Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

Windy Van Hooten’s Circus Lingo

7 Aug

Matilda: the Single-O
(Art by Robin E. Kaplan)

When I named the co-owner of the sideshow Robin Marx, I felt so sly and so brilliant (and, yes, so smug). I humbly kept the breadth and depth of my circus knowledge under the radar. If readers only knew what I knew and that I knew it when I wrote it, they would shake their heads, amazed by my disciplined linguistic acrobatics.

For those of you not in the know: A mark is a person attending a circus or sideshow, looking to spend money (also known as a sucker). Robin Marx is a “utility name”; it’s what a carny uses when they want to give a false name for himself or anyone else on the show.

“Robbin’ marks” … get it????

All right, that comment about my endless circus knowledge is a big fat lie. I speak circus as well as I speak French (veuillez, veuillez tell me vous comprende la english?). I learned circus details the way a writer learns to write about everything they don’t know: The Interwebs.

My book’s most notable source? The online Carny & Circus & Vaudeville Dictionary. It’s….amazing. Going beyond simple definitions, it offers the juicy stories behind the semantics:

MarkWhen a carny spotted a towny with a big bankroll, he would give him a friendly slap on the back leaving a chalk mark so other carnies would know that this customer had lots of money. Often the ticket seller would mark the ‘mark.’ The booth would have a high counter, above the average person’s eyesight, and the ticket seller would short-change the customer, leaving the change on the counter. If the customer didn’t notice or didn’t count his change, the ticket seller would lean over to give him some “friendly” advice about the best attractions, putting his hand on the customer’s shoulder to point him toward the show he simply must see, simultaneously dusting his back with chalk from a hidden supply. If the customer instead complained about the wrong change, the ticket seller could always push the remaining change to him and say “I told you to take it.” And what do you do when you spot a mark? You “play” him – that’s right, just like you play a fish.

GOD I LOVE THAT! What a bunch of crafty grifters!

You know, I always wondered about authors who write on topics they’ve only researched, crime and medical and detective novels in particular. I can see them idly Googling “police jargon for authors”. How do they know that they’re not mangling every other piece of dialog? Then again, if I only wrote what I knew, my novels would be about my cat, oversleeping, dropping things in front of people, and abandoning awkward coffee orders half-way through (“I want an iced americano, decaf, 12 oz., 2 shots with–actually, whatever is fine.”)

Anyways. Obviously, the thought of misusing the words was scary for me..yet, with the lingo I dug up, I found myself fighting against including everything. Instead, I picked out just a few phrases to add some depth without over-doing it. Besides, circus people would never read my book, right…? Right.

…except, of course, until last month when I decided to send my book to the very people whose websites and books helped me tell the story. Because I wanted to know what they thought of my made-up circus. Because I’m a glutton for finding out problems with things I cannot change. And, yes, because I’m a celebrity chaser.

Ballycast Episode #56 – July 31, 2012:
The Man Who Taught Me to Talk

The first person to respond was none other than the author of the Carny & Circus & Vaudeville Dictionary, plus host of Ballycast (a very cool podcast about carnivals, sideshows, and burlesque), Wayne Keyser. To my delight, he actually thought I did all right, for a Forty Miler:

“What [Molly E. Johnson has] thankfully not done is what many lazy writers resort to: peppering the prose with double handfuls of trade lingo as if that were enough. It’s always obvious, it’s always insulting a little to the reader,  and I’m delighted to say that she hasn’t done that! Spartacus of shadows is a great read.”
– Wayne Keyser, Ballycast

With Mr. Keyser’s brief but welcomed blessing, I can now officially say I know more circus lingo than French. (Oui comprend solo un poco français.)

SO! When reading Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows or gobbling up that Carny lingo*, keep your eyes peeled for:

  • First of May
  • Stars and Stripes Forever
  • Mark
  • Outside talker
  • The back yard
  • Eli (as in Big Eli)
  • Heat
  • Single-O

You’ll be able to figure out some words and phrases using the context of the story while you may need to look up others–as you should always do when you see a word or phrase you don’t know. Emunctory.

*WARNING: Once you browse this dictionary, attempting to read or watch Water for Elephants will become painful.

