Tuesday, June 12, 2018

James Ziskin--Useful as Tailfins on a Car

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Who watched the Belmont Stakes on Saturday?? Wasn't it fabulous, watching Justify win the Triple Crown? Every year after Affirmed won in 1978, I watched the Belmont and thought, "Maybe this time..." I was beginning to wonder if I was doomed to disappointment when American Pharoah won in 2015. And, now, Justify, just three years later! 

It was a great race, and here to continue the horse-racing euphoria is our Jungle Red friend James Ziskin, with a new Ellie Stone novel, A STONE'S THROW, which just happens to be set at Saratoga, the other New York racetrack.

Jim, I think it was extremely clever of you to time your book release with a Triple Crown race!



As Useful as Tail Fins on a Car
James Ziskin


“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
—Arthur Quiller-Couch


I write a series of traditional/noirish mysteries set in the early 1960s, starring “girl reporter” Ellie Stone. As often happens when I’m writing one of these books, I come across a bit of interesting but non-essential research that demands to be included in the story. Now I know we’re supposed to be merciless when it comes to editing out the extraneous, the unnecessary, and the self-indulgent—we’re told to murder our darlings—but I don’t respond well to rules. Or rather, I’m a believer in bending them to hear the cartoonish creaking noises they make before they break. Sometimes these extra flourishes serve to enhance the scenery, inform, or create a fuller sense of time and place. I think of them as a stylistic choice. After all, don’t some people prefer a simple life of moderation and temperance, while others enjoy swallowing the entire banquet then visiting the vomitorium to make room for more? Window frames are nonessential to the façade of a building, aren’t they? But, to many of us, they look nice. And turrets and gables, too. Both these skyscrapers are beautiful in their own ways, aren’t they?



(Whispering: These are metaphors for writing styles.)

Consider the tail lights on these two Cadillacs, one from 1959 and one from 2018.


They perform the same function, but in very different styles. The 1959 model’s lights are affixed to the most over-the-top tail fins of the outrageous tail-fin era. The 2018 model is Spartan, clean, and modern. Which is better? That depends on one’s taste. It’s what makes a horse race.

Which brings me to my latest Ellie Stone mystery, A STONE’S THROW, a book set in the world of Thoroughbred horse racing of Saratoga Springs, New York. In this novel, and in all of my others, I have included many of the facts and details I uncovered while researching the early 1960s time period. And, I confess, sometimes these facts and details weren’t exactly essential to the plot. I call these transgressions “tail fins.” There are rafts of rules and interdictions that prescribe what writers are supposed to include and not include in their work. Elaborate description is one of them. Extraneous information is another. Opening your book with weather is a no-no. And I agree… Except when I don’t. Never accept “never.” What if someone had told Picasso never to put both eyes on the same side of the nose?


One “tail fin” I’m glad I included in A STONE’S THROW was a horse race. An actual horse race. The 1962 Travers Stakes, to be exact. The Travers is the showcase event of the Saratoga Thoroughbred season every August. And as fate would have it, the 1962 edition is widely considered to be the greatest Travers Stakes ever. Two heavy favorites, Jaipur and Ridan, were the class of the race, and they did not disappoint. They led from post to wire, side by side for a mile and a quarter—never separated by more than a neck—and treated the huge crowd to a duel of epic proportions, culminating in a thrilling photo finish. The difference was a nose. 

Jaipur (l) and Ridan (r) battling down the home stretch


Jaipur (3) and Ridan (2) photo finish, Travers Stakes, August 18, 1962



Travers Stakes, August 18, 1962, at Saratoga.      


So why did I slap this “tail fin” on my car? For several reasons. One, because it was there. To have ignored it might have left readers wondering why such an important event was missing. Imagine telling a story set on November 22, 1963, and failing to mention what happened in Dallas that same day? Two, because it gave me a chance to show how Ellie is affected by the beauty and courage of the two horses. That tells us something important about her. Three, because it contributed to the general pageantry and backdrop I was trying to paint of the Saratoga racetrack in August. And four, because it was as thrilling as a 1959 Cadillac tail fin.


