24 May 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

I've been so busy getting my house ready for sale (and it just went under contract!), that I jumped at the chance when my friend Sherry Harris offered to do a guest blog in my place today here on SleuthSayers. Sherry is the author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. Her newest book, All Murders Final!, came out in late April. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman                        

A Rose by Any Other Name ...

by Sherry Harris

Which comes first for you, a title or a story? If you change the title, does the story change too? Last Friday I turned in the fourth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, A Good Day to Buy. Hitting send always makes me feel relieved and nauseated at the same time. An hour later I heard back from my editor. He loved the first chapter, would read the rest over the weekend, and hey, would I have any serious objections to changing the title to the planned title for the fifth book? What?!

I sold the series to Kensington on proposal, which means I came up with story lines and titles before writing the books. When I wrote the proposal, the titles of the first three books were Tagged for Death, Marred Sale Madness, and Murder As Is. Tagged for Death is the only title that stuck. Marred Sale Madness is hard to say so it became Deal or Die, which my editor wasn't crazy about so he came up with The Longest Yard Sale. And Murder As Is became All Murders Final.
When I sent the proposal in for the next two books, the titles were A Good Day to Buy and I Know What You Bid Last Summer. I had very specific plot lines in mind for each story. So when  my editor emailed about wanting to change the title of my next book, I closed my laptop (maybe with a little more force than usual), slightly concerned that the book I just wrote didn't match the proposed title. But my concern soon turned to intrigue. Could I pull it off? Ideas started percolating that might make the title work without massive rewrites. I called, emailed, texted, instant messaged, and sent smoke signals to my friend and freelance editor Barb Goffman. (Just kidding. Barb doesn't do smoke signals.) She came up with a great suggestion that worked perfectly with what I'd been thinking. 

Titles and matching plots are very important to me--especially with a title like I Know What You  Bid Last Summer. I wrote my editor and asked him if I could have the manuscript back. I told him I thought with some tweaks to the book, the plot would go along with the title. He agreed. I rewrote five scenes, and they weren't even complete rewrites, just plugging in a few things and changing a few paragraphs.

When I finished, I was happy, relieved even. The plot for book five is going to have to change, but I didn't really want to write the back-and-forth story (last summer, this summer) that I'd envisioned. We've already scrapped A Good Day to Buy as the title for the fifth book so if anyone has a suggestion for a title where "buy" can be plugged in for "die," let me know. Fair warning--my editor has already rejected Buy, Buy Love and Buy Another Day.

Readers: Do you have a favorite book title?
Writers: Which comes first for you, title or plot?

23 May 2016

Fresh Faces

by Susan Rogers Cooper

Last Sunday the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter (Austin, Texas) hosted the annual Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers/Mentors Program. For those of you who didn't know her, Barbara was a founding officer of the Heart of Texas SinC Chapter, and one-time president of National SinC. She was a cozy writer extraordinaire and a good friend and mentor to a lot of aspiring writers.

I've been honored to be asked to be a mentor for several years now, and again I was delighted to meet and critique a new aspiring author's work. I'm always happy to see the new crop of writers coming up – happy and a little bit intimidated. Fresh faces and fresh ideas are always intimidating.

But seeing these newbies takes me back to when I was (fairly) fresh faced. I've written all my life, it seems, but although I had boxes full of half-written novels, finished short-stories, a couple of plays, and even some very bad poetry, it wasn't until I was thirty-five years old that it hit me that I could actually do this. I could be a writer. All I had to do was try. This epiphany came to me when I was in the audience at a club, listening to a local singer/songwriter. Someone in the audience asked him when he was born. Strangely enough he was born the same year as I. And that's when it hit me. Here was this guy with a talent that might not last him much longer – all sorts of things can go wrong with vocal cords and throats and the aging process is not always kind to such a physical talent – and he was out there doing it. Four nights a week he was using his God-given talent to express himself and to entertain others. And here I sat, with (what I hoped) was a talent that could last a lifetime. Writers don't age out of their talent, at least I hope not.

