13 March 2017

What's In a Name



by Jan Grape

Naming characters can be easy or difficult depending on your own method of writing. Again, I have to say, every writer does things different. Every book or story can be totally different. That's what makes the good book even better. Naming the characters might not seem too important to readers but if a character lives in your mind forever, then you have to admit, naming them can be important.

Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Scarlett O'Hara, Atticus Finch, V.I Warshawski, Phillip Marlowe, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, Rick Blaine, Charlie Allnut, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. All memorable characters that seem so real in our minds.

I decided to ask writers on Facebook to tell me how they choose a character name. Here are responses:

  • EllaDaye Flowers: You name then after your friends… LOL (I used EllaDay's name in a story that never got finished or published. I love her beautiful but unusual name. JG)
  • Jill D'Aubery: They usually tell me their names.
  • Joan Hall Hovey: Yes, I agree with Jill. They tell me their names; I just need to listen, If I've got it wrong, they let me know.
  • Orania Papazoglou: Weirdly enough, with me, the name often comes first. It's as if names have characters attached to them.
  • Janet Christian: Sometimes I mix and match the first/last names of people I've known. If the name is important to the "theme" of the character, I search by culture, history, time period and even actual meaning. In one novel, I gave a character an unusual name that had the meaning of "death." Guess what ultimately happened to him? The site I search is: www.meaning of names.com/
  • Kris Neri: Mostly, characters tell me their names. But when the right name doesn't come, I have some go-to techniques to stimulate name thought. I have a "name notebook" that I've built up for years. When I get a play program for instance, that credits lots of people by name, I rip out those pages with names and put them into the notebook. Anything that lists lots of names, goes into the notebook. I also look at TV credits at the end of shows or movies. Or read the white pages of phone directories. Once at the airport, I heard two names paged and I put parts of each of those together to form one name. Names are everywhere.
  • Lisa McClendon: All of the above for names of characters set in my own country. The book I'm working on now is set in France so I use a site that generates French Names...I just tap through the names until I find one I like. I try to never have similar names which is a challenge at times. At a minimum the top ten characters need to have names that start with different letters and do not sound alike.
  • Les Roberts: I try to use names that are not completely ordinary. Looking back on my third book (the first Milan Jacovich), I could kick myself in the butt for naming the romantic interest "Mary." It's a fine name, and I know many lovely people named Mary, but since then I've tried to name differently. In the book I'm writing now I got the first and last name from a young woman who is the cashier at my local Honda dealer. I'm not going to tell you what it is here, though because it's almost impossible not to steal.
  • Donnie Price: I was writing a short story with my then five year old daughter. I was stuck on naming the characters-she pointed at a phone book and said, "There is a whole book full of names, Dad."
  • Angela Crider Neary: The name of my cats. Of course my characters are cats, so that helps.
  • Jeff Baker: I've scrambled up names from football players in games that were on while I was writing. Then sometimes, I use names that are appropriate, a story I'm working on now has a sweet old lady who practices magic. Her name? Ellie Faye Morgan, a scrambled up version of Morgainne Le Fae... I read once that Eddie Murphy complained that white writers couldn't name black characters, so he renamed characters he played after friends he'd gone to school with (last names anyway.)
  • Jerry Kennealy: Pick an actor you like for his role - check him out on Google IMBD for the roles he's played - pick one of the names from his films.
  • Denise Dietz: For the villain I use names of people who have "done me wrong." Like Kris, most characters tell me their names, but if I'm really stuck I look at the cast and crew of a classic movie.
  • Terrie Moran: Usually the characters tell me what they want to be named. When they don't, I open an old phone book and pick a first name from one page and the last name from another. If the character isn't happy he lets me know and we change. Quite often the phone book name sticks.
  • Dona L. Watts: You can use mine anytime you want, hint hint...lol. (Dona is my niece. JG)
  • Jeff Cohen: Honestly I go by sound. I hate naming characters and wish I could change everyone I've ever written. But I wouldn't come up with anything I liked better and would end up changing them all again.
  • Susan P. Baker: Sometimes from a baby name book. Sometimes from the obits, if I see an interesting name, I save it. When writing about a particular geographical area, then by who lives there. With my mystery novel set in Fredericksburg, TX, I have mostly German and Spanish last names and some first names, too, like Rufina Gonzales is the defendant.
  • Gary Warner Kent: I go back to my high school and college yearbooks, then play with combinations, esthetics, sounds...the worst and best were one and the same. "Hyman Fartzenberry." True name.
  • B.K. Stevens: I taught for many, many years and never threw a grade book away. When I need a name that sounds real, I reach for a grade book. I also have a dictionary of names that I use when I want a name with a particular meaning. Some character names are allusions to literary works with similar themes for plots.
  • Eve Fisher: I do what B.K. does. Use old student lists. Also the SSA has the post popular names for every year for decades.
  • Leigh Lundin: I use a combination of techniques, often going by sound, but especially relying upon the meaning of names. For example, Linda and Belle mean beautiful, Morse and Morris mean dark. I used the Hopi name Chu’si, meaning ‘snake flower’, because a dangerous woman had qualities of both. I named a team of Zimbabwean/Rhodesian bad guys according to their ethnic backgrounds, Afrikaner, Zulu, etc. Both words of a Shona name, Magondo Svitsi, represent two different ways of saying ‘hyena’. (I actually built a database of names, their origins and meanings. Deborah Elliott-Upton tapped me a couple of times to dredge up names for her.)

Great information everyone. Thanks. Most ideas I use myself but the one about looking at credits of movies and TV shows is a great idea that I never have thought of and certainly plan to in the future. I used a grocery cashiers first name once, It was Dwanna. And in a western story I wrote the town I used was a real town between here and Austin called "Nameless." When they first named their town they first sent "Sandy," into USPS service. USPS wrote back and said, "No. There is already a Sandy." This went on for two or three other names the town council tried. Finally, they just said, "Well, dang it, we'll just call it Nameless" and that one passed the USPS. I drove out there to get a feeling for the town which really was only a community now. I wound up walking around in the cemetery and writing down names on the tombstones to use for character names.

I think character names are interesting and fun. You just never know when a name will become famous, like Jan Grape, for instance.

Additional Comment: you never know when something you wrote for SleuthSayers is read by a person who you don't know, but they were touched by what you wrote. I received a sweet note from a young woman who had been surfing around for information on her grandfather, Clark Howard who had passed away the first of Oct. 2016. I wrote a tribute to Clark back in October for SleuthSayers. Amanda Howard wanted to thank me for the nice things I said about Clark. Her grandparents had raised her and Clark's wife Judith had passed away in 2004 and she was Clark's caregiver until the end. I friended her on Facebook and told her I had known Clark and Judith when they lived in Houston, and thought so much of both of them. She was surprised yet pleased to learn I had known them way back that long ago. She is 27 now so she had not even been born then. Sometimes we forget how much good FB can do. And how much good SleuthSayers can do. We are lucky to have this, my friends. Thanks to all who make it possible.

12 March 2017

International GoodBooks

by Leigh Lundin

I love Looking Glass Alice and good books and well-done animation and charitable causes. When they come together, that's Wonderland. Check out this lovely Alice clip from the land of Stephen Ross— New Zealand.


The good folks at International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) can apparently deliver pretty much anything worldwide through Amazon channels. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you use their portal rather than Amazon’s, purchases are supposed to work the same but they get credit.

Brilliant, both the sentiment and the advert. Let me know how you make out.

For fans of the surreal Alice like me, Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland is delightful and much better than the 2016 Through the Looking Glass follow-up. I also admired the computer game America McGee’s Alice for its brilliant music and surrealism.

Before leaving New Zealand and the phantasmagorical, check out this 1967 NZ classic by House of Nimrod, Slightly-Delic. (Page includes a free download.)

11 March 2017

Short Story or Novel?

by B.K. Stevens


My mother, of blessed memory, never took my pretensions as a writer very seriously. Even after Alfred Hitchcock's had been publishing my stories for over a decade, I could never get her to subscribe to the magazine. Once, I gave her a gift subscription as a Mother's Day present. She didn't renew it. "So they've accepted some stories from you," she said. "Who knows if they'll ever accept another?" She had a point. Who knew? Despite her skepticism, I kept giving her copies of the stories I'd published, and she always read them and often made shrewd comments. "Why did you throw that idea away on something so short?" she said after reading one story. "That was a clever idea, much better than the ideas for your other stories. You could've used it for a novel, maybe made some real money."

