Sunday, January 30, 2011

Making Peace with Uncle Neil

Many years after the death of my uncle, I learned that he had been a grave-robber. Neil Mallon was one of the members of Skull and Bones, from the Yale class of 1917, who broke into Geronimo’s tomb and stole his skull. There’s some question about whether or not that crime really happened, but I’m inclined to believe it did. Who would make up such a story, or forge the letters that document the event?
As any writer might respond, I rubbed my hands together. Aha. More evidence against my Uncle Neil: that at the age of twenty-two he and his gang of over-privileged, Ivy-League rascals pulled off a racist, elitist, disrespectful, despicable, not to mention illegal act of symbolic violence.
It took little time for the idea to sprout. What a novel! A chance to expose those Yalie aristocrats, those future captains of industry and finance, those future politicians and spies, for the scoundrels they were. (One of whom, by the way, was Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of the future Presidents Bush.)
I began my outline.

I had already written and published several stories about Uncle Neil. Most of them were inspired by anger. They could just as easily have been inspired by love, admiration, and gratitude. Uncle Neil gave me a home to grow up in—a fine home, a country estate. He paid for my first-class education, even though I chose not to go to Yale. When I was a small child, he entertained me with magic tricks, and after I graduated from college he gave me a monthly allowance of three hundred dollars for three years, to get me started in life. That was a lot of dough in those days.
But the sixties were rough on my relationship with him. He was a right-wing Republican, a hawk during the Vietnam War. I was a left-wing Democrat, a war protester. He made infuriating statements about the glory of the industrial revolution; he defended planned obsolescence; he scorned environmentalism; he voted for Nixon, Goldwater, and Nixon; and he was a champion of competition in all walks of life. I was a smarty-pants know-it-all, which was in vogue for folks in their twenties during the 1960s.
As a result, over the years following his death in 1983, my stories featuring this uncle (whom I called Uncle Arthur or Uncle Fergus) portrayed him as a charming but enigmatic tycoon, and a cold and calculating manipulator.

Along comes the Geronimo story, by which time I’m a writer with some credits. So I began the novel, with an agenda. But before long the novel, Geronimo’s Skull, began to write itself. That often happens. I found that I was telling the story of a young man I very much admired; and I admired him more and more as I got to know him. As the novel begins, a nine-year-old boy at the Saint Louis World’s Fair, entranced with energy, electricity, machines, and science, meets the Apache Geronimo and learns lessons that will guarantee his rise to the top. Geronimo offers him a kingdom—for a price.
Yes, and this boy, Fergus Powers, grows up to become a Yale man, a member of Skull and Bones; and yes, he and his comrades do rob the Apache warrior’s grave in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. For that crime, Fergus is haunted by Geronimo’s ghost for the rest of his life, until he makes good on a certain promise.
How did it happen that Uncle Neil, known in the novel Geronimo’s Skull as Fergus Powers, became a man of integrity, even if he also became a tycoon in the oil business, and even if he robbed a grave to do that?
I won’t tell you. You’ll have to read the book.
But I will say I now have made my peace with my Uncle Neil. I whole-heartedly thank him for all he gave to me, some of which may have come indirectly from Geronimo the Terrible. I think of him with love, admiration, and gratitude, and I have presumed to forgive him for having been what I still consider wrong about certain things. I have a feeling Uncle Neil has forgiven me, too.
Why do I think that? Geronimo told me so.
Want to learn more about Geronimo’s Skull? Click:'s_skull.html

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How Did I Become a Writer?

I decided to write my first story when I was five or six years old. I borrowed a pencil and a piece of paper from my mother and asked her what I should write my story about.
“Write about what you know about,” she advised me.
So I did. The story came out something like this: “Johnny and his mother went to the circus. They saw clowns. They had fun. They came home. The end.”
My mother was proud of me. (Of course. That’s what mothers are for.) But when I showed my story to my brother, Neil, who was nine years older than I, he said, “It’s not a real story. A real story needs conflict.”
That put me in a quandary. At the age of six, I had no conflict in my life, so I couldn’t write a real story if I were to write about what I knew about. That put my writing career off for another ten years or so.
Then I started reading the novels of Richard Bissell, and I thought to myself: I can do this. I tried it, and I found I was right: I could do this. By that time I was a teenager, so of course there was conflict in the life I knew so well; it goes with the territory.
I haven’t turned back since. I haven’t supported myself with my writing (not many writers do), but I’ve never stopped writing, and in the meantime I’ve worked in the written word: as a student, a reader, a bookseller, an editor, a ghostwriter, a fiction writer, a publisher, and a teacher of creative writing.
I owe it to my mother, my brother, and mainly to other writers.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Now on Kindle and Nook!

