31 December 2017

Frankenstein

by Leigh Lundin

Frankenstein
When it’s New Years, folks think Frankenstein.

At least in 1818. Two hundred years ago tomorrow, famed writer Mary Shelley wrote her monstrously famous story.

A Literary Volcano

It was a dark and stormy summer, 1816, rather the year without summer. Fourteen months earlier in the Dutch East Indies, Mount Tamboro blew nearly a mile off its top, 1450 metres, the most powerful volcanic explosion in recorded history.

Twelve thousand people were killed immediately. Another 60 000 to 80 000 subsequently died of starvation.

Volcanic ash erupted high into the atmosphere blanketing the skies. Southeast Asia was plunged into the blackness of night for over a week.

More than a year later in the eerie half light of the Northern Hemisphere, birds nested at noon. The Americas and Europe experienced massive agriculture failures. Zealots predicted the End Times were nigh. Switzerland was not immune.
“Never was a scene more awfully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness; the vast expanse of snow was chequered only by these gigantic pines, and the poles that marked our road: no river or rock-encircled lawn relieved the eye by adding the picturesque to the sublime,”
recorded 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

Kid Leigh, Mad Scientist
Frankenstein Jacob's Ladder (Leigh)
Frankenstein Jacob's Ladder (Leigh)
Frankenstein Jacob's Ladder (Leigh)
Frankenstein Jacob's Ladder (Leigh)
When I was a kid, I was an awesome mad scientist. Here are details from a Jacob’s Ladder– a traveling electrical arc prop seen in virtually every Frankenstein film– I built about the 6th grade. (Missing are ladder rails that look like television rabbit ears antennae, easily fabricated.) My brother Glen helped paint the original.
She would go on to write one of the most infamous monster tales in modern literature. Two days before her novel was published, she married another writer and poet she’d been living with for two years, Percy Shelley. Mary Godwin became Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

A Charming House of Horror

In that non-summer of 1816, Percy Shelley rented a house near Lake Geneva for himself, his fiancée Mary, their toddler son ‘Wilmouse’ (William), and her six-month younger stepsister, Claire Clairmont, sometime lover of (and pregnant by) Lord Byron (yes, THAT Lord Byron) who happened to rent a nearby villa. His entourage included his physician, Dr John Polidori, who played a part in events that unfolded.

That dark and dreary summer turned out to be a platinum mine of ideas as these innovative geniuses sat around drinking and talking philosophy, politics, and poetry. As candles flickered and lightning slashed the sky, Lord Byron seized upon the frightening atmosphere. He proposed they each write a ghost story.

Early in the wee hours, Mary awoke from a nightmare. She’d dreamt of a mad scientist who sparked new life into a hideous figure. Within a day, certainly within a week, she began jotting initial notes of a story that would become world famous.

Lord Byron, while failing to meet his own challenge of a ghost story, nevertheless wrote his famous poem, Darkness. Meanwhile, Dr Polidori began writing a supernatural story of his own that would also become well known.

Under A Frankenstein Moon

A small but intriguing mystery surrounded the dates of Byron’s challenge and when the writers actually set to work. Researchers became interested partly because of the prominent writers and poets involved, but also as a sort of test of the veracity of Mary Shelley’s writings: Could her claims of events be taken as factual, or was she prone to exaggeration or invention?

Academics from Texas State University, including literary specialists, astronomers, and a faculty physicist, descended upon Cologny, a canton of Geneva. From clues in the notes of Mary and her companions, scholars were able to verify Shelley’s notes and further pinned down dates of events detailed in the table below.

Frankie and Friends

Fans of early monster movies noticed considerable cross-pollination, particularly in Universal Studio properties circa 1931-1954. Time and again, Frankenstein would appear in a Dracula film or vice versa, often with friends like the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man and the Mummy (respectively starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and Lon Chaney Jr in the latter two rôles. These characters also appeared in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Universal didn’t innovate the mixing and matching of monsters. I mention the Dracula character because that night in 1816 planted the germ of what would become the first modern, romantic vampire tale. Inspired by Lord Byron’s challenge, John Polidori began writing The Vampyre, eventually published in 1819.

Frankenstein
Here an unpleasant twist took place. Polidori showed the manuscript to Ekaterina, Countess of Breuss. Without the knowledge of Polidori, the countess, or more likely her friend, a Madame Gatelier, turned the story over to Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, where it was serialized starting in April 1819 under Byron’s name: The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron. Thereafter, it was published in book form, again failing to credit Polidori. Both men protested. By the second edition, Polidori’s name finally appeared as the author, but not before his premature death. Debt-ridden and depressed, Polidori had swallowed cyanide.

Three-quarters of a century later, Polidori’s story would influence an Irish writer, Bram Stoker. His renown novel, Dracula, appeared nearly eight decades after Polidori’s Vampyre.



Time Line and Context
    Notable 19th Century English Authors
1811 October 30
Jane Austen publishes Sense and Sensibility.
1813 January 28
Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice.
1815 April 05-15
Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupts, most powerful volcano in written history, darkening skies nearly two years.
1816 June 15-16
Lord Byron challenges guests to write ghost stories.
1816 June 16-17
Byron’s physician, John Polidori, begins writing Vampyre.
1816 June 16
Mary Shelley experiences nightmare of scientist who breathes life into a terrifying figure.
1816 June 17
Mary Shelley begins outlining idea that would become Frankenstein.
1816 July 15
Lord Byron, influenced by the eerie summer’s half light, writes his apocalyptic poem Darkness.
1817 December 30
Mary Godwin marries Percy Shelley.
1818 January 01
Frankenstein is published by the firm of Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones.
1819 April 01
John Polidori’s story, the first modern vampire tale, The Vampyre, is published without Polidori’s knowledge or permission.
1821 August 24
Dr John Polidori dies without his authorship fully resolved.
1836-1870
Charles Dickens’ body of works spans 35 years.
1847 October 16
Charlotte Brontë publishes Jane Eyre.
1887 November 21
Arthur Conan Doyle sees publication of first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet.
1897 May 26
Bram Stoker publishes Dracula.
Happy New Year, 1818-2018!

30 December 2017

Non-Vital Statistics: 2017 in Review



by John M. Floyd



Can't believe this year's almost done. All things considered, I thought it was a good year for novels (The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille, Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith, Artemis by Andy Weir, among many others) and also for TV (Longmire's final season, Stranger Things's second season, and a FANTASTIC series called Godless), and a so-so year for movies (I liked Wonder Woman and The Last Jedi, and haven't yet seen Dunkirk or Three Billboards O. E. M.). Surrounded by all this external fiction, I continued to pound away at some of my own. And since short stories are the only thing I know much about, I've put together some writing stats for 2017.


The story board

According to my little three-ring binder, I've had 34 stories published this year. I've listed them below, and since we at this blog have been talking a lot about mystery markets lately, I've also listed the publications they appeared in:

