Sunday, September 26, 2010


Driving into Ontonagon, Michigan, after a hard overnight frost, I just had to stop on the side of the road and photograph this crystal-bedecked fence, vapor rising in the early morning sunlight. It reminded me that only a handful of days remain before the Lady Friend and I must go into our Illinois winter exile, like urban bears into hibernation.

It also reminded me that a camera often can be a writer's best friend, especially if that writer is a regional mystery novelist. Photographs can foster the descriptive sense of place so important in that genre.

Earlier this summer the Lady Friend and I spent a morning photographing the characters and goings-on at a rendezvous of historical re-enactors of the time of Lewis and Clark (1800-1840). Hang Fire, the novel I'm just finishing, opens at such a gathering, and being able to refer to photographs of participants in full costume living in the manner of early nineteenth century Americans helped me immensely.

In fact, it was shortly after visiting the rendezvous that I became unblocked after months of inactivity on the novel. Taking those pictures somehow spurred the creative juices and caused me to imagine new and precise ways to describe what I was writing about.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


The other day I drove around little Ontonagon, Michigan, the town that lies six miles east of the Writer's Lair on Lake Superior and serves as a backdrop (called Porcupine City) for my Steve Martinez mysteries, and took this shot of the decrepit old Milwaukee Road depot (built in 1896) downtown.

The depot and tracks now belong to the Escanaba & Lake Superior Railroad, which wants to abandon the historic old line (born in 1882 as the Ontonagon & Brule River Railroad) and tear up the rails now that its only Ontonagon customer, the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, has closed for good.

Earlier in the summer the E&LS pulled all its old boxcars off the mill property and, everyone here thought, said a last good-bye to Ontonagon. Later in the summer, however, the E&LS suddenly filled the four-track yard with scores of mostly rusty and graffiti-laden blue cars, apparently deciding to use the tracks for storage while the abandonment request wends its way through the courts.

The depot is desolate today, but once it was thriving. The picture below, taken from the same perspective by Alan Loftis in about 1920, shows the Ontonagon depot as a Milwaukee Road train arrived, presumably with an important personage who drew a large crowd.

Note how the depot building has been altered over the years. At some point two windows replaced the single one, horizontal siding replaced the vertical, and the top half of the chimney disappeared. But the original "ONTONAGON" sign remains.

Sic transit gloria.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Run on, McPhee, run on!

Run-on sentences, those loose shambling assemblages of words that lounge and sprawl and put their feet up on the furniture, generally are to be avoided, because understanding them requires a mental toolbox of levels and straightedges and T-squares to measure and survey and cut into lengths of sense, and are hard to read besides.

Still, in the hands of a master craftsman they can glisten as polished creations of beauty. Here is an example from the nonpareil John McPhee, writing on the 2010 British Open in the Sept. 6 New Yorker:

Wars had shut down the championship, and this was actually the hundred-and-thirty-ninth playing of it, the twenty-eighth at St. Andrews, and there was not a lot of dramatic tension in the 2010 Open unless you found it dramatic that a twenty-seven-year-old who had missed three cuts in recent weeks (including the cut at the U.S. Open in Pebble Beach) and ranked fifty-fourth in the world started off as a flash in the pan and then went on flashing and -- on the third and fourth days, when he was supposed to go dark -- flashed brighter and brighter and finished one stroke short of a record set ten years ago by Tiger Woods.

I stand in utter admiration.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

John Lardner

"On a recent big-game hunting expedition in Brooklyn (the biggest I could find was a twenty-cent limit game, with the one-eyed jacks wild) your correspondent heard a powerful humming sound and traced it to its source. It came, naturally, from the brain of Mr. Branch Rickey and indicated a little medium-deep thought. By the time it subsided, Roy Campanella, the best catcher in baseball, had been signed to a contract for 1950."

This opening paragraph, or "lede" as it is called in the journalism business, was written for Newsweek that year by John Lardner (1912-1960), who quietly ruled the press box at a time when ballplayers juiced themselves with nothing stronger than Jack Daniels and sportswriters battered typewriters instead of girl friends.

