31 January 2012

Stranger than Fiction – Sailing Stories

by Dale C. Andrews

Sometimes life coughs up coincidences no writer of fiction would dare copy.

                                                                                            Stephen King
                                                                                            11/22/63
   
    Stephen King’s observation about the strange quirks that real life can dish up was on my mind while my wife Pat and I were on vacation, under sail in the Caribbean. When contemplating the grand scheme of things I generally tend toward agnosticism.  But one thing seems clear to me:  while I can't discern much about the order or design of our sometimes crazy universe, there does seem to be a sense of humor underlying it.  Things seem to happen that really shouldn't -- when the play-by-play announcer says that a particular ball player has never homered twice in a game, that is the time when exactly that seems most likely to occur.

  Sometimes the world's humor is simply unbelievably coincidental.  But in any event there are odd little rhymes that repeatedly seem to be tossed our way.  And as Stephen King acknowledges, some of those coincidental happenings can be so strange that were they to be used in a fictional narrative editors would likely roll their eyes while muttering “forced.”

    Since I was sailing when I was thinking these thoughts – indeed, I am in the saloon of the Royal Clipper in Martinique as I begin drafting this piece – it is probably only natural that two of the real-life stories that occurred to me, and that are probably too unbelievably coincidental to ever be offered up as fiction, involve sailing. 


    Sailing has been part of our lives for years.  Over the past two decades we have owned a series of sailboats that have provided our weekend escapes from Washington, D.C. to the near-by Chesapeake Bay.  These sailboats have included a 28 foot 1967 Pearson Triton, a 32 foot Hunter Vision, and finally a 38 foot Morgan center cockpit.  Since retiring two years ago we have moved over to “the dark side” and now own a 1982 35 foot Carver diesel motor yacht, Incommunicado.

a typical Pearson Triton
    The first sailing story reaches back to 1990, when we still had the Pearson Triton.  I was an attorney in private practice at the time and one of the cases I was handling involved a failed production of West Side Story that had played briefly at the Kennedy Center before folding.  The case initially involved a simple issue -- an attempt by a party to collect a relatively small amount after a check written during the course of the show's production  bounced.  The case should have been a three day wonder at most.  But instead the lawyers and the various parties watched in growing horror as the litigation developed a life of its own – counter claims and cross claims piled into the docket.  The case eventually dragged on for over five years and became the type of litigation that every attorney encounters a couple times during his or her career – a case that simply refused to go away.  Borrowing from Mr. Dickens, it  was a Jarndyce and Jarndyce. 

    I represented the company that had provided stage management for the production.  There were many other lawyers in the case, but I became particular friendly with the attorney for the Kennedy Center, Jim Hibey, another private practitioner.  Jim and I got to know each other pretty well as the case ground along at the pace of a glacier trying to move up hill.   One Friday afternoon, after a particularly excruciating day in Superior Court during which absolutely nothing was accomplished and tempers flared, Jim and I found ourselves standing together on the stairs of the courthouse, our collective shoulder slumped and our collective wits at end.  “Boy, do I need to get away from this,” I muttered.  “Me too,” replied Jim.  “At least it’s Friday.”  We waved and parted.


    An aside here:  When I need to get away from a bad week I am fairly well located.  There are lots of great things to do in Washington, D.C. on a summer weekend.  To the west are the mountains.  Traveling east you can easily reach the beaches of Delaware and Maryland. Closer to home there are theaters and all of the museums and restaurants you could hope for.  In other words, choices abound.

    As I drove away from Superior Court, however, I was thinking about the Chesapeake Bay.  So when I got home I said to Pat “let’s take the boat over to St. Michaels this weekend.”  She gathered the kids, and threw some necessities into our boat bag while I phoned the St. Michaels Inn and Marina and secured reservations for a slip.

St. Michaels Inn and Marina -- slips and poolside
    There are many great sailing opportunities in the Chesapeake, and St. Michaels is one of our favorites.  It is a beautiful colonial town, lying about 29 miles away from the slip we then occupied in an Annapolis marina.  So we drove to the boat that Friday night, and Saturday morning we set sail, cruising south east down the Chesapeake, then north east up Eastern Bay and finally south east down the Miles River.

    Late in the afternoon, after a great sail, we were an invigorating distance away from Washington.  When we reached St. Michaels we pulled in the sails and motored to our designated overnight slip at the marina.  After tying up, I left Pat and the kids in the boat while I walked toward the pool and the marina office to check in.  Boy, was it ever good to be away.

    As I walked along the edge of the pool a voice from behind a book said “afternoon, Dale.”  I looked down, startled.  Stretched out on a lounge, also forgetting the week he had just been through, was Jim Hibey.

Herrington Harbour South
     Story number two is, I think, stranger still.  It took place in 2003, after Pat and I had moved up two sailboats to the Morgan 38.  By then we had also retreated from the hustle and bustle of Annapolis and moved south to Herrington Harbour Marina in Rosehaven Maryland.  Herrington Harbour is still the marina of our dreams.  Not so much so that Morgan 38.  As noted above, it is a thing of the past.  But that is another story. 

the Morgan 38
    When we bought her, the Morgan was a huge step up for us.  Configured with two cabins and two baths, the boat could easily accommodate a live-aboard lifestyle.  We, by contrast, were day sailors, sometimes weekend sailors, and even more often we did not take our boat out at all, preferring to use it instead as a stationary condo, albeit with masts.   When we first purchased the Morgan I was in love with the boat and enthusiastic.   I channeled this enthusiasm to a degree, particularly in the land-locked months of winter, by surfing the internet looking for other owners from whom I could learn more about our new toy.

    I soon found a link to Chris Mooney, who owned the same model Morgan that we did and who then lived on the Texas Gulf shore.  Chris and I struck up an email correspondence and about a year later he and his companion Barbara quit their respective jobs and took off to the Caribbean, living aboard their boat Moonsail and exploring the many islands of the West Indies.  Before they left Chris set up a website to chronicle their journeys, and emailed weekly updates of their itinerary to a long list of friends, including yours truly.

     As I have previously noted, Pat and I sail the Chesapeake Bay,  which is a most forgiving body of water.  The bottom is generally sand or mud, so running aground is, at worst, embarrassing, and the shore is always within sight.  Our marina, Herrington Harbour, (where we still have a slip) has a fine swimming pool, a sand beach and good restaurant -- all  a short stroll away from our boat.  Its Caribbean ambiance may be a bit ersatz, but it is not bad for 38 miles from home. 

   Chris, by contrast, was doing the real sailing in the real Caribbean.  He and Barb were (and are) out there navigating coral reefs, clearing in and out of foreign ports, and sailing long reaches between sparsely populated islands while all the time either avoiding or weathering tropical storms.  As I followed Chris' website and read his postings from various Caribbean islands that we had visited only under the supervision of captains more capable than me, I would marvel to Pat about Moonsail's log.  Here was a couple sailing the same boat that we owned who were off doing things that we would never have the courage or skill to do ourselves.  

    One summer Chris and Barb headed north in Moonsail, no doubt looking to escape the Caribbean summer.  I think they eventually got as far north as Connecticut before beginning their journey back.  On their way south to the islands in early fall they sailed down the Chesapeake, having crossed into the bay through the C and D canal in Delaware Bay.

    After a long day of sailing down the Chesapeake Chris and Barb were looking for a comfortable slip for the night.  I had never told them that we kept our boat at Herrington Harbour South, but by the time they were sailing south of Annapolis our marina was a natural stopping point for them.  They radioed ahead and were assigned a slip on A dock – the same dock where our Morgan, Double Jeopardy, was tied up and where our Carver, Incommunicado, now lives.  When they reached the marina Chris entered the rock lined channel protecting the harbor and steered Moonsail toward A dock  Then, during the course of executing a turn that I make every time I have taken any boat I have ever owned into the bay – Moonsail hit the rock wall at the end of the channel.  The collision  took out her rudder. 

