05 February 2016

Confessions

by Art Taylor

The landmark anthology Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories includes Lucas Cooper's extraordinary "Class Notes," a piece of flash fiction which originally appeared in 1984 in the North American Review. As the title suggests, the story is presented as one of those class updates that you find in the back of college alumni magazines, and it all begins in just that tone of chatty news: "Ted Mecham may be the first member of the class of ’66 to retire." But these particular class notes quickly take some unexpected turns: "Richard Endergel phoned a few weeks ago from Houston, under arrest for possession of cocaine" is one tidbit, for example, and further along, "Violence is no stranger to Bill Nast. His wife turned up in terrible shape at Detroit General Hospital two months ago, the victim of Bill's hot temper," and then further along, "Sue Zimmerman was a 1978 Penthouse Pet." While many of the items indulge some dark sensationalism, toward the story's end the briefs begin to linger over quieter, more private moments, glimpses into troubled inner lives: "Frederick Mandell weeps uncontrollably in his crowded apartment in Miami Beach. Joel Reede lives in self-destructive anger in Rye, New York.... Odell Masters cries out in his dreams for love of his wife and children."

On the one hand, the story can be read as a playful poke at the relentless pride and hearty optimism of class notes as a genre—and I've seen similar things done with the genre of the annual Christmas letter. But on the other hand, the story strikes me as much deeper and with a rich awareness of the human condition. To my mind, the effect is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

I thought about this story in the wake of a couple of recent events—the first of them a Facebook status update in which a friend discussed her awareness of "the curated nature of our Facebook posts," followed by an admission that some aspects of her life were, right then, pretty crappy.

It's likely not a surprise to anyone who's social-media literate that what people post on Facebook or elsewhere is at best just a glimpse—and likely a "curated" glimpse, to use my friend's word—into a much more complex life. The genre of the Facebook post may, to some degree, demand something performative of us—and it's easy for FB posters simply foreground the good news and bury the bad. (I recognize that exact opposite may also be true for other Facebook users—a type of Eeyore-ness about those online lives.) From the side of the reader scrolling through updates about selfless spouses, brilliant careers, and exotic vacations, the response might be anything from irritation at how one's fellow friends and acquaintances cross the line between "sharing" and "boasting" (see this letter in the Miss Manners column) to actual depression about how their own real lives compare to their friends' and colleagues' online ones (see this from the Harvard Business Review and this from a University of Missouri study). Facebook doesn't cause depression, no, but there's a pretty definite link between the two, via "social comparison," according to the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (cited here in Forbes). And going back to the class notes situation above, I'll admit to catching myself at times browsing through my own college alumni magazine and wondering, "How do I compare to...?" and "Why haven't I...?" and "Oh, I wish...."

The second incident that had me thinking about "Class Notes" was the announcement, earlier this week, of this year's finalists for the Agatha Awards, a time of great celebration in the mystery world and, as it turns out, right here in our immediate SleuthSayers family. It was such a thrill to see my fellow  bloggers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens represented on the slate: Barb for her short story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Bonnie in two categories, with the short story "A Joy Forever," also from Alfred Hitchcock, and with her YA novel Fighting Chance: A Martial Arts Mystery. I was pleased to be among the finalists myself with my first book, On the Road with Del & Louise, as a contender in the Best First Novel category. As you can imagine and some may have seen firsthand, Facebook and Twitter and various other virtual communities were abuzz with the news, with announcements and congratulations and conversations—and I'll add a congratulations again to the finalists not only here in our SleuthSayers family but across the board!

Though I was grateful, of course—immensely grateful—both for the honor of having been named a finalist and for all the goodwill coming my own way, in the midst of it all I couldn't help but feel slightly self-conscious about the attention and undeserving in several ways, couldn't help but wonder at what point these types of posts risk crossing the line between "sharing" and "boasting" (to borrow that phrase from the Miss Manners letter) and, more to the point, I found myself fretting about the "curated nature" of the whole thing—though I was heartened immensely by a posting Barb Goffman herself made, which she's given me permission to reproduce here:

We writers often toil alone, wondering if what we write is any good, if anyone will read it, let alone like it. So receiving validation through an award nomination means the world. Thanks to everyone I've heard from today about my nomination for an Agatha Award in the short story category for my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" Thanks to everyone who listed my story on your nomination ballot. Congratulations to all the finalists, especially my fellow finalists in the short-story category, Edith Maxwell, Terrie Moran, Harriette Wasserman Sackler, and B.K. Stevens. And I want to give a shout-out, too, to all the authors who had wonderful books and stories published this year whose names don't appear on the Agatha shortlist—being published is no small thing and is to be celebrated as well.

I couldn't agree more with Barb's comments—which speak of the best aspects of the mystery community in general: thoughtfulness, generosity and inclusiveness, with celebrations and recognition for us all. Those opening comments struck home, about writers wondering if what we write is good, if anyone will read it, if anyone will like it. And echoing that closing shout-out to other authors: Having twice judged the Edgar Awards, I know all too well how many fine books and stories are published each year, how few get to step into the spotlight, and how many others were equally deserving of that spotlight.

I've been about as fortunate as any writer could ask to be—something that I recognize and am grateful for every day—and I use that word fortunate specifically, with its echo of luck, a huge factor always. And I feel thrilled and humbled by the new honor this week and by the support I've received from fellow writers and readers. But in the spirit of how I've titled this blog, "Confessions," I want to admit that even as the celebrations were unfolding on social media and email, I confessed to a friend that the news came at a time when I've been struggling mightily with my writing for a variety of reasons—not just with finding time to write (always an issue) but with lack of direction, lack of confidence, poor productivity, and more.

These are things that I don't post on Facebook: anxiety, self-doubt, a recurrent fear of failure, and then real failures—the stories languishing on my computer because of rejection after rejection.

I recognize the potential dangers in admitting this—the danger that it might come across as whining from someone who really, truly has nothing to whine about. I've said before and I'll say again (and again) that I am blessed in many ways and couldn't/shouldn't ever ask for anything better. My point is never, not intentionally, to take on a woe-is-me attitude amidst an overabundance of riches.

But I do think it's important to pull back the curtain a little to reveal how much all of us may struggle, at whatever stage of our careers, at whatever level of success or seeming success. As Barb pointed out, we writers "toil alone"—a level of interiority is indeed central to our craft—and in the midst of that interiority, in that aloneness, sometimes as that aloneness verges into loneliness, it might prove seductive to wonder why the progress or the success that comes so easily to others is so difficult coming to us.

The friend I wrote to, confessing my own struggles, wrote back that she too has had a rough patch lately—over several years—a fine writer and former Agatha finalist herself. And then another writer I mentioned this to, a writer I've always perceived as immensely productive and invariably successful, admitted that she hadn't written anything in months, admitted to her frustrations about that and to the fear that there might simply not be any next plot coming. Other writers I know, some with long and acclaimed publishing success, have no trouble with craft but are struggling with sales and contracts and the various shifts in the publishing world. Closer to home: My wife, Tara Laskowski, has a book coming out in the spring and just earned some advance praise from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—but in the midst of celebrating that boost, she's also been uneasy about troubles with her next project, the daunting task ahead of her, the fear that she's simply not writer enough to ever bring it off. (She is, I know she is, but right now she doesn't believe she is, and that's the point.)

Not all writers are like this, I recognize. Maybe I'm just the fretful sort, I tell myself, because I see those other writers who seem to know where they're going and get there without fail and make it seem so easy and.... But then that's just proving the point too. Not all writers are fretful, no, but at least based on my small anecdotal evidence, my small corner of the writing world, many of us likely are, perhaps more this way than the other—even those who don't look it on the outside...or on whatever social media platform they spend most of their time on.

As I've been working on this post, I've kept thinking that I need to find some way to bring it to a rousing close—some moral or message. Keep on writing! Everyone struggles, but the struggles will pay off! Or simply: You're not alone in the world! But ultimately too much of that seems pat and simplistic and maybe even condescending. It's also (updating this post here) unrealistic and maybe even empty; as one writer commented to me offline after this post went live, there are writers for whom the hard work might not pay off—writers who might ultimately give up because they haven't found that success or even publication. This happens, far more often than it should.

So maybe what I'm aiming for is something closer to the "Class Notes" story that I opened with and the comments on the "curated nature" of Facebook posts, the idea that what's flattened out in those respective genres may ultimately mask something more complex and more human in real life, part of some deeper struggles that we all sometimes experience, whoever or wherever we are.

In any case, I hope some of it might be not unuseful—and to bring all this from some over-lofty armchair philosophizing back to more practical matters, how about a question or two for the writers among us: Do you ever feel similar worries or crises? And if so, how do you deal with them?

Share if you can. We're all in this together, after all.

04 February 2016

Max Bialystock is Dead

by Eve Fisher

The six finalists for the Edgar Awards have been announced, and each and every one of them is fantastic.  Go read them.



The Strangler Vine by M.J. Carter (Penguin Random House – G.P. Putnam's Sons)
The Lady From Zagreb by Philip Kerr (Penguin Random House – A Marian Wood Book)
Life or Death by Michael Robotham (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (Penguin Random House - Dutton)
Canary by Duane Swierczynski (Hachette Book Group – Mulholland Books)
Night Life by David C. Taylor (Forge Books)

But, while these six are basking in hope and glory, I'd also like to bring to your attention some other damn good books that came out in 2015.  

First of all, Phantom Angel by David Handler (Minotaur Books).  I love a good mystery, and I love it even better when it's funny.  Really funny.  This one is.  PI Benji Golden is hired by Morrie Frankel, who's putting on a $65 million musical adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" (yes, Emily's cheerful little romance).  If you're thinking Max Bialystock and "Springtime for Hitler", so was I.  And I was not disappointed!  Max, I mean, Morrie is killed, money vanishes, and Golden's real problem is sifting through Broadway gossip as high as a NY skyscraper to find the killer.  This was a truly FUN read.  It's also the second in this new series by David Handler - the first was Runaway Man.

For those of you who love the long slow burn...

A Pleasure and A Calling by Phil Hogan ((Picador) is classic British creep show.  You know.  The kind of story where everything is normal, perfectly normal.  Until one day, you notice that the ivy is twining the wrong way, and the next, the garbage can shifted, and later, who turned on that light, and why are you in the attic...  Well, in this one, we have Mr. Heming, real estate agent.  Wonderful man.  Friendly, helpful.  First to call.  And has keys to every house he has ever sold. Who likes to drop in, when nobody's there. Who likes to see how people live.  Who is very, very particular.  Who has motives that no one has ever dreamed of.  Who may have fallen in love.  Or not.  Who finds himself in a situation.  And knows that there is always, always, always a way out...  He's done it before...  Seriously, check it out.  You'll stay up for a while.

And now for something completely different:

The Lost Treasures of R&B by Nelson George (Akashic Books).  Nelson George's professional bodyguard D Hunter is on the job protecting rapper Asya Roc at an underground fight club in Brooklyn.  But the rapper has arranged to buy some illegal guns; an old acquaintance named Ice is the courier; a robbery is attempted, a shoot-out follows.  Who were the gunmen?  Why did they want those guns?  And who was being set up - the rapper or the Ice?  D tries to figure all of this out and, at the same time, to track down the rarest soul music single ever recorded.  The voice of this book is very real, and the whole mood of the book is an R&B rapper High Fidelity noir thriller, and I loved it. Nelson George, knows his music:  a former editor for Billboard Magazine, columnist for the Village Voice, R&B, currently co-executive producer of VH1's Hip Hop Honors and executive producer of BET's American Gangster.  He also knows Brooklyn.  The Lost Treasures of R&B is the third in the D Hunter series:  the other two are The Accidental Hunter and The Plot Against Hip-Hop: A Novel.


A brand new series to keep an eye on:

The Magician's Daughter by Judith Janeway (Poisoned Pen Press).  Magician Valentine Hill always introduces her act by announcing “Reality is an illusion. Illusion is reality, and nothing is what it seems.”  She learned that, and many other things, from her grifter mother, who is still on the loose, and her magician father. From both she learned a whole lot of tricks that will come in handy as she struggles to deal with wealthy socialites, car mechanics, cab drivers, and FBI agents.  Most of whom are also ruthless criminals, psycho killers, and seductive gangsters.  And, of course, her amoral, abusive, never-retired mother who is still on the con, and still very, very, very dangerous...

And everyone needs a good spy thriller:

Nobody Walks by Mick Herron (Soho Crime).  Tom Bettany is working at a meat processing plant in France when he gets a voicemail from an Englishwoman he doesn’t know telling him that his estranged 26-year-old son is dead.  Liam Bettany fell from his London balcony, where he was smoking pot.  Bettany goes back to London to find out the truth about his son’s death.  Because Liam might have been a druggie, but Bettany isn't just the quiet butcher he's been for the last few years.  He's been around, he knows a lot, perhaps too much, and a lot of people are afraid of his return, from incarcerated mob bosses to high powered bosses of MI5.  None of them appreciate his return.  Or did someone arrange to get him back, literally in the worst way possible?   Stylish, noirish, a don't trust anyone read that will definitely surprise you.

Under the why didn't anyone tell me? classification of series:

Down Among the Dead Men by Peter Lovesey (Soho Crime).  Miss Gibbon, the most disliked teacher (of art) in a posh private girls' school vanishes in a Sussex town on the south coast of England. She is not missed, especially since her replacement is a gorgeous male teacher with a fancy car and some boundary issues. Meanwhile, detective Peter Diamond finds himself in Sussex, with the person he hates the most:  his supervisor, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore.  She's been called to lead a Home Office internal investigation into a Sussex detective who failed to link DNA evidence of a relative to a seven-year-old murder case.  And she takes Diamond with her.  What she doesn't know is that Diamond knows the suspended officer.  And over time, he notices unsettling connections between the cold case and the missing art teacher. And there's also the mystery of why C.C. Dallymore was really called on the case in the first place.  I loved the plot, I loved the characters, but most of all, I loved the wit.  Why didn't someone tell me about Peter Diamond before?

Well, that's all for this week.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some catching up to do....




03 February 2016

Five Red Herrings, Numero 7.

by Robert Lopresti

1.  Thuglit.  You like mysteries?  You like short stories?  So, have you read Thuglit yet?  It is a good magazine, a paying market yet, and available in paper or electrons.  Eight stories per issue, very reasonable price.  I bring this up because editor Todd Robinson has announced that, barring an increase in sales, this will be its last year.  And that would be a shame.

How good is Thuglit?  It provided six of the Best Stories of the Week I reviewed at Little Big Crimes last year.  That's more than 10%.  Two of them made my Best of the Year; 15%. 

And we're going to lose it because you refuse to chip in two bucks an issue, 25 cents a story?  Buy it here.


2. The Big Squelch.  Imagine that you submit a story to a magazine and get any of these replies from the editor:

"Lots of suspense."

"A fascinating romp through primitive territory."


"Some beautiful moments here."

