Last year, I met Tom Dahill and Ginny Johnson at a reading/performance for “Danny Who?: Four Decades in Irish Music,” Tom’s memoir about life as an Irish-American musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. Since then, I’ve become a fan not only of the book but also of the traditional Irish music which Dahill and Johnson perform in venues across the Twin Cities.
In “Danny Who?,” we follow Dahill’s transformation from a young troublemaker on the “mean streets of Highland Park” in St. Paul to a reformed (and refined) performer of traditional Irish music. Dahill leaves his hometown of St. Paul to study and play Irish music while wreaking havoc across the United States. After an evening of alcohol-fueled antics, one publican tells him: “Tom, when you’re good, you’re really good. But when you’re bad, you’re really bad.”
Although American cities with large numbers of Irish immigrants like Chicago, Kansas City, and Boston enjoy Tom’s music, other places are not as appreciative. Dahill writes:
The people in northwest Wisconsin had only so much tolerance for Irish music. They would sometimes ask, “Tom, you’re not gonna play that Irish shit tonight, are you?” I would answer, “Don’t worry. Tonight it’s strictly country.”
Eventually, Dahill ends up in Ireland where he rehabs a cottage and studies with some of the best musicians in the country. Early on, he learns many Irish musicians have a “test song” which they expect a real Irish musician to perform well. He documents this exchange with musician, Paddy Hill:
Paddy looked at me and saw that I had a fiddle. He said, “Do you play the fiddle, Tom?” I said that I tried, but that I wasn’t much good. He said, “Tell me this, Tom, can you play ‘The Blackbird’?” I said that I would try and I when I finished, Paddy said, “Oh thanks be to God, you’re an Irish fiddler. If you can’t play ‘The Blackbird’ you might be some kind of fiddler, but you’re not an Irish fiddler.”
Things are a wee bit different in Ireland than in the U.S. Dahill describes the process of making a phone call before the advent of mobile phones:
Making a phone call from a public phone in Ireland in those days was a long, expensive, and frustrating experience. The process involved standing in a small booth with a pocket full of change and telling the operator where you wanted to call. Then you waited for the operator to find the number and connect you, while continually feeding change into the coin slot to keep the line open. If you were lucky, the call was connected before you ran out of coins and you would have thirty seconds or so to talk to the other party. The whole process often resulted in damage to the public phone.
Life as a traveling Irish musician is not for the faint of heart, filled as it is with courting (Dahill marries three times and is nicknamed the “Zsa Zsa Gabor of Irish music”), brawling, and drinking. Eventually, Dahill completes rehab, meets his long-time partner (fellow musician and “Danny Who?” editor, Ginny Johnson), and purchases a home in St. Paul.
While it’s interesting to read about the Minnesota Irish music scene as a local, it’s certainly not necessary as readers will come to know and love the people and places in “Danny Who?” thanks to Dahill’s extremely vivid, humorous, and skillful writing style.
Tom Dahill’s “Danny Who?” is one of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve read in the past decade. With its re-release through Gwenwst Books, I hope “Danny Who?” will find the audience and recognition it deserves.
Come join us for Tom Dahill’s book relaunch on Sunday, March 4, 2018 at The Dubliner Pub and Café in St. Paul. Stop by anytime between 2-5pm!
This year I attended Bouchercon for the first time. It was pretty damn good. Here’s why.
Wednesday, October 11th
*SinC Into Great Writing’s “Learn How to Give Your Novel Structure” Workshop with Alexandra Sokoloff
My friend and roommate, Mia Manansala, and I arrived in Toronto a day early to attend the Sisters in Crime’s workshop which was being led by the great author and screenwriter, Alexandra Sokoloff.
We learned about the eight-sequence structure in film. Originally, film reels could hold only fifteen minutes’ worth of film. To keep the audience’s attention while reels of film were being changed, filmmakers would end each fifteen-minute sequence with a question. Alexandra explained that in a 400-page novel, every 50 pages is considered a sequence. Each sequence should end with some sort of cliffhanger or climax of major suspense (someone dies) or minor suspense (phone rings).
We finished our session that evening with a scene-by-scene description of the movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I could write an entire post about that experience, but there’s no need since Alexandra has already done that for us here.
In between sessions, Mia and I checked off two must-have Canadian culinary experiences: poutine and Tim Horton’s. I asked for a “double-double” at Timmy’s.
