31 January 2016

Road Trips

by Dale C. Andrews
The spaciousness of it astounds me; this is the kind of country you dream of running away to when you are very young and innocently hungry, before you learn that all land is owned by somebody, that you can get arrested for swinging through trees in a loincloth, and that you were born either too late or too poor for everything you want to do.
                                                 Peter S. Beagle 
                                                 I See by my Outfit 
On July 7, 1919 a young army captain named Dwight David Eisenhower joined 294 other members of the army and departed from Washington D.C. in the military's first automobile caravan across the country. Due to poor roads and highways, the caravan averaged five miles per hour and took 62 days to reach Union Square in San Francisco.
                                                 Interstate Highways: The Largest Public Works Project                
                                                     in History 
                                                 U.S. Department of Transportation, Government Printing Office

Time to run away from home!
     Today, January 31, the lingering remains of the blizzard of 2016 will be in the rear view mirror. We are on the road, driving from Washington, D.C. -- where February (the longest month of the year) begins with tomorrow’s sunrise -- to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Any readers who have followed my posts with regularity over the last few years may well recognize a routine here. Every winter my wife and I retreat to the south for five weeks, leaving our adult son in charge of house and cats.

       Each year our drive takes us along Highway 81 through the Shenandoah Valley and then Roanoke.  Eventually we veer off on I-75 through Knoxville, and then on to Chattanooga, where we will spend the night.  The next day we will begin heading south again, past Lookout Mountain, site of the Civil War battle that bears its name. Fleetingly we will skirt Georgia before our southerly run continues down the State of Alabama, through Birmingham, and then just east of Monroeville, where Harper Lee still resides. Eventually we will cross the Intracoastal Waterway where we will likely stop for lunch at Lulu's (owned and run by Jimmy Buffett's sister).  And then we are there. All of this, except the last few miles, is on interstate highways that plot a rhumb line to the Gulf. 

       When you feel like getting away, well . . . there is nothing like a road trip. Driving the highways speaks to me, as it does to many, as resonantly in my 60’s as it did in the 60’s. The road beckons many of us, and that is reflected throughout our lives, and often our literature. 

      As a college student sometime back in the mid-1960’s I remember wandering into the West End Library in Washington, D.C. looking for some light reading. Something that was decidedly not a text book; escapism while falling asleep. In my search of the shelves I eventually stumbled onto a volume entitled I See by my Outfit authored by Peter S. Beagle. It turned out that Beagle was already moderately well known for his rather macabre first novel, A Fine and Private Place -- don’t confuse that one with the Ellery Queen mystery bearing the same title -- and was probably even better known for his second novel, The Last Unicorn, which, according to one science fiction poll was named the fifth all-time best sci/fi novel ever. But when I wandered into the library that day I had read neither of those books, nor had I heard of Peter Beagle. And my eye had been caught by a non-fiction work Beagle published between those two early novels. What the Hell. I checked it out. 

       I See by my Outfit is an account of a trip that is easy to describe but (as Beagle demonstrated) difficult in the execution. It recounts the adventures, encounters and reflections of Beagle and his close friend Phil Segunick as they purchase matching Vespa motorbikes and then proceed to ride them from New York City to San Francisco, all so that Beagle can reconnect with his girlfriend. The title? It derives from the ballad Streets of Laredo and, more specifically, from the Smothers Brothers’ parody of that song, which Peter Beagle and his companion sing out as they take off across America on their sputtering scooters:  I see by your outfit, that you are a cowboy . . . . Get yourself an outfit and be a cowboy too.

       So that is the premise. But what the book is about is two young hippy kids who forsake everyday obligations and take off in an ill-thought out adventure. And in doing so they discover America -- the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly.

    As a college student trying to figure out what I needed to do to make something of myself this turned out to be seminal escapism. I couldn’t put the book down, and though I do not own a copy I remember it well to this day. As a youngster still learning the tools needed to successfully join the rat-race of life what could be more tempting than this romance about folks my age who on a whim decided to hit the open road? The idea of just chucking it all. Not worrying about next year let alone the next decade. Forgetting about college. Forgetting about Nixon and Viet Nam. Just getting on a friendly little Vespa and cruising down those long open highways. 

       I See by my Outfit, never a best seller even in its time, is a now an obscure example of road trip literature. It's still out there, though.  Centro Books re-issued Beagle’s coming of age travelog in paperback in 2007, and finally, as of last November, it is also available as a Kindle e-book.

     There are, however, lots of other example of readily available road trip parables -- non-fiction as well as fiction. If you hanker to hear from other authors who took to the highways you might try the granddaddy of road trip tales, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie, or Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent. Bryson's road trip yarn focuses on smaller roads and towns, as does William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, so if that's what you are looking for either might be just your thing. In the fiction realm you could try Cormack McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road, or Stephen King’s The Stand, much of which occurs on the road. Tom Wolfe’s early success The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test sort of splits the difference between factual narration and fiction as it follows the drug-induced meanderings of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters crossing the country in their psychedelic school bus named “Further.” Or you might try Angels by Denis Johnson, a road trip featuring some really seedy bus stations.  In their own way each of these works, fiction or non-fiction, real or imagined, set in the past, present or imagined future, echoes Simon and Garfunkel -- they've all come to look for America.

       Looking for something more recent?  Perhaps a road trip tale that serves up a little crime and mystery along the way? My SleuthSayers colleague Art Taylor’s newly published On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories is at the top of my “to read” list. In fact, it's already loaded on my tablet, stowed safely in my overnight bag behind the front seat.  And all of Art's interconnected stories, as the title suggests, take place on the road.

       So all of this is on my mind as I drive southwest on I-81. Back in the 1960s as tempted as I was by I See by my Outfit I couldn’t make myself do it. There was college, then law school, then the career. And there was family, and there were kids.  But that freedom I lacked then I now have in retirement. You just have to be lucky enough to live long enough. Also on my mind, though, is the highway itself, and the network of other interstate highways that criss-cross America making all of our road trips, real or virtual, possible. 

       I think back to a story my father used to tell. He was born in 1916 -- yikes! 100 years ago.  This story probably dates from the early 1920s, when he was a small child. He grew up in St. Louis, but his family previously came there from Vandalia, Illinois, about 75 miles to the east. They had always visited Vandalia relatives by train, but there came a time when his father, my grandfather, decided that the trip could be done by automobile. They decided to give it a try.

       According to my father the family started out from St. Louis early in the morning, without a map, heading east across the Mississippi. After the vaguely familiar streets of East St. Louis, Illinois had been put behind them they were in the unknown.  Every few miles my grandfather would slow down, hail someone by the side of the road and ask how to get to Vandalia. The roadside sage would stroke his chin and opine on the road to follow, at least for the next few miles. When those directions had been followed (or discarded as ill-advised) my grandfather would hail the next person he saw road-side and repeat the question.

       According to my father the family eventually reached Vandalia -- again, 75 miles away -- just over 13 hours after they had departed St. Louis. It is, however, unfair to blame all of this directly on bad directions and the meandering roads of rural America in the 1920s. Some of the delay was more indirect -- resulting from the eight blown tires that my grandfather had to repair roadside along the way.
The Madonna of the Trail statue in
Vandalia, Illinois.  (In front of the first
Illinois capitol building)
       Such was the state of our roads 100 years ago, and that is what Captain Dwight Eisenhower, as recounted in the quote above, encountered when he was ordered in 1919 to see if it was actually possible as a practical matter to drive coast to coast from east to west. Most of the roads Eisenhower traversed were two lane pavement laid over the original trails connecting adjacent towns.

       Vandalia was actually pretty lucky as it happens -- it was situated at the end of the National Road, the first major highway constructed by the Federal Government that had some sense to it. The road followed the Old National Trail that began in Cumberland, Maryland and was the route traveled by settlers headed west. In towns spread out along the trail, you can still find “Madonna of the Trail” statues, one in each state, commemorating those pioneers. One stands, to this day, in Vandalia

       Construction of the National Road was begun in 1811, and ended in 1837 when the road had reached Vandalia. The plan was to continue the project until the National Road reached St. Louis -- which would have made things easier for my grandfather -- but the panic of 1837 and the resulting national financial collapse put an end to those ambitions. So there was some order and logic to the route when a traveler attempted to drive from the beginning of the road, in Cumberland Maryland, to Vandalia. But after Vandalia, on the roads my family drove in the 1920s, anarchy reigned.

       Aside from the National Road, and a few other similar national projects, roads in the United States were originally constructed mostly at the whim of localities -- black top and portland cement strips of two lanes, climbing every hill, dropping into every valley, skirting property lines and connecting nearby towns as best they were able. There were virtually no roadside signs, and there were few maps. And that was the transportation chaos that Eisenhower encountered in 1919 when he was charged with determining whether a coast to coast automobile road trip was feasible. 

The National Road
       Things did improve. The National Road, with Federal help, became U.S. 40, and it did finally reach St. Louis and beyond. Highways 50 and 66 managed to span the country. But those United States roadways in the 1940s and 1950s were still difficult, at best. Eisenhower noted all of this, and never forgot his 62 day transcontinental road trip. It’s a shame he didn’t record his journey. It would have been a great addition to our literature of the road. 

       In any event, when Eisenhower commanded the Allied forces in World War II he had the personal experience from which to compare the German autobahn network with our congeries of two lane asphalt. Eisenhower knew that we needed to profit from the European approach to road building, and some ten years later as President he was finally in a position to do something about it. Largely through his efforts Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and, once signed into law, the United States embarked on the greatest public works project in history -- the design and construction of the national Interstate Highway System. Funded by a Federal gasoline tax, the Interstate Highway System now ecompasses some 46,000 miles of dual lane limited access highways, connecting us as a nation. 

The Interstate Highway System
       We live with and on the Interstate Highway System, and we have for 50-some years. Given this, it is difficult, sometimes, not to become complacent. We are tempted to act as though these highways were always here. But Eisenhower’s vision made a huge difference for America then and now. Here’s how the History Channel summarizes it
Today, there are more than 250 million cars and trucks in the United States, or almost one per person. At the end of the 19th century, by contrast, there was just one motorized vehicle on the road for every 18,000 Americans. At the same time, most of those roads were made not of asphalt or concrete but of packed dirt (on good days) or mud. Under these circumstances, driving a motorcar was not simply a way to get from one place to another: It was an adventure. Outside cities and towns, there were almost no gas stations or even street signs, and rest stops were unheard-of. “Automobiling,” said the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper in 1910, was “the last call of the wild.”
        There are ongoing debates today about whether, and how, we can continue to fund the marvelous infrastructure of highways connecting our towns and cities. The Federal Highway Trust Fund, the source for building and maintaining the Interstate Highway system, is supported by the gasoline tax, which sits now at 18.4 cents for each gallon of gasoline purchased.  That rate has not risen since the Clinton administration. In the intervening years inflation has taken its toll. And, ironically, as we continue to build more efficient cars fewer gallons of fuel are used, so fewer per gallon taxes are collected. All of this at a time when the highways, now often more than half a century old, are in need of infrastructure investments. Whether, and how, that problem can be solved is a debate for elsewhere, not here. But suffice it to say that maintaining the highway system we have built will only become more difficult. In 2008, for the first time, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, fueled by that gasoline tax, was in the red. And without additional funding that deficit will continue and will grow every year.

       Those concerns aside, it is still our luck now -- today -- to be able to freely roam these united States on our own, behind the wheel. Unshackled, we can live and write about the experience.     So, for the road trips we take, and the road trips we write about
-- here's to you, Ike! 

       I'm on I-75 now; I-81 is well astern.  Is that Chattanooga up ahead?  'Bout time to call it a day.

30 January 2016

Short and Long, Light and Dark


by John M. Floyd



The title of my column sounds like I'm talking about days, doesn't it--or maybe types of ribs or chicken. What I'm referring to are the stories we fiction writers dream up, put on paper, submit to markets, and (occasionally) get published. Their sizes vary from flash to novella-length, and their moods are everything from Walter Mitty to "The Lottery." For some reason, many of my writer friends these days (not necessarily my mystery-writer friends) seem to produce long and/or grim, somber stories--but others have focused on short, funny pieces. Still others bounce around from short to long and from easygoing to profound, dabbling a little in everything and specializing in nothing. I'm one of those people. As Joe Friday would say, deadpan of course, "That's my job."

Several days ago I received a pleasant surprise: I sold my 75th story to Woman's World. All the stories for that magazine--whether they're mysteries or romances--are both short and lighthearted. But the crazy thing is, most of the stories I've sold over the past few years have been neither short nor light. They're been longer, usually 4000 to 8000 words, and more serious. One of mine that's coming up this year in Akashic Books' Noir series is around ten thousand words, and heavy in mood as well as weight.

Why do I dream up stories that are so different from each other? I truly don't know. Maybe I suffer from the same thing as one of my old friends: he could never seem to hold a job, and his excuse was that he just never found one he was comfortable with. Maybe I'm still trying to figure out what I'm good at. (Besides ending half the sentences in my paragraphs with prepositions.)

Even crazier is the fact that I seem to get about the same enjoyment from writing/completing/selling a very short story and a very long story. The light/dark part is a little different--I like writing the occasional violent, gritty tale, but I absolutely LOVE writing humor. Even my longer, heavier fiction usually includes some comic, quirky elements because I can't seem to resist it.

Also, I think that fiddling around with different lengths and different subject matter keeps the whole writing process from becoming boring. I like knowing that I can finish a thousand-word, low-key, down-home, Aunt-Maude-and-Uncle-Billy kind of story one day, and the next day begin one about serial killers and mean streets and SWAT teams that might run fifty pages or more. It gives me a delicious sense of freedom.

When asked by the students in my classes, I usually say that I write in different genres. I also point out, though, that I've written far more mystery/crime/suspense stories than anything else. I think the reason is that I prefer reading that kind of story. But I also occasionally read Western or SF or horror or literary fiction, and I've written some of that as well. Once more, the variety makes it more fun for me, and keeps me from getting stuck (at least too deeply stuck) in a rut.


What I usually don't like is knowing that I have to write a particular kind of story. That mostly happens on the rare occasions when I'm fortunate enough to be invited to send a story to a genre-specific or themed anthology. Producing those kinds of stories isn't as easy for me as it seems to be for others. My ideas usually come unbidden, out of nowhere, and the resulting stories take shape on their own; they might result in a science fiction tale of 500 words or a Western of 2500 or a young-adult fantasy/adventure story of 5000 (which I just finished writing, and submitted yesterday). Plus, I'm not fond of externally-imposed deadlines--or, for that matter, deadlines of any kind. Don't get me wrong, though. When an opportunity presents itself, especially via a personal invitation from an editor, I'll do it. I'm always grateful, and I try to consider it a challenge rather than a chore, and I do my best to contribute a worthy entry.

The first of those "create-a-story-to-these-specs" projects happened to me ten years ago, and wound up being a lot of fun. An editor/publisher from Georgia named Tony Burton put together a 49-story antho called Seven by Seven, which consisted of seven different authors writing seven stories each about the Seven Deadly Sins. As I told Tony at the time, the only thing I remembered about the Seven Deadly Sins was the movie starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman--but I dutifully did my research and wrote my seven stories, as did the other six participants, one of whom was our own former SleuthSayer Deborah Elliott-Upton, and the book turned out well and sold well. Even if it hadn't, I would've been pleased, because I had a great time and met friends like Deborah and B.J. Bourg and Frank Zafiro and Gary Hoffman, friends I still keep in touch with. But--again--I'm usually more comfortable coming up with my own ideas for stories.

How do the rest of you feel, about this kind of thing? Do you gravitate toward shorter or longer pieces? Is your subject matter usually lighthearted or serious? Do you consciously inject a bit of humor into your fiction regardless of its length? Do you like to have some outside incentive to kick off your story ideas, or do they come to you quietly in the night? Do you regularly seek out "themed" anthologies to submit to? Do you write in one genre and stick to it, or branch out occasionally into others? Do you think it's better to specialize and develop a "brand"? Inquiring minds want to know.

Unfortunately, my SleuthSayers columns tend to run longer rather than shorter, so it's time to wrap this one up.

I wish you short workdays, long vacations, light hearts, dark chocolate, and good writing.




29 January 2016

Why I had to Be Careful on the Reservation for A While

Map of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community.
Scottsdale bounds the north (upper map) and west (map left) side,
while Mesa bounds the south (map lower) side.
by Dixon Hill

These days I don't worry too much about driving across the local Indian Reservation outside Scottsdale, but there was a time when I had to keep a sharp eye out for police vehicles while driving to and from school.

And, the real cause of the problem was that I was trying to be a nice guy.

And, because I was ignorant.  I hadn't yet learned that people didn't necessarily read something I'd written, in the manner I had envisioned while writing it.

I made my way toward fiction through the journalism field. My primary goal was to make a living writing fiction, so my first goal was to earn a B.A. that might help convince editors I was a serious writer.

To accomplish this first goal, I decided to attend the Cronkite School at Arizona State.  At that time, at least, an ASU student had to earn the majority of his common core credits during his first two years -- all spent outside the Cronkite School.

Yes. You're seeing it correctly.
SCC is the Fighting Artichokes!
After completing enough credits with an acceptable GPA, a student had to apply for the Cronkite School then had to pass the Cronkite entrance exam before being permitted to apply for the Journalism or Communication Program.

I used the GI Bill to pay for school, but had two kids at home during this time, and another one on the way toward the tail end of my sophomore year. So, I spent those first two years at nearby Scottsdale Community College (SCC) to: save money, run my small pool layout business, and spend more time around the house. Our youngest son was born about the time I entered the Cronkite Program at ASU.