A STONE’S THROW is the sixth Ellie Stone mystery (from Seventh Street Books June 5, 2018).

August 1962. A suspicious fire claims a tumbledown foaling barn on the grounds of the once-proud Tempesta stud farm near Saratoga Springs, NY. The blaze, one of several in recent years at the abandoned farm, barely prompts a shrug from the local sheriff. That is until "girl reporter" Ellie Stone, first on the scene, uncovers a singed length of racing silk in the rubble of the barn. And it's wrapped around the neck of one of two charred bodies buried in the ashes. A bullet between the eyes of one of the victims confirms it's murder, and the police suspect gamblers. Ellie digs deeper.

The double murder, committed on a ghostly stud farm in the dead of night, leads Ellie down a haunted path, just a stone's throw from the glamour of Saratoga Springs, to a place where dangerous men don't like to lose. Unraveling secrets from the past--crushing failure and heartless betrayal--she's learning that arson can be cold revenge.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


James W. Ziskin, Jim to his friends, is the Anthony and Macavity Award-winning author of the Ellie Stone mysteries. His novels have also been finalists for the Edgar, Barry, and Lefty awards. Before turning to writing full time, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, as director of NYU’s Casa Italiana, and as a Hollywood postproduction executive, running large international operations in the subtitling/localization and visual effects fields. His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and French. Jim can be reached through his website www.jameswziskin.com or on Twitter @jameswziskin.

DEBS: Jim, I love that you included the Travers Stakes! And it dovetails perfectly with the plot. In this case, at least, I am definitely a tail fins girl.

REDS and readers, what about you? Do you believe writers should "murder their darlings?"

51 comments:

  1. Congratulations, Jim, on your newest Ellie Stone book. I agree with Debs: having the horse race in the story sounds like a plus. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Do I believe writers should “murder their darlings?” Not always.
    I understand about the extraneous and the unnecessary, the things that pull the reader out of the story. And I agree . . . those things should definitely go.
    But I think anything that adds that indefinable spark to the story being told simply needs to stay.

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    1. Thanks, Joan. It’s probably more than just the horse race with me. I like painting a picture. And sometimes there’s a paragraph or two extra here and there in my books. But that’s a good thing if you ask me. As long as it’s not boring! ;-)

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  2. Congratulations on the new book, James. I'll confess that I've only dipped my toe into the Ellie Stone series, but I've found them to be great fun. This one sounds like a real winner. And I don't think the Travers Stakes is murder-worthy at all! Things like that are what root the story in the history and reality of a particular time and place. Now, if you'd given us pages and pages of history about each horse, his jockey, his trainer, and all the pre-race clobber of a Triple Crown broadcast, that might have inspired murderous thoughts in any reader. But a paragraph or two that last just about as long as the race itself? Perfect! As Deb can tell you, I'm a fan of racing myself.

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    1. Thanks, Gigi! It was lucky for me that 1962 Travers was such a legendary race. You can see it on YouTube. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=kvny8QwMuaw

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    2. Jim, thanks for the link! That was a heart-stopping race! A match race, really.

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  3. Congrats on your latest book, Jim. I must clearly investigate this series! As for darlings and murdering them, I would say no - unless they are jumping up and down in the story pulling the spotlight onto themselves and wanting to hog that limelight. If they're quietly building up the characters or actions, by all means let them live.

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    1. Thank you, Amanda. So great to be back at Jungle Reds! I agree with you. And I think some darlings are worth keeping. If we didn’t put a few in our stories, all books would be plain vanilla. Vive la différence !

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  4. Since I've loved horses since I first read My Friend Flicka when I was about eight years old, I'm always happy to find a new book that includes them! Sounds like fun, Jim.

