31 May 2016

Aliens, Hot Dogs, and the Case of the Missing Rat Island

by Melissa Yi

Once upon a time, experimenters took a bunch of rats and divided them into two groups. Both groups were dropped into a tankful of opaque water, but one group had an island, not visible under the surface, so those rats could eventually rest with their heads above water. The other group would…swim until they sank.

Luckily, the experimenters pulled all the rats out of the water before they could drown.

The next day, they set both both groups of rats in the island-less tank.

The rats who’d had islands swam twice as long as the rats who’d never had an island.

Bestselling author Jennifer Crusie pointed out that if you’re a writer with an island—basically, a writer with faith, a writer with resilience, a writer with grit, a writer who’ll keep swimming, writing, perfecting the craft, submitting, and persevering twice as long—that is the ticket to success.

For years, I’ve wrestled with this concept. It totally makes sense. But how can you force yourself to become a rat with an island? You can’t just hit yourself on the head and say, “Zowee, now I know everything will work out, if not this century, then the next!”

I got a clue last week, when I flew from Montreal to Los Angeles for Sci-Fest LA. I was a finalist for the Roswell Award for the best short science fiction, for the second year in a row. I was pretty sure a comical story like “Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs” wouldn’t win, so I considered staying home.

Then I thought, Nope. I’m going. I’m going to have fun and celebrate, whether or not I win $1000.

Award-winning Hollywood actor Rico E. Anderson read my story. Yes, that Rico E. Anderson. Boras in Star Trek: Renegades. The man in Criminal Minds, Modern Family, Young & Hungry, and Bones, and The Fosters in June. He got his first big break in the 2005 Academy Award Winning short film, Mighty Times: The Children's March.

Do you prefer theatre? Rico’s got you covered. His stage credits include Oedipus and Malcolm X.

Or, if you’re like my dental hygienist today, you’ll recognize him best from a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
So no wonder I was surprised and delighted by Rico’s interpretation of “Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs.” He seized the audience’s attention from the first syllable. He adopted voices for different characters, including aliens, a homeless man, and a pack of skateboarders. He winked. He worked the spotlight. He was funny, dynamic, and likeable.

The audience laughed and cheered.

And yet I didn’t win the Roswell Award.

<Pause to grieve.>

So many people adored my story, though. “It was so funny!" “The judges were absolutely gleeful after reading your story.” “I try to keep an eye out for stories that are suitable for young adults, and yours was it.” “Promise me you’ll keep on writing.”

And I loved Rico’s interpretation.

I could slink back to Canada, quietly weeping over my defeat.

Melissa Yuan-Innes and Rico E. Anderson
Or I could try something else. Something a rat with an island might do.

We weren’t allowed to record Rico’s performance at the Roswell Awards. But what if he recorded it later, and we released it as an audio book?

This is a financial gamble. A short science fiction story by a relatively unknown author isn’t going to light up the bestseller lists any time soon. This would be a special project. One for people who love wee gems, who support the underdog and love art for art’s sake.

Rico and I are going to crowdfund it. I decided to avoid Kickstarter and just have donations go to PayPal through olobooks [at] gmail [dot] com, to try and make every penny count. Both of us are committed to making the best production possible.

And the rewards. The rewards!

Any donation: heartfelt thanks and a backstage picture of Rico shirtless (to show off the wounds for Grey’s Anatomy, not just to ogle). Goal: unlocked! I’m posting it to my website (http://melissayuaninnes.com/bringing-humans-n-hot-dogs-to-life/in case any SleuthSayers have sensitive eyes.
Wiener ($5): an advance e-book copy of Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs and enormous thanks from Rico and me.
Pepperoni ($10): an advance deluxe e-book copy of Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs, including cartoons, inside tips on how to how to network in Los Angeles, and behind-the-scenes stories from Sci-Fest LA, Caltech, and Buzzfeed
Bangers ($20): deluxe e-book and you’ll be the first to hear the audio book, before it’s uploaded to Audible, iTunes, and other retailers. Humans ’n’ Hot Dogs all the way!
Chorizo($25): now we’re cooking. Deluxe e-book, audio book, and line producer credit in the book.
Andouille ($30): now we’re sizzling. All the previous rewards, co-producer credit in the book, plus a copy of my audio book, The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World and Other True Tales From the Emergency Room
Bratwurst ($50): smells absolutely delicious in here. Must be your generosity. Includes all of the above, with associate producer credit in the book
Mortadella ($100): every single previous reward, with executive producer credit in the book, an autographed photo of Rico (yes, he’ll even do the shirtless one if you ask nicely), and a copy of the print book, shipped anywhere in the world for free. Yes, a real, live, print book that you can pass on to future generations, along with Rico’s stunning rendition of my oeuvre.

In other words, Rico and I are going for broke.

He’s a full-time actor in Los Angeles. He’s used to taking this kind of risk.

Me? Not so much. I no longer feel like rejections are mental razor blades, but I’m embarrassed when people turn me down. Yet I can see how handling failure wisely is one of the keys to success.

Rico and I may fail.

We may fail spectacularly.

But we’re both going to keep on swimming, and we hope you do, too.



Sleuths: are you a rat with an island? If so, how did you get that way?

