24 April 2014

The Dark Side of the Moon

by Eve Fisher

There's something about great change that brings out the dark side in people.  The worst time to be a witch wasn't in the so-called Dark Ages, or even the Middle Ages.  The worst time to be a witch was from 1400-1700, i.e., during the Renaissance, Reformation, and the first Scientific Revolution.  It was as if all that new knowledge, new ideas, new applications, new procedures, new stuff, scared everyone so much that they had to run out and kill some people just to prove that everything was the way it always had been, world without end, Amen.

Anyway, during that time over 100,000 people were prosecuted all over Europe and colonial America, and 60,000 were executed, most of them women.  (The exception was Iceland where, for some reason, the majority were men.)  Why women?

File:Malleus.jpg(1) Misogyny.  Women were looked down on, especially by the authors of the 1486 "Malleus Maleficarum" ("The Hammer of the Witches), who were two Dominican monks who were obviously scared to death of women, but had never met any (some of the physical details are anatomically impossible).  Anyway, they accused witches of infanticide, cannibalism, evil spells, sexual misconduct of every kind imaginable, as well as having the power to steal penises.  (I can't help but think of Pat Robertson on feminism:  "a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."  Maybe reincarnation is real.)

(2) Fear.  Women were the midwives and the healers.  Male doctors could only be found where the money was, in royal courts, big cities, noble palaces.  Everywhere else, women did the job.  So, if anything went wrong, you could blame it on witchcraft:  I mean, these women could heal you with their weird potions and incantations, so obviously they could also harm you with their weird potions and incantations.  It had to be witchcraft, right?

(3) Ageism.  Many of the supposed witches were old women. Old women have always gotten terrible press, and still do. Women are supposed to stay young and beautiful and sexy, and when they don't, and get wrinkled and bent and gray and toothless, no one wants them around.  Especially if they get crabby with it.  (And no wonder they get crabby...)  Today they're told it's their own damn fault they're so unsightly.  In the 17th century, they could get burned.

File:Giles Corey restored.jpg(4) Greed.  In Salem Village, in colonial Massachusetts, while the very first accused witches were old and poor women, most of the rest of them were women of property.  And by being convicted and executed for witchcraft, all their goods were forfeit - to the village, to the church, to the minister, who all gained a great deal of money and land.  This was why Giles Corey, for example, refused to plead guilty or innocent and submitted to being pressed to death:  that way, he had not been tried, and his property could not (and was not) confiscated.

But what I find most interesting about the whole literature of witchcraft is this:  the reports of the witches' sabbaths and the behavior of the devil are all strikingly similar to the reports of current-day alien abductions. The narrative is largely the same:  Abduction/seduction (which usually takes place at night, in a remote area, away from other people), levitation/flight, strange but humanoid figures, a place (witches' circle or spaceship) and a ceremony, probing with cold instruments (please use multiple definitions of this word) here, there, and everywhere (there is a real obsession with genitalia), inexplicable paralysis, inexplicable time lapses, the bewildered return, the strange places on the body that either experience a chronic ache or no feeling whatsoever, the post-event depression and/or confusion - it's all the same.  True, the devils of that time looked completely different from the aliens of modern times, but people in the 1400-1700's in widely disparate countries described the devils and demons pretty much exactly the same, just as people in modern times in disparate countries describe aliens pretty much exactly the same.  (In neither group is anyone seeing, say, a pink rhinoceros with tentacles.)  I repeat:  The narrative is the same, in character and plot.  Only the costuming changes.

So, what's going on?  Is this an interesting reaction to times of great scientific and social change in people who are (more or less) fragile and disturbed to begin with?  Is this Carl Jung's collective unconscious?  Is this what happens when forbidden desires, despair, frustration, alcohol and/or drugs, hormones, and/or sleep paralysis, combine?  Or is this really happening, and all that's happened is that the devil had changed his look?  Or have the aliens changed theirs?

       


Just something to mull over in those late night hours.  Pleasant dreams.

23 April 2014

THE SARACEN'S HEAD

David Edgerley Gates


Way back when (and I mean wa-a-a-y back, in the late Bronze Age), my 4th grade teacher was Miss Sheehan.

