For this edition of The Writer’s Day, I share this summer’s visit to the Whydah exhibit, featuring artifacts from the only confirmed pirate ship so far recovered.
Last night, the wife and I saw Skyfall. I’ve seen every James Bond movie in a real movie theater since Live and Let Die, so my streak continues. I thought Skyfall was an adequate spy thriller and action film, but not much of a James Bond movie. Perhaps, given how this one ends, the next one will be more of a return to the Bonds that had an element of distinctiveness. You’d never mistake a Bond for a Bourne back in the day, the way you can now.
But we also saw previews for Jack Reacher, Django Unchained, and A Good Day to Die Hard, none of which did their job and convinced me I needed to see them. In fact, both Jack Reacher and Django Unchained reinforced my prior decision not to see them. And that, along with the trailer for the new Star Trek Into Darkness (which might as well be called Star Trek Jumping on the Nolan Bandwagon) hitting the internet, got me thinking seriously about something.
Why are we, as fans and consumers, satisfied with this?
JJ Abrams’ Star Trek was loud, noisy, and funny. It also had plot holes big enough for the Enterprise itself, and reduced one of SFs great heroes (James T. Kirk) to the status of a punk with a chip on his shoulder. I go into more detail here, but it’s the kind of movie that diminishes in retrospect, or with repeated viewings. Now there’s a new one, with a villain Abrams is playing coy about, only letting slip that it’s a “canon” figure. Khan? Gary Mitchell? Harry Mudd? Who knows? And more importantly, why should we care? Those stories have already been told, and told well. Yet here we are, as a demographic, getting excited about this movie when we should be ignoring it until someone comes along with some real, genuine new ideas.
Similarly, Django Unchained, by virtue of being a Quentin Tarantino film, is practically guaranteed to be made up of parts of other movies, most obviously the spaghetti western Django series. More so than any other filmmaker working today, Tarantino has been praised for what is essentially sampling: taking bits and pieces of original creations and recombining them. He has yet to really create anything on his own, and it seems likely that this one will also have knowledgeable film buffs nudging each other and going, “You know where that’s from?”
I understand completely the corporate mentality behind this: they’re known quantities, they’re existing properties, and most of the heavy lifting of creating them has already been done. What I really don’t get is why fans are excited about it. Another Star Trek movie that retreads vast swaths of the existing canon instead of “boldy going,” as its own damn catchphrase says? Bruce Willis, looking really old, in another Die Hard movie?
Then again, maybe I do get it, and just wish I didn’t. We’ve devalued our artists to the point that they can only make a living cranking new versions of old things. As a popular internet meme says, we’re willing to pay more for coffee at Starbuck’s than we are for music and literature. We justify piracy as entitlement. Girl of the moment Lena Dunham gets $3.7 million for this, while many formerly published authors are having to self-publish their own ebooks now.
And it seems we, as the consumers and fans, are satisfied with this.
I don’t have an answer. I wish I did.
Tanna Tully, aka the Firefly Witch, was my first continuing character. I had the term “firefly witch” banging around in my head ever since I first learned that witchcraft was actually religion called Wicca. That would’ve been sometime in the 80s, but it wasn’t until the 90s that I tried to create a character around the idea.
Because she was my first, her creation was a lot more haphazard and, in a sense, crude than some of my later characters. My choices were rather arbitrary: she had red hair because a girl I knew in college had red hair, for example. She was flirtatious because I like girls who are that way, and she had the unselfconscious sexuality I also find attractive. But I also made her a tenured college professor and a third-degree Wiccan priestess, positions you don’t attain without having your act together.
Her name Tanna, or more properly Tanita, came from an obvious late-80s source: musician Tanita Tikaram, whose “Twist in My Sobriety” was then in heavy rotation, and always sounded like a throaty whisper from a strange and unusual place. I probably, although I can’t say for certain, modeled the Tanna/Tanita diminutive after the Indy/Indiana from Raider of the Lost Ark; I say “probably,” because I was heavily into modeling things based on influences back then, as opposed to pulling them organically from the characters or the stories. Her maiden name, Woicistikoviski (woy-CHISS-tick-ko-VISS-ki) is entirely made up, a collection of nonsense syllables pounded into a name. Again, I wouldn’t use that random approach again; the names in my novel The Hum and the Shiver, for example, have definite origins within the material itself (which I’ll explain in future post).
Her husband, Ry, was actually not named after his sense of humor (badda-BING!). Instead he was named after Ry Cooder, a musician whose soundtracks for director Walter Hill are some of my favorites. I wanted him to have a simple surname to contrast with Tanna’s, so it became Tully, which also nice alliteration for her character. And make no mistake, although these stories are mostly told from Ry’s perspective, Tanna is definitely the main character.
And the obviousness continues. They live in a town called Weakleyville, in Martin County located in Tennessee’s northwest corner. I went to college in Martin, in Weakley County, located in the same geographic place. Ry works for the Weakleyville Press newspaper. I worked for the Weakley County Press newspaper. The University of Tennessee at Martin (UTM) is located there; Tanna teaches at West Tennessee University (WesTN).
The one place name I didn’t change was Cadillac’s bar. There is still a Cadillac’s in Martin, as least as of the last time I drove through. Cadillac himself is no longer with us, and I have no idea who owns or runs it now, but it’s vivid in my memory. It was probably the last time that I felt truly at home with a big group of people.
So as these explanations show, at the time I initially thought up the Firefly Witch, I was drawing more on the literal side of my own life than I’ve done since. I don’t know that it’s any better or worse to do it this way, but to me it now feels more shallow than digging in to find what the core concepts of something are, then creating reference points in a world where they apply. That said, I love the Firefly Witch and her world, and I’m enjoying revisiting them as I put these little story collections out.
How does one become an honorary Tufa, you may wonder?
The criteria is really pretty simple. You must have a song that you’ve written quoted (with your permission, of course) in a Tufa story.
So far, there are three honorary Tufas.
The first was Jennifer Goree. You can find out more about Jennifer and her connection to the Tufa here, but it’s safe to say she made a massive contribution, and she’s also been a staunch supporter. You can check out her music here.
Second, in order of appearance, is Andrew Brasfield. When I was thinking about a Tufa-themed story for my holiday collection, Time of the Season, I knew I needed a song that would be central to the plot: something that both captured the atmosphere, as well as becoming a literal presence in the story. I thought about using a traditional hymn, especially since the story features the young minister Craig Chess, but nothing really worked. So I reached out to Dale Short, Alabama author (you really should read his story collection Turbo’s Very Life) and host of Music from Home, and asked if he could recommend a song by a roots/folk/country indie artist that might work.
He recommended Andrew Brasfield, and pointed me toward his song, “Cold Wind.” It not only had the requisite atmosphere, but like The Hum and the Shiver before it, it provided the title. You can read an interview with Andrew and learn about the song and the story here.
And finally, we have Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, whose song “Wrought Iron Fences” is crucial to the story of the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing. I first encountered Kate’s music way back in the early 2000s, when I was first researching what would eventually become the Tufa. I’d begun scouring the internet for examples of current roots/folk music, and came upon Kate’s website, where I won a CD. It was her first one, Lanterns on the Levee, and it’s as good a statement of purpose as any artist can make with a first album. Even the first track, “Mississippi and Me,” stakes out the territory she would explore in her subsequent work. But it was on her second CD, Moonpie Dreams, that I found two of my favorite songs of hers, “When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas” and, of course, “Wrought Iron Fences.”
So that’s the list, so far. Hopefully you’ll check out the music by these great people, who are out there trying to do something meaningful and substantial in a world where popular music seems to consist of auto-tuned clones and divas. Because if you don’t support the cool stuff, you won’t have it for very long.
One of the most common questions I get from fantasy fans is, “Why is your hero named ‘Eddie’?”
Naming characters, especially the main characters of continuing series, is an art far more than a science. For example, one of my favorite characters, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, has a first name, but in the 40 books Parker wrote (and who knows how many his ill-advised successor, Ace Atkins, will ultimately churn out), it’s never revealed. Parker said in an interview that he initially planned to name him David, after one of his sons, but he didn’t want to make his other son jealous, so he just eliminated all references to it, and it became an ongoing trope.
Similarly, the character who became Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe started out in short stories with names like John Dalmas and Steve Grayce (there’s some debate over whether or not these were the same characters, but if you read them after reading Marlowe, it’s pretty clear). Even Artemis Fowl was originally Archimedes Fowl.
So, when it came time to name the hero of my fantasy/mystery series, my original choice was…Devaraux LaCrosse.
Yes, my tough-yet-soft-hearted hero had a name better suited to a soap opera.
This began with the earliest glimmerings of the idea, back when I was a senior in high school, reading hardcore fantasy (what is now called “secondary world fantasy”) and trying to impress Ms. Burress, the new teacher (long story that you can find elsewhere on this blog). One of the rules of fantasy seemed to be that heroes could not have ordinary names like “John,” “Bill,” or “Eddie.” They had to be called “Aragorn,” or “Conan.” And they went only by one name. One of the forgotten revelations of Star Wars was that its characters had two names, a first name and a surname, like (dare I say it) real people.
So, I gave my hero his monicker, and continued to work with that name for…oh, two decades. The story evolved (although not as much as you’d think), but the real change came in the tone. Originally I worked in third person, then changed to movie-script form (because I had dreams of being the next Lawrence Kasdan, back when that was cool). By the time I changed the voice to first-person, my main reading had shifted from SF/F to hard-boiled mystery. Still, it took longer than it should have for me to realize that a genre mashup was the way to go, and even longer to comprehend that my hero, and all the other characters for that matter, should have normal names.
And why did “Devaraux” become “Eddie,” and not “Dave” or Bob”?
The main inspiration was P.F. Kluge’s novel Eddie and the Cruisers, one of the few “musical noirs” out there. In the book, Eddie is a memory to the characters, a ghost both figurative and (maybe) literal, and thus incredibly mysterious. The clincher was George V. Higgins’ novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, about a small-time crook trying to hang onto his sense of honor. There’s a great movie version with Robert Mitchum, but I didn’t see it until much later. Still, it led to a useful guideline: if your hero has a name that in any way connects to Robert Mitchum, it’s probably a good name.
So when “Devaraux” became “Eddie,” a whole naming philosophy fell into place, one that I still try to use even when the influences come from somewhere else. For example, in the Arthurian-inspired Dark Jenny, the classic character Sir Kay, adopted brother to Arthur, becomes Bob Kay, adopted brother to Marcus Drake. If someone has an unusual name, such as Queen Rhiannon from The Sword-Edged Blonde, it’s indicative of character (she’s unusual, all right) rather than an attempt to sound appropriately “period.”
Is this anachronistic? Technically no, since this is a made-up world and I can do anything I want with it, as long as it’s logical and consistent. Is it appropriate? Some readers have said no, but the majority seem to not only accept it, but actively like it.
So that’s the story behind the names of my characters in the Eddie LaCrosse series. Have any other questions specific to my books? Leave them in the comments and I’ll try to address them in a future blog.
Addendum: on the same day I posted this, Tor Books (my publisher) posted a blog by an editor working from the exact opposite angle on fantasy character names. It provides an interesting contrast. You can read it here.
It’s no secret that music is a big part of many of my novels, from inspiring the titles to influencing the plots to being part of the story itself. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Recently my friends at Facebook’s Heroic Fiction League, Nathan Long and John R. Fultz, posted “playlists” of YouTube videos, songs that either their heroes would like, or that captured the mood of their books.
My playlist is a little different. This is the music I wish would play when a reader first opens some of my books.
For my most recent novel, the Eddie LaCrosse pirate tale Wake of the Bloody Angel, I’d love it if readers were blasted with this upon cracking the covers:
For another Eddie LaCrosse tale, Burn Me Deadly, if you consider chapter one as a “teaser,” this would the perfect music to play between chapters one and two:
For Blood Groove, my tale of an Old World vampire unleashed in the Seventies, I’d begin with this under chapter one:
Then, at the moment you finished chapter one:
And finally, the theme for my Firefly Witch e-book chapbooks, the tune the main characters Ry and Tanna would call “their song” and that, in a perfect world, would play whenever you called it up on your e-reader of choice:
(I know, it’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section version and not the original Classics IV, but technically this is the first version I ever heard, and about half the Atlanta Rhythm Section was made up of former members of the Classics IV, so it’s not as heretical as it might seem.)
Any suggestions for some of my other books?