Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Book Spotlight + Guest Post: A Spark of Justice by J.D. Hawkins

It's time for another book spotlight, and this one in particular caught my attention instantly. Why, you ask? Well, interestingly enough, J.D. Hawkins actually has experience living with the circus! I can't think of better field work for a book than that.

A fatal accident at the circus sparks an insurance investigation that leads John Nieves, a former New York cop, to a list of murder suspects. It seems that The Great Rollo, beloved of millions, had enemies... both at the circus and among his own family.

All that is surreal and magical about the circus brings out Nieves' deepest fears, blinding him to the very real danger that is closer at hand. A bizarre series of revelations and coincidences keep Nieves' suspicions of the circus people high, even after the actual evidence suggests that the incident really was only an unfortunate accident.

The furtive actions of Rollo's wife and brother, the beneficiaries of his insurance, lead Nieves into even dirtier family secrets. Apparent attempts on his life from all quarters threaten Nieves, but he refuses to drop the case until the whole truth of who killed The Great Rollo is revealed.
Interested? I thought so! I'll leave you the links below to procure this book for yourself. Before you leave though, please enjoy a fabulous guest post by J.D. Hawkins! I found this riveting, and I do believe that you will too.

Find it at:

Talking the Talk: Carny and Circus Lingo in Fiction
J.D. Hawkins

Once upon a time, in my misspent youth, I was hitchhiking the coast in California (back when people used to do that sort of thing without worrying about serial killers) and took a deviation to Sacramento. Why is irrelevant to this article; I did a lot of random things in those days and was following an address written on a scrap of paper.

During my time in the state capital, I learned that the carnival was in town and things were happening at the Sacramento Fairgrounds. I decided to pay a visit, but not the entry fee. Like the good anarchist hippy hitchhiker I was, I went over the fence.

By a fluke, I soon found myself talking to a seasoned carny on the site and he suggested that I join the show. Green help was common enough on a spot and they needed a few people to run the permanent rides on the fairgrounds, which were kiddie rides. The idea suited me. There was something about the carny set up that appealed to my free spirit. They paid in cash, didn't ask questions and people could come and go when they wanted to between spots. Employment on tap! I might mention that I was sixteen and that became my first job. California laws being what they were, my parents had police looking for me, technically a runaway, and a place where I could make myself invisible appealed to me in a big way.

When the Sacramento Fair finished, I left with the carnival. We played spots up and down California in small towns like Merced and Hayward, usually just a few rides and joints (games) on a spot, with just one food wagon so we wouldn't starve. During that time, I learned about a way of life that would stay with me for the rest of my days. I became carny, and once a carny, always a carny. Because I was young, the old timers effectively mentored me in the 'rules' and lingo once I had become one of them by traveling.

Turn the clock ahead to 2015, and suddenly the indie publishing industry has enough books about circus and carny life to make it a genre. The trouble is, a lot of the writers have never been inside the worlds they depict and horror of horrors, haven't done even minimal research to learn the difference between a circus and a carnival, how things work or even the languages inside the amusement business. The thing is, if they had used Google to try to learn some of the lingo, they might easily have been led astray.

Out of curiosity, I recently did a search to find out if a list of carny terms had been put online. What I found was interesting and extensive, however, many of the terms in a long glossary I found had fallen into disuse decades before I ever touched carny soil and some of them were wrong. I could see two possible reasons for the latter; the writer who had composed the list for a book got his information from east coast carnies. Language has a way of developing differently in distant places and the terms might have evolved with slight variations.

The more likely possibility, based on my experience of carnies, is that some of them were intentionally skewed so that anyone trying to pass themselves off as carny who hadn't walked the walk would be exposed by mistakes when they tried talking the talk. Think about it, is a closed society going to give away all its secret signals to the general public? One of the things I learned early in my experience of carny life is that the occasional runaway teenager was the least of reasons why carnies might take on a nickname and want to become invisible to society. I never knew whether some of my brothers in the biz might have been prison escapees or serious criminals. Part of the code is that you don't ask. Not for real names, not for history or reasons for joining the carny. You take people as they are, stick to the rules, and watch yourself. Instinct means a lot when you spend half your nights sleeping under the stars or inside a ride.