a novel by
John M. Daniel
On the night of June 8, 1918, five officers in the U.S. Army 11th Field Artillery, all of them recent Yale graduates and members in the secret society Skull and Bones, sneaked into the Apache grave-yard at Fort Sill Oklahoma, opened the tomb of Geronimo the Terrible, and stole his skull.

$4.99, Kindle Edition:
$4.99, Nook Book:

Whatever happened to that skull, and whatever happened to the ringleader of that moonless, midnight raid?

This legendary crime and its consequences are central to John M. Daniel’s novel Geronimo’s Skull, which takes place over twenty-five years in the early twentieth century, from the Saint Louis World’s Fair in 1904 to the stock market crash in 1929. It tells the story of Fergus Powers, and his development from a boy of nine, fascinated by energy and machinery, to a young man in his thirties, poised to take charge of a failing company and turn it into the largest manufacturer of oil drilling equipment in the world.

Geronimo’s Skull is romantic and fantastic, full of love and war, friendship and family, magic, danger, and moral quandary. Fergus Powers, the leader of the grave-robbers, is the novel’s guilty hero, hounded for the balance of the book by the Indian warrior’s ghost.
Fergus Powers is a complex man, both modest and charismatic. A skillful, persuasive manipulator of people, he is the captain of the Yale baseball team and the youngest Major in the history of the United States Army. He is a teetotaler, a lover, a dutiful son and responsible brother, a wanderer, a spy, and a man with a consuming goal: to keep a promise he made when was nine years old.
JOHN M. DANIEL is a freelance editor and writer. He has published dozens of stories in literary magazines and is the author of ten books, including two mystery novels, The Poet’s Funeral and Vanity Fire, published by Poisoned Pen Press. He and his wife, Susan, own a small-press publishing company. They live in Humboldt County, California, with their wise cat companion, Warren.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Write of Passage: How to Write an Autobiographical Short Story

Many autobiographical stories concern rites of passage. Rites of passage are changes we all go through. Although we may not experience them in exactly the same way, in any society there are some experiences that are common to most of its members. These happen periodically, throughout our lives. The important thing about these shared experiences, in terms of short fiction, is not that they happen (because by their nature there's nothing unusual about them), but the psychological changes that happens because of them, which are as different as the people they happen to. They are called rites of passage, a term borrowed from anthropology, because they mark a change from one psychological "place" to the next. 

A case can be made that all fiction is autobiographical. Just as we can assume that any adult writing about childhood has experienced childhood in some form, it's a fairly sure bet that anyone writing convincingly about troubled marriage is, or has been, married; and even if the writer's marriage is or was quite happy, the writer knows from experience what hard work marriage can sometimes be. Even writers deliberately writing about things they've never done are drawing on their own experience. A story that takes the reader through a swamp full of hungry crocodiles draws on the writer's knowledge of danger, perhaps learned during his first day in a new school or her first time driving on a metropolitan freeway. 

But for the purpose of this discussion, autobiographical stories draw on real memories of real events. 

There's nobody in the world who doesn't have memories worth writing about. Flannery O'Connor said, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." The difference between writers and the rest of humanity is that writers almost automatically tend to translate their experience into art, usually in retrospect. We artists tend to process our universe, turning chaos into transcendent order. Perhaps that's what keeps us sane; perhaps it's just our way of being nuts. Either way, we must do it. 