30 May 2016

Where Have All The Heroes Gone?

by Jan Grape

Memorial Day 2016

I guess I noticed it more in the Sunday Comics. Our newspaper only had one comic strip that even mentioned the True Meaning of Memorial Day. OVER THE HEDGE by Michael Fry and T. Lewis. Thank you gentlemen. They mention "Remembering Our Fallen Heroes" With the last frame showing an American Flag. Two other strips mention BBQ or grilling in the back yard. Okay, maybe the other comic strips remembering the Fallen Heroes will be in tomorrow's papers. A lot of people only take the Sunday paper and everything shows up much better in color print.

When did this just become a day to grill out doors, buy a new mattress or travel on the first official day of summer? Maybe I'm just getting too old and a little cranky. But I remember when all the comics would do something special to bring up the fact that the day was set aside to remember those we've lost in war.

We still are involved in wars going on all over the Middle East. Undeclared wars for sure but American Military young people, male and female are still coming home in body bags.  Maybe nowadays we don't like to think about war. Congress won't even bring it up for debate. Almost every town and many big cities usually had a parade. I guess I'll check on the news tonight and see if any parades took place.

I was born in 1939. Okay, you do the math. For the next few years War was almost all people talked about or thought about. I was a teen in the 50s the time of the Korean War and a young mother during Vietnam. But people still talked about it. Young people protested it. Young men burned their draft cards and fled to Canada. Then the first Iraq war happened and suddenly the military was honored again. But our now those wars have been going on so long that maybe people have become complacent and jaded.

One of the first big memories of my dad happened when I was six years old and living with my grandparents in the Houston area. We actually lived ten miles from the Houston City limits. I was home from school, first grade, because I had chicken pox. My mother worked at the Consolidated Aircraft factory in Ft. Worth and it was too difficult to be absent from your job. In fact, you could be fired if you were absent without a doctor's written excuse.  Mother sent me to live with my grandparents for a few months.  I was mostly over the pox but had not gone back to school yet.

 Suddenly, my grandmother said, "There's a Yellow Cab driving up to the front of our house."
I ran to the window and saw this tall man in an Army uniform getting out of a taxi. My grandmother threw open the door. "Tommy Barrow, come into this house." It was my dad. I don't remember much about what we said or how the whole visit went although I'm fairly sure he spent the night. I do remember looking at my arms and legs and seeing all these little pale pink spots. I thought my chicken pox had come back. But I was assured it was only my excitement that made the pox shine through.

 I also remember my grandfather and I driving with my dad out to the Dallas/Ft. Worth Highway. My dad had on his uniform again and he kissed me good-bye. He was going to hitchhike to Ft. Worth and in a couple days be off to the China Theater. Dad only stood there about five minutes when a car stopped to give him a ride. Folks back then would nearly always stop for anyone in the Military. This was long before we ever thought about stranger danger and hitchhiking by bad people.

 My dad was lucky in many ways. He had been to college and could type so he was usually assigned to be an officer's aide or secretary (or whatever they were called.) Like being "Radar" in the TV show. And wasn't out on the battlefield. He did tell me a few years before his death that he was in charge of setting up a medical mobile unit in India. These were the forerunners of MASH. It meant that he wasn't in grave danger. It also meant that my father came home.

Today is the day we honor those fallen Soldiers, Sailors, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines who never got to come back home. These are our TRUE HEROES and many of us shall never forget them: NEVER.

29 May 2016

One-Oh-One & Counting

by R.T. Lawton

Hi. I took a few months off from blogging at SleuthSayers on Fortnight Fridays in order to work a term as chief judge for the 2016 Edgars Award in the Best Novel category for those hardcover mysteries published in 2015. Turns out, reading 509 books in a nine and a half month period, plus all those admin duties, writing my own stuff, taking care of two young grandsons and finding that my warranty was expiring at a faster rate than I cared for, wore me down. Appears I'm not as bulletproof as I used to be.

My 31st story in AHMM is in this issue
For those of you who joined the SleuthSayer family in my absence, I'll bring you up to speed with a short bio. I'm a retired federal agent, Vietnam vet '67-'68 (man, was that a long time ago), served three years on the Mystery Writers of America national Board of Directors and I primarily write short stories. The latter of which brings us to today's topic. And yes, you should probably consider this as having a couple moments of BSP.

For a writer just starting out, the first acceptance, check and publication is electrifying to that writer's ego, which contributes to their desire to write more. In the time that follows, each and every additional acceptance, check and publication is greatly valued and quickly becomes a statistic to be carefully recorded in said writer's bibliography. In my case, the first was a $250 biker story to Easyriders magazine and was submitted under a double alias. As federal agents, we weren't allowed to have outside employment of any kind, so the story byline was a street nickname from the bike gangs and the check came in one of my undercover aliases for which I had a driver's license. It went from there.

Obviously, a short story author with any proficiency can stack up stats faster than most novelists, mainly due to the difference in word count required for each of the two categories. Which also means a short story author can submit a new manuscript more often and has less time involved in each writing project than does the author of a novel. I always thought my bent to create short stories was based in some aspect of short attention span tendencies, but now as I write this, I also suspect a desire for more instant gratification for my writing labors. Unfortunately, one does not get rich writing short stories.

