Complex Villains

My current work in progress, A New Tune, is a nonlinear story about a couple who are struggling to keep the flame of their love burning after a year of marriage. One is a famous rock star, the other a nobody attorney, who thinks himself a failure because he isn’t ambitious enough to make a name for himself.

The real villain of this story is self-doubt and distrust. And a lack of empathy on the part of each man.

That said, I introduce a side character who serves not only as a kind of villain but also as a kind of helper to my attorney character, Ben. I think it’s important to give key side characters (particularly ones you intend to serve more than one purpose) a background so their motivations can be clear to the reader.

The bad guy wants to blow up the building. Okay. Why? So the good guy can stop him. Not good enough. The bad guy wants to blow up the building because the man who murdered his sister is inside it. Too bad innocent people are going to get hurt, but they can’t be all THAT innocent if they work for his sister’s murderer.

In A New Tune, my sort of villain, Maksim Kuznetsov is a somewhat shady character, who isn’t above charging high rents for garbage apartments or roughing up patrons at his club, when they get out of line. He finds himself in something of a moral quandary because a stranger has just saved his life at nearly the cost of his own. Maksim feels obligated to “even the score” by helping his Good Samaritan in some way.

Below is the portion of the novel that introduces Maksim to the readers:

            Benjamin Scieszka was married less than a month when he was nearly killed in an accident on the Interstate 10 freeway. The day had started out badly enough. An unexpected rainstorm had spoilt his freshly pressed business suit and an umbrella too frail to withstand a breeze over five miles an hour. Thinking a caramel macchiato might raise his flagging spirits, Ben made a quick stop at the Starbucks on Ocean Ave.

As he was coming out of the coffee shop, a trio of teenagers, presumably eager to get beverages of their own, bumped into him. Ben’s caramel macchiato hit the pavement. “Hey, watch where you’re going?” he complained, only to have a sneering teen laugh in his face. Unwilling to stand in line a second time, Ben gathered up what remained of his treat, casting it into a nearby waste bin. He wouldn’t be ticketed for littering to top it all off. But his troubles, that day, were only just beginning.

The last thing he remembered clearly was giving the front of his trousers a pat down with a Wendy’s takeaway napkin. The freshly brewed macchiato wasn’t half so good on his crotch. Then, he supposed, he must have climbed into his car—correction, Travis’s car—heading for the nearest ramp onto the freeway for home.

From there, he had to count upon the official police report. He remembered nothing of the accident—or its aftermath. He woke, hours later, in a hospital bed in UCLA Medical Center. He had a splitting headache and a very sore chest, which, he later learned, he owed to a deployed airbag in Travis’s BMW.

A man was sitting in a chair beside Ben’s hospital bed. A man that Ben had never seen before, who looked so visibly relieved at the sight of Ben’s return to the land of the living (scratch that, the land of consciousness) that Ben was sure some mistake had been made in his identity.

The man was something short of forty. Handsome, in an artic way. Icy blue eyes, almost colorless blond hair. Wearing a well-tailored gunmetal-gray suit with a crisp white dress shirt. No tie. No jewelry. Expensive looking leather loafers.

The man quickly pocketed his iPhone, got to his feet, and turned to face Ben. “What’s your name?” he asked. He had a heavy Slavic accent. Russian, Ben guessed.

“Benjamin Scieszka.”

“You were driving someone else’s car?”

“My husband.”

“Your husband is—Travis Wintner?” The Russian’s bushy white eyebrows lifted slightly, as he asked this question, but his impassive face betrayed no emotion.

Ben nodded.

“They thought you might have stolen the car.”

“Who thought that?”

“The police. But car thieves don’t usually wear suits. Even cheap ones.”

Was that an insult—or a mere statement of the facts, as this man saw them? Clearly, he wasn’t the sort to spare feelings. Or to take shit.

“What happened to me?”