Incommunicado in her slip at Herrington Harbour South
   I don’t think I could write this story as fiction with a straight face.  O. Henry perhaps could, but I cannot.  The coincidence underlying the story is so symmetrical that it doesn't ring true even though it in fact happened.  The idea that I long feared what Chris accomplished on a daily basis, but that what I accomplished every time I steered our boat out of my slip ultimately proved his undoing sounds simply too contrived to be believable had it not actually happened.  It reads like a cobbled together story constructed solely to support a moral at the end.

As Stephen King observed, funny what life coughs up sometimes.

30 January 2012

Character Flaws

Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

How in the world can I make my characters believable? you ask. Well, maybe you didn't ask but I give you my thoughts anyway. Good believable characters have flaws. Okay, you already know that.  You've given your hero a chipped tooth and a crooked nose. That are some distinguishing characteristics that make him seem more human. But how about having him be emotionally flawed. (And I'm using the male pronoun here just so I want have to write he/she every time. This is only a matter of convenience...not to be gender specific.) He drinks or his wife died or he's about the lose his job. Something that many of us can relate to and feel as if we know that character.

You don't have to enumerate his good and bad points. Show that in your writing. If he drinks have him have too many drinks and fall down and mess up on what he needs to do.  Or show him trying to quit and going to AA meetings. If he's lost his wife surely he'll recall some good times with her or talk to her or visit her grave. Now losing his wife doesn't mean that's a character flaw but how he deals with that loss can show the flaws in him. Maybe he starts drinking because his wife died and he's about to lose his job because he drinks every night and comes to work hung over and messes up everything he tried to do.

Your imagination can be boundless here. How do you make that character come to life? Maybe you've had someone in your own family who drank and ruined their life. Maybe you used to drink yourself. Draw on whatever life experiences you can manage and if all else fails...go on a little research trip to your neighborhood bar and observe people. Surely you see or overhear someone who has had too much to drink.  Record in your mind how they act and then when you write about your character drinking you'll be able to lend an air of believability to those words.

Okay that was your hero.  How about your villain?  Well for one thing you don't want him to be a horrible, mean, hateful person.  Sure he's all set to be the killer in your book or story but everyone has good points as well as bad. He may seem on the outside to be a charming person liked by all. (I cringe when watching most TV crime/mystery shows because everyone close the victim who was murdered always says..."Everyone loved Mary. I know of no one who would want to kill her.) But your charming and probably good-looking villain is seething with greed or jealousy. Those are traits that you can show when he reacts with family or co-workers. Just a slight moment that gives you a clue to what could be inside his evil mind.

Even if your hero/heroine is flawed, you should somewhere along the line make them likable or endearing or your reader will decide it's not worth their time to read your book.  I have read books where the main character was harsh or spiteful and unlikable in the beginning, but I soon learned a reason why or something happened to make me understand them a little better and about half-way through the book, I realized I liked the character.

Personally, I sorta like to start out liking the main character. Whatever their plight or flaw I began to understand or relate to them quickly and that makes me want to keep reading about them. I think most readers feel like that too.

Be careful about trying to make your character too much like a real person. They might recognize themselves and get mad at you for showing their flaws. Characters must only be a product of your imagination.  They definitely may be a composite of several people you know.  It's just not smart to make your mother-in-law the wicked witch even if she is. Of course some people never see themselves as others see them and may not even recognize themselves, but you probably don't want to take a chance.

I may have told you this before so forgive me if I have, but instead of writing out a biography of your main characters. Write out the contents of their purse or billfold. This is just an exercise for you. Or write out a list of magazines they might have on the coffee table in their living room.  You'll be surprised how many little details you'll discover and hopefully you'll discover their secret flaws.  Once you know their secrets you'll be on your way to making your characters seem like "real" people. And that kids, is my lesson for the day.

29 January 2012

Guilty of Abandonment and Worried

by Louis Willis

“Libraries are the homes of critical thought, of long-term cultural preservation, and of democratic access to knowledge. This can’t end with the Internet.” Nathan Torkington ‘Where It All Went Wrong’.
Buying books and doing research online has made me feel guilty for having, for the last four or five years, neglected, no abandoned, my local library. I worry that libraries, like dinosaurs, might become extinct, and eBooks will replace pBooks. 

In the article from l which I took the above quotation, Nathan Torkington in his address to the National and State Librarians of Australasia in Auckland argues that libraries must catch up with the digital age, especially for researchers. He notes that libraries no longer have a monopoly on research and that the younger generations will increasingly do their research online.

In November, I read another article online (forgot to copy the URL or the name of the author) about how libraries get rid of old books through sales or destruction to make room for newer books. I thought that libraries sold old books or gave them to charity but never considered the fact that they destroy them. I am what the author calls an absolutist, and I hate the very idea of destroying books, even those by obscure authors on esoteric subjects.

The two articles made me think about the Lawson McGhee Library here in Knoxville. I got my first library card at the Cansler Branch for Colored when I was 9 or 10. The summer when I was 12, I dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player, and checked out as many books as I was allowed on baseball, one of which introduced me to Wee Willie Keeler. He taught me, a small guy like him, how to “hit’em where they ain’t.” I learned that libraries where I could get book to learn how to do just about anything, and could also study African American history. 

Whenever I moved to a new city, one of the first thing I would do was get a library card. The first big library I visited was the Chicago Public Library. Walking among the stacks was what I expect heaven to be like if I make it through the Pearly Gate. I next visited the library in Chicago that houses books by and about African Americans to do research for an undergraduate project in American Literature. It was truly a delightful surprise: a building full of books about Black people.

Last year, the Lawson McGhee Library System celebrated its 125th anniversary. I last visited the main library downtown in 2006 or 2007, and the branch library in my community of Burlington in 2008. I feel guilty that I stopped attending the yearly book sale at which time I bought as many books as I could carry in a plastic bag for three dollars. It was my way of contributing to the library fund.

Lawson McGhee has embraced the digital age. I knew that it lent audio books and DVDs, but I was surprised to learn that it lends eBooks, and that the main library and several branches have wireless Internet access for customers, and also provide computers and Microsoft Office for public use. My New Year pledge to the library will be my physical attendance again at the book sales and occasional borrowing of books, including eBooks. I’ll have to be careful about borrowing eBooks, however, because I might  continue the bad habit of not visiting the library in person.

The upside to borrowing eBooks is you don’t have to worry about them being overdue and find yourself in the situation as a five year old girl did in Massachusetts.

On January 4, 2012 the Guardian published a story about a five- year-old girl In a small Massachusetts town who had two overdue library books. The police “…swooped on the home of” the little girl. Seeing the police, she stared crying and asked her mother if the policeman was going to arrest her. If she had checked out eBooks, maybe no cops would have “swooped” on her home.
I worry but refuse to believe that eBooks will replace pBooks, and the Internet will replace libraries. Of course, some politician might decide one day that Internet libraries cost less than real libraries in real buildings.



28 January 2012

“I’m like, ‘Whaddaya mean, like, a verbal tic?’”

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Is it only teens and young adults who commit this crime against the English language, or has the latest substitute for “I said” spread to the general population?

Normal English:
“He said, ‘Lady, you can’t go in there,’ and I said, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

Current parlance:
“He’s like, ‘You can’t go in there,’ and I’m like, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

I’m not sure exactly when “like” became a placeholder to be used indiscriminately between any two spoken words, regardless of part of speech, but it’s become, like, universal. This is not to say that mangled English is a new phenomenon. When I was growing up in Queens in the 1950s, I had friends whose anecdotal style included similar locutions:

“He sez, ‘You can’t go in there!” So far, indistinguishable in speech from the grammatically acceptable historic present “He says.” But then, the giveaway:
“So I sez, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

More extreme:
“He goes, ‘You can’t go in there!’ So I go, ‘Who do you think you are?’”

I personally never let either “He goes” or “I sez” pass my lips. My mother woulda, like, killed me. Throughout my childhood, one of her friends liked to tell about an incident from when I was maybe four. She responded to some question of mine by saying “Yeah,” and I, little prig that I must have been, announced, “My mother pronounces it ‘Yes.’”