By the time I was admitted to the Cronkite School, I'd worked as a reporter on a small Scottsdale paper for two years, had also spent two school years on the Scottsdale Community College paper, and finally closed my small business to permit me to concentrate on completing my degree.  Two years after entering the Cronkite School, I graduated with a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication.

But, the thing that caused me to run afoul of police on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community (SRPMIC) occurred while I was working on a small human interest story for the SCC paper.

Scottsdale Community College isn't really in Scottsdale at all.  It's actually about a half-mile outside Scottsdale, on land leased from the SRPMIC.  And, the SRRPMIC police patrol the area outside campus, while providing arrest authority on campus when needed.  A person who stole money from the SCC snack bar cash register, while I was on the paper, for instance, was apprehended by campus police, then arrested by SRPMIC police, who booked the suspect into the Maricopa County Jail.  (Yes, that's right.  That's Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jail -- pink underwear, green bologna and all... though these days it serves a vegetarian-only diet with no bologna on the menu [assuming you don't count Sheriff Joe's antics as bologna].)

One day, in the school news room, the faculty adviser for the paper told me she had received permission to have a school reporter accompany an SRPMIC police officer on a ride-along during a night shift.  She thought I might be a good choice, due to my age and military experience.  I happily accepted the assignment.

When that night arrived, I showed up at the police station on the reservation and met the sergeant who would be driving us around in his SUV, while on night patrol.  He was a nice enough guy, if a bit too showy for my taste.  I wasn't worried about that; I'd dealt with showy guys in the army.

He took me out and drove his patrol route, showing me areas of interest -- such as the lawnmower repair business where he'd earned a decoration for his actions during a shootout.  We found a new car sitting empty in the middle of nowhere, which was registered to someone on the other side of The Valley.  After calling for a tow truck, he explained that young people on the reservation sometimes went to clubs in Scottsdale or Phoenix, then stole a car to drive home.  Sometimes they stripped the car after getting it home.  Other times, like this one, they simply abandoned it.  We hunted around for, and found, the keys by the time the time the tow truck arrived.

He took me through "Bunny Acres" a part of the reservation that's pretty empty except for a few houses crouching in darkness.  Elsewhere, he showed me the remains of a house that had been destroyed during a shootout between reservation gang members on one side, and the FBI supported by the SRPMIC police on the other.  He asked me not to write about that house, because standing wisdom held that gang activity on the reservation had been completely wiped-out that night, and the tribal government didn't want potential casino customers to worry about the possibility of gang violence.

Had I been a hard-nosed reporter working on an expose, I'd have countered by asking for his opinion concerning the clear gang problems two friends of mine had encountered while working as teachers on the reservation.  Those two guys, for instance, found it interesting that when they handed out M&M's to their high school students, the red M&M's disappeared from some desks, while the blue ones disappeared from others, depending on whether the kid was a member of the Crips or the Bloods.  Gang tensions influenced the daily lives of those kids in the classrooms.

As I told the sergeant driving me around, however: "No problem.  Both my editor and our faculty adviser told me to treat this as a human interest story.  I'm supposed to give SCC students a feel for what the cops paroling the streets around school are like -- what you guys go through on a daily basis. I'm not here to dig up any dirt, or get anybody into hot water.  Plus, I spent time in the military and I hold a Top Secret clearance.  So, if you find you just said something you shouldn't have, let me know and we'll talk about it.  My bosses probably won't want it in the story anyway."

We went to a drunk driver arrest, worked a small traffic accident, and drove around some more.  We drove past a house that had a big pack of dogs running around out front.  The sergeant slowed and swung the SUV over toward that side of the street, quietly calling out the window to them.  As the dogs began to stand and prick their ears, he turned to me and said, "These guys always let their dogs out; they never put them inside or put leashes on them.  The law says they can't be out here without leashes, and I could arrest their owner.  But, we try to help people remember to do the right thing, without arresting them if we can."

By then, the dogs were barking and jumping, frantically chasing the SUV as we drove down the road on the right side again.  As the front door opened, and the owner came out, yelling at the dogs, the sergeant called: "They need to be on leashes if they aren't penned up!  Get them inside!"  Then he turned to me as he rolled up his window, saying, "This way, it wakes him up, so he pays the price, but he doesn't have to get involved in the legal system."

A short while later, we got a call about a domestic violence dispute with shots fired.  That was the one and only time the sergeant turned on his flashing lights and siren.  The only time he drove at anything above the speed limit.  Just about the only bit of excitement all night!  (If you don't count a pack of barking dogs chasing your car.)

But, even the domestic violence dispute was over by the time we arrived.  The man with the shotgun had been arrested and everyone else was being assisted by advocates.

When I wrote the story, I aimed for the human interest piece I'd described to the sergeant.  I emphasized the idea that the department practiced what they called "Community Policing," using the sergeant's own parallel about how they tried to police the SRPMIC employing common-sense alternatives to arrest, the way Andy Taylor policed Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show.  I illustrated this idea by outlining the way the sergeant had dealt with those loose dogs.

I was so proud of the result that I even dropped several copies of the student newspaper at the police station, so the guys could read it.

When I was on the way out, however, a lieutenant stopped me.  "You're the guy who wrote that story in the college paper, right?"

"Yes, sir.  Did you like it?"

His face clouded.  "We got a problem.  That sergeant who took you around is in hot water."

I was horrified.  "Why?"

(Okay, so this isn't a word-for-word recreation of our conversation.  But it is pretty close, I think.  I mean, this happened 16 years ago or so.)

We went into his office.  "Did you really have to compare us to Andy Taylor and Mayberry?  Why did you do that?"

"Well.  He did it.  He explained that was what you were doing.  And I thought it was a great idea!  So I explained it.  What's wrong?"