“There was an accident on the freeway. A sporting goods delivery truck with an inept driver overturned. The road was slick, with all the rain. So perhaps it wasn’t ENTIRELY his fault. ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Isn’t that right?” The man gave Ben a look, when he said this, that sent a chill down Ben’s badly bruised spine.

“I don’t remember—”

“Head injuries can be murder to the short-term memory. Luckily, I was there. I can tell you what happened. You were going to hit me head-on. You would have, if you hadn’t turned your car into the barrier.”

“I don’t remember—” Ben said again, not quite believing he’d have the nerve to wreck his car purposely into a wall. No. That was a panic reaction. Afraid of crashing head-on into anything, he wrenched the wheel as hard to the side as he could, hoping to have better luck in another direction. That he’d saved someone, doing that, was pure chance.

“Well, rest assured, I’m not likely to forget that.” The man made a sour face. “I take my—debts seriously, Mr. Scieszka. And I pay them. The police said your wallet was missing?”

“My wallet?” Ben gave the man a blank look.

“It wasn’t in your pockets or in the car when the paramedics arrived. Did you drop it?”

“Drop it?” Ben thought of the coffee and the teens who’d rudely jostled him. Oh, don’t tell me I fell for that? This really isn’t my day. “Some teenagers—at the coffee shop—they plowed into me—knocked the coffee out of my hand. Must have lifted my wallet. My credit cards are probably maxed by now.”

“What teenagers?”

Ben shrugged. “I didn’t get a good look at their faces. One of them was wearing a brown leather jacket with black fur on the collar. Kind of ratty. Thought that was weird. It’s like 90 degrees today.” Was it still today? How long had he been in this hospital bed?

The distant ghost of a smile briefly graced the Russian’s face as he contemplated this piece of information.

A nurse came into the room to check on Ben. When he looked up again, the Russian was gone. A police officer came next to question him. Satisfied that Ben had a right to drive the car he’d totaled, the police officer returned his personal effects, sans the wallets the teens had presumably made away with. The face of Ben’s iPhone was cracked, but still serviceable. He was able to call Travis, but he wasn’t sure that was such a good idea. For one thing, Travis was in New York. For another, he was about to go on stage at Madison Square Garden.

In the scale of things, twenty thousand fans who’d paid their hard-earned money to see you surely outweighed the lone man back west who’d had the bad luck to crash your car while you were away. And Ben wasn’t even that badly hurt. A couple bruised ribs, some random contusions, and a rotten headache. Nothing much, when you considered that three people, including the driver of the sporting goods delivery truck, had been killed. Ben ought to count himself lucky.

The Russian man he’d all but forgotten came back into the room shortly after a nurse brought Ben his evening meal. He was being kept overnight—for observation. He couldn’t wait to get the hospital bill for this one!

The Russian was carrying a cup with a Starbucks label. He set this down on the tray table beside what had been identified on the menu as “Salisbury steak” but looked more like a poorly formed hamburger someone had burned.

“What’s this?”

“A caramel macchiato,” the Russian answered crisply. He rummaged in his pocket, pulled out a wallet, somewhat the worse for wear, tossing it down next to the cup.

“You found my wallet?”

“I RECOVERED it,” the Russian said carefully. “The cards were not used. All the same, I’d cancel them. Pickpockets don’t usually waste their time with plastic. Cold hard cash is what they like. You can spend that anywhere—without leaving incriminating evidence on surveillance cameras. Check to see everything is there.”

Everything was there—except the cash.

“How much did they take?”

“I don’t know.”

“Estimate,” the Russian said frostily, annoyed with Ben’s vague answer.

“I took $200 out of an ATM a couple days ago. The only thing I remember buying was that coffee.”

“So about $195.”

Ben nodded.

The Russian retrieved his own wallet, counted out ten crisp $20 bills and set them down on the top of Ben’s wallet.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“You must have hit your head hard,” the Russian said, his blue eyes steely. “Or you aren’t paying attention. I said I owed you a debt. And I’m going to pay it.”

