My Crumby Blog

Welcome to my final blog post here at Fittingly, I find that I don't have much to say as I depart the wonderful world of blogging. Partially that's because I already ran through all the whats, whys and wherefores over on the SleuthSayer website, where I used to be (until last week) a regular contributor. The gist of that post: I've been blogging for 13 years, and 13 years is plenty for me. More than plenty. Too much, even. So it's time to stop.

Oh, wait! I just remembered! I do have something to say today.

The White Magic Five and Dime ebook cover 240 pixThe White Magic Five and Dime, the tarot-themed mystery I wrote with my buddy Lisa Falco, is once again available as an ebook. It has a spiffy new cover and everything. So, you it, if you're so inclined.

If you haven't figured it out already, "Buy it, if you're so inclined" was the general message of all my blog posts, even when I was writing about the weird-ass art I found in a rental home or feeling bad for people who make lame movies. All these blog posts over the years -- they've been bread crumbs in the forest. A trail meant to lead you to a BUY button. Cuz...that's what professional writers do? I guess...? It made some kind of sense when I started. Not so much now.

Blogging is best left to folks with a burning desire to share their thoughts, dreams and dog treat recipes. I have thoughts and dreams, but I'm not convinced anyone other than my wife wants to hear them. As for dog treat recipes -- well, don't tell my veterinarian, but isn't that what leftovers are for?

Let's just say, hypothetically, that you do want to hear my hopes and dreams. Or even that you want to hear "Buy my new book, if you're so inclined." No prob! You'll be able to hear it here. I'll still post updates on a News page when there's something to say. And I'll still be sending out my newsletter and posting random nonsense on Facebook and Twitter, too. So, you know...I'll be around.

This website's about to change, though. Sometime in the next few weeks the current incarnation will disappear in a puff of cyber-smoke, and a new website will take its place. A website without a blog. So peruse the ol' blog vault while you can -- and thanks for following the crumbs.

The Human Adventure does not involve blogging

Man of the West

I love a good ska song. Unfortunately, good ska can be a bit like a good man or a cop when you need one: hard to find. Sturgeon's Law -- which tells us that 90% of everything is crap -- doesn't go far enough for ska. Here's Hockensmith's Amendment to Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap except for ska (which is 99% crap), reality TV (which is 100% crap) and the Star Wars prequels (which are crap to infinity). 

Pick it up pick it upSka, for those of you who didn't grow up listening to not-particulary-popular New Wave/alternative sub-genres of the late '70s and mid-'90s, is the peppy Jamaican precursor to reggae that was appropriated by white kids who weren't angry enough to be punks. It's a deceptively simple style -- it creates a bouncy dance rhythm by emphasizing every upbeat -- which probably explains its appeal to teenagers forming their first garage band. Learn a couple chords and you're halfway to writing your first ska song. The other half: whipping up lyrics that remind the listener that he or she is hearing ska and hence should be "skanking." ("Feel that beat/move your feet/take a chance/get up and dance," etc.)

Clever songwriters -- Chris Murray, Dan Potthast, Tim Armstrong and the guys in Madness and Johnny Socko come to mind -- are able to pull off the neat trick pretentious critics sometimes ascribe to genre authors they wish to pat on the head. They "transcend the genre." Most ska bands can't, alas. They give you the un-cha-un-cha beat and maybe some horns and a lot of "take a chance/get up and dance" lyrics, and that's it. They lack the talent and creativity to offer more...or even just pull off the straight-up-the-middle approach well.

I love a good Western, too, but the genre's got a ska problem. Which isn't to say there are too many Westerns about skanking cowpokes. (As a matter of fact, I can point to at least one album that proves ska and Westerns are two great tastes that taste great together.) Rightly or wrongly, ska is easy for snobs to dismiss because so much of it follows a simple formula, and Westerns are the same way. Good guy + bad guy + horses + hats = Western, some assume.

ShakyOf course, there's nothing wrong with a formula -- just like there's nothing wrong with a ska beat -- if it's used with skill. I can think of a hundred books and movies that follow the "good guy + bad guy + hats + horses" equation and add up to great entertainment. Unfortunately, one could point to a million that are completely forgettable. I'm not sure if the percentage of good to shaky (or downright crappy) is as low as it is for ska, but Sturgeon's Law most definitely applies.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I'm going to write next, and a Western...I'm tempted, despite all the misfires. Westerns can be a ton of fun, done right. The "Holmes on the Range" books are obviously Westerns of a sort, though I've always thought of them as historical mysteries first and foremost. What would it be like to double-down on the horses and hats? 

So I've been reading and watching a lot of Westerns, and I've noticed something. My tastes have shifted since I wrote about the genre a few years ago. Two of the Western films I put on my top 10 list back then -- The Searchers and Rio Bravo -- wouldn't even make my top 20 now. And a couple that were M.I.A. before -- The Big Country and Shane -- are now near the top.