Again, she had a point. And I've never forgotten it--my mother was one of the smartest people I've ever known, and she had a way of being right about things. Over twenty years later, I've taken that story out again and am trying to turn it into a novel. I won't mention the title, since the attempt may come to nothing. But I figure after so many years, no one but my husband and our daughters will remember that story, so why not see if the idea will work as a novel? At any rate, the experience has gotten me thinking. Is there a way of knowing which ideas will work best as short stories, which will work best as novels? Obviously, I'm no expert on that subject, at least not according to my mother. So I decided to see what some far more successful writers have to say. Maybe my mother would have respected their opinions. (Then again, maybe not.)

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block scoffs at the notion that novels require stronger seminal ideas than short stories do. The same ideas, he says, can work for either--in fact, short stories always require strong ideas, and novels often don't. He gets more "sheer enjoyment" from writing short stories than from writing novels, but each story "requires a reasonably strong idea, and the idea's used up in a couple of thousand words. I've written whole novels out of ideas with no more depth to them than short-story ideas, and I've written other novels without having had a strong story idea to begin with. They had plot and characters, to be sure, but those developed as the book went along." Most people, Block says, can't come up with enough ideas to make a living by writing short stories; he cites Ed Hoch as an example of one of those rare people who could. "So I take the easy way out," Block says, "and write novels." For most people, he believes, that's the more practical choice. So if you get a good idea for a story, stretch it out into a novel. I think my mother might have agreed.

John Gardner might have agreed, too, at least to some extent. In The Art of Fiction, he discusses several ways of developing an idea for a novel or story. One way is to start with an idea for a climax and then work backwards--how did this event come about? "Depending on the complexity of the writer's way of seeing the event," he says, "depending, that is, on how much background he [or she] feels our understanding of the event requires--the climax becomes the high point of a short story, a novella, or a novel." At the outset, the writer may not know which length will work best: "Writers often find that an idea for a short story may change into an idea for a novella or even a novel."

Gardner does think, however, that these three forms of fiction differ in fundamental ways. A short story usually has a single epiphany, a novella may have several, and a novel may have a completely different structure: "Whereas the short story moves to an `epiphany,' as Joyce said--in other words, to a climactic moment of recognition on the part of the central character, or, at least, the reader . . . the novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes to a much more firm conclusion." Novels, on the other hand, should avoid a "firm conclusion" and make "some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity." Gardner takes a swipe at mysteries and other traditional narratives when he says "too much neatness" mars a novel: "When all of a novel's strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike . . .a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use." So for Gardner, it doesn't seem to be that some ideas are inherently more suited to short stories than to novels. Instead, the crucial difference may lie in the writer's way of developing and resolving that idea--or, in a novel, of not resolving it.

Elizabeth Bowen, on the other hand, thinks short stories free the writer from the need to achieve the sort of resolution novels demand. In her introduction to the 1950 Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, she says many early English short stories, such as those by Henry James and Thomas Hardy, try to treat the same sorts of "complex and motivated" subjects novels do. That approach, she says, is a mistake: No matter how expertly crafted they may be, short stories that are essentially "condensed novel[s]" will not achieve the "heroic simplicity" that should be their trademark. In such stories, "shortness is not positive; it is nonextension." Consequently, these stories "have no emotion that is abrupt and special; they do not give mood or incident a significance outside the novelist's power to explore. Their very excellence made them a dead end; they did not invite imitation or advance in any way a development in the short story proper."

Bowen considers de Maupassant, Chekov, and Poe among the pioneers who truly broke free from the novel and explored the new, distinctly different possibilities the short story form offers. A short story, according to Bowen, should not begin with a complicated plan for a plot, as a novel might. Rather, it "must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to make the writer write." Short stories must be carefully written, "but conception should have been involuntary, a vital fortuity. The sought-about-for subject gives the story a dead kernel." Bowen's ideas about the plot and structure of a short story are interesting enough to quote at length:
The plot, whether or not it be ingenious or remarkable, for however short a way it is to be pursued, ought to raise some issue, so that it may continue in the mind. The art of the short story permits a break at what in the novel would be the crux of the plot: the short story, free from the longeurs of the novel, is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth. It can, while remaining rightly prosaic and circumstantial, give scene, action, event, character a poetic new actuality.
In fact, she says, the short story may have less in common with the novel than it does with some other art forms: It should have "the valid central emotion  and inner spontaneity of the lyric" and should be "as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture."

Flannery O'Connor might take issue with Bowen's contention that a short story should spring from "an impression or perception." In both novels and short stories, O'Connor says in "The Nature and Aims of Fiction," "something has to happen. A perception is not a story, and no amount of sensitivity can make a story-writer out of you if you just plan don't have a gift for telling a story." She says the choice between novel and short story may depend primarily on the writer's "disposition." I can't resist the temptation to quote her comparison--or, rather, her friend's comparison--of the experiences of writing these two kinds of narratives: "She says that when she stops a novel to work on short stories, she feels as if she has just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves." Since novels are a "more diffused form" of fiction, O'Connor says, they may suit "those who like to linger along the way" and have "a more massive energy." On the other hand, "for those of us who want to get the agony over in a hurry, the novel is a burden and a pain."

In another essay, "Writing Short Stories," O'Connor defines a short story as an interplay of character, action, and meaning: "A short story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action, and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is a meaning that derives from the whole presented experience." Of these three elements, character (or "personality") is primary: "A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality." Although she says a short story's action must be "complete," her understanding of "complete" definitely doesn't seem to involve the sort of "conclusiveness" Bowen sees as a flaw in many novels. O'Connor describes (without naming) her "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" as an example of "a complete story," even though the action breaks off in a way many readers might find abrupt (to put it mildly). For O'Connor, the story is complete because her exploration of the central character is complete: "There is nothing more about the mystery of that man's personality that could be shown through that particular dramatization." So perhaps writers shouldn't start by deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel. Perhaps they should start by deciding if a character is likely to generate a good story. "In most good stories," O'Connor says, "it is the character's personality that creates the action of the story."

Edith Wharton, by contrast, thinks characters are supremely important in novels but not in short stories. As she says in The Writing of Fiction, "the test of the novel is that its people should be alive. No subject in itself, however fruitful, appears to be able to keep a novel alive; only the characters in it can." On the other hand, "some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic rendering of a situation." The differences between characters in novels and those in stories are so great, in Wharton's opinion, that the short story could be considered the "direct descendant" not of the novel but of "the old epic or ballad--of those earlier forms of fiction in all of which action was the chief affair, and the characters, if they did not remain mere puppets, seldom or never became more than types." That seems harsh--did Wharton see the characters in her own "Roman Fever," for example, as no more individualized than "puppets" or "types"? Nevertheless, she insists "situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel."

Wharton shrugs off some other ways of deciding whether a subject is suited to a novel or a short story. For example, she says the number of "incidents, or external happenings" doesn't matter much. Many incidents can be "crowded" into a short story. But a subject that involves "the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters" isn't right for a short story, and neither is one that involves "producing in the reader's mind the sense of a lapse of time." Short stories should avoid such subjects and shouldn't try to achieve such effects. Instead, they should strive for "compactness and instanteneity" by relying on "two `unities'--the old traditional one of time, and that other, more modern and complex, which requires that any rapidly enacted episode shall be seen through only one pair of eyes." These limits, however, apply only to stories that are truly short; a remark Wharton makes at one point suggests she might have 5,000 words in mind as a typical length. She also mentions an "intermediate" kind of narrative. The "long short story," she says, might be suitable for "any subject too spreading for conciseness yet too slight in texture to be stretched into a novel."

"One of the fiction writer's essential gifts," Wharton maintains, "is that of discerning whether the subject which presents itself to him [or her], asking for incarnation, is suited to the proportions of a short story or a novel." It's too bad the writers quoted here don't offer us more consistent advice on such an essential matter. When I started working on this post, I knew these writers wouldn't agree about everything. I hoped, though, they might agree about something. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. If there's even a thread of consensus running through these essays and chapters, I missed it. At least I found the disagreements interesting; at least they pushed me to think about what I should focus on as I try to make that decades-old short story work as a novel. What about you? Do you agree with some of these writers more than with others? Or do you have other criteria for deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel? I'd love to hear what you think.

# # #
Gardner discusses the novella as well as the short story and the novel; Wharton discusses "the long short story. This year, the Anthony ballot adds the novella (8,000 to 40,000 words) to the usual list of categories. So I'll just casually mention that my "The Last Blue Glass" (Hitchcock's, April 2016--9,470 words) would qualify as either a short story or a novella. So if your short story dance card is already full, you might consider "The Last Blue Glass" as a novella. You can read it here.




10 March 2017

Funerals. Damn.

by
O'Neil De Noux

Retired from law enforcement for a couple months and I've gone to three funerals. Men I worked with back in the 1970s-80s, back when we were young and the world was a gritty, exciting adventure. We were blue knights riding dark streets with .357 magnums in our holsters. Jefferson Parish was our beat, along the west side of the murder capital of America at the time - New Orleans.

 Police Mutual Benevoleant Association Tomb
Greenwood Cemetery  New Orleans


We road in one-man cars back then with radios in the cars. Some nights we'd handle 15-16 calls. I remember nights when I never saw another cop until we turned in our units at the end of the shift. We just heard each other on the radio. Other nights - oh, My God - what adventures. It was the best time of my life. Then I became a homicide detective and slipped into the dark side of life.

There were harrowing nights as a road deputy, of course, and lots of fun nights. I'll save those anecdotes for later blogs. Now it's funeral time, time to bury men I haven't seen in over thirty years.

Two of the guys we buried were in uniform, still cops. Familiar faces with wrinkles and jowls and faded hair or no hair. I'm a white-haired retired cop who has been a writer for 30 years. My 34th book is due out this month. Some have heard I'm a writer but most remember me as a homicide detective. Not a bad legacy because my partners and I were pretty damn good detectives.

Crown of  Police Mutual Benevoleant Association Tomb
Greenwood Cemetery  New Orleans

At the wakes we shared anecdotes, bizzare stories and sad stories, a couple stories of heroism. Several people came up to me to say they thought I was dead. Not yet. Hell, I thought they were dead. I was sure ONE of the men we buried last month had died years ago. I told him that as he lay in his coffin. He didn't respond.

Some remember I'm a writer. Here are quotes from the peanut gallery:

"Hey, you still writing books?"
"When are they gonna make a movie out of your books?"
"I read one of your books."
I asked, "Which one." Response was a blank look.
"Hey, I liked the book with the cocaine lady on the cover." (first edition of my 3rd novel)
"I didn't like a couple of your books."
I asked, "Which ones?" Another blank look.

Inevitably I got this -
"I've been meaning to contact you. Man, I got a great idea for a book. Case I worked. We need to get together and I'll give you the details. You can write it and we'll split the money."

I try to be polite, explaining I'm in the middle of writing a book now and have plots laid out for six more books and a file cabinet draw of folders with novel and short story idea. I DON'T NEED ANY IDEAS.

I tell him, "You write it. It's easy." I paraphrase what Hemingway once said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
The anwer I got - "You still use a typewriter?"
"No, Papa did."
"Papa who?"
Not a literary group.

Greenwood Cemetery  New Orleans

On my way out of the last wake, an old buddy called out, "I loved your book."
"Which one?"
"The Mardi Gras Killer."
I stop, tell him I didn't write that book, never heard of it. Who could kill Mardi Gras? I've seen non-denominational Bible people screaming at the women flashing their breasts on Bourbon Street, but that didn't kill Mardi Gras. Oh, maybe there was someone killing people at Mardi Gras. What a unique idea.

Saint Louis Cemetery #1
New Orleans

Time to go back to my novel and bleed a little and wait until the next funeral. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti tells us, "The world is a beautiful place to be born into ... Yes but then right in the middle of it comes the smiling mortician."

Photos above by O'Neil De Noux.

www.oneildenoux.net



09 March 2017

Author Bill Fitzhugh on His New Book "Human Resources"

by Brian Thornton

Tonight's blog entry features an interview I recently conducted with Bill Fitzhugh, author of ten comedic novels with a variety of crime fiction elements to them, including his latest, Human Resources

I came across Bill's work quite by accident. Mutual friend and fellow funny guy author Steve Brewer introduced us over poker at Left Coast Crime a number of years back. I've never enjoyed getting cleaned out at poker more. Poker with Fitzhugh and Brewer is an experience I highly recommend you put at the top of your bucket list (and if you can get Parnell Hall, Matt Coyle and the Immortal Craig Faustus Buck into the mix, so much the better!).

So Bill is a friend from way back, and it's always fun to sit down and shoot the breeze with him. I remember reading Pest Control a few years ago, but didn't recall much about it (which is no slight on Bill or his work: I was tending a very sick infant at the time, and running on zero sleep), and hadn't read anything else by him, and didn't know much about his work, other than hearing at one point that Pest Control had made into a musical.

I like it when people I like are also good writers (and vice-versa), and so when I heard that Bill had a new book coming out, I made a point of getting my hands on Human Resources as soon as it was available, and dove in. 

LOVED it.

And with Bill launching a "shameless" (and clever) Facebook campaign to get his book some attention, I thought, "Hey, maybe I can get my blog readers (BOTH of them) to take a look at his work."

Hence, this interview. 


Now, bear in mind, I know Bill first and foremost as a guy who routinely kicks my ass at Texas Hold'Em and Ocho, and as someone whose work has been on my shortlist to read more of for a while, now, second. So I started asking questions, and got a lot thoughtful responses. 

This guy's stuff is well worth the time invested to read it.

Here's the interview:


You started out in comedy. Radio comedy, specifically, right? How did you get to the point where you rolled that in to a career writing crime fiction?

Well. I ‘started out’ in radio as a DJ at WZZQ-FM, a 100,000 watt killer fm rock station in the days just before the consultants got hold of the thing and killed it. One of my jobs was to write commercials and my tendency was always to write funny spots.  After moving to Seattle to attend UW, I met up some folks and we wrote, produced, and voiced Radio Free Comedy.  The show was pretty standard audio comedy stuff, so commercial spoofs, parody of game shows (we did a spot for the law firm of Shaftem, Dickem, Hosem, and Marx; game show called Bowling for Hours where condemned inmates could have extra hours added to their lives for hitting a strike!).  We turned that into a TV pilot that we couldn’t sell.  So moved to LA to write sitcoms.  Landed some fringe jobs then got fired from a show and it wasn’t ‘hiring season’ any more.  (TV used to be very cyclical and if you didn’t get hired during hiring season, you waited until the next one.)  So started writing screenplays.  First one was a mess.  Second one was Pest Control.  Couldn’t sell it to anyone.  All the studios passed.  Then I decided to turn it into a comic novel.  127 agents passed on it.  Then one bit.  He sold film rights to Warner Bros and publishing Avon and foreign rights as well.  So suddenly I was a novelist.  But I knew zip about crime fiction; that’s not what I was trying to write.  I was writing comic novels where people happened to commit crimes.

Your latest, Human Resources, is the third in a series. Can you tell us how this book, about a black market organ transplant ring, ties in with previous work such as Pest Control?

Yes and no.  It’s the third book involving organ transplants.  The Organ Grinders was first and dealt more with xenografting and biotechnology.  Heart Seizure was an idea I had while writing The Organ Grinders (the president needs a heart that is bound for a sweet old lady… the black helicopter people try to take the heart, the sweet old lady’s son steals it back and goes on the run, trying to find a hospital to do the XP before the feds catch him).  So Human Resources has no connection to Pest Control except that it’s a brilliant book that everyone should buy for themselves and their entire extended families.

Speaking of Pest Control, it was made into a musical. How did that come about, and what can you tell us about the experience?

The musical was actually done in 2008.  The producer (John Jay Moores) was a fan of the book.  He optioned the stage rights (nobody saw that coming!) and handed it over to James Mellon and the crew at NOHO Arts Center in North Hollywood.  The show was fabulous.  We saw it half a dozen times.  I had ZERO to do with the musical other than cashing the option checks and loving the show and the cast and crew.