“You don’t owe me anything. It was just dumb luck, me avoiding you. I was thinking of myself, of getting out of the way.”

The Russian laughed hollowly. “Do you think that changes anything? The fact is, I’d be dead, if you hadn’t crashed into that cement wall. Fortunately for me, you survived your hare-brained attempt at saving yourself.”

“Fortunately,” Ben said, with a grimace.

“Unfortunately,” the Russian said, with a sigh, “getting your wallet back from those pickpockets isn’t enough to settle things between us.”

“Believe me. I’m grateful. My dad gave me this wallet. Really. This is enough.”

“It is not ENOUGH,” the Russian said flatly, his eyes flashing. Spying Ben’s iPhone on the bedside table, he asked, “is that your phone?”

Ben nodded.

The Russian picked up the phone. Realizing that it was locked, he handed it to Ben to enter the passcode. Ben did so, without questioning the man. The man sent a text to the phone in his own pocket.

 “What did you do that for?”

“So you can reach me, when you need me,” he answered.

“Reach you when I need you? I don’t even know who you are.”

“My name is Maksim Kuznetsov.”

“Kuznetsov,” Ben repeated. He’d heard that name before. “You aren’t the guy who owns Golgotha Red?” Golgotha Red was a night club in downtown Santa Monica, which Hollywood stars and other famous people frequented. It was very exclusive, very pricey.

“I am the guy,” the Russian answered.

Ben had heard other things about Maksim Kuznetsov, not so praiseworthy. For one thing, his staff got rough with the patrons of his club, when they got out of line. The police were called in, frequently, at the behest of some angry celebrity, who wanted to pay the Russian back for the bruises he’d gotten, but Mr. Kuznetsov always managed, somehow, to avoid arrest. He owned other businesses in Santa Monica besides the club. A couple restaurants. A strip mall, somewhat frayed around the edges. A half dozen rental properties, in various states of disrepair. Someone less charitable might have called him a slumlord.

A slumlord who wasn’t afraid to use a ball bat to collect his rent, when asking didn’t work. After all, you had to be something of a “tough” guy, if you were going to make it in city like Santa Monica, where the average home cost $1.6 million and the chance of getting robbed going from it to your car on any given morning was one in sixteen.

To make it in a place like this, you had to speak softly—and carry a big fucking stick.

“Travis used to come to my club with that brainless pretty boy.”

“Cedric DeWolf-Hopper,” Ben supplied.

“Well, there’s no accounting for taste,” the Russian remarked, heading for the door. “I’ll call you in a few days, see how you’re feeling. Give my love to Travis.”

From this brief flashback, the reader gets a firm grasp of Maksim’s motivation. He feels he owes Ben a debt for saving his life and he’s going to pay it in his own (possibly inimical) way.

I offer, in example, the recovery of Ben’s wallet. Doing that, I establish a couple important facts: (1) Maksim knows enough about the local criminals to find the thieves in short order, and (2) he has a certain amount of power over the thieves, either to recover stolen property merely by asking for it or by the use of some (possibly physically violent) force.

Maksim is, however, not satisfied that the recovery of Ben’s wallet is sufficient recompense. He is anxious to satisfy his perceived creditor as rapidly as possible. He establishes a means of contact between them so he can keep tabs on Ben.

Clearly, Maksim has a code of ethics (he pays his debts) but he probably (definitely) has  a different understanding of what constitutes right and wrong. Ben may have found a friend—or someone that is going to wreck his life in ways he isn’t capable at that point of comprehending.

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Pros and Cons of Frame Stories

Frame stories have been, and still are, the rage. 2008’s Iron Man is a perfect example of a frame story. Tony Stark is demonstrating a new missile his company has developed. On the way back from the demonstration site, he and the soldiers escorting him are attacked. Tony is hit by shrapnel from one of his own weapons. The scene fades out with Tony on the ground, blood rising on the surface of his shirt from tiny multiple wounds. Then we cut to a scene two dozen hours earlier, where Tony is gambling in a casino while his business partner, Obadiah Stane is accepting an award for him. We then work our way back to Tony’s accident.  This works. Sure. But might there have been a better way of getting Tony into that Humvee? Was it really necessary to go back to the casino?