Put up your DukeHave I soured on John Wayne? Nope, despite the recent kerfuffle about his less-than-enlightened views on race, sexuality and politics. I simply decided that I don't dig Rio Bravo as much as I used to, and the elements in The Searchers that I always found problematic bother me a bit more now. I'd never have asked the guy to fill out a ballot for me, but I can still enjoy the heck out of a John Wayne popcorn adventure like The War Wagon or The Train Robbers

The Big Country and Shane, meanwhile, grew on me thanks to their more nuanced, thoughtful approach to violence. I'm an old-ish man in a sad old world, so I have a new appreciation for a Western that can be both old school entertaining and grown-up about killing. It makes me want to give High Noon another try. I used to think it was dull. Maybe it's just adult.

Am I going to write a Western of my own? A Western-Western, I mean, without all the "deducifying" stuff in my mysteries? I don't know. If I do, I hope it's got more going for it than "feel that beat/move your feet." In the meantime, I'm going to keep exploring -- and enjoying -- the genre. Finding a great Western, like finding a great ska song, might seem like a long shot sometimes, but it's one I'm willing to keep taking for the sheer joy of the occasional bull's-eye.

My Fave Western Movies, 2019 Revised Edition

(1) Little Big Man
(2) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
(3) The Big Country
(4) For a Few Dollars More
(5) Dances with Wolves
(6) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
(7) Shane
(8) Unforgiven 
(9) A Fistful of Dollars
(10) True Grit (2010)
(11) Stagecoach
(12) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
(13) The Tall T
(14) Man of the West
(15) The Wild Bunch
(16) Fin de siecle John Wayne (True Grit, The Cowboys, The Shootist)
(17) The Naked Spur
(18) Ride Lonesome
(19) Red River 
(20) Meat-and-potatoes late period John Wayne (The Sons of Katie Elder, Big Jake, The Train Robbers)

Honorable mention: Winchester '73, The Man from Laramie, Firecreek, The GunfighterHombre, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Fort Apache, Day of the Outlaw, Death Rides a Horse, Last Train from Gun Hill, Hour of the Gun, Support Your Local Sheriff, Warlock, The Great Silence, The Professionals, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Ox-Bow Incident

More Talk, Less Hock, Audiobook Edition: John McLain

John 2aOnce in a blue moon — or really it's so infrequent it's more like a plaid one — I like to swing the spotlight away from myself here and do a Q&A. This seemed like a good time for it because I already had some Q's lined up for my partner in an exciting new venture: John McLain, narrator of the just-released Double-A Western Detective Agency audiobook. (The audiobook can be found here on Amazon, BTW. You can also listen to it via Audible. Click here if you want to give Audible a try but haven't signed up for it yet.)

John did a great job bringing Big Red and Old Red to life. (If you don't believe me, scroll down to the end of this post to hear a preview.) How'd he get into the narrating game? And what's his secret for reading 75,000-ish words out loud in, like, 30 different voices without losing his danged mind? Read on for the A's.... 

Me: How did you get started as an audiobook narrator? 

John: Well, I spent most of my early career in radio broadcasting as a personality and producer, back in the day when it was really personality-driven. It was a wonderful creative endeavor, and it always felt very, very natural to me. But after 15 years or so, radio started becoming more scripted — more plastic if you will — and it just wasn’t very satisfying anymore. So I began seeking something new. It was then that I discovered the musical theatre. I was in love, but I needed to find a way to make a living. So I began to study voice acting, thinking that I would land in the commercial voiceover world — but then a chance meeting with the legendary Patrick Fraley led to my discovery of audiobooks. Here at last was a medium where I could use my production skills, as well as my newfound love of acting. It’s like doing a play, only I get to play every role! So I studied with Pat, took my fresh demo to New York, and the rest is history. Two-hundred titles later, I probably love it even more now than I did when I first began.

Me: You've narrated all kinds of books. Looking over your audiobook credits I see mysteries, thrillers, horror and non-fiction. And a lot of Westerns! Was that a genre you wanted to get into from the beginning? Or did you just kind of drift into it because, as a narrator, you've got an affinity for it? 

John: I’ll say that if I had my way, yes, I’d do a lot more Westerns, mainly because that’s my favorite genre to read for enjoyment. But I knew at the beginning of my career that it wasn’t realistic to expect to just tell my favorite types of stories all the time. One other thing I’ll say, though, is that I’ve learned to appreciate a lot of genres that I wouldn’t normally read, which I think has helped to make me a better, more versatile performer. But yes, Westerns are definitely number one for me, and I certainly wouldn’t mind narrating a lot more of them. Campfire storytelling at its finest!

Me: Who are your favorite Western authors?  

