Scott Sparling

Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire

Bad Advice for Writers

Posted on Feb 19th, 2011.

Writing a novel? First, you’ll need one of these. The Kaypro II. It comes with 64 KB of RAM and two double-sided, double-density drives for your 5 ¼ inch floppy disks. Encased in aluminum, and at just 29 pounds, it’s completely portable. Mine set me back about $1,800, but the price may have come down since 1983.

Sure, you could go cheap and try to write your masterpiece on a typewriter, but that’s gonna take forever. With the Kaypro, you can cut your novel-writing time to under three decades, tops. Sounds unbelievable, but I did it, and you can too.



Here’s what makes the Kaypro such a time-saver. Let’s say you’ve written the following paragraph as a first draft.

“Dexter Company had the school photo business from all over the state; Slater’s job was to develop rolls of photo paper. He ran a machine called the Silva, twenty-five feet of tanks and drums and torque, and he worked in the dark, listening to the hum and talking to the machine, his eight hours of competence and solitude, his rap and discourse in the dark. The whine of the rollers sometimes reminded him of freight trains crossing the Rockies, metal grinding against metal like the sound of violins being played under water. After he was fired, he imagined the Silva on the hot desert land outside Dexter Company, decaying, fulgent, a strange tribute to the gods or some fantastic drum set of the industrial age, after everyone got tired of the music.”

The first thing you’re going to want to cut is that line about violins being played under water. No one knows what that sounds like, with the possible exception of Lloyd Bridges. Who, sadly, is no longer with us.

On your old Selectric, you’d have to retype the whole thing just to lose that one phrase. Not so with the Kaypro. Simply mark the beginning of the phrase with ^KB. Then hit ^F repeatedly until you come to the end of the phrase. Mark it with ^KK and then enter ^KY. Magically, the offending phrase disappears. Or you could move the phrase somewhere else with just another 13 keystrokes.

Next you’ll want to change Slater’s name to Stryker, and then to Trager, and then to Stone, and then back to Slater. You’ll want to get rid of that part about “fulgent,” too. Also that whole section about “rap and discourse in the dark.” That’s a little weird. Take that out. Then put it back in. Then out. See how easy the Kaypro makes everything? Suddenly you have a zillion choices for every single line.

Later you may realize that it’s not Slater who works in the photo lab, but some other character, and it’s not in the desert, but Northern Michigan. You may decide to cut the passage entirely. No worries. The Kaypro runs on the reliable CP/M operating system. However, depending on how much time has passed, your floppy disks will need to be converted to Apple’s operating system before you can make any changes to your novel, or work on it in any way, including simply reading it. And while computer science has not yet invented a way to convert CP/M to Apple, you can get some mail-order software from Ohio that will convert everything to MS/DOS, supposedly, if you can find an old Dell or something. Then you could convert that into Apple…or you could just retype the whole damn thing. 

If you still have that Selectric.



Bonus bad advice: To get a Kaypro II of your own, build a time machine, travel to 1983 and bring one back "Duty Free."

Posted in Writing

Happy Birthday, Segerfile

Posted on Feb 11th, 2011.

Thirteen years ago, I needed to take a break from working on my novel. It was 1997. The web existed, but barely -- there was no Google, no Facebook, no LOLCats. The Internet was empty, compared to today. To get my mind off Wire to Wire, I did what any born-in-Michigan, proud-of-the-Motor-City writer might do: I decided to start a website about Bob Seger. 

It wasn't meant to be a big deal. I figured I'd spend about six months on the site. Today, turns thirteen years old. 

I was lucky in a couple of crucial ways. First of all, no one else was writing about Seger online at the time. I had a monopoly. I'd go to the public library here in Portland, search out old Seger articles on microfilm, copy them down, come home and post them on my site. That was the 1997 version of Google Alerts.

Even luckier, though, was the fact that Seger was staying completely out of sight at the time. He wasn't touring. He wasn't releasing new material. Mostly, he was being a dad, raising his kids. 

The absence of real Seger news, which at first seemed frustrating, turned into a good thing. It forced me to become an essayist, rather than a reporter. The writing took on personality, became humorous, even sarcastic. The people who returned to the site came back, I think, not because there was news, but because it was fun to read. At least, that's how it seemed to me. 