This is the chicken or the egg question.

In this particular story, the chicken came first. We were taught to care about Tony before we were given a chance to know him. While that worked, it also required a certain amount of patience on the watchers’ part. They were forced to endure X minutes of intro to what had just happened in exchange for a little backstory on the hero. Spoiler alert: he was a selfish creep before that Humvee accident. Things are about to change—perhaps a little too predictably, but never mind that. Robert Downey Jr. will redeem this story from becoming A Christmas Carol réchauffé, where Scrooge realizes the error of his ways after Tiny Tim takes a couple bullets in an effort (fortunately not wasted) to buy him some more time to suit up.

But wasn’t there some way of doing this without having to reset the movie’s clock? Could they have shown Tony as the self-centered womanizer he was without have to go back two days to prove it to watchers?

I think the movie would have been just as good (if not better) if they had started it at the point where Tony demonstrates his missile. It’s pretty clear at that point what he thinks about the work he does. He just wants to sell his product. He doesn’t care who it hurts. Just sign a check and he’ll be on his way. When he gets hit by shrapnel from his own bomb, it’s the ultimate irony—and the best medicine for what ails him. You are the victim of your own weaponry. Hoist by your own petard. Literally.

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How Should I Start My Novel?

How should I start my novel?

With dialogue:

“She jumped out the window. For no reason.” “Come on, Carl. There must have been a reason.” “I tell you. There wasn’t. Her old man was loaded—and he gave her anything she wanted. Just last week, he…”

With action:

Mary Jones opened her attic window, one bright sunny morning, and stepped out. No one knew why. At least not at first.

With description:

The picture window in the mansard roof faced an English garden, replete with every variety of rose in the Jackson & Perkins catalog. Every morning, Mary would come up to the attic to see her flowers, which she prized above everything, even and especially her husband.

With information:

Mary Jones had married Jeffrey just three short months after her previous fiancé left her standing at a rose-covered altar in St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

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Cliffhanger Endings

Lately, there have been a spate of novel series with cliffhanger endings. The writer employs a cheesy radio gimmick, where just as the hero is about to be executed by the villain, the program abruptly ends with, “if you want to find out just what happens next, tune in tomorrow.” While no one likes a cliffhanger ending, the radio audience was probably a little more tolerant of such show-nanigans. After all, they only had to wait a day and it wasn’t costing them anything but their patience. But your readers have to wait longer than a day to get a resolution to the dilemma you’ve left them with. Even a quickly churned out book would take a month—and it wouldn’t be terribly good at that, so half-baked. Worse, you’re asking your readers to shell out another X in hard-earned cash just to see if Dick escapes Harry’s clutches, something you should have resolved before writing “The End.”

So how to do you keep a reader’s interest without resorting to this sort of shabby trick?

By providing your reader with some resolution of the problem you’ve presented in your piece. In the above example, Dick may escape Harry’s clutches, but fail to neutralize Harry. Or he may neutralize Harry, only to learn that he isn’t the mastermind of the evil plan. The next book could follow him in his attempt to capture the true villain. Warning: that trick only works once. You shouldn’t have a whole series of books where Dick pursues and subdues a laundry list of sub-villains posing as the big boss. After the second falsie, readers are going to begin losing their patience with you, the writer.

My Dark Brethren Series is split into four parts. While the overarching goal is a HEA for my heroes (it’s a gay romance), each book has a specific goal.

In the first book, Owen Adler is determined to save his husband from falling into the hands of their shared enemy, his elder brother, Kurt. The means he uses to accomplish that goal are quite satisfying, though the couple are not reunited at the end of the book.