As the years rolled by and I updated my bio as a panelist for various writers conferences, I always had to increase the numbers for those short stories of mine that had been published in the past. Sometimes, the increase in numbers merely crept along and other times they took nice jumps. Of course, if I turned out as much writing material as our fellow SleuthSayer John Floyd, I would have entertained the notion of acquiring some of those little, yellow minions to keep track of my submissions, acceptances, publication dates and to run all those Woman's World magazine $500 checks to the bank. (John, did the bank ever give you a free toaster for depositing that bucket load of checks?)

French church with St. Leonard's remains
Anyway, in the middle of April 2016, I received an e-contract from Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for "The Left Hand of Leonard." In case you're wondering about the title, the story concerns the remains of St. Leonard in a time when holy relics were bartered, sold and even stolen. It is the 6th story in my 1660's Paris Underworld series involving a young orphan, incompetent pickpocket, and is my 34th story to be sold to AHMM. You probably won't see it in print for another year. It is also my 100th short story to be accepted for publication. Okay, that's the BSP.

So now that I've reached this numerical peak, the problem is how do I keep score for the future in my bios after one more sale occurs? I assume that the acceptable method for that point is "over one hundred short stories." But, at what point do the numbers change after that? Increasing by single digits would be tiresome after a while. The same with increasing the amount by tens. Surely, "over 150 short stories" would be acceptable when and if  the time comes. However, I don't know that I could live long enough to wait for "over two hundred short stories." If anyone knows the proper etiquette for this type of situation, please let me know. Other than that, it's good to be back in the family.

NOTE: After I wrote the above blog, I got an e-mail on May 8th from Greg Herren, the editor for the 2016 Bouchercon anthology, Blood on the Bayou. That meant I had to change the blog title. Seems my story, "Hell Hath No Fury," has been accepted for their anthology. There is no pay, all benefits go to support the New Orleans public library, but that acceptance does go toward my 101st publishing credit, so it's a win-win situation and I'm happy.

See you again in a month.

28 May 2016

Bank Robbers I have known...


By Melodie Campbell  (who successfully disguised herself as a bank manager for several years…)


One of the great things about managing a bank is the interesting people you meet.  By this I mean, bank robbers and other villains.

One fraud artist of my acquaintance was affectionately nicknamed Father Guido Sarducci.  Father Guido was indeed a priest, and one of the most personable guys I’ve ever met.  Friendly, he knew everyone by name, and always had a kind word for the tellers.  Half of us switched churches just so he would hear our confessions.

We adored him.  When he came looking for funds to ‘renovate the parish hall,’ we were thrilled to help. Unfortunately, so were twelve other banks.  The bookies were even more thrilled.  When it finally became apparent that most of the funds were going to renovate the casinos in Vegas, Father Guido got the boot.  I think he now preaches from the local jail.

I don’t know what it was about our particular branch, but we seemed to attract all the novice stick-up artists.  As a matter of fact, I seriously considered installing a sign in the front window: “Experienced Bank Robbers ONLY.”  The situation became even more complicated when the teller in question had the savvy and intelligence of a Hershey Bar.

The following is a verbatim – this is the truth – account of a conversation that took place between one of my tellers and an extremely dangerous bank robber:

Robber (waving large gun threateningly):  “This is a robbery.  Gimme your money.”

Barb (watching the clock for her break):  “How much do you want?”

Robber (flustered):  “How much do you got?”

Barb:  “Well, if I run this little card through here, I can get a thousand dollars.”

Robber: “D’ya think you could run it through twice?”

Barb (bored):  “I can try.”

Robber: “Thanks.”

I have a theory that my customer service reps were in fact members of an elite corps put through special training to psych out villains.  This is the only way I can explain the behaviour of Carmen, our most efficient teller, when a potential robber shoved a green withdrawal form across the counter.

“Read the back,” he said.

She did.  It was the standard note.  (Do they all go to the same school?):

This is a stick-up.  I’ve got a gun.  Give me all your money.’

Whereupon, Carmen turned over the withdrawal form, pointed to the bottom, and said in a totally bored voice, “You forgot to sign.”

Of course, he had to put down the gun in order to pick up the pen, and….

The best story I’ve heard in banking circles involved a seasoned bank robber in Boston. This guy was a master.  He was also highly successful, with the Rolex watch, the Gucci shoes, and the loaded getaway car.  A devotee of the in-and-out school of bank robbery, he would time himself to under a minute.

Unfortunately, on this particularly job, he was not the only professional on the block.  Out the door with several thousand in a respectable 45 seconds, he stopped dead at the curb, staring at empty space.  His car had been stolen.

Melodie Campbell writes funny books about the mob.  The Goddaughter’s Revenge, winner of the Derringer and Arthur Ellis awards, is available at Chapters, Amazon and Barnes&Noble.  www.melodiecampbell.com

 On Amazon

27 May 2016

Update: Raymond Queneau

By Art Taylor

As I've mentioned a few times before, I often start a writing session with a little bit of reading—most frequently from a writing guide of some kind, to ease me into thinking about craft. In a column earlier this year, near the start of the semester, I talked briefly about Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which I had begun delving into a page or two a day. Here's what I wrote then:

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

That page or two every day or so has continued intermittently over the semester—as has my writing, I'm sad to say (too intermittently)—and there's still a good chunk of Exercises in Style left to go. But I've finally decided to put the book away without reading it in full.

As even a quick glimpse at the book's cover reveals, Exercises in Style has its champions. Italo Calvino said that the book "gives rise to a whole range of wildly diverse literary texts," for example, and Umberto Eco compared it to "inventing the wheel."And while that back cover quotes the original Washington Post review, the Post review of this new edition declares the book simply a "revolution."

I'll agree. There's something exciting about the variety of approaches Queneau employs in telling the story, the range of storytelling techniques and tones, the way that all of it opens up a little wider the world or writing, our understanding of that world. "Apotrophe" begins "O platinum-nibbed stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibusilistic cause." A few pages later, "Telegraphic" offers something drastically different: "BUS CROWDED STOP YNGMAN LONGNECK PLAITENCIRCLED HAT APOSTROPHISES UNKNOWN PASSENGER UNAPPARENT REASON STOP...." In between are brief exercises in the senses, among them "Olfactory" ("In that meridian S, apart from the habitual smell, there was a smell of beastly seedy ego, of effrontery, of jeering, of H-bombs, of a high jakes, of cakes and ale, of emanations, of opium, of...."), "Gustatory" ("This particular bus had a certain taste. Curious, but undeniable."),  and "Auditory" ("Quacking and letting off, the S came rasping to a halt alongside the silent pavement").

All these are terrific and provocative. But then I hit several sections of "Permutations" including "Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 letters," which begins "Ed on to ay rd wa id sm yo da he nt ar re at pl rm fo an...." And I'll admit I'm not sure what to do with it—or more to the point, how reading such passages might help boost my own writing, though I'm sure even these specific passages might well have sparked other writers' imaginations.

After hitting that section, I found myself browsing ahead rather than reading straight through. And now I've found myself putting the book aside.

A couple of questions for others here:
  • What craft books (I use that term very loosely) have successfully sparked your writing?
  • And how often do you put aside books—any books, not just writing books—without reading them in full? 
I'm curious particularly on that latter question—since readers tend to have very strong opinions about whether a book once started absolutely needs to be finished.

#

IN OTHER NEWS: I was very pleased that my fellow SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti chose my story "Restoration" from Crime Syndicate Magazine's debut issue as the "best mystery story I read this week" over at his blog Little Big Crimes. "Restoration" was a real departure in many ways for me—a quick foray into more speculative fiction—and it struggled for a while to find a home, both in more traditional crime fiction publications (too much science fiction) and in the few science fiction magazines I submitted to (not enough for them). Given all that, I was thrilled when it found a home at the edgy and excellent Crime Syndicate and especially pleased now that it's gotten such a kind reception at Little Big Crimes. Thanks so much, Rob!

And finally, a quick plug for an upcoming event between now and my next column here—a very special one for my wife and me. On Monday, June 6, at 6 p.m., my wife—Tara Laskowski—and I will be giving a joint reading at the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, Maryland. Tara will be reading from her new story collection Bystanders and I'll be reading from On the Road with Del & Louise. While it's not entirely uncommon for Tara and I to appear on the same program, what makes this event special is that June 6 is our seventh wedding anniversary! At least we'll be together for the evening, right? Anyone who's in the area, please do come out to help us celebrate. :-)


26 May 2016

A Question of Identity

by Eve Fisher

Amalfi Coast, © Wikimedia Commons
With any luck, by the time you read this, I'll be on vacation with my husband, taking a Mediterranean Cruise. I love cruises: I find it infinitely relaxing to unpack once, and then do pretty much whatever I want to do for the duration. I love the Mediterranean: the food, the scenery, the history, the artwork. I love vacations: it gives me time to think, the long-houred, idle thinking (sometimes drifting, sometimes racing) that I don't often have time for at home. This is the kind of thinking /dreaming / drifting that came with childhood and is one of the main reasons for nostalgia about childhood. Time. An idea. A thought. A question. And you're off…

And currently, I've been thinking about a lot of things: identity, mortality, friendship, relationships, because of the death of one of our very best friends, Frank Senger. He was only 61. A wonderfully talented actor, who appeared in (among other things) The Professional, Maximum Risk, a number of Law & Orders and Oz. He also wrote and performed poetry and performance art pieces. He was the best man at our wedding, 37 years ago, my husband's best friend, and my best improv partner ever.

Frank Senger
Frank Senger
Allan and I and Frank and his wife, Theresa (a wonderful visual artist), hung out well together: we talked constantly, vacationed, cooked and ate extremely well, hiked, laughed, watched movies and TV shows, went to art exhibits and performance pieces, and anything else that struck our fancy. Frank was a great friend, a great listener, a great person. His death was sudden, tragic, comic, and pure Frank: he was teaching an acting class, doing a death scene, in which he fell down... and did not get up... (A friend of mine heard that and said, "he'll haunt that theater forever - in a nice way", and she's probably right.) He suffered a massive coronary. We still can't believe that he's really gone.

Deaths are hard. Every time you lose someone important to you, you lose not only the person you were, but the person you were with that person. And the person they were with you... For example, whenever we all got together, sooner or later Frank and I would go into improv: Bad Kabuki Theater, Bad Greek Theater, Hillbilly Hamlet, and many, many others. I could be absolutely fearless with Frank, because no matter what I said, he'd catch it, play with it, tie a bow in it, and throw it back. I can't imagine anyone else triggering the Eve who did that fearless improv at PS1 in NYC. We'd gone to see an installation piece that was pure crap, so Frank and I started doing Bad Greek Theater, with Frank orating a mixture of artistic / political / social satire and gobbledegook while I was his Greek chorus, waving my arms while chanting, among other things: "Orestes! You've lost your testes!"

