Thoughts on “The Man From the Train”

Sometimes, we miss things.

I don’t mean the things we lose. I mean the things we don’t chase. The things we see, think oh, that’s interesting! in the back of our minds, and then bypass them because we don’t have the time or inclination to do more.

A few years ago, when I was reading about twelve years’ worth of local newspapers to find out all I could about George Kimmel and his case, I kept stumbling across unusual stories. Specific stories. Families murdered. Entire families. By an ax. I remember thinking to myself, after about the fifth or sixth one, what the hell is going on here? A serial killer? Or were people just plain freaking crazy in the early 1900s? I jotted down notes about most of them – they’re still in my notebook, along with dates and page numbers of Kimmel-related stories. But I forgot about them.

Most people did.

51977447However, in his new book The Man From the Train, Bill James (and his daughter Rachel) put those bloody drops into a coherent, and disturbing, pattern. Bill James is a baseball writer and statistician; he sees patterns in things. Like me, he saw a pattern in these grisly murders. And he decided to see if the pattern was for real.

James relies predominately (as far as I could tell) on newspapers as his sources. He admits this is problematic upfront – newspapers in the early 1900s were – well, they needed readers. The more sensational the story, the more papers they could sell. And I’m sure there were reporters and editors who weren’t above manufacturing details to make a story more salacious.

You’re probably familiar with at least one of the murders in this book:  the vicious ax murders of the Moore family (and two young neighbor sisters) in Villisca, Iowa in 1912. Made famous by the widespread press it got at the time, the fact that the house is now a museum, and the numerous paranormal groups that have done work there, the Villisca murders are almost legend today. How could someone have broken into a house in a town and murdered eight people, with an ax, and no one heard a thing? 

James wondered the same thing. The precision of the murders, the professionalism, led him to believe Villisca was only one of many. Thus, this book was born.

It’s a book I have severely mixed feelings about.

I downloaded it to my Nook last Saturday, and could not put it down for the first 75-100 pages or so. James has a great writing style – it will probably grate on professional historians, and it did grate on me by the end, but he makes little side comments and addresses the reader one-on-one, so it’s almost like you’re having a conversation with him. As you can tell from the title of the book, James believes that a.) there was a serial killer on the loose in America between 1898 and 1912, and b.) he knows who it was.

That’s fabulous. But one of the reasons I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book is that James spends most of his time trying to prove that some – not all, but some – of the murders in the book were committed by the Man From the Train (MFT) by reiterating things we, the readers, already know. Once James laid out the criteria by which we could judge whether a crime was committed by MFT, he seriously needed to trust the reader to remember them. Like any serial killer, MFT had a pattern to his kills. I can recite them off the top of my head:

  • Near the tracks – within a mile, typically, and often at the junction of two tracks.
  • Families with young girls were most often the targets.
  • Houses were usually isolated, or in very small towns.
  • They were killed with the blunt side of an ax, usually with a single blow to the skull. The ax was usually one the family owned, and it was always left at the scene.
  • Lamps were moved, and left without their shades (which I don’t get, and James never explains).
  • Bodies were typically moved after death – into other rooms, into piles in a single room, and other creepy ways.
  • Like most serial killers, he got off on it.

But James insisted on doing this for every single crime he thought was committed by MFT. After a while, I got the point where I wondered if he was trying to convince himself that MFT had done this – or that MFT existed at all. He also noted that up until 1907, the pattern was consistent – and that after 1908, the pattern changed. He thinks it’s due to a change in the man. I wonder, however, if it is even the same man. Serial killers often take on accomplices. Could the original MFT have died between 1907 – 08, and his apprentice or accomplice taken over? James never entertains this idea.

James also spends entirely too much time on things I felt were trivial, like the feud that occurred in Villisca between a local citizen and a detective. I think that took two chapters. None of it, in my opinion, was necessary for the book he was trying to write. He also talks about crimes that sound as if they were committed by MFT – only to reveal, at the end of the chapter, that for X and Y reason, they weren’t.

The Man From the Train is a popular history. I have no problem with that – I’m sure there are hundreds of historians who do, but as a lower-level college instructor, I want to see books that make history interesting. Anything that draws in readers is a good thing. What I NEED to see in a nonfiction work, though, is sources. There is a point to a Works Cited or bibliography – it lets others follow in your footsteps, look at the same sources you did, and see if they come to the same conclusion or not. But in this book, most sources aren’t cited at all (not properly, anyway). Often, we’re left with, “newspapers said that . . .” and leaves us wondering which newspapers, on what day. (I also take issue with his dismissal and rudeness to Beth Klingensmith and her thesis on this very topic. I don’t know Beth, but I can tell you that if she wrote this as a grad student, her paper, at least, is cited!)

