30 September 2014

Fast Eddie

by Jim Winter

Once upon a time, a man named "Fast Eddie" Watkins could get in and out of banks quickly, relieving them of cash, and usually not harming anyone. He became one of Cleveland's most notorious criminals, and that says a lot in my hometown. Cleveland had the Torso Killer. Its suburbs produced Jeffrey Dahmer while the Tremont neighborhood spawned notorious kidnapper Ariel Castro. A branch of the Genovese crime family ran the underworld for years, and Irish mobster Danny Green met a fiery end when his car exploded leaving a union hall in the late 1970's. So, yeah. The Northcoast has hosted its share of thugs and monsters.

But we always had a soft spot for Fast Eddie. Sure, he robbed banks. But he was a gentleman thief. In and out, and he loved the publicity. The Plain Dealer, The Press (infamous for its shoddy reporting of the Sam Sheppard murder case), and the local TV stations faithfully recounted his exploits. In a city more famous for its burning river and its serial killers, Watkins developed a Robin Hood reputation.

The one time Fast Eddie's robbery didn't go so well, he took 9 hostages. After 21 hours, though, he let everyone go and surrendered. The feds sent him to prison in Atlanta. He escaped, and therein is where Fast Eddie crossed a very young Jim Winter's path.

South of the exurb where I grew up, there is, to this day, a stretch of potato fields called The Muck, a handful of rock quarries, and cornfields all sandwiched between the CSX and Norfolk Southern railroads. We used to ride our bikes out through there, headed for the tiny little freeway burg of Burbank. Only one day, the local police stopped us.

"Why can't we ride out to Burbank?" I asked the Lodi cop at the roadblock.

"We got a bank robber cornered out past the rock quarry."

I went home. At 6:00, WEWS led their news broadcast with the standoff between Fast Eddie Watkins and the Medina County Sheriff. By 7, Fast Eddie was in custody and headed back to prison.

Watkins never hid the fact that he was a bank robber. He said he enjoyed it. "I wanted to be a big shot," he confessed. His illegal withdrawals helped finance his lavish lifestyle. So where did he keep his money?

"I trust banks with my money. They're insured. It's the best place in the world to put your money."

But was it the money? Watkins wife once said no. Mrs. Watkins said that Fast Eddie ogled banks the way most men ogled girls.

But even in prison with his criminal career over, Watkins remained a character. The Cleveland papers occasionally reported that Fast Eddie had taken up painting while behind bars, favoring landscapes.

Fast Eddie died in 2002 at the age of 82 after a long battle with heart and lung disease. Unlike the bank robbers of an earlier era, going out in a blaze of glory wasn't for him.

29 September 2014

Genre-Jump

By Fran Rizer

Back in the '60s (when I was young, dumb, and having fun), youth of America followed Holden Caulfield's early '50s search for life's meaning and found themselves in fields of flowers and hippies. Now that I'm in a different kind of '60s, I seem to be seeking myself in other ways.

Some of you (hopefully most of you) are familiar with my six Callie Parrish cozeysque novels.  Fewer people have read my first two books.  Aeden's Two Homes is a children's picture book, and Familiar Faces & Curious Characters is a collection of dramatic monologues for intermediate-age drama students.  Both are out-of-print, but a new regional publisher has agreed to take a look at them.

What does this have to do with my search for self now that I'm entitled to the senior citizen discount where I shop?   I'm changing genres. (Not genders, genres!) I will now reference a few of the many others who have done this:

Lawrence Block - Crime fiction author, including Matt Scudder novels and the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels.  Quite successful in this genre, but back in the '60s and '70s, he wrote more than a hundred books of soft-core erotica, including seven "sensitive evocations of lesbianism" written as Jill Emerson.

Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG (Stephen Spielberg is filming this favorite of mine for release in 2015.) are examples of his fantastically successful children's books.  "Lamb to the Slaughter" (woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to the policemen who investigate the killing) is an example of his classic crime stories.  Macabre stories in Kiss, Kiss and salacious ones in Switch Bitch and the novel My Uncle Oswald (about "the greatest fornicator of all time") illustrate Dahl's versatility and comfort in many genres.

Ian Fleming - Author of both the James Bond spy series and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - nothing else needs to be said.

Stephen King - Best known as a writer of horror and sci fi, King's recognition as MWA's Grandmaster in 2007 was based on his crime fiction, including "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and The Green Mile.

A. A. Milne - Creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, he also wrote The Red House Mystery, proclaimed by critic Alexander Woolcott as "one of the three best mystery stories of all time."  This classic English country house "locked room" tale of murder has been in print continuously since its first publication.

Philip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint and two dozen other literary novels won him numerous awards. In 2004, he took his first stab at the branch of sci fi called "alternate history," about the fictional results of anti-Semitic American hero Charles Lindbergh being elected president.

E.B. White - Successful and memorable for an unusual combination:  Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, both widely beloved children's books, and the classic reference work on the subject of clear writing - The Elements of Style.  Written by William Strunk, Jr., one of White's college professors, this style guide was edited and revised by White.  His publisher released it as by "Strunk and White."  E.B. White is as well known for this handbook of grammar and style as he is for that spider and pig.

Please note that I listed these gentlemen in alphabetical order. (I promise I'm not compulsive, but I tend to alphabetize all lists except for groceries.  I think it's my way of not showing favoritism as well as a hold-over from my days in the classroom.) I am not comparing myself or my writing to any of those writers, but they do demonstrate that authors aren't limited to one genre, and I am using them as an introduction to my own genre-jump.

Joanne Fluke, author of more than twenty highly successful Hannah Swenson cozy mysteries about a lady baker, has had five suspense novels released by her publisher, which happens to be Kensington. I've long admired Ms. Fluke as having reached my idea of the height of accomplishment. Though I've had the pleasure of book talks, readings, and signings in Borders, BAM, B&N, and Indies as well as libraries and book clubs, Callie never achieved my goal.  Those Hannah Swenson books get displayed right there on the book racks I yearn to occupy:  Publix and BiLo.

When I bought Fluke's The Other Child, I found "A Letter from Joanne Fluke" explaining her venture into this new genre on the very first page. (My apologies for putting that heading in quotes but not printing it exactly as it is in the book:  All caps.)  At the risk of being called a copy cat (I've been called worse), I borrowed that idea, and the very first page of my soon-to-be-released new book appears below:


A Note from Fran Rizer

A very  special thanks to all the readers of my previous books, the Callie Parrish mysteries, which are cozyesque---not quite cozies, but no overt sex, profanity, or described brutality.  For this reason, Callie has had some youthful readers, whom I appreciate.

KUDZU  RIVER is different.

It’s a much grittier book about three women whose lives become entangled as a serial killer leaves a trail of murdered teachers up and down the coast of South Carolina.  At times the writing goes beyond gritty to raw. It is not meant for children.  This is a tale that could not be told in cozy style, but it’s a story that I feel compelled to share.

I cannot think of better words to describe the differences between  Callie’s books and KUDZU RIVER than these:

KUDZU RIVER is to cozies what a great white shark is to a guppy.
                                                         -------Richard D. Laudenslager
                                                                      Author of Wounded


I'll be back in two weeks and tell you more about KUDZU RIVER. Meanwhile, if you have the time and are interested in reading and reviewing this for SSers, email me.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

28 September 2014

I Learn Something New

by Louis Willis

In these postmodern times of information overload, I find it almost impossible to discover anything new under the sun because everything is moving so fast in cyberspace that I don’t have time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. One part of my brain urges me to pause and read information on a webpage. Another part whispers, “Click that link and you just might discover exciting new information about a subject that interests you.” That is how I stopped and read about the new way young people are using the slash (/) in conversation and on the Internet.
The use of the slash dates back to ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages in Europe one / represented a comma, two // represented a dash, which evolved into the equals sign and was eventually simplified as a single dash (— ). In English prose, the slash is usually used as a conjunction. Of course, it is used in other ways too, such as in poems to show a line break. It also has many nonlinguistic uses.
As with many other punctuation marks in this cyberage, the slash is now used somewhat differently. I discovered the new use in the article, “The One Word In Everyone’s Texts/Conversations Right Now” by Sara Boboltz on the Huffington Post website. The slash, she says, is being used in texts, instant messages, emails, and face to face conversations. 
Boboltz links to the article “Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore” in The Chronicle of Higher Education of April 24, 2013, by Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan. Professor Curzon requires the students in her history of English course to teach her two new slang words before class every day. In one class, a student mentioned “slash.” The slash is used as a conjunction, and slang doesn’t often create a conjunction. Instead of using the symbol /, the students used the word “slash” in their writings on Facebook, blogs, and Tweets as a conjunction. The students also used “slash” to mean “following up” and to indicate an after thought or topic shift.
It seems only the forward slash is currently used. I wonder how in the future the kids will use the backward slash. Maybe they’re already using it, and I just haven’t stumbled across an example. 
I imagine that at this very moment a graduate student is trying to earn his slash her degree studying the use of language on the Internet, and calling the study “netdialectology.” Maybe he slash she will come up with a name for this new way of speaking and writing that is evolving on the web. 
My candidates are netspeak, webspeak, cyberspeak, or nettalk, webtalk, cybertalk.
What are your thoughts on what we should call the language used on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites?

27 September 2014

You Know You're a Writer When...

By Melodie Campbell

Recently, I read something  that got me thinking.  (Okay, have your little laugh.  I can wait.)

The quote was:

“A writer who isn’t writing is a monster.”

At first, I wasn’t sure if that meant a writer who wasn’t writing right now and every minute was a monster.  Or whether it meant a writer who was prevented from writing was a monster.

For the sake of all concerned (at least in this house,) I’m goin’ for the latter.

Which brings me to this little list.  If you are a writer, tick off the ones that apply to you and leave a comment below with the goods.  Or better still, add your own.  If you are not a writer, stand back.

You know you’re an author when:

1.    You’d rather spend time with your characters than your friends.

2.    You’ve been at the computer all day and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish seem like a major food group.

3.    Your spouse yells “Are you all right in there,” and you’re pretty sure you’ve heard that voice before.  Somewhere.

4.    Your idea of a vacation means hours and hours of time to write.  And nobody bugging you to “do something fun.”

5.    You reach for Glenlivit when the internet goes down.

6.    You could be arrested if the Feds look at your search history.

7.    You actually know the difference between less and fewer.  And consider it a hanging offense when people misuse them.

8.    You have been known to ignore phone calls from your mom, kids, husband, boss, and possibly God.

9.    Your idea of supreme hell is being trapped at a cocktail party for three hours with people who aren’t writers.

10.    You have seriously considered murdering people who say, “I have this great idea for a book, and if you’ll write it, I’ll share the profits with you.”   And the ones who say, “I think I’ll write a book someday when I get more time.”  And the ones who say, “Of course, it’s just a mystery/fantasy/romance genre book you’ve written.  When are you going to write something important?

Excuse me now.  I have a lot of people to murder, and I’m behind.

Melodie Campbell murders people regularly in her zany mob crime series, The Goddaughter.  She lurks at www.melodiecampbell.com

26 September 2014

Some Details: Fast-Rope vs. Rappel

by Dixon Hill

David Dean's excellent blog post, which provided important details for those writing about Catholic characters, put me in mind of some other information you might find useful.  And, naturally, given my background, these details tend to be military in nature.  But, I see a lot of military techniques used in cop shows, and sometimes evidently by real police, these days.  So I thought you might have seen some of these techniques, too, and that this info might interest you -- as mystery writers.

There are many places where a helicopter can't land, but people need to get off the helicopter and onto the ground below.  Thick jungles or forests are such locations, but there are others you might not have considered.  Think of the roofs of high-rise office buildings: they are often festooned with antennae that prevent a helicopter from landing.  Yet, a helicopter -- if properly equipped -- can put people onto that roof, or take them off.

When helicopters can't touch down, but need to offload personnel, two options are fast-roping and rappelling.  Fast-roping is faster than rappelling, but I've seen fictional law enforcement units using both methods on TV and in movies, so I'll cover both here.

FAST  ROPE OPERATION
Note the number of men sliding down each rope
at the same time. UH-60 Helicopter.
HELICOPTER  RAPPEL OPERATION
Note that there is only man per rope
at any given time.  UH-60 Helicopter.
Viewed from a distance, Rappelling and Fast-Roping from helicopters can look very similar.

In both cases, people slide down ropes that hang out of helicopters.

But the person rappelling is usually attached to the rope by a D-ring or snap-link, while a fast-roper is only attached by hands and feet.






A coiled Fast-Rope:  The eye-splice at
photo bottom is used to tie-into the aircraft.  
The ropes used by these two operations are quite different -- because they serve very different needs.

("Fast-Rope" can evidently be spelled with or without a hyphen, and even sometimes as a single word.)  A fast-rope, itself, is a thick hawser-type rope about 1.5 to 2 inches thick.  The ropes are pretty long -- 35 feet and 40 feet, I seem to recall.  With a few that were about 60 or 70 feet.  The number "78 feet" sticks in my mind as the greatest distance one can safely fast-rope -- though I may be wrong.

The rope needs to be thick, because the fast-roper needs something to hang onto.  As I mentioned above, the fast-roper isn't tied or snapped to the rope.  Instead, s/he gets down from the helicopter to the ground by grabbing the rope in gloved hands, and between boots, then sliding down the rope as if it's a firehouse pole.

Fast-roping uses a thick rope that the roper slides down,
similar to sliding down a firehouse pole.


Fast-roping is a quick way to empty a helicopter that can't land, because several people can slide down each rope at the same time.  Hence the name "Fast-Rope": a rope used to empty a chopper fast.