In these days of chest-thumping anthropoids on ESPN, it does one's heart good to read Lardner (son of Ring) once again and to be reminded that there really was a golden age of sportswriting. Another throwback to that era (albeit more recent than his subject) is John Schulian, a long-ago colleague of mine on the Chicago Sun-Times who later went Hollywood and fetched up with Sports Illustrated and other longhair magazines.

Schulian has rescued Lardner from the ash heap of history by editing The John Lardner Reader: A Press Box Legend (University of Nebraska Press, $19.95 paper), also providing an illuminating introduction and recruiting the equally nonpareil Dan Jenkins to do the foreword.

Lardner's prose style could be described as subtle hyperbole, delivered in complete deadpan. He writes of a ball game in which "a subdebutante from Red Hook or Canarsie reached out and touched a baseball lightly on its jowls," resulting in an interference call that drove in a run from third base. Of bench-clearing baseball brawls, Lardner wrote about how "the last time I saw the Dodgers grow hostile, they put on informal fight programs for two days and threw in a ball game each day for the same price."

Like his contemporary Red Smith, Lardner never lost sight of the fact that he was writing about boys' games rather than military invasions. Was his a simpler time? Not necessarily. Maybe it was just less expensive.

Lardner was no mere humorist. He was also a crackerjack reporter, breaking his share of scoops, as they used to be called. He had great range, writing 700-word wind sprints for newspapers and 7,000-word steeplechases for magazines. He wrote for the common reader, too, not for the lit-mag dilettante. You did not need a dictionary when you read him.

Schulian, my friend, you have done us all a service by resurrecting Lardner's most memorable prose. Especially what Red Smith once called "the greatest novel ever written in one sentence," Lardner's lede on a piece about an old prizefighter:

"Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast."

Sportswriting will never again get as good as that.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Being a charter member of the group delicately referred to as Persons with Disabilities, I have a particular interest in the lame, halt, blind, deaf and otherwise "afflicted," as our grandparents used to categorize us.

For me two of the high points of the recent Labor Day parades in Ontonagon, Michigan -- a city on the shore of Lake Superior with more than its share of indomitable folks, disabled or not -- were a little girl named Anna and a grown man named Dean.

She lives with brittle bone disease, he the consequences of an accident. Neither hides their considerable light under a bushel.

Dean in particular is everywhere. He competes in wheelchair races and serves in a hundred civic capacities, including the presidency of the school board.

They and others like them are one important reason why my mystery novels are set in a county based on theirs.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Literary noises

Most people with normal hearing walk through their days unconsciously alert for sound everywhere, although they might not think about it unless the sound is rare, or out of place, or threatening.

Deaf people -- especially those, like me, who have been deaf for many decades -- don't generally think about sound at all, because it's foreign to our experience. Rather, we're visual folks, our sense of sight keenly attuned to our environment. Without thinking about it, we look for the unusual.

But the heightening of one sense doesn't necessarily make up for the lack of another.

As a deaf writer, I'm acutely aware that there is little or no sound in the first drafts of my novels. When I complete a manuscript, an early reader might say, "There's something missing. Can't quite put my finger on it . . . oh, yes, there's no birdsong or animal howls in the forest, no mutter of wavelets or crash of surf on the lake."

So one of my important tasks -- perhaps the most important -- is to go over an entire first draft and equip it with the missing furniture of environmental sound.

Often I can do that with my own imagination, but some of my early readers have a sensitive ear for this kind of thing and are happy to make useful suggestions. One told me about her long conversations with chickadees, which went right into Season's Revenge.

She also told me what she heard during a recent Upper Michigan encampment of historical re-enactors, an important event at the beginning of the new novel, Hang Fire.

"People bartering, kids laughing and playing, the ringing of steel on steel from the blacksmith tent, the thwack or thump of wood being split . . . "

To that I'll add booms from the shooting range, thwocks from the tomahawk gallery, the clanking of cast-iron cookpots on iron grates, the snap of flags and banners in the wind.

I have to be careful. To a hearing reader, too many literary sound effects amount to a distracting, annoying cacophony.

But it has to be done.