It’s also clear he’s no historian – for instance, while discussing murders that took place in Louisiana, he talks about a black woman and says, “Many stories about her claim that she was only one-eighth black, which cannot be true” (p 334). I do not understand this statement at all. It is absolute plausible, especially in the bayou region of Louisiana, for this to be true. Whites were enslaved all the time (for a good treatment of this, read the awesome book The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey); white masters raped (and sometimes had consensual sex with) their female slaves, and then enslaved the resulting children. New Orleans was under the control of the French, Spanish, British, and Americans at varying points in time. Women who ‘passed for white’ were prized in the brothels. So yeah, this woman could very easily have been one-eighth black.

Yes, mixed feelings indeed. I wanted to see how James had handled the thing I’d missed. I wanted to like it. I had great hopes for it. I just – at the end, I just didn’t. I think James has a great voice, and I think he definitely found something. Of course, he’s in the same fix I am – more than a hundred years on, it’s hard to fit the puzzle together. And James does deliver on the promise to tell you who he thinks the killer is, and why.

If you like true crime, this one is probably up your alley. I was hoping for a great deal more, myself.

 

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Photo Challenge: Windows

I photograph a lot of old buildings in my area. Most are on private land and I can’t go inside, so I’m lucky if I get shots that allow me to see inside, through the windows.

window 4

This is an old church north of my home town. I’ve photographed it many times, but the light has to be exactly right to see inside. And truthfully, I’m usually more interested in the windows!

This one is from the 101 Ranch – or what’s left of it – in Marland, OK. It is permissible to go inside the few buildings (ruins) that are left. It was December when I was there, so the black and white seemed ideal to use with the starkness of the winter day.

window 2

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“350 Queries to Read . . .” Make yours stand out!

You probably read that title and fainted, right? 🙂

Sad fact:  it’s totally a true story. 

This weekend was the Rose State College Writer’s Conference in Oklahoma City. Along with the OWFI conference in May, it’s one of two that I get to attend every year (if I’m lucky!). I picked up some great tips (and, small brag, the first chapter of my work-in-progress Ghost Hunt took first place in the Fiction category in their contest!).

I attended a lot of great sessions, which I want to talk about in subsequent posts. But one of the best was from author Tamara Grantham on how to write great query letters. Let’s face it:  agents get too many submissions. WAY too many. In fact, from Word One, they are looking for a reason to reject you and move on to the next query.

And to tie back to my title, Tricia Skinner (an agent with Fuse Literary) said she knew for a fact that she had 350 queries waiting for her when she gets back home Monday. Yup. Three Hundred and Fifty. 

That’s the competition. That’s your competition.

Tamara gave us great hints from agent Janet Reid, who runs queryshark.blogspot.com , which has more than 250 query letters, ripped apart for your benefit. She will also rip apart yours, if you’re that brave! Here’s what I learned:

1.) Do NOT talk about ‘theme’ in your query letter. Your job is to entice the agent, not beat them over the head with a freshman Literature class.

2.) Why? Because you’ve got 250 words to get your novel across to the agent. That’s it.

3.) So how do you pull that off? Simple. You basically get 2 paragraphs to pitch your novel. Paragraph 1 should include:

  • Who is the MC?
  • What does your MC want?
  • What’s keeping them from getting what they want?
  • What will they sacrifice to get what they want?

4.) Your second paragraph should be your inciting incident, and where that leaves your MC. That’s it. Leave it there. Don’t tell the agent how the book ends. Don’t give them all the things that will happen in the middle of the book. Make them demand your full manuscript in order to find all that out!

5.) Don’t include backstory. Ever. It will waste your 250 words.

6.) Here’s another way to look at it: 

  • Your MC must decide whether to ____ .
  • If your MC decides to do ___, the consequences will be ____.
  • If your MC decides NOT to do ___, the consequences will be ____.

(Hint:  this is a great way to check that you’ve actually got a pitch-able story. If you can’t answer these three questions, it’s time to revisit your story arc.)

7.) Have others read your query letter. Give them specific things to look for:  eliminate redundancy; strong vs. weak words; and most of all, that hook. Do they want more after reading this?

8.) This is not an overnight process! Tamara recommended drafting your query letter, then putting it away for about 4 weeks. Then, before you read it again, write a second query letter. Look at them together. Is one better than the other? Can you combine elements of both to create something even better?

Now, of course, sometimes our minds just don’t work the way we wish they would, and our novels may not fit into this rubric. If not, don’t fret. Remember the basic information you’ve got to get across. Then, shake it up a bit. As long as you get the agent hooked, you’ve done your job.

Practice with this. I’ve been mentally going through novels I know well, making them fit into these molds to see if I can do it for my own manuscripts. Take my favorite novel, Outlander, as an example:

  • The decision:  Claire Randall must decide whether to return to her own time in 1945, and her husband there.  
  • If she does:  she will lose her new husband, Jamie, forever. 
  • If she doesn’t:  she will risk her life, and will lose her old husband, Frank, forever. 

