20 August 2014

In praise of phrase

by Robert Lopresti

Back in July I wrote about some new uses of words.  Since then I've noticed some phrases that I want to talk about, and most of them, oddly enough, were coming out of my own mouth.

For starters, I recently called an HMO office and got a recorded message that started something like this:  "Thank you for calling XXX. Payment for all services is due at the time of the appointment.  We take cash, check, or credit card.  If this is a life-threatening emergency, please hang up and dial 911--"

I thought about the order of those remarks and said: "Well, that's nailing your flag to the mast."

Jack Crawford statue
Jack Crawford monument
photo credit: Craigy144, Wikipedia
Which it is, but where does that phrase come from?  (It is sometimes given as nailing your colors (or colours) to the mast, colors being a nautical word for flag.)

It turns out to be a very specific flag, and a very specific mast. In 1797 the English navy fought the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown.   The Dutch were the most powerful naval force in Europe at the time and they set out to prove it.  Admiral Adam Duncan was leading the British forces from the ship Venerable.  Its mast was shot down, taking the admiral's flag.  Since lowering your flag is a sign of surrender both sides watched to see what would happen next.

A sailor named Jack Crawford promptly climbed up what was left of the mast and nailed the flag to the top.  With this bit of daring for inspiration the English went on to win.  By the time the ship reached port Crawford was a hero.  (And like far too many war heroes, he drank himself to death.)

The phrase has two meanings: Crawford's, which is refusal to surrender, and mine, which means, showing your true principles.

And speaking of principles, one of mine is that you shouldn't claim someone said something they didn't.  Doesn't sound controversial, but all over the web you will find bogus quotations.  

Not long ago I saw a picture on Facebook that showed an unflattering shot of Oprah Winfrey, with a pretty dumb quote attributed to her.  Next to her is a flattering photo of Dr. Ben Carson with a witty reply to her comment.  It was set up as if this had been a genuine conversation, but was it?

My immediate reaction: "I don't carry any water for Oprah, but that sounds awfully pat."

You can guess where this is going, right?  To carry water for means to perform menial or unpleasant tasks for someone, presumably because you agree with them on some principle or political point.  It seems to date back to the seventies and is assumed to be based on the water boy, one of the lowest ranked of a team's staff.

But what about the word pat?  It has many meanings, of course, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that by the 1580s it already meant fitting, readily, opportunely. 

Which is close to the way I meant it, but not quite.  Merriam-Webster nails it: suspiciously appropriate.
photo credit: Nancy W Beach (own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Now, here is a pop quiz.  Please fill in the missing word of each phrase:

1.  I don't care how the argument is settled.  I don't have a dog in that ________.

2.  He said I was good for my age, which I took as a _______-handed compliment.

If you said you don't have a dog in that race you are in the majority, according to Google.  127,000 uses of that phrase appear in the Great All-knowing Search Engine.  118,000 uses prefer  fight, which is the way I have always heard it.  I can't help thinking that race is a later euphemism.

As for the compliment, if you said back-handed the Googleocracy supports you.  There are 678,000 examples, compared to to 398,000 for left-handed.
Personally  I prefer left-handed and I am nailing my flag to the mast, southpaw style.

19 August 2014

Don Quixote, PI

by Jim Winter

When people talk about the PI, they always trace the character back to three writers: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. Most people think the modern PI is based on Hammett's Continental Op. But you have to go farther back than that. Sherlock Holmes?

Well, yes, Holmes's fingerprints are all over the modern PI. He even has an erudite, if seemingly less intelligent, sidekick, the brainier forerunner of the psycho sidekick popularized in the Spenser and Dennis Lehane novels. But you have to go farther back. And I mean farther back than Poe's August Dupin, considered the first modern detective character.

No, the PI is a knight-errant, righting wrongs, defending the weak, and dispensing justice. The knight-errant was around for centuries, springing from stories of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, of Roland and Charlemagne, of the various knights of Camelot. But the archetype wasn't truly solidified until Miguel de Cervantes's comic novel, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (which I plan to review this Friday.)

[Cue needle across vinyl.] "Duh... What? Don Quixote was nuts! And his sidekick was equal parts wise and ignorant."

Yes, well...