"Unsigned, Sealed, and Delivered" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Winter/Jan 2017 issue
"A Green Thumb" -- The Texas Gardener, Jan 4, 2017 issue
"Relative Strangers" -- Woman's World, Jan 16, 2017 issue
"Merrill's Run" -- Mystery Weekly, Jan 17, 2017 issue
"Gun Work" -- Coast to Coast: Private Eyes (Down & Out Books), Jan 30, 2017
"Elevator Music" -- Meet Cute, Feb 2017
"No Strings Attached" -- Woman's World, Feb 27, 2017 issue
"Movie Night" -- Woman's World, Mar 20, 2017 issue
"Flag Day" -- The Strand Magazine, Feb-May 2017 issue
"Doctor in the House" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Spring/April 2017 issue
"Sand Hill" -- Gathering Storm Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 2, April 2017
"The Red-Eye to Boston" -- Horror Library, Vol. 6 (Cutting Block Books), April 2017
"Special Delivery" -- Woman's World, May 29, 2017 issue
"Vanity Case" -- Mysterical-E, Spring 2017 issue
"A Thousand Words" -- Kings River Life, May 27, 2017 issue
"Witness Protection" -- Woman's World, June 19, 2017 issue
"Crow Mountain" -- The Strand Magazine, June-Sep 2017 issue
"The Rare Book Case" -- Woman's World, July 3, 2017
"Ace in the Hole" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Summer/July 2017 issue
"The Sandman" -- Noir at the Salad Bar (Level Best Books), July 18, 2017
"Trail's End" -- Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/Aug 2017 issue
"Mr. Unlucky" -- Woman's World, Aug 7, 2017 issue
"False Testimony" -- Woman's World, Sep 4, 2017 issue
"Rooster Creek" -- Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Sep 2017 issue
"High Anxiety" -- Kings River Life, Sep 9, 2017
"An Act of Deception" -- Woman's World, Sep 18, 2017 issue
"Travelers" -- Visions VII: Universe, Oct 2017
"Life Is Good" -- Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), Oct 2017
"Knight Vision" -- Flash Bang Mysteries, Fall/Oct 2017 issue
"Charlotte in Charge" -- Woman's World, Oct 7, 2017 issue
"The Tenth Floor" -- CEA Greatest Anthology (Celenic Earth Publications), Oct 14, 2017
"Teacher's Pet," -- Woman's World, Oct 30, 2017 issue
"Three Suspects and a Murder" -- Woman's World, Nov 27, 2017 issue
"A Christmas Card" -- Woman's World, Dec 11, 2017 issue

NOTE: I didn't count the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which appeared in December, because the date of that issue is Jan/Feb 2018. (It contains my story, "Scavenger Hunt," the second installment of a series I began with "Trail's End" in AHMM's July/Aug 2017 issue.)

More numbers

Of my stories that were published in 2017, 18 appeared in print magazines, 7 in print anthologies, and 9 in online publications. 30 of the 34 went to paying markets, 25 to repeat markets, and 9 to new markets. 28 of these stories were unsolicited submissions, and 6 were by invitation. Genrewise, one was a romance, one was humor, one was science fiction, and 31 were mysteries (although some were cross-genre--mystery/western, mystery/fantasy, etc.). 29 of these were original stories and 5 were reprints. As for settings, 21 took place in my home state of Mississippi, and 13 were set elsewhere. It surprised me a little that only 2 were first-person POV; 32 were third-person. 20 of the 34 were installments in a series (four different series, actually), and 14 were standalone stories. Lengthwise, 17 of the stories were less than 1000 words, 8 were between 1000 and 5000, and 9 were more than 5000.

At this moment, 13 more of my stories have been accepted and will be published shortly, 22 more have been submitted but have not yet received a response, and 30 have been selected by my publisher for a seventh collection of my short mystery stories, scheduled for release in hardcover next summer.

On the downside, I've also received 20 rejections this year, from 12 different markets. That's a lot of misfires, and yes, that means multiple rejections from some places. What can I say? Many of my friends assume that because I've been fortunate enough to sell regularly to certain publications, those places probably just accept everything I send them. I wish.


More wishful thinking

One would also suspect that I could digest all this information and make some kind of informed decision about which stories work and which don't, and where I should submit stories and where I shouldn't. But if one suspected that, one would be wrong. For the life of me I sometimes cannot seem to determine which stories should go where--the square peg doesn't always want to fit in the square slot--and even though I've come to know some of these editors well, I can't predict which stories I send them will be successful and which won't. I also don't seem to be able to foresee which markets will survive for generations and which will put all four feet in the air after a year or so. As the old saying goes, you spends your dollar (or, in this case, your time) and you takes your chances. Maybe I'll get smarter next year.

Questions

To all my writer friends out there, how was 2017 for you? Did you sell a novel or a collection or a story, or have one (or more) published? What great stories/novels did you read? What good movies/TV shows did you watch? Do you write an ongoing series, in either novels or stories? If so, do those seem to sell better than standalone works? Do you have specific writing projects in progress, or upcoming in 2018? If you're a short-story writer, did you try to target only paying markets?

Final question: Are the years passing faster now, or is it just because I'm getting old?

I think I know the answer to that one.












29 December 2017

Another Round of Resolutions? (And Better Luck Next Year?)

By Art Taylor

Around the last week of each year, I always find myself percolating over a new round of resolutions—and looking back over the previous new year's resolutions too, trying to tally how well I did.

To be honest, 2017's plans and promises (which I documented at SleuthSayers in early January) didn't get kept so successfully, despite some strong momentum early on.

Several small resolutions did get attention intermittently (eat more fruit, watch my posture, etc.), and I plan to be more diligent about those again continuing into 2018. One key component of keeping resolutions isn't just to develop a routine, but also to take clear steps toward maintaining that routine more easily; for example, like my fellow SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, I'm thinking about some version of a standing desk to help that better-posture plan.

One joint resolution did get kept this year. My wife Tara and I are always cutting out recipes from newspapers, magazines, and more—saving them out more quickly than we actually make them, which I imagine others might do too. So this past year, we set out to either cook or discard at least one recipe a week‚ and in the process we ate very well and found a few favorites to save permanently.

But bigger resolutions unfortunately seemed hit-and-miss. I did keep what might best be called a gratitude journal through late summer—a daily reflection of something positive about each day—but our move this summer (the sale of our townhouse, purchase of new house, packing, unpacking, etc.) was so all-consuming that it threw that nightly routine out of whack, and I never regained traction. The same is true of my perennial "Write FIRST!" plans; my summer writing ambitions basically imploded. I did finish a few stories, but plans for the larger project—the novel—ultimately proved elusive.

Another year, another chance?

Clearly, better focus will be key.

One resolution I always enjoy planning relates to reading instead of writing. In years past, those reading resolutions have included finishing at least four new short stories each week (2014), tackling all of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels (2015), and pushing through War & Peace at the rate of one chapter a day (2016). I didn't make such a resolution this past year (for reasons I'll explain another time), but I'm currently considering several possibilities for 2018. The most rewarding thing about the chapter-a-day War & Peace wasn't just that I finally completed it (after trying and failing before) but also that I felt a deeper connection with the characters by inhabiting their world for a full year—enlightening in several ways to live with a book that long. In the spirit of that plan, I'm thinking about trying Dickens' Bleak House in 2018, and I've already calculated how to pace it out—basically a chapter every 4-5 days.

Another idea: With the just-released collection of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories, I could pace out over 12 months all 28 stand-alone tales and then the serialized stories that became Red Harvest and The Dain Curse; in fact, I've already made a head start of that one, since I read the first two stories aloud to Tara just this week. A final possibility: Because I have (like all of us) a stockpile of books I've bought and never read, I've considered some checklist of titles to pull down from the shelves and finally read—a resolution that Tara is considering for her bookshelves as well.

Any advice on which of these to pursue?

For those looking for their own reading challenges, check out My Reader's Block where Bev Hankins offers a list of fun possibilities each year, particularly good for folks interested in classic crime novels. (And Sergio Angelini at Tipping My Fedora has not only taken up these challenges but has also set the standard for charting your progress along the way, so check his posts out too.)

Do others have reading resolutions to share? Or resolutions generally? 

Looking forward to hearing about everyone's plans for 2018—and best wishes to all for a happy start to the new year!  

28 December 2017

A Better Way to Collect and Edit an Anthology

by Brian Thornton

Two weeks ago I talked about what NOT to do when collecting and editing an anthology. This week's entry deals with my next bite at the anthology apple, employing the lessons I learned while collecting/editing that first nonfiction anthology.

To recap:

1. Soliciting writing from amateurs opens you up to a whole lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting.

2. Collecting and editing an anthology is a shit-ton of work, and if you're going to undertake it, you should make damned sure that it's on a subject near and dear to your heart, and that you've got something close to final approval on what the content looks like.