So I went home and asked my husband if he'd like to support me for a while. I wanted to quit my job and write full time. He agreed, although he told me years later, he never thought I'd be able to do it. Even with little faith, he still supported me, so I didn't get mad when he confessed. I was very lucky. The first short-story I wrote got published. I never got paid, but I got published! Then I got a really bad romance novel published. The first (and last) one I ever tried. The publisher went out of business before the book hit the stores, but I still got my check for $100. I'm afraid that without these first two “success” I might not have been able to suffer through the year of rejections of my first mystery. But I came up with a plan, a new goal: To paper my downstairs bathroom with rejection letters! Luckily, I only got enough to do one wall before someone said, “Yes, I want it.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. That first mystery came out in 1988, and there have been thirty-something since then. I'm not saying this is the easiest career, but I'm thinking maybe that singer has retired by now, but I'm still going. Strong, I hope.

22 May 2016

Tapped Out

by Leigh Lundin

In the shadow of John’s popular article yesterday, I’ll add a small footnote about language misunderstandings.

I worked in Europe, mostly in France. I love the country and to clear up a misconception, the French are polite, very polite. Some Parisians may not tolerate fools gladly, but neither do New Yorkers, Londoners, or Romans. There, got that off my chest.

A gentle but all too true joke that goes around:
Q. What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A. Trilingual
Q. What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A. Bilingual
Q. What do you call a person who speaks one language?
A. American
French Lesson

During my second or third major stint overseas, I traveled through France with a French colleague, Micheline. (If you read R.T. Lawton’s excellent short historical stories set in France, he consulted with Micheline on at least one occasion.)

One particular day after landing in Lyon, we checked into our respective hotel rooms. If you haven’t noticed (and I know you have), design is important to the French and this was reflected in the fancy bathroom fixtures. The sink didn’t display obvious faucet handles. It’s not uncommon to find taps with photoelectric eyes or motion sensors, but waving my hand under the spout did nothing.

I felt around and finally discovered hidden levers behind the faucet that turned on the water. Mystery solved.

Usually at a destination, we’d rent a car but in Lyon, another coworker, Max, picked us up. Max was possibly the scariest driver I’ve ever ridden with. My grasp of French hovered only a little above zero, so I rode in the back seat and tuned out Max and Micheline as they caught up on gossip and news. Suddenly Max would turn to me– turn his body 180° from watching the road– and chat.

I’d find myself screaming, “Truuuuck,” trying to remember the French word for huge-damn-transport-vehicle-rushing-at-us-oh-God-we’re-going-to-crash (camion). But all in all, Max was a charming host and we had a good time. Especially when…

Max and Micheline were talking and I tuned out of the conversation. Suddenly, Micheline turned to me.
“Leigh, when we get back to the hotel, I want to see your cock.”


As you might imagine, this happens frequently, but it was my first request in France.

“When we return to the hotel, I want you to show me your cock.”

“Er, are you sure?”

The denseness of her American friend caused a shadow of doubt to cloud her face.

“Please, when we get back, show me your cock.”
She hadn’t even bought me dinner, but by now, we both realized something was wrong. Micheline handed me her pocket French-English dictionary opened to the entry “robinet”.

wine barrel © Dave Di Biase
I pieced together what happened. As Micheline chatted with Max, she mentioned not figuring out how to operate the water tap in her room… she couldn’t find the handles. Max suggested she ask me, so she looked up the French robinet in her dictionary, which showed cock and spigot (but oddly not faucet, a French derivative). She chose the easier to pronounce and, well, you heard the conversation.

Afterwards, as folks say on the internet, hilarity ensued.

Images © Dave Di Biase, FreePik.com

21 May 2016

American English vs. British English

by John M. Floyd

As I mentioned in my column about Ian Fleming a few weeks ago, I've been re-reading all the James Bond novels, in order. That project has reminded me not only of my youth (I devoured all fourteen Bond books when I was in high school) but of the differences in writing style between American authors and British authors. To the British--at least in the 50s and early 60s, when the Bond novels and short-story collections were published--trucks are lorries, flashlights are torches, elevators are lifts, etc. But I had forgotten that there are so many differences.

