Showing posts with label Alfred Hitchcock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alfred Hitchcock. Show all posts

02 April 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Villains

by Steve Liskow

Superman isn't a hero because he can fly or see through walls or bend steel with his bare hands. He's a hero because of kryptonite, the element that will render him helpless. That's how it is in mystery writing, too.

If you're writing a crime or mystery story, the villain drives your plot. Without a strong opponent, your hero looks weak because he or she doesn't really face a challenge. That's bad.

So how do you make your villain strong?

Remember, your Bad Guy explores alternatives, stepping over the line into the darkness to get something he or she wants, by whatever means necessary. If those means include lying, stealing, or killing, so much the better. The villain's goal is usually money, love, or power, and those are the issues that give your story high stakes. Without stakes, who cares?

The more your villain influences the story, the better. The hero/sleuth has to meet the increasingly difficult challenges.

That's comparatively easy in suspense novels that use the Bad Guy's point of view for some scenes. Suspense stories seem to be getting bigger and bigger now, and Armageddon needs a full-scale Ming the Merciless (Yeah, I'm dating myself)
to carry the ball. Sometimes those stories present the Bad Guy as a monster. Don't TELL us your character is a monster, though, a Joker, Snidely Whiplash, or Hannibal Lector, SHOW us. He has to be willing to kill dozens of people, dance with glee over starving kittens and scheme to bring back Disco.
He doesn't have to wring his hands and cackle "Bwah-hah-hah, my pretty" whenever we see him, and he doesn't need a pet cobra or a bullwhip. But we like to see someone enjoy his work and take pride in it. My favorite line in the entire Batman series is Heath Ledger as the Joker proclaiming, "When you're very good at something, never do it for free."

The best Bad Guys have redeeming qualities, too. They have a good reason (to them) for what they do. Revenge for a dead sibling or child, pursuit of a cause they believe is noble, a cure for tone-deafness. And except for some bloodthirsty little peccadillo, they may be great people. Hannibal Lector has superb taste and a sense of humor. In the early James Bond films, Blofeld often cradled a white Persian cat. If he likes animals, how bad can e really be? Well, come to think of it...

That's suspense. In mysteries, we can't be that obvious. We want the reader to wonder who the Bad Guy is. My villains seem like ordinary people until we discover why they do those nasty things. But my Bad Guys (or gals, I have several of them--I love subtle femme fatales) keep the squirrel running on the treadmill.

In Who Wrote the Book of Death? Zach Barnes is trying to find the person who threatens Beth Shepard.
Beth is the visible half of a writing team, and Barnes isn't sure if she's the target or if the Bad Guy really wants to kill Jim Leslie, who writes under a female pen name. He spends lots of time looking at both peoples' backstory to see who might want to kill them. In the meantime, Leslie nearly gets electrocuted in his own home. The killer tampers with the wiring, but nobody sees him. Beth is almost run down, but nobody gets a good look at the car. Later, someone shoots at her while she's presenting an author event at a bookstore, and nobody sees the shooter.

The villain is hiding, but his work drives the story. Even though we haven't seen him, Barnes must scramble to protect both people and figure out who the heck is doing all this stuff.

In The Whammer Jammers, several characters have nasty agendas. Someone stalks a roller derby skater, someone plans a bank robbery, and someone sets fires to a geriatric hospital, but we don't know who is pulling all the strings until Trash and Byrne solve those cases and find the common denominator...in the very last scene.

Blood On the Tracks revolves around a cold case that comes to light when Woody Guthrie agrees to recover a missing audio tape of a 1991 recording session. Someone killed a man to steal that tape, and Guthrie has to figure out why a recording of a long-forgotten band matters that much. The tape is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin," the gizmo that drives the plot, but the killer and his reasons are real. Guthrie has to understand how a twenty-years-old death links to three violent deaths in the present. That's a lot of influence by an invisible Bad Guy.

I put all these villains in plain sight and have them behave like decent people because I want to play fair with the reader. I give him or her information to unravel the mystery along with my detective, but I don't make my villain a weirdo or a demon or a cartoon. He or she is simply a person like you or me (But not as handsome or beautiful)
who made a really bad choice. Maybe that's what fascinates me the most about villains. Not all of them are monsters. There's a place for those, too, but it's not in my particular stories.

Unfortunately, opening the morning newspaper reminds me that we have enough monsters out there in real life.

13 February 2018

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

by Paul D. Marks

This is going to be a rather morbid post, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for some time. It also might be a little bit unfocused as there’s so many things going round my head on this subject, but I think the main points will come across.

Lately, I’ve been noticing on Facebook a lot of people being sick to one degree or another and even some who’ve passed on. This has been happening since I joined FB but it seems like there’s more lately and that it’s happening more frequently. As I was thinking about this, I’ve also seen posts from other people who’ve noticed the same thing. Maybe it’s because we have more FB friends, maybe it’s because that’s just life or people are getting older? Either way, every time I see these messages—and even the ones about people’s pets—I get a pang of sadness. On the one hand, it’s part of life, still, on the other it hurts to see so many people going gently—or otherwise—into that good night.

It gives me pause. Maybe because my world is so much bigger, in some ways, thanks to FB. Therefore, I see more of this than I would in pre-FB days. I’ve had friends and relatives die since I was a little kid, of course. Some well before their time, either because of “natural” causes or war or in the case of my birth father, from being hit by a drunk driver. Somehow he made it through World War II, but not the mean streets of L.A.

So I wanted to talk a little about writers and recognition, both in our lifetimes and beyond: mortality and immortality. It’s an uncomfortable subject, maybe one of those that we don’t like to talk about in “polite” company, but maybe one that we think about on occasion.

We write for various reasons. To get our point of view out there, to entertain, to get fame and recognition, maybe even a little money...very little money 😉. And it might seem vain, but I think we also write because many of us would like that little chunk of immortality that leaving behind our words gives us. We want to think that in a hundred years or a thousand someone searching some “dusty” silicon chips (or whatever the current medium is) for a bit of nostalgia or a glimpse of how the world used to be might stumble upon our words. And just for that little moment in time we might live again. Of course, we also want to be recognized while we’re here—wouldn’t that be nice?

Some people say that writing in itself is its own reward—maybe, or to an extent. But, speaking for myself, while I enjoy the writing, creating stories, characters, settings, plots and putting it all together like a jigsaw puzzle, if no one else read it it would be like the sound of that famous tree falling in the forest—with no one there to hear it. So, aren’t we really writing for others—whether today or for posterity? Otherwise why share our work with anyone else? Writing for yourself is like eating a pizza by yourself (or watching a movie, playing cards or a game), it’s definitely enjoyable, but it’s often more fun to do with someone else. And if we’re writing for others our work can live on even if we can’t.