    Writers, please, please let some darlings stay in your books, it's one of the reasons I read. I love to learn new things, find new places, meet new people, when I'm reading, and if the descriptions are written in exquisite prose, all the better.

    And that's the key, isn't it? Good prose makes you want to keep reading. Getting bogged down in extraneous detail is boring, so I guess there's a fine line. Which is why everyone isn't a writer, right?

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    1. Good point, Karen. But if we all knew what was boring and what wasn’t, everyone would be a scintillating conversationalist! And that ain’t happening. I think it’s important in writing to figure out just how much detail to include. Easier said than done.

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  5. What they said: Congrats on the latest Ellie Stone and as for rules--bend 'em, smash 'em, beat them with a stick or keep 'em--whatever works for the story you're telling!

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    1. Thank you, Flora! I’m definitely a rule bender. But I like to think I know the rules before I breaks 'em.

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  6. Congrats on the book, James. You already know I loved it.

    I'm with you on "never accept a never." Sure, it is often the case you need to murder your darlings. But sometimes, a story just needs a tail fin.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Thank you, Mary! The interview we did at Mysteristas was great fun! And I hate blanket rules. Never accept never! Long live tail fins!

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  7. I love tail fins! Always have. Congratulations on your new release.

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    1. Thank you, Margaret! I’m very fond of tail fins, the ones on cars and the ones in my books and in others'.

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  8. Hey Jim! This sounds so fabulous, and I cannot wait to read it. Tess Gerritson always says that when research is put in a book tooconspicuously, it’s like “their research slip
    Is showing “ which I think is so perfect. But it tailfin here and there—meaning a fascinating tidbit, that’s not conspicuous—that’s interesting! And enhances the setting and the character and every other darn thing. Plus it makes the reader feel smart! Which is just one of the reasons we love you and your books so much!

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    1. Thank you, Hank! I agree with Tess Garritson, of course. I often talk of the "stink of research." Her "slip" is so much more elegant. Oh, wait. That didn’t come out right, did it? I mean she makes the point so much more nicely than I do. One definitely doesn’t want to show too much research. Just enough. That’s simple, isn’t it?

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  9. Darling Jim, I finished the book last night -- late! Of course the Travers race belonged in there. What a piece of history. Keep the tail fins. All who say otherwise can write their own books.

    By the way, Dauntless Dick is possibly the very best name for a racehorse ever. Just sayin'

    And Belmont. OMG what a race. I used to be a regular at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, occasionally at Del Mar. I was never a big winner, but I rarely came home with less than I started with, and that included paying for parking, admission, hot dogs and beer. And a form.

    I've never been to Saratoga but we have some good racing at Finger Lakes. The trouble these days is the ATM card. It was so easy to control the betting when I went with a discrete amount of cash!

    Best of luck with A STONE'S THROW, not that you need it.

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    1. Excellent point, Ann! I welcome more styles and different feels in different books. We don’t want cookie cutter prose. And styles change, of course.

      Dauntless Dick was a real horse, by the way. He raced at Saratoga that day in 1962. All those funny names, in fact, ran that day. Not Wham's Dram, of course. He was fictional, as was Fagin's Wolf.

      Thank you, dear Ann, for your good wishes and kind words! See you at the next Bouchercon?

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    2. Oops. I meant Fagin the Wolf.

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  10. The "darlings" we choose to leave in are what help make each author's individual voice! The elusive "voice" is how an author sees the world and filters it through the medium of words. What we include and omit is as singular as a painter's choice of subject, or lighting conditions, or time of day. Leave those extra ruffles and flourishes, I say.

    Also, it's always a pleasure to read fiction set in my part of the world - even if I haven't lived there for thirty years! I remember many afternoons in a much less glamorous Saratoga Springs in the 70s, although even at its lowest, it still had Saratoga Performing Arts Center and historic battlefields to tour. Now, of course, it's gotten all glitzy again, much to my delight.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. You put it so well, Julia. It is about voice. And no one should want all voices to sound the same. And you’re right about Saratoga in the seventies. Much more glamorous today. I grew up in the area around that time. Where are you from?