3. Creative control is worth taking less money for.

4. Don't work with a publisher who makes you do all of the contract wrangling in an age before DocuSign.

5. Part and parcel of being a good editor is being a good listener.
Cover art by Bill Cameron

The opportunity to put these lessons into practice came when my friend Mike Wolf approached me in late 2010 about collecting and editing a themed anthology of crime fiction. Mike, a successful business writer and consultant, was (and is) a huge mystery fan, intrigued by the then new(ish) notion of ebook publishing. He set up his own small press, (BSTSLLR) and asked me to collect and edit a crime fiction anthology which featured a West Coast setting.

A little under a year later, West Coast Crime Wave saw publication.

This experience was the polar opposite of my nonfiction anthology experience a few years previous. My publisher went out and commissioned a terrific cover from Bill Cameron (whose short story "The Last Ship" was truly one of the gems of the collection), and paid respectable fees to those authors whose stories made the cut.

West Coast Crime Wave was a lot of work. But it was also a lot of fun. The authors who showed up for this gig were a combination of members of the crime fiction community I'd gotten to know and admire over the years and authors who blind-submitted their work in response to calls for submissions I'd placed all over the internet.

One thing all of these writers had in common was that they were all willing to take chances.

They included David Corbett (whose first-person present-tense story "Returning to the Knife" is pure genius), Naomi Hirahara, who had several novels under her belt, but had never published a short story before (you'd never know that to read her submission, "Mrs. Lin's Art of Tea."), Scotti Andrews, whose "Blind Date" was later produced by Crime City Central as a popular audio piece, and Nick Mamatas, whose brilliant second-person, present-tense "The People's Republic of Everywhere and Everything" came to us via a cold submission. I accepted it gladly after requesting a single editorial change: the moving of a comma.

Other West Coast stalwarts include Sleuthsayer R.T. Lawton, Terrill Lee Lankford, a Hollywood refugee whose novel Earthquake Weather was a scathing indictment of the film industry and the studio system reminiscent of Robert Altman's darkly comic masterpiece, The Player, who is also a long-time collaborator with Michael Connelly, and has gone on to work on Connelly's Amazon series Bosch. And so many more, the very tall and very funny Steve Brewer; the very wry (and very funny) best-selling author Simon Wood; the very funny (and did I mention "very funny"?) Steve Hockensmith; Bainbridge Island's own Jim Thomsen, a refugee from the newspaper business for whom "The Ride Home" was the initial piece of paying fiction after the better part of two decades spent as a professional journalist: and Thomas P. Hopp, a biochemist whose story "The Ghost Trees" taught me as much about the impact of logging old growth forests as it did about human failings such as greed and envy.


As it turned out, the "collecting" of these stories was the easy part. The "editing" posed its own particular brand of challenges. Editing an anthology for an "emerging" press meant that this time around I did not have a publisher's in-house editorial staff serving as a backstop for me, especially when it came to the formatting of the book. Reading through the ebook we produced all these years later, the formatting shows its age, and I still wince at some of the editing errors I made and then missed (Like leaving the "s" out of "Hockensmith" in Steve Hockensmith's "About the Author" entry– sorry Steve!).

All that said, a great experience!

Check back in two weeks when I will have an update and an announcement on the always exciting crime fiction anthology front!

27 December 2017

Book of the Year

David Edgerley Gates

Guy's name is Don Winslow, his novel's called The Force.


North Manhattan Task Force. They target the drugs, the guns, the money. They work the barrio, the projects. They like to call themselves the Kings.

Denny Malone. Detective sergeant, gold badge, rock-star cop. The man. Top of the food chain. Malone's team gives good weight. They make cases, they make headlines. They make the suits look good. Malone delivers on his promises, puts meat on the table.

Here's the thing. Denny Malone is dirty. Do the numbers. 4th of July, his crew takes down a Dominican heroin mill, score a hundred keys and five million cash, waste the kingpin. Fifty kilos go in evidence, two million of the money. Malone's crew splits the difference. Call it the 401K. Something happens, on or off The Job, they've got extra benefits, cover your family in case of need. Malone and his partners have each other's back. Can't be otherwise, line of work they're in.

Short declarative sentences. Not a lot of wasted motion. Not a lot of adjectives, either. Skip unnecessary verbs, too. Keep it propulsive, present tense. Might put you in mind of early Lehane, a little, maybe Ed Dee. Not that this guy doesn't have a singular voice of his own. But the story, and the voice, belong to Malone.

All he ever wanted to be was a good cop. This is Denny's ambition, and his doom. It could stand as his epitaph. The Force is tragedy, in the classic sense - not an accident, but a fated choice. There's nothing hesitant or peripheral about it, it's front and center. Denny can feel the darkness closing in. At the same time, he can't help but try and work some angle, he's still thinking there's a way to save something of himself. Not because he's bad, either. He's basically good, or like most of us, he'd like to think so. He's just run out of moral collateral.

This is what gives The Force its center of gravity, but don't mistake it for ponderous. The book is a sheer, headlong adrenaline rush. (Malone's team suits up for a raid, and Dexedrine is part of the mix.) The dialogue, the human dynamics, the corrupt politics, the combat gear and the technical specs, the neighborhoods, the urban landscape and its discontents, is all convincing, and made familiar, but the brutally compelling action scenes are something entirely apart. Winslow makes it look effortless. Trust me, it ain't. The most basic principles of physical geography apply. Where is everybody, and where are they in relation to everybody else in the stairwell when all the lights go out? You can't leave it to chance. If you don't block out your fight scenes, they're incoherent.

I think the book delivers the knockdown punch it does because Winslow shows the emotional detail and human costs of The Job so effectively. The fierce loyalties and savage betrayals, the gallows humor, the scabrous vocabulary, the locker-room jive, the brittle tensions, the presence of death. There's this reflection. "Malone isn't a big fan of God and figures the feeling is mutual. He has a lot of questions he'd like to ask him, but if he ever got him in the room, God'd probably shut his mouth, lawyer up, let his own kid take the jolt."

Hard-boiled, and heartbreaking.


My suggestion for best mystery or crime thriller of 2017.

26 December 2017

Three Typewriters and a Desk

by Michael Bracken
Michael and his mother, Myrta, September 6, 1963.

My mother, Myrta, died when I was 17. She suffered from mitral valve stenosis and died during or immediately following surgery to correct this problem. She never saw my first professional publication, but she was instrumental in my success—not just for encouraging my dream, but also for repeatedly providing me with the tools for success.

This is the story of three typewriters and a desk.

THE BEAST

My mother presented me with my first typewriter when I was attending sixth grade at Sherman Elementary in Tacoma, Washington. I don’t know where she found the hulking black beast (it may have been an Underwood) that dominated my tiny desk from the moment it arrived, but on it I taught myself to type by hunting and pecking at the keys.

Though I did not know then that I wanted to be a writer, I was the only sixth-grader in my school typing his homework assignments, and I continued using the hulking black beast as its mechanical parts degenerated to the point where I had to type by striking the keys with the ball-peen side of a ball-peen hammer.

 On it, I typed my first short story, “The 1812 Battle at Two Rocks.” This is the story I showed my mother when I told her I wanted to be a writer.

THE PORTABLE

The beast did not travel with us when we left Tacoma and moved to Ft. Bragg, California, partway through ninth grade. That Christmas my mother gave me my second typewriter, a small blue portable (it may have been a Smith-Corona) that bounced across my desk when I typed because I still pounded typewriter keys as if I were assaulting the hulking black beast of my youth.

On it, I wrote “The Magic Stone,” which became my first professional short story sale. A children’s fantasy, elements of “The Magic Stone” were taken directly from an experience I shared with my mother when I was in grade school.

THE SELECTRIC

After my mother’s death, I returned to Tacoma to live with my grandparents, and later moved to Glen Carbon, Illinois, to attend Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I dropped out during the first quarter of my second year and moved to Collinsville, Illinois. In early 1978, my stepfather and I settled the medical malpractice suit filed following my mother’s death, and I used some of the money I received to purchase two filing cabinets I still use, the desk at which I sit as I write this, and a blue, wide-carriage, IBM Correcting Selectric II.

On it, I wrote “City Desk,” which became my second professional short story sale and first mystery. I wrote a great many other stories on the Selectric before I replaced it with a DOS-based personal computer running WordStar. During the years since, I’ve owned and used many PCs and Macintoshes, and now use Microsoft Word rather than WordStar.

THE DESK
Ellie, Michael's frequent writing companion, under the desk.

Though I still own the Selectric, it no longer functions properly and sits on a shelf in the closet. The desk I purchased with money from the malpractice suit—a black steel office desk with a faux wood-grain top and a secretarial arm—has traveled with me through several residences in Illinois, two in Mississippi, and two in Texas, and I have written all or part of every story since 1978 while sitting at this desk.

THE RESULT

My mother did not live to see the writer I’ve become—and I’ve written a few things I never would have shown her if she had!—but she’s been with me for the entire journey. Her literal heart may have failed her, but her figurative heart—her soul—remains.

25 December 2017

Christmas Miracle Movies

by Jan Grape

Trying to come up with a post for Christmas wasn’t easy. It's such a joyful time for a huge population. You know, pushing and shoving to reach the Filene’s gift that is just perfect for your Uncle Billy Bob or for your Grandmother Ella Daye. For some people, including myself, Christmas can be somewhat depressing. Bah. Humbug.

However, I didn’t want to post a somber or sad article for this December 25th, 2017. Instead, I turned to two storie from childhood, The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell and The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson. I found both on YouTube in Animation and Leigh helped me posted them.

It seems the early versions of The Littlest Angel weren’t well preserved. Either the pictures faded or the sound track deteriorated, or both. This one seems the least damaged.


The Little Match Girl has even more editions, a few as early as 1902, 1914, 1928, and 1937. I first saw the 1954 version, one of the least faithful to the original story, although the narrator sounds like Vincent Price. There are beautiful versions from many countries, politically slanted versions, a peculiar Legos WW-II stop-action and a Disney release. Disney’s ending is cleverly shaped so that it seems uplifting to children, but an aware adult can read it differently.

Look at the sublime special effects of the 1902 version. Charming!


Leigh selected this beautiful Vietnamese rendition.


Please everyone have a Merry and a Happy and prosperous 2018.

24 December 2017

A Holiday Gift Puzzle

by R.T. Lawton

In the old days, or at least about a decade and a half ago, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine used to publish a column in which the reader was presented with a logic puzzle. After I finally figured out how the logic puzzle worked, I wrote a story in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series where the characters used that same type of logic to solve the story puzzle. The reader got a chance to solve the puzzle before the story characters did. So, in honor of that past tradition, here's part of the story, and your own Happy Holidays logic puzzle for you to solve. Don't worry, hints are provided in the story to guide you through the logic process to find which person is the designated hitman.

"Yes sir," said Theodore, the bail agent. "it seems by the descriptions I was given, that we have one man with short, curly red hair, one blond male with a crew cut, one with medium brown hair and a man with black hair. Their names are Erikson, Zanos, Harris and Robertson. Their occupations, again in no particular order, seem to be a Stock Broker, a Car Salesman and an Insurance Salesman. The fourth is unknown and therefore obviously our Contract Killer, but I don't know which of these men has which occupation."

"I really hope you have more than that for me to go on," replied the proprietor.

"Well, there are a few more items of information that might help:
   1) the man with the unknown occupation, beat Zanos at golf a couple of days ago.
   2) Harris and the Car Salesman play poker once a week with the brown-haired man and the black-          haired man.
   3) Erikson and the Insurance Salesman dislike the brown-haired man.
   4) The Stock Broker has red hair.
and that's all I managed to get. The gift shop girl and the maids talked for free, but I had to cough up twenty bucks apiece to the others before they'd tell me anything. A bunch of crooks is what they are."

"Hush for a minute, I'm thinking."

The proprietor gazed off into the dark recesses of the inner sanctum's high ceiling. As the clock on the wall ticked off the minutes, he slowly began to stroke the silky sides of his long, black Bandito mustache. In time, he spoke.

"From what your interviews tell me, we know that Harris is not the Car Salesman and has neither brown nor black hair. Also that Erikson is not the Insurance Salesman and does not have brown hair. But, we do know the Stock Broker has red hair. And we know that Zanos is not the Contract Killer. The rest is a matter of logical thinking, thus we know that the color of the hair of the Car Salesman is..."

At this point, Theodore rubbed the tips of his pudgy, almost webbed fingers over the top of his bald head.

"Excuse me, sir. I kept up with you until you got to the logical thinking part, but I can't do this stuff in my head the way you do. Is there, perhaps.....an easier method?"

The proprietor removed paper and pen from the top drawer of his desk. Rapidly, he prepared a grid, which he then pushed across the desk to Theodore, along with a pen.

"Study this, then you fill in the blank spaces with an "O" for a positive and an "X" for a negative fact."

Theodore stared at the chart.

                    red   blond   black   brown    Stock Broker   Car Salesman   Insurance Salesman   Killer

Erikson                                          X                                                                        X

Zanos                                                                                                                                                X

Harris                                X         X                                             X

Robertson
_________________________________________________________________________________

Stk Brkr        O

Car Sales                            X         X

Ins Sales                                         X

Killer


"Okay, sir, I understand where the facts are on the chart, but can you give me a little boost on the logical thinking part?"

The proprietor sadly shook his head.

"Theodore, if you know that the Stock Broker has red hair, then you can place an 'X' in that row under "blond', 'black' and 'brown.' Those are negative facts. Go ahead and mark those in. Now, reading down the brown column, you see that the Stock Broker, the Car Salesman and the Insurance Salesman all have negative X's in their rows, therefore the Killer has brown hair. Put an 'O' in his row. You can figure out the rest."

Five minutes later, Theodore put down his pen.

"Okay, boss, I worked it out that the Car Salesman had blond hair and the Insurance Salesman had black hair, but I'm not sure where to go from here."

CAN YOU WORK IT OUT FROM HERE ?
(if not, then keep reading)

"Now it is a matter of simple elimination," said the proprietor. "Take Harris for example, his row has several blanks You know by those blanks that he can have red or blond hair and he can be the Stock Broker, the Insurance Salesman or the Contract Killer, but blond hair only goes with the Car Salesman as you determined earlier. Thus you eliminate the 'blond' in that row and you now know that that Harris has to be the Stock Broker, the only one with red hair. Keep working on it."

Ten minutes later, after several cross-outs, much scratching of his head and a few "Oh's", Theodore quietly laid down his pen. A self-satisfied smile radiated from his round, lumpy face.

"I figured out who the Contract Killer is. He's....."

DID YOU FIGURE IT OUT ?
(the answer is below)


"Ah, the Contract Killer is Mr. Robertson."

Happy Holidays from our house to yours !!!

23 December 2017

Writing Comic Crime, and the Rule of WORST THING

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Leading up to New Year’s, here’s a short list of THINGS I HAVE LEARNED IN LIFE:
  1. Men called Raoul are to be avoided. Especially when you are married.
  2. Coffee can solve a lot of problems, but it doesn’t help you sleep.
  3. It is a really bad idea to make financial decisions after finishing an entire bottle of cheap wine. (Okay, even expensive wine.)
  4. If it sounds like a stupid idea, it probably is.
  5. Never EVER go easy on your protagonist. In fact, invoke the rule of WORST THING.
My name is Melodie Campbell and I write comedies. I came by this honestly, in an attempt to avoid being serious. Most of my life, I have tried to avoid being serious. (Which is why I was a dismal failure as a bank manager. That’s another blog – yup, a comedy. But I digress…)

So far, it’s worked. THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE is one of thirteen non-serious books by this author.

But here’s a secret: writing non-serious is serious hard work.

HOW DO WE DO IT?

Comedy writers take a situation, and ask themselves ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen now?’ And then, ‘what’s the funniest?’

In THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, Gina discovers that her weasel cousin Carmine has switched real gems for fakes while he was babysitting her jewelry store. The lousy rat! Now, some of her best clients are walking around with fake rings on their fingers. Her rep is seriously on the line if anyone finds out. What’s a girl to do?

Mastermind a bunch of burglaries to steal back the fakes, of course. She is the reluctant Goddaughter of the local mob boss, after all.

So let’s invoke the rule of Worst Thing. What’s the worst thing that could happen to Gina when she breaks into houses? She could get caught by the cops. Or shot as an intruder. But that would end the story pretty quick, and we don’t want that.

Also, I don’t want ‘worst thing’ all the time. This is a comedy. We need a balance of pathos and bathos. So what’s the funniest thing that could happen?

All the burglaries could go wrong. That’s our worst thing. And the WAY they go wrong is the comedy.

Houses aren’t empty when they should be. Her accomplice is a manic critic of interior design. Everyone in Steeltown is following the antics of “their very own Pink Panthers” in the local newspaper. The more Gina tries to be invisible, the more they become a sensation!

Worse and worse. Funnier, and hopefully, funnier. And that’s my rule of ‘best thing.’

Hope your 2018 is the best year ever.

Melodie Campbell has been called "the Carol Burnett of Crime" by industry reviewers who obviously are slightly demented themselves. You can get her books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and pretty well anywhere.

22 December 2017

Money for Nothing


by Thomas Pluck

Anonymous said...
Money, money money. If you don't enjoy writing for its own sake or to entertain others, then you'd be better off pumping gas in your spare time. Stop thinking of it as a profession and insulting pubs that don't pay enough. Most of them do it out of love and lose money every month, so those that pay anything at all should be commended. Whether a publication pays nothing or several hundred dollars, it is still just a token and won't pay your bills. 
That comment was left (anonymously, of course) on my last post about crime fiction markets compared to SF/F and Lit genres that have a more robust selection of venues that pay. Now, I was not insulting non-paying markets. I briefly ran Flash Fiction Friday, which you could count as a non-paying market of a sort. Some of my first publications were at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, and Beat to a Pulp. They still publish great content. But let's talk about this. Other genres have has this conversation. If you want to limit your artists to those who don't need to get paid for it, it changes the art you'll get. I only know a few writers without day jobs, partners or family who support them, or retirees. I'm a writer with a day job. It allows me to write whatever I want because getting paid for it doesn't matter. I also love my day job, but I wouldn't do it for the love of it, if they suddenly said the well was dry. I'd find an employer who respected me enough to pay me for my work.

And there's that. I love Robert Parker's admonishment about writer's block-- "there's no such thing as plumber's block" -- and there's something to be said about art being work. We don't like calling art work, but all the bullshit--and that's what it is--about suffering for art and not getting paid came from the patronage system before it, where artists weren't truly free to do what they wanted. If they insulted the patron, the money got cut off. The artists who were free to starve on their moral high ground, but no one told them to do it. Unlike today.

I've heard the "write for the love of the art" argument from thieves who don't want to pay for e-books before, but not someone who sounds like an editor. I did not insult the editors I interviewed, whether they paid for work or not.  If you felt snubbed or targeted, it wasn't intentional. If you want to "do it for the love" that's fine, but don't tell other people to do it. I didn't say "don't submit to non-paying markets."

"Stop thinking of it as a profession." Speak for yourself. Everyone wants someone else to work for free. Not everyone can afford to. Go tell your mechanic to work for the love and tell me where you find the wrench.

The counter argument to this is well, I need my car but I don't need books. Apparently we do. Stories are important, or we would have done away with them, don't you think?

21 December 2017

James Thurber Strikes Again

by Eve Fisher

Although technically, this is by James Thurber.  And has an odd connection to a very famous Christmas poem - see if you can spot it!

IF GRANT HAD BEEN DRINKING AT APPOMATTOX -James Thurber

("Scribner's" magazine is publishing a series of three articles: "If Booth Had Missed Lincoln," "If Lee Had Won the Battle of Gettysburg," and "If Napoleon Had Escaped to America." This is the fourth.)
Photograph of Grant in uniform leaning on a post in front of a tentThe morning of the ninth of April, 1865, dawned beautifully. General Meade was up with the first streaks of crimson in the sky. General Hooker and General Burnside were up and had breakfasted, by a quarter after eight. The day continued beautiful. It drew on. toward eleven o'clock. General Ulysses S. Grant was still not up. He was asleep in his famous old navy hammock, swung high above the floor of his headquarters' bedroom. Headquarters was distressingly disarranged: papers were strewn on the floor; confidential notes from spies scurried here and there in the breeze from an open window; the dregs of an overturned bottle of wine flowed pinkly across an important military map.

Corporal Shultz, of the Sixty-fifth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, aide to General Grant, came into the outer room, looked around him, and sighed. He entered the bedroom and shook the General's hammock roughly. General Ulysses S. Grant opened one eye.

"Pardon, sir," said Corporal Shultz, "but this is the day of surrender. You ought to be up, sir."

"Don't swing me," said Grant, sharply, for his aide was making the hammock sway gently. "I feel terrible," he added, and he turned over and closed his eye again.

"General Lee will be here any minute now," said the Corporal firmly, swinging the hammock again.

"Will you cut that out?" roared Grant. "D'ya want to make me sick, or what?" Shultz clicked his heels and saluted. "What's he coming here for?" asked the General.

"This is the day of surrender, sir," said Shultz. Grant grunted bitterly.

"Three hundred and fifty generals in the Northern armies," said Grant, "and he has to come to me about this. What time is it?". "You're the Commander-in-Chief, that's why," said Corporal Shultz. "It's eleven twenty, sir."

"Don't be crazy," said Grant. "Lincoln is the Commander-in-Chief. Nobody in the history of the world ever surrendered before lunch. Doesn't he know that an army surrenders on its stomach?" He pulled a blanket up over his head and settled himself again.

"The generals of the Confederacy will be here any minute now," said the Corporal. "You really ought to be up, sir." Grant stretched his arms above his head and yawned. "All right, all right," he said. He rose to a sitting position and stared about the room. "This place looks awful," he growled. "You must have had quite a time of it last night, sir," ventured Shultz. "Yeh," said General Grant, looking around for his clothes. "I was wrassling some general. Some general with a beard."

Shultz helped the commander of the Northern armies in the field to find his clothes. "Where's my other sock?" demanded Grant. Shultz began to look around for it. The General walked uncertainly to a table and poured a drink from a bottle. "I don't think it wise to drink, sir," said Shultz. Nev' mind about me," said Grant, helping himself to a second, "I can take it or let it alone. Didn' ya ever hear the story about the fella went to. Lincoln to complain about me drinking too much? 'So-and-So says Grant drinks too much,' this fella said. 'So-and-So is a fool,' said Lincoln. So this fella went to What's-His-Name and told him what Lincoln said and he came roarin' to Lincoln about it. 'Did you tell So-and-So was a fool?' he said. 'No,' said Lincoln, 'I thought he knew it.'" The'General smiled, reminiscently, and had another drink. ""That's how I stand with Lincoln," he said, proudly,
The soft thudding sound of horses' hooves came through the open window. Shultz hurriedly walked over and looked out. "Hoof steps," said Grant, with a curious chortle. "It is General Lee and his staff," said Shultz. "Show him in," said the General, taking another drink. "And see what the boys in the back room will have." Shultz walked smartly over to the door, opened it, saluted, and stood aside.
General Lee, dignified against the blue of the April sky, magnificent in his dress uniform, stood for a moment framed in the doorway. He walked in, followed by his staff. They bowed, and stood silent. General Grant stared at them. He only had one boot on and his jacket was unbuttoned.

"I know who you are," said Grant.'You're Robert Browning, the poet." "This is General Robert E. Lee," said one of his staff, coldly. "Oh," said Grant. "I thought he was Robert Browning. He certainly looks like Robert Browning. There was a poet for you. Lee: Browning. Did ya ever read 'How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix'? 'Up Derek, to saddle, up Derek, away; up Dunder, up Blitzen, up, Prancer, up Dancer, up Bouncer, up Vixen, up -'".

"Shall we proceed at once to the matter in hand?" asked General Lee, his eyes disdainfully taking in the disordered room. "Some of the boys was wrassling here last night," explained Grant. "I threw Sherman, or some general a whole lot like Sherman. It was pretty dark." He handed a bottle of Scotch to the commanding officer of the Southern armies, who stood holding it, in amazement and discomfiture. "Get a glass, somebody," said Grant, .looking straight at General Longstreet. "Didn't I meet you at Cold Harbor?" he asked. General Longstreet did not answer.

"I should like to have this over with as soon as possible," said Lee. Grant looked vaguely at Shultz, who walked up close to him , frowning. "The surrender, sir, the surrender," said Corporal Shultz in a whisper. "Oh sure, sure," said Grant. He took another drink. "All right," he said. "Here we go."

Slowly, sadly, he unbuckled his sword. Then he handed it to the astonished Lee. "There you are. General," said Grant. "We dam' near licked you. If I'd been feeling better we would of licked you."


My friends, enjoy, two videos of this classic:
One, the Drunk-A-Vox recording of If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox aloud (and how appropriate that is!);
Two, a video production of the same, directed by David Bowler, starring Dave Forshtay:  You Tube Version
The 1946 movie version of Twas the Night Before Christmas!

And a Merry Christmas to All!!!!



20 December 2017

Canadian Comments

Driven mad by/at Bouchercon 2017
by Robert Lopresti

As I said last week, I had a lovely time at Bouchercon in Toronto last month.  As usual at this kind of event, I copied down the words of wisdom that flowed from the mouths of my fellow scribes like stormwater over a levee.  Or some better simile.

I have provided a collection for your enlightenment.  If I quote you and you think I got it wrong (or just want to deny everything) let me know and I will be happy to make the correction.

Regrettably, the customs officials at the border confiscated the context for all these quotations, so you are on your own in that regard.  Here goes.

"Welcome to our country.  We don't have any crime here." - Cathy Ace

"I had to cut 65,000 words before I could start editing." - Robin Yocum

"When you are carrying a gun you act differently." - Jeff Siger

"I was a hermit so bathing was optional." - Donna Andrews

"If you want to write you sit down and write.  There's no plumber's block." - Alan Orloff

"Howard Engel invented the softboiled private eye." - Peter Robinson

"If there are stories you love, read them out loud." - Angel Luis Colón

"You can't write  a  thriller very effectively in England because you just go round and round." - Steph Broadribb

"It's not the ideal year to be the American Guest of Honour, but we do what we can." - Megan Abbott

"A lot of people ask if  I alienate readers by putting social issues in my books.  I say, that depends on whether you consider being Black a social issue.  I just consider it my skin."  - Danny Gardner

"I think of this as the fourth book in the Promise Falls trilogy, which suggests I can't count or don't understand the concept." - Linwood Barclay

"Welcome to the fashion faux paus hour.  Next up we have some bracelets from Indonesia." - Gary Phillips

"In a short story the destination is the destination." - James Lincoln Warren

"For all this to happen is like cooking dinner for your family and getting the James Beard Award.  It does not compute." -Joe Ide

"In Scotland we have an unarmed police force.  Well, no firearms.  Just batons and sarcasm." - Caro Ramsay


"We're professional failures and amateur successes." - Angel  Luis Colón

"I don' t like to write in public."  - Gary Phillips

"I'm confused.  My detective doesn't carry a handbag." - Brian Thiem

"Give your reader a reason to want to know what you're telling them." - Janet Hutchings

"There is no healing without humor." - Jess Lourey

"I grew up telling stories because I'm half Irish.  You could not come to the dinner table without a story." - Twist Phelan

"Instead of being Encyclopedia Brown I was Encyclopedia Black."  -Danny Gardner

"I'm having lunch with my editor.  I love saying that." -Robert Lopresti

"I'm going to write a book of English erotica.  It's called Fifty Shades of Beige." - Zoe Sharp
"No pressure.  It's just our careers." - Hank Phillippi Ryan

"When I was a girl my parents felt I experienced things too intently, so they got me to read The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, so I would find out what happens to girls who experience life too intently." - Sarah Paretsky

"I am an author and a lawyer, which is like a black belt in lying." - Reese Hirsch

"IQ is Sherlock in the hood.  Thank you for your time." - Joe Ide

"They changed all my H-O-N-O-R-S  to H-O-N-O-U-R-S."  -  David Maganya

"There is subtle humour in War and Peace, but it's Russian humor, so we don't get it."  -Donna Andrews

"I like it that if there are two things you don't want to do, you can choose which one you want to do least." - Jess Lourey

"I want to write a book called Water Finds A Way.  It's a manual for plumbers." -Karin Salvalaggio

"When you're standing in line to get local currency and the man in front of you thanks the ATM he's not odd, he's Canadian."  -Twist Phelan

"The idea of  a story is that you tell a series of lies that tell some kind of truth." - Johnny Shaw

19 December 2017

Go for the Gold

by Barb Goffman

When I was in college, a roommate was excited to come home one spring day to find me eating matzo ball soup. She asked if she could have some. She loved trying new ethnic foods. Having grown up Jewish, matzo ball soup didn't seem so ethnic to me, but I was happy to oblige.

As we head into the final days of Hanukkah this week, I thought of my old roommate, and I realized that perhaps this is a good time to bring a little ethnicity to readers, in this case, in the form of a favorite legal mystery series of mine starring a Jewish protagonist named Rachel Gold.

Rachel is an attorney at a law firm in Chicago when the series begins. A few books in, Rachel and her best friend, Benny, move to St. Louis, and the series continues there. Rachel is hard-working, smart, and a delight to read about. Author Michael A. Kahn also gives readers a nice look into the ways Judaism can play a role in everyday life, both through Rachel's personal life and her law firm work.

I know there are a lot of mysteries with Jewish protagonists, but this ten-book series is my favorite among them. The first book in the collection is called Grave Designs. I think Kahn started out with a different publisher (maybe more than one along the way), but now, all his books appear to be available through his current publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. You can also find a short story or two of his out there about Rachel Gold. They all come with my recommendation.

Please feel free to share your favorite "ethnic" mystery protagonist in the comments. And happy holidays and happy new year to you all.

18 December 2017

Less is Hard

by Steve Liskow

When people at events ask why I'm self-published, I can spot the other writers in the group with my standard answer: "So I don't have to write another synopsis."

Condensing your 300-more-or-less-page novel to five pages (some agents want only two or even one) is like gift-wrapping the state of Michigan. Remember, there are two peninsulae (or is it peninsulas?), and they're both pretty big. Lots of ribbon and tape...

Agents want your protagonist, setting, and conflict. They also want the plot and emotional stakes. They want to know how the story ends, too, and a sense of your style. In one to five pages. Maybe that's why Dickens, Hawthorne, Twain and Thoreau are among those famous writers who published at least some of their own work. I'd love to see Tolstoy's synopsis for War And Peace or Joyce's packaging of Finnegan's Wake.

But wait, there's less.

When I started self-publishing, I found a genius cover designer, a guy I worked with on dozens of plays. He designed posters for several shows I produced and most of the shows I directed.
We discovered that we could understand each other so he could create a poster that did all that synopsis stuff with a well-chosen graphic image. His covers prove that the cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words is still true.

But I still need to write a cover blurb. If you think a one-to-five-page synopsis is hard, try the postage-stamp-sized pitch on your back cover.
Mine run between 125 and 150 words, and they have to do everything that synopsis does except reveal the ending. Once a buyer looks at the cool cover picture, she's going to turn the book over and read the back (I hope). My portrait isn't going to sell the book (although I'm still frequently mistaken for Brad Pitt if it's dark enough), so it's up to that blurb.
How do you do it? Think Tarzan on steroids. Shun adverbs, adjectives and passive verbs. Use concrete, evocative nouns; precise active verbs; and all the voodoo you can conjure up. My designer usually shows me the cover image after reading my outline/synopsis (he'll read up to ten pages, bless him) and asking questions. He can shrink the font, but he's a good enough writer to tell me when he thinks I need to do better.