"Easy to read, had a good hook, kept me interested and I loved the characters -- all of them."


You would feel pretty good, wouldn't you?  But each of these was in a rejection note received by Eric Wilder.  And in his list he tells you which editor said what about which story.  Fascinating...

3.  Going Up.  And down.  A month ago I told you about my new desk which moves to a standing position at the touch of a button.  A few people asked me to report on how it has worked out - i.e. has it been sitting in the down position since the second day?

Well, I love it.  My goal is to use it standing up for half an hour and then switch, but often I am so comfortable standing up that I don't notice how much time has passed until one of my cats demands that I make a lap. So I highly recommend it for any middle aged backs out there.


4. Wuzza wooza buzzy fuzzy!  Chuck Wendig is a writer.  Apparently he often gives writing advice.  Last November he got a bit fed up with that routine.  The result is profane and hilarious.

That’s me yelling at the clouds and shaking my fist at trees, screaming: I EARNED THE RIGHT TO YELL AT YOU ABOUT WRITING. And then I hiss at birds. Stupid birds...

You should write in the morning unless you can’t or shouldn’t or won’t or whatever.

Be more literary! Be more genre! Be less this more that wait no the other thing.

This won’t sell until it does and then it sells a lot until it stops selling and nnngh.

You should do XYZ except unless ABC or 123 or wuzza wooza buzzy fuzzy.


Read it all.

5. The haunted bookshop?  I started this piece by inviting you to spend a few bucks on Thuglit.  Here is another suggestion for those suffering from too much moolah - especially if you live in my part of the country.

The Seattle Mystery Bookshop has been supporting readers and writers in our field for decades. (Attached is a photo of me at a signing  last fall with a couple of wonderful readers.)  Like a lot of small bookstores they need some help and happily they have the sense to say so.  There is a GoFundMe to raise some dough for them, and there are cool rewards for patrons.



02 February 2016

Some Friendships: A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

by Paul D. Marks

There’s a saying about friends, “We have three types of friends in life: Friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for a lifetime.”

And as writers in the 21st century we’re supposed to work social media. And it is work, but it’s also fun. You meet people you never would have met otherwise. Sometimes you’ll even meet them in real life, at a conference or convention or even meet up just go out to lunch if you’re in the same town. On occasion it goes the other way, you meet someone in person and then friend them online. Some of these people turn into good friends.

And how does this relate to SleuthSayers? Because this is a crime and writers/writing blog and it deals with the writing side—an aspect of the social media side of being a writer.

Occasionally I notice that I’ve lost a friend or two on Facebook or Twitter. I guess that’s to be expected. People drop off for a variety of reasons. There are programs or apps that will allow you to see who’s dropped you. So far I haven’t installed any of them. Maybe I don’t want to know...

But something interesting happened to me recently. I lost a friend I thought I was pretty good friends with. I knew I lost her and I knew who it was. I also knew why. Here’s what happened:

Generally speaking, I post nothing overtly political or religious on FB. Remember what your mom said about not talking politics or religion in polite company. So I pretty much follow that dictum. I post a lot of articles and pix of La La Land (Los Angeles) and film noir and Raymond Chandler and his ilk. Some animal pix. Some are of my animals, some not. Some funny animal things and some serious ones about abused animals. But that’s about as political as I get, at least in my mind.

But a short time ago I posted a song/video that I thought was funny. It was a satirical song about the holidays and Christmas and such. And it offended someone greatly. She told me so and I apologized in public in a comment on the post. But I didn’t remove the video. We had a little back and forth in the comments and also in private e-mail and it was civil on both sides, though I believe she wanted me to remove the video which I wouldn’t do. Overall I apologized three times, but apparently it wasn’t enough. She defriended me and basically said “farewell” in a private e-mail.

She was upset not so much by the video per se, but that I’d posted it around the holidays. Any other time of year and she wouldn’t have been offended, she said. My whole reason for posting the video around the holidays was that it was a satirical view of the holidays that I thought was funny, related to and that I thought other people would too. And for the most part, it was about the secular/non-religious aspect of the holidays (obnoxious relatives, silly family traditions, etc.) although there may have been a very small reference to religion. To top things off, in a comment, someone else commented on the video and posted another video which was a little offensive by some standards and not something I would have posted and I think I also got blamed for that, which was beyond my control.

I try not to post things that I think will be offensive to others, but there is a point where you have to say enough—I have to be me. I can’t worry about everything I say or do offending someone or I would basically never post anything, including this blog which I’m sure will offend someone, somewhere, at some time. In fact if I was constantly worrying about offending someone I would probably not be a writer, because as writers we are always taking a chance that we will offend someone. In my noir-thriller White Heat, which deals with a lot of racial issues and uses some tough language, I worried about using the ‘N’ word. So much so that I put a disclaimer at the beginning of the book warning people to consider the harsh language in the context of the time and place where the novel takes place. So, I do try to consider people’s feelings and be respectful.