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    3. The town of Argyle, in Washington County. Spent a lot of time in Glens Falls, Saratoga and the environs. How about you?

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    1. I have a character in my books that came from Amsterdam. It's a good place to be from. :-)

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  12. Since I am a lover of all sorts of details, what some might call "trivia", I don't mind the tail fins. Reading has taught me all sorts of things that might not necessarily have been important parts of the story. My pet peeve is descriptions of what the characters are wearing. I skip right over those paragraphs. If it's important to have a description of what the suspect was wearing, I'm okay with it.

    I look forward to reading your books, James!
    DebRo

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    1. But, Deb, what a character is wearing can tell you so much about them! What do you think, for instance, about a man who never unbuttons his shirt collar or loosens his tie? Or a woman of a certain age who wears her skirts too short?

      It can be overdone, of course, just like anything else, but those descriptions are a vital part of character building. (I can tell you that Duncan is always pulling the knot on his tie loose, and that Gemma doesn't do frilly:-))

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    2. Good point, Debs. And thank you for having me today! I love Jungle Reds!

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  13. Looking forward to reading the new book.Spent a week in Saratoga last summer! I agree about the tailfins. I like them in what I read, and what I write, too. They add texture and background and individualize the story.If done skillfully,may also help tell us who the characters are.See: Maron. All those "rules"? Silly. Everything works, unless it doesn't. No weather? Ha. I grew up even further northern NY state than your territory. Weather does belongin the story, if it takes place where weather can kill you. See: Spencer-Fleming.

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    1. Agree on all counts, Triss! I love “Everytghing works unless it doesn’t.” And weather is fine, too. Red bAdge of Courage starts with weather.

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  14. Congrats on the new book, Jim! Ellie is clever and brave, and it's always fun to read about her adventures!

    I think writers should kill their darlings when they are only darling to themselves. If the reader won't find them "darling" (intriguing, educational, colorful, etc.) then they don't belong. It's the difference between writing because we like the sound of our own voices vs. writing to give the reader a wonderful experience. If the darlings don't serve the reader, then they're just brats!

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    1. True, Ingrid. But we are our own worst critics. I suppose the great writers know when to cut and the not-so-great maybe to so much. Thanks for the good wishes! We have to get together one of these days in Seattle!

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  15. I think writing is like cooking--you should know the rules before you break them. But without a little risk-taking and embellishment, food and books (and life) would be dull things indeed.

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    1. True. Me? I don’t know the rules of cooking and I break them all the time. ps my cooking stinks. ;-)

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  16. Jim, you already know what a major fan I am of the Ellie Stone series. And, every piece you write, like the post here today and the piece you wrote for my blog, is an engaging and interesting read. I'm going to include the link to the piece you wrote for my Reading Room blog on keeping the Ellie Stone series fresh, as it is yet another writing of yours well worth reading. http://www.readingroom-readmore.com/2018/06/author-guest-post-james-ziskin.html I also have a review on my blog, but that can be accessed through the home page.

    Now, about your tail fins and darlings. I'm reminded of the "Funny Valentine" song in which the words are, "Don't change a hair for me, not if you care for me." And, those are my feelings on your tail fins and darlings. I delight in them and look forward to them in each book. In an interview I did with you in 2016, when Heart of Stone came out, I mentioned how much I loved the opening of the book, that first passage, and here was your reply:
    "It's interesting that you cite that passage at the opening of HEART OF STONE. My editor told me that he loved it but didn't know where to put it. Should it be a prologue? Should it open chapter one? Should we kill it despite our affection for it? I'm not generally partial to prologues, though I'm not rabidly opposed to them either. But I thought that bit about the woods was short enough to stand on its own with no heading just before chapter one. I'm fortunate that my editor, the incomparable Dan Mayer, ultimately left the decision to me. That is he didn't overrule me. That kind of trust is comforting to a writer. And I think it might be rare."
    So, I would say that your decisions about your tail fins are spot on. The race in A Stone's Throw was another great decision.