These fast-ropers are much better spaced (closer)
than the folks in the upper left pic.  Going out closer
means you get more folks on the ground faster.
On my old A-Team, we usually rode UH-60 or MH-60 Blackhawks (seen above) when we fast-roped, and would use two ropes to exit the aircraft: one per door.  As we neared the objective, helicopter crewmen would prepare to deploy the fast-ropes, while we gathered in two groups, one around each rope, where it hooked to the chopper.

Everybody would grab the rope, in a specified well-rehearsed order -- the top of each man's hands touching the bottom of the hands of the man holding the rope above him -- ensuring no one's hands overlapped anyone else's.

When we hit the objective, the crewman dropped the rope coil out the door and leaned out to be sure the far end was dragging on the ground as the chopper moved slowly forward.

Simultaneously, our "doorman" would do the same thing with a quick glance (to ensure he didn't slide down the rope, only to plunge off the end.)  Then he would swing out and jump his feet onto the rope, sliding down.

As the doorman went out, the man beside him rotated around and dropped down the rope, followed by the next guy, and the next.  In this manner all twelve of us could descend the two fast-ropes, with our equipment, and be "weapons-up" in a matter of seconds.  Due to the chopper's forward movement, we'd hit the ground about 2 or 3 meters apart.

The ticket with a fast-rope is that the friction generated between your gloved hands, and your boots, on the rope, slows you down enough that you don't get killed or injured by the drop.  And that's A LOT of friction!  I saw a buddy of mine, who tried to fast-rope without gloves one time.  His palms and fingers looked like hamburger: horrifically blistered, torn and bleeding.  He had to wear serious bandages for about two weeks.  (To his credit, he fast-roped, wearing the bandages under his gloves, during those two weeks -- because it was VERY important.  But it hurt him like heck, every time!)

On the web, I've seen photos posted by knuckleheads who prided themselves on letting go of the rope as they descended, only to grab it again later, to slow their descent.  However, I strongly urge you not to let any fictional law enforcement personnel practice this foolish "showboating" in a story.

The fact is: the folks in those online pics are just Good-Time Charlies; they aren't carrying any equipment.  If they had been, and they'd let go of the rope -- even for just a moment -- they'd have been toast.

If you look closely, you'll see that the folks in the pics in this post aren't carrying any equipment either. Clearly, these are training photos, though I never did any fast-rope training in which I didn't wear at least my load-bearing equipment and weapons.

When I did this work, the U.S. Army did not officially permit anyone to fast-rope while carrying more than 35 lbs. of equipment.  However, 35 lbs. was just about the low-end weight of our load-bearing equipment, weapons and basic combat ammo load in SF.  When we added rucks, we could fast-rope with up to 50 or 60 lbs., but that really is about the top-end limit for safety.

I can think of a specific instance when 7th SF Group had us practice fast-roping with heavier loads, such as 75 or 80 lbs., and even more.  They did this for very good reasons, hoping we could find a way to fast-rope with heavier loads, by doing a good PLF (Parachute Landing Fall) when we hit the ground, to minimize the impact.  That much weight, however, resulted in quite a few injuries, which was how we came up with the 50 or 60 lbs. total equipment weight limit.  And, the fast-roper carrying that much, had better do a good PLF on impact with the ground.

The sad fact is:  You can parachute while wearing a 110 lbs. rucksack (I've done it -- A LOT.  It hurts, but it works.  Trust me.), but you can't fast-rope with more than 50 or 60 pounds of gear strapped to your body.  Well . . . you can, if you want . . . but the odds that you'll be in fighting shape after hitting the ground are pitifully low.
Common rappelling ropes.


Which brings us to Rappelling.









This guy has his brake hand on (right hand).
He's waiting for permission to go.
This person is in mid-rappel.
Rappelling is probably more familiar to you than fast-roping.  Even if you haven't practiced it, you've seen it in countless mountain climbing or adventure films, such as The Eiger Sanction.  Both fellows in these two photos are practicing standard repelling: off a wall (left) and out of a helicopter (right).

High-speed "Swiss Seat"
or "Harness"

In both cases, they're wearing very nice high-speed "Swiss seats" or "Harnesses" similar to the one seen to the left.  The "rappeller" hooks a snap-link to the D-ring on his seat, and runs the rope through the snap-link so that it wraps around it but can still slide through.  In some cases, s/he may run the rope through the D-ring, itself, though this isn't necessarily recommended.

Though this type of harness is nice, it's not necessary for rappelling.  Frankly, I always had to use a rope "Swiss seat" similar to the one in the drawing on the right.

To create this Swiss seat, you take a rope about five or six feet long, hold the center at your waistline below your navel and wrap the ends around your back to bring the ropes front again.  Then, you wrap the ends once around the rope, just forward of your thighs, and tuck the ends under the rope, bringing the running ends down between your legs and running them back up across the rump cheeks to come back up between your body and the rope around your back.

Now, squat down while you pull up on the two ends of the rope, tightening everything you just did.  (Men must take particular care at this point, to ensure the ropes do not cross each other, or the crotch area!)  Once your seat is tight, stand, while holding the ropes good and tight, then tie the ends together in a square knot (see pic).  The drawing shows the square knot tied below the navel, however I was taught to tie it off on my "off-hand" side.  (i.e.: Since I'm right handed, and hold my rappel line with my right hand as "brake hand," this brings the rappel line around my right side.  Thus, I "tie-off" my Swiss seat -- with the square knot -- on my left, to keep it out of the way of the rappel line when I'm rappelling.)

It's also possible to do a "Body Rappel" by passing the main rappelling line under one thigh and across the body and back, but I don't want to get into that because:

  • It's too easy to describe it in a way that might put a practitioner in danger.
  • Frankly, I find it quite uncomfortable, and would only employ the body rappel in an emergency.
  • To get a look at roughly how it's done (for story-writing purposes) you're probably better off watching the 1986 horror movie House, in which the main character uses a body rappel method at one point, and you can see how it might work.

Some readers may have seen rappelling, but might not completely understand how it works.  So let's discuss it a moment.

Take a look at that the pic of the guy rappelling off the wall again (right).  His left hand, on the rope in front of his body, is his "guide hand." The guide hand doesn't really grasp the rope; it just lets the rope run through it, in order to guide the manner in which it enters the snap-link or D-ring.  This hand has little to no impact on the speed of descent.

His right hand, which is thrown out away from his body, is his "brake hand."  In this photo, he's in mid-drop: the rope is running freely through both his hands.  He bounded out from the wall when he threw off his brake hand, which is why his feet aren't touching the wall.  He's currently falling down the rope.

In this photo (left) you can see how the rappeller is completely suspended by the rope pulling up on his snap link.  Note the trailing rope that wraps around the right side of his body (left side of photo), and that his right hand is behind his back.

This guy has stopped, or slowed, his descent by moving his brake hand tightly up to the small of his back.  This action causes the friction of the rope around his waist, and the rope trapped against his back by his tightly grasped right hand, to overcome the inertia of his fall, slowing or completely stopping his descent.