Thursday, October 12th
First thing in the morning, Mia and I attended “Speed Dating for Authors.” Authors ranging from brand-new to well-known were paired up and given two minutes each to sell us on their books. After five minutes, the authors would move on to the next table of potential readers. As writers working on their first novels, I felt this was an invaluable experience for us as someday (gulp) we might also be in the same position of pitching our completed books.
We met quite a few authors including fellow Finn, Antti Tuomainen, whose darkly humorous book, “The Man Who Died,” sounds wonderful. I was also immediately sold on Sara Driscoll’s “Lone Wolf,” a mystery about an FBI canine handler which features a black lab like the one I had left at home. I told Sara I would see her at noon in the Grand Foyer during her signing.
There were so many other great writers and I was fortunate enough to get photos with a few of them including Leigh Perry (Family Skeleton series), fellow MWA-Midwest member, Lynn Cahoon (Tourist Trap series), and the writing duo of Caroline and Charles Todd (Inspector Rutledge series).
In the afternoon, I went to a few sessions including the interesting “Changing Times: The State of the Publishing Industry” which was moderated by the very talented Clair Lamb.
We went out for dinner and ended up at the same place where we ate lunch. And yes, I had another chicken pot pie, they were that good.
Somehow, we walked by the Pub Quiz that evening with several people including fellow Minnesotan Mindy Mejia (“Everything You Want Me to Be”) and author Dale T. Phillips. Someone (not me) suggested our small group enter the competition.
We were shoved into a corner far from the action (kind of like our own Island of Misfit Toys), and as of question #1, I knew we were screwed. It went something like this:
“On June 16, 1823, there was a steam train that ran through Vancouver every day at noon. Name the steam train, which is also the title of Elvis Murphy Brown IV’s mystery best-seller. Since this is such an easy question, we will only be awarding half a point for the correct answer.”
I am a high school quiz bowl nerd, and I was basically crying inside. Apparently, there was another table shoved into the opposite corner filled with hooligans who kept Googling their answers.
“Table in the corner, stop Googling your answers,” the emcee shouted through the microphone, garnering us tons of negative attention.
“It’s a different table,” we told tables nearby, but they didn’t believe us.
“Guys, we have to get out of here,” someone said (maybe me).
I won’t say *how* we escaped the Pub Quiz without having to walk in front of the emcee and surrounding tables. Suffice to say, we did.
And wrote a musical about it. At the bar. The songs went something like this:
“Take Off” – Bob and Doug McKenzie
“I Lost on Jeopardy” – Weird Al Yankovic
“Questions” – Chris Brown
“Hotel California” – The Eagles
“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” – The Animals
“Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” – Rupert Holmes
“Take the Long Way Home” – Supertramp
“Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin
“Oh Sherrie” – Steve Perry
“Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone” – Glass Tiger
“Looks Like We Made It” – Barry Manilow
“Survivor” – Destiny’s Child
“I Got Friends in Low Places” – Garth Brooks
Requisite photos at the bar:
Saturday, October 14th
Finally, the moment I’d been waiting for all weekend: the 30th Anniversary Sisters in Crime breakfast where I would receive the Eleanor Taylor Bland award for unpublished manuscript by a writer of color. Keeping it short and sweet, I thanked four tremendous women: Eleanor Taylor Bland, Sisters in Crime founder, Sara Paretsky, and my mentors, former Twin Cities SinC President, Erin Hart (Nora Gavin/Cormac Maguire series) and MWA Grand Master, Ellen Hart (Jane Lawless & Sophie Greenway series). Then I got a hug from Sara Paretsky and decided I could die happy now.
Thanks so much to everyone at Sisters in Crime for their support, especially SinC President, Diane Vallere, Beth Wasson, and Gigi Pandian. It was so amazing to win this award. I hope I make you proud.
Later, the “Best Novel” panel delivered some of my favorite quotes:
“The first chapter is Medusa-like. It turns people to stone.” – Laura Lippman
“I didn’t think Still Life would be published so every decision I made in my writing was selfish.” – Louise Penny
“Reading takes away people’s time. I want to make it worth their time. I want to be good company.” – Laura Lippman
I followed this up with the “50 Minute Novel” panel where authors created a plot with audience participation. Well, we lost the plot (something about a Yeti, some spaghetti, the Himalayas, and a finger in the dryer), but nobody cared. Because Charlaine Harris.
I sort of redeemed my high school quiz nerd past life by sweeping James L’Etoile’s prison trivia game during his 20 on 20.
Here were my fabulous prizes. Can’t wait to read his arc, Bury the Past.