    One more tail fins mention I have to make, as I did in my review of A Stone's Throw. "One last note about A Stone’s Throw. It is published by Seventh Street Books, which happens to publish other favorite authors of mine. James Ziskin has a bit of fun with the last names of some of his fellow Seventh St. authors, and as in finding a murderer, it’s all in the details. Enjoy the hunt."

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    1. Thank you, Kathy! I had completely forgotten about the little paragraph at the beginning of HEART OF STONE, but you’re right. It’s a tail fin. My editor thought we should delete it, but I’m glad we kept it.

      Here it is for anyone who missed it. Not exactly essential to the plot, but it was one of my darlings and we kept it!

      I remember the cool breath of the night woods on my neck. I see the glow of moonlight on the highest boughs, filtering down in a pale cast, weak and washed-out, fading into darkness. I smell the moss and the decay of the forest floor, heady, damp, musky. And I can taste the earthy mushrooms and bitter berries on my tongue. But most of all, I hear the pines whisper and sigh, their needles, like millions of tiny blades, carving voices into the breeze.

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    2. And, as always, Kathy, thank you for your tremendous support of my Ellie Stone books. You have no idea how much I appreciate it. Looking forward to seeing you in St. Pete!

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  17. Since I live not terribly far from Saratoga I love seeing a "local" place in books. I grew up in the 60s but never went to a flat track race until much later although I did go to a harness race in the early 60s. Not the same excitement at all. I love learning new tidbits of information as long as it feels natural to the context.

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    1. For me it was the opposite, Judi. I only went to the harness track once or twice, I think. Many, many times to the flat track, though. I’m a horrible gambler. I now abstain. Like my heroine, Ellie, I lack the patience to be a good gambler. For the same reason, I think I’m a lousy golfer. Thanks!

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  18. I think that authors should put in what they want. As a reader, I enjoy most details, trivia, and backstories. If I don't, I can skim through those parts. Another reader may think they are the best part.

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    1. It takes all kinds to make a world. Good points, Sally.

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  19. Thank you, Jungle Reds for having me! It was a blast!

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  20. Years ago, my thesis advisor told me to put potentially extraneous material in a footnote because it's easier to delete a footnote. I include everything in the first draft. Then I follow Hank's advice and remove anything that "isn't the book." But I paste it in an outtakes file so it's not gone forever.

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    1. What a great idea, Connie! I’m going to monkey around with that. Thanks!

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  21. Jim! So sorry I missed this, chiming in late. LOVE the Ellie Stone mysteries and so happy too see that there's a new one. Not only because old time Hollywood is my sweet spot.

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    1. Thanks, Hallie! Missed you yesterday, electronically speaking. ;-) Hope to run into you soon. Maybe in St. Pete?

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  22. Debs, what does it mean "to murder their darlings"?

    James, welcome to Jungle Reds! We met at Bouchercon in Toronto. My uncle loved your book. I got your book as a gift for his birthday. Funny question about the "tail fins" on the car. Do kids call them the "cat" car? When I was a kid, I remember a neighbor kept an old car and maintained it. That car had tail fins. I thought they looked like cat's ears. Or bat's ears. When watching old reruns of Batman with Adam West, I remember thinking that the Batmobile with the tail fins matched Batman's ears.

    Diana

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    1. I don’t remember calling them that, but it makes sense. My brothers and I used to call VW Beetles Punchcars. Not sure if that was common anywhere else or just five idiots saying it. Thank you!

      The “Murder your darlings” is perhaps the most oft-quoted writing advice. It’s been attributed to lots of different people, including Elmore Leonard and Stephen King. But the first usage of it appears to be from Arthur Quiller-Couch. I quote it at the top of this post.

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