Allan... well, to Allan, Frank was his best friend and his brother. And Theresa... it's unimaginable what she's going through.

Monochrome head-and-left-shoulder photo portrait of 50-year-old Lewis
C.S. Lewis
By Source, Fair use,
https://en.wikipedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=7049156
Friendship is a great mystery, and only deepens the great mystery of identity. None of us will ever be again who we were with Frank, because that special chemistry only existed when we were with him. Not only do we not live in a vacuum, but we (literally, in all conjugations) ARE not in a vacuum. Who we are is dependent, in large part, on who's around us, and changes accordingly. C. S. Lewis explained it on The Four Loves:

"Lamb says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then E loses not only A but "A's part in C," while C loses not only A but "A's part in B." In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald's reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him "to myself" now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald." (p. 96)

And less of myself as well, because I'm also not large enough to call MY whole person into activity. Contrary to egomania and other common disorders, I want and need other lights than my own to show all my facets as well. I believe that's part of the reason that people, as they grow older and their contemporaries die, retreat into memory. To recapture not only their friends and family, but themselves. Because half of what we talk about with family and friends is the past, the things we did together. We reiterate, play back the past over and over again to make sure that not only we remember, but the next generation learns it as well, so that they can remember, too.

That's why we have things like history, diaries, Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and Icelandic Sagas. If you can't pass down the memories one way, pass them down another. Because when there's no one who remembers but you... well, that gets tough. And strange. I know. My parents have been dead for 16 years, my grandparents for over 30 years. I have no other living relatives. So I have no one to reminisce with about my childhood, not to mention the stories they told me about their lives, and other relatives' lives. Thank God for writing…

Back to friendship: Lewis also wrote, "Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival." (And God knows, as Emily St. John Mandel said in Station Eleven, "Survival is insufficient.") But I disagree with Lewis: Friendship IS necessary. It DOES have survival value. Art, philosophy, music, friends, lovers, family - everything that touches us, mentally / emotionally / spiritually, goes into making us who we are. To lose any of that is to lose a part of ourselves. To change ourselves. To gain any of it is to enhance ourselves.


“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624.
John Donne is always right on the money.

R.I.P., Frank Senger, and all the people I have loved, now no longer.

Back in a week. Love to all.

25 May 2016

String Too Short To Save

David Edgerley Gates

The phrase in the title above comes from a book by Donald Hall, a New England writer. The way I remember his telling the story, he was going through his late grandmother's effects, and in one of the kitchen drawers he found a small box she'd labeled String Too Short To Be Saved.

Writers collect a lot of string too short to save. Turns of phrase, or odd usage, esoteric jargon, peculiar job titles, vocabulary notes, code words and covernames. I still tear stuff out of the newspaper. For example, a passing reference to a CIA black site in Afghanistan called the Salt Pit - in the Baltimore SUN, this past Friday. I used to have boxes and boxes of old clippings, some of which I tried to organize, chronology, subject matter, at least some context or frame of reference, but I had to give up. I couldn't remember why I'd cut half of it out.

Books are different. You usually remember why you bought them. Then again, you can't always nail down exactly where you stubbed your toe on something. Omar Bradley came down with a bad cold, in the first days of the Battle of the Bulge. Homely little detail, or maybe more than that, if it clouded his judgement. But where did I see it? Must have been Antony Beevor's recent Ardennes book. I'm sure of it. I'm scouring the pages, and drawing a blank. Not a good sign, if you want to keep your facts straight.

Something sparks a train of thought. Maybe it's not a direct association, maybe it's at right angles, and the process isn't necessarily linear. As the circuits open, you move further away from your start point, and you might not be able to retrace your steps. You lose the trail of bread crumbs. Somewhere in these thickets of mixed metaphor, that original spark that switched on your lights falls by the wayside, or loses its significance. This works both forward and back, or doesn't in fact work at all. You unravel the train of thought, but not all the way back to Point A, or perhaps you happen on Point A in a different context, and you can no longer spin out the fabulous consequences. Your synapses are damp squibs.

This is perhaps related to the Ideas-versus-Execution algorithm ("Ideas are easy, execution is hard"), in the sense that there's a lot of sweat equity involved, or you might say inspiration chances to visit when you've been working for it, when you're in the zone. I was thinking more along the lines of the ethereal, as opposed to Applied Research - not solving an immediate and practical problem, but released from orbit. Whole narratives can be imagined, and with absolute clarity. Whether they ever get written or not is another story, but it wouldn't be from failure of nerve.

We're always open to accident. I don't outline, as it happens, I'm a pantser, but writers who work from outlines are just as ready to slip the leash. One habit I do have is coming up with a title, first. It helps me shape or define or feel my way into the story. I don't get working without the title, funny as that might seem, when I'm often in the dark about where the story's going or how to get there, or even what it's about. I don't work from a concept, and very rarely from the end backwards (as Conan Doyle admitted he did), but somehow, being able to give the unformed narrative a name makes it cohere for me.

Many people, and not just writers, used to keep what was called a Commonplace Book, not a diary or a journal, but a place to jot down random things that struck your fancy, like a quotation that caught your attention, or a fragment of overheard dialogue, or something otherwise borrowed. It was a kind of yard sale.

The moral is to always write stuff down. You might not remember why, or whether you had an immediate use for it, but taking note of it lodges it in your mind, and maybe some while later, when you turn it to the light, it reminds you why you bent down to pick it up.

24 May 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

I've been so busy getting my house ready for sale (and it just went under contract!), that I jumped at the chance when my friend Sherry Harris offered to do a guest blog in my place today here on SleuthSayers. Sherry is the author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. Her newest book, All Murders Final!, came out in late April. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman                        

A Rose by Any Other Name ...

by Sherry Harris

Which comes first for you, a title or a story? If you change the title, does the story change too? Last Friday I turned in the fourth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, A Good Day to Buy. Hitting send always makes me feel relieved and nauseated at the same time. An hour later I heard back from my editor. He loved the first chapter, would read the rest over the weekend, and hey, would I have any serious objections to changing the title to the planned title for the fifth book? What?!

I sold the series to Kensington on proposal, which means I came up with story lines and titles before writing the books. When I wrote the proposal, the titles of the first three books were Tagged for Death, Marred Sale Madness, and Murder As Is. Tagged for Death is the only title that stuck. Marred Sale Madness is hard to say so it became Deal or Die, which my editor wasn't crazy about so he came up with The Longest Yard Sale. And Murder As Is became All Murders Final.
 
When I sent the proposal in for the next two books, the titles were A Good Day to Buy and I Know What You Bid Last Summer. I had very specific plot lines in mind for each story. So when  my editor emailed about wanting to change the title of my next book, I closed my laptop (maybe with a little more force than usual), slightly concerned that the book I just wrote didn't match the proposed title. But my concern soon turned to intrigue. Could I pull it off? Ideas started percolating that might make the title work without massive rewrites. I called, emailed, texted, instant messaged, and sent smoke signals to my friend and freelance editor Barb Goffman. (Just kidding. Barb doesn't do smoke signals.) She came up with a great suggestion that worked perfectly with what I'd been thinking. 

Titles and matching plots are very important to me--especially with a title like I Know What You  Bid Last Summer. I wrote my editor and asked him if I could have the manuscript back. I told him I thought with some tweaks to the book, the plot would go along with the title. He agreed. I rewrote five scenes, and they weren't even complete rewrites, just plugging in a few things and changing a few paragraphs.

When I finished, I was happy, relieved even. The plot for book five is going to have to change, but I didn't really want to write the back-and-forth story (last summer, this summer) that I'd envisioned. We've already scrapped A Good Day to Buy as the title for the fifth book so if anyone has a suggestion for a title where "buy" can be plugged in for "die," let me know. Fair warning--my editor has already rejected Buy, Buy Love and Buy Another Day.

Readers: Do you have a favorite book title?
Writers: Which comes first for you, title or plot?


23 May 2016

Fresh Faces

by Susan Rogers Cooper

Last Sunday the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter (Austin, Texas) hosted the annual Barbara Burnett Smith Aspiring Writers/Mentors Program. For those of you who didn't know her, Barbara was a founding officer of the Heart of Texas SinC Chapter, and one-time president of National SinC. She was a cozy writer extraordinaire and a good friend and mentor to a lot of aspiring writers.

I've been honored to be asked to be a mentor for several years now, and again I was delighted to meet and critique a new aspiring author's work. I'm always happy to see the new crop of writers coming up – happy and a little bit intimidated. Fresh faces and fresh ideas are always intimidating.

But seeing these newbies takes me back to when I was (fairly) fresh faced. I've written all my life, it seems, but although I had boxes full of half-written novels, finished short-stories, a couple of plays, and even some very bad poetry, it wasn't until I was thirty-five years old that it hit me that I could actually do this. I could be a writer. All I had to do was try. This epiphany came to me when I was in the audience at a club, listening to a local singer/songwriter. Someone in the audience asked him when he was born. Strangely enough he was born the same year as I. And that's when it hit me. Here was this guy with a talent that might not last him much longer – all sorts of things can go wrong with vocal cords and throats and the aging process is not always kind to such a physical talent – and he was out there doing it. Four nights a week he was using his God-given talent to express himself and to entertain others. And here I sat, with (what I hoped) was a talent that could last a lifetime. Writers don't age out of their talent, at least I hope not.

So I went home and asked my husband if he'd like to support me for a while. I wanted to quit my job and write full time. He agreed, although he told me years later, he never thought I'd be able to do it. Even with little faith, he still supported me, so I didn't get mad when he confessed. I was very lucky. The first short-story I wrote got published. I never got paid, but I got published! Then I got a really bad romance novel published. The first (and last) one I ever tried. The publisher went out of business before the book hit the stores, but I still got my check for $100. I'm afraid that without these first two “success” I might not have been able to suffer through the year of rejections of my first mystery. But I came up with a plan, a new goal: To paper my downstairs bathroom with rejection letters! Luckily, I only got enough to do one wall before someone said, “Yes, I want it.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. That first mystery came out in 1988, and there have been thirty-something since then. I'm not saying this is the easiest career, but I'm thinking maybe that singer has retired by now, but I'm still going. Strong, I hope.