In the second book, Owen Adler endeavors to win his freedom from his evil master so he can return to his husband. When he discovers he can’t do that by playing by the “bad guy’s” rules, he abandons all he’s gained, though it might mean death, in the hope of succeeding by his own methods.

In the third book, a confused Jacek (Owen’s husband) is transported to the place where Owen is presumably being held captive. He ultimately frees Owen, but afterward loses him, when Owen presumably perishes.

In the fourth and last book, a grief-stricken Jacek sets off alone, leaving only his husband’s ashes behind. But things are not quite what they seem. An old enemy has followed Jacek, one determined to keep him from Owen forever.

As you can see above, each book has its own goal, so even though I don’t completely resolve the couple’s difficulties, they do gain (or lose) something at the end of each book.

In the first book, Owen gains Jacek’s safety at the cost of his own freedom.

In the second book, Owen plays a dangerous game of impersonation to gain his freedom—and fails.

In the third book, Jacek attempts to free Owen from the master who holds him hostage. While he succeeds in freeing Owen, Owen is so badly wounded, he dies (at least, it seems so).

In the fourth book, Jacek and a resurrected Owen must combat a number of enemies, including, at times, each other. Ultimately, they find happiness together.

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The Hero as Celebrity

Another chapter to Thomas Carlyle’s book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History (1841) could be added today called The Hero as Celebrity. 

In fairly recent years, celebrities have risen to positions of power that their predecessors could only have played as characters of fictional productions. Donald Trump is the too obvious example of this. Once a reality television star, he is now president of the United States, for good or ill, you be the judge. He isn’t the only former star to rise in the political arena. Bodybuilder turned actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California. Actor Clint Eastwood was mayor of Carmel, California. Wrestler Jesse Ventura was governor of Minnesota. Child Actress Shirley Temple (Black) was U.S. ambassador of Ghana (1974) and Czechoslovakia (1989). And, of course,  The Gipper served as the U.S.’s fortieth president.

While stars may rise, they can just as quickly fall. Think Bill Cosby, who has been accused and convicted of multiple charges of past sexual misconduct. Think also, Kevin Hart, whose “homophobic” tweets, more than ten years old, were recently retailed online to prove him an unfit host for an Academy awards ceremony. Rather than issue a formal apology for his past “misconduct,” Hart simply withdrew himself from serving as the host. He also wisely deleted any old posts that might be used as “future” evidence of misconduct.  

However you might feel on this subject, let’s all agree that none of us has lived a spotless life. We have all made mistakes. Worse, mistakes we didn’t even consider mistakes at the time we made them. Cosby’s past behavior is indefensible, without question, but Hart’s remarks, however inappropriate, may have been more a reflection of the time than of his character. Even if they represented his personal feelings, the question is, would that have interfered with him doing his job as host of an awards show? If he had caved and issued the apology he felt he owed no one, would that have been enough to redeem him in the eyes of the public?

Let’s turn the spotlight briefly to his accuser(s), who used social-media mistakes some ten years old to turn to the public against him. Why bring this up now? What did they hope to gain by it? Protecting the rights of every citizen of the United States is a laudable goal, but shielding those same citizens from the faulty opinions of their fellows is overreaching. Particularly, if the accusers have the perceived “right” to dig up any publicly recorded statement or act you’ve committed since birth that fails to meet the ever changing standard of what is publicly acceptable. There was a time, sadly, when a same-sex couple could be arrested, if their relationship was exposed. Now, it’s a crime to say something against that same same-sex couple, even if you made that silly comment off-the-cuff twenty years ago.

Where do we draw the line? What is going too far?