The comic aspect of that dynamic did not really repeat on a grand scale until the classic 1980's sitcom, Blackadder. In the beginning, Prince Edmund, the Black Adder, is more bungling than mad, and sidekick Baldric is much smarter than he appears, frequently saving the hapless prince from himself. Later, the roles were flipped, and Blackadder became an evil version of Holmes - arrogant, clever, and just as sarcastic - while Baldric became the embarrassingly dimwitted sidekick who always had "a cunning plan" (that always ended in disaster.)

So what's this have to do with the PI?

Think about Holmes, particularly as portrayed at present by Messrs. Downey, Cummerbatch, and Miller. The modern depictions of Holmes have more in common with Blackadder than in prior decades, while Watson is portrayed as long-suffering and sometimes the source of Holmes' brilliance. This was Doyle's original vision of the pair, and you can draw a direct line back to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. But whereas the don was off his rocker and Sancho had a simple view of the world, the impulses were the same: Quixote, like Holmes and like every PI character who followed him, loathes injustice and wants to see things set right. Panza, like Watson and the later stock psycho sidekicks, sees Quixote's (or Holmes's or Spenser's or Patrick and Angie's) mission as noble, though often has to show great patience standing in his brilliant partner's shadow.

The motivations and the levels of intelligence change. Even the personal missions change. Spenser, never mind Holmes, could not have thrived in the time of King Arthur or Charlemagne. And the whole thrust of Don Quixote's story is that the knight-errant was already part of a fictional past.

The PI is not the only evolution of Don Quixote, but it's the most obvious. Fans of Doctor Who can pick up on Quixote's madness in the Doctor, but it's darker and more bizarre. And more intentional.

So Don Quixote is still alive. When the PI is done right, the character taps into that zeitgeist. When it's not, he or she is simply parroting the Op and Marlowe.

18 August 2014

Troubled Minds

Jan Grape by Jan Grape

This has been an awful week for me personally. After hearing about the death of always creative and funny icon Robin Williams and all that sadness entailed, we hear about the death of the beautiful Lauren Bacall. Of course, there was a big difference.  Age for one thing, Betty Bacall was eighty-nine years old and had lived a full and I imagine a reasonably happy life. Her great love was Humphrey Bogart and by all accounts their marriage was happy and fulfilling. Although it was cut short by his early death.

Robin Williams was only sixty-six, and I say only because I have long since past my sixties and that seems reason enough to say "only." But we discover that he was a man who has fought depression for a number of years. But he had given up his addictive drugs and seemed to be on a fairly good path. Problem is, we just never know. Little things can send a troubled mind off into the abyss and into that awful land of suicide. His television show had been cancelled and he recently had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease according to his wife. Those two things are enough to slam even the hardiest of us right into the gut, but to someone who deals with clinical depression and someone who perhaps is bi-polar it can be devastating. No one except a person who has dealt with such depression can begin to understand.

Jeremiah Healy
Jerry Healy
On Friday, I learned along with many others in the writing game, Jeremiah Francis Healy the lll had also died.  He had completed suicide on Thursday evening. Jerry Healy aka Terry Devane was only sixty-eight years old. This was the hardest blow for me to take as I've known Jerry for years and years and been around him, bar-hopping, playing poker, eating meals, laughing and talking about writing for hour upon hour. There was a time when I went to at least two mystery conferences a year, the main one being Bouchercon. And it was at these fan and writer outings that I spent time with Jerry, along with a cadre of mystery writers. Jerry was a graduate of Rutgers College and Harvard Law School and was a Professor at the New England School of Law for eighteen years. We always teased him about his preppy look. But he could carry it off if anyone could. Probably that big smile of his made us forgive him.

He was a member of Private Eye Writers, a Shamus Award winner and nominee and was the President of PWA. For several years I was the editor of their newsletter, Reflections in a Private Eye and because of that Jerry and I spoke on the phone occasionally but, more often we e-mailed back and forth. Jerry wrote over thirteen novels featuring John Francis Cuddy, Private Eye Series and two short story collections with Cuddy. Fifteen have been either nominated or won the Shamus award given by the Private Eye Writers of America. In 2001, began the legal thrillers featuring Mariead O'Clare, written under the name of Terry Devane. The third, A Stain Upon The Rose was optioned for a feature film. He was also a President of the International Association of Crime Writers and traveled entensively in Europe.

I personally never would have guessed that Jerry suffered chronic depression, however, I do know that it seems to be a regular visitor to creative people. I imagine all the times I was around Jerry, he was in his element, being with fans and writers and discussing writing projects and the writing biz. At those times the depression was at bay.

Since Friday, I have learned one thing that I did already know but learned much more about, was how many upcoming writers that Jerry helped. He shared stories and ideas and encouraged them especially new writers coming up. He helped me quite a lot and blurbed my first book. And I do have a bit of insight into why Jerry was always helping.

One early morning after an all night poker game at Bob Randisi's headquarters (our usual game room) Jerry insisted in walking me back to my hotel room. It was only across the street as I recall but being the gentleman he was, he didn't want me out on the street alone at four in the morning. We were strolling along, in no particular hurry, talking about receiving help from other more advanced writers. I remember saying something like, I can never repay the writers who have helped me along the way. Jerry said, something like, you can't even begin to repay them.  But let me tell you what Mary Higgins Clark told me.

Right after Jerry's first book was published, he attended the Edgars meeting in NYC. Since he lived in Boston, this was not a big deal for him. However, a few people knew he had recently published his first book. Somehow, Ms Clark found him and invited him to a party at her apartment.  Seems everyone who was everyone was going. Jerry went still not knowing how Mary Higgins Clark knew who he was and during the evening he found himself talking to Ms Clark and two or three others and he said to her. I've been lucky in that I've had so many other mystery writers who have helped and encouraged me along the way. I'll never be able to pay them back for all they've done. Without missing a beat, Mary said, "Don't even try it. You'll never be able to make up. But what you can do is pay it forward. You can help others who are coming along and in that way you are giving back to all the ones who helped you."

Jerry took that to heart and I read over and over from a large number of FB people how Jerry had helped and encouraged them in their writing. He also helped when he learned they might be having a personal crises. Jerry would pull them aside and give them encouragement. And each person said what a genuine, warm and kind person he was.

If I thought for a while I could come up with story after story of Jerry and some of the funny things he did. Or the gentlemanly things he did. But thinking too hard about those stories are a bit to difficult to think of right now. My heart is too full of our loss. But two stories did come to mind.

Once a group of us had a joint signing at a mystery bookstore, maybe in Bethesda. After the signing, everyone was trying to get a taxi to go back to the hotel. I got back with a group of writers and I saw three or four older ladies getting out of a taxi with Jerry Healy. The ladies had huge smiles on their faces and I thought to myself, Jerry just made the day for those fans. They will never forget his taking the time to visit with them and what a gentleman he was.

The other story is one that I hope will give you a smile.  A number of private eye writers play poker in Randisi's room. The game is by invitation only and I had the honor of being the first female who was asked to play. For several times, I was on the "B" team, meaning I could only play after one of the "A" gave up or was wiped out for the evening. One Saturday night at Bouchercon, after the banquet a group of us met up in the hotel lobby to head for the poker game. There were four or five of us and we walk in the hotel room to find Jeremiah Healy, all alone in the room, sitting alone at one of the tables reading a book. We were taken aback. What in the world was he reading? How To Win At Poker. Needlessly to say, we all fell out laughing.

Goodbye, my friend, I love you and miss you. Much love to Sandy. the family and all the many, many friends who also loved and will miss Jeremiah Healy III. RIP

At the Healy's cabin in Maine in 2003. I stayed there while attending an author day event at Five Star Publishing. Jerry demonstrating an electric bug zapper which looks like a tennis racket, the stuffed animal is the victim. Note the evil grin on Healy's face.

17 August 2014

In the Heat of the Night

by Leigh Lundin

After the shooting of young Michael Brown in a small Missouri municipality, I thought the 150 or so assembled police looked more like a scene from protests in the Middle East than what we like to think of as America. As I was pondered writing my column, I noticed a flood of other commentators thought much the same thing.

A fifty-year-old article lamented the emerging police use of the word ‘civilians’ instead of ‘citizens’. This phrasing, said the writer, not merely positions the police apart from the public, but it sets them above the people like shepherds and sheep. The article predicted the concept of serving the citizens would become lost in this new order.

Adding to this perception is the long-standing “1033 Program” by the Department of Defense, which offers military gear to police in even the smallest communities for pennies on the dollar. Tiny police departments can purchase military helicopters, armored personnel carriers, combat assault gear, mine-resistant vehicles and even tanks. This program has become a concern of both liberal and conservative thinkers. (As usual, I distinguish between liberal and conservative, and left and right, which are not synonymous.)

Ferguson, Missouri

Much has been made of this small city’s lack of professionalism. Ferguson’s population as of the last census is 21,000 and diminishing. But in its decline, political and police presence has grown. While it's true its very white police department arrests twice as many minorities as it does whites, that’s in line with the town’s racial mix. A community sore spot is that only 5% of the police community is black and none are in positions of any real authority.

And police there have stepped over the line before. After a suspect in a savage take-down some time back turned out to be innocent, police retaliated. They charged the man with destruction of property for splattering blood from his injuries on their uniforms. Officers in Ferguson don’t appear to be the brightest loci on the thin blue line.

Large cities have at least two advantages small towns and cities don’t. For one thing, sizable cities can provide professional training. They may have their own academies and for officers, they may have the option to send candidates to degree-offering police institutes. Secondly, major metropolitan areas try to weed out bad apples, gung-ho head cases unsuitable for a profession that requires not only strength, but restraint. Small towns have less of a labor pool– and gene pool– to work with.

Side of the Angels

Here at SleuthSayers, we like to think cops are on the side of the Truth, Justice, and the American way of life. Of those who aren’t, we aren’t shy about speaking up once we know the facts. The facts in Ferguson aren’t particularly auspicious.

It looks like plenty of blame can be passed around. There’s no excuse for vandalizing and looting one’s neighbors, especially small business owners trying to eke out a living in a crumbling downtown. Even if they manage to afford insurance, it won’t fully cover damage and the months they’ll be out of business, possibly begging to become stockers in Walmart. And for what?

Looters aren’t big on reading Consumer Reports. A month from now they’ll be begging some undercover cop to buy a bagful of pink Chinese-made THC Pomposity IV cell phones that earned a meager 1½ stars in Gizmodo.

But terrible political decisions and poor policing make things worse. Here at SleuthSayers corporate headquarters, we’re begging Chief David Dean and Agent Lawton to come out of retirement and kick butt.

What we think we know

A week ago on the 9th of August, a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed 18-year-old boy with his hands raised. The young man has never been in trouble before and is enrolled in technical school to advance his education. Likewise, the officer has never previously been brought up on disciplinary charges.

After shooting, the officer, according to witnesses, does not take the pulse of the victim nor does he inform his superiors of a fatal shooting. Instead, he removes himself and his car from the scene, potentially breaking the chain of any potential evidence on the officer or the vehicle, which in this case may prove important.

Other officers present do not attend to the boy and, according to witnesses, do not allow medical personnel to offer assistance or approach the body. Instead, officers confiscate camera phones from bystanders. Evidence further deteriorates as crime scene investigators fail to to be called in for four hours.

Commanding officers learn about the shooting not from officers at the scene but, like the public, from television news.

The community initially responds with peaceful protests, but as the police department refuses to answer questions, both sides overreact. Vandals loot and damage property and 150 riot police in military gear shock the nation and the world with a military invasion reminiscent of dictatorial crackdowns.

Within days, Governor Jay Nixon calls a state of emergency, which locals refer to as ‘martial law.’ Adding to the atmosphere of authoritarian abuse in support of Ferguson cops who refuse to wear name tags, Missouri lawmakers rush a bill to the floor of the legislature that would shield the names of officers involved in any shooting from public knowledge. If that passes, a rogue cop could be involved in a dozen shootings and the public would never know.

The Police Department, and particularly its police chief, appear to be utterly tone deaf. When the President offers condolences to the family of the victim, town officials ask where are the condolences for them. Eventually Anonymous gets involved, bless their anarchistic little souls.

After out-of-control cops are caught on camera screaming “Bring it on! Bring it you ƒ-ing animals,” the Chief of Police announces he is not interested in talking with community leaders and praises his men for their “incredible restraint,” prompting a commentator to ask, “What does lack of restraint look like?”

Authorities are not finished. In a local McDonald's, police seize camera equipment, then assault and arrest news reporters. They arrest a local alderman who comes to assess the scene for ‘failure to listen.’ They teargas and beanbag a state senator at a peaceful sit-in rally who dares challenge the police chief..

When is a Cigar not a Cigar?

Up to this point, my attention shifted from the increased militarization of police departments to question how poorly the situation was being managed. Hardline authoritarianism is rarely the best solution.

Missouri Highway Patrol
Governor Jay Nixon finally relieves local police of authority and orders the Missouri State Patrol to take over.

When the state police arrive, the atmosphere immediately changes. The community welcomes them, some even hug the troopers. The mayor of Ferguson reportedly says he feels safer with their presence.

In defiance of Department of Justice requests not to further inflame the community, after relieved of command, this embattled Chief of Police– without informing the state police who've just replaced him– holds a press conference to announce that young Michael Brown has now surfaced as an after-the-fact suspect in a theft of… (I can’t believe I’m writing this) … a package of cigars.

Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson sharply criticizes Ferguson's Police Chief Thomas Jackson's unilateral press conference about the stolen cigars. This breath of fresh air only enhances the community's respect for Captain Johnson's professionalism contrasted with the self-serving broadsides by the local police chief.

The cigar evidence is somewhat tenuous but, whether or not true, the chief's proclamation smacks of a specious and insensitive smears. The police chief himself acknowledges the two incidents are unrelated, that the officer involved in the shooting was unaware of the cigar store theft.

State police vow not to let that accusation cloud the greater issues at hand. These two men epitomize the right and the wrong way to handle community policing. Ferguson’s “civilians” may have found their Virgil Tibbs in the person of Captain Ron Johnson.

16 August 2014

TV Travesty! (Okay, prepare for a silly one…)

by Melodie Campbell

I’m a former comedy writer who has fallen off the standup stage and into the world of writing screwball mob crime comedies.  The Goddaughter’s Revenge is my latest zany book.

People often ask me why I write silly stuff.  I say it’s because I am seriously fed up with reality.  I mean, really - what’s so special about it?  Everybody does it. 

So for those of you who are sick of reality (TV or otherwise,) this is for you.  In the lofty traditions of Dallas, Dynasty and Desperate Housewives, make way for…TRAVESTY!
Note the originality of the plot.  (Hey, it’s rerun season!)

INTERIOR.  A pink frilly bedroom.  Daytime.  An attractive young woman in full makeup and Victoria’s Secret underwear reclines on the bed, moaning fatuously.  An older man kneels by her side, wringing his well-manicured hands.
Lance:  “Tell me April, I gotta know.  Is the baby mine?”
April (in bed):  “Oh Lance!  Oh Lance! <sob!> …what baby?”
Michael enters the room.
Michael:  “April honey, I’ve got something to tell you.”
April:  “No - <sob> - not-“
Michael nods.
April:  “You?  And Lance?”
Lance:  “OH-MY-GOD”
Michael:  “And your mother’s been hit by a beer truck, and the boutique has burnt down.”
April (standing up in bed): “THE BOUTIQUE?”
Michael:  “We saved the clothes, but the jewelry was a meltdown. Sorry.”
April (clutching throat):  “I can’t take it anymore! This is too much for one day.”
Michael:  “And it’s only 8 a.m.”
Lance (clearing throat):  “About your mother…”
April (collapsing on bed):  “OH-MY-GOD, MOTHER!  She hated beer.”
Lance:  “I have something to tell you…”
April (to director):  “Do I faint now?”
Lance:  “…she’s actually not your mother…”
Michael:  “WHAT?”
April:  “You mean-“
Lance:  “Yes.  I am”
<gasps all around>
Michael:  “That trip to Sweden…?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Michael:  “LANA?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Michael:  “But didn’t we…?”
Lance:  “Yes.”
Director (to April):  “You can faint now.”
Everyone faints.

Stay tuned next week for more riveting drama, when April asks the question, “How do you tell if blue cheese is bad?”

(I won’t always be this silly.  But I had to get this one in before rerun season was over.)     www.melodiecampbell.com

15 August 2014

Break in Contact

By Dixon Hill


Because of a shift in the blogging schedule, I took a blog vacation for a couple of weeks.  I neither read nor commented, and I hope no one minds.  It was a good time for it, because my son started back into school (a new one) last Wednesday, my mother-in-law came for a visit (I like her quite a lot, so that's not the problem some might think it to be), and my older son's motor scooter broke down at the same time my jeep went on the blink.  Consequently, I've spent quite a bit of time acting the part of family chauffeur, lately, driving my wife, daughter and son back and forth to work at different times of the day (and sometimes pretty late at night).

I don't mind all the driving.  In fact, I've always enjoyed driving.  One of my favorite activities during my army days was driving trucks, sometimes with trailers, under difficult conditions.  I feel (and others have commented) that I handle a "deuce-n-a-half" in the field, the way other people handle a sports car on a slalom. A "deuce" is  a 2.5-ton army truck, for those who don't know, which means it can carry 5 tons of load when driving on standard paved roads, or half that load when driving cross-country.  And, a "deuce" excels at running cross-country.

In fact, you can even plow down small trees with one if you have to.

I know; I have.  When I had to.

No, all that driving hasn't bothered me.  And neither has the extra time spent with individual members of my family.  Driving my wife, or one of the kids to or from work is one of the few times I get the chance to speak with them alone, without others wanting my attention.  And that's nice.  It provides an opportunity to discuss personal things, to engage in conversations that might otherwise be difficult to hold.  And, my son's girlfriend sometimes tags along, and she's an English major studying creative writing at Arizona State, so we have fun conversations about writing.

I like the driving. I like the extra time with family. But I find it difficult to set and maintain any sort of schedule when my own schedule is driven by several other people's schedules. My wife is no problem: she goes in around eight in the morning, and I pick her up at five. My younger son is no problem either: he rides his bike to school in the morning, and I supervise his homework when he gets home in the afternoon. My older kids, however, both work part-time jobs that start and end at odd hours.  And they work rotating shifts, which means their schedules vary greatly from day to day -- sometimes even changing during the day.

All this mish-mash of schedules has me considering a very special problem.  One that's all my own.

The Fragility of Writing

I don't know if you have this problem.  I'm sure that some writers don't suffer from it, while others probably do.  I envy the former, and commiserate with the latter, because I find writing a very fragile thing.

Seems to me, there are different types of fragility, of course, just as there are different ways of interpreting the word 'fragile.'

My father-in-law, for instance, a retired postal worker, has been known to comment: "Ah!  There it is again, that word fruh-gee-lee.  I think that's an Italian word, means: Throw this hard at the wall and see if it sticks!"

I did mention that he's a retired postal worker, right?

While I don't know if it's true, I've heard that diamonds are difficult to scratch, but can shatter quite easily if smashed by a heavy solid object.  Something to do with their structure, evidently.

Other materials, such as steel, may have great tensile strength (essentially meaning they're hard to bend), but relatively poor compression strength (not standing up so well when smooshed).

For me, story writing has a very special sense of fragility.

Whenever I read about a writer who works as a successful  lawyer or doctor, is deeply involved in raising ten kids, plays semi-pro volleyball or something as a hobby--yet, has still managed to publish six thousand books and two gazillion short stories in multiple genres--I figure the following:

(A) This is someone with excellent time-management skills.

(B) This is not someone who finds story writing as fragile as I do.

I believe I've mentioned before, on this blog, that if I had my wish, I'd write behind locked doors with red and green lights above them.
I'd control which light was on with a switch: green if I'm not busy, red if I'm writing and need to be left alone.  Maybe I'd add an amber light for when I'm ruminating, casting around for a good idea or something that catches my fancy, ready to hit the red light when something gelled.  I'd stay locked-up with that red light on for as long as it took to complete a single work -- days, weeks, even months -- ordering out for food, cigars, soda, etc., and only coming up for air when the job was finished.

This isn't because I detest my fellow man, or don't like spending time with my family.  It's because one of the ways I find writing most fragile is through what I call "break in contact."  I might be chugging along, writing great stuff, knowing just where the train is headed--and if I'm left alone, I'll get there--but, if my work is interrupted, that break in contact, a time when I'm not engaged with the story, causes problems.

When I sit down to start back in, I often find I've forgotten key transitions that I'd already worked-out in my mind, as well as phrases that seemed perfect for upcoming spots.  Sometimes simply a key word goes AWOL in my absence, evading all my attempts to recall and employ it after my return, occasionally never resurfacing.  (This is most galling when I only recall the word while reading the final copy of the story, once it's been printed in a magazine, and I find myself lamenting: "Arg!  That other word would have been so much better there!")

I've tried writing notes to myself, or even outlines, so that I'll remember this stuff when I get back to my desk.  But I find this brings me up against another aspect of writing's fragile nature.

