30 April 2016

To Whom It May Concern


by John M. Floyd



Having been a writer for several years now (and a reader for many more), I have accumulated what I suppose is an adequate vocabulary. The funny thing is, I sometimes find myself avoiding the use of perfectly good words when I write my stories, for the simple reason that they aren't often used in real life. Examples? Well, there are the many less-than-well-known-and-rarely-used suspects, words like myriad and plethora and beatific, etc.--but I'm talking mostly about words that are widely known but still not used much, in either fiction or in normal conversation. Here are three that come to mind: periodically, frankly, and whom.

What's wrong with "periodically"? Nothing--except that you seldom hear it or read it. Probably because it's just as easy to say "often" or "occasionally" or "regularly" or "now and then," which mean almost the same thing, minus the raised-eyebrow reactions. And what about "frankly"? Nothing wrong with it either, my dear, except that "honestly" seems to work better and sounds a little less pretentious. (I was once told that if you hear someone say "frankly," watch out, because whatever comes next is probably a lie.) But the one I most avoid--notice that I didn't say eschew--is "whom."

Yes, I know, there are many times when "whom" is correct, or at least grammatically correct, and it even sounds right, from time to time, as in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The problem is, it usually sounds--especially in dialogue--uppity and constipated. Anytime somebody says to me, on the phone, "To whom am I speaking?" I picture the late John Gielgud, or maybe Carson on Downton Abbey.

I don't need no steenking rules

Apparently there are others who (not whom) agree with me. Here are a few quotes and observations on that subject that I've found in my "how to write" books:

"Whom has long been perceived as formal verging on pompous . . . The rules for its proper use are obscure to many speakers, tempting them to drop whom into their speech whenever they want to sound posh."--Steven Pinker, A Sense of Style

"'Whom do you trust?' and 'Whom will it be?' are technically correct but painfully stilted. Go ahead and use Who do you trust? and Who will it be? except in the most formal of writing."--Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style

"As far as I'm concerned, 'whom' is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler."--author Calvin Trillin

"About half the people you hear spewing the word whom in everyday conversation don't really know how. They're bluffing. They know just enough to get it right sometimes--that's all they need to make themselves feel like big shots."--June Cassagrande, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies

"In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing . . ."--Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I

Going by the book

If you do choose to salute to the Grammar Police and perform your duty, when should "whom" be used?

The rule I like best, although I've forgotten where I first heard it, is simple. (Since any discussion of objects, participles, noun antecedents, subjective cases, etc., makes my head hurt, I prefer simple rules.) Here it is:

If you can substitute he, she, or they in the sentence, use "who," and if you can substitute him, her, or them, use "whom." (For him the bell tolls.)


Sometimes it gets tricky. "I'll date whomever I want to date" is correct, but so is "I'll date whoever wants to go out with me." The second sentence requires the "who" form because it's the subject of another action within the sentence. But my dumb rule always works.

More examples:

Judy invited to the party only those who she thought would behave. (She thought they would behave.)

Judy wouldn't tell me whom she invited to the party. (She invited them to the party.)

I don't know who is going to take me to work. (She is going to take me to work.)

I don't know whom Dad told to take me to work. (Dad told her to take me to work.)

For whom the spell trolls

I still believe, though, that you should minimize using whom if your fiction is, like mine, more informal than formal. Can you imagine one of your characters--unless he or she is an English professor--saying the following?

"Guess with whom I had a date last night."
"It's not what you know, it's whom you know."
"Whom are you going to believe, him or me?"

Maybe you can. I can't.

I listed a quote earlier from A Sense of Style. That book also mentioned the comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm, which showed an owl in a tree calling "Whom!" and a raccoon on the ground replying "Show-off!"

And this excerpt from an old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon:

NATASHA FATALE: Ve need a safecracker!
BORIS BADENOV: Ve already got a safecracker!
NATASHA: Ve do? Whom?
BORIS: Meem, dat's whom!

William Safire, author of the New York Times's "On Language" column, once said, "Let tomorrow's people decide who they want to be president." According to Steven Pinker, if Safire can misuse who/whom in this way, so can he.

Questions? Anyone? Anyone?

What's your opinion, on all this? Do you, like Natasha, use whom at every opportunity? Do you avoid it like Kryptonite? Do you often find, or have you ever found, the need to use whom in a piece of fictional dialogue? Fictional narrative? Have you ever substituted who even though you knew it wasn't grammatically correct? Is your head beginning to hurt too?

Whatever your views, I wish good luck to all of you who write stories, and to all of those for whom they are written.






29 April 2016

Murder Most Conventional: Interviews About The New Malice Domestic Anthology

By Art Taylor

As this post is published, Malice Domestic is already underway in Bethesda, Maryland—three days (plus!) of the best in traditional mystery. There are many highlights of the weekend ahead, including celebrations of this year’s honorees: Katherine Hall Page earning a lifetime achievement award; Victoria Thompson as guest of honor and Linda Smith Rutledge as fan guest of honor; Hank Phillippi Ryan as toastmaster; an Amelia Award for Douglas Greene; a Poirot Award for Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald; and a remembrance of the late, great Sarah Caudwell. Several of our SleuthSayers here are in the running for Agatha Awards, including both Barb Goffman and B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens in the short story category—for “A Year Without Santa Claus?” and “A Joy Forever,” respectively—and Bonnie again for her YA novel Fighting Chance, and I’m honored that my own book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, is a contender for Best First Novel honors. (Good luck to us all—and a second dose of best wishes to Bonnie, who recently broke her arm and won't be making the festivities herself!)

Another highlight of this year’s Malice is the return of the Malice anthology—this one with a focus on conventions themselves. Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional is presented by Katherine Hall Page and features 22 original stories and one reprint, including stories by Marcia Talley, Neil Plakcy, Victoria Thompson, John Gregory Betancourt, Su Kopil, Kate Flora, Charles Todd, Gigi Pandian, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Frances McNamara, KB Inglee, Kathryn Leigh Scott, KM Rockwood, L.C. Tyler, Nancy Brewka-Clark, M Evonne Dobson, Ruth Moose, Rhys Bowen, and Shawn Reilly Simmons. Our own SleuthSayers are among this batch of honorees too, with B.K. Stevens’ contributing “What Goes Around” and Barb Goffman doing double-duty both as a contributor with “The Best-Laid Plans” (the stories were chosen by blind submission) and as one of the editors, along with Verena Rose and Rita Owen—with Barb focusing on developmental and line editing.

Last year I edited the Bouchercon anthology Murder Under the Oaks, and one of the great joys of that process was working with first-time writers, so to celebrate the new anthology, I’m interviewing Marie Hannan-Mandel, author of “The Perfect Pitch,” and Eleanor Cawood Jones, author of “Killing Kippers”—two authors making their debuts as traditionally published authors—and also talking to Barb about her experiences editing the project and working with these two writers in particular.

Before the interview then, a couple of quick introductions:

  • Raised in Ireland, Marie Hannan-Mandel now lives in Elmira Heights, NY. She is an assistant professor and chair of the Communications department at Corning Community College. She was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger award in 2013, longlisted for the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story award in 2014, and received an honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction award competition in 2014. Her short story “Sisters, Sisters” will appear in Adirondack Mysteries 3 in 2016.
  • Eleanor Cawood Jones got her first writing job as a reporter with the Kingsport Tennessee Times-News and now work as a marketing director and freelance copywriter in Northern Virginia. Her independently published short story compilations include A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Tales of Murder and More and Death is Coming to Town: Four Murderous Holiday Tales.
  • In addition to her own success as a short story writer—including the Macavity and Silver Falchion Awards—Barb Goffman also has a distinguished career as an editor, including both the new Malice anthology and the award-winning Chesapeake Crimes series, the newest book of which, Storm Warning, was just released.
And now on to the interviews—with Marie and Eleanor up first!

Tell us a little bit about your stories “The Perfect Pitch” and “Killing Kippers,” and given the anthology’s theme, how did your own experience with conventions—maybe Malice in particular!—inform your characters or your plot?

Marie Hannan-Mandel
MARIE HANNAN-MANDEL: My story is set at an inventors' convention in Maine where the first person narrator from New York City has come to persuade the hot-shot inventor leading her workshop to support her product. When a crime occurs she hopes that if she solves it the inventor will be so grateful he will back her.  I have attended many conferences and there are always representatives of various "types" in attendance--the pushy ones, the painfully shy ones, the beautiful ones whom everyone defers to, the famous, and the stalkers who are hyper-focused on getting to know the presenters. I tried to represent this mixed bag of people in a crime setting.

Eleanor Cawood Jones
ELEANOR CAWOOD JONES: Although not a single character in "Killing Kippers" is real, I did actually get snowed in at a casino-hotel many, many years ago where there was a clown convention going on. I was frankly astonished that clown conventions existed and the whole experience was distinctly surreal. So though the memory of that time is fuzzy, when it came time to come up with a crime-most-foul in a convention setting, that herd of clowns bulldozed their way to the forefront when I sat down to start writing. This is not your father's Stephen King clown story, although there is a clown front and center. I'm only sorry I didn't attend any clown panels while I was there. I think I could have been a great balloon-animal artist.

"Kippers" is written in first-person drunk from the perspective of a narrator who is not normally much of a drinker, which made room for some off-the-wall observations and interactions along the way. If pressed, I'd call it dark humor. And it's not just about murder, it's about life and joy and sadness and unusual friendships found in unexpected places.

Malice Domestic celebrates the traditional mystery and the book cover copy explicitly calls these cozy mysteries. How do you define those terms traditional and cozy for yourself, and how did that determine your approach here? Do you usually write in the traditional/cozy vein?

MARIE HANNAN-MANDEL: To me, cozy or traditional mysteries are those that focus on the gentler side of crime fiction. I'm not interested in gruesome description or detailed forensics. My focus is on the characters and why they do the things they do. I enjoy humor and try to use it where I can.  I almost always write what I consider cozy stories.

ELEANOR CAWOOD JONES: When I think of traditional and cozy I picture Miss Marple and some steaming tea and a paneled drawing room. I like to sit down in the comfort of my own home and go there to figure out with Miss M (or Poirot or any number of others) to enjoy the atmosphere of a whodunit. This applies to any number of settings, of course. Strange, but all the traditional mysteries I have read and no two are alike. They are comfortably familiar yet unique. But there's a certain feeling and mindset that goes along with reading one, and that's what traditional and cozy mean to me. Also, they are less violent and bloody than say, a traditional thriller, and thus considered less disturbing. For that reason, I wanted a milder, more bloodless plot and crime for Kippers, and though not a locked room setting, at least a self-contained area.

With that said, I do write some traditional mysteries, but I like to break rules. Some of my characters might just get away with it and I like to tamper with the definition of a bad guy—not everything is black and white and sometimes I find myself rooting for the villain. I also am extremely interested in motivation and personality of characters, and although plot is king I like to write about interesting people—even if they are only interesting in their own minds. Everybody has a story and everybody has a button just waiting to be pushed. I like to push the buttons of my characters and see what happens. So I stray into the thriller side but cozy is my home.

Finally, how did you celebrate the news when you heard that your stories had been accepted?

MARIE HANNAN-MANDEL: I took a walk on the beach in Ireland and skipped through the sand.

ELEANOR CAWOOD JONES: Best feeling in the world. I sprang up from my couch and walked around the house in circles, making celebratory shouting noises and trying to hold still long enough to text a few people who have been over-the-top amazing in their encouragement and support. Then I ate off that news for a week! All my favorite restaurants. Writing is fattening.

And now to switch perspectives on all this—a quick chat with Barb Goffman from the other side of the desk.


Barb, you’ve served as an editor here and also for several volumes of the Chesapeake Crimes series. Have you seen any differences in working with first-time authors or authors early in their career versus those who are veteran authors?

BARB GOFFMAN: While I'm happy to work with all authors, I love working with new and newer authors. Newer authors' stories often need more work than stories written by more experienced writers, but newer authors often are quite enthusiastic about doing revisions (sometimes several drafts) and taking advice that allows their stories to shine. I love helping them transform their stories from good to great.

More veteran authors can sometimes be less open to editing. Because they're more confident in their skills, if they like what they wrote and think it works, they might be willing to let issues slide. And that is their prerogative. But the best authors, no matter how experienced, are open to at least considering if there's a problem to fix. I've found that if I give a detailed explanation about why I have a concern about something, most authors—be they new or established—will try to address the situation.

Thinking about the anthology on the whole, what was it about Eleanor’s and Marie’s stories in particular that stood out as distinctive or memorable, or what can readers expect from the contributors by these two new voices on the mystery scene?

BARB GOFFMAN: Marie has a great, funny voice and has crafted an interesting puzzle with strong clues. In her early drafts, she had some inconsistencies and logic problems that distracted me when I read the story. When I pointed them out, she enthusiastically dug in and fixed them. The result is a much stronger story. With the logic issues resolved, Marie's voice really gets the chance to stand out. I hope everyone will take the time to read this story. It's a winner.

Eleanor's story is also very funny. (I write funny stories so perhaps that's why this element stood out to me in both stories, but I think it's something everyone will enjoy.) It takes skill to make a story involving death funny, and Eleanor does it. I also loved that she set her story at a clown convention. That's imagination at work. And, like Marie, Eleanor has a strong voice. Her first draft had a bit too much detail, but once that came out, her dialogue and internal monologue was able to really shine, making her story one readers will remember with a smile.

Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional is available at Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and is also for sale at Malice Domestic this weekend. A special signing by the contributors in attendance will take place at the opening reception, Friday, April 29, 9:15-10 p.m.



28 April 2016

Janice Law's "Homeward Dove"

by Eve Fisher

Have you ever looked around and realized you're in a dead-end job, in a dead-end town, working your butt off for just enough to keep you in rent and groceries?  Too much drinking, too much junk food, too much wasted time.  A memory of something better - like that girl back in high school - but right now you've settled.  Oh, how you've settled.  The only good thing in your life is fishing, drinking, and the occasional roll in the hay with a woman who's also settled, and doesn't really care...

And it ticks you off, down deep. It should be better than this.  There should at least be a future, right? Maybe a vacation that doesn't involve Motel 6 or a friend's busted out old camper? A better job? A home and family?

And if you can't get that, why should you play it straight?  It's a mug's game, and you don't want to be just another loser.  So you cut corners, do some dicey stuff, make a little money on the side, but you've got your ass covered.  Everything's fine.

And then in she walks.  Not Lana Turner from The Postman Always Rings Twice.  The supervisor from hell, with a clipboard, an attitude, and a taste for money.  The kind of person who knows who's screwing the company, because that's her plan, too.  And she goes straight for your throat.  Pay up, or get fired.  And keep paying, paying, paying...

Welcome to the first 14 pages of Janice Law's new novel, Homeward Dove.  (Available here at Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.)

Our dead-ender is Jeff Woodbine, our supervisor from hell is Michelle, and the high school dream girl is Jess.

So, where do you think this is going to go?  Not where you think.  Like a Coen Brothers' movie, this has twists and turns, dark humor and black deeds, that go places that you don't expect, but when they come, you know they're absolutely right.

Michelle is like all blackmailers, just stupid enough so that her greed makes her feel invincible.  She keeps pushing, and pushing, and pushing for more money.  Jeff is at the end of his rope.  But on the opening day of trout season, when a hungover Jeff climbs out of bed with his f-buddy, Lynn, and goes down to the river to clear his head, who does he find but Michelle, wheeling a toddler down the path.

Well, they're going to get into a fight, right?  Yes.

He's going to kill her, right?  Inadvertently, yes.

The only witness?  A toddler, who can't even speak...

And when he gets back home, Lynn is still asleep, nobody's noticed, everything's fine.

So why does he feel so sick?  And what happens when the police show up?  Thank God - in Jeff's world - for Hurricane Andrew, which gives him a chance to get out of town without seeming like he's running away.  He works hard, cleans up his act, makes some money, lives with it all.

Months later, he's back, to a new job.  And he runs into Jess, the woman he's always wanted, who cried in his arms the night before her marriage to a man who died a few years later, a military hero. She's beautiful, sympathetic, loving; and Leon, her son, is the toddler in the stroller who saw Jeff kill Michelle.

So, where do you think this is going to go?  Not where you think.

There are twists and turns. Conscience and cops.  A fire that damn near destroys everything.  A story that Jeff's grandfather has shared with no one, "Though you're maybe the one to tell."  And when he does, it comes with a warning:  "See you be careful and don't get into [a business] that's as high priced."  But the warning comes too late for Jeff.  What he needs is to know what to do next.

Homeward Dove is like a Coen brothers' or an Alfred Hitchcock movie, where ordinary people in ordinary lives get bad breaks, make bad choices, and do bad things.  Sometimes very bad things. And then try to break free, as frantic as a fly in a spider's web.

You can't help but root for Jeff.  But what's right?  What's fair?  What should happen?  What does?
"Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin.
Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in.
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove...
Dance me to the end of love;
Dance me to the end of love."       Dance me to the end of love - Leonard Cohen

27 April 2016

Berlin Noir

David Edgerley Gates


I mentioned last time around that I'd discovered a new enthusiasm, the Bernie Gunther mystery series written by Philip Kerr. These are period stories, set mostly during WWII, and because Bernie's a German homicide cop, he has to answer to the Nazi chain of command.

I picked up on Bernie mid-stride, reading A MAN WITHOUT BREATH first - the ninth book, which takes place in 1943, and involves the murder of Polish military prisoners by the Russians, at Katyn. My habit, generally, if I happen on a writer I like, is to go back and read their books in the order they were written. Right? Seems only fair. In this case, as it was with Alan Furst, I snatched up what was immediately available, and took one step forward, with THE LADY FROM ZAGREB, and one step back, with PRAGUE FATALE, and then FIELD GRAY. Next on the list is the Berlin Noir trilogy, the first three Bernie novels. I couldn't help myself. I grabbed whatever title was on the library shelf. I was too impatient to wait my turn.

I think there are three elements that make the books so fascinating. The first is historical irony. In more than one novel, actually, the story's framed with a look back, from the later 1940's or the early 1950's. Secondly, there's a constant sense of threat, the Nazi regime a bunch of backstabbers, and Bernie hangs on princes' favors. One dangerous patron is Reinhard Heydrich, a chilly bastard who meets an appropriate end. And thirdly, Bernie is really trying to be a moral person, against all odds. You go along to get along, to simply survive, in a nest of vipers, and hope it doesn't rub off on you. After seeing the Special Action Groups at work in Russia, and himself participating, Bernie is sickened by the whole enterprise. He suspects, too, that the handwriting's on the wall.

Bernie's a Berliner, a guy with street smarts, and too smart a mouth. He fought in the first war, in the trenches, and started out as a cop during Weimar. He has no politics. He's as contemptuous, early on, of the Communists as he is of the Nazis, and then, the better he gets to know the Nazis as they consolidate their power, he comes to realize they aren't the lesser of two evils. They are evil. And it does rub off on you.

This is the question often raised in Alan Furst's books, and the two writers have some things in common, aside from the time-frame and the context of their novels. We don't in fact know how we might behave at a personal breaking point, in the context of Vichy France or Nazi Berlin. It's comforting to think we might Bogart through, but daily life becomes an enormous struggle, for the simplest of things. Having a conscience, or a moral compass, might be a luxury we couldn't afford. We might not rise to the occasion. One of Bernie's superiors in Minsk even quotes Luther - "Here I stand" - and then dismisses it. You can't be serious, he tells Bernie. There's no room for that.

And in the middle of all this, institutionalized murder, mass hysteria, people still commit common crimes for common reasons. They kill people for shoes, or bread, or envy. FIELD GRAY has Bernie trying to solve a homicide inside a POW camp. The fact that he's a POW, and the camp is run by the Russians, only makes the whole thing more surreal. Often enough, it isn't some crazed Nazi weirdness at work, although that usually informs it. Everything's out of square. The truly strange thing is that you begin to see this unbalanced world as somehow the norm, at least to the degree of understanding how to navigate it, and once you go there, you've stepped over the edge. The pit opens.

26 April 2016

House for Sale! Not Haunted!

2475 Glendower Place, Los Feliz (Los Angeles), CA 90027

by Paul D. Marks

Los Feliz Murder House
“First time on the market in over 50 years! Perched on a hill up a long drive way with sweeping views sits this 4 bedroom 3 bath Spanish Revival home on a large lot. Features include grand entrance with a step down living room with serene views, formal dining room, library/study, large kitchen, and a ballroom with bar on the third floor. Three car garage at street level and two car garage at the end of the driveway. Waiting for that special person looking for a wonderful opportunity to remodel or develop,” says the agent’s listing, which you can find at: http://www.bhhscalifornia.com/listing-detail/2475-glendower-place-los-angeles-ca-90027_1843846

All of this for only 2.7 mil (and change). Spare change, for some.

The one thing that the agent forgot to mention in her description is the murder-suicide and attempted murder committed here on December 6, 1959. No biggie. So it definitely might take a “special person” to buy this joint.

According to CA law, I believe the crimes committed in this house need to be disclosed. When my wife and I were looking for our current house several years ago, one of the houses we liked a lot had had a suicide in it and that was disclosed to us. It wasn’t a deal breaker – no, that was the fact that the house needed work and the seller wouldn’t come down, considering the amount of work needed. But one does think about how it would be cozying up in the family room, watching The Haunting and knowing that someone had shot themselves right there. So when that popcorn you were eating is suddenly all gone you might wonder “who” ate it…

But this Los Feliz house (a really great neighborhood by the way) has something on the house we were looking at, a murder and a suicide instead of just a mere suicide. And an attempted murder. I guess today we’d call the killer a family annihilator or at least a family annihilator wanna-be, though I don’t know if the term was in use in 1959.

The house’s architecture is Spanish Revival, similar to the house used in Double Indemnity and the house I grew up in. And my favorite style of home architecture.

Los Feliz Murder House
Apparently the house is frozen in time, a relic of 1959, when Dr. Harold Perelson hit his sleeping wife with a ball-peen hammer till she was dead. He then attacked his daughter Judye, but his bad aim caused her to wake up and run into her parents’ bedroom. Finding her mother dead, she ran out of the house screaming, until the neighbors called the police. The commotion caused the Perelson’s two younger sons to wake up but the good doctor gently told them they were having a nightmare and to go back to bed... but not as bad a nightmare as they probably had when they woke up and found their mother bludgeoned to death.

A neighbor entered the house to see Perelson taking a handful of sleeping pills, lay down on Judye’s bed and count sheep – or maybe dead bodies – while waiting for death, which came before the police. Nobody knows what motivated the good doctor to do what he did. People speculate that he was depressed or had business setbacks, but no one knows for sure.

The house was sold in a 1960 probate sale and the son of the buyer died just this last year. Supposedly another family rented the house right after the sale, adding a Christmas tree and presents, but fled a year later. Since then, no one lived in it except maybe a squatter here or there. But word is, because of the murders, they never stayed long. And the Christmas tree, old and untouched, and presents are still there and supposedly have been all this time.

Rudy Enriquez, the recently deceased son of the home’s buyer, said he used the house for storage but not much else. He could have given it to me, I would have loved it.

Word is that the house is a teardown, both because of its history and because it’s falling apart and in such great disrepair after so many decades. But one has to wonder, does the bad energy of that fateful night linger? And will it linger on this spot if the house is torn down? Oooooh!

Curious Lookie-Loos come up the narrow street and bother the neighbors, parking in their driveways or just using them to turn around. They park and get over the chain-link fence and look around. The gawkers would bother me more than the “ghosts”.

Some people think haunted houses increase a home’s value. Others wouldn’t’ touch them. But as silly as it may sound to some, even “haunted” houses have to be disclosed these days.

Personally, I love Los Feliz. It’s a beautiful neighborhood filled with tons of gorgeous Spanish Revival homes, where my cousins and aunt and uncle lived in a cool Spanish style house, pretty close to this murder house. So, we’d hear stories…about the bogeyman and worse! And when my wife and I were looking for our current house we looked in Los Feliz, but ultimately decided we wanted to be farther out of the city, so where we live now the local little paper has things like saddle stolen on their crime blotter page instead of family bludgeoned to death every other day. Los Feliz is where the main characters in my novel Vortex live. And there’s a really cool bridge there, the Shakespeare Bridge, that is part of a very intense scene.

SHAKESPEARE BRIDGE, LOS FELIZ (LOS ANGELES)
So, if you happen to have 2.7 mil handy, make an offer. If I could afford it I’d put a down payment down right now. And I wouldn’t tear the house down either.

And here’s how the ad should read if there really was truth in advertising:

“Planning that perfect murder? Don’t mess up a virgin house. Famous Murder-Suicide house on the market for first time in over 50 years. Haunted by ghosts of past murders. Perfect for you: Features soundproof walls. Large kitchen with butcher block, perfect for chopping. Formal dining room with wood beams for hanging things from. Ball-peen hammer room on the third floor. Stainmaster carpet throughout. Only two people died here. Three got away. You might too...”

(Hat Tip to Leigh Lundin for suggesting this piece, though not the tone of it. And I hope I haven’t offended anyone with my gallows humor. ’Cause so many are offended so easily these days…)

***


25 April 2016

Brief Encounters of the Story Kind

by Stephen Ross

Writing a book or a short story is like a relationship. You meet a pretty girl (you think of a cool idea for a plot). You discover the girl is super smart and intelligent (the idea has depth and resonance, and is compelling), and you become even more attracted to her. You start on page one (you ask her out), and there begins your relationship in earnest. Your first several dates go off without a hitch, and you make good progress on the first draft. The relationship grows and blossoms.

Without extending this metaphor into the realms of the surreal, you fall madly in love (you get into the zone of writing the story), and love (your writing) flows as poetically as a Shakespearean sonnet on a summer's day.

Pause for sighing. Ahhhh...

But, unlike in the real world, your relationship with your story is doomed to failure because, at some point, the relationship has to end. It must end. You can't keep writing the same story for the rest of your life. There has to be closure. We writers sometimes spend so much time with our creations, they are describable as significant others: loved and cherished, honored and obeyed, and breaking up can be hard to do.

Sometimes, the breakup might be mutually beneficial, especially when the story has been a hard write, and there's been a lot of bickering between you and it in the course of its telling. You know those stories, the ones with lots of long silent nights sat staring at each other, with nothing to say. And you're just mopping up the loose ends, to get it over with, so you can go your separate ways, with both hoping to survive the bitter separation.

Worse, still, is when you leave the story for another. And it sits there, alone, in the café of your soul, drinking endless cups of coffee waiting for your return. And when you do return (after your torrid affair with another story), it's never the same.

For most writers, writing is rewriting. I think only in movies (and in our dreams) does anyone start on page one, spend a couple of months working through to page 400, type in THE END, and then send the completed book off to a publisher (where, of course, it immediately sells and is immediately published)). The first draft is merely the gateway into the story. The real writing comes in the rewriting.

But rewriting can't last forever. How many times can you read over a story and refine it and polish it? Every time through you find something new to fiddle with and adjust: another adverb to throw out, another debatably redundant word or phrase to toss, another he said or she said that can be dropped, because it's quite obvious who is talking.

And every time you get to the end of a read over, you think, yeah, let's do this just one more time.

The best way to end a story is at the train station.


You're about to board the train (to continue on your journey), and your story is going to wave goodbye from the platform. You both know it can't go on, that you must part, that it's over. You're done. All that needs to be said has been said, and you both know it.

The encounter, albeit brief, has come to an end.

Your train departs.

You both wave goodbye.

Tears.

To actually go ahead and shunt this metaphor firmly into the realms of the surreal, your story then becomes your child.

It goes off on its own, and you have little or no more control over it. All you can do is sit back and watch as it grows and makes its way in the world.

Hopefully, it'll graduate from high school (i.e., sell and get published). Hopefully, at least, somebody might say some nice things about it. It might even get lucky and get nominated for an award; it might even win one.