Before You Accuse Me, my fourth Woody Guthrie novel, will arrive in January. I started struggling with the blurb last June. I thought the cover image was strong enough so we didn't need a tagline, but I like to start the blurb with something punchy. I was playing with Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors."

"Old offenses make bad relations" was too vague, not to mention stupid. That was the third or fourth try. We changed it to "old betrayals make bad relatives," only slightly better. Maybe. Peter dug into the outline again and told me to specify the relative. We played around with that for another two months and finally agreed on "Bad exes make bad clients." Then we changed and cut and added until we could both live with the rhythm.

We could probably do more with it, but we were both exhausted and I was still revising the MS, too. Maybe the second "bad" should be "worse" or some other monosyllable. We knew we were pushing our luck when we used early backstory and an adverb to fill out the rhythm in the closing sentence.

Here is the ninth revision, which we agreed to use:

Bad exes make bad clients.

Years ago, Sarah McKinnon dumped Chris Guthrie and moved hundreds of miles away for a new job and, eventually, a new husband. Soon after that, Guthrie nearly lost his leg in a shoot-out that cost him his job as a Detroit cop.

Now Sarah's new husband is in trouble and she wants her PI ex- to get him out of it. Against his better judgment--and that of his new companion Megan Traine--Guthrie flies east, where he and Megan find Sam Henderson accused of killing his mistress. He has a motive, the opportunity, a weak alibi, and maybe the murder weapon--which has disappeared. when they dig deeper, they find an even more damning motive.

Unfortunately, someone else has found it, too.

It's 128 words, about my average. It has no passive sentences and it reads at about seventh-grade, seventh-month reading level. I aim at fourth or fifth grade, but summaries tend to skew toward more passive verbs, so I'll take this.

someday, maybe I'll learn to write a blurb. Then I'll bottle the secret and sell it to other writers and make the fortune that continues to elude me.

17 December 2017

The Happy Prince

by Leigh Lundin

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Christmas not merely invokes joy, it also implies poignancy and sometimes brings tears when we look around us.

Our house not only featured a crowded library, books cascaded into four barrister bookcases and shelves in every bedroom. One thick tome contained the complete works of Oscar Wilde, and one story in that book my father read to us.

As a pre-school child, I felt stuck by the immense sadness of ‘The Happy Prince’. For some reason, Victorians deemed it necessary to remind children of sorrow and wretchedness. Perhaps they had a point– I never forgot the parable. From time to time, I’ve gone back to reread it.

‘The Happy Prince’ was hardly the only children’s tale of pathos. When I was six or so, I saw the film ‘The Little Match Girl’ based on the fable (‘Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne’) by Hans Christian Andersen, published four decades before Wilde and referenced in today’s story. Try to read without weeping for those souls and for ourselves.