But the egregious “like” is a persistent verbal tic that I can’t claim I’m never guilty of using. In that, it resembles the pervasive “y’know” and “I mean” that mar so many public speeches, especially the extemporaneous, uttered without reference to notes or Teleprompter. Or is it a tic? It seems to me that the insertion of “like” into a declarative sentence adds a nuance of tentativeness. When James Cameron won the Oscar for the movie Titanic, he drew worldwide disapproval for expressing his delight by throwing his arms wide and quoting a line from the film: “I’m the king of the world!” Would the media and millions of viewers been equally censorious if he had instead cried, “I’m, like, the king of the world”? Perhaps the self-deprecating “like” would have met their standards for a becoming modesty in someone who’s just won big.

For me, the frequent use of “like”—as much as several times in a single spoken sentence—damages the credibility of the speaker. Another locution, uptalk, which was most noticeable in the 1990s but has not completely vanished, also conveys the impression of uncertainty or tentativeness to the detriment of credibility, or perhaps more accurately, authority.

“I’m Liz Zelvin? Your speaker for today? I’ve been writing my whole life? I’m going to talk about how to, like, promote your book?”

It is possible to use even the most unpromising locutions effectively. I recently saw the concert movie of the TV show Glee. This show (which I haven’t watched, but might some time) has been very successful in reaching young people with its message that those who are “different” (obese, gay, born with disabilities, and a variety of other departures from the stereotype of attractive and popular teens) are worthy of love and capable of success. As a songwriter myself, I always pay close attention to lyrics. I was amused, even charmed, to realize that the refrain of one high-energy number (evidently a big hit on iTunes) was, “I’m, like, Forget you!” To a target audience of teens, that was downright clever.

27 January 2012

Fear, Print-Zombies, and Writing What You Know


by Dixon Hill

J-School Redux
The very best instructor I had in journalism school was this guy who’d been City Desk Editor for a major metropolitan daily. His name was Itule (eye-TOO-lee).

On the first day of class, Itule stood up front and said: “Now I know you’ve all heard horror stories about me. So, tell me what you’ve heard. Or, ask me if what you’ve heard is true. This is your chance; I promise I won’t lie to you. But, let’s get it out in the open — so you know what to expect, and I know what you think you expect from me.”

After a lingering silence, one young woman said, “I heard you make people cry.”

Itule nodded his gray head sagely. “Well, I guess that one’s sorta true. I don’t set out to make people cry. I mean: who wants to make kids cry? But . . . people have certainly cried in my class.” He shrugged his bison-like shoulders. “All I really did, though, was just tell them the truth about their writing. They’re the ones who chose to cry.”

A guy’s voice rang out: “Do you really have a rubber stamp that reads: GARBAGE ?”

“I do. It’s on my desk, with a big pad of red ink. But the university won’t let me use it anymore; too many people complained that it hurt their feelings.”

I knew instantly that I was going to like this guy!
After all, I’d known a ton of guys like him when I was in the army. These were men who knew their job, and didn’t mind letting you know it — particularly if you were messing up. The reason I get along so well with guys like this, is because they’re usually the ones who can give you all the hot tips for doing the job in an excellent manner. They’re harsh in their mannerism, but they can explain chapter and verse where you went wrong, and (more importantly) how to correct it — so you don’t step on your equipment the next time.

As I suspected that first day in class, Itule was this kind of guy. My papers came back with seas of red ink. And, one day, with the note “OH GOD!” near the end. (I asked, “Is that “Oh, God this stinks?” or “Oh, God, this great?” “Neither,” he said. “It’s [his face crumpling as if he’d just been immersed in sewage]: “OH, GOD! What did I ever do to you? Why do you punish me, by sending me people who insist on writing crap like this!?!”)

Like I said: Harsh in his mannerism.

But, whenever I asked why something was wrong or what was wrong with it: he’d fire off a string of eye-opening answers at machinegun speed. I always asked him what I’d done wrong, but never without a notebook and pen in my hands — ready to write fast and often for several pages. If you wanted to learn to write, Itule was a goldmine.

Rough but invaluable, that was Itule’s help. And I loved him for it.

Sad Anthology
In honor of Itule, I feel moved to make a little harsh criticism about a recent mystery anthology I read this past week. And to make a few (perhaps) helpful suggestions to folks thinking of participating in any upcoming anthology, or maybe to just mention a little insight I gleaned from reading this one.

I hope it goes without saying (which certainly won’t keep me from reiterating) that none of the SleuthSayers are writers of stories in the aforementioned anthology.

And, to any writers who did contribute to it, who may be reading this, I’d like to (probably mis—) quote the great Cos: “Better watch out, or ya’ just may learn somethin’.” Or, maybe not. Perhaps you’ll just be caught by the humor of my harshness. One thing you can rest assured of, however: my bark could be worse; at least I don’t have a big red stamp reading GARBAGE!

So . . . This contemporary anthology I read . . .
. . . while it had a few good reads — was primarily populated by stories so dead, they seemed more corpse than corpuscle. All the stories in this anthology (which shall remain nameless, to protect those innocent few) were mysteries, and most of the plots were pretty solid (if sadly predictable). The writing mechanics showed a workmanlike bent: I could see the landscape and setting, watch the bodies in motion. But, there was no life! No juice! It was like watching a play staffed by cadaverous marionettes. A cover blurb called it a “crackling good read” and I think I understand why: This stuff was so dry, the very pages nearly crackled with desiccation when I turned them.

We’ve all heard the adage: “Write what you know.” But, there’s an element at play in this phrase I often think some folks overlook. (Most of the writers in this anthology certainly did.)

I can’t begin to enumerate the writing books or articles which follow that adage to write what you know, with an explanation similar to: “If you’re a homemaker, write about a homemaker: the struggle to find a continued spark after twenty years of marriage, say, or perhaps the vicious personal impact of marital betrayal. If you’re an investment banker, maybe you can write a mystery about embezzlement. …”

What I’d one day like to run across, (and somebody may have mentioned this before me) is a book that says: “Writing what you know doesn’t necessarily mean writing about your particular area of expertise. Remember: You have a lot of life-experiences to draw on. Recalling the emotions you experienced when your childhood dog was run over, for instance, can infuse a passage concerning loss with a very honest breath of life and feeling—IF you do a good job of getting those emotions down on paper.”

Now I know that a lot of people reading this just flicked their fingers in the air while rolling their eyes skyward and saying, “No s@%t, Sherlock! That’s the hard part—getting it down on paper!” And, I’m not saying I disagree. I think that IS the hard part.

I once read that Dean Koontz became so frustrated, one time, that he banged his head on his desk to the point where he now has to spray his forehead with Lemon Pledge each morning. And I gotta say: when I’m trying to find that elusive word or phrase, when I’m hammering and hammering at a paragraph because the words are all there, but the way they’re arranged – the word order, the various sentence lengths, when and where commas need to replace conjunctions to get just the right feel – is just not right, well then I begin to consider investing in a can of Pledge for my own desk!

This is where I sometimes think actors have it over writers—because actors usually get to use their entire bodies to get their point across. As writers, we’re forced to work within a very narrow “band-width” of communication: Print Media. We don’t get to drop a tear or two in front of the reader, hoping our emotions will be caught by him or her. Instead, we have to connote emotion to — and hopefully create emotion within — readers solely through the written word. And that’s a toughy.

Good actors are taught to emote
(or else they just learn to do it, or maybe some are just born with this innate ability—I don’t know).


But, however they do it, good actors emote: They recall how they felt when fluffy got hit by that car, and they use this memory to yank tears out of their eyes over the supposed death of some other character in a play or movie, to melt their mouths with mournful muscle contractions, to rip wet animal cries from deep inside their guts — cries that make us flinch in our seats and gasp as we tear-up in sympathy.

I think you know what I’m talking about, though it’s pretty tough to explain. And, to (very) roughly paraphrase a certain Supreme Court Justice: “I can’t really explain what happens, but I darn well know it when I see it.” An actor who properly emotes, can claw open that “emotion bag” in the gut, and let it come bubbling out through every pore. What comes bursting forth may be heart-wrenching, disgusting, beautiful, grotesque, or even joyful – but it strikes a viewer as being very real. Because that actor has somehow tapped into an emotion s/he felt before, and spilled it out onto stage or screen.