Overall, I had a great time at Bcon17. I met people, came away with tons of free books, won an award, got a hug from Sara Paretsky, danced to “That’s Amore,” and shared a meal with Devin Abraham on the way home.
Top Ten Reasons I Love the Writers Police Academy, Part Two
Last year was my first time at the Writers Police Academy and it was amazing. I wasn’t sure what to expect this year, but there was no need to fear: the 2017 WPA was awesome. Here’s why:
1. Road Tripping with Me, Myself, and I. When you drive by yourself, you can roll down the windows while you blare Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”:
“And here I go again on my own Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known, Like a hobo I was born to walk alone”
Although with my hair blowing in the wind, I felt I was a little less “hobo” and a little more “Tawny Kitaen”. But I digress.
2. Old and New Friends. That song we sang in Brownies said make new friends but keep the old so that’s what I did. It was great to see my old buddies Shoshona Freedman, Savannah March, Tes Brown, Jim Bennetts, Josh Cejka, and Mike Riegel of the “Riegel Island” Riegels (sorry, inside joke). Plus, I met some cool new people including Heather Wilson and Rebecca Faye Koss.
I lucked out and got an awesome roomie, Mia Manansala. Mia and I are both having an excellent year; Mia recently won the William F. Deeck Malice Domestic grant and I found out the week before the WPA that I’d won the Sisters in Crime Eleanor Taylor Bland award. We were ready to learn a lot at the Writers Police Academy and celebrate a little, too.
3. Sisters in Crime President Diane Vallere. It was a great honor to meet SinC President Diane Vallere at Thursday’s reception. She was amazing and very down-to-earth. I’d like to give a big shout-out to Sisters in Crime for sponsoring the Writers Police Academy, a great resource for both aspiring and seasoned writers. Looking forward to seeing all of my Sisters at Bouchercon in October!
4. Craig Johnson. On Friday morning, I met Craig Johnson, the author of the Longmire series. He was very friendly and offered up a great speech at the banquet on Saturday night. It was interesting to hear about his career as a writer and his involvement in the Longmire television series. Plus, he said “howdy” to me on Twitter and I almost fainted.
5. Shooting Range. I was fortunate enough to shoot both hand guns and long guns at this year’s academy. I was incredibly impressed by our instructors who had a gentle touch with the people who were nervous about shooting. They were also good eye candy (LOL).
6. Emergency Driving. My instructor’s face after my emergency driving session is priceless. He looks terrified.
7. Martial Arts for Writers. Our instructor, Esoma kung fu master, Howard Lewis, beat the crap out of me as he showed us how to defend ourselves from potential attackers and I liked it. That is all.
8. Gifts and Prizes. As an unexpected bonus, I was given a WPA mug and patch after Saturday’s banquet for referring my roommate, Mia, to this year’s academy which was cool. Mia and I also purchased raffle tickets and Mia ended up winning two K-9 plush animals. She graciously gave me the Mason the Retriever doll to take home as a gift for my son.
9. Purcell’s Lounge. There was drinking and music in the hotel bar each night after the academy wrapped up. It was great to catch up with friends and hear about the classes others had taken. On Saturday night, we let it all hang out and danced with our favorite dance partners, Colleen and Jill. One memory I will take to my grave is when a grown-ass man ran out of the bar while screaming these words at me: “Fine!! You’ve proved your point!!!” I’m not sure what my “point” was (perhaps that I’m a good salsa dancer which I am) but in any case, I will not stop dancing next year until at least *two* grown-ass men run out of the bar screaming at the top of their lungs. #goals
10. Kroll’s East. Before leaving Green Bay, Mia and I met up with another mystery writer, Julia Lightbody, at the famous Kroll’s East. My dining companions, the spaghetti with chili, and the cherry shake were all wonderful.
Overall, I had another amazing year at the Writers Police Academy. I learned a lot, partied a little, and came away with many great ideas for my work-in-progress, The Sundowner. Special thanks to Lee and Denene Lofland and the instructors, staff, and volunteers at Northeast Technical College for all of their hard work and planning. I can’t wait to see what will happen at next year’s academy!
Jessica Ellis Laine is the winner of the 2017 Sisters in Crime Eleanor Taylor Bland award and the 2016 Mystery Writers of America-Midwest Hugh Holton award. She lives online at http://www.jessicaellislaine.com.