Or another – let’s say, The Hunger Games: 

  • The decision:  Katniss must decide whether to volunteer to take her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games. 
  • If she does:  she may die, and her family will starve as a result. 
  • If she doesn’t:  her sister will definitely die. 

It’s all about the craft. Crafting your query letter is no different than crafting that first page. If you’re like me and nearing the end of rewrites – boy, there’s a scary thought! – then this is a great way to double-check your plot structure.

If you can’t get your novel across in this amount of space, then maybe you don’t know your story as well as you think – or maybe your story needs some tweaking. 

If you can – then congratulations! You’re on your way to writing a great query letter. 

Again, here’s the link to Janet Reid’s site:  http://queryshark.blogspot.com/

Tamara Grantham’s website:  http://www.tamaragranthambooks.com/

 

Wrong path, wrong focus – what’s your novel really about?

Sometimes, we get stuck. Stuck with flat tires, stuck in muddy ruts, stuck in dead-end jobs we hate, stuck with that last cold slice of sausage and mushroom pizza with the congealed grease on top. Stuck, stuck, stuck.

We get stuck when we write, too. We get stuck on a scene we can’t quite finish, or sometimes even on a sentence we can’t let go of. Sometimes we get stuck because we’re not quite sure where the novel is going – or because we didn’t know, when we started, just what the story would be.

I’m going to make a confession here, one that will make some of you question my sanity, and some of you question my right to talk about writing, and some of you jump up in the air and scream ‘YES, SOMEONE ELSE GETS IT, I’M NOT ALONE!’ and the confession is this:

I’ve been working on the same novel for nine years. 

Yeah. I have to let that one soak in, too. But it’s true. About nine years ago, this novel idea came to me, with the characters, and it was in part based on some research I was doing at the time. At first, I thought it was a one-off, a single novel. Unfortunately, secondary characters sort of moved in and demanded rooms of their own. That, I realized, meant that the original idea was expanded and this was likely going to become a series. Then, my MC, Erin, demanded to speak in first person. That called for rewrites. Then, about two years ago, after already submitting to an agent and having my friends DEMAND that I quit and just publish the damn thing already, it occurred to me that there was a scene early in the book that made little sense and really should be its own book.

And so. The entire first quarter of the book got cut. I had to feel my way through the rest of it. This one little scene, that could just as easily have been cut, turned into an 81,000-word standalone work.

That’s the book I’m working on now. Scenes were cut. Rearranged. Rewritten. Added back in. Characters milled around backstage, thumbs in pockets, waiting for their cues. Rebecca – who may or may not have been a 17th-century witch – made an unwilling foray to the foreground, to become the focus of the novel, insisting the entire time that this was not her job and would I please figure that out already? 

And about three weeks ago – I did.

I’d struggled with the rewrites all summer. I’d done everything I knew to do – I’d printed a hard copy. gone through it with pens and Post-It Notes, made a to-do list . . . and nothing was turning out the way it should. In short, I was stuck.

Then, blessedly, a revelation hit. As I sat amongst the ruins of my ink-spattered manuscript, wondering how the hell it had all gone so wrong and what I was supposed to do with it all now, a little random thought bubbled up from my subconscious:  Wrong focus. 

Huh? Nope. Right focus. Rebecca. Witch hunter. Got it.

Wrong freaking focus, idiot! 

And suddenly – I glanced down at the first page, and realized that the novel didn’t even start in the right place. We didn’t know Erin or Kai. We had no idea what Erin’s life had been like in the US. I needed a scene that I’d cut, and that scene had to be my opener. I sat down and spent about two hours totally rewriting that scene – and once it was done, I knew what I had to do.

Wrong freaking focus, indeed. I’d been so tightly honed in on Rebecca that I’d forgotten where my true focus was supposed to be – on my main characters, Erin and Kai. Their relationship. Their internal problems.  My focus wasn’t Rebecca. Rebecca was a catalyst, a way for Erin and Kai to work together while trying to iron out their own inner demons.

Not that I regret the wrong paths I took. Every single thing I know about Rebecca is necessary, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t told her story first.

And since that night, the rewrites have been going smoothly. It’s like my novel finally woke up and said, “Hey! Glad you figured it out, dillweed! Let’s go.” Now that the focus has changed, I see all the other small problems with the novel. Scenes are changing. Tension can be added. Transitions are smoother. Every time I sit down at the keyboard, I know precisely what needs to be done toward that end goal, and I walk away from the keyboard feeling good. I think this time, the novel may actually get done. I may be – for the time being, anyway – unstuck.

So if you’re stuck and aren’t sure why – I know this is a HUGE issue, and one I should have seen earlier, but if you’re stuck, take a look at your focus. Are you focusing on the right characters? Are you engaging readers in the true conflict? Are you telling the real story?