Oh, fudge…

2 Apr

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. My apologies to all eight of you. Winter is never very inspiring when it rains 7 and a half inches in a month. However, with spring here, that means I’m more likely to get excited about random stuff and want to share  with you.

For example, perhaps it’s time to share about the elephant sitting at the bottom of my Amazon page. If you missed it…click the link.

That’s right. I’m going to talk about:

Profanity in middle grade books.

Allow me to first say: Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows is for 10-14 year olds. It also includes the following curse words: crap, crapola, shit, shitola, asshat, and the phrase shut your goddamn piehole. Whew. I already feel better about getting that out there. If you do not approve of these words, please do not buy this book for your child.

Honestly, I’m grateful Paul Bulger put that review up. Nothing was scarier than signing books for parents and choosing whether I should say uneasily, “Umm, it has a few bad words in it.”

I’m not going to discuss the parts of the review where Mr. Bulger hates on the morals of my book—no need to argue a difference of opinion when it comes to séances and lying and to mistrust everyone when you’re a runaway. (Though, frankly, I wonder why that part wasn’t brought up—I mean, is Spartacus actually advocating that children run away? That’s a huge question!) I also won’t say anything about the juvenile behavior in the book beyond: Yes, this is in fact a book for boys.

But I do want to focus on the question of swearing in books for older  middle-grade readers. I whole-heartedly agree that this is a delicate issue and I was on the fence about it myself. Where do you draw the line between realism and appropriateness?

Note that this wasn’t just brought up on Amazon. Erik of This Kid Reviews Books dedicated half of his review to this very subject. It was also a large topic of conversation in my house, on the phone with my mom, and, of course, on Facebook. I actually had a friend of a friend message me about her 10-year-old getting in trouble for saying the SH-word at school.


Okay, okay, I could just make it cut and dry and say, “Well, the publisher approved.” Raspberries and eye-rolling to all of you. But that’s admittedly a copout. Also, I’m a long-term muller and this argument has so many angles…

The next knee-jerk reaction is that I seriously doubt this would be the first time my readers will have never heard these words (okay, asshat, perhaps, but it’s more rare). I’ve met school librarians, elementary school teachers, and parents who agree and wave off my and Mr. Bulger’s concerns.

From a writer’s perspective,  the character also would have known these words from his older brother and would have used them in his head—and then, of course, they would occasionally slip out, getting him in trouble (yes, he gets in trouble for swearing at his dad—this isn’t Jersey Shore). I feel this gives the book a little authenticity: An angry thirteen year old is not going to say fudge when faced with a double-crossing brother.

In retrospect, though, I could have been more creative and glossed over the words, the way they did in A Christmas story above or in my most recent favorite, The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Or I could have made up words. Rather, I could have spent more time trying to make up better words. Meaning yes, I tried to make Spartacus say things like “cussburger!” They sounded every bit as contrived as they were—just look for the instance of Eli saying “Devil in a hang glider!” 

What do you think? When is swearing okay? Is it a simple, cut and dry answer, i.e. No-no for Middle Grade and acceptable in Young Adult? Or…?

While writing this, I found a great essay on the subject of depravity in YA novels—a sister-subject to this blog topic. Check out Sherman Alexie’s essay Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood. And while I’m not saying Spartacus is YA or in any way comparable to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I can relate to what Alexie saying: When the message behind the book is dealing with family disfunction and accepting loss…well, perhaps a kid saying holy crapola would be a bit more relatable than a character who says fudge.

On a final note, I saw Chronicle last night and there were at least five children under the age of nine there. I was a bit disgusted with the parents, probably as Mr. Bulger was with me. So I’d like to make a recommendation that extends to both movies and books for your kids: Watch a trailer. Check the description. Or, heck: Read a review. The Mr. Bulger’s are out there and they’re on your side.

Quick check-in

26 Jan

The blog has been on vacation for January. I decided this about a week ago. But stay tuned for more rambling starting Feb. 1 in April, with updates on book reviews (the good, the bad, and the really ugly), new book stops (maybe?), a new book idea, and my thoughts on the Lana Del Ray song, “Videogames”.

Or maybe just the first two topics.

In the meantime, please enjoy this random bit of…well, randomness, that’s inspiring my next novel. Brought to you by Beta Band.

%d bloggers like this: