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The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

Seventy years ago, the Sternwood’s Packard was found washing around in the surf off Lido Pier. When the cops pulled the car out, they found the throttle was set half-way down. Inside the car–Owen Taylor, dead from the impact of a blunt instrument. Who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur? Did Taylor, who loved the General’s nymphomaniac daughter Carmen, kill Arthur Geiger, a blackmailer who had incriminating photos of Carmen?

When Howard Hawks began filming Raymond Chandler’s crime noire masterpiece, The Big Sleep, he realized that the book never resolves the question of who killed Owen Taylor. Scriptwriter William Faulkner couldn’t figure it out either. The two of them must have poured through Chandler’s convoluted tale of corruption and greed searching for the answer. Finally, Hawks called Chandler. “Who killed Owen Taylor?” “Hell if I know,” Chandler replied.

Seventy years ago, Raymond Chandler penned one of the masterpieces of American detective fiction in three months.  With broad strokes he lined out the plot of a dying man who tries to buy his wastrel youngest daughter out of a jam; of his oldest daughter, smart but jaded, addicted to gambling; of Philip Marlowe, the honorable but world-weary detective who has to dig beneath what he’s told to find out the real mystery Sternwood has hired him to solve.  In the film Vivian Sternwood would be played by Lauren Bacall, in one of her greatest roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, the actor who brought Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to life.

So who killed Owen Taylor?  Eddie Mars, who ran a casino and had his fingers in half a dozen other illegal pies? Joe Brody, a small time hood playing in a game bigger than he could handle, or Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s gunman lover?  Does it matter?  Mysteries go unsolved every day.  In this respect, The Big Sleep mirrors real life.

There Raymond Chandler sits, late at night, hammering away at a typewriter creating possibly the best piece f American detective fiction ever written–in 90 days.  Handing it to his editor and maybe, with a shrug, remembering that Owen Taylor’s murder remained unsolved.  “Hell,  lots of murders don’t get solved,” Philip Marlowe might have said.

I fuss and quibble over a plot and a timeline, worrying about getting all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted.  Frustrated, I put everything on index cards and start shuffling.  I wonder if Raymond Chandler ever shuffled index cards or worried about whether whether every block in the puzzled fitted together.  Somehow, I know he didn’t.  Raymond Chandler didn’t need no stinkin’ index cards, he just wrote, arriving at the conclusion like Philip Marlow finding a answer to a question that wasn’t asked (what General Sternwood really wanted from Marlowe wasn’t strong-arming Arthur Geiger, but finding out what happened to Rusty Regan) by a mixture of cunning and intuition.

But–that’s Raymond Chandler for you.  I just use index cards.

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Several posts ago, I wrote that I have a goal to complete two chapters on my thriller by the end of March. I’m happy–no thrilled–to say that I’m sure I’m going to make it. The last two weeks have seen a real turnaround in how I’m working on the story and how I feel about what I’ve written.

It started with–index cards. Just the lowly index card. Part of my problem was being uncertain about part of the plot and the time line of the story. I finished the first chapter in the two-chapter goal, looked at it, and thought. “It won’t work with the time line. I am going to have to friggin’ well dump this entire chapter.” This did not make me happy. Think of it–you spend two weeks bullying your way through a chapter only to say to yourself when you finish, “it won’t work!” I suffered a crisis of confidence. (Translation: I felt very grumpy.)

I’ve kept my outline and story notes in a notebook, specifically an Apica CD-15 notebook, along with legal pad sheets of dialog and ideas. It’s very linear. Written from one page to the next, it’s flat and set. I got a bunch of index cards (alas, I did not care whether they were fountain pen friendly or not…) and put one plot element on each card and then started shuffling. I worked with that for a weekend, and the plot line fell into place. Fortunately, the chapter I had written and thought I would have to dump also fell into place. Scenes and dialog started coming more easily, more naturally to me. I’ve found the groove for this story again.

I’ll make my goal by the end of the month. The chapters won’t be perfect, but I feel like they’ll be good solid first drafts. Even better, I’m looking at the following pieces with a lot more confidence now.

Oh, index card statistics: Rotring 600 w/medium nib and Mont Blanc Bordeaux ink. Waterman Expert II w/fine nib and Private Reserve Midnight Blues ink. Index cards–whatever probably 10 years old from Office Depot, yellowing and fading slightly. There was *some* feathering from the Rotring, who really, who the hell cares? It worked! ~chortle!~

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Yes, I write with fountain pens, therefore I’m odd. This was made clear to me recently when a friend asked about my fountain pens and how I used them. I said I kept a journal with them, that I write fiction and non-fiction and draft my ideas with pen and paper. I said that I like the history of pens and the feel of good paper.

Parker 51, midnight blue w/gold cap

Parker 51, midnight blue w/gold cap

She honed in on the word “journal” and sped off on a tangent. “You can keep one on your computer, you know.” Amazing. Who woulda thunk it?

