30 November 2012

Ghost and the Machine

by Dixon Hill


A fairly recent post by Dale Andrews, concerning ghost stories, set me to thinking about the differences between ghost stories and mysteries.

In that post, Dale mentioned:

. . . British ghost story writer M.R. James identified five key features of the classical English ghost story:
1. The pretense of truth
2. “A pleasing terror”
3. No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
4. No ‘explanation of the machinery’
5. Setting: “those of the writer’s (and reader’s) own day”

(Dale listed these features by bullet point, but I’ve numbered them for ease of reference in further discussion.)

Looking at that list, it seems to me it very nearly fits most Agatha Christie novels I’ve read.

The Great Agatha Christie
 True, her stories no longer seem set in our present day, but I think they were, for the most part, set in the time frame of her own day. Probably, the biggest difference between a Christie novel and this list of ghost story features, lies in Feature Number 4: No ‘explanation of the machinery.’

 Explaining the machinery – letting the reader know not only who dunnit, but sometimes also how the murder or mayhem was performed, along with an explanation concerning any special steps of intentional misdirection – is, to me, an inherent part of a mystery story.

 Christie’s plots certainly reveled in this, it seems to me.

Rather Nicely, Too.

 Sometimes, solving the crime meant figuring out, and potentially reconstructing, some Rube-Goldberg Machine the murderer had set up, in order to carry out the crime (or to make it seem as if the crime had been committed) in a way, or at a time, which would rule-out the murderer as a suspect. Ferreting out the contraption’s construction, from the few clues left lying around, was central to determining how and why the victim was killed – as well as the murderer’s identity.

 When I was a kid, my father was a great lover of Agatha Christie stories. I think that, being an engineer, he loved the intricate detail of her plots, and all the little pieces of them. Each piece ticking-over machine-like – moving on its own, yet interconnected, its function interdependent on the movement of all the others, to produce the desired outcome. All those little whirring components formed a symphony of complex simplicity, seemingly tailor-made for an engineer’s pleasure.

The "Doctor" who made the Christie statement.
Some of Dr. Who's faces.



Perhaps this is also why Dr. Who (the title character in the BBC Sci-Fi series Dr. Who), in one episode, reveals that Agatha Christie is inarguably considered the greatest writer of all time -- throughout the entire universe!


An ‘explanation of the machinery’, however, does not seem limited to cozies.

 Bloodshed and sex may abound in hard-boiled mystery or suspense stories. And, the clues are different, many of them far less tangible than those in the average cozy. In fact, the protagonist sometimes seems to be more psychologist than detective, by the time s/he’s tumbled to the truth – often through a sudden and intuitive leap of understanding. Yet, a final explanation of the evil mechanism afoot still seems to be needed if I’m to walk away satisfied in the end.

 A ghost story can plausibly leave the ghost fully clothed and unexamined. A mystery, however, (for me, at least) seems to require some final revelation of the machinery behind the ghost.

 I hadn’t consciously realized this until I read Dale’s post, though my subconscious evidently knew it all along.

 Questions About Some Stories 

 A while ago, I read an anthology of noir mystery stories, but found myself unhappy with the collection. Many of them didn’t seem properly finished. The clues were all there, and I was quite sure I’d figured out what had happened in each story, but then they stopped.

 Each of those particular stories stopped short, as if they’d been writing assignments for a literary class that stressed the importance of letting the reader decide the outcome of the piece. I often appreciate such endings in literary stories, and many of these stories felt quite literary in nature. By and large, they were well written and engaging, yet I found myself left with a sense of disappointment after turning the last page. And I wasn’t quite sure why.

 I knew I was disappointed that the endings weren’t traditionally “wrapped up.” But, was this lack of “wrap up” a real problem, or just a problem of my perception. Was my disappointment rooted in lack of the familiar, or was an important ingredient missing from these stories?

 I considered the problem for a few days, on and off, then – as I’m wont to do when I encounter a relatively unimportant, yet protracted, problem – I set it aside, to let my mind work on it in my absence, in the hopes I’d eventually bump into something that would jar loose a solution.

 And, Dale’s post proved to be just the jarring “something” I needed.

 When I hit the list reproduced above, the parallels to Christie seemed to jump out at me. My mind instantly leapt to those Christie stories, I'd read, in which explaining who dunnit actually did require an explanation of the machinery used to do the deed. And, I realized:  The reason I’d been disappointed by the stories that didn’t include the “wrap-up” was because the game I traditionally enjoy, when it comes to reading mysteries – that of matching wits with the writer, and discovering whether or not I’d come up with his/her intended scenario – was denied me.

 Looking Through Another’s Eyes 

 Since my mom fell ill about two years ago, I stumbled across the joy of working the daily crosswords in the Arizona Republic newspaper. I enjoy these crosswords because they provide me the chance to consider how others see words. (Interestingly, the flip-side of this, is the same reason why I hated crosswords when I was younger.)

 The definitions, or clues often are not ones I would choose, if I’d written the puzzle. I don’t think of these words the way the crossword writers do. In this past Tuesday’s United King Feature Syndicate Crossword puzzle, for instance, the clue “Sudden Silence” was meant to provoke the answer “Hush”. But, if my 9-year-old asked me if “hush” meant “sudden silence,” I would have to tell him: “No. Not necessarily. A hush isn’t always the cessation of noise; sometimes it’s the long absence of noise, a deep quite like the one you might encounter out in the middle of the empty desert on a Summer day.”

