In 2011, I had a draft of Sundown Town Duty Station done, but I wanted to go back to Meridian to get a refreshed feel for the place. I drove past the house we lived in, visited both the white and colored
Catholic churches. I spent a day on the Naval Air Station, part of it reviewing issues of the base paper. The last day in town I spent in the library. I read microfilm copies of the Meridian Star from 1968, recording headlines into my notebook: Eighth Negro church this year damaged by fire in Lauderdale County; Window of Negro Civil Rights Activist Dentist's home blown out by shotgun blast; Window of White Civil Rights Activist blown out by shotgun blast; a couple of majorly ugly ones after Dr. King was shot. By noon, my eyelids had grown sandpaper lining and my brain was fried. I fired up the pickup, imagined that my four cylinder went "hud'n hud'n" and was ready to back out of the parking spot when I saw two young black teens, twelve, thirteen maybe. They were tall, skinny, sporting thin white wires to earbuds, and moving to the tunes as they sauntered past me. Pants hung low, underpants pulled up high enough to make me worry about their comfort. I thought, "Toto, we ain't in 1968 no more."
Low slung pants: a giant step for mankind. Whoda thunk that?
When my family and I moved to Meridian in 1968, I didn't think I'd be a stranger. I thought I'd be like I'd been before, a sailor coming to town for some short term military business. I'd do it, not even brush up against the town much, then I'd leave for the next place. Didn't take long to figure out that I was a stranger there.
In 2011, I drove into town still feeling like a stranger coming to town. I expected to be one, but then I saw those teens. Maybe I made too much of it. Maybe it wouldn't have been such a big deal if I hadn't been immersed in 1968 all morning, but those young men made me feel like I was in a regular American town, and me being a regular American, I fit in there just fine.
When I got home, I pirouetted for my One and Only Squeeze, showing her the new way I was wearing my jeans. She grabbed the waist band of my skivvies and gave me a wedgie that precluded me singing bass along with the Oakridge Boys for a week. Woman's just got no appreciation for social progress fashion statements.
In the Heat of the Night. Whereas Shane is half cold-hearted killer, the other half of him is looking for love and a family, which he will never find. The hard half, and the way he's lived banish him from that paradise. He will be forever outside, looking in the window at it playing out inside. The best he can do is to place himself on an altar of sacrifice so that Joe Start and his family make it past the immediate menace of the Strykers.
MR. TIBBS, a black detective, comes to a Mississippi town in the sixties.
In Sundown Town Duty Station, the Welcome Wagon Lady tells Jon Zachery, "Our colored people know their place."
Obviously, Mr. Tibbs does not know his place, and that is dramatically demonstrated in the slap scene. In all the gazillions of movies and TV shows I have watched, there is no more dramatic scene than that one (my very humble opinion). And of course Sheriff Rod Steiger struggling to balance the way things have always been with the way they ought to be, which awareness lives in a corner of his soul, just alive enough for him to not be able to ignore it, I thought Rod did a fine job with his part.
In the Heat of the Night. Another great A Stranger Comes to Town Story.
My wife and I saw the movie in a theater in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1968. There were six of us in this theater with seating for a couple hundred or so. I felt the urge to look behind me, and to wish we had sat in the last row. The version we saw had the slap scene sliced and spliced around. Still, watching the movie in that town and at that time turned my wife and I into not just strangers in town, but aliens.
Last installment of a stranger comes to town tomorrow.
For a long time, Shane has been my favorite A Stranger Comes to Town Story. I don't know how many times I've watched it. There's a good chance I'll cue it up again tonight. A couple of the programs I follow have had their season finales already. It's February. There's snow on the ground and more's coming tonight. When do people need to see new TV shows, do you think? Maybe the TV execs watch the weather channel and knew it was going to snow and I wouldn't be going anywhere.
Sorry. I come to a fork in the road and I take it.
Shane. I love the symbolism in the film, as well as the story. Take the stump scene. The stranger comes to town, and what do you know, the stubborn stump Van Heflin has been working on for years finally, through combined sweat and horse muscle aiding man muscle, the dad-burned stump's rotten roots let go of the earth. It foreshadows what's coming. You just know the good guys are going to win. You know the evil rancher's old out-of-date ways will be uprooted. You know the meek farmers will inherit an acre or two. It's a sacred moment early in the film, like something an Old Testament prophet (my fingers almost wrote profit) would say.
Speaking of profit, what triggered all this is I saw a Chevy truck commercial last night, and it showed one of their red pickups ripping a stump out of slightly muddy ground. I thought it was sacrilege, appropriating the Shane symbol. But I guess you can't copyright a stump. Stumps don't wear numbers you can retire. So I absolved Chevy of wrongdoing while lusting after their burly red pickup in my heart, which is good, because if I hadn't given them absolution, I'd have had a problem with myself.
Sundown Town Duty Station is a Stranger Comes to Town story, with a twist. Also, there's a cool stump among the cast of characters.