We can turn to Thomas Carlyle for that simple, not so simple, answer:

“…we are to remember what an umpire Nature is; what a greatness, composure of depth and tolerance there is in her. You take wheat to cast into the Earth’s bosom; your wheat may be mixed with chaff, chopped straw, barn-sweepings, dust and all imaginable rubbish; no matter: you cast it into the kind just Earth; she grows the wheat,—the whole rubbish she silently absorbs, shrouds it in, says nothing of the rubbish. The yellow wheat is growing there; the good Earth is silent about all the rest,—has silently turned all the rest to some benefit too, and makes no complaint about it! So everywhere in Nature! She is true and not a lie; and yet so great, and just, and motherly in her truth. She requires of a thing only that it be genuine of heart; she will protect it if so; will not, if not so. There is a soul of truth in all the things she ever gave harbor to. Alas, is not this the history of all highest Truth that comes or ever came into the world? The body of them all is imperfection, an element of light in darkness: to us they have to come embodied in mere Logic, in some merely scientific Theorem of the Universe; which cannot be complete; which cannot but be found, one day, incomplete, erroneous, and so die and disappear. The body of all Truth dies; and yet in all, I say, there is a soul which never dies; which in new and ever-nobler embodiment lives immortal as man himself! It is the way with Nature. The genuine essence of Truth never dies. That it be genuine, a voice from the great Deep of Nature, there is the point at Nature’s judgment-seat. What we call pure or impure, is not with her the final question. Not how much chaff is in you; but whether you have any wheat. Pure? I might say to many a man: Yes, you are pure; pure enough; but you are chaff,—insincere hypothesis, hearsay, formality; you never were in contact with the great heart of the Universe at all; you are properly neither pure nor impure; you are nothing, Nature has no business with you.”

We all make social faux pas, say dunderheaded things we don’t mean, and dunderheaded things we do. The question is, is there any WHEAT (GOOD) in us, despite that?

Are we going to allow ourselves to live in a society where Thought Policy comb through our social media posts, past and present, and punish us, as they see fit? Or are we going to use common sense to make our judgments on what is acceptable or unacceptable?

In the case of Kevin Hart, as long as it was made clear to him that any offensive comments would not be tolerated on the broadcast, and he adhered to that policy, I think it’s fair to say we could overlook his past mistakes, whether he regretted them or not. After all, no one’s perfect.

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A Kiss and a Yawn

The bane of romances, especially ones in the contemporary category, is keeping your protagonist and his or her love interest from their HEA in the first chapter. After all, if these two were meant to be together, why aren’t they already? Sometimes, an old boyfriend/girlfriend is standing in the way. Sometimes, a misunderstanding. Sometimes, circumstances beyond their control. They didn’t exchange phone numbers after that one hot night, and until they find one another, baby doesn’t have a daddy.

What keeps them apart isn’t as important as HOW it keeps them apart. A recent review I read dealt with a too good to be true romance that had everything to recommend it but fire. The couple (in this instance, two women) were so perfectly suited to each other that they instantly hit it off, going from strength to strength. Unfortunately, this didn’t make for a very exciting or satisfying story. When the writer reached the point where she had to close this tale of two ladies in love, she had to come up with something over the top to threaten it. How can you have a convincing black moment when there’s been nothing but sunshine from page one? The writer was forced to execute a soap-opera-ish denouement that disappointed several of her readers. Clearly, she hadn’t paced the angst properly. The ending was, as a result, too obviously contrived.

Starting conditions are everything. Determine from the get-go what is going to stand in the way of a happy ending and capitalize on that.

If I may use my own first novel as an illustration. A history gay romance, the main characters are a Polish partisan named Jacek Tarasek and an Englishman named Owen Linet, who is visiting Warsaw with his architect father. Jacek has been tasked by the leader of his group to get information on Owen, who is supposed to be the son of a German general. Though his reasons for coming to Poland seem innocent, Owen could be a German spy. Jacek attempts to discover the truth are complicated by his growing feelings for Owen. If Jacek learns that Owen is a spy, will he be able to expose him—possibly kill him—to protect his country from the enemy? To complicate matters still further, Owen uses what is in essence “black magic” to stop Jacek from doing something they’ll both regret. If Owen was a threat before, as an evil mortal man, how much more so, if he proves to be an evil IMMORTAL one?

