Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

In the past, my resolutions have all been selfish: to grow in my craft, to shrink in my abdomen--I want to fit into those jeans I bought 10 pounds ago--to find more light, less kvetching.  And so on.  This year, I decided to make more altruistic resolutions:

1.  I resolve that Dick Cheney will go to prison in 2009 for war crimes and his estate be distributed among homeless Iraq/Afghani war veterans.

2.  I vow that Karl Rove and George Bush will walk chained together through the streets of Dallas, wearing nothing but their cowboy hats, carrying placards that read "He/I am a horse's patootie."

3.  I resolve that Barack will fix the economy by May 1, and include universal health care coverage.

4.  I resolve that women will be left in peace by rapists, churches, governments and anyone else who thinks our bodies are public property.

5.  And I will fit into those jeans!

What about you?

Monday, December 29, 2008


New Year’s Resolutions

By Barbara D’Amato

I asked a few people, award-winning, wonderful writers, to comment on what they would work on in their writing this year. I think their writing could not be improved on, but it may encourage all of us if people as accomplished as they are have work lists.

Sara Paretsky says:

For years, I hoped that my writing could become freer. I worry too much about reactions to what I'm doing, by readers or reviewers or other parent surrogates--what Annie Lamont referred to as Radio Station WFCK-U plays in my head too much of the time while I'm writing. Now I'm less hopeful that I can change that dial. When I wrote Bleeding Kansas, a standalone novel set in the part of rural Kansas where I grew up, I was a little more playful, a little more lyrical, but I'd like to become more playful, more lyrical, more of a risk-taker in my writing. The trouble is, I'm at a loss on how to make that happen.

Libby Hellmann:

Someone once said of my writing, “You never use one word when three will do…” So I’m trying to work on being more concise.

I’m also tackling a new challenge... the story I want to write next is more mainstream (although it is a thriller). And it’s set in another country. Twenty-five years ago. Um…actually, I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

Michael Allen Dymmoch:

I'm still trying to develop some discipline. I'd be dangerous if I could keep at something long enough to finish it in a reasonable amount of time.

I am very much in Michael’s camp. I’ve been a terrible procrastinator this last year. As for content, I want to become more visceral. I seem to want to intellectualize everything, which doesn’t always work for the immediacy of the characters.

My informants above are all like Nancy Kerrigan, flawless.

Writers out there--what are you working to improve?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Another Turn of the Screw

by Michael Dymmoch

This is the time of year when the media have human interest stories revolving around Christmas themes—home for the holidays, secret Santas, gold coins in the bucket. Some publication reruns Royko’s famous “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style" (Chicago Daily News, Dec. 19, 1967). TV news reports the theft of Christmas by real grinches. Channel 5 reruns It’s a wonderful Life. This year, I stumbled into my own Yule season story. Only it’s more like the “Turn of the Screw” than “A Christmas Carol.”

It started when I was approached in front of the AMC Theater by a diffident young man with a South Shore Metra schedule in hand. His red hair and beard made me think of my mother, whose always been partial to red-heads. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you help me?”

I stopped. He looked lost and a little depressed, and I’m used to giving directions to tourists.

"I’m trying to get home for Christmas. My mother told me I’d be more likely to get help from a woman.”

OK. That sounded like something I might tell my son—only I’d add that a woman might be more likely to be scared of a strange male asking for help. This kid didn’t look scary.

“I have to get to the South Shore station at Michigan and Roosevelt,” he told me.

Easy enough. I pointed toward Michigan. “Just go up to Michigan Avenue and take a bus to Roosevelt.”

“I can’t. My wallet was stolen. They took my student ID, credit cards, everything.”

“Then you need a policeman.” I looked around—never a cop in sight when you need one.

“No, I’ve been to the cops. They gave me this....”

He shoved another paper at me. I didn’t look closely, but at a glance it was a...

“...Police report. But that’s all they could do. I need to get to the station by four o’clock or I’ll miss my train.”

