out of me.
  3. I am allergic to a gum used in printing ink, and to a series of molds that grow on paper. Therefore, I am allergic to books…
  4. …which is too bad because I love “old book” smell.
  5. My wife gets so into reading that I can talk to her while her nose is in a book and she won’t hear me at all. I wish I could do that.
  6. Since I write fiction, I tend to be so critical of it that when I read for enjoyment, it’s usually non-fiction…
  7. …but there are some authors, such as Elmore Leonard, who are so good that it doesn’t feel like I’m reading fiction.
  8. I once tried to retaliate against a bully by bonking him on the head with the biggest, thickest book I could find – my 7th grade biology textbook. It was a disaster.
  9. I hardly ever buy books anymore. I try to get everything I want to read from the library.
  10. I can read several books at once. And I can put a book down and pick it up months later and keep reading with no loss of continuity. This drives my wife crazy.
  11. I am shamefully underread when it comes to the classics.
  12. I went on a kick to try and read more classics. I started and loved what I read of Moby Dick but haven’t picked it back up yet. I’ve hated Ernest Hemingway since High School and couldn’t get through one of his books. But I loved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
  13. I once tricked a good friend into reading a really bad novel by telling him it was wonderful and Vonnegutesque. He hated it and asked me to take it back. I “forgot” to take it home. He brought it to my house and left it. I took it back to his house and hid it. This set off a years-long war where we would find clever ways to pass the book back and forth. Then one day the book disappeared. My friend says I have it. I think he threw it away and is lying. Or maybe one of our wives got sick of the whole thing and tossed it.
  14. I read in spurts. I will go for months without reading anything. Then I go on months-long binges where I read and read and read.
  15. I have this fear that I will lose respect from readers and/or friends if they found out which books and/or how many books I haven’t read.
  16. BONUS ITEM #1: People think I’m joking when I tell them that I have so many copies of my own novels that I use them to prop up the low corners of the refrigerator and washing machine.
  17. BONUS ITEM #2: The Bible gets more and more amazing every time I read it.

Coming up next: 15 Things About Writing and Me (the mutant version of the above meme).

Listening: Brian Protheroe, “Take Up Your Beds” (via iPod Shuffle)

All I Have To Do is Dream

How many of you creatives out there find inspiration in, or get your ideas from dreams? Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after a disturbing dream (and the first draft was so disturbing that his wife made him destroy it); ditto Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Ditto again for Paul McCartney and the melody line for Yesterday.

I could go on and on about dreaming. I’m a lucid dreamer, which means that I’m aware that I’m dreaming, and if things go bad, I have the ability to wake myself up. This always seems to be preceded by my announcing to the others present that I know I’m dreaming and I plan to end things by waking.

Just the other night one of my dreams took a dark turn. I was surrounded by work colleagues, and we were all wondering what tragedy would occur next and I said, “I can fix this. I’m dreaming, and I’m going to wake up now.” Nothing happened so I started telling myself, “Wake up, wake up, wake up” – and as I watched, the background went black and then my colleagues faded away. Then I woke up. It was a neat effect.

(I should also note that once, many years ago, I dreamed I was captured by a Bad Guy who was going to give me a shot of Sodium Pentathol. I said, “No you’re not, because this is a dream and I’m going to wake up.” The bad guy said, “Like hell you are,” and two of his thugs tackled me and I got the shot anyway. So it only works 99.9999999% of the time.)

(And I don’t always just wake myself up in such cases. Lucid dreaming means that you can also control the circumstances in your dreams. More than once I’ve changed circumstances, such as giving myself the ability to fly. That one has gotten me out of a number of nocturnal jams.)

I don’t rely on dreams as a source of ideas for writing projects because my waking mind overproduces quite enough for me, thank you. Most of the dreams I find useful have get mentally filed away for use in a single project, a novel where the protagonist comes to a point where he can no longer tell dreams from reality. But aside from perhaps the basic concept of the dream, most dream progressions are so fragmented and disjoined that a literal translation would be out of the question.