 In the same puzzle, the word “Benchmark” was meant to evoke the answer “Norm.” I have a background in Engineering from my days in the army, however, so to me, a “Benchmark” is a small concrete square with a steel cap in it, which has a cross-hatch I can place a transit over, and “shoot from” in order to conduct surveying from a “known point” on the earth.

 On the other hand, when I saw the clue “Benchmark” I also noticed that the answer could only be four letters long and ended in an “M”, (since I’d already written a word that crossed through the last box of the answer space). Rethinking my mental list of definitions for “Benchmark” I considered the word “Standard,” which of course did not fit .

My choice of "Standard" over "Norm" was based on my personal experience with those two words.  A benchmark, in my experience, is a standard that is set for others to achieve, if they are to be considered “good” at something, while the “Norm” is the level of success most people achieve at a given task (hence it’s the “NORMal score” on a test for example). I’m not saying “norm” is an invalid definition for “benchmark”. I’m saying it’s not how I think of the word.

 And, That’s The Point. 

 Dale’s post led me to conclude that the joy I derive from working crosswords is similar to the joy I get out of reading a mystery.

 In both cases, I find myself “matching wits” with the person who constructed the thing. In the case of the crossword, I enjoy trying to figuratively climb inside another person’s mind, and consider the clues through his/her eyes. Reading a mystery, I’m trying to figure out “who dunnit” before the writer tells me. In an action-adventure piece, I’m trying to figure the protagonist’s way out of the maze s/he finds him/herself caught in. And, I’ll admit it, I sometimes decide my solution to the mystery or maze in a story is better than the writer’s.

But, here’s the thing In all three cases, my satisfaction is dependent on being able to match my solution against that of the creator of the work in question. If, at the end of the story, the writer or creator fails to let me know what s/he sees as the “book solution,” then I’m left feeling unfulfilled.

 I get this same feeling if I miss picking up a paper, and checking the crossword solution on the following day. Because, I’m being deprived of the chance to compare solutions. Was I right or wrong in my estimation of what this creator was thinking? How did this other person see the clues and answers? I think my answers were the right ones, but I can’t know unless s/he lets me know.

 And, that’s the problem I had with those stories. When the authors decided to cut them off before concretely explaining the machinery behind the chicanery, I was left without an answer key. This didn’t keep me from coming up with a solution (and sometimes more than one), but it did leave me feeling somewhat cheated.

 I felt like a kid who completes the PSAT, then realizes he’s sitting in the auditorium all alone. He’s got the test done. He thinks he’s done a pretty good job of answering the questions correctly. But, there’s no one there to confirm this. He can’t really know if he got those answers right or not. And, it’s the Practice SAT, so his answers don’t really matter to anyone else. But, he’d sure like to know. Instead, however, he’s left in an empty room calling, “Hello . . . ? Hellooo . . . ? Hey, is anybody out there???”

 That’s a lonely feeling, indeed.

 And the person who takes a PSAT that never gets graded is very apt to feel just as disappointed as I felt when I finished those stories that denied me a glimpse of the writer’s-viewpoint solution.

 Ghost Story Redux 

 All this, coupled with the Halloween timeframe of Dale’s post, reminds me of a friend of my dad's. This guy happened to be a Hydrostatic Engineer, a person who spent his time studying the dynamics of fluid flow, an important subject if you’re designing something that you’d rather was not swept away by the runoff of a heavy downpour. So, he was often posted to construction areas around his state for several weeks at a time.

One night, this guy was driving down a narrow lane cut through a dense forest. Locals claimed the area was "haunted,” and refused to walk this particular stretch of road at night. He’d driven the road at night several times, while in the area, but never when it was so windy. Gusts blew the tree limbs around, and he had just decided to leave his lane and drive more closely to the crown of the otherwise empty road, to avoid them, when a spectral image -- grayish-white but transparent -- slipped from the woods and flitted across the road in front of his car.

The wraith floated above the pavement, writhing as it slipped past, through his headlights, arms and legs seeming to protrude then recede back into it’s body -- amoeba-like -- as if it were in pain, or searching. And, all along, he could see the lane markers of the road on the other side of the thing.

 The guy was shaken, but absolutely sure ghosts didn't exist, so he stopped. backed up until he reached the spot he thought the wraith had come from, then parked and walked into the woods to find out what was going on. About twenty feet in, he ran across a place where a small brook dropped several feet into a narrow area. The frothing water built a layer of foam on top of itself, because of the force.

 As I said, it was a breezy night, and when the next breeze came along, it blew a clump of foam off the top and out to the road. The guy chased it, but couldn't move as fast as the blowing foam. When it crossed the road, he was still in the edge of the woods. An approaching car squealed and swerved to miss it, then someone inside yelled, "I told you this road was haunted!"

 Is this a ghost story? Perhaps for those people in the car.  But for us?  My opinion: No. It’s a mystery story. The machinery behind the ghost was explained. Case closed.

 One last thought.

 If leaving the ghost unexplained results in a ghost story. And explaining the machinery behind the ghost makes it a mystery story. What’s a story that reveals the ghost inside the machine? Science Fiction? Horror? What do you think?

Or, for that matter, do you think that all this talk of matching wits is really pretty witless?

 See you in two weeks!
—Dixon

29 November 2012

True Treasures

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

By the time you are reading this, we will know if someone won the whopping 550 million dollar Power Ball lottery. If it is me, you can be sure I am doing the same thing you would be doing: trying to believe it happened while deciding what to spend that much money on.

Think about it. Pretty much after we paid all our bills, bought new vehicles and a mansion, took care of family members we'd like to help, there's still way too much money for any one person to spend.