I once knew a writer who warned me not to ever "talk out" a story.  She claimed that if I got a story
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5
out of my head, before I got it down on paper (or into a computer, these days), I'd lose the inner drive, the need, to get it out again.  I think the idea here is roughly akin to letting the steam out of the boiler on a steam engine.  You might get up a good head of steam, but if you let it all escape through a stop-cock, there's nothing left to drive the engines.

I've found that if I outline a story, every important transition or phrase that I jot down opens a little stop-cock, letting off some of the pressure in my head.  It doesn't take many open stop-cocks -- particularly if they're open for awhile -- to make me lose what I need.  It's as if the motive force, driving my writing, just evaporates.

This is one reason why I often write late at night, or in the dark hours of the morning.  No one is around to interrupt me after they've all gone to bed, and -- after sometimes driving my daughter to work at 3:45 a.m. (she has to be there at 4:00), I have a couple hours to write before folks start getting up.

Except for our cats, of course, who -- for some reason -- seem to insist on being fed!  Then they want to come out on the balcony with me, so they can hang out on the window ledges and watch birds flit through the trees.  I try not to let this bother me.

I'm interested in hearing if any of you find your writing work to be somewhat fragile in nature, and what you do to address this problem.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

14 August 2014

Bluegrass Mafia

by Eve Fisher

Well, Leigh, you opened up a can of worms last week, and I guess it's Mafia week at SleuthSayers.  I have three stories, two of which are legendary in my family.

My grandparents emigrated from Greece back in at the beginning of the 1900's, and of course they lived in New York, and ended up - double of course - in Astoria. For those of you who don't know, Astoria has long been the Greek neighborhood of NYC.  To this day, when we go visit some (Italian) friends who live there, they send me out to get the breakfast bagels, because I always come back with freebies, beginning with extra bagels.  I guess that the bakery owner assumes that I'm Aunt Eudoxia's niece or something...

File:New York City - Upper West Side Brownstone.jpg
(Disclaimer:  Not my
grandparents'
brownstone)
Anyway, my grandfather had been a teacher back in Athens, or so I'm told, but in New York, he was a truck driver.  By the time I got to know him, it was the 1950's, and my parents and I would go up to visit them in their brownstone.  Yes, you read that right.  A nice big corner brownstone in Astoria, Queens, which they'd bought in the 1930s.  After they died, I found the address (they moved from there in the 1960's, making, I'm sure, a tidy profit) and my husband and I went by and saw it.  Very nice.  An Egyptian family lives there now, I believe.

I asked my father, when I got old enough to understand how expensive a brownstone is, how on earth was my grandfather able to afford to buy one back in the 1930s?  He said, "Well, he did a favor for someone with money.  Got him a nice little truck route, and the brownstone."  Who was the someone with money?  Someone named Gambino.  I asked my father, "What kind of favor did he do?"  "No idea.  We didn't ask questions."

Second story, not mine, which I mentioned in the comments section on Leigh's column:  The Mafia has made some very interesting investments.  Developments in Florida and elsewhere.  Casinos everywhere.  And also utility companies, in parts of the southeast.  There was a man from the Midwest who worked for one of the power companies and went down to the southeast in what he thought would be a career move to manage a local utility company.  He was back in six months, thankful to be out of there... unharmed.

Third story.  There's a town in Kentucky, with a population of not quite 7,000 people, which has one of the best authentic Italian restaurants you can find anywhere.  My husband and I took my father there for dinner one time - we were on a road trip, long story - and the food was excellent.  Or at least my husband's and mine was.  My father occasionally liked to throw his weight around in restaurants and other establishments, and he began to complain, loudly, about his dish.  And asked to see the manager.

File:Lasagne - stonesoup.jpgThe manager came over.  He was obviously Italian; he was obviously not a cook; he was obviously completely indifferent about what customers - or at least us - thought of him.  He listened to my father, looked at his plate, and said, "I don't have time for this shit.  Get out of here."

Tone of voice is everything, because my father got up and went.

Out in the car, my father started fretting and fuming about how he was treated.  "Why didn't we do something?  Why didn't we argue back?"

"Because," I told him, "he was Mafia."
"He was?" my father asked.
I nodded.  "Yes, he was."
And he was quiet the whole rest of the trip. At least about that.