Home is where…?

1967 Passport Photo
L to R – me, my mother, brother John

It may be that passport photos are the true record of my existence. I’ve moved around a lot in my life, and I realized recently that later this year, I will have lived away from Seattle for longer than I lived there. How can I say, as I am wont to do, that I’m “mostly from Seattle?”

I’ve been blogging about place, and setting as character recently, about how where you are or where you come from expresses itself through the individual—either broadening horizons or constricting opportunities; about how it informs and effects a person’s outlook, influences or dictates perspectives. It’s been much on my mind. My latest thriller is Bastard Verdict, set in present-day Scotland against a backdrop of a potential second referendum on independence. (It debuts on May 18, 2023.)

Ferdinand de Saussure

Structural linguists will say that language “writes you;” that is, it’s a pre-existing construct which influences you more than you can change it.

Is place like language, then? And where am I from? Does one spot on the map have the greater claim on forging who I am? I’ve fetched up on the banks of the Delaware, with no marked accent, an inability to spell properly (“colour” looks wrong, but then so does “color”) and a manifest infatuation with proper football.

But can I write about Scotland? In Bastard Verdict, which takes place primarily in Glasgow and Dundee, I’ve brought to the page a compelling story that weaves high stakes and low politics, and realized a vivid ensemble cast. My alter-ego and recurring protagonist, FBI Agent and elections specialist Imogen Trager, is a visiting scholar at University of Glasgow. As the story opens, she’s looking for a little peace and to do some research, while she sorts out what to do next and where she might go.

I lived in Scotland as a boy–twice. In the UK taken together, I’ve spent a little over four years, plus countless visits. I’ve lived a great many other places too. I approached the story with a little more humility than I might otherwise have done. I worked with the editor Alan McMunnigall of Thi Wurd, to help with my tortured prose as much as to make sure descriptions and characterizations rang true.

Here’s why:

I lived in Seattle for 21 years, until recently, the longest I’d ever been in one place. But I was born in Chapel Hill, NC (my parents were in graduate school at UNC). When I was two, we moved to Madison, WI, and my father’s first faculty position. He was hired “ABD” and the family moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, for six months to finish his dissertation work.

Colchester school picture, Primary 1

Three years later we decamped from Madison for Edinburgh, Scotland, and then Colchester in Essex. A year after returning to Madison, we moved to Iowa City. Four years after that I returned with my family to the UK, this time to Edinburgh (Morningside) for the full school year.

Training, Football Club Villeneuvois, 1981

We moved to Seattle when I was 15, staying there for 21 years (though I had one blissful semester abroad in the southwest of France in the small town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot the first semester of my senior year).

I graduated high school in Seattle, got my Bachelors and an MFA there. Got married—twice!—and all three children were born there. And then we moved, just 8 weeks after our son, the youngest, was born.

My wife will say that despite my time in the Pacific Northwest, I’m a Midwesterner, that it offends me to the marrow when people don’t properly shovel their sidewalks after a snowfall. But I haven’t lived there since 1979 (though through the magic of Facebook, I still keep up with friends from those days; and funnily, Alan and I bonded a bit over IC, as he had spent a semester there at the University of Iowa.).

We left Seattle in the summer of 2000, and since then we’ve lived in State College, PA; Highland Park, NJ; and now Philadelphia. In that time, we also spent two separate school years in Oxford (2011-12, and ’15-’16). My younger daughter’s high school Spanish teacher was convinced that our family was in the witness protection program.

So how do I answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ Because the question also seems to ask: what part of that place have you carried here? Our eldest child still lives in Seattle, but the other two don’t remember it all. So, saying they were born there means as little as my claim to Chapel Hill. And the subtext curl to the question reminds me of publisher’s need for “lived experience as [fill in the blank].”

One constant, I suppose, is academia, which is Imogen’s perch in the novel. My father was a political scientist, now retired, and it was for his work during the first 18 years of my life that we moved so often. I have an MFA, and I taught English at community college for three and a half years. I married an academic, also a political scientist (I’m sure Freud would have much to say about that!) But my three-year stint teaching English comp notwithstanding, I’ve always been at the periphery of university life.

In Edinburgh, we lived on Cluny Avenue, and my brother and I attended South Morningside Primary School on Comiston Road (the same school I had attended 5 years earlier). My brother and I both picked up Scottish accents, and we refer to the summer we returned to the US as “the summer of ‘what’?” No one, it seemed, could understand us. It was strange to be “back home” in Iowa, among our old friends, but still neither fish nor fowl–our Scottish friends had heard only our American accents, and our Iowa friends couldn’t penetrate our Scottish accent. But on the great plains, our cadence gradually (re)flattened and words like “skint” and phrases like “didja aye?” faded. But not my memories of how the place felt, the smells, the weather, the people.

# # #

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, Bastard Verdict (out 18-May-2023), is a noir political thriller set in Scotland. His current, work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree. Bastard Verdict is available to reviewers through NetGalley

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!

His most recent short fiction is below. The first is available for online reading.

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

Chasing the elusive haggis (part 2)

In part one, I wrote about a dangerous, international haggis smuggling ring back in 1997. The next year, Lisa and I were traveling, and a friend in DC where we were staying found a butcher who carried haggis. But it was not a good haggis. No “lights” and too Liver-y. My only comfort came in remembering Mrs. Wilson, as I secreted the haggis into my checked luggage for the flight home…

We were becoming connoisseurs of haggis, my friends and I, and we resolved not to use the DC butcher again. Year 3 of this heroic quest, this odyssey (though no one died), we were traveling again, this time to Philly, visiting my in-laws. My father-in-law suggested I try D’Angelo’s specialty butcher in the 9th Street Italian Market (D’Angelo’s is now, sadly, defunct).

I said to my father-in-law: “Elmer, please—Italian butcher, Scottish delicacy. No.”

I called all over Philly, but with no luck. My father-in-law suggested D’Angelo’s again. Having no other recourse, and to prove to him that I was right, I called them:

“D’Angelo’s!!!” a woman shouted rather than answered.

“Yes, hello,” I began, “I was wondering if…”

“Whaddya want, hun! I got customers here.”

“Yes, well, I’m looking for haggis. I don’t expect—“

“Hang on!” She slammed the phone down on a metal table.

I could hear her stomping toward the back, heard her shouting indistinctly at people (or was that merely the way she spoke?); heard the door of a walk-in cooler open. It was blissfully silent for a moment, until she came out of the walk-in and tromped back to the phone:

“I got one left. You want it?”

“You have one?”

“Yeah. You want it or not? We’re closing in forty-five minutes.”

“Yes,” I said. “Thank you. I’ll be right there.”

La macellaia (Madame Butcher) was nicer, if no less voluble, in person. And I couldn’t help but reflect on the dulcet tones of Mrs. Wilson. It was much better than the previous year’s haggis from DC, and I carried it back to Seattle in my luggage.

Next up – haggis gourmands, and did I unwittingly assist anti-government forces?

# # #

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, Bastard Verdict (out 18-May-2023), is a noir political thriller set in Scotland. His current, work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page, sign up for the mailing list. And follow this blog!

His most recent short fiction is below. The first is available for online reading.

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

Check-kiting the truth

Truth and Power.
In college, I was a (late) founding member of the Univ. of Washington Shakespeare Society, together with a number of friends. I’m not sure the Society lasted much beyond our graduation, and I’ve lost touch with most of those friends, but it was great fun while it lasted, and we put on some excellent productions. Together, we put on Henry IV, part one; Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet.

Mistress Quickly and Falstaff (BBC)

There’s a moment in our production of 1 Henry IV that stands out for me, and asserts itself in my mind more than 25 years after it happened as I look at the skirmishing remains of the “post-truth” political landscape.

In scene II.iv of the play, the sheriff comes to the Boar’s Head Inn to arrest Falstaff for a robbery committed earlier that evening. The stage was a very simple, minimalist set, with carpets hung to conceal the upper stage left and -right entrances. In rehearsal, the actor playing Falstaff suggested that it might be funny for Falstaff to poke his face in from offstage where he’s hiding, through the “arras” at stage left.

It was a funny bit, but as happens so often in Shakespeare, it did even more work. What began as a bit of a goof became something of a sinister moment, too.

In the scene, the sheriff says to Prince Hal that he has testimony that Falstaff committed a robbery earlier that night and is even now there at the Inn. In our production, Falstaff peeks out at this moment. The actor playing the Sheriff does a double take. The Prince sees Falstaff, and he sees that the Sheriff has just spotted Faltaff, but he says, walking downstage: “The man I assure you is not here…” and then he goes on to say that he has sent Falstaff on an errand.

During the performance, there’s a nice laugh as Falstaff sticks out his head and then quickly, guiltily pulls it back in like turtle who can’t be bothered; followed by a long, uncomfortable pause as Prince Hal and the Sheriff look at one another.

In rehearsal, the director had paused the action and asked the actor playing the Sheriff what (as his character) he was thinking.

“I’m thinking that Sheriff or not, I can’t go up against the Prince,” he said.

“Do you just accept it?” the director asked.

“I have to, don’t I? But I don’t like it.”

The scene isn’t over, and Prince Hal further impresses his birthright advantage. When the Sheriff bids Hal farewell with: “Good night, my noble lord,” Hal pauses, making the Sheriff stop is backward, bowing exit, to say: “I think it be good morrow, is it not?”
The Sheriff eats some more shit: “Indeed, my lord, I think it be two o’clock.”

Among other things, 1 Henry IV is about the nature of power and ruling. Prince Hal will become Henry V, scourge of the French, victor at Agincourt, the soul of honor. How, the play seems to ask, did this entitled, drunken rich kid turn into a proper king? His father worries he won’t. Falstaff and his crew worry that he will.

I’ve always found the exchange disturbing.

Hamlet and Polonius

One further example, also from Shakespeare, Hamlet, this time: Polonius has gone to sound out Hamlet’s mind. They gaze at the sky. When Hamlet corrects Polonius about what he sees in the shapes of the clouds, and Polonius readily agrees with everything Hamlet says, the scene is often regarded as being about how transparently craven Polonius is. And he is that, but given the absolute power of the royal family, how—and why—should he be anything different?

The reason these instances keep coming back to me is that in both of these examples the knuckling under by the non-royal characters is obvious, and is clearly about staying on the good side of those in power. There’s dramatic irony in what’s said and what’s known. We in the audience note it, as do the other characters on stage.

What is KEY though, is that the truth is known, agreed upon and shared, but not uttered or acted upon. Which is chilling.

How much worse then is our own post-truth era? When people are forced not just to accept, but to believe the lie—and worse, to make/force others believe it?

Covid deniers, anti-vaxxers, Stop the Steal thugs spring to mind–the elected officials who claim that the January 6 insurrectionists were just a tour.

This is not knuckling under because you have no choice. It’s a complicit trick of the mind to believe “correctly.” In the novel 1984, there’s one particular part that goes a long way toward describing the current overheated state of the Grand Old Party: The key to citizens’ ceding of power is the mental discipline known as Crimestop, defined as, “the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.” I think about that quote every time I remember how some in Congress decried the January 6 hearings as “boring.”

I think of it whenever I see that labrador-quizzical (quizzling?) face Tucker Carlson makes when he wants NOT to understand. The unwillingness (or inability) to grasp analogies, reflects an incapacity for empathy, to be sure, but it also serves as a kind of training.

And just to make sure there’s no back-sliding, there are Telescreens everywhere tuned to Fox News channel to stoke the hatred-abasement matrix. I make my way from Shakespeare to Orwell because there is a kind of double-think/Crimestop consciousness about this unknowing, wholly different from what Elizabethans were subject to.

The “determining factor,” Orwell writes elsewhere in the Goldstein Book passage, “is the mental attitude of the ruling class.” And the level of no-nothing depravity among GOPArty leadership is breath-taking. The bone-chilling part is that they really seem to believe their apocalyptic rhetoric. And they care so little for democracy, that it doesn’t matter if their voters die.

I’m actually hopeful that we as an electorate are waking up. The next election is Nov 8th. We ought to know pretty soon thereafter where we stand on the shifting sands of truth.

# # #

You can check out McCrone’s recent short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland, currently under review. His work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Dark Skies – writing for your breakfast

I have joined the ranks of the #5amwritersclub—an elite band whose only membership requirement is that you haul yourself out of bed and write until it’s time to go to work.

When I started a new job in May, I gave myself permission to put my writing on the back-burner for the first two months while I got my feet under me. I would write nights and weekends, I told myself, as I had done before, producing three novels—Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Emergency Powers. All would be well.

The new Director of the Tacony Community Development Corp. (Phila.)

But it’s now three months since I started, and writing at night isn’t working this time, and spending weekends at the keyboard was like trying to add distance to a run or establish a rhythm to a workout you only did once a week. Yes, I made progress on the current book, Witness Tree, but it was tortured, and it wasn’t much. I wasted a lot of Saturdays just getting back to where I’d left off.

The doubts and problems every writer faces grew larger, more numerous, and more ominous.

(writer)-Doom scrolling through social media, I’d see the writer Richie Narvaez post something on social media about the “#5amwritersclub.” His Tweets were often 2 hours old when I came to them. So I reached out to him about 5am writing. Did it work? Was he productive? I was leery of trying to be sparkling and brilliant at such an early hour, but he graciously told me about his routine and process, and he said he’d been able to get things done. I resolved to begin immediately, the next day.

But what one resolves to do and what one does are often two very different things, and I slept through to my second alarm the whole first week, the dark sky writing hours passing me by. I think my determination was undermined in part from my teaching experience of some 30 years ago when I taught English comp at a pair of community colleges in the Seattle area–and two winters in a row I was assigned the early morning classes (for students who worked 9-5, as I do now).

Those two winters, my first class began at 6:30 in the morning. My second class was at 7:30. I was done with my teaching day just as the first rays of sunrise brightened (if you can call it that) the unrelenting Pacific Northwest cloud cover with faint yellows and purples, like a deep bruise that isn’t healing well. One day, a young woman came in to tell me she was dropping my class. It took me a moment to even remember that she’d been in the class, until I realized that she had been the one who slept, her head tipped backward into the row behind. I knew her neck and the underside of her jaw better than her face.

Sometimes, rather than get up at 5am to be on time to teach my class, I would just stay awake. Students would see the stamps from various clubs on my hand and wonder what I’d done the previous night.

I wanted to say to them: “this is the previous night!”

I consoled myself with the difficulty of those winters by telling myself that I was young, this kind of thing wasn’t forever. Yet here I am.

Finally I’ve begun to get up, to put my ass in the chair and get to work. Not every day is perfect, but then they never were, even under the best circumstances. It’s often said that someone “finds his rhythm,” whereas I think rhythm found me. The book is moving forward again, I’ve started two new short stories. And there are extras, too.

A raccoon couple kisses goodnight

There is no punishing heat when I step out back for a coffee before settling to work. It’s cool (or at least not blazing hot) at 5 am, the humidity tamed, even if the wildlife isn’t. I feel that I stand at the edge of a dark sea of possibility. A sense of hope attends those first caffeinated sips and carries me through the first half hour or more of writing. The birds aren’t even awake. But some things are.

Two mornings in a row, I watched a pair of South Philly raccoons tenderly…[OK, I gotta be honest here: I have no idea what they were doing] …retire to wherever it is they go when they climb across my neighbors’ roofs and disappear for the day. I see the bats call it a night and zip off somewhere.

I’m glad I started when I did. Already, the sun is rising later and setting earlier. Had I tried to begin this journey in the winter, I’m not sure I’d have made the tentative start I have so far.

# # #

You can check out McCrone’s recent short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland, currently under review. His work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!