I know about emoting, because I went to a pretty good on-camera acting school when I was a teenager. I never got any acting jobs, but I did learn about this critical tool. And I’m not saying I’m a good actor; just that I went to a good acting school. I myself probably couldn’t act my way out of a non-existent box! Even if I did paint my face white, then gave myself a big red heart-shaped mouth, added surprise lines around my eyes and wore black pants with a stupid striped shirt. I’m not a good actor; that’s one of the reasons I write.

And, as I pointed out earlier, I think writing is even harder than acting in some ways, because writers are limited to such a narrow band-width of communication — which makes it pretty tough to strike an emotional chord with the audience (readers).

But, that’s no excuse for not even trying!
And “not even trying” to tap into emotion is what lies at the root of the problem suffered by all the stories in this anthology (well, most of them at any rate). I’ll limit details in order to obfuscate, but to use one story as an example: This old guy stumbles across a body in the desert, but is unfortunately surprised to also discover the murderer, whom he knows. Consequently, the murderer must now kill the old guy, to cover the murderer’s tracks.

Now, you see what I mean: that’s a pretty good plot, lots of tension bursting at the seams. At least, there would be — if the old guy were actually alive in the reader’s mind.

Unfortunately, he never came to life in mine, because of the way the writer handled him. Neither did the murderer. Instead, they came off like “Print-Zombies”— a couple of stiffened cadavers propped up by two-by-fours, the writer jerking strings to move their appendages. Or, if you prefer, they read like a play being performed by sixth-graders —stiff, wooden and incompetent.

The old guy, who should have been terrified, never even broke into a sweat! And the story is set in the desert! Maybe you’ve heard that the sun evaporates perspiration so fast, in the desert, that you don’t ever seem to sweat. And, as a nearly life-long desert dweller, I can tell you that this is a good rule of thumb. BUT . . . it doesn’t hold true when you’re scared.

My experience is that, when I’m scared in the desert, the heat seems to multiply. And the sweat pours out in buckets. It gets in my eyes, drips off my nose. Sweat soaks my shirt so badly, that it sometimes pastes that shirt to my body. I once drew a rapid sand table in the ground, when I was scared in the desert one time, and we were planning for an immanent engagement; when I was done, desert dust had stuck to the sweat on my finger and coated it with mud I had to wipe off on my pants.

Now, please notice: I prefaced that last paragraph with: “My experience is that . . .” In other words, I drew on my own experiences with fear, to explain what happens to someone afraid in the desert. Other physical manifestations of fear I’ve encountered include: weak-hinged knees that feel like they might fold, and dump my body in the dirt if I don’t watch out; a moderate muscle-strain type of pain in my gut; and an ache in my palms between the base of my thumb and first finger, which seems to rob my hands of the ability to grasp or hold things.

Oddly, perhaps, this last one came in handy in combat, because the salve for that ache was to jamb the pistol grip and forward handguard (grenade launcher tube) of my M-203 into my palms as hard as I could get them. (An M-203, for those who don’t know, is an M-16 w/ a 40 mm grenade launcher attached to the handguard, so that the grenade launcher is clipped below the rifle barrel.) The harder I screwed that pistol grip and forward hold into my hands, the more that ache in my palms ebbed away; this means I never had to worry about dropping my weapon during a fire fight. I had a death-grip on it! And, I got the same affect when I held my M-9 Berretta (two-hand grip, with modified isosceles stance when possible), which helped keep my pistol shot-group nice and tight.

Controlled fear also assisted me in combat, by heightening my senses, which resulted in sharper vision, keener hearing, greater attentiveness (I mean a small snapping twig will wake me instantly, in a denied area.) and quicker reflexes. These are all part of being afraid. They’re part of the physical manifestations of fear. When writing of a character who is feeling fear, I try to incorporate at least some of this stuff into that character’s behavior and/or description.

Sadly, that old man in the story exhibited none of this behavior. The writer wrote that he was scared . . . but that’s it. S/he (I’m hiding ID clues here, not confused) described the scenery very well: I could see the land for miles around. But, I never could see the old man’s fear. S/he evidently didn’t think to show us that. Or even the murder’s fear of getting caught, which must have been present in the character. Otherwise, why would the murderer feel the need to kill again to cover the first murder?

I could trot out additional examples in which the writers failed to describe action that would indicate their characters’ emotions. However, I think the one above is enough to demonstrate what I mean.

What I have to suggest is very simple.

When a critique partner mentions a lack of emotion, or mentions a sense of staleness, or lifelessness about a work in progress, my suggestion is: check for character emotion indicators in the story. If they aren’t there, dig deep inside your own memory. Gird your loins and claw open that “emotion bag” deep down in your gut. Then let it all spill out across the page.

There can be other reasons for staleness (we’ve covered a few on SleuthSayers in the past), but this can be one of them. So, look for it. Better yet: Tear open your emotions the first time you make that trek through the manuscript—when you’re cranking out your first draft—and let fly! Because, searing emotion on the page can turn mediocre writing into a great story. And good money in your pocket.

I won’t be around to comment much on Friday, when this post goes up. My mother died on Saturday morning, and her funeral is on my blog day. But, I’ll be back with another post in two weeks.

And, while I find it (fairly) easy to tap my emotions, I find it extremely difficult to carve those emotions onto paper in a way that elicits them among readers. So . . .

During the interim, I think I’ll buy a can of Lemon Pledge!

--Dix

26 January 2012

A Few Reasons I Prefer Mysteries to Literature



by Deborah Elliott-Upton
As a person who believes we start to die the moment we stop learning, I decided to take a class on literature. I am reading selections by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It's not that I have ever read these authors; it's just that my personal tastes run toward Christie, Spillane and Chandler. Still, to learn is to grow and I am certainly not ready to die.
In deciphering the meanings behind the sybolism within these author's works, I am not what the teacher expects of her students. The second day of class she asked if we were alone in a room with Hitler and knew for a fact all that he would do to the world and we had a gun, would we kill him. She knew my name and I sat on the front row, so she directed the question to me first.
I said I would have no problem killing Hitler. She was a bit taken aback and after several other students agreed with me, she said, "My other classes always say they couldn't shoot an unarmed man."
I silently wondered if my fellow students were mystery buffs like me. Of course, since I am not alone and armed in a room with Hitler and completely sure he would try to take over the world, we'll never know if I could actually commit murder and pull that trigger. But, that wasn't her question. If I find a way to time travel and have that opportunity, I'll let you know the outcome. (That is, if the world hasn't changed so drastically that neither of us are here to discuss those actions at this particluar time and place on the Internet.)
My opinions on symbolism are not necessarily that of the instructor and obviously not shared by most literary authors according to the grades on my last quiz. I don't necessarily believe that is a bad thing. I am merely tracking clues to find another answer, one that may not be ones looking for the obvious. I feel a bit like bumbling Columbo who seems to be asking questions that don't make any sense, but do lead to another corridor, albeit not the one expected.
That's one of the thing I like about mysteries: there is an obvious point made by the story's end. It isn't shrouded in symbolism; it simply is a bad guy caught or at least recognized as the bad guy. In most cases we know should he show up in another book, he will be chased down by our hero for his criminal activity.
Crime doesn't pay in most mysteries. That sets mystery stories apart from literary works, too. In literature like life, anything can happen. A mystery novel's probability is it will end with someone being tagged as guilty and going to jail or paying his debt to society with his life. Real life and literature isn't as neat and tidy. I like tidy.
In mysteries, you never turn a page expecting to see more and find the story has ended abruptly and without tying up all the details into a nice, satisfying package. If the detective hasn't bound the criminal to face his judgment by the end of the book, it better be that he managed to escape from the authorities grasp ala Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes story and not that they simply didn't deduce who the culprit could be.
So, why am I taking a series of workshops on literature? Because I love to discover more about good storytelling from every angle. I want to learn from masters whose works lived long beyond them. I want to see if I can learn to do a better job figuring out their intent through the mysterious methods of symbolism.
If I had my druthers, I'd want to be Agatha Christie instead of Ernest Hemingway any day. Maybe it's because I'd enjoy y work being discussed for its clever clues more than what think I meant in a storyline. Maybe it's just because I wouldn't look so great in a mustache and beard.

25 January 2012

Going Archival on You

by Robert Lopresti

I have probably mentioned here, oh, a few thousand times that I am a government information librarian. Today I thought I would point you toward a government website that has a lot of ideas for writers - in fact, they even brag about just that.

If you have visited our nation's capital you may have gone to the National Archives to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But the National Archives and Records Administration has a lot more than that, and they have a pretty cool website to tell you about it.

This came to mind because of a page they put up called Inspired by the Archives! Ten top tips for writers!  Here is an example of a poster they thought might inspire you.


Or try this mug shot.

Care to guess what this shady character was being booked for? Would you believe "crimes against butter?" Yes, he was a margarine smuggler. (Cellmate: I'm here because I killed my neighbor with an ax. What did YOU do?)

Care to guess what is the most requested photo in the National Archives? Here it is.

I don't know (or want to know) what kind of story this image might invoke, but here is an early ancestor of the familiar food pyramid. PLease notice the seventh food group, and the helpful advice at the bottom of the page.


What about famous authors in the collection? How about a picture of Jack Kerouac taken during brief naval career (before they threw him out as "delusional.")   His own comment later on his behavior then: "I shoulda been shot."


You may wonder: do any authors really get inspiration from this stuff? Well, how about George Clooney researching his next flick, which he is going to author, direct, and star in?

On beyond the Declaration of Independence. Enjoy.

24 January 2012

Criminal Fashion

by David Dean

During my years as a policeman I noticed that there appear to be fads, or fashions, if you will, within the criminal world. Not fashion as in clothes (though, now that I think about it, that might be true, as well) but criminal techniques and tactics that flare into life, then fade away with time. It also became apparent to me that many writers incorporate these trends into their books and stories which might make the subject a worthwhile blog. But first let me issue the disclaimer that I am neither a criminologist, nor a historian, though I have slept in a Holiday Inn Express. What follows is strictly opinion.

I doubt that I'm telling you anything, dear readers, that you haven't already noticed, consciously or no; it's actually quite apparent when you consider it. A recent example that leaps to mind is carjacking. Whereas car theft has been with us for almost as long as there have been automobiles, carjacking was a new wrinkle. Here in New Jersey we pride ourselves in always placing at the top, or damn near, of the national car theft and carjacking stats. In fact, carjacking may have been invented in Newark– in your face, New York!

Carjacking didn't appear until the eighties and already shows signs of having run it's course. In many ways it never made a lot of sense to me, as both the theft and the thief's description were almost immediately available to the police unless he decided to up the ante to murder. Even so, the jacker had only made his situation more dire. Once murder enters into it the police are going to devote every effort to apprehending him, and now, if and when he's caught, the stakes are far more serious. Cross state lines with the car and occupants and, God help him, the FBI is now involved– it's kidnapping! All of this for the theft of a car that probably wouldn't fetch more than a few grand at the most. Remember, once the fence or chop shop owner gets wind of the jacker's antics, they have him over a barrel and can set their prices. It just doesn't make sense to me in the grand scheme of things. Yet, people do it. It's a little like the fad of the extremely baggy, low-riding jeans that expose one's lack of taste in underwear, while rendering headlong flight from the police a near impossibility. Why? Fashion, of course.

As a side note, carjacking spawned a curious criminal phenomenon that, thank God, was less wide-spread or utilized– the carjacker alibi. I'm sure that most of you remember the heinous case of Susan Smith of South Carolina. She murdered both her children by allowing her car to roll down a boat ramp and into a lake with her sons. She claimed that a carjacker (a black man) had taken her car at gunpoint, along with her kids. A savvy police investigator blew this story up when he was able to prove that her route and timeline were wholly inconsistent. After that, it was just good interrogation techniques.

She was not the only one– a husband in Boston alleged a carjacker (yet another mysterious black male) had attempted to take his car but only succeeded in shooting his wife to death. This was wholly untrue… he had done it himself. There were others, as well. Sometimes it seems, what is bad spawns what is far worse.

But I digress. I'm not saying that a crime fad can't be profitable or successful, I'm just positing that some fads make a lot of sense to begin with; then, due to technology, societal factors, improved policing techniques, etc… they fall to the wayside; some only to be resurrected when conditions once more become favorable. Take piracy…

The heyday of buccaneering, at least in the Western world, was during the 16 and 1700's. It wasn't really a new idea, even then. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans complained of, and did combat with, pirates. The pirates' goal was simply to remove any and all items of value from one boat, or town, and place them onto another– theirs– a redistribution of wealth, if you will. Naturally this required violence, or the threat of it. The payoff could be quite handsome. Some historians believe that piracy on the high seas was simply a nascent expression of man's desire to be truly free of the strictures of class, poverty, and… let's face it, the law… a floating Utopian republic, if you will. I take a slightly more jaundiced view. I think that they were criminals playing the main chance for the most returns and the least possibility of getting caught. And it worked like gangbusters for a little less than two hundred years (that's not to say piracy died out completely, just that the heyday of sea-thieving had drawn to an end): the rise of more efficient navies and tactics, including improved cooperation between nations, had made it a lot less fashionable to go around saying, "Arrgg." Thank God, as this can really get on your nerves after a while.

It must be pointed out, that while buccaneering went largely the way of the dinosaur in the Western Hemisphere, it has remained for very many centuries a threat in the Eastern one. It was never just a fad there. The Somalis are late-comers when compared to the persistent piracy in the China, Malay, and Philippine Seas. The factors necessary for the cessation of sea-thieving have never arisen in these places, it would seem.

Anybody remember train robbing? You can thank those stalwarts the James-Younger gang for the invention of both that and bank robbing. I sometimes wonder where crime would be today without Jesse and crew. These were true innovators. Their kind doesn't often come along… and we should all be glad. They were bloody minded and ruthless disciples of Captain William Quantrill of 'Bloody Kansas' fame during the Civil War. Janice Law recently wrote a very interesting blog on this historical niche.

Quantrill
 In essence, Jesse and friends translated the lessons they had learned as confederate guerrillas and applied them to outlawry. The mounted ambush applying superior and accurate firepower with overwhelming force was their speciality. It was a 'shock and awe' technique that worked quite well on both banks and trains. It also helped that lawmen were pretty thin on the ground in those parts and that the local populace was largely supportive. Those that weren't kept their opinions to themselves. The unsettled atmosphere of Reconstruction provided a perfect breeding ground for crime, just as Prohibition and the Great Depression would in the years ahead.

In fact, it could easily be argued that the roving, and now motorized, desperadoes of the thirties, such as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, etc… simply applied the James Gang's tactics to the age of the automobile. Whereas, Jesse and crew had armed themselves with the best revolvers and lever-action rifles of their day, it was their numbers that was overwhelming both in terms of firepower and intimidation. The Depression-Era gangsters, however, didn't need to spread the loot so widely, as they arrived with fully automatic weapons, such as Clyde Barrow's infamous .30 cal Browning automatic rifle. Local police had nothing to match it… not even close. This was one of the reasons the bad guys chose to shoot their way out of tight spots with the cops so often– the odds were definitely in their favor.
Bonnie and Clyde

I'm not implying that armed robbery is a fad, far from it; it's always been around and is here to stay. It's the techniques and tactics that have changed to suit the times. Today, a bank robber is most likely a single perpetrator wielding a note. It's an effective technique that would not have been very convincing or fashionable amongst the 'Long Riders' of yesteryear– you would have been laughed out of the saloon… or worse. Apparently, bank and railroad employees of their day were made of sterner stuff, and not likely to yield to the power of the written word, however well-crafted. The enforcement of federal statutes across state lines, the creation of the FBI, and improved armament for the police, effectively brought to a close the era of the roving bank and train bandits.

During the sixties and seventies you could hardly pick up a newspaper without reading about another series of gruesome homicides– serial killers appeared to be everywhere and hard at work. Non-fiction writers had a field day with writing biographies of the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, The Hillside Strangler (there were two of them as it turned out– uncle and nephew), the Night Stalker, and the rest of this particularly repulsive crew. The fiction crowd followed up, and from the eighties on it seemed every other book and film was about a serial killer. Thankfully the torrent appears to have tapered off to more of a trickle these days, and I, for one, am not sorry.