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Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 3

In the radio program, “When the Curtain Falls,” starring Ginger Rogers, a wallflower that men avoid, if they can, determines that the very first man who’ll kiss her will be a famous movie star. With the help of some friends, she manages to get an interview alone with the star, who curtly refuses to “train” her as an actress. When she bursts into tears, he reluctantly arranges training for her with his understudy. A crisis during a production of Romeo and Juliet launches Ginger’s acting career, when she proves herself on stage. The actor who had foisted her on his understudy assures her, backstage, that he knew all along that she had talent and wants to take charge of her acting lessons personally from now on. The understudy, having taken a new job elsewhere, bids Ginger goodbye, before setting off for his train. She chases after him. When he confesses that he loves her, she is overjoyed. He is surprised that she would prefer him over the famous actor, whom was, as you remember, her original love interest. She has, by then, gained the wisdom of experience. The man who helped her when she was NOBODY is the only one she can truly trust with her heart.

Structurally, this is a great arc for a romance story. Heroine falls for Johnny Hero, only to realize that she’d be far happier with his underappreciated sidekick.

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Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 2

Another good radio program is The Mysterious Traveler, a 1940s-1950s fantasy/science fiction/mystery/suspense program, in which a mysterious traveler tells you, the listener, tales he’s picked up on his journey.

The first of the series that I listened to involved a rich man who married a beauty, which is usually the end of a good story, not the beginning. Sadly, the man lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. Afterward, he found out just how much his beauty was worth. Enraged at being forced to live as the wife of a POOR man she didn’t like, Millie begins flirting with every man in the village, much to her husband’s outrage. His attempts to curtail this steady stream of visitors only ends in his humiliation, when the gossips of the town begin telling tales about his cheating wife. As the couple grow more estranged, Millie makes Luke move out of his bedroom to an upper floor of the house, purportedly because he is keeping her awake nights calling her name restlessly in his sleep.

Luke’s mental state at the time the story begins can be summed up succinctly. A broken man with little or no chance of recovering from his financial losses, he wants to lead a fairly simple life with the woman he obtained with his once vast wealth. He is determined to keep her, even if that means physical violence against those who attempt to take her from him.  When Millie and her lover, Steve realize that they will never escape Luke (who will hunt them down, if they run away), they plot together to have Luke arrested for murder. Steve picks up a drifter (an easy thing to do during the Depression), who he lures back to a cabin. There, Steve uses a sledgehammer belonging to Luke to viciously murder the drifter, obliterating his face. To aid the authorities in identifying the drifter, Steve puts his watch on the dead drifter’s wrist. He also chisels a tattoo that is a twin of his own on the dead drifter’s arm.

Luke is caught, tried and sentence to 25 years in prison. After 16 years, he is paroled.  By chance, he moves to a city where his ex-wife (she divorced him one year after he was imprisoned) has taken residence. He follows her home, discovering, by accident, that the man he supposedly killed is still alive. Though Millie and Steve attempt to bribe Luke, he curtly refuses, insisting that Steve come with him to the house of the judge who sentenced him. There, Steve will confess to his wrongdoing, exonerating Luke.

After Luke has told the judge this story, the judge asks him to bring Steve in. Luke does this, carrying Steve on his shoulder. When the judge remarks, “but you told me he was alive,” Luke answers, “he was, until an hour ago. He wouldn’t come, so I made him come. There’s nothing you can do to me. I already served my sentence for killing this guy.”

The story ends with Luke passing away before any decision can be made as to whether he ought to serve a new sentence for the murder he actually committed.

The twist ending makes the whole story, already an interesting one, all that much more poignant. Luke has his revenge. One of the more interesting aspects of this story is that there is no “good guy.” Luke is clearly to blame, at least, in part for his wife and her lover’s scheme, because they would never have resorted to it, if Luke had not made it impossible for them to get away otherwise. Luke had lost everything, it seems, except his willful pride. He BOUGHT this woman. She was his to keep. She had no right to leave him. And he would stop her—if she tried.

