22 May 2015

Keep the faith, Buddy!

By Dixon Hill

In the last phase of the Special Forces Qualification Course I ran into an instructor who clearly didn't
like me because he was intimidated by my previous experience in Military Intelligence.  In fact, the first words he ever said to me, after having met me about ten seconds before, were: "So you worked for Military Intelligence, huh?  You probably think you're really smart.  Don't you?  Well, we'll see how far 'book smarts' get you through, where you're going.  I think you're gonna be pretty surprised!"
I hadn't said a word to him before he said that to me; clearly he'd been reading my personnel folder.

After he walked away, the other members of my training A-Team asked me, "What did you do to tick that guy off?"

I shook my head.  "Never saw him before in my life."

Roughly a month later, I was one of the 11 men he'd flunked out of Phase 3 (that's 11 out of the 13 guys on my training A-Team).  With the exception of one sergeant, who quit in disgust, all of us went back through Phase 3, starting a few weeks later -- all over again -- and we all passed.

Because we had a very good company commander, Captain Juan O'Rama, all 11 of us were signed out on leave within 24 hours.  When I returned, to start Phase 3 again, I found a brass Zippo lighter on my bunk, left there with a note from my buddy, Sergeant Ed Antonavich.  The note explained that he had "kidnapped" my pillow (for very sensible reasons that will remain a mystery on this blog). The lighter was inscribed: Keep the faith, buddy!

What has this got to do with writing?

My life as a writer sometimes seems to come at me as a sort of wave-like experience.  My success crests, washes over, and then I find myself in a trough, working to mount the next wave.

When it comes to the writing itself, I suppose this wave behavior works its way into a surfer's analogy: I paddle my board into the middle of a story trying to catch that big curling wave and ride it for as long as I can.

It strikes me that this is similar to a previous analogy I've posted here, one in which I pick an interesting freight train, with various and intriguing boxcars coupled to it, and hitch a ride, hoping that after I push-start the locomotive it will begin running along on its own steam, whisking me down the line with it.

I suppose the surfer analogy is the friendlier of the two, because changing course doesn't require tearing up the track and laying it back down in a different configuration.


Problem is: changing course in a story sometimes DOES require such drastic measures, so maybe the train analogy holds truer.

The wave theory of a writer's life, however -- MY writer's life, at least -- pertains to more than just the mechanics of writing.  It also applies to successes and failures, as well as those times that are simply spent working, during which neither monetary nor critical success or failure are achieved; a writer is just busily working.

When this happens, a writer has to have a considerable amount of faith that the project in question is worthwhile, because s/he is usually getting no feedback from the publishing world, and sometimes not even from a critique group.

At such times I am strangely reminded of trials I went through in the army, trials which required an enormous expenditure of physical strength and endurance, often coupled with mental agility and determination if one were to succeed.  Whether these trials were part of training, or simply a necessary component for mission accomplishment, the end result was usually the same: sagging head and shoulders, ragged breathing, tongue hanging out, and -- when salvation arrived! -- that blessed sense of a lightened load when we clambered aboard a chopper, or some other vehicle, and could slip the ruck straps from our shoulders.

For the writer, of course, there is no chopper to whisk one away to the land of security.  The closest we come to that is the moment we receive a request for more pages, an acceptance, or a check in the mail.

There are other times, however, when a writer might receive a much-needed shot in the arm.  That manuscript submitted nine or ten months ago, and forgotten about, suddenly catches an email nibble or bite.  Or, as happened for me a few months ago, you open the mailbox to discover an unexpected check for royalties on work you did some time ago.  The effect on a writer's psyche is not on par with being choppered home to relax, but it certainly helps when you're on the march with no relief in sight.

So, if you're currently in a long trough, working away at something, and the doubts are threatening to set-in, take heart and Keep the faith, Buddy! -- a shot in the arm, or literary chopper-equivalent is undoubtedly on the way.

A couple years after reaching my first A-Team, when I went through Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) school our instructors  constantly exhorted us, if ever captured, to: Always look for the little victory each day brings!  

POW's who survived long incarceration evidently shared this common trait: they always looked for the little occurrences that gave them a chance to laugh at, or at least think mocking thoughts of, their captors.  Many made a field-expedient calendar and marked off each day, thinking: "One day closer to freedom and home," each morning or evening.  Others took heart from managing to do small things that bucked-up the sagging spirits of a fellow prisoner(s).  On rare occasion, a few even managed to sabotage enemy vehicles or equipment.

All these things are little victories.  Personal victories.  They didn't win any military war, but they did help POW's to survive long periods of hardship, doubt and fear.

The same holds true for writing.  The little victories are there all around a writer: completing X hours that day, finishing a certain chapter -- any and all of the little signs that you're making progress, no matter how much you DON'T hear about it.  If nothing else, a writer can always say, "One more day of writing down, one day closer to completion!"

So, my thoughts to those in the long trough:
Keep the Faith, Buddy!
Look for the little victories each day brings.  

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

P.S. How do I feel about having to repeat Phase 3 of the SFQC?  Well . . . as I mentioned earlier, all of us who went back through it again, passed with flying colors.  Additionally, the sergeant who flunked us wound up being put out of the army on grounds of mental instability, so I don't hold much of a grudge.

P.P.S. Please don't think I know anything about surfing.  If I tried it, I'd probably end up looking like this guy!


21 May 2015

Wolf Hall

by Eve Fisher

Like so many others, I was hooked by Wolf Hall, both the novel and the PBS Series.  I love both. My only quibble with the TV show was that the actors were so much thinner than the (overly?) well-known portraits of Henry VIII, Cromwell, and Wolsey - all of whom were EXTREMELY hefty men. But then, of course, times have changed. In the 16th century, physical weight proved power and privilege; today, thinness proves it, and Wolsey's massive weight would be considered proof of his lower-class origins...

Cardinal Wolsey Christ Church.jpg Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01.jpg 

Well, that's only my first quibble...  my real quibble was with the portrayal of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife.  By the time Anne Boleyn came along, Catherine had had at six pregnancies, five of whom were miscarriages, still births, or died in infancy.  Only Mary survived.  She was, by all accounts, at 45 years of age very stout ("as wide as she is high"), gray-haired, wrinkled, and not nearly as attractive as the lady who portrayed her (see right).  Once again, even historical women can't lose their looks in modern media...

But enough about that, let's get to the real danger:  politics.

Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg
Sir Thomas More
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Sir Thomas More, a/k/a St. Thomas More, was everybody's hero, thanks to Robert Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons". In that play More was presented as a married saint, a man of humor, humility, affability, intellect, education, and a keen sense of conscience. Thomas Cromwell was absolute evil, determined to ruin and destroy More - and does.  But then, all the people in power, from King Henry VIII to Cromwell to little Richard Rich, are presented as corrupt, expedient, power-hungry...  Only More is different, which is amazing when you consider that More was a politician from the time he was elected to Parliament at 26 until his resignation as Chancellor two years before his death.  It does raise the question how he, and he alone, managed to remain pure in the midst of all that fraud, double-dealing, dishonesty, unscrupulousness, corruption...

Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger - Portrait of Henry VIII - Google Art Project.jpgAnyway, today we have Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in which Sir Thomas More is less saintly and Thomas Cromwell less evil.  But there's nothing much you can do about Henry VIII.  The truth is, politics (not to mention marriage! is always a deadly game when you are dealing with an absolute monarch, who can have you killed at any moment, innumerable nobles who are all scrambling for scraps from said monarch's table, and a brewing religious war.  And the irony is that it didn't help that Henry VIII was an enlightened, extremely well-educated monarch:  the true philosopher prince everyone had always dreamed of.   Be careful what you wish for:  all that enlightenment, all that education, all that religious training combined with the divine right of kings meant that Henry thought he was always right about everything.  Especially when he wanted to get a new wife or more money, or be Head of the Church in order to get a new wife and more money.

When Henry made himself Head of the Church of England (with help from Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury), he put everybody in England on the spot:  who were you going to side with, Henry or the Pope?  Most sided with Henry because the Pope was foreign, so the hell with him.  But for many - most famously Thomas More, but also John Fisher, and 137 other priests, friars, and laypeople - it became a matter of conscience, and they were willing to die over it. And did.  Just as, later, Mary I ("Bloody Mary") executed almost 300 Protestants, including Archbishop Cranmer.  There is nothing worse than being in the middle of a religious civil war...
NOTE:  One of the problems with today's Middle East (which has one great big fat religious civil war right in the middle of it) and Middle Eastern politics is that too many Americans think the Sunni-Shiite split is much ado about nothing, and what they're really fighting about is us. (1) We have got to quit flattering ourselves and (2) think back to the Tudors.  Or, better yet, the European Wars of Religion of 1540s-1648.  
Back to Henry VIII:  one fairly unique thing that he did was change the government of England - briefly - when he made Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, Lord Chancellor of England.  This was pretty unprecedented.  Yes, there were low-born churchmen from time immemorial, mainly because the Church took everybody and anybody, and it was the one place where you could rise from peasant to Cardinal to even pope.  Pope Sylvester II, the peasant's son.  Thomas Wolsey, the butcher's boy. Thomas Becket, the merchant's son.  But that's the church.  For the real ruling of the kingdom, for office and money and lands and a king's favor, you had to be noble.  Until Cromwell.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg
Anne of Cleves
Henry VIII grasped, briefly, the great advantage of having his chief officer be a commoner, not a nobleman.  He made him, he could break him, and in between, he could work him to death, without any complaints.  Meanwhile, the nobility despised Cromwell.  He was a nobody, a peasant, a thing that was beneath them, but now they had to actually speak to him, listen to him, ask him favors. They wanted him dead, and eventually - when Henry VIII was furious at the marriage to Anne of Cleves - they managed to get him charged with a variety of improbable crimes (including plotting to marry Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's daughter) and executed before Henry cooled off.  When he did, he felt awful, awful, AWFUL about it, and never ceased bewailing the loss of the best minister he ever had.  He'd also felt the same about executing Wolsey, after the fact.  "Bureaucracy Can Be Deadly" should be the subtitle of Wolf Hall.  That and/or "Henry VIII:  A Kill for All Seasons."

The young Louis XIV
A hundred years later, Louis XIV made commoners bureaucrats, but as a matter of principle.  Whereas the nobility were Henry VIII's best friends and playmates, Louis XIV never trusted the nobility because, when he was 12 years old, the nobility rose up against the monarchy (The Fronde).  They lost, of course.  Actually, they didn't lose so much as just run out of steam...  But Louis never forgot or forgave them the fact that he - the Sun King! - had had to go on the run.

So, when he came to full age and power, Louis decided that the only purpose of the nobility was to praise and support him, so he took away every shred of power from them.  His cabinet was almost entirely of (often brilliant) bourgeoisie, especially
Colbert mg 8447 cropped.jpg
Colbert

  • Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister, who actually managed to keep Louis XIV solvent despite his royal tendency to spend money like water on everything from royal mistresses, royal chateaux, and piss-ant wars.
  • Michel Le Tellier, Chancellor of France, who nationalized the army.  Pity it was for Louis XIV.  
And I have to say, on Louis XIV's behalf, that he never executed any of them.  And yet, he only increased in power: absolute monarchy would remain in France for another 150 years, admittedly limping towards the end.  Meanwhile, by the time Louis XIV came to power in the mid-1600's, the English House of Commons had become the greatest force in the English Parliament and, hence, of the English government - doing everything from passing laws and raising taxes to executing Charles I in 1649 and setting up a Commonwealth. When Charles II was "restored" to the throne in 1660, he walked very, very carefully, doing nothing to upset Parliament.  And, after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights of 1689, the monarchs of England were all constitutional monarchs, firmly under Parliament, and not the other way around.

Today, of course, we take it for granted that bureaucracy is done by, of, and for the commons.  But it's still deadly.  Disgruntled office workers lead to regular crime scenes on the national news.  And there's more than one way to skin a cat:  if you don't want to risk murder, there's always slander, and in today's age of cyber-bullying, it's easier than ever to destroy someone's reputation and career.

Anne Boleyn would be smeared in every chat room; Cromwell would be trashed on the Drudge Report or Daily Kos and perhaps both; Cranmer would be the idol of Patheos until he wasn't; the tweets would have been nonstop about Jane Seymour; the cyber-whispering would be constant, and at the heart of it all would be the King, strutting and posturing without pause, even when his footsteps walked through blood.
"Kings are earth's gods; in vice their law's their will."  Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre
— or  —
“You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it's like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you're thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.” Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

20 May 2015

Telling fiction, from fact




by Robert Lopresti 
(The excellent picture on the right is the illustration Tim Foley created for my story in AHMM.  It is used by his permission.  See more of his  work here.)


The Encyclopedia of American Race Riots.
 
The words above are the opening of "Shooting at Firemen," my twenty-fifth appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (July-August 2015, on sale next week).  I suppose when a short story opens with the title of an encyclopedia you can safely guess that the author is a librarian.   

But that book gave me more than my opening line.  It was the inspiration for the story as well.  When I saw it on the shelf of the library where I work I immediately grabbed it up and searched the index for the city where I grew up.  I didn't find it.  And when I realized why Plainfield, New Jersey's troubles had not made the book, I realized I had to write a short story.

What I want to write about  today is how to turn actual events into a piece of fiction, or at least how I did it.


You see, the hero of my story is a grown man who was a twelve-year-old boy in Plainfield when the riots struck in the summer of 1967.  So am I.  Like him, I spent that summer working as an unpaid junior counselor at a day camp for disadvantaged children.   (That picture shows me a year later, by the way.)

There are plenty more connections to reality - for example, the scene which gives the story its title is written down exactly as I remember it.   And I reported the details of the riot as accurately as I could, without overwhelming the plot.

But that's the thing.  Real events are not a plot.  And a riot, no matter how dreadful its crimes were, is not itself the engine for a crime story, at least not the one I wanted to write.  So in the middle of the chaos that occurred - burning buildings, stolen semi-automatic rifles, one brutal murder - I had to invent a  disaster on a small scale, one that my twelve-year-old boy could have an effect on. My inspiration for that was an actual event - an injury that happened to one of our African-American counselors as he tried to sneak past the National Guard, with no more nefarious purpose than trying to get home.  I raised the stakes as much as I could, fictionalizing both the cause and effect of the injury. A few of the characters in the story are based on real people I knew back then.  The villain was inspired by someone I met years later.

I want to mention one important change I made.  Throughout the story my protagonist reports on the events of the riot objectively, as certain of his facts as an omniscient narrator.  But there is one exception.

As I said, there was one brutal murder during the riots, the death of a police officer.  I don't mention his name in the story, but he was John Gleason.  His family doesn't believe the official version of his death -- you can read about the controversy here -- so out of respect for them in the story I reported that event differently.  It begins "[My mother] told me the version she had heard on the radio."  No guarantee that it was true.


Oh, by the way.  The reason Plainfield didn't make it into the Encyclopedia?  There was no room.   There were more than one hundred race riots in America that year.  And 1967 was just one of the so-called Long Hot Summers.

I seem to have a lot to add here.  For example: a few months ago my sister Diane Chamberlain wrote in this space about her new novel The Silent Sister, and how it was sparked by one of my short stories.  This is the one she was talking about.

And one more thing.  Back in those days I used to read a newspaper column by a guy named Sydney J. Harris.  One of his columns stuck in my head - or at least I think it did.  As I recall he gave a graphic description of a horrible riot.  Then he explained that it happened, not in Watts, or Harlem, but in Ireland in the 1920s.  The Protestants were fighting with the Catholics.

"Perhaps," he said (as I recall) "in forty years it will seem as ridiculous that we fought over race as it seems now that people fought about religion."  A good writer, but not a hell of a prophet.

I hope you enjoy the story.

19 May 2015

Attitude and Cops

by Jim Winter

A lot of attention lately has been focused on police lately. And why not? Unarmed people die in confrontations, it brings up a lot of uncomfortable questions about training and race and whether police departments are getting too militaristic. But this past week, I got an up-close-and-personal look at what police officers face on a daily basis.

About ten days ago, my wife and I went out of town for the night. It was the first time we'd left our boy home by himself. He's gone off on his own overnight, even flying back from Germany on his own at the age of 16, but for some reason, in 20 years, he'd never had the house to himself for more than an evening. On our way to our destination, my wife says, "What if he throws a party, gets the police called, and mouths off?" AJ is at that age where he knows the law better than his parents or even the cops. And you can't argue with him because, unlike me or his mother at 20-21, he has the Internet on his side.

So last week, I get a knock at the door. Sure enough, Friday night while we were gone, AJ's friends made a lot of noise - though only enough, apparently, to rile up that one nosy neighbor on everyone's street. The couple across the street and the elderly couple next door had no clue there was even a party - and the deputies arrived to quiet things down. And AJ showed off his legal knowledge.

And the deputy came by to let us know. The deputy is about my age with a kid about AJ's age, so he knew all about attitude. We got a good laugh out of it, and AJ's attitude toward the police has softened somewhat in the past week or so.

But it makes me think of my own interactions with police over the years. The closest I've ever come to being arrested was when I went on a job interview only to find out I was doing drive-by sales. You barge into a business and sell junk to whoever will buy just to get you out. Only Middletown, Ohio, is not the friendliest city to solicitors, and we had the cops called on us. So when they asked if I was interested in this job, I said no. If I wanted to deal with the cops, I'd just keep the driving habits I had since I was 16.

And because I was young and stupid behind the wheel, I dealt with a lot of cops. Very quickly, I learned that, if you handed a cop your license and registration (or now insurance papers), things go a lot more smoothly. Why mouth off? You know you were doing 80 in school zone. Suck it up, buttercup, and pay the fine. You also find that, if you're not an ass when you're pulled over, the offense on the ticket somehow goes down.

Sometimes.

I have mouthed off to a couple of cops. Once, when I was really young, I made it a point to taunt one who worked for an obvious speed trap. My view? He ticketed a friend of mine for doing 60 when he only did 42. I know. I was in the van when he got the ticket. So I would drive 5 miles under the speed limit all the way through that township with this cop on my bumper, then jack it up to 70 after I crossed the township line and he'd turned around. Stupid? Absolutely. It got to the point where I took the long way home to avoid an almost certain trip to the county jail. That was all me. Right or wrong, the last thing anyone needs to do is taunt a cop. Even if their employer exists primarily to collect speeding tickets, their primary job is to deal with bad people. And while I thought I was being funny, I was probably being a bad person.

Another time, shortly after I moved to Cincinnati, I had to explain to an officer from a nearby suburb that, just because he was sitting inside the 35 mph zone when he clocked me doing, did not change the fact that the speed limit where I accelerated was 50. We went round and round for about five minutes before he realized that, yes, I was under the speed where I was when he clocked me.

That was an honest disagreement. I did not raise my voice or give him a hard time. I handed him my license and my insurance.

Since then, I've had unusual interactions with cops. Once, while listening to a Final Four game during my pizza delivery days, I got pulled over for driving 45 through a park. Kentucky was playing, this being the Tubby Smith era. The Cincinnati cop who pulled me over came up to me, knowing me when as one of the pizza dudes, strolled up filling out the ticket with a look of disappointment on his face. I rolled down the window with my license and insurance card out. He heard the game on my radio.

"Who's winning?" he said.

"UK," I said, meaning Kentucky.

He disappeared back into his cruiser. Two minutes later, he shoved a warning through my window. "Here's a warning. Slow down. Go 'Cats."

Sure, things are bad out there. Just look at Ferguson. (And somebody explain to me why a speed trap like that has heavy artillery with a force that makes Barney Fife look like the cops on Law & Order?) But it helps when at least one side doesn't lose their cool. My conflict with the small town cop when I lived in Cleveland? I'm damned lucky I didn't end up in jail. With the suburban cop? Well, I'm sure he wasn't happy with that traffic stop, but it wasn't a big deal. I got off because I wasn't an ass.

Like a wise man once told me, it costs you nothing to be gracious.

18 May 2015

The Means, Motive & Opportunity to...Patreonize

by Melissa Yi

Last year, during my day job as an emergency physician, I worked with a resident who was over twice the usual age. Since I’m a curious writer/doctor/nosy parker, I asked him what he’d done before medicine.
“I retired from my first career and decided I wanted to become a doctor.”
“But why?” I gestured at the general insanity of stretcher patients in the hallways and ambulances trying to offload more patients.
“That’s what they asked me during my medical school interviews. Only two schools even considered me, and at the interview, they just goggled at me and said, ‘Why?’”
I nodded agreement. Whatever he’d told them had obviously worked for him, since he was less than a year from obtaining his license to practice.
He grinned and leaned forward. “I told them to think of it like a crime. I’ve got the means—I’ve already earned enough money. I’ve got the motive—I want to do this. All you have to do is give me the opportunity.”
As far as I’m concerned, that is the perfect answer. Which is why I’m trying a new crowd-funding model: Patreon.
I’ve resisted crowdfunding up to this point. I just wanted to put my work out in the world and have people buy it. Sink or swim. Also, I didn’t want to start a huge Kickstarter campaign and fall on my face. I hate failure.
But in the past year or so, I’ve started to take more risks for my writing. For example, I’m flying to Hollywood next weekend as one of the Roswell Award finalists. I flew to Oregon for a fantasy workshop last month even though I’m not actively writing a fantasy series, where I met people who encouraged me to take even more risks. So here goes.

What does Patreon mean to me?


1. Means: the ability to commit the ‘crime’

Basically, Patreon is a platform where people can send you money either per item (like per article, song, video, etc.) or per month. They’re your patrons. I’ve seen as low as 25 cents per oil painting.
I chose per month because I’m blogging twice a month here, at my own site, plus writing books, short stories, and articles for the Medical Post. Patrons will have special access to content through a secret page, as well as individual rewards. People can cancel their donation at any time, turning it into a one-time donation.
If I reach my goal of $100 per month, patrons can request a blog post. For example, if a Sleuthsayer has a medical question about a type of poison, I could post the answer here. [Medico-legal warning: I won’t act as your physician, but I can ask questions in general.]

2. Motive: the credible reason to commit the ‘crime’

You may think medicine is a sure thing. I pointed that out to a friend who works in the private as well as public health care system and is actively building his own business. I said, “That’s risky.”
He said, “Look at the way the government is cutting our pay. Look at the way the government is cutting operating room time. To my mind, not doing anything is risky.”
In comparison, me taking a few courses and setting up a Patreon page are baby steps. But they’re still steps toward taking my writing seriously as a profitable business.

3. Opportunity: the chance to commit the ‘crime’

I hesitated a long time before I made that Patreon page. I wanted to make the perfect video (ha). I couldn’t figure out what I should write, or what rewards to give. I researched other people’s pages.
And then I just decided to do it. True, it may just sit there like a lump of zeros. But so what? Not trying guarantees me the big bagel; trying means I might get a bagel, might net enough money to buy my kids a gumball, or I could win big over time. I’m looking forward to meeting people and having them tell me what video health course they’d like me to do, or what audio book they’d like me to tackle first.
As I told another doctor who was cramming in at least three different hospitals in two different hospitals, along with a busy family life, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Sprint with me!

17 May 2015

Scams, part 1

by Leigh Lundin

You may remember my friend Thrush who spared no expense helping us uncover an insidious scam for Criminal Brief. Last week, he found himself targeted in a rather more serious voice-mail scam:


Before you say “Seriously, people fall for this?” yes, they do. All the usual warning signs are present: It’s non-specific and lacks considerable detail. It carries an implied threat, in this case of a lawsuit, which a government agency would never leave on voice-mail. It sounds like the word ‘information’ is misspelled without the R and a legitimate caller would likely omit the ‘point’ in ‘seven-three-eight-point-one-nine-one-nine’. (I say ‘misspelled’ rather than ‘mispronounced’ because I believe the digitizer is reading from text.)

Why a digitized voice? It’s probably used to disguise the perpetrators’ heavy accents from the Indian subcontinent. That assumption is based upon calling their number after first prefixing my call with *67 to hide my own number from their caller-ID. I politely enquired if this was the IRS and a man replied in a rough accent. I asked for his agent number which seemed to disconcert him. He replied, “Just a minute,” and I heard the receiver covered followed by a muffled conversation. I hung up.

Imitating the IRS takes guts– or foolhardiness. It turns out this number, 202-738-1919, has appeared in other scams including a variation of the Nigerian scam in which recipients are told they’ve been awarded a $7000 grant. All they have to do is pay a 5% award fee ($350) via Western Union.
© BBB

Many will recognize 202 as a Washington DC area code, but this might have easily been a different kind of scam, one in which the con artists trick the target into unwittingly dialing a ‘premium rate’ number and keeping him on the line as long as possible. The original flimflam began with area code 900 and its descendants– any area code beginning with 9– but people caught on. They flooded AT&T and government agencies with complaints, and these hustles gradually faded away.

But fraudsters in the Caribbean discovered they can turn any old number into a $20 to $60 a minute premium call and your phone company won’t do a damn thing about it. In fact, they’ll cut off your service if you refuse to pay a bill that may extend into several hundred dollars. Some of the worst offenders use area codes 809, 284, 473, 649, 876 (and the original 9xx numbers).

Thanks to Forbes, here’s a list of area codes to be wary of if you don’t know the party you’re calling:

use caution when dialing these area codes
242 284 649 784 868
246 345 664 809 869
264 441 758 829 876
268 473 767 849 9xx

Next week: Friends find themselves the subject of a current scam and, as I was writing about it, my own address was used to spoof others. Be cautious out there!


Images © the Better Business Bureau

16 May 2015

Dinner With the Poe Folks


by John M. Floyd


A couple of weeks ago, on Wednesday, April 29, Mystery Writers of America held its annual Edgar Awards ceremony in New York City to honor this year's nominees and to announce the winners. I should begin by stating two facts: (1) I was nominated, and (2) I didn't win.

But I attended, and I had a great time. As many of you know firsthand, the awards banquet is accompanied by several days of other events, parties, and receptions that encompass what has come to be known as Edgar Week. My wife Carolyn and I flew up that Monday morning and returned home Thursday night, and while we weren't able to attend every single function, we did show up for most of them. It was a unique opportunity for me to see some old writer friends and meet new ones. And to thank some magazine editors who have been extremely kind to me these past few years.

My only official duty all week was to participate in a panel of nominees Tuesday morning, the first event of an all-day Edgar (short for Edgar Allan Poe) "Symposium." The topic of our panel was "Crossing Genres," but it morphed quickly into a discussion of mystery subgenres, which was of course appropriate for a group of crime writers. Our moderator was Greg Herren, and my fellow panelists were Adam Sternbergh (nominated for Best First Novel), Kate Milford (up for Best Juvenile), and William Lashner (up for Best Paperback Original), all of whom did a great job. Kate, a delightful lady, turned out to be the only one of us four who would take home an Edgar this year, for Greenglass House (Clarion Books).

