Igor’s Hump – Installment 6

Back with Lentz and Roach, exacta ticket in hand, Jack slid into his booth and sat back waiting for the horses to load for Pimlico’s seventh race. He watched the loaders twist the tail of the Six to get her into the gate. Even then, she was thrashing around, burning up energy. “Burn, baby burn.” Jack thought. His buddies were again howling at the monitors. This time it was a race out of Delaware Park.  They had money to bet and apparently were betting with both hands.

“And, they’re off!” yelled the Pimlico track announcer. Rapid-fire, he described a good, trouble-free start. The One, the front end of Jack’s bet, immediately took the lead with the Three and Four settling in behind. The Seven, the other half of his straight Exacta, was right there as well. The rest trailed, including Doberman’s Six horse, Darla’s X-Press. She clearly was having trouble keeping to task.

The sloppy going was evident, especially on the rail. Just the same, the rider of Jack’s Seven horse had worked his way over from the outside postposition to the rail and was saving ground through the first turn. There was also bumping, as most of the jockeys tried to stay in the middle of the track. Jack worried that both of his horses had chosen sloppy rail trips through the first turn and into the backstretch. It was likely to be sapping energy that they would both need for the stretch run.

The Three runner was rating, just off the hindquarters of the front-runner, his jockey practically standing up in the irons, trying to control his nag’s pace. It looked like he had plenty of horse. Now, where was Jack’s Seven? All that was visible was a knot of horses behind the leaders.

“Who’d you bet, Jack?” asked Lentz.  “I hope it was the Three.”

“Yeah, the Three is the goods. Going to pair-up on his top race. Two points faster than anyone else,” put in Roach. “The One should bounce.”

“I bet the One-Seven Exacta,” Jack said evenly. That sent Roach and Lentz scrambling back to The Sheetsto check if they had missed something about the Seven. Satisfied, they settled back simultaneously as if they were joined at the hip.            The field was into the far turn. Things were starting to happen. The Three slid to the outside and started to make her move on the One. There were others moving forward, as well. As they came out of the turn, the challenger drew along side of the leader’s bit. Then, the One responded, exploding into a new gear and pulling away from her nearby rival.

“Excellent, the Three’s tired. Now where’s the Seven?” thought Jack.

“Our girl’s done, Lentz,” said Roach. “How many minutes to Belmont?”

Jack watched the One cruising in front, just off the rail. He studied the monitor for a sign of the Seven’s maroon saddle cloth to emerge from the close-packed trailers. There it was!  Tiring horses allowed her to get clear on the rail, and she was taking dead aim on a second place finish and money in Jack’s pocket.

“Oh, yesss! Run you sweet thing!” Jack had almost forgotten what this felt like.

“You have the Six for second?” Lentz asked innocently.

“The Six? What do you mean, Six? That’s the Seven on the rail. That’s my One-Seven Exacta!”

The air in Jack’s balloon began to leak as he noticed a horse coming like a freight train way out in the middle of the track – the driest part of the track.  He watched in abject horror as the muck closer to the rail began to take its toll on both the One and the Seven. He couldn’t watch and wasn’t watching as the Six wore down the Seven and caught the One at the wire in glacial time.  Darla’s X-Press paid fifty-four dollars to Win.  Jack’s exacta paid squat.

Igor’s Hump – Installment 5

The horses were in the post parade for the seventh at Pimlico, a twenty thousand dollar Optional Claiming Race for three year old winners of two races.  For the most part, they were pretty good fillies who had proven they could run. Jack agreed with the crowd that the favorite, the One horse, was a lock.  But, three or four others in the field of eight could run second.  He needed that Place horse to pair with the nine-to-five favorite in a straight Exacta. It was the only way he was going to find any value at all in this race.  With his stake dwindling, he couldn’t afford to key the One over four other possible second place finishers. He needed that second horse and at good odds.  Jack settled on the Seven at ten-to-one. She had an outside post with speed inside of her. This was not good.  She seemed fit, though, coming off the layoff, steady works, bred okay for the mile and a sixteenth distance.  A ten-dollar straight exacta, One over Seven, was his bet. If he hit, it would be worth about two hundred bucks, putting him ahead for the day.