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Writing Lessons From Old Radio Programs: Lesson 1

For the bargain price of $29, I got a flash drive containing 10,000 old radio programs from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Except for the Lux Theater productions (which run a solid hour), none of these audios is longer than 30 minutes. A crash course on how to tell a story in thirty minutes—and in a way that’ll keep those listeners in their seats till the very last word. An excellent learning tool for us writers out there. Take an episode of The Great Gildersleeve entitled “Day Off for Peavey.” In the catalog, number 358, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of Richard LeGrand’s acting career. LeGrand played Peavey, who was the proprietor of the only drugstore in Summerfield, where Gildersleeve and his family lived.

Episode 358 borrows its formula (rather heavily) from a Norwegian fairytale called “The Husband Who Was to Mind the House,” by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. If you are unfamiliar with that tale, it relates the adventures of a husband who thought he could mind the house far better than his wife, with whom he so often found fault. The following morning, the wife goes off to perform the husband’s farming chores, while the husband stays behind to see to things domestically. Of course, all manner of disasters occur in the home, ending with the husband getting stuck in the chimney. His wife rescues him. Though the authors give no indication that the husband has learned, by experience, not to treat his wife so harshly, we at least get the satisfaction of seeing him proved wrong.

The same principal idea is in operation in Episode 358 of The Great Gildersleeve. Peavey’s drugstore is celebrating its 30th anniversary of operation. Thinking Peavey deserves a day off, Throckmorton Gildersleeve assumes management of the drugstore. After he has said some rather uncomplimentary things about Peavey to his nephew, Leroy, Gildersleeve brags that if he were in charge of the drugstore, he would have made far more of it than Peavey has. To prove it, he sets himself the task of outselling Peavey, whose lack of ambition, so Gildersleeve claims, has deprived him of the power of becoming a successful business man.

The first thing Gildersleeve does, upon taken temporary custody of the drugstore, is bully his nephew-in-law, Bronco into buying a lot of merchandise he doesn’t need. Later in the day, Bronco returns all the things he doesn’t need to the store, embarrassing Gildersleeve while he’s bragging to his friends, the judge and the barber about how good a salesman he is. When he attempts to enlist his friends as touts, they both suddenly have work of their own to do that they are shamefully neglecting. A hurt Gildersleeve takes some comfort, but not much, from Leroy, who stops in to see how things are going at the drugstore. Just when Gildersleeve is ready to throw in the thermometer, a crowd of people, having heard about the anniversary from a “man on the street,” come in the drugstore. Soon, Gildersleeve has more business than he can handle. He has to call his housekeeper to help him. The end-of-the-day receipts are more than twice what Peavey usually rakes in.

With what he believes is warranted pride, Gildersleeve shows off his earnings to Peavey. He is somewhat taken aback when he learns that the “man on the street” wasn’t one of his friends, who were too busy with their own affairs to help him, but Peavey himself who used his “free” day to drum up business for his store. Gildersleeve realizes, somewhat belatedly, that Peavey was a far more competent businessman than he gave him credit.

This story, boiled down to its most basic essence, is—armchair generals never win any REAL battles.  We might add that it is also easier to give advice to others than to follow it yourself.

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The Tenth Victim

If you like The Hunger Games or any similar death-game stories, you’ll love The Tenth Victim, a 1965 Italian film that ought to be a cult classic, if it isn’t already one. Marcello’s got a lot of problems with women, a wife he can’t divorce, a mistress he doesn’t want to marry, and a sexy blonde that he may or may not be forced to kill. This movie has all the excitement of The Games with a delicious froth of mod on top. I highly recommend it, even if it is, at times, a little too antiseptic to be believable. Where’s the blood?

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