The Happy Prince

from 1888’s

The Happy Prince and Other Tales

by Oscar Wilde

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.
He was very much admired indeed. “He is as beautiful as a weathercock,” remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes; “only not quite so useful,” he added, fearing lest people should think him unpractical, which he really was not.
“Why can’t you be like the Happy Prince?” asked a sensible mother of her little boy who was crying for the moon. “The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything.”
“I am glad there is some one in the world who is quite happy,” muttered a disappointed man as he gazed at the wonderful statue.
“He looks just like an angel,” said the Charity Children as they came out of the cathedral in their bright scarlet cloaks and their clean white pinafores.
“How do you know?” said the Mathematical Master, “you have never seen one.”
“Ah! but we have, in our dreams,” answered the children; and the Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve of children dreaming.
One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.
“Shall I love you?” said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer.
“It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other Swallows; “she has no money, and far too many relations”; and indeed the river was quite full of Reeds. Then, when the autumn came they all flew away.
After they had gone he felt lonely, and began to tire of his lady- love. “She has no conversation,” he said, “and I am afraid that she is a coquette, for she is always flirting with the wind.” And certainly, whenever the wind blew, the Reed made the most graceful curtseys. “I admit that she is domestic,” he continued, “but I love travelling, and my wife, consequently, should love travelling also.”
“Will you come away with me?” he said finally to her; but the Reed shook her head, she was so attached to her home.
“You have been trifling with me,” he cried. “I am off to the Pyramids. Good-bye!” and he flew away.
All day long he flew, and at night-time he arrived at the city. “Where shall I put up?” he said; “I hope the town has made preparations.”
Then he saw the statue on the tall column.
“I will put up there,” he cried; “it is a fine position, with plenty of fresh air.” So he alighted just between the feet of the Happy Prince.
“I have a golden bedroom,” he said softly to himself as he looked round, and he prepared to go to sleep; but just as he was putting his head under his wing a large drop of water fell on him. “What a curious thing!” he cried; “there is not a single cloud in the sky, the stars are quite clear and bright, and yet it is raining. The climate in the north of Europe is really dreadful. The Reed used to like the rain, but that was merely her selfishness.”
Then another drop fell.
“What is the use of a statue if it cannot keep the rain off?” he said; “I must look for a good chimney-pot,” and he determined to fly away.
But before he had opened his wings, a third drop fell, and he looked up, and saw - Ah! what did he see?
The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and tears were running down his golden cheeks. His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little Swallow was filled with pity.
“Who are you?” he said.
“I am the Happy Prince.”
“Why are you weeping then?” asked the Swallow; “you have quite drenched me.”
“When I was alive and had a human heart,” answered the statue, “I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. In the daytime I played with my companions in the garden, and in the evening I led the dance in the Great Hall. Round the garden ran a very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everything about me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness. So I lived, and so I died. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot chose but weep.”
“What! is he not solid gold?” said the Swallow to himself. He was too polite to make any personal remarks out loud.
“Far away,” continued the statue in a low musical voice, “far away in a little street there is a poor house. One of the windows is open, and through it I can see a woman seated at a table. Her face is thin and worn, and she has coarse, red hands, all pricked by the needle, for she is a seamstress. She is embroidering passion- flowers on a satin gown for the loveliest of the Queen’s maids-of- honour to wear at the next Court-ball. In a bed in the corner of the room her little boy is lying ill. He has a fever, and is asking for oranges. His mother has nothing to give him but river water, so he is crying. Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow, will you not bring her the ruby out of my sword-hilt? My feet are fastened to this pedestal and I cannot move.”
“I am waited for in Egypt,” said the Swallow. “My friends are flying up and down the Nile, and talking to the large lotus- flowers. Soon they will go to sleep in the tomb of the great King. The King is there himself in his painted coffin. He is wrapped in yellow linen, and embalmed with spices. Round his neck is a chain of pale green jade, and his hands are like withered leaves.”
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “will you not stay with me for one night, and be my messenger? The boy is so thirsty, and the mother so sad.”
“I don’t think I like boys,” answered the Swallow. “Last summer, when I was staying on the river, there were two rude boys, the miller’s sons, who were always throwing stones at me. They never hit me, of course; we swallows fly far too well for that, and besides, I come of a family famous for its agility; but still, it was a mark of disrespect.”
But the Happy Prince looked so sad that the little Swallow was sorry. “It is very cold here,” he said; “but I will stay with you for one night, and be your messenger.”
“Thank you, little Swallow,” said the Prince.
So the Swallow picked out the great ruby from the Prince’s sword, and flew away with it in his beak over the roofs of the town.
He passed by the cathedral tower, where the white marble angels were sculptured. He passed by the palace and heard the sound of dancing. A beautiful girl came out on the balcony with her lover. “How wonderful the stars are,” he said to her, “and how wonderful is the power of love!”
“I hope my dress will be ready in time for the State-ball,” she answered; “I have ordered passion-flowers to be embroidered on it; but the seamstresses are so lazy.”
He passed over the river, and saw the lanterns hanging to the masts of the ships. He passed over the Ghetto, and saw the old merchants bargaining with each other and weighing out money in copper scales. At last he came to the poor house and looked in. The boy was tossing feverishly on his bed, and the mother had fallen asleep, she was so tired. In he hopped, and laid the great ruby on the table beside the woman’s thimble. Then he flew gently round the bed, fanning the boy’s forehead with his wings. “How cool I feel,” said the boy, “I must be getting better”; and he sank into a delicious slumber.
Then the Swallow flew back to the Happy Prince, and told him what he had done. “It is curious,” he remarked, “but I feel quite warm now, although it is so cold.”
“That is because you have done a good action,” said the Prince. And the little Swallow began to think, and then he fell asleep. Thinking always made him sleepy.
When day broke he flew down to the river and had a bath. “What a remarkable phenomenon,” said the Professor of Ornithology as he was passing over the bridge. “A swallow in winter!” And he wrote a long letter about it to the local newspaper. Every one quoted it, it was full of so many words that they could not understand.
“To-night I go to Egypt,” said the Swallow, and he was in high spirits at the prospect. He visited all the public monuments, and sat a long time on top of the church steeple. Wherever he went the Sparrows chirruped, and said to each other, “What a distinguished stranger!” so he enjoyed himself very much.
When the moon rose he flew back to the Happy Prince. “Have you any commissions for Egypt?” he cried; “I am just starting.”
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “will you not stay with me one night longer?”
“I am waited for in Egypt,” answered the Swallow. “To-morrow my friends will fly up to the Second Cataract. The river-horse couches there among the bulrushes, and on a great granite throne sits the God Memnon. All night long he watches the stars, and when the morning star shines he utters one cry of joy, and then he is silent. At noon the yellow lions come down to the water’s edge to drink. They have eyes like green beryls, and their roar is louder than the roar of the cataract.
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “far away across the city I see a young man in a garret. He is leaning over a desk covered with papers, and in a tumbler by his side there is a bunch of withered violets. His hair is brown and crisp, and his lips are red as a pomegranate, and he has large and dreamy eyes. He is trying to finish a play for the Director of the Theatre, but he is too cold to write any more. There is no fire in the grate, and hunger has made him faint.”
“I will wait with you one night longer,” said the Swallow, who really had a good heart. “Shall I take him another ruby?”
“Alas! I have no ruby now,” said the Prince; “my eyes are all that I have left. They are made of rare sapphires, which were brought out of India a thousand years ago. Pluck out one of them and take it to him. He will sell it to the jeweller, and buy food and firewood, and finish his play.”
“Dear Prince,” said the Swallow, “I cannot do that”; and he began to weep.
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “do as I command you.”
So the Swallow plucked out the Prince’s eye, and flew away to the student’s garret. It was easy enough to get in, as there was a hole in the roof. Through this he darted, and came into the room. The young man had his head buried in his hands, so he did not hear the flutter of the bird’s wings, and when he looked up he found the beautiful sapphire lying on the withered violets.
“I am beginning to be appreciated,” he cried; “this is from some great admirer. Now I can finish my play,” and he looked quite happy.
The next day the Swallow flew down to the harbour. He sat on the mast of a large vessel and watched the sailors hauling big chests out of the hold with ropes. “Heave a-hoy!” they shouted as each chest came up. “I am going to Egypt”! cried the Swallow, but nobody minded, and when the moon rose he flew back to the Happy Prince.
“I am come to bid you good-bye,” he cried.
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “will you not stay with me one night longer?”
“It is winter,” answered the Swallow, “and the chill snow will soon be here. In Egypt the sun is warm on the green palm-trees, and the crocodiles lie in the mud and look lazily about them. My companions are building a nest in the Temple of Baalbec, and the pink and white doves are watching them, and cooing to each other. Dear Prince, I must leave you, but I will never forget you, and next spring I will bring you back two beautiful jewels in place of those you have given away. The ruby shall be redder than a red rose, and the sapphire shall be as blue as the great sea.”
“In the square below,” said the Happy Prince, “there stands a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out my other eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her.”
“I will stay with you one night longer,” said the Swallow, “but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then.”
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “do as I command you.”
So he plucked out the Prince’s other eye, and darted down with it. He swooped past the match-girl, and slipped the jewel into the palm of her hand. “What a lovely bit of glass,” cried the little girl; and she ran home, laughing.
Then the Swallow came back to the Prince. “You are blind now,” he said, “so I will stay with you always.”
“No, little Swallow,” said the poor Prince, “you must go away to Egypt.”
“I will stay with you always,” said the Swallow, and he slept at the Prince’s feet.
All the next day he sat on the Prince’s shoulder, and told him stories of what he had seen in strange lands. He told him of the red ibises, who stand in long rows on the banks of the Nile, and catch gold-fish in their beaks; of the Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their hands; of the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the great green snake that sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes; and of the pygmies who sail over a big lake on large flat leaves, and are always at war with the butterflies.
“Dear little Swallow,” said the Prince, “you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there.”
So the Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates. He flew into dark lanes, and saw the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets. Under the archway of a bridge two little boys were lying in one another’s arms to try and keep themselves warm. “How hungry we are!” they said. “You must not lie here,” shouted the Watchman, and they wandered out into the rain.
Then he flew back and told the Prince what he had seen.
“I am covered with fine gold,” said the Prince, “you must take it off, leaf by leaf, and give it to my poor; the living always think that gold can make them happy.”
Leaf after leaf of the fine gold the Swallow picked off, till the Happy Prince looked quite dull and grey. Leaf after leaf of the fine gold he brought to the poor, and the children’s faces grew rosier, and they laughed and played games in the street. “We have bread now!” they cried.
Then the snow came, and after the snow came the frost. The streets looked as if they were made of silver, they were so bright and glistening; long icicles like crystal daggers hung down from the eaves of the houses, everybody went about in furs, and the little boys wore scarlet caps and skated on the ice.
The poor little Swallow grew colder and colder, but he would not leave the Prince, he loved him too well. He picked up crumbs outside the baker’s door when the baker was not looking and tried to keep himself warm by flapping his wings.
But at last he knew that he was going to die. He had just strength to fly up to the Prince’s shoulder once more. “Good-bye, dear Prince!” he murmured, “will you let me kiss your hand?”
“I am glad that you are going to Egypt at last, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “you have stayed too long here; but you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you.”
“It is not to Egypt that I am going,” said the Swallow. “I am going to the House of Death. Death is the brother of Sleep, is he not?”
And he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at his feet.
At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost.
Early the next morning the Mayor was walking in the square below in company with the Town Councillors. As they passed the column he looked up at the statue: “Dear me! how shabby the Happy Prince looks!” he said.
“How shabby indeed!” cried the Town Councillors, who always agreed with the Mayor; and they went up to look at it.
“The ruby has fallen out of his sword, his eyes are gone, and he is golden no longer,” said the Mayor in fact, “he is litttle beter than a beggar!”
“Little better than a beggar,” said the Town Councillors.
“And here is actually a dead bird at his feet!” continued the Mayor. “We must really issue a proclamation that birds are not to be allowed to die here.” And the Town Clerk made a note of the suggestion.
So they pulled down the statue of the Happy Prince. “As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful,” said the Art Professor at the University.
Then they melted the statue in a furnace, and the Mayor held a meeting of the Corporation to decide what was to be done with the metal. “We must have another statue, of course,” he said, “and it shall be a statue of myself.”
“Of myself,” said each of the Town Councillors, and they quarrelled. When I last heard of them they were quarrelling still.
“What a strange thing!” said the overseer of the workmen at the foundry. “This broken lead heart will not melt in the furnace. We must throw it away.” So they threw it on a dust-heap where the dead Swallow was also lying.
“Bring me the two most precious things in the city,” said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.
Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony (1882)
“You have rightly chosen,” said God, “for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.”



‘without worry’ or ‘carefree’

The beauty of Christmas opens it to everyone regardless of faith, politics or polemics. Even secular celebration cannot stifle the underlying, embracing message that caring, sharing, and love are meant for all.