Later in the day more panels were featured, on settings, research, and the art of juggling a writing career and a day job. The sessions that I visited were well done, but I confess that I wandered in and out of them--like any other gathering of writers, most of the fun came from roaming around the hotel to chat with the other attendees--and my wife and I took advantage of the great weather to explore the city for a few hours. The afternoon ended with an interview of 2015 Grand Master Lois Duncan by Laura Lippman and an interview of co-Grand Master James Ellroy by Otto Penzler. I especially enjoyed listening to Ellroy--an interesting guy, to say the least. One of the most surprising things I learned about him was that he didn't like the film adaptation of his novel L.A. Confidential. (Personally--what do I know?--I thought it was one of the best crime movies ever.)

That night I attended an "Agents and Editors" party, where Mary Higgins Clark announced the winner of the annual award given in her name and where I finally met Otto Penzler--he and I had been corresponding via e-mail lately regarding one of my stories he's selected for an upcoming anthology. This was the only event, I believe, to which spouses/guests were not invited. I also got a chance to catch up a bit with editors Linda Landrigan and Janet Hutchings and former SleuthSayer Elizabeth Zelvin. On several occasions I heard Liz trying to explain to others that what I was speaking wasn't a foreign language, it was just Southern.


I was able to spend even more time with Linda, Janet, and Liz the following afternoon, at a cocktail party sponsored by Dell Magazines. Also in attendance at the Dell party were fellow SleuthSayers David Dean and Dale Andrews, as well as old friends Terrie Moran, Barry Zeman, Bill McCormick, and others. (In the lopsided photo above, I'm the guy in the green tie, talking with Barry.) It was a thrill for me to put faces to some of the names that I'd seen so often in the pages of AHMM and EQMM, to meet many of Linda's and Janet's colleagues at the magazines (Peter Kanter, Jackie Sherbow, Carol Demont, etc.), and to introduce everyone to my far better half.

After a cab ride back to the hotel and a change of clothes, Carolyn and I went downstairs to the Edgar pre-ceremony reception. Much of our time there was spent getting photos taken and visiting with my competitor-in-the-Best-Short-Story-category Doug Allyn and his wife Eve. Doug has long been one of my favorite writers, and since my wife's maiden name is Allyn the two of them fell into a deep discussion about their family history while his wife and I discussed people who like to discuss their family history. I also had an opportunity to meet and visit awhile with my hero Stephen King, who was nominated for Best Novel this year. I'm sure SK was overjoyed to meet me, although he somehow forgot to ask me for my autograph. (The photo here is of Doug and me, with the Kingster in the background.)

The banquet itself was great. Carolyn and I were seated at the table with Strand Magazine editors Andrew and Lamia Gulli, who were kind enough to have published the story that got me there, and I spent much of the meal listening to another tablemate, Mike (Francis M.) Nevins, tell fascinating tales about the old days of writing, publishing, and copyright law. When the steaks and desserts were finished and the award presentations rolled around, Doug and I lost out to Gillian Flynn, who in true Gone Girl fashion did not make an appearance that night. King won for Best Novel (Mr. Mercedes), which I thought was well deserved. A newfound friend, J. W. Ocker, won for Best Critical/Biographical, and later wrote a great piece about this year's awards ceremony. I think the most memorable quote I heard that evening came from R. L. Stine. He told the group that a lady in the lobby had said to him, "You look like R. L. Stine--no offense."

The next day we flew home--in my case older, poorer, and Edgarless but truly grateful to have been allowed to come to the festivities at all. It was my first time in NYC in years and the very first time Carolyn and I had been there together, and we'd had a wonderful stay in the company of talented and interesting people. I owe heartfelt thanks to the good folks at the Strand; to any of you who might've read and enjoyed my nominated story; and certainly to anyone who might've been involved in choosing my story, out of so many worthy contenders, to be one of the finalists.

Maybe next year . . .