Jack stood behind Lentz and Roach who were up and screaming at the Churchill Downs monitor. The Sheetssaid the Three at fifteen-to-one, was the fastest in a field of twelve and he was pulling away in the deep stretch. They were all over it and were already congratulating themselves. Their day was made.

“You guys look at Pimlico?” Jack asked.

“Pimlico? The money’s at Churchill!” said Roach, doing a modified moonwalk.

“The money’s here, right here in my pocket. Ooh, yeah!” crowed Lentz.


Jack walked away toward the betting windows. It wasn’t jealousy, exactly. It was closer to that feeling you get when your wife’s dinner looks a lot better than the one you ordered.  He was also distracted. The innate, bat-like radar that keeps bettors from careening off of each other when they’re glued toThe Formwasn’t working for him. He almost left shoe prints on the bald head of a very short, rotund handicapper. The guy couldn’t have been more than four and a half feet tall.

Amazingly, Jack recognized his victim as someone he knew from the National Guard.  He didn’t know him, exactly. He was one of a whole lot of strange people that found themselves in the quasi-military life that was the Maryland National Guard during Nam.  He remembered overhearing this guy say that he made a living in saloons, selling socks to the patrons. (He called them “hose.”) He described going in and out of the bars lining Pennsylvania Avenue.  Jack was amazed that he was still alive.  Actually, the man was very much alive.

“What the hell’s a matter with you! I’m standing here!”

It was the aggressiveness one might expect from a Joe Pesce in Good Fellows.  But his face carried that placid, stupid look, found only on certain Guernsey’s. Or, what was that guy’s name on that old TV show with Sergeant Bilko? Doberman. Yeah, like Private Doberman.

The little round man wore a pair of bleach-stained, husky-boy dungarees with the cuffs rolled up. The blue jeans bulged, and then disappeared under an orange sweat-shirt with a big cartoon chicken on it. His shirt read: “Big Pecker’s Café.” In his hands he held The Racing Formand a plastic rain hat, the kind that old ladies keep in their purses just in case.  The stub of a Swisher’s Sweet crook cigar hung in the spot that used to be occupied by a canine tooth.

“Hey, don’t I know you?”

“No. I don’t think you do.” Jack replied quickly, attempting to flee.

“Yeah, I do. You were one of those snotty Guard pukes I once knew. Who do you like in this race? How about the Six? She looks full of herself.”

“I’m betting the One-Seven. What do you mean she’s full of herself?”

“I hangout in the paddock when they’re saddling up. The Six, Darla’s X-Press, looks like shit, four ankle wraps and a narrow ass, but she tried to bite two other horses. I’m bettin’ she’s hungry.”

With that, they were accosted by a blousy woman, wearing a big-haired, blonde  wig. She could have been a hundred years old, but she was wearing skin-tight, red Capri pants. She was also attracting stares from all the old farts who couldn’t remember whether a nice ass looked like that or not.

“Come on, honey. Stop hanging around with these deadbeats. I’m hungry,” she whined.

“Nice seeing you again, sport.”

As she dragged him off in the direction of the Triple Crown Room, Doberman leaned back toward Jack and whispered with a lewd wink: “I told her I was an ex-jockey. They love jocks.”

Igor’s Hump – Installment #4

Around two o’clock the pattern of the day had begun to take shape.  Roach had won early and lost it back early. He was back to even and thinking about raising his bets to make up for lost time. This was the next worst thing to being behind. Lentz was cashing tickets, but they were mostly cheap Exactas and small one-dollar Triple Boxes. He was in good shape, though, being patient. He knew he had the cash to score big when The Sheetsgave him that long-shot of the day.

Jack was quiet, trying to ignore the steady, back and forth track-talk rhythm between his buddies. It was still raining hard in Baltimore and in New York. His mud strategy was backfiring and he was losing. His loses were small but steady. He still had two thirds of the day’s allotted stake, but unless something changed, that would be gone in another hour. He began to think about a radical change of method.

“That three horse don’t know he’s a piece of shit. He don’t even care.”

This observation floated over the short separator of the booth to Jack’s right. Sitting there, talking to himself was a very old, very black man. He had the look of a dried apple.  Creases ran inwardly from around his eyes and ears, meeting somewhere near his mouth. His face seemed to be caving in on itself. He was chewing slowly, thoughtfully. His hands were the thick, gnarled tools of a life-long bricklayer. They held a once-bitten peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white that Jack thought looked delicious.

“You looking at the three in the fifth at Belmont?” Jack asked his neighbor.  “I couldn’t pick that horse in a one horse race.”

Without looking away from the monitor, the old man put the sandwich down on top of his Program. He moved it to his right, away from Jack.

“Sometimes, the animals don’t know they can’t win. That’s when you wanna bet ‘em.”

“You have a way of telling that?” Jack asked. But, apparently, the exchange was at an end. The old man closed his program on top of the pee bee and jay, slowly rose and disappeared somewhere out the back door toward the Track Kitchen.


On wet days, because of scratches or because of problems in loading horses into the gate, gaps of as much as fifteen minutes arise before the multi-track bettors have a race to bet.  This is when they grab a drink, make a call or go to the Men’s.  Jack and Lentz walked together to answer Nature’s call. Roach had gone in that same direction at a sprint a few minutes earlier.

“How are you doing?” Lentz asked Jack. “Need any money?”

“Not yet. You look like you’re doing OK.”

They had become friends forty years earlier, having met on the number forty four bus on the way to the first day of high school.  Small, short-term loans ebbed and flowed between them over the years, each confident that they would see a loan returned.

Jack shoved on the door marked “Gentlemen,” and walked to one of the rust- stained sinks to wash The Racing Form’sink off his hands. Lentz found a likely stall and pushed the door open with a short kick.

“Hey, goddammit, I’m in here!” It was Roach, not looking good. He sat, head in one hand, Programin the other, pen in mouth.

“It’s aliiive!” parodied Lentz, doing the old Frankensteinmovie. He loved flicks. But, he loved telling his friends about them even more, providing them with details of movies they had seen themselves. Out of earshot, they would call his reviews “Cecil B. DeMildews.”

“Hey, I watched the Young Frankensteinon cable last night.” Jack was into late night TV.

“That’s a funny-ass movie. Igor is great!”

Referring to Marty Feldman’s classic hunchback, Lentz pronounced the name correctly as: “Eye-gor.”

“How about when Gene Wilder says to him: ‘I can fix that hump.’ And, Igor says: ‘What hump?’”

“Five minutes to Churchill.”

This bulletin came from Roach bolting from his stall, like Secretariat on a buzzer. His fly was down and he trailed a long line of toilet paper, stuck to the heel of his shoe.

“Don’t tell him.” Lentz hadn’t yet forgotten the undiscussed $21.80 win in Pimlico’s first.

Jack wasn’t paying attention. Something was coming together for him. Something was synthesizing in the right side of his brain. It was something that had to do with what the old man had said and the recounting of the Igor scene.  If people or horses didn’t recognize or acknowledge their problems, for all intents and purposes, did the problems exist? Or, maybe it wasn’t a matter of recognition.  Maybe it is more of a taking control of how they make their way in the world, regardless of their problems.  But, horses are just dumb beasts.  How the hell could he tell whether some nag had high self-esteem?  His head hurt. He reached into his pocket for the aspirin that wasn’t there.