There were something like twenty of us in the class, maybe a few more, and a roomful of nine-year-olds, pretty much equally divided between girls and boys, must have been an unruly bunch, but she managed us well, not with iron discipline, either, but by holding our interest. One of the tools in her kit was to read aloud to us, THE BORROWERS and THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, for instance, but the one that sticks in my mind is THE SARACEN'S HEAD, a book by a guy named Osbert Lancaster.

Re-reading it, all these years later, I'm struck by the fact that it wears so well. One thing is that it's very mischievous, the kind of story that a grown-up can read to a kid, and not get bored. It's about a guy who goes off to the Crusades, very reluctantly, we might add, but the journey makes a man of him. He starts out a figure of ridicule, basically a sissy, bullied by his formidable mom, and comes back bronzed and confident, a wimp no more.


Lancaster uses the conventions with a healthy dose of irony. The castle the hero sets out from, on the South Downs, is called Courantsdair. His father, Sir Dagobert, dies as the result of being shot from a catapult at the siege of Limoges. The guy who sends young William off to the Holy Land is one Abbot Slapjack. And so on. Lancaster illustrated the book, too, and the pictures are terrific, filled with sly detail. There's an undercurrent of casual cruelty, as well, and a fair amount of arterial spray, more than satisfying to a bloodthirsty fourth-grader.

We decided to dramatize it. (In retrospect, of course, I can see Miss Sheehan had this up her sleeve the whole time, and we were only persuaded it was our own idea.) Here's where her genius comes in. We didn't use a script. We all knew the story. So with all the speaking parts, the hero, his mom, the cousin he's supposedly engaged to, the Saracen warrior and his manservant---my role---the beautiful Greek princess young Sir William rescues, the attendant lords and ladies, we improvised the action and the dialogue.

It was an involved undertaking, costumes, and props, the whole nine yards, so everybody was in on it, onstage or off. And here's another thing. After rehearsals, we put on two actual performances, one for the so-called Lower School, grades one through six, and one for the Upper School, seventh through twelfth, but it was for us---our parents weren't invited. In other words, you didn't have a bunch of adults jockeying for position with their Kodaks, embarrassing the cast, so we had fun. The play was a great success, both times. We hammed it up no end, and had 'em rolling in the aisles, and not because they found us foolish, either. I'm speaking here of the Upper School, the older girls, who probably thought themselves too sophisticated for a fourth-grade production, but they got into it. For one thing, they got the jokes and puns, which went over the heads of the first, younger audience.

The point I'm making here is about method. By giving us free rein, and letting us trust our instincts, Miss Sheehan allowed us to inhabit the story, and make it our own. It was a transforming experience, for me, anyway, and I think for everybody else. I don't know if another teacher has ever influenced me as much as she did. Somebody once remarked that a good teacher shows you where to look, but they don't tell you what to look for, which is a lesson for a story-teller. Let it seize you.

22 April 2014

Back to the Carnival

by Dale C. Andrews

       Next month author Herman Wouk turns 99.
Herman Wouk
     
       In a writing career that has spanned over 70 years Wouk has produced an impressive array of literature. His first novel, The Man in the Trench Coat, was published in 1941. Wouk’s specialty has been the historical novel, particularly war tales and military-based fiction. We know him for Aurora Dawn, published in 1947 when Wouk was still an officer in the Navy. We know him for The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance. He wrote both the Pulitzer prize winning The Caine Mutiny and the theatrical version, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. But Wouk is equally at home in other settings. Marjorie Morningstar focuses on the aspirations of a would-be actress, and Young Bloodhawk (with some autobiographical underpinnings) chronicles the rise and fall of a young writer. Wouk’s latest work, The Lawgiver, published in 2012 when Wouk was 97 -- a Hollywood tale of an attempt to film the life of Moses told through an epistolary array of letters, memos, articles, and text messages -- prompted high praise from the Washington Post:
in some essential way, this book about a movie about a book is also about the very act of writing books. Wouk reminds us of the eternal value of storytelling while he shows 30- and 50- and 80-year-old whippersnappers how it’s done.

Sunset Point, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
     All of this, however, is not strictly intended as an homage to the incredible career of Herman Wouk. Rather, it is an homage to one particular novel, which you may have never heard of unless you (like I) frequent the Caribbean. And yes, we are about to head south again -- this time to the Turks and Caicos (specifically, to Sunset Point on the island of Providenciales) for a family reunion with my brother Graham and his wife Nik.  We'll get back to that Herman Wouk novel in a little while, but first some background.