(For some video of the play, including musical numbers, click here and here!)

Back to Human Resources: how much and what sort of) research did you have to do in order to believably (and it IS believably) recreate the workings of a black market organ transplant ring for this story?

I have tons of research for the previous transplant books and continue to gather more since I find the field fascinating.  This explains why I’m currently writing a play (with music) that revolves around organ donation.  The fact that we can do this Frankenstein stuff raises so many legal, ethical, and economic questions that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Who would you consider your influences?

I read a lot of Vonnegut as a kid and Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and though I’m sure I missed a large % of what they were doing, I liked the absurdity.  I also read Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (which is just odd and semi-smutty in places).  I watched all the variety shows for the comedians and same with The Tonight Show.  Loved Carson’s monologue and any comedian he had on the show.  And I listened to a lot of comedy albums: National Lampoon Radio Hour, Firesign Theater, Bill “Would you like a drink” Cosby, and Dolemite!  Monty Python, etc.  Oddly I wasn’t influenced by Carl Hiaasen for the simple reason that I hadn’t heard of him until someone read Pest Control and they said it reminded them of Carl.  Then I read Carl.  He’s so good but we definitely do things differently.  He makes more normal situations funnier than I can.  I tend to take a normal guy and put him in absurd situations and find the funny in there.  Writers who weren’t influences: Hemingway, Faulkner, Bronte… Other non-influences are all the standard crime writers, Hammett, McDonald, Dorothy L, Agatha C., etc.  I've always loved crime movies and film noir but never read any of the 'greats' growing up.  I've read some of that stuff since being in the crime writing community but not much.

You shift point of view frequently, sometimes in mid-scene. Does this sort of “head-hopping” present a challenge to you at all? You seem to handle it pretty well, with the proof being that it’s not a distraction, so wanted to know what you thought of it. Many writers (and I number myself among them) find it a genuine challenge, especially changing POV mid-scene. (Thinking of the scene with the spider monkey, especially, here.).

I never really think about it.  The thing with the monkey I figured wasn’t a distraction because it was so clear what was going on.  It was strictly for comic effect.  And done only in that one scene.  Dave Barry did this much more in Big Trouble with the dog which is where I nicked the idea.

Building on the previous question, you occasionally slip from close third person into third person omniscient. Is there a rhyme or reason to how you do that, or is just something to do by feel?

You’d have to show me where I do this because I don’t know.  Not saying I don’t do it but I’m not clear on some things.  Okay, many things.  I always think I’m writing from third omniscient.  I want reading the book to be like watching a movie.  The reader knows and sees everything that’s going on even if the character in the scene doesn’t.

One example that springs to mind is the point early in the book where Detective Densmore meets Special Agent Fuller for the first time. You talk about how she's looking through CCTV footage at St. Luke's Hospital, tell the reader what she's thinking (you don't actually have internal dialogue, or anything like that, but it feels a lot like close third person), and then you talk about how, if she'd looked at the monitor behind her, she'd see the guy in the black SUV roll up and badge the security guard. Don't get me wrong, I think it was deftly done. Just wondered whether that sort of move was a conscious one on your part.

Nope.  I thought it was the same POV for all practical purposes.  Wasn’t trying to make any moves there.

You balance narrative with dialogue incredibly well. Any tips for writers who struggle with that balance?

Pro tip: Write for 20 years (radio commercials, sketch comedy, sitcoms, screenplays) and then spend another 15 years to write 10 novels, you’ll get better at it.  All of my early books could have 20% or so cut and the books would be greatly improved.  I used to insist on sharing all the ‘fascinating’ research I’d done and I would tell the reader what was going to happen, then show it happen, then tell them what just happened.  Elmore Leonard is great at giving you all you need and not a thing more.  I edited Human Resources more than any book I’ve written.  If you don’t need some bit of dialogue or narrative (in service of plot, character, or a really good joke) cut it.  This isn’t advice that I figured out; it’s old advice and it’s hard to make yourself do as much as you need to.

You've mentioned both Hiassen and Leonard now, and reading Human Resources those were the two fiction voices I found most similar to yours. Others that came to mind were narrative nonfiction specialists like Michael Lewis (The Big Short), Peter Hopkirk (The Great Game), and Stacy Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life). I mention these three authors specifically because you set your scenes in a very similar manner: quickly, thoroughly, and with a surprising economy of words. Also, another fiction author your work recalls for me is Ruth Downie, who writes an at times very funny historical mystery series set in ancient Roman Britain. This isn't to say that you two have similar styles, so much as you both put regular people into absurd situations, and let the story rip from there.

Is there a question pending, counselor?

Nah, I just really liked how you did all of the above, and I wanted our readers to know what they were in for when taking a crack at your work.

Anyway, you tell a compelling story, and the stakes in it are obvious from the first page What was it about organ trafficking that really grabbed you, to the tune of three books (and counting)? What is it that excites you most about telling this story, or this KIND of story?

The easy answer is: It’s life and death.  it’s also Frankensteiny.  Taking parts from the dead to give to the living.  Organs are useful only for so long after being harvested (they like to use the word ‘recovered’ now, but I like harvesting better) so that gives you an organic ticking clock.  In Heart Seizure (where the gov’t is trying to get the heart back from the guy who has run off with it because his mother is entitled to it), people keep asking why someone would do something so crazy and the answer is always ‘What would you do if it were YOUR mother?”  It’s not like someone has stolen your priceless piece of art.  You can live without that…  The new project (a play, more specifically a tragic-comedy in two acts with some singing…) is also about the property aspects of human tissue.  We can sell blood,  semen, eggs, bone marrow but not a kidney?  Who’s kidney is it?  There is an area of law where this is unfolding in the courts and it’s fascinating (to me at least).

You really nail the description of one of your main character’s PTSD-in a Stephen Crane, “Gee, it’s like he LIVED it, must have BEEN there” kind of way. How much research did that involve (and did any of it involve spider monkeys?)? Was there anything about it that really stuck with you?

I struggled with that.   I started writing this as a straight thriller.  But I’m no Lee Child.  God, what he does and how he does it LOOKS so simple.  But it ain’t.  After 70 pages I couldn’t go on with it.  Jake was having flashbacks and taking drugs to deal with the ptsd but i wasn’t buying any of it.  I put in in the drawer and thought about writing something else.  Eventually decided to write what’s in my wheelhouse.  So I rewrote it in my voice and stopped trying to be Lee.  In the course of it I cut most of the PTSD stuff.  There’s just the scene with him and Densmore and a vague reference or two elsewhere.  I read Elmore’s Mr. Paradise and liked how little he told me about the characters.  It wasn’t mired in backstory and stuff from childhood or some traumatic thing that led to the characters doing what they did.  What you got was a tiny morsel of someone’s background.  All that mattered to the story is what the characters said and what they did.  That was very freeing for me.  This was also true of the film adaptation of one of his stories (Life of Crime, based on The Switch, starred Jennifer Aniston).  They didn’t bother us with backstory on the characters.  We saw what they said and what they did.  That tells you most of what you need to know.

And that's where I was going with the question above. Everyone has read stuff where the character has the childhood trauma/debilitating physical or mental condition that occasionally (or in many cases, all too frequently) swamps the character and adds to the challenges said character must overcome in order to win through to the goal dictated by plot/action, etc. That sort of thing can be really effective when done right: but it is very difficult to pull off without hitting the reader over the head with it, and can (and frequently does) descend into unintentional parody. I really liked that you let the reader know about Jake's PTSD, and then held back and his actions dictate how much of a factor that was going forward. It's easy to do too much, and sometimes hard as hell to show restraint.

Thanks!  It’s possible to use a load of backstory to explain a present motivation but do it in as few words as possible since it kills momentum unless you are REALLY good at it.  Otherwise, I prefer to let character be revealed by what they say and do in the present.

A lot of writers who are very funny in person aren’t able to replicate that in their writing. You do both well. Do you have any suggestions for writers who would like to “write funnier”?