It might even mature into an adult and get picked up by another medium: audio, film, theater, computer game (and who knows what else awaits us in the future). And it might even one day grow up to be considered something rather special: an outstanding story among its peers.

And one thing is absolutely for certain: no "mights "about it. Your story will outlive you. And long after you have gone, someone somewhere may still know of it, have a copy in his or her hand, and perceive a sense of the love that once bloomed.

Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and we can still feel the resonance of love in his writing:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it...

Be seeing you.

P.S. The photo is a still from the 1945 movie Brief Encounter. If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat.

https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author/
http://www.StephenRoss.net

24 April 2016

Shakespeare's Words at 400

by Dale C. Andrews 
William Shakespeare:  You will never age for me, nor fade, nor die.  
                                                              Marc Norman
                                                              Shakespeare in Love:  A Screenplay 
I understand a fury in your words.  But not your words.
                                                              William Shakespeare
                                                              Othello 

       Shakespeare, we are told, died on his birthday -- 400 years ago yesterday. It was Shakespeare himself, in Sonnet 18, who predicted that his works would be with us "[s]o long as men can breathe or eyes can see."  That observation has proven prescient.  Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, after 400 years, are staking out a great case for immortality. But that is not to say they are also age-less. The English language has seen a lot of changes since Shakespeare gave up the ghost.

      Language can sometimes lull us into a sense of presentism. Because it evolves slowly it is easy to assume that it doesn’t really change all that much. But that is not the case. Language growth may be a slow process but it is also an inexorable one.  Measuring that growth is at its easiest when we are confronted with literature borne of a different time.  This is readily apparent in the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare.  But before we get there, lets pause for a minute to contemplate more recent language changes.

       As discussed in a previous article, each year’s new edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is accompanied by a description of new words that have been added in a race to keep up with the evolution of our language. We are about due for the 2016 update to this list, but back in spring of 2015 over 1700 new words were added to the the dictionary’s list of recognized words. These included “emoji,” “net neutrality,” and “meme.” Also on the list was the now nearly ubiquitous exclamation “WTF.” (I suppose this is helpful -- if someone asks what it means now you can simply say “look it up!”) 

       The editors of the dictionary take all of this vocabulary evolution very seriously. Their goal, after all, is not one of creating new words but rather of acknowledging the new words that have already become accepted in conversation. To do this, according to Merriam-Webster, the publishers must seek out words that have been “used in a substantial number of citations that come from a wide range of publications over a considerable period of time,” Merriam-Webster’s publishers note that “the word must have enough citations to allow accurate judgments about its establishment, currency, and meaning.” 

     Even when a word makes the cut its meaning may not be set in stone (or the dictionary page). Common and accepted words over the course of time may find their meaning completely changed. According to the Oxford Dictionary the words "learn" and "let," for example, now mean the opposite of their former use. Other words (a good example is “sanction”) continue to have directly opposite meanings based strictly on how they are used in a sentence. Other words evolve to mean different things in different geographic settings. If an issue is “moot” in the United States it is not ripe for discussion, but in England the word implies that the issue is. Similarly an issue that is “tabled” is ready for discussion in England but decidedly not so in the United States. (Talk about separated by a common language!) 

       All of this, however, focuses on the addition of new words and their subsequent evolution. But an evolving language also involves subtraction. Over the years there are many words and phrases that simply fall by the wayside, unable to keep up with their comrades. These fallen soldiers predictably linger on in the dictionary for a while, usually branded with the word “archaic,” before giving up their own ghost and disappearing altogether. 

     Literature is the best museum for such words. It is amazing how rapidly writing can become dated simply because the words chosen by the author no longer seem right to a reader years down the line. The more years there are between writing and reading, the larger the problem.

       And what better example of this than Shakespeare? The shear brilliance of Shakespeare's works has ensured that 400 years later they are still a familiar part of our world.  But that is not to say that reading or listening to a performance of Shakespeare is an easy task.

       We are all taught that Shakespeare’s greatness was partially based on the fact that he wrote in the language of the people. And there, as Shakespeare might have said, is the rub. The irony of Shakespeare’s use of language common to his time is that his literature becomes, as a result, difficult to parse today because centuries later many of his words are no longer those of the people. And I am not just talking about just an occasional “thy” and “thou." How about this from King Henry the Fourth, Part I
As the honey of Hybla, my old lad of the castle -- and is not a buff jerkin in a most sweet robe of durance?
         What!!?

        As a public service there are several sites on the internet that have been established solely to help the vocabulary-challenged reader muddle his or her way through Shakespearean prose and poetry. Here are just a few examples of common words and phrases used by The Bard that now require further explanation: 
  • Anon -- in a little while 
  • Belike -- with considerable certainty  
  • Betimes -- in good time 
  • Betwixt -- in the interval 
  • Bourn -- a boundary 
  • Bruit -- tell or spread rumors 
  • Buckram -- a coarse cotton fabric stiffened with glue 
  • Cap-a-pie -- at all points from head to foot 
  • Cozen -- be dishonest with 
  • Fain -- having made preparations 
  • Fardel -- a burden, literally a bundle 
  • Haply -- by accident 
  • Hautboy -- a slender double-reed instrument   
  • Hugger mugger -- to act stealthily or secretively 
  • Incarnadine -- redden or make flesh-colored 
  • Meed -- a fitting reward 
  • Mote -- a tiny piece of anything 
  • Nonce -- the present occasion 
  • Orison -- reverent petition to a deity 
  • Palter -- being deliberately ambiguous or unclear in order to mislead 
  • Rood -- a crucifix 
  • Shrive -- a contemptuous term of address to an inferior man or boy 
  • Sooth -- truth or reality  
  • Swain -- a man who is the lover of a child or young woman 
  • Thou -- the cardinal number that is the product of 10 and 100 
  • Vouchsafe -- grant in a condescending manner 
  • Welkin -- the surface of an imaginary sphere on which celestial bodies appear 
  • Withal -- together with this 
  • Wonted -- commonly used or practiced; usual 
And note that as helpful as all of this might generally be, none of it is any help when it comes to deciphering that King Henry the Fourth, Part I quote! 

       Of course the problem lies not just in the works of Shakespeare. His writing is a good example of the problem simply because it has endured so long, a process that ensures the maximum number of dated words. Pick up any classic golden age mystery and the same problem, to a lesser degree, presents itself even where only 75 years separates the pen from the reader. 