And so we write about what we know about. We write about our first family, our parents, and we talk about the havoc reaked by the Oedipal conflict, and we talk about the the generation gap, which opens the first time we discover that our gods are human beings. We write about our siblings--our first friends, our first rivals. Friendships rewarding and sour, and love in all its inevitable forms--romantic, sexual, explosive or enduring. Courtship, marriage, decay and divorce. We write about the second family, the one with our own children, and the generation gap that reopens when we realized we've mistakenly created monsters instead of angels. We write about critical moments large and small: toilet training, summer camp, bar mitsva, first menstruation, the accident that happened the day after getting our first driver's license, discovering sex, annorexia, getting eyeglasses, sacrificing friendship for tin trophies, an abortion, being born again, finding your politics, turning to crime, going to war, passing the bar, the death of a best friend, the death of a child, the loss of a love, the fall from grace, being promoted, the painful change of attitudes, the birth of a grandchild, the death of a marriage, the rebirth of your youth, crippling illness, retirement, the final adventure that lies ahead. 

These are just a few of the moments in life that work as the beginnings of short stories. Anyone who reads this list had gone through at least a few of them, and everyone who reads this list has heard or read stories about all of them. We all have stories to tell, stories from our past, stories that others will easily relate to.

On the other hand, just because we've all had lives does not mean that the memories of our experiences will translate to good fiction if only we write them down. It's not just a matter of having a good memory. The process of writing autobiographical fiction is more complicated, more artistic than mere oral history. Here are some techniques that do the magic of translating narration into dramatization, and some common ingredients of successful autobiographical short stories. 

The autobiographical story should subtly inform the reader when the story took place with respect to the history of the world. Since different eras have different values and expectations that play on the events and their consequences, it's important to know what atmosphere is involved. You can establish time with an actual event, a news flash, or you can establish the era more generally, in terms of customs or social trends. 

It's also important to let your reader know where you were in your life's journey. That can be a simple matter of stating an age or it can be shown by details. The more important change, as we've seen, is not a matter of age or physical development, but the milestone marked by the outcome of the story. This is the milestone that is unique to your character/yourself. By saying how old you were when the events happened, you find a link with your reader (who has been that same age, presumably, or can expect to be); by telling how your experience was your own, you're giving the reader something new. 

Keep in mind three words that begin with S: Selection, Significance, and Style. 

Your personal history will get you nowhere if you're not artfully selective about what you include. Don't try to tell everything about your life; you'll end up with a story as tiresome to read as it was to write. Instead, decide what the story is really about and use only the details that apply. 

A story, any story, should be significant, and the significance should transcend your personal experience and growth. The significant aspect of a story should challenge the reader to think and to learn something new about the human condition. 

The importance of style almost goes without saying, because if you enjoy writing, you enjoy doing it well. You treasure irony, and you love choosing the right words and placing them in the right order. You know that your story must not reek of overwriting, but you also have confidence that your reader wants to hear the sound of your voice. 

The main difference between oral history and autobiographical fiction, of course, lies in the word "fiction," with all it implies. I just said it's more than having a good memory; now I'll say good fiction requires the ability to forget what really happened from time to time. The most amateurish defense of an unsuccessful scene is "but that's the way it really happened." So what? You have permission to tell lies if doing so makes a better story. You'll still be true to the lessons learned in life. 

Caution: writing autobiographical fiction can be dangerous to your health. If you write about your family, don't show your family the story until it's already in print, and even then you can expect to hear such comments as: "That's not the way it really happened," "Uncle Dwight was not a drunk," "You might have mentioned that my second marriage was much happier," or "You weren't that easy to live with either." They'll think they're looking at snapshots from Thanksgiving, and they're probably the kind of relatives who think any picture taken of them is unflattering. 

Another reason to embrace the lie. 

Don't be gratuitousy unkind, and remember that your stories may also celebrate the joy of your experience and the heros of your past as well as the hard lessons learned. Be sure to let your family see those positive stories as well, but even then, it will be safer if you wait until they're in print. 

But write your stories anyway. Change the details if you need to keep your family happy. Change names. Turn men into women, the women into men, and set the stories in Indianapolis. Throw in a few nice things about your ex-spouse, even if they're not true. The important truth will come through, and if your friends and family can't live with that important truth, tough. 

From whom do they think you learned that truth anyway?

Now on Kindle!

a novel by
John M. Daniel
It’s a magic summer for eight-year-old Davy Llewellyn. He battles a dragon. He rides through a savannah on an elephant. He leaps from the roof and flies to the moon.
Unfortunately, he must come back to earth, where the magic is dark and there’s a skull in the attic.