At least that is what I think. I've not had that much in my bank account to really know.

My husband said I could buy my own library although he already believes I have too many books as it is. (As if that could be possible!)


We had a discussion recently about our sliding into a hoarder lifestyle. After being married for so many years, we have accumulated more than we need. Trying to part with most of it isn't easy. I do identify with those people on "Hoarders" who have true attachments to their "collections." I hope my stash isn't looked on by others with disdain as the ones participating on the television show, but one man's trash is another's treasure.

My husband sat at his computer in our shared office when I popped in and said, "We have got to get a handle on our clutter. We need to get rid of ten things a day in this house if only it's ten pieces of paper."

He spun around in his chair to face me and glancing around the room, said, "We can't live that long."

I sighed dramatically. "I didn't mean my papers!" 

Both of us knew that was a losing prospect. Writers seem to always have papers they feel they must keep.

I'm a hard-copy kind of writer. I think that comes from losing so many files on computers long ago. I realize the chances of losing them now are not as much a problem and to be honest, I know more about how a computer works these days so I'm not as apt to hit the delete button by mistake. I also have found a computer guru who tells me nothing is truly deleted on a computer. He found deleted-by-mistake photos my daughter and her husband took on their honeymoon– photos that couldn't be duplicated. Having the correct software, it seems, makes all the difference.

Which may be one more reason we must be careful if we're writing things on a computer we wish we hadn'tlike perhaps things Casey Anthony had on hers.  Mystery authors take note: crimes are often solved by what an expert can find on a computer that was supposedly "washed" of evidence a criminal thought he'd erased. One more case of dirty laundry telling all when its discovered.

My treasures are my papers...the ones containing my written work, of course, but also the ones of snipets of ideas for future story ideas or characters...the honest-to-God letters someone wrote to me (especially from those who have passed on from this world) and the photos that I can hold in my hand. Those are my true treasures.

My husband once told me he'd won the lottery when he convinced me to marry him. I guess I'll keep him, too.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to buy a lottery ticket though. The idea of that library he promised appeals to me.

28 November 2012

Meet Nero Wolfe

by Robert Lopresti

You may read mysteries for the plot, but if you RE-read them it is for something else, like language or characters.  Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels had wonderful language, but I don't know any mystery series with a larger assortment of reappearing characters than Stout's.  Watching them show up is like meeting old friends -- or enemies.

So, in honor of the Wolfe Pack's annual Black Orchid Banquet, which will be held this Saturday in New York, and celebrates the Rex Stout corpus...


Meet Nero Wolfe.  Say how do you do.
He's gonna introduce you to the whole darn crew. 

There's Cramer and Cather, Parker and Panzer,
Bonner and Brenner, and big Bill Gore, 
Archie and Johnny, Purley and Mimi,
Sally and Bascom and Theodore.

Doctor Vollmer and Lily Rowan,
Fred and Felix and old Lon Cohen,

Tim Evarts the Churchill dick
Hitchcock in London, and Marko Vukcic,

Up in Westchester you'll find Ben Dykes,
And Lieutenant Con Noonan, whom nobody likes,

There's Hombert, Skinner, and Arnold Zeck,
And even old Rowcliffe, what the heck.

And Mandlebaum.

27 November 2012

The Next Big Thing– Dean Version

by David Dean

As John Floyd has so ably explained in his post of the 24th, "The Next Big Thing" is a sort of promotional tag game being played by writers across the country, perhaps the world for all I know.  I guess it can be described as a "grass roots" publicity gambit to which you, dear reader, are now being subjected.  I didn't want to do this to you, but the alternative was breaking the "chain", and I'm sure you all have some idea what can happen when you do that.  You know the urban legends, it's not pretty according to the films– the best you can hope for is to just painlessly disappear; the worst… well, it doesn't bear thinking about.   

However, in order to make a clean getaway I've had to snare others into the scheme.  Again, I didn't want to, but what choice did I have– to be the last in the chain?  No, thank you.  So I lured the redoubtable and deeply talented, Janice Law, as well as the rising literary star, Tara Laskowski, into my web, where they are now stuck fast, desperately trying to line up someone, anyone, to "tag" and be next in the chain.  Sorry, ladies, but surely you can understand the predicament I found myself in.  Blame Barb Goffman if you must; she snared me!  In order to take the sting out I've included links to all of these writing dynamos at the conclusion of my own shameless self-promotion.  Please do go to their sites on the appointed days and read their thoughts on their work.  It will, undoubtedly, be both entertaining and illuminating, as I hope the following on my own is.

First, let me set the scene.  Picture, if you will, a room full of clamoring reporters, and perhaps a scattering of ardent, young literature students, all attempting to gain my attention and ask the following, burning questions:

What is the working title of your new book, Mr. Dean?  "Oh please, just call me David, we're all friends here (there's relieved chuckling; they didn't expect me to be so personable, so accessible).  Well, the working title has come and gone, I'm afraid, as the book, "The Thirteenth Child" was released over a month ago.  The publisher and I are expecting a sale any day now.  The original title was more of a short story– "A Child Twixt Dusk And Dawning", it was called.  My editor questioned the pithiness of my choice and suggested (strongly) I go with his recommendation, which I did in the end.  We are no longer speaking, however."