       And as words depart from the realm of accepted usage dictionaries must take note of this as well. Just as words are constantly being added to dictionaries, so, too, others are quietly disappearing. You will no longer find “aerodrome” in the Collins Dictionary. And, as The Guardian noted a few years back, that word is in good company: 
Other words on the [deleted] list include "wittol"– a man who tolerates his wife's infidelity, which has not been much used since the 1940s. The terms "drysalter", a dealer in certain chemical products and foods, and "alienism", the study and treatment of mental illness, have also faded from use. Some of the vanished words are old-fashioned modes of transport such as the "cyclogiro", a type of aircraft propelled by rotating blades, and charabanc, a motor coach. 
     It is probably inevitable that this process cannot take place without some folks voicing objections. The same fervor that inspires us to form groups committed to saving almost anything poised on the brink of extinction has also provided a catalyst for various groups to champion the restoration of some of the more colorful words that have been deemed, as a result of diminished usage, obsolete. And, truth be told, you have to admire some of these proffered candidates. Take, for example, the following gathered from various “save the word” sites scattered throughout the Internet: 
  • Apricity -- feeling the warmth of the sun in winter 
  • Beef-witted -- An inactive brain resulting from eating too much beef 
  • Brabble -- Loudly arguing about something inconsequential 
  • California widow -- A married woman whose husband is away 
  • Cockalorum -- A small person with an inflated view of themselves (in this election year wouldn’t that one come in handy!) 
  • Crapulous -- feeling ill due to over-indulgence 
  • Curglaff -- The shock of stepping into cold bath water 
  • Curmuring -- the rumbling sound produced by bowels 
  • Fuzzle -- To get someone drunk 
  • Gorgonize -- Projecting a hypnotic effect 
  • Groak -- silently watching someone while they eat in the hope you will be invited to join in 
  • Grumpish -- How you feel when you are grumpy 
  • Jargogle -- to confuse or bamboozle 
  • Jirble -- Decanting with an unsteady hand 
  • Lethophobia -- the fear of oblivion
  • Ludibrious -- someone apt to be the butt of a joke 
  • Lunting -- smoking a pipe while walking 
  • Resistentialism -- the malevolent behavior displayed (all too often) by inanimate objects (hammers in proximity to thumb, for example) 
  • Snoutfair -- Displaying a pleasing countenance 
       Joining the bandwagons and re-introducing any of these words into your own writing can be tempting. But beware -- by doing so you may risk showing your age.  And, as Hamlet decried:
Age, with his stealing steps, hath clawed me in his clutch.

23 April 2016

Where have all the Readers gone? (in which our Bad Girl gets serious for a change...)

Read interesting stats today from Kobo.
Apparently, 75% of ebook readers are women.

(Back in the days when I first started teaching about writing, the early 90s, the stat was 60%. That is, 60% of readers were women .)

Back to the Kobo study:
Of that 75% of readers who are women, 77% are 45 and older.

The largest single group (30%) are 55-64 years old.  (I now fit in that age group. Curses.)

The reports states that the typical prolific reader (that would be me) buys on average 16 print books a year and 60 ebooks.

For all you math types, that's a total of 76 books.

Back up to my college class two weeks ago.  I ran a quick poll.  "How many books do you read in a year?"  I asked.

The poll was confidential.  I ripped up pieces of paper and had them write down their total.  They dropped the anonymous slips on a table on the way out.

The results were shocking.  Let me state first that this is a college credit continuing education class, so we have students of all ages in it.  Crafting a Novel is at the top end of the Creative Writing Certificate - most people take it last, because it is rigorous.  (You have to write a full synopsis and many chapters of your novel by the end.)  So these aspiring novel writers would be avid readers, right?

Books Read in a Year:

Most number of books read:  26
Average number of books read:  7
Least number of books read:  1

Yes, in a writing class of 20, only one person reads 2 books a month.
And one fellow manages to read one book a year.  But he wants to write a novel.

By now, if you are a writer, you should be hitting your head against your desk.

So who is reading books out there?
Women
Aged 55-64

And what are they reading?
Romance
General Fiction (whatever that is)
Mystery
(But twice the number of romance books as the other two categories.)

I have 20 students in my Crafting a Novel class.
No one is writing romance.
No one is writing mystery.
Almost everyone is writing a Hunger Games clone.  (Not the exact title. You know what I mean.)

Stephen King said it best.  "If you want to be a writer, you have to do two things: read a lot and write a lot."

If you are an established writer, reading is part of your professional development.  Every published novelist I know reads several books a month.  I read an average of two books a week.  That's over 100 books a year.  (One hour a night, people.  That's seven hours a week.  Not unreasonable.)

I weep.  I weep for the waste of time, effort and paper.  Can somebody please tell me why anyone would set out to write a novel when they don't read and read and read as a hobby?

(Bad Girl isn't usually this grumpy.  But it's marking time.  I may just kill someone.  I may kill myself...)

www.melodiecampbell.com







22 April 2016

New House (and Backyard Writing Studio)

'Screaming Eagles' patch of
101st Airborne Div. (AASLT)
by Dixon Hill

As many of you probably know, I met my wife when we both worked for Military Intelligence, in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).

One off-shoot of this fact, is that we both grew used to an itinerant lifestyle.  She and I lived many of our single-life years in army barracks.  Before landing at the 101st, she spent time at Ft. Huachuca in Arizona, followed by a year in South Korea.  I lived in Monterrey, CA for a year and a half, studying Arabic, then spent several months, each, at Goodfellow AFB, TX and Ft. Devens, Mass.

After my wife, Madeleine, received an honorable discharge, she moved out to where I (by then) was on an A-Team, so we rented an apartment in Fayetteville, NC, outside Fort Bragg, until I received my own honorable discharge.  Arriving in Scottsdale, afterward, we were used to living in places we didn't own, so we continued to rent while raising our family.

A few months ago, though, we decided to use the G.I Bill and buy a house.

Yep!  This is the house.  I know: It's pretty darn green.  And the yard needs work.
But, Mad likes the tree, and I'm not stupid, so the tree is staying.
We like the older houses in South Scottsdale.  'Older,' around here, means they were built in the late '50s or in the '60s.  The house we closed on, yesterday (yep! the day before this post went up online), was built in 1959.

As you can see from the photo, it's ... well ... green.

This has nothing to do with our military background.  We suspect there was a sale on green paint, because several houses in the area are painted the same color.  And, we plan to make some changes to the paint scheme, because -- frankly -- our years in the army provided enough exposure to the color green, as far as we're concerned.  (Though we do like a nice green lawn -- something I'm going to get cracking on, next week, after we're moved in.)

Not Mine
The house may have been built in 1959, but it's solid, built of block, and suits our needs well, with a living room and large kitchen (big enough for the farm table my wife wants), a nice back patio, a fireplace and swimming pool, as well as three bedrooms and a room (where the carport used to be) that my youngest son can set up as a game room.  And, it has one more thing.
Nope, not this one!


Not Mine, either.
There is a large concrete slab in the backyard, which was clearly used for parking an R.V. sometime in the past.  I used to be an SF Engineer, and we did more than just blowing things up.  We also built things.  Out of lumber, rough timbers, even concrete and steel (when we got the chance).  So, I checked out the pad, and realized it was strong enough for what we needed.

The plan is, we're going to put my Backyard Writing Studio on this pad.

If you haven't thought of backyard offices, or studios, let me tell you: There are a lot of folks who have them these days, judging from what I found online.  I've done quite a bit of research -- both in-person and online -- and posted some of the pics (above) that I found, to give you an idea of what's out there.

But, I don't think mine will look much like those.  Not at first, anyway.  We contemplated the idea of my building the thing, but I think there's an easier solution.  We're still not quite sure yet, but I suspect my studio will initially look like this:

"Duratemp Side Utility" building from Weather King.  Interior unfinished.  Priced about $4,000, including delivery.
Those double doors on the front, when removed, leave an opening that measures just the right size to permit the installation of a sliding glass door without extensive adjustment.  The interior is unfinished, but the 2x4 studs, at 16-inches on center, permit easy insulation addition, while the roof 2x8's will handle R-30 insulation.