In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare, whoever he was in reality, said…

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

…referring to his poem living on, making him immortal.



Does everyone think or hope they’ll be the next Jane Austen or Charles Dickens—or even Dan Brown? Did any of these people think they’d be remembered a hundred or more years later—maybe, or maybe not. They, probably like a lot of writers, just felt compelled to write—but maybe with one eye toward some type of immortality. For some of us, writing is like breathing. But are we really writing for a tiny audience of our wives, husbands and mothers? I don’t think so.

Jane Austen

Most people want to leave a mark—hopefully for something good or at worst neutral, though some prefer being known for their evil deeds (which gives us fodder to write about). Nobody wants to be ignored or forgotten. To some that means leaving children to carry on the family legacy and name, to others curing cancer, and yet to others leaving a piece of writing that will endure. But after a generation or two even our great grandchildren don’t really know us either, but our readers do.

If we don’t care about these things, both being known in our lifetimes and beyond, why do we get upset when our work is rejected, when we can’t get agents, etc.? Sure, part of it is ego, no one likes being rejected. But maybe part of it is also losing another shot at a little piece of immortality. 

At some points in our lives, particularly when we’re younger, I think we don’t see the possibility of not being here anymore. We know it happens intellectually, but we don’t like to think about it. Which brings to mind these lines from Flowers Never Bend in the Rainfall, by Paul Simon:

So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend with the rainfall.

And that also brings me to one of my favorite songs about mortality:

There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here



So, do it while you’re here, do it now and don’t put it off ’cause you never know what will happen. And hopefully it will last. And, like Dylan Thomas said, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

***

And now for a little BSP that will hopefully help me on the road to immortality: Mind Blowing News: My story “Windward” from Coast to Coast: Privates Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer and Me, published by Down & Out Books) has been selected for the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler. It will be out in the fall. To say I’m blown away is an understatement. Also selected for Best American Mysteries from this collection is John Floyd’s “Gun Work,” and Art Taylor’s “A Necessary Ingredient” has been nominated for an Agatha. Not a bad batting average for one book 😁.

And a shoutout to SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and David Edgerly Gates, who also have stories in the Best American Mysteries, and Barb Goffman on her Agatha Nom. SleuthSayers is cleaning up!

https://www.mysteriousbookshop.com/blogs/news/best-american-mystery-stories-2018 


Also, my Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down and Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. Here is the new cover reveal:

 

Also, there’s a fun and interesting article on Alfred Hitchcock in the Washington Post (and other places) from Associated Press writer Hillel Italie: Alfred Hitchcock Remains an Influence on Crime Writers. It includes quotes from Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mike Mallory, SJ Rozan, A.J. Finn, Otto Penzler.......and even me! Enjoy!

###

17 January 2018

Train songs, Train story

Shirt courtesy of Joann Lopresti Scanlon
by Robert Lopresti

I am thrilled to bits to have the cover story in the January/February issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  I also have a piece up on Trace Evidence, the AHMM  blog site, about the Orphan Train movement, which is the fact  behind my fiction. Today I want to discuss how I found out about it.

It goes back to the 1970s, when my future wife and I attended our first-ever folk  festival.  This was in Middletown, New Jersey and it had more than  a dozen performers, none of whom we had ever heard of.  (Honestly, I think the only folksingers we could have named back then were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, and Guthrie - Arlo, not Woody).

At one point Marlene Levine, the MC, said, "We had this man  here a few years ago and we think we've recovered enough to have him back.  Here he is, a legend in  his own mind, U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest!"

Out came an old man (ha, younger than I am now) with a gray ponytail under a cowboy hat.  When he left the stage twenty minutes later my wife and I were committed lifelong folkies.

Utah Phillips was a singer-songwriter, raconteur  and performer.  He shared a body with Bruce Phillips, who was a veteran, a pacifist, an anarchist, a Wobblie, and a railroad nut.

One day, a decade after I first heard him, Phillips was touring in the midwest.  He came back to his hotel and saw a sign that read ORPHAN TRAIN REUNION.  Considering what I told you about him, you should realize that Bruce could no more walk past that sign than he could have flapped his arms and flown past it.

Of course he went in and asked "What's an Orphan Train and why a Reunion?"  The answer led him to writing one of his best songs.  I can't find a recording on Youtube of Utah performing it but there are several good covers and here is one.  (Hi, Jim Portillo!)



That song introduced me to the Orphan Train.  It led me to read a couple of books on the subject and that inspired me to write a song of my own.  Mine is based on the true story of the Woodruffe family of Trenton, Missouri.  I rearranged some of the facts but the main events really happened to Phyllis Weir, later Phyllis Woodruffe.


But after writing that song I still wanted to say more about the Orphan Train.  So being the kind of writer I am I asked: Is there a way to write a crime story about this phenomenon?  The result is "Train Tracks."  I hope you like it.

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 !!!

26 November 2017

The Big Book of Rogues and Villains

by R.T. Lawton

Christmas is coming and the shopping days will soon be counting down at a rapid pace. And while Santa may be the one who knows whether you've been naughty or nice, sometimes good things happen regardless of how you've been.

To me, it started when I went to the DELL Cocktail Reception in Manhattan during Edgars Week about a year and a half ago. Although, if you wanted to be picky, you could successfully argue that it all started when Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine published my 1660's Paris Underworld story, "Boudin Noir," in their December 2009 issue. In any case, while I was conversing with fellow authors at the reception, I happened to notice Otto Penzler, anthology editor and owner of Mysterious Bookstore, talking with Linda Landrigan, editor of AHMM. Not wanting to interrupt them, I waited until they were finished before making myself known to Linda. As things turned out, it was probably a wise choice on my part.

About a month later, I received an e-mail from Otto. He wanted to purchase the reprint rights to "Boudin Noir" for his upcoming anthology, The Big Book of Rogues and Villains, scheduled for a Fall 2017 publication. Hey, for extra money on an already published in AHMM story, AND to appear in an Otto Penzler anthology, you bet. Months afterwards, I spoke with Linda at a conference and mentioned the e-mail from Otto. That's when I learned that Otto had been asking her about any authors he should include in his anthology, and Linda had mentioned my name and one of my stories. Made me glad I hadn't interrupted their conversation at the reception.

So now, as of October 24, 2017, the book is available both in paper and in Kindle. You don't want to miss this one. 72 handpicked stories concerning some of the best and/or worst criminals that ever walked the earth.

Just think, you can be your own Santa Claus this year and it doesn't make any difference if you've been naughty or nice, you can still reward yourself with a great Christmas present. Order up a copy of  The Big Book of Rogues and Villains for your own reading pleasure. And, if you're feeling generous, order a copy for a friend or two.

I know what my four kids are getting for Christmas. Makes shopping easy.

21 November 2017

A Writer’s Thanksgiving

by Paul D. Marks

Well, since Thanksgiving is in a couple of days I thought I’d write about what I, as a writer in particular, am thankful for. We all have things in our “regular” lives to be thankful for, so this column will address specifically some of what this writer has to be thankful for:

Computers: Whoa! I can’t say enough about this one. Changed my life. I’ve mentioned before how when personal PCs came out I thought they were just another silly toy. Then my former writing partner got one and I saw him move a paragraph from one page to another and I was hooked. How much better than literally cutting and pasting with scissors and white out. (Of course I’m sorry for Mike Nesmith and his mom, who invented white out, but I think they’re doing okay anyway.) So I was the second person I knew to get a PC: two floppy drives, wow! And we know how far computers have come from those days. Now your phone is a mini-computer.

Microsoft Word: When I started out on that dual floppy computer I used a word processing program called XyWrite, which I really liked. But it didn’t weather the transition to GUI programs like Windows. So I switched to Word. One can complain about both Microsoft and Word plenty, but overall they’ve made my life a hell of a lot easier.

Paying Markets: In the ye olden days of the mid-20th century writers could actually make a living selling short stories. That’s not really true anymore. There aren’t a lot of paying markets. No one would think of not paying their doctor or plumber, but for some reason people don’t think writers’ work is worth paying for. Sure, sometimes they’re struggling themselves, but even a token payment would be nice. When I was teaching screenwriting seminars on occasion I would always tell the students not to work for free. And, though I have published with non-paying markets it’s definitely better to get paid. So thanks to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock (and others)—magazines that still pay and still publish short stories. Long may they live!

Assistants: I’m most grateful for all the wonderful assistants I’ve had over the years. A variety of dogs and cats, who’ve kept me company, provided inspiration, and sometimes aggravation, but have always been wonderful companions and who make the solitude of writing much more bearable. And who, on occasion, have tripped the light fantastic over the keyboard and probably added a little extra dazzle to my writing.
One of my former assistants

My current assistants

Kindle and E-publishing:  I have mixed feelings on this one. Yes, I prefer hard copy books, though I read about 50-50 these days between those and e-books. But e-publishing has opened the door for lots of people to read my scintillating syntax (or is that sin tax).  And it’s kind of cool to be able to go on a trip and bring 100 books along so I can read whatever I feel like. And even more cool to be able to buy a book at 3am and have it in my cyber-hands faster than you can say “Amazon-one-click”.

Social Media/Facebook/Twitter: Aside from the marketing benefits of social media, it’s a great way for writers, who are pretty much a solitary bunch of people, to be able to get together at the cyber “water cooler” to chat, share ideas, happy moments, sad moments, laughter and opinions—sometimes too many damn opinions…. I’ve made many friends across the country (and the world for that matter) and figure there’s someone I could have lunch with almost anywhere in the country and in many parts of the world.  Of course, as with anything, there’s always some jerks and trolls in the bunch. And to those people I say CENSORED.

The Internet: In a word—research. I love being able to research everything on the internet. From
murder methods, to maps, history, music and how-to videos on You-Tube. Of course some of those how to videos are how to play this or that guitar or bass part or just watching a bunch of old clips of rock bands. As for murder methods, I hope the police never have to search my computer—I’m guilty. Guilty. Guilty of researching heinous methods of offing people. But what better way for a writer to procrastinate and call it work!

Smart Phones & tablets: At first I was reluctant to get a smart phone, but now I love being able to check my e-mail on the go, post photos on Instagram of my doctor’s waiting room while I wait and wait and wait, like the people trying to get an exit visa out of Casablanca, for the doc to show up. Or snap a picture of the traffic jam I’m stuck in on the drive home. And while I never want to become one of those people with their noses glued to their cell phones all day and all of the night (to borrow a line from the Kinks), I am grateful for the little distractions both the phone and tablet provide and how I can stay connected even when I’m away from my computer. Oh, and thankful for Android. I love that all my Google contacts, etc., are integrated across all my devices.

Support from Friends and Fellow Writers:  I’m thankful for all the friends and writers who have supported me and cheered me on, read my books and stories, nominated me for awards and voted for my writing, given me great reviews, interviewed me, published me in their magazines, given me space on their blogs (including this one: shout out to Leigh and Rob and everyone else here!), congratulated me on FB, liked my FB posts, shared my good news and sympathized when bad things happened, and on and on. Grateful, too, for Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, et al. Writing is a lonely profession and the support of friends who understand the struggles of a writer is…to quote a famous commercial…priceless…

And last but not least: My wife, the indomitable, inimitable, indefatigable, intrepid and on occasion infuriating ;-) when she wants me to rewrite things (but she’s almost always right), Amy, who has stood by me through thick and thin. Who, though not a writer, is my number one reader, number one editor, number one fan and number one supporter. And who puts up both with me general (a job in itself) and as a writer (another job in itself as all the significant others of writers are well aware).




So, Thank You All And Have A Wonderful Thanksgiving!




***

22 October 2017

Black Friday

by R.T. Lawton

Walking into a pawn shop in the middle of a robbery can be a hazardous experience, especially if the robber is a relative amateur in these types of situations. That's the circumstances that Yarnell, a professional burglar, finds himself in when he goes to redeem his wife's diamond wedding ring from the shop. Fortunately for him, his wife doesn't know that her ring has been hocked, and he intends to keep it that way.

Anyway, it's hands up, hands down, hands up, then hands down again for Yarnell as he converses with the robber. And just when Yarnell and the robber come to some sort of  understanding about proper procedure, in walks Beaumont, Yarnell's partner in crime, who has his own thoughts about robbery etiquette.

Meanwhile, behind the counter in the back of the pawn shop, the recipient of the robbery, Lebanese George, who is also the owner of the pawn shop, has developed a case of tired arm muscles. So now, one of his hands has slowly declined to a half-raised position while he slurps coffee out of a mug held by his other hand.

The robber soon decides he wants everybody's money, in which case Yarnell tries to hand his money to Lebanese George first in order to pay off the hock on his wife's wedding ring. George, knowing he is going to lose the money anyway, refuses to accept the cash as payment to redeem the ring. That's when Yarnell learns his wife's ring is already part of the jewelry the robber is stealing. Thus, the robbery progresses. Up to a point.

"Black Friday" is the tenth story in my Holiday Burglars series, all ten of which have been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Short story critic Rob Lopresti has remarked that this one is the funniest story of mine that he has read to date. Who am I to argue with such a great mind?