Ah. It was either a scheme to scam me out of train fare or a real hard luck story. I couldn’t tell which. So many panhandlers accost us with sad tales that city dwellers are pretty much inured to hard luck stories. But his story was plausible. And what the heck. I’m willing to plunk down $25 in a bookstore for a good yarn, why not bus fare for a line I haven’t heard before? I gave the kid $2 and said, “This’ll get you to Michigan and Roosevelt.”

“But I don’t have money for the train. I just need $44 to get home, $18 to get to South Bend and $26 for the bus from there to Evansville.”

“Can’t you ask your folks to send it to you?”

“They can’t. That’s just the thing. They won’t wire you money if you don’t have an ID.”

I hadn’t thought of that. But I wasn’t going to give him $44 even if I'd had it.

“OK,” I said, “Let’s go to the station.” I figured I could buy him a Metra ticket with my credit card and he’d be that much closer to home. And maybe his fellow Hoosiers’d be willing to front him the difference.

He followed me back to the steps leading up to Michigan Ave, and took the lead crossing it to get to the bus stop, ignoring the don’t walk signs and signaling a bus driver to let us on even though we weren’t at a proper stop. As we rode south, He explained that he’d come from school on a train and had fallen asleep, waking up at 71st street without his money and IDs.

When the bus driver called the South Shore stop at Michigan and Randolph, my new young friend told me he wasn’t going to go in there because he’d been there earlier, begging for help, and he’d been told by a cop to leave or be arrested for panhandling. We stayed on the bus.

At this point, the needle on my bullshit meter was flopping in the red, but I wanted to see how the drama would play out. When we finally got off the bus, the young man led the way to the Metra station. Climbing snow-covered steps and following him down onto the enclosed platform, I wondered if what I was doing was sane, never-mind safe. But there were other travelers around, and I really wanted to see how far things would go.

The end was anti-climax. The Metra station ticket dispenser wouldn’t accept credit cards--something I find amazing, since you can even pay for parking with credit cards these days. Unable to buy the kid a ticket out of town (which he wouldn’t be able to use or return if he was just scamming me), I broke down and gave him what cash I had ($9) and wished him luck.

He said he’d go back to Michigan Avenue and try his luck with other passersby.

I noticed, however, that he didn’t stay on Michigan, but kept going west. So I was left thinking he may be just a scammer with a better than average line. If he was scamming me, he’d worked really hard for my $9. And I got a story out of it.

But what are people to do when they get robbed in a strange city and can’t prove their identity? What would I do under the circumstances? What would you do?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nellie The Elephant...

by Sean Chercover

Sara's post of last Monday (and the comments people left) got me thinking. Yes, times are tough and we're inundated with bad news, but you don't need to be Pollyanna to see some good in it.

We have an incoming President who picked a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to head the Department of Energy. Wow (or, as the kids would say, "Duh"). Could be that the federal government's War On Science is almost over.

Some see the arrest of our governor as Bad News. It is only bad news if you labor under the delusion that most politicians are honest. I don't. I see it as Great News. To me, the story doesn't read, "Our governor is corrupt." Looking through my prism, that isn't news at all. To me, the story reads, "They caught the bastard!" So it makes me happy.

But the main things that make me happy during hard times are family, friends, and art. Novels of course. And music. Movies. Etc.

Combining two of those things (music and family), I now present you with the top-6 songs, as ranked by The Mouse.

#6 Thomas Dolby - SHE BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE (The Mouse loves to thrust a finger in the air and yell, "Science!" Who doesn't?)

#5 Aretha Franklin - CHAIN OF FOOLS (No video, but you can listen, and you should.)

#4 Warren Zevon - WEREWOLVES OF LONDON ("Better stay away from him. He'll rip your lungs out, Jim." Screw Barney, this is great music for kids.)

#3 Gnarls Barkley - CRAZY ("Ha-ha-ha. Bless your soul.")

#2 Peter Tosh - KETCHY SHUBY (again, no video, but listen anyway.)

And currently #1 on The Mouse's playlist:
The Toy Dolls - NELLIE THE ELEPHANT (The Mouse is a punk at heart.)

The Mouse and Agent 99 and I play these (and other) songs every day, and dance around the living room like idiots and sing our fool heads off. Bad things are happening out there in the world, but life is good in my living room.

"Ah-ooo, werewolves of London..."

Happy holidays.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hey, You Talkin' to Me?

by Libby Hellmann

The following is part of a conversation for the PWA (Private Eye Writers of America) newsletter between author Kent Krueger and me. You can read the whole thing in a month or so in the next PWA newsletter, but I thought you might like a sneak preview.. as well as a chance to join the conversation.

William Kent Krueger, as many of you know, is a fabulous author and story-teller. He has 9 or 10 books out, all but one featuring Cork O’Connor, who is sometimes a PI and sometimes a police officer in the fictional Minnesota town of Aurora. Kent has won the Anthony Award (as well as a bunch of others, such as the Minnesota Book Award) probably more than anyone I know, and when you read his books, you’ll understand why. Visit him at his website

Q: Why did you start writing PI crime fiction?

Kent: I started out by having Cork step back from law enforcement, then becoming involved in law enforcement again, and then stepping back once more, mostly to maintain credibility in the things that drive our plots. The “PI” was a convenient way to do that, rather than the “accidental” sleuth.

Libby: “Accidental”, not “amateur”?

Kent: Accidental.

Libby: My transition to PI was for much the same reason. My protagonist, Ellie Foreman was an amateur sleuth, and I kept wondering how many more times she could come up against dead bodies without stretching credibility. After the fourth book, when I was scraping the ceiling for a rationale, I realized something had to change. Happily, Georgia Davis had already been introduced, and I knew I wanted to explore her further. So she, rather conveniently, became a PI.

Q: How familiar were you with the “PI” tradition, and how did that influence your decision to make your protagonist a PI?

Kent: My first entrĂ©e into the genre was Philip Marlowe. My next reading jag was Robert Parker and Spenser, so I pretty much knew what the subgenre was about. But I didn’t want to do a traditional noir PI type of book, because that wasn’t the character of the series. When Cork became a PI, he was a different sort of PI.

Q: How was he different?

Kent: He has a family for one thing, so he’s not a loner. He also has a significant network of friends and people that he’s known his own life in this small town. That’s another thing that’s different: Cork operates in a small town. He’s a guy who has fairly middle-class values: he’s Catholic, he practices his religion, he’s a father, and who knows -- he might even be a member of the Lions Club one day.

Q: Sounds like you’re describing Kent Krueger.

Kent: I’m not a member of the Lions Club. What about Georgia?

Libby: She’s more the classic noir PI, but a female version. I read Chandler and Parker, but it was Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton, as well as the “second generation” of PI writers like SJ Rozan and Laura Lippman who influenced me. Georgia’s more of a loner. She’s got baggage, which I’m still discovering. And she’s not afraid to put herself out there, regardless of the danger. She’s still honing her skills, though, and that means she makes mistakes, some more serious than others.

Q: Why did you become a member of PWA?

Kent: The truth is I got tired of watching all these PWA members sneak off at Bouchercon for their secret dinner, and I wanted to know what that was all about.

Libby: I even learned the secret handshake.

Now, it's your turn...

Why do you like PI crime fiction?

Describe the perfect -- or your favorite -- PI.

What would you like to see in PI crime fiction that hasn’t yet been done?

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

If you want to know about the man gone bonkers

By Kevin Guilfoile

The Chicago Tribune has been running an ad on local television this week. It includes edited clips from US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference announcing the arrest of Governor Blagojevich:

FITZGERALD: I have to take my hat off to the Tribune...We ought to credit the Chicago Tribune...I appreciate that and respect what they did.

V/O: Looking out for you. Now more than ever. Subscribe Today.

Of course, if you saw the press conference you would know that what the Tribune did to deserve such praise from Fitzgerald was withhold the story that the feds were bugging the governor's home, a decision, I understand, that met with vigorous debate within the newsroom. Now this might have been the right the thing to do, and as an Illinoisan I'm glad the investigation wasn't compromised. We all have a big crush on Patrick Fitzgerald right now so I can see why someone in the Trib marketing department got all gooey when he started blowing the Trib kisses in the middle of his statement. But I know a lot of terrific reporters and editors at that paper and I doubt there's anyone on the editorial floors at 435 North Michigan who doesn't think it's bizarre to suggest that people should subscribe to the Tribune because the paper DIDN'T report what would have been the biggest story of the year. That decision might have made the paper a good citizen--and I'm not criticizing them for it--but it's no reason to get all boastful. Bad newspapers don't break stories all the time.

Last week in the Huffington Post, Daniel Sinker wrote a column really giving it to the Trib for not reporting the fact that Blagojevich had been trying to blackmail Tribune executives into firing members of their editorial staff before that information came out in Fitzgerald's complaint. Sinker's piece, however, makes a number of factual errors and arrives at a series of assumptions none of us can make. We know that Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris talked to each other about speaking to Tribune executives, as well as a "financial advisor to the Tribune," to suggest that state financial assistance for Wrigley Field could be held up if the Trib didn't jettison some of its editorial board. But we actually don't know who Harris spoke to and everything he alleges was said to Tribune executives (and what they said in return) is all third-hand on the tapes. Harris even told Blagojevich that he "won't be so direct" with the suggestion. It might have been indirect to the point where Trib officials thought it was just another example of the governor whining about their coverage (in fact Blagojevich was calling publicly for the firing of editorial board members right up until the day before he was arrested). Harris might personally have thought the suggestion was insane and might have been lying to his boss about conversations he had just to keep Blagojevich happy.

It's seems clear that Tribune executives did not put actual pressure on the editorial staff as a result of suggestions from the governor's office. "If the governor did what was alleged, he ran into a brick wall," said one Trib editor. But if Trib execs did get an explicit message from Blagojevich that he wanted reporters fired in exchange for state money, it seems odd they wouldn't have passed this information along so their own paper could report--I'll say it again--what would have been the biggest story of the year. And if they didn't get that message, it seems that the nature of the forthcoming indictment against Blagojevich could be radically altered. I'm not sure you can be convicted of extorting somebody who doesn't know they're being extorted. I suppose you still have some sort of conspiracy to commit extortion, but that might be harder to prove. Any prosecutor would rather have goods on the real thing.

It appears as though the governor is going to fight this complaint. He's hired a defense attorney who is well-known for going to trial rather than pleading out. It would seem the only way he could challenge what's on those tapes would be to argue what's on those tapes isn't what it seems. And one of our hometown newspapers is going to be at the center of that argument.

Unfortunately, newspapers are rarely great at reporting on themselves.

Also, confidential to 23-Year-Old Chicago Woman: The traditional gift for the sixth wedding anniversary is either candy or iron.

We're really hoping you get the candy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

It's a long cold lonely winter, but--

What with the dire economy, G-Bay (as Tribune readers have christened the Blago scandal), book sales down by 20 percent in most markets, private miseries,  and a general lack of a ho-ho-ho feeling in the air, it's good to have something uplifting and unusual to turn to.  And for me, last week, it was the Nobel Prize.

Yes, winning that prize was a wonderful culmination to a life of creative work. By Mr. Yoichiro Nambu at the University of Chicago.  For personal reasons, Mr. Nambu was unable to go to Stockholm to accept the prize.  Instead, the Swedish Ambassador to the United States came to Chicago and presented the prize to him here.  My husband, Courtenay Wright, is a professor of physics at the University of Chicago and a member of the Fermi Institute (it was Enrico Fermi who brought Courtenay to Chicago as a young post-doc).  I always find it exciting to tag along to physics events.  The work they do is exciting and stimulating; even if I don't understand a great deal of it, the parts I do understand stretch my mind in wonderful ways.

At the December 10 ceremony, they hired the Millar Brass ensemble to play the heraldic trumpets used in Stockholm.  They showed a film of the Stockholm ceremony, where everyone has to dress in white-tie or ball gowns, and then the ambassador gave Mr. Nambu his medal and Mr. Nambu explained spontaneous broken symmetry, for which he received the prize, to the audience.

If you want to hear the speech, or at least the Millar Brass, you can do so here:

After the ceremony, I came home to the quotidian, the bills, the ills, but I still see a faint glimmer of gold, not from the prize, but of the reaches of the human mind that inspired it.  It's one of the things that will help carry me until the sun comes out.  What's helping you through these difficult days?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is It the [bleeping] Language that Increases our Indignation Toward that [bleeping] Rod Blagojevich?

by Barbara D'Amato

Lawrence Velvel, Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law and Professor of Law, wrote an interesting blog recently about our governor. It also has a bit to do with Chicagoisms and by extension Chicago fiction writing.

Quoting Professor Velvel:

‘I suggest that Fitzgerald and the FBI agents were really outraged by the language they heard (just as a lot of people, even Republicans, were outraged by the language they heard Nixon use on the Watergate tapes). Bleep this and bleep that obviously means "fuck this" and "fuck that." Around the country, most people don't punctuate every other sentence with fuck this, fuck that, fuck him, he's a fuckin' asshole, etc., etc. Nor do they like it when they hear people talk like that. But in Chicago that is how a lot of people regularly talk. (Not everyone in Chicago speaks like Obama, you know.) Many of us who grew up there learned to talk like that, and, when we've lived elsewhere, have learned that people elsewhere dislike and won't listen to the views (no matter how intelligent) of someone who speaks in a way that is par for the course in Chicago. (You may remember that people used to react badly to a southern accent (which they considered a sign of stupidity) or to a Brooklyn accent or speech. The same is true of the Chicago style of speaking that I am discussing here.)

‘That this is one typical Chicago style of speech is only the more clear because it is well recognized that, as has sometimes been discussed here, some very famous Chicago writers combine very bad language, language from the streets of Chicago, with their otherwise high falutin' writing. Think Mamet. Think Terkel. Think Bellow.

‘One might say, "Well, Fitzgerald grew up as a poor kid in New York City. The language there is pretty bad, so he should be used to it." Here is one writer who begs to differ, and I know others who differ also. Though rough, the typical language of New York is not as rough as the language of Chicago. As someone knowledgeable about the speech pattern in both cities recently said to me, "Chicago is cruder." Yes it is. Much cruder as a general matter, and the crudeness often extends to the highly educated. It is one Chicago style. (It would be interesting, incidentally, to see a comparison by professional linguists of the styles of speech in Chicago and New York.)

‘(I note that Fitzgerald has lived in Chicago for a few years, so perhaps one could argue he should be prepared for or inured to the Chicago style. But on the other hand, there are those who think he is prissy and straight arrowish, and could never become used to such talk.)

‘So I think that even the ex New Yorker, Fitzgerald, was not prepared for the kind of language that was heard on the tapes (just as people weren't prepared for Nixon on tape). And I cannot help thinking that, in addition to not wanting the Senate seat to be sold before they acted, the Federal officials acted in major part because they were taken aback by the kind of language used.

‘You know, it might behoove Blagojevich not only to put on the stand a parade of witnesses who are knowledgeable about what has gone on in politics for scores of years in this country, but also linguistic experts who are familiar with and knowledgeable about the style of Chicago speech typified in the tapes of Blagojevich and, to a lesser extent, present in the works of some of the great Chicago writers. And maybe Blagojevich's counsel should seek to cross examine Fitzgerald himself and some of his staff about their reactions to Blagojevich's style of speech and what effect this had on them. But wouldn't it be a hoot if a Chicago federal trial judge were to deny efforts by Blagojevich to introduce evidence of the "widespreadness" in Chicago of Blagojevich's style of speech, and to deny examination of Fitzgerald and company by Blagojevich's lawyers, with the ruling of denial being encapsulated in a two word Chicagoesque ruling, "Fuck that." What, you say that can't happen? Well, I can dream, can't I?’

This ends the Velvel quotation.

I think that part of people’s indignation at Nixon’s or Blagojevich’s use of bleepable words is outrage at what they see as hypocrisy. These people campaign as if they are holier than the rest of us. The tapes sound far less than holy.

All of this is not to minimize Blagojevich’s hideous behavior. I mean, threatening to take funds away from Children’s Hospital if he isn’t paid off? The Blagojegrinch!

But what do you think of this view of Chicago talk? Hey! Whaddaya think? I’m bleeping talkina you!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Complaining About Sex with Twins, and My Top 15

by Marcus Sakey

It was my great honor (and no small pleasure) to be invited to attend Noir in Festival in Courmayeur, Italy this last weekend. A prestigious film-and-lit noir festival that's been running for 20-plus years, NiF is located at the foot of Mt. Blanc in the Italian Alps. Featuring some of the best of European film, as well as authors like Richard Price, Don Winslow, and Victor Gischler, it was without a doubt one of the best gigs I've had as a writer.

The only downside, and it ain't much of one, is that I traveled for 26 straight hours yesterday. A car ride from Courmayeur to Milan, Milan to Atlanta, a three hour layover, a two-hour tarmac delay, Atlanta to Chicago, lousy weather, a two-hour holding pattern, a landing in Cincinnati to refuel, back to Chicago, and a thirty minute wait for them to defrost the jetway.

As the headline suggests, griping about that would be just silly. However, the net result is that I'm a little zonked and jetlagged. So rather than a formal post, I thought I'd help with your holiday shopping. I've gone over the list of books I've read thus far this year (76 to date, not counting the magazines and anthologies that held the 400+ short stories I read for the Edgars), and picking my faves. In no particular order, here are the top 15; if you're looking for more, I review on my website.
Reign in Hell, Steven Brust
Wildly entertaining and super-sharp retelling of The Fall from a different perspective.

Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
A study of America at war with writing so good it made me ache.

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn
A genuinely creepy thriller, not only for what happens, but for the way it's told.

What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman
Which should have won last year's Edgar.

My War, Colby Buzzell
My second read of my favorite Iraq II memoir, an obscene, in-your-face, boots-on-the-ground read that's all the more excellent for its lack of glamour.

Once Were Cops, Ken Bruen
A one-sitting read from a master. Bruen is at his best here.

The Human Stain, Philip Roth
It's Roth. How much more do I need to say?

Northline, Willy Vlautin
A beautifully understated novel of addiction and recovery, harm and hope.

The Paperboy, Pete Dexter
Dexter is an American treasure. If you've never read him, start now.

Feast of Love, Charlie Baxter
A lovely and entertaining rumination on love and sex and more love.

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
Historical epic of 1917-18 Boston, rich with life. Possibly Lehane's best.

Altered Carbon, Richard K. Morgan
Richard Morgan is this year's discovery, the most exciting sci-fi writer I've read in a long time.

The Wishbones, Tom Perrotta
Manifesting itself as a lighthearted comedy about a struggling band, the novel's great strength is in it's protrayal of the joys and difficulties of romantic relationshops.

Straight Man, Richard Russo
A send-up of academia, this is the funniest Russo I've read.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Didn't just hold up on a third read--it got better. R in more P than you felt in life, brother.
How about you? What are your faves of the year?

Monday, December 08, 2008

My Schefflera has TB...

by Michael Dymmoch

...Or scale insects, the houseplant equivalent. (Yeah, I know TB is a bacterium and scale are insects. And I know the difference between the two types of “bugs.” But both “diseases” are contagious, resistant, and difficult to treat.) Problem is, I don’t want to consider the treatment recommended by the Chicago Botanic Garden—throw the Schefflera out and get a new one. I’ve belonged to this plant for 34 years. It was 6’’ tall when I first brought it home. Now it’s 5’ 6”.

Unfortunately, it’s too big for the treatment that worked on my ficus—a shower with Scrubbing Bubbles ® (the kind in the can, not the shower-cleaner.*) followed by a good soaking with insecticidal soap. The Schefflera’s pot is too heavy for me to lift. So, periodically, I treat it in place—scrub the scale off with cotton soaked in alcohol, then hit the plant with the insect-killing soap. If I were consistent, I’d have vanquished the enemy years ago. Problem is, I forget the scale for months at a time—until the infestation has reestablished itself from the bug or two I missed, and the scales are too numerous to miss. I’m constantly starting the war over.

It’s a little like trying to overcome al Queda. Or procrastination. Or bad writing habits. You have to keep after them. You have to be determined, systematic, and relentless. Any time your efforts flag, the pest comes back in force. That’s fair. It’s a matter of survival for your enemy. And of whether or not you’re able to live with the disease.

*WARNING: This treatment will kill many plants. Try it at your own risk

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Name Game . . .

by Sean Chercover

The Mouse is two years old. Well, two and change. 27 months, if we must be specific. Most of the time, he calls me Da-da, or Dad. Da-da was fun, but I welcome the transition to Dad.

The surprising change is that, with increasing regularity, The Mouse is now also calling me Sean.

A couple of people have suggested that I correct him. But he is correct. My name is Sean, and he hears other people call me Sean, so why the hell shouldn’t he call me Sean?

I admit I am still slightly startled each time he does it. It’s just a little odd to hear my 2-year-old son calling me by my Christian name.

“Christian name.” You don’t hear that very often, these days.

Anyway, I find it interesting that other grown-ups are uneasy about it. Also interesting to note my own emotional reaction to the different names. When the Mouse calls me Sean, it feels different than when he calls me Dad, which in turn feels different than Da-da.

Do you think about this when naming your characters? Not only how the name feels and what it conveys, but also what nicknames the characters might call each other, and what those nicknames convey about the relationships between the characters.

Like everybody, I keep a few “Baby Name” books near my desk. But sometimes reading a list of names with notations of the “Welsh/Irish/Hebrew/Latvian” origins is not enough.

Occasionally I use names of real people. It’s fun to give a shout-out to people I know and love. Like many writers, I’ve donated character naming rights to be auctioned to raise money for a good cause, and I have a contest on my website, one of the prizes being a character named after the winner.

Then there are the names of characters from other books. Gravedigger Peace from Big City Bad Blood and Trigger City is a tip-of-the-hat to Chester Himes, one of my all-time favorite crime writers. His Grave Digger Jones was a corrupt and brutally violent Harlem cop. The resemblance between Gravedigger Peace and Grave Digger Jones doesn’t go much beyond the fact that they both have a pretty deep wellspring of rage, and they’ve both killed more than a few people, but I love using the name as a nod in his direction . . . and it fits my character who is, in fact, a grave digger.

Ray Dudgeon, my series protagonist, went through many names along the way. His penultimate name was Ray Dunbar. Dunbar Road is the street I grew up on. I didn’t like the name Dunbar, but I liked Ray, and I liked the way it sounded with a surname that started with D. I also like names that have independent meaning as words. Spade, Archer, Hammer, Reacher, Strange, Rain . . . all great names that tell us something about the character. So I started flipping through the letter D, in Webster’s dictionary.

Dudgeon fit my protagonist perfectly, both for its modern meaning and for the archaic meaning, most famously used by William Shakespeare in Macbeth. A few folks have commented that Ray’s name is a bit too clever, but the vast majority of people dig it. And I’ve had email correspondence with a number of real-life Dudgeons as a result, including a real Ray Dudgeon.

A totally unexpected benefit of using an unusual name.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite character names, and your method of naming the characters you create. So have at it.

BONUS: A signed, first-edition of Trigger City goes to the first person who tells us the archaic definition for Dudgeon (as mentioned in the Macbeth reference above).

ALSO: Libby mentioned this in the previous post, but in case you missed it. . . The amazing folks at Bleak House Books are giving away FREE books this holiday season. For real. You only pay for shipping. Check it out.

AND: For those of you who are buying gifts this holiday season, please consider buying and giving books.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Wha 'cha Gonna Watch this Season?

by Libby Hellmann

OK. I confess. I’m going rogue. I was going to post a blog on corruption and oppression (I just saw Changeling, and I’m researching a possible new book that takes place in revolutionary Iran.)But let’s face it: no one – including me -- wants to get too heavy this time of year.

Many of you have already chimed in on Kevin’s post with the books we ought to get our kids for the holidays. This post isn’t nearly as noble. And much more superficial. Still… in the interest of inspiring whatever holiday spirit you can muster, forgetting about terrorist attacks as well as the economy, and earning a few brownie points from Netflix, let’s talk movies.

What holiday movies make your all-time top 5? Is it A Wonderful Life (which, just to bring it somewhat back on topic, Carolyn Wheat dissects quite admirably in her book Killer Fiction) and you will undoubtedly see listed 10 times on local stations this season?

What about Miracle on 34th Street… the original or the remake? Oy – now that I’m thinking about it -- it is pretty cloying.

So, what about one of the versions of Amahl and the Night Visitors? I seem to remember a TV production I’d watch every year as a kid. Anyone else remember that? I recall it being mysterious and exotic. Of course, I was only about ten at the time.

And of course, I like Home Alone, which was filmed right around the corner in Winnetka.

I’m not all that fond of the Scrooge films, or the Charlie Browns, or the Grinches--
too sappy and predictable. But I didn’t mind Family Stone. Or the TV productions of the Nutcracker. Especially the one with Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland.

But my all time favorite holiday movie has to be Love Actually. How can you not like Hugh Grant dancing to “Jump,” Alan Rickman playing a wayward husband, Colin Firth falling in love, or the Beach Boys’ finale of God Only Knows with all those split screens? In fact, if this doesn’t put you into “the mood,” I give up.

Your turn. What Holiday movies do you recommend? Let’s hear them. Btw, if anyone has any Hanukkah movies (is there really such an animal?), that would work too.

PS I forgot to mention that my wonderful publisher, BLEAK HOUSE BOOKS, is offering free books to all of you this holiday season. Yup. Free. All you pay is shipping and handling, and you can get novels by Reed Farrel Coleman, Eric Stone, Victoria Houston, Craig McDonald, Mary Logue,and even me.

To find out more, click here. This is the real deal!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How about Good as Gold, Frankenstein, and House of Mirth?

By Kevin Guilfoile

We had my whole family in for Thanksgiving, twenty of us, ten adults and ten kids, crammed into my house. It was a terrific weekend of football in the park and basketball at the gym and air mattresses on the floor and turkey on the table and presents under the tree.

Yes, presents. Because we won't be together for Christmas we exchanged gifts on Friday. One of my nephews, who is in high school, asked for books and so a few weeks ago I was in the bookstore, browsing the shelves, trying to remember a handful of novels I had read at that same age, books I loved then and still love to this day.

I chose three--A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and The Stand by Stephen King. I can still remember reading those books, still remember carrying them with me trying to cram a few moments of reading between school and work and baseball practice and much too little sleep. I remember how eager I was to get back to them and how reluctantly I put each of them down. I also liked that they were different genres--one howlingly funny and one epically scary and one whatever Irving is--some combination of quirkiness and poignancy and sentimentality and effortless prose that I am just a sucker for.

Last week, Sean urged everyone to give books for the holidays, but let's start to get specific. If you were buying three books for a high school senior, books you hope he or she will still remember reading twenty years from now, what books would you get and why?