I don't do electrical work, so I'll hire an electrician to wire the place for plugs and lighting, as well as a window 110V A/C unit I plan to install on the side away from the house (and, an exhaust fan, of course, to get rid of my cigar smoke at times).  I can handle the dry wall and flooring without any problem.  In the future, we can decide if I want to upgrade the exterior, and maybe add a wooden deck around it or a pergola-type shade structure out front.

True, my Backyard Writing Studio probably won't end up looking as nice as those others, but the price is right, and it sure beats sitting out on my apartment balcony as the Arizona summer comes marching in!

See you in two weeks!
--Dixon

21 April 2016

Our Happy Places

by Brian Thornton

The Needles–Cannon Beach, Oregon
First light: 6:14.

At 6:10 I was up and dressed, slipping out of the room with deliberate movements, careful not to wake either my wife or my son.

We had discussed this scenario the night before. "I hope you do it," she said. "I think it'll make you feel so great."

Wise woman.

I was not yet three months old the first time I visited Cannon Beach, Oregon. My mother's family had been vacationing there for years by the time I was born.

My grandmother, born and raised a Nebraska farm girl, was always an early riser, and used to get up and out before the rest of us awoke, and take long, solitary, early morning walks on the beach. This was the subject of no little amusement on the part of the rest of my family.

But she was always finding interesting things on those early morning walks: colorful shells, wave-sculpted pieces of driftwood. Once she found a dead sea lion washed up on the sand. Another time she discovered a forty foot-long lifeboat lost in a storm by one of the luxury liners that plied the waters off the coast. (She got salvage rights on that one, and made the local paper, too.).

Most of all, she just seemed so happy after one of her excursions.

Once I was old enough, I convinced her to let me tag along from time to time.
Ecola Head Lighthouse

The memories we made on those mornings are some of my happiest. My grandmother could be close-mouthed and tart-tongued. Standing barely five feet, she was indomitable will personified. Her nick-name growing up was "Serious Dorothy."

On those walks I got to see another side of her. I got to see joy. And to share it.

That has stayed with me throughout my life.

In fact, when I went into the military, I picked the Navy, partly because of what I considered a life-long love affair with the sea. Turned out it wasn't the sea I loved, so much as the coast.

And in my five decades on the planet, I've seen a lot of different stretches of coastline, on a variety of continents. Wild coast, civilized coast, touristy coast, deserted coast. Hell, I live in Puget Sound, which has some of the loveliest coastline you'll find anywhere.

And yet none of it has the effect on me that Cannon Beach does.

For those of you unfamiliar with the place, it's the "Goonies Beach" (the stretch of coastline featured at the end of the film "The Goonies."). It's rocky and usually windy, and altogether magical. Its most famous feature is Haystack Rock: the largest free-standing monolithic coastal rock in the Northern Hemisphere.

Haystack Rock, with one of the Needles to its left. Who is that mysterious figure in the lower right-hand corner of this pic?
And on this particular Monday morning in April, with the sun not yet up, and the day promising to be both unseasonably warm and unseasonably sunny, I had the entire beach to myself.

It was just God, the Rock, and Me.

I came to Cannon Beach every summer of my youth, only ceasing to make the annual trek with my family when I went into the military at age 19, and couldn't make it home during that part of the year. And then there was college, graduate school, and carving out a career.

And sure, I've been back since, but not for any great length of time, and usually when the weather
was so bad you'd be hard-pressed to tell where the rain squall you were trudging through ended and where the ocean began. And I've also stayed on the Oregon coast since. But with apologies to Gearheart, and Seaside, Rockaway Beach and Manzanita, none of those trips, all fun, all involving family, has filled me up in quite the same way those childhood romps on Cannon Beach did.

I well recall my final childhood walk on that beach. I'd just turned 18, and had hurt my right knee working for a salvage company that same summer. So during the week my family spent at the beach, I spent the majority of it on a couch with a view of the ocean and my nose stuck in a book.

On our final day there, with everyone, Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, my brother, aunts, uncles and cousins all out of the house, I decided I'd been cooped up long enough, and started hobbling down the beach, brace and all. By the time I decided to turn around, I'd walked the five miles down to Hug Point!

That misty headland off in the distance, past the rocks? That's Hug Point. In the distance behind it is Arch Cape.
I can dimly recall what came after. My parents walking down the beach looking for me, looking relieved and happy when they encountered me, tired and happy (and with a throbbing knee!) returning up the beach. That, along with the pleasant stroll we shared up that stretch of sand, past the Rock and to our rental just north of it, that stands out in stark relief. But starting college a month later, feeling rudderless and eventually joining the navy, well, that's all kind of a blur.

But that last walk on the beach?

It was just the thing for me.

And apparently it still is.

Because on the first Monday morning in April of this year, I did the same thing. As before, it was our last day of vacation. Only this time my knee wasn't in a brace (still aches when it's gonna rain though, go figure). And this trip it was just myself, my wife, and my not quite four year-old son. And when I'd mentioned I was considering getting up early and walking the mile or so it took to get to Haystack from our hotel room, my late riser wife was all for it. She'd handle our son (no mean feat). I could have the time and the headspace and the experience.

Magic.

Just God, the Rock, and Me...

...And the spirit of my grandmother. And my parents walking beside me. And two days before, when I walked that beach for the first time with my own son. (Yep. That mysterious figure...).

We all have our Happy Places, the ones that are a part of us, and of which we are a portion (with apologies to the ghost of John Donne). Up until my most recent trip to mine, I'd been struggling with a couple of long-term writing projects, wondering whether I'd lost the touch that allowed me to write and publish ten books in six years.

I'm married. And a father. And if my latest tax return is to be believed, a home owner. Now don't get me wrong. I love being married. And I love being a father. But these roles don't come with a light load when it comes to responsibilities of the time and headspace-consuming varieties.

I'm not different from most guys at this stage in life. I've got distractions upon distractions upon distractions. For me, the kind of headspace required to write has been in short supply for some time.

And also for me, writing is a part of me. Not being able to get any real traction in a good long while had begun to make me feel I had a cramp in a muscle I couldn't locate. In its own way, my being blocked by lack of headspace/time had become its own variety of distraction.

I'd been feeling for a while like I needed to find some way to reset the mechanism. Too much precious time I'd spent in front of the monitor and keyboard, tapping away and getting nowhere. So when my wife asked where I'd like to go for my birthday this year, the choice popped right into my head.



And God love her, she made it happen.

It should go without saying that there's a happy ending to this post. Hell, it ought to go without saying that the impetus to write it in the first place has been the enduring sense of profound joy I've carried around with me in the weeks since our vacation at Cannon Beach, capped by my own solitary stroll, that lustrous Monday morning.

And as I and my personal ghosts communed on that not-so-lonely stretch of beach on that lovely, windy, sunny, gorgeous Monday morning, I felt light, as if relieved of a great weight. And as if the scales before my eyes had dropped, and I could see again.