$4.99, Kindle Edition

What is Davy to make of his mother, who turns into “The Evening Rose” at cocktail hour; or his Uncle Fergus, a wizard who does Elephant Magic; or his Uncle Mike, whose life is a shambles? Luckily Davy has an ally, his cousin Lily. And luckily, they both can fly.
Set in the summer of 1950, Elephant Lake takes place at an elegant country estate eighty miles southest of Dallas, Texas. The story is told from the point of view of Davy Llewellyn, an eight-year-old boy who is trying to figure out the adults in his life: his mother, Rose, an alcoholic and depressed widow; his Uncle Fergus, an oil tycoon and Republican power broker who does magic for children; and his Uncle Mike, a has-been athlete and Hollywood playboy. Davy’s ally is his cousin, Lily, a self-conscious adolescent with enough sense to know her elders are fools. Davy’s escape is an eerie imagination that gives him the power of flight and leads him into encounters with a crimson dragon, a human skull, and an elephant named Boola Boola.

Much happens in the summer of 1950 at Elephant Lake. A boy jumps off a roof. A field catches fire and is saved by an elephant. A bulldog battles a dragon to the death. Geronimo’s skull is discovered in a dusty attic. A girl falls off a roof. A future president of the United States smashes the windows of an abandoned farmhouse. A drunk man dives from a roof. A boy and a girl hop onto a flying horse and fly into the stars.

Elephant Lake is a novel about alcohol, depression, and death, but it is even more about love, adventure, fantasy, and flight.
JOHN M. DANIEL is a freelance editor and writer. He has published dozens of stories in literary magazines and is the author of ten books, including two mystery novels, The Poet’s Funeral and Vanity Fire, published by Poisoned Pen Press. He and his wife, Susan, own a small-press publishing company. They live in Humboldt County, California, with their wise cat companion, Warren.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New year's Resolution

Well, I’ve caved in to the march of time. For years now I’ve been railing against electronic books and electronic reading devices, such as Amazon’s Kindle and all its imitators. As publishers, Susan and I have been forced (or at least forcibly persuaded) to make some of our titles—the Perseverance Press mysteries, mainly—available as ebooks for our distributor to sell to Kindle and the others. The conversion process costs us more money than we were making on the sales, but we still had to do it to satisfy our authors and the distributor. Well, ebook sales are picking up dramatically, and now we’re making a few cents instead of losing a few dollars. Now as a writer, I am faced with temptation, and I’m giving in.

My closet shelf has a handful of novels I’ve written over the years, for which I’ve been unable to find publishers. I don’t know why I’ve failed. Well, I do know that some of them weren’t very good to begin with, but there are a few—four in particular—that I’m proud of. I have felt sad that the characters I invented and have come to love have had to sit on a dark shelf.

So, this year's New Year's resolution is to give those stories and those characters a chance to be read. Maybe they won’t be read by many people, but a handful of readers is better than a silent void. So I have already “published” my novel Swimming in the Deep End as a Kindle edition. Early next year, I’ll do the same with Geronimo’s Skull and Elephant Lake. I think I may have found a publisher for my mystery Behind the Redwood Door, but if that’s true the publisher does ebooks as well as print books, so that will be available as an ebook too. (And if that deal doesn’t go through, I’ll publish an ebook edition myself.) I’ll do the same for Hooperman, although that needs another rewrite before I do.

Anyway, in time I’ll have a handful of ebooks available to those few friends I have who own and use Kindle machines (or iPads or iPhones or other electronic reading devices). Then comes the frightful job of marketing the works: telling people. I don’t know if I have the stomach for that, but I guess I must try. One tool for that will be my blog. Another will be a couple of websites that I’ve joined, Publeltariat and Speak Without Interruption, where I can post articles about this and that.

Meanwhile I continue to write mostly autobiographical essays for Black Lamb, and I’m chipping away at another novel. All of this activity keeps me out of trouble and is good for my mood. I’ve given up grander goals than that.

The New Year's resolution, expanded version: to make some of my novels readable by some people, and to try to increase my readership, and to continue taking the greatest joy from the writing process itself.