12 June 2017

Suspension of Belief, too



by Jan Grape

I turned on my tablet a short time ago and read Leigh's post about suspending belief. Oddly enough I'd been working an article in my mind all day about suspended belief. Thank goodness my idea is a different take on the subject.

The idea of suspended belief has never really bothered me because as a voracious reader, every time I pick up a mystery, thriller, science fiction or even a western to read I know I'm going to suspend belief.

Do you really think that each time Jack Reacher goes to any new town he's always going find someone that needs his help? An underdog, often a vulnerable female needing him to go up against a  monstrous gang of bad guys he'll have to beat-up or better yet kill them all.

 Remember, Murder She Wrote. We all laugh and say, I don't want to go to Cabot Cove Maine.  Because in that quaint little beach town, that's the murder capitol of the world, I might find a body. Angela Lansbury/Jessica Fletcher always did.

But we always suspend belief to read the story. As writers, we try very hard to make our mystery world as real as possible so our readers will absolutely suspend belief and read our books. One of the major strengths of a mystery story.

To make our character's world as real as possible we research our character's job. If it's law enforcement or private investigation or newspaper reporter or international spy we try our best to make that job sound as authentic as possible. It helps tremendously if we have actually worked in the field we are trying to portray. The lingo of the field is especially important.

If our character is an amateur sleuth it often helps if that character has a love of cooking or bird-watching or quilting or something that we also do ourselves. It can add to the "reality" of our story.

If as a writer we don't have the job or hobby experience then research, research, research. Naturally, life experience or life knowledge can help. All can be used when writing and setting up the suspension of belief for our readers.

Something I try to do, in my book especially, is to include as much "truth" as possible. A "universal truth," as my mystery writer friend, Susan Rogers Cooper and I call it, is often a good thing to include. For instance, if my female character is to pack for a four day trip, she notes that she only has three clean bras that are really nice enough for the trip. So she either has to go buy a new bra or two, plan to wash one on her trip or pack one of her old "house only" bras. Almost all women can relate. It is so true. A lot of men can't relate but, men probably won't mention what he is packing in his book.

 My main hope is when I do find a body someplace and write about it, you know I probably have not found a body our here in the Texas Hill Country but, you will believe me and suspend belief.

11 June 2017

Suspension Bridge

by Leigh Lundin

Suspension of disbelief — While used all the time in story-telling, the phrase always struck me as a particularly awkward and unwriterly agglomeration or words. It seems more appropriate for a turn-of-the-century magic show than for literature.

To begin with, the human brain cannot grasp a negative without first comprehending or at least thinking of its positive. The mind first considers ‘belief’ and, after momentary processing, pulls up ‘disbelief’. Then the grey cells attach ’suspension of’, resulting in complex mental gymnastics for a simple concept, even if we remain unaware of the internal computing at the time.

Enantiosemy

suspension
© courtesy imgarcade, artist unknown

‘Suspend’ is one of those words that can mean virtually its opposite, a contronym if you will, like the word ‘citation’ in North American English. You can suspend fruit bits in Jell-o or suspend a balloon in mid-air. But if you suspend the suspending, they come crashing down, much like my faith in our phrase under discussion.

Imagine an author constructing posits like fragile clouds floating in the sky. That writer has suspended his beliefs. He wants his audience to believe those illusions hover there in the magical atmosphere of his tale.

Science and engineering students play sly and sometimes sophisticated jokes on one another such as disassembling a Volkswagon and reassembling it in a boy's dorm room.
    An urban legend has it Coca Cola will dissolve metals overnight, engine blocks or some such. A freshman went on about this and sophomores suggested the only way to prove or disprove it was to run the experiment himself. They helped him gather half a dozen different types of nails to leave in a jar that night.
    The next morning the freshman awoke to find the nails had dissolved into nothingness, thus proving the urban legend. Upperclassmen clapped him on the back and complimented him on his research.
    They didn’t compliment his naïveté, his suspension of disbelief. As you figured out, the sophomores silently removed the nails in the middle of the night.
Thus when you think about it, an author of fiction is ultimately asking for belief… a believing in his world rather than the reality surrounding us.

Coming to Terms

Everyone knows what ‘suspend disbelief’ means, but nobody’s bothered to come up with more elegant wording. We could toy with ‘enbelief’ or ‘sur-belief’ or even ‘lief’, although that last means ‘gladly’.

English often adapts foreign words for concepts. We could try ‘glauben’ in German, ‘foi’ or ‘croyance’ in French, ‘creencia’ in Spanish, ‘убежден’ in Russian, and my favorite, ‘credinţa’ in Romanian. Feel free to leave off the çedilla. (Pardon the childish play on that word.) Would professionals accept this following term? “A writer asks little more from his audience than credinta.”