Ted Bundy
 I'm certain that there are still serial killers going about their deadly business, but either the reporting of it has fallen off, or this unique species of crime has slackened. Perhaps there was something about the groovy days of flower power that incensed these creatures. Certainly, law enforcement's tool box, specifically the use of DNA, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (a national data base for the collection, collation, and analysis of disparate information concerning criminals, victims, and homicide methods in an effort to discern patterns of violent crimes and their perpetrators), and profiling have impacted the serial murderer's freedom of action to some degree.

Now here's twist on my theory– what about all those Satanic cults of the eighties and early nineties? Remember? Again the media played a big role in this, publicizing what were believed to be cults practicing ritual murder and serial abuse. In one case it was a child care facility believed to be staffed by the devil's spawn. Hell, I was even trained to recognize cult clues at crime scenes. Know what? Almost none of that stuff actually happened. Though perhaps Satanic influence was responsible for the mass hysteria that produced this peculiarly insubstantial crime phenomenon.

As for new trends in crime, I have one word for you, and no, it's not plastics– metal. Metal thieving is rampant and growing. Thieves are stealing everything from the copper plumbing from beneath vacant houses to the grounding wires for utility poles. Some have even been fried while attempting to rip the copper out of power company substations. Manhole covers, lawn ornaments, wind chimes, and, yes lawn lovers, even brass sprinkler heads are fair game. As for this fad… my guess is that it's the economy. But don't go waxing all sentimental about folks stealing to feed their kids; the ones my officers apprehended were mostly feeding their drug habits; kids be damned. Recessions are hard on druggies too. Metal theft doesn't jump out at me as the most fascinating subject for crime fiction, but who knows?

So there you have it, my thesis on crime fads, fashions, and trends. My rundown is by no means comprehensive, as other fads and fashions are occurring to me even now: drive-by shootings and people smuggling to name but two, but I must stop somewhere. Perhaps you've thought of a few yourself.

22 January 2012

David Dean, Edgar Nominee

David Dean is nominated for an Edgar Award for his story 'Tomorrow's Dead' in Ellery Queen. How cool is that!


Oh, if you want to read that Sunday guy, he's just below.

Deep Schettino

by Leigh Lundin

The tragedy of Greek tragedies is the protagonist often does himself in. I'm not a classicist, but I imagine those ancient plays and stories delivered messages of great moral import.

Costa Concordia

Like most of the world, I was saddened by the wreck of the Costa Concordia. I felt further dismayed by the wreck of the Costa Concordia's master, Francesco Schettino.

Cruise ships are international cities with crews drawn from around the world. Below decks and behind the scenes, you may find dozens of nationalities. The best become ship's officers with privileges separate and apart from the rest of the crew, privileges such as better quarters, better meals, and more freedom for shore leave. To be promoted to master– what most people call 'captain'– is a rare honor.

Giglio Island chart

Preliminary Points

With Schettino facing possible murder charges, I began to ask myself if the man was criminal or merely his behavior. Whatever a judge rules, what could have led a man entrusted with a half-billion dollars of machinery and four thousand lives to act (or not act) as he did?

Early reports claimed the rocks weren't on their charts (maps to non-seamen). I find that difficult to believe as the coast of Italy must be one of the most ancient seafaring lanes in the world. Was it on their GPS? That's a different question, but the answer should be the same.

As far as the grounding, although Costa Cruises denies it authorized the course deviation for a 'salute', it appears Costa had approved this particular course in the recent past. The company and probably Lloyd's would have been aware of their position on virtually a minute-by-minute basis. In other words, a course variation probably wasn't a surprise.

When it became apparent the ship was badly holed, it appears whoever was on the bridge maneuvered the vessel into a position nearer the shore, possibly in an attempt to facilitate rescues. If true, turning a wounded 114,000 gross tonnage ship must have taken gargantuan effort. Unfortunately what the bridge knew wasn't immediately reported to passengers.

A Caution

There are claims that a Moldavian blonde was present on the bridge that may have distracted the captain. Now identified as a former cruise employee, the woman says she was not on the bridge until after the accident where she assisted with translations of announcements. Sensationalism aside, no firm evidence suggests she's not telling the truth. She defends the captain who ordered her at 23:50 to evacuate to the lifeboat deck.

This is a good moment to point out what we've heard and what we think we know may be inaccurate or entirely wrong. News gathering in times of crisis is incremental and constantly correcting. Speculation– including my own– is subject to the vagaries of what is presently thought to be accurate. With that in mind…

decks
plans

Stricken Ship Founders, Captain Flounders

After the impact but before the full extent was realized, Captain Schettino reportedly said, "My career is over."

When it comes to mysteries, I dislike so-called psychological cues, which depend upon the author's knowledge (or guesses) of characters' mental states. Contrarily, when it comes to true crime, I've become very interested in the psychology of criminals.

A dramatist writing of a life about to implode might stage that line as the beginning of his psychotic break. The enormity of his error appears to have unhinged the captain from reality when he was needed most.

Italian newspapers report the captain reached land and grabbed a taxi. This may suggest he was putting as much psychological distance as possible between him and the disaster.

satellite photo

Walking Dead

In modern times, we've taken to calling survivors heroes. To me, a real hero is someone who steps outside his (or her) self to accomplish a greater goal. It might be someone who risks their life to save a swimmer or stand on the HMS Birkenhead's deck to die while others are saved. It might be Police Chief David Dean, Staff Sergeant Dixon Hill, or Special Agent R.T. Lawton who unassumingly put their lives ahead of others. It would be a working stiff father or widowed mother who labors toward an early death to provide for their family.

But what is a coward? Military psychologists point out that successful warfare depends on fear: Most young men are so afraid of being thought a coward by their fellow man that they risk or even sacrifice their lives rather than live with that (perceived) indignity. Heroism is being afraid and doing what needs to be done anyway.

Scathing British and Italian news media express little doubt, but I'm not sure we can classify Captain Schettino a coward in the ordinary sense. Instead, he seems a man who suffered a mental breakdown. He collapsed when he was desperately needed, much like Frank Shaft in the peculiar 1970 movie, Brewster McCloud.

In the radio-telephone conversation with Coast Guard Commander Gregorio De Falco, Schettino's voice isn't of a man afraid of dying, but the echo of a man already dead.

Responsibility

Whatever you think of Schettino, let's turn our focus on the ship's company, Costa. How was a man allowed to rise to the peak of his profession with such a debilitating and disastrous flaw?

Modern police departments in large cities screen potential police officers for psychological stability, seeking men and women who will protect and serve rather than seek petty power, thrills, and self-aggrandizement. Besides drug-screening, shouldn't those in charge of transporting hundreds and especially thousands of lives be no less tested?

Weigh in with your opinion.

21 January 2012

Tricky Diction




by John M. Floyd


Twelve years ago, just before our oldest son's wedding, he sent us an e-mail saying he and his fiancee had decided on St. Lucia for their honeymoon. A couple days later I was chatting with an old classmate of his and told her their plans, except that I pronounced their destination "Saint loo-SEE-ah." She suddenly looked as if she might be trying to pass a kidney stone. Only later did I find out that the correct pronunciation is Saint LOOSH-ah.

Mispronunciation can cause that kind of distress, and it's even worse for the speaker than for the hearer. It's like a piece of spinach stuck in your teeth: you never know it's happened until you get home and realize what an idiot you are.

That's easy for YOU to say

Strangely enough, most writers I know are obsessive about correct pronunciation. Maybe it's because we fancy ourselves knowledgeable in the area of language, or maybe it's because we don't want to come across as fools in the occasional radio or TV interview (a valid concern)--but mostly I think it's just because writers like words and word usage. I was delighted a couple of years ago when James Lincoln Warren (an excellent writer and a good friend of many of us at this blog) did a column expressing his disdain for those who pronounce "short-lived" with a short "i," as in "I lived there," rather than with a long "i," as in "I thrived there." I agreed with him. If something is short-lived, it has a short life. With a long "i."