The focus of this site,, is Wire to Wire. But for one night only, join me as The Segerfile celebrates 13 years online by sampling a few of my favorite posts. And remember to do this

The Seger vs. Springsteen Complexo-Meter World Exclusive(TM)

Are there folks out there who really like Bruce's music, but just wish it was, well, a little less confusing? Does "Born to Run" leave you scratching your head? No problem! Just buy one of Bob's CD's. You'll find it in the "Rock Music for Dummies" section…more

I've Got Tonight

What a party! All my celebrity friends showed up, plus quite a few people I probably ought to recognize, but don't. After about ten hours, though, things went a little sour. I was happily playing foosball with Sheena Easton, when I must have blacked out…more

Listen All Night to the Wind

The trees are swaying tonight, which means the floor is moving a little, too. It's late and I'm in my treehouse, and there's music coming in on the wind. The party that I hear is 2,500 miles away at the Waldorf-Astoria, where Seger is being inducted into the Hall of Fame…more

Fortunate Son

The traffic clears and we get going again, and this is what I hope for: That my son will grow up and have his own kids and his own music, and one day, out of pure love and enthusiasm, he'll punch up the volume, turn to his kids and say "Listen"…more


Harp jumps a freight in Wire to Wire and calls it his Crosscut hop. Call him Lucifer, if you think you should.

Posted in Music

Riding the Ann Arbor

Posted on Jan 31st, 2011.

A postcard from my wife – well, she was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just finished our only freight ride together: hopping the Ann Arbor Railroad from southern Michigan to Frankfort, where Wire to Wire is set. (It’s called Wolverine in the book.) The 250-mile trip took 24 hours.

The postcard is to my parents. They knew we were hopping freight. They didn’t know about us getting caught when we tried to change cars at Whitmore Lake, or the ankle bracelet lost in a boxcar, or the angry engineer who threw us off the train in Owosso, or how we sat at an all-night donut shop with no idea what to do next until the young brakeman happened to come in and told us how to sneak back into the yards. Parents don’t need those kind of details. The note my girlfriend/wife wrote – that the trip was “easy and hard” – says it all.

Frankfort/Elberta is where the Lake Michigan railroad ferries dock. We spent a few nights sleeping on the beach and in the trailer my parents kept in a small camp up north, then rode the ferry to Wisconsin, where we ran into a lot more things that were easy and hard, and parted ways – but not for long – in Milwaukee.

The schematic is something Iron Legs Burk and I found in a locker years later in the abandoned engine house in Elberta. It was helpful in writing Wire to Wire in that it showed the dimensions of the ferries. And for the phrase, “twin screw,” which turns up in some dialogue. “The old twin screw.” Two propellers, that is.


Sometimes love was a train and vice versa, but mostly it wasn't: "If Love Was A Train," by Michelle Shocked

Posted in Trains | Wire to Wire

Listen to the track

Posted on Jan 21st, 2011.

Trains change when you’re close enough to touch them. The sound is different, for one thing. The roar that seems like a single thing from afar turns out to have ten layers, at least, and sometimes more. There are multiple saxophones going, and many guitars and drummers, and there are even delicate parts that are hard to hear until they hook you and then become hard not to hear.

The sound changes again if you’re actually on the train, because the interplay of train and track is reversed.

The thing to remember is that trains play the track. Like a bow on a string, except they’re both made of steel. When you’re on the train, you hear the specific rhythm of your car – and the three or four cars around you – hitting all kinds of track. The iron rail gives a little under the weight of the train, and as you move down the line, the wheels hit the joints between rails in an ever-changing drum solo.

When you’re on the ground, what you hear is the same section of track being hit by all different kinds of cars. The pattern is a little more predictable, but just as hypnotic. For me, anyway, and maybe for you too.

Warren Zevon’s brilliant lyrics to “Nighttime in the Switchin’ Yard” got this perfectly:

Listen to the train

Listen to the train

Listen to the train

Listen to the track!

Listen to the track, he said. Only someone who had actually listened, carefully and specifically, to a moving freight would get that distinction. When I first heard that line, I wondered why Zevon would write a lyric that would only make sense – only really ring true – for people like Iron Legs Burk and me, people who had actually ridden freights. But maybe I was giving us too much credit.

Anyway, nothing sounds better than a certain kind of train, unless it’s a great train song. Wire to Wire is full of music, but not train songs per se, so to rectify that, I put a list up on the site. The minute you do something like that, you know you’re gonna leave out some good ones. And sure enough, after just a couple of weeks, readers have suggested several additions.

Mike M. – a longtime reader of my other site – says I should add “The City of New Orleans,” the Arlo Guthrie version. Good call. The list has already been revised.

