Showing posts with label R.T. Lawton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label R.T. Lawton. Show all posts

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.

24 September 2017

Informants 102

by R.T. Lawton

Last month, we discussed where informants came from and some of the reasons they agreed to cooperate with law enforcement. So now, let's say a potential informant walked into your local agency with the intention of cooperating, or you could even "have a hammer" on a criminal and he has chosen to "work off his beef." What do you, as a cop, do at this point? That depends upon the agency you work for. They all have their own rules and policies, but some things are basic.

The first thing you want to know is what can he do for you. If all he knows is that there's a lot of late night traffic at the place next to his residence and he suspects something criminal is going on, then you have nothing more than a citizen's complaint. Take down the info, thank him if he's a walk-in citizen and check it out later. It might be something, and then again, it might not be more than a group of dedicated party friends. If it's a criminal you busted and then made an offer to cooperate, lock him up, he's shining you on.

If he has names, dates, and specific knowledge of criminal activities, then you write up an intelligence report covering every crime and criminal he knows and ever met. Next, you see if the guy can introduce an undercover agent into one of the participants, give probable cause for a search warrant, or otherwise assist your agency. If so, then you take down a personal history of your new C.I. (you want to know who his relatives are and how to find him later if things go wrong), you photograph him (once again, to show people in case you need to hunt hi down or need a photo line-up for witnesses if things go wrong), and you fingerprint him (to make sure he is who he says he is and to determine his past criminal record, because things can go wrong). We busted a guy on a package delivery where one of our agents posed as a UPS driver. We quickly flipped the new defendant. Even his lawyer went along with him cooperating. Problem was when his prints came back, the guy was already in the wind. Seems the U.S. Marshals were looking for him under another name. Took us a while to catch up to him again. No offer for cooperation was made this time, nor did he get bond.

If the potential C.I. walks in wearing a tin foil hat, you politely show him the door. On his way out, you ask him what other agencies he's been to. In the old days, there was a circuit for those types. It seems some of our fellow agencies occasionally needed a little laugh to brighten up their work day, therefore those in tin foil hats were often referred to the last agency that had somehow stepped on their toes. Unfortunately, not all weirdos believed in the protective powers of tin foil, thus it may have taken a while to recognize them for what they were. I once received a phone call from a stage hypnotist who had performed the night before at a police benefit. He was calling to volunteer his services in helping us recruit the "best" informants. In the background, I swore I could hear adult male giggling.

Most agencies have some restrictions on various categories of informants. For instance, the use of juveniles is not permitted unless there is signed permission from at least one parent. Some agencies say no juveniles at all. The use of a one or two-time felon might be permissible, but the use of a three-time habitual criminal may need special permission from a higher up supervisor. Use of a felon on parole or probation may also need the permission of parole or probation agent who supervises that felon. After all, the goal of parole/probation is to remove the felon from the influence of his criminal buddies and into a better, more positive environment where he can straighten out, whereas if he works as an informant, then you are throwing him back into the same situations that led to him getting busted in the first place. And, if your potential informant is hooked on drugs, he'll make a great drug snitch, but there are inherent problems. We had a C.I. we'll call Thomas. He was great at making heroin buys. We'd search him, give him the buy money and then surveill him going into the dealer's house. When Thomas came back out, he would hand over the ten caps of smack he'd just bought. We'd search him again to ensure he had no drugs on him and that he didn't keep any of the buy money for himself. It wasn't until trial that we found out Thomas was such a good customer that the dealer gave Thomas eleven caps of smack for that amount of buy money. Seems Thomas shot up the eleventh capsules while he was still in the house, thus the supposed evidence count and the money spent always balanced out.

All informants are given a number which is referred to in buy and surveillance reports instead of using the informant's name. True, the defendants will figure out who the informant really is in the end, but it delays the process and affords the informant a measure of protection for a while. Generally, it gives him time to relocate.

In many agencies, the informant also signs an Informant Agreement. This document serves to remind the cooperating individual of the terms of the agreement between him and the agency. It also says point blank that the informant is not a law enforcement agent, nor is he an employee of that agency, and therefore has none of the powers of a cop. You'd be surprised.

And, this brings us to guns. Always search the informant before meeting the bad guys. If it's an informant buy, then you want to be sure he has no drugs going in. You also count any money he has on him to ensure he doesn't buy any drugs for personal use. And, you search him for weapons. Do that same search if the informant is introducing you in an undercover capacity to the bad guys. You would not believe the number of times we found guns on informants while getting ready to go in on a deal. Their common retort is you have a gun, why can't I have one?

Let me count the ways things can go wrong.

Especially if the informant is carrying a gun.

27 August 2017

Informants 101

by R.T. Lawton

Law enforcement, in many cases, depends upon informants to solve crimes, catch criminals in the act, or at least get pointed in the right direction as to who did it and sometimes how they did it. Information from informants also helps law enforcement agencies recover stolen goods from robberies, burglaries and scams. Do informants provide this information out of the goodness of their heart? Rarely. Can they get hurt for conducting these informant activities? Oh yeah. Those in the criminal world despise informants and often dish out punishments ranging up to severe beatings and even death.

So why do these people inform on their friends, associates, fellow criminals and even family in some cases? Guess you could say there are a lot of reasons, and every informant has his or her own personal reason. So, let's take a look at where they come from and why they make that choice.

Fear:
 ~Fear is a constant factor in the underworld and many of those on the street have or are committing crimes to survive in their environment or in an attempt to get ahead in the world, maybe even to acquire some of the luxuries they think they so richly deserve in life. If these people feel that the cops are getting close to them for past crimes committed, they may voluntarily come forward and offer to work in exchange for a free pass on their prior misdeeds. On the other side of the coin, after the police do make arrests for past crimes committed, the police will often make the new defendant an offer, assuming the police have other criminals they want to put in prison and think their new arrestee can make cases on those criminals. In street slang, this is known as "having a hammer" on the soon-to-be informant. He either works, or gets a lengthy sentence.

For instance, in the drug world, we generally want to move up the ladder to a bigger dealer, so in exchange for a lighter sentence, the defendant agrees to make cases on his supplier and any other larger suppliers he can get into. Then, when that larger supplier goes down, we make him an offer too. Some take the deal, some don't.

 ~Running on the streets is a dog eat dog environment. Many criminals and criminal organizations use fear to maintain their position and as a measure of protection from rivals and others who may wish to do them harm. However  this same fear sometimes prompts a lesser criminal to work with the law in order to remove that threat from his personal safety. Fear can be a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.