When going down a wall, a person can walk, but more commonly they "bound" -- jumping out from the wall as they release their brake hands, zipping down the line, then moving the brake hand to the small of the back and swinging up the feet to meet the wall when they want to stop.

The person in the foreground (pic on right) is the "belay man." His (or her) job is to watch the person rappelling, and stop their fall if that person seems to suddenly lose control.  Belaying is accomplished by grabbing the rope in two gloved hands and running backward to put tension on it.  This tension binds up the rope, where it passes through the snap-link and around the body, and thus breaks the fall.

Rappelling off a wall is just like rappelling out of a helicopter except:
  1. There is no wall to push off of.
  2. Helicopter rotor wash -- the wind of the rotors pushing down -- will push the rappeller more quickly down the rope, making it harder to stop.
In either case, once the person rappelling hits the ground, s/he must run backward until the rope comes completely out of the snap link (or simply open the snap link and pull out the rope!) in order to get off the rope.  

Now, recall that "Belay Man"?  The reason you can't easily send more than one person down a rappelling rope at once, is that the weight of the person rappelling below would act as a belay, stopping or majorly hindering anyone trying to follow.  This is one major reason why fast-roping is faster than rappelling, when it comes to emptying choppers.


There are other types of rappelling.

The person on the left is performing an "Australian Rappel."  In this case, instead of creating a Swiss seat, that five or six foot section of rope is simply wrapped twice about the waist, and the snap link is attached in the center of the small of the back.

This person is using his right hand as brake hand, and he's got it raised as if about to put on the brakes.  You brake, in an "Aussie" by raising your brake hand tightly to your chest.



On the right, is a person practicing the Australian Rappel on the "free side" of the wall, where there is no wall beneath the platform you jump off of.  This is how you practice performing an Aussie from a chopper, when no helicopters are available for training.

As you can see, he's just jumped off the wall, brake hand held out to zip down the line until he decides to brake his plummet.


Note, from the photos above, that the Australian leaves the rappeller with a free hand that's not doing anything.

In this photo on the left, of South Korean police in action, you see that these guys are using the Aussie to bound/run down the wall of this high-rise, while holding weapons at the ready.  The Aussie also permits them to look where they're going, so they can engage any bad guys who poke their heads out, if needed.  The shield held by the man on the right side of the photo tells me this is probably a breaching team.  They plan to breach a window or door below, in order to enter the building from an unexpected direction -- preferably directly into the room occupied by the bad guys.








Rappelling can put good guys where the bad guys don't expect them to show up!I hope you found this useful.

I hope you found this useful.

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

25 September 2014

The Minister and the Choir Singer

by Eve Fisher

This summer, among other things, I read Sarah Churchwell's "Careless People: Murder and the Making of The Great Gatsby". Very well written, very well researched. Churchwell says that The Great Gatsby was influenced, and borrowed from, the Hall-Mills murder case, which captured everyone's imagination from Damon Runyan (who was one of the reporters on the spot) to James Thurber ("A Sort of Genius") to William Kunstler ("The Minister and the Choir Singer"). The case was never solved, for a variety of reasons ranging from incomprehensibly bad police work to, as David Gates put it a while back, "a lack of any practical forensic approach", to the wholesale swamping of any reason or fact by a media storm that most people don't think existed until O. J. Simpson.

Eleanor Mills
On September 14, 1922, in New Brunswick, NJ, the bodies of Eleanor Rinehardt Mills and the Edward Wheeler Hall were discovered lying side by side under a crab-apple tree. They had been shot, and the bodies carefully arranged so that her left hand laid on his thigh, and his right hand on her neck. He had a hat over his face, and his calling card placed at his feet. Torn love letters were strewn over them. He was an Episcopal priest, and she sang in his choir. In the words of The New York Times, although both were married to other people, Hall and Mills "had long been friendly."

It was obvious they'd been shot, but the investigation was... unbelievable. According to Churchwell, the first doctor to look at Mrs. Mills body didn't even do an autopsy, since it was obvious she was dead by foul play; and it took two more autopsies to discover that Mrs. Mills had been shot three times, her throat cut, and her tongue cut out. There was no police cordoning of the area, and, as publicity blazed ("Priest and choir singer slaughtered in New Jersey!"), people came and went freely. It became such a tourist destination that, by the time of the 1926 trial, the crab-apple tree was entirely gone, hacked away by souvenir hunters.

Frances Noel Stevens
The prime suspects never changed: Hall's wife, Frances Noel Stevens (1874–1942), and her two brothers, Henry Hewgill Stevens (1869–1939) and William "Willie" Carpender Stevens (1872–1942). (James Thurber's essay was primarily about Willie Stevens, who was an odd duck all the way around; probably high-functioning Asperger's, in his world, he couldn't hold a job and spent most of his time hanging around the local fire house.)

The prosecution's key witness was Jane Gibson, a pig farmer on whose property the bodies were discovered. She would be known throughout the next few years as The Pig Woman. Because she was poor, uneducated, and highly "colorful", people quickly took sides regarding her story: she was either the bearer of ultimate truth or a crazy woman trying to get attention and money. Her first story was that her dog got her up and out around 9 on the night of the murder. She saw a man standing in her cornfield, so she got on her mule and rode towards him. As she got close, she saw four people by the crab apple tree. Then she heard gunshots, and one fell to the ground. She heard a woman scream, "Don’t", repeated three times. She said she turned her mule in the opposite direction, heard more gunshots and when she looked back, saw a second person fall and heard a woman shout "Henry".

Over time she saw more people; she saw fewer people; she heard more sounds; she saw a black man; she didn't see a black man. At the trial, she was a great sensation, rolled in on a hospital bed to give her testimony.

The trouble was, there was no proof, no evidence, and even if Mrs. Hall had arranged and/or participated in the murders, her husband was an adulterous pastor. The Hall/Stevens family were all acquitted, even though most historians and students of the case believe that they were guilty. (William Kunstler was the exception: he posited that the KKK committed the murders. Most people disagree.)

But the case captured the imagination of the day, especially since it was never solved. It held primacy in the public imagination until the tragic Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932.

Churchwell links this murder to The Great Gatsby, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, everyone was talking about it during the time F. Scott Fitzgerald was actually living in Great Neck ("East Egg" in the book). The novel takes place in 1922, the year of the crime. And there are patterns throughout: Hall gave Mills a novel - Simon Called Peter - (racy for the 1920s) that Fitzgerald has Nick Carraway read while Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle, romp in the back bedroom. Myrtle and George Wilson are supposedly based on Eleanor and James Mills. George was a mechanic, James a janitor. Tom Buchanan describes George in the novel as "so dumb he doesn't know he's alive", and one of the reasons James Mills was never a credible suspect is that he first appeared to be so dumb he didn't know his wife was having an affair, and he didn't have the "manliness", apparently, to do something about it. Meanwhile, Myrtle and Eleanor were both sleeping above their station, desperate for another life, away from their boring, working-class husbands.

I don't know if Churchwell is right in all her surmises, but it's a fascinating case, and a great book. Start off slow: read Thurber's essay and/or Gatsby to whet your appetite; then go to Churchwell and discover the whole cast of characters. And let me know who you think did it.

(NOTE: I am, hopefully, in Quebec. See you in a week…)

24 September 2014

Lee Child's Personal

by David Edgerley Gates

PERSONAL is the nineteenth Jack Reacher book in the series, and Lee Child doesn't need my help to sell it. It opened at #1 on most national lists the first week it was out, and week two, it's still there.

This post isn't about promoting the book, which happens to be a knockout - Lee certainly hasn't lost his chops, and Jack keeps getting deeper as a character - but about P.O.V.



PERSONAL is told, appropriately, in first-person. This isn't a departure for the Reacher books, but more commonly, they've been told in the third. In other words, Jack is observedand doesn't share his confidences. This is true of thirteen books, so far. It's interesting to me why you'd decide to shift gears. Lee uses the first-person in KILLING FLOOR, PERSUADER, THE ENEMY, GONE TOMORROW, THE AFFAIR, and this book. Oh, you might think, work with the change-up pitch to keep yourself on your toes and avoid getting stale, or to keep your readers invested, over the course of a long and successful run of novels, but it seems to me there's a more calculated narrative choice involved.

Reacher's never been entirely generic - unlike, say, Travis McGee. John MacDonald, famously, never wanted to do a series character, but he got talked into it. McGee has his quirks, but he remains a flat character, until you get to THE GREEN RIPPER, and he steps outside of himself, the formula no longer able to contain him. The dynamic for Reacher, even at the beginning, allows for more expansion and contraction. Lee Child himself has said that he meant from the get-go to write books that would be accessible, and commercial, and that Reacher was a conscious construct, designed - not market-researched, but a means to an end.

He turns out to be more. This is something that happens, and not always by accident. There are other examples. We might start out to write one story, and then find it gets away from us, or a walk-on part suddenly takes center stage, and completely unexpected. But in Reacher's case, Lee Child might have intended a sort of empty vessel, a hero you could inhabit with your own devices and desires, and what he wound up with was somebody whose own devices and desires overtook the original template. 


Which brings us back to choosing a voice. In each of the books where Jack himself is speaking, he invites our confidence, and we become complicit. This is, I think, most true of THE ENEMY and THE AFFAIR, which take place in the past, when Jack is still active military. One of my favorite lines, in all of the books, is a throwaway, from THE ENEMY, a seemingly casual remark. Reacher's gone to Germany, and they're outside some big U.S. Army armor base, Baumholder or the like. In the early morning fog, they hear the tanks coming back from a live-fire exercise. The sound of tank treads on pavement, the sound of the 20th century, Reacher thinks to himself, the Wehrmachtthe Soviets putting down the Budapest revolt. One of the rare instances where Reacher is reflective. It's a very telling detail. Jack's not your average lifer.

Also, in THE ENEMY, we get to meet not just Jack's brother Joe, but their mom, with her own past history in the French resistance, something neither of the boys know about. Lee revisits this in PERSONAL. The real zinger in the book, for my money, isn't ninety pages in, with the Russian (no spoilers), but a hundred pages in, the scene afterwards, at Pere Lachaise cemetery, where Jack visits his mother's grave. This is the entire argument for using first-person. We hear Jack's thoughts. We see him revealed.

Vulnerability isn't the first word that comes to mind, with Reacher. Far from it. He's kind of a force of nature, a guy without visible weakness. Big, and certain. Nobody you want to mess with. People do, and live to regret it - or don't. Live, anyway. A hard guy, and unsentimental. A guy you believe in. A guy you want on your side.


I don't think, though, that you believe in Jack Reacher simply because he's an unstoppable force. I think what Lee Child has done, in the course of the books, is to pull off a real hat-trick. You get used to Reacher in some diner by the side of the highway, hoping he's going to get a decent cup of java, or head-butting some asshole cop who gets in his face, just being Jack. What takes you off-guard is the occasional, and sudden, moment of clarity. He assesses the background, his immediate environment, the threat potential, how not? What makes Jack different, what gives him depth, isn't that he examines himself. He doesn't. But he knows who he is.

You could say this is one in a long line. Spade, or Marlowe, Lew Archer. Spenser, and Travis McGee. Kinsey Milhone, for that matter. Lone wolves, who stake out their turf, and make it their own. I beg to differ. Reacher is somehow on another plane. I don't know how to explain it to myself. Not even Bob Lee Swagger - and I bow to none in my admiration for Steve Hunter - but Lee's done something else. He's reinvented the character, he owns Jack Reacher. he speaks with his voice.

We identify with our characters. I do with mine. Lee seems to have actually inhabited Jack. This is a gift, or a kind of magic. I think it's astonishing. We don't all manage it. Not even. Lee got a gift. It wasn't handed to him, by any means, but we take it when the tray is passed.



23 September 2014

Adventures In Catholicism

by David Dean

Pope Francis and a Few Friends
Don't be put off by the title of this piece, I'm not looking to convert anyone, or to proselytize. It's just that I had a very minor incident the other day which got me to thinking. Mostly, I avoid that function, as it tends to give me a headache, a bad stomach, and leads to drink. But let me explain: On Sundays, as part of my increasingly frantic efforts to avoid the punishments in the next life that I've undoubtedly earned in this one, I take communion to Catholics confined in the local hospital. It's something I've been doing since I retired a few years ago. Naturally, I've met a few nurses along the way. One, upon seeing me turn up like the proverbial bad penny for the hundredth time, raised an eyebrow and asked, "If Catholics are Christians, why do they call themselves Catholics?" Another woman who shared some counter space with her in the reception area, looked at me wearily, and croaked, "She's a Born-Again." I answered pithily, "Beats me," and kept walking. But it got me to thinking. There's one hell of a lot of misconceptions out there about Catholicism.

If you happen to write, you just might find yourself writing about a Catholic character someday. Or setting a story in a country that is predominately Catholic. It's predicted that within a few decades Hispanics will constitute the majority in this country, and most are Catholic. Or you might want a character to be a priest. Who knows? There's approximately 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. Yes, that's right, I said billion. I even put my pinkie to my puckered lips, but you couldn't see that. And contrary to popular opinion, we are not dwindling in numbers (except in the highly secularized Western nations) but growing by leaps and bounds. This is why we have so many priests here from India (like my fictional character, Father Gregory Savartha), Nigeria, the Philippines, etc...Not so many years ago, the very opposite was true, as we sent missionary priests and nuns from the U.S., Italy, Ireland, and Spain to all points of the globe. Now they come to minister to us in their turn for which we are grateful.

Of course, Catholics have never been a majority in this country, which may explain why there's so many misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Church and its people. Here, a Protestant Christianity has held sway, and many of their views of us have been formed by all the bad press we garnered back in jolly olde England during the day. From the moment King Henry VIII decided he wanted another divorce, we were in deep trouble. Proclaiming himself the head of the Catholic Church in England, Henry set himself on a collision course with Rome, as Britain embraced its own version of Christianity. From that point forward, English Catholics were suspect as traitors loyal to the pope rather than the king, and as anxious collaborators with any threatening European Catholic power or nation. Mass was outlawed, and priests forbidden to administer the Eucharist (communion) on pain of death. Naturally, in the way of self-fulfilling prophecies, various failed uprisings occurred over the next several centuries, including the famous (or infamous) Gunpowder Plot to blow up the king and parliament. The English still celebrate this foiled attempt each year on Guy Fawkes Day, burning effigies of the unlucky conspirator, as well as those of papist priests and bishops. There are fireworks and drinking and a good time had by all. These anxieties were brought to the colonies and festered. Mr. Poole, a neighbor in my youth, assured me one hot summer day, that President Kennedy was an agent of Rome, and that it was only a matter of time before the country would be run by the pope. How very wrong he turned out to be.

St. Thomas More
(English Martyr)
Just as in Britain, Catholics in this country were often suspected of divided loyalties, the average American having little knowledge of Catholicism or its practices and dogma. What they did know only deepened their mistrust: the use of Latin instead of plain English (since changed), celibate priest and religious, parochial (why not public?) schools, the role of the mysterious, and foreign pontiff, and how could he be infallible? Marian devotion, the veneration of saints, all those statues (idol worship to some), transubstantiation, and much, much more! In modern times issues would arise placing us at odds with the mainstream over birth control and abortion. There seems no end to our deviation from the norm. Still, it is not my mission to convince anyone of the truth of any of these practices, but simply to illuminate what the Church teaches in regard to them lest you err in your writings. As I've said about police procedurals--its perfectly fine to have your detective go rogue and break all the rules, only make sure he (and you) know what the rules are.

Back to the nurse's question: Why call ourselves Catholics, not Christians? We are Christians, of course, but in the early days of the Church there was no need to call ourselves that, as there were no others--the church was simply referred to as "The Church". Later, the name Catholic, meaning universal, was adopted to distinguish the original church from the various sects, schisms, etc...that had arisen. Additionally, Roman Catholic is not an official name; you will not find it in Vatican writings. Rome may be the seat, but the Church exists wherever it has adherents.

Why are priests and nuns expected to be celibate? This seems to bug a lot of people. This practice arose amongst the very earliest monks in the first centuries of the Church, and is not exclusive to Catholicism. The idea of practicing deprivation in order to purify oneself and thereby be more worthy and open to contemplating God, has a long history among several religions. The practice was at last institutionalized during the medieval age, when rapacious bishops and abbots began to pass both Church lands and religious offices to their own children by appointing them clergy, in a thinly-disguised attempt at dynasty-creation. It became necessary to return the priests to their more ecclesiastical roles by having them (quite literally) zip up.

Pope Honorius Pondering
Why a pope, and how can he be infallible? The pope, of course, is the leader of the Church world-wide, and is considered to be the spiritual descendant of St. Peter the Apostle, whom Christ called the rock upon which the church would be built. His bishops and priests are the heirs of the apostles themselves. As for infallible...well, he's not...except in the very narrow, if powerful, sphere of pronouncing dogmas of faith and morals. Dogma meaning that Catholics must believe in a particular pronouncement in order to be considered actual Catholics--it's no longer debatable. It's only been used a few times in the 2,000 year history of the Church, the most recent occasions concerning Mary, mother of Jesus. One declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the other the Assumption of Mary into heaven body and soul. Which brings us to Marian devotion and some other, perhaps, surprising revelations.

Do Catholics worship the Holy Mother and the saints? Negative, good buddy. We only worship God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--the Trinity. As for the Blessed Virgin, we practice a special devotion to the mother of Christ and the first Christian person. Her example of love and obedience to God in all things is our exemplar of a holy life. She was also the first person to act as an intercessor between her son and the world, insisting that a reluctant Jesus intervene at the wedding at Cana after the wine ran out. His first recorded miracle was to replenish the wine and save the wedding party. Minor, perhaps, but it demonstrated the power and compassion of Mary. Devotion to Mary became widespread in the first centuries of the Church; long before it was officially endorsed. Catholics pray for her intercession with God on many matters. Essentially, we have the same relationship with the saints, but Mary retains primacy amongst them. Saints, by the way, are persons who led lives of "heroic virtue" (I love that phrase) and often, but not always, have died as martyrs to the faith. They are believed to be in heaven. The Church names them as saints only after two miracles have been attributed to their intercession and been verified by papal investigators. The Church recognizes that there are certainly saints in heaven that it has never heard of--otherwise ordinary people from many walks of life, who nonetheless led holy lives--and these saints, while not receiving an individual day on the liturgical calendar, are acknowledged on All Saints Day, Nov. 1.

Virgin Mary
by Diego Velazquez
The Immaculate Conception: This is a big surprise to most people, even a lot of Catholics. This dogma does not refer to the birth of Christ, but to the birth of Mary! Yes, we believe that Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, but the doctrine establishes that Mary herself, while being fully human, was conceived without Original Sin in order to bear the Son of God. The Assumption states that upon her death, she was assumed, taken body and soul, into heaven in order that the body of the Mother of God not be exposed to the earthly corruption that the rest of us can expect.

Transubstantiation--what the heck is that? This is where Catholics part company with many other Christian churches--we believe that the communion wafer and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Christ when they are consumed during the Eucharistic liturgy of the Mass. It is one of the Mysteries. Yes, with a capital M. We have a few of those. This is where faith comes in. Most other denominations consider the act symbolic. Not us.

Faith and Good Works: This is another area where we differ with many of our brethren. Catholics believe that to attain heaven, both faith and good works are required. Many Christian denominations believe that faith alone is sufficient.

Confession: a true crowd pleaser, confessions appear in movies, novels, and even at your local Catholic Church. I once set an entire story in a confessional booth (sort of). The Sacrament of Reconciliation, as it is more properly known, is a requirement of Catholics at least once a year, and prior to the Easter Mass (Easter Mass is a requirement also--we have a number of obligatory days of worship). Otherwise you are forbidden to take communion (the Sacrament of the Eucharist). Confession, and the subsequent forgiveness of sins granted for an honest recounting and sincere desire to repent, originate from Matthew, Chapter 16, in which Jesus tells Simon (Peter), and the apostles, that whomsoever they loosed from their sins, would be loosed; those that they bound would be bound. Thus began the practice that has carried down to this day. Unlike a lot of people, I actually don't mind confession that much, and always feel better afterwards...not that I really need it, of course.

Birth Control and Abortion: I hesitate to even address these due to the great passion the subjects invoke. But, you would be ill-served by this article if I didn't at least touch on them and that's all I intend to do. Contrary to popular belief, Catholics have not been secretly instructed by the Vatican to take over the world through rampant reproduction. At least there's nothing in writing. The reasoning behind the prohibition against birth control, which surveys show is observed in the breach by most American and European Catholics, has to do with the issues of trust in God, and the sanctity of life. The same applies to abortion and euthanasia. We are not to make the decision over who shall be born and who shall die--therein lies the prerogative of God. Of course, it's never quite this simple in practice, and there are many shadings, but that's the idea in a nutshell.

