I joined The Busted Flush - A Group For Fansof John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee administered and I think started by Chris Lueloff on Facebook. Recently, the idea was floated that the group read a McGee novel a month starting with The Deep Blue Good-By. As a writer, I know I’ve learned a lot from JDM and my novels Tortured Truths and Heart Chants resulted from trying to create my Travis McGee character and pay homage to MacDonald’s achievement. I’ve read through the series more times than I can remember. This time, I thought I’d pay attention and look for specific lessons for a writer. I posted those on the group page and thought I’d assemble all of them here. Warning, these comments are intended for the reader who has finished the book. So there are spoilers below.
By the end of Chapter Uno, McGee's task is set. What I found unusual in rereading it was the amount of space that was given as basically a monologue from Cathy, Catherine Kerr, explaining her situation. This is an extremely long piece of dialogue with only one interruption from McGee the listener. Go look at your James Patterson or Lee Child and just about any suspense action writer and I don't think you'll find such a long monologue from one character. It works for me. You find out the situation quickly and jump right in. It will be interesting to me to see if in this book or any future book there is such a long monologue by one character.
Lesson for this writer: when a character wants to talk, let them talk.
Ah, the promise of sex. Not hard to imagine Chook in that big tub. But look at this gorgeous sentence: "...female, deep and glossy, rounded--under the tide little fatty layer of girl pneumatics--with useful muscle." Delicious writing.
But McGee doesn't have sex, though certainly invited, with Chook because he smells something wrong and he turns out to be right. He walks her to her car. Much of fiction is getting a character from point A to point B. With JDM it's never boring. He uses every opportunity to fill in the scene or teach us about the character. "I heard the lisping flap of water against the hull..."
Then we get one of what I call a McGee editorial, this on the Playmate age.
In some forums I've seen female readers don't like McGee and think him a simple chauvinist. I hope female readers here chime in with their opinions.
At the end of chapter Dos, McGee has struck out in the sex departmesrent and decided to take on the Cathy project.
Lesson this writer takes away from this chapter: When moving a character from point A to point B don't miss the opportunity to do much more.
Chapters Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, Seis
Hmm... my plan was to make a comment after every chapter, but then JDM does what he does so well. Pulls you in and you can't stop reading.
We get introduced to the much modified Royals Royce Miss Agnes who "...retains the family knack of going eighty miles an hour all day long in a kind of ghastly silence." How gorgeous is that! And we learn how he acquired the Busted Flush. Then we get into standard McGee procedure. Go see people and learn what you can from them about the situation and ruminate upon it.
Writer lesson here when we are introduced to Cathy's sister, Christy. This is really a throw away character. Fills a slot. Probably won't hear from her again. Who knows. But JDM doesn't treat her as such. He gives her description full attention with this wonderful summation: "...like the sultry dignity of she-lions." Love it.
Lesson for writer: There are no minor characters. Just as with people, each character has a soul. Try to find and express it.
Then we get to the creation of an amazing creature, Mrs. Atkinson. McGee first introduces us through the house she occupies which ends with "...they have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away." And such is Mrs. Atkinson.
I don't know. At this point things seems too contrived. I've never know a woman like Mrs. Atkinson who could be turned into a kind of zombie through sex and submission. I have known some women in abusive situations who get out of them and then seem to seek out the same kind of man. Do hope women readers step in here and comment.
But what JDM creates he carries out to the full and in the end it works. Her character takes us through 20 pages to chapter siete (I forget when we learn why the Spanish chapter numbers, we'll find out). The lesson for this writer: Don't worry when a character seems bizarre, just go with the flow. The reader will follow right along.
Chapters Siete, Ocho
Travis is still in his fact-gathering stage and travels to NY and then
In Texas we
learn that in the search for facts, Travis isn't above a bit of torture. But in
creating these fact-gathering trips he gives us a slice-of-life look at his
environment and times. In Texas,
he becomes a focal point of a family drama.
The lesson for this writer is to remember that when you do scenes so your protagonist and reader can learn something they need to learn you also have the important opportunity to show the world in which that protagonist lives and make it richer for the reader.
Also in these chapters I see what I call McGee Editorials. He has a credit card and hates it. In his diatribe he writes: "In the stainless nurseries of the future, the feds will work their way through all the squalling pinkness tatooing a combination tax number and credit number on one wrist..." Sort of assumed JDM was expressing his own views in these little editorials and he may have tried to limit himself early on. Not later. Those editorial comments are part of what create the Travis McGee mood. We'll see more of them in upcoming novels.
OK, we're getting to the stage where we all know this is headed: that showdown with Junior Allen.
The trio of the three girls we've been introduced to, Chook, Cathy and Lois come together when Cathy gets the shit beaten out of her by, guess who. This Junior Allen, he's somethin' else.
In this chapter some firsts happen in the McGee series. JDM uses a ploy he often will by having Travis remember he has a friend or acquaintance who has just the particular knowledge base into which he needs to tap. This one is a "sly elderly angle-player" in
New York who is able to research the local
And the other first thing that happens. Travis has sex! He's turned it down in the book up to this point and turns it down again when Lois creeps into his bed. Then we get at first blush what seems pretty phony to me. Travis feels all gallant and his amateur psychologist kicks in and determines that, well, Lois does need sex and with someone as caring, gentle as himself. It happens. All works out fine. And it's some pretty great heated prose. JDM creates these scenes really well "...a creature in endless movement, using all of herself the way a friendly cat will bump and twine and nudge and purr." That's pretty good stuff. Anyway, after, Lois seems cured. Seems phony. Then he has a self revelation and realizes that indeed he has several international records in just that description.
Writer's lesson here is all about sex scenes. Try to find analogies. That cat stuff is gold.
Chapters Diez, Once, Doce, Trece, Catorce
Okay, I'm clueless why JDM numbered the chapters in Spanish.
Be that as it may, Travis does his sleuthing and with the help of Lois's memory gets a great lead on where Junior Allen's boat will be. We know the encounter is coming and JDM draws out the tension of waiting like a tightly strung violin string over which he plays the anticipation bow until it sets up a scream of "get to it!"
And that acquaintance? That gem guy in
New York. He comes through with a critical
piece of deception Travis needs to fool Jr. Allen. And a nifty trick it is,
But first we get introduced to the new set of lost young souls Jr. Allen will prey upon: forlorn little rabbits. There is a clueless male among them. Travis shakes his hand and we get this beauty: "He had a dead handshake, like a canvas glove full of hot sand."
Travis has a beautiful plan to discover where Jr. Allen has hidden the gem stones on his boat and it works to a T. Another plan to use a sap to knock the guy out works out great, too. Then Trav does a stupid thing and it almost gets him killed and it does get Lois killed. I think I cried foul at this point. That was just a bit too slick of a way to get rid of this new burden in his life.
I wanted to pay particular attention to the fight scenes. JDM does them with direct, straightforward description. "He hooked his left around my neck and began hammering me with his free hand." But pay attention to the verbs: planted, stuffed, heaved, ripped, bounded up, snorting, gouging, kneeing, clambered, straddled. It this succession of different descriptive verbs that makes the description of the fight flow.
So in the end, Travis is successful in recovering some of the treasure. Had he not done the stupid thing he would have had it all and Lois would be alive.
Things felt thin and empty to me at the end. But then I realized Travis had just been birthed into the fictional world and we were watching him grow up and JDM start to know him better for all his many good points and also the questionable ones.
I know the books are just going to get better and Travis even more interesting.