22 May 2016

Tapped Out

by Leigh Lundin

In the shadow of John’s popular article yesterday, I’ll add a small footnote about language misunderstandings.

I worked in Europe, mostly in France. I love the country and to clear up a misconception, the French are polite, very polite. Some Parisians may not tolerate fools gladly, but neither do New Yorkers, Londoners, or Romans. There, got that off my chest.

A gentle but all too true joke that goes around:
Q. What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A. Trilingual
Q. What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A. Bilingual
Q. What do you call a person who speaks one language?
A. American
French Lesson

During my second or third major stint overseas, I traveled through France with a French colleague, Micheline. (If you read R.T. Lawton’s excellent short historical stories set in France, he consulted with Micheline on at least one occasion.)

One particular day after landing in Lyon, we checked into our respective hotel rooms. If you haven’t noticed (and I know you have), design is important to the French and this was reflected in the fancy bathroom fixtures. The sink didn’t display obvious faucet handles. It’s not uncommon to find taps with photoelectric eyes or motion sensors, but waving my hand under the spout did nothing.

I felt around and finally discovered hidden levers behind the faucet that turned on the water. Mystery solved.

Usually at a destination, we’d rent a car but in Lyon, another coworker, Max, picked us up. Max was possibly the scariest driver I’ve ever ridden with. My grasp of French hovered only a little above zero, so I rode in the back seat and tuned out Max and Micheline as they caught up on gossip and news. Suddenly Max would turn to me– turn his body 180° from watching the road– and chat.

I’d find myself screaming, “Truuuuck,” trying to remember the French word for huge-damn-transport-vehicle-rushing-at-us-oh-God-we’re-going-to-crash (camion). But all in all, Max was a charming host and we had a good time. Especially when…

Max and Micheline were talking and I tuned out of the conversation. Suddenly, Micheline turned to me.
“Leigh, when we get back to the hotel, I want to see your cock.”

“Pardon?”

As you might imagine, this happens frequently, but it was my first request in France.

“When we return to the hotel, I want you to show me your cock.”

“Er, are you sure?”

The denseness of her American friend caused a shadow of doubt to cloud her face.

“Please, when we get back, show me your cock.”
She hadn’t even bought me dinner, but by now, we both realized something was wrong. Micheline handed me her pocket French-English dictionary opened to the entry “robinet”.

wine barrel © Dave Di Biase
I pieced together what happened. As Micheline chatted with Max, she mentioned not figuring out how to operate the water tap in her room… she couldn’t find the handles. Max suggested she ask me, so she looked up the French robinet in her dictionary, which showed cock and spigot (but oddly not faucet, a French derivative). She chose the easier to pronounce and, well, you heard the conversation.

Afterwards, as folks say on the internet, hilarity ensued.



Images © Dave Di Biase, FreePik.com

21 May 2016

American English vs. British English


by John M. Floyd



As I mentioned in my column about Ian Fleming a few weeks ago, I've been re-reading all the James Bond novels, in order. That project has reminded me not only of my youth (I devoured all fourteen Bond books when I was in high school) but of the differences in writing style between American authors and British authors. To the British--at least in the 50s and early 60s, when the Bond novels and short-story collections were published--trucks are lorries, flashlights are torches, elevators are lifts, etc. But I had forgotten that there are so many differences.

The following is a quick list I jotted down last week (American usage first, British usage next):

apartment -- flat
gas -- petrol
French fries -- chips
chips -- crisps
hood (of a car) -- bonnet
group -- lot
bathroom -- loo
pants -- trousers
panties -- pants
guy -- chap
trunk -- boot
soccer -- football
trash -- rubbish
cookie -- biscuit
directly -- as soon as
hang up (or disconnect) -- ring off
on vacation -- on holiday



Spellings are also different, in British writing:

- words ending in "ize" are often "ise" instead: realise, recognise, organise

- some words swap "er" and "re": centre, fibre, calibre, metre, lustre

- "e" is sometimes converted to "ae": encyclopaedia, orthopaedic, anaemic

- "-eck" is often "-eque": cheque

- "-ense" is "-ence": offence, defence, licence, pretence

- "or" is sometimes "our": colour, humour, neighbour, honour, favourite, harbour

- "l" is often doubled: jewellery, counsellor

- gray is grey

- cozy is cosy

- mold is mould

- tire is tyre

- plow is plough

- draft beer is draught beer (to draft a letter is still to draft)

- curb is kerb


And sometimes their verbs are different when used with collective nouns:

We say, "The team is winning." They say, "The team are winning."


Punctuation is a special challenge. To British writers, a period is a full stop, (parentheses) are brackets, [brackets] are square brackets, and "quotation marks" are inverted commas. Here are some differences that come to mind:

- ending punctuation in a quote usually goes outside, rather than inside, the closing quotation mark:
My favorite fictional character names seem to be "Jack", "Charlie", and "Kate".

- primary quotes are sometimes single quotes rather than double, with the double quotes inside:
'I re-read "The Lottery" last night', Jane said.

- periods after certain abbreviations are omitted:
Mr Smith, Mrs Peel, Dr Watson

- a period, rather than a colon, is used between hours and minutes:
I met her at 10.15 yesterday.