Playing The Role of Author

Recently, I had a very pleasant experience playing golf with high school buddies that I had not seen for awhile. My round once again proved to be a humbling experience.  Yet, all of the sliced drives, chunked wedges and missed putts were easily forgotten during a highly successful 19th hole. It seems that, when sitting on a bar stool, my muscle memory is quite good – I keep my head down, my balance and weight shift are perfect, my arms are extended properly and my elbow tucked whenever I am about to hit a nice, long, cold gin and tonic.

I like reunions of all sorts, probably because I still have most of my hair and I can still see some of my belt buckle. I don’t mind at all listening to former cronies talk about grandchildren, corporate careers, vacation homes, lawn care tips and applying for Social Security. It’s fun talking to old friends who have accomplished something over the years since our days of punching each other in the arm and using “douche bag” as our favorite epithet.  Some of my amusement comes in trying to reconcile the people my friends have become with who they were in the past. Normally, I have no expectation that these guys would have changed at all. They have changed of course and this comes as a mild surprise because I like to entertain the idea that I haven’t changed a bit in all of the years.

If truth were to be known, I still find the old jokes funny; I still want to punch my friends in the arm; and, I still want to make them laugh by saying something clever and rude. As hard as I try to break myself of this habit with friends, I liked who I was and in a lot of ways still want to be that hale fellow. In the olden days, I drew my energy from those around me and it worked.

But therein lies the rub. While I may not recognize it, or want to admit it, I have changed, just as my friends have.  This denial is the likely source of my discomfort when someone approaches me at the occasional golf outing and says: “ Hey, I hear you’ve written a book!”

I should be used to this kind of comment by now, but I’m not. It’s clearly a friendly approach, intended to express an interest in me. But I was never a writer of books in the long, dim past and I find it very difficult to see myself as such.  My yearbook says I was the one most likely to recede, not most likely to proofread or maybe re-read. My novels just sort of happened. So, my typical response is to make a joke, to play the fool in some other way or to downplay it by commenting that sales aren’t what I’d like them to be.  In short, I tend to deflect the responsibility for whatever success there is in getting a book out.

Knowing this to be a very unattractive trait, I currently am taking re-hab advice from Princeton’s (et al.) Amy Cuddy.  Dr. Cuddy is a social scientist who, among other things, is known for theories of body language and personal power. She argues convincingly that we should “fake it until you make it.”  In fact, Dr. Cuddy has taken that notion a step further to advise: fake it until you becomeit. She talks about a personal epiphany in her teaching when the day came that she realized that she no longer had to fake it as an Ivy League professor, as she said she had in her early days. In fact, the ah-ha moment came when, after repeatedly standing in front of a class, she realized that she actually had become what she was supposed to be.

I am now on the Cuddy Plan. I continue to write and when I’m not writing, I try to play the role of author as I know it. Maybe after my tenth novel, maybe when sheer volume argues against my fear of the change in me, I will have become what I aspire to be. I may even be able to talk about it as an adult.


May, 2018

Igor’s Hump -Installment #3

“Hello, sports fans!”

This was his worn greeting to Lentz and Roach, his long-time associates, and kindred racing aficionados. They were early, as always, to work the numbers from the “Sheets” and to catch the first at Calder, post time twelve noon.

“Where you been? Five minutes to Belmont. What Sheets you need? Your cut is twelve bucks. Gimme.”

This came from Roach who was referring to an often-valuable source of published racing data that was gaining popularity among the hard-core handicappers.

“Ignore him,” growled Lentz. “Roach, you’re a rude sumbitch. Here, Jack, we saved you a chair. They’re off the turf at Belmont and Pimlico. Wet as hell.”

Jack ignored Roach’s request for payment and edged into the booth next to Lentz. He checked the minutes-to-post at Pimlico, Belmont and Churchill and opened his form.

“Gimme Pimlico. I’m going to focus on one track today – unless I start winning.”

Jack was a traditional user of The Racing Form – “America’s Turf Authority Since 1894.”   He preferred seeing the past performances laid out so he could assess the trainers’ strategies and the conditioning cycle of the horse. This was his present handicapping system, his latest in a series of abandoned stratagems that stretched back over the years. The Thorograph Sheets were just additional input to support his picks or point out something he might have missed reading The Form.

