A Thousand Suns

     In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that the sequel to Einstein’s Trunk was complete and titled World of Hurt. I thought the title was somewhat clever as it was a nice play on the hero’s last name as well as an accurate portrayal of what the book was about, i.e., Rulon Hurt’s somewhat painful world. Roughly 40% of the book takes place in the Twin Falls area of Idaho and the last 60% takes place in and around Zurich, Switzerland.
     But now I’ve changed the title to A Thousand Suns. The title comes from the expression ‘heat of a thousand suns’ – which Rulon uses to describe how much his enemies hate him and which Yohaba uses to describe how much she loves the big cowboy.  Can’t say more without giving away the plot, but I will add that Yohaba’s suns burn mighty bright, in fact, she dominates the book. The new title does a better job of capturing the human heart beating within the story – much more so than the old title. And besides, World of Hurt is a better fit for the third book in the series, which I’m starting on now.
     Speaking of Switzerland, I was having a conversation the other day on why some countries are more prosperous than others. Reasons were given. Opinions were shared. And then someone brought up Switzerland and mentioned that almost every negative condition raised could likewise be applied to that small country nestled in the center of Europe. Switzerland has limited natural resources, is landlocked, is split by multiple cultures and languages, has an expensive social safety net for its citizens, a lot of immigrants for its size, and is surrounded by countries with large militaries who have a history of going to war with each other. And yet it thrives. The longer I live in Switzerland, the more I appreciate its special place in the world. 
     My next post will cover a few tips I’ve learned on writing powerful descriptions.
 
Best regards,
 
Jim

Zurich

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Born in the U.S.A.

Communication is a wonderful thing. But sometimes it can leave you speechless. I’m doing a little rewriting these days of the sequel to Einstein’s Trunk, and I’ve inserted a scene where the Bruce Springsteen song ‘Born in the U.S.A. is mentioned. In doing so it prompted a memory and I did a little research.
Now, for those of you who don’t know that song, it was released in 1984, and even today is still well thought of and rated number 275 on Rolling Stone’s list of top rock-n-roll hits. The song is about a working class guy who gets “in a hometown jam and has to go serve in Vietnam”. He has no idea what the war is about, loses a friend there and comes to see the war as senseless and the promise of America as unfulfilled.
In other words, the song was not particularly positive about America’s direction at the time – though the title could make you think it was. But here’s the communication angle: In 1984, conservative columnist George Will saw Springsteen in concert, complained the music was too loud, obviously couldn’t hear the lyrics, but loved the title and sound of Springsteen’s hit song – Born in the USA – and decided that Springsteen must be a real, true-blue, supporter of conservative values. Will  mentioned this to his friend, Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Deaver later mentioned it to Reagan’s speech writers, and the next thing you know Reagan is talking about Springsteen in his campaign stump speech. Reagan said, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts, it rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.”
In fact, Born in the USA told a completely opposite story. But thanks to the office of the president, the ‘branding’ stuck despite the obvious contradiction provided by the lyrics. As a side note, Lee Iacocca, who obviously never listened to the lyrics either, offered Springsteen $millions to use the song to promote Chrysler, but Bruce turned him down.
But I digress: I received an email a few weeks ago enlightening me on the origin of the name “Yohaba Melekson” – the heroine of Einstein’s Trunk. It turns out that Melek means king in Hebrew and Melekson means ‘son of the king’. Also, the name ‘Yohaba’ has connections to the Hebrew name for God. And it turns out that Rulon’s name also has a religious connotation. I originally chose the name ‘Rulon’ because it was an old Idaho pioneer name that stirred up notions of someone who was straight-laced but perhaps a bit of a hick – remember, Rulon likes to be underestimated! Well, it turns out that Rulon as a first name is a native American name that means ‘Spiritual’. So both Rulon and Yohaba have a name with a spiritual side to them – albeit unintentional.
My next post will either be on Mitt Romney’s chances of being president or a review of mystery writer Michael Connolly’s book – The Fifth Witness. Let me know if you have a preference.   
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South Africa and my Trusty Laptop