       There are very few islands in the Caribbean that Pat and I have not visited over the years. This trip we are settling down in one place, but most of the time we island-jump.  As you head south in the Caribbean it is like going back in time.  The further you go, the more apt you are to stumble upon the West Indies of the 1950s or 1960s -- small towns, secluded beaches dotted with small locally-owned beach front hotels, restaurants and bars. These are islands where large cruise ships never anchor and couldn't tie up even if they wanted to.

Island Windjammer's 24 passenger Sagitta
       For almost 25 years we cruised the small islands of the West Indies on the tall ships of Barefoot Windjammers, until the company went under back in 2007. Since 2009 we have continued to sail on the tall ships run by Island Windjammers, a small company founded by stalwart fans of Barefoot Windjammers. Island Windjammers ships, Sagitta and Diamant, arose from the ashes like phoenixes and now visit the same islands that have always been Windjammer favorites -- including many out of the way places like St. Vincents, Bequia, Statia, Carriacou and Union Island, where secluded Chatham’s Bay is about as great as it gets. Following the trade winds to these unfrequented islands -- mesmerized by the shimmering turquoise, watching for that illusive flash of green at sunset, walking the cobbled streets where activity slows under the sun -- who wouldn't begin to dream, just a little, about chucking it all; about pulling up  roots and heading south for good. Ahh, yes. For good. 

Bequia Book Shop
       And that is what Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival is all about: The Caribbean. You might have to look pretty far to find a copy of Carnival on the shelves of a bookstore in the United States. But it’s everywhere in the Caribbean. If you are walking down the sidewalk street that runs along the bay in Port Elizabeth on Bequia, just duck into the shade of the Bequia Bookshop. You will find a stack of copies. The same will likely be true at the Gaymes Bookshop on St. Vincents or at Nathaniel’s Book and Sports Supplies on St. Lucia. Or try the gift shop at any island hotel. At each of these you will stand a good chance of securing a copy of Wouk’s hilarious, sad and cautionary tale of what ensues when Norman Paperman, blinded by the beaches, breezes and bougainvillea, takes a deep breath and decided to forsake New York to run the Gull Reef Hotel on the mythical (but oh so familiar) island of Kinja. 

       Wouk was not the first author to set a story in the Caribbean. Alec Waugh did it in the 1955 bestseller Island in the Sun, set in Grenada, but now remembered mostly for the title song sung by Harry Belafonte in the 1957 movie adaptation. Ian Fleming used the Caribbean in several novels. Agatha Christie “went” there for A Caribbean Mystery in 1964. Even Stieg Larsson opens The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest with Lisbeth Salander idling the time away on Grand Anse beach in Grenada. But you are unlikely to find any of these tales at “down island” book stores.

       So what is it about Don’t Stop the Carnival that keeps it on the shelves and next to the beach chairs of the tourists and expats who populate the beaches of that magical string of islands to our south? Several things, I think. First, the central character in the book is really the Caribbean itself -- its beauty as well as the rickety, thrown-together nature of its governments and infrastructure. Wouk portrays the alluring charm of the islands (embodied in his fictional Kinja) while also showing the dark underbelly. We understand both why we want to live there as well as why actually doing so might drive us crazy. Second, Wouk accomplishes all of this while walking gracefully the thin line between comedy and tragedy. I laugh my way through Don’t Stop the Carnival every time I read it, but the message of the book is ultimately a sad one of failed and unrealizable dreams. The book, written in 1965, is both dated and timeless -- despite its setting, now 40 years ago, it continues to resonate because of its understanding and love of how the Caribbean works (and doesn't work). 

Ruins of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co.,
which later became the Royal Mail Inn on Hassel Island
       Like many other of Wouk’s works (pardon my alliteration!) Don't Stop the Carnival is premised on real life experiences. In the 1960’s Herman Wouk and his late wife Betty managed the Royal Mail Inn, a small Caribbean hotel located on Hassel Island, which is directly across from the ferry depot at St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie Harbour. If you find yourself taking the ferry from St. Thomas to Tortola, visit the Petite Pump Room (upstairs above the ferry depot) for a drink and gaze across the harbour -- what you will see is Hassel Island.  And those abandoned buildings and ruins are what used to be the Royal Mail Inn, a real life dream that proved unrealizable for Herman Wouk. So, just as his war novels were based on his experience in the Navy during World War II, so, too, Don’t Stop the Carnival rings with authenticity simply because Herman Wouk wrote what he knew all to well. 

The Jimmy Buffett album
       Unlike Island in the Sun, Don’t Stop the Carnival was never filmed.  It did, however, spawn a musical adaptation written by another hero of all Caribbean expats and wannabe expats, Jimmy Buffett, in collaboration with Herman Wouk himself. I recommend that album, where Wouk cameos as narrator, as heartily as I do the original book.  The score and libretto are more operetta than musical -- taken together they "tell" Wouk's tale in its entirety.  It’s all there in song, from dream to disillusionment. You will, however, have a difficult time tracking down the album. It’s a little out of the ordinary for Buffett, and like the original book by Wouk caters best to the fanatical few who return whenever possible to the islands.  That tends to be a narrow (but deep) market.  

       Don’t Stop the Carnival ends with Norman Paperman’s wife Henny telling him “time to go home, Norman.” We all get there. But where we love to be is at the beginning, when Wouk sets the stage: 
Kinja was the name of the island when it was British. The actual name was King George III Island, but the islanders shortened that to Kinja. Now the names in the maps and guidebooks is Amerigo, but everybody who lives there still calls it Kinja.
The United States acquired the island peacefully in 1940 as part of the shuffling of old destroyers and Caribbean real estate that went on between Mr.Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill. The details of the transaction were, and are, vague to the inhabitants. The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he's not much inclined to believe in it.
Meantime, in a fashion, Amerigo was getting American-ized; the inflow of cash was making everybody more prosperous. Most Kinjans go along cheerily with this explosion of American energy in the Caribbean. To them, it seems a new, harmless, and apparently endless, carnival.
       Want to try that again with music, pictures, and Herman Wouk narrating?  No problem, Mon.  Just click here

21 April 2014

Shameless Promotions


Jan Grape
SHAMELESS PROMOTIONS

by Jan Grape

A few years ago, the Sisters In Crime organization published a little booklet titled, "Shameless Promotion For Brazen Hussies."  I don't know if they still have it in their publications. I couldn't fine it listed on their website publications but I'll briefly talk a bit about promotions. This will have to be a short article because I'm dealing with vertigo and don't know how long I can last here. Most of my problem is what I've discovered on google. It does have a name, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. It mainly happens for only seconds when I lay down or get up from that position. And it's an inner ear problem.  Okay class, back to promotions.

Some of the information in the booklet will more or less be out of date now, however, there are a few ideas that might help. If you can come up with a clever idea to give to bookstores, book buyers and fans that promotes your book and you have a little money to spend on your book, then by all means do it.

For example: a few years ago, Dean James and I co-edited a book titled DEADLY WOMEN. It had interviews, articles and histories about, written by, for and featuring women mystery authors. For some reason I came up with the idea of a pink record using the known duo of surfer singers Jan and Dean. I mean Dean and I just happened to have the perfect names for that. We had a jar gripper opener made (you know those little rubber thingies that help you grip the lid of a jar to open it.) Any way it was a pink square with black lettering. I found a company that made promotional ideas for companies. The middle of the gripper had what looked like a black 45 rpm (anyone remember those) record. Around the center hole of the record was printed "The best of Jan & Dean. '97" In tiny font on one side of the middle hole of the record was printed Published by Carroll & Graf.  Opposite that was printed Due Date, November '97. At the bottom of the record and underneath the center hole was printed DEADLY WOMEN and under that in smaller font it said, with Ellen Nehr. (Ellen had originally been scheduled to edit with me, but she passed away and we tagged Dr. Dean James, who at that time was a co-manager of Murder By The Book bookstore in Houston, TX. My husband and I owned Mysteries & More bookstore in Austin. Outside the printed black record in one diagonal corner of the gripper was printed "Get A Grip" with the ISBN number of the book. Again the book title, DEADLY WOMEN in a larger font than on the record was on the opposite corner. And underneath that in smaller font, Edited by Dean James and Jan Grape with Ellen Nehr. Across the bottom of the gripper, again in smaller font was printed: The Major Surfers and not "a little ole lady among them." Underneath that still in the small font but in all caps: Mary Higgins Clark, Elizabeth Peters, Margaret Maron, Marcia Muller, Nancy Pickard, Minette Walters, Joan Hess and many more of today's top mystery authors. We ordered 500 I think, because it was cheaper. We mailed them to bookstores, took them to conventions and handed them out handed them out at book signings. I still run into someone who says they still have their jar gripper. I still have mine and would show you a picture of it if I knew how to scan with this computer. I can't even get it to print.  I love to hate technology.

Alright you say, but that was years ago. What about nowadays? Two items I got recently that had nothing to do with books but were items that are quite useful and there's no reason you couldn't come up with something similar. First I have a little fan that is shaped like a Frisbee but is flexible. It's metal edges twist into a little round thing about the size of a drink coaster and now fits into a little bag to be slipped in your purse or shirt pocket. When needed you pull it out of the bag and it pops open. It's an advertisement for a legal document website. It came in green and in purple. I have one of each. It's probably more useful for a female than a male yet it's very handy. The other useful item (and from two different advertisers) is those little microfiber type cloth glasses lens cleaners. One is from the same legal document website and the other is from a bank where I have an account. All you have to do is go online and look for promotional items online and come up with a useful item and have your book cover printed on it along with due date, ordering information, etc.

When we had our bookstore we got author postcards, bookmarks, pens, pencils, drink cozies, key rings, a couple of ball caps, T-shirts, pins with book covers and a huge assortment of promotional materials. I can say without a doubt, booksellers are thrilled to have little promo items like this. And so are your readers. You can give away a smaller item like a No. 2 pencil or an emery board to everyone who drops by your signing and save your larger items like caps, cozies and such for the people who actually buy your books. Is it worth spending money on items like this? I think so if you really want to have your name and your book title to get word of mouth recognition. And bookmarks are still useful items.

If you're doing a signing at a book store or an event, it's especially nice if you have a poster made they can put on display prior to your signing. Be sure to add the day and time and location of your signing. Even during the signing, if the store will put the poster on an easel or close to the signing table. Most print shops will do those large blow-up picture sizes for you and you can attach to a poster board.  Often the best thing is to ask your publisher to do some blow-ups for you. It doesn't really cost them that much to do it.

Now the other main thing in my opinion is to do something especially nice for the book store where you are signing. If there's is a female you have been dealing with, how about taking her a rosebud or two?  If it's a man who is the signing coordinator, how about some fresh baked cookies or candy?
You really want your bookstore to be happy you were there, especially if it's your local bookstore and even more especially if it's an independent bookstore. At least two months before the signing, send a press kit to the store with a recent photo of yourself and either an ARC or if the book is out, a copy of the book. If possible send a press kit to your local newspaper. I know newspapers are slowly dying out but most cities and towns still have one. They might do a write up on you. To increase your chances, tell them a little something about your book so they might find a hook and do a story. If your character is a lawyer or a doctor find something different to make your book more interesting than others. Like if your character has a memory problem, send some memory tags that the character uses to help. Or if your character is a jazz lover, you're probably already a minor expert on jazz and can write a paragraph or two to send with your press kit.

Use your imagination. You're a creative person. I know an author who had baked goods or cookies to all her bookstore signings. She shipped them to the stores who were out of town. Her main character was a caterer and she generally had recipes in her book. The first time Mysteries and More had Sue Grafton sign at our store, she suggested we advertise a peanut butter and pickle sandwich contest for fans and she would taste, declare a winner and then our store gave an autographed copy of the book. I think it was for L. For those of you who are not Grafton fans, her character Kinsey Millhone LOVES peanut butter and pickle sandwiches and often eats them. It was a big success. We probably had a dozen or so entrants, Sue dutifully tasted each one and found her winner. People called and asked if they should use smooth or crunchy PB and what kind of pickle, sweet or dill or what. She had said to tell them to use whatever they liked or what appealed to them.

And last, but not least, if you have a bookstore signing, don't forget to write a thank you note. Same with a newspaper or magazine reporter. Do whatever you can to get word of mouth going about your book. I think you can get more sales from that than from all the social media. But of course, do the social media too.

20 April 2014

Library in the Clouds

by Leigh Lundin

During my Criminal Brief days, I began experiencing down time hours on end, even days at a time. It was early days for residential internet, but that didn’t mitigate the anguish, er, annoyance of being unable to access that giant library in the cloud.

Local cable and DSL companies were upgrading their lines and equipment. The closer crews made their way to my house, the worse the situation became. It turned out the rearmost corner of my property was designated some sort of hub. Cables from it fed my neighbors and me, so I often found men traipsing through my yard. As long as they kept me posted as to their comings and goings, I didn’t so much mind having a trencher, backhoe, and big hole in my yard as I did constant interruptions of service. I’d come to depend on the World Wide Web for my research of almost any topic.

Before the internet, I’d depended upon my father as my research center. He was a… well… I’d have to say a renaissance farmer. He farmed the land and livestock, but in the evenings, he read… everything. No topic escaped his interest: not the sciences, not the arts, not sports, not history and current events. If he didn’t know the particulars of a given subject, he knew where to look it up.

His library consumed a cramped room, expanded into a walk-in closet, found its way into barrister bookcases in the living room, then crept into the various bedrooms like a gothic creature. I can’t say he had more books than the local county seat library, but he certainly competed with it. Long after he died, I’d catch myself reaching for the telephone to ask, “Dad, what do you know about…?”

Starting early this year, I began experiencing spotty service. While outages weren’t frequent, the internet slowed to the pace of a snail’s pet tortoise.

Defining Slow

In South Africa five years ago (and Britain and Australia), one of the providers was so excruciatingly slow, some wags held a race sending files via homing pigeons versus their internet provider. The pigeons won.

But by now, there and here, that should be a thing of the past.

It’s awful when karma and déjà vu plot together. For many days, I had no internet at all and Road Runner was out all together. The various providers couldn’t figure out the Road Runner problem, which may have something to do with Wiley Coyote. I could easily live without RR, but not basic internet. And to be fair, that latter problem is my own because my house is torn apart for repairs.

To bridge the gap of a month or two without a regular ISP, I purchased a couple of wireless devices from NetZero and FreedomPop… and promptly managed to misplace one and today discovered the other isn’t working. Ah, technology. Now I have to galavant to the local wifi eatery, justifying my visit with a sandwich while cadging internet time.

I’ve come to realize how dependent I’ve become upon the internet. I didn’t replace my research and reference books lost in the hurricanes, volumes ranging from the small print edition of the OED to the CRC– the equivalent of an alchemist’s bible, purchased ‘back when’ by every math, science, and engineering student.

And of course, I still miss my dad, bigger-than-life, of course, much more than a walking Alexandrian repository of knowledge. I often think how he would have loved the World Wide Web, no topic out of reach. Unless one doesn’t have internet at all. Like me.

Until my internet service returns, I miss all those subjects, just out of reach. But wait! There’s always Burger King.

19 April 2014

Case Closed: the Appeal of Crime Fiction

by Elizabeth Zelvin

The talented Jenny Milchman is my guest on SleuthSayers while I'm off in Europe celebrating a big round birthday. See you in two weeks! Liz Zelvin

Jenny Milchman's debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an IndieNext and Target Pick and has been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. Jenny’s second novel, Ruin Falls, is coming out on April 22nd, and she will hit the road with her family on the second of her multi-month book tours.

I was on the Vermont leg of my 7 month/35,000 mile book tour…Wait. Did I hook you with that mention of my uber long book tour? That’s actually a story for another post. But since we’re mostly crime writers here—some crime fighters, too—I figured the hook might be a concept worth demonstrating. I hope I was successful.

Anyway, at this terrific bookstore in Vermont, an audience member raised his hand and asked me if I ever scared myself while writing.

I tend to tell stories about other writers at book events. After all, if you do two hundred of them, you’d get pretty sick of just droning on about yourself. So when this man asked his question, I was reminded of what Stephen King said about Pet Semetary. Apparently when the master finished this novel, he had to put it in a drawer for a year because he had frightened himself so badly.

I can understand that. Pet Semetary provided some of my biggest scares to date, too. (And not, by the way, because of how creepy that cat on the cover was. What I think is truly terrifying about this book is its exploration of mortality. How far any of us would go to avoid it).

At the book event, I told the Stephen King story, but then I said that I have a very different experience while writing. And I think that the experience I have goes a long way toward explaining why crime fiction is such a popular genre.

I told the man at the bookstore that when I am writing a new novel, I am actually less scared than I am during non-writing times. That was a novel enough—pardon the pun—response that I knew I would have to dig a little deeper to be anything like satisfying.

This is what I came up with.

I think that I live with a lot of fear. On a regular, day-to-day basis, I would call myself a scared person. If I am standing on a subway platform, it won’t be the billboards, or the sickening smells of refuse and bodily secretions, or even that super cool subway poetry project that jumps out at me.

Instead it will be the swath of bright yellow paint above the tracks, and the blisters of concrete embedded in the paint in case someone is blind—or maybe just color blind—and requires texture to prevent his going over the platform and falling onto the third rail and dying.

Those are the kinds of thoughts that go through my mind when I am about to take a train. Except in my mind it won’t be an accidental tumble onto the tracks, because there will be something else on that platform. Someone else. A bad guy, in the vernacular of crime fiction.

If it’s not a subway platform, it’s a darkened movie theater. Or a play date.

I’m not kidding. The most benign experience can generate fear in my mind. The other day one of my kids got invited on a play date and the mom called and said, “I know we’ve never met, but if you are comfortable with it, we’d love to have your daughter come home with mine on the bus.”

Of course I have to be comfortable with it. What kind of crazy mom would say, “You may not realize it, but you just delivered exactly the kind of line a bad guy would say when he wants you to think that he isn’t a bad guy.”

Just about any experience can generate fear in my mind. Or…it can generate a novel.

I am less scared when I am writing a book, even though all sorts of malevolent things are going on, because there is a wonderful thing called an arc. The arc delivers a sense of satisfaction, of closure, so exhilarating that I breathe easier every day I am writing. Not because I’m all-powerful in the world of my novel—but because justice is. Things in crime fiction have a way of making sense, which real life too often doesn’t provide.

Mortality, remember, is the real reason Pet Semetary is so scary. I’d wager that it’s the real reason everything is so scary. And the reason crime fiction, as grisly as it can be, satisfies at a very core level. If people are going to get hurt and die, at least let us understand the reason.

Remember that monster who pushed the tourist family from Utah onto the tracks? We never really learned why he did it. But subway platforms have scared me ever since. Must be time to start a new novel.

18 April 2014

Post Tax-Day Fun Post (A Short One ... for a change!)

by Dixon Hill


David Dean’s tax-day post, asking for advice concerning an upcoming talk to writers, stymied me.

I’m usually pretty long-winded, but I had no idea what to suggest to the guy, because I’d never found myself in such a situation. On the other hand, I also know that—to me—the difficult part of writing is not the writing; it’s the selling of what I’ve written. And I figure that holds pretty true for most writers.

Thus, I thought “How to sell your writing” might be a good topic, but felt too inexperienced to make such a suggestion. It did get me thinking, however, of how I go about selling work, which brought me into direct confrontation with my feeling that markets tend to be hard to find sometimes.

In an effort to find markets that might be interested, I follow blogs such as Cindi Myers Market News. Every so often, I get an email with a list of markets seeking work. The list has embedded URL’s I can follow to get further details and writers guidelines.

On Wednesday, I noticed that my latest email from Cindi Myers held a tidbit I thought other SS’ers might find interesting.

It seems that the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University—a school sometimes better known as “Hofstra Law”—is holding a mystery writing contest. For those who don’t know, Hofstra University is located in Hempstead, Long Island, 25 miles east of NYC.

And, not only are they holding a contest, the judges include Lee Child and Marcia Clark (Yep! The same Marcia Clark we saw in the O.J. Simpson trial has now written three novels featuring Los Angeles Special Trials prosecutor Rachel Knight. TNT has optioned her books to create a drama series.). The third contest judge is Alafair Burke, a Hofstra Law prof. who has written ten novels, including her Ellie Hatcher series.

The prizes aren’t huge, and contests really aren't my cup of tea, but anyone looking for a possible chance to have Lee Child or Marcia Clark look over a manuscript of 3500 words or less (maybe just for S&G lol), might like to click HERE. for more details.

I wonder what blogs YOU follow, or other sources you use to learn about new markets.  Love to hear about them in the comments.

See you all in two weeks!
--Dixon

17 April 2014

Whence Inspiration: "Counting Coup"

by Brian Thornton

A blizzard strands a group of strangers in an isolated railway depot during an Indian uprising. Two cowboys known only as "Wash" and "Chance," make it into the depot one step ahead of a Cheyenne war party. Night falls and two more people join the party trapped in the depot: a bounty hunter and the Cheyenne brave he's intent on turning in for a reward. Before dawn someone is murdered...

That's the thumbnail of "Counting Coup" a short story of mine that ran in the November, 2006 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Although it was not my first paying story, I consider it my first professional fiction sale (my books written and published up to that point were all non-fiction).

For today's blog post I'd like to talk about how I came to write "Counting Coup".

The story is, first and foremost, an homage to the classic western films I cut my teeth on growing up. It features timeless tropes to be found in films from John Ford's The Searchers to High Noon to Stagecoach to My Darling Clementine. (It's no accident that three of these four examples were directed by John Ford).

But it really all started with Millard Mitchell.

I can hear you thinking it now: "Who?"

Millard Mitchell was a Hollywood character actor probably most famous for playing movie mogul R.F. Simpson in Singin' in the Rain.

Not this guy.



This guy!
What does a mystery short story set in 1873 Montana have to do with a basset-hound-faced Hollywood character actor you likely never heard of?

Here's the connection: Millard Mitchell co-starred in many films beginning in the 1930s and running until his death from lung cancer in 1953 at age 50. Many of these films were westerns.


One of those westerns was 1950's Winchester '73, directed by famed noir film auteur Anthony Mann,and starring Jimmy Stewart.

Winchester '73 did what many successful westerns of the era did: it took a razor-thin plot premise and surrounded it with first-rate acting talent who sold the ridiculous plot point (A man chases down his brother, ostensibly because that brother, now an outlaw, stole his prized Winchester rifle, but in reality because said brother murdered their father in cold blood). Shirley Booth co-starred, and the supporting cast included such rock-solid character actors as the scene-stealing Dan Duryea, Will Geer and John McIntyre. Incidentally the film also featured newcomers Rock Hudson (and go figure, he had his shirt off for most of his scenes) and Tony Curtis in a memorable role as a greenhorn cavalryman.
Irrefutable proof that sucking on a cancer stick does not make you look older!
Millard Mitchell was also a castmember, playing "High Spade" Frankie Wilson, Stewart's side-kick and trail companion in his quest to track down his murdering coyote of a brother. He does a credible job, working with what's given him, and proving a wonderfully droll foil for Stewart's dour character ("Lin McAdam").

Now here's the funny thing: Mitchell is credited as "High Spade" Frankie Wilson, and at one point in
Mitchell's the hang-dog fellow on the left.
the film introduces himself using that exact moniker, nick-name and all. And yet throughout the film, Stewart continually addresses him as "Wash."

No explanation, no drawing attention to it. I've always figured that Anthony Mann had his reasons for writing it into the script, and left it at that.

One night a couple of years before I submitted "Counting Coup" to AHMM I was watching Winchester '73 (and not for the first time), and was struck by the timelessness of the image of two men, trusted companions, on some sort of quest. And that called to mind The Searchers, which in turn got me thinking about John Wayne, and the onward my thoughts ran to my favorite of Wayne's films: Rio Bravo. More on that below.

Working on the theme of two cowboys riding into town/camp, etc., I began to put together the story that eventually took shape as "Counting Coup," deciding to make it the homage listed above. And what better way to do so than to name the two cowboys in question after two of my favorite characters in a couple of my favorite classic westerns?

That's how Wash, the elder/mentor cowboy in my story, got his name. In the course of the action it is revealed that "Wash" is short for "Washburne," although I never mentioned whether that's a first or a last name.

My younger cowboy got a full name, lifted from the protagonist of my favorite John Wayne movie: Sheriff John T. Chance, in Rio Bravo, although he's simply called "Chance" for most of my story.

Where Winchester '73 is serious, even grim, Rio Bravo is just fun. John Wayne sort of standing down a powerful cattle baron bent on sparing his no-good brother from a well-deserved hanging is how the plot reads, but the film really is about friendship. So Wayne pals around with Dean Martin and Walter Brennan for most of it, even serving as the straight man for wonderfully droll love interest Angie Dickinson, playing, what else? A sexpot with a checkered past, coming through town on the stage.

Ahhh friendship!

Which led me in turn to the central idea behind another Wayne movie, the one that saved his budding film career, 1939's Stagecoach. Several very different people from all walks of life, pinned down in a desert stage depot by Geronimo and his Apaches....the circumstances diverge there, and my story wound up very different, with a murder in the middle of the night, followed by an early morning solution, and just like that, the whole story just sort of crystalized for me.

All I had left to do was write it.

How about the rest of you (especially my fellow Sleuthsayers!): got a story laying out how you came up with one of your pieces? Let's hear it!

Brian