This is Lebanese George's second appearance in one of my stories.His debut as a story character was in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series as a crooked wine merchant. In real life, the model for "Lebanese George" was a man who sold used cars with my Uncle Dick. Stories of some of their escapades were truly scam jobs on the general car buying public and hilarious situations in the telling. In his middle years, George had to go on the run from the Dixie Mafia and did his hiding out on a houseboat which traveled up and down the river as a means of frequently changing his address. I only met George once, and that was during his later years. At that time, he claimed to own a steak house in the city we were visiting. He did invite my wife and I to his restaurant for a free steak dinner, but we never made it to his establishment. I always wondered what that free steak dinner would've cost me.

George was a likable and very entertaining individual, which probably made him successful at whatever he did. With all that in mind, I'd say if he's still alive and you happen to meet up with him, keep one hand on your wallet and be sure it stays in your pocket. You can count your money before and after, but please don't count it in front of him.

Til next time.

13 September 2017

Cabin Fever

by David Edgerley Gates

The current issue of Alfred Hitchcock (September/October) includes stories by me, Eve Fisher, and Janice Law - all of us SleuthSayers contributors. Here's looking at you, kid.



My story, "Cabin Fever," was written quite some time ago, and it's taken a while for it to work its way to the top of the stack. I'm mentioning this because what I'd like to talk about here is how stories get started, why an idea takes hold, and what kind of legs it needs to get us across the finish line.

Here's a curious thing. For some years now, Craig Johnson has been coming through Santa Fe as each new Longmire title launches, and for the past six years, his visits have coincided with the shooting schedule of Longmire, the TV series. As it happens, when Craig came to town to promote Hell Is Empty, the Longmire cast and crew were shooting the episode based on the book. And also, somewhere in this time period, or not long after, I'd started "Cabin Fever." The point is, Hell Is Empty has Walt tracking down an escaped con through a winter blizzard. "Cabin Fever" has my guy, Hector, held hostage by escaped cons in the middle of a forest fire. But. I didn't catch up with Hell Is Empty until later that year and the Longmire season opener wasn't broadcast until a year after that. There wasn't any cross-pollination. My idea came out of thin air.

Or not? We've all had the experience of things floating around in the zeitgeist, or drifting by, in our peripheral vision, that suddenly take on shape, and density. In our sentimental moments, we might even call it inspiration, the light on the road to Damascus. On a less exalted plane, it's more like you're hitching a ride, and somebody pulls over. I couldn't tell you where the set-up for "Cabin Fever" came from. Hector's truck breaks down, he's out in the back of beyond with no cell coverage, and a weather system's blowing in. He decides to try and find shelter, and beat the storm. There turn out to be other people lost in the woods, and soon enough they find each other.

I think it's safe to say that a story's going to change with different storytellers. The approach, the attack, the retreat. We might call the story "Stop Me If You've Heard This." A cop, a priest, and a hooker walk into a bar. You and I are entirely likely to go off at right angles to one another, or in completely opposite directions. It depends on what we think the story is. Where's the emphasis, who's got the POV, when do you show your hole cards?

Supposing that Craig and I did have a similar idea, and at more or less the same time, the end results turn out differently in the actual telling. I can give you another example. And in this case, I know where and when the match lit the fuse.

I was faithful reader of Marc Simmons' weekly column Trail Dust, in the Santa Fe New Mexican, until he retired the column last year. (Simmons, a highly-regarded New Mexico historian, has a reported forty-nine books under his belt.) He wrote a piece about the Butterfield freight line and a stagecoach loaded with gold that disappeared on the eve of the Civil War, in the desert west of Lordsburg. Was there treasure buried in a place called Doubtful Canyon? OK. First off, Lordsburg. John Ford's movie Stagecoach is based on the Ernest Haycox story "Stage to Lordsburg." I couldn't possibly pass that up. Secondly, how does anybody resist a name like Doubtful Canyon? There's your title, ready-to-wear. Last but not least, the bare bones of the story itself, men on the run with thirty thousand in Yankee gold, in hostile Apache country. I'm lathered up already.

The story I wound up writing ("Doubtful Canyon," of course) clocked in at some 20,000 words. It capped off, at least for a while, the bounty hunter series. I thought it was terrific, fully fleshed, peopled with rattlesnakes and rascals, and a satisfying answer to the puzzle, if made up out of whole cloth. It wasn't an easy sell, though, not at that length. I was a little disheartened. About a year later, then, you can imagine my shock when I ran across a new novel on the Westerns shelf at Collected Works bookshop called Doubtful Cañon - Cañon the Spanish spelling. What fresh hell was this? I knew the name, too. Johnny D. Boggs. I'd read one of his earlier books, Camp Ford, and liked it a lot. I was going to revisit my opinion now, you can bet your sweet ass.

Much to my chagrin, this Boggs turns out to be no schlump, as a writer. And this being Santa Fe, we bump into each other, sooner rather than later, at a library event. He's genuine, personable, and funny. All-around good company. The guy coaches Little League, for John's sake. Impossible not to like, which is even more annoying.



Johnny's novel is a YA, and yes, it does take off from the same start point, the missing stagecoach full of gold. There are other synchronicities. We both tell the story from a distance, in hindsight, although he gives it twenty years, and I gave it fifty. Part of this is, I think, a sense of perspective, tilting the horizon, and another part of it artful misdirection. Johnny and I both used a split screen, in effect, and the device of a not entirely reliable narration as well, but we deployed it differently. In my case, I alternated the two time-frames, too.

As a writer - or as one of two writers grazing the same section of fence - I'm probably more interested in the confluences between Johnny's approach to the canvas and mine. A critical reader, who doesn't have skin in the game, might well be more interested in where we diverged. But absent the annotated Library of America edition, we'll skip the play by play. The question isn't whether the idea is original, it's whether we made it our own.

Here's a last little teaser, a sort of exercise. I ran across this poster at my local frame shop. Tell me it doesn't conjure up all sorts of possibilities. I'm not sure how I'd use it, myself, but I'm going to let it rattle around in the cupboards for awhile. How about you?



10 June 2017

True Crime? Maybe Not

by B.K. Stevens

Over twenty-five years ago, when I was taking my first tentative steps as a mystery writer--no publications yet, but a respectable stack of rejections--I was teaching English at a liberal arts college in Illinois. (For reasons about to become obvious, I won't say which one.) A student came to my office to ask for an extension on an essay and, as justification, launched into a litany of typical freshman woes. She couldn't get along with her roommate, her chemistry professor hated her, the girls on her hall partied late every night, making so much noise she couldn't sleep.

"And," she said, "I'm depressed because my older brother's in prison."

That made me perk up. Prison? Crime? Maybe I could use this in a story. After all, it's vitally important for mysteries to be realistic--at least, that was my theory at the time.