 ~And strangely enough, there is the fear of being thought an informant. I took advantage of this fear once in Kansas City. We had just arrested a drug dealer and were driving him to the county jail for processing. We made him an offer and he declined, but wasn't civilized about the declination. So, as we were passing a local night club where several gangsters were hanging out on the street, I hit the brakes, screeching the tires. I then pointed towards the gangsters and hollered loud enough for all to hear, "Is that the guy?" The sudden stop of our car threw the handcuffed defendant forward and he instinctively looked where I was pointing. All the gangsters saw his face. I then drove on. His next comment was, "I may as well become an informant now, because all those guys already think I am after this." He went on to do a fair job, just not on those gangsters, and he subsequently got a lighter sentence in court,

Revenge or Jealousy:
 ~Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Can't tell you how many times a cast-off wife, mistress or girlfriend has called up to give information on their good-for-nothing ex-partner who just happens to have a long list of of ongoing or prior crimes. One of my long time fugitives hiding out in Venezuela was tripped up by the cast-off girlfriend of the man in Florida who forwarded hiding-out money on a monthly basis from the fugitive's dear, old, sweet corruptible mother in Wyoming.
 ~And, that green-eyed goddess of envy prompts many a person who sees others living in the lap of luxury from the proceeds of their crimes to drop a dime on those richer competitors, so as to give them a little well deserved misery.

Mercenary:
 ~These are the ones who do it for the money. They are usually the easiest ones to control, and when they finish working your area, you usually pass them along to work another area far enough away that the word hasn't spread, yet close enough that the informant is easily available for court on your own cases, if necessary.

Ego:
 ~These guys are looking for the positive feedback they never received as a kid. Or, they consider themselves to be smarter than the opposition and this is a way to prove it.

Wannabe:
 ~Someone who wants to be a cop, but isn't good enough to make the cut. It could be a physical problem, a psychological one, or maybe he didn't have the needed education. This type may try to tell you how to do your job.

James Bond Syndrome:
 ~These people are often dangerous to the controlling agent. They frequently fantasize about their position, exaggerate their knowledge of criminals and have been known to setup arrangments which parallel their favorite movie scene. We found out later, that one guy we dubbed as Pale Rider had wired up his own apartment to make his own recordings on dealers and on drug agents. In the end, we busted him for dealing on the side while he was working for us.

Repentance:
 ~Some people feel bad for their past crimes and want to make up for their transgressions, but that is seldom their only motivation for cooperating with the law.

Perverse:
 ~People in this category may be trying to discover who the undercover agents are or who other informants are. I've run into both of these situations. Fortunately, it turned out bad for them and not for our side.
 ~They may be trying to find out your agency's targets, methods of operation or how the agency's surveillance equipment works.
 ~They may be trying to eliminate their competition so they can get a larger percent of the criminal earnings.
 ~And sometimes they are sent by the criminal organization you're working on to infiltrate your organization. In some cases, they don't come as informants for you. This could be as simple as the Bandidos or H.A.'s sending their girlfriends to work as dispatchers or secretaries for the local cop shop or even a federal agency. You've all seen the movie "The Departed." That's closer to reality than you may think.

So, now you've got an idea of the who's and the why's of an informant. Next Month, in Informants 102, we'll discuss the ins and out's of handling these so-called cooperating individuals.

In the meantime, if you're involved in criminal activities, who can you trust? Nobody. Given the right motivation, anybody can turn on you.

As the Hell's Angels say, "Three can keep a secret, if two are dead."

Pleasant dreams.

30 July 2017

Into the Jungle

by R.T. Lawton


Khun Sa
photo by Satham Pairoah
From roughly 1963 until 1996, a man with the chosen name of Khun Sa operated as an opium warlord in the region of Southeast Asia known as The Golden Triangle. This triangle consisted of a mountainous jungle area involving three countries: Burma, Laos and Thailand. The land was populated by many people of different ethnic groups, several of which were hill tribes. For centuries, Turks from the west, Mongols from the north and various waves of Chinese out of Yunnan Province had invaded this land and absorbed the local inhabitants. As a result, a great number of languages and dialects were spoken here. Religions ranged from Muslim to Buddhist to animalistic and variations.

#1 "Across the Salween"
AHMM Nov 2013
Khun Sa, which means Prosperous Prince in the Shan language, was a man with a murky past and a strong future. Most historians agree that he was born of a Chinese father and a woman from the Shan hill tribe in Burma. He lived in an atmosphere of treachery and shifting alliances among the various opium armies where only the strong and cunning survived. And, he was a survivor, but like the Germans in World War II, he eventually found that he couldn't fight a war on two fronts at the same time. The Burmese Army had finally squeezed his Shan Army into a small area where he had his back to a river. Being a survivor, he surrendered to the Burmese government and went on to become a thriving businessman in his retirement from opium warlord status.

opium field in Burma
After creating four successful series for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (two other potential series didn't make the I'd-like-to-buy-it list), I was searching for something new to write. My first acceptance with AHMM ("Once, Twice, Dead")  had been set in the Golden Triangle at a time when the magazine's previous editor was looking for stories with an exotic background. This one was written as a standalone  with the protagonist not being a good candidate to start a series, however, the Golden Triangle was an intriguing background for a series. I'd been to Vietnam in 1967-68 (in-country in the highlands), so I had a feel for the area, plus reports on the mountain opium smugglers had crossed my desk over the years during my main career, and I now had a Chinese historian living next door at my current residence. True, his English isn't always the best, but his wife who speaks five languages, to include Mandarin and English, makes for an excellent translator when he looks up internet facts for the Chinese version of history's events, which are not always the same as the English version of the same happening.

#2 "Elder Brother"
AHMM Jan/Feb 2015
Then, I began brainstorming to come up with characters and story lines conducive to the Golden Triangle. With such a background location already rife with treachery, corruption and violence, it was easy to implement our frequently used writing technique of What If?  Since he real opium warlord supposedly came from a mixed race family, what if my White Nationalist Chinese (KMT) story warlord had two sons, one half-Chinese/half-Shan hill tribe and the second son was pure-blood Chinese. In oriental culture, the elder brother tends to have dominance, but a pure-blood considers himself as better than a mongrel half-breed. It now becomes a conflict between Elder Brother (the half-Chinese/half-Shan) and the younger pure-blood Chinese.

poppy dripping opium sap
from cut during harvest
Naturally, the elder brother is raised in the jungle and is comfortable in those surroundings, while the younger brother has grown up in the British school system in Hong Kong. The younger brother, our protagonist for this series, has studied Julius Caesar, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, yet has no knowledge of jungle survival. After his mother died in Hong Kong, the younger son (as a young adult) finds himself taken out of the civilized world and transplanted to a jungle camp in the mountains of Southeast Asia. As his opium warlord father says, it is time he learned the family business and made his own way in the world.

#3 "On the Edge"
AHMM Oct 2015
Elder Brother has the position of Staff Captain and is in command of some Shan Army troops, part of his father's army. The younger brother has the rank of Sub-lieutenant and is in command of some of his father's Kuomintang troops (KMT), the old White Nationalist Chinese soldiers originally under Chiang Kai-Shek that went south out of Yunnan Province after Mao's Red Army chased them out of China during their civil war. And, as the KMT generals said after being stranded in Burma, an army needs an income and opium was handy.