Lentz and Roach, however, were acolytes of The Sheets. This data was their primary handicapping source and The Form or a Daily Program was used only to reinforce selections. The Sheets gave you speed. That meant more tracks and more action. Jack’s friends would juggle tracks, races, horses, post times and wagers like they were performing in Circ du Soleil. On a good afternoon, they would study six to twelve horses per race for ten races at five tracks. The composite figures of The Sheets allowed a rapid arrival at the two or three picks in each race worth betting. A huddle just before post-time and a sprint to the betting machines took less than five minutes. Gliding in like Canada Geese returning to a familiar pond, they were in their seats in enough time to stare up at the appropriate TV to watch every start. On a five hundred-horse day, you could almost hear an electronic hum coming from them.

This was too close to real work for Jack. Where was the art of a well-handicapped win? Their process put you on the clock, big-time.   Success was dependent upon getting into a frenetic groove. They were both quite good at it, though. If he were to guess, over time, his friends were probably a little ahead of the game. On occasion, they would have a spectacular day. This was especially true about Roach whose handicapping logic was inscrutable, often singing the praises of a “can’t miss,” then changing his selection at the betting window. This, of course, was infuriating to Lentz who would sit stewing, as Roach rooted for a horse they hadn’t even discussed.

“My Two’s got the lead! Come on, wire. Come on, wire! Hit him again, Pino. Christ, he’s dragging an anchor! Die Four, die! I’m gonna get beat! Where’d that piece of shit get the speed?”

“That horse is two for four in the mud. A grandson of Mr. Prospector. Has won here before. Some back class.” Jack answered his friend’s rhetorical question – a service that was not appreciated.

“D’you guys have that?” asked Roach, tucking his $5 win ticket in the band inside of his worn Preakness ’95 baseball cap. “Paid $21.80. He looked good to me.”

That revelation produced a sour stare from Lentz. The winner had not been discussed between them. But his loss didn’t last long. He was focused on another race, at another track before the horse that ran fourth got under the wire.

Jack hadn’t bet the race, the first there at Pimlico. He had not yet settled in and needed to get acclimated. He wove his fingers together, reversed his hands, stretched them out over his open Form and cracked his knuckles. Now he was ready.

Progress and Creativity

It has been some time since I’ve added to this Baltimore Tales blog and I apologize for the abandonment of my readers. While you have been on my mind, I’ve been stuck in a bit of a low tide in my writing, particularly when it comes to my current novel, Aesop’s Fox. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, really. Rather, I’d say that I just haven’t felt the same push to write as I have in the past, when working out the story would wake me up at night. Some of that has to do with the inertia that comes with sitting on a completed third novel, yet to be published. But, more so, the creative juices that used to be in such plentiful supply have seemed hard to come by over the last year.

If you read writers’ blogs (and I assume you do, since you’re reading this), you know there is a world of how-to-write-a-novel advice out there. The best blogs, however, seem to have a few common denominators. There are two that have stuck with me: 1) make progress every day, any kind of progress, even if its just thinking about the stuff; and 2) find ways to spur creativity. This second requires the belief that creativity can be developed, like a muscle, and doesn’t always arrive in a grand epiphany and isn’t just visited upon those of God’s children who are “creative.”

Regardless of the slowing of my deathless prose, it has been an eventful year for me. In fact, progress has been made and, to take the advice of Grace Slick’s dormouse, I have also managed to feed my head. First, I waded through the editing, design and publishing process once again, and my third book, No Slave To Reason, will now be available by April of this year. Whew. It seems to have taken forever, but I do think it a worthy read. This is progress, not writing progress particularly, but progress nonetheless. With the mechanics of getting a book out behind me, I am once again starting to think about my characters in Aesop’s Fox.