I tried to sound compassionate, not hungry for information. "I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "May I ask why he's in prison?" Murder, I hoped. Murder murder murder.

She sighed. "Arson," she said.

Oh. Not murder. Well, arson's a serious crime, too. There must be ways to make it interesting. Pushing all scruples about professional ethics aside, I decided to keep digging. The student probably wouldn't mind. She'd see it as a sign of sympathy, and she'd figure that increased her chances of getting an extension. Yeah. She'd talk.

"That's too bad," I said, and paused delicately. "What was it--some sort of elaborate insurance scam?"

She shook her head. "No. He was mad at our neighbor, and one night he got drunk and burned down his barn."

Not such an interesting crime after all. But maybe I could wring some emotional drama out of the situation. "That must have been hard on your family," I said. "All the tension and worry during the investigation, the trial--"

She shrugged. "There wasn't really an investigation. Or a trial. See, he was drunk, like I said. So his wallet must've fallen out of his pocket when he reached for his car keys or something, but he didn't notice, and the police found it right near the barn. So the next day they came to our house and showed him the wallet and said, `Joey, did you burn down Ed Swenson's barn?' And he said, 'I guess.' So they arrested him, and he made some kind of deal or whatever, and he went to prison. It's depressing. It makes it really, really hard for me to write essays."

I gave her the extension. I wasn't altogether convinced that she was deeply depressed about her brother's plight, or that her concern for him accounted for her essay-writing difficulties. She often came to our 8:00 class looking hung over, and that made me wonder if she might in fact be partying with those noisy girls on her hall, and if that might be why her essay hadn't gotten written. But I owed her. She hadn't handed me a plot, but she'd taught me a valuable lesson. Yes, mysteries should be realistic--sort of. But the crimes in mysteries have to be interesting. Real crimes don't, and usually aren't.

It reminded me of my own brush with real crime, buried still deeper in the past. I was in high school, my older sister was away at college, and my parents had gone out to enjoy a Sunday evening of playing bridge with friends. I had to catch the bus downtown to get to the Buffalo Jewish Center in time for my B'nai B'rith Girls meeting, and I was running late. (I promise these details will prove relevant later.) I was scrambling to get ready and looking, as I recall, for a silk scarf. Back then, I fretted about fashion accents such as silk scarves, because the boys' B'nai B'rith chapters held their meetings at the Jewish Center at the same time ours did, and we mingled before and after. The scarf eluded me. Frustrated, I pulled out my top dresser drawer and dumped its contents on my bed. I spotted the scarf, grabbed it, and ran for the bus.

I assume the meetings and the flirting went on as usual--I don't remember, and it doesn't matter. Usually, I took the bus home after meetings. But on this particular night, my best friend's father stopped by to pick her up and offered me a ride home, too. (This detail might also be relevant. It might have saved my life.) They dropped me off and drove away, and I walked up the driveway to our front door, digging in my purse for my key. As it turned out, I didn't need my key, because the door was slightly ajar. That's strange, I remember thinking. My parents--my mother, especially--always kept doors shut and locked.

I pushed the door open and stepped into the house. I remember standing there like an idiot for a full minute, maybe longer, looking around in confusion. The living room was a mess--paintings pulled off walls, books pulled off shelves, cushions pulled off couches. My parents had an old-fashioned piece of furniture called a secretary, and all the drawers had been emptied on the floor, papers and doo-dads scattered everywhere. I couldn't understand it. Had my mother decided to take a radical approach to spring cleaning? Had she decided to start on a Sunday evening in October?

Then it dawned on my. Our car wasn't in the driveway. My parents hadn't come home yet. Somebody else had been in the house, and had turned it upside down.

I ran next door, and my neighbors called the police--this was long before cell phones, of course. I stood out on the lawn to wait. By now, I was excited. At that point in my life, I had no idea of ever becoming a mystery writer, but what teenager wouldn't be excited about having his or her house burglarized? When the first police car arrived, I accompanied the officers to the door. I'll never forget the older officer's words as he took a long, careful look around our ravaged living room.

"Yup," he said, nodding sagaciously. "Looks like we've had an entry here."

An entry! Cop talk! It was just like TV, only better because it was really happening. I wasn't thinking about what precious things the burglars might have taken, only about how cool it all was.

The younger officer said he'd check upstairs, and I raced up ahead of him, leading him straight to my room. That was the worst moment. The officer saw the dumped-out dresser drawer on my bed and pointed.

"They've been in here for sure," he said.

Humiliating as it was, I knew, even then, that one mustn't lie to the police. "Not necessarily," I said. "I left it that way."

He raised an eyebrow, looked around upstairs for a few minutes, didn't see anything of interest, and decided to check the basement. Again, I went along, to show him where the light switches were. He was checking out the laundry room when he said, "You know, I really shouldn't have let you come down with me."

"Why not?" I asked, looking around for traces of the burglars.

"Because they might still be here," he said.

That hadn't occurred to me before--or, evidently, to him. My excuse is that I was a teenager who had no experience with crime or criminals.

Around then, my parents got home. Alarmed by seeing police cars outside the house, my mother took the situation in much more quickly than I had. She ran up to the older officer.

"My daughter!" she cried. "Where's my daughter?"

He looked at her somberly. "She's in the basement, ma'am," he said.

My mother promptly went into hysterics, imagining me in the basement, chopped into a thousand tiny pieces. But I came upstairs intact moments later and calmed her down.

My parents and I watched as the police looked around, asked us questions, and took notes. I felt relieved when they found that a window on the back porch had been forced open, and concluded the burglars had gotten in that way. After my initial excitement had faded, I'd started to worry that I might have been so intent on catching the bus that I'd forgotten to lock the door. If I'd made things easy for the burglars, I'd have to face my mother's wrath, and that scared me more than any burglars ever could. But apparently it hadn't been my fault. Thank goodness.

The police also decided the burglars hadn't finished going through the living room. Chances were, they thought, the burglars had been in that room when I got home, and they'd seen my friend's father's headlights in the driveway and left through the back window before I made it inside. So if I'd taken the bus and walked home from the corner, as usual, I might have strolled into the living room and taken them by surprise. Probably, they would have simply run off anyhow. Most burglars aren't homicidal. But if they'd been on drugs or determined to leave no witnesses behind--well, I'm glad Joanne's father picked that night to give us a ride home.

The police made a long list of things that were stolen, told my parents to call if they  noticed anything else was missing, promised to stay in touch, and left. We never heard from them again. It was like an early Seinfeld episode. Jerry discovers his apartment has been burglarized and calls the police, and the officer dutifully makes a list of stolen items. "We'll look into it," he says, "and we'll let you know if we find anything." "Do you ever find anything?" Jerry asks. "No," the officer says.

Our burglars did quite a job on our house. My mother's father had been a jeweler, and he'd given her some nice pieces. She kept the most valuable ones in a safe deposit box, but the burglars found and took everything else, including my grandfather's pocket watch. They also took my parents' good silverware. My parent didn't mind that so much--insurance covered it, and they could pick a more modern set they liked more than the one my grandparents had given them as a wedding present. But insurance didn't cover the cash that was stolen. My mother didn't drive, and she grew up during the Depression and didn't entirely trust banks, so she liked to keep a fair amount of cash in the house. She hid it in all sorts of clever places--in her sewing box, at the bottom of old Band-Aid boxes stuffed with rubber bands and balls of string, between the pages of books, between photographs and the frames holding them. The burglars found and took almost every dollar. Amazing.

As for me, at first I thought the burglars hadn't bothered going through my room at all. But they had. As I got ready for bed, I kept noticing signs they'd been there--my jewelry box sitting open, the contents of an old purse dumped out on my closet floor. The burglars must've been frustrated when they found nothing but costume jewelry and dried-out mascara. So, evidently, they'd given up and moved on before spotting the one truly valuable thing in my room--my grandmother's diamond watch, sitting right out on my bedside table in a velvet-covered jewelry box. (Years later, my husband and I named our daughter Sarah after my grandmother; we gave her the watch as a bat mitzvah present, and she wore it at her wedding. I'm glad the burglars missed it.) So I didn't lose much, if anything, in the burglary--after all, I was a teenager and didn't own much worth stealing. Even so, it felt unsettling to know strangers had been in my room and handled my things. I slept with the lights on that night.

I'll never write a mystery about that true crime. If I did, nobody would publish it--it had some quick comic touches but no real drama or conflict, and any attempt to build suspense would collapse into anti-climax. But I gleaned some insights from the experience, insights into the way even a non-violent crime can leave people feeling violated. Not too long ago, I drew on those insights when I wrote "The Shopper," a story about a librarian whose house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. Here's the description of how she felt the next day:

She felt like a stranger in her own home now, constantly reaching for things that were no longer there, every ten minutes discovering fresh evidence of The Shopper's intrusion--a bottle of aspirin missing, a box of tissues moved. She'd been so proud of this house, had felt so safe here. It was tiny, and only rented, but it was her symbol of security and independence, her proof she could take care of herself. And now some stranger called The Shopper had destroyed all that. Her privacy had been denied, her contentment sneered at. She felt suddenly vulnerable.

In that story, I also drew on something a co-worker told me about the time her purse was stolen when she carelessly left it unwatched in her grocery cart. She came home to find the thief had returned her reading glasses by leaving them in her mailbox. That true crime story also didn't lead to much: My co-worker was nervous for several days, afraid the thief might be stalking her, but nothing else ever happened. The thief did a bad deed, then did a good deed, and that was the end of it.

In my story, the burglar does prove to be a stalker. I worked my small insight from that long-ago burglary and my co-worker's sliver of experience into a fair-play whodunit: The librarian notices that two men she's never seen before have started showing up at the library every day, and she has to unravel several clues to figure out which one is the burglar who's probably up to no good. (I'll casually mention that "The Shopper" is one of the stories in my collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. Not that I'm trying to sell books or anything.)

True crime seldom gives us everything we need for our mysteries. The criminals usually aren't clever enough, the cops sometimes aren't quick enough, the crimes themselves often aren't interesting or conclusive enough--often, they end without any real climax, any definite answers. They end not with a bang but a whimper. But we can still gather scraps of ideas and insights from our brushes with true crime, and from true crimes we hear about or read about. If we add some imagination, we might end up with mysteries readers will find satisfying.

Maybe I should give more thought to writing a story about someone who burns down a barn. After all, it worked out pretty well for Faulkner.



I'm delighted to say that I'm interviewed in the current issue of The Digest Enthusiast, a fascinating publication that celebrates genre magazines. The interview (it's a long one) focuses on my stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, especially the series featuring Lieutenant Walt Johnson and Sergeant Gordon Bolt. This issue also includes an interview with science fiction writer Edd Vick, with Vick's advice on finding markets for short speculative fiction; a review of the first issues of the classic crime digest Manhunt; a look at digest articles about the career and death of Sharon Tate (take note, O'Neil DeNoux); and more articles, reviews, and original stories. If you'd like more information, you can find it here.

06 June 2017

New York, New York

by Paul D. Marks

First up, let me congratulate O’Neil De Noux on his Shamus nom. Good luck!

***

New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. Or is it the other way around? Amy (the wife) and I recently spent a week in New York City and I’m still not sure.  (Well, I am, but it plays better the other way.) And now the legally required disclaimer: I wrote about this trip for another blog a few weeks ago as my last slot for SleuthSayers was the family blog post that Amy did. So I didn’t have a chance to talk about our trip here. But it was writing-related and so great and so much fun I wanted to share a slightly revised version with SleuthSayers too.

Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building
The trip came up very unexpectedly when I got an e-mail from Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, telling me that my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill had won the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll and inviting us to come to the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards ceremony, as well as to be their guests at the Edgar Awards. I think I was in disbelief for several days, so we made no plans to head to New York…until the wonderful reality actually sunk in and we headed off to The Big Apple from The Big Sour, I mean, Big Orange.

We booked out on Jet Blue because we heard about their great on-time record. We got lucky—they were late both coming and going. I guess someone has to be the exception to the rule.

The week was a whirlwind of adventures and some sightseeing, much of it filled up with literary events. We arrived Monday night and since the hotel is next door to Grand Central Terminal we decided to check it out and have dinner at the famous Oyster Bar. Talk about a cool place. Then we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel late into the night.

On Tuesday we went to the Ellery Queen offices for tea with Janet and Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Jackie Sherbow, senior assistant editor for both EQMM and AHMM. Also there were Doug Allyn and his wife, Eve. Doug’s stories came in #2 and 3 in this year’s poll. But he’s been #1 11 times. I think it will be a long time before anyone can top that!

From L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Doug Allyn, Linda Landrigan,
Janet Hutchings, Me
Everyone was very gracious. And it was good to talk with Janet again and Linda, who I’d met briefly before. And to meet Jackie for the first time in person, but who I’ve had a lot of correspondence with.
Me and Jackie Sherbow.
After the afternoon tea, Jackie very graciously offered to be our guide on the subway, something I really wanted to do. So we subwayed to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop for a gathering of Edgar nominees, authors, publishers and more (I think we fell into the “more” category, though now that I think about it I guess I’m an author too). It was crowded, it was fun. It was great to see the famous bookstore. And to meet Otto Penzler himself. And to see some people I know, including Edgar nominee Jim Ziskin and many others. And Doug Allyn was kind enough to introduce me to several people.


In the subway: L to R: me, Eve Allyn,
Doug Allyn and Amy
After the party at the Mysterious Bookshop, Jackie was once again our subway guide, taking us to a real New York pizza place that she likes. So she, Doug and Eve, and Amy and I, braved the rain to get to the subway and then the pizza place. And in a scene that could have been out of a Woody Allen movie, we stepped just inside a local market to get out of the rain for a few minutes. I was waiting for the “nasty” New Yorkers to kick us out, but nobody was nasty and nobody kicked us out. Eve grabbed some plastic bags from the produce section to cover our heads and we ventured back out into the rain. We still got soaked by the time we made it to the pizza place. But the pizza was good and it was all worth it. After dinner, Jackie headed home. Doug and Eve, Amy and I took a cab back to the hotel. And this was the one loquacious cabby we had the whole time we were in New York and he was a riot. When we were just about at the hotel he nudged through a crosswalk and some guy in the walk started yelling at him, challenging him to a fight. Now we felt like we were in New York.

Jackie guiding us through the subway.
Wednesday we had a free day, so we played tourists (which we were). Lots of other tourists all around us. We did a tour of Grand Central Terminal, which was right next to the Grand Hyatt Hotel where we were staying and where the Edgars would be held the following evening. (On the other side of the hotel was the Chrysler Building, which we had a view of from our window. Now that’s pretty cool to be sandwiched between the Chrysler Building and Grand Central. During our tour we had another “New York” experience when some jerk called the tour guide a “dirty scumbag” and neither she nor any of us on the tour could figure out why or what she’d done. But despite that, most everyone was really friendly and nice and we had no problems with anyone.

Grand Central Terminal
After our tour of Grand Central we followed Clint Eastwood’s “Speed Zoo” example from the movie True Crime, where he jams his kid through the zoo at the speed of sound, and did “Speed New York.” We bought tickets for the hop on-hop off buses—buses where you can get on at one location and off at the next, hang out, then get back on and go to the next location. This way we saw a lot of the city in one day. Everything from the Empire State Building to the Flat Iron and various neighborhoods. We also hopped onto the Staten Island Ferry. From there we could see the Statue of Liberty. We ended the day in Rockefeller Center and then Times Square and dinner in a pretty good Italian restaurant off Times Square. Our meal was served family style—and being only 2 people we ended up with enough left over to feed everyone in Times Square.

The next day was the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards, held at a specialized library not too far from the hotel. And it was a truly terrific experience. But the best part (besides picking up the award of course 😉) was being able to meet people in person that I know online but hadn’t met for one reason or another. Fellow SleuthSayer David Dean. Tom Savage. Dave Zeltserman, who published some of my stories early on in his HardLuck Stories magazine, and whose Small Crimes was just made into a movie on Netflix that released recently, so check it out. Besides hanging with Janet, Linda and Jackie, we also got to hang with Doug and Eve Allyn again, both of whom were great to hang with.
Me and Doug Allyn at the Ellery Queen Cocktail Party

And, of course, it was more than a thrill to win the award!
Me receiving the Award

And then it was off to the Edgars that evening. Very exciting. And all was going well, I even liked the food (and who likes the food at these things?), until the Master of Ceremonies, Jeffrey Deaver, stumbled and then fainted on the stage while doing some introductions. That was scary. Luckily he was okay, though whisked off to the hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. I believe tests showed that it wasn’t—hope so.

That’s the litany, now for the real deal: While we loved New York and all of the events, the best part of anything like this, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, etc., is the people. The community of mystery writers is a very warm, very supportive group. And, as I’ve mentioned, it was great to see old friends and also meet new people. We saw Jim Ziskin and Catriona McPherson, and had a nice chat with both of them. Met Otto Penzler. And it was good to meet Sam Reaves, Dave Zeltserman and too many others to name here. And great to spend time with Janet, Linda and Jackie.
Amy and Jackie at the Edgars.

New York has a bad rep in some ways and people who know me thought I’d hate it (as I haven’t been there in years…decades). I loved it. I loved the crowds. I loved the energy. I loved the writing community. I loved this whole unexpected trip. And I’m more than appreciative to Janet Hutchings for publishing Ghosts of Bunker Hill and taking a chance on my first story for Ellery Queen, Howling at the Moon (which, by the way, made it to #7 in the Ellery Queen Readers Poll). And to Linda Landrigan for publishing my story Twelve Angry Days in the current (May/June 2017) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. And to Jackie for everything she does to keep the wheels turning. And last but certainly not least to the people who voted for Ghosts of Bunker Hill and made it #1.

***

Something else that hit me while in NYC was the use of location.  Setting plays a major role in most of what I write. Author S.W. Lauden has said about my work, “I just read your next novel Vortex. I loved how the action bounced around Southern California, almost as if the region was one of the main characters.”

To me, location can sometimes be a driving force for the characters. Of course, they have inner motivations, but where they live, the zeitgeist, ambience and flavor of the city or desert or whatever locations the stories take place in adds to their motivations. And being in New York really made me notice the different energies and vibe of different cities. They really do have personalities of their own and those personalities influence and affect the characters. There are some stories that could only take place in New York and some that could only take place in LA, and not just by mentioning a street name or a location, it’s more than that. It’s the spirit of the place that comes through.  For me that location is often, though not always (see my story Deserted Cities of the Heart in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir and set there, of course) Los Angeles. And even though LA’s been done to death you might say…you haven’t seen my LA.

For more on my relationship with the City of Angels, please check out this link to my very first SleuthSayers post:
http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/02/adventures-in-la-la-land.html 

***

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, on sale at newsstands. Or click here to buy online. If you like food and you like mysteries, I think you might like this story.



***

I'll be at the California Crime Writers Conference in Culver City, June 10th and 11th. I'm on a panel called "The Long and Short of It: Short Stories and Novellas vs. Novels" with William Kent Krueger, Kate Thornton and Travis Richardson, moderated by S.W. Lauden. Hope to see you there!
http://www.ccwconference.org/


16 May 2017

Until a Split Infinitive Do Us Part

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eighteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Amy Marks
As we close in on the end of family fortnight at SleuthSayers, I’d like to introduce my wife Amy. Some of you may know her already. But whether you do or not, hopefully you’ll get to know her a little better here. Over the years she’s become my editor, my “Max Perkins”. I think every writer needs a Max Perkins and I’m very lucky to have her. And lucky, too, that she likes editing. We’ve had some “discussions” about some of her suggestions, but she’s a great and intuitive editor, and I go with about 75-80% of what she suggests. Our 30th wedding anniversary is coming up in June, so something must be working. And they said it wouldn’t last. —Take it away, Amy:
— Paul





I’m not a writer, but I’m married to one. Which is kind of like that old commercial, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” In fact, I’m not really much of a reader either—or wasn’t when I was a kid. Don’t get me wrong, I love books and I love reading. But when I was a kid I stubbornly refused to wear the glasses that had been prescribed to me from the age of six. I hated them, but without them, reading was a chore. The only time I would wear my glasses is when the lights went out in the movie theater and I would sneak them out of my purse and put them on, hoping no one would notice. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school when I got contact lenses that I began to enjoy being able to see clearly…and read.

So how did I end up married to a writer? Well, it wasn’t because I was hanging out at literary events. It was because both of us had friends who roped us into “volunteering” to make phone calls to raise money for Unicef. They were doing an old-time, live-audience radio show on Halloween and needed volunteers to call people up and ask for donations. Phone calls, and particularly phone calls asking for money, is not something I enjoy doing… But my one good deed led to meeting Paul, so I guess it was good karma.

When I met Paul he was a screenwriter/script doctor, I’d never read a screenplay before and was curious, so I asked if I could read some stuff. Paul said I could only if I agreed to give him honest feedback and criticism. He didn’t need someone just to tell him how wonderful it was (he had his mom for that). I said, “Sure! No problem.” So I read a couple of screenplays and Paul asked me what I thought of them. And I said, “They were great. I enjoyed them!” And then he asked me why. And I said, “I don’t know, I just liked them.”

Paul "cracking the whip" in the early days.
Well, that didn’t really help and I knew I wasn’t doing him any favors if I just blindly liked everything he wrote.

It took me a while, but I started to learn how to read critically. In fact, one story Paul wrote I didn’t like at all and I told him so. He asked me why I didn’t like it. And again I said, “I don’t know.” I realized it was just as hard to define why I didn’t like something as it was to define why I did. I had to learn how to think critically and how to articulate those thoughts.

At some point I started not only reading and providing feedback, but doing actual editing on Paul’s work. While my day job is as a trust administrator for a bank, I like having this sort of alter-ego, creative side that I can change into when I get home. I love my day job, but I also like being able to stretch out and be an editor. Sometimes it’s a challenge and Paul and I don’t always agree on things. I’ve learned to speak my mind and stand up for my point of view. Sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t.

Paul and I arguing about edits.
I guess I could have not gotten involved in Paul’s writing at all. I could have said, “I’m not a writer. That’s your thing, not mine. I’ll just sit here and do my own thing while you write.” But I wanted to be involved in his work. I loved his writing. I loved his ability to create stories and characters. To turn words into experiences and feelings. I wanted to share in that experience. So we became a partnership, a team, a rock band (without all the break-ups or the replaceable drummers).

Over the years of our marriage, and as Paul transitioned from screenwriting to short stories and novels, I’ve had to learn a lot of things that I never would have had to learn or experience if I hadn’t met him. I’ve had to learn why I like something and why I don’t. Why one book is memorable and another is a bore. I had to understand my own tastes and preferences and learn how to be objective (if one can be objective). I’ve also had to learn a whole bunch of things that might not mean a lot to most people, but that to a writer are important: the difference between an en dash and an em dash. When to use a comma (well, sometimes, I still struggle with when a comma is really necessary). The three act structure. The difference between a shot and a slug line. The difference between it’s and its. What’s a character arc? What’s purple prose? What’s a plot twist? A reversal? And even the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic. And I love being able to keep learning new things.
Paul and Amy in the early years

Some people have asked me if I’ve ever wanted to write my own stuff. No way. I get my fun out of reading and editing, contributing ideas and thoughts. My creative juices flow more towards visual arts, I like to paint and draw, and problem solving and brain storming, just as I like solving real puzzles. In fact, when we were in New York just a few weeks ago when Paul won the Ellery Queen Readers Poll award, I met Peter Kanter the president of Dell Magazines/Penny Publications and told him how much I like their logic puzzles. When we got home, there was a package waiting at our P.O. Box full of Dell puzzle books and logic puzzle books in particular. How cool is that? Thank you! Yes, I’m a puzzle geek and in another life I probably would have been a mathematician or a detective.

And there are a lot of other perks. Meeting cool and interesting people, other writers and people in the publishing industry, traveling. And tons of free books all over the place. So many that we’re being “booked” out of house and home…

If I hadn't met Paul I wouldn't have met that other Paul
and had backstage passes for Paul McCartney.
And that was really cool!
I’ve read some of the other blogs from family members over the past few weeks and it’s struck me how everyone has the same challenges. I just read Art Taylor’s interview with his wife Tara Laskowski and realized we’re not alone in how time-crunched we are. And we don’t even have a five year old, but we do have two big dogs and until recently two cats! That’s like having a five year old or two… And I related to Robyn Thornton’s story about being frustrated when her husband Brian was too busy to help her put together a stool. It can be hard to put up with the demanding writing “mistress” taking up all their time.

But I also love coming home at night where Paul and I will plunk ourselves down in front of our side by side computers and dig into the writing work. We usually don’t break for dinner until around 8 or 8:30 pm. Dinner is often microwave frozen stuff—nothing that takes more than 10 minutes, maybe catch the end of a murder show on TV and try to get to bed by 10 pm. And, I have a confession to make: our house doesn’t get cleaned very often… If you meet a writer with a clean house, I would suspect writer’s block has something to do with it.

Paul and I at a Sisters in Crime Holiday Party
- photo by Andrew Pierce.
Have there been times when I’ve wondered what it would be like to not be married to a writer? What it would be like to come home and sit in front of the TV, veg out for a couple of hours, take a leisurely bath and sleep eight maybe nine hours? Yes, and to be honest, I think I could do that for a few days (it’s called vacation). Then I’d probably be bored out of my skull.

We work hard, but we have fun doing it. We get to work on stuff together, learn stuff together and sometimes (or often) make mistakes together. And we are never, never bored.


Oh, yeah, we have fun!
And then there’s that other thing that many of the other family members who’ve blogged this past few weeks have mentioned: understanding that writing is not a job, it’s not a nine-to-five vocation. You don’t turn off the lights and lock the office door at 5 o’clock. You don’t put it away for the weekend. You live and breathe it every day.

So, it’s crazy and fun and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love that we can work together and that we understand each other. I understand his need to write. And he understands my need to not be a writer, but to be the one figuring out where to put the commas and how to keep the machinery running smoothly.




And now for the usual BSP:

My story Twelve Angry Days is in the new Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaine that just went on sale at newsstands on April 25th. Or you can click here to buy online.