Tag Archive for Elmore Leonard

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Frog-Jumping Contest

There’s a little bit of Mark Twain in this book, mostly from two sources, his short story “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” and, of course, his Huckleberry Finn character.

The story begins with a standard thriller device, the ticking bomb. Throw a deadline into a standard mystery and you immediately ratchet up the tension. In this case, look at the book’s opening paragraphs:

“My frog is missing,” croaked Stringbean Noonan. “And I MUST have him back by this Sunday at noon.”

“Sunday at noon?!” Mila exclaimed. “That’s only twenty-four hours from now.”

Stringbean stuffed two dollars into my coin jar. “There’s more where that came from,” he sniffed. “Just find that frog.”

Adonis, the missing frog, was no ordinary frog. (Love that name, btw.) He was a champion jumper with hops to spare, and there was a big frog-jumping contest coming up — with a $20 cash prize for the longest leap.

So already we’ve added motive to the mystery.

“Twenty dollars,” I whistled. “That’s a lot of money.”

I borrowed the first Twain idea in Chapter Five, “Want to Bet?” Most famously, there’s a character in Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog from Calaveras County,” a noted gambler named Jim Smiley, who loves to bet. On anything. And everything. Twain describes him thus in the story:

“If he even seen a straddle bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to — to wherever he going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road.”

Anyway, I reread the story during the brainstorming stages of the book, when I was casting about for ideas, so I decided to give that character trait to a minor character, Jigsaw’s classmate, Eddie Becker, who I had established in previous books as being highly motivated by money.

Eddie loved to bet — and there wasn’t anything in the world he wouldn’t bet on. Two birds might be sitting on a telephone line. Eddie would bet which one would fly away first. He’d bet on a ball game or the color of the next car that drove down the street. The weirder the bet, the happier he was. Eddie was just one of those guys who needed to keep things interesting. Regular life wasn’t quite enough for him. Nah, there had to be something riding on it.

Jigsaw and Eddie enjoy a friendly bet. Later Eddie casually mentions a new suspect, Sasha Mink (another name I love). With Adonis now out of the way, Sasha stands to win the frog-jumping contest with her entry, Brooklyn. Eddie tells Jigsaw that she lives in the big house on the corner of Penny Lane and Abbey Road.

(These Jigsaw Jones books are loaded with pop culture references that likely float over the heads of 98% of readers. Just for fun — and for Mom or Dad who might be reading the story aloud.)

Jigsaw eventually decides he needs to learn more about frogs, so he enlists the aid of Slim Palmer, the best frog trainer in town. Here’s an illustration of Slim, as drawn by the book’s wonderful illustrator, Jamie Smith.

Look like anybody you know?

That’s Huckleberry Finn, folks. And the resemblance is intentional.

I had great fun writing the “frog whisperer” chapters, where Jigsaw meets 14-year-old Slim Palmer (and there’s a nod to Chili Palmer here, too, from the movie “Get Shorty,” based on the book by Elmore Leonard, just his casual cool). Another side note: that’s one of the advantages of writing detective stories. Each new mystery takes the detective out into the world — a bastion of moral integrity in a world gone sour: in this case, the second-grade version — where he meets new characters, good and bad. It keeps the series fresh for readers, and entertaining to write, too. Whenever the series felt boring or stale, I knew it was time for Jigsaw (and me) to encounter new faces and places.

“You’re going about this case all wrong,” Slim told me. “First thing you got to do is you got to start thinking like a frog.”

“Thinking like a frog?” I repeated.

“Exactamundo,” Slim said with a sharp nod.

“Ribbit,” I croaked.

“I’m not joking,” Slim protested. “Frogs are serious creatures. They don’t joke around.”

I researched on the internet how to catch frogs, learned some things about using a burlap bag and a flashlight, so wrote a scene where Slim urged Jigsaw to step (reluctantly) into a rather gross lake. Together they succeed in snagging a frog, and before he departs, Slim offers one final bit of advice:

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Slim said. “You’ll be fine. Just remember what I said. You have to be kind to that frog. Treat him nice, like he’s your little brother or something. A happy frog is a good jumping frog. You have to love him. A frog gets scared or nervous, he’ll jump sideways, backways, anyways. You’ll never win nothing with a jittery frog.”

Slim also advised Jigsaw to keep his frog with a pan of water. It was important to keep them wet. As he explained, “You don’t want a dry frog. They don’t jump so good when they’re dead.”

POSTSCRIPT: I have to share this letter that I was handed last week on a visit to Tioga Hills Elementary. One student, Alyssa, apparently read a book a day in preparation for my arrival — and wrote a letter to me about each one. Amazing, amazing. I have more than a dozen letters from Alyssa. Here’s the one she wrote for The Case of the Frog-Jumping Contest. Thank you, Alyssa, you rock.


Rules for Writing

The Guardian recently ran a series of two articles titled, “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” It was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s famous and fabulous list (which I wrote about back in Oct, 2008). The folks at The Guardian asked a long list of impressive writers for their personal do’s and don’ts. You can check out the original, lengthy articles here . . . and here.

As a public service, here are a few highlights:

Diana Athill: “Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

Anne Enright: “The first 12 years are the worst.”

Anne Enright: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

Anne Enright: “Try to be accurate about stuff.”

Richard Ford: “Don’t read your reviews.”

Jonathan Franzen: “You see more sitting still than chasing after.”

Neil Gaiman: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

David Hare: “Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.”

PD James: “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”

PD James: “Nothing that happens to a writer — however happy, however tragic — is ever wasted.”

AL Kennedy: “Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”

Michael Morpurgo: “It is the gestation time which counts.”

Andrew Motion: “Work hard.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.”

Helen Simpson: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-It on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know.” Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”

Sarah Waters: “Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects.”

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

As part of a series called “Writers on Writing,” published in The New York Times, Elmore Leonard penned a thought-provoking article that first saw print on July 16, 2001. Every once in a while I remember that it exists and go back to reread Leonard’s observations.

I’m sympathetic to Elmore Leonard’s basic vision. I mean to say, I think I could hang out with the guy. When he talks about writing, I tend to nod my head. Grateful, reaffirmed, inspired. He explains in the opening paragraph, “These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.”

A long time ago I decided that ego was the enemy of good writing. Thing is, that’s a tough dragon to slay. These days, I most admire writers who get out of the way (another way of saying, “remain invisible”) — who strive to eliminate any trace of “look at me, I’m so darned clever!” from their writing. (That tends to be the exact opposite of what we are taught to appreciate in college English courses, so most of my adult writing life has been about trying to unlearn aspects of my college education.)

Regarding Leonard: I like his everyday guyness, his plainspeak, his pragmatism, his unpretentiousness. Unfortunately, and oddly, I’ve never really gotten into his books. Maybe I’ve tried the wrong ones, or not tried hard enough. The thing is, I want to like his books more than I actually do. It may be worth noting that so many of his books have been made into movies precisely because he is such a “show, don’t tell” styled writer. Or maybe it’s because he’s okay with sex and violence.

Though I encourage readers to go back to the full article (linked above), I’ll only post the ten rules along with an indispensable additional comment or two from Leonard (in the article, he provides more background on each rule). Enjoy. And remember, when it comes to writing, there are no rules. But guidelines can be instructive.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

Writes Leonard: “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

Says Leonard: “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” For what it’s worth, there are a ton of adverbs used exactly this way in the Harry Potter books.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

And here comes my personal favorite:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Leonard comments: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

I love that phrase, “perpetrating hooptedoodle.”

NOTE: For more posts that touch on the writing process, click on the “writing process” icon on the right sidebar, beneath “CATEGORIES.” I’m trying to do more of this kind of thing on this blog, in the hopes that it might sell books, urm, be helpful to teachers, or to writers of any age!

ANOTHER NOTE: I lifted that sound, urm, from the legendary graphic novel, The Watchmen (soon to be a major motion picture). A character in there says it a lot, just a variation on “um,” but I like it.