World building, normally associated with sci fi and fantasy novels, is something all writers regardless of genre should find important. Whether you’re writing a biography, a memoir, a mystery, or a fantasy, your novel’s world should come alive for the reader. It’s pretty hard for readers to suspend disbelief when they don’t feel grounded in your story.
One way to accomplish world building is to think of your story world as another character. Good characters have flaws, not only because it makes them more human, but because it makes them more interesting. Here’s why story world flaws are important:
If something isn’t out of whack in your story, then you probably don’t have a story. Story world flaws are created by imbalance, instability, and/or corruption (also referred to as the Chaos Factor). In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, we have a world called Panem which is divided into districts. The people in the districts live in poverty, while the people in the capitol live in splendor. This imbalance of power eventually leads to rebellion and insurrection.
Flaws create conflict and tension. As punishment for a past insurrection, the government in The Hunger Games has instituted a Reaping. Each year, young people from the districts are sent to the capitol to participate in a televised death match called the Hunger Games.
Flaws create dilemmas that must be solved. Prim, the younger sister of The Hunger Games’ protagonist, Katniss, is selected to be in the Reaping. To save Prim’s life, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Hunger Games. The act of volunteering then triggers other problems/dilemmas for Katniss (like how to stay alive) over the course of the novel.
Flaws can stem from anything, even things like natural resources. Story world flaws can stem from problems such as discrimination, persecution, censorship, and genocide. Flaws can also originate from things like natural resources and who controls them. Below is the Amazon.com write-up for Salt: A World History:
“In his fifth work of nonfiction, Mark Kurlansky turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions.”
Bet you’ll never look at salt the same way again.
The world and its inhabitants should react with credible response to the chaos effect. Now that you’ve created a flawed world, your main characters should respond/react to those flaws in a realistic manner. We’ve all seen those movies where the protagonist’s over-the-top actions (The Day After Tomorrow, anyone?) have killed our suspension of disbelief. Writers, don’t let this happen to you.
Interested in World Building? I’ll be teaching a class this weekend for all genres of writing and for people who are currently writing a story or have an idea for a story. In class, we will discuss stories in which the world really comes alive for the reader. Everyone will leave class with a story bible template to help them jump start or finish their story world.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to register. More info at: https://www.facebook.com/events/1159186177535739/?ti=icl
At last week’s Twin Cities’ Sisters in Crime meeting, noted mystery writers Jessie Chandler and Pat Dennis walked members through the “do’s and don’t’s” of writing a successful short story. Below are a few highlights from the workshop:
A short story isn’t a seven-layer cake, it’s a cupcake.
I like the visual of the short story as a few bites of delicious storytelling. Don’t overload your story with too many characters or scenes. I’ve noticed that the more I write short stories, the shorter they get. In a short story―unlike in the bedroom―less really is more (lol).
A short story is a watercolor not an oil painting. Paint a portrait of character, mood, atmosphere and setting with brushstrokes, not a trowel. One thing I’ve heard repeatedly is that you don’t have to do all of the work for your reader. Letting the reader fill in some of the blanks in your story makes it a more rewarding experience for them.
Start your story with a bang and end it with an epiphany or “aha” moment. I think this is good advice for writing a story of any length.
Avoid common mistakes. These include sloppy writing, poor grammar, and not following submission guidelines. While each publisher will have their own guidelines, I found a link where you can download the standard format for a manuscript at http://www.shunn.net/format/format.pdf. *You’re welcome.*
More common mistakes. Pat pointed out that if you have any questions about your work, you should listen to your inner voice and figure out what’s not working in your story. Both Jessie and Pat mentioned a big no-no for writers is not taking constructive criticism to heart even if they’ve asked for it. And please thank everyone who reads your work―whether you agree with their comments or not. In this business, it never hurts to be professional and polite.
The timing of the workshop was perfect, coming as it did on the heels of the announcement that the Twin Cities chapter is now accepting submissions for its upcoming anthology, Dark Side of the Loon. As usual, Jessie and Pat were both amazing and Michael Allan Mallory’s handout was super-helpful. Thanks to everyone for a great workshop and a great night.
Interested in World Building? I’ll be teaching a class this weekend for all genres of writing and for people who are currently writing a story or have an idea for a story. In class, we will discuss stories in which the world really comes alive for the reader. Everyone will leave class with a story bible template to help them jump start or finish their story world. Email me at email@example.com to register. More information at: https://www.facebook.com/events/1159186177535739/?ti=icl
I heard about the Writers’ Police Academy from my Sister in Crime, Jessie Chandler, and decided to go this year. It was awesome. Here’s why:
Girls’ Road Trip. On Thursday morning, I took my first road trip in years (sans dog, child, and husband) with two up-and-coming crime writers, Michelle Kubitz and Emily Gorman. Although we had spoken at several Twin Cities Sisters in Crime meetings, it was on this trip that I got to know Shelley and Emily and their writing.
Beer and Cheese. You can’t shake a stick in Wisconsin without hitting a can of beer or a block of cheese. On Thursday afternoon, we ate lunch at the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company in Wausau. I drank a beer in something called a crowler, which is a growler in a can. You learn something new every day.
Supposedly, authentic cheese curds will make a squeaky noise when you bite into them. Did ours do that? I’m not sure because we inhaled them in less than five minutes’ time.
Sisters and Misters. In Green Bay, we realized we were not alone; there were Sisters and Misters everywhere. At the Sisters in Crime table, we introduced ourselves to President Leslie Budewitz and Debra Goldstein. It was a nice way to kick off Thursday night.
Special Ops Show and Tell. At the hands-on demonstrations, we spent some time watching the K-9 officer and his police dog. Then we spoke at length with an officer on the bomb squad team who gave us insight into the challenges his team faces on a regular basis. I came away with some great ideas for my novel-in-progress, a police procedural set in Australia. We wrapped up the event with a photo on this super-humongous bear cat.
Emergency Driving. On Friday morning, I took a “crash course” on Emergency Driving with driving partners, Leslie Budewitz and Karen Heines, and our instructor, Colleen Belongeo. Part of what makes the WPA great is the opportunity to take note of how cops talk, walk, and hold themselves. Our instructors (including Colleen and John Flannery) were so incredibly personable, intelligent and self-assured that I’m sure they’ll end up in many of the writers’ stories. (I know they’re going to end up in mine).
Among other things, Colleen taught us the proper way to round corners at high speed. The experience definitely made me think about what those high-speed chases would be like for my story’s protagonists, a Latina constable and her partner.
Peeps. On Friday and Saturday, we hung out with Doug Dorow and Carol Huss, fellow crime writers from Minnesota. It was fun to review the classes we’d taken and to discuss our stories. We also met crime writers from Milwaukee, Toronto, Vancouver, Virginia Beach, and Seattle. I feel fortunate to have forged connections with all of these incredible people.
Diversity. I had no idea that Green Bay skirts Oneida tribal land. As a writer of color, it was very powerful to see diverse police officers in action at the Writers’ Police Academy. All ages, sexes, and races were represented. Also, as you can see, the “eye candy” quotient was very high. Just sayin’.
Real Cops for Real Writers. Retired Madison police officer, Paul Smith, tugged at my heartstrings when he explained how he developed PTSD following two fatal shootings (he was cleared in both incidents). I can’t imagine a more stressful job than that of a police officer. While the high-stress situations police officers face make for great fiction, the actual toll stress takes on officers can be devastating.Trying to create the mental health support needed for officers is an overwhelming task. I have been following the Victoria Police’s attempts to create a safety net for its officers in Australia following a review last year which stated the department’s “suck it up” management style was its greatest weakness. At one point, Smith considered suicide but was able to turn his life around and now works as a PTSD counselor and law enforcement trainer. The session was very moving, and Smith’s service dog had me at hello (shhh, don’t tell my black Lab, Sinjin). Here we are together―and in love.
Tami Hoag and Long Gun: Live Fire. What can I say about this unbelievable experience? Shooting a .223 patrol rifle. With Tami Hoag at my side.
Tami was the keynote speaker at the banquet on Saturday night. She was so open and honest with us; it was a speech I won’t soon forget.
Dancing. Whaaat? Dancing in Green Bay, Home of the Packers? Yes, yes, and yes. On Friday night, we danced with the enemy (Packer fans) at The Stadium View Bar & Grille, but kept our identities as Vikings fans a secret.
Then we boogied down on Saturday night with our new WPA friends (including Jill and Colleen “The Rock” Belongeo) at Purcell’s Lounge until we shut that mother down.
Overall, I had an amazing time at the Writers’ Police Academy. Many thanks to everyone who made this such an incredible experience for attendees. I will be practicing my dance moves in preparation for next year’s conference. See you in 2017!
I won the Hugh Holton prize last year. The feedback from my mentor, Ted Hertel, has proved to be invaluable as I begin revising my first draft, and just winning the prize has been a great morale booster. I hope many of you will consider taking part in the program this year.