My wife says I'm an asocial misfit and that's why
A mind is a wondrous thing. Everybody ought to have one—or two. One of my characters says, "Sometimes I think my mind has a mind of its own." Maybe he's right. Maybe minds are like cow stomachs or something. What I have learned is that my mind has finite capacity. I went to college at Purdue on a Navy program. We took nine and ten credit hours in the summers as well as boatloads of credit hours during the regular school year. At graduation, my head was ready to blow like John Belushi imitating a ripe pimple in Animal House. But I held together—just, at least in my mind, or one of them anyway. After eight years of driving boats and flying, I went to Monterey and an Aeronautical Engineering program. I took the Graduate Record Exam before starting. I was pretty strong in language and mediocre in math and science. When I graduated from there, my GRE scores had flip-flopped. Math and science pretty good, language mediocre. You only have so much capacity. It seems a writer ought to work to keep things balanced upstairs, however many data digesting stomachs reside in the cranium. That's why I do Sudoku, Kakuro, and Ken-Ken. I'm trying to keep my writer mind balanced. If you see my wife, I'd appreciate it if you tell her that's what I'm doing, that it's important for a writer to remain balanced.But, please don't mention that I have two minds. She generally starts talking to me with, "If you had half a—"
Writing is hard work. Heard that a time or two. Nothing I've learned in the last five years produced even an angstrom-unit-sized bit of data in contradiction. It is hard work, right up until you get to the friggle-frackin' marketing. Then as far as I'm concerned, there's a new definition for "hard work." Plus, it is such a distasteful activity . (Aside to professional marketing types. I am not insulting you, honest. I am just saying I am not as good at marketing as you extraordinarily talented people are, and if you buy my book, I love you, no kidding)
When I was finishing up The Ensign Locker, My One and Only Squeeze walked into the Man Cave and asked what I was going to do to get the thing published. I told her I'd been listening to people talk about how hard it was to get a publisher, how hard it was to sell if you self-published, and that I'd decided to not even try either. I was just going to write stories and leave them.
"If the actuarial tables play out for you and me," she says smiling sweetly, "I'll live a year longer than you. I'll bury you with your stories beside you in the casket."
Which of course put things into a different perspective. Writing is hard work. It's labor pain, but of course me being a goober guy, what do I know, which of course is not enough argument to stop me writing about it. Anyway, after giving birth to a book, I want it gone. I want it to move out of the house, you know?
So, even though marketing makes me feel like a self-pimping person of easy virtue, I'm doing it.
Buy the book and I will love you, no kidding.
Thank God the politicians have the seventh level
I have a new favorite dog story. It is Suspect, by Robert Crais. I have read all his books, mainly because he brings interesting characters to life. I want to know what happens to them, which I suspect is why anyone follows an author through a series of books. Maggie, the dog heroine in the story, is another of Mr. Crais's great characters.
My previous favorite dog story was Hondo. Louis L'Amour created a lot of interesting characters as well, I remember the Sacketts easy enough. I had to dredge around for Kilkenny. Maybe I wouldn't remember Dawg so readily if it weren't for the movie where The Duke got out tough-guyed by Dawg.
Check out Suspect. Maggie is a character worth meeting.
When I heard Jeffery Deaver say his outlines for works like XO extended to some 200 pages, I was surprised—socks got blown off, to be truthful. With the Ensign Locker, I had an idea for the ending. I knew what I wanted the middle to be, but I struggled mightily with the beginning. I was not at a place then, where my brain knew how to visualize a work's structure in outline form. So I wrote from the seat of the pants, what-words-shall-I-turn-into pixels today sort of planning, and via the writing school of hard-knocks, through the help of a lot of people, I learned a bit on the way to publishing the first one. In Sundown Town, I used critique services from Writer's Digest, two professional editors, and several friends, and I will tell you in the words of a character in my third book, "I've come a long way, baby ... " from Pantserdom. (The character only said part of what I needed him to say)
I doubt that I will ever be a Deaver-level outliner. When I get ready to launch a project, I get impatient to get going. Before starting Sundown, I worked out a timeline on a 1968 calendar, had a pile of 3x5 cards with characters' features and characteristics, and the storyline outlined on three white boards, one for the beginning, one for the middle ... Then my huddled masses of 3x5s yearned irresistibly to breathe free. The first draft, critiques, and back to the outline white board to fix storyline issues. More drafts, more outlines to address character development issues. Before finishing this second book, I did have a detailed storyline outline, a detailed calendar of events, an outline for the development of six of the characters. I also found that a commitment to outlining gives me a better appreciating for rewriting and editing chapters, paragraphs, and sentences. So on my path from Pantserdom, I'll just say that to me, outlining became not just plot, character development, and timeline. It became a tool to be used from the initial gleam in the eye until Imprimater.
Still, Mr. Deaver, thanks for coming to St. Louis and speaking. A real pleasure
John Sanford has been a favorite author of mine for some time. He came to the Famous Authors program sponsored by the St. Louis County Library system promoting Stolen Prey. He talked about learning the writing business and what he had to do to complete his journalism courses. After having been to the school of Bang-Your-Head-Against-the-Wall school of writing, I am ready to recommend John Sanford's more formal approach. I also recommend the Famous Authors program and the St. Louis County Library. Another visiting author, Jeffrey Deaver talked about his approach to outlining. He is not a pantser. Next time, the path from P
John Zerr is the author of four novels, The Ensign Locker, Sundown Town Duty Station, Noble Deeds, and The Happy Life of Preston Katt.
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