Yes, I know about computers, and Word for Windows and blogging. I even know about a little remembered program called Qedit, which was my first word processor back in the days when Peter Norton had hair. (Okay, Peter Norton still has hair, but he doesn’t have Norton Utilities anymore, does he?) She charged ahead, talking about how she kept a diary on her computer, so convenient for putting in photos of the kids and vacation snapshots, and emailing parts of it hither and yon.

I listened and, although I managed to get one or two words in, it was plain; I was missing the boat. Why use pen and paper when a computer and software can make writing easier, more flexible and, certainly, more decorative!

So, this is it, this is why I at times choose to use fountain pens and paper. Much of my life is already electronic. Sometimes I think more of me is bound up in digital 1’s and 0’s than is good for anyone. Computers are part of my work–reports, accounting, correspondence, online research. When I’m in the office, I’m in front of a computer. I moderate an online forum for an international singer. My electronic footprint is on the forum everyday. I maintain a website for said international recording artiste; more 1’s and 0’s expended into cyberspace. I keep two blogs.

I have enough “digital” in my life already. Pens and paper are my way of escaping from the digital and scurrying back to analog safety. I like the feel of putting pen and ink to paper. It’s solid, grounded, creative. It’s a return to a more studied, thoughtful pace. The feel of writing on good paper is a tactile pleasure. In this increasingly digital world, I find myself turning more frequently to fountain pens and paper as a way to untie myself from the computer.

Computers, pens, paper–they’re tools. No one tool is right for every job, and sometimes the best tool for the job is not the electronic box sitting on the floor by the desk.

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PhotobucketI got real excited when I heard about Staples new line of environmentally friendly composition books, legal pads and loose-leaf filler paper, made of pulped bamboo waste. My eyes drifted to the kitchen window with its view of an acre of formerly ornamental bamboo growing wild in the ravine behind our house. Could paper products be the answer to our prayers? My mind was filled with the idea of selling the invasive crop to a paper factory to be ground up and turned into cheap, fountain-pen friendly paper! Maybe we could finally build that deck over the ravine without fear that it would be swallowed up by 20-foot tall stalks that look like they came straight out of Day of the Trifids.

Alas, I found out the eco-easy line is not made from bamboo waste, but pulped sugar cane (bagasse) waste. Hell, another opportunity blown. I can’t even get the panda keepers at the zoo interested in our bamboo crop. It’s the wrong kind of bamboo.

However, I degress. The fact is, I went to Staples and picked up one of the $2.49 eco-easy composition notebooks, and I’m impressed with its quality. This inexpensive paper is not what you want to use to write a letter to your grandmother thanking her for gifting you the family heirloom silver. It doesn’t have the archival properties to use for writing that you want to keep for a long time, such as a journal. However, for every day use as a project notebook or to keep on the desk to jot down notes, this cheap, fountain pen friendly, paper may be just about perfect.

The Cover: I’m not a fan of the junior high school composition books with those black and white marbled covers and the wide spaced lines. The cover of the eco-easy composition books is heavy, rough, brown stock. The thick fibers in the card stock give it a nice texture. Overall, it has a plain-brown-paper wrapper sense of efficiency. The covers come in several simple designs, which do not detract from the sturdy, functional look. I picked a notebook with a with a single flowing light green leaf of a sugar cane. The cardstock covers are stiff enough to make the notebook usable hand-held or balanced on your knee. The 100 pages are stitched into the cover. In a pinch, you can fold paper and cover back on itself to write

Paper: The paper is thin, almost airmail weight, with an extremely smooth surface. It’s a soft white paper with light brown lines. Staples eco-easy products are made with environmentally friendly vegetable inks, which is nice, although I never thought ink was an environmental hazard.

PhotobucketPen and Ink Test: I tested the paper with two pens I use frequently and several inks: a Waterman Carene with a medium-fine cursive italic nib and Private Reserve Midnight Blues ink; a Waterman Charleston with a medium nib, loaded with Mont Blanc black; the Carene again with Waterman Havana Brown and South Sea Blue ink. Despite the very smooth surface, ink went onto the paper without feathering and dried quickly, perhaps more quickly than on the paper of the Apica A610 journal that I use.

The Carene with Private Reserves Midnight Blues ink is something of a dry writer on most papers. Its performance on the eco-easy composition book paper was outstanding. It was extremely smooth on the paper, leaving a wetter and wider line than normal. Amazing-a $130 pen with a $50 customized nib flees from Rhodia and Apica paperstock to find happiness with a store-brand $2.50 notebook. Life is strange. It’s like hoping your daughter will marry a brain surgeon, and instead she falls in love with a guy named Spike who rides a Harley.

I would talk to them about this odd mismatch, but they’ve just informed me they’re expecting a case of index cards in nine months…

I also tested the Carene with Waterman Havana Brown and South Sea Blue inks. These two flow more freely in the Carene than the Midnight Blues. The Havana Brown looked good on the soft white paper. The color was a paler brown that I get when I use this ink with my Pelikan M250, the line was slightly wider than with the Midnight Blues. I liked the look of it on the paper. The South Sea Blue was wide but too pale. It looked like a Caribbean carnival had come to town. I wrote a page with it and then dumped it from the pen.

The Charleston has a medium nib that’s very broad and bullyish, kind of like our big Maine Coon boy. When this pen writes a line, you notice it. Despite writing such a wet line, ink did not bleed through to the other side of the paper

In all cases, I did not experience a problem with ink bleeding to the other side of the page. There is always some see-through and, with a wet medium nib the see-through is more prominent, but it wasn’t such a problem that it prevented use of both sides of the paper. For my uses of these notebooks, the see-through isn’t a problem.

Line spacing: This surprised me. As I said, I’m not crazy about high-school ruled notebooks, and this is the first time in years I’ve written in a notebook using wide line spacing. After I got used to it, I liked it. I found myself writing larger to take up the line space and, in return, I found myself forming my letters more carefully and clearly. For me, improved handwriting is a bonus.

Summary: For $2.49 you get 200 pages of smooth paper in a well-made composition book that looks adult enough not to be an embarrassment if you’ve moved beyond junior high school. It won’t have the cache of Rhodia or Moleskeine. You won’t use this and pretend you’re Hemingway writing from a sidewalk bistro in Paris, which seems to be the whoopla of Moleskeine’s marketing program. Staples gives you a book of paper you can use freely without counting the costs each time you turn a page. Give it a try. You’ll probably like it, and if you don’t, hand it to the kids. There’s no way you can lose with this composition book.

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Apica CD-15

Apica CD-15

I have a friend who is a poet. A few months ago I gave her an Apica CD-15 notebook and a Pilot 78G broad nibbed fountain pen for Christmas. I didn’t know how she had been writing her poetry–with a ballpoint (yech), a gel pen, rollerball, typewriter or on Word (how lifeless, how mechanical!), but I knew that poems written with such talent deserved a fountain pen. So I packed up a spare CD-15 and a pen and sent them on their merry journey out of the country.

She became Apica-addicted. She likes these neat, smooth and creamy little notebooks so much that she ordered 25 of them from Molly on eBay (Take Note Writing Gear). Now all she has to do is discover that if one fountain pen is good, two is better, and three fountain pens do not make a crowd! From there, she can go on to ink and various types of paper and notebooks.

Last night, I found out that she had used the Apica and fountain pen to write a book of poetry for her husband for Valentine’s Day. That, I have to say, is the gift that keeps on giving.

Now, the only thing I wonder is if Molly will give me a referral fee the next time I place an order with her!

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It’s a typical morning in the republic. Coffee, newspaper, trawl the forum (none of the natives are restless), and ponder what pen hasn’t been picked on lately? A post at Fountain Pen Nework (the pen obsessive’s place on the ‘net) points me toward my silver rOtring 600. It’s been hiding in its case for a long time now.

The rOtring 600 is a utilitarian pen–function over form and, perhaps, function over comfort. Carved from a block of brass with hexagonal sides, it features a heavy spring clip, a knurled grip and, on the cap, the famous red rubber (rOtring) ring. The fine point nib is as stiff as a dart and the whole pen resembles nothing so much as a railroad spike. This isn’t a pen to try to carry pass the transportation safety inspectors at the airport. Unsheathed from its cap, the rOtring 600 could be used as a weapon in close encounter urban situations. On ice floes in the Arctic or scaling the slopes of Mount Everest, it could serve as an emergency ice ax. Heavy and uncomfortably long posted, the rOtring 600 is the Superman of pens.

rotring-600-silver1

I have two: the silver in fine point, and a black in medium. The silver fine nib is a little too fine for me and a touch scratchy. A few minutes drawing circles and figure eights on a piece of brown paper bag smoothed the nib a little, but it’s still a very fine line, still not quite smooth enough. The medium point on the black pen is very smooth and a trifle too wet with Private Reserve Black Cherry. But god, it looks good and the deep red-brown ink is a match for it.

The silver pen was out of ink and not being too obsessive about these things, I removed the Waterman ink cartridge, which I think held a touch of Private Reserve Midnight Blues ink, and refilled it with Private Reserve Lake Placid Blue. I think the best use of Waterman ink cartridges is to serve as big ink holders for other kinds of ink, by the way. I always have a few empty ones hanging around and refill them with a syringe.

So, the silver rOtring will go into my pen case for the weekend. It’s not the most comfortable pen to hold; it’s heavy and even with the knurled grip, the pen always seems like it’s going to slide around in my fingers after I write a few lines. However, it’s been ignored for too long, and a pen mom has to look after her inky little charges. I’ll use it over the weekend and, who know, I may try to adjust the flow. Maybe more ink on the nib will help it out.

Meanwhile, I’m off to Staples to get a pad of that bamboo paper people are raving about, and down to Borders to see if they’ve restocked the Piccadilly notebooks. Piccadilly Notebooks–there’s a topic for another day!

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