Suicide: Many Catholics, and others, wrongly believe that all suicides are damned by their final act. The Church's view of suicide is a more forgiving one, however, granting that most people who commit suicide are generally so despondent, or impaired in some manner, that they were rendered incapable of making a reasoning choice in the matter. Those very few that quite clearly, consciously, and with careful forethought and planning, unimpaired by excessive emotion, substance abuse, or coercion, take their own lives, are another matter. The reason for this being that their choice becomes a conscious rejection of the possibility of God's mercy, while the act itself makes final reconciliation impossible. That being said, the Church also acknowledges that there is very much that we do not know, and the possibility of God's mercy being available after such a death cannot be entirely ruled out, since all things are possible for God.

Why no female priests? Another issue that breeds passionate debate. Simply put, the apostles were all male, hence their descendant priests are too. The Church's position is that female celebrants are not part of the Sacred Scriptures. Still, we believe that the Holy Mother counseled those same apostles, so I'm not sure why that can't serve as the necessary precedent for female ordination. But, I'm not the boss and don't make the rules. Obedience is required of Catholics.

I once had a captain who (though Protestant) could not reconcile himself to the second collection that often occurs at Catholic Mass. He waxed indignant over the greediness of Rome though he was not subject to its demands. There's no doubt that the Church amasses a lot of dough. But, for the sake of clarity, second collections are voluntary and are for specific causes and charities such as food banks, convalescent homes, etc... The Catholic Church is one of the largest charitable organizations in the world. Here's an example that I think illustrates the point well--Only two percent of the population of India is Catholic, yet twenty-two percent of the medical care provided is through Catholic facilities. That takes big bucks, and that's just one country.

As for those statues of Jesus, Our Lady, and the saints: Most of us carry photos of our families and loved ones in our wallets or, more likely today, in our iPhones. We know that these are not actually the persons they represent, but facilitate our memory of them and our times together. Ditto for Catholic art. The paintings, and those worrisome (to some) statues, are simply aids in prayer and contemplation; nothing more.

Well, that's enough for now class. I hope you've enjoyed your primer in all things Catholic. Any mistakes, or misrepresentations contained herein, are entirely my own, and entirely unintentional. If I have erred, and you know it, please gently correct me, unlike what's happening below. Until then, remember these words from St. Augustine's "Confessions" that serve as my credo, "Lord, make me good… but just not yet."

Goya's "Procession of Flagellants on Good Friday"

22 September 2014

Meet My Character: Francis

by Janice Law

My SleuthSayers colleague Fran Rizer, author of the Callie Parrish mysteries, has tagged me for the Meet My Character Blog, so here goes with Francis.

Name of character- real or fictional?

Francis Bacon, gay bon vivant and painter. He’s both real and fictional in that, yes, there was a real Francis Bacon, Anglo-Irish artist, creator of images of screaming popes and the now ultra valuable triptychs. There is also my character, whom I think of as FB, who resembles the original but who, after three novels, has begun to take on a distinct personality, doubtless better known to me than to the original.

When and where are the books set?

The first novel, Fires of London, was set during the Blitz. The second, Prisoner of the Riviera, was set immediately after the war in London and along the French Riviera and drew heavily on holidays at San Raphael, a charming small town a half hour from Cannes. The last, Moon over Tangier, was set in the International Zone in Morocco in the early 1950’s.

What should we know about FB?

Someone described the real Bacon as “camp as an army base and tough as old boots,” a nice summation for a very complex character. I’ve tried to keep some that complexity for FB as well. For instance, if you know that he was a promiscuous gay man fond of rough trade, you form one impression. When you then learn that he lived with his adored old nanny until her death, you revise the picture more than a little bit.

Similarly, although he was a militant atheist, his great subject was the crucifixion and it is really too bad that he was never commissioned to paint an explicitly religious painting. Early and late, painting was the key aspect of his life and the creation of works on canvas kept an otherwise rackety and dangerous existence under control.
Conflict in his life?

The real man had plenty, having been kicked out of his home at 16 for trying on his mom’s underwear. He was fond of makeup, too.

In the novels there are two regular sources of conflict: the forces of law and order that want to make use of his expertise and the motorized vehicles that always seem to give him difficulty. The Blitz presents additional problems in the first novel; blood feuds surviving in post-war France complicate the second, and in Moon, the famously spy-ridden International Zone presents a cornucopia of difficulties.

Personal goals of character?

Pleasure and excitement and successful canvases. FB likes drinking and good food and carrying on and handsome men and painting, first, last and always. In the novels, survival is also a big imperative.
Where can you read about this character?

In the trilogy comprised of Fires of London, The Prisoner of the Riviera, and Moon over Tangier, all from mysteriouspress.com in ebook or print.

21 September 2014

Hair Raid

by Leigh Lundin

I was contemplating articles for today such as this disarming but hairy crime story in the wonderful city of Boise, Idaho when this came across my desk:
It was a scene right out of a Hollywood movie. On August 21, 2010, after more than a month of planning, teams from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office descended on multiple target locations. They blocked the entrances and exits to the parking lots so no one could leave and no one could enter. With some team members dressed in ballistic vests and masks, and with guns drawn, the deputies rushed into their target destinations, handcuffed the stunned occupants—and demanded to see their barbers’ licenses.
This isn't a script or even a novel. It's from this week's 11th Circuit Court decision right here in Florida. I reported this incident four years ago in Criminal Brief when a masked SWAT team with guns drawn raided six Orlando barbershops to reinspect licenses inspected two days earlier. I highly recommend reading the decision, which is educational, entertaining and a bit hair-raising.

Let down your hair and enjoy the show:


H'air Raids

    “We’ve got a big ’do in Orlando, quite a hairy situation,” said Police Captain Crimp. “Barbershops in Orlando involved in the fur trade, scalping customers, veritable beehives of criminal activity. It’s enough to make your hair curl.”
    “Who’s involved?” asked Inspector Mullet.
    “The Hirsute gang, Moe, Curly, and …”
    “And Larry?”
    “No, he's a pageboy and hasn’t had a brush with the law. It’s Shaggy Bush; he hates the fuzz.”
    “Had a close shave with him. Clipped me, he did, then pelted me with abuse.”
    “I knew he kept a bit on the side, but not that. You can’t afford to let your hair down around him.”
    “Missed by a whisker, but that one’s got a hair trigger.”
    “Hair-raising driver. He gave a hitchhiker on the berm a shave.”
    “How do these clip joints operate?”
    “They take a bit off the top before everyone gets their cut.”
    “That’s a bald lie!”
    “Relax, Mullet. It’s a shock, but sharp practice is the way they fleece customers and shave profits. Quite a payout.”
    “They’re Jewish?”
    “No, payout with a U. I'm ready to pull my hair out.”
    “I’m sorry I bristled, but that frosts me, even with razor thin margins.”
    “I dread dealing with fringe elements. We want you to beard their den. Our informant says they operate out of the Hair Moose Club.”
    “Where they keep the Moose stash?”
    “Yes. We learned about it from a mole.”
    “These crime rings… nothing worse than a ring worm. Who else is on the barbershop case?”
    “I wanted a quartet, but I sent in Harry Callahan.”
    “Isn’t Dirty Hairy underarmed?”
    “’Fraid so, but I want you and Tress to roll on this one.”
    “Er, sir, she was killed in the last episode.”
    “I forgot. Wasn't the crew cut short?”
    “Yes, Al O'peesha and the whole she-bang, Tress along with them. Snippy thing she was.”
    “Well, too late to upbraid her. Go with Dee Foliate and Dan Ruff, then.”
    “No one likes Dan Ruff, sir. He’s a tad highbrow and a bit, well, flaky. That patch of his …”
    “Sore eye is it? Don't split hairs or pick nits. He stands head and shoulders above the others.”
    “The boys will queue to mop up that gang. What do you want me to do, sir?”
    “Get to the root. Pull the rug from under them. Comb Main Street down by the locks where the split ends. Find Moe Hirsute and his gang. Make a clean sweep of every barbershop on the Strand and see no one dies.”
    “I’d love to clap Curly in irons.”
    “That gang’s a public nuisance.”
    “I’m so glad Criminal Brief now uses ‘L’s, sir.”



Note: Don't expect reprints! Shortly after working on the article, the internet went out for a couple of hours, which caused a scramble cutting the news portion short. We're back on-line after that brief break and may you enjoy this reprise.

20 September 2014

Between Aha! and the P.O.

by John M. Floyd

A topic that seems to come up regularly, in our local writers' group, is the differences in the way we writers choose to work, in creating and marketing our fiction. 

Much has also been said at this blog, about that. Outlining vs. not outlining, writing in first person vs. third, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, writing in past tense vs. present, literary vs, genre, self-publishing vs. traditional, and so on. And I always enjoy hearing about the quirks of famous writers: Hemingway's preference for writing while standing up, Erle Stanley Gardner dictating his stories to an assistant, Elmore Leonard writing longhand on a yellow legal pad, Eudora Welty's need to be sitting in a certain place when she wrote the end to a story, etc. Understandably, everyone has his/her own unique methods and preferences.

As for me, every short story I sell involves five steps:
  1. I get an idea (aha!)
  2. I put the story together in my head (pre-plotting)
  3. I write it (first draft)
  4. I re-write it (edits and subsequent drafts)
  5. I submit it (either via the SEND key or via the Post Office)
I think steps 2 and 4 are the most fun, and number 2 usually takes more time than any of the others. (What can I say?--I'm an outliner, and for short stories the outlining is done in my mind, beforehand.) But for today's column I'd like to focus on steps 3 and 4, the part between the thinking and the mailing. Putting this in question form, what do you feel is the best process for creating and editing drafts? Even more specifically, should you type and/or revise onscreen, or on paper?

Ballpoint vs. fingertips

Here are some of the arguments I've heard.

Pro-hardcopy:

- It can be done anywhere and anytime, at home or away, inside or out, as long as you have a pad of paper and a pen.

- Proofreading and revising should be done using a printed copy because it's easier to catch errors that way.

- Over time, reading pages onscreen can be harder on the eyes than reading printed pages. 

Pro-electronic-only:

- Typing it straight into the computer saves time because you don't have to write it twice (transcribe what you've already written on paper).

- Editing onscreen is easier than on paper: quick corrections/additions/deletions, the ability to move blocks of text around, etc.

- It's cheaper since it requires no paper and no printer ink.

I should mention here that compromise is sometimes a good thing. Maybe you'd prefer to type your rough draft onscreen, then print it out and do your proofing/edits/rewriting on the hardcopy version. Or vice versa.

Production notes

Personally, I've changed the way I do things. When I first started writing short stories for publication twenty years ago, I almost always did rough drafts in longhand in a spiral notebook, and usually while sitting in our backyard swing or in my recliner. I sometimes even did the first round of corrections on that same hardcopy, and typed it into the computer only when the story was pretty much done. It was a long, slow ordeal. Word-processing programs then did less than they do now, but I still didn't take full advantage of their capabilities.

Eventually, as the years passed, I found myself doing rough drafts on paper and then immediately typing them into the computer. I then did all my rewrites onscreen, never printing the story out until it was finished and ready to submit to a publication. NOTE: Until fairly recently, there were few markets that accepted electronic submissions; it was all done with paper, stamps, envelopes, SASEs, and trips to the P.O.

Now, an older and (hopefully) wiser writer, I seldom print out my stories at all, unless they are to be submitted via snailmail. I compose the rough draft onscreen, do all my corrections and editing onscreen, and then either submit the story via e-mail or via an online submission website like those at AHMM and EQMM. Paper is never involved, before, during, or after.

But I confess that there are still times when I prefer working with a hardcopy. For years now, I've served as a judge for a number of fiction-writing competitions, and I always ask the folks running the contests to make copies of their printed submissions and snailmail them to me for judging. Why? Because it truly is easier, and even faster, for me to read dozens of manuscripts if they're printed instead of electronic. It's just easier on my eyes. I also prefer having the students in my writing classes give me double-spaced hardcopies of their stories for critique. They're not only easier to read that way, they're easier to mark with corrections and suggestions.

I should also mention (this is a bit off the subject) that there are some writers--although I personally know only one--who edit as they go, making corrections online to everything they've written that day, so that when they're done with their story or novel, whether it's four pages long or four hundred pages long, they're done. Finished. No rewriting. I have trouble even imagining such a thing. In fact I do the exact opposite. I always write a rough (translate that as pitiful) draft of the whole project first, whether it's four pages long or four hundred pages long, and only after that draft is finished do I go back and edit it. Several times. My reasoning is that sometimes I find myself changing the plotline--or the characters, or the POV--in midstream, and if you do that, the process of editing "as you go" becomes a huge timewaster, because you wind up having to go back and change things that you previously edited and had thought were completed. Oh well--to each his own. As Robert Duvall said in a recent movie, "Am I right, or Amarillo?"

Questions for the Draft board

If you're a writer, you've been through the processes. What's your method? Do you write everything on the computer, from the get-go? Do you write drafts first in longhand and then transcribe? Do you edit offscreen, or onscreen? Does anyone do as I do, and rarely print anything out? Do you find it's easier to read a printed manuscript than to read one onscreen? Do you feel you have to use a printout to do effective editing and revisions? Do you edit as-you-go, or only afterward?

Okay, I'm done. I wish I could tell you this column required no corrections and no re-writing. I'll tell you this, though: I've not yet printed it out.

Maybe I should have …