I don’t have any useful instructions for that.  I think I naturally see things in a funny way and I think I’ve honed it over the years and absorbed a lot of how it’s done by immersing myself in all the comedy stuff I mentioned in Question #5.  And I’ve spent years writing, as I said sketch comedy and sitcoms.  I toyed with the idea of stand up in the 80s when I was in Seattle and stand up was booming.  I hung with a bunch of local comedians but I didn’t have the courage to do an open mic because I never found a voice for on stage the way I think I found a voice on paper.

And finally, you've mentioned beginning your career as a DJ, and we've certainly had our share of long discussions of music. In fact you had your own show on Sirius for, what? Five years? So obviously music is important to you. What are you listening to lately, and do you ever listen to music when you write?

Never listen to music when I write as it draws my concentration from what I’m doing.  I don’t have any current artist or new release that I’m crazy about but I like to check out any artist that Jim Fusilli recommends as he has such wide ranging interests and great taste.

Thanks a lot, Bill, and good luck with both the sales of Human Resources and with your new musical project!

Thanks Brian! I enjoyed this.

08 March 2017

The Ghost in the Machine

by David Edgerley Gates

Again, first off, a disclaimer. This is not a political rant any more than my previous post. Last time, I went after Michael Flynn for his lack of deportment. This time, I'm inviting you into the Twilight Zone.  

We have a habit, in this country, of thinking we're the center of attention. In other words, Trump's issues with his Russian connections are all about American domestic politics. There's another way to look at this. What if it turns out to be about Russian domestic politics?

Bear with me. Filling in the background, we have Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This appears not to be in dispute. There's a consensus in the intelligence community. Fairly obviously, Hillary Clinton wasn't the Russians' first choice, and she seems to have inspired Vladmir Putin's personal animus. It's not clear whether the Russians wanted simply to weaken Clinton's credibility and present her with an uncertain victory or if they thought they could engineer her actual defeat.



Deception and disinformation are tools of long standing. Everybody uses them, and the Russians have a lot of practice. They've in fact just announced the roll-out of a new integrated platform for Information Warfare, and under military authority (not, interestingly, the successor agencies to KGB). Their continuing success in controlling the narrative on the ground in both Ukraine and Syria, less so in the Caucasus, demonstrates a fairly sophisticated skill-set. To some degree, it relies on critical mass, repeating the same lies or half-truths until they crowd out the facts. Even if they don't, the facts become suspect.

Now, since the Inauguration, we've had a steady erosion of the established narrative. Beginning with Gen. Flynn, then Sessions, former adviser Page Carter, Jared Kushner. Consider the timeline. Nobody can get out in front of the story, because the hits just keep coming. They're being blind-sided. "They did make love to this employment," Hamlet says, and none of them seem to realize they could be fall guys, or that it's not about them.

The most basic question a good lawyer can ask is cui bono. Who benefits? If the object was to have a White House friendlier to the Kremlin than the one before, that doesn't appear to be working out. But perhaps the idea is simply to have an administration in disarray, one that can't cohesively and coherently address problems in NATO, say, or the Pacific Rim.  Short-term gain. Maybe more.



Let's suppose somebody is playing a longer game. We have a story out of Russia about the recent arrests of the director of the Center for Information Security, a division of the Federal Security Service, and the senior computer incident investigator at the Kaspersky Lab, a private company believed to be under FSB discipline - both of them for espionage, accused of being American assets, but both of them could just as plausibly be involved in the U.S. election hack. What to make of it? Loose ends, possibly. Circling the wagons. Half a dozen people have dropped dead or dropped out of sight lately, former security service personnel, a couple of diplomats. Russians have always been conspiracy-minded, and it's catching. You can't help but think the body count's a little too convenient, or sort of a collective memory loss.

Here's my thought. This slow leakage and loss of traction, the outing of Flynn and Sessions and the others - and waiting for more shoes to drop - why do we necessarily imagine this has to come from the inside? Old rivalries in the intelligence community, or Spec Ops, lifer spooks who didn't like Mike Flynn then and resented his being booked for a return engagement later. Just because you want to believe a story badly doesn't make it false. But how about this, what if the leaks are coming from Russian sources?

Remove yourself from the equation. It's not about kneecapping Trump, it's about getting rid of Putin, and Trump is collateral damage. There are factions in Russia that think Putin has gotten too big for his britches. He's set himself up as the reincarnation of Stalin. And not some new Stalin, either. The old Stalin. None of these guys are reformers, mind you, they're siloviki, predators. They just want to get close enough with the knives, and this is protective coloration. Putin, no dummy he, is apparently eliminating collaborators and witnesses at home, but somebody else is working the other side of the board.



If the new administration comes near collapse, because too many close Trump associates are tarred with the Russian brush, the strategy's going to backfire, and the pendulum will swing the other way. The scenario then has the opposite effect of what was intended. Putin will have overreached himself, embarrassed Russia, and jeopardized their national security. That's the way I'd play it, if it were me, but I'm not the one planning a coup.

This is of course utterly far-fetched, and I'm an obvious paranoid. Oh, there's someone at the door. Must be my new Bulgarian pal, the umbrella salesman.

07 March 2017

PTSD and Human Remains

by Melissa Yi

“I hate how Miss Marple solves murders and remains completely unaffected by them,” said my friend Jessica. “I like that Hope is real.”
Dr. Hope Sze is real to me, too.
The problem is that Hope has gotten a little too real in my latest book, Human Remains.
After the hostage-taking in Stockholm Syndrome, Hope has post-traumatic stress. Which means I have a few problems, as a writer.
1. PTSD may not be compelling to read about. Hope is numb and antisocial and angry. Not the cute little pixie detective your average reader might want to get to know.
2. Hope has a lot of backstory. For starters, I have to mention the hostage-taking and the fact that she has two boyfriends, without too many spoilers.
3. Normal writer concerns: I try to set up character, setting, and a problem in the first paragraph, ideally in the first sentence. I also need to establish that she’s an Asian female physician and that the story is set in current-day Ottawa, Canada, just before Christmas. Finally, I have a clear voice for Hope.

Here are the first 201 words.

Next, I'm coding it based on these three main concerns.
You may argue about how successfully I've accomplished my goals, and how well I'm telling a story, which is the ultimate bar for a novel, but one of the things I like about writing is the problem-solving. You get more skilled, but there's always another part of the craft that needs work.

The "My name is Hope Sze" paragraph is not my first choice, because I prefer subtlety in explaining the hostage-taking backstory, but in the end, clarity and accessibility to new readers were more important than my poet's sensibility. Also, I feel like it's a tribute to Sue Grafton, because I would smile in recognition when she'd start off, "My name is Kinsey Millhone..."

I generally have to add setting in afterward. Mysteries are all about plot, to me; I already have Hope's character and voice; but especially for this one, where she works in a stem cell lab, I had to tour Dr. Bill Stanford's stem cell lab, quiz him and Dr. Lisa Julian, and still ask questions months later. Even then, Michelle Poilly, a local college science teacher, asked me pertinent questions about adding shakers to the virology lab or explaining plasmids differently.

I don't pretend to be a PTSD expert, either, but at the Writers' Police Academy last summer, I had the opportunity to meet Paul M. Smith and his service dog, Ted. Paul is a counsellor for traumatized officers and their families. Paul suffers from PTSD himself, so he has a service dog named Ted. At one point, when students surrounded Paul with questions, Ted came up to Paul, reared up on his rear legs, placed his paws on Paul’s shoulders, and looked him in the eyes, grounding him.

Maybe that's why Hope befriends a dog named Roxy in this book. I believe animals are a wonderful way to rebuild ourselves.

What about you? How do you balance all the information you have to convey with the story you must tell to hook the reader?

And how do you talk about the serious issues in the world?

MD/Ph.D. Dr. Stephen M. Stahl points out that PTSD is an increasing problem. Of the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, he estimates 1 in 1000 died, and 1 in 100 were injured, but as many as 1 in 5 ended up with a mental illness (PTSD, depression, or suicide). Twenty to thirty veterans die from suicide every day.

As writers and readers and citizens, how do we acknowledge these terrible realities, yet continue to create and shape a better world?


06 March 2017

Last Writes

by Steve Liskow            


A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a former colleague. I have to admit that I'm approaching an age where I--and several of my friends--find this happening more often than we like. But it made me stop and think for the first time how many of my own works involve funerals, too. So far, eight of my eleven novels have funeral scenes or scenes in which characters talk about a funeral. So do both my current WIPs and at least one short story.

That made me try to recall "great literary works" that have funerals in them, and I immediately thought of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, The Loved One, Hamlet, As I Lay Dying, and Antigone. There must be dozens of others, especially when you think of all the "great literary works" I've managed to avoid reading.


This makes sense because if a story doesn't have something at stake, the reader will stop reading and the audience will stop watching or listening. The two main issues that put something at stake are love and death because they cause irrevocable change. Love changes everything. Where would Romeo and Juliet be without it? Well, alive, you say. Exactly, I say.

Most of us in the crime writing biz focus on murder, not jaywalking or littering because it has a more profound effect on the people. My funeral scenes remind me--and my readers--that killing someone affects the survivors, too, the ones who have to carry on without that person who has been taken away. The protagonist has to figure out how and why so order can be restored, albeit differently. The friends no longer have that shopping companion or tennis partner. The lover no longer has his or her other half. The child(ren) no longer have that parent. The parent no longer has that child.

I sometimes use the funeral scene to provide a clue to the crime, but more often than not, I focus on the inner life of the characters for whom the landscape has changed. These people have to reinvent themselves in order to go on. We all do that many times in our lives (See Judith Viorst's Necessary Losses and Gail Sheehy's Passages for examples), but we crime writers grapple with it every time we put words on paper.


Maybe that's why I get annoyed when people look down at crime writers or romance writers as "mere genre fiction." Take away love and death, and what do you have left?

05 March 2017

Behind Closed Doors

by Leigh Lundin

Paris — Behind Closed Doors
B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors represents another in a long series of HIM— ‘husband is monstrous’— novels, also known as HIS, HIT, HIC (husband is sociopath, toxic, cruel) etc. They’re everywhere. The last one I read (and saw as a film) was The Girl on the Train. Both were recommended by my writer/editor friend Sharon.

It comes as no surprise that half the population devour these books with glee. The key to bridging the gender gap in Women Good / Men Bad literature is whether the author can bring the bad guy convincingly to life. Therein lies the strength of Closed Doors but also its main shortcoming.

Behind Closed Doors is the story of a woman whose nightmare begins when she marries a lawyer. Bad first move of course, but matters immediately grow worse, much worse. No matter how stepfordized she becomes, her situation can never improve but only deepen and darken.

I didn’t fall easily into the story. I wrote Sharon,
“I’m finding Behind Closed Doors … well, uncomfortable. 160 pages in, I keep looking for a place to grab hold, mainly a character to really like. It’s not that I dislike the protagonist but it’s taking time to reveal her. … The writing is a bit high-schoolish with godawful word substitutions for ‘said’. One I remember was “Blah, blah, blah,” he smoothed. But I’m trusting the plot will pay off.”
Eventually it did.

The part about ‘said’ refers to speech tags, which Rob Lopresti calls unnecessary stage directions. Fancy speech tags ‘tell, not show.’ In other words, if the dialogue is strong enough, a writer shouldn’t have to sit down with a thesaurus and tell the reader what to think or feel. The rule isn’t absolute, so we’re taught if we must use supplemental speech tags, to make certain they actually mean to communicate, to pass on words through talking. ‘Frowned’ and ‘smiled’ fail that test but it didn’t stop the author from employing them.

Right about now, the author is probably sticking voodoo pins in a Leigh doll ($5.99 at the SleuthSayers store), but bear with me, our policy is to write why we like books. Besides, this is a first-time author, so getting a book out in this market is a success in itself.

After finishing the book, I wrote to Sharon again,
“The payoff in the last chapter was worth it– I really liked how Esther involved herself. The writing became stronger as it neared the end, where her internal dialogue of her fear and hope takes over as events wrap up in Thailand and she rehashes everything in her mind during the flight home.”
As I touched upon earlier, characterization proves to be the author’s weakness and great strength. Until the final fifth of the book, I found it difficult to identify with the narrator/heroine. I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t quite decide why– after all, she’s a devoted sister and a potentially loving wife. Yet one gem leapt out to bring our protagonist into focus. As an artist, she created a large painting for her fiancĂ©, literally kissing the canvas using differing shades of lipstick. That’s a lovely hint what she’s like and I wanted more. This is why I stayed with the book despite early reservations.

Behind the Door
Behind Closed Doors is another in a series of novels brought to my attention by my friend Sharon– teacher, editor, writer, my friend Steve’s inamorata. She analyzes recommendations from magazines, the Oprah Book Club, and featured reads from her local library web site. Of her choices, Gone Girl remains my favorite.
For once, I would have loved to know more about secondary characters, especially Esther, but as we discover, Esther isn’t merely a secondary character.

Unlike The Girl on the Train, the author doesn’t play around trying to fool us. From the outset, we learn this man who came into her life is one sick, well… I can’t think of a sufficiently awful word to describe him.

Paris has created one of the most evil antagonists ever, one who makes Gregory Anton / Sergius Bauer / Jack Manningham (Gaslight) seem like a maladjusted schoolboy. For someone who breaks a heart for enjoyment, there should be a special Dantean subcircle, but this fiend goes several levels worse. I reached a point I felt no ill could match what this guy deserved.

Shortly past the halfway mark, I began to see how this must end. The payoff was worth the trip. In approval, I sipped a glass of sherry, a special red from the Montilla region of Spain. Taste the story; I think you’ll like it.

04 March 2017

Let's Do the Twist


by John M. Floyd



In his book Spunk & Bite, author and publisher Arthur Plotnik says, "Readers love surprise. They love it when a sentence heads one way and jerks another."

How true. And what works in language/style also seems to work--at least in this case--in plots. Readers, and viewers too, like it when the story takes a sudden and unforeseen turn. Sometimes it's just a side street that eventually leads us back to the freeway, but occasionally it's a major roadblock that sends us off in a totally different direction, or even headed back the way we came.

Off-balancing act

FYI, I'm not talking specifically about surprise endings, like those in Shutter Island, Primal Fear, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Planet of the Apes, Presumed Innocent, The Usual Suspects, "The Lottery," "The Gift of the Magi," etc. The reversals I'm talking about can also occur earlier in the story.

Nobody who reads fiction (or watches movies) wants the characters to have an easy, carefree ride. We want our hero or heroine to be challenged, and not only with that initial "call to adventure." We want him or her weighted down with burdens and decisions and constantly-changing threats. And the main thing, here, is changing. Since we as human beings are always worried about changes in our own lives, we as readers are worried when characters face changes--illness, death, divorce, a new job, loss of a job, a new location, strangers who come to town, and so forth--and have to deal with them. It adds to the "uncertainty of outcome" that's such an integral piece of storytelling. This happens in all good stories, but a part of that, especially in genre fiction, is injecting twists and turns throughout the tale.


Shock treatment

I always enjoy movies and novels that contain those in-flight reversals. There are many examples, but the following stories--all of them are films and most were books as well--come to mind because they feature a sudden 180-degree switcheroo in or near Act II: A Kiss Before Dying, Psycho, L.A. Confidential, Executive Decision, Ransom, Gone Girl, Deep Blue Sea, Marathon Man, etc. And I don't mean a slight swerve off the path; I mean a clap-your-hands-over-your-mouth and bug-out-your-eyes stunner that completely changes the course of the story.

The reversals in the movie versions of Psycho and L.A. Confidential were especially memorable because--in each case--the best-known actor in the cast was unexpectedly killed in the middle of the story (early middle in Psycho, late middle in LAC). That also happened when the most famous actor in Game of Thrones bit the dust (well, his severed head did) in the final episode of the very first season. It left viewers thunderstruck, and understandably wondering what other off-the-charts events might happen, and when. If long-term tension is what you're trying to create (as a writer/director) and what you enjoy (as a reader/viewer), this is a pretty effective plot device.


It occurred to me, while I was writing this, that one definition of the word reversal is "a setback, or a change of fortune for the worse"--as in, I suppose, a deep dip in the Dow Jones--and I think that definition holds true for today's topic as well. Reversals in fiction are often for the worse, and that can help the story. More conflict, and more agony for the protagonist, means more suspense.

A sense of misdirection

Other tales that had big mid-story twists: The Maze Runner, Reservoir Dogs, The Departed, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," Life of Pi, Sands of the Kalahari, A History of Violence, The Hateful 8, Blood Simple--and almost any short story by Roald Dahl and any novel by Harlan Coben. Those two authors were/are masters of the plot reversal.

With regard to endings, Lawrence Block had an interesting observation about that in his book Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. He said, "The best surprise endings don't merely surprise the reader. In addition, they force him to reevaluate everything that has preceded them, so that he views the actions and the characters in a different light and has a new perspective on all that he's read."

At the risk of repeating myself, I think the same thing applies to twists and reversals during the course of the narrative. If you're good enough, you can use reversals to keep a reader off-balance and still maintain the central storyline. The diversions, when included, should be there for a reason, and not just for shock value and entertainment. The twists should fit in and be logical, and should--ideally--make the journey more interesting to the traveler.

Questions

Do you agree? Is that something you try to do in your own writing, or look for in your reading and/or viewing? What are some of your favorite reversals in movies, novels, and stories? Can you think of some that didn't work well? Which ones surprised you the most? I think I actually spilled Coke on the people around me in the theater when Janet Leigh met her fate in the Bates Motel (that bombshell seemed to drop almost as soon as I got settled into my seat), and I choked on my popcorn when the guy pushed his date off the roof of the building in the first half of A Kiss Before Dying. I'll remember those scenes always. And that's more than I can say for a lot of the novels I've read and the movies I've seen lately.

In real life, certainty and security are comforting. In fiction, the future is always unpredictable.

Or should be.





03 March 2017

Reviewing the Reviewers

By Art Taylor

One of the courses I'm teaching this semester at George Mason University is titled "Crafting and Publishing Reviews," and we've been looking not only at the various types of reviews out there (a big difference between a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books, for example, and a three-paragraph review in Entertainment Weekly) but also at the longer history of reviewing and the larger landscape of questions about how reviews are read and how they should be written. I've been fortunate to contribute reviews to a number of publications over the years, including the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene, just as a sampling, and I've been grateful during this course to welcome the voices of even more experienced critics into the classroom via Google Hangouts, including Washington Post critic Ron Charles and freelance critic Mark Athitakis so far; next week, we'll host Kristopher Zgorski of BOLO Books to talk about book blogging and book advocacy, and more guests are on the syllabus ahead.

This past Wednesday's class was focused on the ethics of reviewing, and I'll share links to some of that reading here (click on the titles to reach the articles):


I'm not sure how the nuanced and troubling the students found the readings (the view from my side of the class discussion likely much different from their view), but I was struck by many of the conflicts and even contradictions in different viewpoints.

The column on John Updike's rules champions the "role social responsibility of the critic" by building on E.B. White's call for writers to "life people up, not lower them down." A couple of the columns stressed the need for fairness in reviewing—not only in terms of being fair to the book being reviewed by specifically by avoiding conflicts of interest in several directions: reviewers shouldn't be friends with the authors they're reviewing, nor should they be enemies, perhaps for obvious reasons.

And yet in contrast, there are concerns that too much politeness might lead, in Julavits' words, to "dreckish handholding" and a "trumpeting of mediocrity," and Shafer said more frankly, "The point of a book review isn't to review worthy books fairly, it's to publish good pieces"—and he pointed to the "British model" of assigning "lively-but-conflicted writers" to create greater tension (and perhaps draw more readers).

Perhaps most interesting to my mind was the idea of how to approach a book in the first place. An earlier reading from our syllabus—Lynne Sharon Schwartz's "The Making of a Reviewer" from the collection Book Reviewing, edited by Sylvia E. Kamerman—championed the idea of treating a new book as a "strange new geological treasure" to be judged for "its intrinsic, living qualities" (a contrast to what Schwartz called "negative criticism," the idea of appraising a book "on the basis of what it has failed to accomplish, with these failings usually derived from the critic's own notion of how he or she would have handled the subject"). In Julavits' essay, however, New Yorker critic James Wood is praised for his "idealism": 

Wood is peevish, even occasionally mean, but never snarky. He is perpetually disappointed with “us,” (if you’re a writer, even one he’s never written about, you cannot help but feel you’ve let him down)—which is certainly better than being too jaded to be much more than dismissively irritated, too disdainful of fiction to do much more than toss clichĂ©d disparagements around... and call it criticism. Wood makes people hopping mad, yes, but despite his grumbly excoriations there’s usually room for a dialogue with Woods, which indicates there’s something to wrangle over, i.e., his claims are based on a strongly-held (and felt) belief system, and he’s an intellectual, which means he likes to be forced to defend that belief system. 

Approach a new book with some naivete or innocence? or with the full force of your belief system behind you? 

I recognize that not all readers here are reviewers, but we are indeed readers—and I'm curious how you approach a new novel. Filled with expectations and armed with standards? Or willing to see where the author might take you? Or can there be overlap between those approaches? 




02 March 2017

"L'Etat, C'est Moi"

by Eve Fisher

Louis XIV of France.jpg
Louis XIV, in his glory
Years ago, I used to teach a class on the Age of Louis XIV, which basically became a class on the man himself.  He may or may not have said "L'etat, c'est moi" ("I am the state), but he certainly lived it.  He was the first, and greatest, of the absolute monarchs of post-Reformation Europe, and during much of his 72 year reign, if someone - anywhere in Europe, not just France - said something about "the King", it was assumed they meant Louis.

Louis XIV (1638-1715) became king when he was five years old.  Of course, they didn't let him actually rule at that age - he had a minister, Cardinal Mazarin.  (Suspected by some of being his mother's lover and/or husband.  But not by me:  Anne of Austria was a true European aristocrat, who would sooner have eaten merde as have anything physical to do with a jumped-up Italian.)  Mazarin, according to Louis XIV, kept him living in poverty, barely educated.  It could be true.
NOTE:  Children, even royal children, weren't as prized back in the day as they are now. Classic example, Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Perigord, the eldest son of his house, who was put out to nurse in the countryside for his first few years.  He returned lame.  His parents then made his younger brother the heir, and put our boy into the Church, where he became the most dissolute, loose-living, atheistic Bishop of Autun since...  who knows when. (Eventually, he joined the French Revolution, managed to switch sides with such persistent effectiveness that he survived everything, from the Reign of Terror to Napoleon to the Bourbon Restoration...)  
SECOND NOTE:  Louis XIV's only sibling, his younger brother Philippe, who was universally called Monsieur, had a VERY interesting upbringing.  He was deliberately raised to be a homosexual, or at the very least a transvestite; his mother and her ladies encouraged him to dress up in women's clothing, make-up, jewelry and hairstyles.  He was deliberately kept from any formal education other than the 3 r's, and any knowledge of statecraft.  All of these were so that he'd never be a rival for his brother.  The result was a man who was bisexual, surprisingly martial, and through his two marriages, became the "grandfather of Europe", ancestor of every Roman Catholic royal house in Europe.  You never know...
Back to Louis, who would have been infuriated by that digression.  Louis' childhood influenced him in many ways, but it was the Fronde (1648-1653) that created his ruling style.  The Fronde was a multiplicity of rebellions that had no order, rhyme, or reason to any of it.  Of, by, and for the nobility, the Fronde's goal was to return to the good old days when a nobleman could rule his lands and provinces as a petty king, with absolute power.  And there had been no jumped-up clergymen (Richelieu and Mazarin) to try and make them knuckle under to some Bourbon king.
NOTE:  Part of the problem was that in class-ridden pre-modern Europe, the Bourbons weren't that old a family.  One of Louis' mistresses, Madame de Montespan, often bragged to his face that her family, the House of Rochechouart was MUCH older than his, and it was.  Hers went back to the 800s; his only to the 1200s.  
Episode of the Fronde at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by the Walls of the Bastille.png
Episode of the Fronde at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by the Walls of the Bastille
(i.e., when the royal family had to flee Paris.  See below)
The Fronde failed, because they really had no goal, no organization, no leadership, and kept bickering.  But Louis would never forget it.  At one point the Fronde made the whole royal family flee Paris, which was probably THE major humiliation of Louis' life.  He decided that the nobility was untrustworthy, Paris was rotten, and came up with the following maxims of government:
  • The nobility will have no role in government at all.
  • All non-military government roles, positions, and titles will be given to the bourgeoisie (that way, Louis can fire them whenever he wants).
  • Parlement's only role will be to rubber-stamp his decisions.
  • Paris can rot.
  • He, Louis XIV, will rule personally, absolutely, with no prime minister, all his life.
Nobody believed any of this.  For one thing, Louis, who was always a master of etiquette, waited politely until after Mazarin's death in 1661 to take the reins of power.  And by then there had been 50 years of Prime Ministers ruling France while the kings played.  Louis played, and he played hard - but he also did exactly what he said he would.

And the key to doing that, successfully, was:
  • to appoint good bourgeois officers (Jean-Baptist Colbert, Comptroller-General; Michel le Tellier, and his son, Louvois, both Ministers of War and Chancellor, among others).  
  • to personally work like a horse, non-stop, day in and day out
  • to distract the nobility with endless perks, entertainment, prizes, all dependent upon HIS favor. 
Welcome to Versailles.  


Versailles was the old hunting lodge of Louis XIII, 12 miles south of Paris.  Louis XIV loved it, despite the fact that it was in the middle of a swamp.  He had it remodeled - in fact, it was being remodeled for his entire reign, and some say that the construction is still on-going - and announced, early on, that Versailles was the seat of government.  If you wanted to be close to the king (and who didn't?) you went to Versailles.  And everyone who could went.

Louis de Rouvroy duc de Saint-Simon.jpg
The Duc de Saint-Simon
It was a desperately uncomfortable place to live.  It was so huge that people could and did get lost in it; only the extremely important people - Louis, his Queen, his mistresses, his endless children, and Monsieur and his wife and children - had beautiful apartments.  Most people were crammed into very small rooms, often without windows.  The Duc de Saint-Simon, the most celebrated diarist of the period, had three small rooms, one looking out the stables (which stank), the other two of which were the size of walk-in closets without have windows.  And these were considered the best suite in Versailles.

But things were different then.  Comfort, so important to us today, was held in contempt.  The mark of a man of quality was "indifference to heat, cold, hunger and thirst."  Magnificence was the order of the day. The nobility lived in chateaus that were drafty, cold, smoky, and reeked of human and animal waste (there was no indoor plumbing).  But the rooms looked beautiful.  The nobility wore velvets and satins and brocades in summer as well as winter, and the clothes always stank because they couldn't be washed, and people generally stank because they didn't bathe, just kept pouring on the perfume.  Louis himself just got rubbed down with scented alcohol every day.  But by God they looked marvelous.

Versailles almost bankrupted Paris.  Louis never went there.  He frowned on any nobility who went there.  When the court needed a change of air, they went to Fontainebleau and Marly.  Paris was ignored.  For decades.  But their revenge would come in 1789...

Versailles almost bankrupted Louis (although he never admitted it, and burned the receipts)...

Versailles bankrupted the nobility.
  • Living at Versailles meant, for one thing, that the country estates (and in France, being noble meant you had a large country estate that supplied you with an income) were managed by someone else, who certainly wasn't going to send you all the money.  
  • The King expected his nobles to be well-dressed, and the velvets, silks, and satins, with gold and silver embroidery did not come cheap.  And he expected to see new outfits for weddings, births, Feast Days, parties, etc.  The Duc de Saint-Simon spent 800 louis d'or for new outfits for himself and his wife for the Duc de Bourgogne's wedding - that was equivalent of $96,000.00 in today's money.  
  • While much of the constant entertainment at Versailles was free (watching Louis was the major entertainment, from his morning rub to his official coucher with the Queen), including hunting, music, plays, concerts, dances, and the usual amount of drink, drugs, and sex (all right, sometimes more than the usual amount) there was also gambling almost every night.  They played vingt-et-un, which is blackjack, as well as roulette and dice.  (The King preferred billiards.  He generally won.) The stakes could run exceedingly high:  Madame de Montespan (of the excellent bloodline) lost 3 million francs in one evening.  
  • You have to have servants, sedans, dogs, horses, hunting equipment, stable rent, bribes, and... let's put it this way, books of the day said that a single man of wealth and nobility should have at least 36 servants, 30 horses, etc....  Of course, if you married, expenses doubled, and if you had children...  
So how did the nobility afford all this?  They went into debt.  And when they were broke, they ran to Louis, who was usually happy to help them out with a little something, enough to keep them in Versailles.  He kept them poor and completely dependent on him and his favor.  And his favor wasn't given to anyone who wasn't regularly at Versailles, waiting on him, watching him, being present.

And Louis was always present.  How he lived his life I do not know.  Louis spent his entire day, from 7:45 a.m. to midnight, in public.  (We know where he was every second of every day, because he followed a time-table as rigid as that of a German railroad.)  He had an iron constitution, an iron will, an iron work ethic, and he was always on stage.  He was never alone, even when he was sleeping, using the toilet or having sex. Not only was someone there, there were a lot of people there, perhaps discreetly looking away. (Probably not.)  This was rule by King as rock star, the first total celebrity, the first reality TV show. To see him, to be seen by him, to watch him eat, drink, dress, dance, walk, ride, hunt, etc., was everyone's obsession.  And it was considered as much of an honor, if not more, to attend him while he was using the bathroom as when he was holding full court.
NOTE:  To show how great the obsession with Louis was - and how tough a bird he was - in 1686, he underwent an operation, without anesthesia, on an anal fistula.  In public.  Amazingly, he survived. Even more amazingly, a huge number of nobles went to the doctor to be checked to see if they had an anal fistula, and those who did boasted about it!  Now THAT's toadying.  
Portrait sculpture of 18th  C.
French peasants, by
artist George S. Stuart
Museum of Ventura County
Louis had a few weaknesses.  Women.  Food.  (He ate like a horse.)  But his chief weakness was the pursuit of personal glory (la gloire) through building (Versailles, Marly), personal magnificence (clothing, furniture, jewels, etc.), his court's constant magnificence, and on war.  Endless war.

In case you're wondering, this was an age in which it was assumed, by everyone, that government had nothing to do with and no obligations towards the common people (peasants and artisans, who made up 95% of the population, along with a smattering of merchants), other than to collect taxes from them.  The wealthy paid no taxes at all.  Neither did the Church.  The peasants paid for everything.  They got nothing.  Any improvements, in roads, bridges, canals, etc., were paid for either by the goodness of the local lord or a whim on the part of the king.  There were no social services, no pensions, no health care, nothing.  Peasants worked until they dropped, and then died. Government was there to support the king, the nobility, the Church, and to wage war.

William of Orange defeating
Louis XIV at Naarden
And war was expensive, then as now.  Louis XIV fought many wars because everyone knew that that was what powerful kings did:  fight and win wars.  The trouble is, none of them were winnable, none of them mattered, and Louis himself was a lousy general.  He didn't get anything out of them except a tremendous load of debt, a couple of minor victories, and a lot of dead soldiers.  He fought three wars alone trying to conquer the Netherlands.  He lost every time, and only succeeded in making William of Orange, the prince of the Netherlands, his enemy for life. When William became king of England in 1689 (William was married to Mary, daughter of James II of England, who was booted out during the Glorious Revolution to make room for her - history is so messy...)  Anyway, when William became King of England, it meant that England and France would be at almost perpetual war (simmering or boiling) for the next 150 years.  Including a couple that involved the American Colonies, The Nine Years War a/k/a King Williams' War (1689-1697), and the War of the Spanish Succession a/k/a Queen Anne's War (1701-1714).

Louis succeeded in what he wanted to do.  He kept the nobility powerless and he kept himself absolute monarch for 72 years.  But he almost destroyed France in the process.  He came to the throne of the most powerful, most populous, most wealthy country in Europe, and left it in debt, surrounded by enemies, crippled by a tax system that, depending as it did entirely on the poor, was so bad that in, 70 years, it would spark a revolution.

Much the same results came from all the absolute monarchs of the 17th and 18th centuries - endless wars, fighting over and over and over again over the same territories, bankrupting entire countries, and leading, finally, to the almost constant revolutions of the late 18th and 19th centuries.  The pursuit of war and glory - by leaders who cannot be told "No" - and its results can be summed up by Thomas Gray:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
                - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751