Woman of the Mon tribe
Thus, we are presented with two half-brothers from different backgrounds, who have no love for each other, not to mention that only one of the brothers can inherit the position of opium warlord upon their father's demise. The competition begins and the reader has a front row seat on the safety of the sidelines to see every move made by the warring brothers, though sometimes the reader should look below the surface of what appears to be happening. Not all the enemies are within the family; other organizations and opposing opium warlords are also seeking any advantage they can take.
#4 "Making Merit"
AHMM July/Aug 2017

So far, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan has purchased five stories in the Shan Army series with #5 being "The Chinese Box", while one more manuscript, #6 "Reckoning with Your Host," is soon to be submitted to her e-slush pile.

To add spice to each story, old Chinese proverbs are often quoted in dialogue by our protagonist. Sometimes these sayings can be taken at face value, other times the wording may be twisted to fit the circumstances. Any way you look at it, the ride should be a new adventure for readers into a world that once truly existed. Root for whichever side you like, they are still people you wouldn't want to marry your sister or daughter. And if you should be unwise enough to take one home for supper, be aware that the pain between your shoulder blades could be the steak knife missing from your silverware.


Sleep well, and be glad these real life characters are on the other side of the world.

25 June 2017

Where'd We Bury That Guy?

by R.T. Lawton


Dominican Republic
attribution: alexrk2
Okay, so it's 1492 and some Italian guy named Cristoforo Colombo (Cristobal Colon in Spanish) has received the blessing of the King and Queen of Spain to sail across the Atlantic in search of a route to India. He missed it by several thousand miles, but did discover a bunch of islands in the Caribbean Sea. Of course, the Taino and Caribe people had already been living on these islands for a very long time and had no idea they were in need of being discovered. In any case, the arrivals of these alleged discoverers turned out to be disastrous for the native landholders. Thus, whether you perceive ol' Chris as a famous explorer who had the courage to cross a vast expanse of water in not much more than three over-sized rowboats with sails, or as an infamous destroyer of native culture in a brave new world, is a choice for you to make.

To continue with the Who's in the Grave search, it was on December 6, 1492 that Chris found a chunk of land in the Caribbean and dubbed the island as Hispaniola. To us modern folk, we know it as an island composed of two countries; the west one-third being Haiti and the eastern two-thirds being the Dominican Republic. Actually, Chris landed on the Haiti side, but to him, it was just one island. At the time, he had no idea of the wars, civil wars and division that was to come.

The Spanish used Hispaniola for their first seat of colonial rule in the New World. Because of wars in Europe among various countries, the ownership of islands in the Caribbean often changed hands. During a war when the French got involved, Spain ceded the western portion of Hispaniola to France. This part then became known as Haiti. Revolutions and civil wars finally decided languages, borders and governments for both new countries. On at least two occasions, the U.S. later stepped in to quiet things down.

The catafalque in Seville Cathedral
Back to Chris. In 1504, after his fourth voyage to the Caribbean, Columbus returned to Spain an ill and infirm man. He died in 1506 and was buried in the Spanish city of Valladolid. Dissatisfied with the burial site, his son Diego had Chris' remains dug up and transferred to a monastery in Seville where he rested until 1542 (or 1537, depending upon who you believe). The remains were then disinterred along with son Diego's bones and both put on a ship to Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). The new Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor was to be his final resting place, but after a quarter of a century of peace, ol' Chris was destined to take up travel again.

In 1795, France took Hispaniola from Spain, so Chris' remains were removed to Havana, Cuba. Then during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Chris once again took ship. He landed in Andalusia and was interred in a tomb at Seville Cathedral.

And just when everyone thought the matter was settled, we have to back up to 1877 when a worker in the Cathedral de Santa Maria la Menor discovered a lead box of bones. The box was inscribed "The illustrious and excellent man, Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea." So, it's possible that some industrious Dominican had swapped in a different set of bones and the Spanish unknowingly took the wrong ones to Cuba in 1795. After all, Chris had stated before his death that he wanted to be interred in Hispaniola. One small problem with the inscription on the lead box, his son Diego was also known as Don Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

Today, two countries claim to have the burial site of Christopher Columbus. In 2003, to prove up their claim, Spain had the bones in their catafalque tested. The DNA results published in 2006 confirmed a close match to Chris' brother Diego. (Both son and brother had the same first name of Diego.) To bolster their side of the argument, the Spanish also had well documented travels of the remains, although some scientists did not think these bones were those of a man who had suffered from severe arthritis as Columbus was known to have endured in later life.

As for the Dominicans, citing respect for the dead, they declined to have their bones in the lead box which was held in their newly built Columbus Lighthouse disinterred for DNA analysis. That leaves the world to wonder if the bones in the Dominican Republic are those of a stranger, those of his son Diego, or if some of Chris got left behind way back in the 1795 Cuba trip, meaning at least part of him got his wish to be interred in his old Hispaniola.

That's me on the right
Regardless where Chris ended up, the guy sure got a lot of frequent cruise miles.

As for my experience in the Dominican Republic, our snorkel excursion was cancelled due to rough seas, so we did our own brave new world exploring and went zip lining for our first time ever.

It was exhilarating.

28 May 2017

Critiques: Giving and Taking

by R.T. Lawton

In SleuthSayers Sandbox postings last April concerning a potential SS project under discussion, a question came up which led to the topic of critiques. And, that led to this article.

At one time or another, most authors could use a critique of their work before their manuscripts are submitted to an editor. Often, the authors are too close to their work for them to see any defects in their creation, much the same way a mother perceives her newly born baby. It's only later that mom starts shaping the way her child acts.

Hopefully, the items mentioned in a critique help the receiving author to correct any errors or problems in his or her written creation, thus increasing the chances of their manuscript being liked and then published by an editor. Unfortunately, not all critiques are equal in their presentation, and not all critiques are well received by the manuscript's author.

So, here are some thoughts on the critique procedure, most of which have been gleaned from handouts at various writers' conferences, plus some from personal experience.

The Giving:

~ The person giving the critique should keep their personal likes and dislikes out of the critique. After all, the critique is not about them, but rather about helping the manuscript's author produce a salable product. For instance, the critiquer may like or prefer something in the hard-boiled sub-genre or a literary style of writing as opposed to something in the cozy sub-genre or a commercial style of writing, but that's not the goal. The goal is to make helpful comments within the arena in which the author is writing. Just keep in mind that a genre difference or a writing style difference can make it more difficult in how you frame your suggestions, so carefully consider how you say them.
~ There is a difference between a critique (helpful) and criticism (belittling). Statements such as "I hate this" or "This is terrible" are counter-productive and of no help to the author's manuscript. It is better to skip those types of comments and instead point out specific places in need of changing, and then supply helpful suggestions as to how these sections could be written better.
~ Every critiquer has their own areas of expertise, be it grammar, plot, action, characters, dialogue or background. Use your knowledge in these areas to benefit the receiving author.
~ Mention both problems and what's good in the manuscript being reviewed.