Not so strangely, we seem to notice mispronunciation more when it involves place names. A local TV weatherman--he's since moved away--once told me that when he hired on at the station here, the first thing his boss did was take him aside and say, "You'll be talking a lot about places like Belzoni and Shuqualak and Sebastopol. What you gotta do is learn how to say those names, and don't ever, ever screw them up." (The "i" in Belzoni is pronounced "ah," as in Jonah. If you say Belzonee, even if you're not a weathercaster, you'll get nothing but sighs and eyerolls. And for God's sake don't mispronounce Biloxi. This runs Southerners crazy. It's ba-LUCK-see, not ba-LOCK-see.)

Unless it's part of your job, getting things like this wrong is nothing to be embarrassed about--I'm sure I'm not the only person who's visited New York City and called Houston Street HEW-ston Street (it's actually HOW-ston)--but it does feel good sometimes, when you're a dumb tourist, not to sound like a dumb tourist.

You ain't from around here, are you, boy?

Some pronunciation rules are as mysterious as they are fascinating. The final "s" is removed from both words in the spoken version of Des Moines, Iowa, but if you did that with Des Plaines, Illinois, you'd not only be wrong, you'd wind up sounding like the little guy in Fantasy Island, announcing the arrival of visitors. And in the case of at least one city I can think of, the correct pronunciation sounds downright silly. The wife of an old Air Force buddy (they both grew up in Norfolk, Virginia) jokingly said they'd been told not to use the following cheer at high school pep rallies: "We don't smoke, we don't chew. Norfolk, Norfolk, Norfolk."

Probably the best way to correctly pronounce a town's name is to visit it, or ask someone who's lived there. A writer friend who was raised in Pierre, South Dakota, says locals call it PEER, not the two-syllable pee-ERR. Whooda thunkit? And an old guy from Port Huron, Michigan, once told me its residents just say "Port Urine."

The town where I went to high school is named Kosciusko, for the Polish general Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and I've heard out-of-towners call it kos-SHOOS-ko. Natives, though, call it kozzy-ESS-ko, or, if they're in a hurry, ky-ZESS-ko. (Mississippi is notorious for wild-sounding names anyway; I grew up twelve miles from the Yockanookany River.)

And Macau jumped over the moon

Foreign place names can be particularly interesting. Leicester is "Lester," Cannes is "Can," Qatar is "Cutter," Curacao is "CURE-ah-soe," and Phuket, Thailand, is (thank God) "FOO-get." And here's a neat little hint that I learned on one of my more pleasant IBM trips: In Hawaii, "ai" is pronounced "eye," "i" is pronounced "ee," "e" is pronounced "ay," "a" is pronounced "ah," "o" is pronounced "oh," "au" is pronounced "ow," and "u" is pronounced "oo." Once I knew that, it was easier to manage the names of all those islands and mountains--and other things too. Luau becomes loo-ow, Pali becomes pah-lee, Maui becomes mow-ee, etc. Another old Air Force friend, who still lives in Honolulu, pointed out that Kauai doesn't rhyme with Hawaii, although many think it does. Break it into its parts and Kauai becomes kow-eye, while the state name is the three-syllable hah-wy-ee.

I often stand corrected, though. Having lived most of my life 150 miles from New Orleans, I've always scorned those who call it noo-OR-lee-uns, in four syllables. Every N.O. resident I've ever known has pronounced it either nyoo-OR-luns or nooWOLLins. And then, the other night, I saw the current New Orleans mayor on television saying noo-OR-lee-uns. Sweet Jiminy. And on top of that, Orleans Parish is always pronounced or-LEENS. Is nothing simple?

Does La Jolla annoy ya?

A lot of place names that should be hard to pronounce aren't, because all of us know them: Phoenix, San Jose, Illinois, Tucson, Greenwich, etc. But here's an extremely incomplete list of some that are often mispronounced:




Spokane, Washington--spo-KANN, not spo-KANE.
Versaille, Kentucky--ver-SAYLE, not ver-SIGH.
New Madrid, Missouri--new MAD-rid, not new ma-DRID.
Worchester, Massachusetts--WOOS-tah, not WAR-chester.
Ouachita County, Arkansas--WOSH-i-tah, not oh-ah-CHEE-tah.
Helena, Montana--HELL-in-ah, not hell-LAY-nah.
Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio)--BAY-er, not BECK-sar.
Martinez, Georgia--MAR-tin-ez, not mar-TEEN-ez.
Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan--SOO-saint-maree, not SALT-saint-maree.
Miami, Oklahoma--my-AM-ah, not my-AM-ee.
Kissimmee, Florida--kis-SIM-mee, not KISS-sim-mee.
Bangor, Maine--BANG-gore, not BANG-er.
Berlin, New Hampshire--BURR-lin, not bur-LINN.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania--LANG-caster, not LAN-KAS-ter.
Willamette River, Oregon--will-AH-met, not WILL-ah-MET.
Valdez, Alaska--val-DEEZ, not val-DEZ.
Lima, Ohio--LY-mah, not LEE-mah.
Oaxaca, Mexico--wah-HAH-kah, not wah-SOCK-ah.
Terra Haute, Indiana--TERR-ah-hutt, not TERR-ah-hawt.
Cairo, Illinois--KAY-ro, not KY-ro.
Sequim, Washington--SKWIMM, not SEE-kwim.
Mackinac Island, Michigan--MACK-in-aw, not MACK-in-ack.

If you pronounce those words as shown, residents in those locations--or viewers, if you're a TV meteorologist--will thank you, or at least leave their guns in their dresser drawers. And if you think of place names I have overlooked (or mispronounced) please let me know.

A guy walks into a Wilkes-Barre . . .

I simply can't resist two jokes that I heard long, long ago:

1. Question: How do you pronounce the capital of Kentucky--Louisville or Louieville? Answer: You pronounce it Frankfort.

2. An out-of-state traveler stops for lunch in the town of Natchitoches, Louisiana. As he's chowing down, he asks a woman seated nearby, "How do you pronounce the name of this place?" Speaking very slowly and carefully, the lady says, "DAYER-ee-KWEEN."

Tongue twisters

I'm not a poet and I noet, but I think a fitting end to this piece is a little ditty I wrote years ago, after one of my far-flung business trips:

I never seem to understand
Our neighbors overseas;
Names like Vzrgkzyrgistan
Just make me say, "Oh, please."

The problem is pronunciation,
Not mere nouns and verbs;
Hawaiians should delete some vowels
And give them to the Serbs.

20 January 2012

No, no, I really am.....

by R.T. Lawton

Most of the time, an undercover wants the criminal side to believe he really is someone other than that pesky occupational hazard known to them as law enforcement. However, there are also those times when the undercover needs to come forward and reveal his true identity, even if circumstances are not necessarily under the best conditions. This is one of those incidents. Surveillance had gone wrong and the undercover ended up playing the Lone Ranger. Or it could be a John Wayne part. Nah, in my mind, I like the image of Bruce Willis in the movie Last Man Standing, not to be confused with Tim the Toolman in a current TV sitcom by the same name. Although......

It was supposed to be a simple deal. Just me, my senior partner and a future defendant were in the bad guy's house. Several surveillance vehicles were parked up and down the street for backup. Negotiations for the contraband goods had finally been completed. Problem was, the bad guy was either one of those paranoid type people or he was being extra cagey. The goods were not at his residence, instead we had to drive over to another house. He made a quick phone call to tell them we were coming.

"I'm ready to go," says I.

"I'll wait here," says my partner.

This last statement allowed both the bad guy and me to feel a certain amount of relief. The criminal was satisfied because now he only had to keep an eye on one person instead of two during the transfer of goods. As for my feeling relief, my partner and I had zero means of communication with our surveillance teams outside to tell them the deal was moving to another location. By staying at the house, my partner could run outside, after the bad guy and I left, and flag down one of the surveillance cars. Looked like a great plan at the time.

I drove the undercover government car with the soon to be defendant seated on the passenger side. We backed out of his driveway, made a left at the first corner, drove one long block, made another left and immediately pulled into a driveway on the right hand side of the street. With my tail lights still glowing red, I glanced in the rear view mirror and soon saw the parade of surveillance vehicles going past.

"Good," I says to myself, "I'm covered."