Where did the idea for the book come from?  "That's an excellent question, young lady, and one which I am anxious to answer.  I was thinking of old legends, and ghost stories, concerning travelers meeting spirits and demons at lonely crossroads, then disappearing, dying, or having misfortune follow them from that moment on.  These tales appear in a number of cultures (European, African,etc...), and sometimes concern the taking of children by these same fairies, trolls, or other supernatural beings.  So, I took it one step further, I thought, what if this creature that waits on lonely paths was not supernatural at all, but very real, and no longer haunting forest and fields, but suburban streets and yards; forced out of its comfort zone by the steady encroachment of civilization?  That was the beginning."

What genre does your book fall under?  "Unquestionably horror, though it has an underpinning of police procedural and even a touch of romance." 

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  "I'll leave that to the experts, like Mr. Spielberg.  He's done wonderfully well at that sort of thing.  Undoubtedly, when hell freezes over and he decides to do a film version of my book, he'll make the right choices in casting."

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  (I chuckle tolerantly at this) "Obviously, my boy, you have not read my book.  A book, such as mine, containing the depth of character and breadth of thought that it does, cannot be contained in a single sentence.  However, since you've asked, I'll do my best to reduce it down so that everyone can understand it: When children begin to go missing from Wessex Township, disgraced professor, and now town drunk, Preston Howard, encounters something he wishes he hadn't, and soon faces a terrible decision--save the children...or his only daughter.  How's that?"

Is your book self-published, or represented by an agency?  "Neither, old man.  I've somehow managed to get my book published by Genius Book Publishing of Encino, California without representation or payment of a fee."

How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?  "It took about six months for the first draft...and probably another three months in rewrites and edits, followed by several years of anxiety." 

What other books would you compare this to in your genre?  "Phantoms by Dean Koontz, Dracula by Bram Stoker, and the short story, Gabriel Earnest by H.H. Munro.  How's that for reaching for the stars?"

Who or what inspired you to write this book?  "I haven't usually written horror, but the idea behind "The Thirteenth Child" struck me as so original that I felt compelled to give it a go."

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?  "It contains a good deal of history and myth from southern  New Jersey, including some Native American lore from the Lenape peoples of the region."

"Well, that's all the time I have now.  I appreciate you press guys and gals turning out like you did; especially when you could have been covering something actually newsworthy."  (This gets a big laugh, and a lot of shaking of heads– they had no idea how humble I am.)  "Thanks so much for your time.  But, before you go, I just want to throw a little something your way… in fact, I'm gonna give you guys the inside track on the next big thing times three!"  (The scramble for the door ceases and a sudden quiet descends on the room, the pens and pads come back out in the expectant silence.)  "Jot this down, boys and girls, and follow it up--you won't be sorry, let me tell ya; cause the three gals at the end of these links are hot and gettin' hotter in the writing field!  Let me make the introductions:

"First there's my sponsor, Barb Goffman, who writes about her newest story, "Murder a la Mode" on the Women of Mystery blog.

"Next up is Janice Law, whose book, "The Fires Of London" is already garnering some rave reviews and a growing public.  Read about the workings of her formidable talent on Dec. 3rd.

"And last, but never least, and brimming with originality, is Tara Laskowski, who will post about her newest collection of short stories, "Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons" on Dec. 5th.  Don't you love that title?  Well, read her post and, amongst other things, you'll find out how it got conjured up.

"Well that's the scoop– follow my lead on these stories you mugs, and maybe a few of you will be pulling down some Pulitzers.  No… no… no more questions, I'm bushed.  Besides, I've got to get to work.  These books don't just write themselves you know!"  (Big laugh on this one– who woulda thought the ol' man had such a great sense of humor?)

26 November 2012

Write Your Name Right Here

by Fran Rizer

Shannon as Callie, Fran as Fran, Barbie as Jane        
Several people inquired about the picture of Callie used in my guest blogger post four weeks ago. The young lady shown as the face of Callie Parrish is actually named Shannon.   As John and several other SS'ers have mentioned, one of the fun things about having a book published is book signings.  My first one was at a local Walden's, where I sat at a very small table in the doorway.  Customers couldn't miss me because I blocked the entrance to the store.  The staff treated me great, and we sold all the copies of my first book that they'd ordered.  I also gave away a Moon Pie with each book.

Since that first one in 2007, I've enjoyed signings in lots of places.  They were all fun and they all  gave me the opportunity to visit with some wonderful people.  Today I want to share just a few of those events.

The Callielac
Most of you are familiar with my friend Linda (yes, she's the one who was murdered in 2009).  Memorable book signings in 2007 and 2008 featured Linda with the Fran Rizer Fan Club who carried signs that said, "We Love Callie."  They would show up wearing black sequined funeral veils outside the B&N or BaM before I arrived in the "Callielac," which is actually a souped up Corvette driven by my friend Chuck.  I wrote Chuck and that Corvette into the fourth book.

My first book was written after I retired from teaching.  At a signing at The Happy Bookseller (an indie that has closed and is dearly missed) a group of my former colleagues attended as a group.  That was a special treat for me.

So booksignings were always fun experiences, but as the cliche goes, you ain't seen nothing yet! The McCormick, SC, Friends of the Library invited me to speak and sign books with a reception following the talk.  Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the auditorium and saw a closed casket, complete with casket spray, in front of the podium!  My protagonist, Callie Parrish, works  as a cosmetician for Middleton's Mortuary.   Friends of the Library were stationed around the room role-playing characters from the Callie Parrish mysteries.

The lady who portrayed Jane was sitting at a desk with a telephone.  Of course she wore a red wig and dark glasses.  A Victoria's Secret bag by her side spilled out all kinds of lingerie, especially Dixon's favorite color--sheer. Jane is Callie's BFF.  She's visually impaired, or as Callie says, "to call a spade a flippin' shovel, she's totally blind."  Leigh, you'll be glad to know that Jane gives up her wicked ways in the fifth book due out in spring, 2013.  No, she hasn't quit her job as a telephone "fantasy actress," but she does stop shoplifting at Victoria's Secret and promise the sheriff she's quit for good.

Another great thing about book signings is
meeting fantastic young authors like
Heidi W. Durrow, winner of many prizes
including Amazon Best Book of the Month
in February,2010, for her first novel,
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.
No, Liz, there are no recipes in the Callie books, but recipes for foods mentioned in each book are shown on the website.  The Friends of the Library had adapted those recipes to finger foods which were served at the reception including little one-inch squares of sweet potato pone and Jane's "Killer Meatballs."  Character Tyrone Profit's favorite low country Fresh Tomato Pie consists of fresh red tomatoes (Not all southerners like their tomatoes green and fried.) with a little salt, pepper, and tarragon. The tomatos are layered in a pie shell, topped with a parmesan cheese mixture, and baked to scrumptious deliciousness.  A great dish, but not exactly finger foods-----unless, like those ladies in McCormick, the pie was made in petite tart shells.  I've been serving those individual bite-sized tomato pies at parties ever since then.

My number one fan who is
always at my signings is
my grandson, Aeden.
The photo at the top was taken at a Book Launch in 2011, which was held at Jamestown Coffee Company. The late Leonard Jolley and I launched his coming of age novel Soul of Clay (available at Amazon.com) and my fourth Callie Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, THERE'S A BODY IN THE CAR together on a Sunday afternoon with Ray Wade doing readings from both books, lots of splendid coffees, plenty of food, and over one hundred, fifty people.  Among the guests were my friends Shannon as Callie. Barbie as Jane, and Chuck as, you guessed it, Chuck.  It was a wonderful event, and there's no way to top that for the fifth book due out in 2013.

When I used to book rock 'n roll bands, we joked about someday being so famous that fans asked them to sign various body parts.  I've been told, "Write your name right here," by folks who handed me a cocktail napkin, but not on any body parts (yet!)

What about you?  Got any stories to share about book signings or launch parties?  Or any ideas for my next one?

Until we meet again...take care of you!

25 November 2012

Is Bigfoot In Tennessee?

by Louis Willis


I had a different article ready to post but changed my mind when I read in the local newspaper that those mythic hunters from the reality show “Finding Bigfoot” are coming to Knoxville for a week. Our esteem Knox County mayor, apparently a Bigfoot buff, declared Friday, November 16 “Knox County Bigfoot Day.” He and about 1000 citizens welcomed the cast of “Finding Bigfoot” to town. Cast members signed autographs and there was face painting for kids.

Ever the politician, the mayor didn’t say that he absolutely believes in Bigfoot. Like any professional politician, he hedged. He said he didn’t disbelieve, and pointed out that the publicity from the show might bring in a few extra dollars from visitors.

One hunter, an expert and a regular on the show, claimed that there have been 150 recorded sightings and several footprints pointing to the existence of Bigfoot here in East Tennessee. Of course he is withholding the location of the sightings until the show airs in February.

Bigfoot must be some where in the Appalachian Mountains because the most sightings in the entire United States have been recorded by our neighbor to the north, Kentucky, at least that’s what the Kentucky Bigfoot hunters claim on their web site. It’s possible Bigfoot and his family might have strolled down into the Great Smoky Mountains, and maybe even wandered down into the foothills of East Tennessee.

We human beings have seen, studied, and trapped just about every animal on earth and yet Bigfoot, Yeti, Sasquatch, abominable snowman or by whatever name we call it, who has been seen in every state in the Union, every nation, and every continent, has eluded us. How is it we can’t catch this missing link in human evolution? The dude or gal is big, standing some say 8 feet tall, so how can something so large be so elusive? 

I bookmarked another Bigfoot hunting website in case that rascal is found here in East Tennessee, I’ll know almost immediately. If he is located in the mountains or foothills, I plan to join the Bigfoot Hunting Club to collect any reward that might be offered for his capture.

Above average rainfall this year produced lots of nuts and berries that in turn means there’s plenty of game in the mountains, so I know Bigfoot and his family had a good Thanksgiving.

I hope all of you did also.

24 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

by John M. Floyd


A few weeks ago author B.K. Stevens invited me to participate in a "blog chain."  It's called The Next Big Thing, in which writers share information about a future project--or, as one author called it, a current Work in Progress.

Here's the deal.  Each writer posts a blog entry and answers ten questions about his or her upcoming book, story, or whatever, and provides links to similar pieces written by the inviter and the invitees (are those real words?).  For me, participating was an easy decision because I needed to come up with a column for this Saturday anyhow, and since the subject of my post will be a collection of mystery/suspense stories, the "interview" seemed to fit SleuthSayers' crime-writer theme.

Anyhow, here goes . . .


1.  What is the working title of your book (or story)?

Deception.  It's a collection of short fiction--the book's title is also the title of one of the included stories.

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

Since this is a collection of different stories, the ideas came from all over.  But most of my ideas begin when I examine ordinary people or ordinary situations and ask myself "What if such-and-such happened?"

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

Mystery.  There are a few other genres mixed in--fantasy, humor, Western, etc.--but almost all the stories include a crime of some kind, and every story involves suspense and deceit.  (In fact I think deceit performs a double duty in a story or novel: when the characters are deceived, the reader is often deceived also--and if it's done well and done fairly, that's something I enjoy, as a reader.)

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That's something all writers like to think about and very few get to do, right?  As for me and this project, it would take a hotel full of actors to play all the characters in thirty stories, so that question's hard to answer.  But the title story features a resourceful and catburglary guy who's fairly young, so if I had my druthers I'd choose someone like Jude Law, Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, etc.  

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Thirty stories of mystery, intrigue, and deception.  (Make that a one-sentence-fragment synopsis.)

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither.  I have an agent who represents my novels, but not my short stories or collections.  The book will be released in hardcover by a small, traditional publisher called Dogwood Press.  DP also published my first three story collections.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Again, this will be an unconventional answer to a conventional question.  Since this is a group of stories, putting the book manuscript together didn't take a long time.  Mostly, it involved arranging individual stories into a lineup that properly mixes settings, genres, types of crimes, longer stories vs. shorter, lighthearted stories vs. gritty, and so on.  Each story's first draft probably took anything from several hours to several days to finish, and rewriting took from several days to several weeks.

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

If I weren't the modest fellow I am, I would compare it to similar collections by authors like Jeffery Deaver, Jack Ritchie, John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, Bill Pronzini, etc.  Too bad I can't come right out and say that.

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My publisher is the one who first suggested that I group some of my previously published stories into a collection, the first of which was called Rainbow's End (2006).  After that book sold well, he encouraged me to follow it with other collections:  Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), and now Deception.  Authors who have inspired my fiction and my writing style are Steve Hamilton, Carl Hiaasen, Joe R. Lansdale, Harlan Coben, Nevada Barr, Stephen King, Nelson DeMille, Robert B. Parker, and others.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

One thing all four of my books have in common is that each includes a handful of lighthearted "series" stories about retired schoolteacher Angela Potts and a former student of hers who is now the sheriff of their small southern town.  Also, most of the 130 stories that are featured in the four books were previously published in places like The Strand MagazineWoman's WorldAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, etc.  If you like to read those publications, I think you might enjoy my stories as well.


Now it's time to pay my dues and keep my promise.  Here are links to my host and to my invitees.

B.K. Stevens is a Derringer Award winner and author of stories in AHMMWoman's World, and many other publications.  Her Next Big Thing piece appears at the Untreed Reads blog

Police officer and author Frank Zafiro is probably best known for his River City novel series.  He will discuss his upcoming project at his blog.

Jan Christensen's fiction has appeared in many different publications and anthologies, as well as two novels. Her post is at her web site.

Please take a look at all those sneak prevews.  BY THE WAY . . .  my friend and SleuthSayers colleague David Dean will also be participating.  Be sure to tune in for his answers to the ten interview questions on November 27, right here at SS.

And then get back to working on your Next Big Thing.

23 November 2012

The Unlikely Expert

by R.T. Lawton


Normally, I write a long blog article. Seems that it generally takes a lot of words for me to convey what's on my mind. Today's blog, however, is a short cautionary anecdote about the situation of becoming an unintended expert.
In the process of writing and editing another story in my Armenian series set in 1850's Chechnya along the Terek River, I paused over a Ukrainian word I had used in a couple of previous stories for a strong wine that the Cossacks made in their frontier villages. I intended to add some adjectives or other facts to go along with my wording about this wine, but needed to make sure I was correct in my description. However, rather than wade through several pages of my own background notes on Russians, Cossacks, Chechens and other peoples and their customs of that time period, I decided to take a shortcut and Google the word "chikhir" to see what more the experts had to say, which I could then use in my story.

To my surprise, I was my own expert reference. Some of the very few Google selections for that particular word quoted passages from two of my earlier Armenian stories and gave Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine as the print reference.

Just goes to show the power that writers have, therefore we must always take care to be correct in what we write on a subject, even if it's fiction.We never know when we might be the one quoted in the future.

I laughed so hard upon finding those references that my wife had to come into the study to see what was going on. Ah, well, humor is where you find it. I guess experts are too.

22 November 2012

"The Unicorn in the Garden", or God Bless You, Mr. Thurber

by Eve Fisher

I freely admit that Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday. In my household, there were only the three of us, which meant that I was outnumbered. With neither church nor company, there was little occupation for my parents other than to eat, drink, and fight. In the immortal words of Laura Ingalls Wilder, "It was a queer, blank day," and sometimes more. The turkey was good, and the stuffing superlative, but I got the same at Christmas, and we had more variety in the way of entertainment.

Robert Benchley
But we all have our escape hatches, and mine was books, for which I give grateful and ever-lasting thanks. Especially humor. When I was a child, my grandfather found a copy of "The Thurber Carnival" lying on the street and gave it to me. At the same time, someone else gave me a copy of "The Benchley Roundup" and I was hooked - and warped - for life.

Here are some of my favorite quotes, just to warm us up:

Benchley - "A freelance writer is a man who is paid per word, per piece, or perhaps."

Thurber - “You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.”
James Thurber

Benchley - "Even nowadays a man can't step up and kill a woman without feeling just a bit unchivalrous."

Thurber - “With sixty staring me in the face, I have developed inflammation of the sentence structure and definite hardening of the paragraphs.”

Benchley's work was, 99% of the time, the classic humorous essay. Thurber's work ranged far more widely, from wistful to sardonic to straight-up reporting to literary analysis. (He wrote what I consider the best essay on Henry James' writing ever - "The Wings of Henry James", in the November 7, 1959 issue of the New Yorker.) And then there are his parables. Here, for our Thanksgiving entertainment, is "The Unicorn in the Garden", the obvious predecessor of "The Catbird Seat", and in both cases, one of the neatest ways of getting rid of someone unpleasant I have ever found. Not that any of us would be interested in that...


The Unicorn in the Garden

by James Thurber
reprinted from
Fables For Our Time
Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a golden horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden. The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and woke her. "There's a unicorn in the garden," he said. "Eating roses." She opened one unfriendly eye and looked at him.
"The unicorn is a mythical beast," she said, and turned her back on him. The man walked slowly downstairs and out into the garden. The unicorn was still there; now he was browsing among the tulips. "Here, unicorn," said the man, and he pulled up a lily and gave it to him. The unicorn ate it gravely. With a high heart, because there was a unicorn in his garden, the man went upstairs and roused his wife again. "The unicorn," he said,"ate a lily." His wife sat up in bed and looked at him coldly. "You are a booby," she said, "and I am going to have you put in the booby-hatch."
The man, who had never liked the words "booby" and "booby-hatch," and who liked them even less on a shining morning when there was a unicorn in the garden, thought for a moment. "We'll see about that," he said. He walked over to the door. "He has a golden horn in the middle of his forehead," he told her. Then he went back to the garden to watch the unicorn; but the unicorn had gone away. The man sat down among the roses and went to sleep.
As soon as the husband had gone out of the house, the wife got up and dressed as fast as she could. She was very excited and there was a gloat in her eye. She telephoned the police and she telephoned a psychiatrist; she told them to hurry to her house and bring a strait-jacket. When the police and the psychiatrist arrived they sat down in chairs and looked at her, with great interest.
"My husband," she said, "saw a unicorn this morning." The police looked at the psychiatrist and the psychiatrist looked at the police. "He told me it ate a lily," she said. The psychiatrist looked at the police and the police looked at the psychiatrist. "He told me it had a golden horn in the middle of its forehead," she said. At a solemn signal from the psychiatrist, the police leaped from their chairs and seized the wife. They had a hard time subduing her, for she put up a terrific struggle, but they finally subdued her. Just as they got her into the strait-jacket, the husband came back into the house.
"Did you tell your wife you saw a unicorn?" asked the police. "Of course not," said the husband. "The unicorn is a mythical beast." "That's all I wanted to know," said the psychiatrist. "Take her away. I'm sorry, sir, but your wife is as crazy as a jaybird."
So they took her away, cursing and screaming, and shut her up in an institution. The husband lived happily ever after.

Moral: Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and may all your unicorns lead to high hearts.

21 November 2012

Sometimes it's Magic

by Robert Lopresti

So, what is it like writing fiction? 

Well, mostly it's hard work, that's all.  You have to sit at a desk and think when it would be so much more fun to see what's happening on Facebook or Youtube.  Turning a blank screen into deathless prose isn't easy.

If you're lucky you have a good idea in your head of what you are trying to create.  Then all you have to do is to convert what you see in your head to words that will make the same picture in other people's skulls.  Sometimes it's frustrating, when you can't make that translation.

And sometimes it is tedious.  That's especially true when you really have no idea where a scene is going, but you know it has to be there so you slog through it.  As my character Shanks puts it in one story, "sometimes you just pile the words together like bricks and hope nothing falls off."

All of that is true.  But sometimes...

Sometimes...

I have been working on a  novel and the novel has five parts.  When I write a book I start with the sections I know best, hoping that writing them will reveal the parts that are less clear to me.  So I have spent the past month on Part Four.  I finished it and began slogging through Part Three, which I knew much less about.

Well.  Part Three ends with my main character taking a bus back home.    The scene needs to be there but there is no real action in it, so I had to keep the reader in my protagonist's head, letting his thoughts and memories become the action.

And what do you know?  Right at the end, in the very last slogging, brick-after-brick paragraph, my character revealed his motive for everything he is about to do in Part Four.  I didn't even know there was a motive that needed to be revealed, but there it was, waiting for me.  I had written the effect, and suddenly, pow, I was looking at the cause.

So, what is it like writing fiction?

Sometimes, just occasionally, it's goddamned magic.

20 November 2012

Thanksgiving Ruminations


  by Dale C. Andrews
    Nora planned Thanksgiving with a sort of desperation --  a woman trying to hold on to her world as it growled and heaved about her.
  There were two of Wiley Gallimard's fanciest toms, and chestnuts to be grated in absurd quantities, and cranberries from Bald Mountain to be mashed, and turnips and pumpkins and goodies galore . . . all requiring preparation, fuss, work, with and without Alberta Manaska's help . . . all requiring concentration.  And while her house filled with savory odors, Nora would brook no assistance from Alberta -- not Pat, not Hermione, not even old Ludie, who went about muttering for days about "these snippy young know-it-all brides."  
    Hermy dabbed at her eyes.  "It's the first Thanksgiving since we were married, John, that I haven't made the family dinner.  Nora baby -- your table's beautiful!"
     "Maybe this time, : chuckled John F., "I won't have indigestion.  Bring on that turkey and stuffing!"
                                                                                               Ellery Queen
                                                                                               Calamity Town, 1942

    T. S. Eliot, in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock reflects on counting out one’s life in coffee spoons.  For me, more and more, I find myself counting out my life in Thanksgivings.  This is probably anchored in the fact that for the past thirty-some years Thanksgiving (by some thank-less tradition) has become my responsibility.  I cook the whole thing.  I used to have a real approach/avoidance conflict as the fateful day approached, but as the years have passed I seem to have fallen into a rhythm.  More often than not everything comes out fine in the end.

   The holiday hasn’t contributed a background to many mystery stories (although an internet search will reveal a fistful of cozies that use the day as backdrop).  A notable exception to this is Calamity Town, Ellery Queen's first Wrightsville mystery, published in 1942.  Calamity Town is the only Ellery Queen selected by H. R. F. Keating in his 100 Best Books of Crime and Mystery, and a poisonous (literally) Thanksgiving gathering figures prominently in the plot.

    As Ellery discovered when he found himself interjected into the midst of the Wrights' family holiday get together in Calamity Town, sometimes one of the less predictable aspects of Thanksgiving is the people who will in fact be in attendance.  One of the reasons Thanksgivings in our household are memorable is that they tend to have a completely different cast of characters each year, often comprised of folks who do not know each other, or who know each other just barely.  Throughout the years Thanksgiving has been a day when we “take in strays.”  We try to find acquaintances who otherwise have no one with whom to celebrate. 

    This year’s list of attendees has its own unique theme.  The usual core group will be present – Pat, me, our elder son Devon and our younger son Colin.  Colin’s significant other will also be dining with us, as usual on the holiday.  I am reflecting on Dixon’s column last week as I type this, particularly his discussion of the gay sheriff in the next county over. 


Kyle and Colin

   Funny how I tend to more easily describe our son’s partner Kyle as a significant other rather than as Colin’s boyfriend.  I think, and hope, that this is a word usage issue and nothing more, like masculine and feminine noun endings in the romance languages.  I say this because we are otherwise completely at home with Colin’s sexuality and with Kyle, who has become another member of the family.  What will be particularly interesting this year is that we will be joined at Thanksgiving by Kyle’s mother and sister, who will be driving in from Michigan, and will be staying with us a day or two on either side of the holiday.  We have met them only once before, so the anxious prospect of getting on with it is understandable.  (Could this have anything to do with the fact that we have just had our living room and dining room painted?)   Rounding out the table will be Deborah -- a friend going all the way back to Pat and my law school days when the three of us met for the first time at registration -- and Deborah’s fourteen year old daughter Bekah.  So who knows what anecdotes will be added to the family lore when this group in fact assembles?

    Anyway, all of the foregoing underscores what an important day Thanksgiving has become.  All of this preparation, all of this travel, all of this anticipation over a meal.  But the day-long preparation, coupled with throwing together people who often do not dine together at all except on that day, is bound to be the stuff of which family legends are made.  We have many.  Sometimes these have focused around mini-disasters, although none that can hold a candle to those experienced by Mr. Queen and the Wright clan in Calamity Town.  Over the years our calamities have been much more prosaic -- a garbage disposal that has not once, but twice, clogged completely on potato peels on Thanksgiving, once with an insidious blockage so far down the line that, unbeknownst to us, the water backed up through a drain in the lower level of our house, leaving us to discover the lower rooms awash with greasy garbage disposal water just about the time we were otherwise ready for pie.  And, again, not once, but twice, our refrigerator has gone out days before Thanksgiving. 

    But all Thanksgiving anecdotes in our family are not mini calamities.  Like all theatre, they seem to break also toward the comedic.  One of my favorite Thanksgiving yarns takes me back precisely 50 years, to 1962, when I was 13.  Other than my younger brother and me, everyone else at that long ago Thanksgiving dinner, served at my maternal grandparents’ home in Creve Coeur, Missouri, is now no longer with us.  But the memory lives.

   Assembled around the table fifty years ago were my father and mother, my mother’s parents, affectionately known as Pop and Grandma Moelling, my father’s mother, known always as Grandmother Andrews, my mother’s sister Eunice and a great aunt, Aunt Ava, from Vandalia Illinois.  My grandmothers, like many in-laws, smiled a lot but in fact grated a bit on each other.  Grandma Moelling was sweet but a bit scattery.  Grandmother Andrews, four foot eight when measured in any direction, had (it must be admitted) airs of pretension.  One would never refer to her as “Grandma,” only as “Grandmother.”  She aspired to matriarch but never could quite pull it off.

   After we had all taken our seats at the thanksgiving table that day in 1962, Grandmother Andrews, as she had every year within my memory, turned to me with the air of a director raising the  baton and said “Dale, say ‘Come Lord Jesus.’” 

   I squirmed in my chair.  As noted above, I was 13 years old on that November day in 1962, and had already begun my long journey into agnosticism.  But I had known what was coming, and I had a plan.  I was going to make my stand that Thanksgiving.  I cleared my throat and said “I don’t want to give the blessing this year.” 

   Grandmother Andrews gasped and stared across the table at me, eyes wide.  Stunned silence otherwise reigned.  Everyone looked at each other, uncertain how to proceed. 

   Finally my father cleared his throat, indicating that he was about to attempt a Deus ex Machina.  “I know what we can do,” he said eying the already unconvinced family members staring back at him.  “When we were at my boss’ house for dinner the other week we did something very special.  We all clasped hands under the table, bowed our heads and quietly to ourselves each of us said grace.” 

   Well we had to do something, so all nine of us clasped hands, bowed our heads, and looked down at our plates. 

   The silence was broken when Grandma Moelling said “Grace.” 

   No one at the table knew what to do except my brother and me.  We burst out laughing.  Grandma Moelling just sat there flustered, trying to work out what she had done wrong.   

   Grandmother Andrews looked up, turned to my father, her son, and said “Wallace, that was nice.”  Then she glared across the table at me and said “Now Dale, say ‘Come Lord Jesus.’”

    Happy Thanksgiving to all.