But I guess I committed an unforgiveable offense by posting the video and have now been banished from the island. But I find it rather ironic since this person has asked me on several occasions to write up bios, respond to questionnaires, and other things about myself so she could publish an article and/or interview about me. This has gone on for several years yet no article or interview ever appeared. Yet I spent a lot of time working on this stuff. I wasn’t thrilled that I had spent all this time for nothing but I never said a word. We were friends so I let it slide. But I committed the offensive act and that was the end of a friendship that I now realize was a mile wide but an inch deep.

It’s not the end of the world. And I know she was upset by the video. Personally I don’t see the
problem but I did apologize as I said. I often see things I don’t agree with, political or otherwise, from people I’m friends with but I let them slide. Agree to disagree. I don’t comment. I just move on. I asked her to do that with me, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t. But I guess it’s easy to be friends with someone you agree with 100% and more of a challenge to be friends with someone you don’t agree with on everything.  And as writers I think we need to challenge rather than agree on everything. I’ve been friends in the real world for 30 years, sometimes even longer, with people that I disagree vehemently with and they with me. But we agree to disagree and we’re still good friends. And that’s the way I like it.
5 Ways NOT to Handle a  Nasty Facebook Breakup. Click on link not photo to view video: https://www.facebook.com/YourTango/videos/10152523198102261/?pnref=story

***

I’m going to be interviewed by Pam Stack on Authors on the Air, Wednesday, February 3rd at 6pm Pacific Time. Hope you’ll join us there: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/authorsontheair/2016/02/04/paul-d-marks-talks-about-writing-and-more-on-authors-on-the-air-live




And I’m also guest blogging on author Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Fan Club page on Facebook this week if you want to stop by and check it out: https://www.facebook.com/groups/sueannjaffarian/ 

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01 February 2016

The Last Camel Collapsed a Noon

by Susan Rogers Cooper

The last camel collapsed at noon.” This is the opening line of Ken Follett's THE KEY TO REBECCA, and it says a lot. You have a fairly good idea where you are, and you know that the people in this story are in some serious trouble.

Several years ago I was asked by Rice University to speak at their summer writer's workshop on the subject of hooks – those words that entice a reader to stay beyond the first line. And, I've discovered, that first line, paragraph, or page needs to be a dozy. Before I wrote my first mystery, I was told that if I wanted to write one, I'd better get a dead body in there pretty damn quick. So, the first line of my first Milt Kovak, THE MAN IN THE GREEN CHEVY, is: “Her body was found by her daughter-in-law.” See how I did that? “Body.” That means dead, right?

While I was preparing for my Rice workshop, I sat down on the bed and went through every mystery I had in my house. The bed didn't collapse, but it was touch and go there for a moment. I read the first lines and paragraphs of every book and found the ones that grabbed. And, strangely enough, they were differences enough for me to categorize them. Why not? I like to be neat.

Slap in the Face: Bill Crider's SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT: “Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.”

Goosebumps: William Bernardt's PRIMARY JUSTICE: “'Once again,' the man said, pulling the little girl along by the leash tied to his wrist and hers. 'Tell me your name.'”

Too Cool for School: Raymond Chandler's TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS: “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said, 'I need a man.'”

The Scenic Route: James Lee Burke's THE NEON RAIN: “The evening sky was streaked with purple, the color of torn plums, and a light rain had started to fall when I came to the end of the blacktop road that cut through twenty miles of thick, almost impenetrable scrub oak and pine and stopped at the front gate of Angola penitentiary.”

I could go on. But let's sum up. What questions should a reader be asking at the end of the hook? My favorite, as a writer and a reader, is to get the response: “What the hell is going on here?” Always a good question – if the reader is hooked enough to care. Then there's this: Is this person, this character I've already decided I like, going to make it all the way through these three-hundred-odd pages?”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is now part of the language. People who've never read Dickens use that line in everyday conversation. That's a hook.

31 January 2016

Road Trips

by Dale C. Andrews
The spaciousness of it astounds me; this is the kind of country you dream of running away to when you are very young and innocently hungry, before you learn that all land is owned by somebody, that you can get arrested for swinging through trees in a loincloth, and that you were born either too late or too poor for everything you want to do.
                                                 Peter S. Beagle 
                                                 I See by my Outfit 
On July 7, 1919 a young army captain named Dwight David Eisenhower joined 294 other members of the army and departed from Washington D.C. in the military's first automobile caravan across the country. Due to poor roads and highways, the caravan averaged five miles per hour and took 62 days to reach Union Square in San Francisco.
                                                 Interstate Highways: The Largest Public Works Project                
                                                     in History 
                                                 U.S. Department of Transportation, Government Printing Office

Time to run away from home!
     Today, January 31, the lingering remains of the blizzard of 2016 will be in the rear view mirror. We are on the road, driving from Washington, D.C. -- where February (the longest month of the year) begins with tomorrow’s sunrise -- to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Any readers who have followed my posts with regularity over the last few years may well recognize a routine here. Every winter my wife and I retreat to the south for five weeks, leaving our adult son in charge of house and cats.