     These days everyone is talking about long-term plans. If you don’t have a long-term plan for the economy, the deficit, your life, your retirement, or the war against terror you’re just no fun at a party. With that in mind, I have come up with a long-term plan for my writing career. Here it is: When the time comes, my wife and I plan to retire to Umhlanga, South Africa where we have a charming apartment on the beach, and from there I hope to write, if not the great American novel, then at least one that will keep me and a few others entertained.
     My wife has suggested that I consider moving away from the adventures of Rulon and Yohaba and invent a new character – a black South African police detective who in the process of solving crimes becomes embroiled in the political and economic fabric of South Africa. It’s actually not a bad idea! – for South Africa is a most extraordinary place!
     South Africa defies description. Incredibly beautiful, wild and woolly, democracy with an African beat, almost incomprehensible, on the brink of something – not sure what…perhaps Zimbabwe…hopefully not…perhaps something really special, a rainbow nation, the hope of black Africa…if only…if only.
     Mysteries set in SA would have so many possibilities. First, there is the crime – brutal, unnecessarily violent, random, and all too frequent. Second, the customs – plural wives, muti (witchdoctors) and lebolas (the dowry of cows paid by the husband, usually about ten cows but more if the girl is college educated), the tribal system and the Zulu king. Third, the corruption, the rich black fat cats, soldiers of the revolution who sold out when given the keys to the economy.
     Fourth, the SAP – South African Police – fighting and dying by the hundreds every year, laying their lives on the line for a few hundred dollars per month, many of them knowing that if SA were ever to achieve its goals, it was up to them to hold the line. Fifth, the Africaners, most accepting the new order, but some still bitter. Sixth, the ANC – the African National Congress – Nelson Mandela’s party now threatening to be torn apart by a firebrand named Malema who likes to lead his young followers in singing a song titled, “Shoot the Boer”. Finally, the millions of increasingly dissatisfied poor. Wow! If you couldn’t make a good story out of all of that, well, you don’t deserve to be a thriller writer.
     My next post will be on the movie Master and Commander and how re-watching it has caused me to reflect on the nature of book and movie reviews.
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich
   
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The joys and challenges of writing Einstein’s Trunk

        What I enjoyed most about writing Einstein’s Trunk was developing the characters, putting words in their mouths, and sometimes even sitting back in wonder at what they just did. When I first put the plot together, I had plans for two female leads, Yohaba, Einstein’s descendent, and Isabella, the South African agent contracted by the Russians. But I had no idea which one would end up betraying Rulon and which one would be his love interest. The decision was actually made by Yohaba when she threw herself at Rulon in her apartment. It was a total surprise even to me. I remember writing that scene and thinking to myself afterwards: Wow, never expected that! 
       Likewise, even later in the story, I still toyed with the idea of having Yohaba betray Rulon. But there was something about the way Yohaba waited outside his apartment after the fight in the Desperado restaurant and then ran up to Rulon in the rain that simply could not be denied. Eventually, Yohaba’s sincerity and honesty won Rulon’s heart – and mine. But Isabella may not be totally out of the picture. While she doesn’t appear in the sequel, I’m considering bringing her back in the third book.
       Far and away, the hardest part for me was writing the beginning. If you give too much description and background information in the beginning, you slow down the plot and bore your readers. If you don’t give enough information then people are confused – or too much information and you kill the suspense and erode curiosity. It’s a judgment call every step of the way.
      I also found it hard to write the physical descriptions of the locales and people. It was the same old question: How much do you describe, how much do you leave out, and how can you artfully include that information in the story without slowing down the action. The best beginning I’ve read where information, plot, action, and character development, were all woven together while keeping the story sizzling along and building interest was in Barry Eisler’s first John Rain book Rainfall.
      My next post will be about what I’ve learned about writing and getting published.  
Best regards,
Jim
Zurich, May 13, 2011

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