The Taking:

~ Let comments in the critique cool for a few days.
~ Consider each comment objectively. If you think the comment is off base, try to figure out why the critiquer made the comment.
~ The work speaks for itself. Don't get defensive, instead ask clarifying questions such as how to improve the critiqued section.
~ If more than one critiquer makes the same comment, then pay attention.
~ Take the positive as well as the negative comments.
~ The important thing is not how high your critique was, but rather what you learned from the experience.
~ Ultimately, it's your created work, so you'll write it the way you want.

                                                  EXPECTATIONS VERSUS REALITY

Expectation:                                   Reality:                                    Yeah, but:

You'll receive a high rating            Odds are probably against it       You'll learn something anyway

Your work is flawless                    Everyone can use some work     You may find flaws you didn't
                                                                                                            know existed

Critiquers are impartial                  Critiquers are human and            Critiquers will give it their
                                                         biased                                          best shot

Feedback is clear and                     Feedback is sometimes                All feedback is worthwhile
 helpful                                             confusing, inconsistent    
                                                         and contradictory

Feedback will fix all                        Only you can fix your                   It will help, especially on
 your problems                                  problems                                        glaring issues

Critiques by various                        Critiques may range widely;         Receiving feedback is the
 readers will be consistent                 some readers may critique             most important part
                                                          different aspects of the story

Your work will be judged                 Some readers have plot                 Some editors have the same
 on story alone                                   prejudices; some are                      prejudices when you submit
                                                           influenced by grammar,                 your manuscript for
                                                           spelling and format problems        publication

An excellent critique means             A good critique is no guarantee     Your odds are better than if
 you'll sell                                          of selling                                         you had no critique


No doubt, most writers reading this article have received critiques on their works and have made their own critiques on the writings of other authors. Some of the points mentioned above may have touched hot buttons out of your past, and/or you may have thoughts of your own on this subject. Feel free to join in with your own experiences.

What other thoughts, suggestions, comments should be added or deleted here?

30 April 2017

On My Way

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

Hi. Dylan here. I'm an 8th Grader who does daycare for his Grandpa R.T. and Grandma Kiti five days a week, ten months a year. See, every morning, my mom drops me and my younger brother off at the grandparent's house for breakfast. I make sure they eat right and take their vitamins. Older folks need that sort of care.  After breakfast, I walk around the corner to school. Then, after school, I walk back to their house and do my homework. Sometimes, I stay for supper. On those days, I make sure they get some exercise and socializing by getting them out of the house to drive my brother and me to taekwondo a few miles away at the local academy. We have separate classes at different times. On other occasions, it's off to soccer, or basketball, or volleyball, or whatever seasonal sport my brother and I happen to be involved in at the time. I think you can see how this occupies a lot of my time.

So anyway, in what little spare time I do have, I just might be on my way to being a writer. I say that, because I recently got my first rejection. Well, actually it's half a rejection. You see, my grandpa and I wrote a short story together. Basically, here's what happened.

I was minding my own business playing a video game on my iPhone when Grandpa brought me an e-mail to read. Something about an open call for an MWA anthology with a Goosebumps theme for pre-teens and slightly older kids. He then made me an offer I couldn't refuse. So, we put our heads together and did some brainstorming. I came up with the story characters, he came up with a general story line, and we both did some of the writing.

Our first problem came when we found out that only MWA members could submit to the anthology. That took my name off the byline. However, grandpa agreed to split the check with me if we got published, plus he said he would give me credit in the author blurb in the back of the book, so we continued.

Grandpa and I both worked on the plot, shooting ideas back and forth to each other. When I was at my house and got an idea, I would sometimes face time him. This way, I wouldn't lose my thoughts. At times, grandpa's writing style and mine clashed, but we usually worked it out. At the end of all this, I really didn't mind that we didn't get selected by the MWA judges. All I really cared about was that it was a fun time working with my grandpa.

Still, it would have been nice to get published. At this point, I figure I've gotten at least as far as Step 5 in the process.

Step 1:  brainstorm
Step 2:  write & re-write
Step 3:  submit
Step 4:  wait
Step 5:  get accepted or get rejected

Now, if I can only get to Step 6: published & paid

Thanks for reading this, and good luck to all.

26 March 2017

While We're at It

by R.T. Lawton

Most of us would agree that we're not in this for the money. We would prefer to say that we write because we love to write, or to have written (not quite the same thing), or to have an outlet for our creativity, or to entertain others. Take your pick. At various times I have fallen into each of the four categories. You may even have another reason, one which is all your own. Regardless of why we write, money still becomes a factor of some consideration. In which case, it's a good thing I have a nice pension to live on. Thus, when I hit the streets for research, I don't have to live there and spend the night huddled in the doorway of some downtown business.

Jan/Feb 2017 issue contains
the 9th story in my
Holiday Burglars series
Okay, I'll admit I'm a slow writer, plus I probably don't spend as much time at it as I should. But, I've also been told by fellow authors who write novels for small, but well-known publishing houses, that I probably make more money from just two short stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in any one year than they make from their one novel's advance, plus royalties (if it earns out) in that same year. Many of these novelists end up spending their advance for marketing and publicity (because their publishing houses don't do it for them), hoping  to make up their net profit  later on their second or third published novel. Unfortunately, the Death Spiral often kicks in and it's time to start writing under a different name because publishers know the statistics for an author's name.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Death Spiral, it works like this. Say you got a print run of a thousand books and you had a sell through rate of 80%. Sounds like a high rate, but for the second novel, as it's been explained to me, the publisher looks at the figures and decides to do a second novel print run at 800 books. After all, that's what the first novel sold. If that second novel gets a sell through rate of 80%, then the third novel gets a print run of 640 books. At an 80% sell through rate, there won't be a fourth book.

Me, I don't write novels, except for that one completed novel still in the desk drawer where it truly belongs. Too much time invested for a potential rejection, whereas if one of my short stories gets rejected, well, it's merely less than 6% (on average) of the words invested in a novel. I can write 3-10 short stories a year (hey, I'm not as prolific as John Floyd), which is still less than the number of words I'd need for that one novel a year like the publishing industry wants. The problem with my situation is there are only about four top paying mystery markets out there for short stories. If I were to become really ambitious, I'd have to branch out into the sci-fi short story market.

For the basis of this argument, here are the numbers, strictly for my AHMM market.

36 Accepted   15 Rejected*   70.6% Acceptance Rate   $15,516 Money Earned for just those stories, plus $750 for reprint rights on 8 of those AHMM stories  $16,266 Total for only AHMM stories (I'm not getting rich, so you know I'm not bragging.)
          * Most rejections were early attempts as I learned my way in, but yep, I still get rejections.

Many of the small publishing houses only pay about a $500 advance for a novel, whereas I've been making about $900 average for two AHMM stories in any given year out of which I have to spend no money for marketing or publicity. Those 36 short stories I sold to AHMM totaled to about 190K words, which for me would make about three short novels over a several year period.