"It didn't occur to you that folks might read that, and think we were all a bunch of Barney Fife idiots -- shooting ourselves in the foot all the time!?"

I felt like an idiot, myself.  I shook my head.  "I'm sorry.  That never occurred to me.  I just thought I was comparing you to a guy who did a good job of keeping the peace, and gently keeping folks from stepping out of line.  That's why I wrote about the dogs."

His head snapped up.  "That really happened?  Just the way you described?"

I nodded.  He was pretty angry, but it was the truth.  "Yeah.  Just the way I said."

"And he said that stuff, about intentionally making all those dogs bark to wake up the owner?"

"Yeah.  Why?  What did he do wrong?"

"Damn!"  He scanned the story and put his finger on a spot.  "This part here -- where he went to the shooting with red lights and siren -- how fast were you going?"

I shrugged.  "I don't know.  It was dark out, and I couldn't read the speedometer from where I sat." I was pretty sure we'd been doing about sixty, but I knew that was the wrong answer.

"Did you feel in danger when that happened?  Did you think he was driving too fast for the dark conditions out there?"

I shook my head.  "Absolutely not.  What did he do wrong?  What's the problem with the dogs?  He did it so he wouldn't have to arrest that guy."

He laid down the paper and looked at me.  "Well, the problem is: That's a little thing called "Disturbing the Peace."  And it's illegal!  You had a tape recorder with you.  I saw it.  Did you record all this?"

"Yeah.  I did.  But, I didn't mean to get him in any trouble."

"Do you have those tapes with you?"

They were in my car, but I'd had enough basic journalism training to know how to handle that question.  "I always have to give them to my editor.  They belong to the paper."  (Please note: I did not say I had ALREADY given them to my editor, just that I HAD to, and that they belonged to the paper.)

"So you don't have them."

"No."  They weren't on my person.  They were in my car about fifty feet away, in the parking lot.  On the front seat!

"Okay.  I'm going to let you go.  But, you need to bring me those tapes, because we need to use them.  And we may need to call you to testify in court.  If you don't bring those tapes back, we can issue a warrant.  Understood?"

I nodded.

Back at my faculty adviser's office, I told her what had happened, and what I'd said to the lieutenant.

"You actually told him the tapes are newspaper property?" she asked.

"That was the advice I got, when that local editor came to speak to one of my classes."

"Give me the tapes."  I handed them over.  "Okay," she said.  "Now they ARE newspaper property.  And he'll need a court order to get them from us."  Then she looked at me.  "But, you'd better be careful when you drive across the reservation to come to class.  They might try to arrest you.  Here's my card; if they arrest you, call me."

Maybe that police officer just wanted to scare me, or something.

But that faculty adviser wasn't joking.  She was worried.

That was over a decade ago, so I don't worry too much anymore.  Heck, I don't even know where I put her card.

But, for a while there . . .

See you in two weeks,
— Dixon

28 January 2016

What's a nice Jewish girl doing in the Sultan's harem?

Elizabeth Zelvin

It's not what you think!

When young marrano sailor Diego Mendoza boarded Admiral Columbus's flagship, I didn't know his voyage of discovery, which began on the very day the Jews were expelled from Spain, would lead me—and Diego's sister Rachel, a character who didn't even exist yet—to the harem of Sultan Bayezid II in Istanbul, at the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

Diego appeared inside my head in the middle of the night, as our best fictional creations do, and nagged me until I wrote "The Green Cross," a mystery short story set aboard the Santa Maria that was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and nominated for an Agatha Award. One thing led to another . . .
In my novel, Voyage of Strangers, about Columbus's second voyage, I accounted for Diego's parents by saying they had fled to Firenze (Florence), whose de facto ruler, Lorenzo di Medici, was known for his tolerance toward the Jews. Rachel, who had remained in Spain, escaped the Inquisition by wangling her way onto the Admiral's ship and participating in the events of 1493 to 1495 in Hispaniola, which included the tragic destruction of the Taino people. At the end of Voyage, Diego, Rachel, and their friend Hutia, a Taino survivor, are sailing back to Europe to embark on a search for their family.

Once I started researching events after 1492, I realized that the Mendozas were in trouble, and so was I. We all had to be resilient if we wanted to survive. Here are some of the historical events that shaped my new novel, Journey of Strangers, (just out in e-book and paperback):

1492: Lorenzo di Medici died, making Firenze less of a haven for the Jews.
1493: 120,000 Spanish Jews fled to Portugal. Eight months after offering them refuge, the King of Portugal changed his mind. He abducted two thousand Jewish children, forcibly baptized them, and sent them as slaves to São Tomé, a pestilential island off the coast of West Africa.
1494: King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, claiming the throne of Naples and occupying Firenze along the way. The Medici had to flee, and so did the Jews.


The harem! you say. What about the harem? I'm getting there . . . War-torn Italy and the pirate-infested Mediterranean were dangerous even to Christian townsmen, villagers, and travelers and even more so to the Jews, who tended to get scapegoated in any crisis. The Ottoman Empire offered a haven. Sultan Bayezid extended an invitation to Jewish merchants, scholars, artisans, and physicians, seeing them as potential assets to the Empire. And that's how so many Sephardic Jews ended up in Istanbul and other Ottoman cities.

By the time Rachel reaches Istanbul, she's added a wealth of remarkable experiences to her native charm and ingenuity. She wants a life that offers more than being married off to some nice Jewish boy, keeping his house, and bearing his children. For one thing, she's in love with Hutia, who plans to convert to Judaism so her parents will consent to their marriage. The rabbis may have something to say about that. In the meantime, Rachel learns, as I did, that the purveyors of goods and services to the women sequestered in the Sultan's harem were Jewish women known as kiras, a word derived from the Greek for "lady." The kiras were the harem's conduit of communication to and from the outside world. In the course of becoming a kira, Rachel gets to know the Sultan's women, the hatuns (Turkish for "lady"), and has some difficulty steering clear of their intrigues.

Let me tell you some things I bet you didn't know about the harem. I didn't either. I didn't come across Leslie P. Peirce's brilliant book, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, which is by far the best source of information on the Ottoman women, until later. So not all of these details appear in Journey of Strangers. Oops. I apologized in the Afterword.

• By the late 15th century, the Ottoman Sultans were not taking wives from neighboring Turkish princely houses but choosing slave women as their concubines and not marrying them. This freed them from the potential problem of ambitious in-laws. (Twenty years later, Suleiman the Magnificent broke tradition by marrying the concubine Hürrem, whom you may have heard of as Roxelana, but that was the exception. She'll appear in my next book.)

• A woman who bore the Sultan a son gained enormous prestige and position. As a young man, he would be given a province to govern. His mother went with him and in some cases played a role in the governing of the province. If her son became Sultan in turn, she won the jackpot of power, wealth, and influence. If he did not, he would probably be strangled or beheaded so the new Sultan would not have to worry about rivals, and his mother became a nobody.

• It was the custom for the Sultan to keep his current favorite as a bedmate only until she bore him one son. Then their sexual relationship ended. From then on, she was defined by her role of mother to a prince. (Again, Hürrem was the exception.) If she had a daughter and the Sultan still desired her, she could try again. Each mother conspiring on behalf of multiple sons would have created intrigues of intolerable complexity. So they weren't given the chance.

• The harem was not in any sense a bordello. It was the Sultan's household, his home, the quarters of the female members of his family according to Islamic law. Besides his concubines (past, present, and future), the harem included his daughters and sisters and their many attendants, as well as his mother. Each of them received a daily stipend. One source of Peirce's myth-busting scholarship was the harem's household accounts from the 16th century on.

I could go on. Did you know that not only the janissaries but also the viziers and other palace officials were all the Sultan's personal slaves? The Sultan would marry off his sisters and daughters to these high-ranking damads (slave sons-in-law) to ensure double loyalty. Hmm, this isn't really about sex at all, is it? Maybe the title should have been "How the Sultan made sure he didn't have any trouble with his in-laws."



Elizabeth Zelvin is a former SleuthSayer and author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series and the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers. Her short stories have appeared in EQMM and AHMM, been nominated for the Agatha and Derringer Awards, and listed in Best American Mystery Stories 2014. Her most recent releases are a new e-edition of the entire Bruce Kohler series and Breaches & Betrayals: Collected Stories. Liz is a New York psychotherapist who practices online, a poet, and a singer-songwriter whose album is titled Outrageous Older Woman. You can learn more at www.elizabethzelvin.com, friend her on Facebook at Facebook.com/elizabeth.zelvin, and find her work on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin Page.

27 January 2016

Tower Four

David Edgerley Gates


This is a Cold War story I hadn't heard before. Given that I'm a student of the history, and flatter myself that I'm reasonably well-informed, you gotta wonder, if I didn't know about it, it must have really fallen between the cracks - or had the lid put on tight. In either case, the story does some people credit, and although it's probably too late for others to suffer embarrassment, there's enough to go around.

In the late 1950's, the nuclear deterrent depended on the long-range strategic bomber fleet, before the emphasis shifted to ICBM's. Shore-based radar on the Eastern Seaboard covered coastal approaches, but Air Force planners needed to extend their reach, to increase the margin of warning time. They came up with the idea of building platforms at sea, like off-shore drilling rigs, but equipped with radar. They were called Texas Towers. The pilot program called for five platforms, overlapping coverage from Nova Scotia to New Jersey. Numbers One and Five were never built, but the other three were. Tower Four, the last commissioned, in 1959, was located seventy miles out, south of Long Island, near the continental shelf. Of the three towers, it was anchored in the deepest water, at 30 fathoms, and it was the least stable.

All the towers had structural issues. They rested on three legs - or caissons - which went down to the ocean floor. These were designed to be flexible, to absorb wave motion, and seas were often heavy. The platforms swayed in the wind, and shook with constant vibration from generators and other equipment. Victor Rioux, an electronics tech who served on Tower Two, says it was like living in a tin can. They worked twelve-on, twelve-off. Victor's longest single tour aboard lasted ninety days. The platforms had two floors for quarters, below the chopper deck.  You might be able to imagine the living conditions. Approximately sixty guys, with absolutely nowhere to go.

Tower Four took heavy damage from Hurricane Donna late in 1960, and it was decided to dismantle it.  It was being manned by a skeleton crew, fourteen military and fourteen civilian, when another storm bore down on them, January 15, 1961. Weather prevented helicopter evacuation from shore, but both the transport ship New Bedford and the USS Wasp tried to reach the tower. They got close enough to see the platform sink. They recovered no survivors.

It seems, in fact, very much a forgotten story. Here are a couple of links I found.  You may have to copy and paste.










26 January 2016

Left Coast Criminals

by Melissa Yi

Hey, I'm heading out for the second mystery convention of my life, Left Coast Crime! Whatever shall I do? Especially if I want to save money?


Well, I’ve got three travel tips for you budget-conscious sleuths already.

1.     Register early. You knew this. I blew that one, waffling about whether or not I would attend. So, late registration for me. $275 U.S. at a time when the Canadian dollar is plunging. Luckily, I had enough USD to cover it.

2.     Google your flight.
 I used a lot of different flight sites, but I found them frustrating. A lot of them want you to choose both departing and return flights together, without offering good options (one gave me a 13 hour layover. Are you kidding me?).
For example, I’m appearing at the PoisonedPen Bookshop's International Fiction Night featuring Jewish Noir night at 6:30, so I have to arrive in time on February 24th. And flying back to Montreal on a Sunday is not a popular option. Only Google let me choose arrival and departure times for both flights, sifting impartially through different airlines.

3.     Airbnb
I’ve almost always had a good, and occasionally above-and-beyond experiences through airbnb, where you stay in someone's home. Although of course staying at the hotel is a swanky and convenient experience, I like meeting people, and sometimes they offer me food! Plus, what the heck. If you sign up with this link, we both get a few bucks off: https://www.airbnb.ca/c/myuaninnes?s=4&i=1

Now you're going to ask me, why go to a con?
1.     You could sell a book, like Michael J. Cooper sold The Rabbi’s Knight.
Michele Lang, Michael J. Cooper, and Melissa Yi. Yes, that's Jewish Noir instead of The Rabbi's Knight. Collect 'em all!
 2.     You could hook new readers. I live in rural Ontario. I can pretty much guarantee that no one in Phoenix has ever seen one of my books, let alone bought one.
3.     You could make friends. Travis Richardson told me a lot of writers hang out by the bar. He’s bringing his whole family!
4.     You could sell a short story or two. Hey, that's how I got into Jewish Noir.
5.     You could get some story ideas. I feel creatively listless right now. Maybe a con will help.
6.     It’s a vacation. I don’t remember ever going to Phoenix. My parents did drag me on a cross-continental trip to California one summer when I was little, so it’s possible I did go and don’t remember it except as a blur from the back of a van.
7.     Fanboy and girl squees. For me, this translates to “Dana Stabenow will be there!” I'll also be on a panel with Chantelle Aimee, Fan Guest of Honor (uh huh. Can't say anything more than that).
8.   Kenneth Wishnia told you to.

 
Why NOT go to a con?
1.     No time
2.     No money
3.     No interest
4.     Guilt
For me, it’s number four. I feel like I shouldn’t spend money on my writing. I should just slave over my laptop, ratcheting up my word count, sending out my stories, and get magically discovered by readers while I continue to work, work, work. I could be helping patients in the emergency room. I could be getting my kids on or off the school bus. Plus, I try not to travel because of carbon emissions.

Other people don’t feel this guilty. Theoretically, I’m allowed to have a vacation. My hair stylist, Christina Peeters, said simply, “I work hard. I deserve it.” Kris Rusch talks about how essential it is for writers to do continuing education. And the money’s mostly already spent.

Soooooooo…what about you? Do you go to cons?
And if you’re going to this one, see you at Left Coast Crime!

 

25 January 2016

The Boss

by Jan Grape

An old joke is something I shall utilize here. I can't credit anyone because I don't  know who wrote it first and besides my version here is my own creative invention.

The joke sorta goes this way. The parts of the body were arguing one day about who should the BOSS. The eyes said, we should be boss because we're the one who sees everything and can guide the body into or out of danger. The ears said, No, we should be boss because we hear everything that is necessary for the body to keep out of danger. The mouth said, y'all don't  have the control that I do. I'm who should be boss. The body gets nourishment from me...food...water to keep the body strong and hydrated. The brain said, just wait darn minute. I should be boss. I'm who really controls all of you. The eyes, ears, mouth...none of you could function without me controlling each of you. Why I keep the heart beating regularly. The nerves leading from me to all parts of the body would not be able to do anything...the body can't  breathe without my telling the lungs to take in air. The body couldn't  move without my say so.

All well and good and true. However, I discovered that a knee can be the boss of my body, quickly.
I fell on 14th of December. My feet and knees folded up under me. My right hand was skinned and rt. foot was hurting. My knees seemed fine then but stiffened up a short time later. The left knee was the cranky one for a day or three.

Since I had an appointment with my primary care physician a few days later I mentioned the left knee.  It wasn't hurting, just had a twinge or two, but my doctor ordered a round of physical therapy. During the next few weeks my left knee locked and would protest by handing me severe pain. These locked episodes which happened 3 or 4 times only lasted three to five minutes and as soon as the knee unlocked everything was back to normal.  I continued with the physical therapy and exercises at home and felt my knee was stronger and well on the road to full recovery.

Until my left knee showed me who was the real boss of my body.  I had driven to Ft. Worth to attend to my only granddaughter's wedding. I was staying with my nephew and his family along with my sister and bro-in-law who also drove up from Austin. We had finished lunch and I said that I wanted to go to the mall and get my hair styled. I started to get up and the left KNEE said "Nope. not going to let you do that."

I wasn't too upset because the knee had locked before and lasted only a few minutes. I sat there and rubbed my knee trying to get it to cooperate. Not this time. I couldn't stand or straighten my knee. I couldn't put any weight on it. After a conversation with my daughter who had flown in from Nashville and was staying with other family members, she suggested I might  need to rent a wheel chair as I did not want to miss the wedding. I asked her to let my son and his wife know who are the parents of the bride that I couldn't attend the rehearsal dinner.

Of course, this happened on a Saturday and all the wheelchair rental places close at noon and it was now 4:30. We tried everything, even calling friends who might know someone who could rent a chair. Finally, the only solution was to purchase a wheelchair… found one at Walgreen's.

My nephew's wife is a doctor and when she came in that evening she took a look at my knee and said she thought a muscle relaxer could help and she would call in a prescription. Again this is a Saturday and most pharmacies close early. We finally found a twenty-four hour drugstore in the downtown area.

The heating pad and muscle relaxers and my pain pills helped and the knee felt much better the morning of the wedding day. Jackie's wedding was scheduled for 3:30 in he afternoon. My grandson who was supposed to escort the grandmothers down the aisle, had to push me down the aisle. BUT I was at the wedding. During the reception and dinner and dancing I was there but couldn't move around because this wheelchair didn't have big wheels that I could push.  I had to depend on others to push me. But family and friends came over to my table to talk to me, including my beautiful granddaughter and her new husband.

Jackie D Lee
My granddaughter, Jackie D. Lee

 The next morning the knee was much better but it still would lock and unlock for no reason. My youngest son drove me and my car and my wheelchair back to my house in the hill country.  My knee is still the undisputed boss of my body, it still does the lock and unlock bit. It is slowly better. And I am going to see an orthopedic doctor on Wednesday. Hope he can find out what is going on and if he can take that bossy power away from the left knee and let me get back to bossing my own self.
Hope all of you are healthy, dry and warm. This Lizzard (blizzard) of 2016 has shaped up to be rather wicked.

Jackie and A.J. Vaughn
Jackie and A.J. Vaughn

 See you next time.

24 January 2016

Flash Fiction– The Gamble

Leigh Lundin
by Leigh Lundin

Imagine a game I invite you to play. Here are the rules:
  1. You put down $1. Me, nothing.
  2. We flip a coin.
  3. If you win, you get 50¢ back.
  4. If I win, I get your $1 bill.
In a nutshell, I’ve described exactly how lotteries work. Simply substitute ‘the state’ for the first person pronoun and ‘the public’ for the second person ‘you’.

Astonishing, isn’t it? You could make it more accurate by substituting ‘the poor’ for ‘the public’, because that’s the lottery’s primary target.

The lotteries like to tout the advantages. “It allows people to dream for a little while,” says Florida’s own lottery commissioner.” “It pays for education (sorta, kinda)” insists New York’s. “It allows the public to join in a social exercise,” claims a professor.

But for all that, the lottery has one, sole purpose: It’s a cynical tax on the poor. Do politicians honestly believe states implemented lotteries to entertain the masses? Or even benefit their citizens in some way? They’re put in place to shift taxes away from those who don’t want to pay– the wealthy.

A young woman named Cinnamon represents the lotteries’ prime target. Convinced she couldn’t lose, she blew her family’s $800 (or much more depending upon the source) rent and grocery budget buying tickets. I feel sad for the girl, even sadder for her family, victims of the lottery culture.

But she’s got chutzpah. She went on Go Fund Me, where some of us might donate a little to people with serious medical issues. (Consider helping writer Kevin Tipple’s wife Sandi for her cancer treatment.) Our plucky girl Cinnamon wrote this:
Please help me and my family as we have exausted [sic] all of our funds. We spent all of our money on lottery tickets (expecting to win the 1.5 billion) and are now in dire need of cash. With your small donation of at least $1.00, a like, and one share, I’m certain that we will be able to pick ourselves up from the trenches of this lost [sic] and spend another fortune trying to hit it big again! PLEASE, won’t you help a family in need. DONATE NOW.

The rational among us might have expected her to have learned a lesson, but notice the words bolded by me.

As you might imagine, people were scathing, but– surprise– some donated until Go Fund Me took down her donations page. Now she claims it's all a joke, ha-ha. Thing is, I've personally known desperate people who empty their wallet at the local lottery store.

My friends Sharon and Cate, seldom at a loss for words, managed a few choice ones. Inspired by them, this little bit of flash fiction came to mind. Our colleague Vicki Kennedy tells me this form is called a ‘drabble’. Please don’t confuse our fictional Nutmeg with the real Cinnamon whom we prefer to believe is much classier.


The Gamble
by Leigh Lundin

After the lottery tops a stratospheric billion dollar pot, Nutmeg wagers her family’s rent and grocery money. To her surprise, she loses. Even her car’s repossessed. She visits the local charity, which shoos her out the door.

Matters go from bad to worse after she’s arrested for prostitution. Police visit charity officials.

“Miss Nutmeg claims you sent her to WalMart to peddle her ass.”

“For a job, sir. I told her to pedal her ass to WalMart.”

23 January 2016

Star Ratings and what they Mean (in which we get serious for a short while...)

by Melodie Campbell

When my first novel was published, my mentor told me: “Don’t look at your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.  Particularly Goodreads.  No, really.  Don’t.  If your book continues to sell, then you know it is good.  If your publisher buys your next book, then you know it is good.  Don’t  torture yourself by reading the criticism of non-writers.”

I found it next to impossible to follow his advice.  The lure of reviews on your work is pretty strong.

It took ten books – all published by traditional publishers – before I really felt I had a handle on ‘the dreaded review star rating.’  Here’s my list. (My opinion only, everyone. You may have a different interpretation.)

Anatomy of Star ratings

Five stars:  Just one word: Joy!
Bless them, every one.  A million thanks to reviewers who take the time to tell you they loved your book.

Four stars:  Okay, they really liked it. Maybe even loved it.  But even if they loved it, some people  reserve five stars for their very favourite authors, and the masters, like Jane Austen.  And literary writers.  A genre novel is...well…a genre novel.  Not quite as worthy (in some eyes).  But they really enjoyed it.

Three stars:  These are the ones that make me sad.  A reader is telling me that the book was okay.  I want them to think it was great!  Sometimes, this can be a reader who loved your books in another genre, and decided to try this book that is in a different genre, one they don’t normally read.  Often, they will give you that clue in the review (“I don’t normally read scifi”). 

For instance, I have enjoyed Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series very much.  Recently, I tried one of her romantic comedies (classified under the Romance genre.)  I am not a romance reader, and not surprisingly, I found this book lacking in the type of fast-paced plot I enjoy.  I would probably give it a 3 rating, where no doubt a seasoned romance reader would give it a 4 or 5.

Two stars:  These are often people who wandered into your book by mistake.  They thought it sounded interesting, so they bought it thinking it was one thing, and it wasn’t.  They’re mad at having spent money on something that isn’t their thing.  It’s not a happy event when you get these, but understand that these people aren’t your market.

One star:  These are simply people who enjoy hurting others.  Ignore them.  I do.

Here’s my advice, if you find that reviews haunt you, and keep you from writing:

1.  Stop reading them.  Really.  

2.  Never comment on a review.  Never.

3.   If you can, employ a personal assistant to read your reviews as they come in, and forward you the good ones only.  (This is my dream.  One day.)

One more thing: When you give away a book for free, there is a downside: you often get people picking it up who wouldn't normally spend money on that type of book.  Not surprisingly, they might not like it, as they are not your market.  Always expect some poor reviews, if you give a book away.  There are still many good reasons to do so.  Just be prepared.

Just out!
Book 4 in the award-winning Goddaughter screwball mob caper series ("Hilarious" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)

The Goddaughter Caper
Available pretty much everywhere, but here's the link to Amazon