Fellow writer Nicole R. suggests “Train Song” by Tom Waits: “I know he's someone people either love or hate, but this song is pretty awesome and perfect for his voice.” Agreed.

From Christine P. comes “Bob Dylan's Dream” – he is, after all, on a train headed west, she points out.

And Ears Two – well known to readers of the Segerfile – suggests…well, about fifteen different train songs. As you might expect from someone with encyclopedic pop music knowledge. Many of his nominees will be added in the future.

I’m dead certain the list isn’t complete yet. What else did I miss? Let me know.


In other music feedback, Mike M. points out that “Alice’s Restaurant” was released the year before “2+2=?” – making it an earlier antiwar song than Seger’s track. Fair enough, though I would put “Alice’s Restaurant” more in the folk rock category. Which raises a question: Why was it okay for folk artists to release antiwar protest songs all through the 1960s, while the subject seemed to be off-limits for other genres until about 1969, when Edwin Starr broke through with "War (What Is It Good For?)"






Iron Legs Burk on the road. "Train Man," by the Bob Seger System. 

… Keep reading »

Posted in Music | Trains

Three Clippings

Posted on Jan 14th, 2011.

I haven’t read my book yet. The advance review copy of Wire to Wire sits on my desk glowing sedately, like a night light, only more golden. “It’s not for reading,” I tell people, “it’s just for looking at.” Some of my friends have disregarded this advice and read it anyway.

I guess the reason I haven’t read it yet – in book form, anyway – is that it’s the last step in a long process, and I’m not quite ready to take it. But being near the end has made me think about beginnings, which in this case includes three clippings.

The first is an interview with Dylan from the early 1980s, of which I saved only the last few paragraphs, now on very yellowed newsprint. In it, Dylan says:

“You can only pull out of the times what the times will give you…Everything happened so quick in the ‘60s. There was an electricity in the air. It’s hard to explain – I mean, you didn’t ever want to go to sleep because you didn’t want to miss anything. It wasn’t there in the ‘70s and it ain’t there now.

“If you really want to be an artist and not just be successful, you’ll go and find the electricity. It’s somewhere…”

When I first read this, I was working for the electric utility in Seattle. I dealt with electricity all day long, but it was obviously the wrong kind. I needed to find Dylan’s electricity.

Not too much later, I quit my job, drained my small retirement account, and started writing the book. This explains why I am not retired and living in a big house off Green Lake Park.

The second clipping is from the mid-1970s. My mom sent it to me. She never overtly tried to stop me from hopping trains – knowing her efforts would be futile – but she sent me a news story about some kids who climbed on top of a moving boxcar and got hit by a power line.

I scoffed at this story. Those kids were partying, I told her; they weren't serious freight-riders. But I saved the clip, and it inspired the prologue of Wire to Wire.

I found the third clipping on a sad day. My father had died, and my mom was in poor health. Eventually, and not entirely of her own will, she came out to Oregon to be closer to my sister and me. Our family house in Michigan sat closed up, but essentially as she left it. After a while we had to sell the house, and I flew back to clean it up.

It’s a strange thing to be alone in a house that no one has touched for almost a year, especially if it’s a house you’ve spent a lot of time in with other people around. When I walked in, the floors creaked like ice cracking on a lake.

I made a tour of the house, then sat on the couch. My mom saved newspapers and there was a small stack on the coffee table. A headline on the top one read: “Harsh fate awaits many.”

I sat there and stared at that for a while. It was a dark thought, certainly. And the editors were sugarcoating it with that last word. Many?? What about freaking all?

When I opened the paper up, I saw the article was actually about retirement planning. Harsh fate awaits many who fail to save for the future, was the full headline. But it was too late. The first half of the line had already cast its spell on me.

These days a new clipping is floating carelessly around my desk. Farmers find body surrounded by money, it says. It’s a sad couple of paragraphs about a woman found murdered in Eastern Oregon. My wife noticed it a few days ago and picked it up. “Why are you saving this?” she asked.

I have no idea, was my almost honest answer. 

Maybe there’ll be some electricity there.

What about you? What clippings have made your desk their home? 


Advance copy of WTW: "Will it glow at night? Will it make a hum? Will it look good with the rest of my furniture? Show me how this thing works," by Cracker.

(Runner-up: "A Day in A Life" -- I read the news today, oh boy. By a new group I just discovered on iTunes. Keep trying, fellas, and maybe someday you'll be the Blog Song of the Day.)

Posted in Wire to Wire | Writing