       Each year our drive takes us along Highway 81 through the Shenandoah Valley and then Roanoke.  Eventually we veer off on I-75 through Knoxville, and then on to Chattanooga, where we will spend the night.  The next day we will begin heading south again, past Lookout Mountain, site of the Civil War battle that bears its name. Fleetingly we will skirt Georgia before our southerly run continues down the State of Alabama, through Birmingham, and then just east of Monroeville, where Harper Lee still resides. Eventually we will cross the Intracoastal Waterway where we will likely stop for lunch at Lulu's (owned and run by Jimmy Buffett's sister).  And then we are there. All of this, except the last few miles, is on interstate highways that plot a rhumb line to the Gulf. 

       When you feel like getting away, well . . . there is nothing like a road trip. Driving the highways speaks to me, as it does to many, as resonantly in my 60’s as it did in the 60’s. The road beckons many of us, and that is reflected throughout our lives, and often our literature. 

      As a college student sometime back in the mid-1960’s I remember wandering into the West End Library in Washington, D.C. looking for some light reading. Something that was decidedly not a text book; escapism while falling asleep. In my search of the shelves I eventually stumbled onto a volume entitled I See by my Outfit authored by Peter S. Beagle. It turned out that Beagle was already moderately well known for his rather macabre first novel, A Fine and Private Place -- don’t confuse that one with the Ellery Queen mystery bearing the same title -- and was probably even better known for his second novel, The Last Unicorn, which, according to one science fiction poll was named the fifth all-time best sci/fi novel ever. But when I wandered into the library that day I had read neither of those books, nor had I heard of Peter Beagle. And my eye had been caught by a non-fiction work Beagle published between those two early novels. What the Hell. I checked it out. 

       I See by my Outfit is an account of a trip that is easy to describe but (as Beagle demonstrated) difficult in the execution. It recounts the adventures, encounters and reflections of Beagle and his close friend Phil Segunick as they purchase matching Vespa motorbikes and then proceed to ride them from New York City to San Francisco, all so that Beagle can reconnect with his girlfriend. The title? It derives from the ballad Streets of Laredo and, more specifically, from the Smothers Brothers’ parody of that song, which Peter Beagle and his companion sing out as they take off across America on their sputtering scooters:  I see by your outfit, that you are a cowboy . . . . Get yourself an outfit and be a cowboy too.

       So that is the premise. But what the book is about is two young hippy kids who forsake everyday obligations and take off in an ill-thought out adventure. And in doing so they discover America -- the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly.

    As a college student trying to figure out what I needed to do to make something of myself this turned out to be seminal escapism. I couldn’t put the book down, and though I do not own a copy I remember it well to this day. As a youngster still learning the tools needed to successfully join the rat-race of life what could be more tempting than this romance about folks my age who on a whim decided to hit the open road? The idea of just chucking it all. Not worrying about next year let alone the next decade. Forgetting about college. Forgetting about Nixon and Viet Nam. Just getting on a friendly little Vespa and cruising down those long open highways. 

       I See by my Outfit, never a best seller even in its time, is a now an obscure example of road trip literature. It's still out there, though.  Centro Books re-issued Beagle’s coming of age travelog in paperback in 2007, and finally, as of last November, it is also available as a Kindle e-book.

     There are, however, lots of other example of readily available road trip parables -- non-fiction as well as fiction. If you hanker to hear from other authors who took to the highways you might try the granddaddy of road trip tales, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie, or Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent. Bryson's road trip yarn focuses on smaller roads and towns, as does William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, so if that's what you are looking for either might be just your thing. In the fiction realm you could try Cormack McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road, or Stephen King’s The Stand, much of which occurs on the road. Tom Wolfe’s early success The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test sort of splits the difference between factual narration and fiction as it follows the drug-induced meanderings of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters crossing the country in their psychedelic school bus named “Further.” Or you might try Angels by Denis Johnson, a road trip featuring some really seedy bus stations.  In their own way each of these works, fiction or non-fiction, real or imagined, set in the past, present or imagined future, echoes Simon and Garfunkel -- they've all come to look for America.

       Looking for something more recent?  Perhaps a road trip tale that serves up a little crime and mystery along the way? My SleuthSayers colleague Art Taylor’s newly published On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories is at the top of my “to read” list. In fact, it's already loaded on my tablet, stowed safely in my overnight bag behind the front seat.  And all of Art's interconnected stories, as the title suggests, take place on the road.

       So all of this is on my mind as I drive southwest on I-81. Back in the 1960s as tempted as I was by I See by my Outfit I couldn’t make myself do it. There was college, then law school, then the career. And there was family, and there were kids.  But that freedom I lacked then I now have in retirement. You just have to be lucky enough to live long enough. Also on my mind, though, is the highway itself, and the network of other interstate highways that criss-cross America making all of our road trips, real or virtual, possible. 

       I think back to a story my father used to tell. He was born in 1916 -- yikes! 100 years ago.  This story probably dates from the early 1920s, when he was a small child. He grew up in St. Louis, but his family previously came there from Vandalia, Illinois, about 75 miles to the east. They had always visited Vandalia relatives by train, but there came a time when his father, my grandfather, decided that the trip could be done by automobile. They decided to give it a try.