(I sometimes wake up laughing at something funny I’ve seen in a dream. Sometimes it wakes my wife up, and she asks what I’m laughing at. Sometimes it’s something truly funny. Other times, it elicits a puzzled “Huh?”, both from my wife and from me.)

On the other hand, dreams have been more useful in my songwriting endeavors. I’ve always heard music in my dreams, but it’s only been since I took up the guitar that I could try and translate some of the things I’ve heard into something useful. One night I dreamed I was directing a music video starring the sister of one of my college buddies. The chorus of the song was the sister’s name over and over, drawn out. It ended up giving me the chorus of a piece I was working on at the time, Cairo. I’ve managed to snag a couple more riffs out of dreams recently, but my problem is that even thought I might write down the chord progression and some words, a lot of times I lose the music I heard and can’t reconstruct it from notes. I need to start recording these fragile little things so I don’t lose them.

Maybe it’s because of the nature of dreams themselves that they are more suited for inspiring music and poems. This page I found gives a short list of people who have found inspiration in dreams, and the musicians and poets outnumber the writers and artists by a good margin.

For the novelist, the dream can provide a basic concept or some nuggets of inspiration for a larger project. But basing an extended work on the entire content of a dream is risky at best. Unless you meant to end your novel with a snowball fight in the 23rd century against a 10 foot purple badger named Foamy.

Listening: Wang Chung, “Wake Up, Stop Dreaming” (via iPod Shuffle). Really.

The Man in Black is Gone

“Ah fell in to a burnin’ ring of far —
Ah went down down down and the flames went har…”

This is how we used to make fun of Johnny Cash when I was a snot-nosed junior-high kid. It was how most people we knew made fun of Johnny Cash. But it should also be noted that we knew the words to his songs and listened to his albums whenever we got the chance.

There was no avoiding the Man in Black when I was a kid. I grew up for the most part in a small Wyoming town that wouldn’t get an FM station until 1978. Naturally, to placate the population of ranchers who made up the bulk of the town’s population at the time, the station’s two staples were Paul Harvey’s News and Comment and country music.

If my folks had had their way, I never would have been introduced to Cash. They were into Big Band and the easy listening sounds of Dean Martin and Perry Como. I still have a thing for Harry James.

But when I went over to my friend’s house to meet with the gang, we pulled out his parents’ Johnny Cash albums and listened to them. Live at Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin were special favorites of ours. I can’t explain why. I guess Cash sang about dark things that we could only imagine at that age (although we all understood A Boy Named Sue), and to be singing about them in front of an audience of hardened criminals…

Well, that was just about the coolest thing ever.

Yes, we made fun of his diction, or lack of it. We made fun of his three-note baritone singing range. We made fun of the simplicity of his songs. But we always went back for more…

I wasn’t a real hellion or rebellious sort as a kid. I was born too late to rebel with Elvis or the Beatles or Stones; I was too late for psychadelia, which I have developed a strange latter-day affection for. I was born too early for the Clash to be an influence on me, although I love that band. I was too early for New Wave and Punk to be anything other than something I enjoyed listening to.

So if there was any one artist who was the voice of my adolescent rebellion, it was Johnny Cash.

Oddly, even though he had long dropped from the airwaves, even though Garth Brooks turned country music into pop, and even though Cash recently became cool again by singing with U2 and covering a Nine Inch Nails song and truly making it his own – I never owned one of his albums.

Maybe it’s better that way. If I listened to him all the time it might dull the effect that hearing Cash has on me now.

Just a few bars of that boom-chicka-boom guitar and those first few guttural notes turns back the clock faster than you can imagine.

It’s a hot, dry, dusty summer morning in Gillette, Wyoming. I’m riding my almost-too-big bicycle down a red scoria road, through the trailer park, down to my friend’s house. Everyone’s parents are at work and we’ve got a day full of important things to do. But to start things out, he’s going to carefully sneak out an LP record from its sleeve and we’re going to listen to I Walk The Line