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!

Representing

Recently, I’ve seen Facebook posts and a Tweets (each with a dozen attending comments) regarding fellow writers’ concerns about in-person readings and book signings; and I’ve heard privately from others about their discomfort over large gatherings. I absolutely get those concerns, and I would never disparage or second-guess another person’s reasons for wanting to remain safe and healthy.

What I would like to do is talk about the importance and value of these get-togethers, and my hope that they will return in full force sooner rather than later. The Zoom readings do have value in a number of ways, but they are no substitute for a live gathering.

Annamaria Alfieri and Gary Cahill

Last night (Tues., April 12, 2022) I was the first reader in the latest installment of the MWA-NY Reading Series at KGB Bar, along with Gary Cahill, Tom Avitabile, Bill Chambers, A. J. Sidransky and Albert Tucher–and it was wonderful! It felt great to be out and about, to (re)connect with old friends, meet new people, and to hear first-hand what others are doing and working on. The place filled up nicely, too. A good mix of people (say, 20+) came out on a Tuesday night to hear crime stories. There was an energy and vitality in the room that you can’t get over a screen.

At KGB, as is true at Shade Bar, in Wilmington, West Chester and other venues, the audiences are generous, knowledgeable, and attentive. As I’ve written elsewhere there’s no substitute for a live audience, and these readings series and Noirs at the Bar give us one filled with writers and readers who are both avid fans.

Like many writers, I use these short readings as a way to try out new work or work-in-progress. It’s similar to stand-up comedy, I think, in that there’s no buffer. You wrote the words, and you’re speaking and representing them. You’re putting it out there. And there’s no mistaking a moment when you’ve lost the audience. These writers and readers know what grabs them, too, and you can see it in their faces when something you’re reading doesn’t sound right…or drags on too long.

Which, when/if it happens is a horrible moment (not that I would know, personally! :). But it’s a necessary moment, and it’s far better to be forced to grapple with why and how something isn’t working early(ish) in the process before you start pitching and querying. Even when you’re reading something that’s already out in the world, audience reactions can inform and inspire a current work.

As a reader/performer, I think, you have at least two reciprocal roles for the evening–performer and audience member. As writers in a community, we do more than just cheerleading. It reminds me of moments when you hear professional athletes speak about a fellow athlete, sometimes even a competitor. They’re fans, too! They understand and respond to another athlete’s playing on an informed level.

There’s also the serendipity of being in a room full of people who care about writing and story. One of the readers last night, Tom Avitabile was answering a question from someone who was clearly very taken with Tom’s reading. In his response, a single word leapt out at me that fused a lot of things I had been thinking about my own work, an image grew in my mind for how I should think about the structure of the rest of the book. I’m not sure when or if that spark would have come without his comment–one about something else entirely, and not even directed to me. (And bonus, his new thriller hits the ground running, and sounds fabulous.)

Finally, it’s just fun to be out and hearing stuff!

The next MWA-NY/KGB Reading Series is June 14 (I think). I’m planning to go, and I hope to see all of you there.

# # #

The selection I read Tuesday night, from Witness Tree is months away from being finished. But you can check out my latest short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Set in the 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” coming May 15 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. He’s currently writing a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, w/t 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!

Philly Freedom (2) – Setting as Character

I got to Philly by way of Scotland.

That is, writing about it. I’ve been fascinated by how, indeed whether, a story’s setting can work like a character. Could something happen here that wouldn’t happen somewhere else? What effect does place have on a story? This past year, as I wrote here, I began writing about the place I live.

While working on my fourth novel Bastard Verdict, a political thriller set primarily in Glasgow and Dundee, I found that the details I included to make those cities come alive (Glasgow in particular) kept reminding me of home, of Philly: the contention between old and new; of a splintered city with deep, working class roots (and pride), struggling with its sense of itself, straining against the blanchissage of what had made the city unique.

Glasgow tenements
Society Hill row houses – Phila.