MY Conclusion: For time spent, money received and interest of mind, Guess I'll stick to short stories for as long as my market lasts, even though there is less prestige in them than in being known as a published novelist. And, if I did spend the time needed to write a novel, it would have to be good enough to sell to one of the big houses, with a much, much better advance than $500 (which incidentally is the payment for one 700 word mini-mystery for Woman's World magazine), else it's not worth the effort for me. No offense meant to anyone out there, because I'm talking about me and how I think about my situation. Plus, I couldn't write a novel a year.

So, that's my story. Everybody wants something different, has different circumstances and/or sees the business in a different way. What's your take on the money side of the business we're in?

Personally, I hope you're one of those novelists getting great advances, high figure print runs and  excellent sell through rates. And, if you operate as an e-book author, I hope you have a great marketing platform that's working for you. Find whatever edge you can get.

Best wishes to you all.

26 February 2017

Paint It Black

by R.T. Lawton


Last November, I received an e-mail invitation to write a story for one of those noir anthologies named after a city or an area. You know the ones, Brooklyn Noir, Seattle Noir, etc. Anyway, this one will be titled Rocky Mountain Noir and will be edited by Laureen P. Cantwell who also edited Memphis Noir. Naturally, I was pleased and even flattered to be invited to submit a story to this anthology, knowing that an invite is almost a guarantee of having one's story accepted as opposed to submitting a manuscript in reply to a general call for submissions and ending up in a vast slush pile.

One small problem on my side.

In the past, I had written biker stories, children's stories, historical stories, comedy capers, traditional mysteries, horror, sci-fi..,,and some other stuff. But, I had never written anything in the noir genre. Where to start?


Fortunately for me, at one of our monthly MWA meetings several months ago, an author gave a presentation on noir. And, I had taken notes during that meeting, even though I had no intentions at that time of doing anything in the noir genre.

In short, here's what the notes contained:
 ~ it is an amoral world
 ~ it's about sex and greed and violence
 ~ the protagonist is always flawed, a loser with great humanity
 ~ the plot may be where nothing is as it seems
 ~ the ending may be a twist that no one saw
                                                                                        coming
And, my favorite, the part that stayed in my mind: In epics, the hero falls from the heavens, but in noir, he falls from the curb.

There was also a suggestion that we should read "The Simple Art of Murder" essay by Raymond Chandler. Okay, so I did that.

Further research on Wikipedia showed that noir "is a literary genre closely related to hardboiled genre with a distinction that the protagonist is not a detective, but instead a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator." The website goes on to say that the protagonist has self-destructive qualities and is opposed by a corrupt system which puts him in a no win position.

Surprisingly, there are now sub categories of noir. For instance,Mediterranean Noir where the cities of the Mediterranean are looked upon as broken and distorted by crime. In this sub category, authors explore the duality of local foods, fine wines, close friendship, warm skies, blue seas and joyous living against a backdrop of greed, violence and the abuse of power.

There is also Urban Noir, where the story is set in the underbelly of various large cities or certain areas vulnerable to crime. Akashic Books has published several of these, and is the proposed publisher for the noir anthology from which I received the invitation. At this point, my story submission is finished. Now, it's up to Akashic Books to accept the proposal and for the editor to accept my submission.

If the proposal or the story acceptance goes bad--hey, noir is French for black--then I can always submit the story to AHMM or EQMM.

Either way, wish me luck.

Never say die.

Oh, wait a minute, in noir everything goes wrong and the protagonist usually does die.

Damn.


POST SCRIPT ~ How little did I know that the last five paragraphs would turn out to be prophetic. Seems I wrote an e-mail to the editor in late January inquiring if she would like to receive my story in advance of the proposed schedule. Her reply e-mail said the project died aborning. Akashic Books did not accept the proposal at this time. Maybe sometime in the future. In which case, I'm off to remove some of the sex and violence from the original manuscript to see if EQMM or AHMM will find the story a home.

PPS ~ As of 02/16/17, the time of this article's final editing, the story will have been at EQMM for twenty days. Their usual rejection turnaround is about two weeks, but then Janet Hutchings, the editor, may be busy elsewhere.

Catch ya later, as I'll be gone when this is posted.

29 January 2017

Titles & Expectations

by R.T. Lawton

In days of yore, people used words and phrases that have fallen out of usage in modern times, but words and their use were as powerful then as they are today. Change one word in a phrase or a title and the whole meaning can change.

Take for instance, the medieval era where titles let everyone know what position in life a titled person had and therefore gave expectations as to how you perceived that person and what their duties were. At the top of the hierarchy were the kings and queens. Everyone expected that the ones holding these titles would rule over the people and lands where they held dominance. Next level down were dukes, barons and others, depending upon how the king set up the organizational chart. Your next class of titles, if you will, were more of a job description than a rank, but they still gave everyone an expectation for what the person with that title did in life. These titles fell into labels such as blacksmith, huntsman, cook, scullery maid, etc. However, you add one word to the front of that title, such as head or assistant and that huntsman can move up or down in job position. The power of words and the receiver's expectations.

This brings us to story titles. When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, the book became a bestseller. The author then put out two more books with titles which started with the same first two words. Next thing you know, there are lots of titles starting with The Girl... Agents, editors, publicists and yes, even authors, quickly realized the potential salability of a book with a title starting with the words The Girl... So now you have The Girl on the Train, The Girl in the Spider's Web, The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes, The Girl With No Past, The Girl with The Lower Back Tattoo, The Girl You Lost and several others. The marketing thought here being that there would be a positive carryover from the success of Stieg Larson's novels to the expectations in potential buyers of books with similar sounding titles. And, that marketing thought seems to have some credibility. Once again, the power of and  the expectations of words.

Thus, the words you choose for your story titles should produce the type of expectations you want in potential buyers of your works, plus help convert those buyers into becoming continued readers of your future publications. A kind of gather ye fans while you may, sort of thing. Naturally, to do this, it's best if you have a title that's intriguing, gives the reader an idea of what's in the story and maybe even brands the stories (assuming they are a series) for the author.

In my case, I tried to do all three for the ten titles in my Twin Brothers Bail Bond series in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. All of these titles have either the word bond or bail in the title. In these stories, the firm's proprietor and his bail agent manage to obtain some high value collateral from dastardly criminals and then render these clients as deceased, thus making extravagant profits from their demise. The one story with the word bail in it, "The Big Bail Out," is a play on words, since it involves both bailing out a financially troubled corporation and the crooked officers of that company having a fondness for their hobby of skydiving.

"Resolutions"- 9th in Holiday Burglars
AHMM Jan/Feb 2017 issue
In the fourth of my five series in AHMM, the Holiday Burglars series, each story is connected to a caper during a holiday. In this series, I put a play on words in each title. For instance, "Click, Click, Click," the first in the series concerns Christmas. Many of you probably remember some of the words to the song Up on the Housetop. "...up on the housetop, click, click, click, down through the chimney with good Saint Nick..." Well, in this case, Beaumont and Yarnell dressed as santas have entered the back door of a residence in order to steal the cash a drug dealer temporarily conceals in Christmas packages under the tree. Unfortunately for them, the counted houses from their position in the alley instead of from the street side like their informant gave them the information, therefore they have now entered the home of a fanatical NRA member. The clicking sound the two burglars hear is not reindeer hooves on the roof, but rather the clicking noise a big handgun makes when the hammer is being cocked.

For anther title in the series, Labor Day," yep you guessed it. Beaumont, Yarnell and their protege The Thin Guy are descending in a creaky old elevator from the penthouse they just burgled while its owner was off on a Labor Day excursion. The elevator makes a few stops on its way down to take on and unload passengers. Shortly after a very pregnant lady gets on, the elevator becomes stuck between floors. The baby picks this time to enter the world. Firemen, police and news crews are soon aware of the stuck elevator and the pending birth. The only person on the elevator who is remotely qualified to assist in procedures involving anatomy is The Thin Guy who used to be employed as an assistant mortician. The words are all done in fun.

So how do you create your titles? Do you brand? And how? Do you find particular words as powerful or intriguing or more likely for potential readers to buy your story? Or, even for you as a reader to pick up a book in the store and open it to see if your interest continues beyond the title? Do words commonly seen in titles, words such as devil, blood or murder affect your thinking in titling or purchasing a book?

Chime in on your opinions, creative thoughts and branding ideas through titles.

25 December 2016

Christmas Past & Present

by R.T. Lawton


Since this is Christmas Day and many of you will be busy with friends and family, I will merely use today's blog to share some Christmas cards with you. The following are custom made Christmas cards based on some of my short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for certain years, one card a year for fifteen years. These cards are created by a friend of mine (Mike) with some great artistic talent, but then Mike can also fly a Huey over, under or around things while using a delicate touch on the stick. Each card is then mailed to Linda Landrigan in AHMM's office in Manhattan during the month of December for that year as part of my marketing plan. Hopefully, these cards will keep me in the editor's mind, remind her that she published at least one of my stories that year and then prompt her to think kindly of me when she reads my next story in her slush pile.

So, here's the artwork part of the card for this year. It's based on the escape of The Little Nogai Boy and The Armenian from the Chechen leader's mountain fortress in "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue. Santa doesn't appear in the story, just in the card to give it a seasonal flavor. Part of the mystery in the story was where the rope came from for the escape.




























This one is the artwork from last year's card featuring "Ground Hog Day" from the Holiday Burglars in AHMM May 2015 issue in which Yarnell and Beaumont tunnel into the mansion of a crime lord to steal a painting. Naturally, nothing goes the way they planned.
































Here's one from "False Keys" in my 1660's Paris Underworld series (AHMM December 2006 issue) involving a young orphan who survives as an incompetent pickpocket in a community of criminals.










And, here's "Across the Salween" (AHMM November 2013 issue), from my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia in a time of opium warlords and mule convoys with armed guards to protect them from rival warlords. The Chinese on the card is supposed to say Merry Christmas, but then I neither speak nor write Mandarin, Cantonese nor Simplified Chinese.


Well, hopefully Santa will find you and yours, wherever you happen to be during these special holidays.

In any case, regardless of your religion or personal feelings for this winter time period, I wish you Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Navidad, Joyuex Noel or whatever else you choose to celebrate at this time.

Have a good one !!!

27 November 2016

Writing for WW & Other Mags

by R.T. Lawton

Here we are in theme week and it's my turn to relate any experiences of writing for Woman's World and other magazines. Since my experiences tend to be on the meager side, I'll count on the true masters of this craft, Michael Bracken and John Floyd to tell the full story when it's their turn.

My first three published stories for any market went to biker magazines; two to Easyriders and one to Outlaw Biker. Easyriders paid $250 each and Outlaw Biker paid $50. At the time, I was working undercover on bike gangs and reading those magazines for background information. Upon finishing a certain story in the first magazine, I decided it was so bad that I could create a better story. So, I sat down, wrote out a story in long hand, typed it and snail-mailed it in. Easyriders bought it and I became a professionally paid author. In a move to CYA, the byline on the story was one of the nicknames I used on the street, the check came in one of my undercover aliases and my wife worked in the financial arena where the checks had to be cashed.

One small problem. Agents weren't allowed to have outside employment, to include writing short stories. However, the agency had spent several weeks teaching us how to go undercover, essentially how to lie to criminals, how to acquire another persona and in general how to survive as a fake person. And, I will give credit to their excellent training, because no one found me out, to include the agency.

I also wrote several children's stories for the South Dakota Lung Association who put the stories in Time Out and Recess, two newspapers which were handed out to 3rd and 4th graders and to 5th and 6th graders. The majority of these stories had an underlying theme such as bicycle safety or don't smoke or don't bully other kids, that sort of thing. The director of the organization would give me a list of potential topics I could choose from and we went to press statewide to all elementary schools four times a year. Ah, when I think of all those little minds I was influencing. These stories were written under the phonetic alias of Arty and were strictly for charity work, although I did get the occasional doughnut and coffee in their office.

Later, I went on to write fiction and non-fiction for Deadwood Magazine, a colorful, slick-paper magazine dedicated to the promotion of the gambling town, Deadwood, up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This editor wanted some fiction, but mostly she wanted articles about historical sites in the area that might be of interest to tourists and/or about old time characters who had lived in the Deadwood area. I gave her a short story about gambling, an article about the hanging of Lame Johnny (a stagecoach robber and Texas horse thief) and one about Arch Riordan (the marshal of Buffalo Gap who didn't abide the nonsense of criminals). Deadwood Magazine went under a few years ago, but before they did, they converted their files to digital, thus you can find those two articles on the internet. Surprisingly, even though I hadn't written for them for years, they left my name on the masthead as a contributing writer and it was still there for their last edition.

And now, we come to Woman's World magazine. As a member of Short Mystery Fiction Society, I was reading one of their chat posts years ago for various writing markets when Woman's World popped up as a possibility. At the time, they were paying $500 for a thousand-word mini-mystery. Later, the maximum word count dropped to 900 words and now it's down to 700 words. You had to write sparse. I usually started with about 1,200 words and then pared it down. Adjectives and adverbs were the first to go. There wasn't much room for character development and yet you had to create a character who made a strong impression on the reader, which was usually a female. To write that short was like writing in the format for a joke. You did the setup (the mystery) and then the punchline (the solution). The mystery portion was printed right side up in the magazine and the solution was printed upside down in order to give the reader a chance to guess the solution. They published ten of my mini-mysteries with my acceptance rate coming in at about 30%. Some of the rejections were a result of me feeling around to find the outside parameters of what they would accept, some submissions were rejected by their first reader, some by the column editor and every so often one would be rejected by the chief editor of the whole magazine. Never knew the reasons for the latter rejections, they just were.

But, never throw away your rejected stories. Keep looking for a market, even if it doesn't pay much. One of my $500 WW rejects went to Swimming Kangaroo, an e-newsletter. Between the newsletter's title and the editor's aborigine name, I thought I'd finally broken into international publishing. Thought I was now published in a foreign market. And then the $25 check arrived in the mail with a Texas return address on the envelope. Oh well, I did get paid in U.S. currency. Two other WW rejects went to Flash Bang, an e-zine for flash fiction, at ten dollars each.

What can I tell you other than never say die. The writing game is a hard mistress. Good thing that Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Woman's World paid me well, not to mention the recent reprint market.

Ride easy, until next time.

30 October 2016

What's in a Name?

by R.T. Lawton

For most people, their name and their reputation go hand in hand. Someone mentions a person by name and another person in that conversation automatically recalls whatever information they know or have heard about that name. If it is something honest or good about the name then fine. However, if the receiver in that conversation has negative information about that name, or receives derogatory information, then he or she will feel wary about that particular individual. And, therein lies a true story. True as in it actually happened, but...let's just say some of the details were changed, like names, for instance.

We had a federal warrant for a guy named Jerry Goldsmith. Jerry was alleged to be a young up and comer as a Jewish associate to the Kansas City mafia. He supposedly had a legit job working for a local insurance agency, but it was also rumored that he didn't have to show up and do actual work in order to receive a paycheck. In any case, Jerry turned to dealing drugs in order to supplement whatever income he did have. And, that's how the guy came to our attention. Seems one of our agents made a case on Jerry for distribution of several thousand amphetamine tablets, also known on the street as white crosses in the old days. With arrest warrant in hand, my partner and I were sent out to fit the young gentleman with a set of shiny metal bracelets.

Big Jim and I checked out the usual hangouts, but Jerry was nowhere to be found. Last on our list of addresses was an apartment for Jerry's ex-girlfriend over on the Missouri side of the river. Her residence was in a two-story, red brick, four-plex. We knocked on the front door at ground level. A young woman came to the door. "Yes, that's me," she said, "but Jerry isn't here."

While we were talking with her, a four year old boy appeared at his mother's side. "Daddy?" he inquired. "Yeah, he's upstairs."

Jerry, who must have been listening to our conversation while he stayed just out of sight at the head of the stairs, now descended to the front door. At this point, Big Jim and I took Jerry into custody and read him his Miranda Rights. As the cuffs went on, Jerry did not take his new circumstances well, nor did he choose to employ his right to silence. Since it looked like it was not going to be a quiet ride to the holding cell anyway, I took this opportunity to remind Jerry that his immediate situation was his own fault. I'm sure he expected a lecture about the long term consequences of dealing drugs, however, what he got was something closer to home. "Jerry," I said, "you really should have married the little guy's mother and made him legitimate. Cuz it was your own son who gave you up to the law."

Jerry was quiet for a few heartbeats while he digested that thought, but then he started up again with his loud tirade. Seems I'd touched on a new sore spot.

The man was so disagreeable that a few months later, I started using a close variation of his name whenever I went undercover to buy drugs and make cases on dealers and their distribution organizations. For the next several years, even though Jerry was sitting in a federal pen staring out through iron bars, his name got used a lot. By the time Jerry got out on parole, his name was mud. Nobody trusted him as far as doing business with him in the criminal world. For years after, I often wondered if I'd helped Jerry keep to the straight and narrow path in his later life when he'd returned to the civilian world.

One of the main goals of U.S. Parole and Probation for its many clients is to guide each of those clients towards leading an honest life. One of their requirements is for said client to remove himself from his old ways and distance himself from his previous criminal companions. To accomplish this goal, the parole/probation agent tries to accentuate the positive aspects of doing so. I, on the other hand, I guess you could say, was on the other end of the balance, letting Jerry know in my own fashion that there were some negative repercussions waiting for him if he tried to return to his old environment, repercussions that had nothing to do with the threat of him going back to prison. It's a known factor on the streets that some hard core criminals don't take kindly to those low lifes who have allegedly made cases for the feds, whether they actually did or not.

After all, a rep and a name go hand in hand.

So yeah, I've wondered how Jerry's future went.  Was he smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall and therefore change his ways? Or did he take that long slide back down, the slide that would put him into the high percentage of recidivists where so many other convicts end up? And of course, there's always the cemetery or a car trunk if the bad guys can't take a joke.

Sometimes, it's all in a name.


So now, put on a costume and mask, go out in the world and pretend to be someone else.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!

25 September 2016

There's Always Hope

by R.T. Lawton

Nine or ten years ago when I was a member of the board of directors for the Mystery Writers of America, I was in Manhattan for the annual Edgars Awards Banquet. At the time, all board members in attendance were supposed to show up at the Nominees' Champagne Reception and be wearing their name tag. The idea was to greet the nominees, engage them in small talk and make them feel comfortable before the banquet and the awards ceremony.

The Mysterious Bookshop
As I was standing in the Nominees Room with a glass of champagne in hand, an attractive, young lady walked up to me and said, "You're R.T. Lawton." I thought nothing of it because clearly, I was wearing a name tag that displayed that information on the face of the tag. She then went on to puff  my ego by telling me that she was a reader for Otto Penzler and that my stories had come close to making it into his (annual) Best American Mystery Stories anthology.That little tidbit of conversation kept me motivated for the next year with hope, and well, a lot more hope. I didn't know how close I'd come to getting a story into his anthology, but I did know none of my stories had made it into any of Otto's anthologies so far, plus I had never found my name listed in the Honorable Mention column of any of Otto's books.Verbally close, but no cigar. None the less, hope sprang anew, year after year.

In 2013, I was in lower Manhattan at The Mysterious Bookshop for a signing of The Mystery Box, MWA's anthology for that year. Since the third time's the charm, I'd finally gotten a short story into one of MWA's annual anthologies, and this was the one. Also, since Otto Penzler owns The Mysterious Bookshop where the book signing was, I got to meet the man, shake his hand and exchange a few quick words. Figured that just might be as close as I ever got to having any business dealings with the man.

Then in June of this year, an unexpected e-mail slipped out of the ether and landed on my computer. My wife read it first (she generally gets up earlier in the summer) and called it to my attention. In short, Otto had sent an e-contract and was asking permission to include "Boudin Noir," one of the stories in my 1660's Paris Underworld series in his The Big Book of Rogues and Villains anthology scheduled for publication in 2017. Several years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine had paid me $480 to publish "Boudin Noir" in their December 2009 issue, and now here was Otto sending me a check in the amount of $250 for reprint rights. That made a total of $730 for just that one story. Amazing. Call it manna from heaven, found money, secondary market, or call it what you will, it was another ego booster.

Two items of business soon came to mind. One, how could I take advantage of this type of secondary market for other stories? Since the author has very little, if any, control over this type of market, I couldn't figure an angle. If you've got one, be sure to let me know. I'll buy you a drink at the next writers conference. And two, one of these years, I still might get a short story into Otto's annual Best American Mystery Stories anthology.

There's always hope.

28 August 2016

Ending the Story

by R.T. Lawton

In Rob Lopresti's 08/17/16 blog, "The Whole Truth," he wrote about doing the setup for a story, in this case, a novel. Rob's premise was to drop the protagonist in a hole, and if the author writing the novel so desired, then throw rocks at that particular character. Essentially, it was how to setup the beginning of an author's story and then move on into the action of the plot. I liked the concept.

So today, to go with Rob's blog, here's two possible story endings as taken from the book, Story, by Robert McKee. These two endings are general category endings within which all other specific endings, such as happy endings, sad endings, ironic endings, etc., will fit.

The Closed Ending: The closed ending is mainly used with the traditional or classical designed story, the type of story written throughout the ages since Gilgamesh was first transcribed onto clay tablets. The fictional reality in this type of story is consistent and the conflict is mainly focused on the external causes, even though the protagonist may have an inner conflict to go with all the outside problems. In the story climax for the closed ending, the change is irreversible, there is no going back for the hero. As for the reader,, all questions raised in the story should be answered and all emotions satisfied.
(Some movie examples of closed ending from McKee's book are The Seven Samurai, The Hustler, A Fish Called Wanda and Thelma and Louise.)

The Open Ending: The open ending is generally used in a story focused on internal conflicts which is often prodded by external events. Here, the story climax leaves some questions unresolved for the reader, and thus some emotions may be left unsatisfied. The reader is then allowed (or left) to form his or her own conclusion as to what happened to the characters after the last word printed on the last page of the story. Different readers may come to different conclusions on the ending of the same story. For instance, one reader may believe the protagonist has now become mentally strong enough to overcome his situation and go on to a happy life. Another reader may have perceived an undercurrent of weakness and feels that the protagonist would fall back into old bad habits, thereby failing to succeed in the future. Same story; one reader an optimist, the other reader a pessimist; different conclusions on story ending.
(Some movie examples of open endings from McKee's book are Five Easy Pieces, Tender Mercies and A River Runs Through It.)

McKee's book Story is actually a screenwriting book by a screenwriting teacher, therefore it is written from a movie perspective, but to me, a story is a story regardless of the medium used to tell it. I believe it is wise to learn from other storytelling mediums to see what I can apply to my short story writing.

Most of my short stories use a closed ending. Much of that influence comes from the type of stories I've read over the decades since childhood. And, at this point, I will admit that the first few times I ran across an open ending story, I was prone to wonder where the heck the story ending was.

However, in the last couple of years, I've caught myself writing an open ending for one of the stories in my Shan Army series with the two half-brothers contending to see which one will become the heir to their warlord father's opium empire in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, and in one story of my 1660's Paris Underworld series with the orphan, incompetent pickpocket trying to survive in a community of criminals. The open ending just seemed right for these two stories.

So, how about you as a writer? Which endings do you use? And as a reader, which type of endings do you prefer?

31 July 2016

History behind the Story

by R.T. Lawton

(NOTE: this blog article is a re-post originally written for AHMM and posted at Trace Evidence on 07/12/2016.)


Out of history comes a story: "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue

The tomes of history are rich with strong characters whose actions influenced the future of nations, entire civilizations and even the course of world events. Much of known history is written by the winners, some accounts are retold by survivors of that same happening and some events are documented by independent observers who have no axe to grind concerning the facts or truth of those events. Often the perspective or alleged truth depends upon the teller of that history and many times there are gaps in what gets told. These gaps are fertile grounds for an author of fiction to create his own version of the story.

The Known History:


Imam Shamyl
For centuries, the Tsars of Russia had pushed their border southward into the Turkic lands. Their invasion vanguard usually consisted of freebooting Cossaks who lived in stockade villages along the frontier and raided their Muslim neighbors by horseback or by sea. Eventually, after many rebellions by the freedom loving Cossacks against their own Tsars, the Russian army quartered soldiers in each frontier village, made these Cossacks into subordinate military units and launched their own massive spring campaigns into Chechnya to subjugate the various hill tribes.

One of the opposition leaders was an Imam named Shamyl who led a group of religious Chechens and Daghestans known as Murids in the northern Caucasus. At one point, the Russians offered to broker a peace treaty with the Murids. In order to guarantee the safety of the Russian negotiators, Shamyl was forced to give up one of his sons as a temporary hostage. The Russians, acting in bad faith, promptly whisked the young boy off to Moscow, Russianized him over the years and made him a cavalry officer in one of their units.

During the summer of 1854, Shamyl put a plan in motion to recover his now grown son. On the morning of July 4th, a detachment of Murid horsemen clattered into the Tsinandali palace courtyard of King George XII, the last king of Georgia and an ally of the Tsar. They seized the two princesses, their children and their governesses. The women were tied to the horsemen's saddle frames and the small children were stuffed into large saddlebags. In short time, the entire group rode into the mountains headed for the Great Aul, a mountain fortress in the heart of Daghestan. Imam Shamyl had plans to trade the hostages for his son Jamal al-Din (various spellings depending upon the source). As a matter of history, the trade did take place, but there is a gap in the details..

Murid followers
Filling the Gap:

Constantly researching for more Russian history on their invasion of the Caucusus to use as story background, this event is a great find for me. I already have two story characters, the Armenian and his helper the Little Nogai Boy, trading goods with the Cossacks on the Terek River and with the Chechens south into the Wild Country. Since the Armenian is already trusted by people on both sides of the river (as shown in previous stories), who better to act as intermediary for the exchange of the hostages? These two fictional characters can fill the existing gap and write their own story as to their part in what happened.

It's now time to invoke the writer's famous What if...clause. What if the Armenian and the Little Nogai Boy are crossing a shallow river deep in the Wild Country when the raiders fleeing with their prisoners happen upon them?

The Story is Born:

     The young orphan boy, from the Nogai split out of the Great Mongol Horde after the death of Genghis Khan, tells "The Great Aul" story as he sees these hostage events through his own eyes. Using the young boy as the Point of View also allows for a more emotional impact upon the reader at the end. So let's get down to the bare bones.

Our two protagonists, all their trade goods, plus their string of pack animals are taken by the Murids and are forced to travel along with the hostages to The Great Aul high up on a mountain top. Here, the Armenian is offered freedom for himself and his helper if the Armenian takes a letter from the Imam to the Tsar, offering the Georgian hostages in exchange for his son Jamal. However, the Nogai boy must stay behind to ensure the Armenian's return.

It's a long trip to Moscow and back. Many things can happen to the Armenian along the route and the boy doesn't know if his master will even return to get him out of the aul. To pass time, the boy starts selling their trade goods in the local market and making his own plans for escape just in case things don't work out according to the plans of others. But, he has to be careful in his actions because he is closely watched by one of the Murids assigned to guard him, a Murid who has lost his entire family to earlier Russian incursions. Plus, it seems not all Murids are happy to have outsiders on the inside of their fortress.

Sorry, but that's all you get here. To find out what becomes of our young orphan after the Imam's son is returned, you'll have to read the story yourself. If you are female, you might want to have a tissue handy. It allegedly made the editor cry.