Pulling a Town Out of Thin Air

Getting Moore Hollow ready for publication this fall made me think back to this piece from my old blog. Moore Hollow is set in West Virginia, but not in any place that actually exists on the map. Jenkinsville and Vandalia County were pulled straight from the ether. Maybe that’ll change someday.

One of the cool things about writing fiction is you get to make up stuff as you go along (it’s sort of the nature of the game).  Not just characters and what they do but, often just as important, where they do it.  You can build entire worlds and nations in your mind, not to mention cities.  I’ve even made some maps (crude, but effective – I’m not a cartographer, after all) of the world in which my Water Road books are set, as well as another world I’ve yet to write in.  It’s all quite fun.

But imagine that you could create a town out of thin air, as a fiction, only for it to pop up in real life?  Now that’s really cool!

Consider the strange case of Algoe, New York (not to be confused with the planet Algon, where an ordinary cup of drinking chocolate costs 4 million pounds).

Back in the 1930s, it wasn’t unusual for mapmakers to steal each other’s work.  After all, if a map reflects realty and someone copies the map, don’t they have a defense to plagiarism by arguing that both the original map and the alleged copy accurately reflect reality?  How can that lose?

Turns out, map makers got savvy and began including some fictional places to trap would be copyists:

That’s what Otto G. Lindberg, director of the General Drafting Co., and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, did in the 1930s. They were making a road map of New York state, and on that out-of-the-way dirt road, they created a totally fictitious place called ‘Agloe.’ The name was a mix of the first letters in their names, Otto G. Lindberg’s (OGL) and Ernest Alpers’ (EA).

The trap set, it appeared to work, when the town of Algoe appeared on a map made by none other than Rand McNally a few years later.  Case closed, right?  Big check from Rand McNally to Lindberg and Alpers.  Not so fast – Rand McNally offered a defense: there really was a town called Algoe.  In fact, the official county map showed an Algoe General Store in that location.  Checkmate, cartographic honey pot.

But how’d that happen?

Good question. Here’s the ironic answer. The owners had seen Agloe on a map distributed by Esso, which owned scores of gas stations. Esso had bought that map from Lindberg and Alpers. If Esso says this place is called Agloe, the store folks figured, well, that’s what we’ll call ourselves. So, a made-up name for a made-up place inadvertently created a real place that, for a time, really existed. Rand McNally, one presumes, was found not guilty.

Then the store closed. It isn’t there anymore.

Having said that, according to the NPR story, Algoe held on for years on Google Maps until it, again, vanished into thin air recently.

So, want to have an impact on the world?  Make a map and give it a fictional town.  It might come to life without you even knowing about it!

NOTE: This post originally appeared on my old blog on April 1, 2014.


State of Play – May 2015 Edition

After a long holiday weekend seems like as good a time as any to bring readers up to speed one what I’ve been up to.

This past weekend I had my first chance to get out and meet the public as an author:



Big thanks to Empire Books & News for having me and to all the folks who stopped by. It’s a bit of a surreal experience, like sitting in a fish bowl watching the world go past, but also kind of fun.

I’ll be back out in world next month for the West Virginia Writer’s showcase at Tamarack in Beckley. That will include a reading, which should be different. I haven’t stood up and read something to crowd since, what, high school? Still haven’t figured out what to read, either. More details forthcoming or, as always, check the appearances link for that info.

“The Destiny Engine,” is now complete and is currently trying to find a home. It’s a steampunk-style reworking of a Grimm fairy tale, “The Aged Mother.” Once its finds its niche I’ll let you know where to find it.

Moore Hollow, a novel set in West Virginia about disgraced journalists, crooked politicians, and zombies (maybe), is still set for release this fall. I’m working on finding an editor right now, after which I can move on to getting a cover.

But right now, my main focus is on finishing the second draft of The Endless Hills, part two of a fantasy trilogy that will be out next year. For me, a second draft of a long work is a complete rewrite. Essentially, I imported a process I use sometimes at work when multiple attorneys contribute to a brief and everything has to be synthesized to make it read with a single coherent voice.

In the case of the novel, I take the first draft and retype it, paying more attention to the line-by-line details. A first draft, for me, is about getting the who did what to whom, where, and why down on the page. The second draft is where I can focus more on details and making sure the whole thing works as a coherent story. After that come more drafts produced by laborious close reading while wielding a red pen.

I’m about a sixth of the way through the first draft now, so there’s still much work to be done in The Endless Hills.

Until next month!

Weekly Watch: American Crime

With a name like American Crime you’d be forgiven for thinking that the ABC show, which just wrapped up its debut 11-episode season, was another in the long line of TV shows about heroic cops nabbing bad guys. They’re popular for good reason – even I, the criminal defense lawyer, am not immune to their pull – but we hardly need another one on TV.  Good thing, then, that American Crime isn’t like anything else on TV.

That’s down to its creator, writer/director John Ridley, last seen collecting an Oscar for the screenplay to 12 Years a Slave. Rather than focus on the crime itself and the “solving” of it, the show takes one crime – a murder (nearly a double murder) in a nondescript California town – and shows how it impacts those caught up in its wake. Not only is that the focus, but Ridley showed that he didn’t really care about any traditional resolution to the case at all.

As a result, the focus is on several families dealing with the impact of the crime – the victims’ parents, the sister of the main suspect, the foster family of his heroin addict girlfriend, and the would-be family of the state’s first main witness. Issues of race, class, ethnicity, and gender bubble through the season, spurred by the stress brought on by the murder and its prosecution.

Amongst all these, the most fascinating was the Gutiérrez family. Tony, the younger of two children, unknowingly gets caught up in the fringes of the murder – he lent a car to a guy who was involved, but had no idea of it at the time. At the urging of his father, he cooperates with the police. This leads to him being arrested, charged as an accessory (mostly as leverage, it appears), and sent to juvenile detention. What happens from there is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable – treated like a criminal, like a thug, Tony becomes one, committing his own heinous act once released.

American Crime doesn’t look like anything on TV, either. A lot of the editing and camera work is intentionally disorienting (often we focus on the person being spoken too, rather than the speaker) and keeps you on your toes. Breaking Bad (Which I’m working through now, finally) may have been cinematic, but not like this. The closest precedent I can think of is Homicide: Life On the Street, which introduced TV to the hand held cinema verite style. Given that the technical flair is done in service of a bunch of fantastic performances and American Crime was always a fascinating, if grim, watch.

All that being said, the show’s greatest asset was also its greatest weakness. By stubbornly refusing to deal with the facts of the case itself, it was difficult to fully comprehend why the various parties involved were behaving the way they were behaving. How are we to judge the initial suspect’s reaction to being imprisoned and being turned into a political prop without having some idea whether he actually did it? He knew, after all. The end result is a fascinating exercise, but it rings a little hollow.

Regardless, I know the show didn’t have wonderful ratings, so kudos to ABC renewing it for a second season. With a new case on the horizon and a second chance to tweak the formula, I expect something even better.


On Flying Cars and Flying Snowmen

Years ago John Scalzi wrote a post about how his wife, when it came to reading their daughter a favorite story, couldn’t get past the idea of a flying snowman. This didn’t make a whole lot of sense. As Scalzi pointed out she had no problem with a snowman who could come to life, wear clothes,
and talk with children, so why was flying a bridge too far?

The fact is, we all have a point beyond which we simply can’t suspend disbelief any longer. As a writer of fantasy and science fiction I’m doubly aware of that. Some people will happily turn their brains off to enjoy a good story, but if you trip that wire that goes beyond their comfort zone of disbelief, they’ll turn on you. There’s not much you can do about it, except recognize that we all do it and we all do it at different points. In other words, we all have our own flying snowman.

I bring this up not because of some great work of fantasy or science fiction, but because of the seventh movie in the Fast and Furious franchise, which has dominated the box office this year (up to this point). Although I’m a car guy (autocrossing them since 1999) I’ve never been a fan of the series. If I’m honest, I’m not a big fan of action flicks in general, so the automotive overlay does nothing for me. My wife, on the other hand, is a big fan, thanks to her action movie jones and an abiding longing for The Rock, so I took her to see the new one.

It’s not bad, for a big loud popcorn flick that doesn’t aspire to be much more than that. In particular there are some really amazing stunts and some good quips. Can’t ask much more than that. However, there are some points where I reached my flying snowman point. Ken Levine’s line is apparently in about the same place, although he got a bit more aggravated by it:

FURIOUS 7 is an absolute fucking mess! What the fuck was that?! No, seriously! There’s not a fucking frame of this stink burger that’s rooted in any reality. Roadrunner cartoons are more realistic. Is this what the action film genre has become? Mindless idiotic fucking stunts that defy all laws of gravity, physics, logic, and common sense? Hand-to-hand combat where the combatants beat the living shit out of each other and neither is even bruised? They crash through glass walls. No cuts. They hit each other with lead pipes. No blood. Their heads are smashed through concrete walls – not even a mild concussion. What the fuck was I watching? Nobody dies. Cars go over cliffs, roll over seventeen times, are twisted gnarled wrecks when they finally come to a rest 1,000 feet down the hill, and the passengers just wriggle out without so much as a scratch. At least Wile E. Coyote looks disheveled when he swallows a lit stick of dynamite that explodes in his stomach. Not Vin Diesel. Not Jason Stratham. Not the Rock. Creative license is one thing but this is fucking preposterous.

Now, to be fair, some of what Levine rages against as CGI fakery actually isn’t (see, for example, the flying cars of the title). But, he’s right. Furious 7 apparently doesn’t take place in the real world. My flying snowman moment came when Vin Diesel and Jason Statham not once but twice staged deliberate head-on collisions from which each walked away without even a bruise. There’s a fine line between “I can’t believe they did that!” and “I can’t believe they really did THAT?”

My wife concedes the point. She doesn’t argue for the reality of those things, but is more willing to set aside concerns and just enjoy the movie. She’s not wrong, but neither am I. I just can’t go that far. At least not for Fast & Furious.

Star Wars, on the other hand . . .

The defining image of the second trailer for The Force Awakens is the star destroyer crashed on the surface of what JJ Abrams swears is not Tatooine. When I saw that, there was a large part of my mind that immediately started into how impossible it was for a craft of that size to plummet through the atmosphere and crash land more or less intact. But another part thought it was about the coolest thing it had seen in years.

Guess which side wins? That’s because, when it comes to something I’ve loved since I was a kid, my flying snowman threshold is much higher. I’m willing to turn the more rational part of my brain off and just enjoy the awesomeness. Not every part, mind you.

Which is just to say, as a writer and a reader/viewer, you don’t necessarily need to know where the line is, but be aware that everybody has that line and you can’t hope to be certain you don’t cross it.