I wasn’t.

But – nine years on – I think I’m finally getting it.

 

 

 

Photo Challenge: Structure

dandelion 2

I love to shoot flowers in black and white. Sometimes we get caught up in the colors and forget to look at the intricate structures – as with this large dandelion.

rose of sharon 5

Or this Rose of Sharon.

zinnia 4 bw

Or this zinnia. In color, it’s a brilliant reddish-pink – but in black and white, we can see the structure of the petals, curled tight in the center, and gently unfolding near the edges.

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“Are you done with the book yet?”

In Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert talks about the nature of the Balinese people. They must know where they are, and where you, are at all times – physically and spiritually. Most important, she says, is the question, “Are you married yet?” In America, this is considered a rude question. In Bali, however. . . well, as Liz puts it, “They really want you to say yes. It’s such a relief to them when you say yes.” And if you’re not married, the correct answer is “not yet.” “This is a polite way of saying, ‘No,’ while indicating your optimistic intentions to get that taken care of just as soon as you can.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I was at the coffee shop writing, and a friend stopped by. Her first question was, “Are you done with the book yet?”

Any number of thoughts immediately went through my mind, the first one being why did I tell her I was writing a book? I knew she wanted me to say yes. I knew this. And yet, being me, I had to be truthful “Not yet!” I said, smiling. (See? A polite way of saying NO, while indicating that I am working on getting that done just as soon as I can.)

“Well, how much longer?” In her eyes, I could see the question bordering on accusation. You’ve been working on this all summer! How long does it take to write a book? 

“I don’t know. Not long,” I said cheerfully, and she went back to the friends she’d come with, and I went back to my characters.

But it left me pondering a few things. Number one:  books, my friend, are never done. Ask any author. You just sort of reach a point where you stare at it and say, “Screw it.” And then you start sending out the query letters. (And even then, as we all know, it’s STILL not done. Edits and rewrites shall abound.)

Number two:  How long do people think it takes us to write a book? Yes, there are prolific writers like Barbara Cartland and Stephen King who can put fingers to keyboard and type nonstop for hours, until it’s done. The rest of us mere mortals, not so much. The phrase “we’ll get there when we get there!” comes to mind.

And number three:  why must people ask it precisely like that?! Bloody hell, we just don’t know how long it’s going to take!

If you’ve ever encountered a scene like this, with friends, coworkers, family, or complete strangers (yes, those people who think nothing of putting their hands on the stomachs of pregnant women also feel no shame in asking about your deadlines), I feel for you. Been there, done that! I think most writers have been. In fact, I’ve been biting my tongue the last week or so, because a local author’s been at the same coffee shop typing away madly. I know she’s trying to get some writing done before school starts, and I keep wanting to stop by and just commiserate with her – but being a fellow writer, I can’t make myself interrupt her flow. I know she has small children and like me, those are her precious stolen moments with her characters.

The truth is this:  I don’t know how long these rewrites will take. I know what I set out to do daily. I hope I get it done. I’m working in small chunks of writing, stuffed into small windows of time. Those long stretches of uninterrupted writing time are a MYTH, people. A MYTH! Most writers, like me, steal away to a local haunt, order a latte, and if we get a solid hour or two of work done before Real Life comes knocking, we’re lucky. I have to walk in there knowing exactly what I want to accomplish in that time frame, and do my best to make it happen. Even during summers, my life is complicated – running a business, dealing with umpteen animals, errands to run, and, you know, I’d also like to sort of enjoy my summer, too – so I have to squeeze my writing into small bites.

But you know what? Those small chunks of time are working well for me. For starters, they work well with my inability to sit still and do one thing for hours on end. If I can focus for just an hour or so on this one scene, or this transitional between scenes, or these changes, I can get them done and it feels good. I have my to-do list of items, and some days I cross things off and some days I add to it, and some days I do both. Some days, when I go for my walk in the morning, I have an epiphany that makes me sit right down and draft out something; other days, I struggle to put three paragraphs on a page.

In short – I’m writing.

So to answer my friend – No. The book isn’t done yet. But it is getting there. It gets closer every day.

And it feels good, this round of rewrites. Not perfect, not yet; but good.

 

Photo Challenge: Texture

Like most photographers, I’m interested in subject matter – and that subject matter is very rarely texture! It’s hard to capture the feel of something in a one-dimensional format. So finding some photos I thought would work was a bit difficult – hopefully, I’ve managed to convey the texture of the subjects.

leaf 1

Fall leaf curled against the trunk of a tree.

bayberry 7 vg

Ice on – okay, I don’t know what the plant’s called, but it’s common in Kansas!

lion head 1

Native limestone – the lions are gutter spouts, by the way! Our old high school.

thistle 1

And, of course, the juxtaposition of silky-soft and tough and spiky, from the thistle.

 

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