So how is a writer supposed to crack a highly defended barrier and get inside carny life to write a story? The first and most important thing any writer needs to remember when using the amusement business for a setting is that the circus and the carnival are completely different entities. The terms are not interchangeable. All one has to do to get this straight is to think back to one's own childhood. Did your parents ever take you to the local fair? What did you see? Rides and games, food wagons, and if it was a big county fair, local farmers showing off crops and animals in the part that kids don't want to go because they want to get back to the rides at the carnival.

That's a carnival. Rides, games, food. The only thing the carnival has in common with the circus, apart from the fact that they both travel, is the type of food available. Hot dogs, cotton candy, everything sweet and greasy that western society has taught us goes with amusement culture. You might see a clown design painted on the outside of a dark ride, but you won't see any actual clowns or other performers. That's what you find in a circus.

Circus life is relatively 'clean' compared to the carny. It's performance oriented so you're dealing with professionals rather than the flotsam that drifts to the carny. The circus has a Big Top, the tent where the main performances happen. There is no Big Top on carny grounds unless someone has booked a few carny rides to set up next to a circus for a major holiday event. Within the Big Top, performances happen in rings. A small circus may have only one ring, or if you go to a big show like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, they might have as many as three rings.

It's here that you'll find live clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, possibly animal acts, though protection laws are tightening up on those. As an aside, despite my depiction of a lion tamer act in A Spark of Justice, I actually agree with animal protection. Big cats were not meant to live in cages, even fairly spacious ones. As much as I loved seeing these magnificent animals as a kid, as an adult with a conscience I cry for their captivity. I can reconcile a well designed zoo because of the breeding programs saving species of tigers and other endangered cats from becoming extinct, as long as the enclosures have plenty of space and as close to a natural environment as is possible for the animals.

A writer who wants to use amusements as their setting absolutely must get these differences into their head if they want any sense of realism. I have to hand it to Stephen King for his handling of the material in Joyland. His setting was a stationary amusement park and most of 'the talk' came from a character with a hazy past in the amusement business. I speculated when I was reading this book that he might have worked for both circus and carny at different times in his past. Best of all, King explained in his afterword comments that he made up a few terms of his own which specifically fit that particular amusement park.  That actually added even more realism because language is organic and grows independently in a closed environment. He got the spirit of the usage right and the terms fit the needs of his setting.

For most writers, my advice would be that less is more. Pick a few terms and make sure you're using them right. In the carny, a customer is a mark. In the circus, he's a rube. Some old time carnies might use the term rube, but unless your setting is 1940s or before, leave that one for the circus. The games are called joints and the people who run them are jointies. An old term for ride jockey is pig iron. The glossary I saw had this as the name for the ride itself. This might be a historic usage, but I suspect it's one of the terms that was deliberately told wrong to the chronicler. Old terms for specific games have mostly fallen out of use. By the 1970s we used simple terms like dime pitch that any mark would understand.

If you want to write a book in a carny setting, this is enough. Trying to be too clever will only trip you up. If you're writing in a circus setting, I suggest doing extensive research. Look up instructions for becoming a lion tamer, like I did before writing A Spark of Justice. The details of how the cats are trained will make all the difference. Read the literature for taking lessons from a clown school, search for instruction to become a trapeze aerialist. It's easily available. If you don't want to do all this, don't try to write from inside circus life. You can still use a circus as a backdrop for rube characters. But if you can, at least go to a circus one day and remember what it feels like and smells like, what you'll see and experience. This can give your story realism.

If you're using a carny setting, there's likely to be a town fair, even a small one, somewhere near you during the summer. Go hang out for a few hours and if possible, get into conversations with the people working the rides. Not the green help (locals doing it as a temp job), but the greasy looking old timer who will try to talk you up if you're a pretty girl. Get him talking about carny life, like you're considering it, or be honest and tell him you're a writer. Just be aware that honesty will cost you details. It's more likely to make a carny clam up than to try to set you straight.

Stick with just a few terms and concentrate on developing your characters and you shouldn't go too far wrong, as long as you don't forget the difference between a circus and a carny. The reader doesn't have to be an ex-carny to notice when it's wrong.

Many thanks for such a great guest post, J.D. Hawkins!

Remember friends, go get your copy!


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