Both Glasgow and Philadelphia are old cities, perennially on-the-rise in some manner, only to slide grindingly backward in some other. Both cities played an outsized role as heralds of- and key players in the Industrial Revolution. Both were once strong in ship building. Kinship, religion, ethnicity and race count for a lot. Multiple generations live with- or around the corner from one another.

Any fan of William McIlvannie’s work (particularly, the Laidlaw mysteries) knows in their bones that while the stories resonate with readers outside of the city, the characters and stories only make sense in relation to Glasgow. McIlvanney’s vivid description of his town – “It was the right hand knocking you down and the left hand picking you up, while the mouth alternated apology and threat” – sounded and felt a lot like Philadelphia, in a way I’d have never thought of in relation to the Seattle of my youth. Other cities have tough reputations, certainly, but here things are personal.

And it was that sense of the personal set in a unique place which has (re)animated my writing.

Divine intervention

In Philly, there’s a casual, winking corruption and/or indifference to authority, which grapples with WASP-y notions of order and tutting bourgeois sensibilities. It’s as much a legacy (if you want to call it that) of organized crime as it is an understanding, an acknowledgement that people need to get along, and allowances must be made. So yes, if you do your home-remodel on weekends and evenings, you can probably get it done without pulling permits. Who’s to know? And who’d report you? And outside of Center City you can park on the sidewalk, or in the left turn lane along Broad Street. It’s not legal, but again….

How else are youse gonna stay warm?
9th Street Market, Phila.

I don’t want to write about the 70’s and organized crime. I want to write about here and now–the juxtaposition of splendor and squalor, of what it means to leap forward while leaving whole parts of a city stuck behind. And I wonder if some of the people I’ve just deemed as “left behind” would see it that way.

When I briefly worked at the 9th Street/Italian Market here, I had complaints from time to time from newer residents about the trash can fires that the day-stall workers set to keep warm outside in the winter.

“Is that even legal?” they’d ask. “Aren’t those pallets they’re burning treated with something that might be toxic?”

I had zero time for these discussions, and typically I would nod gravely, promise to look into the matter, but know that I would do nothing. I remember one such conversation where I noted that “It would have to be the cops who enforced it, and”–I pointed towards the Market’s beat cop warming his hands over one as he chatted with the stall owner–“I’m afraid he’s the one who’d have to do it.”

# # #

If you want to check out these latest short stories, you can find them here:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” on Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Set in the 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. The narrator and his partner in crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” coming May 15 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.

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 newly elected 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 my Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Philadelphia Freedom!

Missed garbage pickup, South Philly

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s glad to see the back of 2021. Professionally, last year played out like the opening of some noir tale about a small-timer who dreamed of and failed at making his mark…Back list sales languished, the pitches for my fourth thriller met with stony silence, the third act of a comedy play wouldn’t come together. The dismal list goes on.

But in the midst of all this, I started writing short stories again, something I hadn’t done in years. And while two of my three published novels feature South Philly, they’re not set here, aren’t about the place where I live.

All that changed this past year.

Each is set in Philadelphia, and each, while different in tone and detail, confronts the tension between the competing experiences of- and aspirations for the lives of the city.

And some of those stories have found excellent homes:

This past weekend (1/15/2022) “Eight O’Clock Sharp” debuted on Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Later this month, “Ultimatum Games” comes out in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
And in May ’22, “Nostalgia,” will be my contribution to volume 3 of the Low Down Dirty Vote anthology.

#7

In each of the stories above (and one or two that haven’t yet found a home), I wanted the conflict to be not just personal and unique to the characters, but also to represent the lived contention in modern cities, like my Philadelphia.

In “Eight O’Clock,” set in the 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces. In “Ultimatum Games,’ about a rare book heist, the narrator and his partner in crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms. And in “Nostalgia,” an armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

I’ve been thinking more about setting as character, and will be writing about that interplay in future posts.

# # #

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.

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 newly elected 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 my Events/About page. And follow this blog!