Frankly, I’m surprised our literary forebears haven’t borrowed an equivalent phrase from French or Russian authors. All the Russians I know are in Washington busily working on the next election, but I do have good French friends. I asked two of my closest, Micheline and Jean-François, for their opinions. J-F responded with this:
“Suspension of disbelief” is a useful concept, and quite hard to render accurately in French. The direct translation is clumsy. It is close to “licence poétique” but poetic license designates a liberty of the author rather than the reader blindly following the enchantment.

Actually, “enchantement” or “envoûtement” is a good path, with the idea that the reader is so charmed by the story that he forgets about reality and plausibility. I would suggest “succomber à l’enchantement” (succumb to the enchantment), e.g. in full context:
“Readers of Tolkien willingly suspend their disbelief” ➔
“Les lecteurs de Tolkien succombent de plein gré à son enchantement.”

Succomber à l'enchantement— I like that. If I can’t have credinţa, I vote for that.

Does ‘suspension of disbelief’ seem awkward to you? What are your ideas, your suggestions?

10 June 2017

True Crime? Maybe Not

by B.K. Stevens

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

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

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

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

She sighed. "Arson," she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

09 June 2017

Graduation Day!

By Art Taylor

Today, our son graduates from school!

...pre-school, that is.

He's only five. 

Dash will be starting kindergarten in the fall, and someone mentioned recently that there might be a kindergarten graduation next year too. We'll see how that goes when we get to it.

I'll admit straight out that I myself once scoffed at the idea of a graduation ceremony for five-year-olds or six-year-olds—or heck, even at the idea of a graduation ceremony at elementary school or middle school or junior high, whatever they term those divisions these days (we're learning ourselves with each new year). While I have no doubt that each of these stages might mark significant milestones, the need for pageantry around every move seemed... unnecessary, excessive, maybe even a little ridiculous.

I can't say I feel that way anymore.

Maybe part of that change of perspective is grounded in simple bias—now it's our child briefly in the spotlight—but I do think it's more than that. It's not just having our child in the spotlight (to shift emphasis) but having our child go through the experiences of preschool that have opened my eyes a little more.

A couple of years ago here at George Mason University, a student in one of the advanced composition courses that I teach commented (ranted really) in the class's online discussion board about the silliness of preschool education at all—basically calling it glorified daycare and arguing that kids aren't doing any significant learning at that age, nothing that could really be taught at least. Sadly, one of the teachers at my son's school has noted echoes of the same sentiments from the parents themselves, some of whom have treated her as if she's simply some form of nanny or babysitter.

Needless to say, I disagree with those attitudes.

Kids at Dash's age are like sponges (isn't that the regularly accepted simile?) taking in information all the time, at rates and in quantities far superior to what us older folks might manage. As an example, look at language acquisition—not just how kids learn their native languages but how much more smoothly they can learn different languages in those early years than later in life. Dash can count not only in English but also in Spanish—and in Chinese too. He's picked up words in several languages, songs as well. And he's always coming home with a broadened vocabulary generally, new bits of knowledge, some greater understanding of geography or science or mechanics in the afternoon than he had in the morning.

I'm certainly not arguing that any of the kids in Dash's class could jump into my advanced composition course at Mason and follow our lessons—not at all. But that student who was in that class, who dismissed early childhood education as glorified daycare.... well, I fear that he learned little over the course of that semester himself, little more than he already came in with. The curve of his learning was ultimately low. (Part of that, however, may have been simple obstinacy rather than any inability to absorb additional knowledge.) Meanwhile, the children in Dash's class are just... whoosh!

But education is about more than knowledge, and pre-school is about more than prepping kids for elementary school—and this is where the approaching milestone may mean the most.

Over these last few years, Dash and his fellow students have become far more than friends; they are indeed like a little family—even in many cases playing family, husband and wife or sister and brother, and in the process learning how to be people, how to relate to one another with appreciation and respect, really how to live as good, responsible citizens of the world, and I'm grateful to his teachers for helping to guide those life lessons as much as the traditional lessons on reading, writing, arithmetic, etc. Watching those relationships develop and grow has been magical in so many ways—the stories Dash brings home, the joy he feels about his friends—and it kind of breaks our hearts, mine and my wife Tara's, that he can't take that whole classroom of kids with him to kindergarten next year. Instead, nearly all of these children will be going in different directions from one another—sorted out by zones and districts into the various schools that are part of the complex educational system here in Northern Virginia with its booming population. We'll do our best to schedule playdates and get-togethers with his pre-school friends, of course, and we know they'll all make plenty of new friends in their new classrooms. But at the same time, the move is clearly a significant one—a closing of one chapter, an opening of another, excitement and apprehension in equal parts, and that's not just for the children but for the parents too. The joke is that there are many tears on the first and last days of school, but most of them are from the moms and dads (and the punchline is that it's not a joke).

Somewhere in there is where my perspective shifted about the idea of graduations for five-year-olds.

Dash and his friends have learned a new song that they'll sing together at graduation later this afternoon—a reflection on their time at school. He's very excited about it, and he's been previewing it for us in recent weeks—each time making my wife cry just a little. He gets to wear a graduation cap, get a diploma, eat some cake, and he's excited about all that too. Dash's school invited me to speak at the ceremony as well —just 2 to 3 minutes as part of the program—and I said, sure, glad to. How hard could it be? Tell a couple of anecdotes, thank a few key people, tell the graduating class to enjoy that cake—and then enjoy some myself! The morning after I drafted my comments, I started my stopwatch to read them aloud, make sure I landed loosely within my time limit, and I hope they'll indulge me a little since it clocks in around four minutes—though that timing is approximate at best. Every paragraph or so, I had to pause the stopwatch because I felt myself tearing up. We'll see how well I manage on stage. (I'll update in the comments below—and maybe even include the text of my speech once I've delivered it.)

In the meantime, congratulations to Dash and to all his classmates—and congratulations to all the folks graduating this month, wherever you're at in your education. Celebrate the milestone! Enjoy the moment! Have a piece of cake on me. 






08 June 2017

Of Safes and Smoke

by Eve Fisher

Do you remember the South Dakota GEAR UP! scandal?  The one that got started when, early in the morning of September 17, 2015, a fire destroyed the home of Scott and Nicole Westerhuis and their four children in Platte, South Dakota?  And they were all later found to be shot to death?
Quick Note:  (GEAR UP! is a federal grant program to get financial assistance to low-income students; here in SD it's primary aim was supposed to be helping Native American students.)  
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SD AG Marty Jackley
Now, my regular readers may remember that South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley determined that Scott Westerhuis shot his wife and children, torched the house, and then shot himself, all because he was about to be caught for embezzling enough funds to build a $1.3 million rural home, a $900,000 gym complete with basketball court, etc., etc., etc., on an official combined salary (his and his wife's) from Mid Central Educational Co-Op of $130,000.  Later, it turned out that the Westerhuises had set up a number of shell organizations, and given themselves hefty salaries from them all.

Well, I'm happy to announce that the General Audit of Mid Central and GEAR UP! has finally been released and it shows:

(1) Scott and Nicole Westerhuis took nearly $8 million out of Mid Central's bank account without authorization to cover the salaries of their non-profit organizations. Supposedly most of that money was returned to Mid Central (how, when, where?), but $1.4 million was still missing at the time of the Westerhuis family's deaths.

(2) The Mid Central Board and its director, Dan Guericke, didn't have enough oversight and never addressed the risks created by Scott and Nicole Westerhuis having roles in the non-profits they set up to take the GEAR UP! grant money.

(3) Guericke didn't get approval by the board for 17 contracts and a number of payments made without contracts with the Westerhuises.

Naturally, the blame game has begun:
  • Mid Central's board is blaming the South Dakota Department of Education ("lead partner" in the GEAR UP! grant and responsible for ensuring the project was carried out in accordance to federal rules and regulations).  
  • The SD DOE says it did its job of conducting reviews of grant expenses and tightened up its controls when it began noticing issues in 2014, which is why it cancelled its contract with Mid Central right before the Westerhuis tragedy.  
  • The Mid Central board's responded that, "no amount of reasonable oversight would have detected the complex scheme of fraudulent and illegal activities conducted by Scott and Nicole Westerhuis."  (Angela Kennecke, KELO TV)  
  • NOTE:  I once put together five years of an organization's accounts from a checking account register.  You can figure out a lot if you just follow the money...
  • Also, Cory's blog Dakota Free Press has all the facts and figures that we have so far, and all the excuses piled up so far.
So, June 30, 2017, Mid Central will shut down. 12 of its 13 members have formed Core Educational Cooperative.  The same staff of Mid Central (those who are not going to trial) are now going to work for Core (at least half of them had to have conflict-of-interest waivers to work for Mid Central, and will now have to have conflict-of-interest waivers to be able to work for Core); the Mid Central Board is liquidating their assets (even though $1.4 million in tax-payer money is still owed to our long-suffering public).  Please see Cory Heidelberger's article at Dakota Free Press for a fuller experience of how deep it's getting piled.  Again...

Meanwhile, no one's come forward yet to untangle the following mysteries:
(1) Who called Nicole's cell phone in the middle of the night, right before the fire?
(2) Why did Mid Central Educational Co-op, which owned the Westerhuis cell phones, cancel them and wipe the records the next morning, before the ashes from the arson had even cooled?
(3) What did Mid Central Educational Co-op Director Dan Guericke talk about with Scott Westerhuis for an hour on the evening before the tragedy?  (Guericke told the board the two really didn't talk about much at all.)
(4) What happened to the Westerhuis safe, which trotted out of the house like a trained pig right before the house was torched?

Yes, there's going to be a trial of 3 Mid Central employees, including Director Guericke.  Maybe the questions will be answered then...  But I'm not holding my breath.  Will keep you posted.

Cannabis Plant.jpgThe other big news of the week hearkens back to last year, when the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe reversed course on opening America's first Tribal Marijuana Coffee Shop, and burned the whole crop in November.  (They had been warned that they were going to be raided by federal officials.)  AG Jackley was suspicious that they hadn't burned it all, and talked about charges.  And he did.  He charged Colorado marijuana industry consultants Eric Hagen and Jonathan Hunt for helping the tribe set up their grow room, etc.  (BTW, State AGs can’t prosecute non-Indians for crimes on reservations, but Jackley argued that his office had jurisdiction to prosecute victimless crimes committed by non-Indians.) Hunt rolled over and pled guilty but Hagen went to trial: and was acquitted by a jury. (Hagen testified that he was simply a consultant with experience in the industry who had been hired by the tribe, and apparently the jury agreed with him.) Marty Jackley was restrained, saying that he respected the jury's verdict.  (See the Argus Leader article for more details.)

Many people believe that the reason Jackley pursued this lawsuit was because he and current SD Rep. Kristi Noem (R) are going to duke it out for the South Dakota Governor's Office next year, and he's trying to get out front on the law & order issue. (Most of us think taxes and health care would be more salient...) But, as we move into yet another election year, the questions pile up:
Will GEAR UP! come up?
Will crop insurance?
Will marijuana?
Will riding horses?
Will let you know.

Meanwhile, a friend just told me that a forrmer public works director (no names were named) said that South Dakota doesn't really need federal money for infrastructure, because driving on bumpy roads isn't all that much of an inconvenience. My friend pointed out that tourists might disagree & he said tourism doesn't impact the state economy that much...

Crazy Horse Memorial - Photo by TBennert on Wikipedia
Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore - Wikipedia
Badlands National Park - Wikipedia
Black Hills -Needles-31.jpg
The Needles - photo courtesy of
Doug Knuth - https://www.flickr.com/photos/dknuth/7677770944/
Wikipedia

Bear Butte - photo courtesy of
Jsoo1, as English Wikipedia image: en:Image:Bearbutte4.jpg

Main Street Sturgis South Dakota Bike Week.jpg
Sturgis motorcycle rally - Photo courtesy of
Cumulus Clouds, Wikipedia
Are our public officials TRYING to run our economy into the ground, or are they just stupid?

More later, from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.

 Goodfellas.jpg


07 June 2017

The Mudie Blues

by Robert Lopresti


I have always been fascinated by the clash over evolution versus creationism.  I suppose it started in my pre-teen years when I saw the movie Inherit the Wind.  While other kids decorated their walls with Beatles posters, I had a badly photocopied picture of Clarence Darrow glaring down at me. (Yes, I was that much of a nerd. Would I make that up?)

Which may explain why I have been having so much fun reading Between Man and Beast, by Monte Reel.  It is the true story of Paul Du Chaillu, an African-born Frenchman who, in the mid-nineteenth century became the first non-African to see (and shoot) gorillas.

Du Chaillu
He exhibited his trophies in the U.S. and then England, which dropped him right into the controversy over Charles Darwin's Origin of Species among other squabbles.  The cast of characters in the book is remarkable: besides Darwin there are at least small walk-on parts for Abraham Lincoln (whose Secretary of War called him "the original gorilla"), Richard Francis Burton, Charles Dickens, T.H. Huxley, J.J. Audubon, and P.T. Barnum.  (If you don't despise Barnum yet, you will by the time his chapter is over.)

But the reason I am telling you all this is to bring up another person who appears tangentially in the story, a man I have never heard of.  Charles Mudie was one of the most influential people in 19th-century British literature and one who, in odd-ways, feels like a person from the 21st.  To use current buzzwords, he was an innovator who disrupted his industry through mass marketing.

So, how did Mudie affect literature?  He was not an author, an editor, a publisher, a reviewer, or even a bookseller.  In fact, he more or less invented his own occupation (and that's very 21st century, isn't it?).

In the 1850s he founded Mudie's Lending Library.  For an annual fee of a guinea (just over a pound) anyone could borrow as many books as they wanted - one at a time.  By 1860 when Du Chaillu arrived in London with his gorillas, Mudie had shops in many major British cities.  His main location held more than 800,000 volumes.

If he thought a book was going to be popular he could order enough copies to double a publisher's print run.  (And like many modern businesses he insisted on a punishing discount from his suppliers.)  He put out lists of "Principal New and Choice Books," essentially the first bestseller list.
Mudie

Nowadays a lot of people worry about how Amazon can dictate terms to the publishing business.  But Mudie was there first.  Publishers knew that if he found a book objectionable it might not find its way to his shelf, and it definitely would not appear on his coveted list.

The reason Victorian novels were published in three volumes?  So that Mudie could satisfy three customers at once.  His name is casually dropped in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?  where he is described as "the great librarian."  Funny, I always thought that was me.

And now I want to get back to Monte Reel's book, which I did not borrow from any kind of library. Pleasant reading, all.

06 June 2017

New York, New York

by Paul D. Marks

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

And now for the usual BSP:

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



***

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


05 June 2017

Shirley, Birly, Mo Mirly

by Steve Liskow

If you write mystery, there's a good chance you write a series with a continuing character. People may even refer to your books by that character's name: Jack Reacher, Stephanie Plum, the Hardy Boys (Would that series have survived if they'd been called the Sickly Boys?).

Your character is your brand, so you have to give him, her, or them a memorable and evocative name to help readers remember it. Sometimes, I don't find the right name until I'm struggling with the fourth or fifth draft, and I may change it several times before I find the one that sticks.

Yes, you can be symbolic, like Faithful in The Pilgrim's Progress or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. For years, I've said the ultimate victim name, especially in a book about a con game, is Patsy. Allusions are good shorthand, too, like naming a lover Romeo or a martyred character Jesus or Santiago. But symbolism and allusion get pretentious quickly, and then you have to go for the ordinary without succumbing to the mundane.

Postcards of the Hanging, originally my sixth-year thesis/project at Wesleyan University under a different title, teems with symbolic names because I was using it to show that I'd read the classics along the way. I thought I was heavy-handed about it, but nobody--including my adviser--has ever mentioned them.

Maybe a lyrical or pretty name--I know, that's subjective--or very unpleasant. Flannery O'Connor's protagonist in "Good Country People" calls herself Hulga because she wants to sound ugly. The name almost rhymes with the adjective. And what does that tell us about her as a person? Naming dictionaries for babies abound, and some of them sort the names by gender, language of origin, culture, or meaning. Pay attention to sounds, too.

Many heroic characters have short names with strong consonants. Shane, Sam Spade, Shell Scott (Shell suggests a bullet or armor, too), Joe Pike or Carlotta Carlyle. Sara Paretsky's V.I.--Victoria Iphegenia--Warshawski gives us an interesting rhythm and a fully-realized symbolic and allusive name. Victory and a sacrifice in one person.

I keep a spreadsheet with all the names I've used for novels and short stories. It serves two purposes. First, if I want to return to a location in a later book, I can check on the characters who were there quickly (My fourth Zach Barnes novel returned to a setting from the second book, and several of the characters showed up again) and easily.

The second reason is to be sure I don't repeat a name or sound too often. Left to my own devices, most of my characters would have names starting with "M." Don't ask me why, but in various drafts of the Guthrie series, my main characters were Morley, Maxwell, and Megan Traine. I eventually changed Morley (My great aunt's married name and sounding like "morally") several times, and Maxwell became a supporting character who shows up less often now, replaced by Eleanor "Shoobie" Dube. Megan is still my female lead, and more about her later.

When I find the right name, I know how and why the character has it, too. Taliesyn Holroyd in Who Wrote the Book of Death? is a man writing romance under the pseudonym, and Taliesyn is an over-the-top romantic name. It's also originally King Arthur's male bard, so it suggests the gender, too, even though most people wouldn't notice that. It was my ninth choice for the character and occurred to me while I listened to an old Deep Purple CD in my car: The Book of Taliesyn...

Zach Barnes became the protagonist in the revised edition of that book and the ensuing series. I had him in an unsold Detroit series, too, and changed his name in that first book with a global edit to save time. He became Greg Nines, but I didn't like the softer consonants as well. Neither did readers who told me so on my website. Besides, spellcheck went crazy because it interpreted "Nines" as plural.

Blood On the Tracks introduces my Detroit PI Elwood Christopher Guthrie (My daughter pointed out that "Elwood" suggests the Blues Brothers and Guthrie does play guitar). Over the course of 115 rejections and subsequent revisions, he was Rob Daniels, Erik Morley, Zach Barnes (see above), and at least one other name I no longer remember. Now he goes by Chris, but everyone else calls him "Woody," which is fine because of the guitar-playing. Megan Traine, his companion, is smart, feisty and gorgeous, and her name rhymes with the name of my high school classmate, the female session musician in Detroit who inspired her character in the first place.

Zach Barnes got traded to my Connecticut series, and he often encounters two Hartford police officers. One is Tracy Hendrix. His grandfather admired actor Spencer Tracy, and his father liked Jimi Hendrix enough to change the spelling of his own last name. When he played high school basketball, Tracy had a bad mouth that led people to call him "Trash." His detective partner is Jimmy Byrne, and the other cops call the duo "Trash and Byrne."

Trash and Byrne star in The Whammer Jammers, a crime novel built around roller derby, in which I gave all the skaters a rink name that suggests what they do in the "real world." That got to be far more fun than it should have been.


Grace Anatomy is a physical therapist. Roxie Heartless is a divorce lawyer. Goldee Spawn is an OB/GYN. Tina G. Wasteland (Hendrix's girlfriend) is a social worker. Annabelle Lector is a nutritionist. The bank president from the Deep South is Denver Mint Julep.

That book's sequel is Hit Somebody, due out next week, and it continues the joke/conceit. The announcer at events is Lee Da Vocal.

I've added twin sisters who run a bake shop, and their names are Raisin Cain and Ginger Slap. The original Ginger Slap works out at my health club and gave me permission to use her name when I told her how much I liked it. There is even a data base of all roller derby names: duplicating a name is a serious no-no, akin to a circus clown copying another clown's make-up design.

My daughter, once the captain of the Queen City Cherry Bombs in New Hampshire, likes to bake. Roller Girl (check it out, it's terrific), skates on the West Coast as Winnie the Pow. Who says you can't make this stuff up?


Her rink name was Hazel Smut Crunch. And Victoria Jamieson, who wrote the Newbery Award YA graphic novel

My roller derby books have that Greg Nines problem again, too. Tina G. Wasteland's real name is Tori McDonald, and spellcheck thinks "Tori" is the plural of "Torus."

It could be worse. When I bought my first computer decades ago and worked on a mythology unit for my classes over the summer, that primitive spellcheck flagged the name Achilles and suggested the alternate: asshole.

How do you come up with names?

04 June 2017

Notes from the Underground

by Leigh Lundin

Amtrak Virginia
Virginia and West Virginia are gorgeous
Notes from the underground… so to speak. Notes from a train anyway, this is a stream-of-consciousness about people watching and train spotting, noting little nothings.

I spent the last couple of weeks visiting my brothers, Ray and Glen, and my beautiful niece Paris. It’s hard to believe she’s 31 and so cute and so smart. Also, I give a shout-out to my sister-in-law Pat, the best thing that ever happened to brother Ray.

Dale Andrews and his wife (also named Pat) put me up and put up with me for a few days. We worked on writing together… honestly! Thanks, Pat and Dale!

Riding the Rails

As before, I took the train and as usual, I made sometimes sardonic observations.

Did you know the Walgreens at Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington, DC, doesn’t have a pharmacy? Really, it doesn’t. It’s like a Kroger, Winn-Dixie or Safeway without groceries, an Exxon/Mobil without gasoline, a McDonald’s without pulverized bovine protein products.

On the other hand, you might find this sign found in Indiana therapeutic:
Chocolate doesn’t ask silly questions.
Chocolate understands.

Train Trivia

atrium, Union Station, Washington, DC
Washington hosts a classically designed train station, albeit one populated with Greco-Romanesque soldiers once totally nude. Prudish politicians demanded the naked thrust of the sculptures be hidden so as not to ruin the morals of an entire nation. Elected officials insisted upon covering the nakedness of the many sculptures, much like Bush’s Attorney General John Ashcroft spent $8000 to cover the b-b-bare b-b-bosom of Lady Justice at the DoJ. A century ago, Washington’s elected spent even more to hide the n-n-naked protruding bits behind strategically placed shields. To be fair, the Obama administration did not undrape the Spirit of Justice. Only in America, once draped, never undone.

The variety of railroad stations around the nation is inspiring. New York, Chicago, Washington feature stations with the elegant architecture of a bygone era. Many small towns throughout the country take pride in their period buildings reminiscent of the 1880s. Ever-practical Richmond, Virginia strives for the coldest, hardest, most obnoxious, move’em-out depot this side of livestock cars.

Amtrak waiting area, Indianapolis
Amtrak Indianapolis as imagined by HR Giger
original © TrainWeb.org
The Indy City

Indianapolis asked itself what hadn’t been attempted before. City officials said, “Dreary, let’s try dreary. Think H.R. Giger or say Blade Runner on a cheerless day with oily rain. Instead of marble and classic statuary, let’s greet passengers with steel beams, rivets, and institutional tile that will always look dated.”

To be clear, I’m not talking about the beautiful, artful refurbished Union Station converted to a shopping mall and Crowne Plaza Hotel shown below. We’re talking about the loud, ghastly functional Amtrak waiting room at right where the desperate spend as little time as possible.

Indianapolis Union Station
What was, what should be.
Photographs of the original mid-1800s Indianapolis train station show a brick building with a clock tower, not unpleasant at all. But like other cities, Indy found rumbling rail crossings interfered with bustling street traffic. Cities like New York and Washington routed trains underground, or at least beneath city streets. Indianapolis chose to elevate tracks above street level.

Passengers in the waiting room can’t escape a claustrophobic awareness they’re sitting under tons and tons of moving steel. This surely contributes to an oppressiveness and possibly a superfine grey dust that works its way into grout and grime. Would it kill the city to paint the interior once in a while?

Tender in the Moment

Like other stations, Indy selects plastic and metal bucket seats designed to make waiting as uncomfortable as possible. Passenger victims innovate ways to rest in this chamber of the restless.

Among the detainees was an eldery couple. Although the woman wore no bindi, something suggested India, Bangladesh or perhaps Pakistan.

The man stretched out across four of the miserable bucket seats, padding it with coats where he could. He positioned a hat to block the worst of the harsh lighting.

The lady tucked a blanket around his shoulders. Restless, she flitted around the terminal, checking schedules, gazing through the window of the garish sundries gift shop. Every few minutes she floated back and leaned in close to her husband. She smoothed his collar, tipped his hat to better shield his eyes, brushing the hair of his temple, whispering and holding his hand to her cheek.

Charmed, I realized I hadn’t seen such tender affection from an older couple in decades. My parents had been very affectionate, but when had I last seen such adoring compassion? The hippie days perhaps… Has couples’ fond gentleness gone out of style? I have occasionally witnessed devoted moments between East Asian couples but why has gentle affection nearly disappeared from American society?

It’s tempting to posit notions about political pop-culture dismissal of public affection, pseudo-personal Hallmark cards, or an end-product of modern feminism. Maybe all of these or none, but I miss the private endearments that once graced couples, especially older couples.

Car Characterization

One afternoon found me sitting at a food court eating those calories such places serve. A young family sat across from me. The little boy tore around the food court, exuberantly demonstrating the H in his ADHD.

The little girl wore pink and carried a pink water bottle. Her little tennis shoes sported glitter embedded in the plastic. Typical little girl, right? Except she was playing with toy cars, pushing Hotwheels nose to nose, and chattering to herself.

Whilst musing, I heard the little girl say the words ‘sugar and cream’ and I paid more attention. The scraps of conversation I caught went something like this:
Hotwheels cars
Car 1:  Do you like tea or coffee?
Car 2:  Coffee sounds good.
Car 1:  Did you hear about Jessica? I’m so mad at her.
Car 2:  No, she’s not nice.
Car 1:  Would you like sugar for your coffee?
Car 2:  Thank you, Lily. I’d love milk.
Car 1:  (apparently named Lily) Have a cookie and a cocktail.
Car 2:  Oh, thank you. Could I have one for Baby Justin?
To my eye, the Baby Justin car looked about the same as Lily and her automotive friend, but I had to admire an imagination that anthropomorphized toy vehicles in a tea party. One could almost picture a Disney movie titled… what should we call it… Cars?

The scene reminded me of remarkably similar classic cartoons by Cathy Guisewite and Garry Trudeau. In his Doonesbury comic strip, Trudeau summed up the results of gender-neutral toys, a concept from the 1970s. Two mothers chat while in the background, a boy plays with a rag doll and a cooking pot. One mother tells the other she’s committed to gender-neutral toys for her son. The other mother asks how that’s working out. In the final panel, the boy is wearing the cooking pot like a battle helmet and has stretched the doll to resemble a machine gun, going “Rat-at-at-at-at-at.”

The Rest of the Room

Speaking of gender, I feel chagrined, mortified on behalf of males for women train travelers. When less than sober, staggering, weaving males are not at their best in restrooms, and rail travel is all about staggering and weaving. I’m willing to accept responsibility for 75-80% of…
Already I hear an objection… only 80%?

Yes, because I know about the hover.

Men are looking at one another asking, “The hover? What the hell’s the hover?”

Women are on phones, texting, calling, emailing… “He knows about the hover? Who told him? How does he know? How many guys has he told? Do we let them live?”
Wait, wait, no violence please. My solution calls for single-use disposable toilets. After each flush, the so-called comfort station is immediately ejected and a new WC slid into place. A mechanical compactor crushes the ejected loo, kicking it to the side of the rails to be later collected and melted down for recycling. Awesome.

Kindly vote whether this brilliant proposal should be enacted into law.



Proposition 441

Disposable Restrooms

(34 503 281)             (2)




03 June 2017

Zoning Out


by John M. Floyd



All of us have heard of it, and all of us have experienced it, from time to time (but never enough, it seems). It's special and wonderful and elusive--and no, it's not fame or fortune. What am I talking about?

It's something I've often heard called the Hot Zone, or just the Zone. It's a feeling, or a state of mind, that we as writers are sometimes able to achieve, and when we're reached it our ideas seem to blossom and the words seem to flow and the whole world just seems right. When we're in the Zone we're invincible, unstoppable; we can do no wrong. Author Carolyn Wheat once said, "Getting to that state, and staying there for as long as possible, is the key to writing success."


I used to play a lot of golf, and even though I'm weary of sports analogies, I can still recall the warm and weird "feeling" that came with the confidence of sometimes knowing, during a swing, that the ball was going to go exactly where I wanted it to go. (That feeling was rare, and many of the balls I hit have never been found--but when the sensation was there, it was exhilarating.) The same thing happens occasionally during other activities, including some of my writing sessions.

But I was serious when I said it's elusive. Ariel Gore observed, in her book How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead, "Where do I go to write a story? I don't. I just sit here, waiting and waiting and waiting till the story begins to come to me. Then I sit very, very, very still and try not to scare it off. If I grab at it, it might run under the sofa and hide."

John Simmons, in a piece he wrote for Writers & Artists, said, ". . . When I'm in that zone, I'm not always aware of it. It's a wonderful feeing when you realise afterwards that you've been there. I think it's part of the addiction of being a writer."

More quotes:

"An athlete has her training schedule, the date of the event stamped in her mind, the excitement of the crowded stadium to trigger her best. An actor has his script, his rehearsals and, when it matters, the glare of the lighted stage. The writer has nothing. Hence all the mad little rituals we hear about, having to use a 4H pencil, a Moleskine notebook, having to be in a particular spot, in a certain room, at exactly this time of day, drinking this kind of tea, smoking this brand of cigarette. All desperate attempts to propitiate inspiration, to have ordinariness and originality somehow intersect." -- Tim Parks, "The Writer's Zone."

"The runner's zone is a situation that occurs when you have run for a long time, and your body finds a 'place' where it hits its peak performance. Your body synchronizes your breaths and moves more efficiently. When a writer gets in the zone, inspiration, imagination, posture, keyboard command, focus and concentration, and even the perfect amount of emotion all settle in, making us type much faster, make fewer mistakes, automatically correct the mistakes we do make, and essentially enter a supercharged writing mode." -- Scott Kuttner, "How to Find the Writing Zone and Stay There"

It even got mentioned in the current crime novel I'm reading (Home, by Harlan Coben). The book's protagonist, former NBA star Myron Bolitar, is watching his nephew play basketball in Myron's old high-school gym, and Coben says, "You could see it right away. The greatness. Myron studied his nephew's face and saw that look of what they called 'being in the zone,' focused yet relaxed, on edge yet laid back, whatever terminology you wanted to use, but really it could all be summed up in one word. Home. When Mickey was on the court, like his uncle before him, he was home."

The big question, then, is how do we writers ensure that we reach this mystical place, often and regularly? Well, everybody has different ideas about that. Peter Shallard, in his article "Psychological Tips for Getting in the Writing Zone," said, "Hardly anyone knows how to get in the zone to produce top quality written material. This is about having the state of creativity (or productivity, or whatever is relevant) on tap . . . ready to go, whenever you need it."

Z marks the spot

So how DO we find our way into the Zone? As always, most treasure maps are false, or at least misleading. I've found that some of the "hints" we're given in how-to-write books are maddeningly vague: clear your head, breathe deeply, meditate, find your rhythm, leave your troubles behind, etc. That kind of advice is no help to me--or, I suspect, to anyone else. Of course we need to clear our heads of everything except writing, in order to do our best work. But how?

The following is one of those "do as I say" lists, rather than "do as I do," since I don't seem to be able to make myself obey these rules. But a lot of my writing friends swear that these are the things they do to increase their chances to reach (and frolic in) the flowery meadows and bubbling fountains of the Writing Zone.

1. Write in the same place every day.

This could be the desk in your home office, a recliner in your den, a chair on your sun deck, a swing in your back yard, or anyplace that just feels "right" and comfortable. But let's face it, most writers have schedules that make this hard to do, at least for any length of time. For some, it might be a seat on the commuter train to the office and back. Whatever works.

2. Write at the same time every day.

This is another rule that, for many of us, might or might not be possible. If your daily routine allows it, I can see that it could help. And I've heard that the time should be early in the day rather than late, because our minds are fresher before facing all our daily non-writing problems. Again, if you can do this, fine. Since I'm a night-owl anyhow, most of my fiction is produced in the wee hours (the midnight zone?)--but I don't assign myself a time slot. I can, and do, write pretty much anytime, and anyplace.

3. Surround yourself with encouraging/inspiring sounds.

Many writers say they require a certain kind of music during their writing sessions; others prefer a busy public place with people-noises, like a coffeeshop or the food court in the mall--or a city park with the soothing sounds of birds and traffic and laughing children. I even know writers who use white-noise machines or tapes of rain on the roof or of seagulls and the surf. What I prefer, like Simon and Garfunkel, is the sound of silence. I'm not a solitary person, usually: I like to have things going on around me. But when I write, I want it quiet.


Game analysis and zone defense

If I had to assign percentages, I'd guess that at least half my writer buddies make a sincere attempt to follow the three rules I mentioned. And I say More power to 'em--if that helps, do it. If I did it, I might create better stories, or at least create them faster. But we all have our own methods, and I've been fortunate enough to somehow reach that strange and hypnotic plateau pretty regularly without knowing for sure how I got there.

What do you do, to maximize your writing efficiency/productivity? Is this "zone" state of mind something that happens to you often, or seldom? Do you write in the same location every day? Same time(s)? Do you listen to classical music while you work? Jazz? Rock? Country? The sounds of nature? The Mystic Moods Orchestra?

To each his own.



And by the way, sincere congratulations to my old friend and fellow SleuthSayer O'Neil De Noux, for being nominated earlier this week for a Shamus. Well done!!