       According to my father the family started out from St. Louis early in the morning, without a map, heading east across the Mississippi. After the vaguely familiar streets of East St. Louis, Illinois had been put behind them they were in the unknown.  Every few miles my grandfather would slow down, hail someone by the side of the road and ask how to get to Vandalia. The roadside sage would stroke his chin and opine on the road to follow, at least for the next few miles. When those directions had been followed (or discarded as ill-advised) my grandfather would hail the next person he saw road-side and repeat the question.

       According to my father the family eventually reached Vandalia -- again, 75 miles away -- just over 13 hours after they had departed St. Louis. It is, however, unfair to blame all of this directly on bad directions and the meandering roads of rural America in the 1920s. Some of the delay was more indirect -- resulting from the eight blown tires that my grandfather had to repair roadside along the way.
The Madonna of the Trail statue in
Vandalia, Illinois.  (In front of the first
Illinois capitol building)
       Such was the state of our roads 100 years ago, and that is what Captain Dwight Eisenhower, as recounted in the quote above, encountered when he was ordered in 1919 to see if it was actually possible as a practical matter to drive coast to coast from east to west. Most of the roads Eisenhower traversed were two lane pavement laid over the original trails connecting adjacent towns.

       Vandalia was actually pretty lucky as it happens -- it was situated at the end of the National Road, the first major highway constructed by the Federal Government that had some sense to it. The road followed the Old National Trail that began in Cumberland, Maryland and was the route traveled by settlers headed west. In towns spread out along the trail, you can still find “Madonna of the Trail” statues, one in each state, commemorating those pioneers. One stands, to this day, in Vandalia

       Construction of the National Road was begun in 1811, and ended in 1837 when the road had reached Vandalia. The plan was to continue the project until the National Road reached St. Louis -- which would have made things easier for my grandfather -- but the panic of 1837 and the resulting national financial collapse put an end to those ambitions. So there was some order and logic to the route when a traveler attempted to drive from the beginning of the road, in Cumberland Maryland, to Vandalia. But after Vandalia, on the roads my family drove in the 1920s, anarchy reigned.

       Aside from the National Road, and a few other similar national projects, roads in the United States were originally constructed mostly at the whim of localities -- black top and portland cement strips of two lanes, climbing every hill, dropping into every valley, skirting property lines and connecting nearby towns as best they were able. There were virtually no roadside signs, and there were few maps. And that was the transportation chaos that Eisenhower encountered in 1919 when he was charged with determining whether a coast to coast automobile road trip was feasible. 

The National Road
       Things did improve. The National Road, with Federal help, became U.S. 40, and it did finally reach St. Louis and beyond. Highways 50 and 66 managed to span the country. But those United States roadways in the 1940s and 1950s were still difficult, at best. Eisenhower noted all of this, and never forgot his 62 day transcontinental road trip. It’s a shame he didn’t record his journey. It would have been a great addition to our literature of the road. 

       In any event, when Eisenhower commanded the Allied forces in World War II he had the personal experience from which to compare the German autobahn network with our congeries of two lane asphalt. Eisenhower knew that we needed to profit from the European approach to road building, and some ten years later as President he was finally in a position to do something about it. Largely through his efforts Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and, once signed into law, the United States embarked on the greatest public works project in history -- the design and construction of the national Interstate Highway System. Funded by a Federal gasoline tax, the Interstate Highway System now ecompasses some 46,000 miles of dual lane limited access highways, connecting us as a nation. 

The Interstate Highway System
       We live with and on the Interstate Highway System, and we have for 50-some years. Given this, it is difficult, sometimes, not to become complacent. We are tempted to act as though these highways were always here. But Eisenhower’s vision made a huge difference for America then and now. Here’s how the History Channel summarizes it
Today, there are more than 250 million cars and trucks in the United States, or almost one per person. At the end of the 19th century, by contrast, there was just one motorized vehicle on the road for every 18,000 Americans. At the same time, most of those roads were made not of asphalt or concrete but of packed dirt (on good days) or mud. Under these circumstances, driving a motorcar was not simply a way to get from one place to another: It was an adventure. Outside cities and towns, there were almost no gas stations or even street signs, and rest stops were unheard-of. “Automobiling,” said the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper in 1910, was “the last call of the wild.”
        There are ongoing debates today about whether, and how, we can continue to fund the marvelous infrastructure of highways connecting our towns and cities. The Federal Highway Trust Fund, the source for building and maintaining the Interstate Highway system, is supported by the gasoline tax, which sits now at 18.4 cents for each gallon of gasoline purchased.  That rate has not risen since the Clinton administration. In the intervening years inflation has taken its toll. And, ironically, as we continue to build more efficient cars fewer gallons of fuel are used, so fewer per gallon taxes are collected. All of this at a time when the highways, now often more than half a century old, are in need of infrastructure investments. Whether, and how, that problem can be solved is a debate for elsewhere, not here. But suffice it to say that maintaining the highway system we have built will only become more difficult. In 2008, for the first time, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, fueled by that gasoline tax, was in the red. And without additional funding that deficit will continue and will grow every year.

       Those concerns aside, it is still our luck now -- today -- to be able to freely roam these united States on our own, behind the wheel. Unshackled, we can live and write about the experience.     So, for the road trips we take, and the road trips we write about
-- here's to you, Ike! 

       I'm on I-75 now; I-81 is well astern.  Is that Chattanooga up ahead?  'Bout time to call it a day.

30 January 2016

Short and Long, Light and Dark


by John M. Floyd



The title of my column sounds like I'm talking about days, doesn't it--or maybe types of ribs or chicken. What I'm referring to are the stories we fiction writers dream up, put on paper, submit to markets, and (occasionally) get published. Their sizes vary from flash to novella-length, and their moods are everything from Walter Mitty to "The Lottery." For some reason, many of my writer friends these days (not necessarily my mystery-writer friends) seem to produce long and/or grim, somber stories--but others have focused on short, funny pieces. Still others bounce around from short to long and from easygoing to profound, dabbling a little in everything and specializing in nothing. I'm one of those people. As Joe Friday would say, deadpan of course, "That's my job."

Several days ago I received a pleasant surprise: I sold my 75th story to Woman's World. All the stories for that magazine--whether they're mysteries or romances--are both short and lighthearted. But the crazy thing is, most of the stories I've sold over the past few years have been neither short nor light. They're been longer, usually 4000 to 8000 words, and more serious. One of mine that's coming up this year in Akashic Books' Noir series is around ten thousand words, and heavy in mood as well as weight.

Why do I dream up stories that are so different from each other? I truly don't know. Maybe I suffer from the same thing as one of my old friends: he could never seem to hold a job, and his excuse was that he just never found one he was comfortable with. Maybe I'm still trying to figure out what I'm good at. (Besides ending half the sentences in my paragraphs with prepositions.)

Even crazier is the fact that I seem to get about the same enjoyment from writing/completing/selling a very short story and a very long story. The light/dark part is a little different--I like writing the occasional violent, gritty tale, but I absolutely LOVE writing humor. Even my longer, heavier fiction usually includes some comic, quirky elements because I can't seem to resist it.

Also, I think that fiddling around with different lengths and different subject matter keeps the whole writing process from becoming boring. I like knowing that I can finish a thousand-word, low-key, down-home, Aunt-Maude-and-Uncle-Billy kind of story one day, and the next day begin one about serial killers and mean streets and SWAT teams that might run fifty pages or more. It gives me a delicious sense of freedom.

When asked by the students in my classes, I usually say that I write in different genres. I also point out, though, that I've written far more mystery/crime/suspense stories than anything else. I think the reason is that I prefer reading that kind of story. But I also occasionally read Western or SF or horror or literary fiction, and I've written some of that as well. Once more, the variety makes it more fun for me, and keeps me from getting stuck (at least too deeply stuck) in a rut.


What I usually don't like is knowing that I have to write a particular kind of story. That mostly happens on the rare occasions when I'm fortunate enough to be invited to send a story to a genre-specific or themed anthology. Producing those kinds of stories isn't as easy for me as it seems to be for others. My ideas usually come unbidden, out of nowhere, and the resulting stories take shape on their own; they might result in a science fiction tale of 500 words or a Western of 2500 or a young-adult fantasy/adventure story of 5000 (which I just finished writing, and submitted yesterday). Plus, I'm not fond of externally-imposed deadlines--or, for that matter, deadlines of any kind. Don't get me wrong, though. When an opportunity presents itself, especially via a personal invitation from an editor, I'll do it. I'm always grateful, and I try to consider it a challenge rather than a chore, and I do my best to contribute a worthy entry.

The first of those "create-a-story-to-these-specs" projects happened to me ten years ago, and wound up being a lot of fun. An editor/publisher from Georgia named Tony Burton put together a 49-story antho called Seven by Seven, which consisted of seven different authors writing seven stories each about the Seven Deadly Sins. As I told Tony at the time, the only thing I remembered about the Seven Deadly Sins was the movie starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman--but I dutifully did my research and wrote my seven stories, as did the other six participants, one of whom was our own former SleuthSayer Deborah Elliott-Upton, and the book turned out well and sold well. Even if it hadn't, I would've been pleased, because I had a great time and met friends like Deborah and B.J. Bourg and Frank Zafiro and Gary Hoffman, friends I still keep in touch with. But--again--I'm usually more comfortable coming up with my own ideas for stories.

How do the rest of you feel, about this kind of thing? Do you gravitate toward shorter or longer pieces? Is your subject matter usually lighthearted or serious? Do you consciously inject a bit of humor into your fiction regardless of its length? Do you like to have some outside incentive to kick off your story ideas, or do they come to you quietly in the night? Do you regularly seek out "themed" anthologies to submit to? Do you write in one genre and stick to it, or branch out occasionally into others? Do you think it's better to specialize and develop a "brand"? Inquiring minds want to know.

Unfortunately, my SleuthSayers columns tend to run longer rather than shorter, so it's time to wrap this one up.

I wish you short workdays, long vacations, light hearts, dark chocolate, and good writing.