I turned off the ignition.

My new friend, let's call him Bad Guy #1, goes into the house we're parked in front of and quickly returns with a large cardboard box. Seated inside the car, he opens the box and shows me the goods. I'm satisfied.

"I'll get the money out of the trunk," says I.

At the rear of the government car, I raise the trunk lid and the light comes on. This is now the bust signal, because we aren't going to let this much money walk. I stand there, confident, with the trunk light illuminating my smiling face as I wait for the cavalry to descend upon the scene and deliver me from the hostiles.

After a while, I'm still standing there. My smile is starting to droop. Where the hell is the cavalry?

Two things now occur.

One, I realize that the surveillance cars missed my last turn into the driveway. They have obviously continued down the street, probably splitting up and commencing to search for their lost undercover. Uh-oh.

And secondly, I look over the top of the government car toward the house. There's a man watching me through the kitchen window. Uh-oh again.

Show time.

Removing a thick envelope of flash money from the trunk, I wave the envelope over the top of the car for the inside man to see. Then I paste a smile back on my face as if everything is peachy keen. There's nothing for it now. I get back into the driver's seat, obvious envelope in hand.

"We've got a small problem," says I.

"What's that?" inquires my soon to be enlightened friend from the passenger side.

"Well," says I, "I'm a federal agent and you're under arrest."

"I don't believe you," says the criminal.

"Well, here's my credentials," says I, having extracted them from my pocket and displaying them in my most professional law enforcement manner like actors do on television.

"I still don't believe you," says the bad guy.

It then occurs to me that maybe the man has slipped into an extreme case of denial. All he needs is a slight nudge back towards reality.

"Well, here's my gun," says I, flipping the safety off on my nickel-plated Colt .45 semi-automatic.
"Okay, okay," he blubbers, evidently making a sudden return to the real world, "but I gotta tell you that the guy watching us from inside the house has a shotgun."

"In that case," I explain in a slow voice just in case I had been speaking too rapidly for him the other times, "you had best get down on the floorboards as small as you can get." Which as a new convert to belief, he quickly did.

Then, in my best Broderick Crawford style from the old TV series of Highway Patrol, I crouched down in the V between my car and the open driver's door with my gun aimed over the hood and at the house.

"Federal agents," I holler, "come out with your hands up." I do all that in a command voice like I know what I'm doing.

To my surprise, Bad Guy #2, the one with the shotgun, appears behind the screen door in the front doorway. He stands there with a clear case of indecision.

Afraid that he too may be a sufferer of Denial Disease, I wave my gun and reiterate my demands at the top of my lungs.

Amazingly, the cure works. He leans his shotgun against the inside door frame and comes out on the porch.

I order him into the front yard.

He goes there.

In order to keep his mind occupied so he doesn't do anything stupid, I tell him to start doing pushups.

He complies.

Wow, this is working great.

Now, Bad Guy #3 from somewhere inside the house picks up the shotgun and stands in the doorway.

Crap. This is starting to look like circus clowns getting out of a car.

I glance back at Bad Guy #2. He's still doing pushups. Must be the adrenaline, but then maybe he's never met a crazy guy with a gun. However, as I look over his back at the sliding glass patio door of the house next door, there's Mom, Dad and two little kids with their noses pressed against the glass to observe goings on in their quiet little neighborhood. Supper grows cold on the table behind them.

Bad Guy #3 is reluctant to come out of the house. I don't know, maybe he's allergic to pushups.

Fortunately, the cavalry now arrives with screeching vehicles and massive firepower.

#3 hasn't seen a show like this before. He quickly decides that maybe pushups aren't so bad after all.

As surveillance subsequently explains, yep, they missed my turn into the driveway. They were only alerted to my possible location when one of them monitoring the local police radio band heard mention of an escalating disturbance involving firearms at a certain residence.

Botton Line: Sometimes it's tough when the undercover operative has to reverse course and come in from the cold, but the criminals don't believe who he really is. Like I said in an earlier blog, it's a strange world we operate in.

19 January 2012

Interesting Books by Not So Big Names

by Janice Law

Devil All the TimeIn the book business today, a handful of big names and celebrity personalities use up most of the promotional oxygen. The result, as any writer knows, is that a host of worthy and interesting volumes get overlooked. Three concerned with crime might be worth your time, although only two of them are strictly speaking category mysteries: Donald Rae Pollock's The Devil All the Time, Karen Fossim's Bad Intentions and Lene Kaaberbol and Agnette Friis's The Boy in the Suit Case.

Easily the most flamboyant is The Devil All the Time, which got quite a bit of literary attention last year, in part because of Pollock's interesting personal history, which includes leaving school at 17 to work in a meat packing plant and thirty years in a southern Ohio paper mill. Clearly this was not someone who rushed prematurely into writing.

His earlier collection of stories, Knockemstiff, was set in the Ohio town of the same name where he lives. The Devil All the Time shares that venue with a West Virginia hamlet, and which is the more toxic venue is hard to decide. Both are full of psychopaths, often of a religious persuasion, and include a pedophile evangel, husband and wife serial killers, a World War II vet, deranged by his wife's terminal cancer, a corrupt sheriff, and a variety of lost souls, revivalists, and small town losers.

The good news about The Devil All the Time is that it is wonderfully written in a vigorous, but not stultifyingly profane, vernacular. The plotting is ingenious, and all the many plot strands and lose ends are satisfyingly, and plausibly, wrapped up. So is it just scribbler envy that produces my reservations?

Maybe, but maybe not. Folks with long memories will recall that periodically a novel about the depraved underclass -this one, the white, protestant underclass of the Midwest and the Appalachians- proves popular. I don't know if the novel's critical acclaim is related to the politics of the moment, but Pollock certainly heaps on the misery without restraint. The serial killers alone would have been a pretty rich blend. Combined with Willard Russell's blood-soaked 'prayer log,' abusive behavior in nearly every chapter, and a truly far out pair of revivalists, one does begin to think that far from being 'gritty realism,' this is fantasy of a particularly gruesome sort and that some really fine gifts have been employed with more 'sound and fury' than substance.

Bad IntentionsThe other two novels are both Scandinavian semi-noir. Norway's Karen Fossum is one of those low key and subtle writers whose books aren't going to be transformed into doorstop sized best sellers. She's not nearly as flashy a writer as Pollock, but she has a real feel for grief and for the consequences of violent action. Bad Intentions is told from the point of view of the perpetrators, an unusual and tricky ploy, given that the initial, fatal, crime is over when the book begins. Fossum pulls it off nicely.

All the characters are well drawn, with the possible exception of one genuine sociopath, and surprisingly sympathetic, and, as a result, the novel is sad. Don't read this when you are in need of something bracing and cheering. For that, you're better with Alexander McCall Smith's The Saturday Big Tent Wedding.

Boy in the SuitcaseThe Boy in the Suitcase is a Danish import with a plot line to give any parent, particularly any single parent, the willies. The writing is functional, using the modern style of short chapters and multiple points of view to keep the plot moving, and once the action kicks in, it's a genuine thriller. Ignore the often shaky motivation and enjoy an effective take on the familiar Scandinavian Noir features of domestic abuse, illegal immigrants and the arrogance and entitlement of top people in a wealthy society.

Like The Devil All the Time and Bad Intentions, The Boy in the Suitcase reflects our changing view of the sexes. In The Devil, almost everyone is depraved but the women are either brain dead or idealized. Bad Intentions is pretty even handed, although women are still seen as especially vulnerable to charismatic men.

The Boy in the Suitcase, reverses all this. The men are either ineffective, unreliable or brutal. The leading women are the crusaders and the avengers, and by the end, one does feel some sympathy for Nina Borg's anxious husband and children, who are left at home to worry while she attempts to save a small piece of the world.

Finally, although not a mystery or even a novel, Van Gogh, The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith not only offers an enormously detailed portrait of this difficult and sad man's turbulent life but a new take on his death. According to the authors, Van Gogh's 'suicide' was more likely an accident or a homicide, and the artist, as quixotic and idealistic as he was violent and unstable, may have claimed suicide to spare the young perpetrators.

Now there's a plot any writer could get behind.