The following is a quick list I jotted down last week (American usage first, British usage next):

apartment -- flat
gas -- petrol
French fries -- chips
chips -- crisps
hood (of a car) -- bonnet
group -- lot
bathroom -- loo
pants -- trousers
panties -- pants
guy -- chap
trunk -- boot
soccer -- football
trash -- rubbish
cookie -- biscuit
directly -- as soon as
hang up (or disconnect) -- ring off
on vacation -- on holiday

Spellings are also different, in British writing:

- words ending in "ize" are often "ise" instead: realise, recognise, organise

- some words swap "er" and "re": centre, fibre, calibre, metre, lustre

- "e" is sometimes converted to "ae": encyclopaedia, orthopaedic, anaemic

- "-eck" is often "-eque": cheque

- "-ense" is "-ence": offence, defence, licence, pretence

- "or" is sometimes "our": colour, humour, neighbour, honour, favourite, harbour

- "l" is often doubled: jewellery, counsellor

- gray is grey

- cozy is cosy

- mold is mould

- tire is tyre

- plow is plough

- draft beer is draught beer (to draft a letter is still to draft)

- curb is kerb

And sometimes their verbs are different when used with collective nouns:

We say, "The team is winning." They say, "The team are winning."

Punctuation is a special challenge. To British writers, a period is a full stop, (parentheses) are brackets, [brackets] are square brackets, and "quotation marks" are inverted commas. Here are some differences that come to mind:

- ending punctuation in a quote usually goes outside, rather than inside, the closing quotation mark:
My favorite fictional character names seem to be "Jack", "Charlie", and "Kate".

- primary quotes are sometimes single quotes rather than double, with the double quotes inside:
'I re-read "The Lottery" last night', Jane said.

- periods after certain abbreviations are omitted:
Mr Smith, Mrs Peel, Dr Watson

- a period, rather than a colon, is used between hours and minutes:
I met her at 10.15 yesterday.

- the British also seem to avoid the use of the Oxford comma, or "serial" comma (the one before the conjunction in a series):
Attending the movie's premiere were two hookers, the producer's wife and the director's wife.

NOTE: The previous sentence is a good example of why I prefer to use the serial comma. It can prevent unintentional mistakes, and even lawsuits.

One more thing. The British are more likely to use words like spilt, leapt, dreamt, and spoilt, instead of the way we would indicate the past tense of those verbs, and they seem far more forgiving of the use of "ly" adverbs and synonyms for "said." They also seem to prefer "towards" over "toward."

These are only some of the differences I've discovered/re-discovered as I continue my marathon-read of Fleming's works. (I'm in the middle of his seventh novel, Goldfinger, at the moment.) But I must say, I've found these differences to be more interesting than distracting. And I think I now have a better appreciation of the old saying that America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.

Can you think of other Britishisms that I've left out? I'm sure there are many. And a question for my fellow SleuthSayers Melodie Campbell and Stephen Ross: Does usage/style in Canada and Australia generally agree with British?

As for this reader/writer, it's back to his regular programme. 'And directly I've finalised my endeavour with the Bond novels, I plan to analyse all the Bond movies again', he observed sombrely. As he changed into his colourful pyjamas.

20 May 2016

Of City Hall, and Editorial, Needs

Artwork courtesy: Future Rooms at Grand Designs Live
By Dixon Hill

As many of you know, my wife and I intend to construct (or install) a backyard office, at our new house, where I can write.

R.T. Lawton asked, when he learned of our plans: "How tough will it be getting a permit from the city?  I assume you're a good enough draftsman to draw up a simple plan to show them."

Frankly, I wasn't sure how hard a permit would be to obtain, but I knew there were similar outbuildings in backyards nearby, so I wasn't too concerned.  And, while I could probably dig out my old T-square and triangle, I'm saved from such a task by my wife, who works as a CADD drafter.

R.T.'s question was a good one, however, because I wasn't sure what the city regulations actually ARE. And, since I also intend to build some shade structures (Such items can actually save several hundred dollars each year, in electricity bills, here in the desert.) I decided to trek down to city hall to investigate setbacks, easements and regs.

Thankfully, the results were relatively unsurprising though perhaps a bit humorous.

I can add a carport, for instance, as long as I install it perpendicular to my driveway.  Yep, you read that right: the carport has to run perpendicular to the existing driveway.  Which means, to add a carport, I have to add a 90-degree dogleg to my current drive -- and it's this dogleg that can then run in under the new carport.  (Looks like the idea behind this one, is that it cuts down on the distance a carport might penetrate into the 20-foot front setback.)

We'll have to trim the size of the grape arbor we wanted to shade the western wall of our house with, too, because regulations call for no more than a two foot punch-out in that area.  No problem.

As for the office . . .

Looks like smooth sailing.  I only need a 2-foot setback from side or rear property lines.  The planning and construction department will happily accept my wife's CADD plans and require no others.  If I'll request and pay for it, they'd be happy to send out inspectors after we run the electrical, and after the construction is complete, so the office can actually be added to square footage -- which might come in handy if we ever sell.  On the other hand, I'm not sure I want to deal with the added time delay or headache.

As my old friend, Harrold (who worked for many years in the city planning department), used to advise: "Unless you're worried about sales value, it's usually better to ask forgiveness than permission when dealing with a city."

But, all this had me thinking about how to deal with editors concerning certain types of stories.  I've long had a story sitting in my files, for instance, which seemed perfect for a certain youth magazine -- except that the setting just wasn't a good fit for that particular publication.  The manuscript is historical fiction, which they publish, but they tend to concentrate on U.S. historical settings in their fiction.

The protagonist of this story is a teenage soldier in the British army during the Napoleonic era, which I'm pretty sure they'd balk at.

Working to think outside the box, on these small construction projects around our new house, seems somehow to have helped me possibly solve my story problem as well.

I suddenly recalled that the magazine in question publishes science fiction stories, as well as historical and other types of fiction.  Consequently, I've recast my Napoleonic era story with a story set on a distant planet that humans colonized some time before.  Due to vast interstellar distances, however, colonists on new planets can bring only limited supplies with them and are largely left to their own devices after initial landing.

The colonists on this planet have managed to reach a technological level roughly akin to that enjoyed by humans, here on Earth, during the Napoleonic era.  A dictator has taken over part of the planet, and his army is trying to take over the rest.  Our hero is part of the opposing forces.

British Riflemen (Skirmishers) as portrayed in the Sharpe's Rifles television film series.
Those green "rifleman's coats" play a key role in my story's plot.
Now, our protagonist can do his duty, safely ensconced in the military hardware required to make my
storyline work, but I don't have to worry that the magazine will balk at the non-U.S.-focused historical setting.

True, they may not like this sci-fi version of my story.  (Time will tell.)  But, I can't help thinking this will be an interesting experiment.  This is the first time I've committed to making such a large change in the story setting -- basically changing the genre (from historical to sci-fi in this case) while maintaining nearly the entire plot line and all characters -- all while still considering a sale to the same magazine.

I wonder if any of you have ever done the same sort of thing, and what the results were.  Please let us know in the comments.

Meanwhile, I'm still working to integrate the new setting into the story, in as organic a manner as possible.  I'll let you know how things turn out.

See you in two weeks,

19 May 2016


by Janice Law

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve discovered that in old age, a woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of clergymen – of the mystery fictional variety, that is. Certainly jolly, confident, busybody Father Brown has enlivened many dark winter months, and his younger, Anglican counterpart, Cannon Sidney Chambers brightened up an erratic spring.

Chambers is the vicar of Grantchester, a parish near Cambridge. Like Father Brown, he first saw the light in shorter works, novella length stories by James Runcie, who was inspired by his clergyman father, the Archbishop of Canterbury. There’s a dad for a mystery writer!

 Runcie has planned a series of volumes that develop Chambers’ character and recount his romantic adventures and professional trials as well as his amateur sleuthing. That is the first difference with Father Brown. The good priest of Kembleford is a completed character, if I can put it that way. His personality is set and so is his neat little circle of friends, helpers, and opponents. In every way, socially, professionally, and theologically, Father Brown is confident he knows the score, and he never hesitates to plunge into the case of the moment.

Sidney Chambers, in contrast, is very much a 21st century detective, even though the stories are set the early 1950’s. He is even more uncertain, diffident, and troubled in print than he is in the television series, where James Norton’s unusually robust, athletic, and handsome physique lends a dynamic touch. At the same time, Norton’s restraint – very much in keeping with the original stories  – helps to downplay the soap opera additions TV favors.

So how is Grantchester as a mystery series? Pretty good on the screen and in print, too, where five volumes are out, beginning with Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death. The TV series goes, quite naturally, for extra drama and emotion; the novellas add more than a soup├žon of clerical doubts and guilts. Sidney is conscientious and scrupulous to a fault – except when the requirements of a murder case require a little stretching of the rules.
The print Sidney worries, on the one hand, about neglecting his parish duties and failing to engage his parishioners, and on the other, about the morality of interfering in the lives of those touched by crime. Needless to say, the TV Sidney does not ruminate very long on either. Where both Sidneys converge is in their struggles with the weekly sermon. Print Sidney fusses about this task and muses on its content seriously. TV Sidney concludes many episodes with the Sunday sermon, a neat reflection of the issues raised by the case of the week.

The first Father Brown story appeared in 1914; the first volume of the Grantchester stories in 2012,
and what interests me is the difference roughly one hundred years has made in the approach to detection. Father Brown was a rival of Sherlock Holmes, and if he is too good a clergyman to sulk like Sherlock when crime is thin on the ground or to complain at the poor quality of the murder on offer, he certainly thrills to the chase and pursues the puzzle with the same eager joie de vie that he gobbles Mrs. McCarthy’s famed strawberry scones.

One hundred years later, Cannon Chambers has been infected by modern angst. Two wars  have erased the optimism of the Edwardians, and his time fighting with the Scots Guards has left him with bad memories and more taste for whisky than is really good for him. He meddles in crime in spite of himself, spurred on, it is true, by his great friend and backgammon partner, Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green), who appreciates both his logical acumen and his psychological insight.

The good padre is conflicted on the romantic front, too. Though Mrs. Maguire ( Tessa Peake-Jones) runs his household (1950’s bachelors require self sacrificing and efficient housekeepers – see also The Doctor Blake Mysteries) everyone agrees that he needs a wife. Various characters either seek to introduce him to Ms. Right or put themselves forward for the role. Alas, pleasure produces guilt, an old crush interferes with present possibilities, and complications ensue.

Fortunately, Runcie has already completed five volumes with one more to come. Perhaps the good Cannon Chambers can find the right woman and retire to domestic bliss. Perhaps. But in the meantime, he has lots of cases to solve in charming – but clearly dangerous – Grantchester.

18 May 2016

I Couldn't Help Overhearing

by Robert Lopresti

It is one of those super powers most fiction writers seem to have: the ability to eavesdrop.  Comes from a natural curiosity about our fellow mortals, I suppose.

Lots of people listen to what is said around them, but we writers, well, we tend to put them to good use.

Take, for instance, Harlan Ellison, the science fiction and fantasy author (and winner of two, count 'em, two Edgar Awards, by the way).  He was at a party once and overheard someone say "Jeffty is five.  Jeffty is always five."

He assumes that this was a mondegreen, but it inspired a stunning short story, "Jeffty is Five."  It won a Hugo and a Nebula and one poll of SF fans voted it the best short story of all time.

Not bad for an overheard snippet of conversation, huh?

There are also stories about overheard conversations, which I think is due to the writer's special interest in the subject.

James Thurber's "The Lady on 142" begins with the narrator and his wife waiting for a train in the Connecticut suburbs.  He hears the stationmaster saying over the phone "Conductor Reagan on 142 has the lady the office was asking about."

The narrator's wife assumes the lady was sick. Our hero suspects something much more nefarious is going on.  Complications ensue.  I liked the story so much that I ended Thurber On Crime with it.

Before Harry Kemelman started writing about Rabbi Small he made it into Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Department of First Stories with "The Nine Mile Walk," in which a casually overheard remark leads to the discovery of a murder.  It is one of my favorite crime stories.

I have stolen a lot of overheard dialog and put it in the mouths of my characters, but I don't think any of my stories were inspired by  an overheard remark.  Songs, ah, that is a different subject.  Years ago I attended a music camp and took a class from Geof Morgan who was a Nashville hitmaker, until he reformed.  He told us to listen to conversation for the rest of the day, waiting for a hook.

I remember thinking, sure, someone is just going to toss off  a country song hook while I happen to be standing nearby.  A few hours later I heard a woman say:  "She's thinking of giving up California."  And voila.

She's thinking of giving up California
Moving someplace farther from the sea
When she talks about giving up California
I think she's really giving up on me.

And not long ago I was walking through the library where I work and I heard one student say to another: "Whatever page you're at, whatever stage you're at..."

I silently added: "Whatever age you're at."  And I was off.

So, how about you?  Have you ever overheard the kernel of what became your next masterpiece?