When it comes to spurring creativity, I have moved the ball there a bit as well. Thinkers and researchers, like Daniel Pink and Malcolm Gladwell, offer an array of ways to build creative thought. Among these is the recommendation that writers travel, see the world, experience other places and other people. I have done just that. This winter I was fortunate enough to visit not only Death Valley, California, but I also took a long tour of Southeast Asia. These are vastly different experiences, of course, each offering valuable perspective. But it is their very contrast that provides added value. They are bookends of a sort, different reaches of a spectrum perhaps. Oceans aside, both are unique, almost opposite examples of the world’s geography. The two places also contrast severely when considering the people who live there.

To explain, the vast, open tracts and the huge skies over the natural beauty that is Death Valley allow us to see how big the world is and how small we are. This is pretty introspective stuff but it could well impact character development in stories yet to be written. The people I met there were independent, laconic and tended to want to be left alone. They seemed to be living a bit of the legacy left over from the time of lonely prospectors and twenty mule teams that inched their way over borax and salt flats to some unseen point in the distance. Good stuff for that character who needs to show detachment.

On the other hand, Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia and Luang Prabang in Laos provide the other end of the spectrum of human existence. There, people are noisy, energetic, long-suffering and in-your-face close. The sidewalks are packed at all hours, often with squatting people, gossiping and dining on sticky rice or pho. Negotiating the crazy, swirling rivers of people and motorbikes on the streets is just as disconcerting, yet oddly exhilarating. And it’s not much different in the countryside. These are warm people, all about family and relationships, happy to talk to you (even if it’s just to practice their English), each with a story and very comfortable with standing on your toes while waiting for a tram. They exist in a crowd and carve a small space for themselves within it. Here too is character development.

So, now awakened to two previously unimagined ways of life and living, where will my Baltimore characters go? How will they react? What will they say? In truth, I don’t know. But I do know that new experience will surface new ideas about people and new ways to solve the problems they create for themselves. The impact on my writing is likely to be osmotic, seeping into my consciousness and ultimately into my characters. And that is progress. Once again, finally, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.


NEXT BLOG POST: The third installment of Igor’s Hump

Short Story: Igor’s Hump, Installment 2

My March post welcomed visitors to the site (www.baltimoretales.com) and offered the first installment of my short story, Igor’s Hump. Here is the second bite of my parable about playing the ponies with our right brain.

Igor’s Hump – Part 2

Sloppy or not, humans, like horses, can run in the heavy going. All they need is a good break and a little breeding. His mood lifted. One more time, he recited the handicappers’ pre-game psych: “One never knows. You may be walking around lucky and not even know it.”

This prayer was handed down as a gift to horseplayers all over the world in the holiest of movies, Let It Ride. As the down-on-his-luck plunger, Trotter, experiences the handicapping day of his life, he utters the benediction that captures us and lifts us over lost tickets, bad beats, losing streaks, divorces and other misfortunes. That’s simply because prayers do get answered, sometimes.

Jack yanked open the portal to fame and fortune, strode through it and reached for the ancient wallet in his back pocket. A horse-faced, dyspeptic woman sat in a booth, guarding the entry and controlling the crotch-level roll bar of its turnstile. A plastic “Hi. I’m Doris!” nametag dangled from a menacing left breast. Jack knew that Doris hated him and didn’t want to take his three-buck admission. If it were up to her, she would simply refuse to let him through, checking him with a snort and nickering: “We got enough cheap claimers like you in here already.”

Avoiding her glare, he stared at her left warhead and said: “Doris, huh? What do you call the other one?” This got him a look reminiscent of a large-mouth bass mounted on the wall of a club basement.

Quickly, he was through the barrier and focused on the scene ahead of him. Jack started to relax as he nodded to the retired cop in the orthopedic shoes. He ignored the lying sellers of the Stable Boy and Jack’s Card tout sheets, of course, and waded in among Baltimore’s true racing fans.

The first floor of Pimlico’s grandstand had a decent crowd today, rain or no rain. It was a Thursday crowd, not the “Go Baby, Go” racing crowd of NTRA promotions, but the regulars. These were the guys who drove huge, late-model American cars. Their engines burned oil and sported a bit of rust, but they still served to tell the world of that one big score.

Jack walked deeper into the building and into an area of individual seats and desks that could have come out of some high school language lab. They stood in rows like pews before a wall of TVs that allowed supplicants to worship at the altar of Aqueduct, Tampa Bay or Churchill Downs. Betting terminals, voucher machines and an ATM lined the wall on the left, steps away. Here, men rarely looked straight ahead. They either looked down at a racing program or up to the TV that held their hopes.

There were no “swells” here. Owners in suits, women in broad hats, twenty-something rookies trying to impress their dates and the Lunch-At-Pimlico crowd never stopped in this section. This was the part of the building most people believed needed to be torn down and rebuilt or at least painted. This was the Pimlico that slots could really help, or so they said. Who comes to the races and never watches a live race anyway?

He didn’t feel that way. He liked it as it was. He liked it seedy and ill lit. It reminded him of the last days of Memorial Stadium when he and Annie would sit in Section E6, just far enough away from Wild Bill Hagy and his contortionist’s spelling of O-R-I-O-L-E-S . They would lounge in the empty bleachers, sharing fresh ham sandwiches that she had picked up from the Lexington Market on her way out of Downtown. They would drink a smuggled-in National Boh or two and watch the Birds win or lose a summer night game. It didn’t matter which. The old place had just the right number of people and plenty of room to stretch out. Then, they built Camden Yards and the fun went out of it. It was like trading Geena Davis for Brittany Spears, familiar and comfortable for flash and hype. He and the other regulars knew the same fate would befall Pimlico one day. But, not today. Today, she was Geena Davis. Today, he was walking around lucky.

High-Wire Writing

The majority of questions I get asked have nothing to do with my plots or my characters. Rather, people ask about the mechanics of writing – how did I get started, what are my work habits, how did I choose a structure, how do I get my ideas, how long did it take to write a novel? What this says to me is that there are a lot of would-be writers out there who just haven’t yet (or never will) jump into the pool. I also suspect that many of these folks are thinking: hell, if he can do it, so can I. They have a point.

My answers to these questions never seem to satisfy. The reason is that I tend to be all over the map with my processes. Part of it is because I’m just learning to write myself and, if I’m smart, I will never stop learning and changing.

Getting started was actually easy for me and probably was the result of years of internal pressure building up. I have always written something, although for years it was mostly business writing – letters, analysis, reports, etc. – with a few short stories and some false starts on novels. Then, one day I read a serious historical work on Baltimore’s Firehouse gangs. The topic was fascinating and it was about the city I love. I wanted more, but there wasn’t anymore. I saw multiple untold stories in the history, so I began to tell them as I imagined them.

I found that the writing came easily, the research was great fun and editing was both contemplative and satisfying. I say the writing was easy, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t fits and starts, errors and revisions. It was drilled into me by the Jesuits to first construct an outline for anything I write. I did that and initially it was helpful, but it wasn’t too far into Plug Ugly Ball that something happened. The characters took over. In an effort to be true to the players I had envisioned, I kept finding myself out on planks with nowhere to go except down into the deep blue. So, solving problems around personality or plot or historical accuracy became my creative focus. This process changed my original outline dramatically to the point of it being useless. I began writing what was out in front of my characters’ noses, letting them take the lead, letting them live their lives as best they could. This created a lot of loose ends and no clear idea where I was going or how it all would end. Harrowing stuff. My only guides were a determination to stick to my core theme and an obsession with tying up all of the loose ends I created. Somehow that got me home. But, honestly, in large part, it remains a mystery how my story came together the way it did.

I don’t think this kind of high-wire writing is for everyone. I swore I wouldn’t handle my second novel the same way and I didn’t. The next installment of the Baltimore Tales Blog will explain my attempts to control the world I was stumbling through, much like my character John Rocklan did in Maseah Mountain.