Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Write On: Digging in the Past

There’s a particular event in high school that has always stuck with me.

It was the lead-up to the Gulf War – the first one, the one where George H. W. Bush led a coalition of nearly every country in the world against Saddam Hussein. Hell, I even remember the graphic CNN put together: it was like something out of a hockey video game, displaying the U.S. flag “vs.” the Iraq flag (a rather flippant way to depict war, eh?) except as the U.S. coalition grew, they’d flip through all the flags of those countries, too. After a while, I was expecting CNN to change the graphic to “Iraq vs. the World,” but I suppose that would have portrayed Hussein as some kind of scrappy underdog.

As opposed to however "South Park" portrayed Hussein.

Anyway, when formal fighting broke out, we had an assembly in the gym. I think the intent was to talk through everyone’s thoughts and feelings about going to war, but it all devolved into some kind of bizarre pep rally with nearly everyone chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” I admit I was swept up in the moment – hey, I had all the geo-political sophistication of a teenage boy, don’t judge – when I noticed a couple of my friends across the way sitting on their hands. They looked miserable, fully dismayed by what was going on. It froze me, and I spent the remaining minutes of the assembly wondering, What is it they know that I don’t know?

The specific moment that I want to tell you about, the thing that stuck with me all these years, happened a bit before all the chanting. Like I said, this was meant to be an assembly, not a pep rally, so a microphone was handed around to anyone who wanted to give their thoughts on the war. I imagine the teachers and staff – many of whom still recalled the Vietnam War era quite vividly – assumed most of us would be freaking out. Instead, the prevailing mood was “slightly apprehensive but confident that we’d kick all sorts of ass.” The geo-political sophistication of teenagers, remember.

The lone exception was one girl who stood up, teary-eyed. She was freaking out because her older brother had signed up for the Army Reserves for the college scholarship but was now being sent off to the Gulf. “Who would have thought he’d actually have to go to war?” she bawled into the microphone. 

Well, duh, I thought, because I also had the sensitivity of a teenage boy. He signed up for the Army, jackass. What did you think would happen?

When I think back to that moment, I’m a lot more sympathetic to that girl. Sure, the “well, duh” reaction is still in-bound – I mean, the possibility of going to war has to cross your mind when you sign up for the Army Reserves – but it had been almost 20 years since we’d deployed our military like that. For our generation, the idea of actually going to war was something you read about in history books, like horse-drawn carriages or network television.

I quickly thought of this moment when hammering out my missing person mystery. The idea of a reservist surprised to be sent off to the Gulf War fascinated me, and the thought of him surviving the tour but not showing up back home felt like an extra layer of tragedy. 

There’s a bonus benefit to setting my story in 1991, of course: no cell phones.

As you can imagine, I ended up doing a whole lot of research into what went on in 1991. It’s not a year people call out for nostalgic reflection, but there was a whole lot going on. I’ll close out with a sample of what I dug up. Think of it as my Now That’s What I Call 1991 list:

  • ·         The Soviet Union falls apart
  • ·         Jeffrey Dahmer is arrested for multiple murders
  • ·         The Rodney King incident sets off riots and controversy over police brutality
  • ·         Clarence Thomas is confirmed to the Supreme Court
  • ·         Magic Johnson announces that he has HIV
  • ·         Terminator 2 and Silence of the Lambs are released in theaters
  • ·         The first Lollapalooza tour launches
  • ·         Street Fighter II hits arcades
  • ·         Ren & Stimpy debuts

And it doesn't get any more 1991 than "Ren & Stimpy"

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Write On: How J.K. Rowling Writes a Mystery (Video Essay)

You might think that, as a fan of mysteries, I’d be big on Sherlock Holmes. And you’d be wrong.

Something about Holmes always ate away at me, even when I was young. I thought it had something do to with the way Watson was often portrayed as a blithering idiot. I could never understand why these two were even in each other’s orbit, other than as a quick and easy way to make Holmes look that much smarter and cooler.

(As a side note, this is also the same reason why 1988’s Without a Clue with Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley is so fantastic. It’s definitely worth checking out.)

Then, sometime around high school, I got around to actually reading the Sherlock Holmes stories and discovered what it was that ate at me: They’re a cheat. The readers never have a chance to deduce anything for themselves. Instead, we have world-class know-it-all Sherlock Holmes tell readers everything before the readers are ever shown anything. 

Apparently J.K. Rowling felt the same way, too, because she approaches the mysteries in her Harry Potter novels in a completely different way. If you’re like me, you never really thought of the Harry Potter stories as mysteries, but Sage Hagen of Just Write does and takes a deep dive into how Rowling writes mysteries in this video essay:

First Post: The Story So Far

Hallo. I’m Scot Nolan, though you might know me from reviewing and discussing bad movies over the past ten years as “Nolahn.” But this ...