And I'm writing, really writing, again.

And once and again, as i sit down to write, I embody wonder. While mentally reliving the youthful gambols of my more tender years, I give voice to glee. And through it all, I am the face of rapture.

The very countenance of joy.

.....Just God, the Rock, and Me...


20 April 2016

Grammar Police Procedural


by Robert Lopresti

Last year I was teaching a course at the university where I work and since it was what is known as "writing intensive" I invited a representative from the Writing Center to come talk to the class.  The Writing Center (now part of the library's Research and Writing Studio) is a place where students get assistance from specially-trained students on anything from creating a thesis statement to citing a term paper properly.

The writing coach (a pro, by the way, not one of the student peers) asked all of us to name our pet peeves in terms of grammar mistakes.  What bugs you when you see it in writing?


I had several to suggest, and that got me paying close attention to what was handed in as the course progressed.  In fact, I became so invested  I told the students they could get up to three extra credit points on the final paper, simply by not making the three mistakes that irritated me the most.  They didn't have to use these elements correctly; they just had to avoid using them wrong. 

Below is a list of my current complaints.  You will find the Evil Three at the top of the list.  Please add your own peeves in the comments.


Available at Zazzle
Apostrophe Abuse.  If you can substitute his for its then its does not get an apostrophe.   I will leave  other uses of the handy hangy-down thing as a student's exercise.  (Or an as exercise for the students.  But not as an exercise for the student's.)

Semicolon.  In Donald E. Westlake's wonderful posthumous book of essays, The Getaway Car, he offers a spirited defense of the poor abused semicolon.  If you don't like it, by all means, don't use it, but use a period instead, not a comma.  Thank you.

Affect/Effect.  I admit that until I taught this course I wasn't 100% confident on this one myself.  The problem is that, while affect is almost always a verb and effect is almost always a noun, they each do have uncommon uses with the opposite part of speech.  Try explaining that  to a freshman.

Lose/Loose.  This is one of those Spellcheck Curses.  People seem to lose the ability to spell lose.

Poorly/Badly.  I don't have a rule about this one.  It's just a mess.  I feel poorly usually means I am sick.  I feel badly could mean I regret or My fingers don't work.  Any thoughts?

Around/About.  I just noticed this one this week, although I have certainly heard it before.  An otherwise eloquent speaker kept saying things like "We talked around the subjects of blah, blah..."  This is fresh academic jargon for broadly discussed.  Sorry; talked around means avoided the subject of X.


Available at Labelmakers.
Times Less Than.  This one bugs me so much that i can tell you exactly where I was the first time I saw it.  It was an ad for cosmetics in a grocery store.  Here's the deal: if the sales price is  three times less than $40, it is minus $80.  You can find webpages claiming "times less than' is acceptable, but you can also find websites claiming Elvis Presley is married to Bigfoot.  Try this page for my side.

And by the way: a recent article in a prominent scholarly journal told us what we all suspected; People who correct each other's grammar are jerks.  Feel free to dive into the comments and join me in the jerk pool.



P.S.  All the typos and apparent errors you find in this column are placed there deliberately.  At least, you can't prove otherwise.

19 April 2016

Back Pain Attacks Writers and Readers


Do you love books? Reading them, writing them, anything to do with them?
And have you ever had back pain?

Chances are high that you said yes to both books and back pain. This is a site for mystery lovers, after all, and approximately 84 percent of adults get low back pain at some time in their lives.⁠1 ⁠2 So you and I are not alone.

(Wouldn’t that make a great birthday card? Happy 18th birthday! Party hard, because now you have an 8 out of 10 chance of hurting your back!)

So listen. I’m an emergency doctor who loves books. I decided to tackle this sucker by writing THE EMERGENCY DOCTOR’S GUIDE TO A PAIN-FREE BACK, which releases Thursday, April 21st.

Obligatory disclaimer: I am a doctor, but I’m not your doctor, so you have to go see your own health care  practitioner. All I can do is give you helpful advice on treatment and prevention.

I pored over research articles. I read other books and considered both traditional and integrative approaches, including acupuncture, yoga, and diet. What struck me is that some people want to give advice without anchoring it on research, so I’m proud to say that I included studies written right up until January 2016.

The other thing that struck me was that a lot of fact-based books were super dull, so mine is short, funny, and full of cartoons and pictures because hey, life is short.

Here are three tips for readers and writers:

1. You don’t have to be a book lover to get back pain. Even sitting all the time doesn’t automatically cause back pain⁠ 3, although it does predispose you to other problems (coronary artery disease, diabetes, breast and colon cancer ⁠4…I know! I’m full of good news today!). So try to get up and move throughout your day.

2. After you go see your doctor, you may well get diagnosed with non-specific low back pain. More than 85 percent of the time, we don’t find a particular cause.5 I consider that good news, because you don’t want the herniated disc, fracture, infection, or cancer. You want to get better. Fast. And to do that…

Kathleen can do it. So can you!
3. “Don’t tell me I have to exercise,” groaned more than one writer-friend on Facebook.
Yes, I’ve got triple good news for you. You do have to exercise once you get over your initial agony, or to prevent it in the first place. Exercise and education reduce your risk of a back pain episode by 25 to 40 percent, as shown in a 2016 meta-analysis by Dr. Daniel Steffens and colleagues at the University of Sydney. They considered 21 randomized control trials of 30,850 people.6

There’s no hard evidence on which type or amount of exercise is best. “It seems to matter less exactly what type of exercise you do than that you do it in a regular way,” said Dr. Timothy S. Carey, a physician at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who co-authored a commentary on the mega-study by Steffens.

So choose exercise that you like, and do it. Cardio, core, strength training, flexibility, and working your upper and lower limbs were all included in that mega-study.

Since we’re all busy, I developed a three-pronged exercise program where you can even work on your strength and flexibility in bed, at work, and while watching TV. My program is meant to be accessible to everyone. Look at my friend Kathleen. She’s a senior citizen, and she’s hitting it hard. With my book!

Click cover to preorder e-book now for a special price of $5.99 (regular price $9.99).
Direct Amazon.com link here.
Bottom line: most of us will get back pain sooner or later. As someone who loves words, you’re already at at advantage to prevent it through education. Keep reading and start moving, and you'll save your energy for more fun stuff like cat detectives and hard-bitten thrillers.


1 Deyo RA, Tsui-Wu YJ. Descriptive epidemiology of low-back pain and its related medical care in the United States. Spine. 1987; 12:264.
2 Cassidy JD, Carroll LJ, Côté P. The Saskatchewan health and back pain survey. The prevalence of low back pain and related disability in Saskatchewan adults. Spine. 1998; 23:1860.
3 Chen SM, Liu MF, Cook J et al. Sedentary lifestyle as a risk factor for low back pain: a systematic review. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. 2009 Jul, 82(7): 797-806
4 Lee I, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F et al. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. The Lancet. 380(9838): 219-229
5 Deyo RA, Weinstein JN. Low back pain. N Engl J Med 2001;344: 363-70
6 Steffens D, Maher CG, Pereira LS, et al. Prevention of Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Jan 11:1-10. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.7431.