Zane GreyJohn: Louis L’Amour is my absolute favorite. When I was a boy, my grandfather was seldom without a L’Amour paperback by his favorite chair. When he’d finish a stack, he’d pass them to me. When he passed away, I received his entire collection, and I cherish them. So aside from being a wonderful writer, I’ll always have a very special, personal connection to his work. I also love the legendary Zane Grey, and have been fortunate to have narrated a handful of his titles. I also enjoy William Johnstone, or Jim Thompson if I’m in the mood for something darker. And one other comes to mind -- one that I’ve only recently discovered. An author with a gift for developing wonderfully rich characters and snappy comedic wit. You probably know of him. His name is Steve Hockensmith!

Me: Hockensmith...Hockensmith...Hockensmith. You're right — rings a bell. He does the "Holmes on the Range" series, doesn't he? Speaking of which, how would you describe your approach to the latest "Holmes on the Range" novel? Did it take you a while to get a handle on Big Red and Old Red, or did the characters and vibe come to you easily?

John: A wonderful thing sometimes occurs when working one-on-one with an author. It’s a sort of connection; or, stated differently, we “get” each other. This novel was one of those moments. I knew almost right away what you were trying to accomplish with Old Red and Big Red. Unfortunately, I can’t really explain how this “thing” happens. It just does, organically, and it’s so wonderful for an actor. As a rule, I approach any new set of characters that I meet exactly like I would in the theatre. What are their attitudes? Life experiences? What might they look like? And on and on. And depending on the “connection” that I tried to describe above, a voice begins to take shape in my head. And that’s when the fun starts, because I can then really inhabit that character through how he or she communicates verbally, and in some cases, even non-verbally. Plus, in the case of a comedic work like this one, I can really sink my teeth into how these two brothers interact with one another. You are a wonderful writing partner for me as a narrator, because your characters are so well developed. It makes my job in bringing your story to life easy. It’s very freeing as a performer. So, thanks for that -- because it doesn’t always happen that way.

Burton2aMe: Thank you, John! I could tell you got it right away. Sometimes when I hear narrators trying to do Western-y, "cowboy" voices it makes me cringe because they lay it on so thick. They end up sounding like they're trying to do a Burton Gilliam imitation. That didn't rear its ugly head with you for a second. Did you grow up in the West?

John: Well…sorta. I hail from central Oklahoma, and yes, I grew up in a rural setting. There were cattle and horses, and plenty of room to run and play, ride bikes, shoot, or whatever. And plenty of chores, too. Most weekends were consumed with various work around our place. We grew enough food just for us to eat, and then Grandma put up what was left over. To me, it was idyllic. I remember many nights camping out in the back part of the pasture, and staring up at the stars. I dreamed a thousand adventures out there. In fact, in real life I have a legit Okie drawl, but a lot of that was trained-out during my radio days. But it’s a really handy tool to have as a storyteller. And even today, one of my very favorite things for my wife and I to do is catch a good rodeo.

Me: Wow — it does sound idyllic. And like the perfect prep for narrating a "Holmes on the Range" novel years later. What's your process like when recording? Do you have to pace yourself? I tried to read a story of mine once for a podcast and it drove me crazy. After recording for a few hours and only getting about half-way through, I started to lose my voice — and my sanity — so I quit. How do you keep from burning out on a project? 

John: Audiobook narration is a marathon, not a sprint, and so yes, pacing myself is very important. Honestly, though, my brain wears out long before my voice does. I have considerable vocal endurance, built-up from years of singing in the theatre, doing long radio shows, and now from audiobooks. But there’s a real danger there — I have to be very careful to monitor my mind’s ability to stay in the story. This can be hard to do, especially for a narrator like me who records at home. In my studio, I wear all the hats — along with being “the talent,” I’m also the recording engineer and the director. As such, I must remain very aware of my performance as it’s happening. Am I still fully immersed in the story? Because the moment I drop out of the "suspension of disbelief," so will the listener — and this is absolutely unacceptable. Not only does it destroy the listener’s experience, I believe it also dishonors the author’s art. Every book is different, of course, but if I detect that I’m only 99% in the author’s world, it’s time to call it a day. In terms of burnout prevention, that’s a simple matter of loving what you do, combined with the understanding that you won’t love every book that you are cast to do. That’s all part of the job. But every book, whether I like it or not, carries the same responsibility for me as the storyteller: honor the material with the best possible performance I have in me. This is a covenant between the author, the listener, and myself that I take very, very seriously.

Me: It shows! So what's up next for you?

John: It’s hard to say! One of the fun things about this job is that you never know what’s coming along. Might be a biography, or a chilling crime novel, or a non-fiction book about some topic I’m totally unfamiliar with. Many audio publishers are preparing their summer releases, and are in the process of casting them. Of course, as I mentioned before, I’m always hoping that a new Western (or a classic one!) will ride into the studio. But whatever it is, I’ll accept it with gratitude, and I’ll keep telling stories as long as folks want to keep hearing them.

Click on the file below to get a taste of John's work on The Double-A Western Detective Agency.