- the British also seem to avoid the use of the Oxford comma, or "serial" comma (the one before the conjunction in a series):
Attending the movie's premiere were two hookers, the producer's wife and the director's wife.

NOTE: The previous sentence is a good example of why I prefer to use the serial comma. It can prevent unintentional mistakes, and even lawsuits.


One more thing. The British are more likely to use words like spilt, leapt, dreamt, and spoilt, instead of the way we would indicate the past tense of those verbs, and they seem far more forgiving of the use of "ly" adverbs and synonyms for "said." They also seem to prefer "towards" over "toward."


These are only some of the differences I've discovered/re-discovered as I continue my marathon-read of Fleming's works. (I'm in the middle of his seventh novel, Goldfinger, at the moment.) But I must say, I've found these differences to be more interesting than distracting. And I think I now have a better appreciation of the old saying that America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.


Can you think of other Britishisms that I've left out? I'm sure there are many. And a question for my fellow SleuthSayers Melodie Campbell and Stephen Ross: Does usage/style in Canada and Australia generally agree with British?


As for this reader/writer, it's back to his regular programme. 'And directly I've finalised my endeavour with the Bond novels, I plan to analyse all the Bond movies again', he observed sombrely. As he changed into his colourful pyjamas.





20 May 2016

Of City Hall, and Editorial, Needs

Artwork courtesy: Future Rooms at Grand Designs Live
By Dixon Hill

As many of you know, my wife and I intend to construct (or install) a backyard office, at our new house, where I can write.

R.T. Lawton asked, when he learned of our plans: "How tough will it be getting a permit from the city?  I assume you're a good enough draftsman to draw up a simple plan to show them."

Frankly, I wasn't sure how hard a permit would be to obtain, but I knew there were similar outbuildings in backyards nearby, so I wasn't too concerned.  And, while I could probably dig out my old T-square and triangle, I'm saved from such a task by my wife, who works as a CADD drafter.

R.T.'s question was a good one, however, because I wasn't sure what the city regulations actually ARE. And, since I also intend to build some shade structures (Such items can actually save several hundred dollars each year, in electricity bills, here in the desert.) I decided to trek down to city hall to investigate setbacks, easements and regs.

Thankfully, the results were relatively unsurprising though perhaps a bit humorous.

I can add a carport, for instance, as long as I install it perpendicular to my driveway.  Yep, you read that right: the carport has to run perpendicular to the existing driveway.  Which means, to add a carport, I have to add a 90-degree dogleg to my current drive -- and it's this dogleg that can then run in under the new carport.  (Looks like the idea behind this one, is that it cuts down on the distance a carport might penetrate into the 20-foot front setback.)

We'll have to trim the size of the grape arbor we wanted to shade the western wall of our house with, too, because regulations call for no more than a two foot punch-out in that area.  No problem.

As for the office . . .

Looks like smooth sailing.  I only need a 2-foot setback from side or rear property lines.  The planning and construction department will happily accept my wife's CADD plans and require no others.  If I'll request and pay for it, they'd be happy to send out inspectors after we run the electrical, and after the construction is complete, so the office can actually be added to square footage -- which might come in handy if we ever sell.  On the other hand, I'm not sure I want to deal with the added time delay or headache.

As my old friend, Harrold (who worked for many years in the city planning department), used to advise: "Unless you're worried about sales value, it's usually better to ask forgiveness than permission when dealing with a city."

But, all this had me thinking about how to deal with editors concerning certain types of stories.  I've long had a story sitting in my files, for instance, which seemed perfect for a certain youth magazine -- except that the setting just wasn't a good fit for that particular publication.  The manuscript is historical fiction, which they publish, but they tend to concentrate on U.S. historical settings in their fiction.

The protagonist of this story is a teenage soldier in the British army during the Napoleonic era, which I'm pretty sure they'd balk at.

Working to think outside the box, on these small construction projects around our new house, seems somehow to have helped me possibly solve my story problem as well.

I suddenly recalled that the magazine in question publishes science fiction stories, as well as historical and other types of fiction.  Consequently, I've recast my Napoleonic era story with a story set on a distant planet that humans colonized some time before.  Due to vast interstellar distances, however, colonists on new planets can bring only limited supplies with them and are largely left to their own devices after initial landing.

The colonists on this planet have managed to reach a technological level roughly akin to that enjoyed by humans, here on Earth, during the Napoleonic era.  A dictator has taken over part of the planet, and his army is trying to take over the rest.  Our hero is part of the opposing forces.

British Riflemen (Skirmishers) as portrayed in the Sharpe's Rifles television film series.
Those green "rifleman's coats" play a key role in my story's plot.
Now, our protagonist can do his duty, safely ensconced in the military hardware required to make my
storyline work, but I don't have to worry that the magazine will balk at the non-U.S.-focused historical setting.

True, they may not like this sci-fi version of my story.  (Time will tell.)  But, I can't help thinking this will be an interesting experiment.  This is the first time I've committed to making such a large change in the story setting -- basically changing the genre (from historical to sci-fi in this case) while maintaining nearly the entire plot line and all characters -- all while still considering a sale to the same magazine.

I wonder if any of you have ever done the same sort of thing, and what the results were.  Please let us know in the comments.

Meanwhile, I'm still working to integrate the new setting into the story, in as organic a manner as possible.  I'll let you know how things turn out.

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon