“Write what you know.” That was Mrs. Frances Toepfer’s advice on the first day of English Composition class at Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver more years ago than I wish to acknowledge. She then raised her glasses from the chain around her neck, studied us for a moment, expecting, I suppose, questions. When none came, she lowered her glasses and we got back to work on the assignment she’d just given us.
We all knew what we’d done on our summer vacations, as well as the gamut of experiences from our American middle class upbringing. We knew other things, too. Although I wasn’t interested in comic book superheroes, many of my peers were. That’s what they knew. I, on the other hand, also attended Mr. Dobrovolny’s Russian I course just down the hall, where he attempted to teach us the language, but succeeded in recounting vivid images of the Russian people and their history. That fascinated me. That’s what I knew.
Taking Mrs. Toepfer’s advice to heart, I wrote a story about a Siberian hermit whose two sons had gone off to fight the Nazis in WWII and never came home. Chosen to appear in Lincoln High School’s annual literary publication, Touchstone, I’d titled my story “Kolya’s Valley.”
I recall a fellow contributor to Touchstone—you know the one; the kid who had six separate works, poems and prose, in the collection to everyone else’s single contribution—who told me he really liked my story because it reminded him of Hemingway’s style. After I’d taken a closer look at Hemingway’s writing, my clipped sentences terse to a fault did indeed reflect Hemingway and I thought that was pretty cool. I hadn’t intended to emulate him, but what the hell… Moreover, I’d become sort of a published writer. Not that that meant anything to high school kids in general, but it did to me.
Writing what you know is a good idea. Too many times, though, folks write what they think they know, resulting in Aha! moments which, when found, usually provide cause for the careful reader to set the storytelling aside as unworthy of their time, sending them over to Goodreads to point out the author’s failings.
I was reading a private eye novel not long ago, enjoying it for the most part, and then it happened: The protagonist pulled out his .45 semiautomatic, slid the slide back to seat a cartridge, fired, took cover, and then slid the slide back again for his next shot. Oops. Nah, that’s not how that weapon works. I didn’t hurry over to Goodreads to shame the author, but did look for something else to read.
Careful readers expect credibility from authors. There’s a bond created between authors and readers that lasts as long as what the author has to say is credible, as long as the author provides evidence s/he knows what the hell s/he’s talking about.
I suppose careless readers can stomach careless writing. But who among us would admit to either?
Then again, fantastical writing where the author creates new worlds, visits ancient universes, creates as yet unknown beasts, tweaks known beasts with new twists, or other chimera from the wildest meanderings of their mind probably allows, no, begs for the kind of incredulity we love to explore and believe because it takes us away from our otherwise grounded reality. By what standard do we then judge that author’s credibility?
I wrote a novel not too long ago that included shifters, or what my Navajo character in the book called skinwalkers. I’d never ventured into this realm before, though the plethora of like subject matter, werewolves mostly, seemed to constitute about three-quarters of all novels offered on Amazon at the time, providing me with ample research material before beginning my novel. What I found, however, was a veritable bottomless pit of takes on what these critters did or didn’t do, what they looked like, what their hierarchy was (hierarchies are apparently very important to werewolves), and other details that seemed, oh, affected—the kind of incredulity I really had no interest in experiencing. Then it occurred to me the Navajo peoples’ lore touched on skinwalkers, and wouldn’t it be more worth my time to see what they had to say about them? It was more worth my time, and what my research gave me came from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
Write what you know. Alternatively, perhaps better said, don’t write anything before you research what it is you want to write about, using credible sources to glean at least the basics. (No, you don’t have to seat the cartridge manually with your semiautomatic weapon after the first shot. It does it all by itself.) Then again, if you’re creating worlds out of whole cloth, you’re actually writing what you and only you know. You’re the only credible source. In which case, I guess it’s your job to write well enough so the reader is willing to spend some time with you, to let their reality become yours however incredulous it may be.
First five people to send me a note on my contact page or just leave a comment here, will get a free Audible download of my novel, "Listening to the Dead," thanks to my publisher Steve Berman of Lethe Press.
In The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein wrote about Beethoven: “Imagine a whole lifetime of this struggle, movement after movement, symphony after symphony, sonata after quartet after concerto. Always probing and rejecting in his dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability. This somehow is the key to the mystery of a great artist: that for reasons unknown to him or to anyone else, he will give away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another inevitably. It seems rather an odd way to spend one’s life, but it isn’t so odd when we think that the composer, by doing this, leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.”
It was years ago when I first read this, long before I could claim to be a published author rather than a writer striving to be just that. My first thought after reading it, though, was, yes, shouldn’t writers strive to emulate the kind of inevitability Bernstein saw in Beethoven’s work—a one word following another inevitably in their storytelling? Shouldn’t the reader expect an author to show them something right in the world? Shouldn’t a writer give the reader words they cannot help but remember, one word after another that remains with them for, well, forever? (James Dickey writes in Self-Interviews: “I think poets value remembered things beyond what most people do, and they cannot bear to believe these things will ever be totally expunged.”)
The conclusions I made about a writer’s responsibility to their readers was an embracement of writing where the writer’s voice is unique, strong, even poetic at times. I believe literary rather than genre fiction best reveals the quality of a writer’s voice. Connan the Grammerian, written by Susan Mackay Smith describes the essence of voice: “Voice: the most indefinable, elusive, subtle qualtiy of writing. …Conan can’t define voice but knows it when he reads it.”
I once presented a story at critique about a rumpled, sad, lonely office worker named Dimley (yes, very dark literary fiction) who spent his lunch hour feeding pigeons within a grotto-like recess made from the backs of buildings on three sides. It was raining, and a single streetlamp, “…fooled by the day’s dark, still beamed at the mouth of the grotto.” I ended the story with the pigeons taking flight, the moisture on their wings forming a mist that caught the streetlamp’s glare, thus creating rainbows. “Very near to smiling, Dimley grunted and said, ‘Ah, rainbows.’ He lowered his head, plodded back to the sidewalk, back to the swarm of the salient dread.”
I’ll never forget a comment from my one of my critique partners: “Wouldn’t it make more sense if he just looked toward the street and saw a woman wearing a rainbow-colored skirt?” I was speechless. My voice lost. How could someone not see the inevitable rightness of that rainbow?
Remembered words are the gems of the writer’s voice. The second paragraph of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News comes to mind: “Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.”
Then there’s Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction: “I was a boy, and I believed deeply in the sightedness of horses. I believed that there was nothing that they did not witness. I believed that to have a horse between my legs, to extend my pulse and blood and energy to theirs, enhanced my vision. Made of me a seer. I believed them to be the dappled, sorrel, roan, bay, black pupils in the eyes of God.”
There are wee gems too, like one sentence from Cormack McCarthy’s Suttree: “Under the fanned light of a streetlamp a white china cup handle curled like a sleeping slug.”
I suppose the key to good writing is, firstly, that the writer knows how to write well—there is a difference. Whether that is done through academics, critique sharing, or self-learning from reading the masters probably doesn’t matter that much. (I will admit I still don’t know for sure where the damned comma goes.) But, writing well becomes profoundly good writing only when the muse insists we give away our energies and even our lives (our memory and imagination) to make sure one word follows another inevitably. Genre writing should not preclude occasional literary excursions that cannot help but enrich the storytelling—that component of a good writer’s talent called voice, the elusive stuff of the craft readers cannot help but remember.
Update as of 5/6/2019: I received a call from the Denver FBI Safe Streets Task Force in response to the complaint I filed on the US Attorney's website. The agent and I discussed the below described issue, and left me her number if there are any further developments. I didn't expect to receive a response at all, and am happy to see they're interested.
Haters gonna hate. I’ve said that a few times, usually with a sigh and a shake of my head. The phrase encapsulates an obvious truth along with the acknowledgment there’s not a helluva lot anybody can do about such a thing—a powerlessness that probably defines the world we live in these days, something reflective of Trump’s America, something emboldened by Trump’s America.
Ten years ago, I wrote a novel about a young man who returned to Colorado and Wyoming after serving honorably in combat with the US Army during Desert Storm in Iraq. I gave the young man a last name I’d first heard when I was in college more years ago than I wish to admit. The name belonged to a kid I’d washed dishes with in the dorm, both of us working our way through school. His home was in Northeastern Colorado, a farming and ranching community near the Wyoming border. When I began to write the novel, I immediately thought of my friend and his life on the high Colorado prairie, and believed that vision was a perfect starting point for my novel, a work of fiction drawing on my memories. My friend absolutely did not share my sexual orientation, and mirrored nothing of my fictional character's traits. When it came time to give my protagonist a first name I knew what it would be. How could it be anything else? Here’s my protagonist’s mother telling him how that went:
“Skunk drunk, standing over the birthing bed, you came two weeks early,” his mother had told him more than once. “Your daddy breathin’ pure fumes, wobblin’ on his feet, a fat ol’ cigar rollin’ side to side across his mouth, he looks down at you in my arms and says, ‘Gonna name him Big.’ ‘Roy,’ I says, ‘what you got in mind for a big name?’ Well, he stops chewin’ on that cigar and stares at me real serious. ‘Big,’ he says. ‘Gonna name him Big Diehl.’ Well, wasn’t no arguin’ with your daddy, as you surely know.”
MLR Press published the novel in 2010, with the protagonist’s name prominently displayed on the cover. It was a gay-themed novel with snippets of intimacy here and there, but intended to portray this young man as an honorable, good and decent person caught up in circumstances he was hard-pressed to control.
Fast forward to last week, I received a comment on my author website reading:
Why are you illegally, unlawfully, criminally, and corruptly using my name in your crazy gay psycho books? What should I say and do to you for all that?
The comment included the email of the individual whose last name shared my fictional character’s name. I responded:
Hello, . If I knew you, and if I my intent was to maliciously defame you, then you might have a point. I don’t know you, the name ‘Big Diehl’ is a fictional character created ten years ago, and here’s what the copyright says: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Now, if it is your intent to threaten me, that’s another matter altogether, something which is covered by Colorado statutes and, I suspect, statutes in whatever state you live in.
In response to my initial comment to him, he then proceeded to send about forty emails—all harassing, and most threatening. His contention is that his name is licensed and registered:
An I'm the Owner, President, CEO, COO, CFO, Chairman, Director, Shareholder, and etc. My schedule is open all year. We can absolutely set up a meeting when EVER and meet face to face an I'll most certainly tell you about it with my Registration and License in my hand and the Law Book!
Well, I don’t know what corporation he claims to own, nor is there any ability to copyright a name, but what seems to be the gist of his contention is that I am sexually harassing and threatening him via my ten year old book. He has made of himself a victim, a convoluted argument that defies logic.
And are you aware that you're sexually harassing me and stuff with your gay whatever that is using my real name in your gay fictional book?
Do you know what happens to you because you homosexually harass me and try to use my name and fraudulently write about me? Do you really know how much SEXUAL HARASSMENT that is and what REALLY happens to you for it and all the people involved with you in the conspiracy?
Should we set up a meeting in Colorado so we can talk face to face about it? Idk. I definitely got people out there!
With stuff like this I think the small hairs on your neck begin to twitch when the prospect arises that some faceless person might head your way for a confrontation, or, indeed, that his people might pay you a visit.
What's your address in Colorado? I think you need to meet Mr. Diehl or Big Diehl. Don't you?
After twenty or so emails, here’s what I told the guy:
Wonder why I haven't blocked you yet, ______ . Got a nice collection of threats to show law enforcement, and attorney. Additionally, like my fictional character, Big Diehl, I learned a lot of skills at Fort Polk, LA. There's no "meeting" to be set up. This is Colorado Law:
1.1. The legal definition of “credible threat”
“Credible threat” means a threat, physical action, or repeated conduct that would cause a reasonable person to be in fear for the person's safety or the safety of his or her immediate family or of someone with whom the person has or has had a continuing relationship. The threat need not be directly expressed if the totality of the conduct would cause a reasonable person such fear.1
Credible threats can be made in-person or by:
written or typed letter,
any other means of communication.
Well, that didn’t set to well:
FUCK YOU AND YOUR REPULSIVE GAY SHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! GO FUCK YOURSELF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! VERY BAD SHIT IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU AND THE PEOPLE INVOLVED, YOU CRAZY PSYCHO FAGGOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And fuck you for threatening me with law enforcement!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I WILL FUCK YOU UP FOR ALL THAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! An I'll tell law enforcement and the whole world about it and not give a fuck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I'll BREAK your faggot arm off first, Mr. Seaton!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
DO you see how much threat you're under and how way too much of a risk EVERYTHING and EVERYWHERE is for you because you fraudulently use my name and try to write about Big Diehl, Mr. Seaton???????????? You can see that??????????!!!!
Guess what happened to the last person who threatened me with law enforcement. Do you think they're alive?
I'm going to make you pay dearly for trying to misrepresent Big Diehl with you and your dumbass crazy psycho faggot shit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I'll get every single one of your dumbass crazy psycho faggot books and burn them all, live, for everyone to see!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And with you DEAD OR alive!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
You got the biggest problems of your life.
An I'll dedicate the rest of my life to fucking you up and fucking faggots up for all that and eradicate you all from the planet. FUCK YOU, DIE AND GO TO HELL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
After that last nicety, I decided to do three things: 1) File a complaint with the local sheriff up here; 2) File a complaint on the Denver US Attorney’s website (though in Trump world, the Justice Department probably couldn’t care less); and buy a shotgun. I accomplished all three of my goals last Friday.
We live in a rural mountain community where progressive thinking is condemned with words like Libtard and Snowflake, and I didn’t have much faith the Park County Colorado Sheriff’s Department would take this very seriously. Nevertheless, I met with a deputy and gave him a summary of what the issue was, along with a list of all the emails this fellow had sent to me. I told him my only intent on filing a report was to have the incident documented for future reference if the individual actually did take a trip to see me. The deputy was bright, interested, responsive, kind, and professional. He opened a case file, and advised me to tell the guy that any further communication with me would be forwarded to the sheriff, and a criminal investigation would be commenced.
Here’s what I sent:
You will immediately cease any further communication with me. I have filed a complaint with the US Attorney in Denver, and the Park County Sheriff's department, including a detailed record of your harassment, threats, and hate speech. I am blocking you, and if I find additional messages from you in my spam account, I will forward those to the appropriate authorities.
In spite of my demand, he continued:
Do you know you get the DEATH PENALTY for your crazy psycho gay witchcraft? ● Witchcraft Act of 1541 (33 Hen. 8, ch. 8) and Witchcraft Act of 1603 (1 Jac. ch. 12), a felony punishable by death without benefit of clergy. An I want you DEAD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And you and your faggot friends trying to do faggot witchcraft with your crazy psycho fag books WILL serve the DEATH PENALTY, Mr. Seaton!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And, please, stop threatening me with the police, Mr. Seaton!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Worse stuff happens to you and the corrupt police for that, Mr. Seaton!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Here’s what the Park County Sheriff’s Department sent:
April 26, 2019
First Name Redacted Diehl Email Redacted
Case Report 2019000334
We have received a credible report of threats including an extensive inventory of emails that support the allegations.
This office has opened a case file for the incident.
It is our understanding that the recipient of the emails, George Seaton, has instructed the sender to stop sending emails and stop further communication. If this is not the case, on behalf of George Seaton, this office is instructing the person identifying as First Name Redacted Diehl to discontinue all communications.
If further emails of any nature or any content are sent to George Seaton by the sender identifying themselves as First Name Redacted Diehl, and/or from Email Redacted, this office will consider the communications as a criminal act and we will open a criminal investigation with an end toward prosecution.
Please call me if you have any questions.
I bought a Mossberg 12 gauge, pump action, pistol grip shotgun on Friday. It’s a beauty, holding five rounds of Critical Defense 00 buckshot that travels from the end of the barrel at 1600 feet per second. I already had a Colt snub-nosed .38, and an M 1911-A Remington .45 caliber semi-automatic, but, as the story goes, I needed a bit more firepower.
My father, a career cop in Denver, taught me how to shoot, and the US Army gave me some valuable pointers as well. I’ve got a concealed/carry permit issued by the Park County Colorado Sheriff’s Office, and though I rarely carried after I got it, I have begun to do so.
I and law enforcement know where this guy lives--state, city, and address. We know how old he is, and we have other information that may come in handy later on.
Haters gonna hate. Their illogic defines them, and they wear their insecurities on their sleeves. I believe it is a tribal phenomenon hearkening back to that time when human beings emerged from the primordial soup of life. Somewhere along the lines of our development, the tribes split, some going toward the light, others remaining comfortable in the darkness.
These kinds of online harassment, threats, and hate are commonplace nowadays. Those who receive them should take them seriously. Not long ago a young woman obsessed with the Columbine High School shooting who was on the FBI's radar, headed to Colorado from Florida, bought a gun in Colorado, and consequently 500,000 Colorado students were told to stay home until the threat was over. Most of us don't have the FBI at our backs. Most of us have to make do with what we've got.
Be careful out there.